Chapter no 8

Empire of Storms

Rowan Whitethorn had flown without food or water or rest for two days.

He’d still reached Rifthold too late.

The capital was in chaos under the claws of the witches and their wyverns. He’d seen enough cities fall over the centuries to know that this one was done for.

Even if the people rallied, it would only be to meet their deaths head-first. The witches had already brought down Aelin’s glass wall. Another calculated move by Erawan.

It had been an effort to leave the innocent to fight on their own, to race hard and fast for the stone castle and the king’s tower. He had one order, given to him by his queen.

He’d still come too late—but not without a glimmer of hope.

Dorian Havilliard stumbled as they hurried down the castle hallway, Rowan’s keen ears and sense of smell keeping them from areas where the fighting raged. If the secret tunnels were watched, if they could not reach the sewers … Rowan calculated plan after plan. None ended well.

“This way,” the king panted. It was the first thing Dorian had said since rushing down the stairs. They were in a residential part of the palace Rowan had only seen from his own scouting outside—in hawk form. The queen’s quarters. “There’s a secret exit from my mother’s bedroom.”

The pale white doors to the queen’s suite were locked.

Rowan blasted through them with half a thought, wood splintering and impaling the lavish furniture, the art on the walls. Baubles and valuables shattered. “Sorry,” Rowan said to the king—not sounding like it at all.

His magic flickered, a distant flutter to let him know it was draining. Two days of riding the winds at breakneck speed, then fighting off those wyverns outside, had taken its toll.

Dorian surveyed the casual damage. “Someone would have done it anyway.” No feeling, no sorrow behind it. He hurried through the room, limping a bit. If the king had possessed a fraction less magic, he might have succumbed to the wyvern’s venomous tail.

Dorian reached a large, gilded portrait of a beautiful auburn-haired young woman with a sapphire-eyed babe in her arms.

The king looked at it for a heartbeat longer than necessary, enough to tell Rowan everything. But Dorian hauled the painting toward him. It pulled away to reveal a small trapdoor.

Rowan saw to it that the king went inside first, candle in hand, before using his magic to float the painting back into its resting place, then shutting the door behind them.

The hall was cramped, the stones dusty. But the wind ahead whispered of open spaces, of dampness and mold. Rowan sent a tendril of magic to probe the stairs they now strode down and the many halls ahead. No sign of the cave-in from when they’d destroyed the clock tower. No signs of enemies lying in wait, or the corrupt reek of the Valg and their beasts. A small mercy.

His Fae ears picked up the muffled screams and shouts of the dying above them.

“I should stay,” Dorian said softly.

A gift of the king’s magic, then—the enhanced hearing. Raw magic that could grant him any gifts: ice, flame, healing, heightened senses and strength. Perhaps shape-shifting, if he tried.

“You are more useful to your people alive,” Rowan said, his voice rough against the stones. Exhaustion nagged at him, but he shoved it aside. He’d rest when they were safe.

The king didn’t respond.

Rowan said, “I have seen many cities fall. I have seen entire kingdoms fall. And the destruction I saw as I flew in was thorough enough that even with your considerable gifts, there is nothing you could have done.” He wasn’t entirely sure what they’d do if that destruction were brought to Orynth’s doorstep. Or why Erawan was waiting to do it. He’d think about that later.

“I should die with them,” was the king’s answer.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, the passage now widening into breathable chambers. Rowan again snaked his magic through the many tunnels and stairs. The one to the right suggested a sewer entrance lay at its bottom. Good.

“I was sent here to keep you from doing just that,” Rowan said at last.

The king glanced over his shoulder at him, wincing a bit as the motion stretched his still-healing skin. Where Rowan suspected a gaping wound had been minutes before, now only an angry red scar peeked through the side of his torn jacket. Dorian said, “You were going to kill her.”

He knew whom the king meant. “Why did you tell me not to?”

So the king told him of the encounter as they descended deeper into the castle’s bowels. “I wouldn’t trust her,” Rowan said after Dorian had finished, “but perhaps the gods will throw us a bone. Perhaps the Blackbeak heir will join our cause.”

If her crimes weren’t discovered first. But even if they only had thirteen witches and their wyverns, if that coven was the most skilled of all the Ironteeth … it could mean the difference between Orynth falling or standing against Erawan.

They reached the castle sewers. Even the rats were fleeing through the small stream entrance, as if the bellowing of the wyverns were a death knell.

They passed an archway sealed off by collapsed stones—no doubt from the hellfire eruption this summer.

Aelin’s passageway, Rowan realized with a tug deep in his chest. And a few steps ahead, an old pool of dried blood stained the stones along the water’s edge. A human reek lingered around it, tainted and foul.

“She gutted Archer Finn right there,” Dorian said, following his stare.

Rowan didn’t let himself think about it, or that these fools had unwittingly given an assassin a room that connected to their queen’s chambers.

There was a boat moored to a stone post, its hull almost rotted through, but solid enough. And the grate to the little river snaking past the castle remained open.

Rowan again speared his magic into the world, tasting the air beyond the sewers. No wings cleaved it, no blood scented its path. A quiet, eastern

part of the castle. If the witches had been smart, they’d have sentries monitoring every inch of it.

But from the screaming and pleading going on above, Rowan knew the witches were too lost in their bloodlust to think straight. At least for a few minutes.

Rowan jerked his chin to the boat. “Get in.”

Dorian frowned at the mold and rot. “We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t collapse around us.”

“You,” Rowan corrected. “Around you. Not me. Get in.” Dorian heard his tone and wisely got in. “What are you—”

Rowan yanked off his cloak and threw it over the king. “Lie down, and put that over you.”

Face a bit pale, Dorian obeyed. Rowan snapped the ropes with a flash of his knives.

He shifted, wings flapping loudly enough to inform Dorian what had happened. Rowan’s magic groaned and strained while it pushed what looked like an empty, meandering vessel out of the sewers, as if someone had accidentally loosed it.

Flying through the sewer mouth, he shielded the boat with a wall of hard air—containing the king’s scent and keeping any stray arrows from piercing it.

Rowan looked back only once as he flew down the little river, high above the boat.

Only once, at the city that had forged and broken and sheltered his queen.

Her glass wall was no more than chunks and shards gleaming in the streets and the grass.

These past weeks of travel had been torture—the need to claim her, taste her, driving him out of his wits. And given what Darrow had said … perhaps, despite his promise when he’d left, it had been a good thing that they had not taken that final step.

It had been in the back of his mind long before Darrow and his horse-shit decrees: he was a prince, but in name only.

He had no army, no money. The substantial funds he possessed were in Doranelle—and Maeve would never allow him to claim them. They’d likely already been distributed amongst his meddlesome cousins, along with his

lands and residences. It wouldn’t matter if some of them—the cousins he’d been raised with—might refuse to accept out of typical Whitethorn loyalty and stubbornness. All Rowan now had to offer his queen were the strength of his sword, the depth of his magic, and the loyalty of his heart.

Such things did not win wars.

He’d scented the despair on her, though her face had hidden it, when Darrow had spoken. And he knew her fiery soul: she would do it. Consider marriage to a foreign prince or lord. Even if this thing between them … even if he knew it was not mere lust, or even just love.

This thing between them, the force of it, could devour the world.

And if they picked it, picked them, it might very well cause the end of


It was why he had not uttered the words he’d meant to tell her for some

time, even when every instinct was roaring for him to do it as they parted. And maybe having Aelin only to lose her was his punishment for letting his mate die; his punishment for finally letting go of that grief and loathing.

The lap of waves was barely audible over the roar of wyverns and the innocents screaming for help that would never come. He shut out the ache in his chest, the urge to turn around.

This was war. These lands would endure far worse in the coming days and months. His queen, no matter how he tried to shield her, would endure far worse.

By the time the boat drifted down the little river snaking toward the Avery delta, a white-tailed hawk soaring high above it, the walls of the stone castle were bathed in blood.

There were two parts of her, Nesryn supposed.

The part that was now Captain of Adarlan’s Royal Guard, who had made a vow to her king to see that the man in the wheeled chair beside her was healed—and to muster an army from the man enthroned before her. That part of Nesryn kept her head high, her shoulders back, her hands within a nonthreatening distance of the ornate sword at her hip.

Then there was the other part.

The part that had glimpsed the spires and minarets and domes of the god-city breaking over the horizon as they’d sailed in, the shining pillar of the Torre standing proud over it all, and had to swallow back tears. The part that had scented the smoky paprika and crisp tang of ginger and beckoning sweetness of cumin as soon as she had cleared the docks and knew, deep in her bones, that she was home. That, yes, she lived and served and would die for Adarlan, for the family still there, but this place, where her father had once lived and where even her Adarlan-born mother had felt more at ease

… These were her people.

The skin in varying shades of brown and tan. The abundance of that shining black hair—her hair. The eyes that ranged from uptilted to wide and round to slender, in hues of ebony and chestnut and even the rare hazel and green. Her people. A blend of kingdoms and territories, yes, but … Here

there were no slurs hissed in the streets. Here there would be no rocks thrown by children. Here her sister’s children would not feel different. Unwanted.

And that part of her … Despite her thrown-back shoulders and raised chin, her knees indeed quaked at who—at what—stood before her.

Nesryn had not dared tell her father where and what she was leaving to do. Only that she was off on an errand of the King of Adarlan and would not be back for some time.

Her father wouldn’t have believed it. Nesryn didn’t quite believe it herself.

The khagan had been a story whispered before their hearth on winter nights, his offspring legends told while kneading endless loaves of bread for their bakery. Their ancestors’ bedside tales to either lull her into sweet sleep or keep her up all night in bone-deep terror.

The khagan was a living myth. As much of a deity as the thirty-six gods who ruled over this city and empire.

There were as many temples to those gods in Antica as there were tributes to the various khagans. More.

They called it the god-city for them—and for the living god seated on the ivory throne atop that golden dais.

It was indeed pure gold, just as her father’s whispered legends claimed.

And the khagan’s six children … Nesryn could name them all without introduction.

After the meticulous research Chaol had done while on their ship, she had no doubt he could as well.

But that was not how this meeting was to go.

For as much as she had taught the former captain about her homeland these weeks, he’d instructed her on court protocol. He had rarely been so directly involved, yes, but he had witnessed enough of it while serving the king.

An observer of the game who was now to be a prime player. With the stakes unbearably high.

They waited in silence for the khagan to speak.

She’d tried not to gawk while walking through the palace. She had never set foot inside it during her few visits to Antica over the years. Neither had her father, or his father, or any of her ancestors. In a city of gods, this was the holiest of temples. And deadliest of labyrinths.

The khagan did not move from his ivory throne.

A newer, wider throne, dating from a hundred years ago—when the seventh khagan had chucked out the old one because his large frame didn’t fit in it. He’d eaten and drunk himself to death, history claimed, but at least had the good sense to name his Heir before he clutched his chest one day and slumped dead … right in that throne.

Urus, the current khagan, was no more than sixty, and seemed in far better condition. Though his dark hair had long since gone as white as his carved throne, though scars peppered his wrinkled skin as a reminder to all that he had fought for this throne in the final days of his mother’s life … His onyx eyes, slender and uptilted, were bright as stars. Aware and all-seeing.

Atop his snowy head sat no crown. For gods among mortals did not need markers of their divine rule.

Behind him, strips of white silk tied to the open windows fluttered in the hot breeze. Sending the thoughts of the khagan and his family to where the

soul of the deceased—whoever they might be, someone important, no doubt

—had now rejoined the Eternal Blue Sky and Slumbering Earth that the khagan and all his ancestors still honored in lieu of the pantheon of thirty-six gods their citizens remained free to worship.

Or any other gods outside of it, should their territories be new enough to not yet have had their gods incorporated into the fold. There had to be several of those, since during his three decades of rule, the man seated before them had added a handful of overseas kingdoms to their borders.

A kingdom for every ring adorning his scar-flecked fingers, precious stones glinting among them.

A warrior bedecked in finery. Those hands slid from the arms of his ivory throne—assembled from the hewn tusks of the mighty beasts that roamed the central grasslands—and settled in his lap, hidden beneath swaths of gold-trimmed blue silk. Indigo dye from the steamy, lush lands in the west. From Balruhn, where Nesryn’s own people had originally hailed, before curiosity and ambition drove her great-grandfather to drag his family over mountains and grasslands and deserts to the god-city in the arid north.

The Faliqs had long been tradesmen, and not of anything particularly fine. Just simple, good cloth and household spices. Her uncle still traded such things and, through various lucrative investments, had become a moderately wealthy man, his family now dwelling in a beautiful home within this very city. A definitive step up from a baker—the path her father had chosen upon leaving these shores.

“It is not every day that a new king sends someone so important to our shores,” the khagan said at last, using their own tongue and not Halha, the language of the southern continent. “I suppose we should deem it an honor.”

His accent was so like her father’s—but the tone lacked the warmth, the humor. A man who had been obeyed his entire life, and fought to earn his crown. And executed two of the siblings who proved to be sore losers. The surviving three … one had gone into exile, and the other two had sworn fealty to their brother. By having the healers of the Torre render them infertile.

Chaol inclined his head. “The honor is mine, Great Khagan.”

Not Majesty—that was for kings or queens. There was no term high or grand enough for this man before them. Only the title that the first of his ancestors had borne: Great Khagan.

“Yours,” the khagan mused, those dark eyes now sliding to Nesryn. “And what of your companion?”

Nesryn fought the urge to bow again. Dorian Havilliard was the opposite of this man, she realized. Aelin Galathynius, however … Nesryn wondered if the young queen might have more in common with the khagan than she did with the Havilliard king. Or would, if Aelin survived long enough. If she reached her throne.

Nesryn shoved those thoughts down as Chaol peered at her, his shoulders tightening. Not at the words, not at the company, but simply because she knew that the mere act of having to look up, facing this mighty warrior-king in that chair … Today would be a hard one for him.

Nesryn inclined her head slightly. “I am Nesryn Faliq, Captain of the Royal Guard of Adarlan. As Lord Westfall once was before King Dorian appointed him as his Hand earlier this summer.” She was grateful that years spent living in Rifthold had taught her not to smile, not to cringe or show fear—grateful that she’d learned to keep her voice cool and steady even while her knees quaked.

Nesryn continued, “My family hails from here, Great Khagan. Antica still owns a piece of my soul.” She placed a hand over her heart, the fine threads of her gold-and-crimson uniform, the colors of the empire that had made her family often feel hunted and unwanted, scraping against her calluses. “The honor of being in your palace is the greatest of my life.”

It was, perhaps, true.

If she found time to visit her family in the quiet, garden-filled Runni Quarter—home mostly to merchants and tradesmen like her uncle—they would certainly consider it so.

The khagan only smiled a bit. “Then allow me to welcome you to your true home, Captain.”

Nesryn felt, more than saw, Chaol’s flicker of annoyance. She wasn’t entirely certain what had triggered it: the claim on her homeland, or the official title that had now passed to her.

But Nesryn bowed her head again in thanks.

The khagan said to Chaol, “I will assume you are here to woo me into joining this war of yours.”

Chaol countered a shade tersely, “We’re here at the behest of my king.” A note of pride at that word. “To begin what we hope will be a new era of prosperous trade and peace.”

One of the khagan’s offspring—a young woman with hair like flowing night and eyes like dark fire—exchanged a wry look with the sibling to her left, a man perhaps three years her elder.

Hasar and Sartaq, then. Third and secondborn, respectively. Each wore similar loose pants and embroidered tunics, with fine leather boots rising to their knees. Hasar was no beauty, but those eyes … The flame dancing in them as she glanced to her elder brother made up for it.

And Sartaq—commander of his father’s ruk riders. The rukhin.

The northern aerial cavalry of his people had long dwelled in the towering Tavan Mountains with their ruks: enormous birds, eagle-like in shape, large enough to carry off cattle and horses. Without the sheer bulk and destructive weight of the Ironteeth witches’ wyverns, but swift and nimble and clever as foxes. The perfect mounts for the legendary archers who flew them into battle.

Sartaq’s face was solemn, his broad shoulders thrown back. A man perhaps as ill at ease in his fine clothes as Chaol. She wondered if his ruk, Kadara, was perched on one of the palace’s thirty-six minarets, eyeing the cowering servants and guards, waiting impatiently for her master’s return.

That Sartaq was here … They had to have known, then. Well in advance.

That she and Chaol were coming.

The knowing glance that passed between Sartaq and Hasar told Nesryn enough: they, at least, had discussed the possibilities of this visit.

Sartaq’s gaze slid from his sister to Nesryn.

She yielded a blink. His brown skin was darker than the others’— perhaps from all that time in the skies and sunlight—his eyes a solid ebony. Depthless and unreadable. His black hair remained unbound save for a small braid that curved over the arch of his ear. The rest of his hair fell to just past his muscled chest, and swayed slightly as he gave what Nesryn could have sworn was a mocking incline of his head.

A ragtag, humbled pair, Adarlan had sent. The injured former captain, and the common-bred current one. Perhaps the khagan’s initial words about honor had been a veiled mention of what he perceived as an insult.

Nesryn dragged her attention away from the prince, even as she felt Sartaq’s keen stare lingering like some phantom touch.

“We arrive bearing gifts from His Majesty, the King of Adarlan,” Chaol was saying, and twisted in his chair to motion the servants behind them to come forward.

Queen Georgina and her court had practically raided the royal coffers before they’d fled to their mountain estates this spring. And the former king had smuggled out much of what was left during those final few months. But before they’d sailed here, Dorian had ventured into the many vaults beneath the castle. Nesryn still could hear his echoed curse, filthier than she’d ever heard him speak, as he found little more than gold marks within.

Aelin, as usual, had a plan.

Nesryn had been standing beside her new king when Aelin had flipped open two trunks in her chambers. Jewelry fit for a queen—for a Queen of Assassins—had sparkled within.

I’ve enough funds for now, Aelin had only said to Dorian when he began to object. Give the khagan some of Adarlan’s finest.

In the weeks since, Nesryn had wondered if Aelin had been glad to be rid of what she’d purchased with her blood money. The jewels of Adarlan, it seemed, would not travel to Terrasen.

And now, as the servants laid out the four smaller trunks—divided from the original two to make it seem like more, Aelin had suggested—as they flipped open the lids, the still-silent court pressed in to see.

A murmur went through them at the glistening gems and gold and silver. “A gift,” Chaol declared as even the khagan himself leaned forward to

examine the trove. “From King Dorian Havilliard of Adarlan, and Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen.”

Princess Hasar’s eyes snapped to Chaol at the second name.

Prince Sartaq only glanced back at his father. The eldest son, Arghun, frowned at the jewels.

Arghun—the politician amongst them, beloved by the merchants and power brokers of the continent. Slender and tall, he was a scholar who traded not in coin and finery but in knowledge.

Prince of Spies, they called Arghun. While his two brothers had become the finest of warriors, Arghun had honed his mind, and now oversaw his father’s thirty-six viziers. So that frown at the treasure …

Necklaces of diamond and ruby. Bracelets of gold and emerald. Earrings

—veritable small chandeliers—of sapphire and amethyst. Exquisitely wrought rings, some crowned with jewels as large as a swallow’s egg. Combs and pins and brooches. Blood-gained, blood-bought.

The youngest of the assembled royal children, a fine-boned, comely woman, leaned the closest. Duva. A thick silver ring with a sapphire of near-obscene size adorned her slender hand, pressed delicately against the considerable swell of her belly.

Perhaps six months along, though the flowing clothes—she favored purple and rose—and her slight build could distort that. Certainly her first child, the result of her arranged marriage to a prince hailing from an overseas territory to the far east, a southern neighbor of Doranelle that had noted the rumblings of its Fae Queen and wanted to secure the protection of the southern empire across the ocean. Perhaps the first attempt, Nesryn and others had wondered, of the khaganate greatly expanding its own considerable continent.

Nesryn didn’t let herself look too long at the life growing beneath that bejeweled hand.

For if one of Duva’s siblings were crowned khagan, the first task of the new ruler—after his or her sufficient offspring were produced—would be to eliminate any other challenges to the throne. Starting with the offspring of his or her siblings, if they challenged their right to rule.

She wondered how Duva was able to endure it. If she had come to love the babe growing in her womb, or if she was wise enough to not allow such a feeling. If the father of that babe would do everything he could to get that child to safety should it come to that.

The khagan at last leaned back in his throne. His children had straightened again, Duva’s hand falling back at her side.

“Jewels,” Chaol explained, “set by the finest of Adarlanian craftsmen.”

The khagan toyed with a citrine ring on his own hand. “If they came from Aelin Galathynius’s trove, I have no doubt that they are.”

A beat of silence between Nesryn and Chaol. They had known— anticipated—that the khagan had spies in every land, on every sea. That Aelin’s past might be just a tad difficult to work around.

“For you are not only Adarlan’s Hand,” the khagan went on, “but also the Ambassador of Terrasen, are you not?”

“Indeed I am,” Chaol said simply.

The khagan rose with only the slightest stiffness, his children immediately stepping aside to clear a path for him to step off the golden dais.

The tallest of them—strapping and perhaps more unchecked than Sartaq’s quiet intensity—eyed up the crowd as if assessing any threats within. Kashin. Fourthborn.

If Sartaq commanded the ruks in the northern and central skies, then Kashin controlled the armies on land. Foot soldiers and the horse-lords,

mostly. Arghun held sway over the viziers, and Hasar, rumor claimed, had the armadas bowing to her. Yet there remained something less polished about Kashin, his dark hair braided back from his broad-planed face. Handsome, yes—but it was as if life amongst his troops had rubbed off on him, and not necessarily in a bad way.

The khagan descended the dais, his cobalt robes whispering along the floor. And with every step over the green marble, Nesryn realized that this man had indeed once commanded not just the ruks in the skies, but also the horse-lords, and swayed the armadas to join him. And then Urus and his elder brother had gone hand-to-hand in combat at the behest of their mother while she lay dying from a wasting sickness that even the Torre could not heal. The son who walked off the sand would be khagan.

The former khagan had a penchant for spectacle. And for this final fight between her two selected offspring, she had placed them in the great amphitheater in the heart of the city, the doors open to any who could claw inside to find a seat. People had sat upon the archways and steps, with thousands cramming the streets that flowed to the white-stoned building. Ruks and their riders had perched on the pillars crowning the uppermost level, more rukhin circling in the skies above.

The two would-be Heirs had fought for six hours.

Not just against each other, but also against the horrors their mother unleashed to test them: great cats sprang from hidden cages beneath the sandy floor; iron-spiked chariots with spear-throwers had charged from the gloom of the tunnel entrances to run them down.

Nesryn’s father had been amongst the frenzied mob in the streets, listening to the shouted reports from those dangling off the columns.

The final blow hadn’t been an act of brutality or hate.

The now-khagan’s elder brother, Orda, had taken a spear to the side thanks to one of those charioteers. After six hours of bloody battle and survival, the blow had kept him down.

And Urus had set aside his sword. Absolute silence had fallen in the arena. Silence as Urus had extended a bloodied hand to his fallen brother— to help him.

Orda had sent a hidden dagger shooting for Urus’s heart. It had missed by two inches.

And Urus had ripped that dagger free, screaming, and plunged it right back into his brother.

Urus did not miss as his brother had.

Nesryn wondered if a scar still marred the khagan’s chest as he now strode toward her and Chaol and the jewels displayed. If that long-dead khagan had wept for her fallen son in private, slain by the one who would take her crown in a matter of days. Or if she had never allowed herself to love her children, knowing what must befall them.

Urus, Khagan of the Southern Continent, stopped before Nesryn and Chaol. He towered over Nesryn by a good half foot, his shoulders still broad, spine still straight.

He bent with only a touch of age-granted strain to pluck up a necklace of diamond and sapphire from the chest. It glittered like a living river in his scar-flecked, bejeweled hands.

“My eldest, Arghun,” said the khagan, jerking his chin toward the narrow-faced prince monitoring all, “recently informed me of some fascinating information regarding Queen Aelin Ashryver Galathynius.”

Nesryn waited for the blow. Chaol just held Urus’s gaze.

But the khagan’s dark eyes—Sartaq’s eyes, she realized—danced as he said to Chaol, “A queen at nineteen would make many uneasy. Dorian Havilliard, at least, has been trained since birth to take up his crown, to control a court and kingdom. But Aelin Galathynius …”

The khagan chucked the necklace into the chest. Its thunk was as loud as steel on stone.

“I suppose some would call ten years as a trained assassin to be experience.”

Murmurs again rippled through the throne room. Hasar’s fire-bright eyes practically glowed. Sartaq’s face did not shift at all. Perhaps a skill learned from his eldest brother—whose spies had to be skilled indeed if they’d learned of Aelin’s past. Even though Arghun himself seemed to be struggling to keep a smug smile from his lips.

“We may be separated by the Narrow Sea,” the khagan said to Chaol, whose features did not so much as alter, “but even we have heard of Celaena Sardothien. You bring me jewels, no doubt from her own collection. Yet they are jewels for me, when my daughter Duva”—a glance toward his pregnant, pretty daughter standing closely beside Hasar—“has yet to receive any sort of wedding gift from either your new king or returned queen, while every other ruler sent theirs nearly half a year ago.”

Nesryn hid her wince. An oversight that could be explained by so many truths—but not ones that they dared voice, not here. Chaol didn’t offer any of them as he remained silent.

“But,” the khagan went on, “regardless of the jewels you’ve now dumped at my feet like sacks of grain, I would still rather have the truth. Especially after Aelin Galathynius shattered your own glass castle, murdered your former king, and seized your capital city.”

“If Prince Arghun has the information,” Chaol said at last with unfaltering coolness, “perhaps you do not need it from me.”

Nesryn stifled her cringe at the defiance, the tone—

“Perhaps not,” the khagan said, even as Arghun’s eyes narrowed slightly. “But I think you should like some truth from me.”

Chaol didn’t ask for it. Didn’t look remotely interested beyond his, “Oh?”

Kashin stiffened. His father’s fiercest defender, then. Arghun only exchanged glances with a vizier and smiled toward Chaol like an adder ready to strike.

“Here is why I think you have come, Lord Westfall, Hand to the King.”

Only the gulls wheeling high above the dome of the throne room dared make any noise.

The khagan shut lid after lid on the trunks.

“I think you have come to convince me to join your war. Adarlan is cleaved, Terrasen is destitute, and will no doubt have some issue convincing her surviving lords to fight for an untried queen who spent ten years indulging herself in Rifthold, purchasing these jewels with blood money. Your list of allies is short and brittle. Duke Perrington’s forces are anything but. The other kingdoms on your continent are shattered and separated from your northern territories by Perrington’s armies. So you have arrived here, fast as the eight winds can carry you, to beg me to send my armies to your shores. To convince me to spill our blood on a lost cause.”

“Some might consider it a noble cause,” Chaol countered. “I am not done yet,” the khagan said, lifting a hand.

Chaol bristled but did not speak out of turn again. Nesryn’s heart thundered.

“Many would argue,” the khagan said, waving that upraised hand toward a few viziers, toward Arghun and Hasar, “that we remain out of it. Or better yet, ally with the force sure to win, whose trade has been profitable for us these ten years.”

A wave of that hand toward some other men and women in the gold robes of viziers. Toward Sartaq and Kashin and Duva. “Some would say that we risk allying with Perrington only to potentially face his armies in our harbors one day. That the shattered kingdoms of Eyllwe and Fenharrow might again become wealthy under new rule, and fill our coffers with good trade. I have no doubt you will promise me that it shall be so. You will offer me exclusive trading deals, likely to your own disadvantage. But you are desperate, and there is nothing you possess that I do not already own. That I cannot take if I wish.”

Chaol kept his mouth shut, thankfully. Even as his brown eyes simmered at the quiet threat.

The khagan peered into the fourth and final trunk. Jeweled combs and brushes, ornate perfume bottles made by Adarlan’s finest glassblowers. The same who had built the castle Aelin had shattered. “So, you have come to convince me to join your cause. And I shall consider it while you stay here. Since you have undoubtedly come for another purpose, too.”

A flick of that scarred, jeweled hand toward the chair. Color stained Chaol’s tan cheeks, but he did not flinch, did not cower. Nesryn forced herself to do the same.

“Arghun informed me your injuries are new—that they happened when the glass castle exploded. It seems the Queen of Terrasen was not quite so careful about shielding her allies.”

A muscle feathered in Chaol’s jaw as everyone, from prince to servant, looked to his legs.

“Because your relations with Doranelle are now strained, also thanks to Aelin Galathynius, I assume the only path toward healing that remains open to you is here. At the Torre Cesme.”

The khagan shrugged, the only reveal of the irreverent warrior-youth he’d once been. “My beloved wife will be deeply upset if I were to deny an injured man a chance at healing”—the empress was nowhere to be seen in this room, Nesryn realized with a start—“so I, of course, shall grant you permission to enter the Torre. Whether its healers will agree to work upon you shall be up to them. Even I do not control the will of the Torre.”

The Torre—the Tower. It dominated the southern edge of Antica, nestled atop its highest hill to overlook the city that sloped down toward the green sea. Domain of its famed healers, and tribute to Silba, the healer-goddess who blessed them. Of the thirty-six gods this empire had welcomed into the fold over the centuries, from religions near and far, in this city of gods … Silba reigned unchallenged.

Chaol looked like he was swallowing hot coals, but he mercifully managed to bow his head. “I thank you for your generosity, Great Khagan.” “Rest tonight—I will inform them that you shall be ready tomorrow morning. Since you cannot go to them, one will be sent to you. If they


Chaol’s fingers shifted in his lap, but he did not clench them. Nesryn still held her breath.

“I am at their disposal,” Chaol said tightly.

The khagan shut the final trunk of jewels. “You may keep your presents, Hand of the King, Ambassador to Aelin Galathynius. I have no use for them

—and no interest.”

Chaol’s head snapped up, as if something in the khagan’s tone had snared him. “Why.”

Nesryn barely hid her cringe. More of a demand than anyone ever dared make of the man, judging by the surprised anger in the khagan’s eyes, in the glances exchanged between his children.

But Nesryn caught the flicker of something else within the khagan’s eyes. A weariness.

Something oily slid into her gut as she noted the white banners streaming from the windows, all over the city. As she looked to the six heirs and counted again.

Not six.

Five. Only five were here.

Death-banners at the royal household. All over the city.

They were not a mourning people—not in the way they could be in Adarlan, dressing all in black and moping for months. Even amongst the khagan’s royal family, life picked up and went on, their dead not stuffed in stone catacombs or coffins, but shrouded in white and laid beneath the open skies of their sealed-off, sacred reserve on the distant steppes.

Nesryn glanced down the line of five heirs, counting. The eldest five were present. And just as she realized that Tumelun, the youngest—barely seventeen—was not there, the khagan said to Chaol, “Your spies are indeed useless if you have not heard.”

With that, he strode for his throne, leaving Sartaq to step forward, the second-eldest prince’s depthless eyes veiled with sorrow. Sartaq gave Nesryn a silent nod. Yes. Yes, her suspicions were right—

Sartaq’s solid, pleasant voice filled the chamber. “Our beloved sister, Tumelun, died unexpectedly three weeks ago.”

Oh, gods. So many words and rituals had been passed over; merely coming here to demand their aid in war was uncouth, untoward—

Chaol said into the fraught silence, meeting the stares of each taut-faced prince and princess, then finally the weary-eyed khagan himself, “You have my deepest condolences.”

Nesryn breathed, “May the northern wind carry her to fairer plains.”

Only Sartaq bothered to nod his thanks, while the others now turned cold and stiff.

Nesryn shot Chaol a silent, warning look not to ask about the death. He read the expression on her face and nodded.

The khagan scratched at a fleck on his ivory throne, the silence as heavy as one of the coats the horse-lords still wore against that bitter northern wind on the steppes and their unforgiving wooden saddles.

“We’ve been at sea for three weeks,” Chaol tried to offer, his voice softer now.

The khagan did not bother to appear understanding. “That would also explain why you are so unaware of the other bit of news, and why these cold jewels might be of more use for you.” The khagan’s lips curled in a mirthless smile. “Arghun’s contacts also brought word from a ship this morning. Your royal coffers in Rifthold are no longer accessible. Duke Perrington and his host of flying terrors have sacked Rifthold.”

Silence, pulsing and hollow, swept through Nesryn. She wasn’t sure if Chaol was breathing.

“We do not have word on King Dorian’s location, but he yielded Rifthold to them. Fled into the night, if rumor is to be believed. The city has

fallen. Everything to the south of Rifthold belongs to Perrington and his witches now.”

Nesryn saw the faces of her nieces and nephews first.

Then the face of her sister. Then her father. Saw their kitchen, the bakery. The pear tarts cooling on the long, wooden table.

Dorian had left them. Left them all to … to do what? Find help?

Survive? Run to Aelin?

Had the royal guard remained to fight? Had anyone fought to save the innocents in the city?

Her hands were shaking. She didn’t care. Didn’t care if these people clad in riches sneered.

Her sister’s children, the great joy in her life …

Chaol was staring up at her. Nothing on his face. No devastation, no shock.

That crimson-and-gold uniform became stifling. Strangling.

Witches and wyverns. In her city. With those iron teeth and nails.

Shredding and bleeding and tormenting. Her family—her family— “Father.”

Sartaq had stepped forward once more. Those onyx eyes slid between Nesryn and the khagan. “It has been a long journey for our guests. Politics aside,” he said, giving a disapproving glance at Arghun, who seemed amused—amused at this news he’d brought, that had set the green marble floors roiling beneath her boots—“we are still a nation of hospitality. Let them rest for a few hours. And then join us for dinner.”

Hasar came to Sartaq’s side, frowning at Arghun while she did. Perhaps not from reprimand like her brother, but simply for Arghun not telling her of this news first. “Let no guest pass through our home and find its comforts

lacking.” Even though the words were welcoming, Hasar’s tone was anything but.

Their father gave them a bemused glance. “Indeed.” Urus waved a hand toward the servants by the far pillars. “Escort them to their rooms. And dispatch a message to the Torre to send their finest—Hafiza, if she’ll come down from that tower.”

Nesryn scarcely heard the rest. If the witches held the city, then the Valg who had infested it earlier this summer … There would be no one to fight them. No one to shield her family.

If they had survived.

She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think.

She should not have left. Should not have taken this position. They could be dead, or suffering. Dead. Dead.

She did not notice the female servant who came to push Chaol’s chair.

Barely noticed the hand Chaol reached out to twine through her own.

Nesryn didn’t so much as bow to the khagan as they left. She could not stop seeing their faces.

The children. Her sister’s smiling, round-bellied children. She should not have come.

Nesryn had gone into shock.

And Chaol could not go to her, could not scoop her into his arms and hold her close.

Not when she had walked, silent and drifting like a wraith, right into a bedroom of the lavish suite they’d been appointed on the first floor of the palace, and shut the door behind her. As if she had forgotten anyone else in the world existed.

He didn’t blame her.

Chaol let the servant, a fine-boned young woman with chestnut hair that fell in heavy curls to her narrow waist, wheel him into the second bedroom. The suite overlooked a garden of fruit trees and burbling fountains, cascades of pink and purple blossoms hanging from potted plants anchored into the balcony above. They provided living curtains before his towering bedroom windows—doors, he realized.

The servant mumbled something about drawing a bath, her use of his language unwieldy compared to the skill of the khagan and his children. Not that he was in any position to judge: he was barely fluent in any of the other languages within his own continent.

She slipped behind a carved wooden screen that no doubt led into his bathing chamber, and Chaol peered through his still-open bedroom door,

across the pale marble foyer, to the shut doors of Nesryn’s bedroom.

They should not have left.

He couldn’t have done anything, but … He knew what the not-knowing would do to Nesryn. What it was already doing to him.

Dorian was not dead, he told himself. He had gotten out. Fled. If he were in Perrington’s grip—Erawan’s grip—they would have known. Prince Arghun would have known.

His city, sacked by the witches. He wondered if Manon Blackbeak had led the attack.

Chaol tried and failed to recount where the debts were stacked between them. Aelin had spared Manon’s life at Temis’s temple, but Manon had given them vital information about Dorian under the Valg thrall. Did it make them even? Or tentative allies?

It was a waste to hope that Manon would turn against Morath. But he sent up a silent prayer to whatever god might be listening to protect Dorian, to guide his king to friendlier harbors.

Dorian would make it. He was too clever, too gifted, not to. There was no other alternative—none—that Chaol would accept. Dorian was alive, and safe. Or on his way to safety. And when Chaol got a moment, he was going to squeeze the information out of the eldest prince. Mourning or no. Everything Arghun knew, he would know. And then he’d ask that servant girl to comb every merchant ship for information about the attack.

No word—there had been no word about Aelin. Where she was now, what she’d been doing. Aelin, who might very well be the thing that cost him this alliance.

He ground his teeth, and was still grinding them as the suite doors opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man strode in as if he owned the place.

Chaol supposed he did. Prince Kashin was alone and unarmed, though he moved with the ease of a person confident in his body’s unfailing strength.

How, Chaol supposed, he himself had once walked about the palace in Rifthold.

Chaol lowered his head in greeting as the prince shut the hall door and surveyed him. It was a warrior’s assessment, frank and thorough. When his brown eyes at last met Chaol’s, the prince said in Adarlan’s tongue, “Injuries like yours are not uncommon here, and I have seen many of them

—especially among the horse-tribes. My family’s people.”

Chaol didn’t particularly feel like discussing his injuries with the prince, with anyone, so he only nodded. “I’m sure you have.”

Kashin cocked his head, scanning Chaol again, his dark braid slipping over his muscled shoulder. Reading, perhaps, Chaol’s desire not to start down this particular road. “My father indeed wishes you both to join us at dinner. And more than that, to join us every night afterward while you are here. And sit at the high table.”

It wasn’t a strange request of a visiting dignitary, and it was certainly an honor to sit at the khagan’s own table, but to send his son to do it … Chaol considered his next words carefully, then simply chose the most obvious one. “Why?”

Surely the family wished to keep close to one another after losing their youngest member. Inviting strangers to join them—

The prince’s jaw tightened. Not a man used to veiling his emotions, as his three elder siblings were. “Arghun reports our palace is safe of spies from Duke Perrington’s forces, that his agents have not yet come. I am not of that belief. And Sartaq—” The prince caught himself, as if not wanting to

bring in his brother—or potential ally. Kashin grimaced. “There was a reason I chose to live amongst soldiers. The double-talk of this court …”

Chaol was tempted to say he understood. Had felt that way for most of his life. But he asked, “You think Perrington’s forces have infiltrated this court?”

How much did Kashin, or Arghun, know of Perrington’s forces—know the truth of the Valg king who wore Perrington’s skin? Or the armies he commanded, worse than any their imaginations might conjure? But that information … He’d keep that to himself. See if it could somehow be used, if Arghun and the khagan did not know of it.

Kashin rubbed at his neck. “I do not know if it is Perrington, or someone from Terrasen, or Melisande, or Wendlyn. All I know is that my sister is now dead.”

Chaol’s heart stumbled a beat. But he dared ask, “How did it come about?”

Grief flickered in Kashin’s eyes. “Tumelun was always a bit wild, reckless. Prone to moods. One day, happy and laughing; the next, withdrawn and hopeless. They …” His throat bobbed. “They say she leaped from her balcony because of it. Duva and her husband found her later that night.”

Any death in a family was devastating, but a suicide … “I’m sorry,” Chaol offered quietly.

Kashin shook his head, sunlight from the garden dancing on his black hair. “I do not believe it. My Tumelun would not have jumped.”

My Tumelun. The words told enough about the prince’s closeness to his younger sister.

“You suspect foul play?”

“All I know is that no matter Tumelun’s moods … I knew her. As I know my own heart.” He put a hand over it. “She would not have jumped.”

Chaol considered his words carefully once again. “As sorry as I am for your loss, do you have any reason to suspect why a foreign kingdom might have engineered it?”

Kashin paced a few steps. “No one within our lands would be stupid enough.”

“Well, no one within Terrasen or Adarlan would ever do such a thing— even to manipulate you into this war.”

Kashin studied him for a heartbeat. “Even a queen who was once an assassin herself?”

Chaol didn’t let one flicker of emotion show. “Assassin she might have been, but Aelin had hard lines that she did not cross. Killing or harming children was one of them.”

Kashin paused before the dresser against the garden wall, adjusting a gilded box on its polished dark surface. “I know. I read that in my brother’s reports, too. Details of her kills.” Chaol could have sworn the prince shuddered before he added, “I believe you.”

No doubt why the prince was even having this conversation with him.

Kashin went on, “Which leaves not many other foreign powers who might do it—and Perrington at the top of that short list.”

“But why target your sister?”

“I do not know.” Kashin paced another few steps. “She was young, guileless—she rode with me amongst the Darghan, our mother-clans. Had no sulde of her own yet.”

At Chaol’s narrowed brows, the prince clarified, “It is a spear all Darghan warriors carry. We bind strands of our favored horse’s hair to the

shaft, beneath the blade. Our ancestors believed that where those hairs waved in the wind, there our destinies waited. Some of us still believe in such things, but even those who think it mere tradition … we bring them everywhere. There is a courtyard in this palace where my sulde and those of my siblings are planted to feel the wind while we remain at our father’s palace, right beside his own. But in death …” Again, that shadow of grief. “In death, they are the only object that we keep. They bear the soul of a Darghan warrior for eternity, and are left planted atop a steppe in our sacred realm.” The prince closed his eyes. “Now her soul will roam with the wind.”

Nesryn had said as much earlier. Chaol only repeated, “I’m sorry.”

Kashin opened his eyes. “Some of my siblings do not believe me about Tumelun. Some do. Our father … he remains undecided. Our mother will not even leave her room thanks to her grief, and mentioning my suspicions might—I cannot bring myself to mention them to her.” He rubbed his strong jaw. “So I have convinced my father to have you join us at dinner every night, as a gesture of diplomacy. But I should like you to watch with an outsider’s eyes. To report on anything amiss. Perhaps you will see something we don’t.”

Help them … and perhaps receive help in return. Chaol said baldly, “If you trust me enough to have me do that, to tell me all this, then why not agree to join with us in this war?”

“It is not my place to say or guess.” A trained soldier. Kashin examined the suite as if assessing any potential enemies lying in wait. “I march only when my father gives the order.”

If Perrington’s forces were already here, if Morath was indeed behind the princess’s murder … It’d be too easy. Too easy to sway the khagan into

siding with Dorian and Aelin. Perrington—Erawan was far smarter than that.

But if Chaol himself were to win over the commander of the khagan’s terrestrial armies to their cause—

“I do not play those games, Lord Westfall,” said Kashin, reading whatever sparked in Chaol’s eyes. “My other siblings are the ones you will wish to convince.”

Chaol tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. “Any advice on that front?”

Kashin snorted, smiling faintly. “Others have come before you—from kingdoms far richer than your own. Some succeeded, some didn’t.” A glance at Chaol’s legs, a flicker of pity entering the prince’s eyes. Chaol clenched the arms of the chair at that pity, from a man who recognized a fellow warrior. “Wishes for good luck are all I can offer you.”

Then the prince was striding for the doors, his long legs eating up the distance.

“If Perrington has an agent here,” Chaol said as Kashin reached the suite doors, “then you’ve already seen that everyone in this palace is in grave danger. You must take action.”

Kashin paused with his hand on the carved doorknob, glancing over his shoulder. “Why do you think I’ve asked a foreign lord for assistance?”

Then the prince was gone, his words hanging in the sweet-scented air. The tone wasn’t cruel, wasn’t insulting, but the warrior’s frankness of it …

Chaol struggled to master his breathing, even as the thoughts swirled. He’d seen no black rings or collars, but then he hadn’t been looking for them. Had not even considered that the shadow of Morath might have already stretched this far.

Chaol rubbed at his chest. Careful. He’d have to be careful in this court.

With what he said publicly—with what he said in this room, too.

Chaol was still staring at the shut door, mulling over all Kashin had implied, when the servant emerged, her tunic and pants replaced by a tied robe of thinnest, sheerest silk. It left nothing to the imagination.

He clamped down on the urge to shout for Nesryn to assist him instead. “Only wash me,” he said, as clearly and firmly as he could.

She showed no nerves, no tremor of hesitation. And he knew she had done this before, countless times, as she only asked, “Am I not to your liking?”

It was a stark, honest question. She was paid well for her services—all the servants were. She chose to be here, and another could easily be found at no risk to her status.

“You are,” Chaol said, only half lying, refusing to let his gaze drop below her eyes. “Very pleasing,” he clarified. “But I only want a bath.” He added, just to be sure, “Nothing else from you.”

He’d expected her gratitude, but the servant only nodded, unruffled. Even with her, he’d have to be careful with what he said. What he and Nesryn might discuss in these rooms.

There hadn’t been a sound or flicker of movement behind Nesryn’s closed bedroom doors. And there certainly wasn’t now.

So he motioned to let the servant push his chair into the bathing chamber, veils of steam rippling through the white-and-blue-tiled room.

The chair glided over carpet and tile, curving around the furniture with little effort. Nesryn herself had found the chair in the now-vacant healers’ catacombs of Rifthold’s castle, right before they’d sailed here. One of the few items the fleeing healers had left behind, it seemed.

Lighter and sleeker than what he’d expected, the large wheels flanking the seat rotated easily, even when he used the slender metal hand rim to guide them himself. Unlike the stiff bulk of others he’d seen, this chair came equipped with two small front wheels, just on either side of the wooden footrests, each capable of swiveling in any direction he chose. And now they smoothly turned into the wafting steam of the bathing chamber.

A large sunken pool filled most of it, oils gleaming on the surface, interrupted only by scattered, drifting petals. A small window high in the far wall peeked into the greenery of the garden, and candles gilded the billowing steam.

Luxury. Utter luxury while his city suffered. While they pleaded for help that had not come. Dorian would have wanted to stay. Only absolute defeat, no chance of survival, would have prompted him to leave. Chaol wondered if his magic had played any part. Helped any of them.

Dorian would find his way to safety, to allies. He knew it in his bones, though his stomach continued to roil. There was nothing he could do to help his king from here—save for forging this alliance. Even if every instinct screamed at him to return to Adarlan, to find Dorian, he’d stay the course.

Chaol barely noticed the servant removing his boots in efficient tugs. And though he could have done it himself, he barely remarked on her removing his teal jacket, then the shirt beneath. But he dragged himself from his thoughts at last when she began to remove his pants—when he leaned in to help, gritting his teeth as they worked together in stilted silence. It was only when she reached to remove his undershorts that he gripped her wrist.

He and Nesryn still hadn’t touched each other. Beyond an ill-fated bout on the ship three days ago, he hadn’t conveyed any sort of desire to take

that step once again. He’d wanted to, though. Woke up most mornings aching to, especially when they’d shared that bed in their stateroom. But the thought of being so prone, of not being able to take her the way he’d once done … It had curdled any brimming lust. Even while grateful that certain parts of him still undoubtedly worked.

“I can get in on my own,” Chaol said, and before the servant could move, he gathered the strength in his arms, his back, and began easing himself from the chair. It was an unceremonious process, one he’d figured out during the long days at sea.

First he flicked the locking mechanism on the wheels, the click echoing off the stone and water. With a few motions, he maneuvered himself to the edge of the chair, then removed his feet from the wooden plates and onto the floor, angling his legs to his left as he did so. With his right hand, he gripped the edge of the seat by his knees, while he curled the left into a fist as he bent over to brace it on the cool, steam-slick tiles. Slippery—

The servant only padded over, laid a thick white cloth before him, and backed away. He gave her a grateful, close-lipped smile as he braced his left fist again on the floor, atop the plush cloth, distributing his weight throughout the arm. With an inhaled breath, his right hand still gripping the edge of his chair, he carefully lowered himself to the ground, swinging his rear away from the chair as his knees bent unbidden.

He landed with a thud, but he was on the floor, at least—hadn’t toppled over, as he had the first half-dozen times he’d tried it on the ship.

Carefully, he scooted to the edge of the pool stairs, until he could set his feet into the warm water, right atop the second step. The servant strode into the water a heartbeat later, graceful as an egret, her gossamer robe turning as insubstantial as dew while water crept up its length. Her hands were

gentle but steady while she gripped him under the arm and helped him hoist himself the last bit into the pool, setting himself down on the top step. Then she guided him down another and another, until he was sitting up to his shoulders. Eye-level with her full, peaked breasts.

She didn’t seem to notice. And he immediately averted his gaze toward the window as she reached for the small tray of supplies she’d left near the lip of the pool. Oils and brushes and soft-looking cloths. Chaol slid his undershorts off while she turned, setting them with a loud, wet smack upon the edge of the pool.

Nesryn still didn’t emerge from her room.

So Chaol closed his eyes, submitting himself to the servant’s ministrations, and wondered what the hell he was going to do.

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