He came awake with a shout, his hand reaching for the sword propped against the bed, finding nothing. His eyes scanned the darkness, seeing only shadows. He felt Lemera’s weight in the bed next to him, her visits a nightly ritual now, though they never did more than lie together. He nudged her gently, ready to clamp a hand over her mouth as she woke, pausing at the familiar chill to her skin. Her eyes were half-open, the lips drawn back from bared teeth in an agonised grimace. A single, neat cut stretched the width of her throat.

“You are a disappointment.”

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Frentis tumbled free of the bed as a figure stepped from the shadows, a young man with the build common to the Kuritai, though he wore red armour and a mocking grin. Behind him two more resolved out of the darkness, one holding his sword. The grinning man’s hands blurred and something looped around Frentis’s neck, drawing tight to steal his breath before dragging him to the floor. Something fast and hard slammed into his stomach, doubling him over, the coil around his neck tightening ever further as his vision dimmed, the grinning man’s words following him into the blackness. “She promised us a challenge in you.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Lyrna

“The Thief’s Snare,” Lyrna said, surprised at the reflective calm she heard in her voice.

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“Highness?” Murel looked at her from where she was attempting to keep the shutter on the porthole in place despite the gale hammering at it like an unseen monster seeking entry.

“A rare feature of the long game,” Lyrna said. “Any piece taken by the Thief can be used by the opposing player. The snare involves sacrificing both pieces only a few moves later, giving the illusion of weakness in the centre of the board. A stratagem to be employed by only the most skilled players.” And I am an arrogant fool, she added silently.

It had begun a full two hours ago, descending in a shrieking black tide as she stood watching Lady Reva’s thirty ships approach the dim shoreline. Within minutes the world beyond the Queen Lyrna had disappeared and Iltis was dragging her towards the cabin as sailors frantically sought to secure the rigging. She caught sight of Brother Verin, standing in frozen panic on the bustling deck and gestured for Benten to pull him along.

“This storm is not natural,” she said, turning to the brother as Iltis slammed the door on the fury outside. “Is it?”

“Highness, I . . .” The young brother shook his head, bafflement and shock dominating his features. “Some are known to have the power to turn the wind, but this . . .” He blanched at her obvious consternation, stammering as he forced himself to continue. “There was . . . something, as the ships neared the shore.”

“What something?”

“It was faint but I felt it. A . . . burning you might say. It’s commonly felt when another Gifted dies, as if all their power has blossomed at once.”

She moved away from him, sitting on her bunk, lost in the enormity of her blunder. I killed Arklev too soon. Though I doubt he knew his true role. She gave herself over to contemplation as the ship pitched and groaned around her, there being little else to do. The Thief’s Snare leads to victory in no more than ten additional moves provided the player exploits the opportunity with a swift attack on the opposing Emperor.

“Lerhnah?”

She looked up to find Davoka standing over her, features softened in concern. Beyond her Murel stood back from the porthole, now open to reveal a sunlit sky. From the height of the sun she judged she had been sitting in silent meditation for some hours. “I need to speak to the captain.”

The day-to-day command of the Queen Lyrna had been given over to a Nilsaelin named Devish Larhten, a lanky veteran of the trade routes to the Northern Reaches who had also commanded a warship in her father’s fleet during the Alpiran war. She found him at the mainmast overseeing repairs to a patch of deck shattered by a falling block. Fortunately it seemed to be the only major damage they had suffered.

“Highness,” he greeted her, glancing up as she strode towards him, clearly preoccupied with his task.

“Captain, turn this ship south and make ready for battle.” She cast her gaze at the surrounding ocean, finding only four other ships within view and the shoreline no longer in sight. Scattered and ripe for harvest, she thought, suppressing a wave of self-reproach. Indulge your guilt later. “And signal those ships to close with us.”

“All in good time, Highness. We have much to . . .”

“Do it now!” she snapped. “The Volarian fleet is currently north of us and I have little doubt we’ll see them within the hour.”

Larhten’s gaze flicked momentarily to Iltis, who had taken a purposeful step forward. “At once, Highness,” he said before moving away and voicing a torrent of orders.

“Find Lady Alornis,” Lyrna told Murel. “She is to ensure her engines are in working order. Lord Benten, please tell Lord Marshal Nortah to ready his regiment for battle.”

• • •

Captain Larhten advised that they tack to the west for a time, bargaining they would find more Realm vessels farther from the coast. By midafternoon they had gathered another forty ships, a few missing masts and rigging but all able to make headway. Predictably, the Meldenean ships displayed the least damage and she was heartened to find the Red Falcon among them, Ship Lord Ell-Nurin waving from her bow as she came alongside. Only she and the Queen Lyrna had so far been equipped with Alornis’s fire-spewing engine, upon which she now rested a great deal of expectation.

“We could head back to shore, Highness,” the captain suggested as Lyrna stood at the rail, her eyes fixed on the northern horizon. “Pick up a few more strays on the way.”

She surveyed her fleet, finding two of the great troop-ships present as well as a good number of Meldeneans. “No,” she said. “Drop anchor and pile one of the boats with all the rags and wood you can spare, douse it with pitch to make sure it smokes, and set it ablaze. Signal the other ships to do the same.”

This time he knew better than to linger and the boat was swiftly set adrift, casting a tall, twisting pillar of black smoke into the sky, soon joined by dozens more as the other ships followed suit. “Quite the beacon, Highness,” Larhten complimented her with a bow.

“Thank you.” She returned her gaze to the north. Though it’s like to draw as many enemies as friends.

The Volarians appeared as the sun began to fade, at least a hundred masts cresting the northern horizon with more appearing by the second. Lyrna’s beacon had gathered over thirty more strays as they waited at anchor but she knew any further delay would prove fatal.

“Raise all sails, Captain,” she told Larhten. “And signal the Red Falcon to remain at our starboard side. The other ships are to follow us.”

Larhten gave a sombre nod, eyeing the Volarian fleet with well-justified but controlled trepidation. “The course, Highness?”

She gave a laugh as she moved away, making for the bow, “Towards the enemy, good sir. With all possible haste.”

She found Alornis busily checking her engine, her hands moving with a speed and deftness that seemed almost unnatural. “Any damage, my lady?”

“Had to drain water from the pipes. And the fittings require a slight realignment.” Alornis hefted a mallet and began hammering at a copper tube on the engine’s underside. “But she’ll work, Highness.”

“Good. Take yourself below. Lords Iltis and Benten will see to the engine.”

Alornis didn’t even glance up, continuing to hammer away as the Volarians drew ever nearer. Lyrna sighed and turned to Murel. “There’s another mail shirt in my cabin. Please fetch it for Lady Alornis.” She drew Davoka aside, speaking softly in Lonak, “No harm is to come to her, sister. Promise me.”

“My place is by you.”

“Not today.” She gripped the Lonak woman’s arm. “She is your sister today. Promise me.”

“You fear her brother’s wrath so?”

Lyrna lowered her gaze. “You know it’s not his wrath I fear.”

Davoka gave a reluctant nod, taking the mail shirt from Murel and striding towards Alornis. “Put this on, little one.”

Lyrna joined Lord Nortah arranging a fighting party on the deck, fifty of his best fighters equipped with broad wooden panels for shielding against arrows. “My lord, I should like to address your troops.”

He bowed and issued a curt order, the company snapping to attention with a uniform stamp of boots. She scanned their faces, gratified by their lack of fear and the devotion that continued to colour every gaze. “I said once I wouldn’t lie to you,” she told them. “And I won’t. We face a hard fight because I have made a grievous error. But I also tell you no lie when I say that this battle can be won, if you will stand with me.”

The instant shout of acclaim was enough to convince her further words were unnecessary. “Spare no enemy,” she told Nortah. “Every Volarian that sets foot on this deck must be killed before he can take another step.”

Unlike his soldiers, Lord Nortah’s agreement was softly spoken, his expression the same cautious frown he always wore in her presence. “I’ll see to it, Highness.”

She returned to the bow, taking a position on the raised platform just behind Alornis and the engine. Benten and Iltis were close on both sides of her whilst Murel stood behind, dagger in hand. Davoka crouched at the side of the engine, spear held low in readiness.

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