Ren shook his head and said, “We’re always waiting these days. Waiting for Aelin to send some sign, waiting for nothing. I bet my grandfather will have nothing, too. I’m surprised we’re not all dead by now—that those men didn’t track me down.” He stared into the fire, the light making his scar look even deeper. “I have someone who . . .” Ren trailed off, glancing at Chaol. “They could find out more about the king.”
“I don’t trust your sources one bit—especially not after those men found you,” Chaol said. It had been one of Ren’s informants—caught and tortured—who had given his location away. And even though the information had been yielded under duress, it still didn’t sit well with Aedion. He said as much, and Ren tensed, opening his mouth to snap something undoubtedly stupid and brash, but a three-note whistle interrupted.
The captain whistled back, and Ren was at the door, opening it to find his grandfather there. Even with his back to them, Aedion could see the relief flooding Ren’s body as they clasped forearms, weeks of waiting without word finally over. Murtaugh wasn’t young by any means—and as he threw back his hood, his face was pale and grim.
“There’s brandy on the buffet table,” Chaol said, and Aedion, yet again, had to admire the captain’s keen eyes—even if he would never tell him. The old man nodded his thanks, and didn’t bother to remove his cloak as he knocked back a glass of it. “Grandfather.” Ren lingered by the door.
Murtaugh turned to Aedion. “Answer me truthfully, boy: do you know who General Narrok is?”
Aedion rose to his feet in a smooth movement. Ren took a few steps toward them, but Murtaugh held his ground as Aedion stalked to the buffet table and slowly, with deliberate care, poured himself a glass of brandy. “Call me boy again,” Aedion said with lethal calm, holding the old man’s stare, “and you’ll find yourself back squatting in shanties and sewers.”
The old man threw up his hands. “When you’re my age, Aedion—”
“Don’t waste your breath,” Aedion said, returning to his chair. “Narrok’s been in the south—last I heard, he was bringing the armada to the Dead Islands.” Pirate territory. “But that was months ago. We’re kept on a need-to-know basis. I learned about the Dead Islands because some of the Pirate Lord’s ships sailed north looking for trouble, and they informed us that they’d come to avoid Narrok’s fleet.”
The pirates had scattered, actually. The Pirate Lord Rolfe had taken half of them south; some had gone east; and some had made the fatal mistake of sailing to Terrasen’s north coast.
Murtaugh sagged against the buffet table. “Captain?”
“I’m afraid I know even less than Aedion,” Chaol said.
Murtaugh rubbed his eyes, and Ren pulled out a chair at the table for his grandfather. The old man slid into it with a small groan. It was a miracle the bag of bones was still breathing. Aedion shoved down a flicker of regret. He’d been raised better than that—he knew better than to act like an arrogant, hotheaded prick. Rhoe would have been ashamed of him for speaking to an elder in that manner. But Rhoe was dead—all the warriors he’d loved and worshipped were ten years dead, and the world was worse for it. Aedion was worse for it.
Murtaugh sighed. “I fled here as quickly as I could. I have not rested for more than a few hours this past week. Narrok’s fleet is gone. Captain Rolfe is again Pirate Lord of Skull’s Bay, though not more than that. His men do not venture into the eastern Dead Islands.”
Despite the hint of shame, Aedion ground his teeth when Murtaugh didn’t immediately get to the point. “Why?” he demanded.
The lines of Murtaugh’s face deepened in the light of the fire. “Because the men who go into the eastern islands do not come back. And on windy nights, even Rolfe swears he can hear . . . roaring, roaring from the islands; human, but not quite.
“The crew that hid in the islands during Narrok’s occupation claim it’s quieted down, as if he took the source of the sound with him. And Rolfe . . .” Murtaugh rubbed the bridge of his nose. “He told me that on the night they sailed back into the islands, they saw something standing on an outcropping of rocks, just on the border of the eastern islands. Looked like a pale man, but . . . not. Rolfe might be in love with himself, but he’s not a liar. He said whatever—whoever—it was felt wrong. Like there was a hole of silence around it, at odds with the roaring they usually hear. And that it just watched them sail past. The next day, when they returned to the same spot, it was gone.”
“There have always been legends of strange creatures in the seas,” the captain said.
“Rolfe and his men swore that this was nothing from legend. It was made, they said.”
“How did they know?” Aedion asked, eyeing the captain, whose face was still bone-white.
“It bore a black collar—like a pet. It took a step toward them, as if to go into the sea and hunt them down, but it was yanked back by some invisible hand—some hidden leash.”
Ren raised his scarred brow. “The Pirate Lord thinks there are monsters in the Dead Islands?”
“He thinks, and I also believe, that they were being made there. And Narrok took some of them with him.”
It was Chaol who asked, “Where did Narrok go?”
“To Wendlyn,” Murtaugh said. Aedion’s heart, damn him, stopped. “Narrok took the fleet to Wendlyn—to launch a surprise attack.”
“That’s impossible,” the captain said, shooting to his feet. “Why? Why now?”
“Because someone,” the old man said, sharper than Aedion had ever heard him, “convinced the king to send his Champion there to kill the royal family. What better time to try out these alleged monsters than when the country is in chaos?”
Chaol gripped the back of a chair. “She’s not actually going to kill them—she would never. It—it was all a ruse,” he said. Aedion supposed that was all he would tell the Allsbrook men, and all they really needed to know right now. He ignored the wary glance Ren tossed him, no doubt to see how he would react to news of his Ashryver kin having targets on their backs. But they’d been dead to him for ten years already, from the moment they refused to send aid to Terrasen. Gods help them if he ever set foot in their kingdom. He wondered what Aelin thought of them—if she thought Wendlyn might be convinced of an alliance now, especially with Adarlan launching a larger-scale assault on their borders. Perhaps she would be content to let them all burn, as the people of Terrasen had burned. He wouldn’t mind either way.
“It doesn’t matter if they are assassinated or not,” Murtaugh said. “When these things arrive, I think the world will soon learn what our queen is up against.”
“Can we send a warning?” Ren demanded. “Can Rolfe get word to Wendlyn?”
“Rolfe will not get involved. I offered him promises of gold, of land when our queen returns . . . nothing can sway him. He has his territory back, and he will not risk his men again.”
“Then there has to be some blockade runner, some message we can smuggle,” Ren went on. Aedion debated informing Ren that Wendlyn hadn’t bothered to help Terrasen, but decided he didn’t particularly feel like getting into an ethical debate.
“I have sent a few that way,” Murtaugh said, “but I do not have much faith in them. And by the time they arrive, it may be too late.”
“So what do we do?” Ren pushed.
Murtaugh sipped his brandy. “We keep looking for ways to help here. Because I do not believe for one moment that His Majesty’s newest surprises were located only in the Dead Islands.”
That was an interesting point. Aedion took a sip from the brandy, but set it down. Alcohol wouldn’t help him sort through the jumble of forming plans. So Aedion half listened to the others as he slipped into the steady rhythm, the beat to which he calculated all his battles and campaigns.
Chaol watched Aedion pace in the apartment, Murtagh and Ren having left to see to their own agendas. Aedion said, “You want to tell me why you look like you’re going to vomit?”
“You know everything I know, so it’s easy to guess why,” Chaol said from his armchair, his jaw clenched. His fight with Dorian had left him in no hurry to get back to the castle, even if he needed the prince to test out his theories on that spell. Dorian had been right about Celaena—about Chaol resenting her darkness and abilities and true identity, but . . . it hadn’t changed how he felt.
“I still don’t quite grasp your role in things, Captain,” Aedion said. “You’re not fighting for Aelin or for Terrasen; for what, then? The greater good? Your prince? Whose side does that put you on? Are you a traitor—a rebel?”
“No.” Chaol’s blood chilled at the thought. “I’m on neither side. I only wish to help my friend before I leave for Anielle.”
Aedion’s lip pulled back in a snarl. “Perhaps that’s your problem. Perhaps not picking a side is what costs you. Perhaps you need to tell your father you’re breaking your promise.”
“I will not turn my back on my kingdom or my prince,” Chaol snapped. “I will not fight in your army and slaughter my people. And I will not break my vow to my father.” His honor might very well be all he would have left at the end of this.
“What if your prince sides with us?”
“Then I will fight alongside him, however I am able, even if it’s from Anielle.”
“So you will fight alongside him, but not for what is right. Have you no free will, no wants of your own?”
“My wants are none of your concern.” And those wants . . . “Regardless of what Dorian decides, he would never sanction the killing of innocents.”
A sneer. “No taste for blood?”
Chaol wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of rising to meet his temper. Instead he went for the throat and said, “I think your queen would condemn you if you spilled one drop of innocent blood. She would spit in your face. There are good people in this kingdom, and they deserve to be considered in any course of action your side takes.”
Aedion’s eyes flicked to the scar on Chaol’s cheek. “Just like how she condemned you for the death of her friend?” Aedion gave him a slow, vicious smile, and then, almost too fast to register, the general was in his face, arms braced on the wings of the chair.
Chaol wondered if Aedion would strike him, or kill him, as the general’s features turned more lupine than he’d ever seen them, nose crinkled, teeth exposed. Aedion said, “When your men have died around you, when you have seen your women unforgivably hurt, when you have watched droves of orphaned children starve to death in the streets of your city, then you can talk to me about sparing innocent lives. Until then, the fact remains, Captain, that you have not picked a side because you are still a boy, and you are still afraid. Not of losing innocent lives, but of losing whatever dream it is you’re clinging to. Your prince has moved on, my queen has moved on. But you have not. And it will cost you in the end.”
Chaol had nothing to say after that and quickly left the apartment. He hardly slept that night, hardly did anything but stare at his sword, discarded on his desk. When the sun rose, he went to the king and told him of his plans to return to Anielle.
The next two weeks fell into a pattern—enough that Celaena started to find comfort in it. There were no unexpected stumbles or turns or pitfalls, no deaths or betrayals or nightmares made flesh. In the mornings and evenings, she played scullery maid. Late morning until dinner she spent with Rowan, slowly, painfully exploring the well of magic inside her—a well that, to her horror, had no bottom in sight.