Chapter no 26

Empire of Storms

With most of the city down by the docks for the sunrise ceremony to honor Tehome, the streets were quiet. Chaol supposed only the sickest would be bedbound today, which was why, when they approached a slender house on a sunny, dusty street, he wasn’t at all surprised to be greeted by violent coughing before they’d even reached the door.

Well, before Yrene had even reached the door. Without the chair, he’d remain atop the horse, but Yrene didn’t so much as comment on it as she dismounted, tied her mare to the hitching post down the street, and strode for the house. He kept shifting his toes every so often—as much as he could manage within the boots. The movement alone, he knew, was a gift, but it required more concentration than he’d expected; more energy, too.

Chaol was still flexing them when an elderly woman opened the house door, sighing to see Yrene and speaking in very slow Halha. For Yrene to understand, apparently, because the healer replied in the language as she entered the house and left the door ajar, her use of the words tentative and unwieldy. Better than his own.

From the street, he could see through the house’s open windows and door to the little bed tucked just under the painted sill—as if to keep the patient in the fresh air.

It was occupied by an old man—the source of that coughing.

Yrene spoke to the crone before striding to the old man, pulling up a squat, three-legged stool.

Chaol stroked his horse’s neck, wriggling his toes again, while Yrene took the man’s withered hand and pressed another to his brow.

Each movement was gentle, calm. And her face … There was a soft smile on it. One he’d never seen before.

Yrene said something he couldn’t hear to the old woman wringing her hands behind them, then rolled down the thin blanket covering the man.

Chaol cringed at the lesions crusting his chest and stomach. Even the old woman did.

But Yrene didn’t so much as blink, her serene countenance never shifting as she lifted a hand before her. White light simmered along her fingers and palm.

The old man, though unconscious, sucked in a breath as she laid a hand on his chest. Right over the worst of those sores.

For long minutes, she only laid her hand there, brows scrunched, light flowing from her palm to the man’s chest.

And when she lifted her hand … the old woman wept. Kissed Yrene’s hands, one after the other. Yrene only smiled, kissing the woman’s sagging cheek, and bade her farewell, giving what had to be firm instructions for the man’s continued care.

It was only after Yrene shut the door behind her that the beautiful smile faded. That she studied the dusty cobblestones and her mouth tightened. As if she’d forgotten he was there.

His horse nickered, and her head snapped up. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She only unhitched her horse and mounted, chewing on her lower lip as they started into a slow walk. “He has a disease that will not go gently. We have been battling it for five months now. That it flared up so badly this time …” She shook her head—disappointed. With herself.

“It doesn’t have a cure?”

“It has been defeated in other patients, but sometimes the host … He is very old. And even when I think I’ve purged it from him, it comes back.” She blew out a breath. “At this point, I feel as if I’m just buying him time, not giving him a solution.”

He studied the tightness in her jaw. Someone who demanded excellence from herself—while perhaps not expecting the same from others. Or even hoping for it.

Chaol found himself saying, “Are there any other patients you need to see to?”

She frowned toward his legs. Toward the big toe he pushed against the top of his boot, the leather shifting with the movement. “We can return to the palace—”

“I like to be outside,” he blurted. “The streets are empty. Let me …” He couldn’t finish.

Yrene seemed to get it, though. “There’s a young mother across the city.” A long, long ride away. “She’s recovering from a hard labor two weeks ago. I’d like to visit her.”

Chaol tried not to look too relieved. “Then let’s go.”



So they went. The streets remained empty, the ceremony, Yrene told him, lasting until midmorning. Even though the empire’s gods had been cobbled together, most people participated in their holidays.

Religious tolerance, she’d said, was something the very first khagan had championed—and all who had come after him, too. Oppressing various beliefs only led to discord within his empire, so he’d absorbed them all. Some literally, twining multiple gods into one. But always allowing those who wished to practice the freedom to do so without fear.

Chaol, in turn, told Yrene about the other use he’d learned while reading up on the history of the khagan rule: in other kingdoms, where religious minorities were ill-treated, he found many willing spies.

She’d known that already—and had asked him if he’d ever used spies for his own … position.

He told her no. Though he didn’t reveal that he’d once had men who worked covertly, but they weren’t like the spies Aedion and Ren Allsbrook had employed. That he himself had worked within Rifthold this spring and summer. But talking about his former guards … He fell silent.

She’d remained quiet after that, as if sensing his silence was not from lack of conversation.

She brought him into a quarter of the city that was full of small gardens and parks, the houses modest yet well kept. Firmly middle-class. It reminded him a bit of Rifthold and yet … Cleaner. Brighter. Even with the streets so quiet this morning, it teemed with life.

Especially at the elegant little house they stopped before, where a merry-eyed young woman spotted them from the window a level above. She called out to Yrene in Halha, then vanished inside.

“Well, that answers that question,” Yrene murmured, just as the front door opened and that woman appeared, a plump babe in her arms.

The mother paused upon seeing Chaol, but he offered a polite bob of his head.

The woman smiled prettily at him, but it turned outright devious as she faced Yrene and waggled her eyebrows.

Yrene laughed, and the sound … Beautiful as the sound was, it was nothing like the smile on her face. The delight.

He’d never seen a face so lovely.

Not as Yrene dismounted and took the chubby baby—the portrait of newborn health—from the mother’s outstretched arms. “Oh, she’s beautiful,” she cooed, brushing a finger over a round cheek.

The mother beamed. “Fat as a dirt-grub.” She spoke in Chaol’s own tongue, either because Yrene used it with her, or from noticing his own features, so different from the various norms here in Antica. “Hungry as a pig, too.”

Yrene bobbed and swayed with the baby, cooing at the girl. “The feeding is going well?”

“She’d be on my breast day and night if I let her,” the mother groused, not at all embarrassed to be discussing such things with him present.

Yrene chuckled, her smile growing as she let a tiny hand wrap around her finger. “She looks healthy as can be,” she observed. Then looked over the mother. “And you?”

“I’ve been following the regimen you gave me—the baths helped.” “No bleeding?”

A shake of the head. Then she seemed to notice him, because she said a bit more quietly, and Chaol suddenly found the buildings down the street very interesting, “How long until I can—you know? With my husband.”

Yrene snorted. “Give it another seven weeks.”

The woman let out a squawk of outrage. “But you healed me.”

“And you nearly bled out before I could.” Words that brooked no argument. “Give your body time to rest. Other healers would tell you eight more weeks at a minimum, but … try it at seven. If there is any discomfort


“I know, I know,” the woman said, waving a hand. “It’s just … been a while.”

Yrene let out another laugh, and Chaol found himself gazing toward her as the healer said, “Well, you can wait a little longer at this point.”

The woman gave Yrene a wry smile as she took back her burbling baby. “I certainly hope you enjoy yourself, since I can’t.”

Chaol caught her meaningful glance in his direction before Yrene did.

And he got no small amount of smug satisfaction from watching Yrene blink, then stiffen, then go red. “What—oh. Oh, no.”

The way she spat that no … He took no satisfaction in that.

The woman only laughed, hefting the baby a bit higher as she headed into her charming house. “I certainly would.”

The door shut.

Still red, Yrene turned to him, distinctly not meeting his eyes. “She’s opinionated.”

Chaol chuckled. “I hadn’t realized that I was a firm no.”

She glared at him, hauling herself onto her mare. “I don’t share a bed with patients. And you’re with Captain Faliq,” she added quickly. “And you’re—”

“Not in fit form to pleasure a woman?”

He was shocked he said it. But again more than a tad smug to see her eyes flare.

“No,” Yrene said, somehow going redder. “Certainly not that. But you’re … you.”

“I’m trying not to be insulted.”

She waved a hand, looking everywhere but at him. “You know what I mean.”

That he was a man from Adarlan, that he’d served the king? He certainly did. But he said, deciding to have mercy on her, “I was joking, Yrene. I … am with Nesryn.”

She swallowed, still blushing like mad. “Where is she today?”

“She went to attend the ceremony with her family.” Nesryn hadn’t invited him, and he’d claimed he wanted to put off their own ride through the city. Yet here he now was.

Yrene nodded distantly. “Are you going to the party tonight—at the palace?”

“Yes. Are you?”

Another nod. Stilted silence. Then she said, “I’m afraid to work on you today—just in case we lose track of time again and miss the party.”

“Would it be so bad if we did?”

She eyed him while they turned a corner. “It would offend some of them. If it didn’t offend the Lady of the Great Deep herself. I’m not sure which scares me more.” He chuckled again as Yrene went on, “Hasar lent me a dress, so I have to go. Or risk her wrath.”

Some shadow passed over her face. And he was about to ask about it when she said, “Do you want to have a tour?”

He stared at her, at the offer she’d thrown his way.

“I’ll admit I don’t know that much about the history, but my work has taken me to every quarter, so I can at least keep us from getting lost—”

“Yes,” he breathed. “Yes.”

Yrene’s smile was tentative. Quiet.

But she led him onward, the streets beginning to fill as the ceremonies ended and celebrating began. As laughing people streamed down the avenue and alleys, music pouring from everywhere, the smell of food and spices wrapping around him.

He forgot about the heat, the baking sun, forgot to keep moving his toes every now and then, as they rode through the winding quarters of the city, as he marveled at the domed temples and free libraries, as Yrene showed him the paper money they used—mulberry bark backed in silk—in lieu of unwieldy coins.

She bought him her favorite treats, a confection made from carob, and offered smiles to anyone who came her way. Rarely to him, though.

There was no street she balked at turning down, no neighborhood or alley she seemed to fear. A god-city, yes—and also a city of learning, of light and comfort and wealth.

When the sun reached its zenith, she led them into a lush public garden, its overhanging trees and vines blocking out the brutal rays. They rode down the labyrinth of walkways, the garden near-empty thanks to everyone now partaking in the midday meal.

Raised beds of flowers overflowed with blossoms, hanging ferns swayed in the cool breeze off the sea, birds called to one another from the cover of the drooping fronds overhead.

“Do you think …,” Yrene said after long minutes of quiet, “that one day

…” She gnawed on her bottom lip. “That we could have a place like this?” “In Adarlan?”

“In anywhere,” she said. “But yes—in Adarlan, in Fenharrow. I heard Eyllwe’s cities were once as fine as this, before …”

Before the shadow between them. Before the shadow in his heart.

“They were,” Chaol said, sealing away the thought of the princess who’d lived in those cities, who’d loved them. Even as the scar on his face seemed to twinge. But he considered her question. And from those shadows of his memory, he heard Aedion Ashryver’s voice.

What do you suppose the people on other continents, across all those seas, think of us? Do you think they hate us or pity us for what we do to each other? Perhaps it’s just as bad there. Perhaps it’s worse. But … I have to believe it’s better. Somewhere, it’s better than this.

He wondered if he’d ever get to tell Aedion that he’d found such a place. Perhaps he would tell Dorian what he’d seen here. Help rebuild the ruins of Rifthold, of his kingdom, into something like this.

He realized he hadn’t finished. That Yrene was still waiting, as she brushed aside a trailing vine of small purple flowers. “Yes,” he said at last, at the wariness hiding that tiny burning kernel of hope in her eyes. “I believe we can build this for ourselves one day.” He added, “If we survive this war.” If he could leave here with an army behind him to challenge Erawan.

Time pressed on him, smothering him. Faster. He had to move faster

with everything—

Yrene scanned his face in the heavy heat of the garden. “You love your people very much.”

Chaol nodded, unable to find the words.

She opened her mouth, as if she’d say something, but closed it. Then said, “Even the people of Fenharrow were not blameless with their actions

this past decade.”

Chaol tried not to look at the faint scar across her throat. Had it been one of her own countrymen who had—

She sighed, studying the rose garden wilting in the blistering heat. “We should head back. Before the crowds get impossible.”

He wondered what she’d thought of saying a moment ago but decided against. What caused that shadow to lurk in her eyes.

But Chaol only followed her, all those words hanging between them.



They parted ways at the palace, the halls packed with servants readying for the evening’s festivities. Yrene went right to find Hasar and the dress—and bath—she’d been promised, and Chaol returned to his own suite, to wash off the dust and sweat and find something suitable to wear.

No sign of Nesryn until she’d returned midway through his bath, shouted that she was taking one of her own, and closed the door to her suite.

He’d opted for his teal jacket, and waited in the hall for Nesryn to emerge. When she did, he blinked at the well-cut amethyst jacket and pants. He hadn’t seen a sign of her captain’s uniform for days. And wasn’t about to ask as he said, “You look beautiful.”

Nesryn smiled, her glossy hair still damp from the bath. “You don’t look so bad yourself.” She seemed to note the color on his face and asked, “You were in the sun today?” Her slight accent had deepened, adding more of a twirl to certain sounds.

“I helped Yrene with some patients around the city.”

Nesryn smiled as they headed into the hallway. “I’m glad to hear it.” Not a word about the ride and visit he’d delayed with her—he wondered if she had even remembered.

He still hadn’t told her about his toes. But as they reached the great hall of the palace … Later. They’d discuss it all later.

The great hall of the palace was a wonder. That was the only word for it.

The party was not as large as he would have assumed, only a few more people than the usual gathering of the viziers and royals, but no expense had been spared on the decorations. The feast.

He gaped a bit, Nesryn doing the same, as they were led to their spots at the high table—an honor he was still surprised they received. The khagan and his wife would not be joining them, he was told by Duva. Her mother had not been doing well these last few days and wished to celebrate with her husband in private.

No doubt seeing those mourning banners at last coming down had been difficult. And tonight likely wasn’t the time to press the khagan about their alliance anyway.

A few more guests poured in, along with Hasar and Renia, arm in arm with Yrene.

When Yrene had left him at the crossroads of one of the palace’s main halls, she’d been gleaming with sweat and dust, her cheeks rosy, her hair curling slightly around her ears. Her dress, too, had been wrinkled from a day of riding, the hem coated in dust.

Certainly not at all like what she wore now.

He felt the attention of half the men at the table slide toward Hasar— toward Yrene—as they entered, trailed by two of the princess’s servant girls. Hasar was smirking, Renia utterly stunning in ruby red, but Yrene …

For a beautiful woman clad in the finest clothes and jewels an empire could purchase, there was something resigned about her. Yes, her shoulders

were back, her spine straight, but the smile that had hit him in the gut earlier was long gone.

Hasar had dressed Yrene in cobalt that brought out the warmth of her skin and set her brown hair glimmering as if it had indeed been gilded. The princess had even dusted cosmetics along Yrene’s face—or perhaps the hint of color on her freckled cheeks was from the fact that the gown was cut low enough to reveal the lushness of her figure. Cut low, and tight through the bodice.

Yrene’s dresses certainly didn’t hide her body, but the gown … He hadn’t quite realized how slim her waist was, how her hips flared beneath it. How her other assets swelled above.

He wasn’t the only one taking a second glance. Sartaq and Arghun had leaned forward in their seats as their sister led Yrene to the high table.

Yrene’s hair had been left mostly down, only the sides swept back and pinned with combs of gold and ruby. Matching earrings dangled to brush the slender column of her throat.

“She looks regal,” Nesryn murmured to him.

Yrene indeed looked like a princess—albeit one heading to the gallows for how solemn her face was as they reached the table. Whatever contentment she’d possessed when they’d parted ways had since vanished upon the two hours she’d spent with Hasar.

The princes stood to greet Yrene this time, Kashin rising first.

The Healer on High’s undeclared heir; a woman who would likely wield considerable power in this realm. They seemed to realize it, the depth of that implication. Arghun especially, from the shrewd look he gave Yrene. A woman of considerable power—and beauty.

He saw the word in Arghun’s eyes: prize.

Chaol’s jaw tightened. Yrene certainly didn’t want the attentions of the handsomest of the princes—he couldn’t imagine she’d be inclined to desire the affections of the other two.

Arghun opened his mouth to speak to Hasar, but the princess strode right to Chaol and Nesryn and murmured in Nesryn’s ear, “Move.”

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