Soldiers cowered from her storming path as she signaled to the Thirteen and mounted Abraxos, her wyvern preening in his new armor.
She didn’t look back at Morath as they took to the gray skies.
Aedion and Rowan did not let Darrow’s messenger go ahead to warn the lords of their arrival. If this was some maneuver to get them on uneven footing, despite all that Murtaugh and Ren had done for them this spring, then they’d gain the advantage whatever way they could.
Aelin supposed that she should have taken the stormy weather as an omen. Or perhaps Murtaugh’s age provided a convenient excuse for Darrow to test her. She leashed her temper at the thought.
The tavern was erected at a crossroads just inside the tangle of Oakwald. With the rain and night settling in, it was packed, and they had to pay double to stable their horses. Aelin was fairly certain that one word from her, one flicker of that telltale fire, would have cleared out not only the stables, but also the tavern itself.
Lysandra had padded off half a mile away, and when they arrived, she slunk from the bushes and nodded her fuzzy, drenched head at Aelin. All clear.
Inside the inn, there were no rooms to be found for rent, and the taproom itself was crammed full of travelers, hunters, and whoever else was escaping the downpour. Some even sat against the walls—and Aelin supposed that it was how she and her friends might very well spend their evening once this meeting concluded.
A few heads twisted their way as they entered, but dripping hoods and cloaks concealed their faces and weapons, and those heads quickly returned to their drinks or cards or drunken songs.
Lysandra had finally shifted back into her human form—and true to her oath months ago, her once-full breasts were now smaller. Despite what awaited them in the private dining room at the back of the inn, Aelin caught the shape-shifter’s eye and smirked.
“Better?” she murmured over Evangeline’s head as Darrow’s messenger, Aedion at his side, strolled through the crowd.
Lysandra’s grin was half feral. “Oh, you have no idea.”
Behind them, Aelin could have sworn Rowan chuckled.
The messenger and Aedion turned down a hallway, the dim candlelight flickering amongst the raindrops still sliding off the round, scarred shield strapped across her cousin’s back. The Wolf of the North, who, even though he had won battles with his Fae speed and strength, had earned the respect and loyalty of his legion as a man—as a human. Aelin, still in her Fae form, wondered if she should have shifted herself.
Ren Allsbrook waited in there. Ren, another childhood friend, whom she had almost killed, tried to kill this past winter, and who had no idea who she really was. Who had stayed at her apartment without realizing it belonged to his lost queen. And Murtaugh … She had vague memories of the man, mostly involving him sitting at her uncle’s table, slipping her extra blackberry tarts.
Any good that remained, any shred of safety, it was thanks to Aedion, the dents and scratches marring his shield utter proof of it, and to the three men who awaited her.
Aelin’s shoulders began to curve inward, but Aedion and the messenger paused before a wooden door, knocking once. Fleetfoot brushed against her calf, tail wagging, and Aelin smiled down at the hound, who shook herself again, flinging droplets of water. Lysandra snorted. Bringing a wet dog into a covert meeting—very queenly.
But Aelin had promised herself, months and months ago, that she would not pretend to be anything but what she was. She had crawled through darkness and blood and despair—she had survived. And even if Lord Darrow could offer men and funding for a war … she had both, too. More would be better, but—she was not empty-handed. She had done that for herself. For them all.
Aelin squared her shoulders as Aedion stepped into the room, already speaking to those inside: “Just like you bastards to make us trudge through the rain because you don’t want to get wet. Ren, looking put-out, as usual. Murtaugh, always a pleasure. Darrow—your hair looks as bad as mine.”
Someone said from within in a dry, cold voice, “Given the secrecy with which you arranged this meeting, one would think you were sneaking through your own kingdom, Aedion.”
Aelin reached the ajar door, debating whether it was worth it to open the conversation by telling the fools inside to keep their voices down, but—
They were. With her Fae ears, she picked up more sounds than the average human. She stepped ahead of Lysandra and Evangeline, letting them enter behind her as she paused in the doorway to survey the private dining room.
One window, cracked to soothe the stifling heat of the inn. A large rectangular table before a roaring hearth, littered with empty plates, crumbs, and worn serving platters. Two old men sat at it, one with the messenger whispering something in his ear too softly for her Fae hearing before he bowed to all of them and saw himself out. Both old men straightened as they looked past where Aedion stood before the table—to her.
But Aelin focused upon the dark-haired young man by the hearth, an arm braced against the mantel, his scarred, tan face slack.
She remembered those twin swords at his back. Those dark, burning eyes.
Her mouth had gone slightly dry by the time she tugged back her hood. Ren Allsbrook started.
But the old men had risen to their feet. She knew one of them.
Aelin didn’t know how she hadn’t recognized Murtaugh that night she’d gone to the warehouse to end so many of them. Especially when he’d been the one who halted her slaughtering.
The other old man, though … while wrinkled, his face was strong—hard. Without amusement or joy or warmth. A man used to getting his way, to being obeyed without question. His body was thin and wiry, but his spine was still straight. Not a warrior of the sword, but of the mind.
Her great-uncle, Orlon, had been both. And kind—she’d never heard a stern or raging word from Orlon. This man, though … Aelin held Darrow’s gray-eyed gaze, predator recognizing predator.
“Lord Darrow,” she said, inclining her head. She couldn’t help the crooked grin. “You look toasty.”
Darrow’s plain face remained unmoved. Unimpressed.
Aelin watched Darrow, waiting—refusing to break his stare until he bowed.
A dip of his head was all he offered.
“A bit lower,” she purred.
Aedion’s gaze snapped to her, full of warning.
Darrow did no such thing.
It was Murtaugh who bowed deeply at the waist and said, “Majesty. We apologize for sending the messenger to fetch you—but my grandson worries after my health.” An attempt at a smile. “To my chagrin.”
Ren ignored his grandfather and pushed off the mantel, his boot-steps the only sound as he rounded the table. “You knew,” he breathed to Aedion.
Lysandra, wisely, shut the door and bid Evangeline and Fleetfoot to stand by the window—to watch for any peering eyes. Aedion gave Ren a little smile. “Surprise.”
Before the young lord could retort, Rowan stepped to Aelin’s side and pulled back his hood.
The men stiffened as the Fae warrior was revealed in his undimmed glory—glazed violence already in his eyes. Already focused on Lord Darrow.
“Now, that is a sight I have not seen for an age,” Darrow murmured.
Murtaugh mastered his shock—and perhaps a bit of fear—enough to extend a hand toward the empty chairs across from them. “Please, sit. Apologies for the mess. We hadn’t realized the messenger might retrieve you so swiftly.” Aelin made no move to sit. Neither did her companions. Murtaugh added, “We can order fresh food if you wish. You must be famished.” Ren shot his grandfather an incredulous look that told her everything she needed to know about the rebel’s opinion of her.
Lord Darrow was watching her again. Assessing.
Humility—gratitude. She should try; she could try, damn it. Darrow had sacrificed for her kingdom; he had men and money to offer in the upcoming battle with Erawan. She had called this meeting; she had asked these lords to meet them. Who cared if it was in another location? They were all here. It was enough.
Aelin forced herself to walk to the table. To claim the chair across from Darrow and Murtaugh.
Ren remained standing, monitoring her with dark fire in his eyes.
She said quietly to Ren, “Thank you—for helping Captain Westfall this spring.”
A muscle flickered in Ren’s jaw, but he said, “How does he fare? Aedion mentioned his injuries in his letter.”
“Last I heard, he was on his way to the healers in Antica. To the Torre Cesme.”
Lord Darrow said, “Would you care to enlighten me on how you know each other, or shall I be required to guess?”
Aelin began counting to ten at the tone. But it was Aedion who said as he claimed a seat, “Careful, Darrow.”
Darrow interlaced his gnarled but manicured fingers and set them on the table. “Or what? Shall you burn me to ash, Princess? Melt my bones?”
Lysandra slipped into a chair beside Aedion and asked with the sweet, unthreatening politeness that had been trained into her, “Is there any water left in that pitcher? Traveling through the storm was rather taxing.”
Aelin could have kissed her friend for the attempt at dulling the razor-sharp tension.
“Who, pray tell, are you?” Darrow frowned at the exquisite beauty, the uptilted eyes that did not shy from his despite her gentle words. Right—he had not known who traveled with her and Aedion. Or what gifts they bore.
“Lysandra,” Aedion answered, unbuckling his shield and setting it on the floor behind them with a heavy thunk. “Lady of Caraverre.”
“There is no Caraverre,” Darrow said.
Aelin shrugged. “There is now.” Lysandra had settled on the name a week ago, whatever it meant, bolting upright in the middle of the night and practically shouting it at Aelin once she’d mastered herself long enough to shift back into her human form. Aelin doubted she’d soon forget the image of a wide-eyed ghost leopard trying to speak. She smiled a bit at Ren, still watching her like a hawk. “I took the liberty of buying the land your family yielded. Looks like you’ll be neighbors.”
“And what bloodline,” Darrow asked, his mouth tightening at the brand across Lysandra’s tattoo, the mark visible no matter what form she took, “does Lady Lysandra hail from?”
“We didn’t arrange this meeting to discuss bloodlines and heritage,” Aelin countered evenly. She looked to Rowan, who gave a confirming nod that the inn staff was far from the room and no one was within hearing range.
Her Fae Prince stalked to the serving table against the wall to fetch the water Lysandra had asked for. He sniffed it, and she knew his magic swept through it, probing the water for any poison or drug, while he floated four glasses over to them on a phantom wind.
The three lords watched in wide-eyed silence. Rowan sat and casually poured the water, then summoned a fifth cup, filled it, and floated it to Evangeline. The girl beamed at the magic and went back to staring out the rain-splattered window. Listening while pretending to be pretty, to be useless and small, as Lysandra had taught her.
Lord Darrow said, “At least your Fae warrior is good for something other than brute violence.”
“If this meeting is interrupted by unfriendly forces,” Aelin said smoothly, “you’ll be glad for that brute violence, Lord Darrow.”
“And what of your particular skill set? Should I be glad of that, too?”
She didn’t care how he’d learned. Aelin cocked her head, choosing each word, forcing herself to think it through for once. “Is there a skill set that you would prefer I possess?”
Darrow smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “Some control would do Your Highness well.”
On either side of her, Rowan and Aedion were taut as bowstrings. But if she could keep her temper leashed, then they could—
Your Highness. Not Majesty.
“I’ll take that into consideration,” she said with a little smile of her own. “As for why my court and I wished to meet with you today—”