Chapter no 76

Empire of Storms

It took over a week to plan it.

Over a week alone for Sartaq and Houlun to dig up ancient maps of the Dagul Fells.

Most were vague and useless. What riders had assessed from the air but not dared get too close to detail. The kharankui’s territory was small, but had grown larger, bolder these last few years.

And it was into the dark heart of their territory that they would go. The hardest part was convincing Borte to remain behind.

But Nesryn and Sartaq left that up to Houlun. And one sharp word from the hearth-mother had the girl falling in line. Even as Borte’s eyes simmered with outrage, she bowed to her grandmother’s wishes. As heir, Houlun had snapped, Borte’s first obligation was to their people. The bloodline ended with her. Should Borte head into the dim tangle of Dagul, she might as well spit upon where her mother’s sulde stood on the slopes of Arundin.

Borte had insisted that if she, as Houlun’s heir, was to stay, then Sartaq, as the khagan’s potential successor, should remain as well.

To that, Sartaq had merely stalked off into the interior hallways of Altun, saying that if being his father’s successor meant sitting idly by while others fought for him, then his siblings could have the damn crown.

So only the three of them would go, Nesryn and Sartaq flying on Kadara, Falkan tucked away as a field mouse in Nesryn’s pocket.

There had been a final debate last night about bringing a legion. Borte had argued for it, Sartaq against it. They did not know how many kharankui dwelled in the barren peaks and forested vales between them. They could not risk needlessly losing many lives, and did not have the time to waste on thorough reconnaissance. Three could sneak in—but an army of ruks would be spotted long before they arrived.

The argument had raged over the fire pit, but Houlun had settled it: the small company would go. And if they did not return within four days, an army would follow. Half a day to fly down, a day to survey the area, a day to go in, and then return with the stolen hatchlings. Perhaps even learn what the Fae had feared from the spiders, how they’d fought them. If they were lucky.

They’d been flying for hours now, the high wall of the Fells growing closer with every flap of Kadara’s wings. Soon, now, they’d cross that first ridge of the gray mountains and enter into the spiders’ territory. Nesryn’s breakfast sat heavy in her stomach with each mile closer, her mouth as dry as parchment.

Behind her, Sartaq had been silent for most of the ride. Falkan dozed in her breast pocket, emerging only now and then to poke out his whiskered snout, sniff at the air, and then duck back inside. Conserving his strength while he could.

The shifter was still sleeping when Nesryn said to Sartaq, “Did you mean what you said last night—about refusing the crown if it meant not fighting?”

Sartaq’s body was a warm wall at her back. “My father has gone to war

—all khagans have. He possesses the Ebony and Ivory sulde precisely for that. But if it somehow became the case that I would be denied such things in favor of the bloodline surviving … Yes. A life confined to that court is not what I want.”

“And yet you are favored to become khagan one day.”

“So the rumors say. But my father has never suggested or spoken of it. For all I know, he could crown Duva instead. The gods know she’d certainly be a kind ruler. And is the only one of us to have produced offspring.”

Nesryn chewed her lip. “Why—why is it that you haven’t married?” She’d never had the nerve to ask. Though she’d certainly found herself wondering it during these weeks.

Sartaq’s hands flexed on the reins before he answered. “I’ve been too busy. And the women who have been presented as potential brides … They were not for me.”

She had no right to pry, but she asked, “Why?”

“Because whenever I showed them Kadara, they either cowered, or pretended to be interested in her, or asked just how much time I’d be spending away.”

“Hoping for frequent absences, or because they’d miss you?”

Sartaq chuckled. “I couldn’t tell. The question itself felt like enough of a leash that I knew they were not for me.”

“So your father allows you to wed where you will?” Dangerous, strange territory. She waited for him to tease her about it, but Sartaq fell quiet.

“Yes. Even Duva’s arranged marriage … She was all for it. Said she didn’t want to have to sort through a court of snakes to find one good man

and still pray he hadn’t deceived her. I wonder if there’s something to be said for it. She lucked out, anyway—quiet as he is, her husband adores her. I saw his face the moment they met. Saw hers, too. Relief, and … something more.”

And what would become of them—of their child—if another Heir were chosen for the throne? Nesryn asked carefully, “Why not end this tradition of competing with each other?”

Sartaq was silent for a long minute. “Perhaps one day, whoever takes the throne will end it. Love their siblings more than they honor the tradition. I like to believe we have moved past who we were centuries ago—when the empire was still fledgling. But perhaps now, these years of relative peace, perhaps this is the dangerous time.” He shrugged, his body shifting against hers. “Perhaps war will sort the matter of succession for us.”

And maybe it was because they were so high above the world, because that dim land swept ever closer, but Nesryn asked, “There is nothing that would keep you from war if it called, then?”

“You sound as if you are reconsidering this goal of yours to drag us into the north.”

She stiffened. “I will admit that these weeks here … It was easier before to ask for your aid. When the rukhin were a nameless, faceless legion. When I did not know their names, their families. When I did not know Houlun, or Borte. Or that Borte is betrothed.”

A low laugh at that. Borte had refused—outright refused—to answer Nesryn’s questions about Yeran. She said it wasn’t even worth talking about.

“I’m sure Borte would be glad to go to war, if only to compete with Yeran for glory on the battlefield.”

“A true love match, then.”

Sartaq smiled at her ear. “You have no idea.” He sighed. “It began three years ago—this competition between them. Right after her mother died.”

His pause was heavy enough that Nesryn asked, “You knew her mother well?”

It took him a moment to answer. “I mentioned to you once that I’ve been sent to other kingdoms to sort out disputes or murmurings of malcontent. The last time my father sent me, I brought a small unit of rukhin along, Borte’s mother with them.”

Again, that heavy quiet. Nesryn slowly, carefully laid her hand on his forearm that encircled her. The strong muscles beneath the leather shifted— then settled.

“It is a long story, and a hard one, but there was violence between the rukhin and the group that sought to bring down our empire. Borte’s mother

… One of them got in a coward’s shot from behind. A poisoned arrow through her neck, right when we were about to allow them to surrender.” The wind howled around them. “I didn’t let any of them walk away after that.”

The hollow, cold words said enough.

“I carried her body back myself,” Sartaq said, the words ripped away by the wind. “I can still hear Borte’s screaming when I landed in Altun. Still see her kneeling alone on the slopes of Arundin after the burial, clinging to her mother’s sulde where it had been planted in the ground.”

Nesryn tightened her grip on his arm. Sartaq placed his own gloved hand upon hers and squeezed gently as he blew out a long breath.

“Six months later,” he went on, “Borte competed in the Gathering—the annual three days of contests and races among all the clans. She was

seventeen, and Yeran was twenty, and they were neck and neck for the final, great race. As they neared the finish, Yeran pulled a maneuver that might be considered cheating, but Borte saw it coming a mile off and beat him anyway. And then beat him soundly when they landed. Literally. He leaped off his ruk and she tackled him to the ground, pounding his face for the shit he’d pulled that nearly got Arcas killed.” He laughed to himself. “I don’t know the particulars of what went on later at the celebration, but I saw him attempt to talk to her at one point, and saw her laugh in his face before walking away. He scowled until they left the next morning, and as far as I know, they didn’t see each other for a year. Until the next Gathering.”

“Which Borte won again,” Nesryn guessed.

“She did indeed. Barely. She pulled the questionable maneuver this time, getting herself banged up in the process, but she technically won. I think Yeran was secretly more terrified of how close she’d come to permanent injury or death, so he let her have the victory. She never told me the particulars of that celebration, but she was shaken for a few days after. We all assumed it was from her injuries, but such things had never bothered her before.”

“And this year?”

“This year, a week before the Gathering, Yeran appeared at Altun. Didn’t see Houlun, or me. Just went right to wherever Borte was in the hall. No one knows what happened, but he stayed for less than thirty minutes from landing to leaving. A week later, Borte won the race again. And when she was crowned victor, Yeran’s father stepped up to declare her engagement to his son.”

“A surprise?”

“Considering that whenever Borte and Yeran are together, they’re at each other’s throats, yes. But also a surprise to Borte. She played it off, but I saw them arguing in the hall later. Whether or not she even knew about it, or wanted it revealed that way, she still won’t say. But she has not disputed the betrothal. Though she hasn’t embraced it, either. No day has been claimed for the wedding, even though the union would certainly ease our … strained ties to the Berlad.”

Nesryn smiled a bit. “I hope they sort it out.” “Perhaps this war will do that for them, too.”

Kadara swept closer and closer to the wall of the Fells, the light turning thin and cold as clouds passed over the sun. They cleared the towering lip of the first peaks, soaring on an updraft high above as all of Dagul spread before them.

“Holy gods,” Nesryn whispered.



Dark gray peaks of barren rock. Thin pine trees crusting the vales deep below. No lakes, no rivers save for the occasional trickling stream.

Barely visible through the shroud of webbing over all of it.

Some webs were thick and white, choking the life from trees. Some were sparkling nets between peaks, as if they sought to catch the wind itself.

No life. No hum of insect or cry of beast. No sighing leaves or fluttering wings.

Falkan poked his head out of her pocket as they surveyed the dead land below and let out a squeak. Nesryn nearly did the same.

“Houlun was not exaggerating,” Sartaq murmured. “They have grown strong.”

“Where do we even land?” Nesryn asked. “There’s barely a safe spot to be seen. They could have taken the hatchlings and eggs anywhere.”

She combed the peaks and valleys for any sign of movement, any flicker of those sleek black bodies scuttling about. But saw nothing.

“We’ll make a pass around the territory,” Sartaq said. “Get a sense of the layout. Perhaps figure out a thing or two regarding their feeding habits.”

Gods above. “Keep Kadara high. Fly casual. If we look like we’re hunting for something, they might emerge in force.”

Sartaq whistled sharply to Kadara, who indeed soared higher, faster than her usual ascent. As if glad to rise a little farther from the shrouded territory below.

“Stay hidden, friend,” Nesryn said to Falkan, her hands shaking as she patted her breast pocket. “If they watch us from below, we’d best keep you secret until they least expect it.”

Falkan’s tiny paws tapped in understanding, and he slid back into her pocket.

They flew in idle circles for a time, Kadara occasionally diving as if in pursuit of some eagle or falcon. On the hunt for lunch, perhaps.

“That cluster of peaks,” Sartaq said after a while, pointing toward the highest point of the Fells. Like horns spearing toward the sky, two sister-peaks jutted up so close to each other they might have very well once been a single mountain. Between their clawed summits, a shale-filled pass wended away into a labyrinth of stone. “Kadara keeps looking toward it.”

“Circle it, but keep your distance.”

Before Sartaq could give the order, Kadara obeyed.

“Something is moving in the pass,” Nesryn breathed, squinting.

Kadara flapped closer, nearer to the peaks than was wise. “Kadara,” Sartaq warned.

But the ruk pumped her wings, frantic. Rushing. Just as the thing in the pass became clear.

Racing over the shale, bobbing and flapping fuzz-lined wings … A hatchling.

Sartaq swore. “Faster, Kadara. Faster.” The ruk needed no encouragement.

The hatchling was squawking, those too-small wings flailing as it tried and failed to lift from the ground. It had broken from the pine trees that flowed right to the edge of the pass, and now aimed for the center of the maze of rock.

Nesryn unslung her bow and nocked an arrow into place, Sartaq doing the same behind her. “Not a sound, Kadara,” Sartaq warned, just as the ruk opened her beak. “You will alert them.”

But the hatchling was screeching, its terror palpable even from the distance.

Kadara caught a wind and flew.

“Come on,” Nesryn breathed, arrow aimed at the woods, at whatever horrors the hatchling had escaped, undoubtedly barreling after it.

The baby ruk neared the broadest part of the pass mouth, balking at the wall of stone ahead. As if it knew that more waited within.


“Sweep in, cut through the pass, and sail out,” Sartaq ordered the ruk, who banked right, so steeply Nesryn’s abdomen strained with the effort to keep in the saddle.

Kadara leveled out, dropping foot by foot toward the hatchling now twisting about, screaming toward the sky as it beheld the ruk rushing in.

“Steady,” Sartaq commanded. “Steady, Kadara.”

Nesryn kept her arrow trained on the labyrinth of rock ahead, Sartaq twisting to cover the forest behind. Kadara sailed closer and closer to the shale-coated pass, to the grayish fuzzy hatchling now holding so still, waiting for the salvation of the claws that Kadara unfurled.

Thirty feet. Twenty.

Nesryn’s arm strained to keep the arrow drawn.

A wind shoved at Kadara, knocking her sideways, the world tilting, light shimmering.

Just as Kadara leveled out, just as her talons opened wide to scoop up the hatchling, Nesryn realized what the shimmering was. What the shift in angle revealed ahead.

“Look out!”

The scream shattered from her throat, but too late.

Kadara’s talons closed around the hatchling, plucking it up from the ground right as she swept up through the pass peaks.

Right into the mammoth web woven between them.

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