Chapter no 19

Empire of Storms

Elide Lochan kept quiet during the two days she and Lorcan trekked through the eastern edges of Oakwald, heading for the plains beyond.

She had not asked him the questions that seemed to matter the most, letting him think her a foolish girl, blinded by gratitude that he had saved her.

He’d quickly forgotten that though he’d carried her out, she’d saved herself. And he’d accepted her name—her mother’s name—without question. If Vernon was on her trail … It had been a fool’s mistake, but there was no undoing it, not without raising Lorcan’s suspicions.

So she kept her mouth shut, swallowed her questions. Like why he’d been hunting her. Or who his mistress was to command such a powerful warrior—why he wanted to get into Morath, why he kept touching some object beneath his dark jacket. And why he had looked so surprised— though he’d tried to hide it—when she’d mentioned Celaena Sardothien and Aelin Galathynius.

Elide had no doubt the warrior was keeping secrets of his own, and that despite his promise to protect her, the moment he got every answer he needed, that protection would end.

But she still slept soundly these last two nights—thanks to the belly full of meat courtesy of Lorcan’s hunting. He’d scrounged up two rabbits, and when she’d devoured all of hers in minutes, he’d given her half of what was left of his. She hadn’t bothered being polite by refusing.

It was midmorning by the time the light in the forest turned brighter, the air fresher. And then the roaring of mighty waters—the Acanthus.

Lorcan stalked ahead, and Elide could have sworn even the trees leaned away from him as he held up a hand in a silent motion to wait.

She obeyed, lingering in the gloom of the trees, praying he wouldn’t make them return to the tangle of Oakwald, that she wouldn’t be denied this step into the bright, wide-open world…

Lorcan motioned again—to come forward. All was clear.

Elide was silent as she stepped, blinking at the flood of sunshine, from the last line of trees to stand beside Lorcan on a high, rocky riverbank.

The river was enormous, shades of rushing gray and brown—the last of the ice melt from the mountains. So wide and wild that she knew she could not swim it, and that the crossing had to be somewhere else. But past the river, as if the water were a boundary between two worlds…

Hills and meadows of high emerald grasses swayed on the other side of the Acanthus, like a hissing sea under a cloudless blue sky, stretching away forever to the horizon.

“I can’t remember,” she murmured, the words barely audible over the roaring song of the river, “the last time I saw…” In Perranth, locked in that tower, she’d only had a view of the city, perhaps the lake if the day was clear enough. Then she’d been in that prison wagon, then in Morath, where it was only mountains and ash and armies. And during the flight with Manon and Abraxos, she had been too lost in terror and grief to notice anything at all. But now … She could not remember the last time she’d seen sunlight dancing on a meadow, or little brown birds bobbing and swooping on the warm breeze over it.

“The road is about a mile upriver,” Lorcan said, his dark eyes unmoved by the Acanthus or the rippling grasses beyond. “If you want your plan to work, now would be the time to prepare.”

She cut him a glance. “You need the most work.” A flick of black brows. Elide clarified, “If this ruse is to succeed, you at least need to … pretend to be human.”

Nothing about the man suggested his human heritage held sway.

“Hide more of your weapons,” she went on. “Leave only the sword.”

Even the mighty blade would be a dead giveaway that Lorcan was no ordinary traveler.

She fished an extra strap of leather out of her jacket pocket. “Tie back your hair. You’ll look less…” She trailed off at the faint amusement tinged with warning in his eyes. “Savage,” she made herself say, dangling the leather strap between them. Lorcan’s broad fingers closed around it, a frown

on his lips as he obeyed. “And unbutton your jacket,” she said, rummaging through her mental catalog of traits she had noted seemed less threatening, less intimidating. Lorcan obeyed that order, too, and soon the dark gray shirt beneath his tight-fitting black jacket was showing, revealing the broad, muscled chest. It looked more inclined for solid labor than killing fields, at least.

“And you?” he said, brows still high.

Elide surveyed herself, and set down her pack. First, she removed the leather jacket, even though it left her feeling like a layer of skin had peeled off, then she rolled up the sleeves of her white shirt. But without the tight leather, the full size of her breasts could be seen—marking her as a woman and not a slip of a girl that people assumed she was. She then took to her hair, ruffling it out of its braid and restyling it into a knot atop her head. A married woman’s hairstyle, not the free-flowing locks or plait of youth.

She stuffed her jacket into her pack, standing up straight to face Lorcan. His eyes traveled from her feet to her head, and he frowned again.

“Bigger tits won’t prove or hide anything.”

Her cheeks heated. “Perhaps they’ll keep men distracted just enough that they won’t ask questions.”

With that, she started upstream, trying not to think about the men who had touched and sneered in that cell. But if it got her safely across the river, she’d use her body to her advantage. Men would see what they wanted to: a pretty young woman who did not bristle at their attention, who spoke kindly and warmly. Someone trustworthy, someone sweet yet unremarkable.

Lorcan trailed, then caught up to walk beside her like an actual companion and not some promise-bound escort for the final half mile around the bend of the river.

Horses and wagons and shouts greeted them before the sight did.

But there it was: a broad if worn stone bridge, wagons and carts and riders lined up in droves on either side. And about two dozen guards in Adarlanian colors monitoring either bank, collecting tolls, and—

Checking wagons, inspecting every face and person. The ilken had known about her limp.

Elide slowed, keeping close to Lorcan as they neared the two-story, derelict barracks on their side of the river. Down the road, flanked by the trees, a few equally sorry-looking buildings were a flurry of activity. An inn

and a tavern. For travelers to wait out the lines with a drink or meal, or perhaps rent a room during inclement weather.

So many people—humans. No one appeared panicked or hurt or sickly. And the guards, despite their uniforms, moved like men while they searched the wagons passing the barracks that served as tollhouse and sleeping quarters.

She said quietly to Lorcan as they headed for the dirt road and the distant back of the line, “I don’t know what magic you possess, but if you can make my limp less noticeable—”

Before she could finish, a force like a cool night wind pushed against her ankle and calf, then wrapped around it in a solid grip. A brace.

Her steps evened out, and she had to bite back her urge to gawk at the feeling of walking straight and sure. She didn’t allow herself to enjoy it, savor it, not when it would likely only last until they cleared the bridge.

Merchants’ wagons idled, crammed with goods from those who hadn’t wanted to risk the Avery river to the north, their drivers tight-faced at the wait and impending inspections. Elide scanned the drivers, the merchants, the other travelers … Each one of them made her instincts shout that they’d be betrayed the second they asked to ride or offered a coin to keep quiet.

To trawl the line would catch the eye of the guards, so Elide used every step to study it while seemingly heading toward the back. But she reached the end of the line empty-handed.

Lorcan, however, gave a pointed glance behind her—toward the tavern, whitewashed to no doubt hide the near-crumbling stones. “Let’s get a bite before we wait,” he said, loud enough for the wagon in front of them to hear and dismiss it.

She nodded. Someone else might be inside, and her stomach was grumbling. Except—

“I don’t have any money,” she murmured as they approached the pale wooden door. Lie. She had gold and silver from Manon. But she wasn’t about to flash it in front of Lorcan, promise or no.

“I’ve got plenty,” he said tightly, and she delicately cleared her throat. He lifted his brows.

“You’ll win us no allies looking like that,” she said, and gave him a sweet little smile. “Walk in there looking like a warrior and you’ll get noticed.”

“And what am I to be, then?”

“Whatever we need you to be when the time comes. But … don’t glower.”

He opened the door, and by the time her eyes adjusted to the glow of the wrought-iron chandeliers, Lorcan’s face had changed. His eyes might never be warm, but a bland smile was on his face, his shoulders relaxed—as if he were slightly inconvenienced by the wait but eager for a good meal.

He almost looked human.

The tavern was packed, the noise so deafening that she could barely speak loudly enough to the nearest barmaid to order lunch. They squeezed between crammed tables, and Elide noticed that more than a few pairs of eyes went to her chest, then her face. And lingered.

She pushed against the crawling feeling and kept her steps unhurried as she aimed for a table tucked against the back wall that a weary-looking couple had just vacated.

A boisterous party of eight was crammed around the table a few feet away, a middle-aged woman with a booming laugh instantly singling herself out as their leader. The others at the table—a beautiful, raven-haired woman; a barrel-chested bearded man whose hands were as large as dinner plates; and a few rough-looking people—all kept looking to the older woman, gauging her responses and listening carefully to what she had to say.

Elide slid into the worn wooden chair, Lorcan claiming the one across from her—his size earning him a look from the bearded man and the middle-aged woman at the table.

Elide weighed that look.

Assessment. Not for a fight; not for a threat. But in appreciation and calculation.

Elide wondered for a heartbeat if Anneith herself had nudged that other couple to move away—to free up this one table for them. For that very look.

Elide laid her hand out on the table, palm up, and gave Lorcan a sleepy smile she’d once seen a kitchen maid give a Morath cook. “Husband,” she said sweetly, wriggling her fingers.

Lorcan’s mouth tightened, but he took her hand—her fingers dwarfed in


His calluses scraped against her own. He noticed it at the same moment she did, sliding his hand to cup hers so he might inspect her palm. She closed her hand, rotating it to grip his again.

“Brother,” Lorcan murmured so no one else could hear. “I am your brother.”

“You are my husband,” she said with equal quiet. “We have been married three months. Follow my lead.”

He glanced around, not having noticed the assessing stare they’d been given. Doubt still danced in his eyes, along with a silent question.

She said simply, “Men will not fear the threat of a brother. I would still be unclaimed—still be open for … invitations. I have seen how little respect men have for anything they think they are entitled to. So you are my husband,” she hissed, “until I say otherwise.”

A shadow flickered in Lorcan’s eyes, along with another question. One she didn’t want to and couldn’t answer. His hand tightened on hers, demanding she look at him. She refused.

Their food arrived, mercifully, before Lorcan could ask it.

Stew—root vegetables and rabbit. She dug in, nearly melting the roof of her mouth at the first bite.

The group behind them began talking again, and she listened as she ate, selecting bits and pieces as if they were shells on a shore.

“Maybe we’ll offer them a performance and they’ll cut the toll fee in half.” From the blond, bearded man.

“Unlikely,” the leader said. “Those pricks would charge us to perform. Worse, they enjoy our performance and demand we stay awhile. We can’t afford that wait. Not when other companies are already on the move. We don’t want to hit all the plains towns after everyone else.”

Elide almost choked on her stew. Anneith must have freed this table, then. Her plan had been to find a troupe or carnival to fall into, disguise themselves as workers, and this…

“We pay full price on that toll,” the beautiful woman said, “and we might get to that first town half starved and barely able to perform at all.”

Elide lifted her eyes to Lorcan’s—he gave a nod.

She took a sip of her stew, steeling herself, thinking of Asterin Blackbeak. Charming, confident, fearless. She’d always had her head at a

jaunty angle, a looseness to her limbs, a hint of a smile on her lips. Elide took a breath, letting those memories sink into muscle and flesh and bone.

Then she pivoted in her chair, an arm draped around the back as she leaned toward their table and said with a grin, “Sorry to interrupt your meal, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.” They all turned toward her, brows high, the eyes of the leader going right to Elide’s face. She saw the assessment: young, pretty, unblemished by a hard life. Elide kept her own expression pleasant, willed her eyes to brighten. “Are you some sort of performing troupe?” She motioned to Lorcan with a tilt of her head. “My husband and I have been looking to fall in with one for weeks with no luck

—everyone’s full.”

“So are we,” their leader said.

“Right,” Elide replied merrily. “But that toll is steep—for anyone. And if we were to be in business together, perhaps on a temporary basis…” Lorcan’s knee brushed hers in warning. She ignored him. “We’d be glad to chip in on the fee—make up any difference owed.”

The woman’s assessment turned wary. “We are a carnival indeed. But we have no need of new members.”

The bearded man and beautiful woman shot glances at the woman, reprimand in their eyes.

Elide shrugged. “All right, then. But in case you change your mind before you depart, my husband”—a gesture to Lorcan, who was giving his best attempt at an easy smile—“is an expert sword-thrower. And in our previous troupe, he made good coin matching himself against men who sought to best him in feats of strength.”

The leader turned her keen eyes on Lorcan—on the height and muscles and posture.

Elide knew she’d guessed right on the vacancy they’d needed filled when the woman said to her, “And what did you do for them?”

“I worked as a fortune-teller—they called me their oracle.” A shrug. “Mostly just shadows and guesswork.” It’d have to be, considering the little fact that she couldn’t read.

The woman remained unimpressed. “And what was your troupe’s name?”

They likely knew them—knew every troupe that patrolled the plains. She scanned her memory for anything helpful, anything—

Yellowlegs. The witches in Morath had once mentioned Baba Yellowlegs, who had traveled in a carnival to avoid detection, who had died in Rifthold this winter with no explanation.… Detail after detail, buried in the catacombs of her memory, poured out.

“We were in the Carnival of Mirrors,” Elide said. Recognition— surprise, respect—sparked in the leader’s eyes. “Until Baba Yellowlegs, our owner, was killed in Rifthold this past winter. We left, and have been looking for work since.”

“Where did you come from, then?” the bearded man asked.

It was Lorcan who replied, “My family lives on the western side of the Fangs. We’ve spent the past few months with them—waited until the snows melted, since the pass was so treacherous. Strange things happening,” he added, “in the mountains these days.”

The company stilled.

“Indeed,” the raven-haired woman said. She looked to their leader. “They could help pay the toll, Molly. And since Saul left, that act has been empty…” Likely their sword-thrower.

“Like I said,” Elide chimed in with Asterin’s pretty smile, “we’ll be here for a little while, so if you change your minds … let us know. If not…” She saluted with her dented spoon. “Safe travels.”

Something flashed in Molly’s eyes, but the woman looked them over once more. “Safe travels,” she murmured.

Elide and Lorcan returned to their meal.

And when the barmaid came to take their money for it, Elide reached into her inner pocket and pulled out a silver coin.

The barmaid’s eyes were wide, but it was the sharp eyes of Molly, of the others at that table, that Elide noted as the girl slipped away and brought back their change.

Lorcan kept silent as Elide left a generous tip on the table, but they both offered pleasant smiles to the troupe as they vacated their table and the tavern.

Elide went right to the back of the line, still keeping that smile on her face, her back straight.

Lorcan sidled up close, not at all noteworthy for the front they were putting on. “You have no money, do you?”

She gave him a sidelong glance. “Looks like I was mistaken.”

A flash of white teeth as he smiled—genuinely this time. “Well, you’d better hope you and I have enough, Marion, because Molly’s about to make you an offer.”

Elide turned at the crunch of dirt beneath black boots and found Molly before them, the others lingering—some slipping around the corner of the tavern, to no doubt retrieve the wagons.

Molly’s hard face was flushed—as if they’d been arguing. But she just clicked her tongue and said, “Temporary stint. If you’re shit, you’re out, and we won’t pay back the money for the toll.”

Elide smiled, not entirely faking it. “Marion and Lorcan, at your service, madam.”





His wife. Gods above.

He was over five hundred years old—and this … this girl, young woman, she-devil, whatever she was, had just bluffed and lied her way into a job. A sword-thrower indeed.

Lorcan lingered outside the tavern, Marion at his side. A small troupe— hence the lack of funds—and one that had seen better days, he realized as the two yellow-painted wagons clattered and wobbled into view, pulled by four nags.

Marion carefully observed Molly climb into the driver’s seat beside the raven-haired beauty, who paid Lorcan absolutely no heed.

Well, having Marion as his gods-damned wife certainly put an end to anything more than appreciation of the stunning woman.

It was an effort not to growl. He hadn’t been with a woman in months now. And of course—of course—he’d have the time and interest in one … only to be shackled by another one’s lies.

His wife.

Not that Marion was hard on the eyes, he noted as she obeyed Molly’s barked order to climb into the back of the second wagon. Some of the other party members followed on piss-poor horses.

Marion took the bearded man’s extended hand and he easily hauled her into the wagon. Lorcan trailed, assessing everyone in the party, everyone in

the makeshift little town. A number of men, and some women, had noticed Marion when she strode by.

The sweet face paired with sinful curves—and without the limp, with her hair out of her face … She knew exactly what she was doing. Knew people would notice those things, think about those things, instead of the cunning mind and lies she fed them.

Lorcan ignored the hand the bearded man offered and jumped into the back of the wagon, reminding himself to sit close to Marion, to put an arm around her bony shoulders and look relieved and happy to have a troupe again.

Supplies filled the wagon, along with five other people who all smiled at Marion—and then quickly looked away from him.

Marion put a hand on his knee, and Lorcan avoided the urge to flinch. It had been a shock, earlier, to feel how rough those delicate hands were.

Not just a prisoner in Morath—but a slave.

The calluses were old and dense enough that she’d likely worked for years. Hard labor, from the looks of it—and with that ruined leg…

He tried not to think about that tang of fear and pain he’d sensed when she’d told him how little she believed in the kindness and decency of men. He didn’t let his imagination delve too deep regarding why she might feel that way.

The wagon was hot, the air soaked with human sweat, hay, the shit of the horses lined up before them, the tang of iron from the weapons.

“Not much by way of belongings?” asked the bearded man—Nik, he’d called himself.

Shit. He’d forgotten humans traveled with baggage as if they were moving somewhere—

“We lost most of it on our trip out of the mountains. My husband,” Marion said with charming annoyance, “insisted we ford a rushing stream. I’m lucky he even bothered to help me out, since he certainly didn’t go after our supplies.”

A low chuckle from Nik. “I suspect he was more focused on saving you than on the packs.”

Marion rolled her eyes, patting Lorcan’s knee. He nearly cringed at every touch.

Even with his lovers, outside the bed itself, he didn’t like casual, careless contact. Some found that intolerable. Some thought they could break him into a decent male who just wanted a home and a good female to work beside him. Not one of them had succeeded.

“I can save myself,” Marion said brightly. “But his throwing swords, our cooking supplies, my clothes…” A shake of the head. “His act might be a bit lackluster until we can find somewhere to purchase more supplies.”

Nik met Lorcan’s eyes, holding them for longer than most men dared. What he did for the carnival, Lorcan wasn’t sure. Sometime performer—but definitely security. Nik’s smile faded a bit. “The land beyond the Fangs isn’t kind. Your people must be hardy folk to live out there.”

Lorcan nodded. “A rougher life,” he said, “than I want for my wife.” “Life on the road isn’t much better,” Nik countered.

“Ah,” Marion chimed in, “but isn’t it? A life of open skies and roads, of wandering where the wind takes you, answering to no one and nothing? A life of freedom…” She shook her head. “What more could I ask than to live a life unchecked by cages?”

Lorcan knew the words were no lie. He had seen her face when they beheld the grassy plain.

“Spoken like someone who has spent long enough on the road,” Nik said. “It always goes either way with our kind: you settle down and never travel again, or you wander forever.”

“I want to see life—see the world,” Marion said, her voice softening. “I want to see everything.”

Lorcan wondered if Marion would even get to do that if he failed in his task, if the Wyrdkey he carried wound up in the wrong hands.

“Best not wander too far,” Nik said, frowning. “Not with what happened in Rifthold—or what’s brewing down in Morath.”

“What happened in Rifthold?” Lorcan cut in, sharply enough that Marion squeezed his knee.

Nik idly scratched his wheat-colored beard. “Whole city’s been sacked

—overrun, they say, by flying terrors and demon-women as their riders. Witches, if one is to believe the rumors. Ironteeth, straight out of legend.” A shudder.

Holy gods. The destruction would have been a sight to behold. Lorcan forced himself to listen, to concentrate and not begin calculating casualties

and what it would mean for this war, as Nik continued, “No word on the young king. But the city belongs to the witches and their beasts. They say to travel north is to now face a death trap; to travel south is another death trap

… So”—a shrug—“we’ll head east. Maybe we can find a way to bypass whatever’s waiting in either direction. Maybe war will come and we’ll all scatter to the winds.” Nik looked him over. “Men like you and me might be conscripted.”

Lorcan bit back a dark chuckle. No one could force him into anything— save for one person, and she … His chest tightened. It was best not to think of his queen.

“You think either side would do that? Force men to fight?” Marion’s words were breathless.

“Don’t know,” Nik said, the scent and sound of the river now overwhelming enough that Lorcan knew they were near the toll. He reached into his jacket for the money Molly had demanded. Far more than their fair share, but he didn’t care. These people could go to hell the moment they were safely hidden deep in the endless plains. “Duke Perrington’s forces might not even want us, if they’ve got witches and beasts on their side.”

And much worse, Lorcan wanted to say. Wyrdhounds and ilken and the gods knew what.

“But Aelin Galathynius,” Nik mused. Marion’s hand went limp on Lorcan’s knee. “Who knows what she will do. She has not called for aid, has not asked soldiers to come to her. Yet she held Rifthold in her grip— killed the king, destroyed his castle. But gave the city back.”

The bench beneath them groaned as Marion leaned forward. “What do you know of Aelin?”

“Rumors, here and there,” Nik said, shrugging. “They say she’s beautiful as sin—and colder than ice. They say she’s a tyrant, a coward, a whore. They say she’s gods-blessed—or gods-damned. Who knows? Nineteen seems awfully young to have such burdens … Rumor claims her court is strong, though. A shape-shifter guards her back—and two warrior-princes flank her on either side.”

Lorcan thought of that shape-shifter, who had so unceremoniously vomited not once, but twice, all over him; thought of those two warrior-princes … One of them Gavriel’s son.

“Will she save or damn us all?” Nik considered, now monitoring the snaking line behind their wagon. “I don’t know if I much like the thought of everything resting in her hands, but … if she wins, perhaps the land will get better—life will get better. And if she fails … perhaps we all deserve to be damned anyway.”

“She will win,” Marion said with quiet strength. Nik’s brows rose.

Men shouted, and Lorcan said, “I’d save talk of her for another time.”

Boots crunched, and then uniformed men were peering into the back of the wagon. “Out,” one ordered. “Line up.” The man’s eyes snagged on Marion.

Lorcan’s arm tightened around her as an ugly, too-familiar light filled the soldier’s eyes.

Lorcan bit back his snarl as he said to her, “Come, wife.”

The soldier noticed him, then. The man backed away a step, a bit pale, then ordered the supplies be searched.

Lorcan jumped out first, bracing his hands on Marion’s waist as he helped her off the wagon. When she made to step away, he tugged her back against him, an arm across her abdomen. He met each soldier’s stare as they passed and wondered who was looking after the dark-haired beauty in the front.

A moment later, she and Molly came around. A dark, rimmed hat was slung over the beauty’s head, half of her light brown face obscured, her body concealed in a heavy coat that drew the eye away from any feminine curves. Even the cast of her mouth was unpleasant—as if the woman had slipped into another person’s skin entirely.

Still, Molly nudged the woman between Lorcan and Nik. Then took the money pouch from Lorcan’s free hand without so much as a thank-you.

The dark-haired beauty leaned forward to murmur to Marion, “Don’t look them in the eye, and don’t talk back.”

Marion nodded, chin dipping as she focused on the ground. Against him, he could feel her racing heart—wild, despite the calm submission written over every line of her body.

“And you,” the beauty hissed at him as the soldiers searched their wares

—and took what they wanted. “Molly says if you get into a fight, you’re gone, and we’re not bailing you out of prison. So let them talk and laugh, but don’t interfere.”

Lorcan debated saying he could slaughter this entire garrison if he pleased, but nodded.

After five minutes, another order was shouted. Molly handed over Lorcan’s money and her own to pay the toll, plus more for “expedited passage.” Then they were all back in the wagon again, none of them daring to see what had been pilfered. Marion was shaking slightly against where he kept her tucked into his side, but her face was blank, bored.

The guards hadn’t so much as questioned them—hadn’t asked after a woman with a limp.

The Acanthus roared beneath them as they crossed the bridge, wagon wheels clattering on ancient stones. Marion kept shaking.

Lorcan studied her face again—the hint of red along her high cheekbones, her tight mouth.

Not shaking from fear, he realized as he caught a whiff of her scent. A slight tang of it, perhaps, but mostly something red-hot, something wild and raging and—

Anger. It was boiling rage that made her shake. At the inspection, at the leering of the guards.

An idealist—that’s what Marion was. Someone who wanted to fight for her queen, who believed, as Nik did, that this world could be better.

As they cleared the other side of the bridge, the soldiers letting them pass without fuss, as they meandered past the line on that side, and emerged onto the plains themselves, Lorcan wondered at that anger—at that belief in a better world.

He didn’t feel like telling either Marion or Nik that their dream was a fool’s one.

Marion relaxed enough to peer out the back of the wagon—at the grasses flanking the wide dirt road, at the blue sky, at the roaring river and the looming sprawl of Oakwald behind them. And for all her rage, a tentative sort of wonder grew in her dark eyes. He ignored it.

Lorcan had seen the worst and best in men for five hundred years.

There was no such thing as a better world—no such thing as a happy end.

Because there were no endings.

And there would be nothing waiting for them in this war, nothing waiting for an escaped slave girl, but a shallow grave.

Nesryn’s cousins were off at school when she knocked on the outer door to her aunt and uncle’s lovely home in the Runni Quarter. From the dusty street, all one could glimpse of the house beyond the high, thick walls was the carved oak gate, reinforced with scrolling iron.

But as it swung open under the hands of two guards who instantly beckoned her in, it revealed a shaded, broad courtyard of pale stone, flanked by pillars crawling with magenta bougainvillea, and a merry fountain inlaid with sea glass burbling in its center.

The house was typical of Antica—and of the Balruhni people from whom Nesryn and her family hailed. Long adjusted to desert climes, the entire building had been erected around sun and wind: outer windows never placed near the heat of the southern exposure, the breeze-catching narrow towers atop the building facing away from the sand-filled eastern wind to keep it from infiltrating the rooms it cooled. Her family was not fortunate enough to have a canal running beneath the house, as many of the wealthier in Antica did, but with the towering plants and carved wooden awnings, the shade kept the public lower levels around the courtyard cool enough during the day.

Indeed, Nesryn inhaled deeply as she strode through the pretty courtyard, her aunt greeting her halfway across with, “Have you eaten yet?”

She had, but Nesryn said, “I saved myself for your table, Aunt.” It was a common Halha greeting amongst family—no one visited a house, especially in the Faliq family, without eating. At least once.

Her aunt—still a full-figured beautiful woman whose four children had not slowed her down one bit—nodded in approval. “I told Brahim just this morning that our cook is better than the ones up at that palace.”

A snort of amusement from a level up, from the wood-screened window overlooking the courtyard. Her uncle’s study. One of the few common rooms on the usually private second level. “Careful, Zahida, or the khagan may hear you and haul dear old Cook to his palace.”

Her aunt rolled her eyes at the figure just barely visible through the ornate wood screen and looped her arm through Nesryn’s. “Snoop. Always eavesdropping on our conversations down here.”

Her uncle chuckled but made no further comment.

Nesryn grinned, letting her aunt lead her toward the spacious interior of the home, past the curvy-bodied statue of Inna, Goddess of Peaceful Households and the Balruhni people, her arms upraised in welcome and defense. “Perhaps the palace’s inferior cook is why the royals are so skinny.”

Her aunt huffed, patting her belly. “And no doubt why I’ve added so much padding these years.” She gave Nesryn a wink. “Perhaps I should get rid of old Cook, then.”

Nesryn kissed her aunt’s petal-soft cheek. “You are more beautiful now than you were when I was a child.” She meant it.

Her aunt waved her off but still beamed as they entered the dim, cool interiors of the house proper. Pillars upheld the high ceilings of the long hallway, the wood beams and furniture carved and fashioned after the lush

flora and fauna of their distant, long-ago homeland. Her aunt led her deeper into the house than most guests would ever see, right to the second, smaller courtyard at the back. The one just for family, most of it occupied by a long table and deep-seated chairs beneath the shade of an overhanging awning. At this hour, the sun was on the opposite side of the house—precisely why her aunt had chosen it.

Her aunt guided her into a seat adjacent to the head of the table, the place of honor, and hurried off to inform the cook to bring out refreshments.

In the silence, Nesryn listened to the wind sighing through the jasmine crawling up the wall to the balcony hanging above. As serene a home as she’d ever seen—especially compared to the chaos of her family’s house in Rifthold.

An ache tightened her chest, and Nesryn rubbed at it. They were alive; they had gotten out.

But it did not answer where they now were. Or what they might face on that continent full of so many terrors.

“Your father gets that same look when he’s thinking too hard,” her uncle said from behind her.

Nesryn twisted in her chair, smiling faintly as Brahim Faliq entered the courtyard. Her uncle was shorter than her father, but slimmer—mostly thanks to not baking pastries for his livelihood. No, her uncle was still trim for a man of his age, his dark hair peppered with silver, both perhaps due to the merchant life that kept him so active.

But Brahim’s face … it was Sayed Faliq’s face. Her father’s face. With less than two years separating them, some had thought them twins while growing up. And it was the sight of that kind, still-handsome face that made

Nesryn’s throat tighten. “One of the few traits I inherited from him, it seems.”

Indeed, where Nesryn was quiet and prone to contemplation, her father’s booming laugh had been as constant in their house as her sister’s merry singing and giggling.

She felt her uncle studying her as he took the seat across from hers, leaving the head of the table for Zahida. Men and women governed the household together, their joint rule treated as law by their children. Nesryn had certainly fallen into line, though her sister … She could still hear the screeching fights between her sister and father as Delara had grown older and longed for independence.

“For the Captain of the Royal Guard,” her uncle mused, “I am surprised you have the time to visit us so often.”

Her aunt bustled in, bearing a tray of chilled mint tea and glasses. “Hush. Don’t complain, Brahim, or she’ll stop coming.”

Nesryn smiled, glancing between them as her aunt gave them each a glass of the tea, set the tray on the table between them, and claimed the seat at the head of the table. “I thought to come by now—while the children are at school.”

Another of the khaganate’s many wonderful decrees: every child, no matter how poor or rich, had the right to attend school. Free of charge. As a result, nearly everyone in the empire was literate—far more than Nesryn could claim of Adarlan.

“And here I was,” her uncle said, smiling wryly, “hoping you’d be back to sing more for us. Since you left the other day, the children have been yowling your songs like alley cats. I haven’t the heart to tell them that their voices are not quite up to the same standard as their esteemed cousin’s.”

Nesryn chuckled, even as her face heated. She sang for very few—only her family. She’d never sung for Chaol or the others, or even mentioned that her voice was … better than good. It wasn’t something that could easily be brought up in conversation, and the gods knew that the last several months had not been conducive to singing. But she’d found herself singing to her cousins the other night—one of the songs her father had taught her. A lullaby of Antica. By the end of it, her aunt and uncle had been gathered round, her aunt dabbing at her eyes, and … well, now there was no going back with it, was there?

She’d likely be teased about it until she never opened her mouth again.

But if only she had come here just for singing. She sighed a bit, steeling herself.

In the silence, her aunt and uncle exchanged looks. Her aunt asked quietly, “What is it?”

Nesryn sipped from her tea, considering her words. Her aunt and uncle, at least, gave her the gift of waiting for her to speak. Her sister would have been shaking her shoulders by now, demanding an answer. “There was an attack at the Torre the other night. A young healer was killed by an intruder. The murderer has not yet been found.”

No matter how she and Sartaq had combed through the few sewers and canals beneath Antica last night, they had not found a single path toward the Torre; nor any sign of a Valg’s nest. All they’d discovered were typical, awful city smells and rats scurrying underfoot.

Her uncle swore, earning a look from her aunt. But even her aunt rubbed at her chest before asking, “We’d heard the rumors, but … You have now come to warn us?”

Nesryn nodded. “The attack lines up with the techniques of enemies in Adarlan. If they are here, in this city, I fear it may be in connection to my arrival.”

She had not dared tell her aunt and uncle too much. Not for lack of trust, but for fear of who might be listening. So they did not know of the Valg, or Erawan, or the keys.

They knew of her quest to raise an army, for that was no secret, but … She did not risk telling them of Sartaq. That he and his rukhin might be the path toward winning support from the khagan, that his people might know something about the Valg that even they had not discovered in dealing with them. She did not even risk telling them she’d been on the prince’s ruk. Not that they’d really believe it. Well-off as her family might be, there was wealth, and then there was royalty.

Her uncle said, “Will they target our family—to get to you?”

Nesryn swallowed. “I don’t believe so, but I would put nothing past them. I—it is still unknown if this attack was in relation to my arrival, or if we are jumping to conclusions, but on the chance that it is true … I came to warn you to hire more guards if you can.” She looked between them, laying her hands palm-up on the table. “I am sorry to have brought this to your household.”

Another glance between her aunt and uncle, then each took her by the hand. “There is nothing to be sorry for,” her aunt said. Just as her uncle added, “Getting to see you so unexpectedly has been a blessing beyond measure.”

Her throat closed up. This—this was what Erawan was poised to destroy.

She’d find a way to raise that army. Either to rescue her family from war, or keep it from reaching these shores.

Her aunt declared, “We will hire more guards, have an escort for the children to and from school.” A nod to her husband. “And anywhere we go in this city.”

Nesryn’s uncle added, “And what of you? Traipsing about the city on your own.” Nesryn waved a hand, though their concern warmed her. She refrained from telling them she’d hunted Valg in Rifthold’s sewers for weeks, that she’d been stalking them through Antica’s sewers last night. And most certainly refrained from telling them just how involved she’d been in the glass castle’s demise. She had no wish to see her uncle keel over in his chair, or see her aunt’s thick, beautiful hair go white. “I can handle myself.”

Her aunt and uncle did not look so convinced, but they nodded all the same. Just as Cook emerged, smiling broadly at Nesryn, little dishes of chilled salads between her withered hands.

For long moments, Nesryn ate everything her aunt and uncle piled onto her plate, which was indeed as good as any food at the palace. By the time she was stuffed to the point of exploding, by the time she’d drained her tea to its dregs, her aunt said slyly to her, “I had hoped you’d be bringing a guest, you know.”

Nesryn snorted, brushing the hair from her face. “Lord Westfall is quite busy, Aunt.” But if Yrene had gotten him onto a horse this morning … perhaps she’d indeed get him here tomorrow. Introduce him to her family— to the four children who filled this house with chaos and joy.

Her aunt sipped daintily from her tea. “Oh, I didn’t mean him.” A wry grin between Zahida and Brahim. “I meant Prince Sartaq.”

Nesryn was glad she’d finished her tea. “What of him?”

That sly smile didn’t fade. “Rumor claims someone”—a pointed look at Nesryn—“was spotted riding with the prince at dawn yesterday. Atop his ruk.”

Nesryn reined in her wince. “I … was.” She prayed no one had seen her with him last night—that word would not reach the Valg agent’s ears they were being hunted.

Her uncle chuckled. “And you planned to tell us when? The children were beside themselves with excitement that their beloved cousin had ridden on Kadara herself.”

“I did not want to brag.” A pathetic excuse.

“Hmmm,” was all her uncle replied, mischief dancing in his gaze.

But Nesryn’s aunt gave her a knowing look, steel in her brown eyes, as if she, too, did not forget for one moment the family who remained in Adarlan and perhaps now tried to flee to these shores. Her aunt simply said, “The ruks will not fear wyverns.”

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