Tower of Dawn Page 98

Nesryn choked at that, but shrugged into the embroidered cobalt-and-gold wool coat, belting it tightly. She trailed the prince as he headed into the warm interior, straightening her wind-tossed hair as they descended the dim stairwell.

“Even though Borte is to one day lead the Eridun, she trains with the others?”

“Yes,” Sartaq said without glancing over his shoulder. “Hearth-mothers all know how to fight, how to attack and defend. But Borte’s training includes other things.”

“Like learning the different tongues of the world.” Her use of the northern language was as impeccable as Sartaq’s.

“Like that. And history, and … more. Things even I am not told of by either Borte or her grandmother.”

The words echoed off the stones around them. Nesryn dared ask, “Where’s Borte’s mother?”

Sartaq’s shoulders tensed. “Her sulde stands on Arundin’s slopes.”

Just the way he spoke it, the cold cut of his voice …“I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” was all Sartaq said.

“Her father?”

“A man her mother met in distant lands, and whom she did not care to hold on to for longer than a night.”

Nesryn considered the fierce, wicked young woman who’d fought with no small skill in the training rings. “I’m glad she has you, then. And her grandmother.”

Sartaq shrugged. Dangerous, strange territory—she’d somehow waded into a place where she had no right to pry.

But then Sartaq said, “You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you.” It was all she could think to say. He’d kept close to her side while she walked the others through her various positions and techniques, but had said little. A leader who did not need to constantly be filling the air with talking and boasting.

He blew out a breath, shoulders loosening. “And I’m relieved to see that the reality lives up to the legend.”

Nesryn chuckled, grateful to be back on safer ground. “You had doubts?”

They reached the landing that would take them to the great hall. Sartaq let her fall into step beside him. “The reports left out some key information. It made me doubt their accuracy.”

It was the sly gleam in his eye that made Nesryn angle her head. “What, exactly, did they fail to mention?”

They reached the great hall, empty save for a cloaked figure just barely visible on the other side of the fire pit—and someone sitting beside her.

But Sartaq turned to her, examining her from head to toe and back again. There was little that he missed. “They didn’t mention that you’re beautiful.”

Nesryn opened and closed her mouth in what she was sure was an unflattering impression of a fish on dry land.

With a wink, Sartaq strode ahead, calling, “Ej.” The rukhin’s term for mother, he’d told her this morning. Nesryn hurried after him. They rounded the massive fire pit, the figure sitting atop the uppermost stair pulling back her hood.

She’d expected an ancient crone, bent with age and toothless.

Instead, a straight-backed woman with braided, silver-streaked onyx hair smiled grimly at Sartaq. And though age had indeed touched her features … it was Borte’s face. Or Borte’s face in forty years.

The hearth-mother wore a rider’s leathers, though her dark blue cloak—actually a jacket she’d left hanging over her shoulders—covered much of them.

But at her side … Falkan. His face equally grave, those dark sapphire eyes scanning them. Sartaq checked his pace at the sight of the merchant, either irritated that he hadn’t been first to claim her attention or simply that the merchant was present for this reunion.

Manners or self-preserving instincts kicked in, and Sartaq continued his approach, hopping down onto the first ledge of the pit to stride the rest of the way.

Houlun rose when he was near, enfolding him in a swift, hard embrace. She cupped his shoulders when she was done, the woman nearly as tall as him, shoulders strong and thighs well muscled, and surveyed Sartaq with a shrewd eye.

“Sorrow weighs heavily on you still,” she observed, running a scar-flecked hand over Sartaq’s high cheekbone. “And worry.”

Sartaq’s eyes shuttered before he ducked his head. “I have missed you, Ej.”

“Sweet-talker,” Houlun chided, patting his cheek.

To Nesryn’s delight, she could have sworn the prince blushed.

The firelight cast the few strands of silver in Houlun’s hair with red and gold as she peered around Sartaq’s broad shoulders to where Nesryn stood atop the lip of the pit. “And the archer from the north arrives at last.” An incline of her head. “I am Houlun, daughter of Dochin, but you may call me Ej, as the others do.”

One glance into the woman’s brown eyes and Nesryn knew Houlun was not one who missed much. Nesryn bowed her head. “It is an honor.”

The hearth-mother stared at her for a long moment. Nesryn met her gaze, remaining as still as she could. Letting the woman see what she wanted.

At last, Houlun’s eyes slid toward Sartaq. “We have matters to discuss.”

Absent that fierce gaze, Nesryn loosed a breath but kept her spine ramrod straight.

Sartaq nodded, something like relief on his face. But he glanced toward Falkan, watching all from his seat. “They are things that should be told privately, Ej.”

Not rude, but certainly not warm. Nesryn refrained from echoing the prince’s sentiment.

Houlun waved a hand. “Then they may wait.” She pointed to the stone bench. “Sit.”

“Ej—”

Falkan shifted, as if he’d do them all a favor and go.

But Houlun pointed to him in silent warning to remain. “I would have you all listen.”

Sartaq dropped onto the bench, the only sign of his discontent being the foot he tapped on the floor. Nesryn sat beside him, the stern woman reclaiming her perch between them and Falkan.

“An ancient malice is stirring deep in these mountains,” Houlun said. “It is why I have been gone these past few days—to seek it out.”

“Ej.” Warning and fear coated the prince’s voice.

“I am not so old that I cannot wield my sulde, boy.” She glowered at him. Indeed, nothing about this woman seemed old at all.

Sartaq asked, frowning, “What did you go in pursuit of?”

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