“I do, Highness.”

“So then.” She spurred Jet into a gallop, descending the eastern slope amidst a flurry of crimson petals. “Courtesy requires I greet the Empress, and I should not like to keep her waiting.”

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Reva

“Where did you get that?”

Reva found herself reaching involuntarily for the bow. The design was unfamiliar, axes and swords in place of the stag and the wolf, but the craftsmanship was unmistakable. A bow of Arren.

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“You know this weapon?” Varulek asked her, his eyes shining with the same intensity.

“I once owned its twin, which now rests at the bottom of the ocean. They are heirlooms of my family. Fashioned for my grandfather by the finest bowsmith in Cumbraelin history, lost in the wars that built the Realm.” She met Varulek’s gaze, tightening her grip on the bow. “Where did you get it?”

“It is my family’s charge to serve the gods, and the scripture they left us. As masters of the arena our reach has always been long, and our pockets deep. Volaria is rich in merchants and traders who appreciate the virtues of discretion. Twenty years ago one of them brought this bow to my father. He was well paid for his trouble.”

Reva’s fingers traced over the carvings, recalling the feel of her own bow, the way it had always seemed to fit her so well. Antesh had told her each one had been decorated to reflect the varied interests of her great grandfather. The one she had carried through Alltor had provided evidence of his passion for hunting. This one, it appeared, showed a keen interest in war.

“What would you have me do with this?” she asked Varulek.

“Your spectacle will be a great trial. Jarvek and Livella. I will not lie to you, the chances you might survive it are slender, but should you do so, I can hide this bow in the arena at a place within range of the Empress’s balcony.”

“There are archers on the upper tiers. I’ll be dead before I draw the string.”

“The arena has its own Kuritai, they answer to me. Plus there are some Free Sword mercenaries with grudges to settle, the Empress’s purges have left few families in this city untouched.”

“If I kill her, I will only be loosing what’s inside, and it will surely find a new shell.”

“Your queen approaches. The Empress’s latest scheme to defeat her failed. I was witness to her reaction to the news, and it was a bloody sight. She’s now scraping together what strength she can, but the best troops are off in the north, facing a new threat, and the empire seethes with rebellion. No help will come from the provinces. Your spectacle will take place three weeks from now, and your queen marches closer every day. Should you kill the Empress in front of thousands, she could find a new body but it will not matter. Who would follow her? Your queen may well find a city in chaos, ripe for the taking.”

“And you will no doubt expect a reward when she does.”

“You worship a god, but she does not, and yet she permits your worship. When Volar falls she will be Empress, an empress willing to tolerate a return of the old gods.”

She’s more likely to tear this charnel-house down around you. Reva’s gaze tracked over the bow once more. Uncle Sentes would have seen the Father’s hand in you, as he saw it in me. It occurred to her that this event, should it ever become known, would form the key verse in the Eleventh Book. The Blessed Lady and the Bow of Arren, a gift from the Father. The storm couldn’t kill her, the arena held no terrors for her and, with the Father’s love to guide her aim, she sent an arrow into the black heart of the Empress herself.

“I will do this,” she told Varulek, handing back the bow. “But if I do not live, you will ensure this thing is burned and no mention of it ever made to my people.” I’ve told them enough lies.

• • •

“Owwwww!” Lieza squealed, rolling on the floor and rubbing her knee. For such a finely made person she remained aggravatingly clumsy and mostly devoid of coordination, despite two weeks of constant training.

“Get up,” Reva sighed. “Let’s try again.”

“You too quick,” Lieza grumbled, getting to her feet. She pouted at Reva’s insistent frown and assumed the crouch she had been taught, bent almost double, one hand touching the floor. The information Varulek had provided about her upcoming spectacle had left Reva in little doubt that attempting to train the girl in combat would be unlikely to aid her chances of survival, but the ability to dodge a charging opponent might.

Reva met her gaze, forcing a smile. This time Lieza wasn’t fooled, springing to her right, rolling and coming to her feet, just beyond the reach of Reva’s flailing arm as she flashed past.

“Better,” she said. “But the thing we face will have a longer reach.”

“You really think you can kill it?”

If I get my hands on the bow quick enough. “We have a chance. Remember what I told you. There will be chaos, when it happens you run for the western exit. Do not wait for me, do not look back.”

Lieza blanched, hugging herself as the fear returned. It was less frequent now, but still had occasion to leave her shivering and tearful. Reva had grown accustomed to waking with the girl’s slender form pressed against her, tear-stained face nestling into her shoulder. She hadn’t yet found the will to push her away.

Lieza started as the locks on the door rattled for the first time in days. Their food was provided via a slot in the base of the door, the only means of gauging the passage of time as they had been left alone since Varulek’s surreptitious visit. When it swung open she was dismayed to find the black-clad absent. Instead two Arisai stood there, grinning as they bowed, unconcealed lust in the gazes they directed at her and Lieza.

One of them spoke, deepening his bow and gesturing at the corridor. Lieza swallowed before providing a translation. “She wants to see you.”

• • •

Think nothing. Feel nothing.

She knew she was asking the impossible of herself; how could any living mind think nothing? But still she found the constant refrain a comfort, placing her faith in the Empress’s patent madness, the hope her mind was too clouded to allow her gift free rein.

To her surprise the Arisai led her from the arena and out into the broad parkland that surrounded it. The Empress was overseeing some form of modification to a life-sized bronze statue standing on a plinth opposite the main entrance, a team of slaves moving quickly at her shouted instruction. Most of their work seemed to be focused on the statue’s head, working feverishly to hammer iron pegs into its bronze neck. Nearby a dozen Arisai stood guard, a kneeling man in their midst, naked, slumped and chained.

“Ah, little sister,” the Empress greeted her, pulling her into a warm embrace. “And how does the morning find you?”

Think nothing. Feel nothing. “What do you want?”

“We haven’t had occasion to speak since your delightful demonstration. I wouldn’t wish you to think I harboured some anger towards you. Sisters shouldn’t fight.”

“We’re not sisters.”

“Oh but we are. I’m quite convinced of it. I was meant to have a sister, you see. But she died before she could be born.” The Empress’s gaze snapped back to the slaves and the statue. “Hurry up!”

Their efforts instantly became frantic, hammers moving in a blur as the last of the iron pegs were pounded into place. “Handsome fellow, isn’t he?” the Empress asked as the slaves secured ropes around the statue’s head. “Not to your taste, I know. But still, I assume you can still appreciate the aesthetic qualities of male beauty.”

Reva glanced at the bronze face, now partly obscured by a net of ropes. He had certainly been a handsome man, strong-jawed with a narrow nose, though his expression was even more stern and commanding than the plethora of heroes the Volarians erected in every spare corner of their city. He wore the armour of a senior officer, though it seemed more elaborate and ornate than others she had seen.

“Savarek Avantir,” the Empress said. “The greatest military commander in Volarian history. And my father.”

The slaves hurriedly hitched their ropes to a team of horses and began flailing at their flanks with whips. The iron pegs in the statue’s neck fell free as the rents they had forced in the metal widened, the bronze giving a whining groan of protest until the head finally came loose, falling onto the plinth with a loud clang.

“Conqueror of the southern provinces,” the Empress went on, moving to the plinth and laying a hand on the metal head. “Victor of sixty-three separate engagements. One of only two citizens to gain the red by virtue of martial merit rather than property, creator of the Varitai and Kuritai and the first to receive the Ally’s blessing. A fellow of singular achievement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Did he kill as many people as you?”

The Empress’s mouth twitched in a smile as she caressed the head. “More than both of us combined, little sister. And we have killed so many, have we not?”

Think nothing. Feel nothing. “If he took your Ally’s blessing, where is he? I thought your kind lived forever.”

“Even the Ally’s gift is no defence against a skillful blade.” She turned to regard the man kneeling amidst the Arisai. “Nor it seems, sufficient reward to ensure good service.”

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