Rowan leaned forward until they were brow-to-brow. “Soon,” he promised, his voice rough and low. “Let’s get somewhere safe—somewhere defensible.”
Because her safety always would come first. For him, keeping her protected, keeping her alive, would always come first. He’d learned it the hard way.
Her heart strained, and she pulled back to lift a hand to his face. Rowan read the softness in her eyes, her body, and his own inherent fierceness slipped into a gentleness that so few would ever see. Her throat ached with the effort of keeping the words in.
She’d been in love with him for a while now. Longer than she wanted to admit.
She tried not to think about it, whether he felt the same. Those things—those wishes—were at the bottom of a very, very long and bloody priority list.
So Aelin kissed Rowan gently, his hands again locking around her hips.
“Fireheart,” he said onto her mouth.
“Buzzard,” she murmured onto his.
Rowan laughed, the rumble echoing in her chest.
From the camp, Evangeline’s sweet voice chirped through the rain, “Is it time for breakfast?”
Aelin snorted. Sure enough, Fleetfoot and Evangeline were now nudging at poor Lysandra, sprawled out as a ghost leopard by the immortal-burning fire. Aedion, across the fire, lay as unmoving as a boulder. Fleetfoot would likely leap on him next.
“This cannot end well,” Rowan muttered.
Evangeline howled, “Fooooood!” Fleetfoot’s answering howl followed a heartbeat later.
Then Lysandra’s snarl rippled toward them, silencing girl and hound.
Rowan laughed again—and Aelin thought she might never get sick of it, that laugh. That smile.
“We should make breakfast,” he said, turning toward the camp, “before Evangeline and Fleetfoot ransack the whole site.”
Aelin chuckled but glanced over her shoulder to the forest stretching toward the Staghorns. Toward the lords who were hopefully making their way southward—to decide how they would proceed with war … and rebuilding their broken kingdom.
When she looked back, Rowan was halfway to the camp, Evangeline’s red-gold hair flashing as she bounded through the dripping trees, begging the prince for toast and eggs.
Her family—and her kingdom.
Two dreams long believed lost, she realized as the northern wind ruffled her hair. That she would do anything—ruin herself, sell herself—to protect.
Aelin was about to head for the camp to spare Evangeline from Rowan’s cooking when she noticed the object atop the boulder across the stream.
She cleared the stream in one bound and carefully studied what the faerie had left.
Fashioned with twigs, cobwebs, and fish scales, the tiny wyvern was unnervingly accurate, its wings spread wide and thorn-fanged mouth roaring.
Aelin left the wyvern where it was, but her eyes shifted southward, toward the ancient flow of Oakwald, and Morath looming far beyond it. To Erawan reborn, waiting for her with his host of Ironteeth witches and Valg foot soldiers.
And Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen, knew the time would soon come to prove just how much she’d bleed for Erilea.
It was useful, Aedion Ashryver thought, to travel with two gifted magic-wielders. Especially during piss-poor weather.
The rains lingered throughout the day as they prepared for the meeting. Rowan had flown northward twice now to track the progress of the lords, but he hadn’t seen or scented them.
No one braved the notoriously muddy Terrasen roads in this weather. But with Ren Allsbrook in their company, Aedion had little doubt they’d stay hidden until sunset anyway. Unless the weather had delayed them. Which was a good possibility.
Thunder boomed, so close that the trees shuddered. Lightning flashed with little pause for breath, limning the soaked leaves with silver, illuminating the world so brightly that his Fae senses were blinded. But at least he was dry. And warm.
They’d avoided civilization so much that Aedion had hardly witnessed or been able to track how many magic-wielders had crept out of hiding—or who was now enjoying the return of their gifts. He’d only seen one girl, no older than nine, weaving tendrils of water above her village’s lone fountain for the entertainment and delight of a gaggle of children.
Stone-faced, scarred adults had looked on from the shadows, but none had interfered for better or worse. Aedion’s messengers had already confirmed that most people now knew the King of Adarlan had wielded his dark powers to repress magic these last ten years. But even so, he doubted those who had suffered its loss, then the extermination of their kind, would comfortably reveal their powers anytime soon.
At least until people like his companions, and that girl in the square, showed the world it was safe to do so. That a girl with a gift of water could ensure her village and its farmlands thrived.
Aedion frowned at the darkening sky, idly twirling the Sword of Orynth between his palms. Even before magic had vanished, there had been one kind feared above all others, its bearers pariahs at best, dead at worst. Courts in every land had sought them as spies and assassins for centuries. But his court—
A delighted, throaty purr rumbled through their little camp, and Aedion shifted his stare to the subject of his thoughts. Evangeline was kneeling on her sleeping mat, humming to herself as she gently ran the horse’s brush through Lysandra’s fur.
It had taken him days to get used to the ghost leopard form. Years in the Staghorns had drilled the gut-level terror into him. But there was Lysandra, claws retracted, sprawled on her belly as her ward groomed her.
Spy and assassin indeed. A smile tugged on his lips at the pale green eyes heavy-lidded with pleasure. That’d be a fine sight for the lords to see when they arrived.
The shape-shifter had used these weeks of travel to try out new forms: birds, beasts, insects that had a tendency to buzz in his ear or bite him. Rarely—so rarely—had Lysandra taken the human form he’d met her in. Given all that had been done to her and all she’d been forced to do in that human body, Aedion didn’t blame her.
Though she’d have to take human form soon, when she was introduced as a lady in Aelin’s court. He wondered if she’d wear that exquisite face, or find another human skin that suited her.
More than that, he often wondered what it felt like to be able to change bone and skin and color—though he hadn’t asked. Mostly because Lysandra hadn’t been in human form long enough to do so.
Aedion looked to Aelin, seated across the fire with Fleetfoot sprawled in her lap, playing with the hound’s long ears—waiting, as they all were. His cousin, however, was studying the ancient blade—her father’s blade—that Aedion so unceremoniously twirled and tossed from hand to hand, every inch of the metal hilt and cracked bone pommel as familiar to him as his own face. Sorrow flickered in her eyes, as fast as the lightning above, and then vanished.
She’d returned the sword to him upon their departure from Rifthold, choosing to bear Goldryn instead. He’d tried to convince her to keep Terrasen’s sacred blade, but she’d insisted it was better off in his hands, that he deserved the honor more than anyone else, including her.
She’d grown quieter the farther north they’d traveled. Perhaps weeks on the road had sapped her.
After tonight, depending on what the lords reported, he’d try to find her a quiet place to rest for a day or two before they made the last leg of the trek to Orynth.
Aedion uncoiled to his feet, sheathing the sword beside the knife Rowan had gifted him, and stalked to her. Fleetfoot’s feathery tail thumped in greeting as he sat beside his queen.
“You could use a haircut,” she said. Indeed, his hair had grown longer than he usually kept it. “It’s almost the same length as mine.” She frowned. “It makes us look like we coordinated it.”
Aedion snorted, stroking the dog’s head. “So what if we did?”
Aelin shrugged. “If you want to start wearing matching outfits as well, I’m in.”
He grinned. “The Bane would never let me live it down.”
His legion now camped just outside of Orynth, where he’d ordered them to shore up the city’s defenses and wait. Wait to kill and die for her.
And with the money Aelin had schemed and butchered to claim from her former master this spring, they could buy themselves an army to follow behind the Bane. Perhaps mercenaries, too.
The spark in Aelin’s eyes died a bit as if she, too, considered all that commanding his legion implied. The risks and costs—not of gold, but lives. Aedion could have sworn the campfire guttered as well.
She had slaughtered and fought and nearly died again and again for the past ten years. Yet he knew she would balk at sending soldiers—at sending him—to fight.
That, above all else, would be her first test as queen.
But before that … this meeting. “You remember everything I told you about them?”
Aelin gave him a flat look. “Yes, I remember everything, cousin.” She poked him hard in the ribs, right where the still-healing tattoo Rowan had inked on him three days ago now lay. All their names, entwined in a complex Terrasen knot right near his heart. Aedion winced as she jabbed the sore flesh, and he batted away her hand as she recited, “Murtaugh was a farmer’s son, but married Ren’s grandmother. Though he wasn’t born into the Allsbrook line, he still commands the seat, despite his insistence that Ren take up the title.” She looked skyward. “Darrow is the wealthiest landowner after yours truly, and more than that, he holds sway over the few surviving lords, mostly through his years of carefully handling Adarlan during the occupation.” She gave him a glare sharp enough to slice skin.
Aedion lifted his hands. “Can you blame me for wanting to make sure this goes smoothly?”
She shrugged but didn’t bite his head off.
“Darrow was your uncle’s lover,” he added, stretching his legs out before him. “For decades. He’s never spoken once to me about your uncle, but … they were very close, Aelin. Darrow didn’t publicly mourn Orlon beyond what was required after the passing of a king, but he became a different man afterward. He’s a hard bastard now, but still a fair one. Much of what he’s done has been out of his unfading love for Orlon—and for Terrasen. His own maneuvering kept us from becoming completely starved and destitute. Remember that.” Indeed, Darrow had long straddled a line between serving the King of Adarlan and undermining him.
“I. Know,” she said tightly. Pushing too far—that tone was likely her first and last warning that he was starting to piss her off. He’d spent many of the miles they’d traveled these past few days telling her about Ren, and Murtaugh, and Darrow. Aedion knew she could likely now recite their land holdings, what crops and livestock and goods they yielded, their ancestors, and dead and surviving family members from this past decade. But pushing her about it one last time, making sure she knew … He couldn’t shut the instincts down to ensure it all went well. Not when so much was at stake.
From where he’d been perched on a high branch to monitor the forest, Rowan clicked his beak and flapped into the rain, sailing through his shield as if it parted for him.
Aedion eased to his feet, scanning the forest, listening. Only the trickle of rain on leaves filled his ears. Lysandra stretched, baring her long teeth as she did so, her needlelike claws slipping free and glinting in the firelight.
Until Rowan gave the all clear—until it was just those lords and no one else—the safety protocols they’d established would hold.
Evangeline, as they had taught her, crept to the fire. The flames pulled apart like drawn curtains to allow her and Fleetfoot, sensing the child’s fear and pressing close, passage to an inner ring that would not burn her. But would melt the bones of their enemies.
Aelin merely glanced at Aedion in silent order, and he stepped toward the western side of the fire, Lysandra taking up a spot at the southern point. Aelin took the northern but gazed west—toward where Rowan had flapped away.
A dry, hot breeze flowed through their little bubble, and sparks danced like fireflies at Aelin’s fingers, her hand hanging casually at her side. The other gripped Goldryn, the ruby in its hilt bright as an ember.