TWENTY-EIGHT

“THE SIDHE TOL are all in this world,” Kyol says. Aren, whose chair is rocked onto its two back legs, levels out with a thud.

“No wonder we’ve never found them,” Naito mutters. “We’ll need to study the terrain. I’ll get an atlas.”

“How many are there?” Lena asks.

“The Tar Sidhe created twelve,” Kyol responds, referring to the fae who ruled the provinces after the Duin Bregga, the war that wiped the locations of the Missing Gates from the minds of the fae. “But we’ve only found three. Radath will move his troops to secure them and to protect Atroth.”

Aren’s eyes narrow. “If he does that, their locations won’t be secret anymore.”

“He has no choice. He can’t allow you to fissure into the king’s bedchamber.”

I don’t move a muscle. I barely breathe because they’re having a conversation and they don’t look ready to kill each other.

Aren seems to weigh something over in his mind. “We have to assume Radath’s already moved his people, then. That’s a problem. We’ve never had enough fae to take on the Court when they’re ready for us. We have even less now, and without surprise on our side . . .”

Naito returns, handing an atlas and pen to Kyol. “Mark the locations. Then I’ll print out more detailed maps.”

Kyol opens the book to the world map, then looks at me. “You drew him the map to the Sidhe Tol in Moldova?”

“It was the only way to get you out of Corrist.”

I’m not sure how he feels about that. He’s not mad. He’s more . . . pensive?

“I don’t regret it,” he says quietly.

The memory of the Sidhe Cabred floods my mind. I can almost smell the sweet scent of the garden’s flowers and hear the waterfall’s soft rain. When I meet Kyol’s eyes, I’m certain he’s picturing it, too, the moonlight on our skin and the chaos lusters coiling around our bodies. There’s something else in his expression, though. Regret? Maybe he’s wishing he made love to me that night. I wished it for years.

I tear my gaze away from his.

“Radath has to protect all three Sidhe Tol,” Lena says. “We only have to attack one.”

“No,” Aren says. “We need to keep their forces split as long as possible. We’ll attack all three, then fissure to the Sidhe Tol we choose at a designated time.”

“How many fae can you gather?” Kyol asks.

Aren shakes his head. “Not many.”

“Just mark the Sidhe Tol,” Lena says. “We’ll decide where and how we’ll attack later.”

I scoot my chair closer to Kyol to help him read the countries and page numbers in the index. He tells me the countries the other two Sidhe Tol are in. Since I’ve never been to them and haven’t seen the shadows of anyone who has, I can’t draw a map to their locations. Kyol will have to imprint anchor-stones. That might take a while.

Well, it might take a while if he had thousands to imprint. I don’t know how many fae Aren can scrounge up. He’s staring off into space. Plotting, I presume. He’s been in charge of the rebellion’s offensives for almost three years. He’ll come up with some way to pull this off.

I return my attention to the atlas. It takes less than five minutes to mark the approximate locations of the Sidhe Tol. When Kyol’s finished, he pushes the atlas toward Aren.

“I think Montana is the best option,” he says.

Aren doesn’t so much as glance at the map. He’s staring at Kelia, whose chair is so close to Naito’s, she’s practically sitting in his lap.

“I think you should contact your father,” Aren says.

Kelia scowls. I told her Lord Raen’s role in helping Naito escape. She listened, but didn’t seem to care.

“My father—”

“Not your father,” Aren cuts her off. “Yours.”

Naito’s eyebrows go up. “Mine?”

“The Court used the vigilantes to hurt us. We’ll use them to hurt the Court.”

“The vigilantes,” Kyol says, his head tilted slightly.

Aren meets his gaze. “Yes. Giving them McKenzie’s name almost got her killed.”

When Kyol looks at me, there’s a flicker of confusion in his eyes.

“They attacked us in Germany,” I say. “They knew my name and used it to track my cell phone.”

He shakes his head. “We’ve never contacted the vigilantes.”

Aren lets out a caustic laugh.

“It was probably Radath,” I say quickly, before this discussion turns into an argument. “I’m sure they’ll go to the Sidhe Tol if Naito tips them off to its location.”

“No,” Naito says. “I don’t want anything to do with my father.”

Aren leans forward, resting his forearms on the table. “You don’t have to see him. Just make a phone call. Give him the location of the gate and tell him fae will be there.”

“He’ll question my motivation.”

“Tell him Kelia’s left you for someone else.”

Kelia makes a face at this, but says nothing.

“We’ll find some other way,” Naito grinds out.

“I can call him,” I say.

Naito argues, but in the end, he has no choice except to agree. He gives me his father’s phone number with the caveat that I can’t call him from anywhere close by. He doesn’t want Nakano to know where he lives. I think it’s overkill, but Aren has Nalst fissure me to a pay phone in New York.

The call is short, partly because I don’t want to say anything that will make Nakano suspicious, but mostly because I’m worried about Kyol and Aren being in the same room together. Within twenty minutes of arriving in New York, we’re at the city’s only gate. I don’t realize the short turnaround time is a bad idea until Nalst takes me through the second fissure.

As soon as the In-Between releases me, I collapse to my knees in Naito’s backyard and draw air into frozen lungs. Knives of ice slash my stomach to shreds. I cough, expecting to see blood splatter on the dew-covered grass, but Nalst lifts me back to my feet. He half drags, half carries me to the back door and shoves it open.

“Aren!”

By the time Aren reaches me, the world levels out. The sharp cramps in my stomach ease, leaving behind a dull ache and some queasiness.

Aren lays the back of his hand against my cheek. “Sidhe, you’re cold. I should have made you drink the cabus. Can you walk?”

At my nod, he leads me to the kitchen table. Kyol is there, sitting with his back to the wall, watching me. I give him a smile to tell him I’m fine. His jaw clenches, but he returns his attention to the maps spread out before him. Lena is sitting to his left, studying the maps, too. Most of her hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail, but she’s left the front sections framing her face. With her head tilted downward, those honey gold locks brush the edge of the table.

Aren lowers me into the chair across from her, then continues on into the kitchen.

“Did you reach Nakano?” Lena asks without looking up.

I glance to my right at Naito, who’s sitting with his arm draped around Kelia’s shoulders. He toys with the name-cord braided into her hair and doesn’t give any indication to show he’s listening.

“Yeah,” I say. “I couldn’t tell if he believed me. He didn’t say much.”

Naito doesn’t weigh in with an opinion. I guess it doesn’t matter if the vigilantes show; Lena is planning on going through with this no matter what.

“McKenzie.” Aren sits beside me, putting a fresh glass of cabus on the table. I didn’t drink any of it before. I guess I should have. Because I’m feeling weak and shaky, I raise the glass to my lips, and tilt my head back.

I intend to down it without stopping for a breath, but I only manage two swallows before I gag. I swipe the back of my hand across my watering eyes. I’d rather chew on bitterbark for a week than take another sip.

“How’s the plan coming?” I ask, a diversion designed to keep Aren from insisting I drink more. I’ll finish the glass. Eventually.

Kyol’s eyes meet mine, linger. When he glances at the cabus, I realize I must look awful—pale, probably—and I have the distinct feeling he wants to walk around the table and take me in his arms.

He doesn’t, of course. His face expressionless, he turns to Aren and asks, “How many humans do you have working with you?”

“Five,” he answers, matching Kyol’s neutral tone. “Trev will bring back our other three. They’re not shadow-readers, just humans with the Sight. We’ll split them between the Sidhe Tol. The fae who attack in Montana will have to do with just one.”

“You have six humans,” I say, ignoring the tension between the two fae. I frown at the map in the center of the table. The Court will probably have three or four humans at each location. We’ll still be at a disadvantage. “You can send me to Montana.”

“We’ll make do with who we have,” Aren says.

“You need me—more than me, actually.”

“No.” His tone makes it sound as if everything is settled.

My knee-jerk reaction is to snap that he doesn’t control me, but I manage to choke back the words. He’s just trying to protect me. I get that.

“What if Radath or some of the king’s other officers show up? You’ll need shadow-readers at each Sidhe Tol to track them.”

He pulls a map of Montana closer.

I turn to Kyol. “Tell him he needs me.”

“You’re in no shape for this, McKenzie.” He says it so simply, so evenly, so goddamn gently.

“So both of you would rather be distracted by illusions? You want the rest of the rebels to be distracted by them? That’s bullshit. Fewer fae will die if I’m there.”

“I won’t let Naito go if she doesn’t,” Kelia says.

Naito cocks an eyebrow at her.

She shrugs. “I won’t. If they’re going to make McKenzie stay home because they’re worried about her getting hurt, then I’ll make you stay home, too.”

Naito just shakes his head with a smile, pulls her to him, and gives her a loving kiss on the forehead. “I’ll still go, but we need the nalkin-shom. If Radath or the king’s other officers are there, McKenzie can identify them. She can track them if they try to escape, and we do need the extra pair of eyes.”

Kyol’s fists clench on top of the table. It’s a small sign of his anger, but from a man who’s an expert at concealing his emotions, it’s as significant as a bomb exploding.

“I’ll be fine, Kyol.”

He shakes his head. “Radath will order his men to target you.”

“They . . .” Oh. That’s what this is about. Radath knows how Kyol feels about me. He knows he can use me to get to the sword-master. I can’t let that stop me from helping, though, so I scan the others at the table, trying to find some support or inspiration. My gaze rests on Naito, the only person here besides me who doesn’t have edarratae flashing across his skin. “They won’t know who I am.”

Kyol draws in a breath. “You’re very noticeable, kaesha.”

An ache twinges through my heart. I push the pain aside, focus on our problem. “If we all wear camouflage, they won’t be able to tell us apart.”

Aren makes a noise that’s half harrumph, half laugh. Before I can stop him, he kisses my cheek. A chaos luster bolts from his lips to my skin, sending a shock of tingling heat down my neck.

“You’re brilliant,” he says. He leans forward to see past me to Naito. “The vigilantes will be wearing it, right? Can we get enough uniforms in a day?”

Naito gives me an appreciative smile. Not only will the camo allow me to blend in; if Aren and the rest of the rebels wear it, it’ll make it more difficult for the humans to tell them apart from the rest of the vigilantes. Sure, they’ll eventually notice the rebels’ swords and edarratae, but with the camo, it might take the humans two or three seconds longer than if they went in wearing only their jaedric armor. Two or three seconds is enough time for the rebels to fissure out of the way.

“It shouldn’t be too difficult,” Naito says. “I can look up the locations of a few army surplus stores.”

“We need a fourth front,” Lena says suddenly, looking up from a map. There’s no preamble to her announcement. It’s the first time she’s spoken since I sat down. “We need to attack the palace itself.”

“We don’t have enough fae for that.” Aren rests his hand on my thigh.

I catch my breath. My jeans protect me from his edarratae, but the natural warmth of his hand seeps into me. He’s leaning on his opposite elbow, which rests on the table. I don’t think anyone else notices we’re touching.

“We won’t need many,” Lena says. “Just enough to force Atroth to keep guards on the wall. Taltrayn can suggest places to attack.”

Is Aren staking a claim or something? Letting me know I’m his? That he’s going to keep his promise not to let Kyol have me back?

“There are weaknesses to exploit,” Kyol admits. “But the guards will be on alert.”

I like kissing Aren. I like his teasing smile, his haphazard appearance, his loyalty to Lena and the rebellion, but do I like him? I barely know him.

“It will be worth the risk,” Lena says. “Once we fissure inside the silver walls, we’ll have men attack the guards from behind.”

Aren rubs his thumb along my outer thigh. It’s distracting, and now is not the best time to sort out my feelings, not with Kyol sitting across from us, not with a battle looming on the horizon.

Aren’s thumb stops its caress. “Strategic assassinations might work. We need to control the entrances to the inner city. Taltrayn?”

“I can list sentries to neutralize.” There’s no emotion in Kyol’s voice. He stares at the center of the table and doesn’t look up. I want to crawl into his arms, tell him he’s doing the right thing, and that everything’s going to be okay, but I can’t. I can’t do any of that.

“Good,” Lena says as she rises. Realizing she’ll definitely notice where Aren’s hand is if she’s standing, I beat her to my feet.

Naito straightens out of his chair, too. “I’ll look up those surplus stores.”

“I’ll help,” Kelia pipes up.

“I’m not going to let you touch the laptop, baby.”

She tilts her head to the side. “I’ll have to find other ways to occupy myself, then.”

Naito grins and takes her hand.

Kyol’s gaze follows them when they leave the table. He has to know they’re a couple. He has to see they’re happy together, good together. If Kyol was a weaker man, if he’d given in to his desires, we could have been like that, too.

Aren and Kyol both rise when Lena steps into the living room to talk to Nalst. When Aren turns toward me, I grab the glass of cabus and use it as a shield between us. There’s a faint smile on his lips. It doesn’t last long, though. It disappears as soon as Kyol steps to my side.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asks, ignoring Aren. He’s still trying to take care of me, to give me a way out of this war.

My hands tighten around my glass. “I have to do this.”

I’m worried he’s going to argue that point. I take a sip of cabus. I don’t know why. To buy some time? To show my determination? Whatever my motivation, I regret it immediately. Trying not to make too much of a face, I gulp the liquid down, then set the glass aside.

“I choose to do this,” I tell him.

He looks into my eyes. If we were still working for the king, this is the type of battle he’d shelter me from. He only tolerated the risks to my life before because they were minimal: he and a contingent of his best swordsmen were always with me, and we ambushed the fae I tracked. Tomorrow will be different. The Court knows we’re coming. There will be a lot of death, a lot of violence. This could be as bad as Brykeld.

Kyol takes my hand. Warmth spreads through my palm and a chaos luster spirals to my elbow. “You’ll stay by my side and do as I say. You’ll fissure out when and with whom I tell you to.”

“Except,” Aren interjects, taking a small step forward, “she’ll be with me.”

Kyol squeezes my hand. He lets it go before addressing Aren. “She and I have worked together before.”

Aren gives a lazy shrug. “In the past. She’s not your puppet anymore. I’ll keep her safe.”

I’ll keep her safe. I’ve protected her for ten years.”

“You didn’t protect her from me.”

Kyol’s fist launches Aren into the wall.

Nalst rushes forward, drawing his sword, but Kyol snarls something I can’t translate and doesn’t slow down. He strides through the living room and out the back door.

“Sidhe,” Aren groans on the ground. He gingerly touches his jaw.

“You deserved that,” I tell him.

Lena scowls and adds, “You should have seen that coming.”

“I did see it coming. I just didn’t have time to duck.” He sits up and stretches his jaw, working it to the left, then to the right.

I don’t feel sorry for him. Aren was an ass. There was no reason to provoke Kyol.

“McKenzie,” he calls out when I turn to leave. I ignore him and go outside.

It’s a warm evening. Humid. A half-moon hangs low on the horizon, half obscured by thin wisps of clouds. Kyol’s sitting to my left, his back against the brick wall, his forearms resting on his bent knees.

I sink down beside him. “Are you okay?”

He doesn’t say anything for a long time. He’s staring at his clasped hands. His edarratae are bright out here. In the past, I’d trace their paths on his skin. I miss doing that. I miss the heat of his touch, the familiar comfort of it.

“I’ve lost you, haven’t I?”

His pain tears me into pieces. My throat closes up, and I can’t answer him. I don’t know how to. I’ve been avoiding this conversation, this decision, for far too long because I thought it would end with me alone and heartbroken. Now . . . now it doesn’t have to end that way. Lena’s made him her lord general, but if Kyol and I both survive tomorrow, he would abandon that position. He’d abandon the Realm if I ask. Ten years ago, one year ago, maybe even a month ago, I would have asked.

He lets out a sound that’s so very close to a single, choked sob. “I dedicated my life to my king. I should have dedicated it to you.”

I swallow against a raw throat. “I shouldn’t have had to wait ten years for you.”

“I . . .” His voice breaks. “I’ve wronged you all this time. I knew how you felt, how I felt, and I did nothing.”

I bite my lip, taste blood, but the pain isn’t enough of a distraction. The tears fall.

“Kaesha,” Kyol breathes out. “Don’t cry. Please. Come here.”

He drapes an arm around my shoulder and pulls me into his embrace. I close my eyes, selfishly soak in his scent and his warmth.

“I came out here to comfort you,” I whisper.

His arm tightens around my shoulders.

“This comforts me,” he says. “This comforts me very much.”

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