Tower of Dawn Page 22

Because with her clothes, her unadorned hair … Indeed, the guards might not permit her past. Which would have been … mortifying. “Thank you,” she said, and fell into step beside him.

They were silent as they passed white banners streaming from one of the open windows. Chaol had told her yesterday of Kashin’s worry that their youngest sister’s death had been through foul play—that one of Perrington’s agents might be responsible. It was enough to plant a seed of dread in her. To make her mark each face she encountered, peer into every shadow.

Keeping a smooth pace beside him, Nesryn glanced at Sartaq as those banners flitted by. The prince, however, nodded to a few bowing men and women in the gold robes of viziers.

Nesryn found herself asking, “Are there truly thirty-six of them?”

“We have a fascination with the number, so yes.” He snorted, the sound most un-princely. “My father debated halving them, but feared the gods’ wrath more than political repercussions.”

It felt like a breath of crisp autumn air, to hear and speak her own tongue. To have it be the norm and not be gawked at. She’d always felt so when coming here.

“Did Lord Westfall meet with the healer?”

There was no harm in the truth, she decided, so Nesryn said, “Yes. Yrene Towers.”

“Ah. The famed Golden Lady.”

“Oh?”

“She is striking, no?”

Nesryn smiled slightly. “You favor her, I see.”

Sartaq chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t dare. My brother Kashin would not be pleased.”

“They have an attachment?” Hasar had hinted at as much.

“They are friends—or were. I haven’t seen them talk in months, but who knows what happened? Though I suppose I’m no better than the court gossips for telling you.”

“It’s still useful to know, if we are working with her.”

“Was her assessment of Lord Westfall a positive one?”

Nesryn shrugged. “She was hesitant to confirm.”

“Many healers will do that. They don’t like to give hope and take it away.” He flicked his braid over a shoulder. “Though I will also tell you that Yrene herself healed one of Kashin’s Darghan riders last winter of a very similar injury. And the healers have long repaired such wounds amongst our people’s horse-tribes and my own rukhin. They will know what to do.”

Nesryn swallowed the hope that blossomed as brightness flared ahead—the open doors to the main courtyard and palace gates. “How long have you been a ruk rider, Prince?”

“I thought you’d heard the stories.” Humor danced in his face.

“Only gossip. I prefer the truth.”

Sartaq’s dark eyes settled on her, their unwavering focus enough to make her glad not to be on the receiving end of it too often. Not for fear, but … it was unsettling, to have the weight of that gaze wholly upon you. It was an eagle’s gaze—a ruk’s gaze. Keen and piercing.

“I was twelve when my father brought us all to the mountain aerie. And when I snuck away and climbed onto the captain’s own ruk, soaring into the skies and requiring them to chase me down … My father told me that if I had splattered on the rocks, I would have deserved to die for my stupidity. As punishment, he ordered me to live amongst the rukhin until I could prove I wasn’t a complete fool—a lifetime, he suggested.”

Nesryn quietly laughed, and blinked against the sunshine as they emerged into the grand courtyard. Ornate arches and pillars had been carved with flora and fauna, the palace rising up behind them like a leviathan.

“Thankfully, I did not die of stupidity, and instead came to love the riding, their lifestyle. They gave me hell because I was a prince, but I proved my mettle soon enough. Kadara hatched when I was fifteen, and I raised her myself. I have had no other mount since.” Pride and affection brightened those onyx eyes.

And yet Nesryn and Chaol would ask him, beg him, to take that beloved mount into battle against wyverns many times the weight and with infinitely more brute strength. With venom in their tails. Her stomach roiled.

They reached the towering main gates, a small door cut into the enormous slabs of studded bronze, left open to allow access to pedestrians scurrying on errands to and from the palace. Nesryn remained still while Sartaq introduced her to the heavily armed guards on duty, ordering them to grant her unrestricted access. The sun glinted on the hilts of the swords crossed over their backs as the guards bowed their acquiescence, each with a fist over his heart.

She’d seen how Chaol could barely look at them—the palace guards and those at the docks.

Sartaq led her through the small door, the bronze of the gate nearly a foot thick, and onto the broad, cobblestoned avenue that sloped into the labyrinth of city streets. Fine houses and more guards lined the surrounding streets, residences of the wealthy who wished to dwell in the palace’s shadow. But the street itself was crammed with people about their business or leisure, even some travelers who climbed all the way up here to gawk at the palace, and now tried to peer through the small door through which Nesryn and Sartaq had walked for a glimpse to the courtyard beyond. None seemed to recognize the prince beside her—though she knew the guards on the street and stationed at the gates monitored every breath and word.

One glance at Sartaq, and she had no doubt the prince was also well aware of his surroundings while he stood beyond the gates, as if he were an ordinary man. She studied the crowded streets ahead, listening to the clamor. It would take an hour on foot to reach her family’s house across the city, but even longer in a carriage or on horseback thanks to the clogged traffic.

“Are you sure you don’t need an escort?”

A half smile tugged on Nesryn’s mouth as she found him watching her sidelong. “I can handle myself, Prince, but I thank you for the honor.”

Sartaq looked her over, a quick warrior’s assessment. Indeed, he was a man who had little to fear when stepping beyond the palace walls. “If you ever have the time or interest, you should come for a ride. The air up there is open—not like the dust and brine down here.”

Open enough where listening ears might not hear them.

Nesryn bowed deeply. “I should like that very much.”

She felt the prince still watching while she strode down the sunny avenue, dodging carts and conveyances fighting for passage. But she didn’t dare look back. She wasn’t entirely sure why.

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