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Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5)(10)
Author: Sarah J. Maas

Rowan’s grin was fierce, wicked. He leaned in, grazing his mouth against hers. “I have no plans to let him keep that throne, either, Aelin.”

She only breathed, “Come back to me.” The thought of what awaited him down in Rifthold struck her again. Gods—oh, gods. If anything happened to him…

He brushed a knuckle down her wet cheek, tracing her mouth with his thumb. She put a hand on his muscled chest, right where those two vials of poison were now hidden. For a heartbeat, she debated turning the deadly liquid within into steam.

But if Rowan was caught, if Dorian was caught … “I can’t—I can’t let you go—”

“You can,” he said with little room for argument. The voice of her prince-commander. “And you will.” Rowan again traced her mouth. “When you find me again, we will have that night. I don’t care where, or who is around.” He pressed a kiss to her neck and said onto her rain-slick skin, “You are my Fireheart.”

She grabbed his face in both hands, drawing him down to kiss her.

Rowan wrapped his arms around her, crushing her against him, his hands roaming as if he were branding the feel of her into his palms. His kiss was savage—ice and fire twining together. Even the rain seemed to pause as they at last drew away, panting.

And through the rain and fire and ice, through the dark and lightning and thunder, a word flickered into her head, an answer and a challenge and a truth she immediately denied, ignored. Not for herself, but for him—for him—

Rowan shifted in a flash brighter than lightning.

When she finished blinking, a large hawk was flapping up through the trees and into the rain-tossed night. Rowan loosed a shriek as he banked right—toward the coast—the sound a farewell and a promise and a battle cry.

Aelin swallowed the tightness in her throat as Aedion approached and gripped her shoulder. “Lysandra wants Murtaugh to take Evangeline. For ‘lady training.’ The girl refuses to go. You might need to … help.”

The girl was indeed clinging to her mistress, shoulders shaking with the force of her weeping. Murtaugh looked on helplessly, now back from the inn.

Aelin stalked through the mud, the ground squelching. How far away, how long ago, their merry morning now seemed.

She touched Evangeline’s soaked hair, and the girl pulled back long enough for Aelin to say to her, “You are a member of my court. And as such, you answer to me. You are wise, and brave, and a joy—but we are headed into dark, horrible places where even I fear to tread.”

Evangeline’s lip wobbled. Something in Aelin’s chest strained, but she let out a low whistle, and Fleetfoot, who had been cowering from the rain under their horses, slunk over.

“I need you to care for Fleetfoot,” Aelin said, stroking the hound’s damp head, her long ears. “Because in those dark, horrible places, a dog would be in peril. You are the only one I trust with her safety. Can you look after her for me?” She should have cherished them more—those happy, calm, boring moments on the road. Should have savored each second they were all together, all safe.

Above the girl, Lysandra’s face was tight—her eyes shone with more than just the rain. But the lady nodded at Aelin, even as she surveyed Murtaugh once more with a predator’s focus.

“Stay with Lord Murtaugh, learn about this court and its workings, and protect my friend,” Aelin said to Evangeline, squatting to kiss Fleetfoot’s sodden head. Once. Twice. The dog absently licked the rain off her face. “Can you do that?” Aelin repeated.

Evangeline stared at the dog, at her mistress. And nodded.

Aelin kissed the girl’s cheek and whispered into her ear, “Work your magic on these miserable old men while you’re at it.” She pulled away to wink at the girl. “Win me back my kingdom, Evangeline.”

But the girl was beyond smiles, and nodded again.

Aelin kissed Fleetfoot one last time and turned to her awaiting cousin as Lysandra knelt in the mud before the girl, brushing back her wet hair and speaking too low for her Fae ears to detect.

Aedion’s mouth was a hard line as he dragged his eyes away from Lysandra and the girl and inclined his head toward Ren and Murtaugh. Aelin fell into step beside him, pausing a few feet from the Allsbrook lords.

“Your letter, Majesty,” Murtaugh said, extending a wax-sealed tube.

Aelin took it, bowing her head in thanks.

Aedion said to Ren, “Unless you want to swap one tyrant for another, I suggest you get the Bane and any others ready to push from the North.”

Murtaugh answered for his grandson, “Darrow means well—”

“Darrow,” Aedion interrupted, “is now a man of limited days.”

They all looked to her. But Aelin watched the inn flickering through the trees—and the old man once again storming for them, a force of nature in his own right. She said, “We don’t touch Darrow.”

“What?” Aedion snapped.

Aelin said, “I’d bet all my money that he’s already taken the steps to ensure that if he meets an untimely death, we never set foot in Orynth again.” Murtaugh gave her a grim, confirming nod. Aelin shrugged. “So we don’t touch him. We play his game—play by rules and laws and oaths.”

Several feet away, Lysandra and Evangeline still spoke softly, the girl now crying in her mistress’s arms, Fleetfoot anxiously nuzzling her hip.

Aelin met Murtaugh’s stare. “I do not know you, Lord, but you were loyal to my uncle—to my family these long years.” She slid a dagger free of a hidden sheath along her thigh. They flinched as she sliced into her palm. Even Aedion started. Aelin clenched her bloodied palm into a fist, holding it in the air between them. “Because of that loyalty, you will understand what blood promises mean to me when I say if that girl comes to harm, physical or otherwise, I do not care what laws exist, what rules I will break.” Lysandra had now turned to them, her shifter senses detecting blood. “If Evangeline is hurt, you will burn. All of you.”

“Threatening your loyal court?” sneered a cold voice as Darrow halted a few feet away. Aelin ignored him. Murtaugh was wide-eyed—so was Ren.

Her blood seeped into the sacred earth. “Let this be your test.”

Aedion swore. He understood. If the Lords of Terrasen could not keep one child safe in their kingdom, could not find it in themselves to save Evangeline, to look after someone who could do them no good, gain them no wealth or rank … they would deserve to perish.

Murtaugh bowed again. “Your will is mine, Majesty.” He added quietly, “I lost my granddaughters. I will not lose another.” With that, the old man walked toward where Darrow waited, pulling the lord aside.

Her heart strained, but Aelin said to Ren, that scar hidden by the shadows of his rain-drenched hood, “I wish we had time to speak. Time for me to explain.”

“You’re good at walking away from this kingdom. I don’t see why now would be different.”

Aedion let out a snarl, but Aelin cut him off. “Judge me all you like, Ren Allsbrook. But do not fail this kingdom.”

She saw the unspoken retort flash in Ren’s eyes. Like you did for ten years.

The blow struck low and deep, but she turned away. As she did, she noted how Ren’s eyes fell on the little girl—on the brutal scars across Evangeline’s face. Near-twins to the ones on his own. Something in his gaze softened, just a bit.

But Darrow was now thundering toward Aelin, pushing past Murtaugh, his face white with anger. “You—” he started.

Aelin held up a hand, flame leaping at her fingertips, rain turning to steam above it. Blood snaked down her wrist from the deep cut, sibling to the other on her right hand, bright as Goldryn’s ruby, peeking over her shoulder. “I’ll make one more promise,” she said, folding her bloodied hand into a fist as she lowered it before them. Darrow tensed.

Her blood dripped onto the sacred soil of Terrasen, and her smile turned lethal. Even Aedion held his breath beside her.

Aelin said, “I promise you that no matter how far I go, no matter the cost, when you call for my aid, I will come. I promise you on my blood, on my family’s name, that I will not turn my back on Terrasen as you have turned your back on me. I promise you, Darrow, that when the day comes and you crawl for my help, I will put my kingdom before my pride and not kill you for this. I think the true punishment will be seeing me on the throne for the rest of your miserable life.”

His face had gone from white to purple.

She just turned away.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Darrow demanded. So Murtaugh had not filled him in on her plan to go to the Dead Islands. Interesting.

She looked over her shoulder. “To call in old debts and promises. To raise an army of assassins and thieves and exiles and commoners. To finish what was started long, long ago.”

Silence was his answer.

So Aelin and Aedion strode to where Lysandra now monitored them, solemn-faced in the rain, Evangeline hugging herself as Fleetfoot leaned against the silently weeping girl.

Aelin said to the shape-shifter and the general, locking out the sorrow from her heart, locking out the pain and worry from her mind, “We travel now.”

And when they dispersed to gather the horses, Aedion brushing a kiss to Evangeline’s soaked head before Murtaugh and Ren led her back to the inn with considerable gentleness, Darrow striding ahead with no farewell whatsoever, when Aelin was alone, she finally approached that shadowed, gnarled tree.

The Little Folk had known about the wyvern attack this morning.

So she’d supposed that this little effigy, already falling apart under the torrent of rain, was another message of sorts. One just for her.

Brannon’s temple on the coast had been rendered carefully—a clever little contraption of twigs and rocks to form the pillars and altar … And on the sacred rock in its center, they’d created a white stag from raw sheep’s wool, his mighty antlers no more than curling thorns.

An order—where to go, what she needed to obtain. She was willing to listen, play along. Even if it had meant telling the others only half the truth.

Aelin broke apart the temple reconstruction but left the stag in her palm, the wool deflating in the rain.

Horses nickered as Aedion and Lysandra hauled them closer, but Aelin felt him a heartbeat before he emerged between the distant, night-veiled trees. Too far in the wood to be anything but a ghost, a figment of an ancient god’s dream.

Barely breathing, she watched him for as long as she dared, and when Aelin mounted her horse, she wondered if her companions could tell that it was not rain gleaming on her face as she tugged on her black hood.

Wondered if they, too, had spied the Lord of the North standing watch deep in the forest, the white stag’s immortal glow muted in the rain, come to bid Aelin Galathynius farewell.

6

Dorian Havilliard, King of Adarlan, hated the silence.

It had become his companion, walking beside him through the near-empty halls of his stone castle, crouching in the corner of his cluttered tower room at night, sitting across the table at each meal.

He had always known he would one day be king.

He had not expected to inherit a shattered throne and vacant stronghold.

His mother and younger brother were still ensconced in their mountain residence in Ararat. He had not sent for them. He’d given the order to remain, actually.

If only because it would mean the return of his mother’s preening court, and he’d gladly take the silence over their tittering. If only because it would mean looking into his mother’s face, his brother’s face, and lying about who had destroyed the glass castle, who had slaughtered most of their courtiers, and who had ended his father. Lying about what his father had been—the demon that had dwelled inside him.

A demon that had reproduced with his mother—not once, but twice.

Standing on the small stone balcony atop his private tower, Dorian gazed at the glittering sprawl of Rifthold beneath the setting sun, at the sparkling ribbon of the Avery as it wended inland from the sea, curving around the city like the coils of a snake, and then flowing straight through the continent’s heart.

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