Chapter no 84

Empire of Storms

Aelin felt the utter shock of her companions ripple from them as Ansel bowed dramatically, gesturing to the ships behind them, and said, “As requested: your fleet.”

Aelin snorted. “Your soldiers look like they’ve seen better days.”

“Oh, they always look like that. I’ve tried and tried to get them to focus on outside appearances as much as improving their inner beauty, but … you know how men are.”

Aelin chuckled. Even as she sensed her companions’ shock turning into something red-hot.

Manon stepped forward, the sea breeze whipping strands of her white hair over her face, and said to Aelin, “Melisande’s fleet bows to Morath. You might as well be signing an alliance with Erawan, too, if you’re working with this … person.”

Ansel’s face drained of color at the iron teeth, the nails. And Aelin remembered the story the assassin-turned-queen had once told her, whispered atop rolling desert sands and beneath a carpet of stars. A childhood friend—eaten alive by an Ironteeth witch.

Then Ansel herself, after the slaughter of her family, had been spared when she’d stumbled into an Ironteeth witch’s camp.

Aelin said to Manon, “She is not from Melisande. The Wastes are allied with Terrasen.”

Aedion started, now sizing up the ships, the woman before them.

Manon Blackbeak said in a voice like death, “Who is she to speak for the Wastes?”

Oh, gods above. Aelin schooled her face into bland irreverence and gestured between the two women. “Manon Blackbeak, Heir to the

Blackbeak Witch-Clan and now the last Crochan Queen … meet Ansel of Briarcliff, assassin and Queen of the Western Wastes.”



Roaring filled Manon’s head as they rowed back to their ship, interrupted only by the splashing of the oars through the calm waves.

She was going to kill the red-haired bitch. Slowly.

They remained silent until they reached the towering ship, then climbed its side.

No sign of Abraxos.

Manon scanned the skies, the fleet, the seas. Not a scale to be found.

The rage in her gut twisted into something else, something worse, and she took a step for the ruddy-faced captain to demand answers.

But Aelin casually stepped in her path, giving her an adder’s smile as she glanced between Manon and the red-haired young woman who now leaned against the stair post. “You two should have a little chat later.”

Manon stormed around her. “Ansel of Briarcliff does not speak for the Wastes.”

Where was Abraxos— “But you do?”

And Manon had to wonder if she’d somehow … somehow become tangled in whatever plans the queen had woven. Especially as Manon found herself forced to halt again, forced to turn back to the smirking queen and say, “Yes. I do.”



Even Rowan blinked at Manon Blackbeak’s tone—the voice that was not witch or warrior or predator. Queen.

The last Crochan Queen.

Rowan sized up the potentially explosive fight brewing between Ansel of Briarcliff and Manon Blackbeak.

He remembered all that Aelin had told him of Ansel—the betrayal while the two woman had trained in the desert, the fight to the death that had left

Aelin sparing the red-haired woman. A life debt. Aelin had called in the life debt owed to her.

Ansel, with a swaggering arrogance that completely explained why she and Aelin had become fast friends, drawled to Manon from where she’d perched on the quarterdeck stairs, “Well, last I heard, neither Crochan nor Ironteeth witches bothered to look after the Wastes. I suppose that as someone who has fed and guarded its people these past two years, I do get to speak for them. And decide who we help and how we do it.” Ansel smirked at Aelin like the witch wasn’t staring at her throat as if she’d rip it out with her iron teeth. “You and I live next door to each other, after all. It’d be un-neighborly of me not to help.”

“Explain,” Aedion said tightly, his heartbeat thundering loud enough for Rowan to hear. The first word the general had uttered since Ansel had pulled back her hood. Since Aelin’s little surprise had been waiting for them on the beach.

Ansel angled her head, the silky red hair catching the light, looking, Rowan realized, like the richest red wine. Exactly as Aelin had once described it. “Well, months ago, I was minding my own business in the Wastes, when I got a message out of the blue. From Aelin. She sent me a message loud and clear from Rifthold. Pit fighting.” She chuckled, shaking her head. “And I knew to get ready. To move my army to the edge of the Anascaul Mountains.”

Aedion’s breathing snagged. Only centuries of training kept Rowan’s from doing the same. His cadre remained stalwart behind them all, positions they’d taken hundreds of times over the centuries. Ready for bloodshed—or to fight their way out of it.

Ansel smiled, a winning grin. “Half of them are on their way there now. Ready to join with Terrasen. The country of my friend Celaena Sardothien, who did not forget it, even when she was in the Red Desert; and who did not stop looking north every night that we could see the stars. There was no greater gift I could offer to repay her than saving the kingdom she did not forget. And that was before I got her letter months ago, telling me who she was and that she’d gut me if I didn’t assist in her cause. I was on my way with my army already, but … then the next letter arrived. Telling me to go to the Gulf of Oro. To meet her here and follow a specific set of instructions.”

Aedion snapped his head to Aelin, salt water still gleaming on his tan face from the boat over. “The dispatches from Ilium—”

Aelin waved a lazy hand to Ansel. “Let the woman finish.”

Ansel strolled to Aelin and linked her arm through her elbow. She smirked like a fiend. “I’m assuming you lot know how bossy Her Majesty is. But I followed the instructions. I brought the other half of my army when I veered down south, and we hiked through the White Fangs and into Melisande. Its queen assumed we arrived to offer aid. She let us right in the front gates.”

Rowan held his breath.

Ansel let out a sharp whistle, and on the nearest ship, clopping and nickering sounded.

And then an Asterion horse emerged from the stables. The horse was a storm made flesh.

Rowan couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Aelin beam with pure delight as she breathed, “Kasida.”

“Do you know,” Ansel went on, “that I rather enjoy pillaging? With Melisande’s troops spread so thin for Morath, she really had no choice but to yield. Though she was particularly furious to see me claim the horse— made worse when I took her out of her dungeon to reveal that Terrasen’s flag now flies alongside my wolf at her own damn house.”

“What,” Aedion blurted.

Aelin and Ansel faced them, brows high. Dorian staggered forward a step at Ansel’s words, and the Queen of the Wastes gave him a look that said she’d like to pillage him.

Ansel gestured to the ships around them with a broad sweep of her arm. “Melisande’s fleet is now our fleet. And its capital is now ours, too.” She jerked her chin at Aelin. “You’re welcome.”

Manon Blackbeak burst out laughing.



Aedion didn’t know who to be more furious with: Aelin, for not telling him about Ansel of Briarcliff and the gods-damned army she’d quietly ordered to sack Melisande and seize its fleet, or himself, for not trusting her. For

demanding where their allies were, for implying all that he had in those moments before the ilken attack. She’d just taken it.

As Ansel’s words sank in to the company still gathered on the main deck, his cousin said quietly, “Melisande meant to assist Morath in cleaving the North and South. I did not take its city for glory or conquest, but I will not allow anything to come between me and defeating Morath. Melisande will now clearly understand the cost of allying with Erawan.”

He tried not to bristle. He was her general-prince. Rowan was her consort—or close enough to it. And yet she had not entrusted them with this. He hadn’t even contemplated the Wastes as an ally. Perhaps that was why. He would have told her not to bother.

Aedion said to Ansel, “Melisande has likely already sent word to Morath. Its own armies are no doubt rushing back to the capital city. Get your remaining men across the Fangs again. We can lead the armada from here.”

Ansel looked to Aelin, who nodded her agreement. The Queen of the Wastes then asked him, “And then march north to Terrasen and cross at the Anascaul passes?”

Aedion gave a single nod of confirmation, already calculating where he’d place her men, who in the Bane he’d give command over them. Without seeing Ansel’s men fight … Aedion began heading toward the stairs to the quarterdeck, not bothering to wait for permission.

But Aelin halted him with a cleared throat. “Talk to Ansel before she leaves tomorrow morning about where to bring her army once it’s whole again.”

He merely nodded and continued up the steps, ignoring his father’s concerned look as he went. The others eventually split up, and Aedion didn’t care where they went, only that he had a few minutes to himself.

He leaned against the rail, peering into the sea lapping against the side of the ship, trying not to notice the men on the surrounding ships sizing up him and his companions.

Some of their whispers hit him from across the water. The Wolf of the NorthGeneral Ashryver. Some began to tell stories—most outright lies, a few close enough to the truth. Aedion let the sound of them bleed into the plunk and hiss of the waves.

Her ever-changing scent hit him, and something in his chest loosened. Loosened a bit further at the sight of her slim golden arms as she braced them on the rail beside his own.

Lysandra glanced over her shoulder to where the witch and Elide—gods above, Elide—had gone to sit by the foremast, talking quietly. Probably recounting their own adventures since parting ways.

The armada wouldn’t sail until morning, he’d overheard the captain saying. He doubted it had to do with Aelin waiting to see if the Wing Leader’s missing mount would return.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Aedion said, now scanning the northern horizon. The ilken had come from that direction—and if they had found them so easily, even with an armada now around them … “We’re carrying two keys and the Lock—or whatever the hell that witch mirror actually is. The tide’s with us. We should go.”

Lysandra shot him a sharp look. “Go take it up with Aelin.”

Aedion studied her from head to toe. “What’s chewing on you?”

She’d been distant for the past few days. But now he could practically see that courtesan’s mask snap into place as she seemed to will her eyes to brighten, her frowning mouth to soften. “Nothing. I’m just tired.” Something about the way she glanced toward the sea rubbed at him.

Aedion said carefully, “We’ve been battling our way across the continent. Even after ten years of this, it still drains me. Not just physically, but—in my heart.”

Lysandra ran a finger down the smooth wood of the railing. “I thought

… It all seemed a grand adventure. Even when the danger was so horrible, it was still new, and I was no longer caged in dresses and bedrooms. But that day in Skull’s Bay, it stopped being any of that. It started being … survival. And some of us might not make it.” Her mouth wobbled a bit. “I never had friends—not as I do now. And today on that beach, when I saw that fleet and thought it belonged to our enemy … For a moment, I wished I’d never met any of you. Because the thought of any of you …” She sucked in a breath. “How do you do it? How have you learned to enter a battlefield with your Bane and not fall apart with the terror that not all of you might walk off it?”

Aedion listened to every word, assessed every shaking breath. And he said plainly, “You have no choice but to learn to face it.” He wished she

didn’t need to think of such things, have such weight on her. “The fear of loss … it can destroy you as much as the loss itself.”

Lysandra at last met his gaze. Those green eyes—the sadness in them hit him like a blow to the gut. It was an effort not to reach for her. But she said, “I think we will both need to remind ourselves of that in the times ahead.”

He nodded, sighing through his nose. “And remember to enjoy what time we do have.” She’d likely learned that as many times as he had.

Her slender, lovely throat bobbed, and she glanced sidelong at him beneath lowered lashes. “I do enjoy it, you know. This—whatever this is.”

His heart ratcheted to a thunderous beat. Aedion debated whether or not to go for subtlety and gave himself the span of three breaths to decide. In the end, he went for his usual method, which had served him well both on and off battlefields: a precise sort of blunt attack, edged with enough outright arrogance to throw his opponents off their guard. “Whatever this is,” he said with a half smile, “between us?”

Lysandra indeed went on the defensive and showed her hand. “I know my history is … unappealing.”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Aedion said, daring a step closer. “And I’m going to tell you that there is nothing unappealing about you. Nothing. I’ve been with just as many people. Women, men … I’ve seen and tried it all.”

Her brows had risen. Aedion shrugged. “I find pleasure in both, depending on my mood and the person.” One of his former lovers still remained one of his closest friends—and most skilled commanders in his Bane. “Attraction is attraction.” He steeled his nerve. “And I know enough about it to understand what you and I …” Something shuttered in her eyes, and the words slipped from him. Too soon. Too soon for this sort of talk. “We can figure it out. Make no demands of each other beyond honesty.” That was really the only thing he cared to request. It was nothing more than he’d ask of a friend.

A small smile played about her lips. “Yes,” she breathed. “Let’s start there.”

He dared another step closer, not caring who watched on the deck or in the rigging or in the armada around them. Color bloomed high on those

beautiful cheekbones, and it was an effort not to stroke a finger across them, then his mouth. To taste her skin.

But he’d take his time. Enjoy every moment, as he had told her to do.

Because this would be his last hunt. He had no intention of wasting each glorious moment in one go. Of wasting any of the moments that fate had granted him, and all he wanted to show her.

Every stream and forest and sea in Terrasen. To see Lysandra laugh her way through the autumnal circle dances; to weave ribbons around the maypoles in the spring; and listen, wide-eyed, to ancient tales of war and ghosts before the roaring winter fires in the mountain halls. All of it. He’d show her all of it. And walk onto those battlefields again and again to ensure he could.

So Aedion smiled at Lysandra and brushed her hand with his own. “I’m glad we’re in agreement, for once.”

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