Tower of Dawn Page 6

Chaol didn’t ask for it. Didn’t look remotely interested beyond his, “Oh?”

Kashin stiffened. His father’s fiercest defender, then. Arghun only exchanged glances with a vizier and smiled toward Chaol like an adder ready to strike.

“Here is why I think you have come, Lord Westfall, Hand to the King.”

Only the gulls wheeling high above the dome of the throne room dared make any noise.

The khagan shut lid after lid on the trunks.

“I think you have come to convince me to join your war. Adarlan is cleaved, Terrasen is destitute, and will no doubt have some issue convincing her surviving lords to fight for an untried queen who spent ten years indulging herself in Rifthold, purchasing these jewels with blood money. Your list of allies is short and brittle. Duke Perrington’s forces are anything but. The other kingdoms on your continent are shattered and separated from your northern territories by Perrington’s armies. So you have arrived here, fast as the eight winds can carry you, to beg me to send my armies to your shores. To convince me to spill our blood on a lost cause.”

“Some might consider it a noble cause,” Chaol countered.

“I am not done yet,” the khagan said, lifting a hand.

Chaol bristled but did not speak out of turn again. Nesryn’s heart thundered.

“Many would argue,” the khagan said, waving that upraised hand toward a few viziers, toward Arghun and Hasar, “that we remain out of it. Or better yet, ally with the force sure to win, whose trade has been profitable for us these ten years.”

A wave of that hand toward some other men and women in the gold robes of viziers. Toward Sartaq and Kashin and Duva. “Some would say that we risk allying with Perrington only to potentially face his armies in our harbors one day. That the shattered kingdoms of Eyllwe and Fenharrow might again become wealthy under new rule, and fill our coffers with good trade. I have no doubt you will promise me that it shall be so. You will offer me exclusive trading deals, likely to your own disadvantage. But you are desperate, and there is nothing you possess that I do not already own. That I cannot take if I wish.”

Chaol kept his mouth shut, thankfully. Even as his brown eyes simmered at the quiet threat.

The khagan peered into the fourth and final trunk. Jeweled combs and brushes, ornate perfume bottles made by Adarlan’s finest glassblowers. The same who had built the castle Aelin had shattered. “So, you have come to convince me to join your cause. And I shall consider it while you stay here. Since you have undoubtedly come for another purpose, too.”

A flick of that scarred, jeweled hand toward the chair. Color stained Chaol’s tan cheeks, but he did not flinch, did not cower. Nesryn forced herself to do the same.

“Arghun informed me your injuries are new—that they happened when the glass castle exploded. It seems the Queen of Terrasen was not quite so careful about shielding her allies.”

A muscle feathered in Chaol’s jaw as everyone, from prince to servant, looked to his legs.

“Because your relations with Doranelle are now strained, also thanks to Aelin Galathynius, I assume the only path toward healing that remains open to you is here. At the Torre Cesme.”

The khagan shrugged, the only reveal of the irreverent warrior-youth he’d once been. “My beloved wife will be deeply upset if I were to deny an injured man a chance at healing”—the empress was nowhere to be seen in this room, Nesryn realized with a start—“so I, of course, shall grant you permission to enter the Torre. Whether its healers will agree to work upon you shall be up to them. Even I do not control the will of the Torre.”

The Torre—the Tower. It dominated the southern edge of Antica, nestled atop its highest hill to overlook the city that sloped down toward the green sea. Domain of its famed healers, and tribute to Silba, the healer-goddess who blessed them. Of the thirty-six gods this empire had welcomed into the fold over the centuries, from religions near and far, in this city of gods … Silba reigned unchallenged.

Chaol looked like he was swallowing hot coals, but he mercifully managed to bow his head. “I thank you for your generosity, Great Khagan.”

“Rest tonight—I will inform them that you shall be ready tomorrow morning. Since you cannot go to them, one will be sent to you. If they agree.”

Chaol’s fingers shifted in his lap, but he did not clench them. Nesryn still held her breath.

“I am at their disposal,” Chaol said tightly.

The khagan shut the final trunk of jewels. “You may keep your presents, Hand of the King, Ambassador to Aelin Galathynius. I have no use for them—and no interest.”

Chaol’s head snapped up, as if something in the khagan’s tone had snared him. “Why.”

Nesryn barely hid her cringe. More of a demand than anyone ever dared make of the man, judging by the surprised anger in the khagan’s eyes, in the glances exchanged between his children.

But Nesryn caught the flicker of something else within the khagan’s eyes. A weariness.

Something oily slid into her gut as she noted the white banners streaming from the windows, all over the city. As she looked to the six heirs and counted again.

Not six.

Five. Only five were here.

Death-banners at the royal household. All over the city.

They were not a mourning people—not in the way they could be in Adarlan, dressing all in black and moping for months. Even amongst the khagan’s royal family, life picked up and went on, their dead not stuffed in stone catacombs or coffins, but shrouded in white and laid beneath the open skies of their sealed-off, sacred reserve on the distant steppes.

Nesryn glanced down the line of five heirs, counting. The eldest five were present. And just as she realized that Tumelun, the youngest—barely seventeen—was not there, the khagan said to Chaol, “Your spies are indeed useless if you have not heard.”

With that, he strode for his throne, leaving Sartaq to step forward, the second-eldest prince’s depthless eyes veiled with sorrow. Sartaq gave Nesryn a silent nod. Yes. Yes, her suspicions were right—

Sartaq’s solid, pleasant voice filled the chamber. “Our beloved sister, Tumelun, died unexpectedly three weeks ago.”

Oh, gods. So many words and rituals had been passed over; merely coming here to demand their aid in war was uncouth, untoward—

Chaol said into the fraught silence, meeting the stares of each taut-faced prince and princess, then finally the weary-eyed khagan himself, “You have my deepest condolences.”

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