Nesryn was utterly drained. Wanted to sleep for a week. A month.
But she somehow found herself walking the halls, aiming for Kadara’s minaret. Alone.
Sartaq had gone to see his father, Hasar joining him. And though it certainly was not awkward with Chaol and Yrene … Nesryn gave them their privacy. He had been upon Death’s threshold after all. She had few illusions about what was likely about to take place in that suite.
And that she’d have to find quarters of her own.
Nesryn supposed she’d have to find quarters for a few people tonight anyway—starting with Borte, who’d marveled at Antica and the sea, even as they’d swept in as fast as the winds could carry them. And Falkan, who’d indeed come with them, riding as a field mouse in Borte’s pocket, Yeran none too pleased about it. Or so he’d seemed the last time she’d seen him at the Eridun aerie, Sartaq charging the various hearth-mothers and the captains to rally their rukhin and fly for Antica.
Nesryn reached the stairwell leading up to the minaret when the page found her. The boy was out of breath but managed a graceful bow as he handed her a letter.
It was dated two weeks ago. In her uncle’s handwriting. Her fingers trembled as she broke the seal.
A minute later, she was racing up the minaret stairs.
People cried out in awe and surprise when the reddish-brown ruk sailed over the buildings and homes of Antica.
Nesryn murmured to the bird, guiding him toward the Runni Quarter while they flew on a salt-kissed breeze as fast as his wings could carry them.
She had claimed him upon leaving the Eridun aerie.
Had gone right to the nests, where he had still waited for a rider who would never return, and looked deep into his golden eyes. Had told him that her name was Nesryn Faliq, and she was daughter of Sayed and Cybele Faliq, and that she would be his rider, if he would have her.
She wondered if the ruk, whose late rider had called him Salkhi, had known the burning in her eyes had not been from the roaring wind as he’d bowed his head to her.
Then she’d flown him, Salkhi keeping pace with Kadara at the head of the host as the rukhin sailed northward. Raced to Antica.
And now, as Salkhi landed in the street outside her uncle’s home, some vendors abandoning their carts in outright terror, some children dropping their games to gawk, then grin—Nesryn patted her ruk on his broad neck and dismounted.
The front gates to her uncle’s house banged open.
And as she saw her father standing there, as her sister shoved past, her children pouring out in a shrieking gaggle …
Nesryn fell to her knees and wept.
How Sartaq found her two hours later, Nesryn didn’t know. Though she supposed a ruk sitting in the street of a fancy quarter of Antica was sure to cause a stir. And be easy to spot.
She had wept and laughed and held her family for untold minutes, right in the middle of the street, Salkhi looking on.
And when her uncle and aunt had called them in to at least cry over a good cup of tea, her family had told her of their adventures. The wild seas they had sailed, the enemies their ship had dodged on their voyage here. But they had made it—and here they would stay while the war raged, her father said, to the nods of her uncle and aunt.
When she emerged from the house gates at last, her father claiming the honor of escorting Nesryn to Salkhi—after he’d shooed off her sister to go manage that circus of children—Nesryn had halted so quickly her father had nearly slammed into her.
Because standing beside Salkhi was Sartaq, a half smile on his face. And on the other side of Salkhi … Kadara patiently waited, the two ruks a proud pair indeed.
Her father’s eyes widened, as if recognizing the ruk before the prince. But then her father bowed. Deeply.
Nesryn had told her family—in moderate detail—what had befallen her amongst the rukhin. Her sister and aunt had glared at her when the various children began to declare that they, too, would be ruk riders. And then took off through the house, shrieking and flapping their arms, leaping off furniture with wild abandon.
She expected Sartaq to wait to be approached, but the prince spotted her father and strode forward. Then reached out and clasped his hand. “I heard
Captain Faliq’s family had at last arrived safely,” Sartaq said by way of greeting. “I thought I’d come to welcome you myself.”
Something swelled in her chest to the point of pain as Sartaq inclined his head to her father.
Sayed Faliq looked like he might very well keel over dead, either from the gesture of respect or Kadara’s mere presence behind them. Indeed, several small heads now popped behind his legs, scanning the prince, then the ruks, and then—
Her aunt and uncle’s youngest child—no more than four—screamed the ruk’s name loud enough that anyone in the city who didn’t know the bird was on this street was now well aware.
Sartaq laughed as the children shoved past Nesryn’s father, racing for the golden bird.
Her sister was on their heels, warning springing from her lips—
Until Kadara lowered herself to the ground, Salkhi following suit. The children halted, reverence stealing over them as they reached out tentative hands toward the two ruks and stroked them gently.
Nesryn’s sister sighed with relief. Then realized who stood before Nesryn and their father.
Delara went red. She patted her dress, as if it would somehow cover the fresh food stains courtesy of her youngest. Then she slowly backed into the house, bowing as she went.
Sartaq laughed as she vanished—but not before Delara gave Nesryn a sharp look that said, Oh, you are so smitten it’s not even a laughing matter.
Nesryn gave her sister a vulgar gesture behind her back that their father chose not to see.
Her father was saying to Sartaq, “I apologize if my grandchildren, nieces, and nephews take some liberties with your ruk, Prince.”
But Sartaq smiled broadly—a brighter grin than any she’d seen him give before. “Kadara pretends to be a noble mount, but she’s more of a mother hen than anything.”
Kadara puffed her feathers, earning squeals of delight from the children.
Nesryn’s father squeezed her shoulder before he said to the prince, “I think I’ll go keep them from trying to fly off on her.”
And then they were alone. In the street. Outside her uncle’s house. All of Antica now gawking at them.
Sartaq did not seem to notice. Certainly not as he said, “Walk with me?” Swallowing, with a backward glance toward where her father was now overseeing the gaggle of children attempting to climb onto Salkhi and
Kadara, Nesryn nodded.
They headed toward the quiet, clean alley behind her uncle’s house, walking in silence for a few steps. Until Sartaq said, “I spoke to my father.”
And she wondered, then, if this meeting was not to be a good one. If the army they had brought was to be ordered back to its aeries. Or if the prince, the life she saw for herself in those beautiful mountains … if perhaps the reality of that, too, had found them.
For he was a prince. And for all that she loved her family, for all that they made her so proud, there was not one noble drop of blood in their lineage. Her father shaking Sartaq’s hand was the closest any Faliq had ever come to royalty.
Nesryn managed to say, “Oh?” “We … discussed things.”
Her chest sank at the careful words. “I see.”
Sartaq stopped, the sandy alley humming with the buzzing bees in the jasmine that climbed the walls of the bordering courtyards. The one behind them: the back, private courtyard belonging to her family. She wished she could slither over the wall and hide within. Rather than hear this.
But Nesryn made herself meet the prince’s eyes. Saw him scanning her face.
“I told him,” Sartaq said at last, “that I planned to lead the rukhin against Erawan, with or without his consent.”
Worse. This was getting worse and worse. She wished his face weren’t so damn unreadable.
Sartaq took a breath. “He asked me why.”
“I hope you told him that the fate of the world might depend upon it.”
Sartaq chuckled. “I did. But I also told him that the woman I love now plans to head into war. And I intend to follow her.”
She didn’t let the words sink in. Didn’t let herself believe any of it, until he’d finished.
“He told me that you are common-born. That a would-be Heir of the khagan needs to wed a princess, or a lady, or someone with lands and alliances to offer.”
Her throat closed up. She tried to shut out the sound, the words. Didn’t want to hear the rest.
But Sartaq took her hand. “I told him if that was what it took to be chosen as Heir, I didn’t want it. And I walked out.”
Nesryn sucked in a breath. “Are you insane?”
Sartaq smiled faintly. “I certainly hope not, for the sake of this empire.” He tugged her closer, until their bodies were nearly touching. “Because my father appointed me Heir before I could walk out of the room.”
Nesryn left her body. Could only manage to breathe.
And when she tried to bow, Sartaq gripped her shoulders tightly.
Stopped her before her head could even lower. “Never from you,” he said quietly.
Heir—he’d been made Heir. To all this. This land she loved, this land she still wished to explore so much it ached.
Sartaq lifted a hand to cup her cheek, his calluses scraping against her skin. “We fly to war. Much is uncertain ahead. Save for this.” He brushed his mouth against hers. “Save for what I feel for you. No demon army, no dark queen or king, will change that.”
Nesryn shook, letting the words sink in. “I—Sartaq, you are Heir—”
He pulled back to study her again. “We will go to war, Nesryn Faliq. And when we shatter Erawan and his armies, when the darkness is at last banished from this world … Then you and I will fly back here. Together.” He kissed her again—a bare caress of his mouth. “And so we shall remain for the rest of our days.”
She heard the offer, the promise. The world he laid at her feet.
She trembled at it. What he so freely gave. Not the empire and crown, but … the life. His heart.
Nesryn wondered if he knew her heart had been his from that very first ride atop Kadara.
Sartaq smiled as if to say yes, he had.
So she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
It was tentative, and soft, and full of wonder, that kiss. He tasted like the wind, like a mountain spring. He tasted like home.
Nesryn clasped his face in her hands as she pulled back. “To war, Sartaq,” she breathed, memorizing every line of his face. “And then we’ll see what comes after.”
Sartaq gave her a knowing, cocky grin. As if he’d fully decided what would come after and nothing she could say would ever convince him otherwise.
And from the courtyard just a wall away, her sister shouted, loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear, “I told you, Father!”