Yrene knew she was a dead woman.
Knew it the moment Hasar hit the dark water and everyone leaped to their feet, shouting and drawing blades.
Chaol had Yrene behind him in an instant, a sword half out—a blade she hadn’t even seen him reach for before it was in his hand.
The pool was not deep, and Hasar swiftly stood, soaked and seething, teeth bared and hair utterly limp as she pointed at Yrene.
No one spoke.
She pointed and pointed, and Yrene braced for the death order. They’d kill her, and then kill Chaol for trying to save her.
She felt him sizing up all the guards, the princes, the viziers. Every person who would get in the way to the horses, every person who might put up a fight.
But a low, fizzing sounded behind Yrene.
She looked to see Renia clutching her stomach, another hand over her mouth, as she looked at her lover and howled.
Hasar whirled on Renia, who just stuck out a finger, pointing and roaring with laughter. Tears leaked from the woman’s eyes.
Then Kashin tipped his head back and bellowed with amusement. Yrene and Chaol did not dare move.
Not until Hasar shoved away a servant who’d flung himself into the pool to help her, crawled back onto the paved lip, and looked Yrene dead in the eye with the full wrath of all the mighty khagans before her.
But then the princess snorted. “I was wondering when you’d grow a backbone.”
She walked away, trailing water behind her, Renia howling again.
Yrene caught Chaol’s stare—watched him slowly release the hand on his sword. Watched his pupils shrink again. Watched him realize …
They were not going to die.
“With that,” Yrene said quietly, “I think it’s time for bed.”
Renia paused her laughing long enough to say, “I’d be gone before she returns.”
Yrene nodded, and led Chaol by the wrist back toward the trees and dark and torches.
She couldn’t help but wonder if Renia and Kashin’s laughter had in part been true amusement, but also a gift. A birthday gift, to keep them from the gallows. From the two people who understood best just how deadly Hasar’s moods could be.
Keeping her head, Yrene decided, was a very good birthday gift indeed.
It would have been easy for Chaol to roar at Yrene. To demand how she could even think to risk her life like that. Months ago, he would have. Hell, he was still debating it.
Even as they slipped into her spacious tent, he continued soothing the instincts that had come bellowing to the surface the moment those guards had pressed in and reached for their swords.
Some small part of him was profoundly, knee-wobblingly grateful none of those guards were ones he’d trained with these weeks—that he hadn’t been forced to make that choice, cross that line between them.
But he’d seen the terror in Yrene’s eyes. The moment she’d realized what was about to happen, what would have happened if the princess’s lover and Kashin had not stepped in to defuse the situation.
Chaol knew Yrene had done it for him. For the mocking, hateful insult.
And from the way she paced inside the tent, wending between the couches and tables and cushions … Chaol also knew she was well aware of the rest.
He took up a seat on the rolled arm of a chair, leaning the cane beside it, and waited.
Yrene whirled toward him, stunning in that purple gown, which had nearly knocked his knees from beneath him when she’d first emerged from the tent. Not just for how well it suited her, but the swaths of supple skin. The curves. The light and color of her.
“Before you begin shouting,” Yrene declared, “I should say that what just happened is proof that I should not be marrying a prince.”
Chaol crossed his arms. “Having lived with a prince for most of my life, I’d say quite the opposite.”
She waved a hand, pacing more. “I know it was stupid.” “Incredibly.”
Yrene hissed—not at him. The memory. The temper. “I don’t regret doing it.”
A smile tugged on his mouth. “It’s an image I’ll likely remember for the rest of my life.”
He would. The way Hasar’s feet had gone over her head, her shrieking face right before she hit the water—
“How can you be so amused?”
“Oh, I’m not.” His lips indeed curved. “But it’s certainly entertaining to see that temper of yours turned on someone other than me.”
“I don’t have a temper.”
He raised a brow. “I have known a fair number of people with tempers, and yours, Yrene Towers, ranks among the finest of them.”
“Like Aelin Galathynius.”
A shadow passed over him. “She would have greatly enjoyed the sight of Hasar flipping into the pool.”
“Is she really marrying that Fae Prince?” “Maybe. Likely.”
“Are you—upset about it?”
And though she asked it casually, that healer’s mask a portrait of calm curiosity, he selected his words carefully.
“Aelin was very important to me. She still is—though in a different way. And for a while … it was not easy, to change the dreams I’d planned for my future. Especially the dreams with her.”
Yrene angled her head, the lantern light dancing in her soft curls. “Why?”
“Because when I met Aelin, when I fell in love with her, she was not … She went by another name. Another title and identity. And things between us fell apart before I knew the truth, but … I think I knew. When I learned she was truly Aelin. I knew that between her and Dorian, I …”
“You would never leave Adarlan. Or him.”
He fiddled with the cane beside him, running his hands over the smooth wood. “She knew it, too, I think. Long before I did. But she still … She left, at one point. It’s a long story, but she went off to Wendlyn alone. And that was where she met Prince Rowan. And out of respect to me, because we had not truly ended it, she waited. For him. They both did. And when she came back to Rifthold, it ended. Between us, I mean. Officially. Badly. I handled it badly, and she did, too, and it just … We made our peace, before we parted ways months ago. And they left together. As it should be. They are … If you ever meet them, you’ll get it. Like Hasar, she isn’t an easy person to be with, to understand. Aelin frightens everyone.” He snorted. “But not him. I think that’s why she fell in love with him, against her best intentions. Rowan beheld all Aelin was and is, and he was not afraid.”
Yrene was quiet for a moment. “But you were?”
“It was a … rough period for me. Everything I knew was trampled. Everything. And she … I think I placed the blame for a great deal of it upon her. Began to see her as a monster.”
“It depends on who’s telling the story, I suppose.” Chaol studied the intricate pattern of the red-and-green rug beneath his boots. “But I don’t think so. There is no one else that I would trust to handle this war. No one else I would trust to take on all of Morath but Aelin. Even Dorian. If there’s some way to win, she’ll find it. The costs might be high, but she’ll do it.” He shook his head. “And it’s your birthday. We should probably talk of nicer things.”
Yrene didn’t smile. “You waited for her while she was gone. Didn’t you? Even knowing what—who—she really was.”
He hadn’t admitted it, even to himself.
His throat tightened. “Yes.”
She now studied that woven carpet beneath them. “But you—you don’t still love her?”
“No,” he said, and had never meant anything more. He added softly, “Or Nesryn.”
Her brows rose at that, but he wrapped a hand around the cane, groaning softly as he pushed to his feet and made his way toward her. She tracked each movement, unable to set aside the healing, her eyes darting over his legs, his middle, the way he gripped the cane.
Chaol halted a step away, pulling a small bundle out of his pocket. Silently, he extended it to her, the black velvet like the rippling dunes beyond them.
He only held out the folded piece of fabric. “They didn’t have a box I liked, so I just used the cloth—”
Yrene took it from his hand, her fingers shaking slightly as she folded back the edges of the bundle that he’d been carrying all day.
In the lantern light, the silver locket shimmered and danced as she lifted it up between her fingers, eyes wide. “I can’t take this.”
“You’d better,” he said as she lowered the oval locket into her palm to examine it. “I had your initials carved onto it.”
Indeed, she was already tracing the swirling letters he’d asked the jeweler in Antica to engrave on the front. She turned it over to the back—
Yrene put a hand to her throat, right over that scar. “Mountains. And seas,” she whispered.
“So you never forget that you climbed them and crossed them. That you
—only you—got yourself here.”
She let out a small, soft laugh—a sound of pure joy. He couldn’t let himself identify the other sound within it.
“I bought it,” Chaol clarified instead, “so you could keep whatever it is you always carry in your pocket inside. So you don’t have to keep moving it from dress to dress. Whatever it is.”
Surprise lighted her eyes. “You know?”
“I don’t know what it is, but I see you holding something in there all the time.”
He’d calculated that it was small, and based the locket’s size upon it. He’d never seen an indentation or weight in her pockets to suggest its bulk, and had studied other objects she’d placed within there while working on him—papers, vials—against the utter flatness of it. Perhaps it was a lock of hair, some small stone—
“It’s nothing as fine as a party in the desert—”
“No one has given me a gift since I was eleven.” Since her mother.
“A birthday gift, I mean,” she clarified. “I …”
She slid the locket’s fine silver chain over her head, the links catching in the stray, luscious curls. He watched her lift the mass of her hair over the chain, setting it dangling down to the edge of her breasts. Against the honey-brown of her skin, the locket was like quicksilver. She traced her slim fingers over the engraved surface.
Chaol’s chest tightened as she lifted her head, and he found silver lining her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
He shrugged, unable to come up with a response.
Yrene only walked over, and he braced himself, readied himself, as her hands cupped his face. As she stared into his eyes.
“I am glad,” she whispered, “that you do not love that queen. Or Nesryn.”
His heart thundered through every inch of him.
Yrene rose onto her toes and pressed a kiss, light as a caress, to his mouth. Never breaking his stare.
He read the unspoken words there. He wondered if she read the ones not voiced by him, either.
“I will cherish it always,” Yrene said, and he knew she wasn’t talking about the locket. Not as she lowered a hand from his face to his chest. Atop his raging heart. “No matter what may befall the world.” Another featherlight kiss. “No matter the oceans, or mountains, or forests in the way.”
Any leash on himself snapped. Letting his cane thump to the floor, Chaol drifted a hand around her waist, his thumb stroking along the sliver of bare skin the dress revealed. The other he plunged into that luxurious, heavy hair, cupping the back of her head as he tilted her face upward. As he studied those brown-gold eyes, the emotion simmering in them.
“I am glad that I do not love them, either, Yrene Towers,” he whispered onto her lips.
Then his mouth was on hers, and she opened for him, the heat and silk of her driving a groan from deep in his throat.
Her hands speared into his hair, onto his shoulders, across his chest and up his neck. As if she could not touch enough of him.
Chaol reveled in the fingers she dug into his clothes, as if they were claws seeking purchase. He slid his tongue against hers, and her moan as
she pushed herself against him—
Chaol backed them toward the bed, its white sheets near-glowing in the lantern light, not caring that his steps were uneven, staggering. Not with that dress little more than cobwebs and mist, not when he never took his mouth from hers, remained unable to take his mouth from hers.
Yrene’s knees hit the mattress behind them, and she drew her lips away enough to protest, “Your back—”
“I’ll manage.” He slanted his mouth over hers again, her kiss searing him to his very soul.
His. She was his, and he had never had anything he could call such.
Wanted to call such.
Chaol couldn’t bring himself to rip his mouth away from Yrene’s long enough to ask if she considered him hers. To explain that he already knew his own answer. Had perhaps known from the moment she’d walked into that sitting room and did not look at him with an ounce of pity or sadness.
He nudged her with a press of his hips, and she let him lay her upon the bed gently—reverently.
Her reach for him, hauling him atop her, was anything but.
Chaol huffed a laugh against her warm neck, the skin softer than silk, as she scrabbled with his buttons, his buckles. She writhed against him, and as he settled his weight over her, every hard part of him lining up with so many soft parts of her …
He was going to fly out of his skin.
Yrene’s breath was sharp and ragged against his ear, her hands tugging desperately at his shirt, trying to slide to his back beneath.
“I’d think you were sick of touching my back.”
She shut him up with a plundering kiss that made him forget language for a while.
Forget about his name and his title and everything but her. Yrene.
She moaned when he slid a hand up her thigh, baring her skin beneath the folds of that gown. When he did it to the other leg. When he nipped at her mouth and traced idle circles with his fingers over those beautiful thighs, starting along their outer edge and arcing over—
Yrene did not appreciate being toyed with.
Not as she wrapped a hand around him, and his entire body bowed into the touch, the sensation of it. Not just a hand stroking over him, but Yrene doing it—
He couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but taste and touch and yield. And yet—
He found words. Found language again. Long enough to ask, “Have you ever—”
“Yes.” The word was a rough pant. “Once.”
Chaol shoved against the ripple of darkness, the line on that throat. He only kissed it instead. Licked it. Then asked against her skin, his mouth skirting up her jaw, “Do you want to—”
But he made himself pause. Made himself rise to look at her face, his hands on her sleek thighs and her hand still gripping him, stroking him. “Yes, then?”
Yrene’s eyes were gold flame. “Yes,” she breathed. She leaned up, kissed him gently. Not lightly, but sweetly. Openly. “Yes.”
A shudder wracked through him at the words, and he gripped her thigh right where it met her hip. Yrene released him to lift her hips, dragging herself over him. Feeling him, with only the thin gossamer panel of her gown between them. Nothing beneath.
Chaol slid it to the side, bunching the material at her waist. He dipped his head, eager to look his fill, then to touch and taste and learn what made Yrene Towers lose control entirely—
“Later,” Yrene begged hoarsely. “Later.”
He couldn’t bring himself to deny her anything. This woman who held everything he was, all he had left, in her beautiful hands.
So Chaol removed his shirt, his pants following with a few, trickier maneuvers. Then he removed that dress of hers, leaving it in scraps on the floor beside the bed.
Until Yrene only wore that locket. Until Chaol surveyed every inch of her and found himself unable to breathe.
“I will cherish it always,” Chaol whispered as he slid into her, slow and deep. Pleasure rippled down his spine. “No matter what may befall the world.” Yrene kissed his neck, his shoulder, his jaw. “No matter the oceans, or mountains, or forests in the way.”
Chaol held Yrene’s stare as he stilled, letting her adjust. Letting himself adjust to the sensation that the entire axis of the world had shifted. Looking into those eyes of hers, swimming with brightness, he wondered if she felt it, too.
But Yrene kissed him again, in answer and silent demand. And as Chaol began to move in her, he realized that here, amongst the dunes and stars …
Here, in the heart of a foreign land … Here, with her, he was home.