Chapter no 57

Empire of Storms

The smoke had been stinging Elide’s eyes for the better part of the gray muggy morning.

Just farmers burning fields left to fallow, Molly had claimed, so the ashes might fertilize the earth for next year’s harvest. They had to be miles away, but the smoke and ash would travel far on the brisk northward wind. The wind that led home to Terrasen.

But they weren’t headed to Terrasen. They were headed due east, straight toward the coast.

Soon she’d have to cut northward. They had passed through one town— only one, and its denizens had already been fatigued of roving carnivals and performers. Even with the night barely under way, Elide already knew they would likely only make enough money to cover their expenses for staying.

She had attracted a grand total of four customers to her little tent so far, mostly young men looking to know which of the village girls fancied them, barely noticing that Elide—beneath the makeup pasted thick as cream on her face—was no older than they were. They’d scampered off when their friends had rushed by, whispering through the star-painted flaps that a swordsman was putting on the show of a lifetime, and his arms were nearly the size of tree trunks.

Elide had glowered, both at the feckless young men who vanished—one without paying—and at Lorcan, for stealing the show.

She waited all of two minutes before shoving out of the tent, the enormous, ridiculous headdress Molly had plunked on her hair snagging on the flaps. Bits of dangling beads and charms hung from the arching crest, and Elide batted them out of her eyes, nearly tripping over her matching bloodred robes as she went to see what all the fuss was about.

If the young men of the town had been impressed by Lorcan’s muscles, it was nothing on what those muscles were doing to the young women.

And older women, Elide realized, not bothering to squeeze through the tightly packed crowd before the makeshift stage on which Lorcan stood, juggling and throwing swords and knives.

Lorcan was not a natural performer. No, he had the gall to actually look

bored up there, bordering on outright sullen.

But what he lacked in charm he made up for with his shirtless, oiled

body. And holy gods…

Lorcan made the young men who had visited her tent look like … children.

He balanced and hurled his weapons as if they were nothing, and she had the feeling the warrior was merely going through one of his daily exercise routines. But the crowd still oohed and aahed at every twist and toss and catch, and coins still trickled into the pan at the edge of the stage.

With the torches around him, Lorcan’s dark hair seemed to swallow the light, his onyx eyes flat and dull. Elide wondered if he was contemplating the murder of everyone drooling over him like dogs around a bone. She couldn’t blame him.

A trickle of sweat slid through the crisp spattering of dark hair on his sculpted chest. Elide watched, a bit transfixed, as that bead of sweat wended down the muscled grooves of his stomach. Lower.

No better than those ogling women, she said to herself, about to head back into her tent when Molly observed from beside her, “Your husband could just be sitting up there, fixing your stockings, and women would empty their pockets for the chance to stare at him.”

“He had that effect wherever we went with our former carnival,” Elide lied.

Molly clicked her tongue. “You’re lucky,” she murmured as Lorcan hurled his sword high in the air and people gasped, “that he still looks at you the way he does.”

Elide wondered if Lorcan would look at her at all if she told him what her name was, who she was, what she carried. He’d slept on the floor of the tent each night—not that she’d ever once bothered to offer him the roll. He usually came in after she’d fallen asleep, and left before she awoke. To do what, she had no idea—perhaps exercise, since his body was … like that.

Lorcan chucked three knives in the air, bowing without one bit of humility or amusement to the crowd. They gasped again as the blades aimed for his exposed spine.

But in an easy, beautiful maneuver, Lorcan rolled, catching each blade, one after another.

The crowd cheered, and Lorcan coolly looked at his pan of coins. More copper—and some silver—flowed, like the patter of rain.

Molly let out a low laugh. “Desire and fear can loosen any purse strings.” A sharp glance. “Shouldn’t you be in your tent?”

Elide didn’t bother responding as she left, and could have sworn she felt Lorcan’s gaze narrow on her, on the headdress and swaying beads, on the long, voluminous robes. She kept going, and endured a few more young men—and some young women—asking about their love lives before she found herself again alone in that silly tent, the dark only illuminated by dangling crystal orbs with tiny candles inside.

She was waiting for Molly to finally shout the carnival was over when Lorcan shouldered through the flaps, wiping his face with a scrap of fabric that was most definitely not his shirt.

Elide said, “Molly will be begging you to stay, you realize.”

He slid into the folding chair before her round table. “Is that your professional prediction?”

She swatted at a strand of beads that swayed into her eyes. “Did you sell your shirt, too?”

Lorcan gave a feral grin. “Got ten coppers from a farmer’s wife for it.” Elide scowled. “That’s disgusting.”

“Money is money. I suppose you don’t need to worry about it, with all the gold you’ve got stashed.”

Elide held his stare, not bothering to look pleasant. “You’re in a rare good mood.”

“Having two women and one man offer a spot in their beds tonight will do that to a person.”

“Then why are you here?” It came out sharper than she intended.

He surveyed the hanging orbs, the woven carpet, the black tablecloth, and then her hands, scarred and calloused and small, gripping the edge of the table. “Wouldn’t it ruin your ruse if I slipped off into the night with

someone else? You’d be expected to throw me out on my ass—to be heartbroken and raging for the rest of your time here.”

“You might as well enjoy yourself,” she said. “You’re going to leave soon anyway.”

“So are you,” he reminded her.

Elide tapped a finger on the tablecloth, the rough fabric scratching against her skin.

“What is it?” he demanded. As if it were an inconvenience to be polite. “Nothing.”

It wasn’t nothing, though. She knew why she’d been delaying that turn northward, the inevitable departure from this group and final trek on her own.

She could barely make an impact at a backwater carnival. What the hell would she do in a court of such powerful people—especially without being able to read? While Aelin could destroy kings and save cities, what the hell would she do to prove her worth? Wash their clothes? Clean their dishes?

“Marion,” he said roughly.

She looked up, surprised to find him still there. Lorcan’s dark eyes were unreadable in the dimness. “You had plenty of young men unable to stop staring at you tonight. Why not have some fun with them?”

“Why?” she snapped. The thought of a stranger touching her, of some faceless, nameless man pawing at her in the dark…

Lorcan stilled. He said too calmly, “When you were in Morath, did someone—”

“No.” She knew what he meant. “No—it didn’t get that far.” But the memory of those men touching her, laughing at her nakedness … She shoved it away. “I’ve never been with a man. Never had the chance or the interest.”

He cocked his head, his dark, silken hair sliding over his face. “Do you prefer women?”

She blinked at him. “No—I don’t think so. I don’t know what I prefer. Again, I’ve never … I’ve never had the opportunity to feel … that.” Desire, lust, she didn’t know. And she didn’t know how or why they’d wound up talking about this.

“Why?” And with all of Lorcan’s considerable focus honed in on her, with the way he’d glanced at her red-painted mouth, Elide wanted to tell

him. About the tower, and Vernon, and her parents. About why, if she were to ever feel desire, it’d be a result of trusting someone so much that those horrors faded away, a result of knowing they would fight tooth and claw to keep her free and never lock her up or hurt her or leave her.

Elide opened her mouth. Then the screaming started.



Lorcan didn’t know why the hell he was in Marion’s ridiculous little oracle’s tent. He needed to wash, needed to clean away the sweat and oil and feel of all those ogling eyes on him.

But he’d spotted Marion in the crowd while he’d finished up his piss-poor performance. He hadn’t seen her earlier in the evening before she’d put on that headdress and those robes, but … maybe it was the cosmetics, the heavy kohl around her eyes, the way the red-painted lips made her mouth look like a fresh piece of fruit, but … he’d noticed her.

Noticed the way the men had spotted her, too. Some had outright gawked, wonder and lust written across their bodies, as Marion lingered, oblivious, at the edge of the crowd and watched Lorcan instead.

Beautiful. After a few weeks of eating, of safety, the terrified, gaunt young woman had somehow gone from pretty to beautiful. He’d ended his performance sooner than he’d intended, and by the time he looked up again, Marion was gone.

Like a gods-damned dog, he’d picked up her scent among the crowd and followed her back to this tent.

In the shadows and glowing lights within, with the headdress and dangling beads and dark red robes … the oracle incarnate. Serene, exquisite

… and utterly forbidden.

And he’d been so focused on cursing himself for staring at that ripe, sinful mouth while she admitted she was still untouched, that he hadn’t detected anything amiss until the screaming started.

No, he’d been too busy contemplating what sounds might come from that full mouth if he slowly, gently, taught her the art of the bedroom.

The attack, Lorcan supposed, was Hellas’s way of telling him to keep his cock in his pants and mind out of the gutter.

Get under a wagon and stay there,” he snapped before hurtling out of the tent. He didn’t wait to see if she obeyed. Marion was smart—she knew she’d stand a better chance at survival if she listened to him and found shelter.

Lorcan loosed his gift through the panicking carnival site—a wave of dark, terrible power sweeping out in a ripple, then rushing back to tell him what it sensed. His power was gleeful, breathless in a way he knew too well: death.

At one end of the field lay the outskirts of the little town. At the other, a copse of trees and endless night—and wings.

Towering, sinewy forms plunged down from the skies—his magic picked up four. Four ilken as they landed, claws out and baring those flesh-shredding teeth. The leathery wings, it seemed, marked them as some slight variation of the ones who had tracked them in Oakwald. A variation—or a refining of an already ruthless hunter.

People ran, screaming—toward the town, toward the cover of the dark fields beyond.

Those distant fires had not been set by farmers to burn their idle fields. They had been set to cloud the skies, to hide the scent of these beasts.

From him. Or any other gifted warriors. Marion. They were hunting Marion.

The carnival was in chaos, the horses were shrieking and bucking. Lorcan plunged toward where the four ilken had landed in the heart of the camp, right where he’d been performing minutes before, in time to see one land atop a fleeing young man and flip him onto his back.

The young man was still screaming for gods who would not answer as the ilken leaned down, flicking free a long talon, and opened up his belly in a smooth swipe. He was still screaming when the ilken lowered his mutilated face and feasted.

“What in burning hell are those beasts?” It was Ombriel, a long-sword out—and gripped in a way that told him she knew how to wield it. Nik came thundering up behind her, two rough, near-rusted blades in his meaty hands.

“Soldiers from Morath,” was all Lorcan supplied. Nik was eyeing the blade and hatchet Lorcan had drawn, and he didn’t think to pretend to not know how to use either, to be a simple man from the wilds, as he said with

cold precision, “They’re naturally able to cut through most magic—and only beheading will keep them down.”

“They’re nearly eight feet,” Ombriel said, face pale.

Lorcan left them to their assessments and fear, stepping into the ring of light in the heart of the camp as the four ilken finished playing with the young man. The human was still alive, silently mouthing pleas for help.

Lorcan lashed out with his power and could have sworn the young man had gratitude in his eyes as death kissed him in greeting.

The ilken looked up as one, hissing softly. Blood slid from their teeth.

Lorcan tunneled into his power, preparing to distract and addle them, if their resistance to magic held true. Perhaps Marion would have time to run. The ilken who had ripped open the belly of the young man said to him, laughter dancing on its gray tongue, “Are you the one in charge?”

Lorcan simply said, “Yes.”

It told him enough. They did not know who he was, his role in Marion’s escape.

The four ilken smiled. “We seek a girl. She murdered our kin—and several others.”

They blamed her for the ilken’s death those weeks ago? Or was it an excuse to further their own ends? “We tracked her to the Acanthus crossing

… She may be hiding here, among your people.” A sneer.

Lorcan willed Nik and Ombriel to keep their mouths shut. If they so much as started to reveal them, the hatchet in his hands would move.

“Check another carnival. We’ve had this crew for months.”

“She is small,” it went on, those too-human eyes flickering. “Crippled on one leg.”

“We don’t know anyone like that.” They’d hunt her to the ends of the earth.

“Then line up your crew so we might … inspect them.”

Make them walk. Look them over. Look for a dark-haired young woman with a limp and whatever other markers her uncle had provided.

“You’ve scared them all away. It might be days before they return. And, again,” Lorcan said, hatchet flicking a bit higher, “there is no one in my caravan who matches such a description.” Behind him, Nik and Ombriel were silent, their terror a reek that shoved itself up his nose. Lorcan willed Marion to remain hidden.

The ilken smiled—the most hideous smile Lorcan had beheld in all his centuries. “We have gold.” Indeed, the ilken beside it had a hip-pouch sagging with it. “Her name is Elide Lochan. Her uncle is Lord of Perranth. He will reward you handsomely to turn her over.”

The words hit Lorcan like stones. Marion—Elide had … lied. Had managed to keep him from even sniffing the lie on her, had used enough truths and her own general fear to keep the scent of it hidden—

“We know no one by such a name,” Lorcan said again.

“Pity,” the sentinel crooned. “For if you had her in your company, we would have taken her and left. But now…” The ilken smiled at its three companions, and their dark wings rustled. “Now it seems we have flown a very long way for nothing. And we are very hungry.”

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