Elide watched the ship rally against the armada looming before them—then descend into utter chaos as Aedion began roaring below.
The news came out moments later. Came out as Prince Rowan Whitethorn landed on the main deck, face haggard, eyes full of nothing but fear as Aedion burst out the door, Dorian on his heels, sporting an already-nasty bruise around his eye. Pacing, seething, Aedion told them of Aelin and Manon walking into the mirror—the Lock—and vanishing. How the King of Adarlan had solved Deanna’s riddle and sent them into its silvery realm to buy them a shot at this battle.
They went down into the cargo hold. But no matter how Aedion pushed against the mirror, it did not open to him. No matter how Rowan searched it with his magic, it did not yield where Aelin and Manon had gone. Aedion had spat on the floor, looking inclined to give the king another black eye as Dorian explained there had been little choice. He hadn’t seemed sorry about it—until Rowan refused to meet his gaze.
Only when they were gathered on the deck again, the king and shape-shifter off speaking to the captain about the turn of events, did Elide carefully say to Aedion as he paced, “What is done is done. We can’t wait for Aelin and Manon to find a way to save us.”
Aedion halted, and Elide tried not to cringe at the unrelenting fury as it narrowed on her. “When I want your opinion about how to deal with my missing queen, I’ll ask you.”
Lorcan snarled at him. But Elide lifted her chin, even as the insult hit something in her chest. “I waited as long as you did to find her again, Aedion. You are not the only one who fears to lose her once more.”
Indeed, Rowan Whitethorn now rubbed his face. She suspected it was as much feeling as the Fae Prince would show.
Rowan lowered his hands, the others watching him. Waiting—for his orders.
Elide started as realization slapped her. As she searched for proof but found none.
“We continue readying for battle,” Rowan said hoarsely. He looked to Lorcan, then Fenrys and Gavriel, and his entire countenance changed, his shoulders pushing back, his eyes turning hard and calculating. “There’s not a chance in hell Maeve doesn’t know you’re here. She’ll wield the blood oath when it’ll hurt us the most.”
Maeve. Some small part of her wished to see the queen who could command Lorcan’s relentless focus and affection for so many centuries. And perhaps give Maeve a piece of her mind.
Fenrys put a hand on the hilt of his sword and said with more quiet than Elide had witnessed so far, “I don’t know how to play this one.”
Indeed, Gavriel seemed at a loss, scanning his tattooed hands as if the answer lay there.
It was Lorcan who said, “If you’re spotted fighting on this side, it’s over. She’ll either kill you both or make you regret it in other ways.”
“And what about you?” Fenrys challenged.
Lorcan’s eyes slid to hers, then back to the males before them. “It was over for me months ago. It’s now a matter of waiting to see what she’ll do about it.”
If she’d kill him. Or drag him back in chains.
Elide’s stomach turned, and she avoided the urge to grab his hand, to beg him to run.
“She’ll see that we’ve worked our way around her order to kill you,” Gavriel at last said. “If fighting on this side of the line doesn’t damn us enough, then that surely will. It likely already has.”
“Dawn’s still half an hour off, if you two want to try again,” Lorcan crooned.
Elide tensed. But it was Fenrys who said, “It’s all a ploy.” Elide held her breath as he surveyed the Fae males—his companions. “To fracture us when Maeve knows that unified, we could present a considerable threat.”
“We’d never turn on her,” Gavriel countered.
“No,” Fenrys agreed. “But we would offer that strength to another.” And he looked at Rowan as he said, “When we got your call for aid this spring—when you asked us to come defend Mistward, we left before Maeve could get wind of it. We ran.”
“That’s enough,” Lorcan growled.
But Fenrys went on, holding Rowan’s steady gaze, “When we returned, Maeve whipped us within an inch of our lives. Tied Lorcan to the posts for two days and let Cairn whip him whenever he wished. Lorcan ordered us not to tell you—for whatever reason. But I think Maeve saw what we did together in Mistward and realized how dangerous we could be—to her.”
Rowan didn’t hide the devastation in his eyes as he faced Lorcan— devastation that Elide felt echo in her own heart. Lorcan had endured that
… and still remained loyal to Maeve. Elide brushed her fingers against his. The motion didn’t go unnoticed by the others, but they wisely kept quiet about it. Especially as Lorcan dragged his thumb down the back of her hand in answer.
And Elide wondered if Rowan also understood that Lorcan hadn’t ordered their silence for strategy, but perhaps to spare the prince from guilt. From wanting to retaliate against Maeve in a way that would surely harm him.
“Did you know,” Rowan said hoarsely to Lorcan, “that she’d punish you before you came to Mistward?”
Lorcan held the prince’s stare. “We all knew what the cost would be.”
Rowan’s throat bobbed, and he took a long breath, his eyes darting toward the stairs, as if Aelin would come prowling out, salvation in hand. But she didn’t, and Elide prayed that wherever the queen now was, she was gleaning what they so desperately needed to learn. Rowan said to his companions, “You know how this battle will likely end. Even if our armada teemed with Fae soldiers, we’d still have the odds stacked against us.”
The sky began to bleed with pink and purple as the sun stirred beneath the distant waves.
Gavriel only said, “We have had the odds stacked against us before.” A glance at Fenrys, who nodded gravely. “We will stay until we are commanded otherwise.”
It was to Aedion that Gavriel looked as he said this last piece. There was something in the general’s Ashryver eyes that looked almost like
Elide sensed Lorcan’s attention and found him still watching her as he said to Rowan, “Elide gets to shore, under a guard of whatever men you can spare. My sword is yours only if you do that.”
Elide started. But Rowan said, “Done.”
Rowan spread them across the fleet, each given command of a few ships. He stationed Fenrys, Lorcan, and Gavriel on ships toward the center and back, farthest away from Maeve’s notice. He and Aedion took the front lines, with Dorian and Ansel commanding the line of ships behind his.
Lysandra was already beneath the waves in sea dragon form, ready for his order to do damage to hull and prow and rudder on ships he’d marked for her. He’d bet that while the Fae ships might have shields around them, they wouldn’t waste valuable reservoirs of power on shielding below the surface. Lysandra would strike quick and hard—gone before they could realize who and what wrecked them from below.
Dawn broke, clear and bright, staining the sails with gold.
Rowan did not let himself think of Aelin—of wherever she might be. Minute after minute passed, and still Aelin did not return.
A small oak rowboat slid out from Maeve’s fleet and headed for him. There were only three people on it—none of them Maeve.
He could feel thousands of eyes on either side of that too-narrow band of empty water between their armadas, watching that boat approach. Watching him.
A male in Maeve’s livery stood with preternatural Fae balance as the oarsmen held the boat steady. “Her Majesty awaits your reply.”
Rowan tunneled into his depleted reserve of power, keeping his face bland. “Inform Maeve that Aelin Galathynius is no longer present to give a reply.”
A blink from the male was all the shock he’d let show. Maeve’s creatures were too well trained, too aware of the punishment for revealing her secrets.
“Princess Aelin Galathynius is ordered to surrender,” the male said.
“Queen Aelin Galathynius is not on this ship or any other in this fleet. She is, in fact, not on the shore, or in any nearby lands. So Maeve will find she came a long way for nothing. We will leave your armada in peace, if you will grant us the same courtesy.”
The male sneered up at him. “Spoken like cowards who know they’re outnumbered. Spoken like a traitor.”
Rowan gave the male a small smile. “Let’s see what Maeve has to say now.”
The male spat into the water. But the ship rowed back into the embrace of the armada.
For a moment, Rowan recalled his last words to Dorian before he’d sent the king to shield his own line of ships.
They were beyond apologies. Aelin would either return or—he didn’t let himself consider the alternative. But they could buy her as much time as possible. Try to fight their way out—for her, and the future of this armada.
Dorian’s face had revealed the same thoughts as he clasped hands with him and said quietly, “It is not such a hard thing, is it—to die for your friends.”
Rowan didn’t bother insisting they were going to live through this. The king had been tutored in warfare, even if he hadn’t yet practiced it. So Rowan had given him a grim smile and replied, “No, it is not.”
The words echoed through him again as that messenger’s boat disappeared. And for whatever good it would do, whatever time it would buy them, Rowan reinforced his shields again.
The sun had fully risen over the horizon when Maeve’s reply came. Not a messenger in a longboat.
But a barrage of arrows, so many that they blotted out the light as they arced across the sky.
“Shield,” Rowan bellowed, not only at the magic-wielders, but also at the armed men who raised their dented and battered shields above them as arrows rained across the line.
The arrows struck, and his magic buckled under their onslaught. Their tips had been wrapped in magic of their own, and Rowan gritted his teeth against it. On other ships, where the shield was stretched thin, some men screamed.
Maeve’s armada began crawling toward them.