Tower of Dawn Page 24

It pressed on him, weighing him further, but that soon became secondary, once he’d finished dressing for dinner and found Nesryn had not arrived. He eventually yielded and let Kadja bring him to the banquet in the khagan’s great hall, but when long minutes passed and Nesryn still did not return, it was an effort to remain unaffected.

Anything could have happened to her. Anything. Especially if Kashin’s theory regarding his late sister was correct. If Morath’s agents were already here, he had little doubt that as soon as they learned of his and Nesryn’s arrival, they’d begun hunting them.

He should have considered it before she’d gone out today. Should have thought beyond his own damn problems. But demanding a guard be sent out to search for her would only tell any potential enemies what he valued most. Where to strike.

So Chaol fought to get his food down, barely able to focus on conversation with the people beside him. On his right: Duva, pregnant and serene, asking about the music and dancing now favored in his lands; on his left: Arghun, who didn’t mention his visit that afternoon, and instead prodded him about trade routes old and proposed. Chaol made up half the answers, and the prince smiled—as if well aware of it.

Still, Nesryn didn’t appear.

Though Yrene did.

Halfway through the meal, she entered, in a slightly finer yet still simple gown of amethyst that set her golden-brown skin glowing. Hasar and her lover rose to greet the healer, clasping Yrene’s hands and kissing her cheeks, and the princess kicked out the vizier seated on her left to make room for her.

Yrene bowed to the khagan, who waved her off without more than a glance, then to the royalty assembled. Arghun did not bother to acknowledge her existence; Duva beamed at Yrene, her quiet husband offering a more subdued smile. Only Sartaq bowed his head, while the final sibling, Kashin, offered her a close-lipped smile that didn’t meet his eyes.

But Kashin’s gaze lingered long enough while Yrene took her seat beside Hasar that Chaol remembered what the princess had teased Yrene about earlier that day.

But Yrene did not return the prince’s smile, only offering a distant nod in return, and claimed the seat Hasar had conquered for her. She fell into conversation with Hasar and Renia, accepting the meat Renia piled on her plate, the princess’s lover fussing that Yrene looked too tired, too skinny, too pale. Yrene accepted every morsel offered with a bemused smile and nod of thanks. Deliberately not looking anywhere near Kashin. Or Chaol, for that matter.

“I heard,” a male voice to Chaol’s right said in his own language, “that Yrene has been assigned to you, Lord Westfall.”

He was not at all surprised to find that Kashin had leaned forward to speak to him.

And not at all surprised to see the thinly veiled warning in the male’s gaze. Chaol had seen it often enough: Territory claimed.

Whether Yrene welcomed it or not.

Chaol supposed it was a mark in her favor that she did not seem to pay the prince much heed. Though he could only wonder why. Kashin was the handsomest of the siblings, and Chaol had witnessed women literally falling over themselves for Dorian’s attention during those years in the castle. Kashin had a self-satisfied look to him that he’d often glimpsed on Dorian’s face.

Once—long ago. A different lifetime ago. Before an assassin and a collar and everything.

The guards stationed throughout the great hall somehow turned looming, as if they were kindled flames that now tugged at his gaze. He refused to even glance toward the nearest one, which he’d marked out of habit, standing twenty feet to the side of the high table. Right where he’d once stood, before another king, another court.

“She has,” was all Chaol could manage to say.

“Yrene is our most skilled healer—save for the Healer on High,” Kashin went on, glancing at the woman who still paid him no heed and indeed seemed to fall deeper into conversation with Renia as if to emphasize it.

“So I have heard.” Certainly the sharpest-tongued.

“She received the highest marks anyone has ever attained on her formal examinations,” Kashin continued while Yrene ignored him, something like hurt flickering across the prince’s face.

“See how he trips over himself,” Arghun muttered over Duva, her husband, and Chaol to say to Sartaq. Duva swatted at Arghun’s arm, snapping at him for interrupting her fork’s path to her mouth.

Kashin did not appear to hear or care for his elder brother’s disapproval. And to his credit, Sartaq didn’t, either, choosing instead to turn to a golden-robed vizier while Kashin said to Chaol, “Unheard of marks for anyone, let alone a healer who has been here for just over two years.”

Another seedling of information. Yrene had not spent long in Antica, then.

Chaol found Yrene watching him beneath lowered brows. A warning not to drag her into the conversation.

He weighed the merits of either option: the petty revenge for her taunting earlier, or …

She was helping him. Or was debating it, at least. He’d be stupid to alienate her further.

So he said to Kashin, “I hear you usually dwell down in Balruhn and look after the terrestrial armies.”

Kashin straightened. “I do. For most of the year, I make my home there and oversee the training of our troops. If I’m not there, then I’m out on the steppes with our mother-people—the horse-lords.”

“Thank the gods,” Hasar muttered from across the table, earning a warning look from Sartaq. Hasar only rolled her eyes and whispered something in her lover’s ear that made Renia laugh, a bright, silvery sound.

Yrene was still watching him, though, an ember of what he could have sworn was annoyance in her face—as if Chaol’s mere presence at this table was enough to set her clenching her jaw—while Kashin began explaining his various routines in his city on the southwestern coast, and the contrasting life amongst the horse-tribes on the steppes.

Chaol shot Yrene back an equally displeased look the moment Kashin paused to sip his wine, and then launched question after question to the prince regarding his life. Helpful information, he realized, about their army.

He was not the only one who realized it. Arghun cut in while his brother was midsentence about the forges they had constructed near their northern climes, “Let us not discuss business at dinner, brother.”

Kashin shut his mouth, ever the trained soldier.

And somehow Chaol knew—that fast—that Kashin was not being considered for the throne. Not when he obeyed his eldest brother like any common warrior. He seemed decent, though. A better alternative than the sneering, aloof Arghun, or the wolflike Hasar.

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