“Highness . . .” Vaelin began but she waved him to silence, moving away and sighing in frustration. “I find, Lord Verniers, it would be best if you came back tomorrow, when my temper will be better suited to diplomacy. Lord Vaelin, you will stay. We have military matters to discuss.”

Vaelin touched a hand to Verniers’ sleeve as he bowed and made for the door. “The Volarian woman?”

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Verniers took a deliberate step back from him, face unchanged as he said, “She died.”

“I’m sorry. We had intelligence there was an agent of the Ally in Alpira . . .”

“It died too.” Verniers bowed again and walked from the chamber.

“What do you think?” Vaelin turned to find the queen greeting him with a smile, her anger abruptly vanished. “A little overdramatic, perhaps?”

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“I’m sure Your Highness knows best how to deal with an ambassador.”

“Actually, it’s a skill I’m having to learn with some rapidity. So, do you think we should retake Verehl?”

“The decision is not mine to make, Highness. And you have a Battle Lord to advise on the practicalities of such an undertaking.”

“I don’t need Al Hestian to tell me it would be impossible, not for another year at least. Verehl sits on the southern coast, a fairly unpleasant place by all accounts, surrounded by jungle and subject to yearly storms of legendary ferocity. Its only value comes from the spice trade, contributing less than one-half of one-hundredth to the Imperial treasury. I suspect Empress Emeren seeks to test me, baiting a trap to see if I’ll bite.”

“Given the animosity between our peoples, a city of little value seems a small price to pay to heal the rift.”

She gave a small laugh, shaking her head and moving back to her throne. “Always the peacemaker, even now.”

“I hoped Your Highness had called me here to discuss my petition.”

“Indeed I did, though it suited me to add a little theatre for Lord Verniers.” She settled onto the throne, accepting a cup of water from Iltis. “You want to go home.”

“With my sister, yes.”

Lyrna’s face clouded a little as she drank. “Lady Alornis is . . . improving I hear.”

“She has nightmares every time she sleeps and, when awake, tinkers constantly with the engines she built on your behalf. They grow more deadly by the day, she tells me. She seems keen to see them at work. I am not.”

“We agreed this war had to be won, Vaelin, and we all gave much in the winning. Your sister more than most, for which I’m sorry. But she is a grown woman and I never forced her to any action.”

“Nevertheless, my petition stands, and I request your answer.”

She turned to Iltis, handing him the cup and requesting he leave them alone. “You will require a new commander for the North Guard,” she said when the Lord Protector had withdrawn. “Lord Adal has petitioned to be released from your service.”

Vaelin nodded in grim acceptance. Imparting news of Dahrena’s death to Adal had been a hard trial, made worse by the man’s rigid composure and clipped response to every question. Though the accusation on his face as he bowed and withdrew was plain enough. She would have lived if she had loved him instead.

“I trust you will find him suitable employment,” he told the queen.

“Indeed. I’m minded to create an East Guard for my new dominions. War has left us with many able hands to fill the ranks and who better to command them?”

“A fine choice, Highness. I would request Lord Orven as his replacement.”

“As you wish, subject to his agreement. I believe he has earned the right to choose his commands.”

Lyrna rose once again and went to the window. Council-man Arklev’s home stood on a hill offering a fine view of the harbour, still crowded with the fleet, though somewhat diminished now. The Shield had sailed away two days after the city’s fall, taking with him perhaps a tenth of the Meldeneans. There were rumours of a fractious dispute with the Fleet Lord, of challenges made and sabres drawn, though Lord Ell-Nurin seemed unhurt when Vaelin next saw him, bowing low to the queen as she gave him a sword, and a grant of land on the south Asraelin coast.

“Do you remember the night we met?” she asked.

“You surprised me, I threw a knife at you.”

“Yes.” She smiled. “I kept it. It saved my life in fact.”

“I’m glad.”

“There was a question I asked you then, one I won’t ask you again, since both question and answer are now redundant. But, I’ve always been curious, did you ever regret saying no?”

Her hair was fully grown now, he saw, longer than it had ever been, a golden cascade in the light from the window. And her face, the porcelain perfection enhanced by the few small lines of experience and the keen intellect shining from her eyes, no longer subject to any constraint.

“Of course,” he lied. “What man wouldn’t?”

• • •

Weaver stood among the Politai, speaking in low but earnest tones as they clustered around. They were more animated than Vaelin had seen them before, many speaking up to interrupt, faces betraying distinct emotions, ranging from sadness to anger. The more recently freed stood on the fringes, frowning in bafflement but keeping close to their brothers. Frentis said it was always the way with them, an inability to be alone or tolerate the company of those not of their kind.

Did we free something? Vaelin wondered. Or unleash it?

After more than an hour of discussion Weaver finally called a halt and the Politai began to disperse back to the surrounding houses they occupied. This district had been thoroughly depopulated by the Arisai, leaving copious empty dwellings, although the former Varitai chose to live a dozen or more to each house.

“They didn’t seem happy,” Vaelin observed as Weaver came to take a seat on the bench next to him.

“They know there are other Varitai still in bondage in some places,” the healer replied. “Freeing all of their brothers has become something of a sacred mission.”

“One the queen has given her word to complete.”

“Without me.”

“Her reasoning is sound . . .”

“And I don’t dispute it. The Ally’s gift is a terrible thing.”

Vaelin’s gaze tracked over Weaver’s sturdy frame, knowing he now looked upon possibly the most powerful being in the world. He found some comfort from his expression, as open and free of calculation as he had ever been. “Have you used it?” he asked. “Since the arena.”

Weaver shook his head. “I feel it though, roiling away inside me like a simmering pool.”

“And Erlin’s gift?”

“Time alone will tell. What accommodations has the queen arranged for me in the Realm?”

“The war left many estates vacant, you will have a wide selection to choose from.”

“An honour indeed, to choose one’s own prison.”

Vaelin said nothing, unwilling to voice a lie. “The ship leaves with the morning tide,” he said, getting to his feet and offering his hand. Weaver blinked in surprise. Since the Arena, few who knew of the events there had been willing to talk to him, and certainly not risk his touch. His expression remained unchanged, but his voice held a new edge of certainty as he took the hand and shook it.

“I won’t be there to meet it, my lord. As I suspect you know, since you chose to come here alone with no guards to enforce the Queen’s Word.”

Vaelin gripped his hand tighter, holding it for a moment longer before letting go. “Where will you go?”

“There are a few corners of the world Erlin never visited. And I’ve a yen to hear the song of the Jade Princess with my own ears.”

“You have Erlin’s memories?”

“In a manner of speaking. Much of his knowledge resides in me, but not how he acquired it. So much slips away as the years pass.”

“So you also have the Ally’s knowledge?”

Weaver’s expression became markedly more clouded. “More than I would like.”

“He spoke of the wolf. I would know what he meant.”

“He meant . . .” Weaver frowned, struggling to find the right words. “He meant there’s a reason why you’re willing to let me go. He meant that we are all, regardless of what gifts we may possess, very small and brief lights upon this earth. The difference is I am happy to accept it, he never was.”

He got to his feet and started back towards the house he shared with the Politai. “Please give my regards to the queen,” he said, pausing at the door, “and, when she sends assassins to follow my trail, tell her to be sure to choose well.”

• • •

He watched Reva from the bow of the ship, needing no song to discern what passed between her and Lady Lieza as they embraced on the quay. The girl drew back, head bowed and fighting tears as she moved to the queen’s side. Reva made her final bows and ascended to the ship with her tall guardsman at her back, the assembled Realm Guard lifting their weapons in salute and voicing a shout that echoed across the harbour.

“Louder than the one you got, brother,” Nortah observed with a grin.

“I think she earned it.”

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