Chapter no 65

Empire of Storms

They worked through the night, weighing anchor only long enough for the crew to patch up the hole in Manon’s room. It would hold for now, the captain told Dorian, but gods help them if they hit another storm before they got to the marshes.

They tended to the wounded for hours, and Dorian was grateful for the little healing magic Rowan had taught him as he pieced flesh back together. Pretending it was a puzzle, or bits of torn cloth, kept his meager dinner from coming back up. But the poison … He left that to Rowan, Aelin, and Gavriel.

By the time the morning had shifted into a sickly gray, their faces were sallow, dark smudges etched deep beneath their eyes. Fenrys, at least, was limping around, and Aedion had let Aelin tend to his knee only long enough to get him walking again, but … They’d seen better days.

Dorian’s legs were wobbling a bit as he scanned the blood-soaked deck. Someone had dumped the creatures’ bodies overboard, along with the worst of the gore, but … If what the Bloodhound had said was true, they didn’t have the luxury of pulling into a harbor to fix the rest of the damage to the ship.

A low, rumbling growl sounded, and Dorian looked across the deck, to the prow.

The witch was still there. Still tending to Abraxos’s wounds, as she had been all night. One of the creatures had bit him a few times—thankfully, no poison in their teeth, but … he’d lost some blood. Manon had not let anyone near him.

Aelin had tried once, and when Manon snarled at her, Aelin had cursed enough to make everyone else halt, saying she’d rutting deserve it if the beast died. Manon had threatened to rip out her spine, Aelin had given her a

vulgar gesture, and Lysandra had been forced to monitor the space between them for an hour, perched in the rigging of the mainmast in ghost leopard form, tail swaying in the breeze.

But now … Manon’s white hair was limp, the warm morning wind tugging lazily at the strands as she leaned against Abraxos’s side.

Dorian knew he was toeing a dangerous line. The other night, he’d been ready to slowly strip her naked, to put those chains to good use. And when he’d found her gold eyes devouring him as intently as he wanted to devour other parts of her …

As if sensing his stare, Manon peered over at him.

Even from across the deck, every inch between them went taut.

Of course, Aedion and Fenrys instantly noted it, pausing where they now washed blood off the deck, and the latter snorted. Both had healed enough to walk, but neither moved to interfere as Manon prowled toward him. If she hadn’t fled or attacked yet, they must have decided she wasn’t going to bother doing so now.

Manon took up a space at the rail, gazing out at the endless water, the wisps of pink clouds smeared along the horizon. Dark blood stained her shirt, her palms. “Do I have you to thank for this freedom?”

He braced his forearms on the wooden rail. “Maybe.” Gold eyes slid to him. “The magic—what is it?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian said, studying his hands. “It felt like an extension of me. Like real hands I could command.”

For a heartbeat, he thought of how they’d felt pinning her wrists—how her body had reacted, loose and tense where he usually liked it to be, while his mouth had barely caressed hers. Her golden eyes flared as if recalling it as well, and Dorian found himself saying, “I wouldn’t harm you.”

“You liked killing the Bloodhound, though.”

He didn’t bother keeping the ice from his eyes. “Yes.”

Manon stepped close enough to brush a finger over the pale band around his throat, and he forgot that there was a ship full of people watching. “You could have made her suffer—you went for a clean blow instead. Why?”

“Because even with our enemies, there’s a line.” “Then you have your answer.”

“I didn’t ask a question.”

Manon snorted. “You’ve had that look in your eyes all night—if you’re becoming a monster like the rest of us. The next time you kill, remind yourself of that line.”

“Where do you stand on that line, witchling?”

She met his gaze, as if willing him to see a century of all that she’d done. “I am not mortal. I do not play by your rules. I have killed and hunted men for sport. Do not mistake me for a human woman, princeling.”

“I have no interest in human women,” he purred. “Too breakable.” Even as he said it, the words struck some deep, aching wound in him.

“The ilken,” he said, pushing past that pain. “Did you know about them?”

“I assume they are a part of whatever is in those mountains.”

A hoarse female voice snapped, “What do you mean, whatever is in those mountains?”

Dorian nearly leaped out of his skin. Aelin, it seemed, had been taking some notes from her ghost leopard friend. Even Manon blinked at the blood-drenched queen now behind them.

Manon eyed Aedion and Fenrys as they heard Aelin’s demand and came over, followed by Gavriel. Fenrys’s shirt was still hanging in strips. At least Rowan was now keeping watch from the rigging, and Lysandra was off flying overhead, scouting for danger.

The witch said, “I never saw the ilken. Only heard of them—heard their screaming as they died, then their roaring as they were remade. I didn’t know that’s what they were. Or that Erawan would send them so far from their aerie. My Shadows caught a glimpse of them, just once. Their description matches what attacked last night.”

“Are the ilken mostly scouts or warriors?” Aelin said.

The fresh air seemed to have made Manon amenable to divulging information, because she leaned her back against the railing, facing the cabal of killers around them. “We don’t know. They used the cloud cover to their advantage. My Shadows can find anything that doesn’t want to be found, and yet they could not hunt or track these things.”

Aelin tensed a bit, scowling at the water flowing past them. And then she said nothing, as if the words had vanished and exhaustion—something heavier than that—had set in.

“Snap out of it,” Manon said.

Aedion loosed a warning growl.

Aelin slowly lifted her eyes to the witch, and Dorian braced himself.

“So you miscalculated,” Manon said. “So they tracked you. Don’t get distracted with the minor defeats. This is war. Cities will be lost, people slaughtered. And if I were you, I would be more concerned about why they sent so few of the ilken.”

“If you were me,” Aelin murmured in a tone that had Dorian’s magic rising, ice cooling his fingertips. Aedion’s hand slid to his sword. “If you were me.” A low, bitter laugh. Dorian had not heard that sound since … since a blood-soaked bedroom in a glass castle that no longer existed. “Well, you are not me, Blackbeak, so I’ll trust you to keep your musings on the matter to yourself.”

“I am not a Blackbeak,” Manon said.

They all stared at her. But the witch merely watched the queen.

Aelin said with a wave of her scar-flecked hand, “Right. That matter of business. Let’s hear the story, then.”

Dorian wondered if they would come to blows, but Manon simply waited a few heartbeats, looked toward the horizon again, and said, “When my grandmother stripped me of my title as heir and Wing Leader, she also stripped my heritage. She told me that my father was a Crochan Prince, and she had killed my mother and him for conspiring to end the feud between our peoples and break the curse on our lands.”

Dorian glanced to Aedion. The Wolf of the North’s face was taut, his Ashryver eyes shining bright, churning at the possibilities of all that Manon implied.

Manon said a bit numbly, as if it was the first time she’d even spoken it to herself, “I am the last Crochan Queen—the last direct descendant of Rhiannon Crochan herself.”

Aelin only sucked on a tooth, brows lifting.

“And,” Manon continued, “whether my grandmother acknowledges it or not, I am heir to the Blackbeak Clan. My witches, who have fought at my side for a hundred years, have spent most of it killing Crochans. Dreaming of a homeland that promised to return them to. And now I am banished, my Thirteen scattered and lost. And now I am heir to our enemy’s crown. So you are not the only one, Majesty, who has plans that go awry. So get yourself together and figure out what to do next.”

Two queens—there were two queens among them, Dorian realized.

Aelin closed her eyes and let out a rough, breathy laugh. Aedion again tensed, as if that laugh might easily end in violence or peace, but Manon stood there. Weathering the storm.

When Aelin opened her eyes, her smile subdued but edged, she said to the Witch-Queen, “I knew I saved your sorry ass for a reason.”

Manon’s answering smile was terrifying.

The males all seemed to loosen a tight breath, Dorian himself included.

But then Fenrys pulled at his lower lip, scanning the skies. “What I don’t get is why wait so long to do any of this? If Erawan wants you lot dead”—a nod toward Dorian and Aelin—“why let you mature, grow powerful?”

Dorian tried not to shudder at the thought. How unprepared they’d been. “Because I escaped Erawan,” Aelin said. Dorian tried not to remember that night ten years ago, but the memory of it snapped through him, and her, and Aedion. “He thought I was dead. And Dorian … his father shielded

him. As best he could.”

Dorian shut out that memory, too. Especially as Manon angled her head in question.

Fenrys said, “Maeve knew you were alive. Odds are, so did Erawan.” “Maybe she told Erawan,” Aedion said.

Fenrys whipped his head to the general. “She’s never had any contact with Erawan, or Adarlan.”

“As far as you know,” Aedion mused. “Unless she’s a talker in the bedroom.”

Fenrys’s eyes darkened. “Maeve does not share power. She saw Adarlan as an inconvenience. Still does.”

Aedion countered, “Everyone can be bought for a price.”

“Nameless is the price of Maeve’s allegiance,” Fenrys snapped. “It can’t be purchased.”

Aelin went utterly still at the warrior’s words.

She blinked at him, her brows narrowing as her lips silently mouthed the words he’d said.

“What is it?” Aedion demanded.

Aelin murmured, “Nameless is my price.” Aedion opened his mouth, no doubt to ask what had snagged her interest, but Aelin frowned at Manon.

“Can your kind see the future? See it as an oracle can?”

“Some,” Manon admitted. “The Bluebloods claim to.” “Can other Clans?”

“They say that for the Ancients, past and present and future bleed together.”

Aelin shook her head and walked toward the door that led to the hall of cramped cabins. Rowan swooped off the rigging and shifted, his feet hitting the planks just as he finished. He didn’t so much as look at them as he followed her into the hall and shut the door behind them.

“What was that about?” Fenrys asked.

“An Ancient,” Dorian mused, then murmured to Manon, “Baba Yellowlegs.”

They all turned to him. But Manon’s fingers brushed against her collarbone—where the necklace of Aelin’s scars from Yellowlegs still ringed her neck in stark white.

“This winter, she was at your castle,” Manon said to him. “Working as a fortune-teller.”

“And what—she said something to that degree?” Aedion crossed his arms. He’d known of the visit, Dorian recalled. Aedion had always kept an eye on the witches—on all the power players of the realm, he’d once said.

Manon stared the general down. “Yellowlegs was a fortune-teller—a powerful oracle. I bet she knew who the queen was the moment she saw her. And saw things she planned to sell to the highest bidder.” Dorian tried not to flinch at the memory. Aelin had butchered Yellowlegs when she’d threatened to sell his secrets. Aelin had never implied a threat against her own. Manon continued, “Yellowlegs wouldn’t have told the queen anything outright, only in veiled terms. So it’d drive the girl mad when she figured it out.”

A pointed glance at the door through which Aelin had vanished.

None of them said anything else, even as they later ate cold porridge for breakfast.

The cook, it seemed, hadn’t made it through the night.



Rowan knocked on the door of their private bathing room. She’d locked it. Walked into their room, then into the bathing room, and locked him out.

And now she was puking her guts up. “Aelin,” he growled softly.

A ragged intake of breath, then retching, then—more vomiting.

Aelin,” he snarled, debating how long until it was socially acceptable for him to break down the door. Act like a prince, she’d snarled at him the other night.

“I don’t feel well,” was her muffled response. Her voice was hollow, flat in a way he hadn’t heard for some time now.

“Then let me in so I can take care of you,” he said as calmly and rationally as he could.

She’d locked him out—locked him out. “I don’t want you to see me like this.”

“I’ve seen you wet yourself. I can handle vomiting. Which I have also

seen you do before.”

Ten seconds. Ten more seconds seemed like a fair enough amount of time before he crunched down on the handle and splintered the lock.

“Just—give me a minute.”

“What was it about Fenrys’s words that set you off?” He’d heard it all from his post on the mast.

Utter silence. Like she was spooling the raw terror back into herself, shoving it down into a place where she wouldn’t look at it or feel it or acknowledge it. Or tell him about it.


The lock turned.

Her face was gray, her eyes red-rimmed. Her voice broke as she said, “I want to talk to Lysandra.”

Rowan looked at the bucket she’d half filled, then at her bloodless lips.

At the sweat beaded on her brow.

His heart stopped dead in his chest as he contemplated that … that she might not be lying.

And why she might be ill. He tried to scent her, but the vomit was too overpowering, the space too small and full of brine. He stumbled back a step, shutting out the thoughts. Without another word, he left their room.

He was numb as he hunted down the shifter, now returned and in human form as she devoured a cold, soggy breakfast. With a concerned look, Lysandra silently did as he commanded.

Rowan shifted and soared so high that the ship turned into a bobbing speck below. Clouds cooled his feathers; the wind roared over the pure panic thundering in his heart.

He planned to lose himself in the awakening sky while scouting for danger, to sort himself out before he returned to her and started asking questions that he might not be ready to hear the answers to.

But the coast appeared—and only his magic kept him from tumbling out of the sky at what the first rays of the sun revealed.

Broad, sparkling rivers and snaking streams flowed throughout the undulating emerald and gold of the grasslands and reeds lining them, the burnt gold of the sandbanks flanking either side.

And where little fishing villages had once watched over the sea … Fire. Dozens of those villages burning.

On the ship beneath him, the sailors began to shout, calling to one another as the coast at last broke over the horizon and the smoke became visible.


Eyllwe was burning.

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