Tower of Dawn Page 76

“Salvia,” the child—no more than nine—answered.

“And what does it do?”

The girl beamed, chin rising as she recited, “Good for improving memory, alertness, mood. Also assists with fertility, digestion, and, in a salve, can help numb the skin.”

“Excellent.”

The girl’s broad smile revealed three missing teeth.

The woman—her mother—took the girl’s round face in her hands. Her skin was darker than her daughter’s, her hair a thicker, bouncier curl. But their builds … It was the woman’s build that the girl would grow into one day. The freckles that she’d inherit. The nose and mouth.

“You have been studying, my wise child.”

The woman kissed her daughter on her sweaty brow.

He felt the kiss—the love in it—even as a ghost at the gate.

For it was love that shaded the entirety of the world here, gilded it. Love and joy.

Happiness.

The sort he had not known with his own family. Or anyone else.

The girl had been loved. Deeply. Unconditionally.

This was a happy memory—one of a few.

“And what is that bush, there by the wall?” the woman asked the girl.

Her brow scrunched in concentration. “Gooseberries?”

“Yes. And what do we do with gooseberries?”

The girl braced her hands on her hips, her simple dress blowing in the dry, warm breeze. “We …” She tapped her foot with impatience—at her own mind, for not recalling. The same irritation he’d seen outside that old man’s house in Antica.

Her mother crept up behind her, sweeping the girl into her arms and kissing her cheek. “We make gooseberry pie.”

The girl’s squeal of delight echoed across the amber grasses and clear streams, even into the tangled, ancient heart of Oakwald.

Perhaps even to the White Fangs themselves, and the cold city nestled at their edge.

He opened his eyes.

And found his entire foot pressing into the couch cushions.

Felt the silk and embroidery scratching against the bare arch of his foot. His toes.

Felt.

He bolted upright, finding Yrene not at his side.

Nowhere near.

He gaped at his feet. Below the ankle … He shifted and rotated his foot. Felt the muscles.

Words stalled in his throat. His heart thundered. “Yrene,” he rasped, scanning for her.

She wasn’t in the suite, but—

Sunlight on brown-gold caught his eye. In the garden.

She was sitting out there. Alone. Quietly.

He didn’t care that he was half dressed. Chaol heaved himself into the chair, marveling at the sensation of the smooth wood supports beneath his feet. He could have sworn even his legs … a phantom tingling.

He wheeled himself into the small, square garden, breathless and wide-eyed. She’d repaired another fraction, another—

She’d settled herself in an ornate little chair before the circular reflection pool, her head propped up by her fist.

At first, he thought she was sleeping in the sun.

But he inched closer and caught the gleam of light on her face. On the wetness there.

Not blood—but tears.

Streaming silently, unendingly, as she stared at that reflection pool, the pink lilies and emerald pads covering most of it.

She stared as if not seeing it. Not hearing him.

“Yrene.”

Another tear rolled down her face, dripping onto her pale purple dress. Another.

“Are you hurt,” Chaol said hoarsely, his chair crunching over the pale white gravel of the garden.

“I’d forgotten,” she whispered, lips wobbling as she stared and stared at the pool and did not move her head. “What she looked like. Smelled like. I’d forgotten—her voice.”

His chest strained as her face crumpled. He hauled his chair beside her own but did not touch her.

Yrene said quietly, “We make oaths—to never take a life. She broke that oath the day the soldiers came. She had hidden a dagger in her dress. She saw the soldier grab me, and she … she leaped on him.” She closed her eyes. “She killed him. To buy me time to run. And I did. I left her. I ran, and I left her, and I watched … I watched from the forest as they built that fire. And I could hear her screaming and screaming—”

Her body shook.

“She was good,” Yrene whispered. “She was good and she was kind and she loved me.” She still did not wipe her tears. “And they took her away.”

The man he had served … he had taken her away.

Chaol asked softly, “Where did you go after that?”

Her trembling lessened. She wiped at her nose. “My mother had a cousin in the north of Fenharrow. I ran there. It took me two weeks, but I made it.”

At eleven. Fenharrow had been in the middle of conquest, and she’d made it—at eleven.

“They had a farm, and I worked there for six years. Pretended to be normal. Kept my head down. Healed with herbs when it wouldn’t raise suspicions. But it wasn’t enough. It … There was a hole. In me. I was unfinished.”

“So you came here?”

“I left. I meant to come here. I walked through Fenharrow. Through Oakwald. Then over … over the mountains …” Her voice broke into a whisper. “It took me six months, but I made it—to the port of Innish.”

He’d never heard of Innish. Likely in Melisande, if she’d crossed—

She’d crossed mountains.

This delicate woman beside him … She had crossed mountains to be here. Alone.

“I ran out of money for the crossing. So I stayed. I found work.”

He avoided the urge to look at the scar on her throat. To ask what manner of work—

“Most girls were on the streets. Innish was—is not a good place. But I found an inn by the docks and the owner hired me. I worked as a barmaid and a servant and … I stayed. I meant to only work for a month, but I stayed for a year. Let him take my money, my tips. Increase my rent. Put me in a room under the stairs. I had no money for the crossing, and I thought … I thought I would have to pay for my education here. I didn’t want to go without funds for tuition, so … I stayed.”

He studied her hands, now clutching each other tightly in her lap. Pictured them with a bucket and mop, with rags and dirty dishes. Pictured them raw and aching. Pictured the filthy inn and its inhabitants—what they must have seen and coveted when they beheld her.

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