Varek jerked his head towards the host of recruits. “You truly believe this rabble capable of taking New Kethia? You think the Ruling Council will sit idly by whilst you march? You will be crushed before you even catch sight of the city and every one of these dogs still alive will be flayed and left to rot in the sun, if they are lucky.”

Frentis merely smiled. “News travels slowly, it seems.” He leaned closer still. “There is no Ruling Council now. You are ruled by an empress and, trust my word on this, she will look on and laugh when I raze your city to the ground.”

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“Whatever awaits me, I’ll bear it,” Varek said in a tone of complete certainty. “I’ll suffer every torment for a thousand years just for the slightest chance of getting this close to you again.”

“Then you had best invest in some sword lessons first.” Frentis turned to Draker. “Escort the honoured citizen until nightfall. If he takes one backward glance, kill him.”

• • •

Her new body is stronger than the one she left on the beach, leaping and whirling with all the speed and precision she could ask for, and yet . . .

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“Feel it, don’t you?” the Messenger asks, lounging in a chair on the balcony. He wears the body of an Arisai, one of the few with Gifted blood, tall and lean. Behind him stand six more, also Gifted, and, although their faces are different, their expressions are identical. She has never met so much of him before and finds it trying, one was always more than sufficient.

She lowers the short sword and straightens from the fighting crouch, naked and sheened in sweat from the practice. If the Messenger finds the sight arousing, there is no sign of it on any of his faces. She is discomforted by the sight of the darkened sky that frames them, realising it was noon when she returned to the Council Tower. Since awakening in this new shell her ability to keep track of time has diminished yet further.

“Feel what?” she asks.

“The numbness. Cold isn’t so cold, heat isn’t so hot. Gets worse with every one you take. These days I can barely feel a thing.” He angles his head, studying her, a small predatory smile on his lips. “Can you hear it this time? You can, can’t you?”

She suppresses a flash of anger, resenting his effortless intuition. The shell’s owner had been older than the first, and not born to slavery, leaving a deep pool of memory that flares into aggravating clarity all too often: . . . playing with her brother on the shore of some mountain lake . . . laughing when her father showed her his tricks . . .

She initially thought the woman’s gift so small it couldn’t be discerned but has come to understand that memory was her gift. Every thought, action and word residing in her head, unchanging and always so bright.

“You said to prepare eight,” she says, pushing the images away. “Yet I only count seven.”

She takes some satisfaction from the sight of them clenching jaws in unison, knowing the Messenger was suppressing his own anger. “Al Sorna has a facility for acquiring useful friends,” he says after a short pause.

She sees it then. Although the shells are all youthful and athletic his evident wounding still marks them, colours their eyes with pain, weariness . . . and fear. “You’re certain you know where to find him?” she asks.

“He seeks the endless man. I need only journey north and I’ll find his trail. You’ll have to make me a general, and some sort of grandiose title seems appropriate. Overlord of the North, or something.”

“The Northern Armies are commanded by the General Governor of Latethia. I’ll give you an execution order. When he’s dead call yourself what you like.”

“You don’t seem to like these governors much, I must say. Does this leave any alive?”

“Only the Governor of Eskethia. I was going to execute him too but I’m becoming more inclined to leave him to his fate.”

The faces shift again, all vestige of humour fading and she knows his next words are not his. “You cannot afford indulgence now. This distraction of yours had its uses, but now obstructs our purpose. He requires that you see to the matter without delay.”

“The Council is dead and the bitch’s fleet wrecked. All at my hand. I have earned indulgence.”

“The previous three centuries have been your indulgence. Decades of murder and malice, his gift to you. And now he requires payment.”

Her hand flexes on the sword, the true depth of the antipathy she has always felt for this creature becoming apparent for the first time. She sees them tense, the seated speaker rising. “He knows what you planned,” he says. “Your cherished scheme, the dream of ruling with that boy at your side, eternal and terrible with the whole world as your playground. Did you really think it would work?”

“If he has no more use for me,” she says, smiling, “kill me. If you can.”

As one their hands reach for the swords at their side. She knows the odds are hopeless, she knows she is choosing death. Watch me, my love, she thinks, knowing he sees her. Watch me make you proud.

But the Messenger stops, all seven releasing their swords and filing towards the door in silence. The speaker lingers a moment, his face now that of a weary soldier called to inescapable duty. “He will always find more use for us. You can keep the boy, if you take him alive. But the matter must be settled.”

Alone once more she closes her eyes, seeking his presence, embracing the steely resolve she finds, joy threatening to burst her new heart. She sees something, a swirl of mist in the darkness, coalescing into a form she knows so well. His words mean nothing, beloved, she says, reaching out to caress his face. The world can still be ours.

• • •

He snatched the hand from his face, snarling in fury, his knife coming up to press into her throat. “Never!” he hissed into her face, pressing the blade deeper.

Lemera whimpered, eyes wide with horror, her face quivering with terror, her head drawn back by the fist that grasped her hair, the smooth flesh of her throat exposed and vulnerable.

The air rushed from his lungs as he dropped the knife, twisting away from her to slump on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. “What . . . what is it?” he said when the shaking had faded from his limbs.

Her reply was barely more than a whisper. “I heard shouting . . . You were dreaming . . .”

He glanced over his shoulder, taking note of the thin cotton shift that barely covered her, and the depth of fear lingering in her gaze. He turned away, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dark. He had taken over the master’s bedchamber, a spacious display of wealth and luxury, the walls liberally adorned with various paintings, most depicting battles of implausible orderliness. The master himself featured in several, a more youthful version standing tall and proud, sword in hand as he commanded his men with stern-eyed courage, a singular contrast to the bloodied, begging ruin that had been left to expire in the courtyard when the slaves tired of him.

“I . . . have nightmares sometimes,” he told Lemera. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’ve been hurt worse.” He felt her weight shift on the bed then a hesitant touch to his back, her fingers spreading to explore the flesh. “You have fought so much, and yet no scars.”

“I had scars, they healed.”

“Weaver?”

“No.” The seed will grow. “No, it was something else. Something I doubt I’ll ever understand.” He turned again, her hand shifting to rest on his shoulder until he gently removed it. “You should go.”

She drew back a little but made no effort to leave. Her face was shadowed but he had a sense she was smiling. “The sister said you were forbidden the touch of a woman. I thought she must be joking.”

“The Faith requires all we have.”

She shifted again, drawing her legs up to rest her chin on her knees, her head angled as she studied him, now more curious than amused. “And you are so willing to give it?”

“The Order is all I’ve ever wanted.”

“So the world beyond your Order offers no enticements?”

“I’ve seen the world, with all its enticements. I find myself content with the Order.”

“After training yesterday, Draker punched a man for telling a story. A strange tale of how you were taken to the palace, along with a woman possessed of vile magics. And together you killed your king. Was he lying?”

“No. He wasn’t lying and Draker shouldn’t have done that.”

“Yet your queen let you live and sent you here.”

“My actions were not my own. The woman’s magics bound me, compelled me to do terrible things.”

She straightened and he felt her eyes roaming his face. Although he couldn’t see her expression the intensity of her scrutiny was unnerving. He was about to tell her to leave again when she said, “So we are not so different, you and I.”

She uncoiled, lying down on the bed. “May I sleep here? Just tonight. I have dreams too.” She breathed a soft laugh at his evident hesitation. “I promise I’ll offer no . . . enticements.”

I should make her go, he knew. There can be no good outcome to this. But he didn’t, finding the cruelty beyond him. So he lay next to her, trying to force the tenseness from his limbs, knowing sleep would be a stranger tonight. After a few moments she shuffled closer, resting her head against his shoulder, her hand finding his, their fingers entwining.

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