Chaol kept moving his toes long after Yrene had left. He wriggled them inside his boots, not quite feeling them, but just enough to know they were moving.
However Yrene had done it …
He didn’t tell Nesryn when she returned before dinner, no sign of the Valg to report. And he’d only quietly explained that he was making enough progress with Yrene that he’d like to put off tomorrow’s visit to her family until another day.
She’d seemed a tad crestfallen, but had agreed, that cool mask slipping back over her face within a few blinks.
He kissed her when she’d walked by to dress for dinner.
He’d grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her down, and kissed her once. Brief—but thorough.
She’d been surprised enough that by the time he’d pulled away, she hadn’t so much as laid a hand on him.
“Get ready,” he told her, motioning to her room.
With a backward glance at him, a half smile on her mouth, Nesryn obeyed.
Chaol stared after her for a few minutes, shifting his toes in his boots. There had been no heat in it—the kiss. No real feeling.
He expected it. He’d practically shoved her away these weeks. He didn’t blame her at all for the surprise.
He was still flexing his toes in his boots when they arrived at dinner. Tonight, he’d ask the khagan for an audience. Again. Mourning or no, protocol or no. And then he’d warn the man of what he knew.
He would request it before Yrene’s usual arrival—in case they lost time.
Which seemed to be an occurrence. It had been three hours today. Three.
His throat was still raw, despite the honeyed tea Yrene had made him drink until he was nearly sick. Then she’d made him exercise, many of the movements ones she had to assist him with: rotating his hips, rolling each leg from side to side, rotating his ankles and feet in circles. All designed to keep the blood flowing to the muscles beginning to atrophy, all designed to re-create the pathways between his spine and brain, she said.
She’d repeated the sets over and over, until an hour had passed. Until she was swaying again on her feet, and that glassy look had crept over her eyes.
Exhaustion. For while she’d been rotating his legs, ordering him to move his toes every now and then, she’d sent tingles of her magic through his legs, bypassing his spine entirely. Little pinpricks in his toes—like swarms of fireflies had landed on him. That was all he felt, even as she kept trying to patch up those pathways in his body. What little she could do now, with the small progress she’d made hours ago.
But all that magic … When Yrene had swayed after his last set, he’d called for Kadja. Ordered an armed carriage for the healer.
Yrene, to his surprise, didn’t object. Though he supposed it was hard to, when the healer was nearly asleep on her feet by the time she left, Kadja
supporting her. Yrene only murmured something about being on his horse again after breakfast, and was gone.
But perhaps the luck he’d had that afternoon was the last of it.
Hours later, the khagan was not at dinner. He was dining in private with his beloved wife, they said. The unspoken rest of it lay beneath the words: mourning was taking its natural course, and politics would be set aside. Chaol had tried to look as understanding as possible.
At least Nesryn seemed to be making some headway with Sartaq, even if the other royals had already grown bored with their presence.
So he dined, so he kept wriggling his toes within his boots, and did not tell anyone, even Nesryn, long after they’d returned to their suite and he’d tumbled off to bed.
He awoke with the dawn, found himself … eager to wash and dress. Found himself eating breakfast as quickly as he could, while Nesryn only raised her brows.
But she, too, was off early to meet Sartaq atop one of the palace’s thirty-six minarets.
There was some holiday tomorrow, to honor one of the thirty-six gods those minarets each represented. Their sea goddess, Tehome. There would be a ceremony at sunrise down by the docks, with all the royals, even the khagan, attending to lay wreaths into the water. Gifts for the Lady of the Great Deep, Nesryn had said. Then a grand feast at the palace come sundown.
He’d been indifferent about his own holidays back in Adarlan, found them outdated rites to honor forces and elements his ancestors could not explain, and yet the buzz of activity, the wreaths of flowers and seashells being raised within the palace to at last replace the white banners, the scent
of shellfish simmering in butter and spices … It intrigued him. Made him see a bit clearer, brighter, as he wheeled through the busy palace toward the courtyard.
The courtyard itself was a melee of arriving and departing vendors, bearing food and decorations and what seemed to be performers. All to beseech their sea goddess for mercy as the late summer gave way to annual violent storms that could rip apart ships and entire towns on the coastline.
Chaol scanned the courtyard for Yrene, flexing his toes. He spotted his horse and her mare alongside it in the few pens by the east wall, but … no sign of her.
She’d been late yesterday, so he waited until a lull in the deliveries before he motioned the stable hands to help him mount. But it was the guard from yesterday—the one who’d aided him most—who came forward when the mare was brought over. Shen, Yrene had called him; she’d greeted the guard as if she knew him well.
Shen said nothing, though Chaol knew every guard in this palace spoke an assortment of languages beyond Halha, only offering a nod of greeting. Which Chaol found himself returning before he silently mounted, his arms straining with the effort to haul himself upward. But he made it, perhaps easier than yesterday, earning what he could have sworn was a wink of approval from Shen before the guard sauntered back to his post.
Shutting out what that did to his chest, Chaol buckled the straps on his brace and surveyed the chaotic courtyard and open gates beyond. The guards inspected every wagon, every piece of paper that confirmed a royal order had been placed for the goods they bore.
Good. Regardless of whether he’d spoken to the khagan personally, at least someone had warned the guard to be careful—perhaps Kashin.
The sun drifted higher, raising the heat with it. Still Yrene did not come. A clock chimed deep in the palace. An hour late.
The mare turned skittish, impatient beneath him, and he patted her thick, sweaty neck, murmuring.
Another fifteen minutes passed. Chaol studied the gates, the street beyond.
No word of alarm had come from the Torre, but staying still, just waiting here …
He found himself snapping the reins, tapping the horse’s flank to launch it into a walk.
He’d marked the path Yrene had taken yesterday. Perhaps he’d run into her on her way over here.
Antica was crawling with vendors and people setting up for tomorrow’s holiday. And those already toasting to the Lady of the Great Deep, filling the taverns and eating rooms lining the streets, musicians playing at each one.
It took him nearly twice as long to get to the Torre’s owl-adorned gates, though part of that slowness was due to his scanning for Yrene on every crammed street and passing alley. But he found no sign of the healer.
He and his horse were sweating when they rode through the Torre gates, the guards smiling at him—faces he’d marked from yesterday’s lesson.
How many times had he seen such a greeting in Adarlan? Taken it for granted?
He’d always ridden through the black iron gates to the glass palace without hesitation, without really doing more than noting who was stationed
there and who wasn’t looking up to snuff. He’d trained with those men, learned about their families and lives.
His men. They had been his men.
So Chaol’s own answering smile was tight, and he couldn’t stand to meet their bright eyes for more than a passing glance as he rode into the Torre courtyard, the scent of lavender wrapping around him.
But he paused a few feet in, wheeled his mare around, and asked the guard closest, “Has Yrene Towers left today?”
Like those at the khagan’s palace, each of the Torre’s guards was fluent in at least three languages: Halha, the tongue of the northern continent, and the language of the lands to the east. With visitors from all over Erilea, those at the Torre gates had to be fluent in the three common tongues.
The guard before him shook his head, sweat sliding down his dark skin in the rippling heat. “Not yet, Lord Westfall.”
Perhaps it was rude to seek her out when she was likely too busy with other things to immediately tend to him. She’d mentioned other patients, after all.
With a nod of thanks, he again turned the roan mare toward the Torre, and was about to aim for the courtyard to its left when an ancient voice said from below, “Lord Westfall. Good to see you out and about.”
Hafiza. The Healer on High stood a few feet away, a basket draped over her thin arm and two middle-aged healers flanking her. The guards bowed, and Chaol inclined his head.
“I was looking for Yrene,” he said by way of greeting.
Hafiza’s white brows rose. “Did she not come to you this morning?” Unease tightened his gut. “No, though perhaps I missed her—”
One of the healers at Hafiza’s side stepped forward and murmured to the Healer on High, “She is abed, my lady.”
Hafiza now raised her brows at the woman. “Still?”
A shake of the head. “Drained. Eretia checked on her an hour ago—she was asleep.”
Hafiza’s mouth tightened, though Chaol had a feeling he knew what she was about to say. Felt guilty enough before the crone spoke. “Our powers can do great things, Lord Westfall, but they also demand a great cost. Yrene was …” She sought the words, either from not using her native tongue or to spare him from further guilt. “She was asleep in the carriage when she arrived last night. She had to be carried to her room.”
Hafiza patted his boot, and he could have sworn he felt it in his toes. “It is of no concern, my lord. A day of sleep, and she will be back at the palace tomorrow morning.”
“If tomorrow is a holiday,” he volunteered, “she can have the day off.”
Hafiza chuckled. “You do not know Yrene very well at all if you think she considers these holidays to be days off. ” She pointed at him. “Though if you want the day off, you should certainly tell her, because she’ll likely be knocking at your door come sunrise.”
Chaol smiled, even as he gazed at the tower looming overhead.
“It is a restorative sleep,” Hafiza supplied. “Utterly natural. Do not let it burden you.”
With a final look at the pale tower high above, he nodded and wheeled his horse back to the gates. “May I escort you anywhere?”
Hafiza’s smile was bright as the midday sun. “You certainly may, Lord Westfall.”
The Healer on High was stopped every block by those wishing to merely touch her hand, or have her touch them.
Sacred. Holy. Beloved.
It took them thirty minutes to get even half a dozen blocks from the Torre. And though he offered to wait while Hafiza and her companions entered the modest home on a quiet street, they waved him off.
The streets were clogged enough to deter him from exploring, so Chaol soon headed back toward the palace.
But even as he steered his horse through the crowds, he found himself glancing to that pale tower—a behemoth on the horizon. To the healer sleeping within.
Yrene slept for a day and a half.
She hadn’t meant to. Had barely been able to rouse herself long enough to see to her needs and wave off Eretia when she’d come to prod her, to make sure she was still alive.
The healing yesterday—two days ago, she realized as she dressed in the gray light before dawn—had decimated her. That bit of progress, the nosebleed afterward, had taken its toll.
But his toes had moved. And the pathways she’d sent her magic floating along, dots of light darting through him … Damaged, yes, but if she could slowly start to replace those frayed, tiny communicators within him … It would be long, and hard, yet …
Yrene knew it was not guilt alone that had her rising so early on Tehome’s Day.
He was from Adarlan—she doubted he’d care if he got the day off.
Dawn had barely broken by the time Yrene slipped into the Torre courtyard and paused.
The sun had crept over the compound walls, spearing a few shafts of golden light into the purplish shadows.
And in one of those shafts of sunlight, the faint strands of gold in his brown hair gleaming …
“She wakes,” Lord Chaol said.
Yrene strode for him, gravel crunching loudly in the drowsy dawn. “You rode here?”
“All by myself.”
She only arched a brow at the white mare beside his. “And you brought the other horse?”
“A gentleman through and through.”
She crossed her arms, frowning up at where he sat mounted. “Any further movement?”
The morning sun lit his eyes, turning the brown into near-gold. “How are you feeling?”
“Answer my question, please.” “Answer mine.”
She gaped at him a bit. Debated scowling. “I’m fine,” she said, waving a hand. “But have you felt any further—”
“Did you get the rest you needed?”
Yrene gaped at him truly this time. “Yes.” She scowled now, too. “And it’s none of your concern—”
“It certainly is.”
He said it so calmly. With such male entitlement. “I know that in Adarlan, women bow to whatever men say, but here, if I say it’s none of your business, then it isn’t.”
Chaol gave her a half smile. “So we’re back to the animosity today.”
She reined in her rising shriek. “We are not back to anything. I’m your healer, and you are my patient, and I asked you about the status of your—”
“If you’re not rested,” he said, as if it were the most rational thing in the world, “then I’m not letting you near me.”
Yrene opened and closed her mouth. “And how will you decide that?” Slowly, his eyes swept over her. Every inch.
Her heart thundered at the long look. The relentless focus. “Good color,” he said. “Good posture. Certainly good sass.”
“I’m not some prize horse, as you said yesterday.” “Two days ago.”
She braced her hands on her hips. “I’m fine. Now, how are you?” Each word was accentuated.
Chaol’s eyes danced. “I’m feeling quite well, Yrene. Thank you for asking.”
Yrene. If she wasn’t inclined to leap onto his horse and strangle him, she might have contemplated how the way he said her name made her toes curl.
But she hissed, “Don’t mistake my kindness for stupidity. If you have had any progress, or regressions, I will find them out.”
“If this is your kindness, then I’d hate to see your bad side.” She knew he meant the words in jest, yet … Her back stiffened.
He seemed to realize it, and leaned down in his saddle. “It was a joke, Yrene. You have been more generous than … It was a joke.”
She shrugged, heading for the white horse.
He said, perhaps an attempt to steer them back toward neutral ground, “How are the other healers faring—after the attack?”
A shiver crawled up her spine as she grabbed the mare’s reins, but made no move to mount. Yrene had offered to help with the burial, but Hafiza had refused, telling her to save her strength for Lord Westfall. But it hadn’t stopped her from visiting the death chamber beneath the Torre two days ago
—from seeing the desiccated body laid out on the stone slab in the center of the rock-hewn chamber, the leathery, drained face, the bones that jutted out from paper-thin skin. She’d offered up a prayer to Silba before she’d left, and had not been awake yesterday when they’d buried her in the catacombs far beneath the tower.
Yrene now frowned up at the tower looming overhead, its presence always such a comfort, and yet … Since that night in the library, despite Hafiza’s and Eretia’s best efforts, there had been a hush in the halls, the tower itself. As if the light that had filled this place had guttered.
“They fight to retain a sense of normalcy,” Yrene said at last. “I think in defiance against … against whoever did it. Hafiza and Eretia have led by example, staying calm, focused—smiling when they can. I think it helps the other girls not to be so petrified.”
“If you want me to help with another lesson,” he offered, “my services are at your disposal.”
She nodded absently, running her thumb over the bridle.
Silence fell for a long moment, filled with the scent of swaying lavender and the potted lemon trees. Then—“Were you really planning on barging into my room at dawn?”
Yrene turned from the patient white mare. “You don’t seem the type to laze in bed.” She raised her brows. “Though, if you and Captain Faliq are
“You can come at dawn, if you wish.”
She nodded. Even though she usually loved sleeping. “I was going to check on a patient before I visited you. Since we tend to … lose time.” He didn’t reply, so she went on, “I can meet you back at the palace in two hours, if you—”
“I can go with you. I don’t mind.”
She dropped the reins. Surveyed him. His legs. “Before we go, I should like to do some exercises with you.”
“On the horse?”
Yrene strode to him, gravel hissing beneath her shoes. “It’s actually a successful form of treatment for many—not just those with spinal injuries. The movements of a horse during riding can improve sensory processing, among other benefits.” She unbuckled the brace and slid his foot from the stirrup. “When I was on the steppes last winter, I healed a young warrior who had fallen from his horse on a grueling hunt—the wound was nearly the same as yours. His tribe devised the brace for him before I got there, since he was even less inclined to remain indoors than you.”
Chaol snorted, running a hand through his hair.
Yrene lifted his foot and began to rotate it, mindful of the horse he sat atop. “Getting him to do any of the exercising—the therapy—was an ordeal. He hated being cooped up in his gir and wanted to feel the fresh air on his face. So, just to give myself a moment’s peace, I let him get into the saddle, ride a bit, and then we’d do the exercises while he was astride. Only in exchange for later doing more comprehensive exercises in the tent. But he made such progress while astride that it became a main part of our
treatment.” Yrene gently bent and straightened his leg. “I know you can’t feel much beyond your toes—”
“—but I want you to focus on wriggling them. As much as you can. Along with the rest of your leg, but concentrate on your feet while I do this.”
He fell silent, and she didn’t bother to look up as she moved his leg, going through what exercises she could with the horse beneath him. The solid weight of his leg was enough to get her sweating, but she kept at it, stretching and bending, pivoting and rolling. And beneath his boots, the thick black leather shifting … his toes indeed wriggled and pushed.
“Good,” Yrene told him. “Keep at it.”
His toes strained against the leather again. “The steppes—that’s where the khagan’s people originally hailed from.”
She went through another full set of the exercises, making sure his toes were moving the entire time, before she answered. Setting his leg back within the brace and stirrup, giving the horse plenty of space as she went around its front and unbuckled his other leg, she said, “Yes. A beautiful, pristine land. The grassy hills roll on forever, interrupted only by sparse pine forests and a few bald mountains.” Yrene grunted against the weight of his leg as she began the same set of exercises. “Did you know that the first khagan conquered the continent with only a hundred thousand men? And that he did it in four years?” She took in the awakening city around them, marveling. “I knew about his people’s history, about the Darghan, but when I went to the steppes, Kashin told me—” She fell silent, wishing she could take back the last bit.
“The prince went with you?” A calm, casual question. She tapped his foot in silent order to keep wriggling his toes. Chaol obeyed with a huff of laughter.
“Kashin and Hafiza came with me. We were there over a month.” Yrene flexed his foot, up and down, working through the repetitive motions with slow, deliberate care. Magic aided in the healing, yes, but the physical element of it played equally as important a role. “Are you moving your toes as much as you can?”
A snort. “Yes, mistress.”
She hid her smile, stretching his leg as far as his hip would allow and rotating it in small circles.
“I assume that trip to the steppes was when Prince Kashin poured his heart out.”
Yrene nearly dropped his leg, but instead glared up at him, finding those rich brown eyes full of dry humor. “It is none of your business.”
“You do love to say that, for someone who seems so intent on demanding I tell her everything.”
She rolled her eyes and went back to bending his leg at the knee, stretching and easing. “Kashin was one of the first friends I made here,” she said after a long moment. “One of my first friends anywhere.”
“Ah.” A pause. “And when he wanted more than friendship …”
Yrene lowered Chaol’s leg at last, buckling it back into the brace and wiping the dust from his boots off her hands. She set her hands on her hips as she peered at him, squinting against the rising light. “I didn’t want more than that. I told him as much. And that is that.”
Chaol’s lips twitched toward a smile, and Yrene at last approached her waiting mare, hauling herself into the saddle. When she straightened,
arranging the skirts of her dress over her legs, she said to him, “My aim is to return to Fenharrow, to help where I am needed most. I felt nothing strong enough for Kashin to warrant yielding that dream.”
Understanding filled his eyes, and he opened his mouth—as if he might say something about it. But he just nodded, smiling again, and said, “I’m glad you didn’t.” She lifted a brow in question, and his smile grew. “Where would I be without you here to bark orders at me?”
Yrene scowled, scooping up the reins and steering the horse toward the gates as she said sharply, “Let me know if you start to feel any discomfort or tingling in that saddle—and try to keep your toes moving as often as you can.”
To his credit, he didn’t object. He only said with that half smile, “Lead the way, Yrene Towers.”
And though she told herself not to … a little smile tugged on Yrene’s mouth as they rode into the awakening city.