The overseer spoke, but the voice was not his. And the voice was not Perrington’s.
It was a new voice, an old voice, a voice from a different world and lifetime, a voice that fed on screams and blood and pain. Her magic thrashed against the sound, and even Aedion swore softly, still trying to herd her behind him.
But Aelin stood fast against the darkness peering at them from the man’s cracked chest. And she knew that even if his body hadn’t been irreparably broken, there was nothing left inside him to save anyway. Nothing worth saving to begin with.
She flexed her fingers at her sides, rallying her magic against the darkness that coiled and swirled inside the man’s shattered chest.
Erawan said, “I would think gratitude is in order, Heir of Brannon.”
She flicked her brows up, tasting smoke in her mouth. Easy, she murmured to her magic. Careful—she’d have to be so careful he did not see the amulet around her neck, sense the presence of the final Wyrdkey inside. With the first two already in his possession, if Erawan suspected that the third key was in this temple, and that his utter dominance over this land and all others was close enough to grab … She had to keep him distracted.
So Aelin snorted. “Why should I thank you, exactly?”
The embers of eyes slid upward, as if surveying the hollow body of the overseer. “For this small warning present. For ridding the world of one more bit of vermin.”
And for making you realize how fruitless standing against me will be, that voice whispered right into her skull.
She slammed fire outward in a blind maneuver, stumbling back into Aedion at the caress in that hideous, beautiful voice. From her cousin’s pale
face, she knew he’d heard it, too, felt its violating touch.
Erawan chuckled. “I’m surprised you tried to save him first. Given what he did to you at Endovier. My prince could scarcely stand to be inside his mind, it was already so vile. Do you find pleasure in deciding who shall be saved and who is beyond it? So easy, to become a little, burning god.”
Nausea, true and cold, struck her.
But it was Aedion who smirked, “I’d think you’d have better things to do, Erawan, than taunt us in the dead hours of the morning. Or is this all just a way to make yourself feel better about Dorian Havilliard slipping through your nets?”
The darkness hissed. Aedion squeezed her shoulder in silent warning. End it now. Before Erawan might strike. Before he could sense that the Wyrdkey he sought was mere feet away.
So Aelin inclined her head to the force staring at them through flesh and bone. “I suggest you rest and gather your strength, Erawan,” she purred, winking at him with every shred of bravado left in her. “You’re going to need it.”
A low laugh as flames started to flicker in her eyes, heating her blood with welcome, delicious warmth. “Indeed. Especially considering the plans I have for the would-be King of Adarlan.”
Aelin’s heart stopped.
“Perhaps you should have told your lover to disguise himself before he snatched Dorian Havilliard out of Rifthold.” Those eyes narrowed to slits. “What was his name … Oh, yes,” Erawan breathed, as if someone had whispered it to him. “Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle. What a prize he shall be.”
Aelin plummeted down into fire and darkness, refusing to yield one inch to the terror creeping over her.
Erawan crooned, “My hunters are already tracking them. And I am going to hurt them, Aelin Galathynius. I am going to hone them into my most loyal generals. Starting with your Fae Prince—”
A battering ram of hottest blue slammed into that pit in the man’s chest cavity, into those burning eyes.
Aelin kept her magic focused on that chest, on the bones and flesh melting away, leaving only that heart of iron and Wyrdstone untouched. Her
magic flowed around it like a stream surging past a rock, burning his body, that thing inside him—
“Don’t bother saving any part of him,” Aedion snarled softly.
Her magic roaring out of her, Aelin glanced over a shoulder. Lysandra was now in human form beside Aedion, teeth gritted at the overseer—
The look cost her.
She heard Aedion’s shout before she felt Erawan’s punch of darkness crash into her chest.
Felt the air snap against her as she was hurled back, felt her body bark against the stone wall before the agony of that darkness really sank in. Her breath stalled, her blood halted—
Get up get up get up.
Erawan laughed softly as Aedion was instantly at her side, dragging her to her feet as her mind, her body tried to reorder itself—
Aelin threw out her power again, letting Aedion believe she allowed him to hold her upright simply because she forgot to step away, not because her knees were shaking so violently she wasn’t sure she could stand.
But her hand remained steady, at least, as she extended it.
The temple around them shuddered at the force of the power she hurled out of herself. Dust and kernels of debris trickled from the ceiling high above; columns swayed like drunken friends.
Aedion’s and Lysandra’s faces glowed in the blue light of her flame, their features wide-eyed but set with solid determination—and wrath. She leaned farther into Aedion as her magic roared from her, his grip tightening at her waist.
Each heartbeat was a lifetime; each breath ached.
But the overseer’s body at last ripped apart under her power—the dark shields around it yielding to her.
And some small part of her realized that it only did so when Erawan deigned to leave, those amused, ember-like eyes guttering into nothing.
When the man’s body was only ashes, Aelin reeled back her magic, cocooned her heart in it. She gripped Aedion’s arm, trying not to breathe too loudly, lest he hear the rasp of her battered lungs, realize how hard that single plume of darkness had hit.
A heavy thud echoed through the silent temple as the lump of iron and Wyrdstone fell.
That was the cost—Erawan’s plan. To realize that the only mercy she might offer her court would be death.
If they were ever captured … he’d make her watch as they were all carved apart and filled with his power. Make her look into their faces when he’d finished, and find no trace of their souls within. Then he’d get to work on her.
And Rowan and Dorian … If Erawan was hunting them at this very moment, if he learned that they were in Skull’s Bay, and how hard he’d actually struck her—
Aelin’s flames banked to a quiet ember, and she finally found enough strength in her legs to push away from Aedion’s grip.
“We need to be on that ship before dawn, Aelin,” he said. “If Erawan wasn’t bluffing…”
Aelin only nodded. They had to get to Skull’s Bay as fast as the winds and currents could carry them.
But as she turned toward the archway out of the temple, heading for the archives, she glanced at her chest—utterly untouched, though Erawan’s power had hit her like a hurled spear.
He’d missed. By three inches, Erawan had narrowly missed hitting the amulet. And possibly sensing the Wyrdkey inside it.
Yet the blow still reverberated against her bones in brutal ripples.
A reminder that she might be the heir of fire … but Erawan was King of the Darkness.
Yrene was late.
Chaol had come to expect her at ten, though she had given no indication of when she might arrive. Nesryn had left well before he’d awoken to seek out Sartaq and his ruk, leaving him here to bathe and … wait.
An hour in, Chaol began going through what exercises he could manage on his own, unable to stand the silence, the heavy heat, the endless trickle of water from the fountain outside. The thoughts that kept sliding back to Dorian, wondering where his king was now headed.
She’d mentioned exercises—some involving his legs, however she’d manage to accomplish that—but if Yrene didn’t bother to arrive on time, then he certainly wouldn’t bother to wait for her.
His arms were trembling by the time the clock on the sideboard chimed noon, little silver bells atop the carved wood piece filling the space with clear, bright ringing. Sweat slid down his chest, his spine, his face as he managed to haul himself into his chair, arms trembling with the effort. He was about to call for Kadja to bring him a jug of water and a cool cloth when Yrene appeared.
In the sitting room, he listened as she entered the main door, then halted.
She said to Kadja, waiting in the foyer, “I have a matter of discretion that I need you to personally oversee.”
“Lord Westfall requires a tonic for a rash developing on his legs. Likely from some oil you dumped into his bath.” The words were calm, yet edged. He frowned down at his legs. He’d seen no such thing this morning, but he certainly couldn’t sense an itch or burning. “I need willow bark, honey, and mint. The kitchens will have them. Tell no one why. I don’t want word getting around.”
Silence again—then a door closing.
He watched the open doors to the sitting room, listening to her listen to Kadja leaving. Then her heavy sigh. Yrene emerged a moment later.
She looked like hell. “What’s wrong?”
The words were out before he could consider the fact that he had no right to ask such things.
But Yrene’s golden-brown face was ashen, her eyes smudged with purple, her hair limp.
She only said, “You exercised.”
Chaol glanced down at his sweat-soaked shirt. “It seemed as good a way to pass the time as anything else.” Each of her steps toward the desk was slow—heavy. He repeated, “What’s wrong?”
But she reached the desk and kept her back to him. He ground his teeth, debating wheeling the chair over just so he could see her face, as he might have once stormed over to see—to push into her space until she told him what the hell had happened.
Yrene just set her satchel on the desk with a thud. “If you wish to exercise, perhaps a better place for it would be the barracks.” A wry look at the carpet. “Rather than sweating all over the khagan’s priceless rugs.”
His hands clenched at his sides. “No,” was all he said. All he could say. She lifted a brow. “You were Captain of the Guard, weren’t you?
Perhaps training with the palace guard will be beneficial to—”
She peered over her shoulder, those golden eyes sizing him up. He didn’t balk, even as the still-shredded thing in his chest seemed to twist and rend itself further.
He had no doubt she marked it, no doubt she’d tucked away that bit of information. Some small part of him hated her for it, hated himself for revealing that wound through his obstinance, but Yrene only turned from the desk and strode toward him, face unreadable.
“I apologize if rumor now gets out that you have an unfortunate rash on your legs.” That usual, sure-footed grace had been replaced by trudging feet. “If Kadja is as smart as I think she is, she’ll worry that the rash being a result of her ministrations would get her in trouble and not tell anyone. Or at least realize that if word gets out, we’ll know she was the only one told of it.”
Fine. She still didn’t want to answer his question. So he instead asked, “Why did you want Kadja gone?”
Yrene slumped onto the golden sofa and rubbed her temples. “Because someone killed a healer in the library last night—and then hunted me, too.”
Chaol went still. “What?”
He glanced to the windows, the open garden doors, the exits. Nothing but heat and gurgling water and birdsong.
“I was reading—about what you told me,” Yrene said, the freckles on her face so stark against her wan skin. “And I felt someone approaching.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see them. The healer … I found her as I fled.” Her throat bobbed. “We cleared the library from top to bottom once she was
… retrieved, but found no one.” She shook her head, jaw tight.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. Not just for the loss of life, but also for what seemed like the loss of a long-held peace and serenity. But he asked, because he could no more stop himself from getting answers, from assessing the risks, than he could halt his own breathing, “What manner of injuries?” Half of him didn’t want to know.
Yrene leaned back against the sofa cushions, the down stuffing sighing as she stared at the gilded ceiling. “I’d seen her before in passing. She was young, a little older than me. And when I found her on the floor, she looked like a long-desiccated corpse. No blood, no sign of injury. Just … drained.”
His heart stumbled at the too-familiar description. Valg. He’d bet all he had left, he’d bet everything on it. “And whoever did this just left her body there?”
A nod. Her hands shook as she dragged them through her hair, closing her eyes. “I think they realized they’d attacked the wrong person—and moved away quickly.”
She turned her head, opening her eyes. Exhaustion lay there. And utter fear. “She looks—looked like me,” Yrene rasped. “Our builds, our coloring. Whoever it was … I think they were looking for me.”
“Why?” he asked again, scrambling to sort through all she’d said.
“Because what I was reading last night, about the potential source of the power that injured you … I left some books about it on the table. And when the guards searched the area, the books were gone.” She swallowed again. “Who knew you were coming here?”
Chaol’s blood chilled despite the heat.
“We did not make it a secret.” It was instinct to rest his hand on a sword that was not there—a sword he had chucked in the Avery months ago. “It wasn’t announced, but anyone could have learned. Long before we set foot here.”
It was happening again. Here. A Valg demon had come to Antica—an underling at best, a prince at worst. It could be either.
The attack Yrene had described fit Aelin’s account of the remains she and Rowan had found from the Valg prince’s victims in Wendlyn. People teeming with life turned to husks as if the Valg drank their very souls.
He found himself saying quietly, “Prince Kashin suspects Tumelun was killed.”
Yrene sat up, any lingering color draining from her face. “Tumelun’s body was not drained. Hafiza—the Healer on High herself declared it was a suicide.”
There was, of course, a chance the two deaths weren’t connected, a chance that Kashin was wrong about Tumelun. Part of Chaol prayed it was so. But even if they were unrelated, what had happened last night—
“You need to warn the khagan,” Yrene said, seeming to read his mind.
He nodded. “Of course. Of course I will.” Damned as the entire situation was … Perhaps it was the in he’d been waiting for with the khagan. But he studied her haggard face, the fear there. “I’m sorry—to have brought you into this. Has security been increased around the Torre?”
“Yes.” A breathy push of sound. She scrubbed at her face. “And you? Did you come here under guard?”
She threw him a frown. “In plain daylight? In the middle of the city?” Chaol crossed his arms. “I would put nothing past the Valg.”
She waved a hand. “I won’t be heading alone into any dark corridors anytime soon. None of us in the Torre will. Guards have been called in— stationed down every hall, in every few feet of the library. I don’t even know where Hafiza summoned them from.”
Valg underlings could take bodies of anyone they wished, but their princes were vain enough that Chaol doubted they’d bother to take the form of a lowly guard. Not when they preferred beautiful young men.
A collar and a dead, cold smile flashed before his eyes.
Chaol blew out a breath. “I am truly sorry—about that healer.” Especially if his being here had somehow triggered this attack, if they pursued Yrene only because of her helping him. He added, “You should be on your guard. Constantly.”
She ignored the warning and scanned the room, the carpets, and the lush palms. “The girls—the young acolytes … They’re frightened.”
Before, he would have volunteered to stand watch, to guard her door, to organize the soldiers because he knew how these things operated. But he was no captain, and he doubted the khagan or his men would be inclined to listen to a foreign lord, anyway.
But he couldn’t stop himself, that part of him, as he asked, “What can I do to help?”
Yrene’s eyes shifted toward him, assessing. Weighing. Not him, but he had the feeling it was something inside herself. So he kept still, kept his
gaze steady, while she looked inward. While she at last took a breath and said, “I teach a class. Once a week. After last night, they were all too tired, so I let them sleep instead. Tonight, we have a vigil for the healer who— who died. But tomorrow …” She chewed on her lip, again debating for a heartbeat before she added, “I should like you to come.”
“What sort of class?”
Yrene toyed with a heavy curl. “There is no tuition for students here— but we pay our way in other forms. Some help with the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning. But when I came, Hafiza … I told her I was good at all those things. I’d done them for—a while. She asked me what else I knew beyond healing, and I told her …” She bit her lip. “Someone once taught me self-defense. What to do against attackers. Usually the male kind.”
It was an effort not to look at the scar across her throat. Not to wonder if she had learned it after—or if even that had not been enough.
Yrene sighed through her nose. “I told Hafiza that I knew a little about it, and that … I had made a promise to someone, to the person who taught me, to show and teach it to as many women as possible. So I have. Once a week, I teach the acolytes, along with any older students, healers, servants, or librarians who would like to know.”
This delicate, gentle-handed woman … He supposed he’d learned that strength could be hidden beneath the most unlikely faces.
“The girls are deeply shaken. There hasn’t been an intruder in the Torre for a great while. I think it would go a long way if you were to join me tomorrow—to teach what you know.”
For a long moment, he stared at her. Blinked. “You realize I’m in this chair.”
“And? Your mouth still works.” Tart, crisp words.
He blinked again. “They might not find me the most reassuring instructor—”
“No, they’ll likely be swooning and sighing over you so much they’ll
forget to be afraid.”
His third and final blink made her smile slightly. Grimly. He wondered what that smile would look like if she ever was truly amused—happy.
“The scar adds a touch of mystery,” she said, cutting him off before he could remember the slice down his cheek.
He studied her as she rose from the sofa to stride back to the desk and unpack her bag. “You would truly like me to be there tomorrow?”
“We’ll have to figure out how to get you there, but it should not be so difficult.”
“Stuffing me into a carriage will be fine.”
She stiffened, glancing over her shoulder. “Save that anger for our training, Lord Westfall.” She fished out a vial of oil and set it on the table. “And you will not be taking a carriage.”
“A litter carried by servants, then?” He’d sooner crawl. “A horse. Ever heard of one?”
He clenched the arms of his chair. “You need legs to ride.”
“So it’s a good thing you still have both of them.” She went back to studying whatever vials were in that bag. “I spoke to my superior this morning. She has seen similarly injured people ride until they could meet with us—with special straps and braces. They are fashioning them for you in the workshops as we speak.”
He let those words sink in. “So you assumed I would come with you tomorrow.”
Yrene turned at last, satchel in her hand now. “I assumed you would wish to ride regardless.”
He could only stare while she approached, vial in hand. Only a prim sort of irritation on her face. Better than the stark fear. He asked, voice a bit raw, “You think such a thing is possible?”
“I do. I’ll arrive at dawn, so we have enough time to figure it out. The lesson begins at nine.”
To ride—even if he could not walk, riding … “Please do not give me this hope and let it crumble,” he said hoarsely.
Yrene set the satchel and vial down on the low-lying table before the sofa and motioned him to move closer. “Good healers don’t do such things, Lord Westfall.”
He hadn’t bothered with a jacket today, and had left his belt in the bedroom. Sliding his sweat-soaked shirt over his head, he made quick work of unbuttoning the tops of his pants. “It’s Chaol,” he said after a moment. “My name—it’s Chaol. Not Lord Westfall.” He grunted as he hoisted himself from the chair onto the sofa. “Lord Westfall is my father.”
“Well, you’re a lord, too.” “Just Chaol.”
He shot her a look as he positioned his legs. She did not reach to help, to adjust. “Here I was, thinking you still resented me.”
“If you help my girls tomorrow, I’ll reconsider.”
From the gleam in those golden eyes, he very much doubted that, but a half smile tugged on his mouth. “Another massage today?” Please, he nearly added. His muscles already ached from his exercising, and moving so much between bed and sofa and chair and bath—
“No.” Yrene gestured for him to lie facedown on the sofa. “I’m going to begin today.”
“You found information on it?”
“No,” she repeated, tugging off his pants with that cool, swift efficiency. “But after last night … I do not want to delay.”
“I will—I can …” He ground his teeth. “We’ll find a way to protect you while you research.” He hated the words, felt them curl like rancid milk on his tongue, along his throat.
“I think they know that,” she said quietly, and dabbed spots of oil along his spine. “I’m not sure if it’s the information, though. That they want to keep me from finding.”
His gut tightened, even as she ran soothing hands down his back. They lingered near that splotch at its apex. “What do you think they want, then?”
He already suspected, but he wanted to hear her say it—wanted to know if she thought the same, understood the risks as much as he did.
“I wonder,” she said at last, “if it was not just what I was researching, but also that I’m healing you.”
He craned his head to look at her as the words settled between them. She only stared at that mark on his spine, her tired face drawn. He doubted she’d slept. “If you’re too tired—”
“I am not.”
He clenched his jaw. “You can nap here. I’ll look after you.” Useless as it would be. “Then work on me later—”
“I will work on you now. I am not going to let them scare me away.” Her voice did not tremble or waver.
She added, more quietly but no less fiercely, “I once lived in fear of other people. I let other people walk all over me just because I was too
afraid of the consequences for refusing. I did not know how to refuse.” Her hand pushed down on his spine in a silent order to rest his head again. “The day I reached these shores, I cast aside that girl. And I will be damned if I let her reemerge. Or let someone tell me what to do with my life, my choices again.”
The hair on his arms rose at the simmering wrath in her voice. A woman made of steel and crackling embers. Heat indeed flared beneath her palm as she slid it up the column of his spine, toward that splotch of white.
“Let’s see if it enjoys being pushed around for a change,” she breathed.
Yrene laid her hand directly atop the scar. Chaol opened his mouth to speak—
But a scream came out instead.
Burning, razor-sharp pain sliced down his back in brutal claws.
Chaol arched, bellowing in agony.
Yrene’s hand was instantly gone, and a crashing sounded.
Chaol panted, gasping, as he pushed up onto his elbows to find Yrene sitting on the low-lying table, her vial of oil overturned and leaking across the wood. She gaped at his back, at where her hand had been.
He had no words—none beyond the echoing pain.
Yrene lifted her hands before her face as if she had never seen them before.
She turned them this way and that.
“It doesn’t just dislike my magic,” she breathed.
His arms buckled, so he lay down again on the cushions, holding her stare as Yrene declared, “It hates my magic.”
“You said it was an echo—not connected to the injury.” “Maybe I was wrong.”
“Rowan healed me with none of those problems.”
Her brows knotted at the name, and he silently cursed himself for revealing that piece of his history in this palace of ears and mouths. “Were you conscious?”
He considered. “No. I was—nearly dead.”
She noticed the spilled oil then and cursed softly—mildly, compared to some other filthy mouths he’d had the distinct pleasure of being around.
Yrene lunged for her satchel, but he moved faster, grabbing his sweat-damp shirt from where he’d laid it on the sofa arm and chucking it over the spreading puddle before it could drip onto the surely priceless rug.
Yrene studied the shirt, then his outstretched arm, now nearly across her lap. “Either your lack of consciousness during that initial healing kept you from feeling this sort of pain, or perhaps whatever this is had not … settled.”
His throat clogged. “You think I’m possessed?” By that thing that had dwelled inside the king, that had done such unspeakable things—
“No. But pain can feel alive. Maybe this is no different. And maybe it does not want to let go.”
“Is my spine even injured?” He barely managed to ask the question.
“It is,” she said, and some part of his chest caved in. “I sensed the broken bits—the tangled and severed nerves. But to heal those things, to get them communicating with your brain again … I need to get past that echo. Or beat it into submission enough to have space to work on you.” Her lips pressed into a grim line. “This shadow, this thing that haunts you—your body. It will fight me every step of the way, fight to convince you to tell me to stop. Through pain.” Her eyes were clear—stark. “Do you understand what I am telling you?”
His voice was low, rough. “That if you are to succeed, I will have to endure that sort of pain. Repeatedly.”
“I have herbs that can make you sleep, but with an injury like this … I think I won’t be the only one who has to fight back against it. And if you
are unconscious … I fear what it might try to do to you if you’re trapped there. In your dreamscape—your psyche.” Her face seemed to pale further.
Chaol slid his hand from where it still rested atop his shirt-turned-mop and squeezed her hand. “Do what you have to.”
“It will hurt. Like that. Constantly. Worse, likely. I will have to work my way down, vertebra by vertebra, before I even reach the base of your spine. Fighting it and healing you at the same time.”
His hand tightened on hers, so small compared to his. “Do what you have to,” he repeated.
“And you,” she said quietly. “You will have to fight it as well.” He stilled at that.
Yrene went on, “If these things feed upon us by nature … If they feed, and yet you are healthy …” She gestured to his body. “Then it must be feeding upon something else. Something within you.”
“I sense nothing.”
She studied their joined hands—then slid her fingers away. Not as violent as dropping his hand, but the withdrawal was pointed enough. “Perhaps we should discuss it.”
She brushed her hair over a shoulder. “What happened—whatever it is that you feed this thing.”
Sweat coated his palms. “There is nothing to discuss.”
Yrene stared at him for a long moment. It was all he could do not to shrink from that frank gaze. “From what I’ve gleaned, there is quite a bit to discuss regarding the past few months. It seems as if it’s been a … tumultuous time for you recently. You yourself said yesterday that there is no one who loathes you more than yourself.”
To say the least. “And you’re suddenly so eager to hear about it?”
She didn’t so much as flinch. “If that is what is required for you to heal and be gone.”
His brows rose. “Well, then. It finally comes out.”
Yrene’s face was an unreadable mask that could have given Dorian a run for his money. “I assume you do not wish to be here forever, what with war breaking loose in our homeland, as you called it.”
“Is it not our homeland?”
Silently, Yrene rose to grab her satchel. “I have no interest in sharing anything with Adarlan.”
He understood. He really did. Perhaps it was why he still had not told her who, exactly, that lingering darkness belonged to.
“And you,” Yrene went on, “are avoiding the topic at hand.” She rooted through her satchel. “You’ll have to talk about what happened sooner or later.”
“With all due respect, it’s none of your business.”
Her eyes flicked to him at that. “You would be surprised by how closely the healing of physical wounds is tied to the healing of emotional ones.”
“I’ve faced what happened.”
“Then what is that thing in your spine feeding on?” “I don’t know.” He didn’t care.
She fished something out of the satchel at last, and when she strode back toward him, his stomach tightened at what she held.
A bit. Crafted from dark, fresh leather. Unused.
She offered it to him without hesitation. How many times had she handed one over to patients, to heal injuries far worse than his?
“Now would be the time to tell me to stop,” Yrene said, face grim. “In case you’d rather discuss what happened these past few months.”
Chaol only lay on his stomach and slid the bit into his mouth.
Nesryn had watched the sunrise from the skies.
She’d found Prince Sartaq waiting in his aerie in the hour before dawn. The minaret was open to the elements at its uppermost level, and behind the leather-clad prince … Nesryn had braced a hand on the archway to the stairwell, still breathless from the climb.
Kadara was beautiful.
Each of the ruk’s golden feathers shone like burnished metal, the white of her breast bright as fresh snow. And her gold eyes had sized Nesryn up immediately. Before Sartaq even turned from where he’d been buckling on the saddle across her broad back.
“Captain Faliq,” the prince had said by way of greeting. “You’re up early.”
Casual words for any listening ears.
“The storm last night kept me from sleep. I hope I am not disturbing you.”
“On the contrary.” In the dim light, his mouth quirked in a smile. “I was about to go for a ride—to let this fat hog hunt for her breakfast for once.”
Kadara puffed her feathers in indignation, clicking her enormous beak— fully capable of taking a man’s head off in one snip. No wonder Princess Hasar remained wary of the bird.
Sartaq chuckled, patting her feathers. “Care to join?”
With the words, Nesryn suddenly had a sense of how very, very high the minaret was. And how Kadara would likely fly above it. With nothing to
keep her from death but the rider and saddle now set in place.
But to ride a ruk …
Even better, to ride a ruk with a prince who might have information for them …
“I am not particularly skilled with heights, but it would be my honor, Prince.”
It had been a matter of a few minutes. Sartaq had ordered her to switch from her midnight-blue jacket to the spare leather one folded in a chest of drawers shoved against the far wall. He’d politely turned his back when she changed pants as well. Since her hair fell only to her shoulders, she had difficulty braiding it back, but the prince had fished into his own pockets and supplied her with a leather thong to pull it back into a knot.
Always carry a spare, he told her. Or else she’d be combing her hair for weeks.
He’d mounted the keen-eyed ruk first, Kadara lowering herself like some oversized hen to the floor. He climbed her side in two fluid movements, then reached down a hand for Nesryn. She gingerly laid her palm against Kadara’s ribs, marveling at the cool feathers smooth as finest silk.
Nesryn waited for the ruk to shift about and glare while Sartaq hauled her into the saddle in front of him, but the prince’s mount remained docile. Patient.
Sartaq had buckled and harnessed them both into the saddle, triple-checking the leather straps. Then he clicked his tongue once, and—
Nesryn knew it wasn’t polite to squeeze a prince’s arms so hard the bone was likely to break. But she did so anyway as Kadara spread her shining golden wings and leaped out.
Her stomach shot straight up her throat. Her eyes watered and blurred.
Wind tore at her, trying to rip her from that saddle, and she clenched with her thighs so tightly they ached, while she gripped Sartaq’s arms, holding the reins, so hard he chuckled in her ear.
But the pale buildings of Antica loomed up, near-blue in the early dawn, rushing to meet them as Kadara dove and dove, a star falling from the heavens—
Then flared those wings wide and shot upward.
Nesryn was glad she had forgone breakfast. For surely it would have come spewing out of her mouth at what the motion did to her stomach.
Within the span of a few beats, Kadara banked right—toward the horizon just turning pink.
The sprawl of Antica spread before them, smaller and smaller as they rose into the skies. Until it was no more than a cobblestoned road beneath them, spreading into every direction. Until she could spy the olive groves and wheat fields just outside the city. The country estates and small towns speckled about. The rippling dunes of the northern desert to her left. The sparkling, snaking band of rivers turning golden in the rising sun that crested over the mountains to her right.
Sartaq did not speak. Did not point out landmarks. Not even the pale line of the Sister-Road that ran toward the southern horizon.
No, in the rising light, he let Kadara have her head. The ruk took them floating higher still, the air turning crisp—the awakening blue sky brightening with each mighty flap of her wings.
Open. So open.
Not at all like the endless sea, the tedious waves and cramped ship.
This was … this was breath. This was …
She could not look fast enough, drink it all in. How small everything was, how lovely and pristine. A land claimed by a conquering nation, yet loved and nurtured.
Her land. Her home.
The sun and the scrub and the undulating grasslands that beckoned in the distance. The lush jungles and rice fields to the west; the pale sand dunes of the desert to the northeast. More than she could see in a lifetime—farther than Kadara could fly in a single day. An entire world, this land. The entire world contained here.
She could not understand why her father had left.
Why he had stayed, when such darkness had crept into Adarlan. Why he had kept them in that festering city where she so rarely looked up at the sky, or felt a breeze that did not reek of the briny Avery or the rubbish rotting in the streets.
“You are quiet,” the prince said, and it was more question than statement.
Nesryn admitted in Halha, “I don’t have words to describe it.”
She felt Sartaq smile near her shoulder. “That was what I felt—that first ride. And every ride since.”
“I understand why you stayed at the camp those years ago. Why you are eager to return.”
A beat of quiet. “Am I so easy to read?” “How could you not wish to return?”
“Some consider my father’s palace to be the finest in the world.” “It is.”
His silence was question enough.
“Rifthold’s palace was nothing so fine—so lovely and a part of the land.”
Sartaq hummed, the sound reverberating into her back. Then he said quietly, “The death of my sister has been hard upon my mother. It is for her that I remain.”
Nesryn winced a bit. “I’m so very sorry.” Only the rushing wind spoke for a time.
Then Sartaq said, “You said was. Regarding Rifthold’s royal palace.
“You heard what befell it—the glass portions.”
“Ah.” Another beat of quiet. “Shattered by the Queen of Terrasen. Your
He craned his body around hers to peer at her face. “Is she truly?”
“She is a good woman,” Nesryn said, and meant it. “Difficult, yes, but
… some might say the same of any royalty.”
“Apparently, she found the former King of Adarlan so difficult that she killed him.”
“The man was a monster—and a threat to all. His Second, Perrington, remains that way. She did Erilea a favor.”
Sartaq angled the reins as Kadara began a slow, steady descent toward a sparkling river valley. “She is truly that powerful?”
Nesryn debated the merits of the truth or downplaying Aelin’s might. “She and Dorian both possess considerable magic. But I would say it is their intelligence that is the stronger weapon. Brute power is useless without it.”
“It’s dangerous without it.”
“Yes,” Nesryn agreed, swallowing. “Are …” She had not been trained in the mazelike way of speaking at court. “Is there such a threat within your court that warranted us needing to speak in the skies?”
He could very well be the threat posed, she reminded herself.
“You have dined with my siblings. You see how they are. If I were to arrange a meeting with you, it would send a message to them. That I am willing to hear your suit—perhaps press it to our father. They would consider the risks and benefits of undermining me. Or whether it would make them look better to try to join … my side.”
“And are you? Willing to hear us out?”
Sartaq didn’t answer for a long moment, only the screaming wind filling the quiet.
“I would listen. To you and Lord Westfall. I would hear what you know, what has happened to you both. I do not hold as much sway with my father as others, but he knows the ruk riders are loyal to me.”
“That I was his favorite?” A low, bitter laugh. “I perhaps stand a chance at being named Heir, but the khagan does not select his Heir based on whom he loves best. Even so, that particular honor goes to Duva and Kashin.”
Sweet-faced Duva, she could understand, but—“Kashin?”
“He is loyal to my father to a fault. He has never schemed, never backstabbed. I’ve done it—plotted and maneuvered against them all to get what I want. But Kashin … He may command the land armies and the horse-lords, he may be brutal when required, but with my father, he is guileless. There has never been a more loving or loyal son. When our father
dies … I worry. What the others will do to Kashin if he does not submit, or worse: what his death will do to Kashin himself.”
She dared ask, “What would you do to him?” Destroy him, if he will not swear fealty?
“It remains to be seen what sort of threat or alliance he could pose. Only Duva and Arghun are married, and Arghun has yet to sire offspring. Though Kashin, if he has his way, would likely sweep that young healer off her feet.”
Yrene. “Strange that she has no interest in him.”
“A mark in her favor. It is not easy to love a khagan’s offspring.”
The green grasses, still dewy beneath the fresh sun, rippled as Kadara swept toward a swift-moving river. With those enormous talons of hers, she could easily snatch up fistfuls of fish.
But it was not the prey Kadara sought as she flew over the river, seeking something—
“Someone broke into the Torre’s library last night,” Sartaq said as he monitored the ruk’s hunt over the dark blue waters. Mist off the surface kissed Nesryn’s face, but the chill at his words went far deeper. “They killed a healer—through some vile power that rendered her into a husk. We have never seen its like in Antica.”
Nesryn’s stomach turned over. With that description—“Who? Why?”
“Yrene Towers sounded the alarm. We searched for hours and found no trace, beyond missing books from where she had been studying, and where it stalked her. Yrene was rattled, but fine.”
Researching—Chaol had informed her last night that Yrene had planned to do some research regarding wounds from magic, from demons.
Sartaq asked casually, “Do you know what Yrene might have been looking into that posed such dark interest and theft of her books?”
Nesryn considered. It could be a trick—his revealing something personal from his family, his life, to lull her into telling him secrets. Nesryn and Chaol had not yielded any information of the keys, the Valg, or Erawan to the khagan or his children. They had been waiting to do so—to assess whom to trust. For if their enemies heard that they were hunting for the keys to seal the Wyrdgate …
“No,” she lied. “But perhaps they are unannounced enemies of ours who wish to scare her and the other healers out of helping the captain. I mean— Lord Westfall.”
Silence. She thought he’d push her on it, waited for it as Kadara skimmed closer to the river’s surface, as if closing in on some prey. “It must be strange, to bear a new title, with the former owner right beside you.”
“I was only captain for a few weeks before we left. I suppose I shall have to learn when I return.”
“If Yrene is successful. Among other possible victories.” Like bringing that army with them.
“Yes,” was all she managed to say.
Kadara dove, a sharp, swift motion that had Sartaq tightening his arms around her, bracing her thighs with his own.
She let him guide her, keeping them upright in the saddle as Kadara dipped into the water, thrashed, and sent something hurling onto the riverbank. A heartbeat later, she was upon it, talons and beak spearing and slashing. The thing beneath her fought, twisting and whipping—
A crunch. Then silence.
The ruk calmed, feathers puffing, then smoothing against the blood now splattered along her breast and neck. Some had splashed onto Nesryn’s boots as well.
“Be careful, Captain Faliq,” Sartaq said as Nesryn got a good look at the creature the ruk now feasted upon.
It was enormous, nearly fifteen feet, covered in scales thick as armor. Like the marsh beasts of Eyllwe, but bulkier—fatter from the cattle it no doubt dragged into the water along these rivers.
“There is beauty in my father’s lands,” the prince went on while Kadara ripped into that monstrous carcass, “but there is much lurking beneath the surface, too.”