“An eleventh book,” Lord Mentari breathed as she stepped down, the crowd still cheering. “To think I would live to see such a thing.”

“We live in changing times, my lord.” Reva accepted the book Arentes handed to her and checked the notes Veliss had provided on this region. “My honoured advisor calculates your quota as a minimum of two thousand men of fighting age, accounting for recent troubles and the census compiled five years ago. I’m sure the Father will smile upon you should it be exceeded.”

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• • •

Touring the entire fief took the best part of a month, town after town, village after village, some swollen with refugees, others nearly empty as many of the occupants had fled in advance of the expected Volarian onslaught. She found her lie most readily welcomed in those places rich in the dispossessed, many of whom had firsthand experience of the enemy’s nature. Even in places where none had been scathed by the war, there were still plenty of willing ears keen to hear the Blessed Lady’s words, though not all were so open to the Father’s message.

“Got four sons and the queen wants three of them,” said a burly woman in a village in the south-western riverlands. People here were renowned for their hardiness, scratching a living from the eel-pots with which they harvested the myriad waterways surrounding their homes, settlements often limited to no more than a few houses and rarely accompanied by a church. The woman glared at Reva as the assembled villagers gave a murmur of agreement, though some were clearly intimidated by Arentes and his fifty guardsmen. The glaring woman, however, paid them no heed at all. “How’s a family s’posed to feed itself with no hands to work the boats and haul the pots?”

“No one will go hungry,” Reva assured her. “Any additional food required will be provided by House Mustor and the queen at no charge.”

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“Heard promises from your house before,” the woman replied. “When my husband got dragged off to get his throat cut by those Asraelin bastards. Now you want us to fight for them.”

“This fief was saved by Asraelin hands,” Reva said. “And Nilsaelins, folk from the Northern Reaches, the Seordah and the Eorhil. At Varinshold I fought alongside Meldeneans and Renfaelins. The old age is dead, now we fight for each other.”

The woman pointed a finger at Reva, her voice rising to an angry growl. “You fight for them, girl. I don’t know them, never seen these . . . Volarans you talk of, and any liar can claim to talk with the Father’s voice.”

The guardsmen immediately snapped to attention, their sergeant stepping forward with sword half-drawn before Reva barked at him to halt. “She speaks blasphemy and treason, my lady,” the sergeant said, face rigid with fury as he glared at the woman in the crowd, now standing alone as her fellow villagers moved back, any former sympathy abruptly forgotten. Despite the lack of support the woman stood her ground, glaring at Reva with no sign of fear or regret on her weathered features as the sergeant spoke on, “You were not at Alltor. You did not see what the Blessed Lady did for us. But for her, you, your sons and this village would now be nothing but ash and bone. You owe her everything, as do we all.”

The woman’s gaze didn’t shift from Reva. “Then you’d best hang me, lady. For my sons aren’t yours to take, Father’s word or no.”

Reva’s eyes scanned the crowd, picking out three young men near the back, two of them clearly cowed by the circumstance, heads lowered and no doubt praying for the confrontation to end, but the tallest stood regarding the burly woman with a grim resentment.

“Can your sons not speak for themselves?” Reva asked he woman. “Both the Ten Books and Fief Law decree manhood at age seventeen. If your sons are of age, let them make the choice.”

“My sons know their duty . . .” the woman began but trailed off as the taller of the three young men held up his hand and pushed his way through the crowd.

“Allern Varesh, my lady,” he said with a bow. “I offer my service in accordance with the Queen’s Edict.”

“Stop that!” the woman growled, stepping forward to aim a cuff at the young man’s head before glowering at Reva once again. “He’s not yours to take!”

Reva was about to simply ignore her and thank the young man for his loyalty but paused as she saw the wetness in the woman’s eyes, how she moved protectively in front of her son. Reva stepped down from the cart, coming forward to stand in front of the woman. “Your name?”

The woman clenched her teeth and wiped her eyes with thick fingers. “Realla Varesh.”

“You have lost much, Realla Varesh. And it pains me to ask for more.” She pointed at the still-kneeling Allern. “Therefore, in recognition of your sacrifice the quota for this village will be considered fully met by this man’s service.”

The woman sagged, hands going to her face. From the shocked reaction of her son and the crowd Reva surmised it was probably the first time any living soul had seen her weep. “Lord Arentes,” Reva said.

“My lady!”

“This young man has sufficient height for a guardsman, wouldn’t you say?”

Arentes gave Allern a brief look of appraisal. “Just about, my lady.”

“Very well. Allern Varesh, you are hereby inducted into the House Guard of Lady Governess Reva Mustor.” She glanced again at the man’s sobbing mother. “You have an hour to say your farewells. Lord Arentes will find you a horse.”

• • •

She returned to Alltor with five hundred men and fifty women in tow, all volunteers willing to march at the Blessed Lady’s command. There could have been a thousand of them but they had neither the provisions or packhorses to supply so many. The lands south of Alltor had been richest in recruits and willing ears for her lie, having suffered much at the hands of Volarian raiding parties. They had fought a minor war of their own among the Cold Iron’s forested banks and tributaries and were rich in captured weapons. According to Arentes the region had always been the heartland of Cumbraelin archery, the first longbows being hewn from the yews that proliferated in the thick forest. In the face of the Volarian threat long-defunct companies, once the backbone of Cumbraelin military strength, had re-formed under veteran captains, fighting a deadly game of chase among the trees for months until Alltor’s relief.

Reva ordered the companies to stay in formation and gather more strength before mustering at Alltor in the spring. For all the fierceness of their commitment she found them a disconcerting lot, hard-eyed and grim of aspect, the many rotting bodies of captured Volarians hanging in the forest evidence of a lust for vengeance far from sated. What will they wreak when we sail the ocean? she wondered, searching her memory in vain for a passage in any of the Ten Books that gave succour to vengeful thoughts.

Ellese greeted her with a fierce joy, thin arms tight around her waist as she complained of Veliss’s endless lessons. “She makes me read every morning and every night. And write too.”

“Skills of great importance,” Reva told her, gently undoing her arms. “Still, I have a few to teach you too, in time.”

Ellese’s small face frowned up at her, the gauntness now gone though she retained a slightly sunken look to her eyes. “What skills?”

“The bow and the knife. The sword too when you get older. Only if you want to.”

“I want to.” She gave an excited jump, taking Reva’s hand and dragging her towards the mansion. “Teach me now!”

Reva caught the grave expression on Veliss’s face and hauled the girl to a halt. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I have another task today.”

• • •

“Still no name for me?”

The broken-nosed priest cast a single, tired glance at her and shook his head. They were lined up on the causeway, twelve men in threadbare clothing, besmirched from their captivity in the mansion’s cellars, some swaying a little as the effects of Veliss’s various herbal concoctions could linger for days. The notes she had accrued during the interrogations were fulsome, near five hundred pages of names, dates, meetings, murders, enough to see the Church of the World Father revealed as a nest of traitors from Reader to Bishop, perhaps enough to shatter it completely.

“He really thought he could do it?” Reva asked the nameless priest. “Bring down House Mustor and rule the fief in the Father’s name?”

The priest raised his head, swallowing as he mustered his courage. “A holy endeavour, blessed by the Father.”

“Blessings spoken by a wretch in service to a creature of the Dark.” Reva stepped back, raising her voice and casting her gaze across each face. “You are fools, so steeped in the Ten Books you can’t even see the truth they hold. The Father does not bless deception and murder, the Father does not offer succour to those who would torment children to vile ends.”

She fell silent, feeling it build again, the same rage that had seized her during the siege, the fury that had seen her slit the throats of slavers and cut the heads from prisoners. The nameless priest shuddered, swallowing again as he fought down terror-born vomit. Arentes stood behind the shackled line with a full company of House Guard, swords drawn, each of them glaring at the traitors with an expression of grim hunger.

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