The Ally now rode at the rear of the column, his bruised and partially remoulded features bland and cheerful as ever. Orven’s guards had been given stern instructions to gag him if he attempted to speak again, but he had maintained a continual silence since waking from the beating. Kiral stared at him constantly, hands often bunching on her reins and Vaelin knew she was resisting the impulse to reach for her bow. The song’s guidance is rarely mistaken, he knew, missing his lost gift more keenly than ever. But Dahrena’s vision had held no desire for the Ally’s immediate death, and no inclination he was on the wrong path.

A line of red appeared on the horizon five days later, growing as they drew closer until they paused amidst a vast array of redflower fields and, in the hazy distance, the tall towers of a marble city.


“Volar,” Lorkan breathed at Vaelin’s side, shaking his head in unabashed wonder. “I truly never thought to see it.”

Vaelin called for Lord Orven and pointed to the west and east. “Send out your scouts, we need word of the queen’s whereabouts. We’ll make camp here . . .”

“You don’t have time!”

Vaelin turned to see the Ally regarding him with cold intent, all vestige of humour vanished from his still misshapen features. The guards on either side moved closer to fulfil their orders but Vaelin waved them back, trotting Scar closer, meeting the Ally’s glare. “Why?”

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“My servant plays with your sister in the arena as we speak. Or rather, that perverted bitch you call your sister. Delay further, and I suspect she’ll be dead before long, after a suitable period of well-deserved punishment. She did always irk me so.”

Vaelin looked at Kiral, who gritted her teeth and nodded. Reva! His creature has Reva.

“She holds no gift,” the Ally went on. “No place in the Beyond for her . . .”

Vaelin wheeled away from him, spurring to the head of the column and barking an order at Orven to follow, making for Volar at the gallop.



It seems I have come far to visit justice on a people intent on their own destruction. The city seemed to be ruled by the dead; there was not an avenue, doorway or garden free of corpses. They also hung from the many towers like ragged, long-forgotten dolls. It was clear to her this had been a wealthy district, the opulence of the houses and the extensive walled gardens rich in cherry blossoms and statuary told of great privilege and high status, but whatever had swept through here had little regard for rank; copious enslaved dead told her this was not the product of revolt.

“Arisai, Highness,” Brother Sollis reported, his horse’s iron-shod hooves a jarring intrusion into the silence covering this place. He clattered to a halt nearby, pausing to offer Aspect Arlyn a respectful nod before addressing her. “We found twenty or so in the neighbouring district, killing all they could find. We dealt with them but I’ve little doubt there are more.”

He shifted in his saddle as his fellow brothers reined in a short way off, clearly impatient to be off. “The route to the arena?” she asked him.

“Clear, Highness. There appear to be no other Volarian soldiery in the city. I believe you have sufficient protection to proceed there.”

Whilst you ride off to save the people we came to destroy, no doubt. She was about to order him to form up his company in escort when Murel abruptly leapt down from her horse and ran towards a pile of bodies lying near the arched entrance to one of the larger houses. She pulled the topmost corpse away, a slender woman in a red robe with a gaping wound to her neck, and reached into the bloody mess beneath, emerging with a small, half naked figure. She clutched it in a tight embrace as Lyrna trotted Jet closer, dismounting at Murel’s side as she wiped fresh blood from the face of a girl perhaps eight years in age, alive but oddly still, staring about with wide, dark eyes. Murel was weeping, the first time Lyrna had seen her do so since the day of her ennoblement at the Wensel Isle.

The girl blinked at the lady then looked up at Lyrna with a curious frown. “I know you,” she said in a somewhat prim voice.

“You do?” Lyrna moved closer, going to her haunches and reaching out to tease back a stiff strand of matted hair from the girl’s forehead.

“My father told me,” the girl went on, pouting a little in defiance. “You’ve come to burn everything down. You’re the queen of fire.”

Lyrna closed her eyes. A breeze played over her skin in a gentle caress, carrying the scent of cherry blossoms, the perfume delicate but rich enough to mask the stink of gore and bowels voided at the point of death. She tried to recall another odour, one she knew so well, one that choked the throat and stirred bile from the gut, the stench of her own flesh burning. But she couldn’t find it, not today.

“No,” she told the girl, reopening her eyes and pausing to cup her cheek with a smile. “I’m just a queen.”

She rose, touching a hand to Murel’s shoulder. “Take her to Brother Kehlan.” She turned and strode back to her horse. “Brother Sollis, take your company and hunt down any remaining Arisai. Volarian citizenry found alive are to be conveyed to safety if possible. I’ll send word to the Battle Lord to allocate forces to assist you.”

He bowed in the saddle, his face betraying a sense of gratitude she hadn’t seen before, nodded again to the Aspect, and wheeled about, his rasping voice calling out orders to his brothers as he galloped off.

“Don’t like it, Lerhnah,” Davoka said as she climbed into the saddle, casting a critical eye over the surviving Queen’s Daggers. “We are too few.”

Lyrna turned at the sound of a multitude of voices at their rear, causing Iltis to wheel about with sword drawn. He calmed as the first Cumbraelin came into view. A well-built man, as many archers were, running with his bow across his back and hatchet in hand, pausing to offer her the briefest bow before running on, making for the unmistakable bulk of the arena, now only a half mile distant. He was quickly followed by hundreds more, the surrounding avenues filled with their panting prayers, the words “Blessed Lady” most frequent among them. Al Hestian couldn’t hold them, she surmised. I hope he was wise enough not to try.

“I think we’ll have enough, sister,” she told Davoka, spurring Jet to a gallop.

• • •

The head stared down at her with sightless eyes, mouth slack and tongue lolling from between its teeth. It had been fixed on to the stump of the statue’s neck with iron nails, hammered through bronze and flesh alike, streaks of dried blood covering the metal down to the plinth where the original head lay.

“These people are never short of horrors, it seems,” Iltis observed in a disgusted tone.

Lyrna guided Jet past the statue and on to the arena, the Cumbraelins now streaming through its arches. She had caught a glimpse of Lord Antesh urging them on before disappearing inside, but had no opportunity to impart any orders to him, not that she expected him to follow them now with the Blessed Lady so close.

She dismounted before the tallest arch and proceeded into the gloomy interior, shouts of combat echoing through the vaulted stairs and corridors as the Cumbraelins overcame any opposition. The Queen’s Daggers spread out around her in a protective arc, Aspect Arlyn and Iltis both close on either side with swords drawn.

“If I may, Highness,” the Aspect said, pointing to a stairway nearby, leading down into the depths of this structure. Lyrna raised a questioning eyebrow and he went on, “The cages where the Garisai are kept. They may be of use.”

She nodded and gestured for him to proceed, following as he led the Daggers into the stairwell. The tumult of battle greeted her as she descended, emerging into a long rectangular chamber, lined on each side with cages. The Daggers and the Aspect were engaged in a struggle with a dozen Kuritai. The Aspect moved with the typical fluid grace of the Sixth Order, belying his years as he parried and spun in the melee, cutting down a Kuritai and blocking the blade of another who lunged at one of the Daggers. But the Kuritai were also fearsomely skilled and Lyrna forced down a surge of rage at the sight of yet more of her people falling to the blades of the slave-elite. I am just a queen.

She sent Iltis to join the struggle with a flick of her hand and looked around, her eyes alighting on a corpse lying nearby, a man of considerable girth with a stab wound to the chest, a gaoler judging by the keys dangling from his belt. She bent and tugged them free, going to the nearest cage and drawing up short at the sight of the occupant.

There was no smile on his lips now, no mischief in his eyes, his hair hung limp and greasy over a face devoid of all humour, or admiration. “So you see,” the Shield said, voice barely above a grunt, “you managed to put me in a cage after all.”

She said nothing, turning the key in the lock and hauling the cage open, standing aside with an impatient gesture as he lingered. He emerged slowly, casting a brief glance at the continuing struggle in the corridor, the Kuritai now reduced to three, backed up against the bars of the cages as hands reached from within to claw at them in desperate fury.

“This is the last war I fight for you,” the Shield said.

Lyrna tossed him the keys as the last of the Kuritai was brought down, moving to the stairwell and ascending without a backward glance.

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