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Court of Ice and Ash: Chapter 22

Night Prince

    boards of the narrow longship. The black laths disappeared in the shadows of the river. Each row was made with care not to stir too many waves, or too much noise.

Ari surprised me. I didn’t know how he came by the vessel, but it gave us the way into Mellanstrad. We slowly rowed our way through the fjord and into the river that ran through lower Mellanstrad.

It was not a warship, not even a vessel worthy of nobility. A dozen oars, a tattered sail, a raven head instead of jörmungandr as the figurehead. Still, it saved time and gave us a means to escape without running on foot if Castle Ravenspire had a foothold in Mellanstrad. Scouts reported what few ravens remained spent their time at alehouses or sleeping in abandoned homes.

I didn’t trust it and would be on my guard.

Tor added a knife to his belt. He, Halvar, and Frey disembarked first, checking the surrounding trees. At their clear, Ari directed the rest of us to leave the boat. Junius and Casper were to remain with the longship since Casper was a water fae and Junius was a skilled blade.

Pointless for Casper, since Ari would not remove his bindings. I pointed out the hypocrisy and the fool simply laughed.

Elise left the ship with Mattis and Siv. She had said nothing to me on the journey upriver. What was there to say? I had too many words and none ever shaped into anything worthwhile. I hated that she’d come. Hated that she’d face her home again. She’d see it scorched and ruined, like the night that bastard had tried to touch her.

I should’ve killed him

My fists clenched, and I hadn’t noticed until Elise shot a bemused look at my hands, then met my gaze as if silently beseeching me to share what bothered me. At my silence, she chose to stand by Ari instead.

“We’ll go to the game halls first,” Stieg said at my back. “Will he send Elise to her lands?”

“I don’t know, but if he does it will put her at too great a risk.”

As if on cue, Ari pushed his way between us. “Herr Grey,” he said with a touch of mirth. “We follow you into the slums of Mellanstrad. I pray to the gods you still have friends.”

The new king seemed to enjoy my discontent. He refused to return my axes, an oversight on his part. Should we be attacked, I would be forced to sit idly by and watch.

Halvar nudged my shoulder, handing me a woven satchel. My friend winked. One glance inside drew a grin to my face. A red mask, black cowl, and a sheathed dagger, stolen from Ari’s personal supply.

I’d be Legion Grey tonight, unless I needed to be someone else. Someone of the deadlier sort.

I shouldered the pack with the Blood Wraith’s supplies and took the lead through the trees.

Lower Mellanstrad was changed. Tenements less lively. Most rooms had gone empty after Ravenspire tore through the streets. Where racks and lines of linens and trousers hung, now empty lines remained. A hot tang of blood hung in the air. Each step in the damp dirt roads released a bit more. No doubt, I was the only one who could taste it.

A familiar clawing to breathe it in, to embrace violence gnawed inside my chest.

I paused in front of a whitewashed old house, studying the scorched doorframe. The broken windows.

“What?” Ari shoved through the small crowd from Ruskig. “What is it?”

“This is where Legion traded,” Halvar explained.

I turned away and aimed for the game hall. Whatever shim or notes of wealth I’d left behind in the small office belonged to Ravenpsire and Calder by now. It was a strange thought, to miss such a time. Even cursed, there had been moments as Legion Grey where I found a bit of peace, belonging, and usefulness.

Now I knew my name, yet had little purpose but to kill and hate.

As we walked, a few people greeted us, some pleaded for shim or bread. A few women and men from Ari’s court—they’d become self-proclaimed courtiers—offered refuge in Ruskig. Most beggars looked at us like we’d gone mad, but some stepped in line.

I hid my awe and pleasure when Elise was among the first to offer ale and bread to the weary. A few gasped, bowed their heads. Some sent prayers for their Kvinna’s return. Most were too lost in the haze of suffering to even notice.

The game hall was positioned near the docks. Before Ravenspire came against Mellanstrad, the house leaned to one side. Now there were missing slats on the roof, and the door didn’t hang quite right on the hinges. A pungent breeze of brine, salt, and sweat always hovered near the peaks. It was no different now.

“It appears to be full,” Ari said.

True enough, the windows of the hall glowed in candlelight and a few barking laughs broke the night every few breaths. Outside men staggered, drunk and satisfied. Some had women and men on their arms.

Women were never allowed before. Perhaps they’d stopped caring after their lives had been overturned.

Ari clapped me on the shoulder. “Well, let us get on with it then.”

Ari, Frey, and the courtiers began to make their way down the muddy slope toward the house.

“They’ll be desperate,” Tor said. “Shouldn’t be difficult to convince them.”

If more folk did not join Ari’s cause, I had few doubts he’d take Elise as his queen consort simply for her name. He was not wrong in believing the people of Mellanstrad favored the second Kvinna.

Her temperament and fairness were the qualities I’d exploited when I needed a royal to break my curse. Doubtless if she aligned with the new king of Night Folk, others would then follow.

The thought turned my stomach.

“You do not need to do this.” Elise came up behind me, tossed back her hood, frowning.

I wanted to reach out to her, to feel the softness of her skin. I wanted to run.

“I am bound to do as the king says.”

She scoffed. “You care little what Ari says. Go back. This is not your fight.”

“Elise . . .” My voice caught in my throat. She stared mutely as I tried to say something—anything—but I had nothing.

“I wish you would leave instead of torturing me with your indifference. Let me forget and just . . .” She shook her head and started to walk away.

I grabbed her hand and pulled her back. My gaze fell to the two missing fingertips. So many things had brought us together, so many were trying to drive us apart.

“What do you want?” she whispered. “Resist long enough and Ari will release you, for you will be of no use to him. And do not use his pathetic threats about taking vows with me as an excuse. I know how to stand on my own, and frankly, I don’t think you care much anyway.”

I cared. I cared too bleeding much.

“You are naïve,” I said instead of all the kind, gentle words I could’ve chosen. I leaned my face alongside hers. “Ari is the recognized king, and this is war. If an alliance with you is what strengthens his forces, you will be given no choice.”

“I will always give myself a choice.”

I shook my head. “And that is why you’re naïve. He befriends you now, but even you must admit if an alliance would benefit this land, then you would agree.”

She lifted her chin, voice low. “I grow so weary of pretentious kings thinking they have a say in my life. Consider me no longer your burden to bear. My fate is mine.”

Elise stomped down the hill without another word.

I’d wounded her. Her eyes gave away the truth. First, her uncle had demanded she take vows with fools of Timoran. Ari threatened her freedom and her heart. And me. I was the worst of them all. I ran from her when she begged me to stay. Invaded her peace. Stole her position. Thrust her into this fight, remained distant, drew her back in, then pushed her away again as if her sacrifice didn’t matter.

I adjusted the pack on my shoulder. She wanted me to leave, but no mistake that would be wholly impossible.

At the game hall, Halvar, Tor, and I went in first. The room reeked of smoke and unwashed skin, but my body relaxed. Almost like we’d come home.

“By the bleeding hells! It’s Legion Grey.”

Korman, a night watchman who had a proclivity to overindulge on drink, raised a horn. He’d always been a ratty man, but his beard was missing patches of hair, two front teeth were gone, and a new scar carved his lip.

I grinned. “It has been a long time, my friend. You’re much uglier now.”

“And you three have damn fae ears.”

“We do.”

“Sit. You’ve got a story to tell, and I’ve got all the bleeding time in the world.” Korman bellowed a laugh and slammed his horn on the table. He pulled out a chair next to him, grinning, and gestured for me to sit beside him. “Get this sod a drink.”

The aleman nodded and busied behind the counter. Korman sniffed and leaned over onto his elbows. “Legion Grey. I thought the Norns plucked your string of life into oblivion long ago. First, I’d like to know how you hid you were Night Folk. There’s a few underground fae who’d love to know.”

I grinned and leaned back in the chair. “Complicated fury spells. The kind that requires blood sacrifices and eating your firstborn. Not worth it.”

Korman snorted another laugh, rubbing his chin. “I’ll pretend I believe that. Where the hells have you been? I’ve not heard talk of you since the siege at Ravenspire.”

“I’ve been surviving the same as everyone. Tell me, what is Mellanstrad like now?”

Korman winced through a long gulp of ale. “Like the second hell. Cold, dreary, filled with too many men who love knives. They watch us like we’re hiding bleeding royals here. They kill us through tax, and fines. The only place that stays alive is this place. And only because the ravens like Hugo’s ale.”

“They think you hide the Kvinna?”

Korman snorted. “The bleeding queen thinks her sister will be the undoing of her stolen throne. Like she’s a deity with the power to change fate. Tell me, Herr Grey, where is the little Kvinna. I heard she got her throat slit by the Wraith.”

I fought to keep my expression neutral. Korman glared at his drinking horn for half a breath, then went on. “We’ve taken in the folk from the Lysander estates. What’s left of them, at least. I say she’s dead or she ran. Timoran royals never did have much of a backbone.”

“You’d think differently if you knew Kvinna Elise.”

Korman shrugged. “I suppose you’d know best. Do you know where she went? You were with her at the castle.”

“I was, but we were separated and—”

“I’m right here, Korman.”

I let out an annoyed groan as Elise shoved her way through the growing crowd. With a pointed look, I begged her to leave.

Korman stared, aghast. Murmurs rippled through the hall as she removed a hood from her pale hair and sat beside me at the table. Elise’s shoulders didn’t slouch, she didn’t falter. No, she took a bleeding drink of the horn Hugo had brought for me.

Kvinna,” Korman said in a breathless whisper. “I . . . I heard the Blood Wraith took you for his own and devoured you.”

She grinned. “Although I would’ve found that utterly enjoyable, I’m afraid he let me go.”

Korman looked at her as if she’d slipped into a bit of madness. My face heated.

“What are you doing?” I asked through my teeth. “You were to stay back.”

“I am not going to stand there and let the folk of my township believe I abandoned them.” Elise looked back to the night watchman. “What have Runa and Calder been doing here? Why?”

Korman met my eyes. “I don’t know why they do the things they do. They arrest folk. Execute them, all because they say they are aiding you. Why do they fear you?”

“Because Elise is a Timoran royal who stands with the new king of the Night Folk.”

I rolled my eyes, again, when Ari came forward, haughty and grinning like this was a game. Did no one know how to stick to a plan?

“Korman,” I said. “This is Ari Sekundӓr. The accepted king of Ettans and Night Folk in Ruskig.”

Korman’s eyes widened. “All gods. You do have a story to tell.”

Ari took the seat on the other side of Elise. He beamed at the table. “It was rather surprising; however, we know Etta choses her kings and queens.”

“King Ari brought back the moonvane. Saw it with my own eyes,” said Frey. “He put his hand on a shrub and the blossoms bloomed.”

I flicked my eyes to Elise. She met my stare for a moment. I could practically hear her telling me Etta had chosen her king, but he was ignoring the call.

A few men gathered around Korman and listened to Ari speak of their refuge in Ruskig. He spoke of the attack on the fury quarries, of the alliance with Kvinna Elise—the Timoran who had always been fair and kind to Ettan folk.

“We came here for you,” Ari said, his voice steady and powerful. “We will not leave you without support a moment longer. Kvinna Elise insisted you were her people and I agree. We have your friends with us. Elise and Legion Grey. We have fury on our side. What we need are able-bodied folk willing to fight for this land. The fates tell us the time is now.”

A hush settled over the game hall. Korman dragged his fingers through his greasy hair. Women prayed. Some people nodded, grinning a little viciously. Others seemed ready to bolt out the door.

Halvar set down his horn, and clapped Korman on the shoulder. “Come on, now. What is this silence? You are the folk from the pit of this land. Violent, capable, and without conscience.”

“Stop,” said a dock man named Harald. “Your flattery will get you nowhere.”

Halvar chuckled. “This is our land. It was robbed from us through bone, and blood, and torture. Stand with us. Fight for your folk. There is life still in this soil and we cannot do it if our people are not united.”

Korman let out a long sigh. “You really infiltrated the fury quarries?”

“We did,” said Ari.

The night watchman glanced at Elise. “Your people will flay you. They’ll carve you to pieces. How do we know you truly stand with us?”

“She does,” I said. “No one here has seen the sacrifices Kvinna Elise has made for people who are not her own as much as me.”

“She treated us kindly.” A woman’s small voice echoed over the heads.

Elise stood, scanning the back, until she grinned. “Arabella, you’re here.”

I rose from my seat as Elise weaved through the crowd to an Ettan woman with a raven tattoo on her throat. A mark of a serf.

With the smallest hesitation the serf embraced Elise and laughed. “I knew if they were so obsessed with you, then you were still alive.”

“How are you? Where is Ellis?”

“He works for Hugo in his hog pen. He’ll be in shortly. It is good to see you, Kvinna.” Arabella faced the room again. “I served at the Lysander estates, like many of you. Elise never mistreated the serfs. She snuck us food, defended us against her father’s wrath. Even against the old king, she would hide us if he arrived looking for serfs to trade.”

Elise wiped her eyes and squeezed Arabella’s hand. She looked at Korman. “I was born Timoran, but I have no land. I am not Ettan and I am a traitor to my own folk. I choose to stand with those in Ruskig.”

The night watchman said nothing. A few folk whispered. I tensed, ready to defend Elise should they turn on her. Foolish of Ari, of Elise, for jumping in. Anyone could use her as a ransom to find favor.

My chest burned from holding my breath by the time Korman chortled into his horn. “Ah, don’t look so worried Kvinna. We’d take you without all the speeches. Consider yourself Ettan with a dash of raider in you.”

The game hall laughed together. I almost relaxed. Almost grinned.

Until the door to the hall slammed open and Stieg shoved inside, breathless and flushed. “It’s Castle Ravenspire! They’re here!”

“What!” I was on my feet in half a breath.

People scattered. Korman flung open a door in the floor and shouted for women and young ones to get below.

“How’d they know?” He grumbled, then glanced at the counter. “Ah, cursed gods, Hugo!”

For the first time, I realized the aleman was nowhere to be found. My blood pounded in my head. “He sold you out?”

“Got scared. Probably when he saw the likes of her,” Korman said with a gesture to Elise. “They keep a bleeding camp of ravens at the Lysander estate. Top guards, Legion. Top guards. Even spotted one of the royal hansoms a time or two. They want her. And badly.”

“Elise,” Ari said. “We need to go.”

“There is no time,” I snapped and dug into the satchel. “Everyone who can, run for the southern docks. There is a boat on the river.”

Stieg glanced out the window. “Better hurry. A bleeding royal coach is heading this way.”

Elise looked at me, eyes wide with horror. She removed a dagger from a sheath on her leg. Mattis and Siv came from the back of the game hall and stood at her shoulders. I held her gaze when I slipped the cowl over my head and masked my face in the red cloth.

“Bleeding hells,” Korman said. “You’re the Blood—” The night watchman pinched his lips, held up his hands, and shook his head. “No. Nope, I don’t even want to know.”

“Now would be a good time to give me my axes,” I said to Ari.

“No such luck,” Ari said, cautiously looking out the window. “They remain in Ruskig.”

“Fool.” I removed the dagger from the satchel. Ari saw it but ignored it as I turned to my Shade. “Stieg, take the people to the river.”

He didn’t hesitate and followed a group of women through the trap door. Korman sniffed and wiped a hand under his nose. He rocked on his heels at my side.

“You should go,” I said.

“Rather not.”

“They could kill you.”

“Then make sure I have my sword in my hand when I die, Wraith.” He winked and unsheathed a battered short blade from his belt. “I’d like to sup with the gods.”

“Frey,” Ari said, one hand on his blade. “Tell me what’s happening.”

Frey went to the window, he looked side to side. “They’ve at least two dozen ravens. There’s a coach, My King. A fine one. Like the Shade said, it’s either a royal or high noble. Oh, there is someone stepping out. Hells, it’s the bleeding captain of the royal guard.”

Elise paled. She looked to me. Without realizing, I’d worked my way over to her side. I took her hand, lacing our fingers, and whispered close to her ear. “Is it him?”

If Jarl Magnus, the bastard who’d nearly killed Elise, was outside I’d slit him navel to nose without a second thought.

“I don’t know.” She shuddered and tightened her grip on my hand.

A voice from outside silenced the game hall. “We come in a truce. A moment of peace.”

“It’s Jarl,” Elise said.

Fury I couldn’t use boiled in my veins.

Jarl called out again. “We’ve come for a conference with Kvinna Elise Lysander. Tell her, if she is in there, that her sister, the queen of Timoran, wishes to speak with her.”


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