“I don’t see how it’s relevant to anything,” Ren said tightly. Aedion could understand pride. The kind Ren had went deep, and admitting this vulnerability was as hard for him as it was for Aedion to accept Ren’s gratitude. Ren said, “If you find out how to break the spell on magic, you’re going to do it, right?”
“Yes. It could make a difference in whatever battles lie ahead.”
“It didn’t make a difference ten years ago.” Ren’s face was a mask of ice, and then Aedion remembered. Ren hardly had a drop of magic. But Ren’s two elder sisters . . . The girls had been away at their mountain school when everything went to hell. A school for magic.
As if reading his thoughts, as if this were a reprieve from the city below them, Ren said, “When the soldiers dragged us to the butchering blocks, that was what they mocked my parents about. Because even with their magic, my sisters’ school was defenseless—they could do nothing against ten thousand soldiers.”
“I’m sorry,” Aedion said. That was all he could offer for the time being, until Aelin returned.
Ren looked right at him. “Going back to Terrasen will be . . . hard. For me, and for my grandfather.” He seemed to struggle with the words, or just with the idea of telling anyone anything, but Aedion gave him the time he needed. At last Ren said, “I’m not sure I’m civilized enough anymore. I don’t know if . . . if I could be a lord, even. If my people would want me as lord. My grandfather is better suited, but he’s an Allsbrook by marriage and he says he doesn’t want to rule.”
Ah. Aedion found himself actually pausing—contemplating. The wrong word, the wrong reaction, could make Ren shut up forever. It shouldn’t matter, but it did. So he said, “My life has been war and death for the past ten years. It will probably be war and death for the next few as well. But if there’s ever a day when we find peace . . .” Gods, that word, that beautiful word. “It’ll be a strange transition for all of us. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t see how the people of Allsbrook wouldn’t embrace a lord who spent years trying to break Adarlan’s rule—or a lord who spent years in poverty for that dream.”
“I’ve . . . done things,” Ren said. “Bad things.” Aedion had suspected as much from the moment Ren gave them the address of the opium den.
“So have we all,” Aedion said. So has Aelin. He wanted to say it, but he still didn’t want Ren or Murtaugh or anyone knowing a damn thing about her. It was her story to tell.
Aedion knew the conversation was about to take a turn for the ugly when Ren tensed and asked too quietly, “What do you plan to do about Captain Westfall?”
“Right now, Captain Westfall is useful to me, and useful to our queen.”
“So as soon as he’s outlived his usefulness . . .”
“I’ll decide that when the time comes—if it’s safe to leave him alive.” Ren opened his mouth, but Aedion added, “This is the way it has to be. The way I operate.” Even if he’d helped save Ren’s life and given him a place to stay.
“I wonder what our queen will think of the way you operate.”
Aedion flashed him a glare that had sent men running. But he knew Ren wasn’t particularly scared of him, not with what he had seen and endured. Not after Aedion had killed for him.
Aedion said, “If she’s smart, then she’ll let me do what needs to be done. She’ll use me as the weapon I am.”
“What if she wishes to be your friend? Would you deny her that, too?”
“I will deny her nothing.”
“And if she asks you to be her king?”
Aedion bared his teeth. “Enough.”
“Do you want to be king?”
Aedion swung his legs back onto the roof and stood. “All I want,” he snarled, “is for my people to be free and my queen restored to her throne.”
“They burned the antler throne, Aedion. There is no throne for her.”
“Then I’ll build one myself from the bones of our enemies.”
Ren winced as he stood as well, his injuries no doubt bothering him, and kept his distance. He might not be afraid, but he wasn’t stupid. “Answer the question. Do you want to be king?”
“If she asked me, I would not refuse her.” It was the truth.
“That’s not an answer.”
He knew why Ren had asked. Even Aedion was aware that he could be king—with his legion and ties to the Ashrvyers, he’d be an advantageous match. A warrior-king would make any foes think twice. Even before their kingdom shattered, he’d heard the rumors . . .
“My only wish,” Aedion said, growling in Ren’s face, “is to see her again. Just once, if that’s all the gods will allow me. If they grant me more time than that, then I’ll thank them every damn day of my life. But for now, all I’m working for is to see her, to know for certain that she’s real—that she survived. The rest is none of your concern.”
He felt Ren’s eyes on him as he vanished through the door to the apartment below.
The tavern was packed with soldiers on rotation home to Adarlan, the heat and reek of bodies making Chaol wish Aedion had done this alone. There was no hiding now that he and Aedion were drinking friends, as the general trumpeted for everyone to hear while the soldiers cheered.
“Better to hide it right under everyone’s noses than pretend, eh?” Aedion murmured to Chaol as yet another free drink was slapped down on their stained, sodden table, courtesy of a soldier who had bowed—actually bowed—to Aedion. “For the Wolf,” said the scarred and tan-skinned soldier, before returning to his packed table of comrades.
Aedion saluted the man with the mug, getting a cheer in response, and there was nothing faked about his feral grin. It hadn’t taken Aedion long to find the soldiers Murtaugh thought they should question—soldiers who had been stationed at one of the suspected spell origin points. While Aedion had been searching for the right group of men, Chaol had taken the time to go about his own duties—which now included considering a candidate to replace him—and packing for his return to Anielle. He’d come into Rifthold today with the excuse of finding a company to ship his first trunk of belongings, a task he’d actually accomplished. He didn’t want to think of what his mother would do when the trunk of books arrived at the Keep.
Chaol didn’t bother looking pleasant as he said, “Get on with it.”
Aedion stood, hoisting his mug. As though they’d all been watching him, the room quieted.
“Soldiers,” he said, loud and soft at once, grave and reverent. He turned in place, mug still upheld. “For your blood, for your scars, for every dent in your shield and nick in your sword, for every friend and foe dead before you . . .” The mug raised higher, and Aedion bowed his head, golden hair gleaming in the light. “For what you have given, and have yet to give, I salute you.”
For a heartbeat, as the room thundered with roars and cries, Chaol beheld what truly made Aedion a threat—what made him a god to these men, and why the king tolerated his insolence, ring or no ring.
Aedion was not a noble in a castle, sipping wine. He was metal and sweat, sitting in this filthy tavern, drinking their ale. Whether it was real or not, they believed he cared about them, listened to them. They preened when he remembered their names, their wives’ and sisters’ names, and slept assured that he saw them as his brothers. Aedion made sure that they believed he would fight and die for them. Thus they would fight and die for him.
And Chaol was afraid, but not for himself.
He was afraid of what would come when Aedion and Aelin were reunited. For he’d seen in her that same glittering ember that made people look and listen. Had seen her stalk into a council meeting with Councilor Mullison’s head and smile at the King of Adarlan, every man in that room enthralled and petrified by the dark whirlwind of her spirit. The two of them together, both of them lethal, working to build an army, to ignite their people . . . He was afraid of what they would do to his kingdom.
Because this was still his kingdom. He was working for Dorian, not Aelin—not Aedion. And he didn’t know where all of this put him.
“A contest!” Aedion called, standing on the bench. Chaol hadn’t moved during the long, long hour Aedion had been saluted and toasted by half the men in this room, each one getting a turn to stand and tell his story to the general.
When Aedion had enough of being serenaded by his own enemy, his Ashryver eyes brilliant with a rush that Chaol knew was precisely because he hated each and every one of them and they were eating out of his palm like rabbits, the general roared for the contest.
There were a few shouted suggestions for drinking games, but Aedion hoisted his mug again, and silence fell. “Farthest to travel drinks for free.”
There were cries of Banjali, Orynth, Melisande, Anielle, Endovier, but then . . . “Quiet, all of you!” An older, gray-haired soldier stood. “I got you all beat.” He lifted his glass to the general, and pulled a scroll from his vest. Release papers. “I just spent five years at Noll.”
Bulls-eye. Aedion thumped the empty seat at the table. “Then you drink with us, my friend.” The room cheered again.
Noll. It was a speck on the map at the farthest end of the Deserted Peninsula.
The man sat down, and before Aedion could raise a finger to the barkeep, a fresh pint was before the stranger. “Noll, eh?” Aedion said.
“Commander Jensen, of the twenty-fourth legion, sir.”
“How many men were under you, commander?”
“Two thousand—all of us sent back here last month.” Jensen took a long drink. “Five years, and we’re done just like that.” He snapped his scarred, thick fingers.
“I take it His Majesty didn’t give you any warning?”
“With all due respect, general . . . he didn’t tell us shit. I got the word that we were to move out because new forces were coming in, and we weren’t needed anymore.”
Chaol kept his mouth shut, listening, as Aedion had told him to do.
“What for? Is he sending you to join another legion?”
“No word yet. Didn’t even tell us who was taking our place.”
Aedion grinned. “At least you’re not in Noll anymore.”
Jensen looked into his drink, but not before Chaol caught the shadow in the man’s eyes.
“What was it like? Off the record, of course,” Aedion said.
Jensen’s smile had faded, and when he looked up, there was no light in his eyes. “The volcanoes are active, so it’s always dark, you see, because the ash covers everything. And because of the fumes, we always had headaches—sometimes men went mad from them. Sometimes we got nosebleeds from them, too. We got our food once a month, occasionally less than that depending on the season and when the ships could bring in supplies. The locals wouldn’t make the trek across the sands, no matter how much we threatened and bribed them.”
“Noll isn’t much—just the tower and town we built around it. But the volcanoes were sacred, and ten years ago, maybe a bit longer, apparently we . . . not my men, because I wasn’t there, but rumor says the king took a legion into those volcanoes and sacked the temple.” Jensen shook his head. “The locals spit on us, even the men who weren’t there, for that. The tower of Noll was built afterward, and then the locals cursed it, too. So it was always just us.”
“A tower?” Chaol said quietly, and Aedion frowned at him.