He wasn’t wearing the Sword of Orynth. Instead, an assortment of blades and fighting knives were strapped to the general—a man able to walk into hell itself and come out grinning.
“Where are the others?” Chaol said softly. The slums were quiet tonight—too quiet for his liking. Dressed as he was, few would dare approach him, but the walk through the crooked and dark streets had been harrowing. Such poverty and despair—and desperation. It made people dangerous, willing to risk anything to scratch out another day of living.
Aedion leaned against the crumbling brick wall behind them. “Don’t get your undergarments in a twist. They’ll be here soon.”
“I’ve waited long enough for this information.”
“What’s the rush?” Aedion drawled, scanning the alley.
“I’m leaving Rifthold in a few weeks to return to Anielle.” Aedion didn’t look directly at him, but he could feel the general staring at him from beneath his dark hood.
“So get out of it—tell them you’re busy.”
“I made a promise,” Chaol said. “I’ve already bargained for time, but I want to have . . . done something for the prince before I leave.”
The general turned to him then. “I’d heard you were estranged from your father; why the sudden change?”
It would have been easier to lie, but Chaol said, “My father is a powerful man—he has the ear of many influential members at court and is on the king’s council.”
Aedion let out a low laugh. “I’ve butted heads with him in more than a few war councils.”
That Chaol would have paid good money to see, but he wasn’t smiling as he said, “It was the only way I could get her sent to Wendlyn.” He quickly explained the bargain he’d made, and when he was finished, Aedion loosed a long breath.
“Damn,” the general said, then shook his head. “I didn’t think that kind of honor still existed in Adarlan.”
He supposed it was a compliment—and a high one, coming from Aedion. “And what of your father?” Chaol said, if only to shift conversation away from the hole in his chest. “I know your mother was kin to—to her, but what of your father’s line?”
“My mother never admitted who my father was, even when she was wasting away on her sickbed,” Aedion said flatly. “I don’t know if it was from shame, or because she couldn’t even remember, or to protect me somehow. Once I was brought over here, I didn’t really care. But I’d rather have no father than your father.”
Chaol chuckled and might have asked another question had boots not scraped on stone at the other end of the alley, followed by a rasping breath.
That fast, Aedion had palmed two fighting knives, and Chaol drew his own sword—a bland, nondescript blade he’d swiped from the barracks—as a man staggered into view.
He had an arm wrapped around his middle, the other bracing himself against the brick wall of an abandoned building. Aedion was instantly moving, knives sheathed again. It wasn’t until Chaol heard him say, “Ren?” that he also hurried toward the young man.
In the moonlight, the blood on Ren’s tunic was a shining, deep stain.
“Where is Murtaugh?” Aedion demanded, slinging an arm under Ren’s shoulders.
“Safe.” Ren panted, his face dealthy pale. Chaol scanned either end of the alley. “We were—followed. So we tried losing them.” He heard, more than saw, Ren’s wince. “They cornered me.”
“How many?” Aedion said softly, though Chaol could almost feel the violence simmering off the general.
“Eight,” Ren said, and hissed in pain. “Killed two, then got free. They’re following me.”
Leaving six. If they were unharmed, they were probably close behind. Chaol examined the stones beyond Ren. The wound to his abdomen couldn’t be deep, if he’d managed to keep the blood flow from leaving a trail. But it still had to be agonizing—potentially fatal, if it had pierced the wrong spot.
Aedion went rigid, hearing something that Chaol couldn’t. He quietly, gently passed the sagging Ren into Chaol’s arms. “There are three barrels ten paces away,” the general said with lethal calm as he faced the alley entrance. “Hide behind them and keep your mouths shut.”
That was all Chaol needed to hear as he took Ren’s weight and hauled him to the large barrels, then eased him onto the ground. Ren stifled a groan of pain, but kept still. There was a small crack between two of the barrels where Chaol could see the alley, and the six men who stalked into it almost shoulder-to-shoulder. He couldn’t make out much more than dark tunics and cloaks.
The men paused when they beheld Aedion standing before them, still hooded. The general drew his fighting knives and purred, “None of you are leaving this alley alive.”
Chaol marveled at Aedion’s skill—the speed and swiftness and utter confidence that made it like watching a brutal, unforgiving dance.
It was over before it really started. The six assailants seemed at ease with weapons, but against a man with Fae blood surging in his veins, they were useless.
No wonder Aedion had risen to such high ranking so quickly. He’d never seen another man fight like that. Only—only Celaena had come close. He couldn’t tell which of them would win if they were ever matched against each other, but together . . . Chaol’s heart went cold at the thought. Six men dead in a matter of moments—six.
Aedion wasn’t smiling as he came back over to Chaol and dropped a scrap of fabric on the ground before them. Even Ren, panting through clenched teeth, looked.
It was a black, heavy material—and emblazoned on it in dark thread, nearly invisible save for the glint of the moonlight, was a wyvern. The royal sigil.
“I don’t know these men,” Chaol said, more to himself than to protest his innocence. “I’ve never seen that uniform.”
“From the sound of it,” Aedion said, that rage still simmering in his voice as he cocked his head toward noises that Chaol could not hear with his human ears, “there are more of them out there, and they’re combing the slums door-to-door for Ren. We need a place to hide.”
Ren held on to consciousness long enough to say, “I know where.”
Chaol held his breath for the entire walk as he and Aedion gripped the half-conscious Ren between them, the three of them swaying and staggering, looking for all the world like drunkards out for a night of thrills in the slums. The streets were still teeming despite the hour, and one of the women they passed slouched over and gripped Aedion’s tunic, spewing a slur of sultry words. But the general used a gentle hand to disengage her and said, “I don’t pay for what I can get for free.”
Somehow, it felt like a lie, since Chaol hadn’t seen or heard of Aedion sharing anyone’s bed all these weeks. But perhaps knowing that Aelin was alive changed his priorities.
They reached the opium den Ren had named in between spurts of unconsciousness just as the shouts of soldiers storming into boardinghouses, inns, and taverns echoed from down the street. Chaol didn’t wait to see who they were and shoved through the carved wooden door. The reek of unwashed bodies, waste, and sweet smoke clotted in Chaol’s nostrils. Even Aedion coughed and gave Ren, who was almost a dead weight in their arms, a disapproving stare.
But the aging madam swept forward to greet them, her long tunic and over-robe flowing on some phantom wind, and ushered them down the wood-paneled hallway, her feet soft on the worn, colorful rugs. She began prattling off prices and the night’s specials, but Chaol took one look in her green, cunning eyes and knew she was familiar with Ren—someone who had probably built herself her own empire here in Rifthold.
She set them up in a veiled-off alcove littered with worn silk cushions that stank of sweet smoke and sweat, and after she lifted her brows at Chaol, he handed over three gold pieces. Ren groaned from where he was sprawled on the cushions between Aedion and Chaol, but before Chaol could so much as say a word, the madam returned with a bundle in her arms. “They are next door,” she said, her accent lovely and strange. “Hurry.”
She’d brought a tunic. Aedion made quick work of stripping Ren, whose face was deathly pale, lips bloodless. The general swore as they beheld the wound—a slice low in his belly. “Any deeper and his damn intestines would be hanging out,” Aedion said. He took a strip of clean fabric from the madam and wrapped it around the young lord’s muscled abdomen. There were scars all over Ren already. If he survived, this probably would not be the worst of them.
The madam knelt before Chaol and opened the box in her hands. Three pipes now lay on the low-lying table before them. “You need to play the part,” she breathed, glancing over her shoulder through the thick black veil, no doubt calculating how much time they had left.
Chaol didn’t even try to object as she used rouge to redden the skin around his eyes, applied some paste and powder to leech the color from his face, shook free a few buttons on his tunic, and mussed his hair. “Lay back, limp and loose, and keep the pipe in your hand. Smoke it if you need to take the edge off.” That was all she told him before she got to work on Aedion, who had finished stuffing Ren into his clean clothes. In moments, the three of them were reclined on the reeking cushions, and the madam had bustled off with Ren’s bloody tunic.
The lord’s breathing was labored and uneven, and Chaol fought the shaking in his own hands as the front door banged open. The soft feet of the madam hurried past to greet the men. Though Chaol strained to hear, Aedion seemed to be listening without a problem.
“Five of you, then?” the madam chirped loudly enough for them to hear.
“We’re looking for a fugitive,” was the growled response. “Clear out of the way.”
“Surely you would like to rest—we have private rooms for groups, and you are all such big men.” Each word was purred, a sensual feast. “It is extra for bringing in swords and daggers—a liability, you see, when the drug takes you—”
“Woman, enough,” the man barked. Fabric ripped as each veiled alcove was inspected. Chaol’s heart thundered, but he kept his body limp, even as he itched to reach for his blade.
“Then I shall leave you to your work,” she said demurely.
Between them, Ren was so dazed that he truly could have been drugged out of his mind. Chaol just hoped his own performance was convincing as the curtain ripped back.
“Is that the wine?” Aedion slurred, squinting at the men, his face wan and his lips set in a loose grin. He was hardly recognizable. “We’ve been waiting twenty minutes, you know.”
Chaol smiled blearily up at the six men peering into the room. All in those dark uniforms, all unfamiliar. Who the hell were they? Why had Ren been targeted?
“Wine,” Aedion snapped, a spoiled son of a merchant, perhaps. “Now.”
The men just swore at them and continued on. Five minutes later, they were gone.
The den must have been a meeting point, because Murtaugh found them there an hour later. The madam had brought them to her private office, and they’d been forced to pin Ren to the worn couch as she—with surprising adeptness—disinfected, stitched, and bound up his nasty wound. He would survive, she said, but the blood loss and injury would keep him incapacitated for a while. Murtaugh paced the entire time, until Ren collapsed into a deep sleep, courtesy of some tonic the woman made him choke down.
Chaol and Aedion sat at the small table crammed in amongst the crates upon crates of opium stacked against the walls. He didn’t want to know what was in the tonic Ren had ingested.