“I have never doubted the loyalty of the Sixth Order, brother. Though I wish I had more of you . . .” Lyrna trailed off as she looked again at the group of common folk, seeing how they shifted under her scrutiny, every face tense and wary. “These folk do not strike me as likely recruits for the Sixth.”

“No, Highness,” he said and she had a sense of a man forcing himself to a long-feared duty. “We belong to another Order entirely.”

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CHAPTER TWO

Alucius

The Kuritai’s name was Twenty-Seven, though Alucius had yet to hear him say it. In fact he had yet to hear the slave-elite say anything. He reacted to instruction with instant obedience and was the perfect servant, fetching, carrying and cleaning with no sign of fatigue or even the faintest expression of complaint.

“My gift to you,” Lord Darnel had said that day they had dragged Alucius from the depths of the Blackhold, expecting death and gasping in astonishment when they removed his shackles and he found his own father’s hands helping him to his feet. “A servant of peerless perfectitude,” Darnel went on, gesturing at the Kuritai. “You know, I think I’m growing fond of your wordsmithing ways, little poet.”

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“Yes, I’m very well this fine morning,” Alucius told Twenty-Seven as he laid out the breakfast. “How nice of you to ask.”

They were on the veranda overlooking the harbour, the sun rising over the horizon to paint the ships a golden hue he knew would have sent Alornis scurrying to fetch her canvas and brushes. He had chosen the house for the view, a merchant’s domicile no doubt, its owner presumably dead or enslaved along with his family. Varinshold was full of empty houses now, more to choose from should he grow tired of this one, but he found himself too fond of the view, especially as it covered the entirety of the harbour.

Fewer and fewer ships, he thought, counting the vessels with accustomed precision. Ten slavers, five traders, four warships. The slavers sat highest in the water, their copious holds empty, as they had been for weeks, ever since the great column of smoke had risen to blot the sun from the sky for days on end. Alucius had been trying to write something about it, but found the words failed to flow every time he put pen to paper. How does one write a eulogy for a forest?

Twenty-Seven placed the last plate on the table and stood back as Alucius reached for his cutlery, tasting the mushrooms first, finding them cooked to perfection with a little garlic and butter. “Excellent as always, my deadly friend.”

Twenty-Seven stared out of the window and said nothing.

“Ah yes, it’s visiting day,” Alucius went on around a mouthful of bacon. “Thank you for reminding me. Pack the salve and the new books, if you would.”

Twenty-Seven instantly turned away and went about his instructions, moving to the bookcase first. The house’s owner had maintained a reasonable library, largely, Alucius assumed, for appearance’s sake as few of the volumes showed much sign of having ever been read. They were mostly popular romances and a few of the more well-known histories, none suited to his purposes, which obliged him to spend hours ransacking the larger houses for more interesting material. There was much to choose from; the Volarians were boundlessly enthusiastic looters but had little interest in books, save as kindling. Yesterday had been particularly fruitful, netting a complete set of Marial’s Astronomical Observations and an inscribed volume he hoped would arouse the interest of one of his charges in particular.

Ten slavers, five traders, four warships, he counted again, turning to the harbour. Two less than yesterday . . . He paused as another vessel came into view, a warship rounding the headland to the south. It seemed to be struggling to make headway through the water, only one sail raised and that, he saw as it came closer, was a ragged thing of soot-blackened canvas. The ship trailed sagging rope through the placid morning swell as it neared the harbour mouth, blocks and shattered beams hanging from her rigging, sparse crew moving about the deck with the stoop of exhausted men. As she weighed anchor Alucius’s eyes picked out numerous scorch marks blackening her hull and many dark brown stains on her untidy deck.

Five warships, he corrected himself. One with an interesting tale to tell, it seems.

• • •

They stopped off at the pigeon coop on the way, finding his sole remaining bird in typically hungry mood. “Don’t bolt it,” he cautioned Blue Feather with a wagging finger but she ignored him, head bobbing as she pecked at the seeds. The coop was situated atop the house of the Blocker’s Guild, the roof spared the fires that had gutted the building thanks to its iron-beamed construction. The surrounding houses hadn’t been so fortunate and the once-busy building where he had come to have his poems printed now rose from streets of rubble and ash. Seen from this vantage point the city resembled a grimy patchwork, islands of intact buildings in a sea of grey-black ruins.

“Sorry if you’re finding it lonely these days,” he told Blue Feather, stroking her fluffy breast. There had been ten of them to begin with, a year ago. Young birds each with a tiny wire clasp about their right leg, strong enough to hold a message.

This had been the first place he had hurried to on release from the Blackhold, finding only three birds still alive. He fed them and disposed of the corpses as Twenty-Seven looked on impassively. It had been a risk leading the slave here to witness his greatest secret, but there was little choice. In truth, he had expected the Kuritai to either cut him down on the spot or shackle him once more for immediate return to captivity. Instead he just stood and watched as Alucius scribbled the coded message on a tiny scrap of parchment before rolling it up and sliding it into the small metal cylinder that would fit onto the bird’s leg clasp.

Varinshold fallen, he had written though he knew it was probably old news to the recipients. Darnel rules. 500 knights & one V division. Twenty-Seven didn’t even turn to watch the bird fly away when Alucius cast it from the rooftop and the expected deathblow had never fallen, not then and not when he released the next bird the night the Volarian fleet set sail for the Meldenean Isles. Twenty-Seven, it appeared, was neither his gaoler nor Darnel’s spy; he was simply his waiting executioner. In any case his worries over what the Kuritai saw had long since faded, along with the hope he might live to see this city liberated . . . and watch Alornis draw again.

He briefly considered sending Blue Feather with his final message—those he reported to would no doubt find the news of the ragged warship interesting—but decided against it. The ship portended a great deal, and it would be better to await discovery of the full story before expending his last link to the outside world.

They climbed down from the rooftop via the ladder on the back wall, making for the only building in Varinshold that seemed to have suffered no damage at all, the squat fortress of black stone sitting in the centre of the city. There had been a bloody battle here, he knew. The Blackhold’s garrison of Fourth Order thugs putting up a surprisingly good fight as they beat back successive waves of Varitai, Aspect Tendris in the thick of the fight, spurring them on to ever-greater feats of courage with unwavering Faith. At least that’s how the story went if you believed the mutterings of the Realm-born slaves. It had finally fallen when the Kuritai were sent in, Aspect Tendris cutting down four of the slave-elite before a dastardly knife in the back laid him low, something Alucius found extremely unlikely, though he did concede the mad bastard had probably gone down fighting.

The Varitai at the gate stepped aside as he approached, Twenty-Seven in tow with his books and various medicines in a sack over his broad shoulder. The interior of the Blackhold was even less edifying than its exterior, a narrow courtyard within grim black walls, Varitai archers posted on the parapet above. Alucius went to the door at the rear of the courtyard, the Varitai guard unlocking it and stepping aside. Inside he followed the damp winding steps down into the vaults. The smell provoked unwelcome memories of his time here, musty rot mingling with the sharp tang of rat piss. The steps ended some twenty feet down, opening out into a torchlit corridor lined by ten cells, each sealed with a heavy iron door. The cells had all been occupied when he was first brought here, now all but two stood empty.

“No,” Alucius replied to Twenty-Seven’s unvoiced question. “I can’t say it is good to be back, my friend.”

He went to the Free Sword seated on a stool at the end of the corridor. It was always the same man, a sour-faced fellow of brawny build who spoke Realm Tongue with all the finesse of a blind mason attempting to carve a masterpiece.

“Which ’un?” he grunted, getting to his feet and putting aside a wine-skin.

“Aspect Dendrish I think,” Alucius replied. “Irksome duties first, I always say.” He concealed a sigh of frustration at the Free Sword’s baffled frown. “The fat man,” he added slowly.

The Free Sword shrugged and moved to the door at the far end of the corridor, keys jangling as he worked the lock. Alucius thanked him with a bow and went inside.

Aspect Dendrish Hendrahl had lost perhaps half his famous weight during captivity, but that still made him considerably fatter than most men. He greeted Alucius with the customary scowl and lack of formality, small eyes narrowed and gleaming in the light from the single candle in the alcove above his bed. “I trust you’ve brought me something more interesting than last time.”

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