Aelin stared and stared at that piece of paper, at the names that had been signed long before tonight, the men who had decided against her without meeting her, the men who had changed her future, her kingdom, with just their signatures.
Perhaps she should have waited to call this meeting until she was in Orynth—until her people saw her return and it would have been harder to kick her to the curb of the palace.
Aelin breathed, “Our doom gathers in the South of Adarlan—yet this is what you focus on?”
Darrow sneered, “When we have need of your … skill set, we will send word.”
No fire burned in her, not even an ember. As if Darrow had clenched it in his fist, snuffed it out.
“The Bane,” Aedion said with a hint of that legendary insolence, “will answer to none but Aelin Galathynius.”
“The Bane,” Darrow spat, “is now ours to command. In the event that there is no fit ruler on the throne, the lords control the armies of Terrasen.” He again surveyed Aelin, as if sensing the vague plan to publicly return to her city, to make it harder for him to shut her out, glimmering as it formed. “Set foot in Orynth, girl, and you will pay.”
“Is that a threat?” Aedion snarled, a hand darting to grip the hilt of the Sword of Orynth sheathed at his side.
“It is the law,” Darrow said simply. “One generations of Galathynius rulers have honored.”
There was such a roaring in her head, and such a still emptiness in the world beyond.
“The Valg march on us—a Valg king marches on us,” Aedion pushed, the general incarnate. “And your queen, Darrow, might be the only person capable of keeping them at bay.”
“War is a game of numbers, not magic. You know this, Aedion. You fought at Theralis.” The great plain before Orynth, host to the final, doomed battle as the empire had swept down upon them. Most of Terrasen’s forces and commanders had not walked away from the bloodbath, so thorough streams ran red for days afterward. If Aedion had fought in it … Gods, he must have been barely fourteen. Her stomach turned. Darrow concluded, “Magic failed us once before. We will not trust in it again.”
Aedion snapped, “We will need allies—”
“There are no allies,” Darrow said. “Unless Her Highness decides to be useful and gain us men and arms through marriage”—a sharp glance at Rowan—“we are alone.”
Aelin debated revealing what she knew, the money she’d schemed and killed to attain, but—
Something cold and oily clanged through her. Marriage to a foreign king or prince or emperor.
Would this be the cost? Not just in blood shed, but in dreams yielded? To be a princess eternal, but never a queen? To fight with not just magic, but the other power in her blood: royalty.
She could not look at Rowan, could not face those pine-green eyes without being sick.
She had laughed once at Dorian—laughed and scolded him for admitting that the thought of marriage to anyone but his soul-bonded was abhorrent. She’d chided him for choosing love over the peace of his kingdom.
Perhaps the gods did hate her. Perhaps this was her test. To escape one form of enslavement only to walk into another. Perhaps this was the punishment for those years in Rifthold’s riches.
Darrow gave her a small, satisfied smile. “Find me allies, Aelin Galathynius, and perhaps we shall consider your role in Terrasen’s future. Think on it. Thank you for asking us to meet.”
Silently, Aelin rose to her feet. The others did as well. Save for Darrow.
Aelin plucked up the piece of paper he had signed and examined the damning words, the scribbled signatures. The crackling fire was the only sound.
Aelin silenced it.
And the candles. And the wrought-iron chandelier over the table.
Darkness fell, cleaved only by twin sharp inhales of breath—Murtaugh and Ren. The patter of rain filled the black room.
Aelin spoke into the dark, toward where Darrow was seated. “I suggest, Lord Darrow, that you become accustomed to this. For if we lose this war, darkness will reign forever.”
There was a scratch and a hiss—then a match sputtered as it lit a candle on the table. Darrow’s wrinkled, hateful face flickered into view. “Men can make their own light, Heir of Brannon.”
Aelin stared at the sole flame Darrow had sparked. The paper in her hands wilted into ashes.
Before she could speak, Darrow said, “That is our law—our right. You ignore that decree, Princess, and you defile all that your family stood and died for. The Lords of Terrasen have spoken.”
Rowan’s hand was solid against her lower back. But Aelin looked to Ren, his face tight. And over the roaring in her head, she said, “Whether or not you vote in my favor, there is a spot for you in this court. For what you helped Aedion and the captain do. For Nehemia.” Nehemia, who had worked with Ren, fought with him. Something like pain rippled in Ren’s eyes, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Darrow cut him off.
“What a waste of a life that was,” Darrow spat. “A princess actually dedicated to her people, who fought until her last breath for—”
“One more word,” Rowan said softly, “and I don’t care how many lords support you or what your laws are. One more word about that, and I will gut you before you can get up from that chair. Understand?”
For the first time, Darrow looked into Rowan’s eyes and blanched at the death he found waiting there. But the lord’s words had found their mark, leaving a shuddering sort of numbness in their wake.
Aedion snatched Aelin’s dagger off the table. “We’ll take your thoughts into consideration.” He scooped up his shield and put a hand on Aelin’s shoulder to guide her from the room. It was only the sight of that dented and scarred shield, the ancient sword hanging at his side, that set her feet moving, slicing through that thick numbness.
Ren moved to open the door, stepping into the hall beyond to scan it, giving Lysandra a wide berth as she padded past, Evangeline and Fleetfoot on her fluffy tail, secrecy be damned.
Aelin met the young lord’s eyes and drew in breath to say something, when Lysandra snarled down the hall.
A dagger was instantly in Aelin’s hand, angled and ready.
But it was Darrow’s messenger, hurtling for them.
“Rifthold,” he panted as he skidded to a stop, flinging rain on them. “One of the scouts from the Ferian Gap just raced past. The Ironteeth host flies for Rifthold. They mean to sack the city.”
Aelin stood in a clearing just past the inn’s glow, the cold rain plastering her hair and raising bumps on her skin. Soaking them all, because Rowan now buckled on the extra blades she handed him, conserving each drop of his magic for what he was about to do.
They’d let the messenger spill the information he’d received—not much at all.
The Ironteeth host lingering in the Ferian Gap were now flying for Rifthold. Dorian Havilliard would be their target. Dead or alive.
They’d be upon the city by nightfall tomorrow, and once Rifthold was taken … Erawan’s net across the middle of the continent would be complete. No forces from Melisande, Fenharrow, or Eyllwe could reach them—and none of Terrasen’s forces could get to them, either. Not without wasting months to trek around the mountains.
“There’s nothing to be done for the city,” Aedion said, his voice cutting through the rain. The three of them lingered under the cover of a large oak, all keeping an eye on Ren and Murtaugh, who were speaking with Evangeline and Lysandra, now back in her human form. Her cousin went on, rain pinging against the shield across his back, “If the witches fly on Rifthold, then Rifthold already is gone.”
Aelin wondered if Manon Blackbeak would be leading the attack—if it’d be a blessing. The Wing Leader had saved them once before, but only as a payment for a life debt. She doubted the witch would feel obliged to throw them a bone anytime soon.
Aedion met Rowan’s gaze. “Dorian must be saved at all costs. I know Perrington’s—Erawan’s—style. Don’t believe any promises they make, and don’t let Dorian be taken again.” Aedion dragged a hand through his rain-soaked hair and added, “Or yourself, Rowan.”
They were the most hideous words she’d ever heard. Rowan’s confirming nod made her knees buckle. She tried not to think about the two glass vials Aedion had handed the prince moments before. What they contained. She didn’t even know when or where he’d acquired them.
Anything but that. Anything but—
Rowan’s hand brushed hers. “I will save him,” he murmured.
“I wouldn’t ask this of you unless it was … Dorian is vital. Lose him, and we lose any support in Adarlan.” And one of the few magic-wielders who could stand against Morath.
Rowan’s nod was grim. “I serve you, Aelin. Do not apologize for putting me to use.”
Because only Rowan, riding the winds with his magic, could reach Rifthold in time. Even now, he might be too late. Aelin swallowed hard, fighting the feeling that the world was being ripped from under her feet.
A glimmer of movement near the tree line caught her eye, and Aelin schooled her face into neutrality as she studied what had been left by little, spindly hands at the base of a gnarled oak. None of the others so much as blinked in its direction.
Rowan finished with his weapons, glancing between her and Aedion with a warrior’s frankness. “Where do I meet you once I’ve secured the prince?”
Aedion said, “Run north. Stay clear of the Ferian Gap—”
Darrow appeared at the other end of the clearing, barking an order for Murtaugh to come to him.
“No,” Aelin said. Both warriors turned.
She stared northward into the roiling rain and lightning.
She would not set foot in Orynth; she would not see her home.
Find me allies, Darrow had sneered.
She didn’t dare glance at what the Little Folk had left in the shadow of that rain-lashed tree mere feet away.
Aelin said to Aedion, “If Ren is to be trusted, you tell him to get to the Bane, and to be ready to march and press from the North. If we are not to lead them, then they will have to work around Darrow’s orders as best they can.”
Aedion’s brows rose. “What are you thinking?”
Aelin jerked her chin at Rowan. “Get a boat and travel south with Dorian. Land is too risky, but your winds on the seas can get you there in a few days. To Skull’s Bay.”
“Shit,” Aedion breathed.
But Aelin pointed with a thumb over a shoulder to Ren and Murtaugh as she said to her cousin, “You told me that they were in communication with Captain Rolfe. Get one of them to write a letter of recommendation for us. Right now.”
“I thought you knew Rolfe,” Aedion said.
Aelin gave him a grim smile. “He and I parted on … bad terms, to say the least. But if Rolfe can be turned to our side…”
Aedion finished for her, “Then we’d have a small fleet that could unite North and South—brave the blockades.”
And it was a good thing she’d taken all that gold from Arobynn to pay for it. “Skull’s Bay might be the only safe place for us to hide—to contact the other kingdoms.” She didn’t dare tell them that Rolfe might have far more than a fleet of blockade runners to offer them, if she played it right. She said to Rowan, “Wait for us there. We’ll strike out for the coast tonight, and sail to the Dead Islands. We’ll be two weeks behind you.”
Aedion clasped Rowan on the shoulder in farewell and headed for Ren and Murtaugh. A heartbeat later, the old man was hobbling into the inn, Darrow on his heels, demanding answers.
As long as Murtaugh wrote that letter to Rolfe, she didn’t care.
Alone with Rowan, Aelin said, “Darrow expects me to take this order lying down. But if we can rally a host in the South, we can push Erawan right onto the blades of the Bane.”
“It still might not convince Darrow and the others—”
“I’ll deal with that later,” she said, spraying water as she shook her head. “For now, I have no plans to lose this war because some old bastard has learned he likes playing king.”