فصل 88

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فصل 88

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CHAPTER 88

With Rowan circling high above the castle on watch, and with their departure scheduled for dawn, Aelin took it upon herself to make one last trip to Elena’s tomb as the clock struck twelve.

Her plans, however, were ruined: the way to the tomb was blocked by rubble from the explosion. She’d spent fifteen minutes searching for a way in, with both her hands and her magic, but had no luck. She prayed Mort hadn’t been destroyed—though perhaps the skull door knocker would have embraced his strange, immortal existence coming to an end at last.

The sewers of Rifthold, apparently, were as clear of the Valg as the castle tunnels and catacombs, as if the demons had fled into the night when the king had fallen. For the moment, Rifthold was safe.

Aelin emerged from the hidden passageway, wiping the dust off her. “You two make so much noise, it’s ridiculous.” With her Fae hearing, she’d detected them minutes ago.

Dorian and Chaol were seated before her fireplace, the latter in a special wheeled chair that they’d acquired for him.

The king looked at her pointed ears, the elongated canines, and lifted a brow. “You look good, Majesty.” She supposed he hadn’t really noticed that day on the glass bridge, and she’d been in her human form until now. She grinned.

Chaol turned his head. His face was gaunt, but a flicker of determination shone there. Hope. He would not let his injury destroy him.

“I always look good,” Aelin said, plopping onto the armchair across from Dorian’s.

“Find anything interesting down there?” Chaol asked.

She shook her head. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look one last time. For old time’s sake.” And maybe bite Elena’s head off. After she got answers to all her questions. But the ancient queen was nowhere to be found.

The three of them looked at each other, and silence fell.

Aelin’s throat burned, so she turned to Chaol and said, “With Maeve and Perrington breathing down our necks, we might need allies sooner rather than later, especially if the forces in Morath block access to Eyllwe. An army from the Southern Continent could cross the Narrow Sea within a few days and provide reinforcements—push Perrington from the south while we hammer from the north.” She crossed her arms. “So I’m appointing you an official Ambassador for Terrasen. I don’t care what Dorian says. Make friends with the royal family, woo them, kiss their asses, do whatever you have to do. But we need that alliance.” Chaol glanced at Dorian in silent request. The king nodded, barely a dip of his chin. “I’ll try.” It was the best answer she could hope for. Chaol reached into the pocket of his tunic and chucked the Eye toward her. She caught it in a hand. The metal had been warped, but the blue stone remained. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.

“He was wearing that for months,” Dorian said as she tucked the amulet into her pocket, “yet it never reacted—even in peril. Why now?” Aelin’s throat tightened. “Courage of the heart,” she said. “Elena once told me that courage of the heart was rare—and to let it guide me. When Chaol chose to …” She couldn’t form the words. She tried again. “I think that courage saved him, made the amulet come alive for him.” It had been a gamble, and a fool’s one, but—it had worked.

Silence fell again.

Dorian said, “So here we are.”

“The end of the road,” Aelin said with a half smile.

“No,” Chaol said, his own smile faint, tentative. “The beginning of the next.” images

The following morning, Aelin yawned as she leaned against her gray mare in the castle courtyard.

Once Dorian and Chaol had left last night, Lysandra had entered and passed out in her bed with no explanation for why or what she’d been doing beforehand. And since she was utterly unconscious, Aelin had just climbed into bed beside her. She had no idea where Rowan had curled up for the night, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to look out her window and spy a white-tailed hawk perched on the balcony rail.

At dawn, Aedion had burst in, demanding why they weren’t ready to leave—to go home.

Lysandra had shifted into a ghost leopard and chased him out. Then she returned, lingering in her massive feline form, and again sprawled beside Aelin. They managed to get another thirty minutes of sleep before Aedion came back and chucked a bucket of water on them.

He was lucky to escape alive.

But he was right—they had little reason to linger. Not with so much to do in the North, so much to plan and heal and oversee.

They would travel until nightfall, where they’d pick up Evangeline at the Faliqs’ country home and then continue north, hopefully uninterrupted, until they reached Terrasen.

Home.

She was going home.

Fear and doubt curled in her gut—but joy flickered alongside them.

They’d readied themselves quickly, and now all that was left, she supposed, was good-bye.

Chaol’s injuries made taking the stairs impossible, but she’d crept into his room that morning to say good-bye—only to find Aedion, Rowan, and Lysandra already there, chatting with him and Nesryn. When they’d left, Nesryn following them out, the captain had merely squeezed Aelin’s hand and said, “Can I see it?” She knew what he meant, and had held up her hands before her.

Ribbons and plumes and flowers of red and gold fire danced through his room, bright and glorious and elegant.

Chaol’s eyes had been lined with silver when the flames winked out. “It’s lovely,” he said at last.

She’d only smiled at him and left a rose of gold flame burning on his nightstand—where it would burn without heat until she was out of range.

And for Nesryn, who had been called away on captain duty, Aelin had left another gift: an arrow of solid gold, presented to her last Yulemas as a blessing of Deanna—her own ancestor. Aelin figured the sharpshooter would love and appreciate that arrow more than she ever would have, anyway.

“Do you need anything else? More food?” Dorian asked, coming to stand beside her. Rowan, Aedion, and Lysandra were already mounting their horses. They’d packed light, taking only the barest supplies. Mostly weapons, including Damaris, which Chaol had given to Aedion, insisting the ancient blade remain on these shores. The rest of their belongings would be shipped to Terrasen.

“With this group,” Aelin said to Dorian, “it’ll probably be a daily competition to see who can hunt the best.” Dorian chuckled. Silence fell, and Aelin clicked her tongue. “You’re wearing the same tunic you had on a few days ago. I don’t think I ever saw you wear the same thing twice.” A flicker in those sapphire eyes. “I think I have bigger things to worry about now.” “Will you—will you be all right?”

“Do I have any option but to be?”

She touched his arm. “If you need anything, send word. It’ll be a few weeks before we reach Orynth, but—I suppose with magic returned, you can find a messenger to get word to me quickly.” “Thanks to you—and to your friends.”

She glanced over her shoulder at them. They were all trying their best to look like they weren’t eavesdropping. “Thanks to all of us,” she said quietly. “And to you.” Dorian gazed toward the city horizon, the rolling green foothills beyond. “If you had asked me nine months ago if I thought …” He shook his head. “So much has changed.” “And will keep changing,” she said, squeezing his arm once. “But … There are things that won’t change. I will always be your friend.” His throat bobbed. “I wish I could see her, just one last time. To tell her … to say what was in my heart.” “She knows,” Aelin said, blinking against the burning in her eyes.

“I’ll miss you,” Dorian said. “Though I doubt the next time we meet will be in such … civilized circumstances.” She tried not to think about it. He gestured over her shoulder to her court. “Don’t make them too miserable. They’re only trying to help you.” She smiled. To her surprise, a king smiled back.

“Send me any good books that you read,” she said.

“Only if you do the same.”

She embraced him one last time. “Thank you—for everything,” she whispered.

Dorian squeezed her, and then stepped away as Aelin mounted her horse and nudged it into a walk.

She moved to the head of the company, where Rowan rode a sleek black stallion. The Fae Prince caught her eye. Are you all right?

She nodded. I didn’t think saying good-bye would be so hard. And with everything that’s to come— We’ll face it together. To whatever end.

She reached across the space between them and took his hand, gripping it tightly.

They held on to each other as they rode down the barren path, through the gateway she’d made in the glass wall, and into the city streets, where people paused what they were doing and gaped or whispered or stared.

But as they rode out of Rifthold, that city that had been her home and her hell and her salvation, as she memorized each street and building and face and shop, each smell and the coolness of the river breeze, she didn’t see one slave. Didn’t hear one whip.

And as they passed by the domed Royal Theater, there was music—beautiful, exquisite music—playing within.

images

Dorian didn’t know what awoke him. Perhaps it was that the lazy summer insects had stopped their nighttime buzzing, or perhaps it was the chilled wind that slithered into his old tower room, ruffling the curtains.

The moonlight gleaming on the clock revealed it was three in the morning. The city was silent.

He rose from the bed, touching his neck yet again—just to make sure. Whenever he woke from his nightmares, it took him minutes to tell if he was indeed awake—or if it was merely a dream and he was still trapped in his own body, enslaved to his father and that Valg prince. He had not told Aelin or Chaol about the nightmares. Part of him wished he had.

He could still barely remember what had happened while he’d worn that collar. He’d turned twenty—and had no recollection of it. There were only bits and pieces, glimpses of horror and pain. He tried not to think about it. Didn’t want to remember. He hadn’t told Chaol or Aelin that, either.

He already missed her, and the chaos and intensity of her court. He missed having anyone around at all. The castle was too big, too quiet. And Chaol was to leave in two days. He didn’t want to think about what missing his friend would be like.

Dorian padded onto his balcony, needing to feel the river breeze on his face, to know that this was real and he was free.

He opened the balcony doors, the stones cool on his feet, and gazed out across the razed grounds. He’d done that. He loosed a breath, taking in the glass wall as it sparkled in the moonlight.

There was a massive shadow perched atop it. Dorian froze.

Not a shadow but a giant beast, its claws gripping the wall, its wings tucked into its body, shimmering faintly in the glow of the full moon. Shimmering like the white hair of the rider atop it.

Even from the distance, he knew she was staring right at him, her hair streaming to the side like a ribbon of moonlight, caught in the river breeze.

Dorian lifted a hand, the other rising to his neck. No collar.

The rider on the wyvern leaned down in her saddle, saying something to her beast. It spread its massive, glimmering wings and leaped into the air. Each beat of its wings sent a hollowed-out, booming gust of wind toward him.

It flapped higher, her hair streaming behind her like a glittering banner, until they vanished into the night, and he couldn’t hear its wings beating anymore. No one sounded the alarm. As if the world had stopped paying attention for the few moments they’d looked at each other.

And through the darkness of his memories, through the pain and despair and terror he’d tried to forget, a name echoed in his head.

images

Manon Blackbeak sailed into the starry night sky, Abraxos warm and swift under her, the blazingly bright moon—the Mother’s full womb—above her.

She didn’t know why she’d bothered to go; why she’d been curious.

But there had been the prince, no collar to be seen around his neck.

And he had lifted his hand in greeting—as if to say I remember you.

The winds shifted, and Abraxos rode them, rising higher into the sky, the darkened kingdom below passing by in a blur.

Changing winds—a changing world.

Perhaps a changing Thirteen, too. And herself.

She didn’t know what to make of it.

But Manon hoped they’d all survive it.

She hoped.

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