• • •

Crewmen ran to their stations, weapons in hand, whilst archers climbed the rigging with bows on their backs. The deck below her feet thrummed with the din of Lord Nortah’s regiment readying itself for battle. She found the Shield at the starboard rail, eyeglass trained on something to the south.

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“How many?” Lyrna asked, moving to his side and peering into the gloom, finding only the faintest smudge some miles distant. The sky had brightened somewhat, still dim and thick with cloud but there was enough light to reveal the horizon.

“One,” he replied and pointed to a smaller Meldenean vessel a half mile away, sails full and wake bright about her hull as she ploughed towards the newcomer. “I’ve signalled the Orca to investigate.”

Lyrna glanced at the prow where Alornis and Furelah were busy readying the ballista and resisted the urge to order her below. “A patrol ship?” she asked Ell-Nestra.

“Most probably, though they’re too far out for this time of year.”

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It took perhaps a half hour’s tense waiting as the Orca faded into the misted horizon before the Shield gave a satisfied grunt and lowered his spyglass. “The Orca hoists the signal for a captured prize and requests we come alongside.”

“Then do so.”

The Shield’s orders sent men hurrying to haul sail and it wasn’t long before the Orca came into sight, her sails lowered as she wallowed next to a dark hulled Volarian freighter, held close by numerous lines and boarding ladders. Lyrna could see several Meldeneans on the Volarian’s deck, standing over a short line of kneeling captives, all grey-clad with one exception. A red-clad, Lyrna wondered as the captive’s appearance became clearer. In the middle of the ocean with no escort.

“Have that one brought aboard,” she told the Shield, pointing to the red-clad who she now saw was of somewhat ragged appearance, his robes dishevelled and face grey with stubble and fatigue. Peering closer she found a familiarity to his features, a resemblance to another red-clad who had the misfortune to find himself in Meldenean hands. “And signal the ship carrying Aspect Caenis,” she added. “I have need of one of his brothers.”

• • •

“How old are you?”

The red-clad stared back at her with dull eyes, features slack with fatigue. She had ordered him taken to her cabin where he sat slumped in a chair with Iltis standing at his back. Brother Verin of the Seventh Order stood near the door, a thin young man with a nervous smile who had only managed the barest mumble of acknowledgment at Lyrna’s greeting before bowing with such haste he nearly fell over. She could only hope his awe didn’t affect his gift.

As the red-clad continued to stare silently Iltis put a large hand on his shoulder, leaning down to speak softly in his ear. “Answer the queen or I’ll skin your hide before the pirates throw you to the sharks.”

From the red-clad’s spasm of anger Lyrna deduced his understanding of Realm Tongue to be more than adequate, though he spoke in Volarian. “Older than you can imagine,” he said, his voice the cultured vowels of the Volarian ruling class.

“Oh I think not,” Lyrna replied in Realm Tongue. “And speak in my language, if you please. As to your age, from what your sister told me, I estimate you to be somewhere over three hundred years old.”

His gaze regained some spark of life at the mention of his sister, though he gave no reply.

“Honoured Citizen Fornella Av Entril Av Tokrev,” Lyrna went on. “She is your sister is she not? And you are Council-man Arklev Entril.” Whose son I had the pleasure to kill some months ago, she added silently.

“You hold my sister?” he asked, dropping into heavily accented but understandable Realm Tongue.

“Not at present. Though she was well when last I saw her, if slightly aged.”

“Where is she?”

“You seem to misunderstand the purpose of this meeting, Council-man. We are not here so I can answer your questions, quite the opposite in fact. And our first order of business is to establish why a member of the Volarian Ruling Council comes to be so easily captured on the high seas.”

Arklev slumped further, weariness and defeat plain in the sigh that escaped him. “There is no Ruling Council now, just the Ally and the elverah he chooses to name Empress.”

Lyrna glanced at Brother Verin. He had been carefully instructed in his role though his hands shook a little as he touched a single finger to his wrist.

“Elverah means witch or sorceress, as I recall,” Lyrna said.

“The name began with her, she earned it well.” A faint glimmer of defiance crept into his eyes as he raised his head. “You met her the day she had her creature kill your brother.”

Lyrna fought down the anger and the instant flood of horror-filled memories. Anger is dangerous here, she knew. Provoking unwise action when so much can be learned. “Brother Frentis killed her,” she said.

“Merely the destruction of an old shell. Now she has a new one.”

“And this creature alone has seized your empire?”

“She does the Ally’s bidding. It seems he has decided the Council was superfluous to his needs.”

“They were killed?”

He lowered his gaze and nodded.

“And yet you survive.”

“I was delayed on a business matter the day she struck. Her Kuritai were everywhere in Volar, killing all who served the Council, every servant, slave and family member. Thousands purged in a single day. I managed to flee to the docks. My family owns many ships, though there was only one in the harbour and we were obliged to sail with scant supplies. The ship was half-wrecked by a storm three days ago.”

Lyrna saw Brother Verin stiffen and gave him a questioning glance. His nerves clearly hadn’t abated but there was a certainty in his movements as he touched his wrist, this time with two fingers.

“I assume,” she said, turning back to Arklev, “this new Empress is fully aware of our intentions?”

“Your invasion was expected in the summer. She gathers forces at the capital and calls the remaining fleet there. It was the Ally’s plan to sail out to meet you with a thousand ships and all the troops we could muster. It seems he becomes impatient and keen to see an end to any more frustrations.”

Lyrna’s gaze flicked to Verin’s hands, finding he was once again touching his wrist with two fingers instead of one.

“I realise I have been remiss,” she said to Arklev, gesturing at the young brother, “in not introducing Brother Verin of the Seventh Order, a young man with a very useful ability. Brother, please relate what lies this man has told me.”

Verin coughed, flushing a little and speaking in slightly tremulous tones. “I . . . I believe he was present when the Council fell. He lied about running to the docks and taking ship. He lied about the plan to counter the invasion.”

“Thank you, brother.” She looked down at Arklev, finding him now tense with fear but also a determined defiance, glaring back at her, jaw set and mouth firmly closed. “Lord Iltis,” Lyrna said. “Remove this man’s robe.”

Arklev tried to fight, flailing at Iltis with his manacled wrists only to be cuffed to the deck and pinned with a knee pressed into his back. The Lord Protector ripped the robes from his back in a few seconds, revealing an intricate pattern of fresh scars covering his torso from waist to chest.

Lyrna turned to a white-faced Brother Verin who blanched a little under her gaze, edging away a little. “Please fetch Lady Davoka,” she told him. “She will know what to bring.”

CHAPTER TEN

Frentis

The Varikum sat on a low hill, a squat stone fortress of five interconnected circular bastions. They had been obliged to wait for three days in the hills to the south for a caravan to appear, twenty wagons bearing supplies and fresh slaves for training. It was well protected with a mix of mounted Varitai and Free Sword mercenaries. Fortunately it appeared news of the Red Brother’s favoured tactics hadn’t made it across the ocean because they reacted with all predictability to the sight of a cluster of terrified slave girls stumbling along the road. Whoever had command of the convoy’s guard promptly sent his Free Swords galloping to investigate without bothering to properly secure the column’s flanks. Frentis waited until the Free Swords surrounded the girls, watching as Lemera tearfully related the tale of her poor murdered master, collapsing to her knees from the terror of it all. The Free Sword leading the riders made the mistake of dismounting to pull her upright, taking hold of her head and turning it side to side in appraisal, then staggering back as her hidden knife came free to slash his neck open.

The archers accounted for the remaining Free Swords, a cloud of arrows arcing down from the surrounding rocks to claim them, the girls falling on those still living as they lay in the road, daggers rising and falling in a frenzy. Frentis led Illian’s group of freed slaves on foot against the convoy’s flank, Slasher and Blacktooth bounding on ahead to each drag a Varitai from the saddle. The column’s fate was sealed when Master Rensial and their dozen mounted fighters charged against its rear, quickly dispatching the remaining defenders. The convoy’s overseer was the last to fall, a typically hulking figure, standing atop the lead wagon, his whip cracking viciously as he lashed at the circling riders with no apparent sign of fear. Illian ducked under his whip to leap up onto the wagon, slashing his feet from under him and deftly tugging the whip from his hand as he fell. In the Martishe they had always endeavoured to take any overseers alive; newly liberated slaves tended to appreciate it.

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