Manon Blackbeak landed in Morath more than ready to start slitting throats.
Everything had gone to shit. Everything.
She’d ended that Yellowlegs bitch and her wyvern, saved the sapphire-eyed king, and watched the Fae Prince slaughter those four other Yellowlegs sentinels.
Five. Five Yellowlegs witches now lay dead, either by her hand or through her inaction. Five members of Iskra’s coven.
In the end, she’d barely participated in Rifthold’s destruction, leaving it to the others. But she’d again donned her crowned helm, then ordered Abraxos to sail to the highest spire of the stone castle and roar his victory— and command.
Even at the distant white walls of the city, ripping apart the guards and fleeing folk, the wyverns had paused at his order to stand down. Not one coven disobeyed.
The Thirteen had found her moments later. She didn’t tell them what had happened, but both Sorrel and Asterin stared closely at her: the former to inspect for any cuts or wounds received during the “attack” Manon had claimed occurred, the latter because she had been with Manon that day they’d flown to Rifthold and painted a message to the Queen of Terrasen in Valg blood.
With the Thirteen perched on the castle towers, some draped along them like cats or serpents, Manon had waited for Iskra Yellowlegs.
As Manon now stalked down the dim, reeking halls of Morath, that crowned helm tucked into the crook of her arm, Asterin and Sorrel on her heels, she went over that conversation again.
Iskra had landed on the only space left: a lower bit of roofing below Manon. The positioning had been intentional.
Iskra’s brown hair had come untangled from her tight braid, and her haughty face was splattered with human blood as she’d snarled at Manon, “This was my victory.”
Her face veiled in shadow beneath the helm, Manon had said, “The city is mine.”
“Rifthold was mine to take—you were only to oversee.” A flash of iron teeth. On the spire to Manon’s right, Asterin growled in warning. Iskra cast her dark eyes on the blond sentinel and snarled again. “Get your pack of bitches out of my city.”
Manon sized up Fendir, Iskra’s bull. “You’ve left your mark enough.
Your work is noted.”
Iskra trembled with rage. Not from the words. The wind had shifted, blowing toward Iskra. Blowing Manon’s scent at her.
“Who?” Iskra seethed. “Who of mine did you butcher?”
Manon had not yielded, had not allowed one flicker of regret or worry to shine through. “Why should I know any of your names? She attacked me as I closed in on my prey, wanting to get the king for herself and willing to strike an heir for it. She deserved her punishment. Especially because my prey slipped away while I dealt with her.”
Liar liar liar.
Manon bared her iron teeth, the only bit of her face visible beneath that crowned helm. “Four others lie dead inside the castle—at the hand of the Fae Prince who came to rescue the king while I dealt with your unruly bitch. Consider yourself lucky, Iskra Yellowlegs, that I do not take that loss out of your hide as well.”
Iskra’s tan face had gone pale. She surveyed Manon, all of the Thirteen assembled. Then she said, “Do what you want with the city. It’s yours.” A flash of a smile as she lifted her hand and pointed at Manon. The Thirteen tensed around her, arrows silently drawn and aimed at the Yellowlegs heir. “But you, Wing Leader…” That smile grew and she reined her wyvern, preparing to take to the skies. “You are a liar, Witch Killer.”
Then she was gone.
Soaring not for the city, but the skies.
Within minutes, she’d vanished from sight—sailing toward Morath. Toward Manon’s grandmother.
Manon now glanced at Asterin, then at Sorrel, as they slowed to a stop before turning the corner that would lead to Erawan’s council chamber. Where she knew Iskra, and her grandmother, and the other Matrons would be waiting. Indeed, a glance around the corner revealed the Thirds and Fourths of several covens on guard, eyeing one another as suspiciously as the blank-faced men posted beside the double doors.
Manon said to her Second and Third, “This will be messy.” Sorrel said quietly, “We’ll deal with it.”
Manon clenched the helmet a bit harder. “If it goes poorly, you are to take the Thirteen and leave.”
Asterin breathed, “You cannot go in there, Manon, accepting defeat. Deny it until your last breath.” Whether Sorrel had realized Manon had killed that witch to save their enemy, she didn’t let on. Asterin demanded, “Where would we even go?”
Manon said, “I don’t know or care. But when I am dead, the Thirteen will be targeted by anyone with a score to settle.” A very, very long list. She held her Second’s stare. “You get them out. At any cost.”
They glanced at each other. Sorrel said, “We will do as you ask, Wing Leader.”
Manon waited—waited for any objection from her Second, but Asterin’s dark eyes were bright as she bowed her head and murmured her agreement.
A knot in Manon’s chest loosened, and she rolled her shoulders once before turning away. But Asterin gripped her hand. “Be careful.”
Manon debated snapping to not be a spineless fool, but … she’d seen what her grandmother was capable of. It was carved into Asterin’s flesh.
She would not go into this looking guilty, looking like a liar. No—she’d make Iskra crawl by the end.
So Manon took a solid breath before she resumed her usual storming pace, red cape flapping behind her on a phantom wind.
Everyone stared as they approached. But that was to be expected.
Manon didn’t deign to acknowledge the Thirds and Fourths assembled, though she took them in through her peripheral vision. Two young ones
from Iskra’s coven. Six old ones, iron teeth flecked with rust, from the covens of the Matrons. And—
There were two other young sentinels in the hall, braided bands of dyed blue leather upon their brows.
Petrah Blueblood had come.
If the heirs and their Matrons were all assembled… She did not have room for fear in her husk of a heart.
Manon flung open the doors, Asterin on her heels, Sorrel falling back to join the others in the hall.
Ten witches turned toward Manon as she entered. Erawan was nowhere in sight.
And though her grandmother was in the center of where they all stood in the room, her own Second against the stone wall behind Manon, lined up with the four other Seconds gathered, Manon’s attention went to the golden-haired heir.
She had not seen the Blueblood heir since the day of the War Games, when Manon had saved her life from a sure-kill fall. Saved her life, but was unable to save the life of Petrah’s wyvern—whose throat had been ripped to shreds by Iskra’s bull.
The Blueblood heir stood beside her mother, Cresseida, both of them tall and thin. A crown of iron stars sat upon the Matron’s pale brow, the face below unreadable.
Unlike Petrah’s. Caution—warning shone in her deep blue eyes. She wore her riding leathers, a cloak of midnight blue hanging from bronze clasps at her shoulders, her golden braid snaking over her chest. Petrah had always been odd, head in the clouds, but that was the way of the Bluebloods. Mystics, fanatics, zealots were among the pleasanter terms used to describe them and their worship of the Three-Faced Goddess.
But there was a hollowness in Petrah’s face that had not been there months ago. Rumor had claimed that losing her wyvern had broken the heir
—that she had not gotten out of bed for weeks.
Witches did not mourn, because witches did not love enough to allow it to break them. Even if Asterin, now taking up her place by the Blackbeak Matron’s Second, had proved otherwise.
Petrah nodded, a slight dip of the chin—more than a mere acknowledgment of an heir to an heir. Manon turned toward her grandmother before anyone could notice.
Her grandmother stood in her voluminous black robes, her dark hair plaited over the crown of her head. Like the crown her grandmother sought for them—for her and Manon. High Queens of the Wastes, she’d once promised Manon. Even if it meant selling out every witch in this room.
Manon bowed to her grandmother, to the other two Matrons assembled. Iskra snarled from beside the Yellowlegs Matron, an ancient, bent-
backed crone with bits of flesh still in her teeth from lunch. Manon fixed the heir with a cool stare as she straightened.
“Three stand gathered,” her grandmother began, and every bone in Manon’s body went stiff. “Three Matrons, to honor the three faces of our Mother.” Maiden, Mother, Crone. It was why the Yellowlegs Matron was always ancient, why the Blackbeak was always a witch in her prime, and why Cresseida, as the Blueblood Matron, still looked young and fresh.
But Manon did not care about that. Not when the words were being spoken.
“The Crone’s Sickle hangs above us,” Cresseida intoned. “Let it be the Mother’s blade of justice.”
This was not a meeting. This was a trial.
Iskra began smiling.
As if a thread wove between them, Manon could feel Asterin straightening behind her, feel her Second readying for the worst.
“Blood calls for blood,” the Yellowlegs crone rasped. “We shall decide how much is owed.”
Manon kept still, not daring to show one inch of fear, of trepidation.
Witch trials were brutal, exact. Usually, problems were settled with the three blows to face, ribs, and stomach. Rarely, only in the gravest circumstances, did the three Matrons gather to mete out judgment.
Manon’s grandmother said, “You stand accused, Manon Blackbeak, of cutting down a Yellowlegs sentinel with no provocation beyond your own pride.”
Iskra’s eyes positively burned.
“And, as the sentinel was a part of the Yellowlegs’ heir’s own coven, it is also a crime against Iskra.” Her grandmother’s face was tight with rage— not for what Manon had done, but for getting caught. “Through either your own neglect or ill-planning, the lives of four other coven members were ended. Their blood, too, stains your hands.” Her grandmother’s iron teeth shone in the candlelight. “Do you deny these charges?”
Manon kept her back straight, looked each of them in the eye. “I do not deny that I killed Iskra’s sentinel when she tried to claim my rightful prize. I do not deny that the other four were slaughtered by the Fae Prince. But I do deny any wrongdoing on my part.”
Iskra hissed. “You can smell Zelta’s blood on her—smell the fear and
Manon sneered, “You smell that, Yellowlegs, because your sentinel had a coward’s heart and attacked another sister-in-arms. When she realized she would not win our fight, it was already too late for her.”
Iskra’s face contorted with fury. “Liar—”
“Tell us, Blackbeak Heir,” Cresseida said, “what happened in Rifthold three days past.”
So Manon did.
And for the first time in her century of miserable existence, she lied to her elders. She wove a fine tapestry of falsehoods, believing the stories she told them. As she finished, she gestured to Iskra Yellowlegs. “It’s common knowledge the Yellowlegs heir has long coveted my position. Perhaps she rushed back here to fling accusations at me so she might steal my place as Wing Leader, just as her sentinel tried to steal my prey.”
Iskra bristled but kept her mouth shut. Petrah took a step forward, however, and spoke. “I have questions for the Blackbeak heir, if it would not be an impertinence.”
Manon’s grandmother looked like she’d rather have her own nails ripped out, but the other two nodded.
Manon straightened, bracing herself for whatever Petrah thought she was doing.
Petrah’s blue eyes were calm as she met Manon’s stare. “Would you consider me your enemy or rival?”
“I consider you an ally when the occasion demands it, but always a rival, yes.” The first true thing Manon had said.
“And yet you saved me from sure death at the War Games. Why?” The other Matrons glanced at one another, faces unreadable.
Manon lifted her chin. “Because Keelie fought for you as she died. I would not allow her death to be wasted. I could offer a fellow warrior nothing less.”
At the sound of her dead wyvern’s name, pain flickered across Petrah’s face. “You remember her name?”
Manon knew it wasn’t an intended question. But she nodded all the same.
Petrah faced the Matrons. “That day, Iskra Yellowlegs nearly killed me, and her bull slaughtered my mare.”
“We have dealt with that,” Iskra cut in, teeth flashing, “and dismissed it as accidental—”
Petrah held up a hand. “I am not finished, Iskra Yellowlegs.”
Nothing but brutal steel in those words as she addressed the other heir.
A small part of Manon was glad not to be on the receiving end of it.
Iskra saw the unfinished business that waited in that tone and backed down.
Petrah lowered her hand. “Manon Blackbeak had the chance to let me die that day. The easier choice would have been to let me die, and she would not be standing accused as she is now. But she risked her life, and the life of her mount, to spare me from death.”
A life debt—that was what lay between them. Did Petrah think to fill it by speaking in her favor now? Manon reined in her sneer.
Petrah went on, “I do not comprehend why Manon Blackbeak would save me only to later turn on her Yellowlegs sisters. You crowned her Wing Leader for her obedience, discipline, and brutality—do not let the anger of Iskra Yellowlegs sully the qualities you saw in her then, and which still shine forth today. Do not lose your Wing Leader over a misunderstanding.”
The Matrons again glanced among them as Petrah bowed, backing into her place at her mother’s right. But the three witches continued that unspoken discussion waging between them. Until Manon’s grandmother stepped forward, the other two falling back—yielding the decision to her. Manon almost sagged in relief.
She’d corner Petrah the next time the heir was foolish enough to be out alone, get her to admit why she’d spoken in Manon’s favor.
Her grandmother’s black-and-gold gaze was hard. Unforgiving. “Petrah Blueblood has spoken true.”
That tense, tight string between Manon and Asterin loosened, too. “It would be a waste to lose our obedient, faithful Wing Leader.”
Manon had been beaten before. She could endure her grandmother’s fists again.
“Why should the heir of the Blackbeak Witch-Clan yield her life for that of a mere sentinel? Wing Leader or not, it is still the word of heir against heir in this matter. But the blood has still been shed. And blood must be paid.”
Manon again gripped her helm. Her grandmother smiled a little.
“The blood shed must be equal,” her grandmother intoned. Her attention flicked over Manon’s shoulder. “So you, Granddaughter, will not die for this. But one of your Thirteen will.”
For the first time in a long, long while, Manon knew what fear, what human helplessness, tasted like as her grandmother said, triumph lighting her ancient eyes, “Your Second, Asterin Blackbeak, shall pay the blood debt between our clans. She dies at sunrise tomorrow.”
Chaol waited until Nesryn had been gone for a good thirty minutes before he summoned Kadja. She’d been waiting in the exterior hallway and slipped inside his suite mere moments after he’d called her name. Lingering in the foyer, he watched the serving girl approach, her steps light and swift, her eyes downcast as she awaited his order.
“I have a favor to ask you,” he said slowly and clearly, cursing himself for not learning Halha during the years Dorian had studied it.
A dip of the chin was her only answer.
“I need you to go down to the docks, to wherever information comes in, to see if there’s any news about the attack on Rifthold.” Kadja had been in the throne room yesterday—she’d undoubtedly heard about it. And he’d debated asking Nesryn to do some searching while she was out, but if the news was grim … he didn’t want her learning it alone. Bearing it alone, all the way back up to the palace. “Do you think you could do that?”
Kadja lifted her eyes at last, though she kept her head low. “Yes,” she said simply.
He knew she was likely answering to one of the royals or viziers in this palace. But his asking for more information, while certainly a detail to mark, wasn’t any threat to his cause. And if they deemed it weak or stupid to be concerned for his country, they could go to hell.
“Good,” Chaol said, the chair beneath him groaning as he wheeled it forward a foot and tried not to scowl at the sound, at his silent body. “And there is another favor I would ask of you.”
Just because Nesryn was occupied with her family didn’t mean he had to be idle.
But as Kadja deposited him in Arghun’s chambers, he wondered if he should have waited for Nesryn’s return to have this meeting.
The eldest prince’s entry room was as large as Chaol’s entire suite. It was a long, oval space, the far end opening into a courtyard adorned with a sparkling fountain and patrolled by a pair of white peacocks. He watched them sweep by, the mass of their snowy feathers trailing over the slate tiles, their delicate crowns bobbing with each step.
“They are beautiful, are they not?”
A sealed set of carved doors to the left had opened, revealing the slim-faced, cold-eyed prince, his attention on the birds.
“Stunning,” Chaol admitted, hating the way he had to angle his head upward to look the man in the eye. Had he been standing, he’d be a good four inches taller, able to use his size to his advantage during this meeting. Had he been standing—
He didn’t let himself continue down that path. Not now.
“They are my prized pair,” Arghun said, his use of Chaol’s home tongue utterly fluent. “My country home is full of their offspring.”
Chaol searched for an answer, something Dorian or Aelin might have easily supplied, but found nothing. Absolutely nothing that didn’t sound inane and insincere. So he said, “I’m sure it’s beautiful.”
Arghun’s mouth tugged upward. “If you ignore their screaming at certain points of the year.”
Chaol clenched his jaw. His people were dying in Rifthold, if not already dead, and yet bandying words about screeching, preening birds … this was what he was to do?
He debated it, whether to parry more or get to the point, but Arghun said, “I suppose you are here to ask what I know regarding your city.” The prince’s cool glance finally landed on him, and Chaol held the look. This— the staring contest—was something he could do. He’d had plenty, with unruly guard and courtier alike.
“You supplied your father with the information. I want to know who gave you the details of the attack.”
Amusement lit up the prince’s dark brown eyes. “A blunt man.”
“My people are suffering. I would like to know as much as I can.”
“Well,” Arghun said, picking at a piece of lint clinging to the golden embroidery along his emerald tunic, “in the spirit of honesty, I can tell you absolutely nothing.”
Chaol blinked—once, and slowly.
Arghun went on, extending a hand toward the outer doors, “There are far too many eyes watching, Lord Westfall, and my being seen with you sends a message, for better or worse, regardless of what we discuss. So while I appreciate your visit, I will ask you to leave.” The servants waiting at the door came forward, presumably to wheel him away.
And the sight of one of them reaching their hands toward the back of his chair …
Chaol bared his teeth at the servant, stopping him dead. “Don’t.”
Whether the man spoke his language, he clearly understood the expression on his face.
Chaol twisted back to the prince. “You really want to play this game?”
“It is no game,” Arghun said simply, striding toward the office where he’d been ensconced. “The information is correct. My spies do not invent stories to entertain. Good day to you.”
And then the double doors to the prince’s office were sealed.
Chaol debated banging on those doors until Arghun started talking, perhaps pounding his fist into the prince’s face, too, but … the two servants behind him were waiting. Watching.
He’d met enough courtiers in Rifthold to sense when someone was lying. Even if those senses had failed him so spectacularly these past few months. With Aelin. With the others. With … everything.
But he didn’t think Arghun was lying. About any of it.
Rifthold had been sacked. Dorian remained missing. His people’s fate unknown.
He didn’t fight the servant again when the man stepped up to escort him back to his room. And that might have enraged him more than anything.
Nesryn did not return for dinner.
Chaol did not let the khagan, his children, or the thirty-six hawk-eyed viziers get a whiff of the worry that wracked him with every passing minute that she did not emerge from one of the hallways to join them in the great hall. She had been gone hours with no word.
Even Kadja had returned, an hour before dinner, and one look at her carefully calm face told him everything: she’d learned nothing new at the docks about the attack on Rifthold, either. She only confirmed what Arghun
claimed: the captains and merchants had spoken to credible sources who’d either sailed past Rifthold or barely escaped. The attack had indeed happened, with no accurate number on the lives lost or the status of the city. All trade from the southern continent was halted—at least to Rifthold and anywhere north of it that required passing near the city. No word had come at all of Dorian’s fate.
It pressed on him, weighing him further, but that soon became secondary, once he’d finished dressing for dinner and found Nesryn had not arrived. He eventually yielded and let Kadja bring him to the banquet in the khagan’s great hall, but when long minutes passed and Nesryn still did not return, it was an effort to remain unaffected.
Anything could have happened to her. Anything. Especially if Kashin’s theory regarding his late sister was correct. If Morath’s agents were already here, he had little doubt that as soon as they learned of his and Nesryn’s arrival, they’d begun hunting them.
He should have considered it before she’d gone out today. Should have thought beyond his own damn problems. But demanding a guard be sent out to search for her would only tell any potential enemies what he valued most. Where to strike.
So Chaol fought to get his food down, barely able to focus on conversation with the people beside him. On his right: Duva, pregnant and serene, asking about the music and dancing now favored in his lands; on his left: Arghun, who didn’t mention his visit that afternoon, and instead prodded him about trade routes old and proposed. Chaol made up half the answers, and the prince smiled—as if well aware of it.
Still, Nesryn didn’t appear. Though Yrene did.
Halfway through the meal, she entered, in a slightly finer yet still simple gown of amethyst that set her golden-brown skin glowing. Hasar and her lover rose to greet the healer, clasping Yrene’s hands and kissing her cheeks, and the princess kicked out the vizier seated on her left to make room for her.
Yrene bowed to the khagan, who waved her off without more than a glance, then to the royalty assembled. Arghun did not bother to acknowledge her existence; Duva beamed at Yrene, her quiet husband offering a more subdued smile. Only Sartaq bowed his head, while the final sibling, Kashin, offered her a close-lipped smile that didn’t meet his eyes.
But Kashin’s gaze lingered long enough while Yrene took her seat beside Hasar that Chaol remembered what the princess had teased Yrene about earlier that day.
But Yrene did not return the prince’s smile, only offering a distant nod in return, and claimed the seat Hasar had conquered for her. She fell into conversation with Hasar and Renia, accepting the meat Renia piled on her plate, the princess’s lover fussing that Yrene looked too tired, too skinny, too pale. Yrene accepted every morsel offered with a bemused smile and nod of thanks. Deliberately not looking anywhere near Kashin. Or Chaol, for that matter.
“I heard,” a male voice to Chaol’s right said in his own language, “that Yrene has been assigned to you, Lord Westfall.”
He was not at all surprised to find that Kashin had leaned forward to speak to him.
And not at all surprised to see the thinly veiled warning in the male’s gaze. Chaol had seen it often enough: Territory claimed.
Whether Yrene welcomed it or not.
Chaol supposed it was a mark in her favor that she did not seem to pay the prince much heed. Though he could only wonder why. Kashin was the handsomest of the siblings, and Chaol had witnessed women literally falling over themselves for Dorian’s attention during those years in the castle. Kashin had a self-satisfied look to him that he’d often glimpsed on Dorian’s face.
Once—long ago. A different lifetime ago. Before an assassin and a collar and everything.
The guards stationed throughout the great hall somehow turned looming, as if they were kindled flames that now tugged at his gaze. He refused to even glance toward the nearest one, which he’d marked out of habit, standing twenty feet to the side of the high table. Right where he’d once stood, before another king, another court.
“She has,” was all Chaol could manage to say.
“Yrene is our most skilled healer—save for the Healer on High,” Kashin went on, glancing at the woman who still paid him no heed and indeed seemed to fall deeper into conversation with Renia as if to emphasize it.
“So I have heard.” Certainly the sharpest-tongued.
“She received the highest marks anyone has ever attained on her formal examinations,” Kashin continued while Yrene ignored him, something like hurt flickering across the prince’s face.
“See how he trips over himself,” Arghun muttered over Duva, her husband, and Chaol to say to Sartaq. Duva swatted at Arghun’s arm, snapping at him for interrupting her fork’s path to her mouth.
Kashin did not appear to hear or care for his elder brother’s disapproval. And to his credit, Sartaq didn’t, either, choosing instead to turn to a golden-
robed vizier while Kashin said to Chaol, “Unheard of marks for anyone, let alone a healer who has been here for just over two years.”
Another seedling of information. Yrene had not spent long in Antica, then.
Chaol found Yrene watching him beneath lowered brows. A warning not to drag her into the conversation.
He weighed the merits of either option: the petty revenge for her taunting earlier, or …
She was helping him. Or was debating it, at least. He’d be stupid to alienate her further.
So he said to Kashin, “I hear you usually dwell down in Balruhn and look after the terrestrial armies.”
Kashin straightened. “I do. For most of the year, I make my home there and oversee the training of our troops. If I’m not there, then I’m out on the steppes with our mother-people—the horse-lords.”
“Thank the gods,” Hasar muttered from across the table, earning a warning look from Sartaq. Hasar only rolled her eyes and whispered something in her lover’s ear that made Renia laugh, a bright, silvery sound.
Yrene was still watching him, though, an ember of what he could have sworn was annoyance in her face—as if Chaol’s mere presence at this table was enough to set her clenching her jaw—while Kashin began explaining his various routines in his city on the southwestern coast, and the contrasting life amongst the horse-tribes on the steppes.
Chaol shot Yrene back an equally displeased look the moment Kashin paused to sip his wine, and then launched question after question to the prince regarding his life. Helpful information, he realized, about their army.
He was not the only one who realized it. Arghun cut in while his brother was midsentence about the forges they had constructed near their northern climes, “Let us not discuss business at dinner, brother.”
Kashin shut his mouth, ever the trained soldier.
And somehow Chaol knew—that fast—that Kashin was not being considered for the throne. Not when he obeyed his eldest brother like any common warrior. He seemed decent, though. A better alternative than the sneering, aloof Arghun, or the wolflike Hasar.
It did not entirely explain Yrene’s utter need to distance herself from Kashin. Not that it was any of his business, or of any interest to him. Certainly not when Yrene’s mouth tightened if she so much as turned her head in Chaol’s direction.
He might have called her out on it, might have demanded if this meant she’d decided not to treat him. But if Kashin favored her, Yrene’s subtle rejections or not, it surely wouldn’t be a wise move to get into it with her at this table.
Footsteps sounded from behind, but it was only a vizier’s husband, come to murmur something in her ear before vanishing.
Chaol studied the dishes strewn over the table, calculating the remaining courses. With the feasting, last night’s meal had gone on for ages. Not one dessert delicacy had been brought out yet.
He looked again to the exits, skipping over the guards stationed there, searching for her.
Facing the table again, Chaol found Yrene observing him. Wariness, displeasure still darkened those golden eyes, but … warning, too.
She knew who he looked for. Whose absence gnawed at him.
To his shock, she subtly shook her head. Don’t reveal it, she seemed to say. Don’t ask them to look for her.
He knew it already but gave Yrene a terse nod back and continued on.
Kashin attempted to engage Yrene in conversation, but each time he was promptly and politely shut down with simple answers.
Perhaps the healer’s disdain toward Chaol that morning was simply her nature, rather than hatred born of Adarlan’s conquest. Or perhaps she just hated men. It was hard not to look toward the faint scar across her throat.
Chaol managed to wait until dessert arrived before feigning exhaustion and leaving the table. Kadja was already there, waiting by the farthest pillars of the hall with the other servants, and said nothing as she wheeled that chair away, every rattle making him grate his teeth.
Yrene didn’t say a word of parting, or offer a promise of returning the next day. She didn’t so much as look in his direction.
But Nesryn was not in the room when he returned. And if he searched for her, if he drew attention to the threat, to their closeness and how any enemy might wield it against them …
So he waited. Listened to the garden fountain, the singing of the nightingale perched in a fig tree within it, listened to the steady count of the clock on the sitting room mantel.
Eleven. Twelve. He told Kadja to go to sleep—that he’d care for himself and get himself in bed. She did not leave, only took up a place against the painted foyer wall to wait.
It was nearly one when the door opened.
Nesryn slipped in. He knew it, simply because he’d learned her sounds of moving.
She saw the candles in the sitting room and strode in.
Not a mark on her. Only—light. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes brighter than they’d been this morning. “I’m sorry I missed dinner,” was all she said.
His reply was low, guttural. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?”
She halted, hair swaying with the movement. “I was not aware I had to send word of my comings and goings. You told me to go.”
“You went into a foreign city and did not come back when you said you would.” Every word was biting, slicing.
“It is not a foreign city—not to me.”
He slammed his palm onto the arm of the chair. “One of the princesses was murdered a few weeks ago. A princess. In her own palace—the seat of the most powerful empire in the world.”
She crossed her arms. “We don’t know if it was murder. Kashin seems to be the only one who thinks so.”
It was utterly beside the point. Even if he’d barely remembered to study his dinner companions tonight for any sign of the Valg’s presence. He said too quietly, “I couldn’t even go looking for you. I didn’t dare tell them that you were missing.”
She blinked, slow and long. “My family was glad to see me, in case you were wondering. And they received a brief letter from my father yesterday. They got out.” She began unbuttoning her jacket. “They could be anywhere.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Chaol said through his teeth. Though he knew that not knowing where her family was would eat at her as much as the terror of the past day of not knowing whether they lived. He said as calmly as he
could, “This thing between us doesn’t work if you don’t tell me where you are, or if your plans change.”
“I was at their house, eating dinner. I lost track of time. They begged me to stay with them.”
“You know better than to not send word. Not after the shit we’ve been through.”
“I have nothing to fear in this city—this place.”
She said it with enough bite that he knew she meant that in Rifthold … in Rifthold she did.
He hated that she felt that way. Hated it and yet: “Isn’t that what we are fighting for? So that our own lands might be so safe one day?”
Her face shuttered. “Yes.”
She finished unbuttoning her jacket, peeling it off to reveal the shirt beneath, and slung it over a shoulder. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She didn’t wait for his farewell before she strode into her room and shut the door.
Chaol sat for long minutes in the sitting room, waiting for her to emerge. And when he finally let Kadja bring him into his room and help change him into his bedclothes, after she blew out the candles and left on silent feet, he waited for his door to open.
But Nesryn did not come in. And he could not go to her—not without dragging poor Kadja from wherever she slept, listening for any sound that she might be needed.
He was still waiting for Nesryn when sleep claimed him.