Frentis gestured for the Garisai to follow and sprinted for the square, finding it in shambles, carts and trestles overturned amidst the slumped forms of murdered slaves and free folk. At the north end of the square some fifty Politai were formed into a dense wedge, moving steadily forward against a seething wall of Arisai perhaps twice their number. The Politai moved with all the precision born of their years of ingrained discipline, their broad-bladed spears jutting out like the spines of a porcupine as they edged forward, Weaver’s blond head visible in their centre. Curiously the Arisai seemed to have lost much of their maddening humour when confronted with the former slave soldiers. Frentis saw naked fury on many faces as they launched themselves at the well-ordered ranks, most dying on the unyielding hedge of spears but some managing to hack their way into the formation, claiming one or two Politai in the process.

At first Frentis was puzzled by the determined nature of the Politai’s advance; there appeared to be no one left in this square to save, then he saw him, a lone rider amidst the Arisai, wheeling his mount with matchless grace, sword moving in elegant arcs as the red men fell around him. But he was just one, and they were many.

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Frentis forgot all caution and hurled himself into the Arisai, sword gripped in two hands as he hacked his way through, whirling and killing as the Garisai charged in his wake. He dimly heard a shout from the Politai, not in exultation, for such emotions still seemed to be beyond them, more an acknowledgment of an order. Their formation doubled its pace as the Arisai’s ranks thinned about them, forcing their way closer to the lone rider.

Frentis ducked under the sweep of a sword and drove his blade through the breastplate of the Arisai who held it. The man refused to die however, latching onto his sword arm and holding Frentis in place, red teeth bared in a broad, affectionate smile. “Hello, Father,” he rasped, hands like a vise on Frentis’s arm.

One of his compatriots lunged forward, sword levelled at Frentis’s neck, then drawing up short as something streaked down to skewer him through the forehead. For a second his eyes rolled up to regard the crossbow bolt as he stood, drooling, before Lekran’s axe cut his legs away. The tribesman spun, the axe sweeping up to sever the arm of the Arisai still latched onto Frentis. He tore his sword arm free of the Arisai’s remaining hand as Lekran’s axe came down to finish him, turning to see Illian standing on a nearby rooftop. He raised a hand to acknowledge her assistance but her attention was elsewhere, a bolt clamped between her teeth as she sprinted and leapt to the next rooftop, gaze fixed on the lone rider up ahead. Master Rensial!

Arrows fell with increasing rapidity as he fought his way through, Lekran at his side and the Garisai behind, more and more archers appearing on the surrounding rooftops. The Arisai’s ranks thinned ahead of Frentis as he saw three fall to the archers in quick succession, charging clear of the struggle and making for Master Rensial, a shout of fury and frustration escaping his throat as he saw an Arisai dart forward to plunge his sword into the flank of the master’s horse. It reared, mouth gaping as it screamed and collapsed, legs thrashing. The surrounding Arisai closed in, swords raised and laughing. The Politai’s formation issued another shout and broke into a charge, pushing aside the remaining Arisai and sweeping towards the cluster surrounding the fallen rider. Frentis lost sight of the horse as the Politai struck home, cutting down the Arisai then forming a defensive ring with their typical, unconscious swiftness. He forced his way through, drawing up short at the sight of the still-twitching horse, noticing for the first time that it was a fine grey stallion. He could only wonder where the master had found it. He leapt the dying animal, issuing an explosive sigh of relief at the sight of Master Rensial pinned beneath it, frowning in annoyance as he attempted to tug his sword from the body of an Arisai lying dead at his side.

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“We need to find another stable,” he told Frentis, grunting as the blade slid free of the corpse.

“Of course, Master.” He knelt and put his shoulder to the horse’s body, heaving until the master was able to draw his leg clear. From the twisted, mangled state of the limb he could see Rensial would not be riding, or walking again for some time.

“Redbrother!”

Frentis rose at Lekran’s shout, finding they were surrounded on all sides by Arisai now, more having materialised out of the surrounding houses, every one of them seemingly staring at him with a mixture of fascination and delight. Arrows continued to fall from the rooftops but they seemed not to care, barely glancing as their brothers fell beside them. Drawn to me, he decided, seeing something more in the collective gaze. Madness. She has set them loose, and they all hunger for the joy of killing their father.

“This can end here!” he called to them, moving to stand with the encircling Politai. “She has freed you, I see it. Now free yourselves. Let go your madness.”

They laughed at him, of course. Great hearty peals of mirth sweeping through their ranks, some still laughing as the arrows took them.

“As you wish,” Frentis sighed, raising his sword. “Come, receive your cure!”

A new sound cut through the continued babble of their laughter, a faint, rumble echoing from the surrounding streets, soon rising to a roar, the roar of many angry men.

The Meldeneans came streaming from every street and alleyway, sabres flashing as they tore into the red-armoured throng. The Arisai fought, as they were made to, killing with happy abandon, but for all their skill and ferocity they had no counter to the tide of pirates that swept over them, islands of red soon swamped and drowned in a scant few moments. The Meldeneans shouted their victory to the sky, sabres raised and heads thrown back in feral triumph.

“Took them long enough,” Lekran muttered as the carnage subsided.

Frentis turned to find Weaver standing over Master Rensial, head cocked as he cast a critical eye over his leg. “Can you help him?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, brother.” The healer shook his head with a grimace, then raised his gaze to a massive curved structure rising above the rooftops to the west. “I have a sense I will soon need all my strength.”

• • •

He left Master Rensial in the care of the Meldeneans, most of whom seemed content to stay and loot the many vacant houses, proving deaf to entreaties to join the advance on the arena. Frentis could find no sign of Fleet Lord Ell-Nurin, or any other Meldenean of appreciable rank beyond that of second mate, so was obliged to leave them to their rewards and move on. They found Thirty-Four stitching a cut on Draker’s arm a few streets on, the dozen surviving members of the newly appointed captain’s company clustered around them amidst the bodies of some thirty Arisai.

“Can’t you get through one battle without a wound?” Illian asked Draker, her caustic tone leavened somewhat by the affectionate hand she ran through his shaggy hair.

“I do like my souvenirs,” he replied, teeth gritted as Thirty-Four tied off the thread. He raised an apologetic gaze to Frentis and nodded at something lying nearby. “Sorry, brother.”

Slasher lay on his side with Blacktooth whining as she nuzzled his head. A short sword was buried in his chest and an Arisai slumped dead against a nearby wall, his face a ruin of chewed gore.

“We can’t linger,” Frentis said, tearing his gaze away to survey the drained, pale faces of all present. There were perhaps a third of the number that had followed him from New Kethia. So many lost saving those that enslaved them, he wondered, fighting down the mingled grief and admiration that threatened to moisten his eyes.

“Captain,” he said to Draker, “form your people up as a rear-guard. Sister, take the archers and scout the approach to the arena.”

“Surely there can’t be any left after this,” Sister Merial said. Her pallor was slightly improved, though the red smudges around her eyes and nose spoke of an attempt to conceal her exhaustion.

“We thought the same back in Eskethia,” he told her. “Stay by me and do not use your gift again except in direst need.”

The dense maze of streets soon gave way to broad avenues and parks, also littered with corpses. They were mostly black-clad here, plus a few slaves cut down at they tended the grass or polished the bronze statues. Of the Arisai, however, there was no sign. A hundred yards ahead the streets fell away completely to reveal the arena, every fighter and Politai come to a halt at the sight of it, the gently curving, red-gold tiers made vivid in the sun. They could hear a great tumult from within, thousands of voices raised in adulation, no doubt of some dreadful spectacle orchestrated by their Empress. Baying like sheep as their city dies around them, Frentis thought, unable to suppress the bitter notion that these people were not worth the blood spilled on their account.

“No guards,” Illian reported. “As far as we can tell it’s completely undefended.”

Frentis looked at Weaver, for the first time seeing a troubled wrinkle to his brow as he regarded the arena, even a twitch of fear to his lips. Bring the healer . . . “You don’t have to,” Frentis told him. “Remain here with the Politai. I’ll send word when it’s safe.”

Weaver’s brow smoothed as he turned to him, banishing the fear with a faint smile. “I do not believe there is any safe place today, brother.”

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