I stopped and fluttered my lashes in his direction. “Then perhaps I do not love you.”
Footsteps sounded out in the entry chamber. Guards began to argue before the gate was opened, and Mintale hurried inside.
A glance at me and Raiden, and he swallowed. “Majesty, you need to see this.”
“See what?” I snapped.
Mintale’s face paled further by the second. He stretched a hand to the exit. “Please.”
I looked back at Raiden, whose brows were pinched as he watched Mintale go. When his eyes met mine, I looked away and lowered the gate behind us.
“What is it?” I hissed, moving up the stairs. “If this is an attempt to make me change my mind, you’re wasting your time. I cannot make exceptions because of—”
“We’ve received word that an army bearing the Sun Kingdom’s sigil marches northward.”
My palm hit the wall to aid in keeping me upright. “How long do we have?”
“Three days.” His jowls wobbled. “At most.”
I followed him to the highest tower, where we stood on the turret and used the scope to search the horizon.
There, tiny specks in the far-off distance moved. I turned the scope, sending it down the line of specks, and felt my blood turn to ice. “How many?”
“Our scouts estimate seven hundred, maybe more.”
“And what of the city?” asked one of the generals. “We cannot have most of our soldiers gone and leave the people without protection.”
I set my empty teacup down. “We have them leave.”
“Where would they go?” Azela asked.
I pondered that for a moment. We couldn’t bring every citizen of the city and the neighboring provinces behind the castle walls. It would trap them if we were defeated.
“The mountains,” Didra suggested, pointing at them on the map. “We tell them to leave and head between the mountains, through the pass to the sea.”
“The young and the elderly might not make it in the cold and over such treacherous terrain,” I said.
Mintale brushed his fingers over his moustache. “We could have the furbanes fly them over.”
“They don’t take well to strangers,” I reminded him.
He sighed, then sipped his tea as if it were a shot of liquor.
The wind roared against the windowpanes, rattling them. Snow flurries drifted through the air, floating toward the ground.
I wished Ainx was here. Practical, unflinching Ainx. I tapped my nails over the edge of the map where the Gray Sea sprawled. “So we bring the young and the elderly here. If trouble comes, we leave some soldiers to help them escape via the tunnels in the dungeon.”
“They were sealed half a millennia ago,” Mintale said.
“So we unseal them.” I sat back and steepled my hands.
Nods and murmurs of agreement arose. Azela took notes on her parchment. “I’ll have that underway by morning.”
“If magic was used, come find me, and I’ll see what Truin and”—I glanced at Truin to my left—“I can do.”
More nods and still, my chest felt too tight.
“I say we take the long way around,” Dervin, one of the younger generals, suggested. “Give us the element of surprise.”
A smooth, deep voice entered the room. “This is war, not a game. You cannot have an army of at least six hundred soldiers surprise anyone at this late notice.”
Dervin gaped at Zad, then stuck his nose in the air before looking back at the map.
General Rind failed to hide his smirk behind his tea.
A bouncing sensation shook my stomach, that tightness easing somewhat, as our eyes met. The lord drifted through the room in his crimson and black coat and removed his gloves. But it was the sight of the male who entered after him that had a smile blooming on my face. “Welcome home, soldier.”
Ainx bent at the knees, smiling briefly. His neck was bandaged, and he moved as though he was worried his head would topple off his shoulders, but he was here.
Azela gasped, and I watched her struggle to contain her relief as a few people clapped.
I cleared my throat. “Azela, please show Ainx to his quarters. I’m sure it’s been quite a journey for him.”
Ainx’s gaze slid to me, wary and guarded, but I said nothing and refocused on the map while she escorted him from the room.
“We march straight to them,” I said, my finger following the steep slope of the city and the roads that wound through the villages and valleys and forests beyond. “No pretenses. Lord Allblood is right. This is war, and it’s too late to try to outsmart them.”
A hush descended over the room, sending shivers skating up my spine.
Zad stood to my right, over by the arched window, with his arms crossed over his chest. I didn’t look at him. I had no need to when I could feel his presence and those keen eyes upon me.
“My queen,” a young male spoke up, so young I hadn’t yet learned his name. “Do you think we will win?”