“And a world to fall if we cannot forge common purpose.” She turned back to Fornella. “There is a man in Brother Caenis’s Order who can hear lies. You will state to him your willingness to travel to Alpira with Lord Verniers where you will tell the Emperor all you have told me. If he hears a lie, Honoured Citizen . . .”

“He will not, Highness.” Fornella’s relief was palpable, her years showing again in the sag of her mouth. “I will do as you ask.”

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“Very well.” Lyrna looked at Verniers, summoning her regretful smile. “And you my lord? Will you do this for me?”

“No, Highness,” he replied, the even tone of his voice and narrowness of his gaze making it clear her smile was a wasted effort. This one sees far too much.

“I will do it,” Verniers went on, “for my Emperor, who is great in his wisdom and benevolence.”

• • •

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She stood on the roof of the harbour-master’s house to watch the ships leave, seeing Vaelin’s farewell to Dahrena, finding herself unable to look away even though she felt like an intruder. He held her for such a long time. The small woman moved back from him, exchanged farewells with Lady Alornis, Lord Adal, Brother Kehlan and Sanesh Poltar, then turned and walked the gangplank to the Red Falcon, Ship Lord Ell-Nurin greeting her with a bow. As the ship made for the harbour mouth, Lyrna wondered if there was any significance in the fact that not a single Seordah had come to see her off.

Vaelin stayed to watch the ship sail away, responding to his sister’s embrace with a slight shake of the head before she and the others drifted away. After a while Lord Verniers and the Volarian woman arrived and she saw him escort them to the ship. She was still puzzled over the interest he had shown in choosing the vessel to carry them to the empire, but he was ever a man of secrets.

She turned as Orena climbed onto the roof bearing a fur-trimmed cloak. “The wind is harsh today, Highness.”

Lyrna nodded her thanks as the lady placed the cloak over her shoulders, still watching him as he stared after the departing scholar. “Murel says he’s the most frightening man she’s ever met,” Orena mused softly.

“Then there is wisdom in the young,” Lyrna said. “Does he frighten you, my lady?”

Orena shrugged; of all her attendants, she was the least given to formality when they were alone, something Lyrna found sufficiently refreshing to forgive her often-wayward tongue. “Some men are brutes, some are kind. Every once in a while you meet one who’s both.” She straightened then gave a formal bow. “Lord Marshal Travick craves an audience, Highness. It seems his new recruits are squabbling over what to name their regiments.”

“I’ll be there directly, my lady.”

Alone again, she waited and watched as he turned back from the harbour, walking away with a purposeful gait. It wasn’t jealousy, she thought. I can permit you no distractions, my lord.

• • •

She was awoken in the small hours by Murel’s soft but insistent hand. There had been no dreams tonight and wrenching herself from an untroubled sleep birthed a foul mood. “What is it?” she snapped.

“Lord Vaelin is downstairs, Highness. With Captain Belorath. It seems he bears an important message from the Isles.”

Lyrna ordered her to fetch a bowl of cold water and plunged her face into it, gasping at the instant headache as the lingering tiredness vanished. She dressed in her simplest robe and managed to summon a welcoming visage by the time she descended the steps to her makeshift throne room.

Captain Belorath matched Vaelin’s bow though his face betrayed his discomfort at finding himself in a servile position to a woman once his captive, a captive he had come close to killing. After the Shield took over the monstrous Volarian flagship, Belorath had resumed command of the Sea Sabre, sailing back to the Isles for repairs and to impart news of the great victory at Alltor. Also, Lyrna had hoped, to fetch more ships for the fleet.

“My lord, Captain,” she greeted them, settling onto her throne. “I trust the news is grave enough to justify the lateness of the hour.”

“Indeed, Highness,” Vaelin said, nodding to Belorath.

The captain’s face betrayed a certain reluctance as he spoke, the tone clipped and careful. “As Your Highness knows, the Ship Lords have been keen to ensure the security of the Isles through . . . certain discreet measures . . .”

“You’ve had spies planted in this Realm for years, Captain,” Lyrna broke in. “A fact not unknown to the late King or myself.”

“Yes, Highness. Most have fallen silent since the invasion; however, we have continued to receive occasional intelligence from one in Varinshold.”

“The one who warned the Volarian fleet had sailed,” Lyrna recalled.

“Quite so. Upon returning to the Isles I found another message had arrived from the same source.” Belorath pulled a scroll from his belt and came forward to hand it to her. “It’s addressed to you, Highness.”

Lyrna unfurled the scroll, finding the words scant, but enough to make her wonder if, for all her vaunted intelligence, she wasn’t just a fool after all.

Lyrna—

Attack on Winterfall Eve. Avoid the walls if you can. Aspects E & D in Blackhold. I’m sorry.

—Alucius

CHAPTER TEN

Alucius

“Don’t lie to me, little poet!” Darnel glowered at him, his voice low and filled with dire promise, the recently stitched cut below his eye threatening to split as he snarled. “They must have told you something.”

Alucius spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “No more than regret at the passing of a brother in the Faith, my lord. Though I did sense a certain satisfaction from Aspect Dendrish at finally becoming the fattest man in Asrael.”

Darnel rose from his throne, his hand going to his sword, face red with fury. He halted when Division Commander Mirvek gave a warning cough and Alucius’s father stiffened, stepping closer to his son’s side. Darnel’s gaze swept around them all, his hand quivering on his sword-handle. His recent flight from the Red Brother and the news that his fief was now raised in rebellion had done little to improve his temperament. Also Mirvek’s increasing disregard and deference to his Battle Lord provided ample evidence of Darnel’s burgeoning irrelevance. Only a handful of his knights remained and there were no more to be had in his fief. Alucius wondered why the Volarian didn’t simply have Darnel killed and assume command himself, but the man was clearly a soldier to his core and would continue to follow orders until contrary word came from the Council. Darnel was their appointed vassal and Mirvek lacked the authority to depose him, however useless he had become.

“They know of more Gifted,” Darnel told the Volarian, failing to keep a desperate note from his voice. “I’m sure of it.”

Not so much a fool he doesn’t know his stock has fallen, Alucius realised, watching Darnel fidget. Seeking to buy security with the Aspects’ knowledge.

“The Aspects are precious to all those still free in these lands,” Alucius’s father said. “Harming them in any way invites further rebellion.”

“His people rebel in any case,” Mirvek pointed out in a reflective tone. “These Aspects of yours are intriguing. The warrior Aspect intriguing enough the Council ordered him shipped back to the empire the day he was captured. Questioning them could prove fruitful.”

Alucius didn’t like the weight the Volarian placed on the word “questioning.” “If you’ll allow me more time,” he said. “I’m sure they will prove more accommodating. Aspect Dendrish in particular would probably spill every secret in his head for a full dinner.”

Mirvek failed to laugh, regarding him with a narrow gaze. Up until now his attitude to his slave general’s son had been one of vague contempt, but now Alucius knew he was seeing him with uncomfortable clarity. “My most able questioner was taken by your Red Brother,” the Volarian said. “He could have had them talking in seconds. I have sent for a replacement, arriving with our reinforcements by the week’s end. You have until their arrival.”

Alucius replied with a grateful bow, backing away as the Volarian dismissed him with a flick of his hand. He could feel Darnel’s eyes on him as he made his way from the throne room and once again wondered at his complete absence of fear.

• • •

“Well,” Alucius said as Sister Cresia panted in his ear, her naked form atop him, trembling a little. “That was unexpected.”

She levered herself off him, turning her back and reaching for her blouse. “I haven’t spent my entire life skulking here,” she said. “I was bored. Don’t fall in love with me, poet.”

He forced away an image of Alornis’s face, hiding guilt in a laugh. “Trust me, sister, I need no such instruction.”

Sister Cresia shot him a sharp glance and rose from the pile of furs where she made her bed. She had said nothing when he made his way down here once again, inclining her head at a side passage and leading him to her chamber, shrugging her clothes off and standing naked with a questioning look. Alucius had glanced at Twenty-Seven standing in the passage outside, his blank gaze seemingly fixed on the fine brickwork. Cresia’s brother and sister were off somewhere in the nighttime streets above, gathering knowledge and supplies she said, though he had brought sufficient to last them until Winterfall Eve, after that a lack of provisions was likely to be the least of their concerns.

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