Yrene’s heart thundered as she knelt beside Chaol on the bed and watched his toes shift.
“Can you—feel that?”
Chaol was still staring as if he didn’t quite believe it. “I …” The words stalled in his throat.
“Can you control the movement?” He seemed to concentrate.
Then his toes stopped.
“Good,” she said, sitting upright to watch more closely. “Now move them.”
He again appeared to concentrate and concentrate, and then— Two toes curled. Then three on the other foot.
Yrene smiled—broadly, widely. Remained smiling as she turned her head toward him.
He only stared at her. Her smile. A sort of focused intensity falling across his features that made her go a bit still.
“How?” he asked.
“The—maybe when I got to you, when my magic blasted back darkness a little …” It had been terrible. To find him inside all that dark. The void, the cold, the shrieking pain and horror.
She had refused to acknowledge what it tried to show her at that wall, again and again: that terrible fortress, the fate that awaited her when she returned. She had refused to acknowledge it as she had struck the wall, her magic begging her to stop, to pull away.
Until … until she’d heard him. Far off and deeper within.
She’d blindly lunged, a spear-throw toward that sound. And there he’d been—or whatever it was of him. As if this was the core of the tether between man and injury, not the wall against the nerves far, far above.
She’d wrapped herself around it, hugging tight even as the darkness pounded in again and again. And in answer, she’d sent her magic slashing into it, a scythe of light into the dark. A torch that burned just a fraction.
Just enough, it seemed.
“This is good,” Yrene declared—perhaps uselessly. “This is wonderful.” Chaol was still staring at her as he said, “It is.”
She became aware of the blood on her—the state of her.
“Let’s start with this,” she said. “Do a few exercises before we stop for the day.”
What she had admitted about her mother … She had only told Hafiza upon entering the Torre. No one else. She had told no one else, not since she’d staggered onto her mother’s cousin’s farm and begged for sanctuary and shelter.
She wondered how long his own story had been locked in his chest.
“Let me order food first,” Yrene decided. She glanced toward the wood screen shielding the bathing room from sight, then down at her blood-crusted chest and dress. “While we wait … I might beg to use your bath. And borrow a set of your clothes.”
Chaol was still watching her with that focused, calm face. A different one from any she’d seen on him before. As if in shaving off some of that darkness, it had revealed this facet beneath.
This man she had not yet met.
She wasn’t sure what to do with it. With him.
“Take whatever you want,” Chaol told her, his voice low—rough.
Yrene was light-headed when she crawled off the bed, taking his ruined shirt with her, and hurried for the bathing chamber. From the blood loss, she told herself.
Even as she smiled throughout her bath.
“I can’t help but feel neglected, you know,” Hasar drawled as she pored over maps Yrene didn’t dare inquire about. From across the princess’s lavish receiving room, she couldn’t view them properly—and could only watch as Hasar moved several ivory figurines here and there, her dark brows scrunched in concentration.
“Renia, of course,” Hasar went on, sliding a figure two inches to the right and frowning, “says I should not expect so much of your time, but perhaps I’ve grown spoiled these two years.”
Yrene sipped her mint tea and did not comment one way or the other. Hasar had summoned her here upon learning that Yrene had been healing Lord Westfall all day, sending a servant to fetch her to the princess’s rooms, with the promise of some much-needed refreshments. And indeed, the carob cookies and tea had pushed back the tide of her exhaustion just a fraction.
Her friendship with the princess had been purely accidental. In one of Yrene’s first on-site lessons, Hafiza had brought her to tend to the princess,
who had returned from her seaside palace in the northeast to be treated for an unrelenting stomach pain. They were both of similar age, and during the hours that Hafiza went about removing a truly horrific tapeworm from the princess’s intestines, Hasar had ordered Yrene to talk.
So Yrene had, rambling about her lessons, occasionally mentioning the more disgusting moments of her year working at the White Pig. The princess particularly enjoyed her tales of the rather messier bar fights. Her favorite story to hear, which she’d ordered Yrene to narrate thrice during the days Hafiza had extracted the magically slaughtered tapeworm through her mouth—one orifice or the other, the Healer on High had told the princess—was of the young stranger who had saved Yrene’s life, taught her to defend herself, and left her a small fortune in gold and jewels.
Yrene had deemed it idle talk, not expecting the princess to remember her name once Hafiza had coaxed the last inches of the tapeworm from her body. But two days later, she’d been called to the princess’s rooms, where Hasar was busy stuffing her face with all manner of delicacies to make up for the weight she’d lost.
Too thin, she’d told Yrene by way of greeting. She needed a fatter ass for her lover to grip at night.
Yrene had burst out laughing—the first bit of true laughter she’d had in a long, long time.
Hasar had only smirked, offered Yrene some smoked fish from the river-rich lowlands, and that had been that. Perhaps not a friendship of equals, but Hasar seemed to enjoy her company, and Yrene was in no position to deny her.
So the princess made a point to summon Yrene whenever she was in Antica—and had eventually brought Renia to the palace, both to meet her
father and to meet Yrene. Renia, if Yrene was being honest, was far preferable to the demanding and sharp-tongued princess, but Hasar was prone to jealousy and territorialism, and often made sure Renia was kept well away from the court and would-be contenders for her affections.
Not that Renia had ever given cause for such a thing. No, the woman— older than Yrene by a month—only had eyes for the princess. Loved her with unflinching devotion.
Hasar called her a lady, had granted Renia lands within her own territory. Yet Yrene had heard some of the other healers whisper that when Renia had first entered Hasar’s orbit, Hafiza had been discreetly asked to heal her of … unpleasantries from her former life. Former profession, apparently. Yrene had never asked Hasar for the details, but given how loyal Renia was to the princess, she often wondered if the reason why Hasar so loved to hear Yrene’s own story of her mysterious savior was because she, too, had once seen a woman suffering and reached out to help. And then to hold her.
“You’re smiling more today, too,” Hasar said, setting down her glass pen. “Despite those hideous clothes.”
“Mine were sacrificed to the cause of healing Lord Westfall,” Yrene said, rubbing at the dull throbbing in her temple that even the tea and carob cookies couldn’t chase away. “He was kind enough to lend me some of his own.”
Hasar smirked. “Some might see you and assume you lost your clothes for a far more pleasurable reason.”
Yrene’s face heated. “I’d hope they’d remember that I am a professional healer at the Torre.”
“It’d make it even more valuable gossip.”
“I’d think they’d have better things to do than whisper about a nobody healer.”
“You are Hafiza’s unofficial heir. That makes you slightly interesting.”
Yrene wasn’t insulted by the frank words. She didn’t explain to Hasar that she’d likely be leaving, and Hafiza would have to find someone else. She doubted the princess would approve—and wasn’t entirely certain that Hasar would let her leave. She’d been worried about Kashin for so long, yet Hasar …
“Well, regardless, I have no designs on Lord Westfall.”
“You should. He’s divertingly handsome. Even I’m tempted.” “Really?”
Hasar laughed. “Not at all. But I could see why you might be.” “He and Captain Faliq are involved.”
“And if they weren’t?”
Yrene took a long sip from her tea. “He is my patient, and I am his healer. There are plenty of other handsome men.”
Yrene frowned at the princess over the black-and-gold rim of her teacup. “You keep pushing your brother on me. Are you encouraging him?”
Hasar put a hand on her chest, her manicured nails gleaming in the late afternoon sun. “Kashin had no trouble with women until you came along. You two were once such close friends. Why shouldn’t I wish that my dear friend and brother form a deeper attachment?”
“Because if you are appointed khagan, you might kill us if he doesn’t submit.”
“Him, possibly, if he doesn’t bow. And if you prove to not be carrying his offspring, I might let you take the cleansing once my own line is
established and keep your wealth.”
Such bald casual words. Of such horrible methods meant to keep this wondrous, sweeping empire from fracturing. She wished Kashin were here to listen, to understand.
Yrene asked, “And what would you do—for producing offspring?”
With Renia as the possible future Grand Empress, Hasar would need to find some way to produce a blood heir.
Hasar began pushing her figures around the map again. “I have already told my father, and it is no concern of yours.”
Right. For if she had selected some male to do the job … dangerous knowledge. Her siblings might very well try to destroy someone whom Hasar and Renia trusted enough to assist in that way. Or would pay handsomely to know that Hasar and Renia were even considering offspring at this point.
But Hasar then said, “I heard that killer in the library hunted you.” Unforgiving will filled her face. “Why did you not come to me first?”
Before Yrene could answer, Hasar mercifully went on, “They said it was some strange death—not a typical one at all.”
Yrene tried and failed to block out the memory of the gaunt, leathery face. “It was.”
Hasar sipped her tea. “I don’t care if the attack was a deliberate move on your life or whether it was just piss-poor coincidence.” She set down her cup with delicate precision. “When I find whoever it is, I’ll behead them myself.” The princess tapped a hand on the sheathed blade discarded along the edge of her oak desk.
Yrene didn’t doubt her. But she said, “I’ve been told the danger is … considerable.”
“I do not take lightly to my friends being hunted like beasts.” Not the voice of a princess—but a warrior-queen. “And I do not take lightly to Torre healers being killed and terrorized.”
Hasar was many things, but she was loyal. To her core. To the few, few people whom she favored. It had always warmed something in Yrene. To have someone who actually meant what they said. Hasar would behead the killer if they were unfortunate enough to encounter her. She would ask no questions, either.
Yrene considered all she knew about the potential murderer and struggled to refrain from telling the princess that beheading was, in fact, the proper way to deal with a Valg demon.
Unless you were facing the remnants of it within someone. In which case … As awful, as exhausting as today’s session with Lord Westfall had been, she’d already cataloged and tucked away the small scraps of information she’d gleaned. Not just for his healing, but if she should ever face it again—on those battlefields. Even if the prospect of seeing those Valg demons in the flesh …
Taking a steadying drink of her tea, Yrene asked, “Are you not concerned that perhaps it is no coincidence war is upon the northern continent, and now we have enemies in our midst?” She didn’t dare mention Tumelun’s death.
“Perhaps Lord Westfall and Captain Faliq brought in their own spies to track you.”
“That is not possible.”
“Are you so certain? They are desperate. And desperation breeds people who are willing to do anything to get what they need.”
“And what would they need from me beyond what I am already giving them?”
Hasar beckoned Yrene over with a flick of her fingers. Yrene set down her teacup and strode across the deep blue carpet to the desk before the windows. Hasar’s rooms commanded a view of the teal bay—the ships and the gulls and the glittering sprawl of the Narrow Sea beyond.
Hasar gestured to the map in front of her. “What do you see here?”
Yrene’s throat tightened as she recognized the landmass. The northern continent—her own home. And all the figures on it, in red and green and black …
“This is Duke Perrington’s force,” Hasar said, pointing to the line of black figures stretching like a wall across the middle of the continent. Other clusters lay to the south.
And to the north: one small green cluster. And a lone red figure just beyond the shores of Rifthold.
“What are the others?”
Hasar said, “There is a small army in Terrasen.” She snickered at the green figures clustered around Orynth.
“And in Adarlan?”
Hasar picked up the red figurine, twirling it between two figures. “No army to speak of. Dorian Havilliard remains unaccounted for. Will he flee north or south? Or perhaps cut inland—though there is certainly nothing beyond the mountains save for half-feral tribes.”
“What is that figure?” Yrene asked, noting the gold pawn Hasar had set off the map entirely.
Hasar picked it up, too. “It is Aelin Galathynius. Also unaccounted for.”
“She is not in Terrasen? With her army?”
“No.” Hasar patted the documents she’d been referencing as she’d adjusted her own maps. Reports, Yrene realized. “The latest news indicates the Queen of Terrasen is nowhere to be found in her own kingdom. Or in any other.” A slight smile. “Perhaps you should ask your lord that.”
“I doubt he’ll tell me.” She refrained from saying he wasn’t her lord. “Then perhaps you should make him.”
Yrene carefully asked, “Why?” “Because I would like to know.”
Yrene read between the words. Hasar wanted the information—before her father or siblings.
“To what end?”
“When a power broker of the realms goes missing, it is not a cause for celebration. Especially one who destroys palaces and takes cities on a whim.”
Fear. Well hidden, but Hasar was at least considering the possibility that Aelin Galathynius might set her sights beyond her own lands.
But to play spy for Hasar … “You think the library attack has something to do with this?”
“I think that perhaps Lord Westfall and Captain Faliq are aware of how to play the game. And if they make it appear as if a threat from Perrington is in our midst, why wouldn’t we consider allying with them?”
Yrene didn’t think they played those sorts of games at all. “You think they’re doing this to help Aelin Galathynius? Or because she is missing and they’re frightened of losing a powerful ally themselves?”
“That’s what I would like to know. Along with the queen’s location. Or their best guess.”
Yrene made herself hold the princess’s stare. “And why should I help you?”
A Baast Cat’s smile. “Beyond the fact that we are dear friends? Is there nothing I could give you to sweeten the offer, lovely Yrene?”
“I have all I need.”
“Yes, but you do remember that the armadas are mine. The Narrow Sea is mine. And crossing it may be very, very difficult to those who forget.”
Yrene did not dare back down. Didn’t dare break the princess’s dark gaze.
Hasar knew. Knew, or guessed, that Yrene wanted to leave. And if she did not aid the princess … Yrene had no doubt that as fiercely as Hasar loved, so, too, could her need for retribution drive her. Enough to make sure Yrene never left these shores.
“I shall see what I can learn,” Yrene said, refusing to soften her voice.
“Good,” Hasar declared, and cleared the figurines off the map with a wipe of her hand, scattering them into a drawer and shutting them inside. “To begin, why don’t you join me at Tehome’s feast the night after tomorrow? I can keep Kashin occupied, if it will clear the way for you.”
Her stomach turned over. She’d forgotten that the sea goddess’s holiday was in two days. Frankly, there were holidays nearly every other week, and Yrene participated when she could, but this one … With her fleet, with the Narrow Sea and several others under her jurisdiction, Hasar would certainly be honoring Tehome. And the khaganate would certainly not fail to honor the Lady of the Great Deep, either—not when the oceans had been good to them these centuries.
So Yrene didn’t dare object. Didn’t let herself so much as hesitate before Hasar’s piercing eyes. “As long as you don’t mind me wearing the same
dress from the other night,” she said as casually as she could, plucking at her oversized shirt.
“No need,” Hasar countered, smiling broadly. “I have something already selected.”