Chapter no 85

Empire of Storms

Yrene was soaked in sweat, though it dried so quickly that she only felt its essence clinging.

Thankfully, the oasis was shaded and cool, a large, shallow pool in its center. Horses were led into the heaviest shade to be watered and brushed down, and servants and guards claimed a hidden spot for their own washing and enjoyment.

No sign of any sort of cave that Nousha had mentioned, or the city of the dead that Hasar claimed lurked in the jungle beyond. But the site was sprawling, and in the large pool … The royals were already soaking in the cool waters.

Renia, Yrene saw immediately, was only wearing a thin silk shift—that did little to hide her considerable assets as she emerged from the water, laughing at something Hasar said.

“Well, then,” Chaol said, coughing beside Yrene.

“I told you about the parties,” she muttered, heading to the tents spread through the towering palms and brush. They were white and gilded, each marked with the prince or princess’s banner. But with Sartaq and Duva not with them, Chaol and Yrene had been assigned them, respectively.

Mercifully, the two were near each other, but Yrene took in the open tent flaps, the entire space as large as the cottage she’d shared with her mother,

then turned toward Chaol’s retreating back. His limp, even with the cane, was deeper than it’d been that morning. And she’d seen how stiffly he’d gotten off that infernal horse.

“I know you want to wash up,” Yrene said. “But I need to take a look at you. At your back and legs, I mean. After all that riding.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have raced him. She hadn’t even remembered who’d reached the oasis border anyway. She’d been too busy laughing, feeling as if she were coming out of her body and would likely never feel that way again. Too busy looking at his face, filled with such light.

Chaol paused at his tent flaps, cane wobbling, as if he’d put far more weight on it than he let on. But it was the relief in his face as he asked, “Your tent or mine?” that made her worry—just a tad.

“Mine,” she said, aware of the servants and nobility who likely had no idea she was even the cause of this excursion, but who would happily report her comings and goings. He nodded, and she monitored each rise and placement of his legs, the shifting of his torso, the way he leaned on that cane.

As Chaol edged past her and into the tent, he murmured in her ear, “I won, by the way.”

Yrene glanced toward the sun now making its descent and felt her core tighten in answer.



He was sore but could thankfully still walk by the time Yrene finished her thorough examination. And set of soothing stretches for his legs and back. And massage.

Chaol had the distinct feeling she was toying with him, even as her hands remained chaste. Uninterested.

She even had the nerve to call for a servant to ask for a jug of water.

The tent was fit for the princess who usually occupied it. A large bed lay in the center upon a raised platform, the floors covered with ornate rugs. Sitting areas were scattered throughout, along with a curtained-off washing-up and privy, and there was gold everywhere.

Either the servants had brought it with them yesterday, or the people of this land so feared the wrath of the khaganate that they didn’t dare rob this place. Or were so well-cared for they didn’t need to.

The others were all in the oasis pool by the time he shrugged on his now-dry clothes and they emerged to seek out their quarry.

They’d whispered in the tent—neither of them had spotted anything of interest upon arrival. And in the oasis pool, definitely no indication of a cave or ruins near the bathing royals and their friends. Comfortable, relaxed. Free, in ways that Adarlan had never been, to its detriment. He wasn’t naive enough to think that no scheming or intrigue was now playing out in the cool waters, but he’d never heard of Adarlanian nobles going to a swimming hole and enjoying themselves.

Though he certainly wondered what the hell Hasar was thinking in throwing such a party for Yrene, manipulated into it or no, considering the princess was well aware Yrene barely knew most of those gathered.

Yrene hesitated at the edge of the clearing and glanced at him beneath lowered lashes—a look anyone might interpret as shy. A woman perhaps hesitant to strip down to the light clothes they wore in the waters. Letting any onlookers forget that she was a healer and wholly used to far more skin showing. “I find I’m not up to bathing,” Yrene murmured over the laughter and splashing of those within the oasis waters. “Care for a walk?”

Pleasant, polite words as she inclined her head through the few acres of untamed jungle sprawling to the left. She didn’t think herself a courtier, but she could certainly lie well enough. He supposed that as a healer, it was a skill that proved useful.

“It would be my pleasure,” Chaol said, offering his arm.

Yrene hesitated again, the portrait of modesty—peering over her shoulder at those in the pool. The royals watching. Kashin included.

He would let her choose when and how to make it clear to the prince— again—that she was not interested. Though he couldn’t avoid a faint tinge of guilt as she looped her arm through his and they stepped into the murkiness of the oasis jungle.

Kashin was a good man. Chaol doubted his words about being willing to go to war were lies. And to risk antagonizing the prince by perhaps flaunting what he had with Yrene … Chaol glanced sidelong at her, his cane digging into the roots and soft soil. She offered him a faint smile, cheeks still flushed with the sun.

To hell with worrying over antagonizing Kashin.

The oasis spring’s gurgling blended with the sighing palms overhead as they headed deeper between the fauna, picking their own way—no direction in mind. “In Anielle,” he said, “there are dozens of hot springs along the valley floor, near the Silver Lake. Kept warm by the vents in the earth. When I was a boy, we’d often soak in them after a day of training.”

She asked carefully, as if realizing that he’d indeed offered up this piece of him, “Was it that training that inspired you to join the guard?”

His voice was thick as he finally said, “Part of it. I was just … good at it. Fighting and fencing and archery and all of it. I received the training that was befitting for the heir of a lord to a mountain people who had long

fended off wild men from the Fangs. But my real training began when I arrived in Rifthold and joined the royal guard.”

She slowed while he navigated around a tricky nest of roots, letting him focus on where to place his feet and the cane.

“I suppose being stubborn and bullheaded made you a good pupil for the discipline aspect.”

Chaol chuckled, nudging her with his elbow. “It did. I was the first one on the training pitch and the last one off. Even though I was walloped every single day.” His chest tightened as he remembered their faces, those men who had trained him, who had pushed and pushed him, left him limping and bleeding, and then made sure he got patched up in the barracks that night. Usually with a hearty meal and a clap on the back.

And it was in honor of those men, his brothers, that he said hoarsely, “They weren’t all bad men, Yrene. The ones I … I grew up with, whom I commanded … They were good men.”

He saw Ress’s laughing face, the blush the young guard could never hide around Aelin. His eyes burned.

Yrene stopped, the oasis humming around them, and his back and legs were more than grateful for the reprieve as she removed her arm from his. Touched his cheek. “If they are partially responsible for you being … you,” she said, rising up to brush her mouth against his, “then I believe that they are.”

“Were,” he breathed.

And there it was. That one word, swallowed by the loam and shade of the oasis, that he could barely stand. Were.

He could still retreat—retreat from this invisible precipice now before them. Yrene remained standing close, a hand resting over his heart, waiting

for him to decide whether to speak.

And maybe it was only because she held her hand over his heart that he whispered, “They were tortured for weeks this spring. Then butchered and left to hang from the castle gates.”

Grief and horror guttered in her eyes. He could hardly stomach it as he managed to go on, “Not one of them broke. When the king and—others …” He could not bring himself to finish. Not yet. Perhaps not ever, to face that suspicion and likely truth. “When they questioned the guards about me. Not a single one of them broke.”

He didn’t have the words for it—that courage, that sacrifice. Yrene’s throat bobbed, and she cupped his cheek.

And Chaol finally breathed, “It was my fault. The king—he did it to punish me. For running, for helping the rebels in Rifthold. He … it was all because of me.”

“You can’t blame yourself.” Simple, honest words. And utterly untrue.

They snapped him back into himself, more effectively than a thrown bucket of cold water.

Chaol pushed out of her touch.

He shouldn’t have told her, shouldn’t have brought it up. On her birthday, gods above. While they were supposed to focus on finding any sort of scrap of information that might help them.

He’d brought his sword and dagger, and as he limped into the palms and ferns, leaving Yrene to follow, he checked to ensure they were both still buckled at his waist. Checked them because he had to do something with his shaking hands, his raw insides.

He folded the words, the memories back into himself. Deeper. Sealed them away as he counted his weapons, one after another.

Yrene only trailed him, saying nothing while they picked their way deeper into the jungle. The entire site was larger than many villages, and yet little of the green had been tamed—certainly no path to be found, or indication of a city of the dead beneath them.

Until fallen pale pillars began to appear between the roots and bushes. A good sign, he supposed. If there were a cave, it might be nearby—perhaps as some ancient dwelling.

But the level of architecture they climbed over and walked around, forcing him to select his steps carefully …“These weren’t some cave-dwelling people who buried their dead in holes,” he observed, cane scraping over the ancient stone.

“Hasar said it was a city of the dead.” Yrene frowned at the ornate columns and slabs of carved stone, crusted with forest life. “A sprawling necropolis, right beneath our feet.”

He studied the jungle floor. “But I thought the khagan’s people left their dead under the open sky in the heart of their home territory.”

“They do.” Yrene ran her hands over a pillar carved with animals and strange creatures. “But … this site predates the khaganate. The Torre and Antica, too. To whoever was here before.” A set of crumbling steps led to a platform where the trees had grown through the stone itself, knocking over carved columns in their wake. “Hasar claimed the tunnels are all clever traps. Either designed to keep looters out—or keep the dead inside.”

Despite the heat, the hair on his arms rose. “You’re telling me this now?”

“I assumed Nousha meant something different. That it would be a cave, and if it was connected to these ruins, she’d have mentioned it.” Yrene stepped onto the platform, and his legs protested as he followed her up. “But I don’t see any sort of rock formations here—none large enough for a cave. The only stone … it’s from this.” The sprawling gateway into the necropolis beneath, Hasar had claimed.

They surveyed the mangled complex, the enormous pillars now broken or covered in roots and vines. Silence lay as heavy as the shaded heat. As if none of the singing birds or humming insects from the oasis dared venture here.

“It’s unsettling,” she murmured.

They had twenty guards within shouting distance, and yet he found his free hand drifting toward his sword. If a city of the dead slumbered beneath their feet, perhaps Hasar was right. They should be left to sleep.

Yrene turned in place, surveying the pillars, the carvings. No caves— none at all. “Nousha knew the location, though,” she mused. “It must have been important—the site. To the Torre.”

“But its importance was forgotten over time, or warped. So that only the name, the sense of its importance remained.”

“Healers were always drawn to this realm, you know,” Yrene said distantly, running a hand over a column. “The land just … blessed them with the magic. More than any other kind. As if this were some breeding ground for healing.”


She traced a carving on a column longer than most ships. “Why does anything thrive? Plants grow best in certain conditions—those most advantageous to them.”

“And the southern continent is a place for healers to thrive?”

Something had snagged her interest, making her words mumbled as she said, “Maybe it was a sanctuary.”

He approached, wincing at the slicing pain down his spine. It was forgotten as he examined the carving beneath her palm.

Two opposing forces had been etched into the column’s broad face. On the left: tall, broad-shouldered warriors, armed with swords and shields, with rippling flame and bursting water, animals of all kinds in the air or at their knees. Pointed ears—those were pointed ears on the figures’ heads.

And facing them …

“You said nothing is coincidence.” Yrene pointed to the army facing the Fae one.

Smaller than the Fae, their bodies bulkier. Claws and fangs and wicked-looking blades.

She mouthed a word.


Holy gods.

Yrene rushed to the other pillars, ripping away vines and dirt. More Fae faces. Figures.

Some were depicted in one-on-one battles against Valg commanders.

Some felled by them. Some triumphing.

Chaol moved with her as much as he could manage. Looking, looking—

There, tucked into the dense shadows of squatting, thick palms. A square, crumbling structure. A mausoleum.

“A cave,” Yrene whispered. Or what might have been interpreted as one, as knowledge turned muddled.

Chaol ripped away the vines for her with his free hand, his back protesting.

Ripped and tore them down to survey what had been carved into the gates of the necropolis.

“Nousha said legend claimed some of those scrolls came from here,” Chaol said. “From a place full of Wyrdmarks, of carvings of the Fae and Valg. But this was no living city. So they had to have been removed from tombs or archives below our feet.” From the doorway just beyond them.

“They did not bury humans here,” Yrene whispered.

For the markings on the sealed, stone gates … “The Old Language.” He’d seen it inked on Rowan’s face and arm.

This was a Fae burial site. Fae—not human.

Chaol said, “I thought only one group of Fae ever left Doranelle—to establish Terrasen with Brannon.”

“Maybe another settled here during whatever this war was.”

The first war. The first demon war, before Elena and Gavin were born, before Terrasen.

Chaol studied Yrene. Her bloodless face. “Or maybe they wanted to hide something.”

Yrene frowned at the ground as if she could see to the tombs beneath. “A treasure?”

“Of a different sort.”

She met his eyes at his tone—his stillness. And fear, cool and sharp, slid into his heart.

Yrene said softly, “I don’t understand.”

“Fae magic is passed down through their bloodlines. It doesn’t appear at random. Perhaps these people came here. And then were forgotten by the

world, forces good and evil. Perhaps they knew this place was far away enough to remain untouched. That wars would be waged elsewhere. By them.” He jerked his chin to a carving of a Valg soldier. “While the southern continent remained mostly mortal-held. While the seeds planted here by the Fae were bred into the human bloodlines and grew into a people gifted and prone to healing magic.”

“An interesting theory,” she said hoarsely, “but you don’t know if it could stand to reason.”

“If you wanted to hide something precious, wouldn’t you conceal it in plain sight? In a place where you were willing to bet a powerful force would spring up to defend it? Like an empire. Several of them. Whose walls had not been breached by outside conquerors for the entirety of its history. Who would see the value of its healers and think their gift was for one thing, but never know that it might be a treasure waiting to be used at another time. A weapon.”

“We do not kill.”

“No,” Chaol said, his blood going cold. “But you and all the healers here

… There is only one other such place in the world. Guarded as heavily, protected by a power just as mighty.”

“Doranelle—the Fae healers in Doranelle.” Guarded by Maeve. Fiercely.

Who had fought in that first war. Who had fought against the Valg. “What does it mean?” she breathed.

Chaol had the sense of the ground slipping from beneath him. “I was sent here to retrieve an army. But I wonder … I wonder if some other force brought me to retrieve something else.”

She slid her hand into his, a silent promise. One he’d think of later.

“Perhaps that is why whoever it is that’s been stalking the Torre, was hunting me,” Yrene whispered. “If they are indeed sent from Morath … They don’t want us realizing any of this. Through healing you.”

He squeezed her fingers. “And those scrolls in the library … either they were taken or brought from here, forgotten save for legend about where they came from. Where the healers of this land might have originated from.”

Not the necropolis—but the Fae people who had built it.

“The scrolls,” she blurted. “If we return and find someone to—to translate them …”

“They might explain this. What the healers could do against the Valg.” She swallowed. “Hafiza. I wonder if she knows what those scrolls are,

somehow. The Healer on High is not just a position of power, but of learning. She’s a walking library herself, taught things by her predecessor that no one else at the Torre knows.” She twisted a curl around a finger. “It’s worth showing her some of the texts. To see if she might know what they are.”

A gamble to share the information with anyone else, but one worth taking. Chaol nodded.

Someone’s laughter pierced through even the heavy silence of the oasis.

Yrene released his hand. “We’ll need to smile, enjoy ourselves amongst them. And then leave at first light.”

“I’ll send word to Nesryn to return. As soon as we’re back. I’m not sure we can afford any longer to wait for the khagan’s aid.”

“We’ll try to convince him again anyway,” she promised. He angled his head. “You will still have to win this war, Chaol,” she said quietly. “Regardless of what role we might play.”

He brushed a thumb over her cheek. “I have no intention of losing it.”



It was no easy task to pretend they had not stumbled across something enormous. That something had not rattled them down to their bones.

Hasar grew bored of bathing and called for music and dancing and lunch. Which turned into hours of lounging in the shade, listening to the musicians, eating an array of delicacies that Yrene had no idea how they’d managed to bring all the way out here.

But as the sun set, they all dispersed into their tents to change for dinner. After what she’d learned with Chaol, even being alone for a moment had her jumpy, but Yrene washed and changed into the purple gauzy gown Hasar had provided.

Chaol was waiting outside the tent.

Hasar had brought him clothes, too. Beautiful deep blue that brought out the gold in his brown eyes, the summer-kissed tan of his skin.

Yrene blushed as his gaze slid along her neckline, to the swaths of skin the flowing folds of the dress revealed along her waist. Her thighs. Silver and clear beads had been sewn onto the entire thing, making the gown shimmer like the stars now flickering to life in the night sky above them.

Torches and lanterns had been lit around the oasis pool, tables and couches and cushions brought out. Music was playing, people were already loosing themselves upon the feast laid across the various tables, with Hasar holding court, regal as any queen from her spot at the centermost table alongside the fire-gilded pool.

She spotted Yrene and signaled her over. Chaol, too.

Two seats had been left open to the princess’s right. Yrene could have sworn Chaol sized them up with each step, as if scanning the chairs, those

around them, the oasis itself for any pitfalls or threats. His hand brushed the sliver of skin exposed down the column of her spine—as if in confirmation that all was clear.

“You did not think I forgot my honored guest, did you?” Hasar said, kissing her cheeks. Chaol bowed to the princess as much as he could manage, and claimed his seat on Yrene’s other side, leaning his cane against the table.

“Today has been wonderful,” Yrene said, and wasn’t lying. “Thank you.”

Hasar was quiet for a beat, looking Yrene over with unusual softness. “I know I am not an easy person to care for, or an easy friend to have,” she said, her dark eyes meeting Yrene’s at last. “But you have never once made me feel that way.”

Yrene’s throat tightened at the bald words. Hasar inclined her head, waving to the party around them. “This is the least I can do to honor my friend.” Renia gently patted Hasar’s arm, as if in approval and understanding.

So Yrene bowed her head and said to the princess, “I have no interest in easy friends—easy people. I think I trust them less than the difficult ones, and find them far less compelling, too.”

That brought a grin to Hasar’s face. She leaned down the table to survey Chaol and drawl, “You look quite handsome, Lord Westfall.”

“And you are looking beautiful, Princess.”

Hasar, while well dressed, would never be called such. But she accepted the compliment with that cat’s smile that somehow reminded Yrene of that stranger in Innish—that knowledge that beauty was fleeting, yet power … power was a far more valuable currency.

The feast unfolded, and Yrene suffered through a not-so-unguarded toast from Hasar to her dear, loyal, clever friend. But she drank with them. Chaol, too. Wine and honey ale, their glasses refilled before Yrene could even notice the near-silent reach of the servants pouring.

It took all of thirty minutes before talk of the war started.

Arghun began it first. A mocking toast, to safety and serenity in such tumultuous times.

Yrene drank but tried to hide her surprise as she found Chaol doing so as well, a vague smile plastered on his face.

Then Hasar began musing on whether the Western Wastes, with everyone so focused upon the eastern half of the continent, was fair game to interested parties.

Chaol only shrugged. As if he’d reached some conclusion this afternoon.

Some realization about this war, and the role of these royals in it.

Hasar seemed to notice, too. And for all that this was meant to be a birthday party, the princess pondered aloud to no one in particular, “Perhaps Aelin Galathynius should drag her esteemed self down here and select one of my brothers to marry. Perhaps then we would consider assisting her. If such influence remained in the family.”

Meaning all that flame, all that brute power … tied to this continent, bred into the bloodline, never to be a threat.

“My brothers would have to stomach being with someone like that, of course,” Hasar went on, “but they are not such weak-blooded men as you might believe.” A glance at Kashin, who seemed to pretend not to hear, even as Arghun snorted. Yrene wondered if the others knew how adept Kashin was at drowning out their taunting—that he never fell for their baiting simply because he couldn’t be bothered to care.

Chaol answered Hasar with equal mildness, “As interesting as it would be to see Aelin Galathynius deal with all of you …” A secret, knowing smile, as if Chaol might very well enjoy seeing that sight. As if Aelin might very well make blood sport out of them all. “Marriage is not an option for her.”

Hasar’s brows lifted. “To a man?”

Renia gave her a sharp look that Hasar ignored.

Chaol chuckled. “To anyone. Beyond her beloved.”

“King Dorian,” Arghun said, swirling his wine. “I’m surprised she can stomach him.”

Chaol stiffened, but shook his head. “No. Another prince—foreign-born and powerful.”

All the royals stilled. Even Kashin looked their way.

“Who, pray tell, is that?” Hasar sipped her wine, those keen eyes darkening.

“Prince Rowan Whitethorn, of Doranelle. Former commander to Queen Maeve, and a member of her royal household.”

Yrene could have sworn the blood drained wholly from Arghun’s face. “Aelin Galathynius is to wed Rowan Whitethorn?”

From the way the prince said the name … he’d indeed heard of this Rowan.

Chaol had mentioned Rowan more than once in passing—Rowan, who had managed to heal much of the damage in his spine. A Fae Prince. And Aelin’s beloved.

Chaol shrugged. “They are carranam, and he swore the blood oath to her.”

“He swore that oath to Maeve,” Arghun countered.

Chaol leaned back in his seat. “He did. And Aelin got Maeve to free him from it so he could swear it to her. Right in Maeve’s face.”

Arghun and Hasar swapped glances. “How,” the former demanded.

Chaol’s mouth turned up at the corner. “Through the same way Aelin achieves all her ends.” He flicked his brows up. “She encircled Maeve’s city in fire. And when Maeve told her that Doranelle was made of stone, Aelin simply replied that her people were not.”

A chill snaked down Yrene’s spine.

“So she is a brute and a madwoman,” Hasar sniffed.

“Is she? Who else has taken on Maeve and walked away, let alone gotten what they want out of it?”

“She would have destroyed an entire city for one man,” Hasar snapped. “The most powerful pure-blooded Fae male in the world,” Chaol said

simply. “A worthy asset for any court. Especially when they had fallen in love with each other.”

Though his eyes danced as he spoke, a tremor of tension ran beneath the last words.

But Arghun seized on the words. “If it is a love match, then they risk knowing their enemies will go after him to punish her.” Arghun smiled as if to say he was already thinking of doing so.

Chaol snorted, and the prince straightened. “Good luck to anyone who tries to go after Rowan Whitethorn.”

“Because Aelin will burn them to ash?” Hasar asked with poisoned sweetness.

But it was Kashin who answered softly, “Because Rowan Whitethorn will always be the person who walks away from that encounter. Not the assailant.”

A pause of silence.

Then Hasar said, “Well, if Aelin cannot represent her continent, perhaps we shall look elsewhere.” She smirked at Kashin. “Perhaps Yrene Towers might be offered in the queen’s stead.”

“I am not noble-born,” Yrene blurted. “Or royal.” Hasar had lost her mind.

Hasar shrugged. “I’m sure Lord Westfall, as Hand, can find you a title. Make you a countess or duchess or whatever terms you call them. Of course, we’d know you were little more than a milkmaid dressed in jewels, but if it stayed amongst us … I’m sure there are some here who would not mind your humble beginnings.” She’d done as much with Renia—for Renia.

The amusement faded from Chaol’s face. “You sound as if you now want to be a part of this war, Princess.”

Hasar waved a hand. “I am merely musing on the possibilities.” She surveyed Yrene and Kashin, and the food in Yrene’s stomach turned leaden. “I’ve always said you would make such beautiful children.”

“If they were allowed to live by your future khagan.” “A small consideration—to be later dealt with.”

Kashin leaned forward, his jaw tight. “The wine goes to your head, sister.”

Hasar rolled her eyes. “Why not? Yrene is the unspoken heir of the Torre. It is a position of power—and if Lord Westfall were to bestow upon her a royal title … say, spin a little story that her royal lineage was newly discovered, she might very well wed you, Ka—”

“She will not.”

Chaol’s words were flat. Hard.

Color stained Kashin’s face as he asked softly, “And why is that, Lord Westfall?”

Chaol held the man’s gaze. “She will not marry you.” Hasar smiled. “I think the lady may speak for herself.”

Yrene wanted to flip her chair back into the pool and sink to the bottom. And live there, under the surface, forever. Rather than face the prince waiting for an answer, the princess who was smirking like a demon, and the lord whose face was hard with rage.

But if it was a serious offer, if doing something like that could lead to the full might of the southern continent’s armies coming to help them, save them …

“Don’t you even consider it,” Chaol said too quietly. “She’s full of shit.” People gasped. Hasar barked a laugh.

Arghun snapped, “You will speak with respect to my sister, or you will find yourself with legs that don’t work again.”

Chaol ignored them. Yrene’s hands shook badly enough that she slid them beneath the table.

Had the princess brought her out here to corner her into agreeing to this preposterous idea, or had it merely been a whim, an idle thought to taunt and gnaw at Lord Westfall?

Chaol seemed to be on the verge of opening his mouth to say more, to push this ridiculous idea out of her head, but he hesitated.

Not because he agreed, Yrene realized, but because he wanted to give her the space to choose for herself. A man used to giving orders, to being obeyed. And yet Yrene had the sense that this, too, was new to him. The patience; the trust.

And she trusted him. To do what he had to. To find a way to survive this war, whether with this army or another one. If it did not happen here, with these people, he’d sail elsewhere.

Yrene looked to Hasar, to Kashin and the others, some smirking, some swapping disgusted glances. Arghun most of all. Revolted at the thought of sullying his family’s bloodline.

She trusted Chaol.

She did not trust these royals.

Yrene smiled at Hasar, then Kashin. “This is very grave talk for my birthday. Why should I choose one man tonight when I have so many handsome ones in my company right now?”

She could have sworn a shudder of relief went through Chaol.

“Indeed,” Hasar crooned, her smile sharpening. Yrene tried not to balk at the invisible fangs revealed in that smile. “Betrothals are rather odious things. Look at poor Duva, stuck with that brooding, sad-eyed princeling.”

And so the conversation moved on. Yrene did not glance to Kashin or the others. She looked only at her constantly refilled goblet—and drank it. Or at Chaol, who appeared half inclined to lean across Yrene and flip Hasar’s chair right back into the pool.

But the meal passed, and Yrene kept drinking—enough so that when she stood after dessert, she had not realized precisely how much she’d imbibed. The world tipped and swayed, and Chaol steadied her with a hand on her elbow, even as he was none too steady on his feet.

“Seems like they can’t hold their liquor up north,” Arghun said with a snort.

Chaol chuckled. “I’d advise never to say that to someone from Terrasen.”

“I suppose there’s nothing else to do while living amongst all the snow and sheep beyond drink,” Arghun drawled, lounging in his chair.

“That may be,” Chaol said, putting an arm on Yrene’s back to guide her to the trees and tents, “but it won’t stop Aelin Galathynius or Aedion Ashryver from drinking you under the table.”

“Or under a chair?” Hasar crooned to Chaol.

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the heat, or the hand on her back, or the fact that this man beside her had fought and fought and never once complained about it.

Yrene lunged for the princess.

And though Chaol might have decided against pushing Hasar into the pool behind her, Yrene had no such qualms about doing it herself. One heartbeat, Hasar was smirking up at her.

The next, her legs and skirts and jewels went sky-up, her shriek piercing across the dunes as Yrene shoved the princess, chair and all, into the water.

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