“There must be more,” Banders persisted, drawing a glower from Insha ka Forna.

“Leave him!” she said. “This . . . hurts him, much.”

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“You can hear Lord Vaelin’s thoughts?” Frentis asked Lernial in a gentler tone.

The brother shook his head. “Brother Caenis only. It’s . . . easier that way.” He gave a wan smile. “But to wade through even the most disciplined mind is a tiring task.”

Frentis nodded his thanks and rose from the man’s side, moving away to confer with Banders and Sollis. “Three days until Winterfall Eve,” the baron said. “Scant time for planning. I’ve had my lot fell the few trees around here for ladders and engines, but none are ready yet.”

“Which makes the sewers our only option,” Frentis said. “We know from Darnel’s knights that Aspects Elera and Dendrish are in the Blackhold, perhaps Aspect Arlyn too. I don’t give much for their chances if the city is attacked. I can secure them if you’ll allow me.”

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“Securing a gate is more important,” Sollis said.

“The Aspects . . .”

“Are aware that the Faith occasionally requires sacrifice. We will secure a gate to allow Baron Banders’s knights into the city, then make for the Blackhold.”

“We, brother?”

Sollis’s pale gaze was steady, yielding no room for argument. “Brother, you have led your company well, and they are loyal to you. But your loyalty is to me. Or are you no longer willing to call yourself a brother?”

“I will never call myself anything else,” Frentis returned, anger rising to colour his face.

Sollis merely blinked and turned to the baron. “We’ll set out at dawn, which should enable us to approach the city under dark in three nights.” He looked at Frentis. “Choose your people and be ready.”

• • •

They followed the Brinewash towards Varinshold, moving in single file along the bank, which was damp enough to prevent any betraying dust cloud. Frentis chose Davoka, Draker and Thirty-Four to accompany him through the sewers, provoking Arendil and Illian to loud protests at being excluded. Davoka sternly rebuked the lady for her petulance, and Banders refused to even countenance the thought of Arendil leaving his sight. “You’ll stay by me at all times,” he told his grandson. “If this goes right, the fief will have need of a new lord by the week’s end.”

They stopped after a two-day trek, occupying a shallow dip in the ground just south of the Brinewash, Varinshold out of sight just over the horizon. Sollis’s brothers scouted the surrounding country, mostly grass and expanses of ash left by the demise of the Urlish. They returned at nightfall reporting the Volarians seemed to have abandoned patrolling. “Could be they’ve no cavalry left for such duty,” Ermund suggested. “We killed hundreds back at the Spur.”

They settled down to rest as night set in, huddling in cloaks against the chill as fires could not be risked. Frentis sat watching the others sleep, determined to stay awake, as he had for the past two nights, fighting exhaustion with every step. At one point he had snapped awake finding himself held in the saddle by Davoka, shaking his head at her stern entreaties to rest come the night. She waits for me there, he knew with a cold certainty.

“Will it end tomorrow, brother?” It was Illian, sitting a few feet away, swaddled in a cloak taken from a dead Volarian at the Spur. It covered her easily, leaving only the pale oval of her face peering out from the hood.

So young, Frentis thought. So small. You would never know, as no one knew when they looked at her. Annoyed by the comparison, he looked away. “Will what end?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

“The war,” she said, shuffling closer. “Draker said it’ll all be over come the new day.” She gave a rueful smile. “Then he said he’d buy a whorehouse with his spoils.”

“I doubt there are any left to buy, my lady.”

“But we’ll be done? The war will end?”

“I hope so.”

She seemed oddly deflated by this, a flicker of her increasingly rare pout on her lips. “No more Gorin,” she murmured. “No more Davoka. Arendil will go off and rule his fief, Draker to his whorehouse, you to the Order.”

“And you, my lady?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea if my father lives, if his house still stands.”

“And your mother?”

Illian’s expression soured a little. “Father used to tell me she died when I was little. One day I heard two of the maids gossiping, seems my darling mother took off with a sea captain when I was no more than a year old. Father had every scrap of clothing she owned stripped from the house, along with every image of her. I don’t even know what she looked like.”

“Not all are suited to parentage,” Frentis said, thinking of his own family, if they could be called that. “Whatever your father’s fate, his lands and assets are now yours by right. I feel sure the queen will see to proper restitution in due course.”

“Restitution.” She looked around at the surrounding fields of ash, rendered silver-blue in the moonlight. “Is that even possible now? So much has been broken. Besides, I’m not sure I want to regain ownership of an empty ruin.”

“Arendil . . .” Frentis began in a cautious tone, “You seem . . . fond of him.”

She gave a soft sigh of embarrassed exasperation. “I am. He’s very sweet, and one day I expect Lady Ulice will find him a wife suited to fine dresses and balls and empty talk with privileged fools. I am not. Not now, if I ever was.” She wriggled in the folds of her cloak, hefting her crossbow, her hands tight on the stock. “I’m made for this. I’m made for the Order, brother.”

He could only stare at her completely serious expression. “There are no sisters of the Sixth Order,” he said, lost for any other response.

“Why not?”

“There just aren’t. There never have been.”

“Because only men fight wars?” She nodded at Davoka. “What about her? What about me?”

He shifted uncomfortably, lowering his gaze. “The composition of the Orders is set down by the tenets of the Faith. They can’t simply be cast aside . . .”

“They could if you were to vouch for me. Especially if Brother Sollis were to add his voice. Everything has changed, I’ve heard you say so yourself.”

“This is a foolish notion, Illian . . .”

“Why is it foolish?”

“Do you want to be like me?” He leaned forward, eyes locked on hers, suddenly angered by her naïvety. “Do you have any notion of what I have done?”

“You’re a great warrior, and the man who saved my life.”

Seeing her mystified, wide-eyed gaze, he sighed, his anger evaporating as he slumped back. “I have killed my way across half the world to return to this Realm, and when the queen comes to claim her throne she’ll make sure I face a reckoning.”

“For what? Winning the war?”

He just shook his head. “I was once just like you, lost, seeking a home, begging the same favour from someone who came to hate himself for saying yes. And I find myself with a surfeit of hate, my lady. Approach Brother Sollis if you wish, he will say the same thing.”

“We’ll see,” she muttered, falling into a sullen silence.

He watched her put the crossbow aside and pluck a bolt from her quiver, working the iron-headed barb on a small whetstone. No, he conceded. No longer made for dresses and balls. “Did you know,” he said, “in the southern jungles of the Volarian Empire, there lives a beast, fully twelve feet tall and covered all over with fur, that looks just like a man on stilts?”

She angled her head at him, raising an eyebrow. “You’re making it up.”

“No, it’s true. I swear on the Faith. And in the oceans to the east are great sharks, as big as a whale and striped red from end to end.”

“I’ve heard of those,” she admitted. “My tutor showed me a picture once.”

“Well, I’ve seen them. There is more than war to find in this world, Illian. There is as much beauty as there is ugliness, as long as you have the eyes to see it.”

She gave a small laugh. “Perhaps I’ll find a sea captain of my own one day, go looking for it.” The words were empty, he knew, the humour forced. Her mind was set on but one course.

“I hope so too.”

He saw her frown as she scanned his face, youthful beauty marred by concern. “You must sleep, brother. Please. I’ll watch you. If you start to get . . . upset, I’ll wake you.”

There are some dreams you can’t wake from. But he was so tired now, and a battle waited no more than three hours hence. “Don’t neglect your own rest,” he told her, settling onto his side, breathing deep, then closing his eyes.

• • •

She sits alone in a spacious chamber of marble floors and fine furnishings; it is midafternoon and a gentle breeze sways the lace curtains hanging over the arches leading to the balcony. The chamber belonged to Council-man Lorvek and is filled with artifacts bought or stolen from all corners of the world; Alpiran statuary of bronze and marble, fine paintings from the Unified Realm, exquisite ceramics from the Far West, garish war masks from the southern tribe lands. A priceless collection, the fruit of several lifetimes’ labour. It is how they persist, these select few red-clad, filling their endless days with successive obsession, for art, wealth, flesh . . . or murder.

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