Aelin Galathynius didn’t bother to contain her smugness as Rolfe pointed to the large table on the right side of his office—far grander than the piece-of-shit office where he’d once had her and Sam meet him.
She managed all of one step toward her designated seat before Rowan was at her side, a hand on her elbow.
His face—oh, gods, she’d missed that harsh, unyielding face—was tight as he leaned in to whisper with Fae softness, “The cadre is working with us on the condition that it’ll lead them to Lorcan, since Maeve sent them to kill him. I refused to divulge his whereabouts. Most of Adarlan’s fleet is in the Gulf of Oro thanks to some foul agreement with Melisande to use their ports, and Maeve’s own armada sails for Eyllwe—whether to attack or aid, we don’t know.”
Well, it was nice to know absolute hell awaited them and that the information about Maeve’s armada was correct. But then Rowan added, “And I missed you like hell.”
She smiled despite what he’d told her, pulling back to look at him.
It was more than she could have hoped for. Even with the news he’d delivered.
Aelin decided she didn’t particularly give a shit who was watching and rose up on her toes to brush her mouth against his. It had taken all her wits and abilities to avoid leaving traces of her scent today for him to detect— and the shocked delight on his face had been utterly worth it.
Rowan’s hand on her arm tightened as she pulled away. “The feeling, Prince,” she murmured, “is mutual.”
The others were doing their best not to watch them—save for Rolfe, who was still seething.
“Oh, don’t look so put out, Captain,” she said, turning away from Rowan and sliding into a seat across from Rolfe. “You hate me, I hate you, we both hate being told what to do by busybody, overlording empires—it’s a perfect pairing.”
Rolfe spat, “You nearly wrecked everything I’ve worked for. Your silver tongue and arrogance won’t get you through this.”
Just for the hell of it, she smiled and stuck out her tongue. Not the real thing—but a forked tongue of silver fire that wriggled like a snake’s in the air.
Fenrys choked on a dark laugh. She ignored him. She’d deal with their presence later. She just prayed she’d be able to warn Aedion before he ran into his father—who was now sitting two seats down from her, gawking at her as if she had ten heads.
Gods, even the expression was like Aedion’s. How hadn’t she noticed that this spring in Wendlyn? Aedion had been a boy the last time she’d seen him—but as a man … With Gavriel’s immortality, they even looked the same age. Different in many ways, but that look … it was a reflection.
Rolfe wasn’t smiling. “A queen who plays with fire is not one who makes a solid ally.”
“And a pirate whose men abandoned him at the first test of allegiance makes for a shit naval commander, yet here I am, at this table.”
“Careful, girl. You need me more than I need you.”
“Do I?” A dance—that was all this was. Long before she’d set foot on this horrible island, it had been a dance, and she was now to enter into its second movement. She set Murtaugh’s sealed letter of recommendation on the table between them. “The way I see it, I have the gold, and I have the ability to raise you up from a common criminal to a respectable, established businessman. Fenharrow can dispute who owns these islands, but … what if I were to throw my support behind you? What if I were to make you not a Pirate Lord but a Pirate King?”
“And who would verify the word of a nineteen-year-old princess?”
She jerked her chin at the wax-sealed tube. “Murtaugh Allsbrook would. He wrote you a nice, long letter about it.”
Rolfe picked up the tube, studied it, and chucked it in a neat arc—right into his rubbish bin. The thud echoed through the office.
“And I would,” Dorian said, leaning forward before Aelin could snarl at the ignored letter. “We win this war, and you have the two largest kingdoms on this continent proclaiming you the undisputed King of all Pirates. Skull’s Bay and the Dead Islands become not a hideout for your people, but a proper home. A new kingdom.”
Rolfe let out a low laugh. “The talk of young idealists and dreamers.”
“The world,” Aelin said, “will be saved and remade by the dreamers, Rolfe.”
“The world will be saved by the warriors, by the men and women who will spill their blood for it. Not for empty promises and gilded dreams.”
Aelin laid her hands flat on the table. “Perhaps. But if we win this war, it will be a new world—a free world. That is my promise—to you, to anyone who will march under my banner. A better world. And you will have to decide where your place in it shall be.”
“That is the promise of a little girl who still doesn’t know how the world truly works,” Rolfe said. “Masters are needed to maintain order—to keep things running and profitable. It will not end well for those who seek to upend it.”
Aelin purred, “Do you want gold, Rolfe? Do you want a title? Do you want glory or women or land? Or is it just the bloodlust that drives you?” She gave a pointed glance at his gloved hands. “What was the cost for the map? What was the end goal if that sacrifice had to be made?”
“There is nothing you can offer or say, Aelin Galathynius, that I cannot attain myself.” A sly smile. “Unless you plan to offer me your hand and make me king of your territory … which might be an interesting proposition.”
Bastard. Self-serving, awful bastard. He’d seen her with Rowan. He was drinking in the stillness with which both of them now sat, the death in Rowan’s eyes.
“Looks like you bid on the wrong horse,” Rolfe crooned. He flicked his eyes to Dorian. “What news did you receive?”
But that wrong horse cut in smoothly, “There was none. But you’ll be glad to know your spies at the Ocean Rose are certainly doing their job. And that His Majesty is quite an accomplished actor.” Aelin held in her laugh.
Rolfe’s face darkened. “Get out of my office.”
Dorian said coldly, “For a petty grudge, you’d refuse to consider allying with us?”
Aelin snorted. “I’d hardly call wrecking his shit-poor city and ships a ‘petty grudge.’”
“You have two days to get yourselves off this island,” Rolfe said, teeth flashing. “After that, my promise from two and a half years ago still holds.” A sneer at her companions. “Take your … menagerie with you.”
Smoke curled in her mouth. She had expected debate, but … It was time to regroup—time to see what Rowan and Dorian had done and plan out the next steps.
Let Rolfe think she was leaving the dance unfinished for now.
Aelin hit the narrow hallway, a wall of muscle at her back and by her side, and faced another dilemma: Aedion.
He was loitering outside the inn to monitor for any unfriendly forces. If she stormed right to him, she’d bring him face-to-face with his long-lost, completely oblivious father.
Aelin made it all of three steps down the hall when Gavriel said behind her, “Where is he?”
Slowly, she looked back. The warrior’s tan face was tight, his eyes full of sorrow and steel.
She smirked. “If you are referring to sweet, darling Lorcan—” “You know who I’m referring to.”
Rowan took a step between them, but his harsh face yielded nothing. Fenrys slipped into the hall, shutting Rolfe’s office door, and monitored them with dark amusement. Oh, Rowan had told her lots about him. A face and body women and men would kill to possess. What Maeve made him do, what he’d given for his twin.
But Aelin sucked on a tooth and said to Gavriel, “Isn’t the better question ‘Who is he?’”
Gavriel didn’t smile. Didn’t move. Buy herself time, buy Aedion time… “You don’t get to decide when and where and how you meet him,”
“He’s my gods-damned son. I think I do.”
Aelin shrugged. “You don’t even get to decide if you’re allowed to call him that.”
Those tawny eyes flashed; the tattooed hands curled into fists. But Rowan said, “Gavriel, she does not intend to keep you from him.”
“Tell me where my son is. Now.”
Ah—there it was. The face of the Lion. The warrior who had felled armies, whose reputation made wintered soldiers shudder. Whose fallen warriors were tattooed all over him.
But Aelin picked at her nails, then frowned at the now-empty hall behind her. “Hell if I know where he’s gone off to.”
They blinked, then started as they beheld where Lysandra had once been. To where she had now vanished, flying or slithering or crawling out of the open window. To get Aedion away.
Aelin just said to Gavriel, her voice flat and cold, “Don’t ever give me orders.”
Aedion and Lysandra were already waiting at the Ocean Rose, and as they entered the pretty courtyard, Aelin barely dragged up the energy to remark to Rowan that she was shocked he hadn’t opted for warrior-squalor.
Dorian, a few steps behind, laughed quietly—which was good, she supposed. Good that he was laughing. He had not been the last time she saw him.
And it had been weeks since she’d laughed herself, felt that weight lift long enough to do so.
She gave Rowan a look that told him to meet her upstairs, and halted halfway across the courtyard. Dorian, sensing her intent, paused as well.
The evening air was heavy with sweet fruit and climbing flowers, the fountain in the center gurgling softly. She wondered if the owner of the inn hailed from the Red Desert—if they’d seen the use of water and stone and greenery at the Keep of the Silent Assassins.
But Aelin murmured to Dorian, “I’m sorry. About Rifthold.”
The king’s summer-tanned face tightened. “Thank you—for the help.”
Aelin shrugged. “Rowan’s always looking for an excuse to show off. Dramatic rescues give him purpose and fulfillment in his dull, immortal life.”
There was a pointed cough from the open balcony doors above them, sharp enough to inform her that Rowan had heard and wouldn’t forget that little quip when they were alone.
She held in her smile. It had been a surprise and a delight, she supposed, that an easy, respectful calm flowed between Rowan and Dorian on their walk over here.
She motioned for the king to continue with her and said quietly, well aware of how many spies Rolfe employed within the building, “It seems you and I are currently without crowns, thanks to a few bullshit pieces of paper.”
Dorian didn’t return her smile. The stairs groaned beneath them as they headed for the second floor. They were almost to the room Dorian had indicated when he said, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
She opened and closed her mouth—and opted, for once, to keep quiet, shaking her head a bit as she entered the chamber.
Their meeting was hushed, thorough. Rowan and Dorian laid out in precise detail what had happened to them, Aedion pushing for counts of the witches, their armor, how they flew, what formations they used. Anything to feed to the Bane, to amplify their northern defenses, regardless of who commanded them. The general of the North—who would take all those pieces and build their resistance. But the sheer ease with which the Ironteeth legion had taken the city…
“Manon Blackbeak,” Aedion mused, “would be a valuable ally, if we can get her to turn.”
Aelin glanced at Rowan’s shoulder—where a faint scar now marred the golden skin beneath his clothes.
“Perhaps getting Manon to turn on her kin would ignite an internal battle among the witches,” she said. “Maybe they’ll save us the task of killing them and just destroy each other.”
Dorian straightened in his chair, but only cold calculation swirled in his eyes as he countered, “But what is it that they want? Beyond our heads, I mean. Why ally with Erawan at all?”
And all of them then looked to the thin necklace of scars marring the base of Aelin’s throat—where the scent permanently marked her as a Witch Killer. Baba Yellowlegs had visited the castle this winter for that alliance, but had there been anything else?
“We can contemplate the whys and hows of it later,” Aelin declared. “If we encounter any of the witches, we take them alive. I want some questions answered.”
Then she explained what they’d witnessed in Ilium. The order Brannon had given her: Find the Lock. Well, he and his little quest could get in line.
It was never-ending, she supposed while they dined that night on peppered crab and spiced rice. This burden, these threats.
Erawan had been planning this for decades. Maybe for centuries, while he’d slept, he’d planned all this out. And she was to be given nothing more than obscure commands by long-dead royals to find a way to stop it, nothing more than gods-damned months to rally a force against him.
She doubted it was a coincidence that Maeve was sailing for Eyllwe at the same moment Brannon had commanded she go to the Stone Marshes on its southwestern peninsula. Or that the gods-damned Morath fleet was squatting in the Gulf of Oro—right on its other side.
There was not enough time, not enough time to do what she needed to, to fix things.
But … small steps.
She had Rolfe to deal with. The little matter of securing his people’s alliance. And the map she still needed to persuade him to use to assist her in tracking down that Lock.
But first … best to ensure that infernal map actually worked.