“Not a woman to be easily dissuaded, the queen.” Merial took a bite of stew and favoured Thirty-Four with an appreciative grin. “Better ’n that slop the pirates dish out, when they’re not bein’ overly free with their hands.”
“When do we sail?” Illian asked Frentis, a keen eagerness shining in her eyes.
Will she ever grow tired of it? he wondered. “At the discretion of the Fleet Lord. He holds rank here.”
“Fuck his rank,” Lekran muttered around a mouthful of stew, speaking in his laboured Realm Tongue. “Don’t know him.”
Frentis turned back to Merial. “You say the queen believes Lady Reva dead?”
She nodded. “Gone to the bottom along with half her heretic followers.”
“No, she lives. In Volar.” He shuddered at the memory of the previous night’s dream, the surging joy as she drank in the sight of Lady Reva battling the dagger-toothed cats. “Though for how much longer I can’t say.”
Merial frowned at him, a line of suspicion appearing on her brow. “You know this, brother?”
“I do. Beyond doubt.”
Her frown deepened as she angled her head, eyes tracking over his face. “I sense no gift in you . . .”
“I know it,” he said, an edge colouring his voice. “And the queen should know it too.”
She gave a cautious nod and returned to her meal. “Allow a girl to fill her belly first, then I’ll have a word with my darlin’ husband.”
“What husband?” Draker asked with a bemused frown but Merial just grinned and kept eating.
Later she sat apart from them, taking on a concentrated stillness, eyes close and face devoid of expression. “Don’t like this, brother,” Draker murmured, moving to Frentis’s side and eyeing the sister with obvious distrust. “Dark ain’t s’posed to be seen.”
“The world changed when Varinshold fell,” Frentis told him. “Now none of us have anywhere to hide.”
Sister Merial gave a sudden jerk, her back arching and eyes flying open, a small but distinct gasp of shock escaping her lips. She slumped forward with a groan, hands covering her face, slim shoulders moving in jerking sobs.
“Don’t like this,” Draker muttered again, moving back to the fire.
Frentis went to Merial, now hugging herself, face set in forlorn misery. “Sister?” he prompted.
She glanced up at him then looked away, hands tracing over her tear-streaked face as she rose, walking from the courtyard without a word. He waited a while before following, finding her perched atop a podium in the gardens. The statue it once held had been torn down and hauled off during the riots, no doubt destined for the smelter, bronze being a valuable metal. Sister Merial suddenly seemed very young, legs dangling over the edge of the podium as she raised her still-damp face to the sky. She spared him a brief glance before returning her gaze to the stars.
“They’re different,” she said. “Not all, just some.”
“The Maiden’s arm points home,” he said.
She nodded, lowering her gaze. “Aspect Caenis is dead.”
He winced as the pain hit home, a slashing stroke of instant grief. Sagging a little, he went to the podium, resting his hands on its heavily chipped edge. “Your husband told you this?”
“Brother Lernial, whom you’ve met I believe.”
“I didn’t know the Seventh Order were permitted to marry.”
“’Course we are. Where d’you think all the little brothers and sisters come from? We’ve always been more a family than an Order, ever on the hunt for new blood though.”
He sighed a weary laugh. “How did it happen?”
“A battle. The details are vague, my husband’s gift is a tad erratic, ’specially when coloured by so much grief. A rather terrible encounter, from what I can gather. Your red men are a ghastly lot indeed. It seems the queen secured victory in the end, so I doubt they number nine thousand any longer.”
Caenis . . . He had seen him only once at Varinshold, a brief exchange at the gates of the Blackhold. “Many trials await us, brother,” he had said. “I can only wish you well.”
Caenis, who had laboured to tutor him on the Order’s history, with only marginal success in the end but still he cherished the lessons. During his ordeal in the pits he had occupied the time between combats by delving into memory, attempting to recall Caenis’s many stories, knowing they somehow kept him anchored in the Order, kept him a brother and not a slave.
“The Aspect and I were brothers once,” he told Merial. “I learned much from him.”
“As did I. He was my master, y’see. We’d meet in secret, whenever the Order could spare him. He taught me so much, the Faith, the mysteries . . .” She raised her gaze once more. “The stars.”
He touched his hand to hers for a second. “I grieve for your loss, sister.”
“I told my husband,” she said as he turned away, “about Lady Reva, and everything else.”
“Did you divine anything regarding the queen’s intentions?”
“Only that they are unchanged.” She turned to the city spread out before them, fires flickering amidst the many ruined buildings, the pyres still burning beyond the walls. “On to Volar,” she murmured.
• • •
“Who were they?”
He stands in the street outside the baker’s shop, looking down at the girl and her mother once more.
“How can you be here?” he asks.
She moves into view, wearing the face he remembers, the face she wore when they killed together. “You dream, I dream.” She nods at the mother and child. “Did you know them?”
He sees then that the face is not truly the same, the cruelty, the madness not quite gone, but diminished, as if this shared dream somehow strips away much of her waking self.
“No. They died when the city fell.”
“Always so intent on drowning in guilt, beloved.” She moves closer, stepping over the corpses that carpet the street to cast an incurious glance over the lifeless mother and daughter. “It’s always the way with wars. Battles rage and the small people die.”
An old, long-stoked anger builds in his breast. “Small people?”
“Yes my love, the small people.” Her voice carries a note of weary impatience, like a tutor lecturing a child on an oft-forgotten lesson. “The weak, the petty, the narrow of mind and purpose. Those, in fact, who are not like us.”
His rage builds, stirring words he had longed to utter during their journey of murder, unchecked now by any binding. “You are a pestilence,” he tells her. “A blight upon the world, soon to be wiped away.”
Her face betrays no anger as she looks up, only a faint smile, her gaze sad but also rich in knowledge, reminding him of just how old she is, how many corpses she has seen. “No, I am the only woman you will ever love.”
He finds himself drawing away, though also unable to take his eyes from her face. “I know you feel it,” she says, following as he retreats. “However deep you bury it, however much rage you stir to drown it. You saw the future we could have shared, we were meant to share.”
“A vile illusion,” he says in a whisper.
“Our child will never be born,” she says, implacable now. “But we will make another, heir to a dynasty so great . . .”
“Enough!” His rage is enough to give her pause, the heat of it sending a ripple through the ground, threatening to tear this dreamscape apart. “I never wanted any part of your insane plots. How could you imagine I would ever surrender myself to your ambition? What madness drives you? What twisted you into this? What happened on the other side of that door?”
Her face becomes utterly still, eyes locked on his, not in anger but naked terror.
“You dream, I dream,” he tells her. “A girl, lying in bed, weeping as she stares at her bedroom door. Do you even remember it when awake? Do you even know?”
She blinks and takes a slow, backward step. “There were times I thought of killing you. When we travelled, sometimes I would take my knife and lay it against your neck as you slept. I feared you, although I told myself it was only anger at your many cruelties, your practised hatred. Somehow I knew my love for you would kill me, and so it proved. But I have not a single regret.”
She reaches for him, and he doesn’t know why he lets her touch him, why he allows her hands to trace over his own, why he opens his arms and welcomes her into an embrace. She crushes herself against him, and he hears the restrained sob in her voice as she whispers in his ear, “It’s time you came to Volar, beloved. Bring your army if you like. It doesn’t matter. Just make sure the healer is among them. If I do not see both of you in the arena within thirty days, Reva Mustor dies.”
• • •
The leader of New Kethia’s former slaves named himself as Karavek, apparently the name of the master he had beaten to death during the first night of riots. “He stole freedom from me, I stole his name,” he said with a thin smile. “Seemed a fair exchange.”
He was a large man, somewhere in his fifties, with grey-black hair sprouting in an unkempt mass from his once-shaven head. However, despite his size and fierce appearance his voice told of an educated past and a mind keen enough to fully appreciate the reality of their circumstance, unalloyed by the glow of recent triumphs.