होम Tower of Dawn

Tower of Dawn

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Chaol Westfall and Nesryn Faliq have arrived in the shining city of Antica to forge an alliance with the Khagan of the Southern Continent, whose vast armies are Erilea's last hope. But they have also come to Antica for another purpose: to seek healing at the famed Torre Cesme for the wounds Chaol received in Rifthold.

After enduring unspeakable horrors as a child, Yrene Towers has no desire to help the young lord from Adarlan, let alone heal him. Yet she has sworn an oath to assist those in need—and will honor it. But Lord Westfall carries shadows from his own past, and Yrene soon comes to realize they could engulf them both.

In this sweeping parallel novel to the New York Times bestselling Empire of Storms, Chaol, Nesryn, and Yrene will have to draw on every scrap of their resilience if they wish to save their friends. But while they become entangled in the political webs of the khaganate, deep in the shadows of mighty mountains where warriors soar on legendary ruks, long-awaited answers slumber. Answers that might offer their world a chance at survival—or doom them all . . .
 
खंड:
6
साल:
2017
प्रकाशन:
Bloomsbury
भाषा:
english
पृष्ठ:
668
ISBN 10:
1681195771
ISBN 13:
9781681195773
ISBN:
B01N01V56U
श्रृंखला:
Throne of Glass
फ़ाइल:
EPUB, 715 KB
डाउनलोड करें (epub, 715 KB)

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Morgan
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09 May 2021 (20:27) 

आप पुस्तक समीक्षा लिख सकते हैं और अपना अनुभव साझा कर सकते हैं. पढ़ूी हुई पुस्तकों के बारे में आपकी राय जानने में अन्य पाठकों को दिलचस्पी होगी. भले ही आपको किताब पसंद हो या न हो, अगर आप इसके बारे में ईमानदारी से और विस्तार से बताएँगे, तो लोग अपने लिए नई रुचिकर पुस्तकें खोज पाएँगे.
1

Il gigante sepolto

Year:
2015
Language:
italian
File:
EPUB, 249 KB
0 / 0
2

64 D. C.

Year:
2017
Language:
portuguese
File:
EPUB, 310 KB
0 / 0
For my grandmother, Camilla,

who crossed mountains and seas,

and whose own remarkable story is my favorite epic of all





BOOKS BY SARAH J. MAAS

The Throne of Glass series

Assassin’s Blade

Throne of Glass

Crown of Midnight

Heir of Fire

Queen of Shadows

Empire of Storms

Tower of Dawn

•

The Throne of Glass Colouring Book



A Court of Thorns and Roses series

A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Mist and Fury

A Court of Wings and Ruin

•

A Court of Thorns and Roses Colouring Book





CONTENTS

Map

Part One: The God-City

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Part Two: Mountains and Seas

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-Four

Chapter Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Six

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Chapter Sixty

Chapter Sixty-One

Chapter Sixty-Two

Chapter Sixty-Three

Chapter Sixty-Four

Chapter Sixty-Five

Chapter Sixty-Six

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Chapter Sixty-Eight

Fireheart

Acknowledgments





PART ONE

THE GOD-CITY





1


Chaol Westfall, former Captain of the Royal Guard and now Hand to the newly crowned King of Adarlan, had discovered that he hated o; ne sound above all others.

Wheels.

Specifically, their clattering along the planks of the ship on which he’d spent the past three weeks sailing through storm-tossed waters. And now their rattle and thunk over the shining green marble floors and intricate mosaics throughout the Khagan of the Southern Continent’s shining palace in Antica.

With nothing to do beyond sit in the wheeled chair that he’d deemed had become both his prison and his only path to seeing the world, Chaol took in the details of the sprawling palace perched atop one of the capital city’s countless hills. Every bit of material had been taken from and built in honor of some portion of the khagan’s mighty empire:

Those polished green floors his chair now clattered over were hewn from quarries in the southwest of the continent. The red pillars fashioned like mighty trees, their uppermost branches stretching across the domed ceilings high above—all part of one endless receiving hall—had been hauled in from the northeastern, sand-blasted deserts.

The mosaics that interrupted the green marble had been assembled by craftsmen from Tigana, another of the khagan’s prized cities at the mountainous southern end of the continent. Each portrayed a scene from the khaganate’s rich, brutal, glorious past: the centuries spent as a nomadic horse-people in the grassy steppes of the continent’s eastern lands; the emergence of the first khagan, a warlord who unified the scattered tribes into a conquering force that took the continent piece by piece, wielding cunning and strategic brilliance to forge a sweeping empire; and then depictions of the three centuries since—the various khagans who had expanded the empire, distributing the wealth from a hundred territories across the lands, building countless bridges and roads to connect them all, ruling over the vast continent with precision and clarity.

Perhaps the mosaics provided a vision of what Adarlan might have been, Chaol mused as the murmurings of the gathered court flitted between the carved pillars and gilded domes ahead. That is, if Adarlan hadn’t been ruled by a man controlled by a demon king hell-bent on turning this world into a feast for his hordes.

Chaol twisted his head to peer up at Nesryn, stone-faced behind him as she pushed his chair. Only her dark eyes, darting over every passing face and window and column, revealed any sort of interest in the khagan’s sprawling home.

They’d saved their finest set of clothes for today, and the newly appointed Captain of the Guard was indeed resplendent in her crimson-and-gold uniform. Where Dorian had dug up one of the uniforms Chaol had once worn with such pride, he had no idea.

He’d initially wanted to wear black, simply because color … He’d never felt comfortable with colors, save the red and gold of his kingdom. But black had become the color of Erawan’s Valg-infested guards. They had worn those black-on-black uniforms as they’d terrorized Rifthold. As they’d rounded up, tortured, and then butchered his men.

Then strung them along the palace gates to swing in the wind.

He’d barely been able to look at the Antican guards they’d passed on their way here, both in the streets and in this very palace—standing proud and alert, swords at their backs and knives at their sides. Even now, he resisted the urge to glance to where he knew they’d be stationed in the hall, exactly where he would have positioned his own men. Where he himself would undoubtedly have been standing, monitoring all, while emissaries from a foreign kingdom arrived.

Nesryn met his stare, those ebony eyes cool and unblinking, her shoulder-length black hair swaying with each step. Not a trace of nerves flickered across her lovely, solemn face. No inkling that they were about to meet one of the most powerful men in the world—a man who could alter the fate of their own continent in the war surely now breaking out across Adarlan and Terrasen.

Chaol faced forward without saying a word. The walls and pillars and arched doorways had ears and eyes and mouths, she’d warned him.

It was that thought alone that kept Chaol from fiddling with the clothes he’d finally decided upon: light brown pants, knee-high chestnut-colored boots, a white shirt of finest silk, mostly concealed by a dark teal jacket. The jacket was simple enough, the cost of it only revealed by the fine brass buckles down the front and the glimmer of delicate golden thread skimming the high collar and edges. No sword hung from his leather belt—the absence of that comforting weight like some phantom limb.

Or legs.

Two tasks. He had two tasks while here, and he still was not certain which one would prove the more impossible:

Convincing the khagan and his six would-be heirs to lend their considerable armies to the war against Erawan …

Or finding a healer in the Torre Cesme who could discover some way to get him walking again.

To—he thought with no small ripple of disgust—fix him.

He hated that word. Almost as much as the clattering of the wheels. Fix. Even if that’s what he was beseeching the legendary healers to do for him, the word still grated, made his gut churn.

He shoved the word and the thought from his mind as Nesryn followed the near-silent flock of servants who had led them from the docks, through the winding and dusty cobblestoned streets of Antica, all the way up the sloped avenue to the domes and thirty-six minarets of the palace itself.

Strips of white cloth—from silk to felt to linen—had been hanging from countless windows and lanterns and doorways. Likely because of some official or distant royal relation dying recently, Nesryn had murmured. Death rituals were varied and often a blend from the countless kingdoms and territories now governed by the khaganate, but the white cloth was an ancient holdover from the centuries when the khagan’s people had roamed the steppes and laid their dead to rest under the watchful, open sky.

The city had been hardly gloomy, though, as they traveled through it. People still hurried about in clothes of various makes, vendors still called out their wares, acolytes in temples of wood or stone—every god had a home in Antica, Nesryn supplied—still beckoned to those on the street. All of it, even the palace, watched over by the shining, pale-stoned tower atop one of its southern hills.

The Torre. The tower that housed the finest mortal healers in the world. Chaol had tried not to look too long at it through the carriage windows, even if the massive tower could be seen from nearly every street and angle of Antica. None of the servants had mentioned it, or pointed out the dominant presence that seemed to rival even the khagan’s palace.

No, the servants hadn’t said much at all on the trek here, even regarding the mourning-banners flapping in the dry wind. Each of them remained silent, men and women alike, their dark hair shining and straight, and each wore loose pants and flowing jackets of cobalt and bloodred edged with pale gold. Paid servants—but descendants of the slaves who had once been owned by the khagan’s bloodline. Until the previous khagan, a visionary and firebrand, had outlawed slavery a generation ago as one of her countless improvements to the empire. The khagan had freed her slaves but kept them on as paid servants—along with their children. And now their children’s children.

Not a single one of them appeared underfed or undercompensated, and none had shown even a flicker of fear as they’d escorted Chaol and Nesryn from the ship to the palace. The current khagan, it seemed, treated his servants well. Hopefully his yet-undecided Heir would as well.

Unlike Adarlan or Terrasen, inheritance of the empire was decided by the khagan—not by birth order or gender. Having as many children as possible to provide him or her with a wide pool to choose from made that choice only somewhat easier. And rivalry amongst the royal children … It was practically a blood sport. All designed to prove to their parent who was the strongest, the wisest, the most suited to rule.

The khagan was required by law to have a sealed document locked away in an unmarked, hidden trove—a document that listed his or her Heir, should death sweep upon them before it could be formally announced. It could be altered at any time, but it was designed to avoid the one thing the khaganate had lived in fear of since that first khagan had patched together the kingdoms and territories of this continent: collapse. Not from outside forces, but from war within.

That long-ago first khagan had been wise. Not once during the three hundred years of the khaganate had a civil war occurred.

And as Nesryn pushed him past the graceful bowing of the servants now paused between two enormous pillars, as the lush, ornate throne room spread before them with its dozens of people gathered around the golden dais glittering in the midday sun, Chaol wondered which of the five figures standing before the enthroned man would one day be chosen to rule this empire.

The only sounds came from the rustling clothing of the four dozen people—he counted in the span of a few casual blinks—gathered along either side of that glinting dais, forming a wall of silk and flesh and jewels, a veritable avenue through which Nesryn wheeled him.

Rustling clothing—and the clatter and squeak of the wheels. She’d oiled them this morning, but weeks at sea had worn on the metal. Every scrape and shriek was like nails on stone.

But he kept his head high. Shoulders back.

Nesryn paused a healthy distance from the dais—from the wall of five royal children, all in their prime, male and female, standing between them and their father.

Defense of their emperor: a prince or princess’s first duty. The easiest way to prove their loyalty, to angle for being tapped Heir. And the five before them …

Chaol schooled his face into neutrality as he counted again. Only five. Not the six Nesryn had described.

But he didn’t scan the hall for the missing royal sibling as he bowed at the waist. He’d practiced the movement over and over this final week at sea, as the weather had turned hotter, the air becoming dry and sunbaked. Doing it in the chair still felt unnatural, but Chaol bowed low—until he was staring at his unresponsive legs, at his spotless brown boots and the feet he could not feel, could not move.

From the whisper of clothing to his left, he knew Nesryn had come to his side and was bowing deeply as well.

They held it for the three breaths Nesryn claimed were required.

Chaol used those three breaths to settle himself, to shut out the weight of what was upon them both.

He had once been skilled at maintaining an unfaltering composure. He’d served Dorian’s father for years, had taken orders without so much as blinking. And before that, he’d endured his own father, whose words had been as cutting as his fists. The true and current Lord of Anielle.

The Lord now in front of Chaol’s name was a mockery. A mockery and a lie that Dorian had refused to abandon despite Chaol’s protests.

Lord Chaol Westfall, Hand of the King.

He hated it. More than the sound of wheels. More than the body he now could not feel beneath his hips, the body whose stillness still surprised him, even all these weeks later.

He was Lord of Nothing. Lord of Oath-Breakers. Lord of Liars.

And as Chaol lifted his torso and met the upswept eyes of the white-haired man on that throne, as the khagan’s weathered brown skin crinkled in a small, cunning smile … Chaol wondered if the khagan knew it as well.





2


There were two parts of her, Nesryn supposed.

The part that was now Captain of Adarlan’s Royal Guard, who had made a vow to her king to see that the man in the wheeled chair beside her was healed—and to muster an army from the man enthroned before her. That part of Nesryn kept her head high, her shoulders back, her hands within a nonthreatening distance of the ornate sword at her hip.

Then there was the other part.

The part that had glimpsed the spires and minarets and domes of the god-city breaking over the horizon as they’d sailed in, the shining pillar of the Torre standing proud over it all, and had to swallow back tears. The part that had scented the smoky paprika and crisp tang of ginger and beckoning sweetness of cumin as soon as she had cleared the docks and knew, deep in her bones, that she was home. That, yes, she lived and served and would die for Adarlan, for the family still there, but this place, where her father had once lived and where even her Adarlan-born mother had felt more at ease … These were her people.

The skin in varying shades of brown and tan. The abundance of that shining black hair—her hair. The eyes that ranged from uptilted to wide and round to slender, in hues of ebony and chestnut and even the rare hazel and green. Her people. A blend of kingdoms and territories, yes, but … Here there were no slurs hissed in the streets. Here there would be no rocks thrown by children. Here her sister’s children would not feel different. Unwanted.

And that part of her … Despite her thrown-back shoulders and raised chin, her knees indeed quaked at who—at what—stood before her.

Nesryn had not dared tell her father where and what she was leaving to do. Only that she was off on an errand of the King of Adarlan and would not be back for some time.

Her father wouldn’t have believed it. Nesryn didn’t quite believe it herself.

The khagan had been a story whispered before their hearth on winter nights, his offspring legends told while kneading endless loaves of bread for their bakery. Their ancestors’ bedside tales to either lull her into sweet sleep or keep her up all night in bone-deep terror.

The khagan was a living myth. As much of a deity as the thirty-six gods who ruled over this city and empire.

There were as many temples to those gods in Antica as there were tributes to the various khagans. More.

They called it the god-city for them—and for the living god seated on the ivory throne atop that golden dais.

It was indeed pure gold, just as her father’s whispered legends claimed.

And the khagan’s six children … Nesryn could name them all without introduction.

After the meticulous research Chaol had done while on their ship, she had no doubt he could as well.

But that was not how this meeting was to go.

For as much as she had taught the former captain about her homeland these weeks, he’d instructed her on court protocol. He had rarely been so directly involved, yes, but he had witnessed enough of it while serving the king.

An observer of the game who was now to be a prime player. With the stakes unbearably high.

They waited in silence for the khagan to speak.

She’d tried not to gawk while walking through the palace. She had never set foot inside it during her few visits to Antica over the years. Neither had her father, or his father, or any of her ancestors. In a city of gods, this was the holiest of temples. And deadliest of labyrinths.

The khagan did not move from his ivory throne.

A newer, wider throne, dating from a hundred years ago—when the seventh khagan had chucked out the old one because his large frame didn’t fit in it. He’d eaten and drunk himself to death, history claimed, but at least had the good sense to name his Heir before he clutched his chest one day and slumped dead … right in that throne.

Urus, the current khagan, was no more than sixty, and seemed in far better condition. Though his dark hair had long since gone as white as his carved throne, though scars peppered his wrinkled skin as a reminder to all that he had fought for this throne in the final days of his mother’s life … His onyx eyes, slender and uptilted, were bright as stars. Aware and all-seeing.

Atop his snowy head sat no crown. For gods among mortals did not need markers of their divine rule.

Behind him, strips of white silk tied to the open windows fluttered in the hot breeze. Sending the thoughts of the khagan and his family to where the soul of the deceased—whoever they might be, someone important, no doubt—had now rejoined the Eternal Blue Sky and Slumbering Earth that the khagan and all his ancestors still honored in lieu of the pantheon of thirty-six gods their citizens remained free to worship.

Or any other gods outside of it, should their territories be new enough to not yet have had their gods incorporated into the fold. There had to be several of those, since during his three decades of rule, the man seated before them had added a handful of overseas kingdoms to their borders.

A kingdom for every ring adorning his scar-flecked fingers, precious stones glinting among them.

A warrior bedecked in finery. Those hands slid from the arms of his ivory throne—assembled from the hewn tusks of the mighty beasts that roamed the central grasslands—and settled in his lap, hidden beneath swaths of gold-trimmed blue silk. Indigo dye from the steamy, lush lands in the west. From Balruhn, where Nesryn’s own people had originally hailed, before curiosity and ambition drove her great-grandfather to drag his family over mountains and grasslands and deserts to the god-city in the arid north.

The Faliqs had long been tradesmen, and not of anything particularly fine. Just simple, good cloth and household spices. Her uncle still traded such things and, through various lucrative investments, had become a moderately wealthy man, his family now dwelling in a beautiful home within this very city. A definitive step up from a baker—the path her father had chosen upon leaving these shores.

“It is not every day that a new king sends someone so important to our shores,” the khagan said at last, using their own tongue and not Halha, the language of the southern continent. “I suppose we should deem it an honor.”

His accent was so like her father’s—but the tone lacked the warmth, the humor. A man who had been obeyed his entire life, and fought to earn his crown. And executed two of the siblings who proved to be sore losers. The surviving three … one had gone into exile, and the other two had sworn fealty to their brother. By having the healers of the Torre render them infertile.

Chaol inclined his head. “The honor is mine, Great Khagan.”

Not Majesty—that was for kings or queens. There was no term high or grand enough for this man before them. Only the title that the first of his ancestors had borne: Great Khagan.

“Yours,” the khagan mused, those dark eyes now sliding to Nesryn. “And what of your companion?”

Nesryn fought the urge to bow again. Dorian Havilliard was the opposite of this man, she realized. Aelin Galathynius, however … Nesryn wondered if the young queen might have more in common with the khagan than she did with the Havilliard king. Or would, if Aelin survived long enough. If she reached her throne.

Nesryn shoved those thoughts down as Chaol peered at her, his shoulders tightening. Not at the words, not at the company, but simply because she knew that the mere act of having to look up, facing this mighty warrior-king in that chair … Today would be a hard one for him.

Nesryn inclined her head slightly. “I am Nesryn Faliq, Captain of the Royal Guard of Adarlan. As Lord Westfall once was before King Dorian appointed him as his Hand earlier this summer.” She was grateful that years spent living in Rifthold had taught her not to smile, not to cringe or show fear—grateful that she’d learned to keep her voice cool and steady even while her knees quaked.

Nesryn continued, “My family hails from here, Great Khagan. Antica still owns a piece of my soul.” She placed a hand over her heart, the fine threads of her gold-and-crimson uniform, the colors of the empire that had made her family often feel hunted and unwanted, scraping against her calluses. “The honor of being in your palace is the greatest of my life.”

It was, perhaps, true.

If she found time to visit her family in the quiet, garden-filled Runni Quarter—home mostly to merchants and tradesmen like her uncle—they would certainly consider it so.

The khagan only smiled a bit. “Then allow me to welcome you to your true home, Captain.”

Nesryn felt, more than saw, Chaol’s flicker of annoyance. She wasn’t entirely certain what had triggered it: the claim on her homeland, or the official title that had now passed to her.

But Nesryn bowed her head again in thanks.

The khagan said to Chaol, “I will assume you are here to woo me into joining this war of yours.”

Chaol countered a shade tersely, “We’re here at the behest of my king.” A note of pride at that word. “To begin what we hope will be a new era of prosperous trade and peace.”

One of the khagan’s offspring—a young woman with hair like flowing night and eyes like dark fire—exchanged a wry look with the sibling to her left, a man perhaps three years her elder.

Hasar and Sartaq, then. Third and secondborn, respectively. Each wore similar loose pants and embroidered tunics, with fine leather boots rising to their knees. Hasar was no beauty, but those eyes … The flame dancing in them as she glanced to her elder brother made up for it.

And Sartaq—commander of his father’s ruk riders. The rukhin.

The northern aerial cavalry of his people had long dwelled in the towering Tavan Mountains with their ruks: enormous birds, eagle-like in shape, large enough to carry off cattle and horses. Without the sheer bulk and destructive weight of the Ironteeth witches’ wyverns, but swift and nimble and clever as foxes. The perfect mounts for the legendary archers who flew them into battle.

Sartaq’s face was solemn, his broad shoulders thrown back. A man perhaps as ill at ease in his fine clothes as Chaol. She wondered if his ruk, Kadara, was perched on one of the palace’s thirty-six minarets, eyeing the cowering servants and guards, waiting impatiently for her master’s return.

That Sartaq was here … They had to have known, then. Well in advance. That she and Chaol were coming.

The knowing glance that passed between Sartaq and Hasar told Nesryn enough: they, at least, had discussed the possibilities of this visit.

Sartaq’s gaze slid from his sister to Nesryn.

She yielded a blink. His brown skin was darker than the others’—perhaps from all that time in the skies and sunlight—his eyes a solid ebony. Depthless and unreadable. His black hair remained unbound save for a small braid that curved over the arch of his ear. The rest of his hair fell to just past his muscled chest, and swayed slightly as he gave what Nesryn could have sworn was a mocking incline of his head.

A ragtag, humbled pair, Adarlan had sent. The injured former captain, and the common-bred current one. Perhaps the khagan’s initial words about honor had been a veiled mention of what he perceived as an insult.

Nesryn dragged her attention away from the prince, even as she felt Sartaq’s keen stare lingering like some phantom touch.

“We arrive bearing gifts from His Majesty, the King of Adarlan,” Chaol was saying, and twisted in his chair to motion the servants behind them to come forward.

Queen Georgina and her court had practically raided the royal coffers before they’d fled to their mountain estates this spring. And the former king had smuggled out much of what was left during those final few months. But before they’d sailed here, Dorian had ventured into the many vaults beneath the castle. Nesryn still could hear his echoed curse, filthier than she’d ever heard him speak, as he found little more than gold marks within.

Aelin, as usual, had a plan.

Nesryn had been standing beside her new king when Aelin had flipped open two trunks in her chambers. Jewelry fit for a queen—for a Queen of Assassins—had sparkled within.

I’ve enough funds for now, Aelin had only said to Dorian when he began to object. Give the khagan some of Adarlan’s finest.

In the weeks since, Nesryn had wondered if Aelin had been glad to be rid of what she’d purchased with her blood money. The jewels of Adarlan, it seemed, would not travel to Terrasen.

And now, as the servants laid out the four smaller trunks—divided from the original two to make it seem like more, Aelin had suggested—as they flipped open the lids, the still-silent court pressed in to see.

A murmur went through them at the glistening gems and gold and silver.

“A gift,” Chaol declared as even the khagan himself leaned forward to examine the trove. “From King Dorian Havilliard of Adarlan, and Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen.”

Princess Hasar’s eyes snapped to Chaol at the second name.

Prince Sartaq only glanced back at his father. The eldest son, Arghun, frowned at the jewels.

Arghun—the politician amongst them, beloved by the merchants and power brokers of the continent. Slender and tall, he was a scholar who traded not in coin and finery but in knowledge.

Prince of Spies, they called Arghun. While his two brothers had become the finest of warriors, Arghun had honed his mind, and now oversaw his father’s thirty-six viziers. So that frown at the treasure …

Necklaces of diamond and ruby. Bracelets of gold and emerald. Earrings—veritable small chandeliers—of sapphire and amethyst. Exquisitely wrought rings, some crowned with jewels as large as a swallow’s egg. Combs and pins and brooches. Blood-gained, blood-bought.

The youngest of the assembled royal children, a fine-boned, comely woman, leaned the closest. Duva. A thick silver ring with a sapphire of near-obscene size adorned her slender hand, pressed delicately against the considerable swell of her belly.

Perhaps six months along, though the flowing clothes—she favored purple and rose—and her slight build could distort that. Certainly her first child, the result of her arranged marriage to a prince hailing from an overseas territory to the far east, a southern neighbor of Doranelle that had noted the rumblings of its Fae Queen and wanted to secure the protection of the southern empire across the ocean. Perhaps the first attempt, Nesryn and others had wondered, of the khaganate greatly expanding its own considerable continent.

Nesryn didn’t let herself look too long at the life growing beneath that bejeweled hand.

For if one of Duva’s siblings were crowned khagan, the first task of the new ruler—after his or her sufficient offspring were produced—would be to eliminate any other challenges to the throne. Starting with the offspring of his or her siblings, if they challenged their right to rule.

She wondered how Duva was able to endure it. If she had come to love the babe growing in her womb, or if she was wise enough to not allow such a feeling. If the father of that babe would do everything he could to get that child to safety should it come to that.

The khagan at last leaned back in his throne. His children had straightened again, Duva’s hand falling back at her side.

“Jewels,” Chaol explained, “set by the finest of Adarlanian craftsmen.”

The khagan toyed with a citrine ring on his own hand. “If they came from Aelin Galathynius’s trove, I have no doubt that they are.”

A beat of silence between Nesryn and Chaol. They had known—anticipated—that the khagan had spies in every land, on every sea. That Aelin’s past might be just a tad difficult to work around.

“For you are not only Adarlan’s Hand,” the khagan went on, “but also the Ambassador of Terrasen, are you not?”

“Indeed I am,” Chaol said simply.

The khagan rose with only the slightest stiffness, his children immediately stepping aside to clear a path for him to step off the golden dais.

The tallest of them—strapping and perhaps more unchecked than Sartaq’s quiet intensity—eyed up the crowd as if assessing any threats within. Kashin. Fourthborn.

If Sartaq commanded the ruks in the northern and central skies, then Kashin controlled the armies on land. Foot soldiers and the horse-lords, mostly. Arghun held sway over the viziers, and Hasar, rumor claimed, had the armadas bowing to her. Yet there remained something less polished about Kashin, his dark hair braided back from his broad-planed face. Handsome, yes—but it was as if life amongst his troops had rubbed off on him, and not necessarily in a bad way.

The khagan descended the dais, his cobalt robes whispering along the floor. And with every step over the green marble, Nesryn realized that this man had indeed once commanded not just the ruks in the skies, but also the horse-lords, and swayed the armadas to join him. And then Urus and his elder brother had gone hand-to-hand in combat at the behest of their mother while she lay dying from a wasting sickness that even the Torre could not heal. The son who walked off the sand would be khagan.

The former khagan had a penchant for spectacle. And for this final fight between her two selected offspring, she had placed them in the great amphitheater in the heart of the city, the doors open to any who could claw inside to find a seat. People had sat upon the archways and steps, with thousands cramming the streets that flowed to the white-stoned building. Ruks and their riders had perched on the pillars crowning the uppermost level, more rukhin circling in the skies above.

The two would-be Heirs had fought for six hours.

Not just against each other, but also against the horrors their mother unleashed to test them: great cats sprang from hidden cages beneath the sandy floor; iron-spiked chariots with spear-throwers had charged from the gloom of the tunnel entrances to run them down.

Nesryn’s father had been amongst the frenzied mob in the streets, listening to the shouted reports from those dangling off the columns.

The final blow hadn’t been an act of brutality or hate.

The now-khagan’s elder brother, Orda, had taken a spear to the side thanks to one of those charioteers. After six hours of bloody battle and survival, the blow had kept him down.

And Urus had set aside his sword. Absolute silence had fallen in the arena. Silence as Urus had extended a bloodied hand to his fallen brother—to help him.

Orda had sent a hidden dagger shooting for Urus’s heart.

It had missed by two inches.

And Urus had ripped that dagger free, screaming, and plunged it right back into his brother.

Urus did not miss as his brother had.

Nesryn wondered if a scar still marred the khagan’s chest as he now strode toward her and Chaol and the jewels displayed. If that long-dead khagan had wept for her fallen son in private, slain by the one who would take her crown in a matter of days. Or if she had never allowed herself to love her children, knowing what must befall them.

Urus, Khagan of the Southern Continent, stopped before Nesryn and Chaol. He towered over Nesryn by a good half foot, his shoulders still broad, spine still straight.

He bent with only a touch of age-granted strain to pluck up a necklace of diamond and sapphire from the chest. It glittered like a living river in his scar-flecked, bejeweled hands.

“My eldest, Arghun,” said the khagan, jerking his chin toward the narrow-faced prince monitoring all, “recently informed me of some fascinating information regarding Queen Aelin Ashryver Galathynius.”

Nesryn waited for the blow. Chaol just held Urus’s gaze.

But the khagan’s dark eyes—Sartaq’s eyes, she realized—danced as he said to Chaol, “A queen at nineteen would make many uneasy. Dorian Havilliard, at least, has been trained since birth to take up his crown, to control a court and kingdom. But Aelin Galathynius …”

The khagan chucked the necklace into the chest. Its thunk was as loud as steel on stone.

“I suppose some would call ten years as a trained assassin to be experience.”

Murmurs again rippled through the throne room. Hasar’s fire-bright eyes practically glowed. Sartaq’s face did not shift at all. Perhaps a skill learned from his eldest brother—whose spies had to be skilled indeed if they’d learned of Aelin’s past. Even though Arghun himself seemed to be struggling to keep a smug smile from his lips.

“We may be separated by the Narrow Sea,” the khagan said to Chaol, whose features did not so much as alter, “but even we have heard of Celaena Sardothien. You bring me jewels, no doubt from her own collection. Yet they are jewels for me, when my daughter Duva”—a glance toward his pregnant, pretty daughter standing closely beside Hasar—“has yet to receive any sort of wedding gift from either your new king or returned queen, while every other ruler sent theirs nearly half a year ago.”

Nesryn hid her wince. An oversight that could be explained by so many truths—but not ones that they dared voice, not here. Chaol didn’t offer any of them as he remained silent.

“But,” the khagan went on, “regardless of the jewels you’ve now dumped at my feet like sacks of grain, I would still rather have the truth. Especially after Aelin Galathynius shattered your own glass castle, murdered your former king, and seized your capital city.”

“If Prince Arghun has the information,” Chaol said at last with unfaltering coolness, “perhaps you do not need it from me.”

Nesryn stifled her cringe at the defiance, the tone—

“Perhaps not,” the khagan said, even as Arghun’s eyes narrowed slightly. “But I think you should like some truth from me.”

Chaol didn’t ask for it. Didn’t look remotely interested beyond his, “Oh?”

Kashin stiffened. His father’s fiercest defender, then. Arghun only exchanged glances with a vizier and smiled toward Chaol like an adder ready to strike.

“Here is why I think you have come, Lord Westfall, Hand to the King.”

Only the gulls wheeling high above the dome of the throne room dared make any noise.

The khagan shut lid after lid on the trunks.

“I think you have come to convince me to join your war. Adarlan is cleaved, Terrasen is destitute, and will no doubt have some issue convincing her surviving lords to fight for an untried queen who spent ten years indulging herself in Rifthold, purchasing these jewels with blood money. Your list of allies is short and brittle. Duke Perrington’s forces are anything but. The other kingdoms on your continent are shattered and separated from your northern territories by Perrington’s armies. So you have arrived here, fast as the eight winds can carry you, to beg me to send my armies to your shores. To convince me to spill our blood on a lost cause.”

“Some might consider it a noble cause,” Chaol countered.

“I am not done yet,” the khagan said, lifting a hand.

Chaol bristled but did not speak out of turn again. Nesryn’s heart thundered.

“Many would argue,” the khagan said, waving that upraised hand toward a few viziers, toward Arghun and Hasar, “that we remain out of it. Or better yet, ally with the force sure to win, whose trade has been profitable for us these ten years.”

A wave of that hand toward some other men and women in the gold robes of viziers. Toward Sartaq and Kashin and Duva. “Some would say that we risk allying with Perrington only to potentially face his armies in our harbors one day. That the shattered kingdoms of Eyllwe and Fenharrow might again become wealthy under new rule, and fill our coffers with good trade. I have no doubt you will promise me that it shall be so. You will offer me exclusive trading deals, likely to your own disadvantage. But you are desperate, and there is nothing you possess that I do not already own. That I cannot take if I wish.”

Chaol kept his mouth shut, thankfully. Even as his brown eyes simmered at the quiet threat.

The khagan peered into the fourth and final trunk. Jeweled combs and brushes, ornate perfume bottles made by Adarlan’s finest glassblowers. The same who had built the castle Aelin had shattered. “So, you have come to convince me to join your cause. And I shall consider it while you stay here. Since you have undoubtedly come for another purpose, too.”

A flick of that scarred, jeweled hand toward the chair. Color stained Chaol’s tan cheeks, but he did not flinch, did not cower. Nesryn forced herself to do the same.

“Arghun informed me your injuries are new—that they happened when the glass castle exploded. It seems the Queen of Terrasen was not quite so careful about shielding her allies.”

A muscle feathered in Chaol’s jaw as everyone, from prince to servant, looked to his legs.

“Because your relations with Doranelle are now strained, also thanks to Aelin Galathynius, I assume the only path toward healing that remains open to you is here. At the Torre Cesme.”

The khagan shrugged, the only reveal of the irreverent warrior-youth he’d once been. “My beloved wife will be deeply upset if I were to deny an injured man a chance at healing”—the empress was nowhere to be seen in this room, Nesryn realized with a start—“so I, of course, shall grant you permission to enter the Torre. Whether its healers will agree to work upon you shall be up to them. Even I do not control the will of the Torre.”

The Torre—the Tower. It dominated the southern edge of Antica, nestled atop its highest hill to overlook the city that sloped down toward the green sea. Domain of its famed healers, and tribute to Silba, the healer-goddess who blessed them. Of the thirty-six gods this empire had welcomed into the fold over the centuries, from religions near and far, in this city of gods … Silba reigned unchallenged.

Chaol looked like he was swallowing hot coals, but he mercifully managed to bow his head. “I thank you for your generosity, Great Khagan.”

“Rest tonight—I will inform them that you shall be ready tomorrow morning. Since you cannot go to them, one will be sent to you. If they agree.”

Chaol’s fingers shifted in his lap, but he did not clench them. Nesryn still held her breath.

“I am at their disposal,” Chaol said tightly.

The khagan shut the final trunk of jewels. “You may keep your presents, Hand of the King, Ambassador to Aelin Galathynius. I have no use for them—and no interest.”

Chaol’s head snapped up, as if something in the khagan’s tone had snared him. “Why.”

Nesryn barely hid her cringe. More of a demand than anyone ever dared make of the man, judging by the surprised anger in the khagan’s eyes, in the glances exchanged between his children.

But Nesryn caught the flicker of something else within the khagan’s eyes. A weariness.

Something oily slid into her gut as she noted the white banners streaming from the windows, all over the city. As she looked to the six heirs and counted again.

Not six.

Five. Only five were here.

Death-banners at the royal household. All over the city.

They were not a mourning people—not in the way they could be in Adarlan, dressing all in black and moping for months. Even amongst the khagan’s royal family, life picked up and went on, their dead not stuffed in stone catacombs or coffins, but shrouded in white and laid beneath the open skies of their sealed-off, sacred reserve on the distant steppes.

Nesryn glanced down the line of five heirs, counting. The eldest five were present. And just as she realized that Tumelun, the youngest—barely seventeen—was not there, the khagan said to Chaol, “Your spies are indeed useless if you have not heard.”

With that, he strode for his throne, leaving Sartaq to step forward, the second-eldest prince’s depthless eyes veiled with sorrow. Sartaq gave Nesryn a silent nod. Yes. Yes, her suspicions were right—

Sartaq’s solid, pleasant voice filled the chamber. “Our beloved sister, Tumelun, died unexpectedly three weeks ago.”

Oh, gods. So many words and rituals had been passed over; merely coming here to demand their aid in war was uncouth, untoward—

Chaol said into the fraught silence, meeting the stares of each taut-faced prince and princess, then finally the weary-eyed khagan himself, “You have my deepest condolences.”

Nesryn breathed, “May the northern wind carry her to fairer plains.”

Only Sartaq bothered to nod his thanks, while the others now turned cold and stiff.

Nesryn shot Chaol a silent, warning look not to ask about the death. He read the expression on her face and nodded.

The khagan scratched at a fleck on his ivory throne, the silence as heavy as one of the coats the horse-lords still wore against that bitter northern wind on the steppes and their unforgiving wooden saddles.

“We’ve been at sea for three weeks,” Chaol tried to offer, his voice softer now.

The khagan did not bother to appear understanding. “That would also explain why you are so unaware of the other bit of news, and why these cold jewels might be of more use for you.” The khagan’s lips curled in a mirthless smile. “Arghun’s contacts also brought word from a ship this morning. Your royal coffers in Rifthold are no longer accessible. Duke Perrington and his host of flying terrors have sacked Rifthold.”

Silence, pulsing and hollow, swept through Nesryn. She wasn’t sure if Chaol was breathing.

“We do not have word on King Dorian’s location, but he yielded Rifthold to them. Fled into the night, if rumor is to be believed. The city has fallen. Everything to the south of Rifthold belongs to Perrington and his witches now.”

Nesryn saw the faces of her nieces and nephews first.

Then the face of her sister. Then her father. Saw their kitchen, the bakery. The pear tarts cooling on the long, wooden table.

Dorian had left them. Left them all to … to do what? Find help? Survive? Run to Aelin?

Had the royal guard remained to fight? Had anyone fought to save the innocents in the city?

Her hands were shaking. She didn’t care. Didn’t care if these people clad in riches sneered.

Her sister’s children, the great joy in her life …

Chaol was staring up at her. Nothing on his face. No devastation, no shock.

That crimson-and-gold uniform became stifling. Strangling.

Witches and wyverns. In her city. With those iron teeth and nails. Shredding and bleeding and tormenting. Her family—her family—

“Father.”

Sartaq had stepped forward once more. Those onyx eyes slid between Nesryn and the khagan. “It has been a long journey for our guests. Politics aside,” he said, giving a disapproving glance at Arghun, who seemed amused—amused at this news he’d brought, that had set the green marble floors roiling beneath her boots—“we are still a nation of hospitality. Let them rest for a few hours. And then join us for dinner.”

Hasar came to Sartaq’s side, frowning at Arghun while she did. Perhaps not from reprimand like her brother, but simply for Arghun not telling her of this news first. “Let no guest pass through our home and find its comforts lacking.” Even though the words were welcoming, Hasar’s tone was anything but.

Their father gave them a bemused glance. “Indeed.” Urus waved a hand toward the servants by the far pillars. “Escort them to their rooms. And dispatch a message to the Torre to send their finest—Hafiza, if she’ll come down from that tower.”

Nesryn scarcely heard the rest. If the witches held the city, then the Valg who had infested it earlier this summer … There would be no one to fight them. No one to shield her family.

If they had survived.

She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think.

She should not have left. Should not have taken this position.

They could be dead, or suffering. Dead. Dead.

She did not notice the female servant who came to push Chaol’s chair. Barely noticed the hand Chaol reached out to twine through her own.

Nesryn didn’t so much as bow to the khagan as they left.

She could not stop seeing their faces.

The children. Her sister’s smiling, round-bellied children.

She should not have come.





3


Nesryn had gone into shock.

And Chaol could not go to her, could not scoop her into his arms and hold her close.

Not when she had walked, silent and drifting like a wraith, right into a bedroom of the lavish suite they’d been appointed on the first floor of the palace, and shut the door behind her. As if she had forgotten anyone else in the world existed.

He didn’t blame her.

Chaol let the servant, a fine-boned young woman with chestnut hair that fell in heavy curls to her narrow waist, wheel him into the second bedroom. The suite overlooked a garden of fruit trees and burbling fountains, cascades of pink and purple blossoms hanging from potted plants anchored into the balcony above. They provided living curtains before his towering bedroom windows—doors, he realized.

The servant mumbled something about drawing a bath, her use of his language unwieldy compared to the skill of the khagan and his children. Not that he was in any position to judge: he was barely fluent in any of the other languages within his own continent.

She slipped behind a carved wooden screen that no doubt led into his bathing chamber, and Chaol peered through his still-open bedroom door, across the pale marble foyer, to the shut doors of Nesryn’s bedroom.

They should not have left.

He couldn’t have done anything, but … He knew what the not-knowing would do to Nesryn. What it was already doing to him.

Dorian was not dead, he told himself. He had gotten out. Fled. If he were in Perrington’s grip—Erawan’s grip—they would have known. Prince Arghun would have known.

His city, sacked by the witches. He wondered if Manon Blackbeak had led the attack.

Chaol tried and failed to recount where the debts were stacked between them. Aelin had spared Manon’s life at Temis’s temple, but Manon had given them vital information about Dorian under the Valg thrall. Did it make them even? Or tentative allies?

It was a waste to hope that Manon would turn against Morath. But he sent up a silent prayer to whatever god might be listening to protect Dorian, to guide his king to friendlier harbors.

Dorian would make it. He was too clever, too gifted, not to. There was no other alternative—none—that Chaol would accept. Dorian was alive, and safe. Or on his way to safety. And when Chaol got a moment, he was going to squeeze the information out of the eldest prince. Mourning or no. Everything Arghun knew, he would know. And then he’d ask that servant girl to comb every merchant ship for information about the attack.

No word—there had been no word about Aelin. Where she was now, what she’d been doing. Aelin, who might very well be the thing that cost him this alliance.

He ground his teeth, and was still grinding them as the suite doors opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man strode in as if he owned the place.

Chaol supposed he did. Prince Kashin was alone and unarmed, though he moved with the ease of a person confident in his body’s unfailing strength.

How, Chaol supposed, he himself had once walked about the palace in Rifthold.

Chaol lowered his head in greeting as the prince shut the hall door and surveyed him. It was a warrior’s assessment, frank and thorough. When his brown eyes at last met Chaol’s, the prince said in Adarlan’s tongue, “Injuries like yours are not uncommon here, and I have seen many of them—especially among the horse-tribes. My family’s people.”

Chaol didn’t particularly feel like discussing his injuries with the prince, with anyone, so he only nodded. “I’m sure you have.”

Kashin cocked his head, scanning Chaol again, his dark braid slipping over his muscled shoulder. Reading, perhaps, Chaol’s desire not to start down this particular road. “My father indeed wishes you both to join us at dinner. And more than that, to join us every night afterward while you are here. And sit at the high table.”

It wasn’t a strange request of a visiting dignitary, and it was certainly an honor to sit at the khagan’s own table, but to send his son to do it … Chaol considered his next words carefully, then simply chose the most obvious one. “Why?”

Surely the family wished to keep close to one another after losing their youngest member. Inviting strangers to join them—

The prince’s jaw tightened. Not a man used to veiling his emotions, as his three elder siblings were. “Arghun reports our palace is safe of spies from Duke Perrington’s forces, that his agents have not yet come. I am not of that belief. And Sartaq—” The prince caught himself, as if not wanting to bring in his brother—or potential ally. Kashin grimaced. “There was a reason I chose to live amongst soldiers. The double-talk of this court …”

Chaol was tempted to say he understood. Had felt that way for most of his life. But he asked, “You think Perrington’s forces have infiltrated this court?”

How much did Kashin, or Arghun, know of Perrington’s forces—know the truth of the Valg king who wore Perrington’s skin? Or the armies he commanded, worse than any their imaginations might conjure? But that information … He’d keep that to himself. See if it could somehow be used, if Arghun and the khagan did not know of it.

Kashin rubbed at his neck. “I do not know if it is Perrington, or someone from Terrasen, or Melisande, or Wendlyn. All I know is that my sister is now dead.”

Chaol’s heart stumbled a beat. But he dared ask, “How did it come about?”

Grief flickered in Kashin’s eyes. “Tumelun was always a bit wild, reckless. Prone to moods. One day, happy and laughing; the next, withdrawn and hopeless. They …” His throat bobbed. “They say she leaped from her balcony because of it. Duva and her husband found her later that night.”

Any death in a family was devastating, but a suicide … “I’m sorry,” Chaol offered quietly.

Kashin shook his head, sunlight from the garden dancing on his black hair. “I do not believe it. My Tumelun would not have jumped.”

My Tumelun. The words told enough about the prince’s closeness to his younger sister.

“You suspect foul play?”

“All I know is that no matter Tumelun’s moods … I knew her. As I know my own heart.” He put a hand over it. “She would not have jumped.”

Chaol considered his words carefully once again. “As sorry as I am for your loss, do you have any reason to suspect why a foreign kingdom might have engineered it?”

Kashin paced a few steps. “No one within our lands would be stupid enough.”

“Well, no one within Terrasen or Adarlan would ever do such a thing—even to manipulate you into this war.”

Kashin studied him for a heartbeat. “Even a queen who was once an assassin herself?”

Chaol didn’t let one flicker of emotion show. “Assassin she might have been, but Aelin had hard lines that she did not cross. Killing or harming children was one of them.”

Kashin paused before the dresser against the garden wall, adjusting a gilded box on its polished dark surface. “I know. I read that in my brother’s reports, too. Details of her kills.” Chaol could have sworn the prince shuddered before he added, “I believe you.”

No doubt why the prince was even having this conversation with him.

Kashin went on, “Which leaves not many other foreign powers who might do it—and Perrington at the top of that short list.”

“But why target your sister?”

“I do not know.” Kashin paced another few steps. “She was young, guileless—she rode with me amongst the Darghan, our mother-clans. Had no sulde of her own yet.”

At Chaol’s narrowed brows, the prince clarified, “It is a spear all Darghan warriors carry. We bind strands of our favored horse’s hair to the shaft, beneath the blade. Our ancestors believed that where those hairs waved in the wind, there our destinies waited. Some of us still believe in such things, but even those who think it mere tradition … we bring them everywhere. There is a courtyard in this palace where my sulde and those of my siblings are planted to feel the wind while we remain at our father’s palace, right beside his own. But in death …” Again, that shadow of grief. “In death, they are the only object that we keep. They bear the soul of a Darghan warrior for eternity, and are left planted atop a steppe in our sacred realm.” The prince closed his eyes. “Now her soul will roam with the wind.”

Nesryn had said as much earlier. Chaol only repeated, “I’m sorry.”

Kashin opened his eyes. “Some of my siblings do not believe me about Tumelun. Some do. Our father … he remains undecided. Our mother will not even leave her room thanks to her grief, and mentioning my suspicions might—I cannot bring myself to mention them to her.” He rubbed his strong jaw. “So I have convinced my father to have you join us at dinner every night, as a gesture of diplomacy. But I should like you to watch with an outsider’s eyes. To report on anything amiss. Perhaps you will see something we don’t.”

Help them … and perhaps receive help in return. Chaol said baldly, “If you trust me enough to have me do that, to tell me all this, then why not agree to join with us in this war?”

“It is not my place to say or guess.” A trained soldier. Kashin examined the suite as if assessing any potential enemies lying in wait. “I march only when my father gives the order.”

If Perrington’s forces were already here, if Morath was indeed behind the princess’s murder … It’d be too easy. Too easy to sway the khagan into siding with Dorian and Aelin. Perrington—Erawan was far smarter than that.

But if Chaol himself were to win over the commander of the khagan’s terrestrial armies to their cause—

“I do not play those games, Lord Westfall,” said Kashin, reading whatever sparked in Chaol’s eyes. “My other siblings are the ones you will wish to convince.”

Chaol tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. “Any advice on that front?”

Kashin snorted, smiling faintly. “Others have come before you—from kingdoms far richer than your own. Some succeeded, some didn’t.” A glance at Chaol’s legs, a flicker of pity entering the prince’s eyes. Chaol clenched the arms of the chair at that pity, from a man who recognized a fellow warrior. “Wishes for good luck are all I can offer you.”

Then the prince was striding for the doors, his long legs eating up the distance.

“If Perrington has an agent here,” Chaol said as Kashin reached the suite doors, “then you’ve already seen that everyone in this palace is in grave danger. You must take action.”

Kashin paused with his hand on the carved doorknob, glancing over his shoulder. “Why do you think I’ve asked a foreign lord for assistance?”

Then the prince was gone, his words hanging in the sweet-scented air. The tone wasn’t cruel, wasn’t insulting, but the warrior’s frankness of it …

Chaol struggled to master his breathing, even as the thoughts swirled. He’d seen no black rings or collars, but then he hadn’t been looking for them. Had not even considered that the shadow of Morath might have already stretched this far.

Chaol rubbed at his chest. Careful. He’d have to be careful in this court. With what he said publicly—with what he said in this room, too.

Chaol was still staring at the shut door, mulling over all Kashin had implied, when the servant emerged, her tunic and pants replaced by a tied robe of thinnest, sheerest silk. It left nothing to the imagination.

He clamped down on the urge to shout for Nesryn to assist him instead. “Only wash me,” he said, as clearly and firmly as he could.

She showed no nerves, no tremor of hesitation. And he knew she had done this before, countless times, as she only asked, “Am I not to your liking?”

It was a stark, honest question. She was paid well for her services—all the servants were. She chose to be here, and another could easily be found at no risk to her status.

“You are,” Chaol said, only half lying, refusing to let his gaze drop below her eyes. “Very pleasing,” he clarified. “But I only want a bath.” He added, just to be sure, “Nothing else from you.”

He’d expected her gratitude, but the servant only nodded, unruffled. Even with her, he’d have to be careful with what he said. What he and Nesryn might discuss in these rooms.

There hadn’t been a sound or flicker of movement behind Nesryn’s closed bedroom doors. And there certainly wasn’t now.

So he motioned to let the servant push his chair into the bathing chamber, veils of steam rippling through the white-and-blue-tiled room.

The chair glided over carpet and tile, curving around the furniture with little effort. Nesryn herself had found the chair in the now-vacant healers’ catacombs of Rifthold’s castle, right before they’d sailed here. One of the few items the fleeing healers had left behind, it seemed.

Lighter and sleeker than what he’d expected, the large wheels flanking the seat rotated easily, even when he used the slender metal hand rim to guide them himself. Unlike the stiff bulk of others he’d seen, this chair came equipped with two small front wheels, just on either side of the wooden footrests, each capable of swiveling in any direction he chose. And now they smoothly turned into the wafting steam of the bathing chamber.

A large sunken pool filled most of it, oils gleaming on the surface, interrupted only by scattered, drifting petals. A small window high in the far wall peeked into the greenery of the garden, and candles gilded the billowing steam.

Luxury. Utter luxury while his city suffered. While they pleaded for help that had not come. Dorian would have wanted to stay. Only absolute defeat, no chance of survival, would have prompted him to leave. Chaol wondered if his magic had played any part. Helped any of them.

Dorian would find his way to safety, to allies. He knew it in his bones, though his stomach continued to roil. There was nothing he could do to help his king from here—save for forging this alliance. Even if every instinct screamed at him to return to Adarlan, to find Dorian, he’d stay the course.

Chaol barely noticed the servant removing his boots in efficient tugs. And though he could have done it himself, he barely remarked on her removing his teal jacket, then the shirt beneath. But he dragged himself from his thoughts at last when she began to remove his pants—when he leaned in to help, gritting his teeth as they worked together in stilted silence. It was only when she reached to remove his undershorts that he gripped her wrist.

He and Nesryn still hadn’t touched each other. Beyond an ill-fated bout on the ship three days ago, he hadn’t conveyed any sort of desire to take that step once again. He’d wanted to, though. Woke up most mornings aching to, especially when they’d shared that bed in their stateroom. But the thought of being so prone, of not being able to take her the way he’d once done … It had curdled any brimming lust. Even while grateful that certain parts of him still undoubtedly worked.

“I can get in on my own,” Chaol said, and before the servant could move, he gathered the strength in his arms, his back, and began easing himself from the chair. It was an unceremonious process, one he’d figured out during the long days at sea.

First he flicked the locking mechanism on the wheels, the click echoing off the stone and water. With a few motions, he maneuvered himself to the edge of the chair, then removed his feet from the wooden plates and onto the floor, angling his legs to his left as he did so. With his right hand, he gripped the edge of the seat by his knees, while he curled the left into a fist as he bent over to brace it on the cool, steam-slick tiles. Slippery—

The servant only padded over, laid a thick white cloth before him, and backed away. He gave her a grateful, close-lipped smile as he braced his left fist again on the floor, atop the plush cloth, distributing his weight throughout the arm. With an inhaled breath, his right hand still gripping the edge of his chair, he carefully lowered himself to the ground, swinging his rear away from the chair as his knees bent unbidden.

He landed with a thud, but he was on the floor, at least—hadn’t toppled over, as he had the first half-dozen times he’d tried it on the ship.

Carefully, he scooted to the edge of the pool stairs, until he could set his feet into the warm water, right atop the second step. The servant strode into the water a heartbeat later, graceful as an egret, her gossamer robe turning as insubstantial as dew while water crept up its length. Her hands were gentle but steady while she gripped him under the arm and helped him hoist himself the last bit into the pool, setting himself down on the top step. Then she guided him down another and another, until he was sitting up to his shoulders. Eye-level with her full, peaked breasts.

She didn’t seem to notice. And he immediately averted his gaze toward the window as she reached for the small tray of supplies she’d left near the lip of the pool. Oils and brushes and soft-looking cloths. Chaol slid his undershorts off while she turned, setting them with a loud, wet smack upon the edge of the pool.

Nesryn still didn’t emerge from her room.

So Chaol closed his eyes, submitting himself to the servant’s ministrations, and wondered what the hell he was going to do.





4


Of all the rooms in the Torre Cesme, Yrene Towers loved this one best.

Perhaps it was because the room, located at the very pinnacle of the pale-stoned tower and its sprawling complex below, had unparalleled views of the sunset over Antica.

Perhaps it was because this was the place where she’d felt the first shred of safety in nearly ten years. The place she had first looked upon the ancient woman now sitting across the paper- and book-strewn desk, and heard the words that changed everything: You are welcome here, Yrene Towers.

It had been over two years since then.

Two years of working here, living here, in this tower and in this city of so many peoples, so many foods and caches of knowledge.

It had been all she’d dreamed it would be—and she had seized every opportunity, every challenge, with both hands. Had studied and listened and practiced and saved lives, changed them, until she had climbed to the very top of her class. Until an unknown healer’s daughter from Fenharrow was approached by healers old and young, who had trained their entire lives, for her advice and assistance.

The magic helped. Glorious, lovely magic that could make her breathless or so tired she couldn’t get out of bed for days. Magic demanded a cost—to both healer and patient. But Yrene was willing to pay it. She had never minded the aftermath of a brutal healing.

If it meant saving a life … Silba had granted her a gift—and a young stranger had given her another gift, that final night in Innish two years ago. Yrene had no plans to waste either.

She waited in silence as the slender woman across from her finished reading through some message on her chronically messy desk. Despite the servants’ best efforts, the ancient rosewood desk was always chaotic, covered with formulas or spells or vials and jars brewing some tonic.

There were two such vials on the desk now, clear orbs atop silver feet fashioned after ibis legs. Being purified by the endless sunshine within the tower.

Hafiza, Healer on High of the Torre Cesme, plucked up one of the vials, swirled its pale blue contents, frowned, and set it down. “The damned thing always takes twice as long as I anticipate.” She asked casually, using Yrene’s own language, “Why do you think that is?”

Yrene leaned forward in the worn, tufted armchair on her side of the desk to study the tonic. Every meeting, every encounter with Hafiza, was a lesson—a chance to learn. To be challenged. Yrene lifted the vial from its stand, holding it to the golden light of sunset as she examined the thick azure liquid within. “Use?”

“Ten-year-old girl developed a dry cough six weeks ago. Saw the physicians, who advised honey tea, rest, and fresh air. Got better for a time, but returned a week ago with a vengeance.”

The physicians of the Torre Cesme were the finest in the world, distinguished only from the Torre’s healers by the fact that they did not possess magic. They were the first line of inspection for the healers in the tower, their quarters occupying the sprawling complex around its base.

Magic was precious, its demands costly enough that some Healer on High centuries ago had decreed that if they were to see a patient, a physician must first inspect the person. Perhaps it had been a political maneuver—a bone tossed to the physicians so often passed over by a people clamoring for the cure-all remedies of magic.

Yet magic could not cure all things. Could not halt death, or bring someone back from it. She’d learned it again and again these past two years, and earlier. And even with the protocols with the physicians, Yrene still—as she had always done—found herself walking toward the sound of coughing in the narrow, sloped streets of Antica.

Yrene tilted the vial this way and that. “The tonic might be reacting to the heat. It’s been unseasonably warm, even for us.”

With the end of summer finally near, even after two years, Yrene was still not entirely accustomed to the unrelenting, dry heat of the god-city. Mercifully, some long-ago mastermind had invented the bidgier, wind-catching towers set atop buildings to draw in fresh air to the rooms below, some even working in tandem with the few underground canals winding beneath Antica to transform hot wind into cool breezes. The city was peppered with the small towers, like a thousand spears jutting toward the sky, ranging from the small houses made of earthen bricks to the great, domed residences full of shaded courtyards and clear pools.

Unfortunately, the Torre had predated that stroke of brilliance, and though the upper levels possessed some cunning ventilation that cooled the chambers far below, there were plenty of days when Yrene wished some clever architect would take it upon themselves to outfit the Torre with the latest advances. Indeed, with the rising heat and the various fires burning throughout the tower, Hafiza’s room was near-sweltering. Which led Yrene to add, “You could put it in a lower chamber—where it’s cooler.”

“But the sunlight needed?”

Yrene considered. “Bring in mirrors. Catch the sunlight through the window, and focus it upon the vial. Adjust it a few times a day to match the path of the sun. The cooler temperature and more concentrated sunlight might have the tonic ready sooner.”

A little, pleased nod. Yrene had come to cherish those nods, the light in those brown eyes. “Quick wits save lives more often than magic,” was Hafiza’s only reply.

She’d said it a thousand times before, usually where Yrene was involved—to her eternal pride—but Yrene bowed her head in thanks and set the vial back upon its stand.

“So,” Hafiza said, folding her hands atop each other on the near-glowing rosewood desk, “Eretia informs me that she believes you are ready to leave us.”

Yrene straightened in her seat, the very same chair she’d sat in that first day she’d climbed the thousand steps to the top of the tower and begged for admittance. The begging had been the least of her humiliations that meeting, the crowning moment being when she dumped the bag of gold on Hafiza’s desk, blurting that she didn’t care what the cost was and to take it all.

Not realizing that Hafiza did not take money from students. No, they paid for their education in other ways. Yrene had suffered through endless indignities and degradations during her year working at the backwater White Pig Inn, but she had never been more mortified than the moment Hafiza ordered her to put the money back in that brown pouch. Scraping the gold off the desk like some cardplayer scrambling to collect his winnings, Yrene had debated leaping right out the arc of windows towering behind Hafiza’s desk.

Much had changed since then. Gone was the homespun dress, the too-slim body. Though Yrene supposed the endless stairs of the Torre had kept in check the weight she’d gained from steady, healthy eating, thanks to the Torre’s enormous kitchens, the countless markets teeming with food stalls, and the dine-in shops along every bustling street and winding alley.

Yrene swallowed once, trying and failing to glean the Healer on High’s face. Hafiza had been the one person here whom Yrene could never read, never anticipate. She’d never once shown a display of temper—something that couldn’t be said of many of the instructors here, Eretia especially—and had never raised her voice. Hafiza had only three expressions: pleased, neutral, and disappointed. Yrene lived in terror of the latter two.

Not for any punishment. There was no such thing here. No rations held, no pain threatened. Not like at the White Pig, where Nolan had docked her pay if she stepped out of line or was overgenerous with a customer, or if he caught her leaving out nightly scraps for the half-feral urchins who had prowled the filthy streets of Innish.

She’d arrived here thinking it would be the same: people who took her money, who made it harder and harder to leave. She’d spent a year working at the White Pig due to Nolan’s increases in her rent, decreases in her pay, his cut of her meager tips, and knowledge that most women in Innish worked the streets, and his place, disgusting as it had been, was a far better alternative.

She’d told herself never again—until she’d arrived here. Until she’d dumped that gold on Hafiza’s desk and had been ready to do it all over, indebt and sell herself, just for a chance to learn.

Hafiza did not even consider such things. Her work was in direct opposition to the people who did, the people like Nolan. Yrene still remembered the first time she’d heard Hafiza say in that thick, lovely accent of hers, nearly the same words that Yrene’s mother had told her, over and over: they did not charge, students or patients, for what Silba, Goddess of Healing, gifted them for free.

In a land of so many gods that Yrene was still struggling to keep them all straight, at least Silba remained the same.

Yet another clever thing the khaganate had done upon patching together the kingdoms and territories during their years of conquest: keep and adapt the gods of everyone. Including Silba, whose dominance over the healers had been established in these lands long ago. History was written by the victors, apparently. Or so Eretia, Yrene’s direct tutor, had once told her. Even the gods seemed no more immune to it than mere mortals.

But it didn’t stop Yrene from offering up a prayer to Silba and whatever gods might be listening as she said at last, “I am ready, yes.”

“To leave us.” Such simple words, offered with that neutral face—calm and patient. “Or have you considered the other option I presented to you?”

Yrene had. She’d thought about it endlessly in the two weeks since Hafiza had summoned her to this office and spoke the one word that had clenched a fist around her heart: Stay.

Stay, and learn more—stay, and see what this fledgling life she’d built here might grow into.

Yrene rubbed at her chest as if she could still feel that viselike grip. “War is coming to my home again—the northern continent.” So they called it here. Yrene swallowed. “I want to be there to help those fighting against the empire’s control.”

At last, after so many years, a force was rallying. Adarlan itself had been sundered, if rumors were to be believed, by Dorian Havilliard in the north, and the dead king’s Second, Duke Perrington, in the south. Dorian was backed by Aelin Galathynius, the long-lost queen now ripe with power and ravenous for vengeance, judging by what she’d done to the glass castle and its king. And Perrington, rumor also claimed, was aided by horrors birthed from some dark nightmare.

But if this was the only chance at freedom for Fenharrow …

Yrene would be there to help, in whatever way she could. She still smelled smoke, late at night or when she was drained after a hard healing. Smoke from that fire those Adarlanian soldiers had built—and burned her mother upon. She still heard her mother’s screaming and felt the wood of that tree trunk dig beneath her nails as she’d hidden at the edge of Oakwald. As she watched them burn her mother alive. After her mother had killed that soldier to buy Yrene time to run.

It had been ten years since then. Nearly eleven. And though she had crossed mountains and oceans … there were some days when Yrene felt as if she were still standing in Fenharrow, smelling that fire, splinters slicing under her nails, watching as the soldiers took their torches and burned her cottage, too.

The cottage that had housed generations of Towers healers.

Yrene supposed it was fitting, somehow, she’d wound up in a tower herself. With only the ring on her left hand as proof that once, for hundreds of years, there had existed a line of prodigally gifted female healers in the south of Fenharrow. A ring she now toyed with, that last shred of proof that her mother and mother’s mother and all the mothers before them had once lived and healed in peace. It was the first of only two objects Yrene would not sell—even before selling herself.

Hafiza had not replied, and so Yrene went on, the sun sinking farther toward the jade waters of the harbor across the city, “Even with magic now returned to the northern continent, many of the healers might not have the training, if any survived at all. I could save many lives.”

“War could also claim your life.”

She knew this. Yrene lifted her chin. “I am aware of the risks.”

Hafiza’s dark eyes softened. “Yes, yes, you are.”

It had come out during that first, mortifying meeting with the Healer on High.

Yrene had not cried for years—since that day her mother had become ash on the wind—and yet the moment Hafiza had asked about Yrene’s parents … she had buried her face in her hands and wept. Hafiza had come from around that desk and held her, rubbing her back in soothing circles.

Hafiza often did that. Not just to Yrene, but to all her healers, when the hours were long and their backs had cramped and the magic had taken everything and it was still not enough. A quiet, steady presence who steeled them, soothed them.

Hafiza was as close to a mother as Yrene had found since she was eleven. And now weeks away from twenty-two, she doubted she’d ever find another like her.

“I have taken the examinations,” Yrene said, even though Hafiza knew that already. She’d given them to Yrene herself, overseeing the grueling week of tests on knowledge, skill, and actual human practice. Yrene had made sure she received the highest marks of her class. As near to a perfect score as anyone had ever been given here. “I’m ready.”

“Indeed you are. And yet I still wonder how much you might learn in five years, ten years, if you have already learned so much in two.”

Yrene had been too skilled to begin with the acolytes in the lower levels of the Torre.

She’d shadowed her mother since she was old enough to walk and talk, learning slowly, over the years, as all the healers in her family had done. At eleven, Yrene had learned more than most would in another decade. And even during the six years that had followed, where she’d pretended to be an ordinary girl while working on her mother’s cousin’s farm—the family unsure what to really do with her, unwilling to get to know her when war and Adarlan might destroy them all—she’d quietly practiced.

But not too much, not too noticeably. During those years, neighbor had sold out neighbor for even the whisper of magic. And even though magic had vanished, taking Silba’s gift with it, Yrene had been careful never to appear more than a simple farmer’s relative, whose grandmother had perhaps taught her a few natural remedies for fevers or birthing pain or sprained and broken limbs.

In Innish, she’d been able to do more, using her sparse pocket money to purchase herbs, salves. But she didn’t often dare, not with Nolan and Jessa, his favored barmaid, watching her day and night. So these past two years, she’d wanted to learn as much as she could. But it had also been an unleashing. Of years of stifling, of lying and hiding.

And that day she’d walked off the boat and felt her magic stir, felt it reach for a man limping down the street … She had fallen into a state of shock that had not ended until she wound up weeping in this very chair three hours later.

Yrene sighed through her nose. “I could return here one day to continue my studies. But—with all due respect, I am a full healer now.” And she could venture wherever her gift called her.

Hafiza’s white brows rose, stark against her brown skin. “And what of Prince Kashin?”

Yrene shifted in her seat. “What of him?”

“You were once good friends. He remains fond of you, and that is no small thing to ignore.”

Yrene leveled a look few dared to direct toward the Healer on High. “Will he interfere with my plans to leave?”

“He is a prince, and has been denied nothing, save the crown he covets. He may find that your leaving is not something he will tolerate.”

Dread sluiced through her, starting at her spine and ending curled deep in her gut. “I’ve given him no encouragement. I made my thoughts on that matter perfectly clear last year.”

It had been a disaster. She’d gone over it again and again, the things she’d said, the moments between them—everything that had led up to that awful conversation in that large Darghan tent atop the windswept steppes.

It had started a few months after she’d arrived in Antica, when one of Kashin’s favored servants had fallen ill. To her surprise, the prince himself had been at the man’s bedside, and during the long hours Yrene worked, the conversation had flowed, and she’d found herself … smiling. She’d cured the servant, and upon leaving that night, she’d been escorted by Kashin himself to the gates of the Torre. And in the months that followed, friendship had sprung up between them.

Perhaps freer, lighter than the friendship she also wound up forming with Hasar, who had taken a liking to Yrene after requiring some healing of her own. And while Yrene had struggled to find companions within the Torre thanks to her and her fellow students’ conflicting hours, the prince and princess had become friends indeed. As had Hasar’s lover, the sweet-faced Renia—who was as lovely inside as she was out.

A strange group they made, but … Yrene had enjoyed their company, the dinners Kashin and Hasar invited her to, when Yrene knew she had no reason to really be there. Kashin often managed to find a way to sit next to her, or near enough to engage her in conversation. For months, things had been fine—better than fine. And then Hafiza had brought Yrene out to the steppes, the native home of the khagan’s family, to oversee a grueling healing. With Kashin as their escort and guide.

The Healer on High now examined Yrene, frowning slightly. “Perhaps your lack of encouragement has made him more eager.”

Yrene rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb and forefinger. “We’ve barely spoken since then.” It was true. Though mostly due to Yrene avoiding him at the dinners to which Hasar and Renia still invited her.

“The prince does not seem like a man easily deterred—certainly not in matters of the heart.”

She knew that. She’d liked that about Kashin. Until he’d wanted something she couldn’t give him. Yrene groaned a bit. “Will I have to leave like a thief in the night, then?” Hasar would never forgive her, though she had no doubt Renia would try to soothe and rationalize it to the princess. If Hasar was pure flame, then Renia was flowing water.

“Should you decide to remain, you will not have to worry about such things at all.”

Yrene straightened. “You would really use Kashin as a way to keep me here?”

Hafiza laughed, a crow of warmth. “No. But forgive an old woman for trying to use any avenue necessary to convince you.”

Pride and guilt eddied in her chest. But Yrene said nothing—had no answer.

Returning to the northern continent … She knew there was no one and nothing left there for her. Nothing but unforgiving war, and those who would need her help.

She did not even know where to go—where to sail, how to find those armies and their wounded. She’d traveled far and wide before, had evaded enemies bent on slaughtering her, and the thought of doing it all again … She knew some would think her mad. Ungrateful for the offer Hafiza had laid before her. She’d thought those things of herself for a long while now.

Yet not a single day passed without Yrene gazing toward the sea at the foot of the city—gazing northward.

Yrene’s attention indeed slid from the Healer on High to the windows behind her, to the distant, darkening horizon, as if it were a lodestone.

Hafiza said, a shade more gently, “There is no rush to decide. Wars take a long time.”

“But I will need—”

“There is a task I would first have you do, Yrene.”

Yrene stilled at that tone, the hint of command in it.

She glanced to the letter Hafiza had been reading when she’d entered. “What is it?”

“There is a guest at the palace—a special guest of the khagan. I would ask you to treat him. Before you decide whether now is the right time to leave these shores, or if it is better to remain.”

Yrene angled her head. Rare—very rare for Hafiza to pass off a task from the khagan to someone else. “What is his ailment?” Common, standard words for healers receiving cases.

“He is a young man, age twenty-three. Healthy in every regard, in fit condition. But he suffered a grave injury to his spine earlier this summer that left him paralyzed from the hips downward. He cannot feel or move his legs, and has been in a wheeled chair since. I am bypassing the initial physicians’ examination to appeal directly to you.”

Yrene’s mind churned. A complex, long process to heal that manner of injury. Spines were nearly as difficult as brains. Connected to them quite closely. With that sort of healing, it wasn’t a matter of letting her magic wash over them—that wasn’t how it worked.

It was finding the right places and channels, in finding the correct amount of magic to wield. It was getting the brain to again send signals to the spine, down those broken pathways; it was replacing the damaged, smallest kernels of life within the body with new, fresh ones. And on top of it … learning to walk again. Weeks. Months, perhaps.

“He is an active young man,” Hafiza said. “The injury is akin to the warrior you aided last winter on the steppes.”

She’d guessed as much already—it was likely why she’d been asked. Two months spent healing the horse-lord who’d taken a bad fall off his mount and injured his spine. It was not an uncommon injury among the Darghan, some of whom rode horses and some of whom soared on ruks, and they had long relied on the Torre’s healers. Working on the warrior had been her first time putting her lessons on the subject into effect, precisely why Hafiza had accompanied her to the steppes. Yrene was fairly confident she could do another healing on her own this time, but it was the way Hafiza glanced down at the letter—just once—that made Yrene pause. Made her ask, “Who is he?”

“Lord Chaol Westfall.” Not a name from the khaganate. Hafiza added, holding Yrene’s gaze, “He was the former Captain of the Guard and is now Hand to the new King of Adarlan.”

Silence.

Yrene was silent, in her head, her heart. Only the crying of the gulls sailing above the Torre and the shouts of vendors going home for the night in the streets beyond the compound’s high walls filled the tower room.

“No.”

The word pushed out of Yrene on a breath.

Hafiza’s slim mouth tightened.

“No,” Yrene said again. “I will not heal him.”

There was no softness, nothing motherly in Hafiza’s face, as she said, “You took an oath upon entering these halls.”

“No.” It was all she could think to say.

“I am well aware how difficult it may be for you—”

Her hands started shaking. “No.”

“Why?”

“You know why.” The words were a strangled whisper. “Y-y-you know.”

“If you see Adarlanian soldiers suffering on those battlefields, will you stomp right over them?”

It was the cruelest Hafiza had ever been to her.

Yrene rubbed the ring on her finger. “If he was Captain of the Guard for the last king, he—he worked for the man who—” The words spilled and stumbled out. “He took orders from him.”

“And now works for Dorian Havilliard.”

“Who indulged in his father’s riches—the riches of my people. Even if Dorian Havilliard did not participate, the fact that he stood back while it happened …” The pale stone walls pressed in, even the solid tower beneath them feeling unwieldy. “Do you know what the king’s men did these years? What his armies, his soldiers, his guards did? And you ask me to heal a man who commanded them?”

“It is a reality of who you are—who we are. A choice all healers must make.”

“And you have made it so often? In your peaceful kingdom?”

Hafiza’s face darkened. Not with ire, but memory. “I was once asked to heal a man who was injured while evading capture. After he had committed a crime so unspeakable … The guards told me what he’d done before I walked into his cell. They wanted him patched up so he could live to be put on trial. He’d undoubtedly be executed—they had victims willing to testify and proof aplenty. Eretia herself saw the latest victim. His last one. Gathered all the evidence she needed and stood in that court and condemned him with what she had seen.” Hafiza’s throat bobbed. “They chained him down in that cell, and he was hurt enough that I knew … I knew I could use my magic to make the internal bleeding worse. They’d never know. He’d be dead by morning, and no one would dare question me.” She studied the vial of blue tonic. “It was the closest I have ever come to killing. I wanted to kill him for what he had done. The world would be better for it. I had my hands on his chest—I was ready to do it. But I remembered. I remembered that oath I had taken, and remembered that they had asked me to heal him so that he would live—so that justice might be found for his victims. And their families.” She met Yrene’s eyes. “It was not my death to dole out.”

“What happened?” The words were a wobble.

“He tried to plead innocent. Even with what Eretia presented, with what that victim was willing to talk about. He was a monster through and through. They convicted him, and he was executed at sunrise the next day.”

“Did you watch it?”

“I did not. I came back up here. But Eretia did. She stood at the front of the crowd and stayed until they hauled his corpse into a cart. She stayed for the victims who could not bear to watch. Then she returned here, and we both cried for a long, long while.”

Yrene was quiet for a few breaths, enough that her hands steadied. “So I am to heal this man—so he may find justice elsewhere?”

“You do not know his story, Yrene. I suggest listening to it before contemplating such things.”

Yrene shook her head. “There will be no justice for him—not if he served the old and new king. Not if he’s cunning enough to remain in power. I know how Adarlan works.”

Hafiza watched her for a long moment. “The day you walked into this room, so terribly thin and covered with the dust of a hundred roads … I had never sensed such a gift. I looked into those beautiful eyes of yours, and I nearly gasped at the uncut power in you.”

Disappointment. It was disappointment on the Healer on High’s face, in her voice.

“I thought to myself,” Hafiza went on, “Where has this young woman been hiding? What god reared you, guided you to my doorstep? Your dress was in tatters around your ankles, and yet you walked in, straight-backed as any noble lady. As if you were the heir to Kamala herself.”

Until Yrene had dumped the money on the desk and fallen apart moments later. She doubted the very first Healer on High had ever done such a thing.

“Even your family name: Towers. A hint at your foremothers’ long-ago association with the Torre, perhaps. I wondered in that moment if I had at last found my heir—my replacement.”

Yrene felt the words like a blow to the gut. Hafiza had never so much as hinted …

Stay, the Healer on High had offered. To not only continue the training, but to also take up the mantle now laid before her.

But it had not been Yrene’s own ambition, to one day claim this room as her own. Not when her sights had always been set across the Narrow Sea. And even now … it was an honor beyond words, yes. But one that rang hollow.

“I asked what you wanted to do with the knowledge I would give you,” Hafiza went on. “Do you remember what you said to me?”

Yrene did. She had not forgotten it for a moment. “I said I wanted to use it to do some good for the world. To do something with my useless, wasted life.”

The words had guided her these years—along with the note she carried every day, moving it from pocket to pocket, dress to dress. Words from a mysterious stranger, perhaps a god who had worn the skin of a battered young woman, whose gift of gold had gotten her here. Saved her.

“And so you shall, Yrene,” Hafiza said. “You shall one day return home, and you shall do good, you shall do wonders. But before you do, I would ask this of you. Help that young man. You have done the healing before—you can do it again now.”

“Why can’t you?”

She’d never sounded so sullen, so … ungrateful.

Hafiza gave her a small, sad smile. “It is not my own healing that is needed.”

Yrene knew the Healer on High did not mean the man’s healing, either. She swallowed against the thickness in her throat.

“It is a soul-wound, Yrene. And letting it fester these years … I cannot blame you. But I will hold you accountable if you let it turn into something worse. And I will mourn you for it.”

Yrene’s lips wobbled, but she pressed them together, blinking back the burning in her eyes.

“You passed the tests, better than anyone who has ever climbed into this tower,” Hafiza said softly. “But let this be my personal test for you. The final one. So that when you decide to go, I may bid you farewell, send you off to war, and know …” Hafiza put a hand on her chest. “Know that wherever the road takes you, however dark, you will be all right.”

Yrene swallowed the small sound that tried to come out of her and instead looked toward the city, its pale stones resplendent in the last light of the setting sun. Through the open windows behind the Healer on High, a night breeze laced with lavender and cloves flitted in, cooling her face and ruffling Hafiza’s cloud of white hair.

Yrene slid a hand into the pocket of her pale blue dress, her fingers wrapping around the familiar smoothness of the folded piece of parchment. She clutched it, as she had often done on the sailing over here, during those initial few weeks of uncertainty even after Hafiza had admitted her, during the long hours and hard days and moments that had nearly broken her while she trained.

A note, written by a stranger who had saved her life and granted her freedom in a matter of hours. Yrene had never learned her name, that young woman who had worn her scars like some ladies wore their finest jewelry. The young woman who was a trained killer, but had purchased a healer’s education.

So many things, so many good things, had come from that night. Yrene sometimes wondered if it had actually happened—might have believed she’d dreamed it if not for the note in her pocket, and the second object Yrene had never sold, even when the gold had thinned.

The ornate gold-and-ruby brooch, worth more than entire blocks of Antica.

Adarlan’s colors. Yrene had never learned where the young woman had come from, who had bestowed the beating that had left lingering bruises on her pretty face, but she had spoken of Adarlan as Yrene did. As all the children who had lost everything to Adarlan did—those children with their kingdoms left in ash and blood and ruin.

Yrene ran a thumb over the note, the words inked there:

For wherever you need to go—and then some. The world needs more healers.

Yrene breathed in that first night breeze, the spices and brine it ushered into the Torre.

She looked back to Hafiza at last, the Healer on High’s face calm. Patient.

Yrene would regret it, if she refused. Hafiza would yield, but Yrene knew that whether she left here, whether she somehow decided to remain, she would … regret. Think back on this. Wonder if she had repaid the extraordinary kindness she’d been given rather poorly. Wonder what her mother would have thought of it.

And even if this man hailed from Adarlan, even if he’d done the bidding of that butcher …

“I will meet with him. Assess him,” Yrene conceded. Her voice only wobbled slightly. She clutched that piece of paper in her pocket. “And then decide if I will heal him.”

Hafiza considered. “Fair enough, girl,” she said quietly. “Fair enough.”

Yrene blew out a shaking breath. “When do I see him?”

“Tomorrow,” Hafiza said, and Yrene winced. “The khagan has asked you to come to Lord Westfall’s chambers tomorrow.”





5


Chaol had barely slept. Partially due to the unrelenting heat, partially due to the fact that they were in a tentative ally’s fraught household, full of potential spies and unknown dangers—perhaps even from Morath itself—and partially due to what had befallen Rifthold and all he held dear.

And partially due to the meeting that he was now minutes away from having.

Nesryn paced with uncharacteristic nerves through the sitting room that was to be his sickroom. Low-lying couches and clusters of cushions filled the space, the shining floors interrupted only by rugs of thickest and finest weaving—from the skilled hands of craftswomen in the west, Nesryn told him. Art and treasures from across the khagan’s empire adorned the space, interspersed with potted palms sagging in the heat and sunlight trickling through the garden windows and doors.

Ten in the morning, the khagan’s eldest daughter had declared to him at dinner last night. Princess Hasar—plain and yet fierce-eyed. A lovely young woman had sat at her side, the only person at whom Hasar smiled. Her lover or wife, judging by the frequent touching and long looks.

There had been enough of an edge to Hasar’s wicked grin as she told Chaol when the healer would arrive that he’d been left to wonder who, precisely, they were sending.

He still did not know what to make of these people, this place. This city of high learning, this blend of so many cultures and history, peacefully dwelling together … Not at all like the raging and broken spirits dwelling in Adarlan’s shadow, living in terror, distrusting one another, enduring its worst crimes.

They’d asked him about the butchering of the slaves in Calaculla and Endovier at dinner.

Or the oily one, Arghun, did. Had the prince been among Chaol’s new recruits to the royal guard, he would have easily gotten him to fall in line thanks to a few well-timed shows of skill and sheer dominance. But here, he had no authority to bring the conniving, haughty prince to heel.

Not even when Arghun wanted to know why the former King of Adarlan had deemed it necessary to enslave his people. And then put them down like animals. Why the man had not looked to the southern continent for education on the horrors and stain of slavery—and avoided instituting it.

Chaol had offered curt answers that verged on impolite. Sartaq, the only one of them beyond Kashin whom Chaol was inclined to like, had finally tired of his elder brother’s questioning and steered the conversation away. To what, Chaol had no idea. He’d been too busy fighting against the roaring in his ears over Arghun’s razor-sharp inquiries. And then too busy monitoring every face—royal, vizier, or servant—who made an appearance in the khagan’s great hall. No signs of black rings or collars; no strange behavior to remark on.

He’d given Kashin a subtle shake of his head at one point to tell him as much. The prince had pretended not to see, but the warning flared in his eyes: Keep looking.

So Chaol had, half paying attention to the meal unfolding before him, half monitoring every word and glance and breath of those around him.

Despite their youngest sister’s death, the heirs made the meal lively, conversation flowing, mostly in languages Chaol did not know or recognize. Such a wealth of kingdoms in that hall, represented by viziers and servants and companions—the now-youngest princess, Duva, herself wedded to a dark-haired, sad-eyed prince from a faraway land who kept close to his pregnant wife and spoke little to anyone around him. But whenever Duva smiled softly at him … Chaol did not think the light that filled the prince’s face was feigned. And wondered if the man’s silence was not from reticence but perhaps not yet knowing enough of his wife’s language to keep up.

Nesryn, however, had no such excuse. She’d been silent and haunted at dinner. He’d only learned that she’d bathed before it thanks to the shout and slamming door in her chambers, followed by a huffy-looking male servant scrambling out of her rooms. The man did not come back again, nor did a replacement arrive.

Kadja, the servant assigned to Chaol, had helped him dress for dinner, then undress for bed, and had brought breakfast this morning immediately upon his awakening.

The khagan certainly knew how to eat well.

Exquisitely spiced and simmered meats, so tender they fell right off the bone; herbed rice of various colors; flatbreads coated in butter and garlic; rich wines and liquors from the vineyards and distilleries across his empire. Chaol had passed on the latter, accepting only the ceremonial glass offered before the khagan made a half-hearted toast to his new guests. For a grieving father, it was a warmer welcome than Chaol had expected.

Yet Nesryn had a sip of her drink, barely a bite of her meal, and waited a scant minute until the feast was cleared before asking to return to their suite. He’d agreed—of course he’d agreed, but when they’d closed the suite doors and he’d asked if she wanted to talk, she had said no. She wanted to sleep and would see him in the morning.

He’d had the nerve to ask Nesryn if she wanted to share his room or hers.

The shutting of her door was emphasis enough.

So Kadja had helped him into bed, and he had tossed and turned, sweating and wishing he could kick off the sheets instead of having to throw them back. Even the cool breeze that drifted in through the cleverly crafted ventilation system—the air hauled from wind-snaring towers amid the domes and spires to be cooled by canals beneath the palace, then scattered amongst the rooms and halls—had not offered any reprieve.

He and Nesryn had never been good at talking. They’d tried, usually with disastrous results.

They’d done everything out of order, and he’d cursed himself again and again for not making it right with her. Not trying to be better.

She’d barely looked at him these past ten minutes they’d been waiting for the healer to arrive. Her face was haggard, her shoulder-length hair limp. She hadn’t put on her captain’s uniform, but rather returned to her usual midnight-blue tunic and black pants. As if she couldn’t stand to be in Adarlan’s colors.

Kadja had dressed him again in his teal jacket, even going so far as to polish the buckles down the front. There was a quiet pride to her work, not at all like the timidity and fear of so many of the castle servants in Rifthold.

“She’s late,” Nesryn murmured. Indeed, the ornate wooden clock in the corner announced the healer was ten minutes late. “Should we call for someone to find out if she’s coming?”

“Give her time.”

Nesryn paused before him, frowning deeply. “We need to begin immediately. There is no time to waste.”

Chaol took a breath. “I understand that you want to return home to your family—”

“I will not rush you. But even a day makes a difference.”

He noted the lines of strain bracketing her mouth. He had no doubt twin ones marked his own. Forcing himself to stop contemplating and dreading where Dorian might now be had been an effort of pure will this morning. “Once the healer arrives, why don’t you go track down your kin in the city? Perhaps they’ve heard from your family in Rifthold.”

A slicing wave of her slender hand. “I can wait until you’re done.”

Chaol lifted his brows. “And pace the entire time?”

Nesryn sank onto the nearest sofa, the gold silk sighing beneath her slight weight. “I came here to help you—with this, and with our cause. I won’t run off for my own needs.”

“What if I give you an order?”

She only shook her head, her dark curtain of hair swaying with the movement.

And before he could give that exact order, a brisk knock thudded on the heavy wood door.

Nesryn shouted a word that he assumed meant enter in Halha, and he listened to the footsteps as they approached. One set—quiet and light.

The door to the sitting room drifted open beneath the press of a honey-colored hand.

It was her eyes that Chaol noticed first.

She likely stopped people dead in the street with those eyes, a vibrant golden brown that seemed lit from within. Her hair was a heavy fall of rich browns amid flashes of dark gold, curling slig