Davoka’s reply betrayed no hint of hesitation. “My spear is yours, sister. For now and always.”

Lyrna nodded her thanks, beckoning to Iltis and Benten. “Then you had best meet your brothers. Try not to kill Lord Iltis, his manner can be somewhat provoking.”

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• • •

Karlin Al Jervin stood as straight as his somewhat bent back would allow. Lyrna remembered him as a cheerful, pot-bellied fellow with a shiny bald head, less inclined to obsequiousness than many of his fellow nobles and not one to linger at court longer than his business required. Slavery and hard labour, however, seemed to have robbed him of humour and belly alike. His cheeks were hollowed and his eyes sunken, though he met Lyrna’s gaze with admirable composure. His daughter, however, was less well attuned to royalty and fidgeted as she stood before the throne, an appreciable gap between her and her father. Lady Illian wore a hunter’s garb, buckskin trews, and a light cotton blouse, stained brown and green to hide her in the forest, her hair cropped so it wouldn’t encumber her eyes. A dagger sat in a sheath strapped to her ankle with another at her wrist. Despite her martial accoutrements she still seemed very young as she squirmed under the scrutiny of those present and avoided her father’s glares. Behind her stood Brother Commander Sollis and Davoka, whilst Lord Al Jervin stood alone.

Lyrna had been quick to discard the garish monstrosity Darnel called a throne in favour of a comfortable straight-backed chair retrieved from one of the abandoned merchants’ houses, and found herself grateful for the depth of the cushion beneath the royal posterior. She had been hearing petitions for some four hours now and could only marvel at the lingering pettiness of people fortunate enough to survive such a savage occupation. They came with complaints of theft against vanished neighbours, claims of inheritance for property now naught but ash, appeals for restitution of lordly status, and a plethora of other trivia that shortened her patience by the hour. However, not all claims were petty, or easily resolved.

“Brother Sollis,” Lyrna said. “You must admit, Lord Al Jervin makes several valid points. This is all very unusual.”

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“Forgive me, Highness,” the Brother Commander replied in his customary rasp, “but I doubt anything in this Realm could now be termed as ‘usual.’”

“My knowledge of your Order’s history is hardly copious, but I believe there has never been a sister of the Sixth Order. And are not recruits normally inducted at a much younger age? Circumstance may have forced us to forget some custom in the face of necessity, but this is a radical step indeed.”

“There is provision in the Order’s tenets to allow for older recruits, Highness. Master Rensial, for example, came to us as a former captain in the Realm Guard cavalry. As for Lady Illian’s gender, war has provided ample evidence that our custom in this regard may require modification.”

“Are our laws to be cast aside now, Highness?” Al Jervin spoke up, once again glaring at Illian. “The Sixth Order cannot just take a man’s daughter.”

“They aren’t taking me!” Illian responded hotly, then flushed and lowered her gaze as Lyrna turned to her. “Your pardon, Highness.”

“Lady Illian,” Lyrna said, “is it truly your wish to join the Sixth Order?”

The girl drew breath and raised her head, speaking in a clear and certain tone. “It is, Highness.”

“Despite your father’s objections? His well-founded fears for your safety?”

Illian glanced at Al Jervin, her expression sorrowful and her voice low. “I love my father, Highness. I thought him dead for so long, finding him alive when the city fell was wondrous. But I am not the daughter he lost, nor can I be. I am fashioned by war into something else, a role I believe ordained for me by the Departed.”

“She is a child!” Al Jervin stated, his face reddening. “By the laws of this Realm her status and condition are mine to decide until her majority.” He quailed a little as Lyrna met his gaze, refusing to look away but adding “Highness,” in a strained whisper.

“Lady Davoka has told me much of your daughter, my lord,” Lyrna said. “By all accounts she has served with great distinction in the struggle to free this Realm. She stands before me now the author of many well-deserved ends suffered by our enemies. According to the Sixth Order’s tenets she is vouched for by a subject of good character and Brother Sollis is willing to accept her, setting aside ancient custom and the usual tests in recognition of her evident skill and courage. As a Sister she will no doubt provide even greater service to the Realm and the Faith. Whilst you, my lord, apparently spent the entire war carving fatuous art for the traitor Darnel.”

Al Jervin flinched but managed to control his tone as he responded, “I hear rumour Your Highness was also made a slave by our enemies. If so, I’m sure you know well the shame of performing a hated act in pursuit of survival.”

Iltis bridled, stepping forward and speaking in ominous tones. “Caution your tongue, my lord.”

Al Jervin gritted his teeth, pausing before speaking on, his voice coarse and fighting a choke. “Highness, I have no house, no wealth, no pride left. My daughter is all that remains to me. I ask you to cleave to our laws and prevent her taking this mad course.”

This is not injured pride, Lyrna decided. He simply wants to keep her alive. A good man, and a builder with skills much needed when peace comes. She looked again at Illian, watching her reveal a set of perfect white teeth as she smiled at an encouraging nod from Davoka. Beautiful, but so is a hawk, and for now I have more need of hawks than builders.

“Lady Illian,” she said, gesturing for one of the three scribes present to formally record a Royal Pronouncement, “Under the Queen’s Word I hereby strip you of all rank and set aside your father’s authority. As a free subject of this Realm you may choose any path open to you by law.”

• • •

She had been surprised to find the council chamber mostly intact, though there was a sizeable gap in the west-facing wall, the tapestry that covered it flapping in the breeze. In a break with custom Lyrna had requested the two surviving Aspects attend the Council, formally appointing Aspect Elera as Minister of Royal Works and Dendrish as Minister of Justice. Neither her father nor her brother had ever appointed an Aspect to an official position and there had been some notable apprehension among the other council members.

Never give them an inch more than you have to, her father had once said of the Faith. I tied the Crown to them to win the Realm, but if I could, I’d sever them from me like a diseased limb. Lyrna however, felt time had taught a different lesson. Aspect Tendris’s diatribes against her brother’s toleration of Denier beliefs had done much to weaken the Realm, but his power had been limited by the closeness of the other Orders to the Crown. Your mistake wasn’t in binding to them, Father. It was in not binding them tight enough.

“As in Warnsclave, more people arrive by the day,” Brother Hollun reported, seated on Lyrna’s left. “The civil population of Varinshold now stands at over fifty thousand. We can expect the figure to double within the month.”

“Can we feed so many?” Vaelin asked him.

“With careful rationing,” Brother Hollun said. “And continued supply from our Alpiran friends and Fief Lord Darvus’s provision of Nilsaelin produce. The winter months will be hard but none should starve.”

“How stands the army, my lord?” Lyrna asked Vaelin.

“With our new recruits, Baron Banders’s knights and common folk, we will have eighty thousand men and women under arms before the year’s end.”

“We need more.” Lyrna turned to Lord Marshal Travick. “Tomorrow I will draft an edict of conscription, all Realm subjects of fighting age will be inducted into the Realm Guard. Train them hard, my lord.” She switched her gaze to Lady Reva. “The edict will extend to all fiefs, my lady. I trust you have no objection.”

The Lady Governess maintained a neutral expression but Lyrna saw she was carefully phrasing her response. “For myself Highness, no,” she replied after a moment. “And for many of my people who suffered at Volarian hands. However, there are some corners of Cumbrael untouched by war where old resentments will linger.”

“To be dispelled by the Blessed Lady’s words, I should hope,” Lyrna told her. “Perhaps you should return home for a time, Lady Reva. Let your people see you, hear the tale of your deeds, for they are so inspiring.”

Reva’s nod of assent was immediate and her tone free of any rancour. “As Your Highness commands.” Never the slightest glimmer of disloyalty from this one, Lyrna mused. So why does she cause me such unease?

She set the question aside for further consideration and turned to the Shield. “Fleet Lord Ell-Nestra, please advise on the strength of your command.”

As was his wont these days, the Shield’s perpetual half grin disappeared as he addressed her, his eyes only briefly meeting hers. “Just over eight hundred ships of varying draughts, Highness. We’ve captured quite a few Volarian traders but the seas grow ever more empty as the winter storms descend.”

“A decent-sized force to repel any invasion,” Count Marven commented. “Crewed by the best sailors in the world. Plus, this time we are forewarned.”

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