She was tempted to remind him the Faith was subject to the Crown, but decided against it. There is too much of use in what he brings me. And this is not a good time for conflict with the Faith, especially when they continue to hide so much.

“I spent so many years in search of your kind,” she said, putting the list aside. “Even risking death in the mountains to seek evidence of your existence. And yet it seems all I had to do was await the tide of history and I would be deluged with more evidence than I could ever wish.”

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Brother Caenis confined his reply to a cautious nod, his gaze averted as she continued, “It must have been difficult, living in concealment for so long. Lying to your brothers for years on end.”

“The Faith required it, Highness. I had no choice in the matter. But yes, it was a hard duty.”

“Lord Vaelin tells me you were the most loyal subject my father could ever wish for. That your enthusiasm for the desert war was great. So much so he thought your heart broken when it all came to naught.”

“Aspect Grealin was very precise in the role he wished me to play. My devotion to the Faith was so strong he felt it best masked as devotion to the King. But my brother was right, my enthusiasm for the war was true, inflamed by my Aspect who told me it was the key to securing the future of the Faith. For reasons of his own, he didn’t tell me how that security would be achieved, or my brother’s fate. I always thought Aspect Grealin’s reasoning to be infallible, he never steered me to the wrong course, he never made mistakes.”

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“Have you heard from him, since the capital fell?”

“Sadly no, Highness.” Caenis lowered his head, his voice dulling with sorrow. “Brother Lernial has a facility for hearing the thoughts of those he has met, even over great distances. We know the Aspect had taken refuge in the Urlish with a band of free fighters, the details are vague since Lernial’s gift is limited. At Alltor he took a wound to the head, waking two days later with a great scream. I hoped his words no more than a symptom of a damaged mind, but he has healed much since and his gift tells him there are no more thoughts to be heard from Aspect Grealin.”

Seeing the brother’s evident grief, she reached out to clasp his hand. “My commiserations, brother.”

He stirred in discomfort, forcing a smile. Does he fear me? One of the names on his list apparently had some facility for peering into the future and she wondered what revelations Caenis might be privy to, recalling Lord Nortah’s grim visage and Wisdom’s words from the first day on the march. I know full well what it means.

“During Brother Harlick’s questioning,” she said, moving back. “The Volarian woman we took at Alltor spoke of an Ally. Lord Vaelin seems to think you may be able to elaborate on her meaning.”

“Brother Harlick has already told you all we know, Highness. It resides in the Beyond and plots our destruction. We know not why.”

“If it exists in the place beyond death, does not that suppose it was once alive? It was once a man, or a woman?”

“It does, Highness. But as yet no member of any Order has divined how it came to be what it is, nor what malign agency could have twisted it into such evil.”

“There must be records, ancient texts describing its origin.”

“The Third Order has spent centuries gathering the oldest words written by human hand, paying considerable sums for scraps of parchment or shards of clay. The Ally is there, but only ever as a shadow, unexplained catastrophe or murder committed at the behest of a dark and vengeful spirit. Sorting truth from myth is often a fruitless task.”

His words stirred her faultless memory, calling forth a line from Lord Verniers’ Cantos of Gold and Dust: Truth is the scholar’s greatest weapon, but often also his doom. She decided a private audience with the Alpiran chronicler was overdue.

“Am I to assume,” she said to Caenis, “that your Order now requires a new Aspect?”

“There are formalities to the choosing, as you know, Highness. Until such time as a conclave can be convened, my Order remains without an Aspect. However, my brothers and sisters have affirmed their willingness to accede to my leadership in the interim.” His gaze became steady again. “Which brings me to another matter.”

“The people from the Reaches.”

“Indeed, Highness. My Order has lost many brothers and sisters in this war. Our ranks grow thin.”

“And you would take these others into the Order, against their loud objections? Lord Vaelin has been very clear on their thoughts in this regard. They follow him, not you.”

“My Order is the shield of the Gifted. Without us they would all have perished generations ago.”

“And yet, you continued to hide yourselves for decades whilst they faced discovery and death at the hands of the Fourth Order.”

“A necessary subterfuge. Most of us are discovered at an early age, Gifted children born to Gifted parents and long-time members of the Order. Not all are so fortunate, or grow to be kind of heart or immune to greed. For all our power, we have human souls like any other. Before Aspect Tendris’s ascension those Gifted found by the Fourth Order would be judged to see if they were suitable for inclusion within our ranks. Whether they joined us or not was their choice.”

“Not, I assume, if they stood outside the Faith?”

“The Seventh Order is of the Faith, Highness. That cannot change.”

Do I have another Tendris here? she pondered, seeing the implacable belief in his gaze. She had often wondered why her father didn’t have the ever-troublesome Aspect of the Fourth Order quietly poisoned by one of his many hidden agents. But even the old schemer hadn’t been immune to the Faith, or ignorant of the power it wielded.

“This is a free Realm,” she told Caenis. “That also cannot change. You may speak to the Gifted from the Reaches and offer them a place in your Order. However, if they refuse, you will let the matter drop and I will not hear it raised again during my reign, which I expect to be of considerable duration. Unless your Sister”—she consulted the list again, for show since she had memorised the contents at the first glance—“Verlia scries a different future, of course.”

“My sister’s visions are . . . infrequent,” he replied. “And require considerable interpretation. When it comes to Your Highness, so far she sees little.”

“And what little does she see?”

He straightened, once more seemingly a warrior rather than an Aspect in waiting, face set in the knowledge of coming battle. “Fire,” he said. “She sees only fire.”

• • •

She travelled with the Seordah the next day, choosing to walk as they did. Lady Dahrena accompanied her to act as interpreter, a somewhat redundant role since few of the forest folk seemed inclined to speak to them, most in fact keen to avoid looking in their direction. She could see the lady’s grief at this, the way her smile faltered as the hawk-faced warriors looked away or grunted clipped responses to her approaches. In contrast, their attitude to Lyrna seemed more one of curious bafflement rather than fear.

“Healing touch very rare in the forest,” Hera Drakil told her, the only one of his people to stay at Dahrena’s side for more than a few steps, and even then she sensed a tense reluctance in the war chief, as if every step was a test of courage. “Not known for many generations.”

“Do your people have books?” Lyrna asked, her thoughts straying to the Mahlessa’s vast library under the Mountain. “Records of the time before the Marelim Sil?”

“Books?” the war chief frowned.

“Virosra san elosra dural,” Dahrena told him. Lyrna’s Seordah was markedly less accomplished than her Lonak, but she had enough for a rough translation. The words that cage the spirit.

“No,” the Seordah told Lyrna. “No books for the Seordah. Not now, not in the before times. All is spoken and remembered. Only the spoken word is true.”

Lyrna saw Dahrena hesitate then say something in the Seordah tongue, too fast to easily translate and rich in words beyond Lyrna’s knowledge. Whatever their meaning, the words were enough to darken Hera Drakil’s expression and he turned away, striding off through the disordered ranks of his people.

“Is he offended?” Lyrna asked Dahrena.

The lady’s face was drawn in sadness as she watched the war chief walk away. “Only the spoken word is true,” she said. “I told him the truth. He didn’t like it.”

• • •

The army swelled as it moved east, hidden bands of fugitives and escaped slaves emerging from forest and cave to join them or beg food. Lyrna made sure all were provided for, even those reluctant to join their ranks, though these were few in number. There were numerous Realm Guard stragglers among the new recruits, eager for a return to regiments that were now mostly extinct. At her request Brother Caenis had stepped down as Lord Marshal of the Realm Guard contingent, though his decision had caused some discord in the ranks. Regardless of any Dark affliction, many still saw him as a saviour, the fearless commander who led them to deliverance after calamitous defeat. Others were less accepting, mainly the men who had served under Lady Reva at Cumbrael and the fugitives found on the march, leading to a fair amount of loud quarrelling and even a few fist-fights. A formal delegation of sergeants had gone to Vaelin requesting Caenis’s reinstatement and the Battle Lord had been obliged to calm their anger by elevating one of their own in the brother’s place, a veteran sergeant of stocky build with a face like scarred leather.

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