Tower of Dawn Page 128

Hasar signaled to Shen, standing proud at the gate, who blew a horn—

And then they were off.

For a woman who commanded ships, Hasar seemed far more interested in the equine heritage of her family’s people. And seemed more than eager to unleash her skills as a Darghan rider. The princess cursed and scowled as the city streets slowed them. Even with word given well in advance to clear the path out of Antica, the narrow and steep streets checked their speed considerably.

And then there was the brutal heat. Already sweating, Chaol rode beside Yrene, keeping a tight leash on Farasha, who tried to take a bite out of not one but two vendors gawking from the sidewalks. Butterfly indeed.

He kept one eye upon the mare and the other upon the city passing by. And as they rode for the eastern gates into the arid, scrub-covered hills beyond, Yrene pointed out landmarks and tidbits of information.

Water ran through aqueducts wending between the buildings, feeding the houses and public fountains and countless gardens and parks scattered throughout. A conqueror might have taken this city three centuries ago, but that same conqueror had loved it well. Treated it well and nourished it.

They cleared the eastern gate, then passed down a long, dusty road that cut through the sprawl beyond the city proper. Hasar didn’t bother to wait, and launched her stallion into a gallop that left them waving away her dust.

Kashin, claiming he didn’t want to eat her dust the entire way to the oasis, followed suit after giving a small smile toward Yrene and a whistled command to his horse. Then most of the nobles and viziers, apparently having already taken bets, launched into various races at breakneck speed through towns cleared well in advance. As if this kingdom were their playground.

Birthday party indeed. The princess had likely been bored and didn’t want to look too irresponsible to her father. Though he was surprised to find that Arghun had joined them. Surely with most of his siblings away, he would have seized the chance to hatch some plot. But there was Arghun, galloping close to Kashin as they blended into the horizon.

Some of the nobility remained back with Chaol and Yrene, letting the others put some miles between them. They cleared the last of the outlying towns, their horses sweat-soaked and panting as they ascended a large, rocky hill. The dunes began just on its other side, Yrene had told him. They would water the horses here—then make the last leg of the trek across the sands.

She was smiling faintly at him as they ascended the crag, taking a deer path through the scrub. Horses had trampled through here; bushes were broken and shattered under careless riders. A few bushes even bore speckles of blood, already dried in the brutal sun.

Someone should flay the rider who’d been so reckless with their mount.

Others had reached the top of the crag, watered their horses, and moved on. All he saw of them were bodies and horseflesh disappearing into the sky—as if they simply walked off the edge of the cliff and into thin air.

Farasha stomped and surged her way up the hill, and his back and thighs strained to keep seated without the brace to steady him. He didn’t dare let her get a whiff of discomfort.

Yrene reached the summit first, her white clothes like a beacon in the cloudless blue day around them, her hair shining bright as dark gold. She waited for him, the chestnut mare beneath her panting heavily, its rich coat gleaming with hues of deepest ruby.

She dismounted as he urged Farasha up the last of the hill, and then—

It knocked the breath from him.

The desert.

It was a barren, hissing sea of golden sand. Hills and waves and ravines, rippling on forever, empty and yet humming. Not a tree or bush or gleam of water to be seen.

The unforgiving hand of a god had shaped this place. Still blew his breath across it, shifting the dunes grain by grain.

He had never seen such a sight. Such a wonder. It was a new world entirely.

Perhaps it was an unexpected boon that the information they sought dwelled out here.

Chaol dragged his attention to Yrene, who was reading his face. His reaction.

“Its beauty is not for everyone,” she said. “But it sings to me, somehow.”

This sea where no ships would ever sail, some men would look upon it and see only burning death. He saw only quiet—and clean. And slow, creeping life. Untamed, savage beauty.

“I know what you mean,” he said, carefully dismounting from Farasha. Yrene monitored, yet did nothing but hold out the cane, letting him find the best way to swing his leg over, back groaning and wobbling, and then slide down to the sandy rock. The cane was instantly in his hand, though Yrene made no move to steady him while he finally released the saddle and reached for Farasha’s reins.

The horse tensed, as if considering lunging for him, but he gave her a no-nonsense glare, the cane groaning as he dug it into the rock beneath him.

Farasha’s dark eyes glowed as if she’d been forged in Hellas’s burning realm, but Chaol stood tall—as tall as he could. Didn’t break her stare.

Finally, the horse huffed, and deigned to let him haul her toward the sand-crusted trough that was half crumbling with age. The trough perhaps had been here for as long as the desert had existed, had watered the horses of a hundred conquerors.

Farasha seemed to grasp that they were to enter that ocean of sand and drank heartily. Yrene led her horse over, keeping the chestnut a healthy distance away from Farasha, and said, “How are you feeling?”

“Solid,” he said, and meant it. “I’ll be aching by the time we get there, but the strain isn’t so bad.” Without the cane, he didn’t dare try to walk more than a few steps. Could barely manage it.

She still put a hand on his lower spine, then his thighs, letting her magic assess. Even with the clothes and the heat, the press of her hands left him aware of every inch of space between them.

But others gathered around the ancient, enormous trough, and so he pulled out of Yrene’s assessing touch, leading Farasha a safe distance away. Mounting the mare again, though …

“Take your time,” Yrene murmured, but remained a few steps away.

He’d had a block at the palace. Here, short of climbing onto the precarious lip of the trough … The distance between his foot and the stirrup had never seemed so long. Balancing on one foot while he lifted it, pushing down with the other to propel him up, swinging his leg around the saddle … Chaol went through the steps, feeling the motions he’d done a thousand times before. He’d learned to ride before he was six—had been on a horse nearly his entire life.

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