Chapter no 18

Empire of Storms

Manon saw only the flash of her grandmother’s rusted iron teeth, the glimmer of her iron nails as she raised them to ward against the sword—but too late.

Manon slashed Wind-Cleaver down, a blow that would have cut most men in half.

Yet her grandmother darted back fast enough that the sword sliced down her torso, ripping fabric and skin as it cut between her breasts in a shallow line. Blue blood sprayed, but the Matron was moving, blocking Manon’s next blow with her iron nails—iron so hard that Wind-Cleaver bounced off.

Manon did not look to see if the Thirteen obeyed. But Asterin was roaring; roaring and shouting to stop. The cries grew more distant, then echoed, as if she were now inside the hall, being dragged away.

No sounds of pursuit—as if the onlookers were too stunned. Good.

Iskra and Petrah had swords out, iron teeth down as they stepped between their Matrons and Manon, herding their two High Witches away.

The Blackbeak Matron’s coven lunged forward, only to be halted by a hand. “Stay back,” her grandmother commanded, panting as Manon circled her. Blue blood leaked down her grandmother’s front. An inch closer, and she’d have been dead.


Her grandmother bared her rusted teeth. “She’s mine.” She jerked her chin at Manon. “We do this the ancient way.”

Manon’s stomach roiled, but she sheathed her sword.

A flick of her wrists had her nails out, and a snap of her jaw had her teeth descending.

“Let’s see how good you are, Wing Leader,” her grandmother hissed, and attacked.

Manon had never seen her grandmother fight, never trained with her.

And some small part of Manon wondered if it was because her grandmother did not want others to know how skilled she was.

Manon could hardly move fast enough to avoid the nails ripping into her face, her neck, her gut, yielding step after step after step.

She only had to do this long enough to buy the Thirteen time to get to the skies.

Her grandmother slashed for her cheek, and Manon blocked the blow with an elbow, slamming the joint down hard into her grandmother’s forearm. The witch barked in pain, and Manon spun out of reach, circling again.

“It is not so easy to strike now is it, Manon Blackbeak?” her grandmother panted as they surveyed each other. No one around them dared move; the Thirteen had vanished—every last one of them. She almost sagged with relief. Now to keep her grandmother occupied long enough to avoid her giving the onlookers the order to pursue. “So much easier with a blade, the weapon of those cowardly humans,” her grandmother seethed. “With the teeth, the nails … You have to mean it.”

They lunged for each other, some fundamental part of her cracking with every slash and swipe and block. They darted apart again.

“As pathetic as your mother,” her grandmother spat. “Perhaps you’ll die like her, too—with my teeth at your throat.”

Her mother, whom she’d killed coming out of, who had died birthing her—

“For years, I tried to train her weakness out of you.” Her grandmother spat blue blood onto the stones. “For the good of the Ironteeth, I made you into a force of nature, a warrior equal to none. And this is how you repay me—”

Manon didn’t let the words unnerve her. She went for the throat, only to feint and slash.

Her grandmother barked in pain—genuine pain—as Manon’s claws shredded her shoulder.

Blood showered her hand, flesh clinging to her nails— Manon staggered back, bile burning her throat.

She saw the blow coming, but still didn’t have time to stop it as her grandmother’s right hand slashed across her belly.

Leather, cloth, and skin ripped. Manon screamed.

Blood, hot and blue, rushed out of her before her grandmother had darted back.

Manon shoved a hand against her abdomen, pushing against the shredded skin. Blood dribbled through her fingers, splattering onto the stones.

High above, a wyvern roared. Abraxos.

The Blackbeak Matron laughed, flicking Manon’s blood off her nails. “I’m going to dice your wyvern into tiny pieces and feed him to the hounds.”

Despite the agony in her belly, Manon’s vision honed. “Not if I kill you first.”

Her grandmother chuckled, still circling, assessing. “You are stripped of your title as Wing Leader. You are stripped of your title as heir.” Step after step, closer and closer, an adder looping around its prey. “From this day, you are Manon Witch Killer, Manon Kin Slayer.”

The words pelted her like stones. Manon backed toward the balcony rail, pushing against the wound in her stomach to keep the blood in. The crowd parted like water around them. Just a little longer—just another minute or two.

Her grandmother paused, blinking toward the open doors, as if realizing the Thirteen had vanished. Manon attacked again before she could give the order to pursue.

Swipe, lunge, slash, duck—they moved in a whirlwind of iron and blood and leather.

But as Manon twisted away, the wounds in her stomach gave more, and she stumbled.

Her grandmother didn’t miss a beat. She struck. Not with her nails or teeth, but with her foot.

The kick to Manon’s stomach set her screaming, a roar again answered by Abraxos, locked high above. Soon to die, as she would. She prayed the Thirteen would spare him, let him join them wherever they would flee.

Manon slammed into the stone rail of the balcony and crumpled to the black tiles. Blue blood leaked from her, staining the thighs of her pants.

Her grandmother slowly approached, panting.

Manon grabbed the balcony rail, hauling herself to her feet one last time.

“Do you want to know a secret, Kin Slayer?” her grandmother breathed. Manon slumped against the balcony rail, the drop below endless and a relief. They’d take her to the dungeons—either use her for Erawan’s

breeding, or torture her until she begged for death. Maybe both.

Her grandmother spoke so softly that even Manon could barely hear over her own gasps for air. “As your mother labored to push you out, she confessed who your father was. She said you … you would be the one who broke the curse, who saved us. She said your father was a rare-born Crochan Prince. And she said that your mixed blood would be the key.” Her grandmother lifted her nails to her mouth and licked off Manon’s blue blood.



“So you have been a Kin Slayer your whole life,” her grandmother purred. “Hunting down those Crochans—your relatives. When you were a witchling, your father searched the lands for you. He never stopped loving your mother. Loving her,” she spat. “And loving you. So I killed him.”

Manon gazed at the drop below, the death that beckoned.

“His despair was delicious when I told him what I’d done to her. What I would make you into. Not a child of peace—but war.”

Made. Made. Made.

Manon’s iron nails chipped on the dark stone of the balcony rail. And then her grandmother said the words that broke her.

“Do you know why that Crochan was spying in the Ferian Gap this spring? She had been sent to find you. After a hundred and sixteen years of searching, they had finally learned the identity of their dead prince’s lost child.”

Her grandmother’s smile was hideous in its absolute triumph. Manon willed strength to her arms, to her legs.

“Her name was Rhiannon, after the last Crochan Queen. And she was your half sister. She confessed it to me upon our tables. She thought it’d

save her life. And when she saw what you had become, she chose to let the knowledge die with her.”

“I am a Blackbeak,” Manon rasped, blood choking her words.

Her grandmother took a step, smiling as she crooned, “You are a Crochan. The last of their royal bloodline with the death of your sister at your own hand. You are a Crochan Queen.”

Absolute silence from the witches gathered.

Her grandmother reached for her. “And you’re going to die like one by the time I’m finished with you.”

Manon didn’t let her grandmother’s nails touch her. A boom sounded nearby.

Manon used the strength she’d gathered in her arms, her legs, to hurl herself onto the stone ledge of the balcony.

And roll off it into the open air.



Air and rock and wind and blood—

Manon slammed into a warm, leathery hide, screaming as pain from her wounds blacked out her vision.

Above, somewhere far away, her grandmother was shrieking orders— Manon dug her nails into the leathery hide, burying her claws deep.

Beneath her, a bark of discomfort she recognized. Abraxos.

But she held firm, and he embraced the pain as he banked to the side, swerving out of Morath’s shadow—

She felt them around her.

Manon managed to open her eyes, flicking the clear lid against the wind into place.

Edda and Briar, her Shadows, were now flanking her. She knew they’d been there, waiting in the shadows with their wyverns, had heard every one of those damning last words. “The others have flown ahead. We were sent to retrieve you,” Edda, the eldest of the sisters, shouted over the roar of the wind. “Your wound—”

“It’s shallow,” Manon snapped, forcing the pain aside to focus on the task at hand. She was on Abraxos’s neck, the saddle a few feet behind her.

One by one, every breath an agony, she released her nails from his skin and slid toward the saddle. He evened out his flight, offering smooth air to buckle herself into the harness.

Blood leaked from the gouges in her belly—soon the saddle was slick with it.

Behind them, several roars set the mountains trembling.

“We can’t let them get to the others,” Manon managed to say.

Briar, black hair streaming behind her, swept in closer. “Six Yellowlegs on our tail. From Iskra’s personal coven. Closing in fast.”

With a score to settle, they’d no doubt been given free rein to slaughter them.

Manon surveyed the peaks and ravines of the mountains around them.

“Two apiece,” she ordered. The Shadows’ black wyverns were enormous—skilled at stealth, but devastating in a fight. “Edda, you drive two to the west; Briar, you slam the other two to the east. Leave the last two to me.”

No sign of the rest of the Thirteen in the gray clouds or mountains. Good—they had gotten away. It was enough.

“You kill them, then you find the others,” Manon ordered, an arm draped over her wound.

“But, Wing Leader—”

The title almost sapped her will. But Manon barked, “That’s an order.”

The Shadows bowed their heads. Then, as if sharing one mind, one heart, they banked to either direction, peeling away from Manon like petals in the wind.

Bloodhounds on a scent, four Yellowlegs split from their group to deal with each Shadow.

The two in the center flew faster, harder, spreading apart to close in on Manon. Her vision blurred.

Not a good sign—not a good sign at all.

She breathed to Abraxos, “Let’s make it a final stand worthy of song.” He bellowed in answer.

The Yellowlegs swept near enough for Manon to count their weapons.

A battle cry shattered from the one to her right. Manon dug her left heel into Abraxos’s side.

Like a shooting star, he blasted down toward the peaks of the ashy mountains. The Yellowlegs dove with them.

Manon aimed for a ravine running through the spine of the mountain range, her vision flashing black and white and foggy. A chill crept into her bones.

The walls of the ravine closed around them like the maw of a mighty beast, and she pulled on the reins once.

Abraxos flung out his wings and coasted along the side of the ravine before catching a current and leveling out, flapping like hell through the heart of the crevasse, pillars of stone jutting from the floor like lances.

The Yellowlegs, too ensnared in their bloodlust, their wyverns too large and bulky, balked at the ravine—at the sharp turn—

A boom and a screech, and the whole ravine shuddered.

Manon swallowed her bark of agony to peer behind. One of the wyverns had panicked, too big for the space, and slammed into a stone column. Broken bone and blood rained down.

But the other wyvern had managed to bank, and now sailed toward them, wings so wide they nearly grazed either side of the ravine.

Manon panted through her bloody teeth, “Fly, Abraxos.” And her gentle, warrior-hearted mount flew.

Manon focused on keeping to the saddle, on keeping the arm pressed against her wound to hold the blood in, keep that lethal cold away. She’d gotten enough injuries to know her grandmother had struck deep and true.

The ravine swerved right, and Abraxos took the turn with expert skill. She prayed for the boom and roar of the pursuing wyvern to hit the walls, but none came.

But Manon knew these deadly canyons. She’d flown this path countless times on the endless, inane patrols these months. The Yellowlegs, sequestered in the Ferian Gap, did not.

“To the very end, Abraxos,” she said. His roar was his only confirmation.

One shot. She’d have one shot. Then she could gladly die, knowing the Thirteen wouldn’t be pursued. Not today, at least.

Turn after turn, Abraxos hurtled through the ravine, snapping his own tail against the rock to send debris flying into the Yellowlegs sentinel.

The rider dodged the rocks, her wyvern bobbing on the wind. Closer— Manon needed her closer. She tugged on Abraxos’s reins, and he checked his speed.

Turn after turn after turn, black rock flashing by, blurring like her own fading vision.

The Yellowlegs was near enough to throw a dagger.

Manon looked over a shoulder with her failing eyesight in time to see her do just that.

Not one dagger—but two, metal gleaming in the dim canyon light. Manon braced herself for the impact of metal in flesh and bone.

Abraxos took the final turn as the sentinel hurled her daggers at Manon.

A towering, impenetrable wall of black stone arose, mere feet away.

But Abraxos soared up, catching the updraft and sailing out of the heart of the ravine, so close Manon could touch the dead-end wall.

The two daggers struck the rock where Manon had been moments before.

And the Yellowlegs sentinel, on her bulky, heavy wyvern, did as well.

Rock groaned as wyvern and rider splattered against it. And fell to the ravine floor.

Panting, her breath a wet, bloody rasp, Manon patted Abraxos’s side.

Even the motion was feeble. “Good,” she managed to say.

Mountains became small again. Oakwald spread before her. Trees—the cover of trees might hide her … “Oak … ,” she rasped.

Manon didn’t finish the command before the Darkness swept in to claim


Yrene panted, her legs sprawled before her on the rug, her back resting against the couch on which Lord Chaol now gasped for breath as well.

Her mouth was dry as sand, her limbs trembling so violently that she could barely keep her hands limp in her lap.

A spitting sound and a little thump told her he’d removed the bit.

He’d roared around it. His bellowing had been almost as bad as the magic itself.

It was a void. It was a new, dark hell.

Her magic had been a pulsing star that flared against the wall that the darkness had crafted between the top of his spine and the rest of it. She knew—knew without testing—that if she bypassed it, jumped right to the base of his spine … it would find her there, too.

But she had pushed. Pushed and pushed, until she was sobbing for breath.

Still, that wall did not move.

It only seemed to laugh, quietly and sibilantly, the sound laced with ancient ice and malice.

She’d hurled her magic against the wall, letting its swarm of burning white lights attack in wave after wave, but—nothing.

And only at the end, when her magic could find no crack, no crevice to slide into … Only when she made to pull back did that dark wall seem to transform.

To morph into something … Other.

Yrene’s magic had turned brittle before it. Any spark of defiance in the wake of that healer’s death had cooled. And she could not see, did not dare to look at what she felt gathering there, what filled the dark with voices, as if they were echoing down a long hall.

But it had loomed, and she had slid a glance over her shoulder.

The dark wall was alive. Swimming with images, one after another. As if she were looking through someone’s eyes. She knew on instinct they did not belong to Lord Chaol.

A fortress of dark stone jutted up amid ash-colored, barren mountains, its towers sharp as lances, its edges and parapets hard and slicing. Beyond it, coating the vales and plains amid the mountains, an army rippled away into the distance, more campfires than she could count.

And she knew the name for this place, the assembled host. Heard the name thunder through her mind as if it were the beat of a hammer on anvil.


She’d pulled out. Had yanked herself back to the light and heavy heat.

Morath—whether it was some true memory, left by whatever power had struck him; whether it was something the darkness conjured from her own darkest terrors …

Not real. At least not in this room, with its streaming sunlight and chattering fountain in the garden beyond. But if it was indeed a true portrayal of the armies that Lord Chaol had mentioned yesterday …

That was what she would face. The victims of that host, possibly even the soldiers within it, should things go very wrong.

That was what awaited her back home.

Not now—she would not think about this now, with him here. Fretting about it, reminding him of what he must face, what might be sweeping down upon his friends as they sat here … Not helpful. To either of them.

So Yrene sat there on the rug, forcing her trembling to abate with each deep breath she inhaled through her nose and out her mouth, letting her magic settle and refill within her as she calmed her mind. Letting Lord Chaol pant on the couch behind her, neither of them saying a word.

No, this would not be a usual healing.

But perhaps delaying her return, remaining here to heal him for however long it took … There might be others like him on those battlefields— suffering from similar injuries. Learning to face this now, however harrowing … Yes, this delay might turn fruitful. If she could stomach, if she could endure, that darkness again. Find some way to shatter it.

Go where you fear to tread.


Her eyes drifted closed. At some point, the servant girl had come back with the ingredients Yrene had invented. Had taken one look at them and vanished.

It had been hours ago. Days ago.

Hunger was a tight knot in her belly—a strangely mortal feeling compared to the hours spent attacking that blackness, only half aware of the hand she’d placed on his back, of the screaming that came from him every time her magic shoved against that wall.

He had not once asked her to stop. Had not begged for reprieve.

Shaking fingers brushed her shoulder. “Are … you …” Each of his words was a burnt rasp. She’d have to get him peppermint tea with honey. She should call to the servant—if she could remember to speak. Muster the voice herself. “… all right?”

Yrene cracked her eyelids open as his hand settled on her shoulder. Not from any affection or concern, but because she had a feeling that the exhaustion lay so heavily upon him that he couldn’t move it again.

And she was drained enough that she couldn’t muster the strength to brush off that touch, as she’d done earlier. “I should ask you if you’re all right,” she managed to say, voice raw. “Anything?”

“No.” The sheer lack of emotion behind the word told her enough of his thoughts, his disappointment. He paused for a few heartbeats before he repeated, “No.”

She closed her eyes again. This could take weeks. Months. Especially if she did not find some way to shove back that wall of darkness.

She tried and failed to move her legs. “I should get you—” “Rest.”

The hand tightened on her shoulder. “Rest,” he said again.

“You’re done for the day,” she said. “No additional exercise—” “I mean—you. Rest.” Each word was labored.

Yrene dragged her stare toward the large clock in the corner. Blinked once. Twice.


They had been here for five hours—

He had endured it all that time. Five hours of this agony—

The thought alone had her drawing up her legs. Groaning as she braced a hand on the low-lying table and rallied her strength, pushing up, up, until she was standing. Weaving on her feet, but—standing.

His arms slid beneath him, the muscles of his bare back rippling as he tried to push himself up. “Don’t,” she said.

He did so anyway. The considerable muscles in his arms and chest did not fail him as he shoved upward, until he was sitting. Staring at her, glassy-eyed.

Yrene rasped, “You need—tea.” “Kadja.”

The name was little more than a push of breath. The servant immediately appeared. Too quickly.

Yrene studied her closely as the girl slipped in. She’d been listening.


Yrene did not bother to smile as she said, “Peppermint tea. Lots of honey.”

Chaol added, “Two of them.”

Yrene gave him a look, but sank onto the couch beside him. The cushions were slightly damp—with his sweat, she realized as she saw it gleaming on the contours of his bronzed chest.

She shut her eyes—just for a moment.

She didn’t realize it was far longer than that until Kadja was setting two delicate teacups before them, a small iron kettle steaming in the center of the table. The woman poured generous amounts of honey into both, and Yrene’s mouth was too dry, tongue too heavy, to bother telling her to stop or she’d make them ill from the sweetness.

The servant stirred both in silence, then handed the first cup to Chaol.

He merely passed it to Yrene.

She was too tired to object as she wrapped her hands around it, trying to rally the strength to raise it to her lips.

He seemed to sense it.

He told Kadja to leave his cup on the table. Told her to go.

Yrene watched as through a distant window while Chaol took her cup and lifted it to her lips.

She debated shoving his hand out of her face.

Yes, she’d work with him; no, he was not the monster she’d initially suspected he’d be, not in the way she’d seen men be; but letting him this close, letting him tend to her like this …

“You can either drink it,” he said, his voice a low growl, “or we can sit like this for the next few hours.”

She slid her eyes to him. Found his stare to be level—clear, despite the exhaustion.

She said nothing.

“So, that’s the line,” Chaol murmured, more to himself than her. “You can stomach helping me, but I can’t return the favor. Or can’t do anything that steps beyond your idea of what—who I am.”

He was more astute than most people likely gave him credit for.

She had a feeling the hardness in his rich brown eyes was mirrored in her own.

“Drink.” Pure command laced his voice—a man used to being obeyed, to giving orders. “Resent me all you want, but drink the damn thing.”

And it was the faint kernel of worry in his eyes …

A man used to being obeyed, yes, but a man also inclined to care for others. Look after them. Driven to do it by a compulsion he couldn’t leash,

couldn’t train out of him. Couldn’t have broken out of him.

Yrene parted her lips, a silent yielding.

Gently, he set the porcelain teacup against her mouth and tipped it for her.

She sipped once. He murmured in encouragement. She did so again. So tired. She had never been so tired in her life

Chaol pushed the cup against her mouth a third time, and she drank a full gulp.

Enough. He needed it more than she did—

He sensed she was likely to bark at him, withdrew the cup from her mouth, and merely sipped it. One gulp. Two.

He drained it and grabbed the other one, offering her the first sips again before he took the dregs.

Insufferable man.

Yrene must have said as much, because a half smile kicked up on one side of his face. “You’re not the first to call me that,” he said, his voice smoother. Less hoarse.

“I won’t be the last, I’m sure,” she muttered.

Chaol simply gave her that half smile again and stretched to refill both cups. He added the honey himself—less than Kadja had. The right amount. He stirred them, his hands steady.

“I can do it,” Yrene tried to say. “So can I,” was all he said.

She managed to hold the cup this time. He made sure she was well onto drinking hers before he lifted his own to his lips.

“I should go.” The thought of getting out of the palace, let alone the trek to the Torre, then the walk up the stairs to her rooms …

“Rest. Eat—you must be starving.”

She eyed him. “You’re not?” He’d exercised heavily before she’d arrived; he had to be famished from that alone.

“I am. But I don’t think I can wait for dinner.” He added, “You could join me.”

It was one thing to heal him, work with him, let him serve her tea. But to dine with him, the man who had served that butcher, the man who had worked for him while that dark army was amassed down in Morath … There it was. That smoke in her nose, the crackle of flame and screaming.

Yrene leaned forward to set her cup on the table. Then stood. Every movement was stiff, sore. “I need to return to the Torre,” she said, knees wobbling. “The vigil is at sundown.” Still a good hour from now, thankfully.

He noted her swaying and reached for her, but she stepped out of his range. “I’ll leave the supplies.” Because the thought of lugging that heavy bag back …

“Let me arrange a carriage for you.”

“I can ask at the front gate,” she said. If someone was hunting her, she’d opt for the safety of a carriage.

She had to grip the furniture as she passed to keep upright. The distance to the door seemed eternal.


She could barely stand at the door, but she paused to look back.

“The lesson tomorrow.” The focus had already returned to those brown eyes. “Where do you want me to meet you?”

She debated calling it off. Wondered what she’d been thinking, asking him of all people to come.

But … five hours. Five hours of agony, and he had not broken.

Perhaps it was for that alone that she had declined dinner. If he had not broken, then she would not break—not in seeing him as anything but what he was. What he’d served.

“I’ll meet you in the main courtyard at sunrise.”

Mustering the strength to walk was an effort, but she did it. Put one foot in front of the other.

Left him alone in that room, still staring after her.

Five hours of agony, and she’d known it had not all been physical.

She had sensed, shoving against that wall, that the darkness had also showed him things on the other side of it.

Glimmers had sometimes shivered past her. Nothing she could make out, but they felt … they had felt like memories. Nightmares. Perhaps both.

Yet he had not asked her to stop.

And part of Yrene wondered, as she trudged through the palace, if Lord Chaol had not asked her to stop not just because he’d learned how to manage pain, but also because he somehow felt he deserved it.



Everything hurt.

Chaol did not let himself think about what he had seen. What had flashed through his mind as that pain had wracked him, burned and flayed and shattered him. What—and who he’d seen. The body on the bed. The collar on a throat. The head that had rolled.

He could not escape them. Not while Yrene had worked.

So the pain had ripped through him, so he had seen it, over and over. So he had roared and screamed and bellowed.

She’d stopped only when she’d slid to the floor.

He’d been left hollow. Void.

She still had not wanted to spend more than a moment necessary with him.

He didn’t blame her.

Not that it mattered. Though he reminded himself that she’d asked him to help tomorrow.

In whatever way he could.

Chaol ate his meal where Yrene had left him, still in his undershorts. Kadja didn’t seem to notice or care, and he was too aching and tired to bother with modesty.

Aelin would likely have laughed to see him now. The man who had stumbled out of her room after she’d declared that her cycle had arrived. Now sitting in this fine room, mostly naked and not giving a shit about it.

Nesryn returned before sundown, her face flushed and hair windblown. One look at her tentative smile told him enough. At least she’d been somewhat successful with Sartaq. Perhaps she’d manage to do what it seemed he himself was failing to: raising a host to bring back home.

He’d meant to speak to the khagan today—about the threat last night’s attack had posed. Meant to, and yet it was now late enough to prevent arranging such a meeting.

He barely heard Nesryn as she whispered about Sartaq’s possible sympathy. Her ride on his magnificent ruk. Exhaustion weighed on him so heavily he could hardly keep his eyes open, even while he pictured those ruks squaring off against Ironteeth witches and wyverns, even while he debated who might survive such battles.

But he managed to give the order that curdled on his tongue: Go hunting, Nesryn.

If one of Erawan’s Valg minions had indeed come to Antica, time was not on their side. Every step, every request might be reported back to Erawan. And if they were pursuing Yrene, either for reading up on the Valg or for healing the Hand of the King of Adarlan … He didn’t trust anyone here enough to ask them to do this. Anyone other than Nesryn.

Nesryn had nodded at his request. Had understood why he’d nearly spat it out. To let her go into danger, to hunt that sort of danger …

But she’d done it before in Rifthold. She reminded him of that—gently. Sleep beckoned, turning his body foreign and heavy, but he managed to make his final request: Be careful.

Chaol didn’t resist when she helped him into the chair, then wheeled him into his room. He tried and failed to lift himself into bed, and was only vaguely aware of her and Kadja hauling him onto it like a slab of meat.

Yrene—she never did such things. Never wheeled him when he could do so himself. Constantly told him to move himself instead.

He wondered why. Was too damn tired to wonder why.

Nesryn said she would make his apologies at dinner, and went to change. He wondered if the servants heard the whine of the whetstone against her blades from her bedroom door.

He was asleep before she left, the clock in the sitting room distantly chiming seven.



No one paid Nesryn much heed at dinner that night. And no one paid her any heed later, when she donned her fighting knives, sword, and bow and quiver, and slipped into the city streets.

Not even the khagan’s wife.

As Nesryn stalked by a large stone garden on her way out of the palace, a glimmer of white caught her eye—and sent her ducking behind one of the pillars flanking the courtyard.

Within a heartbeat, she removed her hand from the long knife at her side.

Clad in white silk, her long curtain of dark hair unbound, the Grand Empress strolled, silent and grave as a wraith, down a walkway wending through the rock formations of the garden. Only moonlight filled the space

—moonlight and shadow, as the empress strode alone and unnoticed, her simple gown flowing behind her as if on a phantom wind.

White for grief—for death.

The Grand Empress’s face was unadorned, her coloring far paler than that of her children. No joy limned her features; no life. No interest in either.

Nesryn lingered in the shadows of the pillar, watching the woman drift farther away, as if she were wandering the paths of some dreamscape. Or perhaps some empty, barren hell.

Nesryn wondered if it was at all similar to the ones she herself had walked during those initial months after her mother’s passing. Wondered if the days also bled together for the Grand Empress, if food was ash on her tongue and sleep was both craved and elusive.

Only when the khagan’s wife strode behind a large boulder, vanishing from sight, did Nesryn continue on, her steps a little heavier.

Antica under the full moon was a wash of blues and silvers, interrupted by the golden glow of lanterns hanging from public dining rooms and the carts of vendors selling kahve and treats. A few performers plucked out

melodies on lutes and drums, a few gifted enough to make Nesryn wish she could pause, but stealth and speed were her allies tonight.

She stalked through the shadows, sorting through the sounds of the city. Various temples were interspersed amongst the main thoroughfares:

some crafted of marble pillars, some beneath peaked wooden roofs and painted columns, some mere courtyards filled with pools or rock gardens or sleeping animals. Thirty-six gods watched over this city—and there were thrice as many temples to them scattered throughout.

And with each one Nesryn passed, she wondered if those gods were peering out from the pillars or behind the carved rocks; if they watched from the eaves of that sloped roof, or from behind the spotted cat’s eyes where it lay half awake on the temple steps.

She beseeched all of them to make her feet swift and silent, to guide her where she needed to go while she prowled the streets.

If a Valg agent had come to this continent—or worse, a possible Valg prince … Nesryn scanned the rooftops and the gargantuan pillar of the Torre. It gleamed bone white in the moonlight, a beacon watching over this city, the healers within.

Chaol and Yrene had made no progress today, but—it was fine. Nesryn reminded herself, again and again, that it was fine. These things took a while, even if Yrene … It was clear she had some personal reservations regarding Chaol’s heritage. His former role in the empire.

Nesryn paused near an alley entrance while a band of young revelers staggered past, singing bawdy songs that would surely make her aunt scold them. And later hum along herself.

As she monitored the alley, the bordering, flat rooftops, Nesryn’s attention snagged on a rough carving in the earthen brick wall. An owl at

rest, its wings tucked in, those unearthly large eyes wide and eternally unblinking. Perhaps no more than vandalism, yet she brushed a gloved hand over it, tracing the lines etched into the building’s side.

Antica’s owls. They were everywhere in this city, tribute to the goddess worshipped perhaps more than any other of the thirty-six. No chief god ruled the southern continent, yet Silba … Nesryn again studied the mighty tower, shining brighter than the palace on the opposite end of the city. Silba reigned unchallenged here. For anyone to break into that Torre, to kill one of the healers, they had to be desperate. Or utterly insane.

Or a Valg demon, with no fear of the gods—only of their master’s wrath if they should fail.

But if she were a Valg in this city, where to hide? Where to lurk?

Canals ran beneath some of the homes, but it was not like the vast sewer network of Rifthold. Yet perhaps if she studied the Torre’s walls …

Nesryn aimed for the gleaming tower, the Torre looming with each nearing step. She paused in the shadows beside one of the homes across the street from the solid wall that enclosed the Torre’s entire compound.

Torches flickered along brackets in the pale wall, guards stationed every few feet. And atop it. Royal guards, judging from their colors, and Torre guards in their cornflower blue and yellow—so many that none would get by without notice. Nesryn studied the iron gates, now sealed for the night.

“Were they open last night, is the answer no guard wants to yield.” Nesryn whirled, her knife angled low and up.

Prince Sartaq leaned against the building wall a few feet behind her, his gaze on the looming Torre. Twin swords peeked above his broad shoulders, and long knives hung from his belt. He’d changed from the finery of dinner back into his flying leathers—again reinforced with steel at the shoulders,

silver gauntlets at his wrists, and a black scarf at his neck. No, not scarf— but a cloth to pull over his mouth and nose when the heavy hood of his cloak was on. To remain anonymous, unmarked.

She sheathed her knife. “Were you following me?”

The prince flicked his dark, calm eyes to her. “You didn’t exactly try to be inconspicuous when you left through the front gate, armed to the teeth.”

Nesryn turned toward the Torre walls. “I have no reason to hide what I’m doing.”

“You think whoever attacked the healers is just going to be strolling around?” His boots were barely a scrape against the ancient stones as he approached her side.

“I thought to investigate how they might have gotten in. Get a better sense of the layout and where they’d likely find appealing to hide.”

A pause. “You sound as if you know your prey intimately.” And didn’t think to mention this to me during our ride this morning, was the unspoken rest.

Nesryn glanced sidelong at Sartaq. “I wish I could say otherwise, but I do. If the attack was made by whom we suspect … I spent much of this spring and summer hunting their kind in Rifthold.”

Sartaq watched the wall for a long minute. He said quietly, “How bad was it?”

Nesryn swallowed as the images flickered: the bodies and the sewers and the glass castle exploding, a wall of death flying for her—

“Captain Faliq.”

A gentle prod. A softer tone than she’d expect from a warrior-prince. “What did your spies tell you?”

Sartaq’s jaw tightened, shadows crossing his face before he said, “They reported that Rifthold was full of terrors. People who were not people. Beasts from Vanth’s darkest dreams.”

Vanth—Goddess of the Dead. Her presence in this city predated even Silba’s healers, her worshippers a secretive sect that even the khagan and his predecessors feared and respected, despite her rituals being wholly different from the Eternal Sky to which the khagan and the Darghan believed they returned. Nesryn had walked swiftly past Vanth’s dark-stoned temple earlier, the entrance marked only by a set of onyx steps descending into a subterranean chamber lit with bone-white candles.

“I can see that none of this sounds outlandish to you,” said Sartaq. “A year ago, it might have.”

Sartaq’s gaze swept over her weapons. “So you truly faced such horrors, then.”

“Yes,” Nesryn admitted. “For whatever good it did, considering the city is now held by them.” The words came out as bitterly as they felt.

Sartaq considered. “Most would have fled, rather than face them at all.”

She didn’t feel like confirming or denying such a statement, no doubt meant to console her. A kind effort from a man who did not need to do such things. She found herself saying, “I—I saw your mother earlier. Walking alone through a garden.”

Sartaq’s eyes shuttered. “Oh?” A careful question.

Nesryn wondered if she perhaps should have held her tongue, but she continued, “I only mention it in case … in case it is something you might need, might want to know.”

“Was there a guard? A handmaiden with her?”

“None that I saw.”

That was indeed worry tightening his face as he leaned against the wall of the building. “Thank you for the report.”

It was not her place to ask about it—not for anyone, and certainly not for the most powerful family in the world. But Nesryn said quietly, “My mother died when I was thirteen.” She gazed up at the near-glowing Torre. “The old king … you know what he did to those with magic. To healers gifted with it. So there was no one who could save my mother from the wasting sickness that crept up on her. The healer we managed to find admitted to us that it was likely from a growth inside my mother’s breast. That she might have been able to cure her before magic vanished. Before it was forbidden.”

She had never told anyone outside of her family this story. Wasn’t sure why she was really telling him now, but she went on, “My father wanted to get her on a boat to sail here. Was desperate to. But war had broken out up and down our lands. Ships were conscripted into Adarlan’s service, and she was too sick to risk a land journey all the way down to Eyllwe to try to cross there. My father combed through every map, every trade route. By the time he found a merchant who would sail with them—just the two of them

—to Antica … My mother was so sick she could not be moved. She would not have made it here, even if they’d gotten on the boat.”

Sartaq watched her, face unreadable, while she spoke.

Nesryn slid her hands into her pockets. “So she stayed. And we were all there when she … when it was over.” That old grief wrapped around her, burning her eyes. “It took me a few years to feel right again,” she said after a moment. “Two years before I started noticing things like the sun on my face, or the taste of food—started enjoying them again. My father … he

held us together. My sister and I. If he mourned, he did not let us see it. He filled our house with as much joy as he could.”

She fell silent, unsure how to explain what she’d meant by starting down this road.

Sartaq said at last, “Where are they now? After the attack on Rifthold?” “I don’t know,” she whispered, blowing out a breath. “They got out, but

… I don’t know where they fled, or if they will be able to make it here, with so many horrors filling the world.”

Sartaq fell quiet for a long minute, and Nesryn spent every second of it wishing she’d just kept her mouth shut. Then the prince said, “I will send word—discreetly.” He pushed off the wall. “For my spies to keep an eye out for the Faliq family, and to aid them, should they pass their way, in any form they can to safer harbors.”

Her chest tightened to the point of pain, but she managed to say, “Thank you.” It was a generous offer. More than generous.

Sartaq added, “I am sorry—for your loss. As long ago as it was. I … As a warrior, I grew up walking hand-in-hand with Death. And yet this one … It has been harder to endure than others. And my mother’s grief perhaps even harder to face than my own.” He shook his head, the moonlight dancing on his black hair, and said with forced lightness, “Why do you think I was so eager to run out after you into the night?”

Nesryn, despite herself, offered him a slight smile in return.

Sartaq lifted a brow. “Though it would help to know what, exactly, I’m supposed to be looking for.”

Nesryn debated what to tell him—debated his very presence here.

He gave a low, soft laugh when her hesitation went on a moment too long. “You think I’m the one who attacked that healer? After I was the one

who told you about it this morning?”

Nesryn bowed her head. “I mean no disrespect.” Even if she’d seen another prince enslaved this spring—had fired an arrow at a queen to keep him alive. “Your spies were correct. Rifthold was … I would not wish to see Antica suffer through anything similar.”

“And you’re convinced the attack at the Torre was just the start?” “I’m out here, aren’t I?”


Nesryn added, “If anyone, familiar or foreign, offers you a black ring or collars, if you see anyone with something like it … Do not hesitate. Not for a heartbeat. Strike fast, and true. Beheading is the only thing that keeps them down. The person within them is gone. Don’t try to save them—or it will be you who winds up enslaved as well.”

Sartaq’s attention drifted to the sword at her side, the bow and quiver strapped to her back. He said quietly, “Tell me everything that you know.”

“I can’t.”

The refusal alone could end her life, but Sartaq nodded thoughtfully. “Tell me what you can, then.”

So she did. Standing in the shadows beyond the Torre walls, she explained everything she could, save for the keys and gates, and Dorian’s enslavement, as well as that of the former king.

When she’d finished, Sartaq’s face had not changed, though he rubbed at his jaw. “When did you plan to tell my father this?”

“As soon as he’d grant us a private meeting.”

Sartaq swore, low and creative. “With my sister’s death … It’s been harder for him than he’ll admit to return to our usual rhythms. He will not take my counsel. Or anyone else’s.”

It was the worry in the prince’s tone—and sorrow—that made Nesryn say, “I’m sorry.”

Sartaq shook his head. “I must think on what you told me. There are places within this continent, near my people’s homeland …” He rubbed at his neck. “When I was a boy, they told stories at the aeries of similar horrors.” He said, more to himself than her, “Perhaps it is time I paid my hearth-mother a visit. To hear her stories again. And how that ancient threat was dealt with, long ago. Especially if it is now stirring once more.”

A record of the Valg … here? Her family had never told her any such tales, but then her own people had hailed from distant reaches of the continent. If the ruk riders had somehow either known of the Valg or even faced them …

Footsteps scuffed on the street beyond, and they pressed into the walls of the alley, hands on their sword hilts. But it was only a drunk stumbling home for the night, saluting the Torre guards along the wall as he passed, earning a few laughing grins in return.

“Are there canals beneath here—nearby sewers that might connect to the Torre?” Her question was little more than a push of air.

“I don’t know,” Sartaq admitted with equal quiet. He smiled grimly as he pointed toward an ancient grate in the sloped stones of the alley. “But it would be my honor to accompany you in discovering one.”

Yrene didn’t care if someone came to murder her in her sleep.

By the time the solemn, candlelit vigil in the Torre courtyard had finished, by the time Yrene crawled to her room near the top of the Torre, two acolytes propping her between them after she’d collapsed at the base of the stairs, she didn’t care about anything.

Cook brought her dinner in bed. Yrene managed a bite before she passed out.

She awoke past midnight with her fork on her chest and spiced, slow-cooked chicken staining her favorite blue gown.

She groaned, but felt slightly more alive. Enough so that she sat up in the near-darkness of her tower room, and rose only to see to her needs and haul her tiny desk in front of the door. She stacked books and any spare objects she could find atop it, checked the locks twice, and stumbled back into bed, still fully clothed.

She awoke at sunrise.

Precisely when she said she’d meet Lord Chaol.

Cursing, Yrene hauled away the desk, the books, undid the locks, and flung herself down the tower stairs.

She’d ordered the brace for his horse to be brought directly to the castle courtyard, and she’d left her supplies at his room yesterday, so there was

nothing for her to take beyond her own frantic self as she hurtled down the endless spiral of the Torre, scowling at the carved owls passing silent judgment while she flew by doors now beginning to open to reveal sleepy-faced healers and acolytes blinking blearily at her.

Yrene thanked Silba for the restorative powers of deep, dreamless sleep as she sprinted across the complex grounds, past the lavender-lined pathways, through the just-opened gates.

Antica was stirring, the streets mercifully quiet as she raced for the palace perched on its other side. She arrived in the courtyard thirty minutes late, gasping for breath, sweat pooling in every possible crevice of her body.

Lord Westfall had started without her.

Gulping down air, Yrene lingered by the towering bronze gates, the shadows still lying thick with the sun so low on the horizon, and watched the unfolding mounting.

As she’d specified, the patient-looking roan mare was on the shorter side

—the perfect height for him to reach the saddle horn with an upraised hand. Which he was currently doing, Yrene noted with no small degree of satisfaction. But the rest …

Well, it seemed he’d decided not to use the wooden ramp that she’d also ordered crafted in lieu of a stepped mounting block. The mounting ramp now sat by the still-shadowed horse pens against the eastern wall of the courtyard—as if he’d outright refused to even go near it, and instead had them bring over the horse. To mount the mare on his own.

It didn’t surprise her one bit.

Chaol did not look at any of the guards clustered around him—at least, more than was necessary. With their backs to her, she could only identify one or two by name, but—

One stepped in silently to let Chaol brace his other hand on his armor-clad shoulder as the lord pushed himself upright in a mighty heave. The mare stood patiently while his right hand gripped the saddle horn to balance himself—

She stepped forward just as Lord Westfall pushed off the guard’s shoulder and into the saddle, the guard stepping in close as he did it. It left him sitting sidesaddle, but Chaol still did not give the guard much thanks beyond a tight nod.

Instead, he silently studied the saddle before him, assessing how he was to get one leg over the other side of the horse. Color stained his cheeks, his jaw a tight line. The guards lingered, and he stiffened, tighter and tighter—

But then he moved again, leaning back in the saddle and hauling his right leg over the horn. The guard who’d helped him lunged to support his back, another darting from the other side to keep him from tumbling off, but Chaol’s torso remained solid. Unwavering.

His muscle control was extraordinary. A man who had trained that body to obey him no matter what, even now.

And—he was in the saddle.

Chaol murmured something to the guards that had them backing off as he leaned to either side to buckle the straps of the brace around his legs. It had been set into the saddle—the fit perfect based on the estimations she’d given the woman in the workshop—designed to stabilize his legs, replacing where his thighs would have clamped to keep him steady. Just until he became used to riding. He might very well not need them at all, but … it was better to be safe for this first ride.

Yrene wiped her sweaty forehead and approached, offering a word of thanks to the guards, who now filtered back to their posts. The one who’d

directly helped Lord Westfall turned in her direction, and Yrene gave him a broad smile as she said in Halha, “Good morning, Shen.”

The young guard returned her smile as he continued toward the small stables in the far shadows of the courtyard, winking at her as he passed by. “Morning, Yrene.”

She found Chaol sitting upright in the saddle when she faced ahead once more—that stiff posture and clenched jaw gone as he watched her approach.

Yrene straightened her dress, realizing just as she reached him that she still wore yesterday’s clothes. Now with a giant red splotch on her chest.

Chaol took in the stain, then her hair—oh, gods, her hair—and only said, “Good morning.”

Yrene swallowed, still panting from her run. “I’m sorry I’m late.” Up close, the brace indeed blended in enough for most people not to notice. Especially with the way he carried himself.

He sat tall and proud on that horse, shoulders squared, hair still wet from his morning bath. Yrene swallowed again and inclined her head toward the unused mounting ramp across the courtyard. “That was also meant for your use, you know.”

He lifted his brows. “I doubt there will be one readily available on a battlefield,” he said, mouth twisting to the side. “So I might as well learn to mount on my own.”

Indeed. But even with the crisp golden dawn around them, what she’d glimpsed within his wound, the army they might both face, flashed before her, stretching the long shadows—

Motion caught her eye, snapping Yrene to alertness as Shen led a small white mare from those same shadows. Saddled and ready for her. She frowned at her dress.

“If I’m riding,” Chaol said simply, “so are you.” Perhaps that was what he’d muttered to the guards before they’d dispersed.

Yrene blurted, “I’m not—it’s been a while since I rode one.”

“If I can let four men help me onto this damned horse,” he said simply, the color still blooming in his cheeks, “then you can get on one, too.”

From the tone, she knew it must have been—embarrassing. She’d seen the expression on his face just now. But he’d done it. Gritted his teeth and done it.

And with the guards helping him … She knew there were multiple reasons why he could barely glance at them. That it was not just the lone reminder of what he’d once been that made him tense up in their presence, refuse to even consider training with them.

But that was not a conversation to be had now—not here, and not with the light starting to return to his eyes.

So Yrene hitched up her hem and let Shen help her onto the horse.

The skirts of her dress hiked up enough to reveal most of her legs, but she’d seen far more revealed here. In this very courtyard. Neither Shen nor any other guards so much as glanced her way. She turned to Chaol to order him to go ahead, but found his eyes on her.

On the leg exposed from ankle to midthigh, paler than most of her golden-brown skin. She darkened easily in the sun, but it had been months since she’d gone swimming and basked in any sunlight.

Chaol noticed her attention and snapped his eyes up to hers. “You have a good seat,” he told her, as clinically as she often remarked on the status of her patients’ bodies.

Yrene gave him an exasperated look before nodding her thanks to Shen and nudging her horse into a walk. Chaol snapped the reins and did the


She kept one eye on him as they rode toward the courtyard gates. The brace held. The saddle held.

He was peering down at it—then at the gates, at the city awakening beyond them, the tower jutting high above it all as if it were a hand raised in bold welcome.

Sunlight broke through the open archway, gilding them both, but Yrene could have sworn it was far more than the dawn that shone in the captain’s brown eyes as they rode into the city.



It was not walking again, but it was better than the chair.

Better than better.

The brace was cumbersome, going against all his instincts as a rider, but

… it held him firm. Allowed him to guide Yrene through the gates, the healer clutching at the pommel every now and then, forgetting the reins entirely.

Well, he’d found one thing she wasn’t so self-assured at.

The thought brought a small smile to his lips. Especially as she kept adjusting her skirts. For all she’d chided him about his modesty, flashing her legs had given her pause.

Men in the streets—workers and peddlers and city guards—looked twice. Looked their fill.

Until they noticed his stare and averted their eyes. And Chaol made sure they did.

Just as he’d made sure the guards in the courtyard had kept their attention polite the moment she’d run in, huffing and puffing, sun-kissed

and flushed. Even with the stain on her clothes, even wearing yesterday’s dress and coated in a faint sheen of sweat.

It had been mortifying to be helped into the saddle like unruly baggage after he’d refused the mounting ramp—mortifying to see those guards in their pristine uniforms, the armor on their shoulders and hilts of their swords glinting in the early morning sunlight, all watching him fumble about. But he’d dealt with it. And then he found himself forgetting that entirely at the appreciative glances the guards gave her. No lady, beautiful or plain, young or old, deserved to be gawked at. And Yrene …

Chaol kept his mare close beside hers. Met the stare of any man who glanced their way as they rode toward the towering spire of the Torre, the stones pale as cream in the morning light. Every single man swiftly found somewhere else to gape. Some even looked apologetic.

Whether Yrene noticed, he had no clue. She was too busy lunging for the saddle horn at any unexpected movements of the horse, too busy wincing as the mare increased her pace up a particularly steep street, causing her to sway and slide back in her saddle.

“Lean forward,” he instructed her. “Balance your weight.” He did the same—as much as the brace allowed.

Their horses slowly plowed up the streets, heads bobbing as they worked.

Yrene gave him a sharp glare. “I do know those things.”

He lifted his brows in a look that said, Could have fooled me.

She scowled, but faced ahead. Leaned forward, as he’d instructed her.

He’d been sleeping like the dead when Nesryn returned late last night— but she’d roused him long enough to say she hadn’t discovered anything in regard to potential Valg in the city. No sewers connected to the Torre, and

with the heavy guard at the walls, no one was getting in that way. He’d managed to hold on to consciousness long enough to thank her, and hear her promise to keep hunting today.

But this cloudless, bright day … definitely not the Valg’s preferred darkness. Aelin had told him how the Valg princes could summon darkness for themselves—darkness that struck down any living creature in its path, draining them dry. But even one Valg in this city, regardless of whether they were a prince or an ordinary grunt …

Chaol pushed the thought from his mind, frowning up at the mammoth structure that grew more imposing with each street they crossed.

“Towers,” he mused, glancing toward Yrene. “Is it coincidence you bear that name, or did your ancestors once hail from the Torre?”

Her knuckles were white as she gripped the pommel, as if turning to look at him would send her toppling off. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “My

—it was knowledge that I never learned.”

He considered the words, the way she squinted at the bright pillar of the tower ahead rather than meet his stare. A child of Fenharrow. He didn’t dare ask why she might not know the answer. Where her family was.

Instead, he jerked his chin to the ring on her finger. “Does the fake wedding band really work?”

She examined the ancient, scuffed ring. “I wish I could say otherwise, but it does.”

“You encounter that behavior here?” In this wondrous city?

“Very, very rarely.” She wriggled her fingers before settling them around the saddle’s pommel again. “But it’s an old habit from home.”

For a heartbeat, he recalled an assassin in a bloody white gown, collapsing at the entrance to the barracks. Recalled the poisoned blade the

man had sliced her with—and had used with countless others.

“I’m glad,” he said after a moment. “That you don’t need to fear such things here.” Even the guards, for all their ogling, had been respectful. She’d even addressed one by name—and his returned warmth had been genuine.

Yrene clenched the saddle horn again. “The khagan holds all people accountable to the rule of the law, whether they’re servants or princes.”

It shouldn’t have been such a novel concept, yet … Chaol blinked. “Truly?”

Yrene shrugged. “As far as I have heard and observed. Lords cannot buy their way out of crimes committed, nor rely on their family names to bail them out. And would-be criminals in the streets see the exacting hand of justice and rarely dare to tempt it.” A pause. “Did you …”

He knew what she’d balked at asking. “I was ordered to release or look the other way for nobility who had committed crimes. At least, the ones who were of value in court and in the king’s armies.”

She studied the pommel before her. “And your new king?” “He is different.”

If he was alive. If he had made it out of Rifthold. Chaol forced himself to add, “Dorian has long studied and admired the khaganate. Perhaps he’ll put some of its policies into effect.”

A long, assessing glance now. “Do you think the khagan will ally with you?”

He hadn’t told her that, but it was fairly obvious why he’d come, he supposed. “I can only hope.”

“Would his forces make that much of a difference against … the powers you mentioned?”

Chaol repeated, “I can only hope.” He couldn’t bring himself to voice the truth—that their armies were few and scattered, if they existed at all.

Compared to the gathering might of Morath …

“What happened these months?” A quiet, careful question. “Trying to trick me into talking?”

“I want to know.”

“It’s nothing worth telling.” His story wasn’t worth telling at all. Not a single part of it.

She fell silent, the clopping of their horses’ hooves the only sound for a block. Then, “You will need to talk about it. At some point. I … beheld glimpses of it within you yesterday.”

“Isn’t that enough?” The question was sharp as the knife at his side.

“Not if it is what the thing inside you feeds on. Not if claiming ownership of it might help.”

“And you’re so certain of this?” He should mind his tongue, he knew that, but—

Yrene straightened in her saddle. “The trauma of any injury requires some internal reflection during the healing and aftermath.”

“I don’t want it. Need it. I just want to stand—to walk again.” She shook her head.

He charged on, “And what about you, then? How about we make a deal: you tell me all your deep, dark secrets, Yrene Towers, and I’ll tell you mine.”

Indignation lit those remarkable eyes as she glared at him. He glared right back.

Finally, Yrene snorted, smiling faintly. “You’re as stubborn as an ass.”

“I’ve been called worse,” he countered, the beginnings of a smile tugging on his mouth.

“I’m not surprised.”

Chaol chuckled, catching the makings of a grin on her face before she ducked her head to hide it. As if sharing one with a son of Adarlan were such a crime.

Still, he eyed her for a long moment—the humor lingering on her face, the heavy, softly curling hair that was occasionally caught in the morning breeze off the sea. And found himself still smiling as something coiled tight in his chest began to loosen.

They rode the rest of the way to the Torre in silence, and Chaol tipped his head back as they neared, walking down a broad, sunny avenue that sloped upward to the hilltop complex.

The Torre was even more dominating up close.

It was broad, more of a keep than anything, but still rounded. Buildings flanked its sides, connected on lower levels. All enclosed by towering white walls, the iron gates—fashioned to look like an owl spreading its wings— thrown wide to reveal lavender bushes and flower beds lining the sand-colored gravel walkways. Not flower beds. Herb beds.

The smells of them opening to the morning sun filled his nose: basil and mint and sage and more of that lavender. Even their horses, hooves crunching on the walkways, seemed to sigh as they approached.

Guards in what he assumed were Torre colors—cornflower blue and yellow—let them pass without question, and Yrene bowed her head in thanks. They did not look at her legs. Did not either dare or have the inclination to disrespect. Chaol glanced away from them before he could meet their questioning stares.

Yrene took the lead, guiding them through an archway and into the complex courtyard. Windows of the three-story building wrapped around the courtyard gleamed with the light of the rising sun, but inside the courtyard itself …

Beyond the murmur of awakening Antica outside the compound, beyond the hooves of their horses on the pale gravel, there was only the gurgle of twin fountains anchored against parallel walls of the courtyard—their spouts shaped like screeching owl beaks, spewing water into deep basins below. Pale pink and purple flowers lined the walls between lemon trees, the beds tidy but left to grow as the plants willed.

It was one of the more serene places he had ever laid eyes on. And watching them approach … Two dozen women in dresses of every color— though most of the simple make Yrene favored.

They stood in neat rows on the gravel, some barely more than children, some well into their prime. A few were elderly.

Including one woman, dark-skinned and white-haired, who strode from the front of the line and smiled broadly at Yrene. It was not a face that had ever held any beauty, but there was a light in the woman’s eyes—a kindness and serenity that made Chaol blink in wonder.

All the others watched her, as if she were the axis around which they were ordered. Even Yrene, who smiled at the woman as she dismounted, looking grateful to be off the mare. One of the guards who had trailed them in came to retrieve the horse, but hesitated as Chaol remained astride.

Chaol ignored the man as Yrene finger-combed her tangled hair and spoke to the ancient woman in his tongue. “I take it the good crowd this morning is thanks to you?” Light words—perhaps an attempt at normalcy, considering what had happened in the library.

The old woman smiled—such warmth. She was brighter than the sun peeking above the compound walls. “The girls heard a rumor of a handsome lord coming to teach. I was practically trampled in the stampede down the stairs.”

She cast a wry grin to three red-faced girls, no older than fifteen, who looked guiltily at their shoes. And then shot looks at him beneath their lashes that were anything but.

Chaol stifled a laugh.

Yrene turned to him, assessing the brace and the saddle as the crunch of approaching wheels on gravel filled the courtyard.

The amusement faded. Dismounting in front of these women …


The word sounded through him.

If he could not endure it in front of a group of the world’s best healers, then he would deserve to suffer. He had offered his help. He would give it.

For indeed, there were some younger girls in the back who were pale.

Shifting on their feet. Nervous.

This sanctuary, this lovely place … A shadow had crept over it. He would do what he could to push it back.

“Lord Chaol Westfall,” Yrene said to him, gesturing to the ancient woman, “may I present Hafiza, Healer on High of the Torre Cesme.”

One of the blushing girls sighed at the sound of his name.

Yrene’s eyes danced. But Chaol inclined his head to the old woman as she extended her hands up to him. The skin was leathery—as warm as her smile. She squeezed his fingers tightly. “As handsome as Yrene said.”

“I said no such thing,” Yrene hissed. One of the girls giggled.

Yrene cut her a warning look, and Chaol lifted his brows before saying to Hafiza, “It is an honor and a pleasure, my lady.”

“So dashing,” one of the girls murmured behind him.

Wait until you see my dismount, he almost said.

Hafiza squeezed his hands once more and dropped them. She faced Yrene. Waiting.

Yrene only clapped her hands together and said to the girls assembled, “Lord Westfall has suffered a severe injury to his lower spine and finds walking difficult. Yesterday, Sindra in the workshop crafted this brace for him, based upon the designs from the horse-tribes in the steppes, who have long dealt with such injuries for their riders.” She waved a hand to indicate his legs, the brace.

With every word, his shoulders stiffened. More and more.

“If you are faced with a patient in a similar situation,” Yrene went on, “the freedom of riding may be a pleasant alternative to a carriage or palanquin. Especially if they were used to a certain level of independence beforehand.” She added upon consideration, “Or even if they have faced mobility difficulties their entire lives—it may provide a positive option while you heal them.”

Little more than an experiment. Even the blushing girls had lost their smiles as they studied the brace. His legs.

Yrene asked them, “Who should like to assist Lord Westfall from his mount to his chair?”

A dozen hands shot up.

He tried to smile. Tried and failed.

Yrene pointed at a few, who rushed over. None looked up at him above the waist, or even bid him good morning.

Yrene lifted her voice as they crowded around her, making sure those assembled in the courtyard could also hear. “For patients completely immobilized, this may not be an option, but Lord Westfall retains the ability to move above his waist and can steer the horse with the reins. Balance and safety, of course, remain concerns, but another is that he retains use and sensation of his manhood—which also presents a few hiccups regarding the comfort of the brace itself.”

One of the younger girls let out a giggle at that, but most only nodded, looking directly at the area indicated, as if he had no clothes on whatsoever. Face heating, Chaol restrained the urge to cover himself.

Two young healers began unstrapping the brace, some examining the buckles and rods. Still they did not look him in the eye. As if he were some new toy—new lesson. Some oddity.

Yrene merely went on, “Mind you don’t jostle him too much when you


He fought to keep his features distant, found himself missing the guards from the palace. Yrene gave the girls firm, solid directions as they tugged him down from the saddle.

He didn’t try to help the acolytes, or fight them, when they pulled at his arms, someone going to steady his waist, the world tilting as they hauled him downward. But the weight of his body was too great, and he felt himself slide farther from the saddle, the drop to the ground looming, the sun a brand on his skin.

The girls grunted, someone going to the other side to help move his leg up and over the horse—or he thought so. He only knew it because he saw her head of curls just peek over the horse’s side. She pushed, jutting his leg

upward, and he hung there, three girls gritting their teeth while they tried to lower him, the others watching in observational silence—

One of the girls let out an oomph and lost her grip on his shoulder. The world plunged—

Strong, unfaltering hands caught him, his nose barely half a foot from the pale gravel as the other girls shuffled and grunted, trying to heft him up again. He’d come free of the horse, but his legs were now sprawled beneath him, as distant from him as the very top of the Torre, high above.

Roaring filled his head.

A sort of nakedness crept over him. Worse than sitting in his undershorts for hours. Worse than the bath with the servant.

Yrene, gripping his shoulder from where she’d just barely caught him in time, said to the healers, “That could have been better, girls. A great deal better, for many reasons.” A sigh. “We can discuss what went wrong later, but for now, move him to the chair.”

He could barely stand to hear her, listen to her, as he hung between those girls, most of whom were half his weight. Yrene stepped aside to let the girl who’d dropped him back into place, whistling sharply.

Wheels hissed on gravel from nearby. He didn’t bother to look at the wheeled chair that an acolyte pushed closer. Didn’t bother to speak as they settled him in it, the chair shuddering beneath his weight.

Careful.” Yrene warned again.

The girls lingered, the rest of the courtyard still watching. Had it been seconds or minutes since this ordeal had begun? He clenched the arms of the chair as Yrene rattled off some directions and observations. Clenched the arms harder as one of the girls stooped to touch his booted feet, to arrange them for him.

Words rose up his throat, and he knew they’d burst from him, knew he could do little to stop his bellow to back off as that acolyte’s fingers neared the dusty black leather—

Withered brown hands landed on the girl’s wrist, halting her mere inches away.

Hafiza said calmly, “Let me.”

The girls peeled back as Hafiza stooped to help him instead.

“Get the ladies ready, Yrene,” Hafiza said over a slim shoulder, and Yrene obeyed, ushering them back into their lines.

The ancient woman’s hands lingered on his boots—his feet, currently pointing in opposite directions. “Shall I do it, lord, or would you like to?”

Words failed him, and he wasn’t certain he could use his hands without them shaking, so he gave the woman a nod of approval.

Hafiza straightened one foot, waiting until Yrene had walked a few steps away and begun giving stretching instructions to the ladies.

“This is a place for learning,” Hafiza murmured. “Older students teach the younger.” Even with her accent, he understood her perfectly. “It was Yrene’s instinct, Lord Westfall, to show the girls what she did with the brace—to let them learn for themselves what it is to have a patient with similar difficulties. To receive this training, Yrene herself had to venture out onto the steppes. Many of these girls might not have that opportunity. At least not for several years.”

Chaol met Hafiza’s eyes at last, finding the understanding in them more damning than being hauled off a horse by a group of girls half his weight.

“She means well, my Yrene.”

He didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure he had words.

Hafiza straightened his other foot. “There are many other scars, my lord.

Beyond the one on her neck.”

He wanted to tell the old woman that he knew that too damn well. But he shoved down that bareness, that simmering roar in his head. He had made these ladies a promise to teach them, to help them.

Hafiza seemed to read that—sense it. She only patted his shoulder before she rose to her full height, groaning a bit, and walked back to the place left for her in line.

Yrene had turned toward him, stretching done, and scanned him. As if Hafiza’s lingering presence had indicated something she’d missed.

Her eyes settled on his, brows narrowing. What’s wrong?

He ignored the question within her look—ignored the bit of worry. Shoved whatever he felt down deep and rolled his chair toward her. Inch by inch. The gravel was not ideal, but he gritted his teeth. He’d given these ladies his word. He would not back down from it.

“Where did we leave off the last lesson?” Yrene asked a girl in the front. “Eye gouge,” she said with a broad smile.

Chaol nearly choked.

“Right,” Yrene said, rubbing her hands together. “Someone demonstrate for me.”

He watched in silence as hands shot up, and Yrene selected one—a smaller-boned girl. Yrene took up the stance of attacker, grabbing the girl from the front with surprising intensity.

But the girl’s slim hands went right to Yrene’s face, thumbs to the corners of her eyes.

Chaol started from his chair—or would have, had the girl not pulled back.

“And next?” Yrene merely asked.

“Hook in my thumbs like this”—the girl made the motion in the air between them for all to see—“and pop.”

Some of the girls laughed quietly at the accompanying pop the girl made with her mouth.

Aelin would have been beside herself with glee.

“Good,” Yrene said, and the girl strode back to her place in line. Yrene turned to him, that worry again flashing as she beheld whatever was in his eyes, and said, “This is our third lesson of this quarter. We have covered front-based attacks only so far. I usually have the guards come in as willing victims”—some snickers at that—“but today I would like for you to tell us what you think ladies, young and old, strong and frail, could do against any sort of attack. Your list of top maneuvers and tips, if you’d be so kind.”

He’d trained young men ready to shed blood—not heal people.

But defense was the first lesson he’d been taught, and had taught those young guards.

Before they’d wound up hanging from the castle gates. Ress’s battered, unseeing face flashed into his mind.

What good had it done any of them when it mattered?

Not one. Not one of that core group he’d trusted and trained, worked with for years … not one had survived. Brullo, his mentor and predecessor, had taught him all he knew—and what had it earned any of them? Anyone he’d encountered, he’d touched … they’d suffered. The lives he’d sworn to protect—

The sun turned bleaching, the gurgle of the twin fountains a distant melody.

What good had any of it done for his city, his people, when it was sacked?

He looked up to find the lines of women watching him, curiosity on their faces.


There had been a moment, when he had hurled his sword into the Avery. When he had been unable to bear its weight at his side, in his hand, and had chucked it and everything the Captain of the Guard had been, had meant, into the dark, eddying waters.

He’d been sinking and drowning since. Long before his spine.

He wasn’t certain if he’d even tried to swim. Not since that sword had gone into the river. Not since he’d left Dorian in that room with his father and told his friend—his brother—that he loved him, and knew it was goodbye. He’d … left. In every sense of the word.

Chaol forced himself to take a breath. To try.

Yrene stepped up to his side as his silence stretched on, again looking so puzzled and concerned. As if she could not figure out why—why he might have been the least bit … He shoved the thought down. And the others.

Shoved them down to the silt-thick bottom of the Avery, where that eagle-pommeled sword now lay, forgotten and rusting.

Chaol lifted his chin, looking each girl and woman and crone in the face.

Healers and servants and librarians and cooks, Yrene had said.

“When an attacker comes at you,” he said at last, “they will likely try to move you somewhere else. Never let them do it. If you do, wherever they take you will be the last place you see.” He’d gone to enough murder sites in Rifthold, read and looked into enough cases, to know the truth in that. “If

they try to move you from your current location, you make that your battleground.”

“We know that,” one of the blushing girls said. “That was Yrene’s first lesson.”

Yrene nodded gravely at him. He again did not let himself look at her neck.

“Stomping on the instep?” He could barely manage a word to Yrene. “First lesson also,” the same girl replied instead of Yrene.

“What about how debilitating it is to receive a blow to the groin?” Nods all around. Yrene certainly knew her fair share of maneuvers.

Chaol smiled grimly. “What about ways to get a man my size or larger flipped onto their backs in less than two moves?”

Some of the girls smiled as they shook their heads. It wasn’t reassuring.

Yrene felt the anger simmering off Chaol as if it were heat rippling from a kettle.

Not at the girls and women. They adored him. Grinned and laughed, even as they concentrated on his thorough, precise lesson, even as the events in the library hung over them, the Torre, like a gray shroud. There had been many tears last night at the vigil—and a few red eyes still in the halls this morning as she’d hurtled past.

Mercifully, there had been no sign of either when Lord Chaol called in three guards to volunteer their bodies for the girls to flip into the gravel. Over and over.

The men agreed, perhaps because they knew that any injuries would be fussed over and patched up by the greatest healers outside Doranelle.

Chaol even returned their smiles, ladies and, to her shock, guards alike. But Yrene … she received none of them. Not one.

Chaol’s face only went hard, eyes glinting with frost, whenever she stepped in to ask a question or watch him walk an acolyte through the motions. He was commanding, his unrelenting focus missing nothing. If they had so much as one foot in the wrong position, he caught it before they moved an inch.

The hour-long lesson ended with each one of them flipping a guard onto his back. The poor men limped off, smiling broadly. Mostly because Hafiza promised them a cask of ale each—and her strongest healing tonic. Which was better than any alcohol.

The women dispersed as the bells chimed ten, some to lessons, some to chores, some to patients. A few of the sillier girls lingered, batting their eyelashes toward Lord Westfall, one even looking inclined to perch in his lap before Hafiza drily reminded her of a pile of laundry with her name on it.

Before the Healer on High hobbled after the acolyte, Hafiza merely gave Yrene what she could have sworn was a warning, knowing look.

“Well,” Yrene said to Chaol when they were again alone—despite the gaggle of girls peering out one of the Torre windows. They noticed Yrene’s stare and snapped their heads back in, slamming the window with riotous giggles.

Silba save her from teenage girls.

She’d never been one—not like that. Not so carefree. She hadn’t even kissed a man until last autumn. Certainly had never giggled over one. She wished she had; wished for a lot of things that had ended with that pyre and those torches.

“That went better than expected,” Yrene said to Chaol, who was frowning up at the looming Torre. “I’m sure they’ll be begging me next week for you to return. If you’re interested, I suppose.”

He said nothing.

She swallowed. “I would like to try again today, if you’re up for it.

Would you prefer I find a room here, or shall we ride back to the palace?” He met her stare then. His eyes were dark. “The palace.”

Her stomach twisted at the icy tone. “All right,” was all she managed to say, and walked off in search of the guards and their horses.

They rode back in silence. They’d been quiet during portions of the ride over, but this was … pointed. Heavy.

Yrene wracked her memory for what she might have said during the lesson—what she might have forgotten. Perhaps seeing the guards so active had reminded him of what he did not currently have. Perhaps just seeing the guards themselves had set him down this path.

She mused over it as they returned to the palace, while he was aided by Shen and another guard into the awaiting chair. He offered only a tight smile in thanks.

Lord Chaol looked up at her over a shoulder, the morning heat rising enough to make the courtyard stifling. “Are you going to push it, or shall I?”

Yrene blinked.

“You can move it yourself just fine,” she said, her proverbial heels digging in at that tone.

“Perhaps you should ask one of your acolytes to do it. Or five of them.

Or whatever number you deem fit to deal with an Adarlanian lord.”

She blinked again. Slowly. And didn’t give him any warning as she strode off at a clip. Not bothering to wait to see if he followed, or how fast he did.

The columns and halls and gardens of the palace passed in a blur. Yrene was so intent on reaching his rooms that she barely noticed someone had called her name.

It wasn’t until it was repeated a second time that she recognized it—and cringed.

By the time she turned, Kashin—clad in armor and sweating enough to reveal he’d likely been exercising with the palace guards—had reached her side.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, his brown eyes immediately going to her chest. No—to the stain still on her dress. Kashin’s brows lifted. “If you want to send that to the laundry, I’m sure Hasar can lend you some clothes while it is cleaned.”

She’d forgotten she was still in it—the stained, wrinkled dress. Hadn’t really felt like she was quite as much of a mess until now. Hadn’t felt like a barnyard animal.

“Thank you for the offer, but I’ll manage.”

She took a step away, but Kashin said, “I heard about the assailant in the library. I arranged for additional guards to arrive at the Torre after sundown every night and stay until dawn. No one will get in without our notice.”

It was generous—kind. As he had always been with her. “Thank you.”

His face remained grave as he swallowed. Yrene braced herself for the words he’d voice, but Kashin only said, “Please be careful. I know you made your thoughts clear, but—”


“—it doesn’t change the fact that we are, or were, friends, Yrene.”

Yrene made herself meet his eyes. Made herself say, “Lord Westfall mentioned your … thoughts about Tumelun.”

For a moment, Kashin glanced to the white banners streaming from the nearby window. She opened her mouth, perhaps to finally offer her condolences, to try to mend this thing that had fractured between them, but the prince said, “Then you understand how dire this threat may be.”

She nodded. “I do. And I will be careful.”

“Good,” he said simply. His face shifted into an easy smile, and for a heartbeat, Yrene wished she’d been able to feel anything beyond mere friendship. But it had never been that way with him, at least on her part. “How is the healing of Lord Westfall? Have you made progress?”

“Some,” she hedged. Insulting a prince, even one who was a former friend, by striding off was not wise, but the longer this conversation went on … She took a breath. “I would like to stay and talk—”

“Then stay.” That smile broadened. Handsome—Kashin was truly a handsome man. If he had been anyone else, bore any other title—

She shook her head, offering a tight smile. “Lord Westfall is expecting me.”

“I heard you rode with him this morning to the Torre. Did he not come back with you?”

She tried to keep the pleading expression off her face as she bobbed a curtsy. “I have to go. Thank you again for the concern—and the guards, Prince.”

The title hung between them, pealing like a struck bell.

But Yrene walked on, feeling Kashin’s stare until she rounded a corner. She leaned against the wall, closing her eyes and exhaling deeply. Fool.

So many others would call her a fool and yet— “I almost feel bad for the man.”

She opened her eyes to find Chaol, breathless and eyes still smoldering, wheeling himself around the corner.

“Of course,” he went on, “I was far back enough that I couldn’t hear you, but I certainly saw his face when he left.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yrene said blandly, and resumed walking toward his suite. Slower.

“Don’t check your pace on my account. You made impressive time.” She sliced him a glare. “Did I do something to offend you today?”

His level stare revealed nothing, but his powerful arms kept working the wheels of his chair as he pushed himself along.


“Why do you shove away the prince? It seems like you two were once close.”

It was not the time or the place for this conversation. “That is none of your business.”

“Indulge me.” “No.”

He easily kept pace with her as she increased her own. All the way to the doors to his suite.

Kadja was standing outside, and Yrene gave her an inane order—“I need dried thyme, lemon, and garlic”—that might have very well been one of her mother’s old recipes for fresh trout.

The servant vanished with a bow, and Yrene flung open the suite doors, holding one wide for him to pass.

“Just so you know,” Yrene hissed as she shut the doors loudly behind him, “your piss-poor attitude helps no one and nothing.”

Chaol slammed his chair to a halt in the middle of the foyer, and she winced at what it must have done to his hands. He opened his mouth, but shut it.

Right as the door to the other bedroom opened and Nesryn emerged, hair wet and gleaming.

“I was wondering where you went,” she said to him, then gave Yrene a nod of greeting. “Early morning?”

It took Yrene a few heartbeats to reorder the room, the dynamic with Nesryn now in it. Yrene was not the primary … person. She was the help, the secondary … whatever.

Chaol shook out his hands—indeed red marks marred them—but said to Nesryn, “I went to the Torre to help the girls with a defense lesson.”

Nesryn looked at the chair. “On horseback,” he said.

Nesryn’s eyes now shot to Yrene, bright and wide. “You—how?”

“A brace,” Yrene clarified. “We were just about to resume our second attempt at healing.”

“And you could truly ride?”

Yrene felt Chaol’s inward flinch—mostly because she flinched as well.

At the disbelief.

“We didn’t try out anything more than a fast walk, but yes,” he said calmly. Evenly. Like he expected such questions from Nesryn. Had grown used to it. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll try a trot.”

Though without leverage from his legs, the bouncing … Yrene went through her mental archives on groin injuries. But she stayed quiet.

“I’ll go with you,” Nesryn said, dark eyes lighting. “I can show you the city—perhaps my uncle’s home.”

Chaol only replied, “I would like that,” before Nesryn pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“I’m seeing them now for an hour or two,” said Nesryn. “Then meeting with—you know. I’ll be back this afternoon. And resume my … duties afterward.”

Careful words. Yrene didn’t blame her. Not with the weapons stacked on the desk in Nesryn’s bedroom—barely visible through the ajar door.

Knives, swords, multiple bows and quivers … The captain had a small armory in her chamber.

Chaol just grunted his approval, smiling slightly as Nesryn strode for the suite doors. The captain paused in the threshold, her grin broader than any Yrene had seen before.

Hope. Full of hope.

Nesryn shut the door with a click.

Alone in the silence again, still feeling very much the intruder, Yrene crossed her arms. “Can I get you anything before we begin?”

He just wheeled forward—into his bedroom.

“I’d prefer the sitting room,” she said, snatching her supply bag from where Kadja had set it on the foyer table. And likely rifled through it.

“I’d prefer to be in bed while in agony.” He added over his broad shoulder, “And hopefully you won’t pass out on the floor this time.”

He easily moved himself from the chair onto the bed, then began unbuckling his jacket.

“Tell me,” Yrene said, lingering in the doorway. “Tell me what I did to upset you.”

He peeled off his jacket. “You mean beyond displaying me like some broken doll in front of your acolytes and having them haul me off that horse like a limp fish?”

She stiffened, pulling out the bit before dumping the supply bag on the floor. “Plenty of people help you here in the palace.”

“Not as many as you’d think.”

“The Torre is a place of learning, and people with your injury do not come often—not when we usually have to go to them. I was showing the

acolytes things that might help with untold numbers of patients in the future.”

“Yes, your prized, shattered horse. Look how well broken I am to you.

How docile.”

“I did not mean that, and you know it.”

He ripped off his shirt, nearly tearing it at the seams as he hauled it over his head. “Was it some sort of punishment? For serving the king? For being from Adarlan?”

No.” That he believed she could be that cruel, that unprofessional—“It was precisely what I just said: I wanted to show them.”

didn’t want you to show them!” Yrene straightened.

Chaol panted through his gritted teeth. “didn’t want you to parade me around. To let them handle me.” His chest heaved, the lungs beneath those muscles working like bellows. “Do you have any idea what it is like? To go from that”—he waved a hand toward her, her body, her legs, her spine—“to this?”

Yrene had the sense of the ground sliding from beneath her. “I know it is hard—”

“It is. But you made it harder today. You make me sit here mostly naked in this room, and yet I have never felt more bare than I did this morning.” He blinked, as if surprised he’d vocalized it—surprised he’d admitted to it.

“I—I’m sorry.” It was all she could think to say.

His throat bobbed. “Everything I thought, everything I had planned and wanted … It’s gone. All I have left is my king, and this ridiculous, slim scrap of hope that we survive this war and I can find a way to make something of it.”

“Of what?”

“Of everything that crumbled in my hands. Everything.” His voice broke on the word.

Her eyes stung. Shame or sorrow, Yrene didn’t know.

And she didn’t want to know—what it was, or what had happened to him. What made that pain gutter in his eyes. She knew, she knew he had to face it, had to talk about it, but …

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. She added stiffly, “I should have considered your feelings on the matter.”

He watched her for a long moment, then removed the belt from his waist. Then took off his boots. Socks.

“You can leave the pants on, if—if you want.” He removed them. Then waited.

Still brimming with anger. Still gazing at her with such resentment in his eyes.

Yrene swallowed once. Twice. Perhaps she should have scrounged up breakfast.

But walking away, even for that … Yrene had a feeling, one she couldn’t quite place, that if she walked away from him, if he saw her back turn …

Healers and their patients required trust. A bond.

If she turned her back on him and left, she didn’t think that rift would be repaired.

So she motioned him to move to the center of the bed and turn onto his stomach while she took up a seat on the edge.

Yrene hovered a hand over his spine, the muscled groove cutting deep through it.

She hadn’t considered—his feelings. That he might have them. The things haunting him …

His breathing was shallow, quick. Then he said, “Just to be clear: is your grudge against me, or Adarlan in general?”

He stared at the distant wall, the entrance to the bathing room blocked by that carved wood screen. Yrene held her hand steady, poised over his back, even as shame sluiced through her.

No, she had not been in her best form these past few days. Not even close.

That scar atop his spine was stark in the midmorning light, the shadow of her hand upon his skin like some sister-mark.

The thing that waited within that scar … Her magic again recoiled at its proximity. She’d been too tired last night and too busy this morning to even think about facing it again. To contemplate what she might see, might battle

—what he might endure, too.

But he’d been good to his word, had instructed the girls despite her foolish, callous missteps. She supposed that she could only return the favor by doing as she’d promised as well.

Yrene took a steadying breath. There was no preparing for it, she knew. There was no bracing breath steeling enough to make this any less harrowing. For either of them.

Yrene silently offered Chaol the leather bit.

He slid it through his teeth and clamped down lightly.

She stared at him, his body braced for pain, face unreadable as he angled it toward the door.

Yrene said quietly, “Soldiers from Adarlan burned my mother alive when I was eleven.”

And before Chaol could answer, she laid her hand on the mark atop his spine.

There was only darkness, and pain.

He roared against it, distantly aware of the bit in his mouth, the rawness of his throat.

Burned alive burned alive burned alive

The void showed him fire. A woman with golden-brown hair and matching skin screaming in agony toward the heavens.

It showed him a broken body on a bloody bed. A head rolling across a marble floor.

You did this you did this you did this

It showed a woman with eyes of blue flame and hair of pure gold poised above him, dagger raised and angling to plunge into his heart.

He wished. He sometimes wished that she hadn’t been stopped.

The scar on his face—from the nails she’d gouged into it when she first struck him … It was that hateful wish he thought of when he looked in the mirror. The body on the bed and that cold room and that scream. The collar on a tan throat and a smile that did not belong to a beloved face. The heart he’d offered and had been left to drop on the wooden planks of the river docks. An assassin who had sailed away and a queen who had returned. A row of fine men hanging from the castle gates.

All held within that slim scar. What he could not forgive or forget.

The void showed it to him, again and again.

It lashed his body with red-hot, pronged whips. And showed him those things, over and over.

It showed him his mother. And his brother. And his father.

Everything he had left. What he’d failed. What he’d hated and what he’d become.

The lines between the last two had blurred.

And he had tried. He had tried these weeks, these months. The void did not want to hear of that.

Black fire raced down his blood, his veins, trying to drown out those thoughts.

The burning rose left on a nightstand. The final embrace of his king. He had tried. Tried to hope, and yet—

Women little more than children hauling him off a horse. Poking and prodding at him.

Pain struck, low and deep in his spine, and he couldn’t breathe around it, couldn’t out-scream it—

White light flared.

A flutter. Far in the distance.

Not the gold or red or blue of flame. But white like sunlight, clear and clean.

A flicker through the dark, arcing like lightning riding through the night

And then the pain converged again.

His father’s eyes—his father’s raging eyes when he announced he was

leaving to join the guard. The fists. His mother’s pleading. The anguish on her face the last time he’d seen her, as he’d ridden away from Anielle. The

last time he’d seen his city, his home. His brother, small and cowering in their father’s long shadow.

A brother he had traded for another. A brother he had left behind. The darkness squeezed, crushing his bones to dust.

It would kill him.

It would kill him, this pain, this … this endless, churning pit of nothing. Perhaps it would be a mercy. He wasn’t entirely certain his presence—

his presence beyond made any sort of difference. Not enough to warrant trying. Coming back at all.

The darkness liked that. Seemed to thrive on that.

Even as it tightened the vise around his bones. Even as it boiled the blood in his veins and he bellowed and bellowed—

White light slammed into him. Blinding him. Filling that void.

The darkness shrieked, surging back, then rising like a tidal wave around him—

Only to bounce off a shell of that white light, wrapped around him, a rock against which the blackness broke.

A light in the abyss.

It was warm, and quiet, and kind. It did not balk at the dark.

As if it had dwelled in such darkness for a long, long time—and understood how it worked.

Chaol opened his eyes.

Yrene’s hand had slipped from his spine.

She was already twisting away from him, lunging for his discarded shirt on the bedroom carpet.

He saw the blood before she could hide it.

Spitting out the bit, he gripped her wrist, his panting loud to his ears. “You’re hurt.”

Yrene wiped at her nose, her mouth, and her chin before she faced him.

It didn’t hide the stains down her chest, soaking into the neckline of her dress.

Chaol surged upright. “Holy gods, Yrene—” “I’m fine.”

The words were stuffy, warped with the blood still sliding from her nose. “Is—is that common?” He filled his lungs with air to call for someone to

fetch another healer— “Yes.”

“Liar.” He heard the falsehood in her pause. Saw it in her refusal to meet his stare. Chaol opened his mouth, but she laid her hand on his arm, lowering the bloodied shirt.

“I’m fine. I just need—rest.”

She appeared anything but, with blood staining and crusting her chin and mouth.

Yrene pressed his shirt again to her nose as a new trickle slid out. “At least,” she said around the fabric and blood, “the stain from earlier now matches my dress.”

A sorry attempt at humor, but he offered her a grim smile. “I thought it was part of the design.”

She gave him an exhausted but bemused glance. “Give me five minutes and I can go back in and—”

“Lie down. Right now.” He slid away a few feet on the mattress for emphasis.

Yrene surveyed the pillows, the bed large enough for four to sleep undisturbed beside one another. With a groan, she pressed the shirt to her face and slumped on the pillows, kicking off her slippers and curling her legs up. She tipped her head upward to stop the bleeding.

“What can I get you,” he said, watching her stare blankly at the ceiling. She’d done this—done this while helping him, likely because of whatever shitty mood he’d been in before—

Yrene only shook her head.

In silence, he watched her press the shirt to her nose. Watched blood bloom across it again and again. Until it slowed at last. Until it stopped.

Her nose, mouth, and chin were ruddy with the remnants, her eyes fogged with either pain or exhaustion. Perhaps both.

So he found himself asking, “How?”

She knew what he meant. Yrene dabbed at the blood on her chest. “I went in there, to the site of the scar, and it was the same as before. A wall that no strike of my magic could crumble. I think it showed me …” Her fingers tightened on the shirt as she pressed it against the blood soaking her front.


“Morath,” she breathed, and he could have sworn even the birds’ singing faltered in the garden. “It showed some memory, left behind in you. It showed me a great black fortress full of horrors. An army waiting in the mountains around it.”

His blood iced over as he realized whose memory it might belong to. “Real or—was it some manipulation against you?” The way his own memories had been wielded.

“I don’t know,” Yrene admitted. “But then I heard your screaming. Not out here, but … in there.” She wiped at her nose again. “And I realized that attacking that solid wall was … I think it was a distraction. A diversion. So I followed the sounds of your screaming. To you.” To that place deep within him. “It was so focused upon ripping you apart that it did not see me coming.” She shivered. “I don’t know if it did anything, but … I couldn’t stand it. To watch and listen. I startled it when I leaped in, but I don’t know if it will be waiting the next time. If it will remember. There’s a … sentience to it. Not a living thing, but as if a memory were set free in the world.”

Chaol nodded, and silence fell between them. She wiped at her nose again, his shirt now coated in blood, then set the fabric on the table beside the bed.

For uncounted minutes, sunshine drifted across the floor, wind rustling the palms.

Then Chaol said, “I’m sorry—about your mother.”

Thinking through the timeline … It had likely occurred within a few months of Aelin’s own terror and loss.

So many of them—the children whom Adarlan had left such deep scars upon. If Adarlan had left them alive at all.

“She was everything good in the world,” Yrene said, curling onto her side to gaze at the garden windows beyond the foot of the bed. “She … I made it out because she …” Yrene did not say the rest.

“She did what any mother would do,” he finished for her. A nod.

As healers, they had been some of the first victims. And continued to be executed long after magic had vanished. Adarlan had always ruthlessly

hunted down the magically gifted healers. Their own townsfolk might have sold them out to Adarlan to make quick, cheap coin.

Chaol swallowed. After a heartbeat, he said, “I watched the King of Adarlan butcher the woman Dorian loved in front of me, and I could do nothing to stop it. To save her. And when the king went to kill me for planning to overthrow him … Dorian stepped in. He took on his father and bought me time to run. And I ran—I ran because … there was no one else to carry on the rebellion. To get word to the people who needed it. I let him take on his father and face the consequences, and I fled.”

She watched him in silence. “He is fine now, though.”

“I don’t know. He is free—he is alive. But is he fine? He suffered. Greatly. In ways I can’t begin to …” His throat tightened to the point of pain. “It should have been me. I had always planned for it to be me instead.”

A tear slid over the bridge of her nose.

Chaol scooped it up with his finger before it could slide to the other side. Yrene held his stare for a long moment, her tears turning those eyes near-radiant in the sun. He didn’t know how long had passed. How long it

had taken for her to even attempt to cleave that darkness—just a little.

The door to the suite opened and closed, silently enough that he knew it was Kadja. But it drew Yrene’s stare away from him. Without it—there was a sense of cold. A quiet and a cold.

Chaol clenched his fist, that tear seeping into his skin, to keep from turning her face toward his again. To read her eyes.

But her head whipped upward so fast she nearly knocked his nose. The gold in Yrene’s eyes flared.

“Chaol,” she breathed, and he thought it might have been the first time she’d called him such.

But she looked down, dragging his stare with her. Down his bare torso, his bare legs.

To his toes.

To his toes, slowly curling and uncurling. As if trying to remember the movement.

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