The Eridun aerie was madness when they returned.
Falkan was alive—barely—and had caused such panic upon the ruks’ arrival at Altun that Houlun had to leap in front of the limp spider to keep the other ruks from shredding him apart.
Sartaq had managed to stand long enough to embrace Kadara, order a healer to come for her immediately, then wrap his arms around Borte, who was spattered in black blood and grinning from ear to ear. Then Sartaq clasped arms with Yeran, whom Borte pointedly ignored, which Nesryn supposed was an improvement from outright hostility.
“How?” Sartaq asked Borte while Nesryn hovered near the unconscious form of Falkan, still not trusting the ruks to control themselves.
Yeran, his company of Berlad ruks having returned to their own aerie, stepped away from his awaiting mount and answered instead, “Borte came to get me. Said she was going on a stupidly dangerous mission and I could either let her die alone or come along.”
Sartaq rasped a laugh. “You were forbidden,” he told Borte, glancing toward where Houlun knelt at Falkan’s side, the hearth-mother indeed looking torn between relief and outright rage.
Borte sniffed. “By my hearth-mother here. As I am currently betrothed to a captain of the Berlad”—emphasis on currently, to Yeran’s chagrin, it
seemed—“I also can claim partial loyalty to the hearth-mother there. Who had no qualms about letting me spend some quality time with my betrothed.”
“We will have words, she and I,” Houlun seethed as she rose to her feet and strode past, ordering several people to bring Falkan farther into the hall. Wincing at the spider’s weight, they gingerly obeyed.
Borte shrugged, turning to follow Houlun to where the shifter would be patched up as best they could manage in that spider’s body. “At least his hearth-mother’s sense of quality time is in line with my own,” she said, and walked off.
Yet as she left, Nesryn could have sworn Borte gave Yeran a secret, small smile.
Yeran stared after her for a long moment, then turned to them. Gave them a crooked grin. “She promised to set a date. That’s how she got my hearth-mother to approve.” He winked at Sartaq. “Too bad I didn’t tell her that I don’t approve of the date at all.”
And with that, he strode after Borte, jogging a few steps to catch up. She whirled on him, sharp words already snapping from her lips, but allowed him to follow her into the hall.
When Nesryn faced Sartaq, it was in time to see him sway.
She lunged, her aching body protesting as she caught the prince around the middle. Someone shouted for a healer, but Sartaq got his legs beneath him, even as he kept his arms about her.
Nesryn found herself disinclined to remove her own arms from his waist.
Sartaq stared down at her, that soft, sweet smile on his mouth again. “You saved me.”
“It seemed a sorry end for the tales of the Winged Prince,” she replied, frowning at the gash in his leg. “You should be sitting—”
Across the hall, light flashed, people cried out … and then the spider was gone. Replaced by a man, covered in slashing cuts and blood.
When Nesryn looked back, Sartaq’s gaze was on her face.
Her throat closed up, her mouth pressing into a trembling line as she realized that they were here. They were here, and alive, and she had never known such true terror and despair as she had in those moments when he had been hauled away.
“Don’t cry,” he murmured, leaning down to brush his mouth over the tears that escaped. He said against her skin, “Whatever would they say about Neith’s Arrow then?”
Nesryn laughed despite herself, despite what had happened, and wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she dared, resting her head against his chest.
Sartaq just wordlessly stroked her hair and held her right back.
The Council of Clans met two days later at dawn.
Hearth-mothers and their captains from every aerie gathered in the hall, so many that the space was filled.
Nesryn had slept the entirety of the day before.
Not in her room, but curled in bed beside the prince now standing with her before the assembled group.
They had both been patched up and bathed, and though Sartaq had not so much as kissed her … Nesryn had not objected when he led her by the hand and limped into his bedroom.
So they had slept. And when they had awoken, when their wounds had been rebandaged, they’d emerged to find the hall full of riders.
Falkan sat against the far wall, his arm in a sling, but eyes clear. Nesryn had smiled at him as she’d entered, but now was not the time for that reunion. Or the possible truths she bore.
When Houlun had finished welcoming everyone, when silence fell on the hall, Nesryn stood shoulder to shoulder with Sartaq. It was strange to see him with the shorter hair—strange, but not awful. It would grow back, he said when she had frowned that morning.
All eyes shifted between them, some warm and welcoming, some worried, some hard.
Sartaq said to the group gathered, “The kharankui have stirred again.” Murmurs and shifting rustled through the hall. “And though the threat was dealt with bravely and fiercely by the Berlad clan, the spiders will likely return again. They have heard a dark call through the world. And they are poised to answer it.”
Nesryn stepped forward. Lifted her chin. And though the words filled her with dread, speaking them here felt as natural as breathing. “We learned many things in the Pass of Dagul,” Nesryn said, voice ringing out across the pillars and stones of the hall. “Things that will change the war in the north. And change this world.”
Every eye was on her now. Houlun nodded from her spot near Borte, who smiled in encouragement. Yeran sat nearby, half watching his betrothed.
Sartaq’s fingers brushed hers. Once—in urging. And promise.
“We do not face an army of men in the northern continent,” Nesryn went on. “But of demons. And if we do not rise to meet this threat, if we do not
rise to meet it as one people, of all lands … Then we will find our doom instead.”
So she told them. The full history. Of Erawan. And Maeve.
She did not mention the quest for the keys, but by the time she was done, the hall was astir as clans whispered to one another.
“I leave this choice to you,” Sartaq said, voice unfaltering. “The horrors in the Dagul Fells are only the start. I will pass no judgment, should you choose to remain. But all who fly with me, we soar under the khagan’s banner. We shall leave you to debate amongst yourselves.”
And with that, taking Nesryn by the hand, Sartaq led her from the hall, Falkan falling into step behind them. Borte and Houlun remained, as heads of the Eridun clan. Nesryn knew how they would side, that they would fly north, but the others …
Whispers had turned into full-on debate by the time they reached one of the private gathering spaces for the family. But Sartaq was only in the small room for a moment before he headed to the kitchens, leaving Nesryn and Falkan with a wink and a promise to bring back food.
Alone with the shifter, Nesryn strode to the fire and warmed her hands. “How are you feeling?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder to where Falkan eased into a low-backed wooden chair.
“Everything hurts.” Falkan grimaced, rubbing at his leg. “Remind me never to do anything heroic again.”
She chuckled over the crackle of the fire. “Thank you—for doing that.” “I have no one in my life who would miss me anyway.”
Her throat tightened. But she asked, “If we fly north—to Antica, and finally to the northern continent …” She could no longer bring herself to say the word. Home. “Will you come?”
The shifter was silent for a long moment. “Would you want me there?
Any of you?”
Nesryn turned from the fire at last, eyes burning. “I have something to tell you.”
Put his head in his hands and wept when Nesryn told him what she suspected. She did not know much of Lysandra’s personal history, but the ages, the location matched. Only the description did not. The mother had described a plain, brown-haired girl. Not a black-haired, green-eyed beauty.
But yes—yes, he would come. To war, and to find her. His niece. His last shred of family in the world, for whom he had never stopped looking.
Sartaq returned with food, and thirty minutes later, word came from the hall.
The clans had decided.
Hands shaking, Nesryn strode to the door, to where Sartaq held out a hand.
Their fingers interlaced, and he led her toward the now-silent hall. Falkan rose painfully from his chair, groaning as he brushed away his tears, and limped after them.
They made it a handful of steps before a messenger came barreling down the hall.
Nesryn pulled away from Sartaq to let him deal with the panting, wild-eyed girl. But it was to Nesryn the messenger extended the letter.
Nesryn’s hands shook as she recognized the handwriting on it.
She felt Sartaq stiffen as he, too, realized that the writing was Chaol’s.
He stepped back, eyes shuttered, to let her read it.
She read the message twice. Had to take a steady breath to keep from vomiting.
“He—he requests my presence in Antica. Needs it,” she said, the note fluttering in her shaking hand. “He begs us to return immediately. As fast as the winds can carry us.”
Sartaq took the letter to read for himself. Falkan remained quiet and watchful as the prince read it. Swore.
“Something is wrong,” Sartaq said, and Nesryn nodded.
If Chaol, who never asked for help, never wanted help, had told them to hurry … She glanced toward the council, still waiting to announce their decision.
But Nesryn only asked the prince, “How soon can we be airborne?”