Chapter no 38

Empire of Storms

Chaol dined in the Torre kitchens, where a rail-thin woman called only Cook had stuffed him with pan-fried fish, crusty bread, roasted tomatoes with mild cheese and tarragon, and then managed to convince him to eat a light, flaky pastry dripping with honey and crusted in pistachios.

Yrene had sat beside him, hiding her smiles as Cook kept piling more and more food onto his plate until he literally begged her to stop.

He was full enough that the idea of moving seemed a monumental task, and even Yrene had pleaded with Cook to have mercy upon them.

The woman had relented, though she’d turned that focus upon the workers in her kitchen—presiding over the serving of the evening meal to the hall a level above with a general’s command that Chaol found himself studying.

He and Yrene sat in companionable silence, watching the chaos unfold around them until the sun had long since set through the wide windows beyond the kitchen.

He’d uttered half a mention of getting his horse saddled when Yrene and

Cook told him he was spending the night and to not bother arguing.

So he did. He sent a note back to the palace through a healer on her way there to oversee a patient in the servants’ quarters, telling Nesryn where he was and not to wait up.

And when he and Yrene had finally managed to get their overstuffed stomachs to settle, he followed her to a room in the complex. The Torre was mostly stairs, she said with no pity whatsoever, and there were no guest rooms anyway. But the adjacent physicians’ complex—she’d gestured to the building they’d passed through, all angles and squares where the Torre was round—always had a few rooms on the ground level available for the night, mostly for the loved ones of sick patients.

She opened the door to a room that overlooked a garden courtyard, the space small but clean, its pale walls inviting and warm from the day. A narrow bed lay against one wall, a chair and small table before the window. Just enough space for him to maneuver.

“Let me see again,” Yrene said, pointing to his feet.

Chaol lifted his leg with his hands, stretching it out. Then rolled his ankles, grunting against the considerable weight of his legs.

She removed his boots and socks as she knelt before him. “Good. We’ll need to keep that up.”

He glanced to the satchel full of books and scrolls she’d pillaged from the library, discarded by the doorway. He didn’t know what the hell any of it said, but they’d taken as many as they could. If whoever or whatever had been in that library had stolen some, and perhaps not gotten the chance to return for more … He wouldn’t risk them eventually returning to claim the rest.

Yrene had thought the scroll she’d hidden in his rooms to be eight hundred years old. But that deep in the library, considering the age of the Torre …

He didn’t tell her he thought it might be much, much older. Full of information that might not have even survived in their own lands.

“I can find you some clothes,” Yrene said, scanning the small room.

“I’ll be fine with what I have.” Chaol added without looking at her, “I sleep—without them.”


Silence fell, as she no doubt remembered how she’d found him that morning.

That morning. Had it truly been only hours ago? She had to be exhausted.

Yrene gestured to the candle burning on the table. “Do you need more light?”

“I’m fine.”

“I can get you some water.”

“I’m fine,” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching upward.

She pointed to the porcelain pot in the corner. “Then at least let me bring you to the—”

“I can manage that, too. It’s all about aim.”

Color stained her cheeks. “Right.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Well

… good night, then.”

He could have sworn she was lingering. And he would have let her, except …“It’s late,” he told her. “You should go to your room while people are still about.”

Because while Nesryn had found no trace of the Valg in Antica, while it had been days since that attack in the Torre library, he would take no risks.

“Yes,” Yrene said, bracing a hand on the threshold. She reached for the handle to pull the door shut behind her.


She paused, angling her head.

Chaol held her stare, a small smile curling his mouth. “Thank you.” He swallowed. “For all of it.”

She only nodded and backed out, shutting the door behind her. But as she did so, he caught a glimmer of the light that danced in her eyes.



The following morning, a stern-faced woman named Eretia appeared at his door to inform him Yrene had a meeting with Hafiza and would meet him at the palace by lunch.

So Yrene had asked Eretia to escort him back to the palace—a task Chaol could only wonder why she’d bestowed on the old woman, who tapped her foot as he gathered his weapons, the heavy bag of books, and clicked her tongue at every minor delay.

But the ride through the steep streets with Eretia wasn’t awful; the woman was a surprisingly skilled rider who brooked no nonsense from her mount. Yet she offered no pleasantries and little more than a grunted farewell before she left him in the palace courtyard.

The guards were just changing their shift, the morning rotation lingering to chat amongst one another. He recognized enough of them by now to earn a few nods of greeting, and to manage to return them as his chair was brought over by one of the stable hands.

He’d no sooner removed his feet from the stirrups and prepared himself for the still-daunting process of dismounting when light footsteps jogged over to him. He looked over to find Shen approaching, a hand on his forearm—

Chaol blinked. And by the time Shen stopped before him, the guard had tugged the glove back on his hand.

Or what Chaol had assumed was his hand. Because what he’d glimpsed beneath the glove and the sleeve of Shen’s uniform, going right up to the elbow … It was a masterwork—the metal forearm and hand.

And only now that he looked, looked long enough to actually observe anything … he could indeed see the raised lines by Shen’s bicep of where the metal arm was strapped to him.

Shen noticed his stare. Noticed it right as Chaol hesitated at the arm and shoulder Shen offered to aid him in dismounting.

The guard said in Chaol’s own tongue, “I helped you just fine before you knew, Lord Westfall.”

Something like shame, perhaps something deeper, cracked through him.

Chaol made himself brace a hand on the man’s shoulder—the same shoulder that housed the metal arm. Found the strength beneath to be unwavering as Shen assisted him into the awaiting chair.

And when Chaol was seated in it, staring at the guard as the stable hands led his horse away, Shen explained, “I lost it a year and a half ago. There was an attack on Prince Arghun’s life when he visited a vizier’s estate, a rogue band from a disgruntled kingdom. I lost it during the fight. Yrene worked on me when I returned—I was one of her first considerable healings. She managed to repair as much as she could from here upward.” He pointed to right below his elbow, then up his shoulder.

Chaol studied the hand that was so lifelike within the glove he could not notice the difference, save for the fact that it did not move at all.

“Healers can do many wonders,” Shen said, “but growing limbs from thin air …” A soft laugh. “That is beyond their skill—even one such as Yrene.”

Chaol didn’t know what to say. Apologies felt wrong, but …

Shen smiled down at him—with no trace of pity. “It has taken me a long time to get to this place,” he said a bit quietly.

Chaol knew he didn’t mean the skilled use of his artificial arm. Shen added, “But know that I did not get here alone.”

The unspoken offer shone in the guard’s brown eyes. Unbroken, this man before him. No less of a man for his injury, for finding a new way to move through the world.

And—Shen had stayed on as a guard. As one of the most elite palace guards in the world. Not from any pity of the others, but through his own merit and will.

Chaol still couldn’t find the right words to convey what coursed through him.

Shen nodded as if he understood that, too.

It was a long trip back to his suite. Chaol didn’t mark the faces he passed, the sounds and smells and streams of wind wending through the halls.

He returned to the rooms to find his note to Nesryn sitting on the foyer table. Unread.

It was enough to chase any other thoughts from his mind.

Heart thundering, his fingers shook as he picked up his unread, unseen letter.

But then he spotted the letter beneath it. His name written in her handwriting.

He ripped it open, reading the few lines. He read it twice. Thrice.

He set it down on the table and stared at her open bedroom door. The silence leaking from it.

He was a bastard.

He’d dragged her here. Had nearly gotten her killed in Rifthold so many times, had implied so much about the two of them, and yet—

He didn’t let himself finish the thought. He should have been better. Treated her better. No wonder she’d flown off to the ruk aeries to help Sartaq find any sort of information on the Valg history in this land—or their own.

Shit. Shit.

She might not hold him to any promises, but he … He held himself to them.

And he had let this thing between them go on, had used her like some crutch—

Chaol blew out a breath, crumpling Nesryn’s letter and his own in his fist.



Perhaps he had not slept well in that tiny room at the physicians’ compound, accustomed to far larger and finer accommodations, Yrene told herself that afternoon. It would explain his few words. The lack of smiling.

She’d had one on her face when she’d entered Chaol’s suite after lunch. She’d explained her progress to Hafiza, who had been very pleased indeed. Even giving Yrene a kiss on her brow before she left. Practically skipping here.

Until she entered and found it quiet. Found him quiet.

“Are you feeling well?” Yrene asked casually as she hid the books he’d brought back with him that morning.


She leaned against the desk to study where Chaol sat on the gold couch. “You have not exercised in a few days.” She angled her head. “The rest

of your body, I mean. We should do it now.”

For people accustomed to physical activity every day, going without for so long could feel like ripping an addict off a drug. Disoriented, restless. He’d kept up the exercises for his legs, but the rest … perhaps it was what clawed at him.

“All right.” His eyes were glazed, distant.

“Here, or one of the guards’ training facilities?” She braced herself for the shutdown.

But Chaol just said flatly, “Here is fine.”

She tried again. “Perhaps being around the other guards will be beneficial to—”

“Here is fine.” Then he moved himself onto the floor, sliding his body away from the couch and low-lying table and to the open carpet. “I need you to brace my feet.”

Yrene checked her irritation at the tone, the outright refusal. But she still said as she knelt before him, “Have we really gone back to that place?”

He ignored her question and launched into a series of upward curls, his powerful body surging up, then down. One, two, three … She lost count around sixty.

He didn’t meet her stare each time he rose up over his bent knees.

It was natural, for the emotional healing to be as difficult as the physical. For there to be hard days—hard weeks, even. But he’d been smiling when she’d left him last night, and—

“Tell me what happened. Something happened today.” Her tone was perhaps not quite as gentle as a healer’s ought to be.

“Nothing happened.” The words were a push of air as he kept moving, sweat sliding down the column of his neck and into the white shirt beneath.

Yrene clenched her jaw, counting quietly in her head. Snapping would do neither of them any good.

Chaol eventually turned onto his stomach and began another set that required her to hold his feet in a position that would keep him slightly aloft.

Up and down, down and up. The sleek muscles of his back and arms bunched and rippled.

He went through six other exercises, then started the entire set again. Yrene supported and held and watched in simmering silence.

Let him have his space. Let him think through it, if that’s what he wants. Damn what he wants.

Chaol finished a set, his breathing ragged, chest heaving as he stared up at the ceiling.

Something sharp and driving flickered across his face, as if in silent answer to something. He lurched upward to begin the next set—

“That’s enough.”

His eyes flashed, meeting hers at last.

Yrene didn’t bother looking pleasant or understanding. “You’ll do yourself an injury.”

He glared toward where she had stabilized his bent knees and curled upward again. “I know my limits.”

“And so do I,” she snapped, jerking her chin toward his legs. “You might hurt your back if you keep this up.”

He bared his teeth—the temper vicious enough that she let go of his feet. His arms shot out to brace him as he slid backward, but she lunged, grabbing for his shoulders to keep him from slamming to the ground.

His sweat-drenched shirt soaked into her fingers, his breathing rasping in her ear as she confirmed he wasn’t about to fall. “I’ve got it,” he growled in her ear.

“Forgive me if I don’t take your word for it,” she snipped, assessing for herself that he indeed could support himself before she withdrew and settled herself a few feet away on the carpet.

In silence, they glared at each other. “Exercising your body is vital,” Yrene said, her words clipped, “but you will do more harm than good if you push yourself too hard.”

“I’m fine.”

“You think I don’t know what you’re doing?”

Chaol’s face was a hard mask, sweat sliding down his temple.

“This was your sanctuary,” she said, gesturing to his honed body, the sweat on him. “When things got hard, when they went wrong, when you were upset or angry or sad, you would lose yourself in the training. In sweating until it burned your eyes, in practicing until your muscles were shaking and begging you to stop. And now you can’t—not as you once did.”

Ire boiled in his face at that.

She kept her own face cool and hard as she asked, “How does that make you feel?”

His nostrils flared. “Don’t think you can provoke me into talking.” “How does it feel, Lord Westfall?”

“You know how it feels, Yrene.” “Tell me.”

When he refused to answer, she hummed to herself. “Well, since you seem determined to get a complete exercise routine in, I might as well work

your legs a bit.”

His stare was a brand. She wondered if he could sense the tightness that now clamped down on her chest, the pit that opened in her stomach as he remained quiet.

But Yrene rose up on her knees and moved down his body, beginning the series of exercises designed to trigger pathways between his mind and spine. The ankle and foot rotations, he could do on his own, though he certainly gritted his teeth after the tenth set.

But Yrene pushed him through it. Ignored his bubbling anger, keeping a saccharine smile on her face while she coaxed his legs through the movements.

It was only when she reached for his upper thighs that Chaol halted her with a hand on her arm.

He met her stare—then looked away, jaw tight, as he said, “I’m tired. It’s late. Let’s meet tomorrow morning.”

“I don’t mind starting now with the healing.” Perhaps with the exercising, those wrecked pathways might be firing up more than usual.

“I want some rest.”

It was a lie. Despite his exercising, he had good color in his face, his eyes were still bright with anger.

She weighed his expression, the request. “Resting doesn’t seem at all like your style.”

His lips tightened. “Get out.”

Yrene snorted at the order. “You may command men and servants, Lord Westfall, but I don’t answer to you.” Still, she uncoiled to her feet, having had quite enough of his attitude. Bracing her hands on her hips, she stared

at where he remained sprawled on the carpet. “I’ll have food sent in. Things to help pack on the muscle.”

“I know what to eat.”

Of course he did. He’d been honing that magnificent body for years now. But she only brushed out the skirts of her dress. “Yes, but I’ve actually studied the subject.”

Chaol bristled but said nothing. Returned to staring at the swirls and flora woven into the carpet.

Yrene gave him another honey-sweet smile. “I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow, Lord—”

“Don’t call me that.”

She shrugged. “I think I’ll call you whatever I want.”

His head snapped up, his face livid. She braced herself for the verbal attack, but he seemed to check himself, shoulders stiffening as he only said once more, “Get out.”

He pointed to the door with a long arm as he said so.

“I should kick that gods-damned finger you’re pointing,” Yrene snapped, striding to the door. “But a broken hand would only keep you here longer.”

Chaol again bared his teeth, ire pouring off him in waves now, that scar down his cheek stark against his flushed skin. “Get out.

Yrene just flashed another sickly sweet smile at him and shut the door behind her.

She strode through the palace at a clip, fingers curling at her sides, reining in her roar.

Patients had bad days. They were entitled to them. It was natural, and a part of the process.

But … they had worked through so much of that. He had started to tell her things, and she’d told him things so few knew, and she’d enjoyed herself yesterday—

She mulled over every word exchanged the night before. Perhaps he’d been angry at something Eretia had said on their ride here. The woman wasn’t known for her bedside manner. Yrene was honestly surprised the woman tolerated anyone, let alone felt inclined to help human beings. She could have upset him. Insulted him.

Or maybe he’d come to depend on Yrene’s constant presence, and the interruption of that routine had been disorienting. She’d heard of patients and their healers in such situations.

But he’d shown no traits of dependency. No, the opposite went through him, a streak of independence and pride that hurt as much as it helped him.

Breathing uneven, his behavior dragging claws down her temper, Yrene sought out Hasar.

The princess was just coming from swordplay lessons of her own. Renia was out shopping in the city, Hasar said as she looped her sweat-damp arm through Yrene’s and led her toward her chambers.

“Everyone is busy-busy-busy today,” Hasar groused, flicking her sweaty braid over a shoulder. “Even Kashin is off with my father at some meeting about his troops.”

“Is there any reason why?” A careful question.

Hasar shrugged. “He didn’t tell me. Though he probably felt inclined to do it, since Sartaq showed us all up by flying off to his nest in the mountains for a few weeks.”

“He left?”

“And he took Captain Faliq with him.” A wry smile. “I’m surprised you aren’t consoling Lord Westfall.”

Oh. Oh. “When did they leave?”

“Yesterday afternoon. Apparently, she said no word about it. Didn’t take her things. Just left a note and vanished into the sunset with him. I didn’t think Sartaq had it in him to be such a charmer.”

Yrene didn’t return the smile. She’d bet good money that Chaol had returned this morning to find that note. To find Nesryn gone.

“How did you learn she’d left a note?”

“Oh, the messenger told everyone. Didn’t know what was inside it, but a note with Lord Westfall’s name on it, left at the aerie. Along with one to her family in the city. The only trace of her.”

Yrene made a mental mark to never send correspondence to the palace again. At least not letters that mattered.

No wonder Chaol had been restless and angry, if Nesryn had vanished like that.

“Do you suspect foul play?”

“From Sartaq?” Hasar cackled. The question was answer enough.

They reached the princess’s doors, servants silently opening them and stepping aside. Little more than shadows made flesh.

But Yrene paused in the doorway, digging in her heels as Hasar tried to lead her in. “I forgot to get him his tea,” she lied, disentangling her arm from Hasar’s.

The princess only gave her a knowing smile. “If you hear any interesting tidbits, you know where to find me.”

Yrene managed a nod and turned on her heel.

She didn’t go to his rooms. She doubted Chaol’s mood had improved in the ten minutes she’d been storming through the palace halls. And if she saw him, she knew she wouldn’t be able to refrain from asking about Nesryn. From pushing him until that control shattered. And she couldn’t guess where that would leave them. Perhaps a place neither of them was ready for.

But she had a gift. And a relentless, driving thrum now roared in her blood thanks to him.

She could not sit still. Did not want to go back to the Torre to read or help any of the others with their work.

Yrene left the palace and headed down the dusty streets of Antica.

She knew the way. The slums never moved. Only grew or shrank, depending on the ruler.

In the bright sun, there was little to fear. They were not bad people. Only poor—some desperate. Many forgotten and disheartened.

So she did as she had always done, even in Innish. Yrene followed the sound of coughing.

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