Chaol held his breath for the entire walk as he and Aedion gripped the half-conscious Ren between them, the three of them swaying and staggering, looking for all the world like drunkards out for a night of thrills in the slums. The streets were still teeming despite the hour, and one of the women they passed slouched over and gripped Aedion’s tunic, spewing a slur of sultry words. But the general used a gentle hand to disengage her and said, “I don’t pay for what I can get for free.”
Somehow, it felt like a lie, since Chaol hadn’t seen or heard of Aedion sharing anyone’s bed all these weeks. But perhaps knowing that Aelin was alive changed his priorities.
They reached the opium den Ren had named in between spurts of unconsciousness just as the shouts of soldiers storming into boardinghouses, inns, and taverns echoed from down the street. Chaol didn’t wait to see who they were and shoved through the carved wooden door. The reek of unwashed bodies, waste, and sweet smoke clotted in Chaol’s nostrils. Even Aedion coughed and gave Ren, who was almost a dead weight in their arms, a disapproving stare.
But the aging madam swept forward to greet them, her long tunic and over-robe flowing on some phantom wind, and ushered them down the wood-paneled hallway, her feet soft on the worn, colorful rugs. She began prattling off prices and the night’s specials, but Chaol took one look in her green, cunning eyes and knew she was familiar with Ren—someone who had probably built herself her own empire here in Rifthold.
She set them up in a veiled-off alcove littered with worn silk cushions that stank of sweet smoke and sweat, and after she lifted her brows at Chaol, he handed over three gold pieces. Ren groaned from where he was sprawled on the cushions between Aedion and Chaol, but before Chaol could so much as say a word, the madam returned with a bundle in her arms. “They are next door,” she said, her accent lovely and strange. “Hurry.”
She’d brought a tunic. Aedion made quick work of stripping Ren, whose face was deathly pale, lips bloodless. The general swore as they beheld the wound—a slice low in his belly. “Any deeper and his damn intestines would be hanging out,” Aedion said. He took a strip of clean fabric from the madam and wrapped it around the young lord’s muscled abdomen. There were scars all over Ren already. If he survived, this probably would not be the worst of them.
The madam knelt before Chaol and opened the box in her hands. Three pipes now lay on the low-lying table before them. “You need to play the part,” she breathed, glancing over her shoulder through the thick black veil, no doubt calculating how much time they had left.
Chaol didn’t even try to object as she used rouge to redden the skin around his eyes, applied some paste and powder to leech the color from his face, shook free a few buttons on his tunic, and mussed his hair. “Lay back, limp and loose, and keep the pipe in your hand. Smoke it if you need to take the edge off.” That was all she told him before she got to work on Aedion, who had finished stuffing Ren into his clean clothes. In moments, the three of them were reclined on the reeking cushions, and the madam had bustled off with Ren’s bloody tunic.
The lord’s breathing was labored and uneven, and Chaol fought the shaking in his own hands as the front door banged open. The soft feet of the madam hurried past to greet the men. Though Chaol strained to hear, Aedion seemed to be listening without a problem.
“Five of you, then?” the madam chirped loudly enough for them to hear.
“We’re looking for a fugitive,” was the growled response. “Clear out of the way.”
“Surely you would like to rest—we have private rooms for groups, and you are all such big men.” Each word was purred, a sensual feast. “It is extra for bringing in swords and daggers—a liability, you see, when the drug takes you—”
“Woman, enough,” the man barked. Fabric ripped as each veiled alcove was inspected. Chaol’s heart thundered, but he kept his body limp, even as he itched to reach for his blade.
“Then I shall leave you to your work,” she said demurely.
Between them, Ren was so dazed that he truly could have been drugged out of his mind. Chaol just hoped his own performance was convincing as the curtain ripped back.
“Is that the wine?” Aedion slurred, squinting at the men, his face wan and his lips set in a loose grin. He was hardly recognizable. “We’ve been waiting twenty minutes, you know.”
Chaol smiled blearily up at the six men peering into the room. All in those dark uniforms, all unfamiliar. Who the hell were they? Why had Ren been targeted?
“Wine,” Aedion snapped, a spoiled son of a merchant, perhaps. “Now.”
The men just swore at them and continued on. Five minutes later, they were gone.
The den must have been a meeting point, because Murtaugh found them there an hour later. The madam had brought them to her private office, and they’d been forced to pin Ren to the worn couch as she—with surprising adeptness—disinfected, stitched, and bound up his nasty wound. He would survive, she said, but the blood loss and injury would keep him incapacitated for a while. Murtaugh paced the entire time, until Ren collapsed into a deep sleep, courtesy of some tonic the woman made him choke down.
Chaol and Aedion sat at the small table crammed in amongst the crates upon crates of opium stacked against the walls. He didn’t want to know what was in the tonic Ren had ingested.
Aedion was watching the locked door, head cocked as if listening to the sounds of the den, as he said to Murtaugh, “Why were you being followed, and who were those men?”
The old man kept pacing. “I don’t know. But they knew where Ren and I would be. Ren has a network of informants throughout the city. Any one of them could have betrayed us.”
Aedion’s attention remained on the door, a hand on one of his fighting knives. “They wore uniforms with the royal sigil—even the captain didn’t recognize them. You need to lay low for a while.”
Murtaugh’s silence was too heavy. Chaol asked quietly, “Where do we bring him when he can be moved?”
Murtaugh paused his pacing, his eyes full of grief. “There is no place. We have no home.”
Aedion looked sharply at him. “Where the hell have you been staying all this time?”
“Here and there, squatting in abandoned buildings. When we are able to take work, we stay in boardinghouses, but these days . . .”
They would not have access to the Allsbrook coffers, Chaol realized. Not if they had been in hiding for so many years. But to be homeless . . .
Aedion’s face was a mask of disinterest. “And you have no place in Rifthold safe enough to hold him—to see to his mending.” Not a question, but Murtaugh nodded all the same. Aedion examined Ren, sprawled on the dark sofa against the far wall. His throat bobbed once, but then he said, “Tell the captain your theory about magic.”
In the long hours that passed as Ren regained his strength enough to be moved, Murtaugh explained everything he knew. His entire story came out, the old man almost whispering at times—of the horrors they’d fled, and how Ren had gotten each and every scar. Chaol understood why the young man had been so close-lipped until now. Secrecy had kept them alive.
All together, Murtaugh and Ren had learned, the various waves the day magic had vanished formed a rough triangle across the continent. The first line went right from Rifthold to the Frozen Wastes. The second went down from the Frozen Wastes to the edge of the Deserted Peninsula. The third line went from there back to Rifthold. A spell, they believed, had been the cause of it.
Standing around the map Aedion had produced, the general traced a finger over the lines again and again, as if sorting out a battle strategy. “A spell sent from specific points, like a beacon.”
Chaol thumped his knuckles on the table. “Is there some way of undoing it?”
Murtaugh sighed. “Our work was interrupted by the disturbance with Archer, and our sources vanished from the city for fear of their lives. But there has to be a way.”
“So where do we start looking?” Aedion asked. “There’s no chance in hell the king would leave clues lying around.”
Murtaugh nodded. “We need eyewitnesses to confirm what we suspect, but the places we think the spell originated are occupied by the king’s forces. We’ve been waiting for an in.”
Aedion gave him a lazy grin. “No wonder you kept telling Ren to be nice to me.”
As if in response, Ren groaned, struggling to rise to consciousness. Had the young lord ever felt safe or at peace at any point in the past ten years? It would explain that anger—the reckless anger that coursed through all the young, shattered hearts of Terrasen, including Celaena’s.
Chaol said, “There is an apartment hidden in a warehouse in the slums. It’s secure, and has all the amenities you need. You’re welcome to stay there for however long you require.”
He felt Aedion watching him carefully. But Murtaugh frowned. “However generous, I cannot accept the offer to stay in your house.”
“It’s not my house,” Chaol said. “And believe me, the owner won’t mind one bit.”
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