“My lot didn’t even come to see me off. Probably still squabbling over their list of rightful demands for the queen.”
“Yes, they want to choose their own officers, an end to land ownership and the right to appoint the queen’s councillors. Can you imagine? Faith save us from the newly freed.”
Vaelin joined Reva at the stern as the ship made its way through the narrow harbour mouth, the walled moles thick with cheering people, their words meaningless to him but she was able to discern a few. “Livella is reborn,” she murmured, watching the torrent of flowers arc into their wake. “Perhaps Varulek will get his gods back after all.”
“Varulek?” he asked.
“A dead man, and servant to dead gods.” She surveyed the cheering throng as they drew away, the helmsman taking them into the Cut as the captain ordered the sails for a westward tack, towards the distant ocean. “Not long ago many of these would have been screaming for my death in the arena. Now they rejoice at my survival.”
“They are not alone.” Vaelin glanced at the young guardsman, standing at a respectful distance, his gaze rarely straying from the Blessed Lady. “It seems you have your own Iltis.”
“I offered Guardsman Varesh a boon for his service.” Reva gave the youth a somewhat strained smile. “All he asked was to stay at my side. I’m minded to find other employment for him when we get home.”
Vaelin turned to regard the three hulking troop-ships now pulling away from the quayside, each laden with Cumbraelins. A few had elected to stay, lured by the generous pay the queen offered for experienced archers, but most chose to follow the Blessed Lady home. “Lord Antesh has already begun to quote from the Eleventh Book I hear.”
“He has recovered much of his fervour since Alltor,” she said. “And more since coming here. I think I preferred him jaded. The world might be a better place were it ruled by disappointed souls.”
“Shouldn’t you write that down? The Blessed Lady’s wisdom should not be wasted on a heretic.”
She gave short laugh then lowered her gaze, her voice taking on a sorrowful pitch. “I told Antesh it had all been a great lie. Never once in my life have I heard the Father’s voice. Not during the siege and not here. He said, ‘You are the Father’s voice, my lady.’”
Her eyes went to Alornis, busy tending to the engine on the starboard rail. Apparently it could spit flame, with fearsome results if the accounts Vaelin had heard were true. Alornis seemed incapable of leaving it alone, her deft hands removing the various plates to explore its mysterious insides, her face rapt, uncaring of anything else.
“I’d happily tip that thing into the sea,” he said. “But these devices of hers are the only thing that brings any life to her eyes.”
“Then let’s discover why.” Reva went to crouch at Alornis’s side, watching her work for a moment before asking a question. Vaelin expected his sister to ignore her, as she often ignored him, but instead she seemed to become enthused, hands moving with passionate animation as she pointed to the machine’s innards, explaining each pipe and spigot in detail as Reva nodded encouragement.
He watched them for a time, seeing his sister relax, even voicing a laugh or two, then found his gaze drawn inexorably to the canvas-wrapped bulk lashed to the mainmast. The queen’s instructions had been clear, lacking any ambiguity, but still he found the questions plagued him. What do we do with it?
• • •
“I couldn’t save him, brother!”
He had been called from his cabin by the third mate to find Nortah reeling about the deck, wine bottle in hand. The swell had increased as night fell and they drew into what the sailors called “the Boraelin mountains,” a region renowned for tall waves and vicious storms. The wind was certainly harsh tonight, though not quite a gale it still managed to lash the deck with hard, driving rain.
“Killed a dozen of those red bastards,” Nortah railed, “fought the Aspect himself, and still I couldn’t save him!”
He stumbled as the deck lurched anew, staggering towards the port rail and nearly tipping over. “Stop this!” Vaelin caught hold of him, drawing him back and catching hold of the rigging.
“Killing.” Nortah laughed, lifting his arms and shouting to the rain-filled sky. “Only thing I was ever good for. Just cos you hate a thing doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it. Wasn’t enough though. He still died.”
“He died saving you,” Vaelin told him, holding him tight as he sought to break free. “So you could see your wife again. So you could hold your children again.”
Nortah subsided at the mention of his family, head slumping as the wine bottle fell from his limp hand and rolled away. “They killed my cat,” he mumbled. “Have to go home without my cat.”
“I know, brother.” Vaelin patted his soaked head and tried to pull him upright. A cloaked figure emerged from belowdecks, coming to his side to assist in lifting the now-passed-out Lord Marshal. Together they took him below, laying him in his cabin.
“My thanks,” Vaelin offered to the cloaked figure.
“From what I gather,” Erlin said, drawing back his hood, “this man deserves a better end than falling drunk from a ship’s deck.”
“That he does.”
They left Nortah snoring and sat together in a corner of the hold, Vaelin knowing he would gain scant rest tonight with the wind howling at such a pitch. He watched as Erlin rubbed at the small of his back, groaning a little. “This will take quite a bit of getting used to,” he said.
“Your first back-ache?”
“No doubt the first of many.” Erlin smiled and Vaelin concealed a wince at the changes in his face. The beating had left him with a crooked nose and somewhat misshapen jaw, though his eyes seemed to shine brighter, like a young man in fact.
“Have you decided?” Vaelin asked.
“Cara invited me to live with them when we get to the Reaches,” Erlin said. “Though I’m not sure Lorkan appreciated the gesture. Newlyweds need privacy after all. I do hear tell of a hut on the beach in need of an occupant though.”
“After all your travelling, you will be content with a hut on the beach?”
“For a time. I find I have a lot to think on.”
“Do you remember? When he . . . took you. Were you aware?”
Erlin remained silent for some time, his newly bright eyes dimmed somewhat, and when he spoke Vaelin knew he voiced a lie. “No. It’s all just a fog, like a bad dream best forgotten.”
“So you have no notion why it spared you? Why the stone didn’t take you when it took the Ally?”
“The Ally had touched it once before, I hadn’t. Perhaps it knew the difference.”
“He spoke of something looking back . . .”
“He spoke of many things, brother.” There was an edge to Erlin’s voice now, a patent weariness of questions. “And all best forgotten.” He brightened, slapping his knees and rising. “I think I shall seek out a sailor with some wine to spare. Care to join me?”
Vaelin smiled and shook his head. He watched Erlin disappear into the shadowed recesses of the hold and wondered if persuading Lyrna not to kill the ancient and now-giftless man would one day prove to be something he regretted.
• • •
“The future is ever uncertain,” she had said at the docks, fighting anger at the non-appearance of Weaver, an anger that was all too genuine today. “Find your deepest mine and bury it there, the location to be known only to you and myself. The Orders are never to learn of this thing’s existence.”
He waited until the captain advised him they had reached the deepest part of the Boraelin, whereupon he told him to trim his sails. It was only a little past dawn and he was alone on deck save for the night watch. They looked on in bafflement as he set aside the sledgehammer he had borrowed from the ship’s carpenter and cut away the rope binding the canvas. It duly fell away to reveal the smooth, unblemished surface of the black stone. He stepped back, hefting the hammer and lifting it above his head.
It was Alornis, huddled in a blanket near the hold, staring at him, eyes wide and appalled.
“I have to,” he told her.
She frowned, puzzled, then shook her head. “Not like that you won’t.” She pointed an implacable finger at him. “Don’t move until I return.”
He watched her disappear below, standing uncertainly with hammer in hand as the crew looked on, curiosity or amusement on their faces.
“I’d never be able to face Master Benril again,” Alornis said, reemerging from the stairwell with her leather satchel on her shoulder. “Letting you break a stone like that.”
She placed her satchel on the deck and undid the straps, choosing a small hammer and a narrow iron chisel from the rows of tools.
“Don’t touch it,” Vaelin told her as she approached the stone.
“I know.” She made a face at him. “Reva told me.”
She placed the chisel in the centre of the stone, tapping it until a small crack appeared in the surface then delivering a series of well-placed blows with the hammer until no more than a few inches protruded. She retrieved two more chisels from the satchel and repeated the process, placing them on either side of the central peg and hammering away until the stone featured a crack across its surface about a half inch wide.