Tower of Dawn Page 91

She quickly looked ahead toward the mountains. Though she’d grown mostly accustomed to the idea of how very little stood between her and death atop this ruk, reminding herself of it did nothing to settle her stomach.

“Yes,” Sartaq said. “It is also why our riders often band with the Darghan in war. Our fighting techniques differ, but we mostly know how to work together.”

“A cavalry below and aerial coverage above,” Nesryn said, trying not to sound too interested. “Have you ever gone to war?”

The prince was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Not on the scale of what is being unleashed in your land. Our father ensures that the territories within our empire are well aware that loyalty is rewarded. And resistance is answered with death.”

Ice skittered down her spine.

Sartaq went on, “So I have been dispatched twice now to remind certain restless territories of that cold truth.” A hot breath at her ear. “Then there are the clans within the rukhin themselves. Ancient rivalries that I have learned to navigate, and conflicts I have had to smooth over.”

The hard way, he didn’t add. He instead said, “As a city guard, you must have dealt with such things.”

She snorted at the thought. “I was mostly on patrol—rarely promoted.”

“Considering your skill with a bow, I would have thought you ran the entire place.”

Nesryn smiled. Charmer. Beneath that unfailingly sure exterior, Sartaq was certainly a shameless flirt. But she considered his implied question, though she had known the answer for years. “Adarlan is not as … open as the khaganate when it comes to embracing the role of women in the ranks of its guards or armies,” she admitted. “While I might be skilled, men usually were promoted. So I was left to rot on patrol duty at the walls or busy streets. Handling the underworld or nobility was left for more important guards. And ones whose families hailed from Adarlan.”

Her sister had raged anytime it happened, but Nesryn had known that if she’d exploded to her superiors, if she’d challenged them … They were the sort of men who would tell her to be grateful to be admitted at all, then demand she turn in her sword and uniform. So she’d figured it was better to remain, to be passed over, not for mere pay, but for the fact that there were so few other guards like her, helping those who needed it most. It was for them she stayed on, kept her head down while lesser men were appointed.

“Ah.” Another beat of quiet from the prince. “I’ve heard they were not so welcoming toward people from other lands.”

“To say the least.” The words were colder than she’d meant. And yet that was where her father had insisted they live, thinking it offered some sort of better life. Even when Adarlan had launched its wars to conquer the northern continent, he’d stayed—though her mother had tried to convince him to return to Antica, the city of her heart. Yet for whatever reason, perhaps stubbornness, perhaps defiance against the people who wanted to throw him out again, he’d stayed.

And Nesryn tried not to fault him for it, she really did. Her sister couldn’t understand it—Nesryn’s occasional, simmering anger on the topic. No, Delara had always loved Rifthold, loved the bustle of the city and thrived on winning over its hard-edged people. It had been no surprise that she’d married a man born and raised in the city itself. A true child of Adarlan—that’s what her sister was. At least, of what Adarlan had once been and might one day again become.

Kadara caught a swift wind and coasted along it, the world below passing in a blur as those towering mountains grew closer and closer. Sartaq asked quietly, “Were you ever—”

“It’s not worth talking about.” Not when she could sometimes still feel that rock as it collided with her head, hear the taunts of those children. She swallowed and added, “Your Highness.”

A low laugh. “So my title makes an appearance again.” But he didn’t press further. He only said, “I’m going to beg you not to call me Prince or Your Highness around the other riders.”

“You’re going to beg me, or you are?”

His arms tightened around her in mock warning. “It took me years to get them to stop asking if I needed my silk slippers or servants to brush my hair.” Nesryn chuckled. “Amongst them, I am simply Sartaq.” He added, “Or Captain.”

“Captain?”

“Another thing you and I have in common, it seems.”

Shameless flirt indeed. “But you rule all six ruk clans. They answer to you.”

“They do, and when we all gather, I am Prince. But amongst my family’s own clan, the Eridun, I captain their forces. And obey the word of my hearth-mother.” He squeezed her again for emphasis. “Which I’d advise you doing as well, if you don’t want to be stripped and tied to a cliff face in the middle of a storm.”

“Holy gods.”

“Indeed.”

“Did she—”

“Yes. And as you said, it’s not worth talking about.”

But Nesryn chuckled again, surprised to find her face aching from smiling so often these past few minutes. “I appreciate the warning, Captain.”

The Tavan Mountains turned mammoth, a wall of dark gray stone higher than any she’d ever beheld in her own lands. Not that she’d seen many mountains up close. Her family had rarely ventured inland into Adarlan or its surrounding kingdoms—mostly because her father had been busy, but partially because the rural people in those areas did not take so well to outsiders. Even when their children had been born on Adarlanian soil, with an Adarlanian mother. Sometimes that latter fact had been more enraging to them.

Nesryn only prayed that the rukhin would be more welcoming.

In all her father’s stories, the descriptions of the aeries of the rukhin somehow still did not convey the sheer impossibility of what had been built into the sides and atop three towering peaks clustered in the heart of the Tavan Mountains.

It was no assortment of gir—framed, wide tents—that the horse-clans moved about the steppes. No, the Eridun aerie had been hewn into the stone, houses and halls and chambers, many of them originally nests for the ruks themselves.

Some of those nests remained, usually near a ruk’s rider and their family, so the birds could be summoned at a moment’s notice. Either through a whistled command or by someone climbing the countless rope ladders anchored to the stone itself, allowing movement between various homes and caves—though internal stairwells had also been built within the peaks themselves, mostly for the elderly and children.

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