“Volar is not New Kethia,” Karavek said when the Meldenean made his formal request for alliance on behalf of Queen Lyrna. He had arrived at the governor’s mansion in company with a dozen fighters, all bristling with weaponry and regarding Fleet Lord Ell-Nurin with a naked suspicion that bordered on hostility. “This city is a village in comparison.”
“There are many still in bondage there,” Frentis said. “As you were.”
“True enough, but I don’t know them and neither do my people.”
“The queen has granted all in this province a place in the Unified Realm,” Ell-Nurin said. “You are now free subjects under her protection. But freedom carries a price . . .”
“Don’t lecture me on freedom, pirate,” Karavek growled. “Half the slaves in this city died paying that price.” He turned to Frentis, lowering his voice. “Brother, you know as well as I how precarious our position is. Any day now the southern garrisons will march to reclaim this city for the empire. We can’t fight them if our strength is off dying in Volar.”
Victory at Volar will end this empire, Frentis wanted to say but felt the words die on his tongue, knowing how hollow they would sound. “I know,” he said. “But myself and my people must sail to Volar, with any willing to join us.”
“We rose because of you,” Karavek said. “The Red Brother’s rebellion, the great crusade birthing hope in the hearts of those condemned to a life in chains. Now it seems just a diversion so your queen faces fewer enemies on the road to Volar. And if it falls, what then? Sail away leaving us to face the chaos of a fractured empire?”
“You have my word,” Frentis said. “Regardless of my queen’s intentions, when our business in Volar is complete I will return here to help in any way I can.” He glanced at Ell-Nurin. “And the queen has given assurance that, should your position here prove untenable, her fleet will carry your people across the ocean where you will be granted land and full rights in the Unified Realm.”
Karavek straightened at this, narrowing his gaze at the Fleet Lord. “He speaks true?”
Ell-Nurin maintained an admirably placid expression as he said, “Only a fool with no regard for his life would dare to speak falsely in the queen’s name.”
The rebel leader grunted, running a hand through the shaggy mess of his hair, brow knotted in consideration. “I’ll speak to my people,” he said eventually. “Should be able to muster a thousand swords to go with you. I trust your queen will appreciate the gesture.”
“She is your queen now,” Frentis reminded him. “And she never forgets a debt.”
• • •
The freed Varitai were encamped in the ruins of Old Kethia, along with a large number of grey-clads who found the former slave soldiers more welcoming company than the newly freed denizens of the city itself. A few dozen had been chased into the ruins by a mob in the immediate aftermath of the city’s fall. Their pursuers’ bloodlust abated somewhat at the sight of seven hundred Varitai drawn up in full battle order, Weaver standing at their head with his arms crossed and face set in stern disapproval. Even so the mob had lingered for a time, their fury still unquenched, and the matter might have degenerated further but for the arrival of Master Rensial’s mounted company. Since then a steady stream of beggared Volarians had made their way to the ruins, more trickling in from the south every day, having found life in the wilderness too great a trial.
“Will the Varitai come?” Frentis asked Weaver as they sat together in what he assumed had been the old city’s council chamber. It was a rectangular structure comprising six rows of ascending marble benches around a large flat space. The roof had vanished but the massive pillars that once supported it remained, though standing at perhaps half their former height. The floor was covered in a vast mosaic, the tiles faded in the sun and pounded to fragments in many places, but still complete enough to convey a sense of accomplished artistry, a greatness brought low in the fury of war.
“They have a new name now,” Weaver said. “Politai, which means unchained in old Volarian. And yes they’ll come, there being so many more of their brothers to free in Volar. I shall ask them to leave enough men here to guard these people though.”
“I’ve obtained assurance from Karavek they’ll be left in peace, provided they don’t venture into New Kethia.”
Weaver gave a slight nod, his eyes roving the ruin. “Did you know, the people of this city would choose their own king? Every man who owned house or livestock was given a single black stone every four years. A vase would be placed before each of the candidates who would stand there,” he pointed to the head of the chamber, “and each man would reach his hand into every vase, keeping his fist closed whenever he drew it out, so none would know into which vase he had dropped his stone.”
“What if you dropped two stones?” Frentis asked.
“A great blasphemy punishable by death, for this was a rite as well as a custom, ordained by the gods. All shattered and lost when the Volarians came of course, but Queen Lyrna found it interesting. From a historical perspective.”
“Do you truly hold her memories?”
Weaver gave a small laugh and shook his head. “Her knowledge, her insight you might say. They are not always the same as memory.” He turned to Frentis, his humour fading quickly. “You dreamt again.”
“More than a dream. We spoke. She wants me to bring you to the arena in Volar. For what purpose I can’t imagine. But I doubt she means you well.”
“And if you don’t?”
“She holds Lady Reva, makes her fight in the arena. I’m certain she’ll face worse if we do not come.”
“You care for her?”
“I barely know her. But my brother sees her as his sister, which makes her my sister. I do not wish to tell him I turned my back on a chance to save her. But I can’t command you in this, nor would I wish to.”
For a time Weaver said nothing, his face gradually clouding into an expression so troubled it seemed his youth had vanished. “When I was a child,” he said, “I didn’t understand the nature of my gift. If I saw a wounded creature, a bird with a broken wing or a dog hobbling on a twisted leg, it seemed such a wondrous and simple thing to restore them with a touch. But for a long time everything I healed became a shadow of what it had been, an empty-eyed husk plodding through life and often shunned by its own kind. I didn’t know why until I came to understand that my gift doesn’t just give, it takes. Those I heal are opened to me by the touch, everything they have is laid bare and there for the taking. Their memories, their compassion, their malice . . . And their gifts. Although I try to stop it, something always comes back, bringing with it the temptation to take more, to take it all.
“I first met your brother years ago, when my mind was . . . less clear than it is today. I had occasion to heal him, Snowdance being so hard to restrain.” Weaver looked down at his hands, spreading the nimble fingers. “His gift was great, brother, and the temptation stronger than ever. So I took, just a little. If I had taken it all . . .” Weaver shook his head, shame and fear mingling on his face. “The song is faint,” he continued, “but if I listen hard enough, I can hear it, and it guides me, tells me where I need to be. It led me to follow him to Alltor, guided me to the queen when she needed healing, and to the ship that brought us to this land. And now, brother, it tells me to go to Volar, and its tune is far from faint.”
He patted Frentis’s knee and got to his feet, casting a final glance around the council chamber. “They also killed children here,” he said. “To seal the people’s choice with a blood offering to the gods. The sacrifice would be chosen by lot, their parents considering it a great honour.”
He turned and started up the steps. “I should speak to the Politai, they’re becoming ever more insistent on explanations.”
The red man’s lips had been part seared away, exposing teeth and gums in an obscene grin. Vaelin couldn’t escape the sense of being laughed at, the Witch’s Bastard enjoying his final triumph.
A series of gurgles came from the ruined face, spittle and blood spraying as the red man’s lidless eyes stared up at him. Was he begging? Taunting? Vaelin crouched, leaning close to try to discern some meaning amongst the choking babble. The red man jerked and convulsed, tongue sliding over his teeth as he attempted to shape the words. “O-one . . . left. Stiiillll . . . one . . . moooore . . . leeeeft.”
“K-kuhhhh . . . killlll . . . meeee . . .”
Vaelin stared into the thing’s bloodshot eyes, unable to read any expression as the surrounding flesh had been seared to the bone. “I will.”
The thing choked, tongue twisting behind the teeth as it fought to shape an answer. “Alpiraaah . . .”
Vaelin rose and went to Wise Bear and Erlin. “He says there’s another,” he told the shaman. “Far from here. Will it matter?”
“Matter to what?” Erlin asked.
Vaelin gave no response, keeping his gaze on Wise Bear, who glanced uncertainly at the ancient man before replying. “Other one stay in body it stole, won’t matter.”