She casts a glance around Lorvek’s collection and decides to have it all destroyed the following morning. The feeding two days ago has left her invigorated but with a sour edginess. The Gifted had been foul indeed, a nondescript man of middle years with the ability to hold a person in place, frozen, immobile, but awake. He had spent over two decades wandering the empire killing women, freezing them so they could only suffer in silence as he visited all manner of torments upon their flesh. He would have been a useful recruit for the Ally, given enough time, but his mind was far too fractured to justify the effort needed. He had tried to resist her, somehow sensing the threat despite the drugs, casting his gift at her like the flailing invisible hand of an addled drunk. She would have laughed at him once, even retreated for a while to allow the drug haze to fade before returning to enjoy his impotent rage as she made it last. But she hadn’t, the stumbling wretch deserved little regard and certainly no pity, but the blood had tasted foul as she slashed his throat, fighting a reflexive gag as she forced herself to drink deep, wondering if all the death she had wrought would also taint her blood.

She forces the memory away and slows her breathing, calming her mind, focusing her thoughts. I feel you, beloved, she tells him. I know you feel me too.

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She waits, mind open to a response, knowing he is there, but feeling only the depth of his enmity. Will you not talk to me? she implores. Are you not lonely too? And we have shared so much.

Anger swells, reaching across the great divide to lash at her, making her wince. I fear for you, she persists. We know she lives, beloved. We know she comes to take the city, and you know what she will do when she finds you.

The anger dims, replaced by grim acceptance and a great depth of guilt.

Forget all the nonsense they instilled in you, she begs. All the lies they told you. The Faith is a child’s illusion, nobility a coward’s mask. They are not for such as us, my love. You felt it, when we were killing together. I know you did. We soared above them all, and we can do so again. Leave now. Run. Come back to me.

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The sensation changes, emotion fading to be replaced by an image, a darkly beautiful young woman, half her face bathed in firelight, her brow creased in confusion and regret. Her lips move but the sound is lost to her, although she knows the words with absolute clarity. I made my bargain, beloved. I cannot make another.

I had no choice, she tells him now.

The image fades, swirling in her mind until it transforms into a voice, hard and cold but blessedly familiar. Neither do I.

• • •

They mustered two hours shy of dawn, gathering around Sollis as he unfurled a recently drawn map of the city, pointing to the north-east gate. “I suggest an attack in two directions, my lord,” he said to Banders. “Your knights to press a charge along Gate Lane, it’s wide enough for ten men abreast and leads directly to the harbour. If successful, you’ll cut the city in two and sow confusion in the enemy’s ranks. My brothers, Brother Frentis’s company and the Renfaelin common folk will make for the Blackhold. It’s a stout fortress and will provide a place of retreat should the day go against us.”

Banders nodded his agreement and turned to address his assembled captains. “The odds do not favour us, as you know. But we are told Lord Vaelin comes to take this city and I intend to aid him in doing so. Tell every knight and man at arms that come the morning there will be no turning from the charge, no restraint is to be shown, and no mercy. The city stands infested, and we will cleanse it.” He glanced at Arendil, adding in a sombre tone, “Lord Darnel is not to be taken alive, regardless of any entreaties to knightly custom. He has forfeited life and knighthood long since.”

• • •

The four of them made their way to the city on foot, heading for the northern stretch of wall where the Brinewash emerged from the city through a great sluice gate. They crawled slowly for the final half mile, Draker grunting along behind and drawing an irritated kick from Davoka. The outlaw had become much stealthier over the months but often had need of a reminder. As expected, the sluice gate was too well guarded to allow entry, even if it had been possible to navigate the frothing current that slid over the barrier in a constant rush. Instead Frentis led them into the river and followed the wall north. They wore thin clothing of light fabric, boots having been abandoned before entering the chill waters, their weapons confined to daggers and swords.

The pipe emerged from the wall three feet above the water where the river began to arc away from the city and commence its long winding journey into the heart of the Realm. A continual stream of effluent flowed from the pipe, leaving a foul-smelling stain on the river that had Draker gagging as they swam through it. Frentis hugged the wall, eyes fixed on the parapet above, finding it empty though there was the faint murmur of Volarian voices nearby. He had discounted this exit when they escaped the city during the invasion given the ease with which archers would have picked them off as soon as they emerged. Now he gambled on its vulnerability, doubting even a soul as cautious as Blood Rose would see much threat in so exposed an entry point.

He moved along the wall, hands exploring for holds, but finding nothing.

“It’s too slippy, brother,” Draker whispered next to his ear, his large hand scraping moss from the stone.

Frentis turned as Thirty-Four tapped his shoulder. The former slave patted his chest and pointed to the mouth of the pipe, then made an upward-pushing motion with both arms. Frentis took another look at the moss-covered wall and gave a reluctant nod. The splash of disturbed water would have to be risked if they were to continue.

He and Davoka moved to either side of Thirty-Four, drawing breath then sinking under the water. Frentis took hold of the man’s slim leg and placed the foot on his shoulder, counted to three to ensure Davoka was similarly prepared, reached out to slap her arm, and they both kicked upwards in unison, boosting Thirty-Four out of the water to clamp his hands on the rim of the pipe. He hung there for a few seconds as they scanned the wall above, waiting for any sign of discovery. Nothing. Even the murmur of voices seemed to have gone.

Thirty-Four levered himself onto the top of the pipe and caught the coiled rope Frentis threw him, looping it over the great iron tube and tying it tight with his usual facility for knots. Draker hauled himself up first, squirming into the pipe and biting down curses at the filth now piling up in front of him. It took several anxious moments before his head finally disappeared into the pipe. Davoka followed him, grunting as she heaved herself into the opening, pushing Draker’s bulk ahead of her. Frentis gestured for Thirty-Four to follow then climbed up, casting a final glance at the walls as he undid the rope from the pipe, dragging it behind as he squirmed through.

“Nothing beats the smell of home, eh, brother?” Draker asked as he emerged into the sewers. The big outlaw stood in the channel of rushing filth, casting his gaze right and left. “Reckon it’s this way,” he said, pointing right. “Channel loops back around towards the gate, as I recall.”

“Lead on,” Frentis told him.

It took over an hour of sloshing through the polluted water, and a couple of wrong turns before they came to the requisite drain. It was an iron grate twenty feet from the north gate with a narrow opening where the inner wall met the road. Frentis remembered slipping through the opening with relative ease one time, many years ago when he had run from a vengeful shop owner. Now, however, even Thirty-Four found the opening too narrow.

“There’s a wider one on Firestone Way,” Draker recalled.

“Too far,” Frentis said. He peered through the opening at the wasted streets beyond, finding a series of jagged silhouettes, collapsed walls, and burnt-out buildings, devoid of good cover, the sky above now a grey-blue signifying a fast-approaching sunrise. “They’ll see our approach.”

He pulled a dagger from his belt and started chipping at the mortar around the bricks forming the opening, the others soon joining in. “Softly,” he cautioned Draker as the big man jabbed his short sword hard into the mortar.

Sunrise had come on by the time they loosened enough brick to allow egress, long shadows stretching from the ruins as they hauled themselves free. Frentis led them from shadow to shadow towards the gate, finding it manned by a dozen Varitai.

“We should’ve taken Illian with us,” Draker grumbled in a whisper. “She’d pick off a few in short order.”

Frentis beckoned to Thirty-Four. “We need a distraction.”

The former slave nodded, sheathing his short sword and rising to run towards the gate, gesticulating wildly. “The general!” he called in Volarian as the Varitai stirred, moving to confront him with swords drawn. “He calls for you!” Thirty-Four went on, pointing towards the southern quarter. “Slaves are in revolt! You must come!”

As expected, they just stood regarding him in silence. Varitai were conditioned to respond only to orders given by their officers and there was no chance they would follow his commands. However, they were still compelled to look in his direction as he scurried away, halting and beckoning madly. “Come! Come! Or I’ll be flayed!”

A tired-looking Free Sword sergeant emerged from the gatehouse, rubbing bleary eyes and buckling on his sword as he took in the sight of the desperate slave. “What the fuck do you want?”

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