Chaol’s body ached, but it was the ache of newness. Of sore muscles, not broken ones.
And the air in his lungs … it did not burn to breathe. Yrene helped him sit up, his head spinning.
He blinked, finding Nesryn and Sartaq before them as the healers began to file away, their faces grim. The prince’s long braid had been cut in favor of loose, shoulder-length hair, and Nesryn … it was ruk leathers she wore, her dark eyes brighter than he’d ever seen—even with the graveness of her expression.
Chaol rasped, “What—”
“You sent a note to come back,” Nesryn said, her face deathly pale. “We flew as fast as we could. We were told you’d come to the Torre earlier this evening. The guards were right behind us, until we outran them. We got a bit lost down here, but then … cats led the way.”
A bemused, puzzled glance over her shoulder, to where half a dozen beryl-eyed cats sat on the tunnel steps, cleaning themselves. They noticed the human attention and scattered, tails high.
Sartaq added, smiling faintly, “We also thought healers might be necessary, and asked some to follow. But apparently, a great number more wanted to come.”
Considering the number of women filing out after the vanished cats … All of them. All of them had come.
Behind Chaol and Yrene, Eretia was tending to Hafiza. Alive, clear-eyed, but … frail.
Eretia clucked over the elderly woman, chiding her for such heroics. But even as she did, the woman’s eyes were bright with tears. Perhaps more, as Hafiza brushed a thumb over Eretia’s cheek.
“Is she—” Sartaq began, jerking his chin toward Duva, sprawled on the floor.
“Unconscious,” Hafiza rasped. “She will sleep until roused.”
“Even with a Valg ring on her?” Nesryn asked as Sartaq made to pick up his sister from the stone floor. She blocked him with an arm across his middle, earning an incredulous look from the prince. There were cuts and scabs on both of them, Chaol realized. And the way the prince had moved
—with a limp. Something had happened—
“Even with the ring, she will remain asleep,” Hafiza said.
Yrene was just staring at the princess, the dagger on the floor nearby.
Sartaq saw it, too. And said quietly to Yrene, “Thank you—for sparing her.”
Yrene just pressed her face against Chaol’s chest. He stroked a hand down her hair, finding it wet—
“I’m fine,” she said onto his shirt.
Chaol pulled back, scanning her face. The bloody temple. “That is anything but fine,” he said, whipping his head toward Eretia. “She’s hurt—”
Eretia rolled her eyes. “Good to see none of this put you out of your usual spirits.”
Chaol gave the woman a flat stare.
Hafiza peered over Eretia’s shoulder and wryly asked Yrene, “Are you certain this pushy man was worth the cost?”
Before Yrene could answer, Chaol demanded, “What cost?”
A stillness crept over them, and even Yrene looked to Hafiza as the woman extracted herself from Eretia’s care. The Healer on High said quietly, “The damage was too great. Even with all of us … Death held you by the hand.”
He turned to Yrene, dread curling in his stomach. “What did you do,” he breathed. She didn’t meet his stare.
“She likely made a fool’s bargain, that’s what,” Eretia snapped. “Offered to pay the price without even being told what it was. To save your neck. We all heard.”
Eretia was close to not having a functioning neck herself, but Chaol said as calmly as he could, “Pay the price to whom?”
“Not a payment,” Hafiza corrected, setting a hand on Eretia’s shoulder to quiet her, “but a restoration of balance. To the one who likes to see it intact. Who spoke through me as we all gathered within you.”
“What was the cost,” Chaol rasped. If she’d given up anything, he’d find a way to retrieve it. He didn’t care what he had to pay, he’d—
“To keep your life tethered in this world, we had to bind it to another. To hers. Two lives,” Hafiza clarified, “now sharing one thread. But even with that …” She gestured to his legs, the foot he slid up to brace on the floor. “The demon broke many, many parts of you. Too many. And in order to save most of you, there was a cost, too.”
Yrene went still. “What do you mean?”
Hafiza again looked between them. “There remains some damage to the spine—impacting the lower portions of the legs. That even we could not repair.”
Chaol glanced between the Healer on High and his legs, currently moving. He went so far as to put some weight on them. They held.
Hafiza went on, “With the life-bond between you, Yrene’s power flowing into you … It will act as a brace. Stabilizing the area, granting you ability to use your legs whenever Yrene’s magic is at its fullest.” He steeled himself for the but. Hafiza smiled grimly. “But when Yrene’s power flags, when she is drained or tired, your injury will regain control, and your ability to walk will again be impaired. It will require you to use a cane at the very least—on hard days, perhaps many days, the chair. But the injury to your spine will remain.”
The words settled in him. Floated through and settled. Yrene was wholly silent. So still that he faced her.
“Can’t I just heal him again?” She leaned toward him, as if she’d do just that.
Hafiza shook her head. “It is part of the balance—the cost. Do not tempt the compassion of the force that granted this to you.”
But Chaol touched Yrene’s hand. “It is no burden, Yrene,” he said softly. “To be given this. It is no burden at all.”
Yet agony filled her face. “But I—”
“Using the chair is not a punishment. It is not a prison,” he said. “It never was. And I am as much of a man in that chair, or with that cane, as I am standing on my feet.” He brushed away the tear that slipped down her cheek.
“I wanted to heal you,” she breathed.
“You did,” he said, smiling. “Yrene, in every way that truly matters … You did.”
Chaol wiped away the other tears that fell, brushing a kiss to her hot cheek.
“There is another piece to the life-bond, to this bargain,” Hafiza added gently. They turned to her. “When it is time, whether the death is kind or cruel … It will claim you both.”
Yrene’s golden eyes were still lined with silver. But there was no fear in her face, no lingering sorrow—none.
“Together,” Chaol said quietly, and interlaced their hands.
Her strength would be his strength. And when Yrene went, he would go.
But if he went before her— Dread curled in his gut.
“The true price of all this,” Hafiza said, reading the panic. “Not fear for your own life, but what losing your life will do to the other.”
“I suggest you not go to war,” Eretia grumbled.
But Yrene shook her head, shoulders straightening as she declared, “We shall go to war.” Pointing to Duva, she looked at Sartaq. As if she had not just offered up her very life to save his—“That is what Erawan will do. To all of you. If we do not go.”
“I know,” Sartaq said quietly. The prince turned to Nesryn, and as she held his stare … Chaol saw it. The glimmer between them. A bond, new and trembling. But there it was, right along with the cuts and wounds they both bore. “I know,” Sartaq said again, his fingers brushing Nesryn’s.
Nesryn met Chaol’s eyes then.
She smiled softly at him, glancing to where Yrene now asked Hafiza about whether she could stand. He’d never seen Nesryn appear so …
settled. So quietly happy.
Chaol swallowed. I’m sorry, he said silently.
Nesryn shook her head as Sartaq scooped his sister into his arms with a grunt, the prince balancing his weight on his good leg. I think I did just fine.
Chaol smiled. Then I am happy for you.
Nesryn’s eyes widened as Chaol at last got to his feet, taking Yrene with him. His movements were as smooth as any maneuver he might have made without the invisible brace of Yrene’s magic flowing between them.
Nesryn wiped away her tears as Chaol closed the distance between them and embraced her tightly. “Thank you,” he said in Nesryn’s ear.
She squeezed him back. “Thank you—for bringing me here. To all of this.”
To the prince who now looked at Nesryn with a quiet, burning sort of emotion.
She added, “We have many things to tell you.” Chaol nodded. “And we you.”
They pulled apart, and Yrene approached—throwing her arms around Nesryn as well.
“What are we going to do with all this gold?” Eretia demanded, leading Hafiza away as the guards formed a living path for them out of the tomb. “Such tacky junk,” she spat, frowning at a towering statue of a Fae soldier.
Chaol laughed, and Yrene joined him, sliding her arm around his middle as they trailed behind the healers.
Alive, Yrene had said to him. As they walked out of the dark, Chaol at last felt it was true.
Sartaq took Duva to the khagan. Called in his brothers and sister.
Because Yrene insisted they be there. Chaol and Hafiza insisted they be there.
The khagan, in the first hint of emotion Yrene had ever seen from the man, lunged for the unconscious, bloody Duva as Sartaq limped into the hall where they’d been waiting. Viziers pressed in. Hasar let out a gasp of what Yrene could have sworn was true pain.
Sartaq did not let his father touch her. Did not let anyone but Nesryn come close as he laid Duva on a low couch.
Yrene kept a few steps back, silent and watching, Chaol at her side.
This bond between them … She could feel it, almost. Like a living band of cool, silken light flowing from her—into him.
And he truly did not seem to mind that a piece of his spine, his nerves, would retain permanent damage for as long as they lived.
Yes, he’d now be able to move his legs with limited motion, even when her magic was drained. But standing—never a possibility during those times. She supposed they’d soon learn how and when the level of her power correlated with whether he required cane or chair or neither.
But Chaol was right. Whether he stood or limped or sat … it did not change him. Who he was. She had fallen in love with him well before he’d ever stood. She would love him no matter how he moved through the world. What if we fight? Yrene had asked him on the trek over here. What then?
Chaol had only kissed her temple. We fight all the time already. It’ll be nothing new. He’d added, Do you think I’d want to be with anyone who didn’t hand my ass to me on a regular basis?
But she’d frowned. He’d continued, And this bond between us, Yrene … it changes nothing. With you and me. You’ll need your own space; I’ll need
mine. So if you think for one moment that you’re going to get away with flimsy excuses for never leaving my side—
She’d poked him in the ribs. As if I’ll want to hang around you all day like some lovesick girl!
Chaol had laughed, tucking her in tighter. But Yrene had only patted his arm and said, And I think you can take care of yourself just fine.
He’d just kissed her brow again. And that had been that.
Yrene now brushed her fingers against his, Chaol’s hand curling around her own, as Sartaq cleared his throat and held up Duva’s limp hand. To display the wedding band there. “Our sister has been enslaved by a demon sent by Perrington in the form of this ring.”
Murmurs and shifting about. Arghun spat, “Nonsense.”
“Perrington is no man. He is Erawan,” Sartaq declared, ignoring his elder brother, and Yrene realized Nesryn must have told him everything. “The Valg king.”
Still holding Yrene’s hand, Chaol added for all to hear, “Erawan sent this ring as a wedding gift, knowing Duva would put it on—knowing the demon would entrap her. On her wedding day.” They’d left the second ring at the Torre, locked within one of the ancient chests, to be disposed of later.
“The babe,” the khagan demanded, eyes on that torn-up belly, the scratches marring her neck where Hafiza had already removed the worst of the splinters.
“These are lies,” Arghun seethed. “From desperate, scheming people.”
“They are not lies,” Hafiza cut in, chin high. “And we have witnesses who will tell you otherwise. Guards, healers, and your own brother, Prince, if you will not believe us.”
To challenge the word of the Healer on High … Arghun shut his mouth.
Kashin shoved to the front of the crowd, earning a glare from Hasar as he shouldered past her. “That explains …” He peered at his sleeping sister. “She has not been the same.”
“She was the same,” Arghun snapped.
Kashin leveled a glare on his eldest brother. “If you ever deigned to spend any time with her, you would have known the differences.” He shook his head. “I thought her morose from the arranged marriage, then the pregnancy.” Grief flooded his eyes as he faced Chaol. “She did it, didn’t she? She killed Tumelun.”
A ripple of shock went through the room as all eyes fixed upon him. But Chaol instead turned to the khagan, whose face was bloodless and devastated in a way that Yrene had not yet known, and could not imagine. To lose a child, to endure this … “Yes,” Chaol said, bowing his head to the khagan. “The demon confessed to it, but it was not Duva. The demon made it sound as if Duva fought every second—raged against your daughter’s death.”
The khagan closed his eyes for a long moment.
Kashin lifted his palms to Yrene in the heavy silence. “Can you fix her? If she still somehow remains inside?” A broken plea. Not from a prince to a healer, but one friend to another. As they had once been—as she hoped they might again be.
The gathering focused upon Yrene now. She didn’t let an ounce of doubt curve her spine as she said, “I shall try.”
Chaol added, “There are things you should know, Great Khagan. About Erawan. The threat he poses. What you and this land might offer against him. And stand to gain in the process.”
“You think to scheme at a time like this?” Arghun snapped.
“No,” Chaol said clearly, unhesitatingly. “But consider that Morath has already reached these shores. Has already killed and harmed those you care for. And if we do not rise to face this threat …” His fingers tightened on Yrene’s. “Princess Duva will only be the first. And Princess Tumelun will not be the last victim of Erawan and the Valg.”
Nesryn stepped forward. “We come with grave tidings from the south, Great Khagan. The kharankui are stirring again, called by their dark … master.” Many stirred at the term she’d used. But some glanced to each other, confusion in their eyes, and Nesryn explained, “Creatures of darkness from the Valg realm. This war has already leaked into these lands.”
Murmuring silence and rustling robes.
But the khagan didn’t tear his eyes away from his unconscious daughter. “Save her,” he said—the words directed to Yrene.
Hafiza nodded subtly to Yrene, motioning her forward.
The message was clear enough: a test. The final one. Not between Yrene and the Healer on High. But something far greater.
Perhaps what had indeed called Yrene to these shores. Guided her across two empires, over mountains and seas.
An infection. A parasite. Yrene had faced them before.
But this demon inside … Yrene approached the sleeping princess. And began.