“They’re traitors,” Alucius had said, a little too loud from the way the man winced and gestured for him to speak softer. “The whole family,” he went on, knowing he was far too drunk and not caring. “Janus sent my brother to die in the Martishe, had my father slaughter thousands for nothing. Abandoned my friend to the Alpirans. She did that, not Janus. It was her.”

The Meldenean gave a slow nod. “We know,” he said. “But we’d like to know more.”

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They offered him money, which he refused, proud of himself for being sober when he did so. “Just tell me what you want.”

Spying, he discovered, was an absurdly easy occupation. Few people ever see more than they wish to, he decided, having accepted an invitation to read poetry to a gaggle of merchants’ wives, rich in gossip and fat with information regarding the new trade routes their husbands had been obliged to forge since the war. They saw a handsome young poet, tragic hero of a tragic war, wilted obligingly at his verse and proved very helpful when he asked for likely investment opportunities. “For my father, you understand. He needs something to occupy him these days. Peacetime is such a trial for a military man.”

He would go to inns frequented by the Realm Guard, finding welcome among the veterans who had been at Linesh with Vaelin, embittered cynics to a man and talkative when sufficiently full of ale. He made it known he was available for commissions, penning love poems for smitten young nobles and eulogies for the funerals of rich men, gaining access to the wealthy and the powerful in the process. His Meldenean contact was happy with his work and provided the pigeons to speed delivery of his intelligence, and the dagger should he ever face discovery.

“I’m not an assassin,” Alucius told him, eyeing the dagger with distaste.

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“It’s for you,” the Meldenean told him with a grin before walking from the wineshop. Alucius never saw him again. The following week came the summons from the King and his order to spy on Alornis, after which he found his enthusiasm for his new occupation began to wane. Being with her dimmed his anger, made the sting of betrayal less acute. He continued to gather information, mostly trade gossip of little value, sending the birds off and knowing, should he include his notice of retirement among the messages, the Meldeneans were more likely to offer a blade than a pension. As it turned out, the Volarians made such worries redundant.

Alucius stood with Twenty-Seven some ten yards behind his father, who had positioned himself outside Darnel’s coterie of sycophant knights. “Impressive beast, isn’t it?” he asked, moving to stand on his father’s left.

Lakrhil Al Hestian nodded as the ship came closer, Alucius seeing two smaller vessels following in its broad wake. “Apparently it’s the sister ship to their Stormspite,” his father said. “I forget the name. Mirvek thinks it a sign of the Ruling Council’s continued faith in his command, bringing more reinforcements than expected.”

Alucius remembered the Stormspite as a brooding monster that had sat in the harbour for days until General Tokrev sailed it off to Alltor, never to return. Picking out details as its sister came closer, he was struck by the similarity between them; even for ships built to the same pattern the resemblance was striking, though the Volarians were a people greatly fond of uniformity.

“Are your preparations complete?” he asked. “All made ready to bleed Lord Vaelin’s army white?”

“Hardly,” his father grunted. “The Free Swords are lazy when not set to pillaging, and the Varitai little use in labour. Give them a shovel and they just stare at it. Still, it seems we’ll shortly have more hands to complete the task.”

“Could you have held Marbellis? If you had had this much to work with?”

Lakrhil turned to him with a quizzical expression; it was an unspoken understanding that Marbellis was a subject neither of them wanted to discuss. “No,” he said. There must have been something in Alucius’s expression, some vestige of his intent, for he leaned closer, speaking softly. “You don’t need to be here, Alucius. And you’ve yet to produce a single useful word from the Aspects.” His eyes flicked to Darnel. “I can’t protect you forever.”

Alucius’s gaze went to his stolen house, finding the balcony where he ate breakfast and counted the ships every morning. She was there as requested, a small, plump figure leaning on the balustrade, her gaze fixed on Darnel, or rather Darnel’s horse. “It’s all right,” Alucius told his father. “You won’t have to.”

Darnel’s horse gave a loud snort, jerking and shaking its head. “Easy now,” the Fief Lord said, smoothing his hand over its neck. Alucius was relieved to see Darnel wore no armour today, just finely tailored silks and a long cloak. He reached for the dagger at the small of his back, concealed beneath his coat, his eyes intent on Darnel’s horse. It snorted again, giving a loud whinny, eyes widening into panicked mania as it reared, too sudden for Darnel to grab a tighter hold of the reins, pitching him from the saddle. Free of its rider the great warhorse wheeled around, lashing out with its hooves at the nearest of Darnel’s knights, the iron shoes ringing loud on the man’s breastplate as they sent him sprawling. The animal pivoted on its forelegs, vicious hind hooves scattering the remaining knights as Darnel back-pedalled on the ground, eyes wide in panic. The horse stopped its assault on the knights and turned again, wild eyes fixing on Twenty-Seven before charging with a shrill scream. The slave-elite’s expression remained as calm as ever as he attempted to dive clear of the horse’s path, proving fractionally too slow as the animal’s flank collided with his shoulder, spinning him to the ground, slack and senseless.

Alucius drew the dagger from its sheath and sprinted towards Darnel, now climbing to his feet, well clear of any protection. Only use the shortest possible thrust, Vaelin had told him, all those years ago when he fancied himself a hero. It’s the fast blade that draws blood.

Some battle-won instinct must have sounded in Darnel’s mind, for he turned just as Alucius thrust towards his back, the blade piercing his cloak and becoming entangled in the folds. Darnel snarled, bringing his fist around to smash at Alucius’s face. He ducked under it, tearing the dagger free of the cloak and lunging for Darnel’s arm, knowing even the slightest cut would be enough. The Fief Lord sidestepped, his sword coming free of its scabbard in a blur. Alucius felt a great stinging burn flare across his chest, the shock of it sending him to his knees, Darnel looming above him, sword drawn back. His expression was fiercely triumphant, smile broad in anticipation of the kill. “You think to kill me, little poet?” he laughed.

“No,” Alucius replied, feeling blood bathing his chest as he glanced over Darnel’s shoulder. “But I expect he will.”

Darnel whirled but too late. Lakrhil Al Hestian speared the Fief Lord through the neck with the spike protruding from his right sleeve. Darnel took some seconds to die, spitting blood and weeping as he hung from the spike, eyes bulging and lips babbling gibberish before he finally slumped to the wharf. Alucius still thought it hadn’t taken long enough.

A cold hand seemed to enfold him on all sides as he collapsed, feeling his father catch him, smiling up at his ice-white face. “The Aspects,” he said. “Get to the Blackhold . . .”

“Alucius!” His father shook him, his voice a rage-filled scream. “ALUCIUS!”

Alucius was aware of a great clamour somewhere, though his vision was too dim to make out the source, men yelling in alarm and summoning memories of the High Keep. He found it strange that the sky above his father’s head seemed to be filled with black streaks, like the arrows at the Bloody Hill, another unwelcome memory. He closed his eyes, pushing it all away and filling his mind with Alornis’s face as the last of his blood seeped away.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Frentis

“Winterfall Eve,” Brother Lernial said in his perennially dull voice. He had said almost nothing since arriving with the Eorhil woman the day before, slumping in front of a fire and staring at the flames for hours. Insha ka Forna stayed at his side, her gaze continually drawn in expectation.

“The Seventh Order,” Ivern said, watching with Frentis from the fringes of the gathered captains, his face a mix of confusion and suspicion. “Hiding in the Realm Guard. And where else, one wonders.”

“Aspect Grealin gave the impression they had many guises,” Frentis said.

“Grealin.” Ivern shook his head. “Just how many lies did they tell us, do you think?”

“Enough to keep us safe.” Frentis straightened as Brother Lernial said something and Insha ka Forna raised a hand to beckon him over.

“What happens on Winterfall Eve?” Banders asked the brother.

“Varinshold.” Lernial frowned in concentration, a vein pulsing in his temple and sweat beading his brow. “Lord Al Sorna attacks Varinshold. Something . . . something will happen.”

“Al Sorna’s army is in Warnsclave,” Banders said. “How could he make such an attack?”

Lernial gave a pained grunt, arching his back and exhaling slowly, then slumping forward, features slack with exhaustion. “That’s all,” he muttered.

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