Chapter no 70

Empire of Storms

Nesryn had run out of time.

Falkan required ten days to recover, which had left her and Sartaq with too little time to visit the other watchtower ruins to the south. She’d tried to convince the prince to go without the shape-shifter, but he’d refused. Even with Borte now intent on joining them, he was taking no risks.

But Sartaq found other ways to fill their time. He’d taken Nesryn to other aeries to the north and west, where he met with the reigning hearth-mothers and the captains, both male and female, who led their forces.

Some were welcoming, greeting Sartaq with feasts and revels that lasted long into the night.

Some, like the Berlad, were aloof, their hearth-mothers and other various leaders not inviting them to stay for longer than necessary. Certainly not bringing out jugs of the fermented goat’s milk that they drank

—and that was strong enough to put hair on Nesryn’s chest, face, and teeth. She’d nearly choked to death the first time she’d tried it, earning hearty claps on the back and a toast in her honor.

It was the warm welcome that still surprised her. The smiles of the rukhin who asked, some shyly, some boldly, for demonstrations with her bow and arrow. But for all she showed them, she, too, learned. Went soaring

with Sartaq through the mountain passes, the prince calling out targets and Nesryn striking them, learning how to fire into the wind, as the wind.

He even let her ride Kadara alone—just once, and enough for her to again wonder how they let four-year-olds do it, but … she’d never felt so unleashed.

So unburdened and unbridled and yet settled in herself.

So they went, clan to clan, hearth to hearth. Sartaq checking up on the riders and their training, stopping to visit new babes and ailing old folk. Nesryn remained his shadow—or tried to.

Anytime she lingered a step back, Sartaq nudged her forward. Anytime there was a task to be done with the others, he asked her to do it. The washing-up after a meal, the returning of arrows from target practice, the cleaning-out of the ruk droppings from halls and nests.

The last task, at least, the prince joined her in. No matter his rank, no matter his status as captain, he did every chore without a word of complaint. No one was above work, he told her when she’d asked one night.

And whether she was scraping crusted droppings from the ground or teaching young warriors how to string a bow, something restless in her had settled.

She could no longer picture it—the quiet meetings at the palace in Rifthold where she had given solemn guards their orders and then parted ways amongst marble floors and finery. Could not remember the city barracks, where she’d lurked in the back of a crowded room, gotten her orders, and then stood on a street corner for hours, watching people buy and eat and argue and walk about.

Another lifetime, another world.

Here in the deep mountains, breathing in the crisp air, seated around the fire pit to hear Houlun narrate tales of rukhin and the horse-lords, tales of the first khagan and his beloved wife, whom Borte had been named after … She could not remember that life before.

And did not want to go back to it.

It was at one such fire, Nesryn combing out the tight braid that Borte had taught her to plait, that she surprised even herself.

Houlun had settled in, a whetstone in hand as she honed a dagger, preparing to work while she talked to the small gathering—Sartaq, Borte, a gray-faced and limping Falkan, and six others who Nesryn had learned were Borte’s cousins of sorts. The hearth-mother scanned their faces, golden and flickering with the flame, and asked, “What of a tale from Adarlan instead?”

All eyes had turned to Nesryn and Falkan.

The shape-shifter winced. “I’m afraid mine are rather dull.” He considered. “I did have an interesting visit to the Red Desert once, but …” He gestured as much as he could to Nesryn. “I should like to hear one of your stories first, Captain.”

Nesryn tried not to fidget under the weight of so many stares. “The stories I grew up with,” she admitted, “were mostly of you all, of these lands.” Broad smiles at that. Sartaq only winked. Nesryn ducked her head, face heating.

“Tell a story of the Fae, if you know them,” Borte suggested. “Of the Fae Prince you met.”

Nesryn shook her head. “I don’t have any of those—and I do not know him that well.” As Borte frowned, Nesryn added, “But I can sing for you.”


Houlun set down her whetstone. “A song would be appreciated.” A scowl at Borte and Sartaq. “Since neither of my children can carry a tune to save their lives.” Borte rolled her eyes at her hearth-mother, but Sartaq bowed his head in apology, a crooked grin now on his mouth.

Nesryn smiled, even as her heart pounded at her bold offer. She’d never really performed for anyone, but this … It was not performing, as much as it was sharing. She listened to the wind whispering outside the cave mouth for a long moment, the others falling quiet.

“This is a song of Adarlan,” she said at last. “From the foothills north of Rifthold, where my mother was born.” An old, familiar ache filled her chest. “She used to sing this to me—before she died.”

A glimmer of sympathy in Houlun’s steely gaze. But Nesryn glanced to Borte as she spoke, finding the young woman’s face unusually soft—staring at Nesryn as if she had not seen her before. Nesryn gave her a small, subtle nod. It is a weight we both bear.

Borte offered a small, quiet smile in return.

Nesryn listened to the wind again. Let herself drift back to her pretty little bedroom in Rifthold, let herself feel her mother’s silken hands stroking her face, her hair. She had been so taken with her father’s stories of his far-off homeland, of the ruks and horse-lords, that she had rarely asked for anything about Adarlan itself, despite being a child of both lands.

And this song of her mother’s … One of the few stories she had, in the form she loved best. Of her homeland in better days. And she wanted to share it with them—that glimpse into what her land might again become.

Nesryn cleared her throat. Took a bracing breath. And then she opened her mouth and sang.

The crackle of the fire her only drum, Nesryn’s voice filled the Mountain-Hall of Altun, wending through the ancient pillars, bouncing off the carved rock.

She had the sense of Sartaq going very still, had the sense that there was nothing hard or laughing on his face.

But she focused on the song, on those long-ago words, that story of distant winters and speckles of blood on snow; that story of mothers and their daughters, how they loved and fought and tended to each other.

Her voice soared and fell, bold and graceful as a ruk, and Nesryn could have sworn that even the howling winds paused to listen.

And when she finished, a gilded, high note of the spring sun breaking across cold lands, when silence and the crackling fire filled the world once more …

Borte was crying. Silent tears streaming down her pretty face. Houlun’s hand was tightly wrapped around her granddaughter’s, the whetstone set aside. A wound still healing—for both of them.

And perhaps Sartaq, too—for grief limned his face. Grief, and awe, and perhaps something infinitely more tender as he said, “Another tale to spread of Neith’s Arrow.”

She ducked her head again, accepting the praise of the others with a smile. Falkan clapped as best he could manage and called for another song.

Nesryn, to her surprise, obliged them. A merry, bright mountain song her father had taught her, of rushing streams amid blooming fields of wildflowers.

But even as the night moved on, as Nesryn sang in that beautiful mountain-hall, she felt Sartaq’s stare. Different from any he’d given before.

And though she told herself she should, Nesryn did not look away.



A few days later, when Falkan had at last healed, they dared venture down to the three other watchtowers Houlun had discovered.

They found nothing at the first two, both far enough to require separate trips. Houlun had forbidden them from camping in the wilds—so rather than risk her wrath, they returned each night, then stayed a few days to let Kadara and Arcas, Borte’s sweet ruk, rest from being pushed so hard.

Sartaq warmed only a fraction to the shape-shifter. He watched Falkan as carefully as Kadara did, but at least attempted to make conversation now and then.

Borte, on the other hand, peppered Falkan with an endless stream of questions while they combed through ruins that were little more than rubble. What does it feel like to be a duck, paddling beneath water but gliding so smoothly over the surface?

When you eat as an animal, does the meat all fit in your human stomach?

Do you have to wait between eating as an animal and shifting back into a human because of it?

Do you defecate as an animal?

The last one earned a sharp laugh from Sartaq at least. Even if Falkan had gone red and avoided answering the question.

But after visiting two watchtowers, they had found nothing on why they had been built and who those long-ago guardians had battled—or how they had defeated them.

And with one tower left … Nesryn had done a tally of the days and realized that the three weeks she had promised Chaol were over.

Sartaq had known, too. Had sought her out as she stood in one of the ruk nests, admiring the birds resting or preening or sailing out. She often came here during quieter afternoons, just to observe the birds: their sharp-eyed intelligence, their loving bonds.

She was leaning against the wall beside the door when he emerged. For several minutes, they stood watching a mated pair nuzzle each other before one hopped to the edge of the massive cave mouth and dropped into the void below.

“That one over there,” the prince said at last, pointing to a reddish-brown ruk sitting by the opposite wall. She’d seen the ruk often—mostly noting that he was alone, never visited by a rider, unlike some of the others. “His rider died a few months back. Clutched at his chest in a meal and died. The rider was old, but the ruk …” Sartaq smiled sadly at the bird. “He’s young—not yet four.”

“What happens to the ones whose riders die?”

“We offer them freedom. Some fly off to the wilds. Some remain.” Sartaq crossed his arms. “He remained.”

“Do they ever get new riders?”

“Some do. If they accept them. It is the ruk’s choice.”

Nesryn heard the invitation in his voice. Read it in the prince’s eyes. Her throat tightened. “Our three weeks are up.”

“Indeed they are.”

She faced the prince fully, tilting her head back to see his face. “We need more time.”

“So what did you say?” A simple question.

But she’d taken hours to figure out how to word her letter to Chaol, then given it to Sartaq’s fastest messenger. “I asked for another three weeks.”

He angled his head, watching her with that unrelenting intensity. “A great deal can happen in three weeks.”

Nesryn made herself keep her shoulders squared, chin high. “Even so, at the end of it, I must return to Antica.”

Sartaq nodded, though something like disappointment guttered his eyes. “Then I suppose the ruk in the aerie will have to wait for another rider to come along.”

That had been a day ago. The conversation that left her unable to look too long in the prince’s direction.

And during the hours-long flight this morning, she’d snuck a glance or two over to where Kadara sailed, Sartaq and Falkan on her back.

Now Kadara swung wide, spying the final tower far below, located on a rare plain amid the hills and peaks of the Tavan Mountains. This late in the summer, it was awash with emerald grasses and sapphire streams—the ruin little more than a heap of stone.

Borte steered Arcas with a whistle through her teeth and a tug on the reins, the ruk banking left before leveling out. She was a skilled rider, bolder than Sartaq, mostly thanks to her ruk’s smaller size and agility. She’d won the past three annual racing contests between all the clans— competitions of agility, speed, and quick thinking.

“Did you pick Arcas,” Nesryn asked over the wind, “or did she pick you?”

Borte leaned forward to pat the ruk’s neck. “It was mutual. I saw that fuzzy head pop out of the nest, and I was done. Everyone told me to pick a

bigger chick; my mother herself scolded me.” A sad smile at that. “But I knew Arcas was mine. I saw her, and I knew.”

Nesryn fell silent while they aimed for the pretty plain and ruin, the sunlight dancing on Kadara’s wings.

“You should take that ruk in the aerie for a flight sometime,” Borte said, letting Arcas descend into a smooth landing. “Test him out.”

“I’m leaving soon. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us.” “I know. But perhaps you should, anyway.”



Borte loved finding the traps hidden by the Fae.

Which was fine by Nesryn, since the girl was far better at sussing them out.

This tower, to Borte’s disappointment, had suffered a collapse at some point, blocking the lower levels. And above them, only a chamber open to the sky remained.

Which was where Falkan came in.

As the shifter’s form blended and shrank, Sartaq did not bother to hide his shudder. And he shuddered once more when the fallen block of stone Falkan had been sitting on now revealed a millipede. Who promptly stood up and waved to them with its countless little legs.

Nesryn cringed with distaste, even as Borte laughed and waved back.

But off Falkan went, slithering between the fallen stones, to glean what might remain below.

“I don’t know why it bothers you so,” Borte said to Sartaq, clicking her tongue. “I think it’s delightful.”

“It’s not what he is,” Sartaq admitted, watching the pile of rock for the millipede’s return. “It’s the idea of bone melting, flesh flowing like water

…” He shivered and turned to Nesryn. “Your friend—the shifter. It never bothered you?”

“No,” Nesryn answered plainly. “I didn’t even see her shift until that day your scouts reported on.”

“The Impossible Shot,” Sartaq murmured. “So it truly was a shifter that you saved.”

Nesryn nodded. “Her name is Lysandra.”

Borte nudged Sartaq with an elbow. “Don’t you wish to go north, brother? To meet all these people Nesryn talks of? Shifters and fire-breathing queens and Fae Princes …”

“I’m beginning to think your obsession with anything related to the Fae might be unhealthy,” Sartaq grumbled.

“I only took a dagger or two,” Borte insisted.

“You carried so many back from the last watchtower that poor Arcas could barely get off the ground.”

“It’s for my trading business,” Borte huffed. “Whenever our people get their heads out of their asses and remember that we can have a profitable one.”

“No wonder you’ve taken so much to Falkan,” Nesryn said, earning a jab in the ribs from Borte. Nesryn batted her away, chuckling.

Borte put her hands on her hips. “I will have you both know—” The words were cut off by a scream.

Not from Falkan below.

But from outside. From Kadara.

Nesryn had an arrow drawn and aimed before they rushed out onto the field.

Only to find it filled with ruks. And grim-faced riders.

Sartaq sighed, shoulders slumping. But Borte shoved past them, cursing filthily as she kept her sword out—indeed an Asterion-forged blade from the arsenal at the last watchtower.

A young man of around Nesryn’s age had dismounted from his ruk, the bird a brown so dark it was nearly black, and he now swaggered toward them, a smirk on his handsome face. It was to him that Borte stormed, practically stomping through the high grasses.

The unit of rukhin looked on, imperious and cold. None bowed to Sartaq.

“What in hell are you doing here?” Borte demanded, a hand on her hip as she stopped a healthy distance from the young man.

He wore leathers like hers, but the colors of the band around his arm … The Berlad. The least welcoming of all the aeries they’d visited, and one of the more powerful. Its riders had been meticulously trained, their caves immaculately clean.

The young man ignored Borte and called to Sartaq, “We spotted your ruks while flying overhead. You are far from your aerie, Captain.”

Careful questions.

Borte hissed, “Be gone, Yeran. No one invited you here.” Yeran lifted a cool brow. “Still yapping, I see.”

Borte spat at his feet. The other riders tensed, but she glared at them. They all lowered their stares.

Behind them, stone crunched, and Yeran’s eyes flared, his knees bending as if he’d lunge for Borte—to hurl her behind him as Falkan emerged from the ruin.

In wolf form.

But Borte stepped out of Yeran’s reach and declared sweetly, “My new pet.”

Yeran gaped between girl and wolf as Falkan sat beside Nesryn. She couldn’t resist scratching his fuzzy ears.

To his credit, the shape-shifter let her, even turning his head into her palm.

“Strange company you keep these days, Captain,” Yeran managed to say to Sartaq.

Borte snapped her fingers in his face. “You cannot address me?”

Yeran gave her a lazy smile. “Do you finally have something worth hearing?”

Borte bristled. But Sartaq, smiling faintly, strolled to his hearth-sister’s side. “We have business in these parts and stopped for refreshment. What brings you so far south?”

Yeran wrapped a hand around the hilt of a long knife at his side. “Three hatchlings went missing. We thought to track them, but have found nothing.”

Nesryn’s stomach tightened, imagining those spiders scuttling through the aeries, between the ruks, to the fuzzy chicks so fiercely guarded. To the human families sleeping so close by.

“When were they taken?” Sartaq’s face was hard as stone.

“Two nights ago.” Yeran rubbed his jaw. “We suspected poachers, but there was no human scent, no tracks or camp.”

Look up. The bloody warning at the Watchtower of Eidolon rang through her mind.

Through Sartaq’s, if the tightening of his jaw was any indication.

“Go back to your aerie, Captain,” Sartaq said to Yeran, pointing to the wall of mountains beyond the plain, the gray rock so bare compared to the life humming around them. Always—the Dagul Fells always seemed to be watching. Waiting. “Do not track any farther than here.”

Wariness flooded Yeran’s brown eyes as he glanced between Borte and Sartaq, then over to Nesryn and Falkan. “The kharankui.”

The riders stirred. Even the ruks rustled their wings at the name, as if they, too, knew it.

But Borte declared, loud for all to hear, “You heard my brother. Crawl back to your aerie.”

Yeran gave her a mocking bow. “Go back to yours, and I will return to mine, Borte.”

She bared her teeth at him.

But Yeran mounted his ruk with easy, powerful grace, the others flapping away at a jerk of his chin. He waited until they had all soared into the skies before saying to Sartaq, “If the kharankui have begun to stir, we need to muster a host to drive them back. Before it is too late.”

A wind tugged at Sartaq’s braid, blowing it toward those mountains. Nesryn wished she could see his face, what might be on it at the mention of a host.

“It will be dealt with,” Sartaq said. “Be on your guard. Keep children and hatchlings close.”

Yeran nodded gravely, a soldier receiving an order from a commander— a captain ordered by his prince. Then he looked over to Borte.

She gave him a vulgar gesture.

Yeran only winked at her before he whistled to his ruk and shot into the skies, leaving a mighty breeze behind that set Borte’s braids swinging.

Borte watched Yeran until he was sailing toward the mass of the others, then spat on the ground where his ruk had stood. “Bastard,” she hissed, and whirled, storming to Nesryn and Falkan.

The shifter changed, swaying as his human form returned. “Nothing down below worth seeing,” he announced as Sartaq prowled over to where they had gathered.

Nesryn frowned at the Fells. “I think it’s time we craft a different strategy anyway.”

Sartaq followed her gaze, coming close enough to her side that the heat from his body leaked into hers. Together, they stared toward that wall of mountains. What waited beyond.

“That young captain, Yeran,” Falkan said carefully to Borte. “You seem to know him well.”

Borte scowled. “He’s my betrothed.”

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