“But is it returned, I wonder?” The woman angled her head, eyes closed as if listening to something, her smile becoming faint, wistful. “Ah. So sorry Lieza dear, but her heart is taken by another. She does feel a flicker of lust for you though, if it’s any consolation. Love may claim our hearts but lust will always claim our bodies. It is the traitor that lurks in every soul.” She opened her eyes again, smile gone as she frowned in sudden confusion. “Did I say that? Or did I read it somewhere?”

She stood in apparent bafflement for some time, unmoving but for a spasming tension to her face, eyes shifting from side to side in rapid jerks, mouth moving in an unheard dialogue until, as abruptly as it had begun, the confusion faded.

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“Embroidery,” she said, holding up the frame with its inexpert needlework, Reva noting the multiple brownish stains on the material and the dried blood on the Empress’s fingertips. “The wealthy women of Mirtesk were renowned for it. My father thought it the most productive use of time for a young lady of good birth.” The Empress looked at the fabric, sighing in frustration. “But not in my case. It was the first of Father’s many disappointments. Still I am improving, don’t you think?”

She held out the frame for Reva’s inspection. Amongst the bloodstains Reva made out some green and red thread tightly bunched into what might have been a rough approximation of a flower.

She said, “A blind ape could do better.”

The slave girl, Lieza, gave another involuntary gasp, eyelids blinking rapidly as she lowered her gaze, unwilling to witness what came next. “Oh stop mewling,” the Empress told her, rolling her eyes. “Don’t worry, the object of your fascination has many lively days ahead of her, I’m sure. Just how many is up to her of course.”

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Her gaze swivelled back to Reva, a new focus lighting her eyes. “A few of my soldiers survived Alltor, did you know that? Suffering great travails and privation to make it to Varinshold before it fell. General Mirvek, always a punctilious fellow, was assiduous in compiling their accounts before having them executed. Such wild talk would only unnerve his men after all. You see, these men spoke of a witch at Alltor, a witch made invincible by the power of her god, wielding a sword that could cut through steel and a charmed bow that never missed. One even claimed to have met her and, half-mad though he was, he did provide a fulsome description.”

Reva recalled the prisoner they had hauled from the riverbank the morning after the first major assault was driven back, a twitching, wide-eyed wreck of a man. It was strange, but she found herself regretting his death. The Volarians had been monstrous, but that scared, wasted soul had no more threat to offer than a starved dog.

“Elverah,” the Empress went on. “They stole my name and gave it to you. I should be angry. You know its meaning?”

“Witch,” Reva said. “Or sorceress.”

“‘Sorceress’ is a silly word, meaningless really since sorcery is just fable. Incantations scribbled in ancient books, foul-smelling concoctions that do nothing but churn the stomach. No, I always preferred ‘witch,’ though the meaning changes a little in the dialect of the people who named me Elverah. You see, they afforded authority to those with the greatest power, regardless of its source. Be it skill in arms or what your people call the Dark. Power is power, so the name Elverah could also be translated as ‘queen.’” She gave a soft laugh. “When my soldiers called you a witch, they were also calling you a queen.”

“I have a queen.”

“No, dearest little sister, you had a queen. I expect to receive her head shortly, should my admiral recover her body from the sea.”

Reva fought to contain the upsurge of rage and uncertainty. Everything you feel tells her more, she admonished herself. Feel nothing. But it proved a hopeless cause, for thoughts of Queen Lyrna’s demise inevitably led to images of one who had not been with her.

“Ah.” The Empress said with a weary sigh. “And so he comes to plague us yet again.” She regarded Reva with a raised eyebrow, her mouth slightly twisted in faint annoyance. “I hear he marched an army the length of your Realm in less than a month just to save you. What will he do now, I wonder?”

Feel nothing! Reva filled her mind with calming images, joyfully coiling in the dark with Veliss . . . Ellese stumbling about the gardens with her wooden sword . . . But it all faded in the light cast by a single thought, bright with certainty: He will come here, free me and kill you.

The Empress’s face twitched again, all humour faded, and when she spoke her voice was flat, emotion vanished by the coldest logic. “He has a singer with him, doesn’t he? I can hear her. Her song is strong, but dark. Stained by too much innocent blood. But I expect you know how that feels.”

She stepped closer, the framed fabric dropping from her hand, raising blood-smeared fingers to caress Reva’s face. “It has been over a century since I enjoyed a woman,” she continued in the same empty voice. “A sweet girl from some northern town, the family newly risen to the red. Raised in indulgence, she found fascination in extremity, taking wicked delight in my many tales of murder. I doubt she found her own so delightful, though I made it quick.”

Feel nothing! Reva’s cheek bunched under the Empress’s touch, provoking a treacherous tremble in her flesh, the shackles taut between her wrists.

“But,” the Empress said, tracing a fingertip along Reva’s chin, “since my return I find there is scant allure in any flesh, and all that once gave me joy is now but a dim remembrance. I didn’t understand it before, the Ally’s need. But now it becomes clear, endless years of awareness uncoloured by feeling, save the hunger for it to end. Worse than any death.”

Unable to bear it any longer, Reva jerked her face away from the Empress’s touch, her cheek stinging as if she had been slapped. “You should kill me,” she grated. “Here and now. If you are wise, you will not allow the slightest chance I might loose these chains.”

She heard Lieza take an involuntary step backwards, her breath now coming in ragged, panicky gasps.

“And where would be the entertainment in that?” the Empress asked, her voice regaining some expression. “My people do love their spectacles so, and they’ll find plenty to bay at in you, I’m sure . . .”

Abruptly, the Empress fell silent, all expression fading from her face as she raised it, turning towards the western wall. Just for a second a spasm of naked anger crossed her face, the elegant features drawn in frustrated rage, but then softening as she hissed a soft breath. “It appears, little sister,” she said to Reva, “I have an admiral to execute. Your queen clings stubbornly to her head after all. Still, I’ve no doubt she’ll provide as much entertainment as you, in time.”

She turned to the guards, “Return my little sister to Varulek, and give him this one too.” She flicked a hand at Lieza. “They are to be confined together, I’m keen to provide my new sister with all comforts, in between spectacles. Tell him I think the tale of Jarvek and Livella would make for a fine introduction. The crowd always do appreciate the classics.”

She moved away, casting a final command over her shoulder, softly spoken but dark with intent, “And tell the overseers in the vaults to finish preparing my new general.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

Frentis

He clawed at the cord, fingers digging into his flesh as he sought to gain enough purchase to snap it. The red-armoured man laughed and drove another kick into his belly, forcing the air from his body, the cord stifling an involuntary shout. “No more now,” the man cautioned with a grin, looming closer. “She doesn’t want you damaged.”

He placed a booted foot on Frentis’s chest and forced him to the floor, his two companions coming forward with shackles. “She said to tell you,” the man with the cord went on, pressing harder with his boot, “you can choose which one of your friends gets to live. Just one though.”

Frentis tried to kick out at the man crouching at his feet, but he dodged the flailing foot, catching his ankles and bearing down with a crushing weight. The other one had already taken hold of his arms, pulling them over his head and snapping a manacle over his right wrist.

“Can’t think why she wants you so badly,” the grinning man said, eyes tracking over Frentis’s prostrate form with calm disinterest. “When she could have any one of u—”

A sudden crash of breaking glass and the grinning man appeared to have grown a crossbow bolt from his temple, head swivelling as his lips slackened to mumble gibberish before he collapsed facedown on the floor. The window opposite exploded as Illian propelled herself through it feet-first, landing astride Lemera’s corpse with sword drawn. She flicked a cut at the man holding Frentis’s arms, leaving a deep wound on his forehead as he dodged away with a remarkable swiftness. His companion avoided her next blow altogether, rolling and coming to his feet with sword drawn in a perfect backward somersault. However, they had both been obliged to release their hold on Frentis.

He came to his knees in a whirl, the chain manacled to his wrist blurring like a whip as it caught the man nearest him about the legs. He jerked it tight, bearing his enemy to the floor, then leapt, bringing both feet down on his head, the neck snapping with a crack. Frentis claimed the man’s sword and turned to find Illian engaged in a desperate struggle with the other, her sword moving in frantic swipes as he drove her back, her face a picture of frustration whilst the red-armoured man wore the same maddening grin as his fallen comrade. Frentis whipped his chain at him, causing him to dance aside with a speed that would have shamed even a Kuritai, but leaving enough room for Illian to thrust at his neck. He parried the blow with consummate ease but had no counter for the stroke Frentis delivered to his leg, the blade sinking deep enough to grind on the bone. The man swore, but his face betrayed no anger, just amusement and even admiration, inclining his head at Frentis in appreciation even as Illian’s sword point pierced his throat.

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