She felt something then, something more than familiar lust, and it irked her. “Enough talking,” she said, pushing him onto his back and straddling his waist. “And try to keep quiet this time.”

The final shift was more abrupt, as if Orena sensed her discomfort. The deck of the Sea Sabre pitched continually that day, the seas around the Wensel Isle were rarely calm. She looked up at the burnt woman and the ring she offered, wondering why the tears came so easily. Normally she had to force them, but that day they streamed unbidden from her eyes. “I think such trivia is beyond us now, my lady,” the burnt woman said and a thing that had long forgotten its own name knew then she had found a queen.


Lyrna gasped as the final memory slipped away, finding herself staring into Orena’s apologetic eyes, an uncertain smile on her lips.

“Highness?” Murel hovered at her side, touching a tentative hand to her shoulder.

Lyrna stood and pulled them both into an embrace, Orena clutching her waist as Murel rested her head on her shoulder. “I only ever had ladies,” Lyrna told them. “Never friends.”

Orena’s thoughts gave a final pulse, heavy with a sense of regretful necessity; a lesson she barely understood but needed to share: they can change.

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• • •

They thronged the docks to watch her go, drowning her in a tumult of cheers and exhortations as she ascended the gangplank to the deck of the Queen Lyrna, all those not chosen to sail the ocean and finish her great crusade; the old, the young and the skilled. Many were weeping, some openly decrying their shame and begging to be allowed to join her. A cordon of Realm Guard kept them back, preventing the more ardent from jumping into the harbour and attempting to swim for the ship.

“Fleet Lord Ell-Nestra,” she greeted the Shield as he performed a precisely formal bow.

“Highness,” he said in the neutral tone she found ever more grating. “The ships from South Tower and Warnsclave approach. We will rendezvous ten miles from shore, weather permitting.”

She ignored the final jibe, softly spoken though it had been. He and several of his captains had voiced objections to her decision to sail so early in the year, advising the winter storms would still be raging on the high seas. He was unmoved by Brother Harlick’s carefully prepared tables of historical weather patterns, indicating the northern Boraelin underwent a five-week period of relative calm during the months of Illnasur and Onasur. “Just marks on paper, Highness,” the Shield had said, casting a dismissive eye over the librarian’s papers. “Udonor doesn’t read.”

“He may not, but I do,” Lyrna replied. “Our enemies do not expect us until the spring and I will not pass up an opportunity to surprise them. Our fleet will be complete within the month whereupon we will sail, with or without you.”

Her gaze went to the King Malcius, unfurling sail as she cleared the mole. Beyond her a long line of equally huge vessels ploughed towards the horizon. At the end of the mole she could see a figure seated before a vast canvas perched precariously on an easel. Master Benril, come to capture the scene, though the slate-grey sky and misted horizon made for a gloomy spectacle.

The Shield bowed again and began calling out the orders that would see them away from the docks, the crew running to detach lines and heave the beams into place to push them from the wharf.

“Wait!” Lyrna ordered as her gaze found a diminutive figure at the prow. Alornis didn’t look up from the contraption as Lyrna approached, gently tapping a small hammer to some piping on its underside. “My lady,” Lyrna said.

“Highness.” Alornis gave the pipe a final tap, smiling in satisfaction at the sound it produced.

“If your work here is complete,” Lyrna went on, “I would ask that you go ashore.”

“Sadly this new device requires more work.” Alornis gave a transparently forced laugh and crouched to inspect the machine’s supporting legs. “I can’t possibly let it sail in such condition, Highness.”

Lyrna went to her side, speaking in soft tones. “I gave your brother the most solemn promise that I would keep you safe. Now, remove yourself to the shore or I’ll have Lord Iltis do it for you . . .”

“They killed Alucius!” Alornis whirled towards her, the hammer flying across the deck as she tossed it aside, face livid, her shout heralding a frigid stillness on the deck. “You promise justice.” Alornis’s voice had taken on a strangled tone though she forced the words out, her gaze tearful but unwavering. “I have travelled the length of this Realm recording murder and destruction with every mile, and laboured without sleep for months to provide you these deadly instruments. All without request for reward or expectation of favour, because you promised justice, and I want mine.”

He will never forgive this, Lyrna knew. Even if she lives.

“Fleet Lord Ell-Nestra,” she said, turning away. “Please get us under way.”

• • •

The first few days were hard, the seas high enough to rob the fleet of any appearance of cohesion, many of the ships lost to sight in the near-constant rain. At the Shield’s orders, every vessel had experienced navigators on board, most of them Meldeneans who could be trusted to keep an eastward bearing regardless of the weather. Even so there were times when Lyrna looked out on the shifting grey wall that surrounded them and had to suppress the feeling they were sailing alone.

Belowdecks Lord Nortah’s regiment suffered continually with sea-sickness and the confines of shipboard life. They had to be ferried to the top deck in relays for fresh air and exercise, most stumbling through their drills, moving with perfunctory lethargy, though Lyrna’s presence seemed to provide some stimulus to extra effort. The slight woman with the daggers she remembered from Alltor greeted her with a grave bow upon ascending into the daylight the third morning out from Varinshold, proceeding to throw herself into a series of sword drills with zealous energy before collapsing in a sudden convulsion. Her bleached white face looked up at Lyrna stricken with mortification as she strode forward to help her up.

“I beg forgiveness, Highness,” she stammered. “Though my wretched weakness deserves no pardon . . .”

She fell silent when Lyrna pressed a hand to her forehead, finding it far too chilled and clammy. “Guardswoman Furelah,” she said, “you are unwell.”

Furelah blinked in surprise at being addressed by name then drew herself up to her not-considerable full height. “No more than anyone else, Highness.” She staggered as the ship’s hull crested another steep wave, Lyrna feeling how she trembled as she reached out to steady her by the arm.

“What did you do?” she asked. “Before the war.”

“My father owned a mill, Highness. I worked it with him.”

“Then you are familiar with gears and machinery?”

“Had to be, Highness. After that worthless fu— . . . My daughter’s father was not a dutiful man, forcing us to seek refuge with my father. After a while his hands got too gnarled for fixing things.”

“Come with me.”

She led her to the stern where Alornis was rigging a tarpaulin over one of the ship’s four ballistae. The constant rain and spume were a source of great consternation as she sought to keep her precious engines free of rust and the salt that played havoc with her various mechanical novelties. “Lady Alornis,” Lyrna called to her, gesturing at Furelah. “I am appointing this guardswoman as your assistant. Please instruct her in the operation of your engine.”

Alornis greeted Furelah with a bemused smile. “Thank you, Highness, but I need no assistance.”

“Battle will be upon us soon, my lady,” Lyrna replied. “And it plays no favourites. Should you fall it is important your knowledge not perish with you.”

Alornis winced a little at the harshness of her tone then offered her hand to Furelah who, despite her evident nausea, stood regarding the ballista with deep fascination. “You built this, my lady?”

“I had help.” Alornis took her hand and led her towards the contraption. “Come, best if we start with the gearing.”

• • •

The evening of the tenth day brought the first storm, a howling northerly gale slamming a series of ever-taller waves against the Queen Lyrna’s port side, eventually forcing the Shield to order a turn to the south. Lyrna had expected some expression of reproach as she watched him take the tiller, his hands moving with expert efficiency to steady the great vessel, but instead he seemed oddly content, casting occasional glances at the sky and frowning in apparent satisfaction.

“It seems my calculations may have been optimistic,” Lyrna offered, having to shout above the wind as she moved to his side.

“You mean this?” A spectre of his once-continual grin played over his lips as he jerked his head at the roiling sky overhead. “This is a gentle breeze compared to the Boraelin’s usual winter fury. It’ll have blown itself out come the morning.”

She lingered, seeing his reluctance to look at her, the stiffness of his shoulders. “Why did you stay?” she asked. “I know you wanted no part of this.”

“Despite my misgivings I can’t deny the wisdom in your words. If we don’t finish them, they’ll come again. Better one long war than a dozen short ones, bleeding the Isles white with every generation called to fight them. Besides, I made a commitment, as you may recall.”

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