Tower of Dawn Page 129

Of course he’d been given a devil of a horse to do this with.

But Farasha held still, staring toward the sifting sea of sand, to the path that had been trampled down the hill—their entry into the desert. Even with the shifting winds hauling the sands into new shapes and valleys, the tracks the others had left were clear enough. He could even spy some of them cresting hills and then flying down them, little more than specks of black and white.

And yet he remained here. Staring at the stirrups and saddle.

Yrene offered casually, “I can find a block or bucket—”

Chaol moved. Perhaps not as graceful as he’d like, perhaps more struggling than he’d intended, but he managed, the cane groaning as he used it to push upward, then clattering to the rock as he let go to grab the pommel of the saddle, right as his foot slid—barely—into the stirrup. Farasha shifted at his weight while he hauled himself higher into the saddle, his back and thighs barking as he swung his leg over, but he was up.

Yrene strode to the fallen cane and dusted it off. “Not bad, Lord Westfall.” She strapped the cane behind her saddle and mounted her mare. “Not bad at all.”

He hid his smile, his face still over-warm, and nudged Farasha down the sandy hill at last.

They followed the tracks the others had left slowly, the heat rippling off the sands.

Up, and down, the only sounds the muffled thumping of their horses and the sighing sands. Their party meandered in a long, snaking line. Guards had been posted throughout, standing with towering poles topped with the khagan’s flag and insignia of a dark running horse. Markers of the general direction toward the oasis. He pitied the poor men ordered to stand in the heat for a princess’s whim, but said nothing.

The dunes evened out after a time, the horizon shifting to reveal a flat, sandy plain. And in the distance, waving and bobbing in the heat …

“There we make our camp,” Yrene said, pointing toward a dense cluster of green. No sign of the ancient, buried city of the dead that Hasar claimed the oasis had grown over. Not that they expected to see much of anything from their vantage point.

From the distance, it might very well be another thirty minutes. Certainly at their pace.

Despite the sweat soaking through her white clothes, Yrene was smiling. Perhaps she, too, had needed a day away. To breathe the open air.

She noticed his attention and turned. The sun had brought out her freckles, darkening her skin to a glowing brown, and tendrils of hair curled about her smiling face.

Farasha tugged on the reins, her body quivering with impatience.

“I own an Asterion horse,” he said, and her mouth curved in an impressed frown. Chaol shrugged. “I’d like to see how a Muniqi measures up.”

Her brows narrowed. “You mean …” She noted the flat, smooth spread of land between them and the oasis. Perfect for running. “Oh, I can’t—a gallop?”

He waited for the words about his spine, his legs. None came.

“Are you afraid?” he asked, arching a brow.

“Of these things? Yes.” She cringed at her mount, restless beneath her.

“She’s as sweet as a dairy cow,” he said of Yrene’s chestnut mare.

Chaol leaned down to pat “Butterfly’s” neck.

She tried to bite him. He yanked on the reins enough to tell her he was fully aware of her bullshit.

“I’ll race you,” he said.

Yrene’s eyes sparkled. And to his shock she breathed, “The prize?”

He could not remember the last time. The last time he had felt so aware of every bit of breath and blood, simmering and thrumming, in his body.

“A kiss. When and where of my choosing.”

“What do you mean where.”

Chaol only grinned. And let Farasha run free.

Yrene cursed, more viciously than he’d ever heard her, but he didn’t dare look back—not as Farasha became a black storm upon the sand.

He’d never gotten to test out the Asterion. But if it was faster than this—

Flying over the sand, Farasha was a bolt of dark lightning spearing across the golden desert. It was all he could do to keep up, to grit his teeth against his barking muscles.

He forgot about them anyway at the blur of reddish brown and black that emerged in the corner of his eye—and the white rider atop it.

Yrene’s hair rose and fell behind her in a golden-brown tangle of curls, lifting with each thunderous pound of her mare’s legs on the hard sand. White clothes streaming in the wind, the gold and silver sparkled like stars, and her face—

Chaol couldn’t breathe as he beheld the wild joy on Yrene’s face, the unchecked exhilaration.

Farasha marked the mare gaining on them, meeting them beat for beat, and made to charge ahead. To leave them in the dust.

He checked her with the reins and his feet, marveling that he could even do so. That the woman now closing in, now riding beside him, now beaming at him as if he were the only thing in this barren, burning sea … She had done this. Given him this.

Yrene was smiling, and then she was laughing, as if she could not contain it inside her.

Chaol thought it was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard.

And that this moment, flying together over the sands, devouring the desert wind, her hair a golden-brown banner behind her …

Chaol felt, perhaps for the first time, as if he was awake.

And he was grateful, right down to his very bones, for it.

44

Yrene was soaked in sweat, though it dried so quickly that she only felt its essence clinging.

Thankfully, the oasis was shaded and cool, a large, shallow pool in its center. Horses were led into the heaviest shade to be watered and brushed down, and servants and guards claimed a hidden spot for their own washing and enjoyment.

No sign of any sort of cave that Nousha had mentioned, or the city of the dead that Hasar claimed lurked in the jungle beyond. But the site was sprawling, and in the large pool … The royals were already soaking in the cool waters.

Renia, Yrene saw immediately, was only wearing a thin silk shift—that did little to hide her considerable assets as she emerged from the water, laughing at something Hasar said.

“Well, then,” Chaol said, coughing beside Yrene.

“I told you about the parties,” she muttered, heading to the tents spread through the towering palms and brush. They were white and gilded, each marked with the prince or princess’s banner. But with Sartaq and Duva not with them, Chaol and Yrene had been assigned them, respectively.

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