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Home > Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5)(5)

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

Leaves rustled and branches snapped, and the Sword of Orynth gleamed gold and red in the light of Aelin’s flames as he drew it free. He angled the ancient dagger Rowan had gifted him in his other hand. Rowan had been teaching Aedion—teaching all of them, really—about the Old Ways these weeks. About the long-forgotten traditions and codes of the Fae, mostly abandoned even in Maeve’s court. But reborn here, and enacted now, as they fell into the roles and duties that they had sorted out and decided for themselves.

Rowan emerged from the rain in his Fae form, his silver hair plastered to his head, his tattoo stark on his tan face. No sign of the lords.

But Rowan held his hunting knife against the bared throat of a young, slender-nosed man and escorted him toward the fire—the stranger’s travel-stained, soaked clothes bearing Darrow’s crest of a striking badger.

“A messenger,” Rowan ground out.

Aelin decided right then and there she didn’t particularly enjoy surprises.

The messenger’s blue eyes were wide, but his rain-slick, freckled face was calm. Steady. Even as he took in Lysandra, her fangs gilded with firelight. Even as Rowan nudged him forward, that cruel knife still angled at his throat.

Aedion jerked his chin at Rowan. “He can’t very well deliver the message with a blade at his windpipe.”

Rowan lowered his weapon, but the Fae Prince didn’t sheathe his knife. Didn’t move more than a foot from the man.

Aedion demanded, “Where are they?”

The man bowed swiftly to her cousin. “At a tavern, four miles from here, General—”

The words died as Aelin at last stepped around the curve of the fire. She kept it burning high, kept Evangeline and Fleetfoot ensconced within. The messenger let out a small noise.

He knew. With the way he kept glancing between her and Aedion, seeing the same eyes, the same hair color … he knew. And as if the thought had hit him, the messenger bowed.

Aelin watched the way the man lowered his eyes, watched the exposed back of his neck, his skin shining with rain. Her magic simmered in response. And that thing—that hideous power hanging between her breasts—seemed to open an ancient eye at all the commotion.

The messenger stiffened, wide-eyed at Lysandra’s silent approach, her whiskers twitching as she sniffed at his wet clothes. He was smart enough to remain still.

“Is the meeting canceled?” Aedion said tightly, scanning the woods again.

The man winced. “No, General—but they want you to come to the tavern where they’re staying. Because of the rain.”

Aedion rolled his eyes. “Go tell Darrow to drag his carcass out here. Water won’t kill him.”

“It’s not Lord Darrow,” the man said quickly. “With all due respect, Lord Murtaugh’s slowed down this summer. Lord Ren didn’t want him out in the dark and rain.”

The old man had ridden across the kingdoms like a demon from hell this spring, Aelin remembered. Perhaps it had taken its toll. Aedion sighed. “You know we’ll need to scout the tavern first. The meeting will be later than they want.”

“Of course, General. They’ll expect that.” The messenger cringed as he at last spotted Evangeline and Fleetfoot within the flame’s ring of safety. And despite the Fae Prince armed beside him, despite the ghost leopard with unsheathed claws sniffing at him, the sight of Aelin’s fire made his face go deathly pale. “But they are waiting—and Lord Darrow is impatient. Being outside Orynth’s walls makes him anxious. Makes us all anxious, these days.”

Aelin snorted softly. Indeed.

3

Manon Blackbeak stood at attention by one end of the long, dark bridge into Morath and watched her grandmother’s coven descend from the gray clouds.

Even with the plumes and pillars of smoke from the countless forges, the High Witch of the Blackbeak Witch-Clan’s voluminous obsidian robes were unmistakable. No other dressed as the Matron did. Her coven swept from the heavy cloud cover, keeping a respectful distance from the Matron and the extra rider flanking her massive bull.

Manon, her Thirteen in rank behind her, made no movement as the wyverns and their riders landed on the dark stones of the courtyard across the bridge. Far below, the rushing of a filthy, ruined river roared, vying with the scrape of talons on stone and the rustle of settling wings.

Her grandmother had come to Morath.

Or what was left of it, when one-third was nothing more than rubble.

Asterin hissed in a breath as Manon’s grandmother dismounted in a smooth movement, scowling at the black fortress looming above Manon and her Thirteen. Duke Perrington was already waiting in his council chamber, and Manon had no doubt his pet, Lord Vernon, would do his best to undermine and shake her at every turn. If Vernon were to make a move to be rid of Manon, it would be now—when her grandmother was seeing for herself what Manon had accomplished.

And failed to do.

Manon kept her back straight as her grandmother strode across the broad stone bridge, her steps drowned out by the rush of the river, the beat of distant wings, and those forges working day and night to equip their army. When she could see the white in her grandmother’s eyes, Manon bowed.

The creak of flying leathers told her the Thirteen had followed suit.

When Manon lifted her head, her grandmother was before her.

Death, cruel and cunning, waited in that gold-flecked onyx stare.

“Take me to the duke,” the Matron said by way of greeting.

Manon felt her Thirteen stiffen. Not at the words, but at the High Witch’s coven now following on her heels. Rare—so rare for them to track her, guard her.

But this was a citadel of men—and demons. And this would be an extended stay, if not permanent, judging by the fact that her grandmother had brought along the beautiful, dark-haired young witch currently warming her bed. The Matron would be a fool not to take extra protection. Even if the Thirteen had always been enough. Should have been enough.

It was an effort not to flick out her iron nails at the imagined threat.

Manon bowed again and turned in to the towering, open doors to Morath. The Thirteen parted for Manon and the Matron as they passed, then closed ranks like a lethal veil. No chances—not when the heir and the Matron were concerned.

Manon’s steps were near-silent as she led her grandmother through the dark halls, the Thirteen and the Matron’s coven trailing close. The servants, through either spying or some human instinct, were nowhere to be found.

The Matron spoke as they ascended the first of many spiral stairwells toward the duke’s new council chamber. “Anything to report?”

“No, Grandmother.” Manon avoided the urge to glance sidelong at the witch—at the silver-streaked dark hair, the pale features carved with ancient hate, the rusted teeth on permanent display.

The face of the High Witch who had branded Manon’s Second. Who had cast Asterin’s stillborn witchling into the fire, denying her the right to hold her once. Who had then beaten and broken her Second, thrown her into the snow to die, and lied to Manon about it for nearly a century.

Manon wondered what thoughts now churned through Asterin’s head as they walked. Wondered what went through the heads of Sorrel and Vesta, who had found Asterin in the snow. Then healed her.

And never told Manon about it, either.

Her grandmother’s creature—that’s what Manon was. It had never seemed like a hateful thing.

“Did you discover who caused the explosion?” The Matron’s robes swirled behind her as they entered the long, narrow hallway toward the duke’s council chamber.

“No, Grandmother.”

Those gold-flecked black eyes snapped to her. “How convenient, Wing Leader, that you complain about the duke’s breeding experiments—only for the Yellowlegs to be incinerated days later.”

Good riddance, Manon almost said. Despite the covens lost in the blast, good rutting riddance that the breeding of those Yellowlegs-Valg witchlings had stopped. But Manon felt, rather than saw or heard, her Thirteen’s attention fix on her grandmother’s back.

And perhaps something like fear went through Manon.

At the Matron’s accusation—and the line her Thirteen were drawing. Had drawn for some time now.

Defiance. That’s what it had been these past months. If the High Witch learned of it, she’d tie Manon to a post and whip her back until her skin was hanging in strips. She’d make the Thirteen watch, to prove their powerlessness to defend their heir, and then give them the same treatment. Perhaps chucking salted water on them when she was done. Then do it again, day after day.

Manon said coolly, “I heard a rumor it was the duke’s pet—that human woman. But as she was incinerated in the blaze, no one can confirm. I didn’t want to waste your time with gossip and theories.”

“She was leashed to him.”

“It would seem her shadowfire was not.” Shadowfire—the mighty power that would have melted their enemies within heartbeats when combined with the mirror-lined witch towers the three Matrons had been building in the Ferian Gap. But with Kaltain gone … so was the threat of pure annihilation.

Even if the duke would suffer no other master now that his king was dead. He’d rejected the Crown Prince’s claim to the throne.

Her grandmother said nothing as they continued onward.

The other piece on the board—the sapphire-eyed prince who had once been in thrall to a Valg prince himself. Now free. And allied with that golden-haired young queen.

They reached the council room doors, and Manon wiped all thoughts from her head as the blank-faced guards opened the black rock for them.

Manon’s senses honed to a killing calm the moment she laid eyes on the ebony glass table and who stood at it.

Vernon: tall, lanky, ever-smirking, clad in Terrasen green.

And a golden-haired man, his skin pale as ivory.

No sign of the duke. The stranger twisted toward them. Even her grandmother gave pause.

Not at the man’s beauty, not at the strength in his sculpted body or the fine black clothes he wore. But at those gold eyes. Twin to Manon’s.

The eyes of the Valg kings.

Manon assessed the exits, the windows, the weapons she would use when they fought their way out. Instinct had her stepping in front of her grandmother; training had her palming two knives before the golden-eyed man could blink.

But the man fixed those Valg eyes on her. He smiled.

“Wing Leader.” He looked to her grandmother and inclined his head. “Matron.”

The voice was carnal and lovely and cruel. But the tone, the demand in it …

Something in Vernon’s smirk now seemed too strained, his tan skin too pale.

“Who are you,” Manon said to the stranger, more an order than a question.

The man jerked his chin toward the unclaimed seats at the table. “You know perfectly well who I am, Manon Blackbeak.”

Perrington. In another body, somehow. Because…

Because that otherworldly, foul thing she had sometimes glimpsed staring out through his eyes … Here it was, given flesh.

The Matron’s tight face told her she’d already guessed.

“I grew tired of wearing that sagging meat,” he said, sliding with feline grace into the chair beside Vernon. A wave of long, powerful fingers. “My enemies know who I am. My allies might as well, too.”

Vernon bowed his head and murmured, “My Lord Erawan, if it would please you, allow me to fetch the Matron refreshments. Her journey has been long.”

Manon assessed the tall, reedy man. Two gifts he had offered them: respect to her grandmother, and the knowledge of the duke’s true name. Erawan.

She wondered what Ghislaine, on guard in the hall beyond, knew of him.

The Valg king nodded his approval. The Lord of Perranth hustled to the small buffet table against the wall, grabbing a ewer as Manon and the Matron slid into the seats across from the demon king.

Respect—something Vernon had not once offered without a mocking grin. But now…

Perhaps now that the Lord of Perranth realized what manner of monster held his leash, he was desperate for allies. Knew, perhaps, that Manon … that Manon might have indeed been part of that explosion.

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