“The mountain folk will not be so friendly this time.”

“Rather them than the big water.” Alturk threw a blanket across his horse’s back and settled the saddlebags over it. The Tahlessa moved with a noticeable limp these days, alleviated slightly by the salve Brother Kehlan had provided to anoint his wound, the only gift he would accept from the Merim Her. “And we have him to speak for us.” Alturk jerked his head at Lekran, bidding farewell to Frentis a few strides away.

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The former Kuritai had caused something of a stir when presented to the queen the day before, failing to bow and instead making a formal declaration of love and proposal of marriage. She had listened patiently to his lengthy list of victories, his apologies for not providing the heads as proof, and confident assurance that, should she agree to the union, he would happily kill the requisite number of enemies in less than five years, his life being forfeit should he fail.

“Only a thousand?” she had asked, breaking the tense silence that followed. “Make it three and I’ll deign to consider it. In the interim you can have a captaincy in my guard and I’ll make you ambassador to your people. Go back to the mountains and tell them the slaving days are over and we’ll pay a fair price for whatever metals they care to sell us.”

“You truly intend to brave the ice once more?” Vaelin asked Alturk.

“The shaman says it’s easier in summer months. And it will make a fine story.” He tightened a strap on the horse’s bridle and paused. “She was a good woman,” he said. “I will be proud to tell her story and have it placed in the Mahlessa’s library. For she was Lonak, and we should not forget our kind, whatever names they choose.”

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Vaelin stood back as the Tahlessa climbed onto his horse, hefting his war club. “Thank you.”

Alturk looked down at him, eyes arch beneath his heavy brows. “One day . . .” he began.

“The Lonak will sweep the Merim Her into the sea,” Vaelin finished. “I know.”

“No.” Alturk shook his head. “One day the Lonak will fade, scattered and slaughtered in war or our blood mixed with the Merim Her until our stories are forgotten. It will be so with the Seordah, the Eorhil, the ice people and the mountain folk. I see it now. The Mahlessa has been trying to shield us from our fate, we have become like stones clinging to a mountainside. But the mountains always shake, and the stones always fall.”

Vaelin watched him ride away, the Sentar closing in alongside as they took the Northern Road.

“Come with us.” He turned to find Wise Bear sitting astride Iron Claw, bone-staff in hand. “This place is bad, full of stink and heat, and too far from the green fire.”

“I’ll see you at the Mirror Sound before long,” Vaelin told him but Wise Bear just smiled, clicking something in his unfathomable tongue as Iron Claw lumbered towards the road.

Mishara came to nuzzle at his hand as Kiral stood close by and Astorek waited amidst his wolves. She offered no embrace, nor even a smile, her scar rendered near invisible in the bright sunlight. Davoka stood nearby, head lowered and arms folded. Their farewell had been lengthy and not without rancour.

“My song is varied when I look at you,” Kiral said eventually. “I hear so many different notes now, as if it doesn’t know what path you will take. Some are bright, some dark. It was not so when we first met.”

Mishara gave a final lick to his hand and bounded off in Iron Claw’s tracks, the bear issuing an irritated growl as she nipped playfully at his rump. “When I see you again I hope it will be clearer,” Vaelin told Kiral, glancing at Astorek, who gave a cheery wave, his wolves breaking into an instant chorus of howls. “I am glad your song guided you to happiness.”

“It will be good to hunt again,” she said, pausing to offer a final glance to Davoka before climbing onto her horse. He watched as the dust of their passing faded on the Northern Road, though the wolves could still be heard long after.

• • •

“I promised I would return,” Frentis said, hefting his pack. “Even though it was a promise made to a man now dead. And Aspect Arlyn has directed me to establish a joint mission house with the Fifth Order.”

Still they cling to it, Vaelin thought, following Frentis along the wharf. Despite all the knowledge gained, the Faith remains and seeks to grow.

“Besides,” Frentis continued. “I feel the queen would be more comfortable with me gone.”

Vaelin could find no argument to this point; the queen remained icy in his brother’s presence and he knew she recalled his final words to the Empress all too well. However, as the principal architect of what was fast becoming known as the Great Liberation, Frentis’s status among the freed population had increased to near-mythic proportions. Everywhere, former slaves would pause to bow to him, some running to his side with fervent thanks and offerings. Nor were all his admirers slaves; many free citizens had witnessed him fighting to save them from the Arisai.

“You know there is always a place for you in the Reaches,” Vaelin said. “Should you ever tire of the Order.”

“That day will never come, brother. I think you know that.” Frentis paused a short distance from the gangplank, glancing up at the collection of expectant faces arrayed along the ship’s rail. Sister Illian, regarding Vaelin with a somewhat stern visage. The hairy captain exchanging a ribald joke with the former slave. And mad Master Rensial, balancing on crutches and frowning at Vaelin as if seeking to recall his name. He has his own Order now, Vaelin decided, a pang of envy mingling with satisfaction in his breast.

“Kiral said you tried to save her,” Vaelin said. “The Empress.”

“We once murdered our way across an empire and killed a king,” Frentis replied. “And yet I was saved. Why not her?”

“She was monstrous. Brother Hollun estimates near half a million people died at her command.”

“She was what she was made.” His hand went to his shirt, feeling for scars that no longer existed. “As was I. In my heart I know she could have been made . . . better.”

He gave a tight smile and they embraced. “My regards to your sister,” Frentis said, drawing away and stepping onto the gangplank, pausing once more. “The dreams still come, brother. Not every night, but most. She comes to me and I find she is easier to bear now.”

He smiled again and ascended to the ship, the last of the faith-hounds jumping in excitement to lick his face as he stepped onto the deck and disappeared from sight.

• • •

The queen held court in what had been the house of Council-man Arklev, a sizeable mansion with extensive grounds that benefited from a tall surrounding wall and a large audience chamber. A small army of clerks laboured in the mansion’s many rooms to deal with the copious correspondence generated by an empire that now found itself part of a Realm. The issues were many and varied, from famine in the south to declarations of secession in the east where some Volarian military strength had contrived to linger, apparently due to the pragmatic attitude of the provincial governor who had taken his forces on protracted manoeuvres, thereby avoiding Imperial messengers bearing his death-warrant.

Over the weeks since the city’s fall the queen had faced a continual stream of petitioners, dozens at first, then hundreds. Various rebel groups sought recognition, representatives from the more quiescent towns and cities demanded protection from less placid neighbours and, most of all, merchants came with generous offers for exclusive trading concessions.

Vaelin was met at the chamber door by Lady Lieza, saved from the arena and now elevated to the queen’s side by virtue of her skill with correspondence, not to mention an intimate knowledge of the varied laws and customs of this newly conquered land.

“The queen bids you enter immediately, my lord,” the lady said in her rapidly improving Realm Tongue.

“How many today?” he asked as she bade the guards to open the door.

Lieza gave a tense smile. “Just one.”

The queen was speaking as he entered, her tone surprising in the anger it held. “And your Empress expects me to simply agree to this without negotiation?”

Lord Verniers seemed to have aged since Vaelin last saw him, though he also appeared to stand a little straighter now and displayed scant reaction to the queen’s ire. “She does you the courtesy of informing you of her actions, Highness,” he said. “And sees no scope for conflict in this matter.”

He fell silent at Vaelin’s entry, pausing to offer a shallow bow of welcome.

“Lord Vaelin,” the queen greeted him. “Lord Verniers, it seems, has gained stature since leaving us. May I present the Alpiran Ambassador to the Unified Realm.”

“Congratulations, my lord,” Vaelin told Verniers, returning the bow.

“He comes to tell me one of my own cities is now in the hands of his Empress,” the queen continued.

“Verehl was an Alpiran city long before the Volarian Empire even existed, Highness,” Verniers responded. “And I should point out its capture occurred whilst your war was still ongoing. The actions of an ally, in truth.”

“An ally would have sailed her fleet into the Cut and helped take this city, not steal another.” Lyrna rose from her throne, approaching Verniers, face tense with anger. “Does your Empress have any notion of the army I now command? Of the nature of the sword I wield? I took an empire in the space of a few months. Had I a mind to, I could take a world.”

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