Aedion’s father had gone still over the wounded pirate.
Aedion, surprising even himself, said over his shoulder to Gavriel, “And do you find Maeve fulfills that—or are you like Fenrys?”
His father blinked, about all the shock he’d show, and then straightened, the wounded sailor before him now sleeping off the healing. Aedion bore the brunt of his tawny stare, tried to shut out the kernel of hope that shone in the Lion’s eyes. “I come from a noble house as well, the youngest of three brothers. I wouldn’t inherit or rule, so I took to soldiering. It earned Maeve’s eye, and her offer. There was—is no greater honor.”
“That’s not an answer,” Aedion said quietly.
His father rolled his shoulders. Fidgeting. “I only hated it once. Only wanted to leave once.”
He didn’t continue. And Aedion knew what the unspoken words were.
Aelin brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “You loved her that much?”
Aedion tried not to let his gratitude that she’d asked for him show.
Gavriel’s hands were white-knuckled as they folded into fists. “She was a bright star in centuries of darkness. I would have followed that star to the ends of the earth, if she had let me. But she didn’t, and I respected her wishes to stay away. To never seek her out again. I went to another continent and didn’t let myself look back.”
The ship’s creaking and the groaning of the injured were the only sounds. Aedion clamped down on the urge to stand and walk away. He’d look like a child—not a general who’d fought his way through knee-deep gore on killing fields.
Aelin said, again because Aedion couldn’t bring himself to say the words, “You would have tried to break the blood oath for her? For them?”
“Honor is my code,” Gavriel said. “But if Maeve had tried to harm either you or her, Aedion, I would have done everything in my power to get you out.”
The words hit Aedion, then flowed through him. He didn’t let himself think about it, the truth he’d felt in each word. The way his name had sounded on his father’s lips.
His father checked the injured pirate for any lingering injuries, then moved on to another. Those tawny eyes slid to Aedion’s knee, swollen beneath his pants. “You need to tend to that, or it’ll be too stiff to function in a few hours.”
Aedion felt Aelin’s attention snap to him, scanning him for injury, but he held his father’s gaze and said, “I know how to treat my own injuries.” The battlefield healers and the Bane had taught him enough over the years. “Tend to your own wounds.” Indeed, the male had blood crusting his shirt. Lucky—so lucky the venom had already been wiped off those claws. Gavriel blinked down at himself, his band of tattoos bobbing as he swallowed, then continued without another word.
Aelin pushed off Aedion at last, trying and failing to get to her feet. Aedion reached for her as the focus went out of her now-dull eyes, but Rowan was already there, smoothly sweeping her up before she kissed the planks. Too fast—she must have drained her reserves too fast, and without any food in her system.
Rowan held his stare, Aelin’s hair limp as she rested her head against his chest. The strain—Aedion’s guts twisted at it. Morath knew what it was going up against. Who it was going up against. Erawan had built his commanders accordingly. Rowan nodded as if in confirmation of Aedion’s thoughts, but only said, “Elevate that knee.”
Fenrys had slipped into a light sleep before Rowan carried Aelin below.
So Aedion kept his own company for the rest of the night: first on watch, then sitting against the mast on the quarterdeck for a few hours, knee indeed elevated, unwilling to descend into the cramped, dim interior.
Sleep was finally starting to tug at him when wood groaned a few feet behind, and he knew it did so only because she willed it, to keep from startling him.
The ghost leopard sat beside him, tail twitching, and met his eyes for a moment before she laid her enormous head on his thigh.
In silence, they watched the stars flicker over the calm waves, Lysandra nuzzling her head against his hip.
The starlight stained her coat with muted silver, and a smile ghosted Aedion’s lips.
They worked through the night, weighing anchor only long enough for the crew to patch up the hole in Manon’s room. It would hold for now, the captain told Dorian, but gods help them if they hit another storm before they got to the marshes.
They tended to the wounded for hours, and Dorian was grateful for the little healing magic Rowan had taught him as he pieced flesh back together. Pretending it was a puzzle, or bits of torn cloth, kept his meager dinner from coming back up. But the poison … He left that to Rowan, Aelin, and Gavriel.
By the time the morning had shifted into a sickly gray, their faces were sallow, dark smudges etched deep beneath their eyes. Fenrys, at least, was limping around, and Aedion had let Aelin tend to his knee only long enough to get him walking again, but … They’d seen better days.
Dorian’s legs were wobbling a bit as he scanned the blood-soaked deck. Someone had dumped the creatures’ bodies overboard, along with the worst of the gore, but … If what the Bloodhound had said was true, they didn’t have the luxury of pulling into a harbor to fix the rest of the damage to the ship.
A low, rumbling growl sounded, and Dorian looked across the deck, to the prow.
The witch was still there. Still tending to Abraxos’s wounds, as she had been all night. One of the creatures had bit him a few times—thankfully, no poison in their teeth, but … he’d lost some blood. Manon had not let anyone near him.
Aelin had tried once, and when Manon snarled at her, Aelin had cursed enough to make everyone else halt, saying she’d rutting deserve it if the beast died. Manon had threatened to rip out her spine, Aelin had given her a vulgar gesture, and Lysandra had been forced to monitor the space between them for an hour, perched in the rigging of the mainmast in ghost leopard form, tail swaying in the breeze.
But now … Manon’s white hair was limp, the warm morning wind tugging lazily at the strands as she leaned against Abraxos’s side.
Dorian knew he was toeing a dangerous line. The other night, he’d been ready to slowly strip her naked, to put those chains to good use. And when he’d found her gold eyes devouring him as intently as he wanted to devour other parts of her …
As if sensing his stare, Manon peered over at him.
Even from across the deck, every inch between them went taut.
Of course, Aedion and Fenrys instantly noted it, pausing where they now washed blood off the deck, and the latter snorted. Both had healed enough to walk, but neither moved to interfere as Manon prowled toward him. If she hadn’t fled or attacked yet, they must have decided she wasn’t going to bother doing so now.
Manon took up a space at the rail, gazing out at the endless water, the wisps of pink clouds smeared along the horizon. Dark blood stained her shirt, her palms. “Do I have you to thank for this freedom?”
He braced his forearms on the wooden rail. “Maybe.”
Gold eyes slid to him. “The magic—what is it?”
“I don’t know,” Dorian said, studying his hands. “It felt like an extension of me. Like real hands I could command.”
For a heartbeat, he thought of how they’d felt pinning her wrists—how her body had reacted, loose and tense where he usually liked it to be, while his mouth had barely caressed hers. Her golden eyes flared as if recalling it as well, and Dorian found himself saying, “I wouldn’t harm you.”
“You liked killing the Bloodhound, though.”
He didn’t bother keeping the ice from his eyes. “Yes.”
Manon stepped close enough to brush a finger over the pale band around his throat, and he forgot that there was a ship full of people watching. “You could have made her suffer—you went for a clean blow instead. Why?”
“Because even with our enemies, there’s a line.”
“Then you have your answer.”
“I didn’t ask a question.”
Manon snorted. “You’ve had that look in your eyes all night—if you’re becoming a monster like the rest of us. The next time you kill, remind yourself of that line.”
“Where do you stand on that line, witchling?”
She met his gaze, as if willing him to see a century of all that she’d done. “I am not mortal. I do not play by your rules. I have killed and hunted men for sport. Do not mistake me for a human woman, princeling.”
“I have no interest in human women,” he purred. “Too breakable.”
Even as he said it, the words struck some deep, aching wound in him.
“The ilken,” he said, pushing past that pain. “Did you know about them?”
“I assume they are a part of whatever is in those mountains.”
A hoarse female voice snapped, “What do you mean, whatever is in those mountains?”
Dorian nearly leaped out of his skin. Aelin, it seemed, had been taking some notes from her ghost leopard friend. Even Manon blinked at the blood-drenched queen now behind them.
Manon eyed Aedion and Fenrys as they heard Aelin’s demand and came over, followed by Gavriel. Fenrys’s shirt was still hanging in strips. At least Rowan was now keeping watch from the rigging, and Lysandra was off flying overhead, scouting for danger.
The witch said, “I never saw the ilken. Only heard of them—heard their screaming as they died, then their roaring as they were remade. I didn’t know that’s what they were. Or that Erawan would send them so far from their aerie. My Shadows caught a glimpse of them, just once. Their description matches what attacked last night.”
“Are the ilken mostly scouts or warriors?” Aelin said.
The fresh air seemed to have made Manon amenable to divulging information, because she leaned her back against the railing, facing the cabal of killers around them. “We don’t know. They used the cloud cover to their advantage. My Shadows can find anything that doesn’t want to be found, and yet they could not hunt or track these things.”
Aelin tensed a bit, scowling at the water flowing past them. And then she said nothing, as if the words had vanished and exhaustion—something heavier than that—had set in.
“Snap out of it,” Manon said.
Aedion loosed a warning growl.
Aelin slowly lifted her eyes to the witch, and Dorian braced himself.
“So you miscalculated,” Manon said. “So they tracked you. Don’t get distracted with the minor defeats. This is war. Cities will be lost, people slaughtered. And if I were you, I would be more concerned about why they sent so few of the ilken.”
“If you were me,” Aelin murmured in a tone that had Dorian’s magic rising, ice cooling his fingertips. Aedion’s hand slid to his sword. “If you were me.” A low, bitter laugh. Dorian had not heard that sound since … since a blood-soaked bedroom in a glass castle that no longer existed. “Well, you are not me, Blackbeak, so I’ll trust you to keep your musings on the matter to yourself.”
“I am not a Blackbeak,” Manon said.
They all stared at her. But the witch merely watched the queen.
Aelin said with a wave of her scar-flecked hand, “Right. That matter of business. Let’s hear the story, then.”
Dorian wondered if they would come to blows, but Manon simply waited a few heartbeats, looked toward the horizon again, and said, “When my grandmother stripped me of my title as heir and Wing Leader, she also stripped my heritage. She told me that my father was a Crochan Prince, and she had killed my mother and him for conspiring to end the feud between our peoples and break the curse on our lands.”
Dorian glanced to Aedion. The Wolf of the North’s face was taut, his Ashryver eyes shining bright, churning at the possibilities of all that Manon implied.
Manon said a bit numbly, as if it was the first time she’d even spoken it to herself, “I am the last Crochan Queen—the last direct descendant of Rhiannon Crochan herself.”