Chapter no 10

Empire of Storms

Elide Lochan stood before a creature birthed from a dark god’s nightmares.

Across the clearing, it towered over her, its talons digging into the loam of the forest floor. “There you are,” it hissed through teeth sharper than a fish’s. “Come with me, girl, and I will grant you a quick end.”

Lies. She saw how it sized her up, claws curling as if it could already feel them shredding into her soft belly. The thing had appeared in her path as if a cloud of night had dropped it there, and had laughed when she screamed. Her knife shook as she raised it.

It stood like a man—spoke like one. And its eyes … Utterly soulless, yet the shape of them … They were human, too. Monstrous—what terrible mind had dreamed up such a thing?

She knew the answer.

Help. She needed help. But that man from the stream was likely dead at the claws of the other beasts. She wondered how long that magic of his had held out.

The creature stepped toward her, its muscled legs closing the distance too quickly. She backed toward the trees, the direction she’d come from.

“Is your blood as sweet as your face, girl?” Its grayish tongue tasted the air between them.

Think, think, think.

What would Manon do before such a creature?

Manon, she remembered, came equipped with claws and fangs of her own.

But a small voice whispered in her ear, So do youUse what you have. There were other weapons than those made of iron and steel.

Though her knees shook, Elide lifted her chin and met the black, human eyes of the creature.

“Careful,” she said, dropping her voice into the purr Manon had so often used to frighten the wits out of everyone. Elide reached into the pocket of her coat, pulling out the shard of stone and clenching it in her fist, willing that otherworldly presence to fill the clearing, the world. She prayed the creature wouldn’t look at her fist, wouldn’t ask what was in it as she drawled, “Do you think the Dark King will be pleased if you harm me?” She looked down her nose at it. Or as best as she could while standing several feet shorter. “I have been sent to look for the girl. Do not interfere.”

The creature seemed to recognize the fighting leathers then. Seemed to scent that strange, off scent surrounding the rock. And it hesitated.

Elide kept her face a mask of cold displeasure. “Get out of my sight.” She almost vomited as she began stalking toward it, toward sure death.

But she stomped along, prowling as Manon had so often done. Elide made herself look up into the bat-like, hideous face as she passed. “Tell your brethren that if you interfere again, I will personally oversee what delights you experience upon Morath’s tables.”

Doubt still danced in its eyes—along with real fear. A lucky guess, those words and phrases, based on what she’d overheard. She didn’t let herself consider what had been done to make such a creature quake at the mention.

Elide was five paces from the creature, keenly aware that her spine was now vulnerable to those shredding claws and teeth, when it asked, “Why did you flee at our approach?”

She said without turning, in that cold, vicious voice of Manon Blackbeak, “I do not tolerate the questions of underlings. You have already disrupted my hunt and injured my ankle with your useless attack. Pray that I do not remember your face when I return to the Keep.”

She knew her mistake the moment it sucked in a hissing breath. Still, she kept her legs moving, back straight.

“What a coincidence,” it mused, “that our prey is similarly lamed.”

Anneith save her. Perhaps it had not noticed the limp until then. Fool.


Running would do her no good—running would proclaim the creature had won, that it was right. She halted, as if her temper had yanked on its

leash, and snapped her face toward the creature. “What is that you’re hissing about?”

Utter conviction, utter rage.

Again the creature paused. One chance—just one chance. It’d learn soon enough that it had been duped.

Elide held its gaze. It was like staring a dead snake in the eyes.

She said with that lethal quiet the witches liked to use, “Do not make me reveal what His Dark Majesty put inside me on that table.”

As if in response, the stone in her hand throbbed, and she could have sworn darkness flickered.

The creature shuddered, backing away a step.

Elide didn’t consider what she held as she sneered one last time and stalked away.

She made it perhaps half a mile before the forest was again full of chittering life.

She fell to her knees and vomited.

Nothing but bile and water came out. She was so busy hurling up her guts with stupid fear and relief that she didn’t notice anyone’s approach until it was too late.

A broad hand clamped on her shoulder, whirling her around.

She drew her dagger, but too slowly. The same hand released her to slap the blade to the grass.

Elide found herself staring into the dirt-splattered face of the man from the stream. No, not dirt. Blood that reeked—black blood.

“How?” she said, stumbling away a step.

You first,” he snarled, but whipped his head toward the forest behind them. She followed his gaze. Saw nothing.

When she looked at his harsh face, a sword lay against her throat.

She tried to fall back, but he gripped her arm, holding her as steel bit into her skin. “Why do you smell of one of them? Why do they chase you?” She’d pocketed the stone, or else she might have shown him. But movement might cause him to strike—and that small voice whispered to

keep the stone concealed.

She offered another truth. “Because I have spent the past several months in Morath, living amongst that scent. They seek me because I managed to get free. I flee north—to safety.”

Faster than she could see, he lowered his blade—only to slice it across her arm. A scratch, barely more than a whisper of pain.

They both watched as her red blood surged and dribbled. It seemed answer enough for him.

“You can call me Lorcan,” he said, though she hadn’t asked. And with that, he hauled her over his broad shoulder like a sack of potatoes and ran.

Elide knew two things within seconds:

That the remaining creatures—however many there were—had to be on their trail and closing in fast. Had to have realized she’d bluffed her way free.

And that the man, moving swift as a wind between the oaks, was demi-Fae.



Lorcan ran and ran, his lungs gobbling down great gulps of the forest’s stifling air. Slung over his shoulder, the girl didn’t even whimper as the miles passed. He’d carried packs heavier than her over entire mountain ranges.

Lorcan slowed when his strength at last began to flag, spent quicker thanks to the magic he’d used to get those three beasts into a stranglehold, battering past their natural-born immunity to it, then kill two while he pinned the other long enough to sprint for the girl.

He’d been lucky.

The girl, it seemed, had been smart.

He jogged into a stop, setting her down hard enough that she winced— winced and hopped a bit on that hurt ankle. Her blood had flowed red instead of the reeking black that implied Valg possession, but it still didn’t explain how she’d been able to intimidate that ilken into submission.

“Where are we going?” she said, swinging her pack to pull out her canteen. He waited for the tears and prayers and begging. She just unscrewed the cap of the leather-coated container and swigged deep. Then, to his surprise, offered him some.

Lorcan didn’t take it. She merely drank again.

“We’re going to the edge of the forest—to the Acanthus River.”

“Where—where are we?” The hesitation said enough: she’d calculated the risk of revealing how vulnerable she was with that question … and decided she was too desperate for the answer.

“What is your name?”

“Marion.” She held his gaze with a sort of unflinching steel that had him angling his head.

An answer for an answer. He said, “We’re in the middle of Adarlan. You were about a day’s hike from the Avery River.”

Marion blinked. He wondered if she even knew that—or had considered how she’d cross the mighty body of water that had claimed ships captained by the most seasoned of men and women.

She said, “Are we running, or can I sit for a moment?”

He listened to the sounds of the forest for any hint of danger, then jerked his chin.

Marion sighed as she sat on the moss and roots. She surveyed him. “I thought all the Fae were dead. Even the demi-Fae.”

“I’m from Wendlyn. And you,” he said, brows rising slightly, “are from Morath.”

“Not from. Escaping from.” “Why—and how.”

Her narrowed eyes told him enough: she knew he still didn’t believe her, not entirely, red blood or no. Yet she didn’t answer, instead leaning over her legs to unlace a boot. Her fingers trembled a bit, but she got through the laces, yanking off the boot, removing the sock, and rolling up her leather pant leg to reveal—

Shit. He’d seen plenty of ruined bodies in his day, had done plenty of ruining himself, but rarely were they left so untreated. Marion’s leg was a mess of scar tissue and twisted bone. And right above her misshapen ankle lay still-healing wounds where shackles had unmistakably been.

She said quietly, “Allies of Morath are usually whole. Their dark magic could surely cure a cripple—and they surely would have no use for one.”

That was why she’d managed so well with the limp. She’d had years to master it, from the coloring of the scar tissue.

Marion rolled her pant leg back down but left her foot bare, massaging it. She hissed through her teeth.

He sat on a fallen log a few feet away, taking off his own pack to rifle through it. “Tell me what you know of Morath,” he said, and chucked her a tin of salve straight from Doranelle.

The girl stared at it, those sharp eyes putting together what he was, where he was from, and what that tin likely contained. When she lifted them to his face, she nodded silently in agreement of his offer: relief from the pain for answers. She unscrewed the lid, and he caught the way her mouth parted as she breathed in the pungent herbs.

Pain and pleasure danced across her face as she began rubbing the salve into her old injuries.

And as she worked, she spoke.

Marion told him of the Ironteeth host, of the Wing Leader and the Thirteen, of the armies camped around the mountain Keep, of the places where only screaming echoed, of the countless forges and blacksmiths. She described her own escape: without warning, she didn’t know how, the castle had exploded. She’d seen it as her chance, disguising herself in a witch’s attire, grabbing one of their packs, and running. In the chaos, no one had chased her.

“I’ve been running for weeks,” she said. “Apparently, I’ve barely covered half the distance.”

“To where?”

Marion looked northward. “Terrasen.”

Lorcan stifled a snarl. “You’re not missing much.” “Have you news of it?” Alarm filled those eyes.

“No,” he said, shrugging. She finished rubbing her foot and ankle. “What’s in Terrasen? Your family?” He had not asked why she’d been brought to Morath. He didn’t particularly care to hear her sad story. Everyone had one, he’d found.

The girl’s face tightened. “I owe a debt to a friend—someone who helped me get out of Morath. She bade me to find someone named Celaena Sardothien. So that is my first task: learning who she is, where she is. Terrasen seems like a better place to start than Adarlan.”

No guile, no whisper of this meeting being anything but chance.

“And then,” the girl went on, the brightness in her eyes growing, “I need to find Aelin Galathynius, the Queen of Terrasen.”

It was an effort not to go for his sword. “Why?”

Marion glanced toward him, as if she’d somehow even forgotten he was there. “I heard a rumor that she’s raising an army to stop the one in Morath. I plan to offer my services.”

“Why?” he said again. Aside from the wits that had kept her out of the ilken’s claws, he saw no other reason for the bitch-queen to need the girl.

Marion’s full mouth tightened. “Because I am from Terrasen and believed my queen dead. And now she is alive, and fighting, so I will fight with her. So that no other girls will be taken from their homes and brought to Morath and forgotten.”

Lorcan debated telling her what he knew: that her two quests were one and the same. But that would lead to questions from her, and he was in no mood—

“Why do you wish to go to Morath? Everyone else is fleeing from it.” “I was sent by my mistress to stop the threat it poses.”

“You’re one man—male.” Not an insult, but Lorcan stared her down anyway.

“I have my skills, just as you have yours.”

Her eyes darted to his hands, now crusted in dried black blood. He wondered, though, if she was imagining the magic that had sparked there.

He waited for Marion to ask more, but she pulled on her sock, then her boot, and laced it up. “We shouldn’t rest for long.” Indeed.

She eased to her feet, wincing a bit, but gave an appreciative frown toward her leg. Lorcan took that as answer enough regarding the salve’s efficiency. She bent down to retrieve the tin, her dark curtain of hair sweeping over her face. At some point, it had come free of its braid.

She rose, chucking him the tin. He caught it in one hand. “Once we reach the Acanthus, what then?”

He pocketed the tin in his cloak. “There are countless merchants’ caravans and seasonal carnivals wandering the plains—I passed many on my way down here. Some might even be trying to cross the river. We’ll get in with one of them. Hide out. Once we’ve crossed and wandered far enough onto the grasslands, you’ll take one north; I’ll head south.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. But Marion said, “Why travel with me at all?”

“There are more details regarding Morath’s interior that I want from you. I’ll keep you from danger, and you’ll provide them for me.”

The sun began its final descent, bathing the woods in gold. Marion frowned slightly. “You swear it? That you will protect me?”

“I didn’t leave you to the ilken today, did I?”

She eyed him with a clarity and frankness that made him pause. “Swear


He rolled his eyes. “I promise.” The girl had no idea that for the past

five centuries, promises were the only currency he really traded in. “I will not abandon you.”

She nodded, seemingly satisfied with that. “Then I will tell you what I know.”

He started eastward, slinging his pack over his shoulder.

But Marion said, “They’ll be hunting for us at every crossing, searching wagons. If they could find me here, they’ll find me on any main road.”

And find him, too, if the witches were still out for his blood. Lorcan said, “And you have some idea around this?”

A faint smile danced around her rosebud mouth, despite the horrors they’d escaped, her misery in the woods. “I might.”

Of all the rooms in the Torre Cesme, Yrene Towers loved this one best.

Perhaps it was because the room, located at the very pinnacle of the pale-stoned tower and its sprawling complex below, had unparalleled views of the sunset over Antica.

Perhaps it was because this was the place where she’d felt the first shred of safety in nearly ten years. The place she had first looked upon the ancient woman now sitting across the paper- and book-strewn desk, and heard the words that changed everything: You are welcome here, Yrene Towers.

It had been over two years since then.

Two years of working here, living here, in this tower and in this city of so many peoples, so many foods and caches of knowledge.

It had been all she’d dreamed it would be—and she had seized every opportunity, every challenge, with both hands. Had studied and listened and practiced and saved lives, changed them, until she had climbed to the very top of her class. Until an unknown healer’s daughter from Fenharrow was approached by healers old and young, who had trained their entire lives, for her advice and assistance.

The magic helped. Glorious, lovely magic that could make her breathless or so tired she couldn’t get out of bed for days. Magic demanded

a cost—to both healer and patient. But Yrene was willing to pay it. She had never minded the aftermath of a brutal healing.

If it meant saving a life … Silba had granted her a gift—and a young stranger had given her another gift, that final night in Innish two years ago. Yrene had no plans to waste either.

She waited in silence as the slender woman across from her finished reading through some message on her chronically messy desk. Despite the servants’ best efforts, the ancient rosewood desk was always chaotic, covered with formulas or spells or vials and jars brewing some tonic.

There were two such vials on the desk now, clear orbs atop silver feet fashioned after ibis legs. Being purified by the endless sunshine within the tower.

Hafiza, Healer on High of the Torre Cesme, plucked up one of the vials, swirled its pale blue contents, frowned, and set it down. “The damned thing always takes twice as long as I anticipate.” She asked casually, using Yrene’s own language, “Why do you think that is?”

Yrene leaned forward in the worn, tufted armchair on her side of the desk to study the tonic. Every meeting, every encounter with Hafiza, was a lesson—a chance to learn. To be challenged. Yrene lifted the vial from its stand, holding it to the golden light of sunset as she examined the thick azure liquid within. “Use?”

“Ten-year-old girl developed a dry cough six weeks ago. Saw the physicians, who advised honey tea, rest, and fresh air. Got better for a time, but returned a week ago with a vengeance.”

The physicians of the Torre Cesme were the finest in the world, distinguished only from the Torre’s healers by the fact that they did not

possess magic. They were the first line of inspection for the healers in the tower, their quarters occupying the sprawling complex around its base.

Magic was precious, its demands costly enough that some Healer on High centuries ago had decreed that if they were to see a patient, a physician must first inspect the person. Perhaps it had been a political maneuver—a bone tossed to the physicians so often passed over by a people clamoring for the cure-all remedies of magic.

Yet magic could not cure all things. Could not halt death, or bring someone back from it. She’d learned it again and again these past two years, and earlier. And even with the protocols with the physicians, Yrene still—as she had always done—found herself walking toward the sound of coughing in the narrow, sloped streets of Antica.

Yrene tilted the vial this way and that. “The tonic might be reacting to the heat. It’s been unseasonably warm, even for us.”

With the end of summer finally near, even after two years, Yrene was still not entirely accustomed to the unrelenting, dry heat of the god-city. Mercifully, some long-ago mastermind had invented the bidgier, wind-catching towers set atop buildings to draw in fresh air to the rooms below, some even working in tandem with the few underground canals winding beneath Antica to transform hot wind into cool breezes. The city was peppered with the small towers, like a thousand spears jutting toward the sky, ranging from the small houses made of earthen bricks to the great, domed residences full of shaded courtyards and clear pools.

Unfortunately, the Torre had predated that stroke of brilliance, and though the upper levels possessed some cunning ventilation that cooled the chambers far below, there were plenty of days when Yrene wished some clever architect would take it upon themselves to outfit the Torre with the

latest advances. Indeed, with the rising heat and the various fires burning throughout the tower, Hafiza’s room was near-sweltering. Which led Yrene to add, “You could put it in a lower chamber—where it’s cooler.”

“But the sunlight needed?”

Yrene considered. “Bring in mirrors. Catch the sunlight through the window, and focus it upon the vial. Adjust it a few times a day to match the path of the sun. The cooler temperature and more concentrated sunlight might have the tonic ready sooner.”

A little, pleased nod. Yrene had come to cherish those nods, the light in those brown eyes. “Quick wits save lives more often than magic,” was Hafiza’s only reply.

She’d said it a thousand times before, usually where Yrene was involved

—to her eternal pride—but Yrene bowed her head in thanks and set the vial back upon its stand.

“So,” Hafiza said, folding her hands atop each other on the near-glowing rosewood desk, “Eretia informs me that she believes you are ready to leave us.”

Yrene straightened in her seat, the very same chair she’d sat in that first day she’d climbed the thousand steps to the top of the tower and begged for admittance. The begging had been the least of her humiliations that meeting, the crowning moment being when she dumped the bag of gold on Hafiza’s desk, blurting that she didn’t care what the cost was and to take it all.

Not realizing that Hafiza did not take money from students. No, they paid for their education in other ways. Yrene had suffered through endless indignities and degradations during her year working at the backwater White Pig Inn, but she had never been more mortified than the moment

Hafiza ordered her to put the money back in that brown pouch. Scraping the gold off the desk like some cardplayer scrambling to collect his winnings, Yrene had debated leaping right out the arc of windows towering behind Hafiza’s desk.

Much had changed since then. Gone was the homespun dress, the too-slim body. Though Yrene supposed the endless stairs of the Torre had kept in check the weight she’d gained from steady, healthy eating, thanks to the Torre’s enormous kitchens, the countless markets teeming with food stalls, and the dine-in shops along every bustling street and winding alley.

Yrene swallowed once, trying and failing to glean the Healer on High’s face. Hafiza had been the one person here whom Yrene could never read, never anticipate. She’d never once shown a display of temper—something that couldn’t be said of many of the instructors here, Eretia especially—and had never raised her voice. Hafiza had only three expressions: pleased, neutral, and disappointed. Yrene lived in terror of the latter two.

Not for any punishment. There was no such thing here. No rations held, no pain threatened. Not like at the White Pig, where Nolan had docked her pay if she stepped out of line or was overgenerous with a customer, or if he caught her leaving out nightly scraps for the half-feral urchins who had prowled the filthy streets of Innish.

She’d arrived here thinking it would be the same: people who took her money, who made it harder and harder to leave. She’d spent a year working at the White Pig due to Nolan’s increases in her rent, decreases in her pay, his cut of her meager tips, and knowledge that most women in Innish worked the streets, and his place, disgusting as it had been, was a far better alternative.

She’d told herself never again—until she’d arrived here. Until she’d dumped that gold on Hafiza’s desk and had been ready to do it all over, indebt and sell herself, just for a chance to learn.

Hafiza did not even consider such things. Her work was in direct opposition to the people who did, the people like Nolan. Yrene still remembered the first time she’d heard Hafiza say in that thick, lovely accent of hers, nearly the same words that Yrene’s mother had told her, over and over: they did not charge, students or patients, for what Silba, Goddess of Healing, gifted them for free.

In a land of so many gods that Yrene was still struggling to keep them all straight, at least Silba remained the same.

Yet another clever thing the khaganate had done upon patching together the kingdoms and territories during their years of conquest: keep and adapt the gods of everyone. Including Silba, whose dominance over the healers had been established in these lands long ago. History was written by the victors, apparently. Or so Eretia, Yrene’s direct tutor, had once told her. Even the gods seemed no more immune to it than mere mortals.

But it didn’t stop Yrene from offering up a prayer to Silba and whatever gods might be listening as she said at last, “I am ready, yes.”

“To leave us.” Such simple words, offered with that neutral face—calm and patient. “Or have you considered the other option I presented to you?”

Yrene had. She’d thought about it endlessly in the two weeks since Hafiza had summoned her to this office and spoke the one word that had clenched a fist around her heart: Stay.

Stay, and learn more—stay, and see what this fledgling life she’d built here might grow into.

Yrene rubbed at her chest as if she could still feel that viselike grip. “War is coming to my home again—the northern continent.” So they called it here. Yrene swallowed. “I want to be there to help those fighting against the empire’s control.”

At last, after so many years, a force was rallying. Adarlan itself had been sundered, if rumors were to be believed, by Dorian Havilliard in the north, and the dead king’s Second, Duke Perrington, in the south. Dorian was backed by Aelin Galathynius, the long-lost queen now ripe with power and ravenous for vengeance, judging by what she’d done to the glass castle and its king. And Perrington, rumor also claimed, was aided by horrors birthed from some dark nightmare.

But if this was the only chance at freedom for Fenharrow …

Yrene would be there to help, in whatever way she could. She still smelled smoke, late at night or when she was drained after a hard healing. Smoke from that fire those Adarlanian soldiers had built—and burned her mother upon. She still heard her mother’s screaming and felt the wood of that tree trunk dig beneath her nails as she’d hidden at the edge of Oakwald. As she watched them burn her mother alive. After her mother had killed that soldier to buy Yrene time to run.

It had been ten years since then. Nearly eleven. And though she had crossed mountains and oceans … there were some days when Yrene felt as if she were still standing in Fenharrow, smelling that fire, splinters slicing under her nails, watching as the soldiers took their torches and burned her cottage, too.

The cottage that had housed generations of Towers healers.

Yrene supposed it was fitting, somehow, she’d wound up in a tower herself. With only the ring on her left hand as proof that once, for hundreds

of years, there had existed a line of prodigally gifted female healers in the south of Fenharrow. A ring she now toyed with, that last shred of proof that her mother and mother’s mother and all the mothers before them had once lived and healed in peace. It was the first of only two objects Yrene would not sell—even before selling herself.

Hafiza had not replied, and so Yrene went on, the sun sinking farther toward the jade waters of the harbor across the city, “Even with magic now returned to the northern continent, many of the healers might not have the training, if any survived at all. I could save many lives.”

“War could also claim your life.”

She knew this. Yrene lifted her chin. “I am aware of the risks.” Hafiza’s dark eyes softened. “Yes, yes, you are.”

It had come out during that first, mortifying meeting with the Healer on High.

Yrene had not cried for years—since that day her mother had become ash on the wind—and yet the moment Hafiza had asked about Yrene’s parents … she had buried her face in her hands and wept. Hafiza had come from around that desk and held her, rubbing her back in soothing circles.

Hafiza often did that. Not just to Yrene, but to all her healers, when the hours were long and their backs had cramped and the magic had taken everything and it was still not enough. A quiet, steady presence who steeled them, soothed them.

Hafiza was as close to a mother as Yrene had found since she was eleven. And now weeks away from twenty-two, she doubted she’d ever find another like her.

“I have taken the examinations,” Yrene said, even though Hafiza knew that already. She’d given them to Yrene herself, overseeing the grueling

week of tests on knowledge, skill, and actual human practice. Yrene had made sure she received the highest marks of her class. As near to a perfect score as anyone had ever been given here. “I’m ready.”

“Indeed you are. And yet I still wonder how much you might learn in five years, ten years, if you have already learned so much in two.”

Yrene had been too skilled to begin with the acolytes in the lower levels of the Torre.

She’d shadowed her mother since she was old enough to walk and talk, learning slowly, over the years, as all the healers in her family had done. At eleven, Yrene had learned more than most would in another decade. And even during the six years that had followed, where she’d pretended to be an ordinary girl while working on her mother’s cousin’s farm—the family unsure what to really do with her, unwilling to get to know her when war and Adarlan might destroy them all—she’d quietly practiced.

But not too much, not too noticeably. During those years, neighbor had sold out neighbor for even the whisper of magic. And even though magic had vanished, taking Silba’s gift with it, Yrene had been careful never to appear more than a simple farmer’s relative, whose grandmother had perhaps taught her a few natural remedies for fevers or birthing pain or sprained and broken limbs.

In Innish, she’d been able to do more, using her sparse pocket money to purchase herbs, salves. But she didn’t often dare, not with Nolan and Jessa, his favored barmaid, watching her day and night. So these past two years, she’d wanted to learn as much as she could. But it had also been an unleashing. Of years of stifling, of lying and hiding.

And that day she’d walked off the boat and felt her magic stir, felt it reach for a man limping down the street … She had fallen into a state of

shock that had not ended until she wound up weeping in this very chair three hours later.

Yrene sighed through her nose. “I could return here one day to continue my studies. But—with all due respect, I am a full healer now.” And she could venture wherever her gift called her.

Hafiza’s white brows rose, stark against her brown skin. “And what of Prince Kashin?”

Yrene shifted in her seat. “What of him?”

“You were once good friends. He remains fond of you, and that is no small thing to ignore.”

Yrene leveled a look few dared to direct toward the Healer on High. “Will he interfere with my plans to leave?”

“He is a prince, and has been denied nothing, save the crown he covets.

He may find that your leaving is not something he will tolerate.”

Dread sluiced through her, starting at her spine and ending curled deep in her gut. “I’ve given him no encouragement. I made my thoughts on that matter perfectly clear last year.”

It had been a disaster. She’d gone over it again and again, the things she’d said, the moments between them—everything that had led up to that awful conversation in that large Darghan tent atop the windswept steppes.

It had started a few months after she’d arrived in Antica, when one of Kashin’s favored servants had fallen ill. To her surprise, the prince himself had been at the man’s bedside, and during the long hours Yrene worked, the conversation had flowed, and she’d found herself … smiling. She’d cured the servant, and upon leaving that night, she’d been escorted by Kashin himself to the gates of the Torre. And in the months that followed, friendship had sprung up between them.

Perhaps freer, lighter than the friendship she also wound up forming with Hasar, who had taken a liking to Yrene after requiring some healing of her own. And while Yrene had struggled to find companions within the Torre thanks to her and her fellow students’ conflicting hours, the prince and princess had become friends indeed. As had Hasar’s lover, the sweet-faced Renia—who was as lovely inside as she was out.

A strange group they made, but … Yrene had enjoyed their company, the dinners Kashin and Hasar invited her to, when Yrene knew she had no reason to really be there. Kashin often managed to find a way to sit next to her, or near enough to engage her in conversation. For months, things had been fine—better than fine. And then Hafiza had brought Yrene out to the steppes, the native home of the khagan’s family, to oversee a grueling healing. With Kashin as their escort and guide.

The Healer on High now examined Yrene, frowning slightly. “Perhaps your lack of encouragement has made him more eager.”

Yrene rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb and forefinger. “We’ve barely spoken since then.” It was true. Though mostly due to Yrene avoiding him at the dinners to which Hasar and Renia still invited her.

“The prince does not seem like a man easily deterred—certainly not in matters of the heart.”

She knew that. She’d liked that about Kashin. Until he’d wanted something she couldn’t give him. Yrene groaned a bit. “Will I have to leave like a thief in the night, then?” Hasar would never forgive her, though she had no doubt Renia would try to soothe and rationalize it to the princess. If Hasar was pure flame, then Renia was flowing water.

“Should you decide to remain, you will not have to worry about such things at all.”

Yrene straightened. “You would really use Kashin as a way to keep me here?”

Hafiza laughed, a crow of warmth. “No. But forgive an old woman for trying to use any avenue necessary to convince you.”

Pride and guilt eddied in her chest. But Yrene said nothing—had no answer.

Returning to the northern continent … She knew there was no one and nothing left there for her. Nothing but unforgiving war, and those who would need her help.

She did not even know where to go—where to sail, how to find those armies and their wounded. She’d traveled far and wide before, had evaded enemies bent on slaughtering her, and the thought of doing it all again … She knew some would think her mad. Ungrateful for the offer Hafiza had laid before her. She’d thought those things of herself for a long while now.

Yet not a single day passed without Yrene gazing toward the sea at the foot of the city—gazing northward.

Yrene’s attention indeed slid from the Healer on High to the windows behind her, to the distant, darkening horizon, as if it were a lodestone.

Hafiza said, a shade more gently, “There is no rush to decide. Wars take a long time.”

“But I will need—”

“There is a task I would first have you do, Yrene.” Yrene stilled at that tone, the hint of command in it.

She glanced to the letter Hafiza had been reading when she’d entered. “What is it?”

“There is a guest at the palace—a special guest of the khagan. I would ask you to treat him. Before you decide whether now is the right time to

leave these shores, or if it is better to remain.”

Yrene angled her head. Rare—very rare for Hafiza to pass off a task from the khagan to someone else. “What is his ailment?” Common, standard words for healers receiving cases.

“He is a young man, age twenty-three. Healthy in every regard, in fit condition. But he suffered a grave injury to his spine earlier this summer that left him paralyzed from the hips downward. He cannot feel or move his legs, and has been in a wheeled chair since. I am bypassing the initial physicians’ examination to appeal directly to you.”

Yrene’s mind churned. A complex, long process to heal that manner of injury. Spines were nearly as difficult as brains. Connected to them quite closely. With that sort of healing, it wasn’t a matter of letting her magic wash over them—that wasn’t how it worked.

It was finding the right places and channels, in finding the correct amount of magic to wield. It was getting the brain to again send signals to the spine, down those broken pathways; it was replacing the damaged, smallest kernels of life within the body with new, fresh ones. And on top of it … learning to walk again. Weeks. Months, perhaps.

“He is an active young man,” Hafiza said. “The injury is akin to the warrior you aided last winter on the steppes.”

She’d guessed as much already—it was likely why she’d been asked. Two months spent healing the horse-lord who’d taken a bad fall off his mount and injured his spine. It was not an uncommon injury among the Darghan, some of whom rode horses and some of whom soared on ruks, and they had long relied on the Torre’s healers. Working on the warrior had been her first time putting her lessons on the subject into effect, precisely why Hafiza had accompanied her to the steppes. Yrene was fairly confident

she could do another healing on her own this time, but it was the way Hafiza glanced down at the letter—just once—that made Yrene pause. Made her ask, “Who is he?”

“Lord Chaol Westfall.” Not a name from the khaganate. Hafiza added, holding Yrene’s gaze, “He was the former Captain of the Guard and is now Hand to the new King of Adarlan.”


Yrene was silent, in her head, her heart. Only the crying of the gulls sailing above the Torre and the shouts of vendors going home for the night in the streets beyond the compound’s high walls filled the tower room.


The word pushed out of Yrene on a breath. Hafiza’s slim mouth tightened.

“No,” Yrene said again. “I will not heal him.”

There was no softness, nothing motherly in Hafiza’s face, as she said, “You took an oath upon entering these halls.”

“No.” It was all she could think to say.

“I am well aware how difficult it may be for you—” Her hands started shaking. “No.”


“You know why.” The words were a strangled whisper. “Y-y-you know.” “If you see Adarlanian soldiers suffering on those battlefields, will you

stomp right over them?”

It was the cruelest Hafiza had ever been to her.

Yrene rubbed the ring on her finger. “If he was Captain of the Guard for the last king, he—he worked for the man who—” The words spilled and stumbled out. “He took orders from him.”

“And now works for Dorian Havilliard.”

“Who indulged in his father’s riches—the riches of my people. Even if Dorian Havilliard did not participate, the fact that he stood back while it happened …” The pale stone walls pressed in, even the solid tower beneath them feeling unwieldy. “Do you know what the king’s men did these years? What his armies, his soldiers, his guards did? And you ask me to heal a man who commanded them?”

“It is a reality of who you are—who we are. A choice all healers must make.”

“And you have made it so often? In your peaceful kingdom?”

Hafiza’s face darkened. Not with ire, but memory. “I was once asked to heal a man who was injured while evading capture. After he had committed a crime so unspeakable … The guards told me what he’d done before I walked into his cell. They wanted him patched up so he could live to be put on trial. He’d undoubtedly be executed—they had victims willing to testify and proof aplenty. Eretia herself saw the latest victim. His last one. Gathered all the evidence she needed and stood in that court and condemned him with what she had seen.” Hafiza’s throat bobbed. “They chained him down in that cell, and he was hurt enough that I knew … I knew I could use my magic to make the internal bleeding worse. They’d never know. He’d be dead by morning, and no one would dare question me.” She studied the vial of blue tonic. “It was the closest I have ever come to killing. I wanted to kill him for what he had done. The world would be better for it. I had my hands on his chest—I was ready to do it. But I remembered. I remembered that oath I had taken, and remembered that they had asked me to heal him so that he would live—so that justice might be

found for his victims. And their families.” She met Yrene’s eyes. “It was not my death to dole out.”

“What happened?” The words were a wobble.

“He tried to plead innocent. Even with what Eretia presented, with what that victim was willing to talk about. He was a monster through and through. They convicted him, and he was executed at sunrise the next day.”

“Did you watch it?”

“I did not. I came back up here. But Eretia did. She stood at the front of the crowd and stayed until they hauled his corpse into a cart. She stayed for the victims who could not bear to watch. Then she returned here, and we both cried for a long, long while.”

Yrene was quiet for a few breaths, enough that her hands steadied. “So I am to heal this man—so he may find justice elsewhere?”

“You do not know his story, Yrene. I suggest listening to it before contemplating such things.”

Yrene shook her head. “There will be no justice for him—not if he served the old and new king. Not if he’s cunning enough to remain in power. I know how Adarlan works.”

Hafiza watched her for a long moment. “The day you walked into this room, so terribly thin and covered with the dust of a hundred roads … I had never sensed such a gift. I looked into those beautiful eyes of yours, and I nearly gasped at the uncut power in you.”

Disappointment. It was disappointment on the Healer on High’s face, in her voice.

“I thought to myself,” Hafiza went on, “Where has this young woman been hiding? What god reared you, guided you to my doorstep? Your dress

was in tatters around your ankles, and yet you walked in, straight-backed as any noble lady. As if you were the heir to Kamala herself.”

Until Yrene had dumped the money on the desk and fallen apart moments later. She doubted the very first Healer on High had ever done such a thing.

“Even your family name: Towers. A hint at your foremothers’ long-ago association with the Torre, perhaps. I wondered in that moment if I had at last found my heir—my replacement.”

Yrene felt the words like a blow to the gut. Hafiza had never so much as hinted …

Stay, the Healer on High had offered. To not only continue the training, but to also take up the mantle now laid before her.

But it had not been Yrene’s own ambition, to one day claim this room as her own. Not when her sights had always been set across the Narrow Sea. And even now … it was an honor beyond words, yes. But one that rang hollow.

“I asked what you wanted to do with the knowledge I would give you,” Hafiza went on. “Do you remember what you said to me?”

Yrene did. She had not forgotten it for a moment. “I said I wanted to use it to do some good for the world. To do something with my useless, wasted life.”

The words had guided her these years—along with the note she carried every day, moving it from pocket to pocket, dress to dress. Words from a mysterious stranger, perhaps a god who had worn the skin of a battered young woman, whose gift of gold had gotten her here. Saved her.

“And so you shall, Yrene,” Hafiza said. “You shall one day return home, and you shall do good, you shall do wonders. But before you do, I would

ask this of you. Help that young man. You have done the healing before— you can do it again now.”

“Why can’t you?”

She’d never sounded so sullen, so … ungrateful.

Hafiza gave her a small, sad smile. “It is not my own healing that is needed.”

Yrene knew the Healer on High did not mean the man’s healing, either.

She swallowed against the thickness in her throat.

“It is a soul-wound, Yrene. And letting it fester these years … I cannot blame you. But I will hold you accountable if you let it turn into something worse. And I will mourn you for it.”

Yrene’s lips wobbled, but she pressed them together, blinking back the burning in her eyes.

“You passed the tests, better than anyone who has ever climbed into this tower,” Hafiza said softly. “But let this be my personal test for you. The final one. So that when you decide to go, I may bid you farewell, send you off to war, and know …” Hafiza put a hand on her chest. “Know that wherever the road takes you, however dark, you will be all right.”

Yrene swallowed the small sound that tried to come out of her and instead looked toward the city, its pale stones resplendent in the last light of the setting sun. Through the open windows behind the Healer on High, a night breeze laced with lavender and cloves flitted in, cooling her face and ruffling Hafiza’s cloud of white hair.

Yrene slid a hand into the pocket of her pale blue dress, her fingers wrapping around the familiar smoothness of the folded piece of parchment. She clutched it, as she had often done on the sailing over here, during those initial few weeks of uncertainty even after Hafiza had admitted her, during

the long hours and hard days and moments that had nearly broken her while she trained.

A note, written by a stranger who had saved her life and granted her freedom in a matter of hours. Yrene had never learned her name, that young woman who had worn her scars like some ladies wore their finest jewelry. The young woman who was a trained killer, but had purchased a healer’s education.

So many things, so many good things, had come from that night. Yrene sometimes wondered if it had actually happened—might have believed she’d dreamed it if not for the note in her pocket, and the second object Yrene had never sold, even when the gold had thinned.

The ornate gold-and-ruby brooch, worth more than entire blocks of Antica.

Adarlan’s colors. Yrene had never learned where the young woman had come from, who had bestowed the beating that had left lingering bruises on her pretty face, but she had spoken of Adarlan as Yrene did. As all the children who had lost everything to Adarlan did—those children with their kingdoms left in ash and blood and ruin.

Yrene ran a thumb over the note, the words inked there:

For wherever you need to go—and then some. The world needs more healers.

Yrene breathed in that first night breeze, the spices and brine it ushered into the Torre.

She looked back to Hafiza at last, the Healer on High’s face calm.


Yrene would regret it, if she refused. Hafiza would yield, but Yrene knew that whether she left here, whether she somehow decided to remain, she would … regret. Think back on this. Wonder if she had repaid the extraordinary kindness she’d been given rather poorly. Wonder what her mother would have thought of it.

And even if this man hailed from Adarlan, even if he’d done the bidding of that butcher …

“I will meet with him. Assess him,” Yrene conceded. Her voice only wobbled slightly. She clutched that piece of paper in her pocket. “And then decide if I will heal him.”

Hafiza considered. “Fair enough, girl,” she said quietly. “Fair enough.” Yrene blew out a shaking breath. “When do I see him?”

“Tomorrow,” Hafiza said, and Yrene winced. “The khagan has asked you to come to Lord Westfall’s chambers tomorrow.”

Chaol had barely slept. Partially due to the unrelenting heat, partially due to the fact that they were in a tentative ally’s fraught household, full of potential spies and unknown dangers—perhaps even from Morath itself— and partially due to what had befallen Rifthold and all he held dear.

And partially due to the meeting that he was now minutes away from having.

Nesryn paced with uncharacteristic nerves through the sitting room that was to be his sickroom. Low-lying couches and clusters of cushions filled the space, the shining floors interrupted only by rugs of thickest and finest weaving—from the skilled hands of craftswomen in the west, Nesryn told him. Art and treasures from across the khagan’s empire adorned the space, interspersed with potted palms sagging in the heat and sunlight trickling through the garden windows and doors.

Ten in the morning, the khagan’s eldest daughter had declared to him at dinner last night. Princess Hasar—plain and yet fierce-eyed. A lovely young woman had sat at her side, the only person at whom Hasar smiled. Her lover or wife, judging by the frequent touching and long looks.

There had been enough of an edge to Hasar’s wicked grin as she told Chaol when the healer would arrive that he’d been left to wonder who, precisely, they were sending.

He still did not know what to make of these people, this place. This city of high learning, this blend of so many cultures and history, peacefully dwelling together … Not at all like the raging and broken spirits dwelling in Adarlan’s shadow, living in terror, distrusting one another, enduring its worst crimes.

They’d asked him about the butchering of the slaves in Calaculla and Endovier at dinner.

Or the oily one, Arghun, did. Had the prince been among Chaol’s new recruits to the royal guard, he would have easily gotten him to fall in line thanks to a few well-timed shows of skill and sheer dominance. But here, he had no authority to bring the conniving, haughty prince to heel.

Not even when Arghun wanted to know why the former King of Adarlan had deemed it necessary to enslave his people. And then put them down like animals. Why the man had not looked to the southern continent for education on the horrors and stain of slavery—and avoided instituting it.

Chaol had offered curt answers that verged on impolite. Sartaq, the only one of them beyond Kashin whom Chaol was inclined to like, had finally tired of his elder brother’s questioning and steered the conversation away. To what, Chaol had no idea. He’d been too busy fighting against the roaring in his ears over Arghun’s razor-sharp inquiries. And then too busy monitoring every face—royal, vizier, or servant—who made an appearance in the khagan’s great hall. No signs of black rings or collars; no strange behavior to remark on.

He’d given Kashin a subtle shake of his head at one point to tell him as much. The prince had pretended not to see, but the warning flared in his eyes: Keep looking.

So Chaol had, half paying attention to the meal unfolding before him, half monitoring every word and glance and breath of those around him.

Despite their youngest sister’s death, the heirs made the meal lively, conversation flowing, mostly in languages Chaol did not know or recognize. Such a wealth of kingdoms in that hall, represented by viziers and servants and companions—the now-youngest princess, Duva, herself wedded to a dark-haired, sad-eyed prince from a faraway land who kept close to his pregnant wife and spoke little to anyone around him. But whenever Duva smiled softly at him … Chaol did not think the light that filled the prince’s face was feigned. And wondered if the man’s silence was not from reticence but perhaps not yet knowing enough of his wife’s language to keep up.

Nesryn, however, had no such excuse. She’d been silent and haunted at dinner. He’d only learned that she’d bathed before it thanks to the shout and slamming door in her chambers, followed by a huffy-looking male servant scrambling out of her rooms. The man did not come back again, nor did a replacement arrive.

Kadja, the servant assigned to Chaol, had helped him dress for dinner, then undress for bed, and had brought breakfast this morning immediately upon his awakening.

The khagan certainly knew how to eat well.

Exquisitely spiced and simmered meats, so tender they fell right off the bone; herbed rice of various colors; flatbreads coated in butter and garlic; rich wines and liquors from the vineyards and distilleries across his empire. Chaol had passed on the latter, accepting only the ceremonial glass offered before the khagan made a half-hearted toast to his new guests. For a grieving father, it was a warmer welcome than Chaol had expected.

Yet Nesryn had a sip of her drink, barely a bite of her meal, and waited a scant minute until the feast was cleared before asking to return to their suite. He’d agreed—of course he’d agreed, but when they’d closed the suite doors and he’d asked if she wanted to talk, she had said no. She wanted to sleep and would see him in the morning.

He’d had the nerve to ask Nesryn if she wanted to share his room or hers.

The shutting of her door was emphasis enough.

So Kadja had helped him into bed, and he had tossed and turned, sweating and wishing he could kick off the sheets instead of having to throw them back. Even the cool breeze that drifted in through the cleverly crafted ventilation system—the air hauled from wind-snaring towers amid the domes and spires to be cooled by canals beneath the palace, then scattered amongst the rooms and halls—had not offered any reprieve.

He and Nesryn had never been good at talking. They’d tried, usually with disastrous results.

They’d done everything out of order, and he’d cursed himself again and again for not making it right with her. Not trying to be better.

She’d barely looked at him these past ten minutes they’d been waiting for the healer to arrive. Her face was haggard, her shoulder-length hair limp. She hadn’t put on her captain’s uniform, but rather returned to her usual midnight-blue tunic and black pants. As if she couldn’t stand to be in Adarlan’s colors.

Kadja had dressed him again in his teal jacket, even going so far as to polish the buckles down the front. There was a quiet pride to her work, not at all like the timidity and fear of so many of the castle servants in Rifthold.

“She’s late,” Nesryn murmured. Indeed, the ornate wooden clock in the corner announced the healer was ten minutes late. “Should we call for someone to find out if she’s coming?”

“Give her time.”

Nesryn paused before him, frowning deeply. “We need to begin immediately. There is no time to waste.”

Chaol took a breath. “I understand that you want to return home to your family—”

“I will not rush you. But even a day makes a difference.”

He noted the lines of strain bracketing her mouth. He had no doubt twin ones marked his own. Forcing himself to stop contemplating and dreading where Dorian might now be had been an effort of pure will this morning. “Once the healer arrives, why don’t you go track down your kin in the city? Perhaps they’ve heard from your family in Rifthold.”

A slicing wave of her slender hand. “I can wait until you’re done.” Chaol lifted his brows. “And pace the entire time?”

Nesryn sank onto the nearest sofa, the gold silk sighing beneath her slight weight. “I came here to help you—with this, and with our cause. I won’t run off for my own needs.”

“What if I give you an order?”

She only shook her head, her dark curtain of hair swaying with the movement.

And before he could give that exact order, a brisk knock thudded on the heavy wood door.

Nesryn shouted a word that he assumed meant enter in Halha, and he listened to the footsteps as they approached. One set—quiet and light.

The door to the sitting room drifted open beneath the press of a honey-colored hand.

It was her eyes that Chaol noticed first.

She likely stopped people dead in the street with those eyes, a vibrant golden brown that seemed lit from within. Her hair was a heavy fall of rich browns amid flashes of dark gold, curling slightly at the ends that brushed her narrow waist.

She moved with a nimble grace, her feet—clad in practical black slippers—swift and unfaltering as she crossed the room, either not noticing or caring about the ornate furnishings.

Young, perhaps a year or two older than twenty. But those eyes … they were far older than that.

She paused at the carved wooden chair across from the golden couch, Nesryn shooting to her feet. The healer—for there was no one else she could be, with that calm grace, those clear eyes, and that simple, pale blue muslin dress—glanced between them. She was a few inches shorter than Nesryn, built with similar delicacy, yet despite her slender frame … He didn’t look long at the other features the healer had been generously blessed with.

“Are you from the Torre Cesme?” Nesryn asked in Chaol’s own tongue.

The healer only stared at him. Something like surprise and anger lighting those remarkable eyes.

She slid a hand into the pocket of her gown, and he waited for her to withdraw something, but it remained there. As if she was grasping an object within.

Not a doe ready to bolt, but a stag, weighing the options of fighting or fleeing, of standing its ground, lowering its head, and charging.

Chaol held her gaze, cool and steady. He’d taken on plenty of young bucks during the years of being captain—had gotten them all to heel.

Nesryn asked something in Halha, no doubt a repeat of her question. A thin scar sliced across the healer’s throat. Perhaps three inches long.

He knew what sort of weapon had given that scar. All the possibilities that burst into his head for why it might have happened were not pleasant ones.

Nesryn fell silent, watching them.

The healer only turned on her heel, walked to the desk near the windows, took a seat, and pulled a piece of parchment toward her from the neat stack in the corner.

Whoever these healers were, the khagan was right: they certainly did not answer to his throne. Or find it in themselves to be impressed with any manner of nobility and power.

She opened a drawer, found a glass pen, and held it poised over the paper.


She did not have an accent—or, rather, the accent of these lands. “Chaol Westfall.”


The accent. It was from— “Fenharrow.”

Her pen stalled. “Age.”

“You’re from Fenharrow?”

What are you doing here, so far from home? She leveled a cool, unimpressed stare at him. He swallowed and said, “Twenty-three.”

She scribbled something down. “Describe where the injury begins.” Each word was clipped, her voice low.

Had it been an insult to be assigned his case? Had she other things to do when she was summoned here? He thought again of Hasar’s wicked smile the night before. Perhaps the princess knew that this woman was not praised for her bedside manner.

“What is your name?”

The question came from Nesryn, whose face was beginning to tighten.

The healer stilled as she took in Nesryn, blinking like she had not really noticed her. “You—are from here?”

“My father was,” Nesryn said. “He moved to Adarlan, wed my mother, and I now have family there—and here.” She impressively hid any trace of dread at the mention of them as she added coaxingly, “My name is Nesryn Faliq. I am the Captain of the Royal Guard of Adarlan.”

That surprise in the healer’s eyes turned wary. But she again gazed at him.

She knew who he was. The look conveyed it—the analysis. She knew he’d once held that title, and now was something else. So the name, the age

… the questions were bullshit. Or some bureaucratic nonsense. He doubted it was the latter.

A woman from Fenharrow, meeting with two members from Adarlan’s court …

It didn’t take much to read her. What she saw. Where that mark on her throat might have come from.

“If you don’t want to be here,” Chaol said roughly, “then send someone else.”

Nesryn whirled on him.

The healer only held his stare. “There is no one else to do this.” The unspoken words said the rest: They sent their best.

With that steady, self-assured posture, he didn’t doubt it. She angled her pen again. “Describe where the injury begins.”

A sharp knock on the sitting room door cut through the silence. He started, cursing himself for not having heard the approach.

But it was Princess Hasar, clad in green and gold and smirking like a cat. “Good morning, Lord Westfall. Captain Faliq.” Her braided hair swaying with each swaggering step, Hasar strolled over to the healer, who looked up at her with an expression Chaol dared call exasperation, and leaned down to kiss her on either cheek. “You’re not usually so grumpy, Yrene.”

There—a name.

“I forgot my kahve this morning.” The thick, spiced, bitter drink Chaol had choked down with his breakfast. An acquired taste, Nesryn had said when he’d asked about it later.

The princess took up a perch along the edge of the desk. “You didn’t come to dinner last night. Kashin was sulking about it.”

Yrene’s shoulders tightened. “I had to prepare.”

“Yrene Towers locking herself in the Torre to work? I might die of shock.”

From the princess’s tone, he filled in enough. The best healer in the Torre Cesme had become so thanks to that grueling work ethic.

Hasar looked him over. “Still in the chair?”

“Healing takes time,” Yrene said mildly to the princess. Not an ounce of subservience or respect to the tone. “We were just beginning.”

“So you agreed to do it, then?”

Yrene cut the princess a sharp glare. “We were assessing the lord’s needs.” She jerked her chin toward the doors. “Shall I find you when I’m done?”

Nesryn gave Chaol an impressed, wary glance. A healer dismissing a princess of the most powerful empire in the world.

Hasar leaned forward to ruffle Yrene’s gold-brown hair. “If you weren’t gods-blessed, I’d carve out your tongue myself.” The words were honeyed venom. Yrene only offered a faint, bemused smile before Hasar hopped off the desk and gave him a mocking incline of the head. “Don’t worry, Lord Westfall. Yrene has healed injuries similar and far worse than your own. She’ll have you back on your feet and able to do your master’s bidding again in no time.” With that lovely parting shot, which left Nesryn cold-eyed, the princess vanished.

They waited a good few moments to make sure they heard the outer door shut.

“Yrene Towers,” was all Chaol said. “What of it.”

Gone was the faint amusement. Fine.

“The lack of feeling and movement begins at my hips.”

Yrene’s eyes shot right to them, dancing over him. “Are you capable of using your manhood?”

He tried not to flinch. Even Nesryn blinked at the frank question. “Yes,” he said tightly, fighting the heat rising in his cheeks.

She looked between them, assessing. “Have you used it to completion?”

He clenched his jaw. “How is that relevant?” And how had she gleaned what was between them?

Yrene only wrote something down.

“What are you writing?” he demanded, cursing the damned chair for keeping him from storming to rip the paper out of her hands.

“I’m writing a giant no.” Which she then underlined.

He growled, “I suppose you’ll ask about my bathroom habits now?” “It was next on my list.”

“They are unchanged,” he bit out. “Unless you need Nesryn to confirm.”

Yrene merely turned to Nesryn, unruffled. “Have you seen him struggle with it?”

“Do not answer that,” he snarled at Nesryn.

Nesryn had the good wits to sink into a chair and remain quiet.

Yrene rose, setting down the pen, and came around the desk. The morning sunlight caught in her hair, bouncing off her head in a corona.

She knelt at his feet. “Shall you remove your boots or shall I?” “I’ll do it.”

She sat back on her heels and watched him move. Another test. To discern how mobile and agile he was. The weight of his legs, having to constantly adjust their position … Chaol gritted his teeth as he gripped his knee, lifting his foot off the wooden slat, and bent to remove his boot in a few sharp tugs. When he finished with the other one, he asked, “Pants, too?”

Chaol knew he should be kind, should beseech her to help him, and yet

“After a drink or two, I think,” Yrene only said. Then looked over her

shoulder to a bemused Nesryn. “Sorry,” she added—and sounded only slightly less sharp-tongued.

“Why are you apologizing to her?”

“I assume she has the misfortune of sharing your bed these days.”

It took his self-restraint to keep from going for her shoulders and shaking her soundly. “Have I done something to you?”

That seemed to give her pause. Yrene only yanked off his socks, throwing them atop where he’d discarded his boots. “No.”

A lie. He scented and tasted it.

But it focused her, and Chaol watched as Yrene picked up his foot in her slim hands. Watched, since he didn’t feel it—beyond the shift in his abdominal muscles. He couldn’t tell if she was squeezing or holding lightly, if her nails were digging in; not without looking. So he did.

A ring adorned her fourth finger—a wedding band. “Is your husband from here?” Or wife, he supposed.

“I’m not—” She blinked, frowning at the ring. She didn’t finish the sentence.

Not married, then. The silver ring was simple, the garnet no more than a droplet. Likely worn to keep men from bothering her, as he’d seen many women do in the streets of Rifthold.

“Can you feel this?” Yrene asked. She was touching each toe. “No.”

She did it on the other foot. “And this?” “No.”

He’d been through such examinations before—at the castle, and with Rowan.

“His initial injury,” Nesryn cut in, as if remembering the prince as well, “was to the entire spine. A friend had some knowledge of healing and patched him up as best he could. He regained movement in his upper body, but not below the hips.”

“How was it attained—the injury?”

Her hands were moving over his foot and ankle, tapping and testing. As if she’d indeed done this before, as Princess Hasar had claimed.

Chaol didn’t immediately reply, sorting through those moments of terror and pain and rage.

Nesryn opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “Fighting. I received a blow to my back while fighting. A magical one.”

Yrene’s fingers were inching up his legs, patting and squeezing. He felt none of it. Her brows bunched in concentration. “Your friend must have been a gifted healer if you regained so much motion.”

“He did what he could. Then told me to come here.”

Her hands pushed and pressed on his thighs, and he watched with no small amount of growing horror as she slid them higher and higher. He was about to demand if she planned to ascertain for herself about the life in his manhood, but Yrene lifted her head and met his stare.

This close, her eyes were a golden flame. Not like the cold metal of Manon Blackbeak’s, not laced with a century of violence and predator’s instincts, but … like a long-burning flame on a winter’s night. “I need to see your back,” was all Yrene said. Then she peeled away. “Lie down on the nearest bed.”

Before Chaol could remind her that it wasn’t quite so easy to do that, Nesryn was instantly in motion, wheeling him into his room. Kadja had already made his bed, and left a bouquet of orange lilies on the table beside it. Yrene sniffed at the scent—as if it was unpleasant. He refrained from asking.

He waved off Nesryn when she tried to help him onto the bed. It was low enough that he could manage.

Yrene lingered in the doorway, observing while he braced one hand on the mattress, one on the arm of the chair, and in a powerful push, heaved himself into a sitting position on the bed. He unbuckled each of those newly polished buttons on his jacket, then peeled it off. Along with the white shirt beneath.

“Facedown, I assume?”

Yrene gave him a curt nod.

Gripping his knees, abdomen clenching, he pulled his legs onto the mattress as he lay flat on his back.

For a few heartbeats, spasms shook his legs. Not real, controlled motion, he’d realized after the first time it had happened weeks ago. He could still feel that crushing weight in his chest after he’d understood it was some effect of the injury—that it usually happened if he moved himself about a great deal.

“Spasms in the legs are common with such an injury,” Yrene supplied, observing them fade away into stillness once again. “These may calm with time.” She waved a hand to him in silent reminder to turn over onto his belly.

Chaol said nothing as he sat up to fold one ankle over the other, lay down again on his back, and then twisted over, his legs following suit.

Whether she was impressed that he’d picked up on the maneuverings so quickly, she didn’t let on. Didn’t even lift a brow.

Folding his hands under his chin, he peered over his shoulder and watched her approach, watched her motion Nesryn to sit when the woman began pacing again.

He scanned Yrene for any sort of flickering magic. What it’d look like, he had not the faintest inkling. Dorian’s had been ice and wind and flashing

light; Aelin’s had been raging, singing flame, but healing magic … Was it something external, something tangible? Or something only his bones and blood might witness?

He’d once balked at those sorts of questions—might once have even balked at the idea of letting magic touch him. But the man who had done those things, feared those things … He was glad to leave him in the shattered ruin of the glass castle.

Yrene stood over him for a moment, surveying his back.

Her hands were as warm as the morning sun when she laid them palm-down on the skin between his shoulder blades. “You were hit here,” she observed quietly.

There was a mark. A faint, splattering paleness to his skin where the king’s blow had hit. Dorian had shown him using a trick with two hand-mirrors before he’d left.


Her hands trailed along the groove of his spine. “It rippled down here, shredding and severing.” The words were not for him—but as if she were speaking to herself, lost in some trance.

He fought against the memory of that pain, the numbness and oblivion it summoned.

“You can—tell that?” Nesryn asked.

“My gift tells me.” Yrene’s hand stalled along the middle of his back, pushing and prodding. “It was terrible power—what struck you.”

“Yes,” was all he said.

Her hands went lower, lower, until they shoved down the waist of his pants a few inches. He hissed through his teeth and glared over his bare shoulder. “A little warning.”

Yrene ignored him and touched the lowest part of his back. He did not feel it.

She spider-walked her fingers up his spine as if counting the vertebrae. “Here?”

“I can feel you.”

She backtracked one step. “Here?” “Nothing.”

Her face bunched, as if making a mental note of the location. She began on the outer edges of his back, creeping up, asking where he stopped feeling it. She took his neck and head in her hands, turning it this way and that, testing and assessing.

Finally, she ordered him to move. Not to rise, but to turn over again.

Chaol stared up at the arched, painted ceiling as Yrene poked and prodded his pectorals, the muscles of his abdomen, those along his ribs. She reached the vee of muscles leading beneath his pants, kept moving lower, and he demanded, “Really?”

Yrene shot him an incredulous look. “Is there something you’re particularly embarrassed for me to see?”

Oh, she certainly had some fight in her, this Yrene Towers from Fenharrow. Chaol held her stare, the challenge in it.

Yrene only snorted. “I had forgotten that men from the northern continent are so proper and guarded.”

“And here they are not?”

“No. Bodies are celebrated, not shamed into hiding. Men and women both.”

That would explain the servant who had no qualms about such things. “They seemed plenty dressed at dinner.”

“Wait until the parties,” Yrene countered coolly. But she lifted her hands from the already-low waist of his pants. “If you have not noticed any problems externally or internally with your manhood, then I don’t need to look.”

He shoved against the feeling that he was again thirteen years old and trying to talk to a pretty girl for the first time and ground out, “Fine.”

Yrene withdrew a step and handed him his shirt. He sat up, arms and abdominal muscles straining, and slid it on.

“Well?” Nesryn asked, stalking close.

Yrene toyed with a heavy, loose curl. “I need to think. Talk to my superior.”

“I thought you were the best,” Nesryn said carefully.

“I am one of many who are skilled,” Yrene admitted. “But the Healer on High assigned me to this. I should like to speak to her first.”

“Is it bad?” Nesryn demanded. He was grateful she did—he didn’t have the nerve to.

Yrene only looked to him, her gaze frank and unafraid. “You know it is bad.”

“But can you help him?” Nesryn pushed, sharper this time.

“I have healed such injuries before. But this … it remains to be seen,” Yrene said, meeting her gaze now.

“When—when will you know?” “When I have had time to think.”

To decide, Chaol realized. She wanted to decide whether to help him.

He held Yrene’s stare again, letting her see that he, at least, understood. He was glad Nesryn had not entertained the idea. He had a feeling Yrene would be face-first against the wall if she did.

But for Nesryn … the healers were beyond reproach. Holy as one of the gods here. Their ethic unquestionable.

“When will you return?” Nesryn asked.

Never, he almost answered.

Yrene slid her hands into her pockets. “I’ll send word,” was all she said, and left.

Nesryn stared after her, then rubbed her face. Chaol said nothing.

But Nesryn straightened, then dashed out—to the sitting room. Rustling paper, and then—

Nesryn halted in the doorway to his room, brows crossed, Yrene’s paper in her hands.

She handed it to him. “What does this even mean?”

There were four names written on the paper, her handwriting messy.





It was the final name that had been written down several times. The final name that had been underlined, over and over.

Josefin. Josefin. Josefin.

“Perhaps they’re other healers in the Torre who could help,” he lied. “Perhaps she feared spies overhearing her suggest someone else.”

Nesryn’s mouth quirked to the side. “Let’s see what she says—when she returns. At least we know Hasar can track her down if need be.” Or Kashin, whose very name had set the healer on edge. Not that he’d force Yrene to work on him, but … it was useful information.

Chaol studied the paper again. The fervent underlining of that final name.

As if Yrene had needed to remind herself while here. In his presence. As if she needed whoever they were to know that she remembered them.

He had met another talented young healer from Fenharrow. His king had loved her enough to consider fleeing with her, to seek a better life for them. Chaol knew what had gone on in Fenharrow during their youth. Knew what Sorscha had endured there—and what she’d endured in Rifthold.

He’d ridden through Fenharrow’s scarred grasslands over the years. Had seen the burned or abandoned stone cottages, their thatched roofs long since gone. Owners either enslaved, dead, or fled elsewhere. Far, far away.

No, Chaol realized as he held that piece of paper, Yrene Towers would not be returning.

She’d known his age, but Yrene had still not expected the former captain to look so … young.

She hadn’t done the math until she’d walked into that room and seen his handsome face, a mix of caution and hope written across the hardened, broad features.

It was that hope that had made her see red. Had made her ache to give him a matching scar to the slender one slicing across his cheek.

She’d been unprofessional in the most horrific sense. Never—never had she been so rude and unkind toward any of her patients.

Mercifully, Hasar had arrived, cooling her head slightly. But touching the man, thinking of ways to help him …

She had not meant to write the list of the last four generations of Towers women. Had not meant to write her mother’s name over and over while pretending to record his information. It had not helped with the overwhelming roaring in her head.

Sweating and dusty, Yrene burst into Hafiza’s office nearly an hour later, the trek from the palace through the clogged, narrow streets, then the endless steps up here, taking an eternity.

She’d been late—that had been her first truly unprofessional moment. She’d never been late to an appointment. Yet right at ten, she’d found

herself in an alcove of the hallway outside his bedroom, hands over her face, struggling to breathe.

He hadn’t been the brute she’d expected.

He’d spoken well, more lord than soldier. Though his body had most certainly belonged to the latter. She had patched up and healed enough of the khagan’s favored warriors to know the feel of muscle beneath her fingers. The scars covering Lord Westfall’s tan skin spoke volumes about how the muscles had been earned the hard way. And now aided him in maneuvering through the world with the chair.

And the injury to his spine …

As Yrene halted at the threshold of the Healer on High’s office, Hafiza looked up from where she sat beside a sniffling acolyte.

“I need a word,” Yrene said tightly, one hand gripping the doorjamb.

“You shall have one when we are done,” Hafiza simply replied, handing a handkerchief to the weepy girl.

Some male healers existed, but the majority of those who received Silba’s gift were female. And this girl, likely no more than fourteen … Yrene had been laboring on her cousin’s farm at that age. Dreaming of being here. Certainly not crying to anyone about her sorry lot in life.

But Yrene walked out, shutting the door behind her, and waited against the wall on the narrow landing.

There were two other doors up here: one locked that led into Hafiza’s personal workshop, and a door that led into the Healer on High’s bedroom; the former carved with an owl taking flight, the latter with an owl at rest. Silba’s symbol. It was everywhere in the tower—owls carved and embossed in the stone and wood, sometimes in unexpected places and with silly little

expressions, as if some long-ago acolyte had etched them as a secret joke. But the owl on the Healer on High’s private workshop …

Even though it perched atop a gnarled branch of iron that flowed across the door itself, wings flared wide as it prepared to leap into the skies, it seemed … alert. Aware of all who passed that door, who perhaps gazed too long in the direction of the workshop. None but Hafiza possessed the key to it, handed down by her predecessor. Ancient, half-forgotten knowledge and devices lay within, the acolytes whispered—unnatural things that were better locked up than set loose in the world.

Yrene always laughed at their hushed words, but didn’t tell them she and a few select others had been granted the pleasure of joining Hafiza in that workshop, which, save for the sheer age of some of the tools and furniture, held nothing worth gossiping about. But the mystery of the Healer on High’s workshop persisted, as it had likely done for centuries—yet another well-loved myth of the Torre, passed on from acolyte to acolyte.

Yrene fanned her face, still out of breath from the climb and the heat. She leaned her head back against the cool stone, and again felt for the scrap of paper in her pocket. She wondered if the lord had noticed how often she’d grabbed that stranger’s note. If he’d thought she was reaching for a weapon. He’d seen everything, been aware of her every breath.

A man trained for it. He had to be, if he’d served the dead king. Just as Nesryn Faliq, a child of this continent, now served the king of a territory that had not treated outsiders very well at all.

Yrene could not make sense of it. There was some romantic bond, she knew from both the tension and comfort between them. But to what degree

… It didn’t matter. Save for the emotional healing the lord would need as

well. A man not used to voicing his feelings, his fears and hopes and hurts

—that much was obvious.

The door to Hafiza’s office opened at last, and the acolyte emerged, smiling apologetically at Yrene, red-nosed and glassy-eyed.

Yrene sighed through her nose and offered a smile back. She was not the person who had just barged into the office. No, even busy as she was, Yrene had always taken time for the acolytes, the homesick ones especially.

No one had sat beside her in the mess hall below during those initial days.

Yrene still remembered those lonely meals. Remembered that she’d broken after two days and began taking her food to the vast healers’ library belowground, hiding from the stiff-backed librarians who forbade such things, with only the occasional mercurial Baast Cat and carved owl for company.

Yrene had returned to the mess hall once her lessons had garnered enough acquaintances to make the prospect of finding a place to sit less daunting, spotting familiar and smiling faces giving her enough courage to leave the library and its enigmatic cats behind for anything but research.

Yrene touched the acolyte on the shoulder and whispered, “Cook made almond cookies this morning. I smelled them on the way out. Tell her I want six, but take four of those for yourself.” She winked at the girl. “Leave the other two for me at my room.”

The girl beamed, nodding. Cook was perhaps Yrene’s first friend in the Torre. She’d spied Yrene eating alone and began sneaking extra treats onto her tray. Leaving them in her room. Even in her favorite secret spot in the library. Yrene had repaid Cook last year by saving her granddaughter from an insidious lung sickness that had crept up on her. Cook still got weepy

whenever they ran into each other, and Yrene had made it a point to stop by the girl’s house once a month to check on her.

When she left, she’d have to ask someone to look after the girl. Cleaving herself from this life she’d built … It would be no easy task. And come with no small amount of guilt.

Yrene watched the still-sniffling acolyte hop down the wide spiral stairs, then took a deep breath and strode into Hafiza’s office.

“Will the young lord walk again?” Hafiza asked by way of greeting, white brows high on her forehead.

Yrene slid into her usual chair, the seat still warm from the girl who’d just vacated it.

“He will. The injury is nearly twin to the one I healed last winter. But it will be tricky.”

“In regard to the healing, or you?”

Yrene blushed. “I behaved … poorly.” “That was to be expected.”

Yrene wiped the sweat from her brow. “I’m embarrassed to tell you how badly.”

“Then don’t. Do better the next time, and we’ll consider this another lesson.”

Yrene sagged in her chair, stretching her aching legs on the worn carpet. No matter how Hafiza’s servants begged, she refused to change the red-and-green rug. It had been good enough for the last five of her predecessors, and it was good enough for her.

Yrene leaned her head against the soft back of the chair, staring at the cloudless day beyond the open windows. “I think I can heal him,” she said,

more to herself than Hafiza. “If he cooperates, I could get him walking again.”

“And will he cooperate?”

“I was not the only one who behaved poorly,” she said. “Though he’s from Adarlan—it could be his nature.”

Hafiza huffed a laugh. “When do you return to him?” Yrene hesitated.

“You will return, won’t you?” Hafiza pushed.

Yrene picked at the sun-blanched threads of the chair’s arm. “It was hard

—hard to look at him, hear his accent, and …” She stilled her hand. “But you are right. I shall … try. If only so Adarlan may never hold it against me.”

“Do you expect them to?”

“He has powerful friends who might remember. His companion is the

new Captain of the Guard. Her family hails from here, yet she serves them.” “And what does that tell you?”

Always a lesson, always a test. “It tells me …” Yrene blew out a breath. “It tells me I don’t know as much as I assumed.” She straightened. “But it also doesn’t forgive them of any sins.”

Yet she had met plenty of bad people in her life. Lived among them, served them, in Innish. She had taken one look at Lord Westfall’s brown eyes and had known, deep down, he was not one of them. Neither was his companion.

And with his age … He had been a boy when so many of those atrocities had been committed. He still could have played some part, and plenty more had been done in recent years—enough to make her ill at the thought—but


“The injury to his spine,” Yrene said. “He claims some foul magic did

Her magic had recoiled against the splattered mark. Curved away. “Oh?”

She shivered. “I’ve never … I’ve never felt anything like that. As if it

was rotted, yet empty. Cold as the longest winter night.” “I shall have to take your word on that one.”

Yrene snorted, grateful for the dry humor. Indeed, Hafiza had never so much as seen snow. With Antica’s year-round warm climate, the closest they’d gotten to winter these two years was perhaps a crust of frost sparkling over the lavender and lemon trees one morning.

“It was …” Yrene brushed off the memory of the echo still held within that scar. “It was not any magic-wound I had encountered before.”

“Will it impact the healing of his spine?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t tried to probe with my power yet, but … I’ll let you know.”

“I’m at your disposal.”

“Even if this is my final test?”

“A good healer,” Hafiza said with a smile, “knows when to ask for help.”

Yrene nodded absently. And when she sailed back home, to war and bloodshed, who would she turn to then?

“I’ll go back,” Yrene said at last. “Tomorrow. I want to look into spinal injuries and paralysis in the library tonight.”

“I’ll let Cook know where to find you.”

Yrene gave Hafiza a wry grin. “Nothing escapes you, does it?” Hafiza’s knowing look wasn’t comforting.



The healer didn’t return that day. Nesryn waited for another hour, then two, Chaol filling his time with reading in the sitting room, before she finally declared she was going to see her family.

It had been years since she’d seen her aunt and uncle and their children.

She prayed they were still in the house where she’d last visited.

She’d barely slept. Had barely been able to think or feel things like hunger or exhaustion thanks to the thoughts wreaking havoc within her.

The healer with her lack of answers hadn’t soothed her.

And with no formal meeting scheduled with the khagan or his children today …

“I can entertain myself, you know,” Chaol said, setting his book on his lap as Nesryn again looked to the foyer door. “I’d join you, if I could.”

“You soon will be able to,” she promised. The healer had seemed skilled enough, despite her refusal to even give them a shred of hope.

If the woman couldn’t help them, then Nesryn would find another. And another. Even if she had to beg the Healer on High to help.

“Go, Nesryn,” Chaol ordered. “You’ll get no peace until you do.”

She rubbed her neck, then rose from her spot on the golden couch and strode over to him. Braced her hands on either arm of his chair, currently positioned by the open garden doors. She brought her face close to his, closer than it’d been in days. His own eyes seemed … brighter, somehow. A smidge better than yesterday. “I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

He gave her a quiet smile. “Take your time. See your family.” He had not seen his mother or brother in years, he’d told her. His father … Chaol did not talk about his father.

“Perhaps,” she said quietly, “we could get an answer for the healer.”

He blinked at her.

She murmured, “About the completion.” That fast, the light winked out from his eyes.

She withdrew quickly. He’d stopped her on the boat, when she’d practically leaped atop him. And seeing him without his shirt earlier, those muscles rippling along his back, his stomach … She’d almost begged the healer to let her do the inspecting.

Pathetic. Though she’d never been particularly good at avoiding her cravings. She’d started sleeping with him that summer because she didn’t see the point in resisting where her interest tugged her. Even if she hadn’t cared for him, not as she did now.

Nesryn slid a hand through her hair. “I’ll be back by dinner.”

Chaol waved her off, and was already reading his book again when she left the room.

They had made no promises, she reminded herself. She knew his tendencies drove him to want to do right by her, to honor her, and this summer, when that castle had collapsed and she’d thought him dead … She had never known such fear. She had never prayed as she had in those moments—until Aelin’s flame spared her from death, and Nesryn had prayed that she had spared him, too.

Nesryn shut out the thoughts of those days as she strode through the palace halls, vaguely remembering where to find the gates to the city proper. What she’d thought she wanted, what was most important—or had been. Until the khagan had uttered the news.

She had left her family. She should have been there. To protect the children, protect her aging father, her fierce and laughing sister.

“Captain Faliq.”

Nesryn halted at the pleasant voice, at the title she was still barely accustomed to answering. She was standing at one of the palace crossroads, the path ahead to take her to the front gates if she kept going straight. She had marked every exit they’d passed on the way in.

And at the end of the hallway that bisected hers was Sartaq.

Gone were the fine clothes of yesterday. The prince now wore close-fitting leathers, the shoulders capped with simple yet sturdy armor, reinforced at the wrists, knees, and shins. No breastplate. His long black hair had been braided back, a thin strap of leather tying it off.

She bowed deeply. Lower than she would have for the other children of the khagan. But for a rumored Heir apparent, who might one day be Adarlan’s ally—

If they survived.

“You were in a hurry,” Sartaq said, noting the hall she’d been striding down.

“I—I have family in the city. I was going to see them.” She added halfheartedly, “Unless Your Highness has need of me.”

A wry smile graced his face. And she realized she’d replied in her own tongue. Their tongue. “I’m headed for a ride on Kadara. My ruk,” he clarified, falling into his language as well.

“I know,” she said. “I’ve heard the stories.”

“Even in Adarlan?” He lifted a brow. A warrior and a charmer. A dangerous combination, though she could not recall any mention of a spouse. Indeed, no ring marked his finger.

“Even in Adarlan,” Nesryn said, though she did not mention that the average person on the street might not know such tales. But in her household … Oh, yes. The Winged Prince, they called him.

“May I escort you? The streets are a maze, even to me.”

It was a generous offer, an honor. “I would not keep you from the skies.” If only because she did not know how to talk to such men—born and bred to power, used to fine ladies and scheming politicians. Though his ruk riders, legend claimed, could come from anywhere.

“Kadara is accustomed to waiting,” Sartaq said. “At least let me lead you to the gates. There is a new guard out today, and I will tell them to mark your face so you may be let back in.”

Because with her clothes, her unadorned hair … Indeed, the guards might not permit her past. Which would have been … mortifying. “Thank you,” she said, and fell into step beside him.

They were silent as they passed white banners streaming from one of the open windows. Chaol had told her yesterday of Kashin’s worry that their youngest sister’s death had been through foul play—that one of Perrington’s agents might be responsible. It was enough to plant a seed of dread in her. To make her mark each face she encountered, peer into every shadow.

Keeping a smooth pace beside him, Nesryn glanced at Sartaq as those banners flitted by. The prince, however, nodded to a few bowing men and women in the gold robes of viziers.

Nesryn found herself asking, “Are there truly thirty-six of them?”

“We have a fascination with the number, so yes.” He snorted, the sound most un-princely. “My father debated halving them, but feared the gods’ wrath more than political repercussions.”

It felt like a breath of crisp autumn air, to hear and speak her own tongue. To have it be the norm and not be gawked at. She’d always felt so when coming here.

“Did Lord Westfall meet with the healer?”

There was no harm in the truth, she decided, so Nesryn said, “Yes.

Yrene Towers.”

“Ah. The famed Golden Lady.” “Oh?”

“She is striking, no?”

Nesryn smiled slightly. “You favor her, I see.”

Sartaq chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t dare. My brother Kashin would not be pleased.”

“They have an attachment?” Hasar had hinted at as much.

“They are friends—or were. I haven’t seen them talk in months, but who knows what happened? Though I suppose I’m no better than the court gossips for telling you.”

“It’s still useful to know, if we are working with her.” “Was her assessment of Lord Westfall a positive one?” Nesryn shrugged. “She was hesitant to confirm.”

“Many healers will do that. They don’t like to give hope and take it away.” He flicked his braid over a shoulder. “Though I will also tell you that Yrene herself healed one of Kashin’s Darghan riders last winter of a very similar injury. And the healers have long repaired such wounds amongst our people’s horse-tribes and my own rukhin. They will know what to do.”

Nesryn swallowed the hope that blossomed as brightness flared ahead— the open doors to the main courtyard and palace gates. “How long have you been a ruk rider, Prince?”

“I thought you’d heard the stories.” Humor danced in his face. “Only gossip. I prefer the truth.”

Sartaq’s dark eyes settled on her, their unwavering focus enough to make her glad not to be on the receiving end of it too often. Not for fear, but … it was unsettling, to have the weight of that gaze wholly upon you. It was an eagle’s gaze—a ruk’s gaze. Keen and piercing.

“I was twelve when my father brought us all to the mountain aerie. And when I snuck away and climbed onto the captain’s own ruk, soaring into the skies and requiring them to chase me down … My father told me that if I had splattered on the rocks, I would have deserved to die for my stupidity. As punishment, he ordered me to live amongst the rukhin until I could prove I wasn’t a complete fool—a lifetime, he suggested.”

Nesryn quietly laughed, and blinked against the sunshine as they emerged into the grand courtyard. Ornate arches and pillars had been carved with flora and fauna, the palace rising up behind them like a leviathan.

“Thankfully, I did not die of stupidity, and instead came to love the riding, their lifestyle. They gave me hell because I was a prince, but I proved my mettle soon enough. Kadara hatched when I was fifteen, and I raised her myself. I have had no other mount since.” Pride and affection brightened those onyx eyes.

And yet Nesryn and Chaol would ask him, beg him, to take that beloved mount into battle against wyverns many times the weight and with infinitely more brute strength. With venom in their tails. Her stomach roiled.

They reached the towering main gates, a small door cut into the enormous slabs of studded bronze, left open to allow access to pedestrians scurrying on errands to and from the palace. Nesryn remained still while Sartaq introduced her to the heavily armed guards on duty, ordering them to grant her unrestricted access. The sun glinted on the hilts of the swords

crossed over their backs as the guards bowed their acquiescence, each with a fist over his heart.

She’d seen how Chaol could barely look at them—the palace guards and those at the docks.

Sartaq led her through the small door, the bronze of the gate nearly a foot thick, and onto the broad, cobblestoned avenue that sloped into the labyrinth of city streets. Fine houses and more guards lined the surrounding streets, residences of the wealthy who wished to dwell in the palace’s shadow. But the street itself was crammed with people about their business or leisure, even some travelers who climbed all the way up here to gawk at the palace, and now tried to peer through the small door through which Nesryn and Sartaq had walked for a glimpse to the courtyard beyond. None seemed to recognize the prince beside her—though she knew the guards on the street and stationed at the gates monitored every breath and word.

One glance at Sartaq, and she had no doubt the prince was also well aware of his surroundings while he stood beyond the gates, as if he were an ordinary man. She studied the crowded streets ahead, listening to the clamor. It would take an hour on foot to reach her family’s house across the city, but even longer in a carriage or on horseback thanks to the clogged traffic.

“Are you sure you don’t need an escort?”

A half smile tugged on Nesryn’s mouth as she found him watching her sidelong. “I can handle myself, Prince, but I thank you for the honor.”

Sartaq looked her over, a quick warrior’s assessment. Indeed, he was a man who had little to fear when stepping beyond the palace walls. “If you ever have the time or interest, you should come for a ride. The air up there is open—not like the dust and brine down here.”

Open enough where listening ears might not hear them. Nesryn bowed deeply. “I should like that very much.”

She felt the prince still watching while she strode down the sunny avenue, dodging carts and conveyances fighting for passage. But she didn’t dare look back. She wasn’t entirely sure why.

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