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Crown of Blood and Ruin: Chapter 23

Rogue Princess

I was with them. Of course I was with them. Junius was a trusted friend. She trusted the darkness and ill-temper of the Nightrender, and so would I.

Even if the next day the final plans seemed nearer to a whim, a guess, and pure lunacy than actual plans. I paced in great strides across the floor of the longhouse, thumbnail between my teeth, half-listening to Tor and Niklas argue the details. Halvar was already busy working a battle, but the Alvers’ plan—no—their scheme, ploy, anything but an actual plan would be acted out first.

In Valen’s chair at the head of the table, the Nightrender slouched, watching me with an amused expression. “What is it that upsets you most, Queen? That you did not think of this first, or that you do not control the outcome?”

I ignored him and glanced at his guild who hovered close. There were so few, I wondered how they could really be called a guild. Then again, the Guild of Shade once was a trio.

How were the Kryv all brought together? They seemed so different, so odd to be a family of thieves.

By the inglenook, a bulky Kryv who reminded me a great deal of Tor with the constant frown on his face, stood beside Tova, eating flatbread and muttering something to the woman.

Another pair kept close to the Nightrender, a red-haired man and a man with a scar carving through his brow. The way they whispered together, the way they touched, I wondered if they might be lovers. I didn’t ask, didn’t care.

In a corner, the young boy, Ash is what the Kryv called him, twirled a knife in his hand, describing it in detail to Ellis. Hanna giggled mutely with Laila over moonvane blossoms. Giggled. Like children ought to, but the girl was in a bleeding guild. A thief in the making.

I leaned over the table, voice low for only the Nightrender to hear. “Children? You plan to send children in first? How in the hells will that help at all?”

He cast a smug glance at the young ones. “Never underestimate a child who is desperate to survive.”

“They are children.”

“And capable. Have you even asked what sort of mesmer Ash and Hanna have? Why they might be useful to protect the young boy as he goes in?”

I pinched my lips into a line.

“Ash, he can break a man from the inside out,” he said with a touch of venom. “Crush his bones, fill his lungs with blood. Shatter his skull. Hanna, now she is unique. She can block magic. Stop it dead in its tracks. We’ve tested it on your fury here. No mistake, if your king were here—he would not be able to break the earth with Hanna nearby. I’ve only met one other Alver in my lifetime with the same Talent.”

The Nightrender leaned back in the chair again and laced his fingers over his stomach. “Now, a child who can break bodies, and another who could block any curses, spells, any dark fury or mesmer, don’t you think those inconspicuous children might be useful with little Ellis there?”

It was both terrifying and captivating to learn of the Alvers’ abilities. “Why Ellis, though?”

“The boy insisted the king would recognize him. He will need to know we are coming and be in position for the rest of the plan.”

“They are children,” I repeated.

The Nightrender stood abruptly. “And they have lived a life that demanded they learn to survive. It well may be that children in your land live comfortable, coddled lives. But in the east, Alver children fight for freedom from their first breath. Do not underestimate them, and do not think I’d put anyone in my guild—especially Ash and Hanna—in a risk if I were not confident they’d succeed.”

“You are terribly disagreeable.”

“With you, yes. I am not accustomed to someone so filled with doubt in me.”

“I don’t know you. I am allowed to doubt. We’re going to war, Nightrender.”

“And you will have an advantage if we pull this off.”

If. I did not want possibilities. I did not want chances. But there were no guarantees, there never would be.

“You’re certain your people saw Valen?” My stomach soured again. A disturbing report that Valen’s comfort was at an end at Ravenspire.

The Nightrender looked to Vali and Raum as they spoke to Mattis and Brant. He nodded slowly. “They saw the square and the racks where they have them. I understand it was not what you wanted to hear, but it is better that he is kept in the open. The children will reach him easier.”

All day Raum and Vali had been absent. I only learned they’d been sent to the hills near Ravenspire to scout any activity pertinent to Valen or Sol or Gunnar. The distance was at least twenty lengths away. I didn’t understand their mesmer entirely, but they had not stepped foot in the Lyx township, and still reported back as if they were seated in the courtyard.

Blood was spilling.

Our time to act was now. Trust, or do not. For Valen, as I told the Nightrender, I would risk it all.

I moved the sheets of parchment scrawled in our plans, formations, in the dimensions of Castle Ravenspire and the Black Tomb in front of him. “Do you need to review these again?”

Truth be told, I had not seen him glance at the plans once.

He tapped the side of his head. “I know my marks.”

Yes, that is how Junius and Niklas described every movement. As if this plan were more a dance than a rising battle. We all had marks to meet.

First, a nudge to the Night Prince that his people were coming. Delivered by Ellis. I hated it but had no better option.

Second, Niklas, Junius, and Tova had the burden of finding a way to get Valen through the guards, and out of Ravenspire. Niklas had magic like Bevan’s. An Elixist, a worker of poisons and spells and potions that could aid or harm. Tova was some kind of healer, which meant they believed Valen would be in need of healing, which sickened me even more.

Third, we’d meet on the battlefield and take back our kingdom.

Simple. At least in theory.

Why, then, did my stomach twist at every repeat of the plan?

We’d skipped something, overlooked a problem. Calder could have plans we simply couldn’t foresee.

I dragged my fingers through my hair, staring at the parchment. When I thought my knees might give out under my weight, a gentle hand touched my shoulder.

Herja took hold of my hand. “Elise, you fear. As do I. But I feel in my heart that joining Alver folk with Night Folk will do remarkable things. I know you have not had experience with their magic like I have, but it is remarkable.”

I squeezed her hand in return. “If only we could have the storyteller with us and harness the power of fate, then I might not rattle out of my skin with worry.”

“Hold fast to the knowledge that Ravenspire has kept us alive all this time. They need Valen and Sol. And as much as I hate the thought, Gunnar is an Alver and of the Ferus line. They will believe they need him too.”

A glimmer of a tear filled the corner of her eye. Herja had gone silent at the report of the treatment of Ravenspire’s prisoners. I wished to comfort her, to tell her the boy would be fine, but I didn’t know.

At her word, the Nightrender stood. He moved like a shadow, and I hardly heard a sound until his shoulder brushed past me. But his eyes were on Herja. “What did you say about your son? He is an Alver?”

She nodded. “I thought you knew.”

“I hadn’t heard. What is his Talent?”

“His father called him a Hypnotik. He can change thoughts, but it pains him terribly.”

“Because he has not learned how to embrace it. His father is an Alver?”

Herja winced and nodded.

“Where is he? Dead?”

“I-I don’t know. He was taken back across the sea.” She gestured at Hanna, smiling. “The child, she does what he could do. He could block all kinds of magic.”

His typical disinterest was what I expected, but instead the Nightrender paled, eyes wide. He took a swift step closer to Herja. “What is his name?”

She took a step back. “H-Hagen Strom.”

Hadn’t he just told me he knew one other Alver who could use magic like little Hanna? My fingers dug into the meat of my palms. All gods, what if he knew Hagen? What if this was part of fate’s plan? To join the two kingdoms through powerful magic?

For at least five breaths the Nightrender stared, dumbfounded, and unmoving.

“Do you know him?” Herja took hold of his arm. “Please, we must find him.”

“Strom,” he said under his breath. He pulled back with a shout of frustration, a dark glower on his face, and stormed away.

Herja’s empty hand trembled. The Nightrender knew her lover, I was sure of it. I took a step to demand he help her, even telling her he was dead was better than wondering what had become of him, but the Nightrender was lost to the shadows.

In the next moment it didn’t matter. The longhouse fell into a hush as Halvar stood, clapping his hands, demanding silence.

“We have waited for this moment. A rebellion first brought by Ari Sekundӓr.”

Ari lifted a drinking horn to a bellow of applause. He, along with so many others, was dressed in battle leathers and guarders. His waist lined in blades; a shield propped against his leg. His golden hair was tied back in braids. With a nod to me, Ari pressed a fist over his heart.

Together we’d stand on, what I hoped, would be the last battlefield.

“We finish it with our queen.” Halvar stepped aside, nodding to me to take my place.

My skull throbbed with my pulse, but I would not falter. Not here. Not now.

With a lifted chin, I stood before the crowded longhouse. “We go into this fight for the Etta of old, the land of plenty under the rule of King Arvad and Queen Lilianna. We take back what is ours, what belongs to all people. We take back our king! Our homes. Our fury. And we do not falter. We do not fall. Together we will rise for the enslaved among us and across the seas. We rise for the magic blessed by the gods. We rise for freedom!”

I lifted the dagger from my vows. Roars shook the walls, blades sliced from guarders.

A smile tugged at my lips. We’re coming, I prayed to the eaves with the hope Valen would know it.

The time had come at long last.

War was calling.


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