Warning: Unedited writing commences below!
Aren's POV #11
(So, for those of you who’ve read the previous POVs, I’m going to need to make some changes to #8. Aren’s convo with Sethan about the anchor-stones in that snippet were a bit out of sequence. Oops!)
Sethan and Lena are still on the front porch. Lena’s face is softer than before. At least, it is until she spots McKenzie behind me. To Lena’s credit, though, she doesn’t leap off the porch and murder the nalkin-shom.
Sethan’s expression flattens into a neutral mask, but his slight stiffening betrays a spike of wariness. Maybe I should have snuck McKenzie back into the inn before bringing her here. If she proves too resourceful, Sethan will side with Lena.
Too late for that now, so I stroll up the steps and gesture for McKenzie to join us.
“This is Sethan, son of Zarrak,” I say, then I put my hand on her shoulder and guide her toward the wooden bench to the left of the door. “Have a seat, McKenzie.”
She drops onto the bench, defiance radiating in the way she crosses her arms and glares at us. She might have looked like a terrifying shadow-witch if her stomach didn’t growl.
I hide a grin, but only because Lena and Sethan need to see I’m serious about this plan.
“Tell us what you know about the Court,” I say.
“It’s your system of government. It’s led by King Atroth, a Descendant of the Tar Sidhe, who was elected by the high nobles of the thirteen provinces. The king’s—”
“The king told you there are thirteen provinces,” Sethan says.
“He’s shown me maps.” She throws the words out there like a punch, but that slip of information was a mistake.
Sethan doesn’t move or react, but he’s thinking. I can feel it in the cool, stillness of the air. Before today, we talked only about killing the nalkin-shom. She was too protected and too villainous to consider converting. That was before I’d seen her, though. Before I’d spoken to her and seen the fear and worry and innocence in her eyes.
We have more options now, more ways of attacking the Court besides just eliminating their best shadow-reader. If we have the locations of more Missing Gates, we make it more difficult for the king’s fae to travel. They’ll have to guard more locations. Their forces will be stretched thin, and the high nobles of the Realm will begin to believe Sethan when he tells them the king is keeping the Missing Gates for himself.
“What kind of maps?” I ask.
“Paper ones,” McKenzie snaps.
Sethan steps forward.
“How many gates were there?” His voice is gentle, coaxing. The atmosphere smooths around us, making this world feel almost as comforting as the Realm. I watch McKenzie, searching for any indication that Sethan’s magic might work on her. It works on some humans, but not on all.
“None,” McKenzie answers.
“Then why were you shown the maps?” Sethan asks.
“For the same reason he” —she nods toward me— “probably shows maps to his shadow-readers: geography.”
Her tone is abrasive. I don’t think Sethan is calming her.
He’s not calming Lena either, but Lena knows what he’s doing. It’s easier to cling to your anger when you’re aware that someone is magically smoothing the tension in the air.
“She’s lying.” Lena pushes away from the wall. “She knows where the Missing Gates are. She’s used them.”
“I’ve used the Provincial Gates.”
“We monitor the Provincial Gates.” Lena’s eyes are cold. “We would have abducted you long before now if you used only those to travel. If you want to extend your life, you will give us those gates.”
I’m not resisting Sethan’s magic, so when Lena’s hand wraps around the blade strapped to her thigh, I’m not alarmed. It’s only when she takes another step toward McKenzie that I realize I need to act.
Her blade stays in its sheath, but she doesn’t release its hilt.
“I have her anchor-stones,” I say, switching to Fae. “I’ll get those gates.”
“Then there’s no reason to keep her alive,” Lena snaps. Every transgression of the king is a personal affront to her. She has a vivid image of how the Realm should be ruled, and every year, Atroth whittles it away. The erasing of that dream and the loss of friends and family has changed her.
It’s changed me too, but I’m better for it. I have a purpose now. Nothing will stand in the way of putting Sethan on the throne.
I meet Lena’s gaze. “You’ll give me a week,” I tell her. “You won’t touch or harm her.”
Her nostrils flare, and Sethan’s eyebrows rise slightly. He’s placed me in charge of the rebellion, but I don’t often use that authority to supersede their wishes.
Lena’s response is stony silence, then she pivots toward the door and into the inn.
The slamming of the door echoes across the clearing. Sethan stares at it a moment before directing his attention back to the nalkin-shom.
“I’m truly sorry you’ve been brought into this war,” he says. “We never wanted to involve humans, but Atroth made it necessary when he began employing your kind against us. His shadow-readers, you in particular, have almost destroyed us. We had no choice other than to take you away from him.” He pauses, and his magic ripples through the air, making the chirps and clicks of this world’s insects create a more soothing song. “We would like your help, McKenzie. And we want to help you.”
She snorts. “The only thing I need from you is permission to leave.”
“And allow Atroth to continue using you? That’s not an option.”
The fire in her eyes confirms it. Sethan’s magic isn’t touching her at all. That’s unfortunate. If she would just—
“What if I agree to not work for the Court again?”
Her words hang in the air. I keep my expression steady, but satisfaction jolts through me.
“She thinks they’ll let her go,” I say.
Sethan looks at me. The confusion in his expression morphs into disbelief before he erases his thoughts from his face completely.
“Of course they’ll let me go.” McKenzie glares at me. “They’re not the ones who’ve kidnapped me. They’re not the ones who are trying to blackmail me into working for them. I’m free to leave whenever I want.”
“See?” I say to Sethan. He gives me an almost imperceptible nod.
“See what?” McKenzie demands.
“You’re ignorance.” I let a grin spread across my face. She doesn’t it know it, but she’s just given us evidence that there’s a chance she can be turned. Showing her the truth about the Court and her role in this war will shatter everything she believes.
I reach for the doorknob. “Talk to her, Sethan. Then tell me what you decide.”