“Folk from the Point,” the captain said in a softer tone. “To whom we have to thank for a snowfall at summer’s end . . .” His voice faded and the crunch of boots became the tumult of running men.
“Highness!” Hands on her shoulders, soft but insistent. “Highness! Are you hurt? Do you hear me?”
Lyrna could only groan, feeling her hands flutter once more.
“Captain Adal,” the sergeant’s voice, choked and broken by fear. “Her face . . .”
“I have eyes, Sergeant! Fetch the Tower Lord to Brother Kehlan’s tent! And bring men to carry his lordship. Say nothing of the queen. You understand me?”
More boots on the snow then she felt something warm and soft cover her from head to foot, her benumbed back and legs tingling as hands lifted her. She fell into darkness, untroubled by the jolting run of the captain as he bore her away.
• • •
He was there when she awoke the second time, her eyes tracking over a canvas roof to find him sitting beside the cot where they had placed her. Although his eyes were tinged with the same red haze she had seen the day before, his gaze was brighter now, focused, the black eyes seeming to bore into the skin of her face as he leaned forward. He burned me . . . She closed her eyes and turned away from him, stilling the sob in her chest, swallowing and composing herself before she turned back, finding him kneeling beside the cot, head lowered.
“Highness,” he said.
She swallowed and tried to speak, expecting only a faint croak to emerge but surprising herself with a somewhat strident response. “My lord Al Sorna. I trust the morning finds you well.”
His head came up, the expression sharp, the black eyes still fierce. She wanted to tell him it was rude to stare, at a queen no less, but knew it would sound churlish. Every word must be chosen, her father had said once. Each word spoken by the one who wears the crown will be remembered, often misremembered. So, my daughter, if ever you find this band of gold weighing upon your brow, never utter a single word that should not be heard from the mouth of a queen.
“Quite . . . well, Highness,” Vaelin responded, remaining on one knee as she stirred herself. To her surprise she found she could move easily. Someone had removed the dress and cloak she wore the night before, replacing the finery with a simple cotton shift that covered her from neck to ankle, the fabric pleasing on her skin as she sat and swung her legs off the cot to sit up. “Please rise,” she told Vaelin. “I find ceremony tedious at the best of times, and of scant use when we’re alone.”
He stood, eyes never leaving her face. There was a hesitancy to his movements, a slight tremble to his hands as he reached for his chair, pulling it closer to sit opposite her, his face no more than an arm’s length away, the closest they had been since that day at the Summertide Fair.
“Lord Iltis?” she asked.
“Wounded but alive,” he said. “Also frostbitten in the small finger of his left hand. Brother Kehlan was obliged to take it off. He barely seemed to notice and it was quite the struggle to stop him charging forth to look for you.”
“I was fortunate in the friends fate contrived to place in my path.” She paused, drawing breath and courage for what she had to say next. “We had little chance to talk yesterday. I know you must have many questions.”
“One in particular. There are many wild tales abroad regarding your . . . injuries. They say it happened when Malcius died.”
“Malcius was murdered, by Brother Frentis of the Sixth Order. I killed him for it.”
She saw the shock hit home as if she had slashed him with an ice-cold blade. His gaze became distant as he slumped forward, speaking in a whisper. “Wanna be a brother . . . Wanna be like you.”
“There was a woman with him,” Lyrna went on. “Like your brother, playing the role of an escaped slave, come all the way across the ocean with a grand tale of adventure. From her reaction when I killed him, I suspect their bond was close. Love can drive us to extremes.”
He closed his eyes, controlling his grief with a shudder. “Killing him would not have been easy.”
“My time with the Lonak left me skilled in certain areas. I saw him fall. After that . . .” The fire raked across her skin like the claws of a wildcat, filling her throat with the stench of her own flesh burning . . . “It seems my memory has some limits after all.”
Vaelin sat in silence for what seemed an age, lost in thought, his face even more gaunt than before. “It told me he was coming back,” he murmured finally. “But not for this.”
“I had expected you to request a different explanation,” she said, keen to draw him back from whatever memories clouded his mind. “For the way you were treated at Linesh.”
“No, Highness.” He shook his head. “I assure you I require no explanation at all.”
“The war was a grievous error. They had Malcius . . . My father’s judgement was . . . impaired.”
“I doubt King Janus’s judgement was capable of impairment, Highness. And as for the war, you did try to warn me, as I recall.”
She nodded, pausing to quiet her racing heart. I was so sure he would hate me. “That man . . .” she said. “The man with the rope.”
“His name is Weaver, Highness.”
“Weaver,” she repeated. “I assume he was an agent of whatever malignancy is behind our current difficulties. Hidden in your army, awaiting the time to strike.”
Vaelin moved back a little, puzzlement replacing his grief. “Strike, Highness?”
“He saved me,” she said. “From that thing. Then he burned me. I confess I find it curious. Though I’m learning these creatures have very strange ways.” She faltered over a catch in her throat, recalling the fire that raged as the muscular young man pulled her close, the heat of it more intense even than that dreadful day in the throne room. She raised her head, forcing herself to meet his unwavering gaze. “Is it . . . Is it worse?”
A faint sigh escaped him and he reached across the divide to grasp her hands, rough callused palms against hers. She had expected some comforting clasp before he voiced the inevitable and terrible news, but instead he gripped her wrists and raised her hands, spreading the fingers to touch them to her face.
“Don’t!” she said, trying to jerk away.
“Trust me, Lyrna,” he breathed, pressing her fingers to the flesh . . . the smooth, undamaged flesh. Her fingers began to explore of their own volition as he took his hands away, touching every inch of skin, from her brow to her chin, her neck. Where is it? she thought wildly, finding no rough, mottled scarring, provoking none of the searing pain that had continued to plague her despite the healing balms her ladies applied to the burns every day. Where is my face?
“I knew Weaver had a great gift,” Vaelin said. “But this . . .”
Lyrna sat clutching her face, caging the sobs in her breast. Every word must be chosen. “I . . .” she began, faltered then tried again. “I should . . . like you to convene a council of captains as soon . . . as soon as . . .”
Then there was only the tears and the feel of his arms around her shoulders as she rested her head on his chest and wept like a child.
• • •
The woman in the mirror ran a hand over the pale stubble covering her head, a frown creasing her smooth brow. It’ll grow back, she knew. Maybe not keep it so long this time. Lyrna turned her attention to the skin where the burns had been most severe, finding the healing hadn’t left her completely unmarked after all. There were faint pale lines visible in the flesh around her eyes, thin and irregular tracks from her brow into her hairline. She recalled something the Mahlessa’s poor, confused vessel had said that day beneath the mountain. Not there yet . . . The marks of your greatness.
Lyrna stood back from the mirror a little, angling her head to study how the marks looked in the light from the tent opening, finding they faded somewhat in direct sunlight. Something shifted in the mirror and she noticed Iltis over her shoulder, quickly averting his gaze, clutching the bandaged hand that protruded from the sleeve of his sling. He had shambled into the tent an hour ago, pushing Benten aside and collapsing to his knees before her. He had been stumbling through a plea for forgiveness when he glanced up and saw her face, falling to instant silence.
“You should be abed, my lord,” she told him.
“I . . .” Iltis had blinked, tears shining in his eyes. “I will never leave your side, Highness. I gave my word.”
Am I his new Faith? she wondered now, watching him in the mirror as he swayed a little, shaking his head and stiffening his back. The old one proved a disappointment, so now he finds devotion in me.
The tent opening parted and Vaelin entered with a bow. “The army stands ready, Highness.”
“Thank you, my lord.” She held out a hand to Orena, who stood holding the hooded fox-trimmed cloak she had chosen from the mountain of clothing Lady Reva had been overly pleased to provide. Orena came forward and draped the cloak over her shoulders whilst Murel knelt to proffer the impractical but elegant shoes for her royal feet. “Well,” she said, stepping into the shoes and pulling the hood over her face. “Let’s be about it.”