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Court of Ice and Ash: Chapter 13

Rogue Princess

    with people. Ettan and Night Folk. Men and Women. Some danced to lyres and drums. Others laughed, ate, and drank at Ari’s long table in the center. The eaves arched and were decked in glossy ribbons and banners bearing a raven emblem for the old Etta.

I bit the tip of my thumbnail, unable to eat anything, and stood in a circle around Ari’s seat. Mattis and Frey laughed with the new king of Night Folk, reveling in the success at the prisons all these days later.

Ploys and schemes were being made, and I could not focus on any of it.

Valen was recovering, but the healers kept him doused in nightelm, a potent herb to bring sleep.

I needed to speak with him, warn him that he was not entirely free here.

When Ari ordered that his guild, including the new prisoners who’d followed the Blood Wraith, be placed in the binding bands, Tor and Halvar looked at me as if I’d stabbed them between the shoulders. A shot from behind. A coward’s way.

“I suppose it is fair, dear Kvinna,” Halvar said. Like usual he had smiled, but there was menace in his voice. “We did take you when you did not wish to come with us.”

Tor was more dangerous in his silence. He’d make good on his threat should we hurt his prince and his guild.

They were bad enough, but when Valen realized it . . .

I closed my eyes and hugged my middle, looking for an opportunity to speak again with Ari.

“They accepted food,” Siv said at my side. Being scrubbed and dressed in a gown now no one would suspect she’d infiltrated the fury quarries only two days before. I’d borrowed a long dress, too, but kept my dagger on my belt.

“An improvement,” I said. For most of the day, the Guild of Shade had refused anything and walled themselves behind doors with Valen. “Did they threaten you?”

Siv grinned. “No. It was one of the new men. He thanked me, told me he had to return to speaking ill of us, then closed the door.”

“Any word on . . . Legion.” I could hardly think his true name in the presence of so many. Not with fury guarding my tongue.

Siv shook her head. “I didn’t see or hear anything. But if they are taking food, perhaps he is beginning to wake.”

My chest bloomed with the heat of anticipation. “Then I need to speak with Ari.”

Siv followed me, shoving through Ari’s circle. Frey was in the middle of telling a tale. He’d cleaned his russet scruff from his face, and his earthy eyes gleamed with laughter. Not the serious, hot-tempered man I’d grown accustomed to. But like most here, when trust grew, defenses became thin and true natures shone through.

Mattis eyed Siv. For once he did not look at her like she was river rot. More sadness, a longing in his gaze. If he would put aside his stubbornness, he would relieve the tension always clenched in his body.

“Ari,” I said.

The king didn’t hear me and laughed as Frey finished his tale.

“Ari.” I tapped his arm.

“Ah, Elise,” he said, grinning. “You look well and lovely tonight. What do you think of this hall? Perhaps not as grand as you’re accustomed to, but I think we are on our way to taking the great hall of Ravenspire. There we will have room for true revels and dancing and feasting.”

“Sounds delightful,” I said. “But I don’t want to speak of the size of halls. We need to discuss the treatment of the Blood Wraith.”

“Yes, the healers say he is on the mend. Thank the gods. We fought so hard to bring him here, it would be a shame if he were to die.”

“Ari you sound like a callous king, if you’d like to know.”

He chuckled and took a drink from his horn. “I’ve been practicing.” He glanced at me and let out a sigh. “Elise, don’t fret over this.”

“You don’t know him. He will take offense at being forced.”

“The bindings are for our safety against his fury.”

“Did you see him use fury?”

“I did not. Call it an educated guess.” Ari tapped the points of his own ears.

“Yes,” Mattis said. “How did he conceal he was Night Folk when he posed as negotiator? I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“It is a mystery,” Ari said. “But even without the defining Night Folk characteristics of the Wraith, you, Elise, have never given me a straight answer regarding his power. His guild is made up of rare fae. He is the leader. It does not take a brilliant mind to believe he must be the strongest among them.”

Ari faced me, leaning over the arm of his chair. His eyes were bright with intrigue. I liked the man, despite my better judgment. He had an insatiable curiosity, and I believed he did want the best for Etta. But he was wrong here. Valen would not take kindly to his plan.

“Elise, would you tell me more about your relationship with the Wraith now? I admit I was surprised to learn he had served as your negotiator under guise. Did you know his true identity the entire time; did you always plan to fight against your family? What separated you? The Shade you rescued from the prison is almost as vague as you. He talks but says nothing all at once.”

I scoffed. “That is Halvar for you.”

“See.” Ari pointed at me. “Right there. You call them by their given names like you are the closest of friends.”

“It is because they infiltrated her life. They were friends. To all of us,” Mattis said. “Isn’t that right, Elise?”

I gave him a look. He was still angry, and I hated that I could not tell him everything. “It’s true. Halvar had been on our lands for nearly a turn before Legion arrived.”

“But why?” Ari asked. “Why did they want to enter your life?”

“They needed my connections,” I said. “That is all. Something my family stole from them. It was nothing but a valuable medallion. I helped them retrieve it.”

It was not a lie. Not entirely.

Ari laughed and rested his head against the back of his chair. “Very well, Elise. I’ll believe they plotted to overtake your life for a family heirloom. They must’ve been terribly bored with a great deal of time on their hands for such an intricate plan.”

“I’m not lying. Plans became hastier after my sister’s coup, and I’m not saying I was happy to learn I’d been deceived, but I realized the error of my family. Realized the Blood Wraith was not a demon, and when it was finished, we parted ways.”

“Not a demon?” Mattis said with a huff. “He kills mercilessly.”

I smiled sadly. “No, Mattis. He kills when necessary.”

Ari tapped his lips, eyes narrowed. “You hide things for him. Interesting. I would love to know how such a man has achieved such loyalty from others. Even the prisoners from the quarries have chosen him over living freely with us.”

“The Guild of Shade rescued them. That sort of thing brings loyalty,” Siv said.

Ari bobbed his head, agreeing without saying it.

“You want his loyalty, Ari?” I asked softly.

“Naturally.”

“You won’t get it. Not if you force him to be here.”

Ari fiddled with a silver ring on his finger. His jaw twitched. “Then he should listen to our plans and join with us.”

“He won’t,” I said, frustration bubbling to the surface.

The hall wasn’t boisterous, almost hushed, as I held Ari’s gaze. His eyes went over my head. “If he will listen to anyone, I assume it will be you.”

“I would not assume that.”

“I suppose we’re about to find out.” Ari rose from his chair, lips parted as if about to speak.

I followed his gaze and my insides turned to knots. Valen parted the crowds without a word. All he did was walk forward. Shirtless, a scowl on his face.

I licked my lips. I didn’t blink.

He looked nowhere but me as he stormed forward.

“Blood Wraith,” Ari tried. “We’ve been waiting to speak—”

“Elise,” Valen snapped, his voice low and raw. “What have you done?”

He shoved through the circle. At once Ulf and Frey stepped in front of Ari, their swords half removed from sheaths. But the Wraith did not aim at the king. He turned on me, backed me against the wall.

His hand went to my shoulder, the tips of his fingers on my neck. It was meant to be threatening, judging by his countenance, but Valen’s touch had never been anything but gentle.

“Step back from her.” Mattis held a blade to Valen’s throat.

For the first time, the Night Prince seemed to realize we were not alone. He studied Mattis, head to foot, then swatted the sword away. “Leave us, carpenter.”

“I will not, Legion Grey,” he said snidely.

“Mattis,” I hissed. “Please. He won’t hurt me.” I turned my stare in a sort of challenge back to Valen. “Will you?”

He held up his wrists with the silver bands. “Why?”

Ari cleared his throat. “It was a decision made by me. Necessary, seeing as we don’t know you, but would be glad to speak with you.”

Valen didn’t look to Ari. “You would bind me? After everything.”

His name wouldn’t form on my tongue, not his true name at least. “Legion, let us speak elsewhere.”

“As I said, Elise was not the one who bound you, Wraith,” Ari said. “But sit, eat. We have a proposition for you.”

Valen’s thumb traced my jaw. His body trembled in anger. It was a clash of opposites, as though he wanted to touch me, but hated that he did.

“I will not be enslaved again,” he said, not to Ari. He spoke to me. “There is nothing more to say.”

“Enslaved?” Mattis made a noise of disgust. “You lived the life of a wealthy merchant in Mellanstrad. Had position. You know nothing of these people here. Know nothing of what suffering is like in Timoran.”

“Mattis,” I warned.

“Bold claim, carpenter,” a rough voice joined the dispute. All eyes turned to the back of the hall. Tor, Halvar, and the three others joined the crowd. As expected, Tor had a blade in hand, and Halvar reached for a horn of ale. Tor stepped forward, his gaze on Mattis. “You speak in such a way when you lived the life of a tradesman with the protection and favor of a Kvinna. Perhaps it is you who does not understand suffering.”

“Leave it be, Tor,” Valen said. “We have nothing more to say to these people.”

He turned to leave, a final glare at me, but stopped when Ari stepped out, blocking his retreat.

“Move.”

Ari grinned wickedly. “I don’t think I will.”

My tongue stuck to the top of my mouth. Siv was the only one who shared my worry, but she was also the only one apart from his guild who knew whom they disrespected. I thought I might retch if the tension grew any thicker.

Valen clenched his fists and butted his chest against Ari. “Get out of my way. I am not afraid of bloodshed.”

“Duly noted,” Ari said. “But I will not move. Not until you hear me. We are the ones who saved you, after all.”

“You are the fools who got in our way. You took my Shade, started a battle with Ravenspire with what? A pathetic army of refugees and the exiled. Get out of my way.”

“You have no power here, Wraith. You are bound, weaponless, and weak from your injury. What harm will it be to hear us?”

“I don’t like the way you speak. Is that enough?”

Ari laughed dryly. “I could command it. I’d rather not. I’d rather us be allies.”

“Command?” Valen laughed and looked to his guild. “He could command me. And tell me, fae, who are you to command me?”

“Your king.”

I closed my eyes against the ripple of murmurs in the room. Frey and Ulf looked at Valen like he was an insect, one who’d be squashed beneath Ari’s boots.

Fools. Gods-awful fools.

Valen’s expression changed. The hint of the creature he was once cursed with faded, and his eyes brightened. In a taunting way. “My king?” He beamed and looked back to the Guild of Shade again. “Do you hear this? A king has been restored. What bloodline are you from?”

“The land chose him,” Frey said. “He brought back life that was dead here.”

“Ah, I see. Yes, Etta chooses who will rule, but what life did you restore?”

“Look around Wraith,” Ulf said. “There is power returning here.”

Valen studied Ulf. “I know you. You were the fool at the caravan.”

“You should not have let them go.”

“This is your fault,” Valen said, jutting a finger toward Ulf. He looked ready to throttle the man.

“Legion, please,” I said under my breath.

He glanced at me. “You support this king? You support his claim?”

“Ari is a good leader. He has protected these people and inspired them. It wouldn’t hurt you to listen to his plans. You could have a role here.”

He chased the space between us again. “That is not what I asked you. Do you support this king?”

I swallowed with effort, my voice hardly more than a whisper. “I see no one else willing to take his place. No one else to support.”

Ari snorted. “Thank you, Elise. Your enthusiastic devotion is overwhelming.”

Valen’s eyes drank me in. He didn’t blink until Ari returned to his chair and cleared his throat.

“Whether you believe I have been chosen as king or not, Wraith, I don’t care. The truth is we have begun an uprising. An infantile call to war, true, but a call, nonetheless. As most wars, there are sides to choose. In this, there are two. Either you stand with your people—the Night Folk—or you turn a blind eye to what they endure at the hands of Timorans.

“In that case, you are our enemy. So, you will remain bound until your loyalties are made known.” Ari rolled the ring around his finger again. His demeanor was calm, unruffled, but there was a threat in his tone. “I see the murder in your eyes, but I assure you, if you kill me, you’ll never remove those fetters. I alone have the key to them. It is hidden well.”

Valen’s face paled slightly. He reached for his waist, as if searching for his axes, but came up empty. “You force our hands. How very Timoran of you.”

Ari clicked his tongue. “There is too much at stake to play friendly games.”

“What do you want with me, king?”

“I want your fealty, your sword, your reputation. I know you can plan and plot, clearly if you fooled all of Mellanstrad and a royal house. You broke into the quarries with you and one man. Be that man for me. You are one of the few who brings a degree of fear to the false royals. Help us, fight for us, and you shall be free among us.”

Valen folded his arms across his chest. “And if I refuse?”

“You stay fettered. Our prisoner.”

“I think I’d prefer to kill you. I’d do it while you slept. No pain. Quick and swift.”

“I don’t seem to be getting through to you.” Ari paused, then grinned. “Here is what will happen, Blood Wraith. You will be under guard, as will your guild. If you resist us, if you harm us, if there is even a whisper of you plotting to undo what we have started here, one person will pay.”

My heart stilled when Ari looked to me.

It didn’t go unnoticed from Valen. “Speak plainly, king.”

Ari laced his fingers over his body. “Your anger gives away the hurt you feel for Elise’s role in your capture. That hurt proves you care for her deeper than you’d like to let on.”

“You’d bring harm to a woman to get what you want.” Valen lifted a brow in disbelief. “What a bold man you are.”

“Kings are often forced to make difficult choices.”

“Ari?” My face pebbled with sick heat. This couldn’t be happening.

“Elise Lysander will be the cost, Wraith.”

“I’ll kill you first,” Valen grumbled.

“And you’ve proven my point. I’ve found a soft spot in your armor. She will pay the price by being offered as a Timoran royal and enemy to our court and our people—”

I stepped to the front of the hall. “I have proven my loyalty more than once.”

Ari held up a hand. Words were lost to me anyway.

“Or, like the Queen Lilianna of old, Elise will serve as the bridge between peoples. I will take her as my consort and queen.”

Valen blanched at the mention of his mother, then reddened when Ari suggested he’d make me his Queen Consort.

“You’re rather sly,” Halvar called out. “Usually I respect that, but I like my little Kvinna and I don’t like how you’re speaking of her.”

“It is not my concern if you like it or not,” Ari said. “This is your choice, Blood Wraith. Comply. Hear us, or Elise is the cost.”

Valen spared me a look. I lifted a chin and met his gaze. “I do not stand for this. I refuse to be a pawn. Speak your desires and think nothing of me.”

“That is impossible,” he whispered, low so only those closest could hear. Valen faced Ari. “I do not serve you. I will not accept you as king until you have proven you are worthy of Etta. But I will not slaughter you either. Yet.”

“Will you hear us? Join us? I will remove the bindings.”

“Remove them and the temptation to end you will take hold.”

Ari sighed. “And you will face the consequences.”

“I suggest you keep me bound, then. I will not join you, but neither will I resist you. You’re right, you’ve found a soft spot in my armor. You have my guild bound like dogs. And you threaten Elise. A woman who saved my life, who I am indebted to. Any action I take in your name will not be because I join you, not because I serve you. But because you forced compliance. You have set the stage for the sort of ruler you will be, King.”

Valen tipped his chin in a vindictive bow and stormed from the hall. The Guild of Shade remained, glaring at those nearest them, then followed.


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