Tower of Dawn Page 130

Mercifully, the two were near each other, but Yrene took in the open tent flaps, the entire space as large as the cottage she’d shared with her mother, then turned toward Chaol’s retreating back. His limp, even with the cane, was deeper than it’d been that morning. And she’d seen how stiffly he’d gotten off that infernal horse.

“I know you want to wash up,” Yrene said. “But I need to take a look at you. At your back and legs, I mean. After all that riding.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have raced him. She hadn’t even remembered who’d reached the oasis border anyway. She’d been too busy laughing, feeling as if she were coming out of her body and would likely never feel that way again. Too busy looking at his face, filled with such light.

Chaol paused at his tent flaps, cane wobbling, as if he’d put far more weight on it than he let on. But it was the relief in his face as he asked, “Your tent or mine?” that made her worry—just a tad.

“Mine,” she said, aware of the servants and nobility who likely had no idea she was even the cause of this excursion, but who would happily report her comings and goings. He nodded, and she monitored each rise and placement of his legs, the shifting of his torso, the way he leaned on that cane.

As Chaol edged past her and into the tent, he murmured in her ear, “I won, by the way.”

Yrene glanced toward the sun now making its descent and felt her core tighten in answer.

He was sore but could thankfully still walk by the time Yrene finished her thorough examination. And set of soothing stretches for his legs and back. And massage.

Chaol had the distinct feeling she was toying with him, even as her hands remained chaste. Uninterested.

She even had the nerve to call for a servant to ask for a jug of water.

The tent was fit for the princess who usually occupied it. A large bed lay in the center upon a raised platform, the floors covered with ornate rugs. Sitting areas were scattered throughout, along with a curtained-off washing-up and privy, and there was gold everywhere.

Either the servants had brought it with them yesterday, or the people of this land so feared the wrath of the khaganate that they didn’t dare rob this place. Or were so well-cared for they didn’t need to.

The others were all in the oasis pool by the time he shrugged on his now-dry clothes and they emerged to seek out their quarry.

They’d whispered in the tent—neither of them had spotted anything of interest upon arrival. And in the oasis pool, definitely no indication of a cave or ruins near the bathing royals and their friends. Comfortable, relaxed. Free, in ways that Adarlan had never been, to its detriment. He wasn’t naive enough to think that no scheming or intrigue was now playing out in the cool waters, but he’d never heard of Adarlanian nobles going to a swimming hole and enjoying themselves.

Though he certainly wondered what the hell Hasar was thinking in throwing such a party for Yrene, manipulated into it or no, considering the princess was well aware Yrene barely knew most of those gathered.

Yrene hesitated at the edge of the clearing and glanced at him beneath lowered lashes—a look anyone might interpret as shy. A woman perhaps hesitant to strip down to the light clothes they wore in the waters. Letting any onlookers forget that she was a healer and wholly used to far more skin showing. “I find I’m not up to bathing,” Yrene murmured over the laughter and splashing of those within the oasis waters. “Care for a walk?”

Pleasant, polite words as she inclined her head through the few acres of untamed jungle sprawling to the left. She didn’t think herself a courtier, but she could certainly lie well enough. He supposed that as a healer, it was a skill that proved useful.

“It would be my pleasure,” Chaol said, offering his arm.

Yrene hesitated again, the portrait of modesty—peering over her shoulder at those in the pool. The royals watching. Kashin included.

He would let her choose when and how to make it clear to the prince—again—that she was not interested. Though he couldn’t avoid a faint tinge of guilt as she looped her arm through his and they stepped into the murkiness of the oasis jungle.

Kashin was a good man. Chaol doubted his words about being willing to go to war were lies. And to risk antagonizing the prince by perhaps flaunting what he had with Yrene … Chaol glanced sidelong at her, his cane digging into the roots and soft soil. She offered him a faint smile, cheeks still flushed with the sun.

To hell with worrying over antagonizing Kashin.

The oasis spring’s gurgling blended with the sighing palms overhead as they headed deeper between the fauna, picking their own way—no direction in mind. “In Anielle,” he said, “there are dozens of hot springs along the valley floor, near the Silver Lake. Kept warm by the vents in the earth. When I was a boy, we’d often soak in them after a day of training.”

She asked carefully, as if realizing that he’d indeed offered up this piece of him, “Was it that training that inspired you to join the guard?”

His voice was thick as he finally said, “Part of it. I was just … good at it. Fighting and fencing and archery and all of it. I received the training that was befitting for the heir of a lord to a mountain people who had long fended off wild men from the Fangs. But my real training began when I arrived in Rifthold and joined the royal guard.”

She slowed while he navigated around a tricky nest of roots, letting him focus on where to place his feet and the cane.

“I suppose being stubborn and bullheaded made you a good pupil for the discipline aspect.”

Chaol chuckled, nudging her with his elbow. “It did. I was the first one on the training pitch and the last one off. Even though I was walloped every single day.” His chest tightened as he remembered their faces, those men who had trained him, who had pushed and pushed him, left him limping and bleeding, and then made sure he got patched up in the barracks that night. Usually with a hearty meal and a clap on the back.

And it was in honor of those men, his brothers, that he said hoarsely, “They weren’t all bad men, Yrene. The ones I … I grew up with, whom I commanded … They were good men.”

He saw Ress’s laughing face, the blush the young guard could never hide around Aelin. His eyes burned.

Yrene stopped, the oasis humming around them, and his back and legs were more than grateful for the reprieve as she removed her arm from his. Touched his cheek. “If they are partially responsible for you being … you,” she said, rising up to brush her mouth against his, “then I believe that they are.”

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