“I doubt that, Aspect,” Alucius said. “It seems Master Grealin has truly met his end, though in rather strange circumstances.” He went on to relate the tale Darnel had told him, complete with the Dark powers attributed to the fallen Master of the Sixth Order.

Dendrish’s response was swift, immediate and far too practised to be anything but a lie. “Utter nonsense. In fact I am appalled a man of learning could lend any credence to such lurid piffle.”

Advertisement

“Quite so, Aspect.” Alucius fished inside his sack and brought out a fresh volume, tossing it onto the bed. One of his more prized finds, Brother Killern’s The Voyage of the Swift Wing. He had intended to annoy the Aspect with an annotated copy of Lord Al Avern’s Complete and Unbiased History of the Church of the World Father, but felt the plump scholar’s spirits might be in need of a lift. Dendrish, however, didn’t even glance at the book, sitting and staring at nothing as Alucius begged leave and departed the cell.

Aspect Elera was more careful in her response, commenting briefly about her scant acquaintance with the late master before expressing her deep appreciation for the fresh medicine and new books. Her tone, however, became markedly more intent when she asked him, “And the wine, Alucius?”

“I have yet to seek it out, Aspect.”

She met his gaze, speaking in a surprisingly harsh whisper. “Then be sure to slake your thirst soon, good sir.”

-- Advertisement --

• • •

With Darnel and much of the Renfaelin knights gone off to hunt down the elusive Red Brother, Varinshold was even more quiet than usual. Most of the Volarian garrison were Varitai, never particularly talkative, and the smaller contingent of Free Swords kept to themselves in the northern quarter mansion houses they had transformed into barracks. The streets, such as they were, remained unpatrolled for the most part since there was hardly a soul left to police. Most slaves had been shipped across the ocean weeks ago and those that remained were fully occupied fulfilling Darnel’s vision of his great palace, one in particular providing the most valued labour, so valued in fact that Darnel had threatened to sever the hand of any overseer who touched him with the slightest kiss of a whip.

Visiting Master Benril was not one of Alucius’s favourite obligations, a task to be undertaken as infrequently as his conscience allowed, usually when images of Alornis loomed largest in his mind. He found the old master hard at work on the western wall, a ragged and burnt eyesore in the aftermath of the city’s fall, marking the apex of the palace’s destruction, now covered in fresh marble from end to end. Benril was accompanied by a portly, balding slave, older than most but spared execution by virtue of his skill with stone, and his expert knowledge of where to find more. He rarely spoke more than a few words, the overseers having been given no injunction about applying the whip to his back, but revealed a highborn’s cultured vowels when he did. Alucius had yet to learn the man’s name, and in truth avoided doing so. Slaves could never be relied upon to live long enough to make any association worthwhile.

“Coming along rather nicely, Master,” he greeted Benril, calling up to the second tier of the scaffolding where the sculptor laboured to craft the great relief depicting Darnel’s glorious victory over the Realm Guard.

Benril left off hammering to glance over his shoulder. He offered no greeting but gave an irritated flick of his hand, granting leave for Alucius to ascend the ladder. Alucius always marvelled at the speed with which they worked, the portly slave guiding a rasp over recently completed carvings as Benril continued to birth more from virgin stone. Only one month into Darnel’s vainglorious project and it was a quarter complete, the finely carved figures emerging from the stone in accordance with the vast cartoon Benril had unrolled before the Fief Lord’s approving eye.

Perhaps his greatest work, Alucius mused, watching Benril chisel away at the heroic profile of a Renfaelin knight in combat with a cringing Realm Guard. And it’s all a lie.

“What is it?” Benril asked, leaving off from his carving for a moment, reaching for a nearby earthenware bottle.

“Merely my regular assurance that both Aspects remain alive and unmolested,” Alucius replied. It had been the master’s price that day they dragged him before the Fief Lord, merely raising an eyebrow at Darnel’s promises of torture or swift execution, only becoming compliant when his threats turned to the Aspects. For all his disdain for custom and propriety, Benril remained a man of the Faith.

The master nodded, drinking from the bottle and passing it to the slave. The man cast a cautious eye at Twenty-Seven before taking a swift drink, returning to his work with determined haste. Alucius retrieved the bottle, removing the stopper and sniffing the contents. Just water.

“I hear tell of a hidden stock of wine,” he told Benril. “If you would care for some.”

“Wine dulls the senses and makes the mediocre artist imagine himself a great one.” Benril spared him a hard glance before returning to his work. “A truism with which you are intimately acquainted, I believe.”

“It has been, as ever, a great pleasure, Master.” Alucius gave an unheeded bow and returned to the ladder, pausing to cast an eye over Benril’s bony but still-strong back, his rope-thin, muscle-knotted arms moving in expert rhythm as they worked the stone. “There was one other thing,” he added. “It seems Master Grealin had taken up with a band of fighters in the forest. You recall Master Grealin? Great, fat fellow who minded the Sixth Order’s stores.”

“What of it?” Benril asked, continuing to chisel away.

Alucius kept his eyes on Benril’s hands. “He died.”

It was barely a slip, merely the slightest irregularity left in a carving of wondrous execution. But it was too deep to sand away, a timeless testament to a brief lapse of concentration.

“Many have died,” Benril said, not turning. “With many more to come when Lord Al Sorna gets here.”

The portly slave dropped his rasp, casting a fearful glance at Twenty-Seven before quickly retrieving it. Nearby, one of the overseers turned towards them, his hand going to the coiled whip at his side.

“Please have a care, Master Benril,” Alucius told him. “I take no pleasure in the prospect of describing your death to the woman I love.”

Benril still refused to turn, his hands once again moving with the same effortless precision. “Don’t you have some wine to find?”

• • •

It took several attempts before he identified the correct ruin, unearthing a blackened wooden sign from beneath a pile of tumbled brick, the lettering burnt to nothing but the crudely rendered image of a boar visible through the scorching. “Yes,” he agreed with Twenty-Seven. “I am fully aware this is probably a fool’s errand, thank you. Help me shift this stone.”

They worked for over an hour before he found it, clearing rubble away from the floorboards to reveal only a faint outline under the dust; a rectangle about a yard square. “A bottle or two of Wolf’s Blood would indeed be very welcome,” he told Twenty-Seven, wiping the dust away to reveal the hidden entrance, his fingers probing the edges. “Too tight a fit. Use your sword to prize it open.”

Twenty-Seven went about the task with his usual unhesitant obedience, jamming his short sword into the edge of the door and levering it up, the strain of the effort plain in the bulge of muscle on his arms, though his face remained as impassive as ever. Alucius took hold of the edge of the door as it came free, hauling it open all the way, revealing a horizontal drop into blank darkness.

He had had the foresight to bring a lamp and lit it now, then lay flat to lower it into the opening, the yellow glow illuminating only a tunnel of rough stone, free of any telltale gleam of glass.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t fancy it much either, my friend. But a man must follow his passions, don’t you think?” He moved back from the hole and waved at the slave. “You first.”

Twenty-Seven stared back and said nothing.

“Faith!” Alucius muttered, handing him the lamp. “If I die down there, they’ll whip you to death. You know that, I trust.”

He took hold of the edge of the hole and lowered himself in, hanging from his fingertips then dropping into the blackness below, finding the air musty and stale. Twenty-Seven landed nimbly at his side a second later, the lamplight illuminating a tunnel of uninviting length.

“There best be some Cumbraelin red at the end of this,” Alucius said. “Otherwise I shall be forced to say some very harsh words to Aspect Elera. Some very harsh words indeed.”

They followed the tunnel for no more than the span of a few minutes, though the echoing footfalls and absolute dark beyond the limit of the lamp’s meagre glow made it seem considerably longer, as did Alucius’s growing conviction that there was no wine to be found here. “I don’t care what you insist upon,” he hissed at Twenty-Seven. “I will not simply turn back now.”

Finally the tunnel opened out into a broad circular chamber, Alucius drawing up short at the fine brickwork contrasting with the rough stone walls of the tunnel. The chamber was ringed by seven stone pillars and shallow steps descending to a flat base in the centre of which stood a long table. Alucius went to the table, playing the lamp over the surface and finding it free of dust.

-- Advertisement --