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Tower of Dawn, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

A newer, wider throne, dating from a hundred years ago—when the seventh khagan had chucked out the old one because his large frame didn’t fit in it. He’d eaten and drunk himself to death, history claimed, but at least had the good sense to name his Heir before he clutched his chest one day and slumped dead … right in that throne.

  Urus, the current khagan, was no more than sixty, and seemed in far better condition. Though his dark hair had long since gone as white as his carved throne, though scars peppered his wrinkled skin as a reminder to all that he had fought for this throne in the final days of his mother’s life … His onyx eyes, slender and uptilted, were bright as stars. Aware and all-seeing.

  Atop his snowy head sat no crown. For gods among mortals did not need markers of their divine rule.

  Behind him, strips of white silk tied to the open windows fluttered in the hot breeze. Sending the thoughts of the khagan and his family to where the soul of the deceased—whoever they might be, someone important, no doubt—had now rejoined the Eternal Blue Sky and Slumbering Earth that the khagan and all his ancestors still honored in lieu of the pantheon of thirty-six gods their citizens remained free to worship.

  Or any other gods outside of it, should their territories be new enough to not yet have had their gods incorporated into the fold. There had to be several of those, since during his three decades of rule, the man seated before them had added a handful of overseas kingdoms to their borders.

  A kingdom for every ring adorning his scar-flecked fingers, precious stones glinting among them.

  A warrior bedecked in finery. Those hands slid from the arms of his ivory throne—assembled from the hewn tusks of the mighty beasts that roamed the central grasslands—and settled in his lap, hidden beneath swaths of gold-trimmed blue silk. Indigo dye from the steamy, lush lands in the west. From Balruhn, where Nesryn’s own people had originally hailed, before curiosity and ambition drove her great-grandfather to drag his family over mountains and grasslands and deserts to the god-city in the arid north.

  The Faliqs had long been tradesmen, and not of anything particularly fine. Just simple, good cloth and household spices. Her uncle still traded such things and, through various lucrative investments, had become a moderately wealthy man, his family now dwelling in a beautiful home within this very city. A definitive step up from a baker—the path her father had chosen upon leaving these shores.

  “It is not every day that a new king sends someone so important to our shores,” the khagan said at last, using their own tongue and not Halha, the language of the southern continent. “I suppose we should deem it an honor.”

  His accent was so like her father’s—but the tone lacked the warmth, the humor. A man who had been obeyed his entire life, and fought to earn his crown. And executed two of the siblings who proved to be sore losers. The surviving three … one had gone into exile, and the other two had sworn fealty to their brother. By having the healers of the Torre render them infertile.

  Chaol inclined his head. “The honor is mine, Great Khagan.”

  Not Majesty—that was for kings or queens. There was no term high or grand enough for this man before them. Only the title that the first of his ancestors had borne: Great Khagan.

  “Yours,” the khagan mused, those dark eyes now sliding to Nesryn. “And what of your companion?”

  Nesryn fought the urge to bow again. Dorian Havilliard was the opposite of this man, she realized. Aelin Galathynius, however … Nesryn wondered if the young queen might have more in common with the khagan than she did with the Havilliard king. Or would, if Aelin survived long enough. If she reached her throne.

  Nesryn shoved those thoughts down as Chaol peered at her, his shoulders tightening. Not at the words, not at the company, but simply because she knew that the mere act of having to look up, facing this mighty warrior-king in that chair … Today would be a hard one for him.

  Nesryn inclined her head slightly. “I am Nesryn Faliq, Captain of the Royal Guard of Adarlan. As Lord Westfall once was before King Dorian appointed him as his Hand earlier this summer.” She was grateful that years spent living in Rifthold had taught her not to smile, not to cringe or show fear—grateful that she’d learned to keep her voice cool and steady even while her knees quaked.

  Nesryn continued, “My family hails from here, Great Khagan. Antica still owns a piece of my soul.” She placed a hand over her heart, the fine threads of her gold-and-crimson uniform, the colors of the empire that had made her family often feel hunted and unwanted, scraping against her calluses. “The honor of being in your palace is the greatest of my life.”

  It was, perhaps, true.

  If she found time to visit her family in the quiet, garden-filled Runni Quarter—home mostly to merchants and tradesmen like her uncle—they would certainly consider it so.

  The khagan only smiled a bit. “Then allow me to welcome you to your true home, Captain.”

  Nesryn felt, more than saw, Chaol’s flicker of annoyance. She wasn’t entirely certain what had triggered it: the claim on her homeland, or the official title that had now passed to her.

  But Nesryn bowed her head again in thanks.

  The khagan said to Chaol, “I will assume you are here to woo me into joining this war of yours.”

  Chaol countered a shade tersely, “We’re here at the behest of my king.” A note of pride at that word. “To begin what we hope will be a new era of prosperous trade and peace.”

  One of the khagan’s offspring—a young woman with hair like flowing night and eyes like dark fire—exchanged a wry look with the sibling to her left, a man perhaps three years her elder.

  Hasar and Sartaq, then. Third and secondborn, respectively. Each wore similar loose pants and embroidered tunics, with fine leather boots rising to their knees. Hasar was no beauty, but those eyes … The flame dancing in them as she glanced to her elder brother made up for it.

  And Sartaq—commander of his father’s ruk riders. The rukhin.

  The northern aerial cavalry of his people had long dwelled in the towering Tavan Mountains with their ruks: enormous birds, eagle-like in shape, large enough to carry off cattle and horses. Without the sheer bulk and destructive weight of the Ironteeth witches’ wyverns, but swift and nimble and clever as foxes. The perfect mounts for the legendary archers who flew them into battle.

  Sartaq’s face was solemn, his broad shoulders thrown back. A man perhaps as ill at ease in his fine clothes as Chaol. She wondered if his ruk, Kadara, was perched on one of the palace’s thirty-six minarets, eyeing the cowering servants and guards, waiting impatiently for her master’s return.

  That Sartaq was here … They had to have known, then. Well in advance. That she and Chaol were coming.

  The knowing glance that passed between Sartaq and Hasar told Nesryn enough: they, at least, had discussed the possibilities of this visit.

  Sartaq’s gaze slid from his sister to Nesryn.

  She yielded a blink. His brown skin was darker than the others’—perhaps from all that time in the skies and sunlight—his eyes a solid ebony. Depthless and unreadable. His black hair remained unbound save for a small braid that curved over the arch of his ear. The rest of his hair fell to just past his muscled chest, and swayed slightly as he gave what Nesryn could have sworn was a mocking incline of his head.

  A ragtag, humbled pair, Adarlan had sent. The injured former captain, and the common-bred current one. Perhaps the khagan’s initial words about honor had been a veiled mention of what he perceived as an insult.

  Nesryn dragged her attention away from the prince, even as she felt Sartaq’s keen stare lingering like some phantom touch.

  “We arrive bearing gifts from His Majesty, the King of Adarlan,” Chaol was saying, and twisted in his chair to motion the servants behind them to come forward.

  Queen Georgina and her court had practically raided the royal coffers before they’d fled to their mountain estates this spring. And the former king had smuggled out much of what was left during those final few months.
But before they’d sailed here, Dorian had ventured into the many vaults beneath the castle. Nesryn still could hear his echoed curse, filthier than she’d ever heard him speak, as he found little more than gold marks within.

  Aelin, as usual, had a plan.

  Nesryn had been standing beside her new king when Aelin had flipped open two trunks in her chambers. Jewelry fit for a queen—for a Queen of Assassins—had sparkled within.

  I’ve enough funds for now, Aelin had only said to Dorian when he began to object. Give the khagan some of Adarlan’s finest.

  In the weeks since, Nesryn had wondered if Aelin had been glad to be rid of what she’d purchased with her blood money. The jewels of Adarlan, it seemed, would not travel to Terrasen.

  And now, as the servants laid out the four smaller trunks—divided from the original two to make it seem like more, Aelin had suggested—as they flipped open the lids, the still-silent court pressed in to see.

  A murmur went through them at the glistening gems and gold and silver.

  “A gift,” Chaol declared as even the khagan himself leaned forward to examine the trove. “From King Dorian Havilliard of Adarlan, and Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen.”

  Princess Hasar’s eyes snapped to Chaol at the second name.

  Prince Sartaq only glanced back at his father. The eldest son, Arghun, frowned at the jewels.

  Arghun—the politician amongst them, beloved by the merchants and power brokers of the continent. Slender and tall, he was a scholar who traded not in coin and finery but in knowledge.

  Prince of Spies, they called Arghun. While his two brothers had become the finest of warriors, Arghun had honed his mind, and now oversaw his father’s thirty-six viziers. So that frown at the treasure …

  Necklaces of diamond and ruby. Bracelets of gold and emerald. Earrings—veritable small chandeliers—of sapphire and amethyst. Exquisitely wrought rings, some crowned with jewels as large as a swallow’s egg. Combs and pins and brooches. Blood-gained, blood-bought.

  The youngest of the assembled royal children, a fine-boned, comely woman, leaned the closest. Duva. A thick silver ring with a sapphire of near-obscene size adorned her slender hand, pressed delicately against the considerable swell of her belly.

  Perhaps six months along, though the flowing clothes—she favored purple and rose—and her slight build could distort that. Certainly her first child, the result of her arranged marriage to a prince hailing from an overseas territory to the far east, a southern neighbor of Doranelle that had noted the rumblings of its Fae Queen and wanted to secure the protection of the southern empire across the ocean. Perhaps the first attempt, Nesryn and others had wondered, of the khaganate greatly expanding its own considerable continent.

  Nesryn didn’t let herself look too long at the life growing beneath that bejeweled hand.

  For if one of Duva’s siblings were crowned khagan, the first task of the new ruler—after his or her sufficient offspring were produced—would be to eliminate any other challenges to the throne. Starting with the offspring of his or her siblings, if they challenged their right to rule.

  She wondered how Duva was able to endure it. If she had come to love the babe growing in her womb, or if she was wise enough to not allow such a feeling. If the father of that babe would do everything he could to get that child to safety should it come to that.

  The khagan at last leaned back in his throne. His children had straightened again, Duva’s hand falling back at her side.

  “Jewels,” Chaol explained, “set by the finest of Adarlanian craftsmen.”

  The khagan toyed with a citrine ring on his own hand. “If they came from Aelin Galathynius’s trove, I have no doubt that they are.”

  A beat of silence between Nesryn and Chaol. They had known—anticipated—that the khagan had spies in every land, on every sea. That Aelin’s past might be just a tad difficult to work around.

  “For you are not only Adarlan’s Hand,” the khagan went on, “but also the Ambassador of Terrasen, are you not?”

  “Indeed I am,” Chaol said simply.

  The khagan rose with only the slightest stiffness, his children immediately stepping aside to clear a path for him to step off the golden dais.

  The tallest of them—strapping and perhaps more unchecked than Sartaq’s quiet intensity—eyed up the crowd as if assessing any threats within. Kashin. Fourthborn.

  If Sartaq commanded the ruks in the northern and central skies, then Kashin controlled the armies on land. Foot soldiers and the horse-lords, mostly. Arghun held sway over the viziers, and Hasar, rumor claimed, had the armadas bowing to her. Yet there remained something less polished about Kashin, his dark hair braided back from his broad-planed face. Handsome, yes—but it was as if life amongst his troops had rubbed off on him, and not necessarily in a bad way.

  The khagan descended the dais, his cobalt robes whispering along the floor. And with every step over the green marble, Nesryn realized that this man had indeed once commanded not just the ruks in the skies, but also the horse-lords, and swayed the armadas to join him. And then Urus and his elder brother had gone hand-to-hand in combat at the behest of their mother while she lay dying from a wasting sickness that even the Torre could not heal. The son who walked off the sand would be khagan.

  The former khagan had a penchant for spectacle. And for this final fight between her two selected offspring, she had placed them in the great amphitheater in the heart of the city, the doors open to any who could claw inside to find a seat. People had sat upon the archways and steps, with thousands cramming the streets that flowed to the white-stoned building. Ruks and their riders had perched on the pillars crowning the uppermost level, more rukhin circling in the skies above.

  The two would-be Heirs had fought for six hours.

  Not just against each other, but also against the horrors their mother unleashed to test them: great cats sprang from hidden cages beneath the sandy floor; iron-spiked chariots with spear-throwers had charged from the gloom of the tunnel entrances to run them down.

  Nesryn’s father had been amongst the frenzied mob in the streets, listening to the shouted reports from those dangling off the columns.

  The final blow hadn’t been an act of brutality or hate.

  The now-khagan’s elder brother, Orda, had taken a spear to the side thanks to one of those charioteers. After six hours of bloody battle and survival, the blow had kept him down.

  And Urus had set aside his sword. Absolute silence had fallen in the arena. Silence as Urus had extended a bloodied hand to his fallen brother—to help him.

  Orda had sent a hidden dagger shooting for Urus’s heart.

  It had missed by two inches.

  And Urus had ripped that dagger free, screaming, and plunged it right back into his brother.

  Urus did not miss as his brother had.

  Nesryn wondered if a scar still marred the khagan’s chest as he now strode toward her and Chaol and the jewels displayed. If that long-dead khagan had wept for her fallen son in private, slain by the one who would take her crown in a matter of days. Or if she had never allowed herself to love her children, knowing what must befall them.

  Urus, Khagan of the Southern Continent, stopped before Nesryn and Chaol. He towered over Nesryn by a good half foot, his shoulders still broad, spine still straight.

  He bent with only a touch of age-granted strain to pluck up a necklace of diamond and sapphire from the chest. It glittered like a living river in his scar-flecked, bejeweled hands.

  “My eldest, Arghun,” said the khagan, jerking his chin toward the narrow-faced prince monitoring all, “recently informed me of some fascinating information regarding Queen Aelin Ashryver Galathynius.”

  Nesryn waited for the blow. Chaol just held Urus’s gaze.

  But the khagan’s dark eyes—Sartaq’s eyes, she realized—danced as he said to Chaol, “A queen at nineteen would make many uneasy. Dorian Havilliard, at least, has been trained since birth to take up his crown, to control a c
ourt and kingdom. But Aelin Galathynius …”

  The khagan chucked the necklace into the chest. Its thunk was as loud as steel on stone.

  “I suppose some would call ten years as a trained assassin to be experience.”

  Murmurs again rippled through the throne room. Hasar’s fire-bright eyes practically glowed. Sartaq’s face did not shift at all. Perhaps a skill learned from his eldest brother—whose spies had to be skilled indeed if they’d learned of Aelin’s past. Even though Arghun himself seemed to be struggling to keep a smug smile from his lips.

  “We may be separated by the Narrow Sea,” the khagan said to Chaol, whose features did not so much as alter, “but even we have heard of Celaena Sardothien. You bring me jewels, no doubt from her own collection. Yet they are jewels for me, when my daughter Duva”—a glance toward his pregnant, pretty daughter standing closely beside Hasar—“has yet to receive any sort of wedding gift from either your new king or returned queen, while every other ruler sent theirs nearly half a year ago.”

  Nesryn hid her wince. An oversight that could be explained by so many truths—but not ones that they dared voice, not here. Chaol didn’t offer any of them as he remained silent.

  “But,” the khagan went on, “regardless of the jewels you’ve now dumped at my feet like sacks of grain, I would still rather have the truth. Especially after Aelin Galathynius shattered your own glass castle, murdered your former king, and seized your capital city.”

  “If Prince Arghun has the information,” Chaol said at last with unfaltering coolness, “perhaps you do not need it from me.”

  Nesryn stifled her cringe at the defiance, the tone—

  “Perhaps not,” the khagan said, even as Arghun’s eyes narrowed slightly. “But I think you should like some truth from me.”

  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.”