Empire of Storms

Storms waylaid Nesryn and Sartaq on their way out of the northern Asimil Mountains.

Upon awakening, the prince had taken one look at the bruised clouds and ordered Nesryn to secure everything she could on their rocky outcropping. Kadara shifted from clawed foot to clawed foot, rustling her wings as her golden eyes monitored the storm galloping in.

That high up, the crack of thunder echoed off every rock and crevice, and as Nesryn and Sartaq sat pressed against the stone wall beneath the overhang, winds lashing them, she could have sworn even the mountain beneath shuddered. But Kadara held fast against the storm, settling herself in front of them, a veritable wall of white and golden feathers.

Still the icy rain managed to find them, freezing Nesryn down to her bones even with the thick ruk leathers and heavy wool blanket Sartaq insisted she wrap around herself. Her teeth chattered violently enough to make her jaw hurt, and her hands were so numb and raw that she kept them tucked beneath her armpits just to savor any scrap of warmth.

Even before magic had vanished, Nesryn had never longed for magical gifts. And after magic had disappeared, after the decrees banning it and the terrible hunts for those who had once wielded it, Nesryn hadn’t dared to even think about magic. She’d been content to practice her archery, to learn

how to wield knives and swords, to master her body until it, too, was a weapon. Magic had failed, she’d told her father and sister whenever they asked. Good steel would not.

Yet sitting on that cliff, whipped by the wind and rain until she couldn’t remember what warmth felt like, Nesryn found herself wishing for a spark of flame in her veins. Or at least for a certain Fire-Bringer to come swaggering around the corner of the cliff to warm them.

But Aelin was far away—unaccounted for, if Hasar’s report was to be believed, which Nesryn did. The true question was whether Aelin and her court’s vanishing were due to some awful play by Morath, or some scheme of the queen herself.

Having seen what Aelin was capable of in Rifthold, the plans she’d laid out and enacted without any of them knowing … Nesryn’s money was on Aelin. The queen would show up when and where she wished—at precisely the moment she intended. Nesryn supposed that was why she liked the queen: there were plans so long in the making that for someone who let the world deem her unchecked and brash, Aelin showed a great deal of restraint in keeping it all hidden.

And as that storm raged around Nesryn and Sartaq, she wondered if Aelin Galathynius might yet have some card up her sleeve that even her court might not know about. She prayed Aelin did. For all their sakes.

But magic had failed before, Nesryn reminded herself as her teeth clacked against each other. And she’d do everything she could to find a way to fight Morath without it.

It was hours before the storm at last lumbered off to terrorize other parts of the world, Sartaq only easing to his feet when Kadara fanned her feathers, shaking off the rain. Spraying them in the process, but Nesryn was

in no position to complain, when the ruk had taken the brunt of the storm’s wrath for them.

Of course, it also left the saddle damp, which in turn led to a fairly uncomfortable ride as they soared down the brisk, clean winds from the mountains and into the sprawling grasslands below.

With the delay, they were forced to camp for another night, this time in a copse of trees, again with not so much as an ember to warm them. Nesryn kept her mouth shut about it—the cold that lingered along her bones, the roots that dug into her back through the bedroll, the empty pit in her stomach that fruit and dried meat and day-old bread couldn’t fill.

Sartaq, to his credit, gave her his blankets and asked if she wanted a change of his clothes. But she barely knew him, she realized. This man she’d flown off with, this prince with his sulde and sharp-eyed ruk … He was little more than a stranger.

Such things didn’t usually bother her. Working for the city guard, she’d dealt with strangers every day, in various states of awfulness or panic. The pleasant encounters had been few and far between, particularly in the past six months, when darkness had crept over the city and hunted beneath it.

But with Sartaq … As Nesryn shivered all night long, she wondered if she’d perhaps been a tad hasty in coming here, possible alliance or no.

Her limbs ached and eyes burned when the gray light of dawn trickled through the slim pines. Kadara was already stirring, eager to be off, and Nesryn and Sartaq exchanged less than a half-dozen sentences before they were airborne for the last leg of their journey.

They’d been flying for two hours, the winds growing crisper the farther south they sailed, when Sartaq said in her ear, “That way.” He pointed due

east. “Fly half a day in that direction, and you will reach the northern edges of the steppes. The heartland of the Darghan.”

“Do you visit often?”

A pause. He said over the wind, “Kashin holds their loyalty. And— Tumelun.” The way he spoke his sister’s name implied enough. “But the rukhin and the Darghan were once one and the same. We chased down the ruks atop our Muniqi horses, tracked them deep into the Tavan Mountains.” He pointed to the southeast as Kadara shifted, aiming for the towering, jagged mountains that clawed at the sky. They were peppered with forests, some peaks capped in snow. “And when we tamed the ruks, some of the horse-lords chose not to return down to the steppes.”

“Which is why so many of your traditions remain the same,” Nesryn observed, glancing down at the sulde strapped to the saddle. The drop far, far below loomed, dried grasses swaying like a golden sea, carved by thin, twining rivers.

She quickly looked ahead toward the mountains. Though she’d grown mostly accustomed to the idea of how very little stood between her and death atop this ruk, reminding herself of it did nothing to settle her stomach. “Yes,” Sartaq said. “It is also why our riders often band with the

Darghan in war. Our fighting techniques differ, but we mostly know how to work together.”

“A cavalry below and aerial coverage above,” Nesryn said, trying not to sound too interested. “Have you ever gone to war?”

The prince was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Not on the scale of what is being unleashed in your land. Our father ensures that the territories within our empire are well aware that loyalty is rewarded. And resistance is answered with death.”

Ice skittered down her spine.

Sartaq went on, “So I have been dispatched twice now to remind certain restless territories of that cold truth.” A hot breath at her ear. “Then there are the clans within the rukhin themselves. Ancient rivalries that I have learned to navigate, and conflicts I have had to smooth over.”

The hard way, he didn’t add. He instead said, “As a city guard, you must have dealt with such things.”

She snorted at the thought. “I was mostly on patrol—rarely promoted.”

“Considering your skill with a bow, I would have thought you ran the entire place.”

Nesryn smiled. Charmer. Beneath that unfailingly sure exterior, Sartaq was certainly a shameless flirt. But she considered his implied question, though she had known the answer for years. “Adarlan is not as … open as the khaganate when it comes to embracing the role of women in the ranks of its guards or armies,” she admitted. “While I might be skilled, men usually were promoted. So I was left to rot on patrol duty at the walls or busy streets. Handling the underworld or nobility was left for more important guards. And ones whose families hailed from Adarlan.”

Her sister had raged anytime it happened, but Nesryn had known that if she’d exploded to her superiors, if she’d challenged them … They were the sort of men who would tell her to be grateful to be admitted at all, then demand she turn in her sword and uniform. So she’d figured it was better to remain, to be passed over, not for mere pay, but for the fact that there were so few other guards like her, helping those who needed it most. It was for them she stayed on, kept her head down while lesser men were appointed.

“Ah.” Another beat of quiet from the prince. “I’ve heard they were not so welcoming toward people from other lands.”

“To say the least.” The words were colder than she’d meant. And yet that was where her father had insisted they live, thinking it offered some sort of better life. Even when Adarlan had launched its wars to conquer the northern continent, he’d stayed—though her mother had tried to convince him to return to Antica, the city of her heart. Yet for whatever reason, perhaps stubbornness, perhaps defiance against the people who wanted to throw him out again, he’d stayed.

And Nesryn tried not to fault him for it, she really did. Her sister couldn’t understand it—Nesryn’s occasional, simmering anger on the topic. No, Delara had always loved Rifthold, loved the bustle of the city and thrived on winning over its hard-edged people. It had been no surprise that she’d married a man born and raised in the city itself. A true child of Adarlan—that’s what her sister was. At least, of what Adarlan had once been and might one day again become.

Kadara caught a swift wind and coasted along it, the world below passing in a blur as those towering mountains grew closer and closer. Sartaq asked quietly, “Were you ever—”

“It’s not worth talking about.” Not when she could sometimes still feel that rock as it collided with her head, hear the taunts of those children. She swallowed and added, “Your Highness.”

A low laugh. “So my title makes an appearance again.” But he didn’t press further. He only said, “I’m going to beg you not to call me Prince or Your Highness around the other riders.”

“You’re going to beg me, or you are?”

His arms tightened around her in mock warning. “It took me years to get them to stop asking if I needed my silk slippers or servants to brush my

hair.” Nesryn chuckled. “Amongst them, I am simply Sartaq.” He added, “Or Captain.”


“Another thing you and I have in common, it seems.”

Shameless flirt indeed. “But you rule all six ruk clans. They answer to you.”

“They do, and when we all gather, I am Prince. But amongst my family’s own clan, the Eridun, I captain their forces. And obey the word of my hearth-mother.” He squeezed her again for emphasis. “Which I’d advise you doing as well, if you don’t want to be stripped and tied to a cliff face in the middle of a storm.”

“Holy gods.” “Indeed.”

“Did she—”

“Yes. And as you said, it’s not worth talking about.”

But Nesryn chuckled again, surprised to find her face aching from smiling so often these past few minutes. “I appreciate the warning, Captain.”

The Tavan Mountains turned mammoth, a wall of dark gray stone higher than any she’d ever beheld in her own lands. Not that she’d seen many mountains up close. Her family had rarely ventured inland into Adarlan or its surrounding kingdoms—mostly because her father had been busy, but partially because the rural people in those areas did not take so well to outsiders. Even when their children had been born on Adarlanian soil, with an Adarlanian mother. Sometimes that latter fact had been more enraging to them.

Nesryn only prayed that the rukhin would be more welcoming.



In all her father’s stories, the descriptions of the aeries of the rukhin somehow still did not convey the sheer impossibility of what had been built into the sides and atop three towering peaks clustered in the heart of the Tavan Mountains.

It was no assortment of gir—framed, wide tents—that the horse-clans moved about the steppes. No, the Eridun aerie had been hewn into the stone, houses and halls and chambers, many of them originally nests for the ruks themselves.

Some of those nests remained, usually near a ruk’s rider and their family, so the birds could be summoned at a moment’s notice. Either through a whistled command or by someone climbing the countless rope ladders anchored to the stone itself, allowing movement between various homes and caves—though internal stairwells had also been built within the peaks themselves, mostly for the elderly and children.

The homes themselves each came equipped with a broad cave mouth for the ruks to land, the living quarters hewn behind them. A few windows dotted the rock face here and there, markers of rooms hidden behind the stone, and drawing fresh air to the chambers within.

Not that they needed much more fresh air here. The wind was a river between the three close-knit peaks that housed Sartaq’s hearth-clan, full of ruks of various sizes soaring or flapping or diving. Nesryn tried and failed to count the dwellings carved into the mountains. There had to be hundreds here. And perhaps more lay within the mountains themselves.

“This—this is only one clan?” Her first words in hours.

Kadara soared up the face of the centermost peak. Nesryn slid back in the saddle, Sartaq’s body a warm wall behind her as he leaned forward,

guiding her to do so as well. His thighs bracketed hers, the muscles shifting beneath as he kept their balance with the stirrups. “The Eridun is one of the largest—the oldest, if we’re to be believed.”

“You’re not?” The aerie around them had indeed seemed to have existed for untold ages.

“Every clan claims it is the oldest and first among riders.” A laugh that rumbled into her body. “When there is a Gathering, you should only hear the arguments about it. You’re better off to insult a man about his wife than to tell him to his face that your clan is the eldest.”

Nesryn smiled, even as she squeezed her eyes shut against the sheer drop behind her. Kadara aimed, swift and unfaltering, for the broadest of overhangs—a veranda, she realized as the ruk banked toward it. People were already standing just beneath the enormous arch of the cave mouth, arms raised in greeting.

She felt Sartaq’s smile at her ear. “There lies the Mountain-Hall of Altun, the home of my hearth-mother and my family.” Altun—Windhaven, was the rough translation. It was indeed larger than any other dwelling amid the three peaks: the Dorgos, or Three Singers, they were called—the cave itself at least forty feet tall and thrice as wide. Far within, she could just make out pillars and what indeed seemed to be a massive hall.

“The reception court—where we host our meetings and celebrations,” Sartaq explained, his arms tightening around her just as Kadara back-flapped. Squeezing her eyes shut again in front of the awaiting people would certainly not win her any admiration, but—

Nesryn gripped the saddle horn with one hand, the other clenching Sartaq’s knee, braced behind hers. Hard enough to bruise.

The prince only laughed quietly. “So the famed archer does have a weakness, then.”

“I’ll find out yours soon enough,” Nesryn countered, earning another soft laugh in reply.

The ruk mercifully made a smooth landing on the polished dark stone of the almost-balcony, those waiting at the entrance bracing themselves against the wind off her wings.

Then they were still, and Nesryn quickly straightened, releasing her death-grip on both saddle and prince to behold a hall full of pillars of carved, painted wood. The braziers burning throughout cast the gold paint glinting amongst the green and red, and thick carpets in bold, striking patterns covered much of the stone floor, interrupted only by a round table and what seemed to be a small dais against one of the far walls. And beyond it, the gloom brightened by bracketed torches, a hallway flowed into the mountain itself. Lined with doors.

But in the very center of the Mountain-Hall of Altun: a fire.

The pit had been carved into the floor, so deep and wide that layers of broad steps led down to it. Like a small amphitheater—the main entertainment not a stage but the flame itself. The hearth.

It was indeed a domain fit for the Winged Prince.

Nesryn squared her shoulders as people young and old pressed forward, smiling broadly. Some were clad in familiar riding leathers, some wore beautifully colored, heavy wool coats that flowed to their knees. Most possessed Sartaq’s silken onyx hair and wind-chapped, golden-brown skin.

“Well, well,” drawled a young woman in a cobalt-and-ruby coat, tapping her booted foot on the smooth rock floor as she peered up at them. Nesryn forced herself to keep still, to endure that sweeping stare. The young

woman’s twin braids, tied with bands of red leather, fell well past her breasts, and she brushed one over a shoulder as she said, “Look who decided to give up his fur muff and oiled baths to join us once more.”

Nesryn schooled her face into careful calm. But Sartaq just dropped Kadara’s reins, the prince giving Nesryn a distinct I told you so look before he said down to the girl, “Don’t pretend that you haven’t been praying I bring back more of those pretty silk slippers for you, Borte.”

Nesryn bit her lip to keep from smiling, though the others certainly showed no such restraint as their chuckles rumbled off the dark stones.

Borte crossed her arms. “I suppose you’d know where to buy them, since you’re so fond of wearing them yourself.”

Sartaq laughed, the sound rich and merry.

It was an effort not to gawk. He had not made such a laugh, not once, at the palace.

And when had she last made such a bright sound? Even with her aunt and uncle, her laughter had been restrained, as if some invisible damper lay over her. Perhaps long before that, stretching back to days when she was only a city guard with no idea what crawled through the sewers of Rifthold.

Sartaq smoothly dismounted Kadara and offered a hand to help Nesryn down.

It was the hand he lifted that made the dozen or so gathered notice her— study her. None more closely than Borte.

Another shrewd, weighing look. Seeing the leathers, but none of the features that marked her as one of them.

She’d dealt with the judgment of strangers long before now—this was nothing new. Even if she now stood in the gilded halls of Altun, amongst the rukhin.

Ignoring Sartaq’s offered hand, Nesryn forced her stiff body to smoothly slide one leg over the saddle and dismounted herself. Her knees popped at the impact, but she managed to land lightly, and didn’t let herself touch her hair—which she was certain was a rat’s nest despite her short braid.

A faint gleam of approval entered Borte’s dark eyes just before the girl jerked her chin toward Nesryn. “A Balruhni woman in the leathers of a rukhin. Now, there’s a sight.”

Sartaq didn’t answer. He only glanced in Nesryn’s direction. An invitation. And challenge.

So Nesryn slipped her hands into the pockets of her close-fitting pants and sauntered to the prince’s side. “Will it be improved if I tell you I caught Sartaq filing his nails this morning?”

Borte stared at Nesryn, blinking once. Then she tipped back her head and howled.

Sartaq threw an approving yet beleaguered glance in Nesryn’s direction before saying, “Meet my hearth-sister, Borte. Granddaughter and heir of my hearth-mother, Houlun.” He reached between them to tug one of Borte’s braids. She batted his hand away. “Borte, meet Captain Nesryn Faliq.” He paused for a breath, then added, “Of the Royal Guard of Adarlan.”

Silence. Borte’s arched dark brows rose.

An aging man in rukhin leathers pressed forward. “But what is more unusual: that a Balruhni woman is their captain, or that a captain of Adarlan has ventured so far?”

Borte waved the man off. “Always the idle chatter and questions with you,” she scolded him. And to Nesryn’s shock, the man winced and shut his mouth. “The real question is …” A sly grin at Sartaq. “Does she come as emissary or bride?”

Any attempt at a steady, cool, calm appearance vanished as Nesryn gaped at the girl. Right as Sartaq snapped, “Borte.”

Borte gave a downright wicked grin. “Sartaq never brings such pretty ladies home—from Adarlan or Antica. Be careful walking around the cliff edges, Captain Faliq, or some of the girls here might give you a shove.”

“Will you be one of them?” Nesryn’s voice remained unruffled, even if her face had heated.

Borte scowled. “I should think not.” Some of the others laughed again.

“As my hearth-sister,” Sartaq explained, leading Nesryn toward the cluster of low-backed chairs near the lip of the fire pit, “I consider Borte a blood relative. Like my own sister.”

Borte’s devilish grin faded as she fell into step alongside Sartaq. “How fares your family?”

Sartaq’s face was unreadable, save for the faint flicker in those dark eyes. “Busy,” was all he said. A nonanswer.

But Borte nodded, as if she knew his moods and inclinations well, and kept quiet while Sartaq escorted Nesryn into a carved and painted wooden chair. The heat from the blazing fire was delicious, and she nearly groaned as she stretched out her frozen feet toward it.

Borte hissed. “You couldn’t get your sweetheart a proper pair of boots, Sartaq?”

Sartaq growled in warning, but Nesryn frowned at her supple leather boots. They’d been more expensive than any she’d ever dared purchase for herself, but Dorian Havilliard had insisted. Part of the uniform, he’d told her with a wink.

She wondered if he still smiled so freely, or spent as generously, wherever he was.

But she glanced toward Borte, whose boots were leather, yet thicker— lined with what seemed to be thickest sheepskin. Definitely better-equipped for the chilly altitudes.

“I’m sure you can dig up a pair somewhere,” Sartaq said to his hearth-sister, and Nesryn twisted in her chair while the two of them drifted back toward where Kadara waited.

The people pressed in around Sartaq, murmuring too softly for Nesryn to hear from across the hall. But the prince spoke with easy smiles, talking while he unloaded their packs, handing them off to whoever was closest, and then unsaddled Kadara.

He gave the golden ruk a stroke down her neck, then a solid thump on her side—and then Kadara was gone, flapping into the open air beyond the cave mouth.

Nesryn debated going over to them, offering to help with the packs that were now being hauled through the chamber and into the hallway beyond, but the heat creeping up her body had sapped the strength from her legs.

Sartaq and Borte appeared, the others dispersing, just as Nesryn noticed the man sitting near a brazier across the hall. A cup curling with steam sat on the small, wooden table beside his chair, and though there seemed to be an open scroll in his lap, his eyes remained fixed on her.

She didn’t know what to remark upon: that while his skin was tan, it was clear that he did not hail from the southern continent; that his short brown hair was far from the long, silken braids of the ruk riders; or that his clothes seemed more akin to Adarlan’s jackets and pants.

Only a dagger hung at his side, and while he was broad-shouldered and fit, he didn’t possess the self-assured swagger, the pitiless surety of a

warrior. He was perhaps in his late forties, pale white lines etched at the corner of his eyes, where he’d squinted in the sun or wind.

Borte led Sartaq around the fire pit, past the various pillars, and right to the man, who got to his feet and bowed. He stood roughly at Sartaq’s height, and even from across the hall, with the crackling fire and groaning wind, Nesryn could make out his shoddy Halha: “It is an honor, Prince.”

Borte snorted.

Sartaq just gave a curt nod and replied in the northern language, “I’m told you have been a guest of our hearth-mother for the past few weeks.”

“She was gracious enough to welcome me here, yes.” The man sounded slightly relieved to be using his native tongue. A glance toward Nesryn. She didn’t bother to pretend she wasn’t listening. “I couldn’t help but overhear what I thought was mention of a captain from Adarlan.”

“Captain Faliq oversees the royal guard.”

The man didn’t take his eyes off Nesryn as he murmured, “Does she, now.”

Nesryn only held his stare from across the room. Go ahead. Gawk all you like.

Sartaq asked sharply, “And your name?”

The man dragged his gaze back to the prince. “Falkan Ennar.” Borte said to Sartaq in Halha, “He is a merchant.”

And if he’d come from the northern continent … Nesryn slid to her feet, her steps near-silent as she approached. She made sure they were, as Falkan watched her the entire way, running an eye over her from foot to head. Made sure he noted that the grace with which she moved was not some feminine gift, but from training that had taught her how to creep up on others undetected.

Falkan stiffened as if he finally realized it. And understood that the dagger at his side would be of little use against her, if he was stupid enough to pull something.

Good. It made him smarter than a great number of men in Rifthold. Stopping a casual distance away, Nesryn asked the merchant, “Have you any news?”

Up close, the eyes she’d mistaken for dark were a midnight sapphire.

He’d likely been moderately handsome in his youth. “News of what?” “Of Adarlan. Of … anything.”

Falkan stood with remarkable stillness—a man perhaps used to holding his ground in a bargain. “I wish that I could offer you any, Captain, but I have been in the southern continent for over two years now. You probably have more news than I do.” A subtle request.

And one that would go unanswered. She was not about to blab her kingdom’s business for all to hear. So Nesryn just shrugged and turned back toward the fire pit across the hall.

“Before I left the northern continent,” Falkan said as she strode away, “a young man named Westfall was the Captain of the Royal Guard. Are you his replacement?”

Careful. She indeed had to be so, so careful not to reveal too much. To him, to anyone. “Lord Westfall is now Hand to King Dorian Havilliard.”

Shock slackened the merchant’s face. She marked it—every tick and flicker. No joy or relief, but no anger, either. Just … surprise. Honest, bald surprise. “Dorian Havilliard is king?”

At Nesryn’s raised brows, Falkan explained, “I have been in the deep wilds for months now. News does not come swiftly. Or often.”

“An odd place to be selling your goods,” Sartaq murmured. Nesryn was inclined to agree.

Falkan merely gave the prince a tight smile. A man with secrets of his own, then.

“It has been a long journey,” Borte cut in, looping her arm through Nesryn’s and turning her toward the dim hallway beyond. “Captain Faliq needs refreshment. And a bath.”

Nesryn wasn’t certain whether to thank the young woman or begrudge her for interrupting, but … Her stomach was indeed an aching pit. And it had been a long while since she’d bathed.

Neither Sartaq nor Falkan stopped them, though their murmuring resumed as Borte escorted her into the hallway that shot straight into the mountain itself. Wooden doors lined it, some open to reveal small bedchambers—even a little library.

“He is a strange man,” Borte said in Halha. “My grandmother refuses to speak of why he came here—what he seeks.”

Nesryn lifted a brow. “Trade, perhaps?”

Borte shook her head, opening a door halfway down the hall. The room was small, a narrow bed tucked against one wall, the other occupied by a trunk and a wooden chair. The far wall held a washbasin and ewer, along with a pile of soft-looking cloths. “We have no goods to sell. We are usually the merchants—ferrying goods across the continent. Our clan here, not so much, but some of the others … Their aeries are full of treasures from every territory.” She toed the rickety bed and frowned. “Not this old junk.”

Nesryn chuckled. “Perhaps he wishes to assist you in expanding, then.”

Borte turned, braids swaying. “No. He doesn’t meet with anyone, or seem interested in that.” A shrug. “It matters little. Only that he is here.”

Nesryn folded away the tidbits of information. He didn’t seem like one of Morath’s agents, but who knew how far the arm of Erawan now stretched? If it had reached Antica, then it was possible it had delved into the continent. She’d be on her guard—had no doubt Sartaq already was.

Borte twirled the end of a braid around a finger. “I saw the way you sized him up. You don’t think he’s here for business, either.”

Nesryn weighed the merits of admitting the truth, and opted for, “These are strange days for all of us—I have learned not to take men on their word. Or appearance.”

Borte dropped her braid. “No wonder Sartaq brought you home. You sound just like him.”

Nesryn hid her smile, not bothering to say that she found such a thing to be a compliment.

Borte sniffed, waving to the room. “Not as fine as the khagan’s palace, but better than sleeping on one of Sartaq’s shitty bedrolls.”

Nesryn smiled. “Any bed is better than that, I suppose.”

Borte smirked. “I meant what I said. You need a bath. And a comb.”

Nesryn at last raised a hand to her hair and winced. Tangles and knots and more tangles. Just getting it out of the braid would be a nightmare.

“Even Sartaq braids better than that,” Borte teased.

Nesryn sighed. “Despite my sister’s best efforts to teach me, I’m useless when it comes to such things.” She offered the girl a wink. “Why do you think I keep my hair so short?”

Indeed, her sister had practically fainted when Nesryn had come home one afternoon at age fifteen with hair cut to her collarbone. She’d kept the hair that length ever since—in part to piss off Delara, who still pouted about it, and partially because it was far easier to deal with. Wielding blades and

arrows was one thing, but styling hair … She was hopeless. And showing up at the guards’ barracks with a pretty hairstyle would not have been well received.

Borte only gave Nesryn a curt nod—as if she seemed to realize that. “Before you fly the next time, I’ll braid it properly for you.” Then she pointed down the hall, to a set of narrow stairs that led into the gloom. “Baths are this way.”

Nesryn sniffed herself and cringed. “Oh, that’s awful.”

Borte snickered as Nesryn entered the hall. “I’m surprised Sartaq’s eyes weren’t watering.”

Nesryn chuckled as she followed her toward what she prayed was a boiling-hot bath. She again felt Borte’s sharp, assessing gaze and asked, “What?”

“You grew up in Adarlan, didn’t you?”

Nesryn considered the question, why it might be asked. “Yes. I was born and raised in Rifthold, though my father’s family comes from Antica.”

Borte was quiet for a few steps. But as they reached the narrow stairwell and stepped into the dim interior, Borte smiled over a shoulder at Nesryn. “Then welcome home.”

Nesryn wondered if those words might be the most beautiful she’d ever heard.



The baths were ancient copper tubs that had to be filled kettle by kettle, but Nesryn didn’t object as she finally slid into one.

An hour later, hair finally detangled and brushed out, she found herself seated at the massive round table in the great hall, shoveling roast rabbit into her mouth, nestled in thick, warm clothes that had been donated by

Borte herself. The flashes of embroidered cobalt and daffodil on the sleeves snared Nesryn’s attention as much as the platters of roast meats before her. Beautiful clothes—layered and toasty against the chill that permeated the hall, even with the fires. And her toes … Borte had indeed found a pair of those fleece-lined boots for her.

Sartaq sat beside Nesryn at the empty table, equally silent and eating with as much enthusiasm. He had yet to bathe, though his windblown hair had been rebraided, the long plait falling down the center of his muscled back.

As her belly began to fill and her fingers slowed their picking, Nesryn glanced toward the prince. She found him smiling faintly. “Better than grapes and salted pork?”

She jerked her chin toward the bones littering her plate in silent answer, then to the grease on her fingers. Would it be uncouth to lick it off? The seasonings had been exquisite.

“My hearth-mother,” he said, that smile fading, “is not here.”

Nesryn paused her eating. They’d come here to seek the counsel of this woman—

“According to Borte, she will be returning tomorrow or the day after.”

She waited for more. Silence could be just as effective as spoken questions.

Sartaq pushed back his plate and braced his arms on the table. “I’m aware that you’re pressed for time. If I could, I’d go look for her myself, but even Borte wasn’t sure where she’d gone off to. Houlun is … adrift like that. Sees her sulde waving in the wind and takes her ruk out to chase it. And will whack us with it if we try to stop her.” A gesture toward the rack of spears near the cave mouth, Sartaq’s own sulde among them.

Nesryn smiled at that. “She sounds like an interesting woman.”

“She is. In some ways, I’m closer to her than …” The words trailed off, and he shook his head. Than his own mother. Indeed, Nesryn hadn’t witnessed him being nearly so open, so teasing with his own siblings, as he was with Borte.

“I can wait,” Nesryn said at last, trying not to wince. “Lord Westfall still needs time to heal, and I told him I’d be gone three weeks. I can wait a day or two more.” And please, gods, not another moment after it.

Sartaq nodded, tapping a finger on the ancient wood of the table. “Tonight, we will rest, but tomorrow …” A hint of a smile. “How would you like a tour tomorrow?”

“It would be an honor.”

Sartaq’s smile grew. “Perhaps we could also do a bit of archery practice.” He looked her over with a frankness that made her shift in her seat. “I’m certainly keen to match myself against Neith’s Arrow, and I’m sure the young warriors are, too.”

Nesryn pushed back her own plate, brows lifting. “They’ve heard of me?”

Sartaq grinned. “I might have told a story or two the last time I came here. Why do you think there were so many people gathered when we arrived? They certainly don’t usually bother to drag themselves here to see me.”

“But Borte seemed like she’d never—”

“Does Borte seem like a person who gives anyone an easy time?” Something deeper in her warmed. “No. But how could they have known

I was coming?”

His answering grin was the portrait of princely arrogance. “Because I sent word a day before that you were likely to join me.”

Nesryn gaped at him, unable to maintain that mask of calm.

Rising, Sartaq scooped up their plates. “I told you that I was praying you’d join me, Nesryn Faliq. If I’d shown up empty-handed, Borte would have never let me hear the end of it.”

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