Brian G Turner spent over 20 years researching mediaeval living history before publishing the first book in the Chronicles of Empire series.

He also visited historic sites, re-enactments, and learned many of the skills his characters use — not least horse-riding, archery, and sword-fighting — to provide for a more realistic character experience.

He currently lives in the Highlands of Scotland with his family.


 

Copyright © 2016 Brian G Turner

 

The right of Brian G. Turner to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Condition of sale

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

 

US edition

Version 3

  

Cover design by Julie F. Turner

 

Published by Brite

www.brite.co.uk


 

CHRONICLES OF EMPIRE

GATHERING

Brian G Turner

 


 

Dedication

 

To mum, for always believing in me.


 

Acknowledgements

 

Firstly, many thanks to everyone at the chronicles forums for providing critical feedback at every stage of the writing process.

Secondly, special thanks also to my development editor, Teresa Edgerton, who worked through two drafts with incredible forbearance.

My thanks also for additional professional editing by Juliet Mushens (Tor UK), Kim Graff (Wild Things Press), and Paula Munier (Talcott Notch Literary Agency).

Special thanks to Gary Wake for the original inspiration, and also Debra and Darren Allan, Damaris Brown, Jennifer L Carson, Anna Dickinson, Elaine Frei, J Scott Marryat, and CR Van Meter for their insights and suggestions.

Last but not least, loving thanks to my wife for more than I have room to mention.

 


 

Contents

 

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Contents

The Fate of the World

PART 1: DANGEROUS PEOPLE

A Walking Dead Man

Small Blessings

Serving the Goddess

The Sun Flower

City of Legends

The Traitor

Familiar Dangers

An Audience with Councilor Amberlin

Dreams and Fortune

A Conspiracy Revealed

Blind Faith

Setting a Trap

Sword of Power

First Kill

 


 

The Fate of the World

Rodrigan

 

Rodrigan galloped along the hunting track — after four days of hard riding, he was almost safe.

Branches whipped his traveling robes as he wound his way uphill. Twilight came fast. Winter’s shadows grew deeper and the threat of ambush increased. Though his bay mare was lathered with sweat, he spurred her on.

The trees fell away and castle walls loomed, bathed in Saturnyne’s silver moonlight. Smaller Pheiros added a suitably bloody hue to the banners that fluttered from the battlements.

Rodrigan exhaled with relief, but there was no time for complacency — with a hand over the sword at his hip, he circled the curtain wall. He dared slow his mount only when her hooves drummed up to the postern gate.

A shout went up. Ropes creaked, chains clanked, and metal screeched as a portcullis was raised. He ducked under it as he rode into a torch-lit bailey. Men-at-arms stirred. A pair of grooms came running.

Rodrigan dismounted and stamped his feet to force them to life. He crossed the courtyard with a glance up at the keep, praying to Omicron, Pollos, and the Light that the others had waited for him.

The main doors groaned open. He marched into a passageway, dragged his robes over his head and discarded them. He smoothed down his red tunic, then brushed the dust from his burnished breastplate. A sentry opened a door for Rodrigan to enter the great hall.

Heat slammed into him. Bright orange flames roared in a huge fireplace. A myriad of candles glowed under a vaulted ceiling, like captured stars. The air was filled with the aromas of roasted meat and spices. A half-eaten calf’s head was upon an oak dining table, its brains scrambled with egg around it on a bed of rice and greens. Rodrigan’s belly growled at the sight of hot food, but he pushed it from his thoughts. He strode at the figure seated there.

Councilor Molric rose to his feet. Glossy black hair fell across broad shoulders robed in imperial blue. “Lord Rodrigan, it is good to see you at last.”

Rodrigan planted his fists on the table. He fought to keep his voice steady. “It might have been longer if I’d been waylaid. I’ve risked much and sinned greatly for you.”

“For the good of the empire. And for the return of your father. He is the past that unlocks our present. I have not forgotten. Please, do join me.”

That promise had brought Rodrigan here — but Molric needed to offer more. Rodrigan tore his gaze away, and seated himself with as much dignity as his weary legs could manage.

“How did it fare with King Servitos?”

“He would not support you.” Rodrigan made the councilor wait before he forced a smile. “Then he broke his neck, while taking a bath. Alas, I saw him fall.” Rodrigan had surprised the old king — grabbing, then twisting, his head. The body had dropped into the water, splashing Rodrigan’s black boots with red rose petals.

Molric tutted. “Did you convey my condolences to the heir?”

“He accepts your terms.”

Molric’s smile reached his eyes. “Good.”

Rodrigan poured a spiced wine and slaked his thirst. Frustration balled in his gut at the silence. “And? I’ve done my part. Now play yours.”

“I have already summoned the others. I tracked your biometric signature over the past few miles. They are coming.”

A heavy door opened. Bishop Serannos slipped nervously into the hall, the spindly man wearing his white and gold vestments of office. Duke Normon stomped in after, his face drunkard red — his soldiers were only days from the capital, but that would not be enough to ensure the safety of Rodrigan’s father.

The duke rang a bell. Servants entered and cleared the previous course. They refilled each goblet, then brought in desserts of fruit tarts and pastries drizzled in honey, before leaving again.

Two women trailed into the hall, their faces powdered and their golden hair curled, dressed in fine gowns of white gossamer with stoles of silver fur across their shoulders. The Pannarion twins. Not even thirty years old and they controlled the richest trading fleet in the empire. Their reputations were as big as their purses — Daria and Eira, avarice and vice.

Rodrigan drummed his fingers impatiently, wanting something to hang his hopes for his father onto. Here sat six conspirators who could decide the fate of the world.

Molric finally took the floor. “The Corianth Empire risks fragmenting again if we do not act. The Emperor is old and frail and has no successor, and the Order of Omicron has no Holy Father to anoint a new one.”

“Not yet,” Rodrigan interrupted. His father was not simply the last surviving cardinal, but the Cardinal Pontifex. He alone had the authority to rebuild the Order, if it were made safe for him to return. That would require something extraordinary.

“Allow me to detail my plan.” Molric pulled back a sleeve, and tiny lights pulsed to life along a metal bracer. The air above the table shimmered and formed into a stunning image.

Rodrigan was startled to his feet, his hand reaching for the hilt of his sword. Then stared upon the kingdoms of the Corianth Empire, as if seen by some soaring eagle. Tentatively, he reached forward, as if to touch the fields and towns represented. Colors fell across his hand. He felt nothing, but drew back immediately.

The others also stood, their voices raised. They demanded to know what they looked at, how, and why.

Molric ignored their questions, and acted as if this was all ordinary. “The Monument Trade Route is secured. Now we can arm our allied kingdoms.” As he described the situation and advantage of each, its place on the map glowed.

Rodrigan narrowed his eyes, seeking some revelation. Molric finished speaking without providing one. “Is that it? Your grand plan is to ship weapons?”

Daria shared a derisive snort with her sister. “Turning gold into steel is a poor deal for anyone. We should have spoken with Father Dinemetis instead.”

Rodrigan flashed with anger. Exhausted and weary, he’d not become a king-killer to hear that man spoken for. He stood to snarl his objection.

Molric cut him off. “I agree. Arms alone are not enough to secure our position. Let me show you what will.” He walked over to a wall, and unbolted two tall window shutters. A frigid wind blew in as he opened them, and caused the candle flames to dance. He indicated to the darkness outside. “Look, and doubt me no more.”

Rodrigan hauled himself over, and stared into the night. The others joined him.

Molric waved his arms. A muster field beyond the castle walls lit up, as if day had fallen only upon that area. Stone outbuildings lay illuminated, a cluster of barrels between them. A man came into view, holding a burning torch. Molric signaled — the figure touched his flame to a barrel and a bright, white spark came to life.

Rodrigan sought any sign of mirrors that might point to the source of this trickery. He found none. Clearly Molric was wondrously clever when it came to light, but that alone could not —

A flash like lightning. The buildings erupted into a cloud of smoke and dust. The air seemed to shatter. Rodrigan gripped the window to steady himself. Hot grit pricked his face. He could only stare, his heart hammering, as the smoke drifted away in that unnatural light.

The echo rumbled from nearby hills. A dark hole stood among the buildings, now ruined to their foundations. Rubble lay strewn across the field. From the bailey below came the whinnies of frightened horses, and the shouts of startled men.

Molric turned, his posture commanding. “I come from the future. I bring new technology ... knowledge of explosives. That is the true cargo for the Monument Trade Route.”

Rodrigan could only gape at the destruction before his eyes, trying to make sense of it. The figure had gone — dead, or disappeared?

Daria turned, a drop of blood on her cheek. She touched it with a finger, looked, then tasted it. “I do believe I have the honor of being first bloodied.”

Bishop Serannos staggered back from the window with fright in his eyes. “What witchcraft is this?”

“None at all,” Molric replied above the clamor from outside. “It is alchemical. A black powder of saltpeter, brimstone ... and other substances. Kept safe for transport as a dried cake in barrels.”

Duke Normon had paled. “You could bring down a castle’s walls with a gesture.”

“That is the intention,” Molric said.

Rodrigan gazed dumbly outside, his chest still thumping with shock. Such a tremendous weapon could allow his father to escape years of hiding. The Cardinal Pontifex might finally return in glory. Rodrigan turned to Molric, and smiled.

Molric nodded. “In my own time I saw this planet burn, and every soul turned to ash. From this moment on we change its fate to prevent that. We have an empire to rebuild, and all of humanity to save.”


 

PART 1: DANGEROUS PEOPLE

 


 

A Walking Dead Man

Sirath

 

Sirath stumbled along the dirt track — if they caught him, they’d hang him.

Sleet lashed him, stung his face, and left his ragged clothes clinging icily to his skin. Taking the seven mules had been his drunken revenge, and should have compensated for what he’d been cheated from at cards. But now he realized it’d all been a stupid idea.

He looked behind for signs of pursuit. Only the wind came at him, howling down the valley to drive the cold through his bones. Gray cloud smothered bleak hills. Thunder rumbled. The storm was growing worse.

His legs cramped and he was becoming dizzy. He'd fled through the night and needed somewhere to stop, hide. Rest a little. At least to recover his breath. But he didn’t know where he was, and he’d seen no sign of shelter since morning broke. He might have to abandon the animals to move faster. Then he’d have risked everything for nothing.

A dark line crossed the foot of a hill ahead. It could be an overhang. Sirath picked up his pace. As he drew nearer his heart rose in hope — that was a split in the rock, and might just be deep enough to bring the animals in.

He scrambled up a boggy incline toward it, willing the mules to move faster. The lead animal tossed its head — Sirath slipped from his feet and fell on his back. Fearing to be trampled, he rolled aside. Only the stink of the mule’s coat assaulted him. “Bollocks!” He stood and wiped off black mud that now smeared his clothing. He grabbed the rope. “Come on you stupid bloody animals!”

He continued up. His eyes watered from the sleet and frustration. His boots dragged through mud, slid on gravel. Then the ground leveled and he staggered into the cool, still air of a cavern. He blinked and exhaled with relief. Then breathed in the smell of wood smoke.

Faint with panic, barely daring to move, he turned.

A bear of a man, clad in black wool and furs, sat ahead by a small fire. A broken bow lay in his lap. A leather sack and a sword sheathed in sheepskin were near his feet.

Sirath’s guts sank. He couldn’t stand against someone like this at the best of times, let alone when exhausted. But the big, white northerner looked up with friendly eyes, and smiled.

There was no turning back now without creating suspicion. Sirath faced him with what felt more like a grimace than a smile. “You don’t mind ... if I shelter in your cave, do you?”

“Aye, share my fire if you will.” The voice was deep, the accent rustic. “I’m Ulric. Blessed be you.”

“Er, blessings, too. I’m Sirath.” He cursed under his breath for giving out his name without thinking. Gutter Jack might not follow this far out from Canalecht, but with the merchant likely somewhere behind, it was a careless mistake. Still, Sirath dared to challenge his fear. This might just be some harmless traveler, happened upon the only cover for miles. With shaking knees, Sirath risked guiding the mules to the back of the cave. He remained with them, pretending to check the rope that tied them together. All the while he stole furtive glances at Ulric, keeping every sense open for the first strike of movement. And readied to run with whatever breath he had left.

But Ulric didn’t stare or fidget, or glance at his sword. He seemed more concerned about unstringing his broken bow. And his blade was out of easy reach. If Ulric was tracking for a bounty he was either very clever, or very stupid. He was also dry — he couldn’t possibly know about what had happened at the inn.

Sirath kept back as long as possible, then tentatively approached. Closer up, Ulric looked younger — perhaps only a couple more years from boyhood than himself. Still much stronger, though. Sirath had to find a safe way to engage the big man. “This weather’s a sod.”

Ulric nodded. “Just like back home.”

“You’re not local, then?”

“No. Traveling.”

“Why? Hunting someone? No one dangerous around here, I hope?” Even as Sirath tried to joke about it, he could feel his scalp prickle with tension. He might be pushing things too hard, but he had to figure out if Ulric was a danger, and fast.

Ulric burst into hearty laughter. “Hunt someone? No, just game. Rabbits, birds. And boar, when allowed.”

Sirath pretended to share the man’s humor. “You must face some vicious bunnies to need a sword?”

Ulric shrugged. “Auntie got that at market. Was worried about me being attacked by outlaws.”

Sirath dared to edge nearer the fire. If Ulric was concerned about robbers, he might welcome company. Better to keep the big man relaxed and talking. “So ... where you going?”

“City of Corianth.”

“Sounds like a long way for you?”

“Just felt I should. Time to seek my place in the world. Walk away to find my fate.”

Sirath could tell there was a story not being told, but wasn’t about to pry. “Don’t get your hopes up. The gutter’s where most people end up when they seek their fortune. That’s where life puts them when they ask for too much. I’ve seen plenty of that. Ask for nothing, expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll remember not to ask for too much, then.” Ulric glanced aside. “You headed there?”

“Suppose I must be. I should sell them animals in the city hay markets. Get more coin than in some village backwater.”

“Weren’t you already going?”

“I might have been thinking about it. I just wandered, see where I ended up. Seeking my fortune, if you like.” Sirath smiled. He realized he’d relaxed a little. Ulric had an honest manner that was disarming. But Sirath still needed to remain on his guard.

They shared an awkward silence. A burst of hailstone rattled outside. Water dripped over the cave mouth.

Ulric threw a piece of his broken bow shaft onto the fire. “You see any wood back there?”

“No, but I’ll look again.” Sirath stood, glad for the chance to walk off his nerves. He found scattered ashes from previous fires, but nothing useful. So he wandered about the cavern, getting a measure of it. He looked for nooks and cracks he might sneak into if needed. But the walls were smooth, and there were only a few rocks that could provide any hiding place. He should move on, and soon, with or without Ulric — before someone less welcome appeared. Sirath checked on his mules to make sure they were settled and still tied together, and able to leave quickly.

Voices sounded behind.

Sirath spun around as two figures entered the cave. He ducked behind rocks, his throat tightening like he was going to be sick. He should never have taken those animals — they’d slowed him down and now he was a walking dead man.

Ulric spoke with the strangers. Sirath dared to glance up and saw a finger pointed his way. What a fool he’d been not to realize Ulric might be with company! No wonder the big man hadn’t looked worried, with accomplices close by. There was no point hiding now they all knew where he was.

Sirath planned to step forward with a cheeky wave and attempt some charm, hoping to win over some goodwill, even mercy. Instead he tripped and almost fell, his legs stiff from fear and the biting cold.

Two young women stood with Ulric, both about his own age. Sirath didn’t recognize them from the inn, and with a flutter of hope realized Ulric was introducing himself — he didn’t know them, either.

The nearest was pretty, sun-kissed bronze and blonde, with bright eyes. She had money and class, judging by her blue velvet jacket, white shirt, black breeches and boots. She carried nothing more than a leather satchel, and showed no sign of a concealed blade. “Merry meet! I’m Jerine. How do you do?”

The other wore a simple wool habit, with a bag at each shoulder. She pulled back her cowl to reveal the face of a black southerner, framed with short curls. “My name is Erin. I am an acolyte for the Order of Omicron.”

“Warm yourselves by the fire,” Ulric said. “You’re welcome to share.”

Erin put her bags down by her boots, water dribbling to the dust of the cave floor. “The light be with you, thank you for your hospitality. I did fear I might never escape this atrocious weather.”

Jerine seated herself on a rock beside Ulric. “We saw a mule train in the distance, and followed it here. We may not have found shelter, otherwise.”

Sirath kept back and gritted his teeth. He cursed his bad luck to have led the women here. Jerine smiled too easily, and he distrusted privilege on sight. But it was the acolyte who unsettled him most — he’d suffered enough of the Order’s gang violence on the streets of Canalecht. Sirath wanted nothing more than both women gone. But he’d enemies enough, and willed his mouth to stay shut against making more — if he could manage that.

Ulric took out a mean hunting knife and began to carve the remaining piece of wood from his bow. The first shavings sparked as they fell into the fire. The women chatted with him about the weather.

Sirath twitched, watching in case anyone else appeared. Jerine might have servants following, and it would only take one to have heard talk of a mule thief. No one came. But he needed to know if he should just run now. “You two traveling alone?”

Jerine nodded. “We met a short way back along the track.”

Sirath’s stomach uncoiled with relief — but it was clear he should leave. It might be better to sell the mules to Jerine, and escape with coin in his hand. He pointed to the animals. “If you’d prefer to ride instead of walk, you could always buy them.”

Jerine followed his gaze and appeared thoughtful. “If they’re broken in for riding, I may like to borrow them.”

“Borrow?” Sirath repeated. You couldn’t trust anyone, but the rich even less. “I rode one for a bit. Didn’t want to get rubbed raw. Why?”

“There’s a road in these hills that leads to Arris Town. I’m going there to meet my twin sister, at an inn. She’s offering work in Corianth.”

Sirath narrowed his eyes. “What sort of work?”

“I’m not sure. It’s for a city councilor, so the pay should be good. If any of you are interested?”

Ulric shrugged. Erin looked away.

“Sounds tempting,” Sirath said. Solid work meant a full purse, and was better than being lost and hunted in these hills. Especially as he remembered cities as expensive places. If she was telling the truth. “Why did you say borrow? You don’t want to pay for the mules?”

“We can’t be far, so I wouldn’t need to buy them. However, there are all sorts of expenses for maintaining healthy animals. Stabling, feeding, grooming, the cost of a surgeon — ”

“Alright,” Sirath snapped, annoyed because he didn’t have a penny for their care. “What’s your offer?”

“If you allowed us the use of your mules, I would pay for their costs.”

Sirath tried to find the trap in this arrangement. Jerine could just disappear with everything. When you stole horses in Canalecht you used stealth and luck, and if it all went wrong, the speed of the animals. Sirath looked at the mules — they hadn’t moved fast for him. Jerine was right about the expense, though. Either she was a dangerous trickster, or a potential patron. At the moment he couldn’t tell which. “That's all good talk, but do you have the money for it? I don’t mean to be disrespectful or nothing, but words are more easily said than done.”

Jerine picked up her leather satchel and unstrapped it. She pulled out a bag of black velvet, tied up with string, and passed it to him. “Take a peek in there.”

Sirath frowned — no sane person handed over a purse to a stranger. But his greed was fired and he took it anyway. It was heavier than he expected. “By, that’s a weight ... you must have a few rocks in that!” He laughed, trying to cover his feelings of unease and excitement. He loosened the string — awkward with cold fingers — and pulled it open. His smile froze as he found the bag filled with money. Sirath slowly lifted out a decate sovereign, almost as large as his palm, and whistled involuntarily. He held gold in his hand!

That alone would allow him to live like a king for months. The rest was mostly silver guilders, Irithian issue, so more highly valued for their purity. He wondered whether he could get away with palming the sovereign — probably not as he'd drawn attention to it. He might still be able to slip a guilder or two into his boot, though his hands were still too numb to risk deft movement. In fact, why not just run with the purse out of the cave and have it all?

Sirath looked up and saw Jerine smiling through him. Ulric’s knife glinted as he whittled beside her. Sirath shivered, and this time not from the cold. So why did Jerine allow Sirath to hold her fortune? Ah, but she was offering opportunity. Hiding and stealing was a way to survive on the streets, but in Jerine's world, you used promises backed with gold. That was the whole point of money.

They could both travel in the safety of a group. Sirath had the transport, and Jerine the coin to pay for it. Everyone won. The revelation only took a moment, but it left him feeling awkward. “You’re going to get robbed if you keep offering your purse. Quick, get this lot out my face before I’m tempted myself.”

And that was that. Sirath had made his decision. No more running.

Jerine smiled. “Oh, I knew you wouldn't.”

Sirath fumbled with the string. He sighed and returned it with the purse to Jerine. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at doing knots. I’m a lot better at undoing them.”

“So, Sirath, do you trust my word now?”

He put on an agreeable voice, “Jerine, I liked you lots already ... now I like you even more. If you’re paying costs then you’re welcome to use my animals.” Sirath waited until she’d tied her purse, then with a wink flipped over the guilder he’d palmed.

He didn’t enjoy the thought of traveling with Erin. And Ulric was more likely to listen to Jerine than him. But Sirath would have to risk it. Better to leave with a group who knew where they were going, than be lost alone and hunted in these hills. He could only hope Jerine made good on her word. Otherwise life was going to get very dangerous, very fast.


 

Small Blessings

Erin

 

Erin followed the others out from the cave and prepared to continue her journey — and face judgment in the city of Corianth.

She pulled her sodden habit in against a bracing wind. At least the sleet had stopped, and it would be a relief to travel in company again. Sirath lined up the mules and glared at her. Jerine told everyone to mount them. The animals had no saddle to hold onto, and Erin struggled to climb up.

Ulric crouched down. “Stand on my leg.” He held his arm out to steady her.

She used him to haul herself over. The mule’s back was hard and wet and uncomfortable, but she thanked Ulric for his kindness.

When everyone was ready, Jerine led them at a walk along the dirt track. Erin gripped tightly to the mule’s mane to stop herself from slipping off. They crossed a low ridge, then over boggy heath that sucked at the animals’ hoofs.

Every step took her closer to her presentation, and ordination. The moment she had spent her life dreaming about. Now it brought only dread — of facing a life of no faith, within or without the Order. It had begun when she had watched the village children die, God deaf to her prayers. If her faith had cracked then, Mallian had made it a chasm.

“Tired?”

Erin looked up. Jerine had dropped back to ride alongside her. Erin smiled weakly. “A little.”

“I’m sorry we weren’t able to speak properly before, above the storm,” Jerine said. “Where are you from? Your accent is familiar.”

“I ... I have traveled from Pora, across the Angellenic Sea from Mardin.”

“I thought so! I’ve just come from Mardin. I always loved swimming in the sea. Ah, the beaches and fishes. And, of course, the Great Library. Did you visit there?”

Erin shook her head. “I could not stay long.”

“That’s a shame. The Great Library is wonderful. Mardin is a beautiful place.”

Erin was not so sure. There she had been surrounded by the contrasts of the ancient city. White gleaming towers, said to be encrusted with gems by Queen Messilda herself, dropped their shadows over slum alleyways ravaged by poverty. The charity of the Order had been nowhere in sight. The Order of Omicron had forgotten its own foundations. Instead of blessing the poor, it served the rich. No wonder God had become lost to her.

Erin fidgeted with her sandalwood prayer necklace. “I am grateful to travel with you, and for shelter at the inn when we arrive. Yet once I reach Corianth, my presentation is everything.” Erin felt a pang of guilt to decline the offer of employment, when she would have wandered astray in these hills without Jerine’s guidance. Erin feared to have offended by the refusal.

Jerine raised a hand and halted. “Aha, here we are!”

It was an old road, long in disrepair, with cracked stones strewn about the heather. It was probably what Erin had been directed to find before — she must have turned onto a cattle track by mistake. Another misjudgment on her part.

Jerine suggested that they ride alongside the road rather than on it. Partly to avoid a trip and fall, but also because the mules had not been shod.

They continued for a long time in silence. The afternoon drew on to evening. Daylight faded as they reached empty pastures enclosed by dry stone walls. At the monastery they would be going through the ritual of Evening Song, in thankfulness for the day. Erin said a silent prayer for humility, guidance, and revelation.

A moonless night fell upon them.

Ulric dismounted, and walked ahead with a burning rag on a stick for a torch. But it cast little light, and Erin could barely see anything. Gray shapes moved by the road and startled her, until she heard them bleat. She kept her head down, her spirits increasingly unsettled to travel after dark among strangers. Ulric had shown her kindness, and Jerine appeared friendly, educated, and well-born. But Sirath’s expression remained hostile to her — she would have to take care around him.

Then timber buildings loomed out from the gloom. Lamplight and muffled voices escaped through cracked shutters. It was a relief when Jerine announced this was Arris Town.

Jerine stopped by a passageway, and stepped up to a door. A lantern behind a linen window illuminated a weathered sign. It read The Apple Tree, a simple picture underlined by the common signs for an inn.

Erin carefully slid down from her mule, into a slurry of mud and dung.

Jerine and Sirath conferred quietly among themselves, then both looked at her. For a moment Erin feared she was to be ostracized for some cruel amusement — as when her original companions had abandoned her at Canalecht. However, Jerine waved her over. With relief Erin realized that they had probably been deliberating on who would stay with the mules, while accommodation was organized.

Jerine opened a creaking door, and indicated for Erin to follow.

She stepped into a common room filled with a warm, orange light. A healthy fire burned in a hearth. A handful of trestle tables and benches were set out, and a single lamp. A pair of doors and a narrow staircase stood to one side.

A handful of old men, dressed in woolens, were the only company. They grew quiet to stare, then resumed their game of jok squares. The monastery had a set, the squares of drilled wood polished smooth with age. Erin had been good at it — enough to earn extra bruises from Sister Alexia.

Erin would be humiliated if she were forced to return. Father Clement would try to look kindly upon her, but everyone else would laugh if she failed to be ordained. No one else from the monastery ever had. As if she had not already brought enough shame on herself by her affair with Mallian. He could have been a comfort to her now.

The first time she had entered a tavern was with him — a long evening of dancing and joy. The last, he had spat at her feet and lain in the arms of another woman. Erin touched the thin, copper bracelet he had once given her as a token of love. It was all she had left of him.

Erin remembered where she was, and smiled apologetically in case anyone had noticed her distracted, and seen through her and her guilt. One of the old men stared out with white-blind eyes. That made her shudder — there was something about blindness that disturbed her, not least how the eyes moved but saw nothing.

“Hello?” Jerine said aloud. “I'm looking for lodging for four, food and drink, and somewhere to stable our animals.”

A small plump woman with ruddy cheeks and a cheerful smile entered through one of the doors. A linen apron barely contained her ample body, and a wimple covered her messy hair. “Blessings on you. I'm Nel, the landlady.”

“And to you,” Jerine replied.

“Fortune is with you. I have spare beds to share in the dormitory upstairs. Most folk have already traveled through to the city for the Spring Fair.” Nel gave them both a pitying look. “Let's get some food and mulled cider in you, first. Sit yourselves by the fire. I’ll not charge for the heat, unless it’s from your cups!”

Jerine clasped Erin on the shoulder. “Stay here while I see that Sirath and Ulric have the mules properly stabled.”

Erin was thankful to remain in the warmth, but as Jerine disappeared outside, felt self-conscious to be left alone. Fearing to be stared at, she kept her head down and approached an empty table by the hearth. It would be a relief to get some feeling back into her cold body — she had never imagined these northern climes could be so harsh, even in spring. She placed her bags on the packed earth floor, where they squelched over the rushes.

She should have forsaken her vows and run away with Mallian. She should have never insisted on completing her presentation first. A tremor of grief rumbled through her chest.

“I’ll be serving a fish stew soon, if you’re hungry?”

Erin could only nod as Nel flashed a polite smile. It had been a weary day of travel and she was hungry, but always feared the expense of accommodation. She only had a little money left, including the coins Father Clement had kindly provided for a room in the city, as opposed to the college dormitory — to allow Erin privacy to heal herself. Inns and way stations along the Imperial Way had proven extortionate. Even temples sought to charge an acolyte for a roof over her head. She had avoided them after Canalecht, and slept in barns and stables — luxurious by comparison to the pallet bed of her cell. She simply had to remain wary, in case some lusty groom feared little to harm a servant of Pollos, though that would imperil his immortal soul.

First, she needed to get changed out of her cold, wet clothes. She opened one of her waxed bags to ensure her woolen tunic was dry. A folded square of leather lay upon it, protecting her sealed letters: her recommendation from Father Clement, and another from Father Nicoras, the last Cardinal Pontifex.

The second had excited her otherwise quiet mentor, no doubt because the Order of Omicron had been without a Holy Father or College of Cardinals for seventeen years. Though it made little sense why any cardinal should take an interest in an orphan such as her.

As she looked at the letters, a careless impulse came to throw them onto the fire. That would be done with the whole question of her presentation. Then she could just walk away from the world and disappear.

Erin sighed, releasing her tension. Whatever choices she had made, she was resigned to their consequences. Nothing would bring God back into her life, or the children from death, or return Mallian’s love to her. In the meantime, she would be warm and dry. That at least was a small blessing.


 

Serving the Goddess

Jerine

 

Jerine had to will her body to calm, and her arms to still. An excited tingle teased her spine, as if she was going to shiver or sneeze.

In the cave, her sense of the Goddess at work had been almost overwhelming.

It was even stronger here.

Though the light was weak, the common room felt too bright. And empty — the locals had left some while ago, and both Sirath and Erin had gone to change into dry clothes.

Jerine itched for them to return.

And to be reunited with her sister.

She clasped and unclasped her hands, her palms clammy. She needed some leaf to calm her. She reached into a pocket and took one, rolling it between her fingers to release the juices faster. As she chewed and savored its bitter taste, a welcome warmth spread under her skin.

Rain rattled against the window shutters. The fire crackled in the hearth. Except for Ulric rummaging through his bag, this is how it had looked ten years before — if somewhat smaller. When they’d been separated, despite all their tears and fearful pleading: Tilirine to travel with Corannian, and herself to Mardin with Uncle Niccolo. Nel had been here, too. And her husband with the gap-toothed smile and roaring laugh. He’d tried to distract Jerine with jokes and tumbling tricks, after her twin had been wrenched from her.

What would Tilirine be like now? The little girl who shared her spinning top and peg dolls, and played hiding games with the servants? Before the fire, when their parents were murdered. The only person who could share in her grief. The sister who’d cried herself to sleep and screamed herself awake, her burns blistered all over her head, sticky and weeping.

Boots stomped down the staircase. Jerine stood expectantly. Her heart rose — then sank.

It was just some young thug, tall and bull-chested. A mail shirt covered a long scarlet tunic, and he wore a greatsword at his back. His blond hair had been cropped short, and chin roughly shaved. Yet despite his martial appearance, he lacked the arrogant swagger of a soldier or bailiff. Instead, a deep sense of uncertainty emanated from him.

Jerine’s disappointment faded and her gaze fastened on him. Something prickled at her spine.

Nel re-appeared through a door. The pungent smell of smoked fish flowed into the common room after her. “Evening, Dalathos. I trust you rested well?”

“Aye,” he replied, his accent similar to Ulric’s. “Small ale.”

“I’ll fetch one from the cellar room.” Nel left through a door.

Dalathos walked to an empty table. He unbuckled his greatsword, then rested it against the wall behind. He seated himself, all the while avoiding Jerine’s stare. He seemed somehow familiar, as if she was supposed to know him. She had to discover how and why. She stepped forward, wondering how to open their conversation.

A hoarse whisper came from behind her. “Jerine?”

Her stomach dropped in recognition. The tone was pitched lower, deeper. But that rasp remained unchanged after a decade. Her sister’s voice had been damaged by the fire — and by the hole briefly cut into her throat to help her breathe. Slowly, Jerine turned.

Tilirine stood at the foot of the stairs, dressed head to foot in crimson robes. A deep hood covered her head, and a veil covered her face.

“Tilirine? Tilirine!” Jerine hurried over with trembling knees and embraced her.

Tilirine remained still and unyielding. It was like holding stone.

Jerine stepped back and ignored her sister’s cloudy eye to look into the good one, hoping to see joy reflected in it. All she found was a scowl. Jerine’s good humor was shaken by this cold stance. She crooked an uncertain smile. “And how have you been?”

Waiting.”

Jerine swallowed. “About that ... ”

“I have been here a full interval. If it were not for the rain today I might have left.”

Ten days was a long time to wait, and that did require patience. But so had ten years of separation. Jerine bristled at the chastisement. “I wouldn’t think you’d be put off by the weather?”

“It did not. But I thought it might give you another excuse.”

“Well, I’m here now.” Jerine tried to sound polite. She opened her arms. “I’ve welcomed you. Aren’t you going to welcome me in return?”

“No.” Tilirine turned her back, and walked to the table.

Jerine could only watch, astonished by the haughtiness. Was there so much distance between them now? They were sisters — twins! They were supposed to share a bond of blood. She tried to regain her composure as she sat down across from her, but any good cheer she’d felt dissipated. Worse still, she couldn’t feel her sister’s being, as she could with others — no sense of her emotions or thoughts at all. It was as if Tilirine was closed to her, even though she was the one person in the world she wanted to touch.

There was little point trying to explain anything while Tilirine was in this foul mood. Being late was regrettable, but Jerine could never have foreseen what would happen with the spring performances, or the murder of Decimos at the Crossroads Brotherhood. She had run when she could, and arrived when she should, and would make no apology for that. Especially for being guided by the Goddess onto that cattle track, and standing under that overhang, waiting, waiting to discover her reason for being there. Until Erin had appeared and Jerine had known she was meant to walk with her. She forced a polite smile. “How was your journey?”

“Mostly uneventful,” Tilirine said.

“Mostly?”

“Bandits stopped me on the road from Castea. They demanded my money or my life. I took both from them. The coins I left with an orphanage.”

Jerine stared, with no idea how to reply.

Ulric finished rummaging in his bag. “Hard to work buckles with cold hands.” His smile dropped as he looked at both sisters. He averted his gaze as he seated himself at their table.

An uncomfortable silence stifled them.

Sirath and Erin returned to the common room, breaking the tension. Sirath came from the privy, changed into a plain tunic and hose that Nel had provided, and were far too long on him. He looked ridiculous, but he smiled at Jerine. Erin came down the stairs in a woolen tunic and breeches. Nel appeared with a mug of ale for Dalathos, then took the wet clothes from Sirath and Erin, and hung them on a drying rack by the fire, before scurrying off again.

Jerine introduced everyone to her sister, but her attention drifted to Dalathos. Something about him seemed important, and she didn’t dare ignore that. But she also feared to further offend Tilirine, by abandoning her dour company too quickly. Jerine reached out with her being to feel the path of the Goddess, but found nothing. It was Tilirine’s manner that unbalanced her, and left her blind to what her next step should be.

Nel came back with a steaming pot and an armful of wooden bowls, spoons sticking out from the belly of her apron. She set them out, along with a damp, linen towel to clean hands with. Nel ladled thick servings of a pungent, dark cream stew of smoked fish, into each bowl. All the time she made small talk about the weather and her sister’s sheep.

Dalathos glanced over to their table, and Jerine could sense it was the smell of hot food that drew his attention — he’d ordered none. Now must be the moment to speak with him.

Jerine dared to stand, then strode over. “Merry meet! I don’t mean to intrude, but I feel rude leaving you to sit alone. Come, share our meal. I would be glad for you to join us.”

Dalathos looked up warily. “I enjoy my own company.”

Jerine centered herself in a sea of calm. She imagined herself standing serene, like an angel in an Apellis painting — allowing feelings of peace to wash out from her. “Consider the food a gift of spring. It would be a blessing if you ate with us.”

Dalathos frowned. He stared over to their table. “Well ... it would be rude to refuse that. Especially if you offered more ale. These cups are small.”

Jerine nodded. Dalathos stood and towered over her. He retrieved his greatsword. Jerine led him to her table, and introduced everyone. He pushed onto the bench beside Ulric. “Another bowl, please, Nel?” Jerine asked.

Erin said a blessing over the meal. Nel finished serving — her eyes lingered on Ulric, then she left.

Jerine carefully tasted the stew: a little fish, nowhere near as strong in her mouth as her nose, with chopped onions and pulses, stewed in sheep’s milk thickened with bean flour. After a long day traveling it was delicious. Everyone ate quietly, grateful for the food. But there remained the silence of strangers seated too close.

Sirath glanced anxiously at Dalathos, but Jerine challenged him with a raised brow to deny her act of hospitality. Sirath shrugged. “Did you offer that work to him, too?”

The whisper caught Tilirine’s attention. “What ... work would this be?”

“I mean them jobs of yours,” Sirath said.

Tilirine stared. “Jerine? What have you been telling these people?”

Jerine felt her chest tighten, and feared that her sister might work against her. “You mentioned work for the councilor in your letter — ”

“I told you I presumed he would want me to hire hands. I did not say there was a definite offer of employment. Only that it could be an opportunity for you, if you were short of money.”

“I’m sure he’ll be looking to hire, otherwise you wouldn’t have suggested it to me. And I’ve found them!”

Tilirine spoke carefully. “How many have you invited into this business?”

Jerine indicated around the table. “Only these. Including him.”

Dalathos scowled as he was pointed at. “What’s that?”

Jerine knew that she frayed what remained of Tilirine’s patience — but if the Goddess connected her to Dalathos, then she had to bring the man in now. “We could offer you paid work in the city. If that interests you?”

Dalathos scraped at his bowl. “I plan to find my own, thanks. I’m not interested. I don’t think Tilirine is, either.”

Tilirine glared at Jerine. “I do not share my sister’s enthusiasm because I was asked to await the councilor’s instructions. I did not plan on hiring without consent. He may not wish to at all.”

Ulric looked puzzled. “You not offering work, then?”

Tilirine sighed, and her tension visibly drained. “If the councilor does hire, he will ask me to do it. I only wish my sister had told me of her ... intentions, so I could have taken account of them.”

“Well, I’ve told you now,” Jerine said, thankful that she had been allowed that much.

“Yes. But promise me one thing.”

“Anything.”

Don’t invite anyone else to join with us, no matter how much you want to.”

“You have my word!” A shiver ran up Jerine’s back, and she sneezed. Her hands trembled as she looked to the others at her table. They all seemed so young, and none had any meaningful status. Was it possible for such ordinary people to help her on her own extraordinary path? She could only hope so.

Even though that meant her death.


 

The Sun Flower

Serannos

 

Bishop Serannos stood under the stars, the fate of the empire a weight upon his shoulders.

A biting wind cut through the ill-fitting robes he wore to maintain Molric’s deception. What he would not give for his vestments of authority, and the meager comforts of an inn. A servant or two would not go amiss, either. But Captain Lannas had ordered the groaning barge anchored midstream, to ensure that this journey remained as clandestine as possible. Serannos leaned his elbows against the rail of the deck. The inky river lapped the hull below.

Far ahead in the darkness lay the city of Corianth. There the Sun Flower would take on board her cargo: weapons and armor, oil from the pitch springs of Accadras. And barrels of witchfire — as Molric’s terrible powders had been named. Then return sail to Mardin, where Serannos would rejoin his entourage, arm Molric’s allies, and become the savior of Irithia — by preventing Bishop Honarios from crowning Nicepheros Comas both as king, and a false Emperor. In their gratitude, Irithian lords would clamor for Serannos to become their new cardinal. They would deliver to him the richest bishopric of the empire. He might even be nominated to become the next High Priest for the College of Ministers.

Only that ambition warmed him now.

Captain Lannas left the ship’s cabin. Light and laughter briefly escaped with him, like foul air. The captain buttoned his long black coat as he approached. He settled his elbows on the railing and looked up at the stars.

Serannos felt compelled to greet him, “The light be upon you, captain.”

Captain Lannas nodded and doffed his leather cap. “Hullo, bishop.”

Serannos found the silence that followed uncomfortable. “May I ask why you are out here?”

“You may.”

Serannos waited. Annoyance forced him to ask, “And may I expect a reply to such a polite question?”

The captain grinned and scratched his black beard. “I was just looking out and thinking.” He pointed to the sky. “That there is Alteranin, moving through Herel the Shepherd. That’s my lucky star, and my birth sign, too. A good omen. Why are you out here this cold evening, bishop?”

“I became tired of my view.”

“You don’t fare too well on water, do you? Still, we’ve got less than a day’s plain sailing ahead. The swollen current will speed our way.”

Serannos sighed. “Only to endure the return journey.”

Captain Lannas laughed. “You can’t even cope with the ease of a river crossing? Just imagine the hardships if we sailed the far blue ocean. The heave of the waters and the roll of the deck, the roar of the spray and the thunder of — ”

“Enough!” Serannos fought to regain his composure. “That has nothing to do with our situation, and does little to alleviate my discomfort and boredom.”

“You don’t know when you’ve got it good. This is nothing to the terrors of the deep. You wait till you feel a ship really moving.”

“Your comments are pointless, tedious, and inane. We are not on any sea, but the most sailed river of the empire. If I were you, I would remember the task ahead.”

“You’re no barrel of laughs neither, bishop, but I does me job.”

“And what a poor one at that. You still fail to address me as Your Grace.”

Captain Lannas turned slowly. “Let me tell you, bishop ... there’s only one authority on my ship, and that’s me. That goes for all spiritual matters. I knows all about God, and I’ve got the amulets and charms to prove it. I avoid haunted places, and don’t let the spirits of broken timbers near my ship. I don’t say the real name for longtails, and I walk my ways well. I’ve seen God’s work. You don’t need to teach a sea-dog about fear and prayer.”

Serannos flushed with anger. “You dare lecture me on matters of morality?”

Captain Lannas lifted his face to the stars. “Are you sure you don’t mean conscience?”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s not like no-one knows what you’ve been doing to that pair of far-eyed boys you’re traveling with.”

Serannos snorted. He had only been able to bring two on board, new boys picked up from Canalecht. They lacked the training of the ones at home, but he was teaching them discipline. “My own private business is exactly that.”

“Maybe, but sailors is a superstitious lot. Tears and the sea mix bitterly, and my crew are made uneasy by them boys weeping. They’re already unsettled by rumors of this ... witchfire we’ll carry. You bear that in mind. Because, God grant that it doesn’t, should this ship leak, or snag a sandbar, or break out with fire, you’d better pray my men are on good terms with you. Else, by God, you’ll face the rising waters alone. Do you understand me, bishop?”

Serannos sighed, resigned to this distasteful temporal hospitality. “Yes, I do, captain.”

Captain Lannas tapped his cap as he turned, and walked back to the cabin.

Serannos felt dark clouds pass over him. He would pray for patience, to endure the moments before his reward. Then it occurred that, perhaps, he should pray first for his personal safety. Soon they would have Molric’s witchfire on board, and its power horrified him. He hurriedly circled the sign of Pollos at his chest, and placed his hand to his heart. He would never forget the sight of those stone buildings obliterated, and that terrible, terrible thunder that had washed over him. Soon, he would be upon a ship filled with a hold of it. Despite the chill wind, it was that thought which now made him shiver.


 

City of Legends

Dalathos

 

Dalathos enjoyed the morning sun on his cheeks, as he waited outside Nel’s inn with the others and their mules. The blue skies promised a proper spring day at last, and that was a good omen. The main street of Arris Town was a muddy road with a few tall timber-framed buildings, before the settlement became a cluster of small cottages. Like Tulst, back home, there was no defensive wall or palisade.

Though only a modest place, this had been the birthplace of Sephis the Great. The ruins of Phisadel were said to stand at the edge of the town. Dalathos was eager to see them, and touch something of the man and legend of so many fireside stories.

Then onto the city where Sephis had founded his empire — and Dalathos hoped to begin his apprenticeship. In his bag were his hammers and tongs, money to pay for a guild’s joining fee, and a letter of recommendation from his uncle. To prove his skill, Dalathos brought the sword and mail shirt he’d made, and wore them simply because it made more sense than carrying them. Truth be told, he found their weight on his body reassuring. Once settled in Corianth he planned to train through journeyman to master. One day he might even smith for the Emperor’s Guard.

Jerine stepped out from The Apple Tree. She fussed over helping Erin mount up, then took a mule herself. “Are we all set?”

Everyone had been ready a long time ago, but Jerine had earned all their patience. She’d paid for their food and lodging last night, which was generous. Dalathos had eaten and drunk well, and they’d all slept on the pallet beds of the dormitory, wrapped in their cloaks.

He pulled his knapsack over his shoulder and mounted up, then followed as Jerine led on along a well-worn cart track. He’d ridden wagon horses in their games at the camps, but Sirath’s mules were small. And without a saddle or reins, he had to keep one hand on the mane to keep steady. He faced Sirath. “You planning on getting riding equipment?”

“You offering to buy some?”

Dalathos shook his head, then ignored him. With only a splint of wood to fasten an old cloak, Sirath didn’t look like someone with money. Jerine had already explained that she paid for their use. As Dalathos rocked on the mule’s hard back, his boots almost touching the ground, he wondered if it wouldn’t be easier just to walk.

Still, it was good to travel in company again, after spending yesterday on the back of a turnip cart, driven by a half-deaf driver. Before then, a month’s journey on the wagon train with Rhalinias. The master smith had been summoned to set up a forge near Glora-Farel, in advance for the knights of exiled Prince Renforth.  Dalathos had been invited to work for them, but he’d set his heart on following in the footsteps of Sephis.

Shortly, they were past the last of the cottages, and followed a low valley pocked with boulders. Pastures and fields rolled beyond dry stone walls, thorny hedges, or low fences. Trees lined the way, spring flowers clustered at their roots.

Dalathos glanced about in confusion. “Where’s the ruins of Phisadel?”

Jerine pointed behind to a series of bumps and troughs on the ground. “That’s all that remains.”

Dalathos was sorely disappointed the destruction had been so complete. Even the apple trees, from which the traitors had been hanged, were long gone. He’d detoured to see so little, and that quenched his good humor.

They continued on through the morning. Paths, tracks, and other dirt roads joined with theirs, and the traffic grew slowly but surely. Little carts rattled after harnessed ponies, and wagons rumbled behind powerful oxen. Groups of travelers walked together, and a few riders trotted by. A black-painted carriage clattered past, the windows covered by curtains as green as old copper. Farmsteads and outbuildings appeared by the roadside, ploughmen at work in the fields. Sometimes a village lay in the distance. This land was more lived-in than back home.

When the sun was at its height they rested in shade, upon grass that was still winter-brown. Jerine pulled out linen-wrapped bundles of crumbly ewe’s cheese, crusty bloomers of bread, and two leather sacks of ale, all provided by Nel. Dalathos suspected that these had been another cost, but was grateful for the hospitality, and rest — his back was already becoming stiff from riding.

A skylark flittered above. There was a peace and calm that he hadn’t felt in an age. Then they mounted up and continued on their way.

A gang of laborers crossed in front with iron shod tools over their shoulders. The road curved down and around a steep hill. Then the land opened up to a vast fertile plain of patchwork fields. A paved road cut ahead, busy with what looked like the train for a summer pageant.

People walked with wicker baskets at their backs, alongside pony-drawn carts piled with sacks, crates, or barrels. Donkeys brayed as they carried nets of luggage. Painted caravans trundled along, big enough to sleep entire families. Riders sat upon fine horses with jingling harnesses. And there were so many animals led or tied together: cows, goats, pigs; dogs and their masters.

“The Imperial Way,” Jerine said. “We follow west to the city. Keep close at all times.” She had them dismount to continue on foot, and Sirath roped the mules together.

The road became even busier as they followed it.

Improvised shelters of sticks and sackcloth appeared by the wayside, stinking smoke from dung fires drifting from them. Shacks became frequent, then sturdy buildings. The crowd packed tighter together. Everything became stifling.

Dalathos kept one hand over his purse. Though on a belt under his mail shirt, he didn’t dare risk nimble fingers lightening his load. He didn’t have much money, but hoped it was enough to see him through the city, at least for a few days.

The first he saw of it was a brown haze in the sky. His spirits leaped as the great hill called Emperor’s Rock came into view, the seat of power since before the time of Sephis, when the city was founded as Eiom. As they continued he saw rooftops appear, flooding behind a sandstone curtain wall punctuated with towers: some round, others square, many with timber hourds for defending the battlements. White pennants fluttered from every turret, the two-headed gold eagle of empire upon them. Then the view opened up and the city stretched as far as the eye could see. Stone arches marched into the wall that Jerine said were for the aqueducts.

This was the sight of civilization. And it boomed at him. His legs trembled with excitement. He could never have imagined anything so huge — its size seemed to threaten to crush him.

So did the crowd. He was forced against his mule, the smell of musk and hay in his nose. People jostled each other. Angry shouts struck out. Dalathos shouldered someone aside. The fairs in Tulst had never been so tight.

At times it seemed he could hardly breathe. He was caught in a herd of people, hammered together by taller and taller buildings. The low thunder of so many tramping feet and trundling wheels rumbled through him, and the squeal and grind of poorly greased axles made his skin crawl over already fired nerves. Yet all the time, glimpses of the city ramparts rising nearer. He was almost there.

The road curved, straightened again, then a huge gatehouse of black granite loomed ahead. On either side was a giant figure, faced in white enamel: at the left a rampant lion, and to the right, an angel with a raised sword.

Dalathos could only gape at the sight. He’d imagined Corianth to look like the town of Keiy, only a little bigger and busier. Keiy had defined what a city might look like to him — larger than the iron camps, or the market town of Tulst down the hill, with buildings of brick and stone instead of timber and wattle. This view made Keiy look like a sorry hamlet. Keiy also had its own keep. He’d looked in wonder at its walls and this had defined a castle to him. Yet this gatehouse could easily swallow it. Looking up, it was like seeing Keiy Castle for the first time, through a boy’s eyes.

The movement of the crowd came to a halt, and a thick queue formed to enter the city.

“We’ll probably be waiting a while,” Jerine said, speaking through the press of people. “But don’t worry, I’ll pay the city tax. Say, Dalathos, you like stories of Sephis? There you can see his work directly. He ordered that gatehouse built, to declare the two founding principles of empire ... the law of man, and divine justice. Expressed in the figureheads of Emperor and Holy Father.”

Dalathos could only stare in awe. “Are all the gates like this?”

Jerine laughed. “None so grand! You look upon a wonder of the world.”

The crowd began to move, at first just a shuffle. Somewhere a pig squealed. A pair of dogs snapped and barked.

A wide bridge ahead led over a moat of brown water, and into the gatehouse. A thin line of people traveled both ways along it; a train of ponies with wicker panniers crossed out from the city.

The city watch collected taxes before it, dressed in grubby tunics of padded linen, a cream sash across their chests. Each wore an iron helm and carried a short halberd. A thick leather belt at the waist held a sheathed dagger, and a holster for a hand bell.

They stopped a heavy cart for a brief search: pulled back a tarred canvas to reveal packed bales of straw, and crates of clucking chickens. They waved the driver on.

Dalathos waited, impatient to cross the bridge. A putrid smell and wails for mercy washed over him. A narrow field to his left was filled with dozens of crow cages set on tall poles. Those living were naked and thin, but many held corpses — men, women, and children — at different stages of decay. He recoiled and his throat tightened. For a moment he feared he’d be sick.

“Murderers, rapists, and thieves,” Jerine said solemnly. “Most are executed in the city squares. The corbier there serves as a warning to visitors.”

Dalathos shuffled to the edge of the bridge, eager to escape the stench of death. Two men in woolen robes waved a wooden docket each, and were allowed through without paying.

Jerine stood forward and indicated six with her fingers, and pointed. She showed a palm of bronze pennies, and dropped them into a large, iron cauldron, one by one.

The guards waved them past with impatient disinterest.

Dalathos took a step, then felt a tap on his shoulder.

One of the guards pointed, “Use that sword in a brawl, and the prefects will have your thumbs.”

Dalathos smarted at the threat, but simply nodded in reply, and walked on.

The gatehouse towered above now, as did the lion and angel flanking it. Then he was under a giant portcullis and in the cold gloom of a tunnel. Timber doors stood opened in, the imperial eagle across them in flaking gold paint. Clipping hooves echoed. Mossy streaks dripped down the walls, collecting into puddles. Iron grates above allowed light to strike through, and Dalathos realized they might be murder holes, like at Keiy Castle.

A disorientating wall of noise rolled at them through the passageway.

Jerine faced back with a smile. “Now we enter the city!”

The light dazzled as a huge flagstone square opened up. It was heaving with people of every description, clothed in any imaginable color, material, and style.

The noise was incredible. Shouting, laughter, and calls to buy wares. The rumble of wagons and rattle of carts. The clip of horseshoes. Bleating, barking, and the screeching of gulls. Above all that, snatches of music.

Smells flooded over him — wood smoke, sweat, and dung,  polish and leather, roasting meat and baked bread, spices, incense, and perfumes.

It was like being assaulted by sight, sound, and smell.

He didn't know whether to marvel or flee.

A boy ran up, tugged his sleeve, and offered somewhere to eat for the cheapest prices in Corianth. An old woman shook a handful of polished quartz in his face, crying out that she read fortunes for silver. A man with an armful of necklaces shouted in his ear that his charms brought everyone luck.

Dalathos snapped and lashed out, and cracked the man’s nose with his fist. The hawker retreated, holding his face, blood dripping through his fingers. Dalathos snorted with cold humor — those charms weren’t so lucky after all.

Then they were across the square and on a busy thoroughfare, wide enough for a dozen carts to travel abreast. The buildings that flanked it were crushed tall and thin — whitewashed, else painted blue, red, or yellow — and decorated with buntings and garlands of flowers for the Spring Fair. Open shutters revealed mostly linen windows, but some even had glass. Tenements overlooked them, some eight stories high, crammed together like boxes. Towers and temple domes rose behind those.

And crowning all, rising in triumphant procession along the center of the road, gold statues as high as five men, upon plinths of red marble.

Dalathos stared at them, wide-eyed and dizzy, his heart pumping hard. The statues glinted in the sun like no other metal could. If his uncle were here he could say whether they were solid, or gilded over wood, stone, or bronze. Then he realized he was looking at history. “Jerine? Are these statues of Emperors?”

“All thirty-five to date. Ignoring those of the Broken Empire. This is the Avenue of the Emperors, originally the Viatine Imperiatrix of Eiom.”

The first must have been of Sephis the Great. It was styled in a breastplate, leather skirt and sandals, sword held aloft. The features were beatific, wise, and strong. Dalathos looked upon the face of Sephis! Now that was something to share back in the iron camps. “Jerine ... is that what the Emperors really looked like?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’ve never met any. They were probably less gigantic, though!”

Sirath interrupted, “How much further before we stop?”

“Much farther!” Jerine answered. “Any inn near the walls will be full. We need to find the quieter heart, for any chance of a room.”

Dalathos gazed up at each statue they passed, and wondered at the name and their deeds. Plaques underneath had words on them, but Dalathos didn’t know how to read. He decided against slowing down just to ask. It was a reason enough to want to learn letters.

The crowds finally began to thin. It was still busy, but less of a crush, and the noise more tolerable. Everyone spread into what space they could.

Canvas awnings, dyed in stripes, hung over shop fronts that spilled out from arcades and into the street, their goods displayed in boxes and crates, barrels and baskets — every ware was everywhere.

Entertainers attracted their own crowds. Dancers with ribbons tapped hand drums, jugglers whirled batons, and minstrels played on lutes, flutes, or pipes. At a street corner, two white-haired women in black gowns put on a puppet show with stringed dolls.

Beggars hobbled by with their hands out, or propped broken limbs between shop fronts while pleading for coppers. Dalathos clamped his hand over his purse.

As they continued deeper into the city, the shops became replaced by inns and eateries. Cherry trees stood outside some, blossoming pink from tiny islands of earth.

Dalathos trudged on. By now his thighs and calves ached, and the sun made his back sweat. This road seemed to go on for miles! It would be a relief to stop for a mug of cold ale. But he said nothing, and dared trust Jerine knew where she was going. It was a blessing not to have faced the city alone.

Jerine stopped, then pointed to a side street they’d just passed on the left. “Let’s try down there.” She led them into a welcome, cool shade. Half-timbered buildings with pinkish-brown render, some four stories high, stood cramped together. Latticed glass windows covered their faces. She stopped at a hitching post. Overhead hung a board painted with a lion, letters, and the familiar bed, mug, and bowl symbols for an inn. Another, painted with horses, indicated a passageway for stables within. “Wait here,” Jerine said. “I’ll see if there’s room at the Lion Inn.” She disappeared through the door to the building.

Dalathos exhaled, grateful to stop, but now brimming with joy that he was inside the city — that he’d made it here, as he promised he would. He patted his mule and smiled to Ulric. The big man looked ashen, but no one else seemed so affected. Dalathos realized they might be the only two here to have never seen a city before. “You alright, Ulric?”

“Everything’s so big ... so busy.”

“It’s overwhelming,” Dalathos agreed. “It’s as if everything could come crashing down on us at any moment. Not that I think it will,” he added, in case Ulric took fright.

“Oh, sometimes buildings do,” Sirath said. “More common than you’d think.”

Erin stroked her mule’s neck. “In many ways it is like Mardin, and yet so different. I remember being warned to be careful about my person there. I do hope we have nothing to be concerned about here.”

“As long as you travel in a group,” Sirath said, glancing around. “And keep an eye on your purse at all times.”

Dalathos patted his mail shirt. “I’ve held mine tight all along. No one’s going to get at it without me noticing.”

Sirath smiled. “Any thief would have to fondle your bollocks to get at yours!”

“My own purse is upon the belt at my waist,” Erin said. “I can easily ... ” She frowned, then her hands scrabbled about her robes. “My purse ... it is ... gone!”

Sirath laughed. “Looks like quick hands have found you already. Else you were being really charitable.”

“What am I to do?” Erin spluttered. “If my purse has been stolen then how can I pay for food and lodging?”

Dalathos stiffened and glanced about, alert to the danger of a thief nearby. The street was quiet, with nobody close, and no one ran from them. Erin must have had her purse taken earlier.

“I cannot believe this has happened,” Erin said, “after I saved my money where I could.”

“Got some coins I can share,” Ulric said. “Will help, where I can.”

The door to the inn opened and Jerine strode out. “Good, you’re all still here.”

Ulric pointed. “Erin’s had her purse taken.”

“Oh ... that’s a shame. I’ll lend you something, to ensure you can get by. You can pay me back after work with the councilor.”

Erin frowned. “I do not think that I have much choice.”

Jerine rubbed her hands together. “Anyway, the place is almost full, but I’ve got us three rooms, all together, with food provided in the morning and evening. We have to share with another man, but at least we have lodgings. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Dalathos wasn’t so sure. Erin’s purse had already been stolen, and he wouldn’t trust Sirath around his own things. “Can we try elsewhere?”

“I don’t think you understand. I’ve already paid. For all of us, for four nights. That should see how we fare with the councilor’s business, and Erin through to her presentation.”

Dalathos reached under his mail for his purse, intending to repay her. “How much did it cost?”

 “At three guilders per person per night, it cost well over three crowns, overall. Our rooms are on the top floor, so they’re the cheapest.”

Dalathos sucked in a sharp breath. Jerine had been robbed — it would only cost pennies for a room at Tulst. Then it struck him — this was the expense of the city, for a group of people over a few days, during the biggest festival of the year. He wouldn’t have enough to pay his share of that and a guild joining fee. The realization left him cold. Dalathos slowly withdrew his hand from his purse.

Something nearby struck solid metal. A heavy bass boomed to the air. Then echoed again, everywhere, in different anvil tones. He glanced about in confusion.

“The evening bell,” Jerine explained, “ringing out from the towers. The last hour till dusk. Let’s get the mules stabled. They’ll need grain after the long journey. And then get ourselves to our rooms.”

The deep sound of hammered bronze continued, like a greeting. Or a warning. The man who had no place in the world finally stood at the heart of empire, in the city of legends. What would his family think to see him so near to his dream? His uncle and auntie would just be glad he was safe. His nephews might find some reason to tease him at the forges. That made him imagine the sight of Alarian, hammering in the heat with a sweat shimmering on his arms. Dalathos felt his chest tighten with longing to be near him. As quickly as it came, he cast out all thoughts of that from his mind. It was no way to make a man of him. He’d left for redemption, not longing.

And he’d finally arrived.

He frowned at Jerine. Now came the challenge of making a life for himself — without having it made for him.


 

The Traitor

Adoras

 

General Adoras put his quill down with a shaking hand.

He sprinkled the note with sand to dry the ink faster, then blew it off. He folded the parchment, dripped blue wax on the fold, and pressed it with the lead seal of his office. He sat back and waited for the wax to dry and his heart to calm.

Councilor Brannon’s letter asked for suitable security for the Imperial Tournament. Adoras’s reply assured that all arrangements were in place.

The exchange confirmed that the Emperor would be assassinated in three days.

Betrayal was the only hope for the Emperor’s Guard. Once they had been the bodyguards of Sephis the Great, risen from the ashes of the Knights of Eiom. Now they were nothing but effete cavaliers, composing poems, drinking, and gambling. And fixated on the latest Irithian fashions — velvet doublets of blue or purple, fine lace shirts, and the current vogue of a wide-brimmed black hat crowned with a white feather. Instead of polished armor, they posed in theatrical costume.

Promised the position of chief-general for his role, Adoras could usher in essential reforms. The difficulty was how to effect change without exposing himself as a traitor.

There was a rap at the door.

Adoras started, and his chest tightened. Fearing his treachery might be discovered, he hid the letter in a stack of wax tablets. And silently cursed that parchment did not burn easily. He tried to control the tremor in his voice, “Who is it?”

“Captain Linnios. I thought you might enjoy a drop of piment?”

Adoras exhaled, and measured his breath. A good spiced wine might calm him. Better, though, was that this could be the sycophantic junior officer he needed.

Steeling himself, Adoras stood. He crossed the floor, then opened the door.

The young captain waited with a silver tray, a green glass bottle, pair of cups, and plate of honeyed cakes upon it.

Adoras gave the perfunctory salute to his chest. Captain Linnios struggled to balance the tray with one hand as he returned the gesture with the other. Adoras enjoyed the man’s discomfort, despising his abject fawning. Young officers tried to suck up to the senior ones, sometimes literally so. “That is most kind of you, captain,” Adoras said, “but I was on my way to Galadon’s office.”

Chief-General Galadon?”

“Indeed. I require his assistance over some small matter. I would rather not miss out on refreshments. Follow me, I’m sure he would love some himself. Galadon is fond of cakes.”

“Lead the way, general!”

Adoras fought to keep his stride steady. Cracks climbed the walls of the marble corridor, the blue carpet threadbare in places. Arched glazed windows, dirty or even broken, allowed foul-smelling city air to seep in. The grandeur of the Emperor’s Guard was superficial, founded on rot.

The tray rattled as Linnios tried to keep pace. “I do hope the matter is not too important as not to share?”

“Not at all. When is it ever?” Adoras’s sigh was exaggerated. “I am trying to determine which senior officer to put in charge of the Imperial Tournament.” He dared to offer a whiff of a lure for the captain. “Whomever does that will require a junior to cover his duties. Yet whom to choose? The Emperor’s Guard is not what it used to be. Ah, here we are.” Adoras knocked at the door, and waited to be called, before entering.

Galadon’s office was an oval of blue-veined marble, ringed by four columns to a grand domed ceiling. Enameled figures and gold working decorated the walls, and plush blue velvet curtains stood open at the rear, allowing a view over a balcony to the city below.

In the center of the floor stood a writing desk, Galadon seated behind it with a book on his lap. He looked up, and pushed black ringlets away from his surprised eyes. “I say, this is unexpected. Nevertheless, welcome, gentlemen.”

“We have not disturbed you, have we?” Adoras asked, knowing that Galadon never did anything worthwhile to be disturbed from. The secretaries did most of the real work for the officers.

Galadon glanced down at his page. An illustration of a naked woman was plainly visible. “Well, nearly,” he answered with a nervous guffaw. “A few pages on and you may have caught me in an embarrassing position, holding myself from my trousers.”

Linnios strained to look. “May I ask what you were reading?”

Galadon lifted the book. “It’s a rather saucy number I’ve been given called Confessions of a Sardonian Sister. It’s amazing what mass pleasures some of these nuns get up to. The mind boggles at what you can learn from literature these days.” Galadon’s gaze rested upon the tray. “Cakes, too? I say, what a jolly fine day I’m having! Please, lay the tray upon the desk. Don’t mind the parchments, it’s not as if I do.”

Adoras smiled wryly, but said nothing.

Linnios put the tray down. “Is it the first or the second book?”

“Well sink me, dear fellow! There is another?”

“Bishop Lovestaff appears in a sequel. I have it at home, alongside another that may call your attention, as it deals with the guard in the days of Eiom ... Knights of Passion.”

Both men prattled on, reveling in their desire for these base amusements. Adoras fought to control his impatience during their immaterial exchange. Let it play a little longer, and Galadon might seize on any suggestion Adoras made for the junior officer.

Galadon mopped his brow with a lace handkerchief and grinned. “Even cake seems to pale in comparison to the joys of religion.”

Adoras coughed gently. “When the chief-general is ready, I have a matter to discuss.”

Galadon sighed. “Back from the realm of fantasy to the world of reality.” He placed a sheet in his book as he closed it. “Sit down, Adoras, and pray tell of this matter.”

“It is of who should take charge at the Imperial Tournament.” Adoras found that his nerves made it impossible to sit comfortably. “The Emperor will be present. We need an experienced officer in command, but none are available.”

Galadon leaned back, and feigned a look of thoughtfulness. “Yes ... I’ve been wondering about this myself.” Linnios offered to pour. Galadon nodded. “Do you have someone in mind?”

Adoras shook his head. “We need someone who knows how to deal with crowds. If we have one.”

Linnios spoke out of turn, “Who took charge before?”

“Colonel Annarios,” Galadon said, “but he died of the bloody flux last interval. A terrible loss, and leaves us with our current predicament.” He sipped his piment. “Ah, lovely and sweet ... excellent!”

“My mother’s recipe,” Linnios said. “A secret mix of spices, and honey. All to give a good body to any base wine.”

Very good.” Galadon took another sip.

Adoras received a cup from the captain, relieved that his hands had something to hold, rather than fidget. “I am uncertain whom to assign against a notorious mob and inevitable riot.”

Galadon lowered his cup. “It was bad enough when they burned the Ansuber Stadium last autumn. And that was only over a foot race.”

Adoras dared to allow his argument to progress. “Let alone the events in Serrilinus at the previous tournament. I am told that Duke Caramanis lost a good few men in that trouble. Now we are faced with the problem here. Our only option is to pull someone from important duties, but the question remains whom, and from what.”

Linnios butted in, “What of Commander Parthaxos?”

Despite the impolite familiarity, Adoras hid a smile behind his cup. That would be his suggestion. Parthaxos was the only officer in the Emperor’s Guard who had the necessary experience. He also supervised the imperial bodyguard. This was all playing out as required.

“Parthaxos, eh?” Galadon repeated. “I must say, it would amuse me to see the lazy old figgit do some real work for once.”

Adoras held his tongue, then offered a trite objection, “But he must not leave the Emperor.”

“He does not have to,” Linnios said. “A general does not have to fight on the front line to direct his troops.”

“Absolutely,” Galadon said. “I’ve read about such things in books. Well, obviously not in this one.”

Adoras could feel himself close. “Parthaxos will need to spend time at the stadium planning the arrangements. We also have the concern of what to do should trouble spill into the streets.”

Galadon shook his head. “The city watch can deal with street problems. Even if that means filling half the city with chains.”

“We could always involve the Cardinals’ Men,” Linnios said, “to quell the crowds?”

Adoras felt his hopes sink. It was rare to speak openly for the Order of Omicron, let alone recommend duties for their troopers. It was a definite mistake. Linnios, for all his suitable naivety, may well have just removed himself from any favor. And set back any advantage that Adoras had gained.

“I say, what! Use the Order?” Galadon exclaimed. “I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole. Unless I were hitting them with one, that is.”

“Exactly,” Captain Linnios said with a smile. “Let the mob do that for you.”

Galadon blinked, then laughed. “I like your thinking. But, no, we could never work with them.”

Adoras appreciated the captain’s recovery, and dared to act now, before the moment was lost again. “Then who would oversee the bodyguard while Parthaxos is away from the palace?” He allowed a long look to Captain Linnios. “It is neither a question of experience nor ability. We simply require an up and coming officer we can trust.”

Galadon followed Adoras’s gaze. “I think the very man we need is standing in front of me ... a man of promising aptitude who requires just a little more responsibility before his next promotion. Captain Linnios, how would you like to become commander of the imperial bodyguard?”

Linnios stepped back, surprised. “Really?”

“Why not?” Galadon said. “It is but temporary, and when Parthaxos returns he will regain his position without ceremony. A basic matter really. Adoras, this is more your area. I presume you have no objection to updating this captain’s brief?”

“None at all. Though I will need you to sign the order,” Adoras replied, licking his lips. If Galadon sanctioned the arrangements, the consequences would be upon his head.

Galadon and Linnios prattled on again, in good humor. The young captain promised to bring Galadon more erotic books on the morrow, and another bottle of piment.

Adoras could not believe that his plan had worked so perfectly. He had planted a few suggestions, fed the ambition of Linnios, and Galadon even felt it was his own idea. Adoras had got exactly what he wanted. His heart raced to think of everything he might have gained from such a brief conversation.

Captain Linnios was dismissed, and left the room with a giddy flourish.

Adoras faced Galadon. Despite his own relief, his mouth now felt far too dry. Like parchment — like the message in his office he was now able to send. After three days there would be a new Emperor, and Adoras would be the new chief-general. He lifted his cup, and with a smile to Galadon, shared a drink with the man he had just betrayed.


 

Familiar Dangers

Sirath

 

The Lion Inn’s common area was more like a hall than a room, and it was packed. The dozens of tables were all occupied, and people without a bench lounged by the walls, else sat on the floor in groups. Above, busy galleries ran along both sides for private chambers. Beyond the raised ceiling were another two floors for even more guest rooms — including the ones Jerine had paid for.

The air was filled with music and revelry. People drank, ate, diced, or danced where they could. A band of musicians nearby played a reel — Jerine among them with a penny whistle, whirling as she performed.

Sirath watched her with a smile, but wasn’t fooled by the mood. Merry laughter hid everyday malice. And drink could turn a man from friend to foe in a heartbeat. He glanced at Erin, seated too close, but kept alert for trouble beyond their table.

At least he’d probably escaped Gutter Jack, and the merchant chasing his baggage mules. Now he just faced the familiar dangers of the city. Jerine’s hospitality kept him safe from cold and hunger. Now all he had to keep wary of were violent drunks, other thieves, the rich, rapists, and murderers. If trouble appeared, Sirath already had it in mind to escape up one of the staircases behind him.

Still, despite his unease, this was a place of opportunity. So much food and drink lay on the tables — it would be easy to grab, then disappear with into the crowd. And squeezing through that, fingers might brush against a bag, tickle a purse, or tease a belt. With everyone pushed up so close it would be hard for quick hands to be noticed. Later, they might explore pockets and folds inside the tunics of senseless drunks. Out there were easy pickings indeed. Cal would have loved to work a place this size. Sirath wondered how much they might have made together — obviously not as much as the proprietor, who charged in gold. Even if they’d found nothing, they’d have been happy enough to huddle down somewhere like this on those long winter nights, when they’d spend their last penny on a roof over their heads. Better to feel hungry than freeze to death. But tonight, Sirath had the promise of a guest room, and that was sheer luxury.

The question was, why? What did Jerine get out of spending three crowns and more on their lodgings? How did she intend to make her coin back? Was this all a trick, and if so, what? He’d seen nothing to make him suspicious, but maybe he should leave now, anyway. He wondered if that fat pouch of money was still inside her satchel. If so, he could just grab it and run with his mules.

The temptation troubled him. Despite the appeal of greed, Jerine promised comfort and safety. And he enjoyed her cheerful company. He had to trust in Fortune. And he didn’t dare disrespect that with common thievery. Not yet.

The music stopped. Cheering erupted. A fiddler warmed up for a jig. Jerine re-appeared, red-faced and breathless, with a big grin on her face.

“Enjoy that?” Sirath asked, trying to match her good humor.

“Very much!” Jerine seated herself beside Sirath, and placed her tin whistle in her satchel. She looked to Erin. “Did you?”

Erin broke from her thoughts. “Hm? Oh, indeed. I have always been fond of music.”

A tall serving lad appeared — all freckle-faced and gangly and covered with pimples — carrying a tray of mugs and a keg. The lad broke the pitch seal, and poured out clear ale.

Sirath enjoyed the novelty of being served upon, knowing it couldn’t last. It was almost a comfort to be in a city again, after so long on wild roads. Corianth was different, yet similar in many ways to Canalecht: the buildings and tenements, the crowds and commotion. The big difference was that he was living like a rich man. For the moment.

Common conversations caught his ear — small talk about weather, complaints about prices, and someone mocking their brother-in-law. More than once he thought he recognized a face from Canalecht. His heart leaped with both alarm and joy, only to realize it wasn’t them.

Sirath needed to stand on his own, with his own coin in hand. He should find a hay market to sell them mules, or chance that work Jerine had mentioned. Especially as rich employers had so many little things that could go missing. He glanced to Jerine, then something upstairs caught his eye.

Ulric and Dalathos had appeared at the top of the staircase. They pressed their way down through the crowds. It was a relief to see them approach at last. Many here wore swords at their belt, but none carried a blade as long as Dalathos did. Let the two big men handle any trouble as they returned from their rooms. That reminded Sirath — Jerine had said that they’d share with another. “Jerine, you seen that other man you paid for, yet?”

“The albino? Surprisingly, no. Though I have had bread and ale sent up to him."

The serving lad finished filling their mugs. Sirath grabbed his and greedily gulped it down. Jerine thanked the lad, and gave him a small wooden docket in exchange for a basket of bread rolls, as part of the board she’d paid for.

The lad grinned, and Sirath realized she’d slipped him a tip. “Anything else I can get for you, just ask for Tomis! I knows people, I do. If you need anything I can get you the best for the cheapest price. And I mean anything. I knows folks what can sort you out. I’m well-connected, me.”

Sirath grabbed two bread rolls — one for now, the other for later. A small pot of honey lay in the basket to dip the rolls into. This was fine living indeed. But this lad had sniffed money and wouldn’t leave till he got some. Better if — 

“This is my table now. Be gone.” A merchant with a puckered face and trimmed gray beard stepped up close. A skinny, greasy-haired assistant accompanied him — his expression severe, as if someone had wedged a broom up his backside.

“This isn’t your table. Find another,” Sirath said. A leather glove slapped him across the face. Sirath’s eyes watered from the sting of the blow.

“Don’t answer back, boy. Respect your betters.”

Jerine spoke up, “Excuse me, but I believe this is our table.”

The merchant looked down at her. “My pardons, but be a good girl, and be seen and not heard. Move along, children, or I’ll have you all whipped for poor manners.”

Sirath flashed with rage, especially at the treatment of Jerine. But what could he do? The weight of the law would crush him if he dared challenge his low standing in the world. But Ulric and Dalathos had almost reached them, and they had the authority of muscle. Better if Sirath exaggerated their social status, too. “My lord doesn’t allow common rabble to command his servants,” Sirath said, pitching his voice lower to sound more authoritative. “If I were you, I’d leave, now. Before he teaches you a lesson in manners, with his sword.”

The merchant’s face flushed red and he spluttered his outrage.

Sirath stood up as Ulric and Dalathos arrived. “My lord, this tosser here says he’ll have your table, and that there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Dalathos stopped, and narrowed his eyes.

The merchant stared up at Ulric and Dalathos, and appraised their bulk. He paled fast. Then bowed as he stepped away. “My mistake, my good lords. We shall remove ourselves elsewhere.”

Sirath laughed to see the merchant and his assistant beat a hasty retreat. It was a rare pleasure to get away with insulting the rich to their faces.

“You’re a lord?” Tomis grinned like his cheeks would crack. “Well, I’ve got some right special deals for you!”

Sirath had forgotten that the lad was still at their table. His own patience had already been rubbed thin by the interruption. Now he just wanted rid of this boy and his touting. But how? Dalathos wore wealth by his mail, and Sirath had just called him a lord. The only reason such people didn’t have money was when they had debt. “The Lord Dalathos is here to pay off his debtors,” Sirath said, pointing to Jerine. “Until she sees her coin back, he can’t buy nothing from you. Understand?”

Tomis stared. “What sort of lord?”

“A duke.” It was the first title that came to Sirath’s mind. “This here is the Duke Dalathos.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Cor! A duke? Well, I really can get you the best deals in the city!” The lad cocked his head, as though he’d heard something above the general noise. His expression became pained. “I’m being shouted for. But if you need anything, just ask for Tomis. I’ll be right back to check.” With that, the boy scurried into the crowd.

Sirath snorted, simply glad to be rid.

Dalathos glared at him. “What in seven hells was that all about? Telling them I was a lord. Why?”

“I figured I had to say something, so he’d stop pestering us. No harm done.” Sirath pushed the basket of bread toward Dalathos, to emphasize that he didn’t plan to explain further. Just to be sure, he directed conversation away from himself. “Jerine, where’s Tilirine?”

“She’s set out to meet Councilor Amberlin, to see what work he might offer us.”

The music stopped, and cheering broke out. After only a short pause, it drummed up again.

Sirath scoffed down his second roll and drained his ale, knowing he couldn’t expect Jerine’s generosity to last forever. Or rely on Tilirine’s offer of work. Though it was good to have food and shelter tonight, he could be back on the streets tomorrow.


 

An Audience with Councilor Amberlin

Tilirine

 

Tilirine stamped along the Avenue of the Emperors — the sister she had known and loved had grown into a foolish girl.

Lampmen with ladders lit lanterns upon statue plinths. The towering gold emperors shimmered, and the glow spread across the road. Tilirine kept to twilight’s shadows, past rowdy crowds outside of taverns, and couples rutting in doorways.

She had spent every waking moment anticipating reunion with her twin. Only to face sour disappointment as she failed to appear. When Jerine finally arrived it was without an apology. The excuse she offered revealed a wasted life.

Tilirine clenched her fists as rage balled in her gut.

Jerine had been given every opportunity to rebuild their house and name, while Tilirine had been sent away like some unclean thing. She had always clung to a single desire — of one day returning to a family, and the life stolen from her.

But instead of reclaiming their birthright, Jerine had frolicked with actors and lived among thieves. She even dressed like a boy. There was no husband or children — no home to return to.

Tilirine always felt angry, but now Jerine made her furious.

The barnyard stink of the city gave way to breezes of incense. She passed the small circular Temple to Fortune, attended by hermaphrodite priests in their embroidered red tunics. Then the avenue opened into the vast Imperial Square, busy with city officials, and magistrates with their oak staves of office. Huge buildings surrounded, lit by brass lamps above marble stairways: a mixture of grand Eptemian and intricate Ossienic styles — thick, fluted columns and delicate arcades, painted and patterned in bright, gaudy colors.

Tilirine fought down her passion as she sought bronze plaques fixed to the buildings. One at the wall of the council hall mentioned Councilor Amberlin by name. Another provided directions to his chambers, deeper within the city.

The hour grew late, and he might not even be present. No doubt there would be functions and events to attend during the Spring Fair. How might that affect Jerine’s plans if Tilirine could not find him? Though loath to continue this farce, she resigned herself to her duty — she would be the responsible sister.

She followed the directions given, and traveled north into the darker and quieter residential heart of the city. Wood smoke, and the smell of cooking stews, drifted through narrow streets. Few people traveled here, but she could still feel the cacophony of emotions behind walls — joy and fear, love and grief.

Night settled upon Corianth. Broken cloud covered the sky. With only weak moonlight to travel under, it was a good place for thieves to lay in ambush. She hoped to avoid such follies, and centered herself. The Song of the World was a far distant beat — she was in no danger. Yet she moved through the charayanas of Laughing Tiger and Little Scorpion to warm her muscles. Just in case.

A pitiful mewling disturbed her. A white cat, kicked and beaten, discarded in an alley. Death was the nature of life. Left alone, its soul would return to Atmah for rebirth. But all life was sacred. Tilirine stopped. She sensed where it hurt, then lifted the cat gently so that no wound would chafe. It made no protest, and Tilirine cradled it.

She walked on, the cat in her arms.

The roads became cobbled, with lamps at the crossroads. Large buildings stood in poor repair, some with glazed windows. This must once have been a quarter for nobles. She found a house with a brass plaque, announcing Councilor Amberlin’s chambers.

Three armed figures stood across the road. She felt their being: servants or guardians, waiting for their master; hoping to leave soon and safely. They would not trouble her.

Tilirine pulled a bell cord at the door, and waited.

An old servant, dressed in a simple black coat, opened it. He raised a brow.

“I am sent with a message for Councilor Amberlin, from his estates in Castea.”

The servant held out his hand, to accept a bribe for admittance.

Instead, Tilirine pushed the cat into his arms. The animal hissed, and the servant stumbled back in surprise.

Tilirine stirred up feelings of dread from her being, and pushed them onto the servant. “Care for this creature. You share its fate.”

She strode past him, into a tall hallway of stained plaster. Light danced from ornate brass lamps. There was a musty smell of age and damp.

The servant hurried past with the cat at his chest, his fear of Tilirine greater than his disgust for the animal. He indicated through an open door, then disappeared.

The room was empty, and surprisingly lacking in decoration. A wooden bench lined each wall, a small oil lamp at one corner. Another door stood closed, muffled voices and a sense of agitation coming from behind it.

Tilirine seated herself, and waited.

At least the councilor was present and receiving guests. It remained to be seen how he would answer the message she carried. He might not want to hire anyone at all, let alone her sister’s companions. What would Jerine do then? If Tilirine’s path was joined to her sister’s, should she speak up for them?

No, Tilirine had done more than she should. She emptied her mind, and sought to meditate. She envisioned her body as a fountain of light, and focused on that.

Eventually, voices approached. A door clicked.

Tilirine opened her eyes, and returned.

A silver-haired woman briefly entered the room, a rich cream gown and a sable stole upon her. She left, anxiety following her like a wake.

The old servant returned, scratches on his reddened face. “My master will see you now.”

Tilirine stepped into a paneled room. One wall was dominated by lavender curtains, behind a large desk. A thin man was seated behind it, robed in a lilac gown, a coif over his short, gray hair. His expression was of restrained severity. Tilirine bowed.

“Do sit,” Councilor Amberlin said.

Tilirine seated herself on the lone stool provided.

“I prefer to see the face of the person I speak with.”

Tilirine wanted to protest, but the councilor twitched a finger to underline that it was not request, but a command. She sensed two guards behind the curtains, who could try to enforce it. She resigned herself to obey, for the sake of her sister.

Hesitantly, she pulled away her veil. Then her hood, revealing the scars of her burns. She trembled to be so exposed.

To his credit, the councilor barely flinched. Instead, he frowned. “You are a girl?”

“I am a monster.”

The councilor snorted. “Cover yourself, if you will. Now, you bring a message?”

Tilirine gratefully returned her hood and veil, to hide her shame. She took the scroll from her robes and placed it on the desk.

The councilor began to read. “So, you assist the marshal for my estates in Castea. Did Toberil give you that position because you are a girl, or a monster?” The councilor smirked, as if he had made a joke.

“I was trained in Bramaputra.”

Councilor Amberlin’s smile dropped. He squinted at her. “That place is known here as Bramidia. Its warriors are renowned for their mastery of mind and body, and highly prized as personal guards.” He put the scroll aside. “This message is of a trifling matter. My staff on the estate must deal with it.”

Tilirine frowned, agitated. As Toberil had wasted away he had written for a replacement steward to be appointed, and more hands to protect the estate, fearing intrigues from without. Tilirine had presumed the stewardship might interest her sister, only for Jerine to extend employment to all she met. Yet if the councilor did not wish to hire, then Jerine’s promises became worthless. If Tilirine exposed them as so, that might destroy any chance of the sisters having any relationship. “I have, by circumstance, rather than planning, become associated with a group I could recommend to deal with — ”

“I am afflicted with many concerns, the least of which are my estates.”

“But — ”

“Do not speak over me. I have greater matters to consider here.” Councilor Amberlin leaned back in his chair. He toyed with his fingers in front of his face. He stared at her. Then flicked a scroll and a quill from his desk. Tilirine caught both with barely a movement. Not wanting to be accused of stealing, she returned both.

“How many guards are in this room?”

“Two,” she replied.

“What weapons do they carry?”

An image flashed in her mind of a small cut to the pad of a thumb. “Sharp blades. Even the most minor of wounds can bleed more than expected.”

The councilor’s lips formed a thin smile. “Where in Bramidia did you train?”

“The Temple of Agadesh, in Anwallapur province ... ruled by the Rajindar, who claim to be incarnations of Lord Sindra herself.”

That caught the councilor’s attention, and she felt approval escape his self-control. “You are a death monk? You serve a dark master.”

“Agadesh is but the mover of worlds, from one life to the next.”

“And you are acquainted with persons you consider suitable to address Toberil’s fears?”

Tilirine nodded at her chance to speak for her sister. “Yes.”

“How many people?”

“Seven.” Tilirine froze, with no idea why she had given that number instead of six. Had Jerine already invited someone else into this business? Whom? The other man who would share their rooms?

“Do they have letters of recommendation?”

Tilirine had no opportunity to correct herself. “No. They are masterless, from outside of the city. Like myself.”

“Bramidian trained?”

“No.”

Councilor Amberlin frowned, and fell to a brooding silence. Eventually, he spoke, “Are they strong and capable, yet able to follow clear orders? And use their wits, where required?”

“Yes.” Tilirine was unsure of what skills Jerine’s new companions might have, let alone describe them. And what of this seventh person, if there was one?

The councilor continued to wrestle his fingers. Finally, he sat forward. “I have a new proposition. Find me a traitor.”

Tilirine blinked with surprise.

“I know weapons are being secretly shipped out from Corianth, to arm rebellious factions across the empire. I need someone to discover this treason, so I can terminate it. Success will result in a reward to exceed all other employment.” The councilor leaned back again. “The fact of the matter is that I need people outside of any ties to this city. I can provide guidance and a cover of sorts ... some matter for the council. All that I ask for is accurate information. Do I make myself clear?”

Tilirine nodded. Jerine had freely promised employment. Tilirine was forced to accept whatever was offered. “You do.”

“Good. When you leave this room, provide my servant with the names of your party, and where you reside. I will send an agent with a brief. You may go.”

“My thanks.” Tilirine’s heart fluttered as she approached the door.

“One more thing,” the councilor added. “If asked in any official capacity on the motives for your actions, I will deny everything. Do you understand?”

“I understand — ”

“And no more cats, thank you. Goodbye.”

Tilirine stepped back into the waiting room, understanding only that Jerine’s promises led them all into certain danger.


 

Dreams and Fortune

Ulric

 

Ulric shifted uneasily on the bench at their table, his shirt sticking to his back. The common hall was a crush of shadows and noise. The air was hot and thick with greasy smoke, and the sour smell of stale ale and sweat was everywhere. Darkness had fallen some time ago, and he wanted to find somewhere to sleep. However, Jerine had ordered more food and his growling belly said he should wait. It was taking some time to arrive.

Someone stood on a table nearby and wailed a mournful melody. The singer looked like a man, but was dressed and painted up like a woman. Ulric rubbed his eyes and looked away in confusion. Musicians played different songs from their corners. Drunken people stumbled between tables. One fell across theirs. Erin yelped, and Sirath jumped aside. Dalathos shoved the drunk away, then swung his fist back.

Ulric grabbed it, and held firm.

Dalathos whirled around to face him.

“Don’t,” Ulric said, meeting his stare. “We won’t want trouble.”

Dalathos tried to shake his hand free, but Ulric had the greater strength. They remained locked together. Then Dalathos snorted and loosened his muscles. Ulric eased his grip open. Dalathos glared at him, then turned aside.

Ulric sighed, regretting the need to have acted. He glanced about, wary of another intrusion to spark hot tempers.

A serving boy finally arrived at their table with food and drink — he poured a pot of ale into mugs of carved beech. Ulric gratefully gulped his down, trying to quench his thirst. A platter of cold sliced pork was passed around. Ulric touched the prayer charm of wolf fur at his belt and said a quiet thanks to the animal’s spirit, to avoid bad luck for eating meat he hadn’t killed.

He ate quietly, alone in a crowd.

Herrian had said that the city of Corianth was a place of dreams and fortune, where any man could make a life for himself. Ulric had passed many people outside who were dressed in fine clothes, and he’d walked beneath grand buildings so tall they drew his eye to the sky. And there had been statues that looked like giants turned to metal. Each time he’d wanted to point it all out for Lucira — only to feel punched in the gut to realize she wasn't there.

But Tam Fletcher had warned that cities spat on all notion of freedom. That they trapped men, and turned them into slaves and whores. Ulric had seen how everyone hurried by, ignoring one another. And stepped over beggars with twisted limbs and skin shrunken to their bones. It all warned of the danger of being a stranger in the city.

Ulric finished the pork and wiped his hands on his leggings, more sweat on his palms than grease. And wondered what he should do now. His auntie had told him that Corianth was the center of the empire, and all roads led from it. If Ulric needed to find his way, it was the best place to start. Now he’d arrived, he was keen to find the path to leave. The familiar was rare, and the strangeness and size of the city threatened to overwhelm him. If he’d arrived by himself he’d have felt like a cat in a sack, and likely have escaped to the hills by now. Instead, he’d been caught up in Jerine’s hospitality, and obliged to remain. But he wondered if it wouldn’t be better just to go — find somewhere calm and quiet beyond the city walls. He wouldn’t be missed. But it would be too dangerous now to travel alone.

He picked up his mug again, but it was empty. He drained the last dribbles, his throat still dry. He hauled himself to his feet, and looked for where the drinks were being served from. Dalathos rose next to him. For a moment they both stood too close. Ulric’s skin prickled with the expectation of another confrontation. He thumbed over to a doorway near a staircase. “Need a refill.”

“I’ll join you.” Dalathos began to follow.

Ulric pried himself through the crowds, firmly guiding people from his path. The uneven clay tiles of the floor were slippery with spilled drink, even in his fur foot wraps. Dalathos kept a step behind. Ulric wondered if he shouldn’t expect a punch in his back.

They reached a small, crowded room, huge casks stacked up behind a counter. Serving staff were busy filling kegs and pots and cups. Ulric stopped, unsure how to order in all this activity.

Dalathos tapped his shoulder. “I wronged you with my thoughts before. You were right, we don’t want trouble. Let me buy you a drink.”

Ulric shrugged, thankful it’d be poor manners to refuse. “I’ll not say no to that.”

Dalathos pushed into space near the counter and shouted out to be served. He grinned at Ulric, “We may as well enjoy another, even if the ale here’s watered down.”

Ulric glanced about the surrounding bustle as they waited. “Don’t blame you for reacting. This is more than I was ever used to.”

“Same here. I’ve seen towns before. Tulst, even Keiy, but Corianth is something different. I thought I could imagine what a city looked like. Now I know I wasn’t even close.”

Ulric frowned, recognizing the names. “I lived near a village named Del. There was a Tulst, east along Cumba Dale. Was iron mines north of it.”

Dalathos eased himself straighter. “I knew a Del. West along the valley. Stood before the woods and hills that rise south into the mountains. Wild country, lived in by hard men. Trouble-makers, holding to queer traditions, and accepting no law but their own. We called it the Glens. Know of it?”

“Of course.” Ulric pushed his chest out, and readied for a challenge. “I’m from there.”

Dalathos stared. Then sagged into a laugh. “You don’t seem so strange to me. So far you’re the most familiar thing I’ve seen in this city.”

Ulric shared that feeling. He dared to relax his posture. “You ever been there?”

“Del? No reason to. Closest I got was the castle ruins. Some call it Cumba’s, after the berserker-king from ancient times. We called it Del Castle, as it’s on the road to it. Was disappointed to find it just a platform of earth, covered with boulders of weathered limestone. It’s said it was plundered to build Keiy Castle, where Lord Ithron lives. In the camps we called him Tinhead.”

Ulric laughed — Lord Ithron was routinely mocked back home. He smiled, liking this Dalathos a little more.

They talked of the lands around Tulst, watered by the Erwen — of Corrie Dale to the north, and Ingle Dale to the east, whose fields of grain were sometimes raided by Phenos Tribespeople — all of it part of the duchy of Corrum. They spoke of the Glens to the south that reached to the distant Allonian Mountains, and Greenhaven beyond. Ulric hadn’t traveled to most of the places, but he knew them by name. So did Dalathos. Their shared familiarity brought meaning to the world again, after the city had snatched it from him. Despite their shared good humor, Ulric didn’t mention his totem name, or Lucira and their cabin. He tried to push both from his thoughts.

A serving girl came and refilled their cups.

Dalathos sighed. “We’re a long way from home, Ulric.”

Ulric found himself more relaxed, despite the crowd and noise. “You know anyone from Del?” He tried to think of someone who might travel between the settlements. “What of Herrian, the headman?”

“No, but what of Marellus, the marshal for Tulst?”

“Oh, I remember him. Once took a pair of pheasants to Tulst market, only for Marellus to take them, claiming to find a stall. When I asked later, he pretended he’d never seen me before. I stood up to him, but Marellus called up guards and threatened to put me in the stocks and cut out my tongue.”

Dalathos tutted as he paid for their drinks. “My uncle warned me to be careful near that man. I’m sorry you didn’t know.” He passed a filled mug over. “Still, who’d have known we were both from the same part of the empire? Del’s only a half-day’s walk away.”

Jerine appeared beside them. “What’s this?”

Dalathos explained about what they’d discovered about one another, and the places they both knew of.

“Greenhaven?” Jerine repeated. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

Ulric frowned at her. “Why?”

Before she could reply a great cheering flooded the inn. They stepped back into the common hall with their drinks to see the cause of the disturbance. Tables were pushed together, scraping the floor.

A dark-haired man in a long leather tunic, and scars on his neck, climbed a table. He carried a yellow lute, delicately painted with tiny bluebells. He helped a young woman up, her golden hair flowing over a long dress of forest green. She carried a silver penny whistle, and tapped it to the air for quiet.

The noise settled down to expectant chatter.

“Merry meet,” the woman said. “I am Cariana, and this is Alarian. We will perform a few songs for your enjoyment. I do apologize if my voice is not pleasing ... be warned, I am not perfect.” Cariana gave a little cough, touched her stomach, then nodded to Alarian. He rested the lute over a knee, and plucked a rolling melody.

Then she broke out with her powerful voice.

Ulric felt the music upon him, like a soft light or a cool air. Everyone listened, as if enchanted to silence. Her voice touched his spirit. It was a gentle, melancholic tune, about people missing home. Ulric fell to thinking about Lucira, and his chest tightened in memory. But then the song turned hopeful, and the last words were about how even those far apart are together, in some way, and will meet again.

Cariana quietened. The last note from the lute died. For a moment, silence — then an appreciative roar. People thumped the tables and stamped their feet.

Ulric was moved but satisfied. Dalathos looked shaken. They were both out of place in this city. But they had more in common than most, and needed to find their way here. Ulric had made it this far — it was important to keep moving to find his path, else fall aside to the gutter. Sirath had warned about that. Jerine’s generosity was a gift, and it gave Ulric direction. The question was whether it led the right way.


 

A Conspiracy Revealed

Rodrigan

 

Rodrigan entered the Lion Inn, his muscles taut and ready to act. He eased himself against the nearer wall, and watched to see if anyone shadowed him. Though disguised by a heavy cloak with the hood pulled over his face, there remained the danger that agents of Father Dinemetis had discovered and followed him.

No one came in for some time. Then just a handful of laborers, boisterously drunk. No one took an interest in him. Daring to relax, he exhaled with relief and allowed his gaze to drift over the packed common hall.

And noticed him immediately: tall and strong, wearing a mail shirt and a greatsword at his back; speaking to a bearish brute of a man — no doubt a companion in arms — and associates at a table. Rodrigan drank in their faces. There was something compelling about the man that left a foul taste in his throat — somehow familiar, and more than he seemed. That might be a problem, if lodged here, where Molric was in hiding.

Rodrigan resolved to see the councilor without delay. He pulled his hood lower and strode between busy tables, toward the staircase.

A ginger-haired lad brushed his side. Rodrigan grabbed his jerkin. “Fair Tomis, come here.”

“Hey, mister!” The lad smiled. “What can I do for you, today?”

Rodrigan dragged him to a shadowed corner, and put his finger to his lips. “Quiet. Remember I said I might ask another important duty? I have one for you now.” He pointed to the man with the greatsword. “I want you to find out what you can about him.”

“The Duke Dalathos? He just came in. What about him?”

Rodrigan frowned. The man neither dressed nor conducted himself like a noble. More likely it was an invention, to disguise some subterfuge. Rodrigan wanted the truth of it. “Do you know where he’s from?”

“Sorry, mister. All I know is his name, and he’s here on business. And that he’s tighter with his money than you are.”

Rodrigan retrieved a half-guilder, and teased it before the boy’s eyes. “Find out where he’s from, and what his business is. Then I’ll give you another coin.”

Tomis grabbed for it, but Rodrigan held it back.

“I would also like to speak to one of his companions, in private. That’s worth a whole silver coin.” Rodrigan pressed the half-guilder into the lad’s hand. “Now run along.”

“I’ll do that!” The lad disappeared into the crowd.

Rodrigan waited a moment, then strode to the busy staircase. He forced himself to ascend the steps at a casual pace, even though his heart beat fast enough to take three at a time. He kept his head down, and resisted the urge to rest a hand at the sword beneath his cloak, as that might attract attention. He continued up, through the shadows of the stairwell, past the galleries, until he reached the third level. A narrow hallway opened in front, lined with doors to small rooms. He strode to the last one at the left. He stopped, then rapped the coded knock.

Footsteps approached and the door shuddered, stuck. A harder pull unjammed it.

Councilor Molric stood in black and purple robes. “Good,” he said, inviting him in. A pair of small brass lamps illuminated the room. Scrolls and books were sprawled over the bed. Molric was only able to close the door properly after a sustained effort.

Rodrigan frowned. “Aren’t you going to lock it?”

Molric waved a hand aside. “The mechanism jams tight and is nigh impossible to release. I would rather avoid the embarrassment of being locked in against my will. And before you ask, I do not wish to change rooms with the attention that would bring. The inn is full, my door sticks, but I am resigned to the situation.”

That was a concern. “Is that safe practice?”

“No, but it will do.” Molric pulled back his sleeve, revealing his magical bracer. Tiny gems pulsed with light along it. “I do not treat my safety lightly, especially after the attack in Mardin. I remain ever vigilant.”

“At least keep a guard,” Rodrigan said, “or have servants to help — ”

“I am militarily trained, and self-reliant. I do not need servants who might gossip, and sell information on me. Despite my powers, I cannot stop wagging tongues. Better to not have them in the first place. Now, is your young niece ready to act?”

Rodrigan nodded. “She’s mastered your flying device. She’s ready.”

“Good.” Molric cleared parchments on his bed to seat himself. “Daria and Eira have allowed the bookkeeping matter to drag on. Their street jack should have acted sooner.”

Rodrigan felt his hackles rise. He’d already argued against giving criminals witchfire. His fear was not that they would blunder to kill themselves, but instead use it in a campaign against his own troopers. He remembered too well how those outbuildings had disappeared in a flash of fire and thunder. The same could happen to barracks, a prison, or a building beside a passing patrol. He realized that he’d begun to pace, chasing disturbed thoughts. Everything depended upon Molric’s safety. He now seemed too vulnerable here. “It would be more prudent to move to your new apartments at Imperial Row.”

Molric waved this old argument aside. “I am here by necessity, not choice. A public residence would result in all manner of visitors. But familiarity breeds contempt, and if I walk among my peers they will look for my human failings. While I remain hidden, my mystery grows. Let them marvel at talk of my miracles. To remain here but two more days is a small price to pay for victory. What news of Bishop Serannos?”

“None, yet. I’ve agents at the docks who will inform me the moment he arrives.”

Molric nodded. “And is Duke Normon also prepared?”

“I received his message this morning. He readies his ambush.”

 “Good. I do not want the Emperor’s Guard to disperse among the kingdoms. Despite their foppishness, they may yet generate sympathy against our interests, creating ... complications.”

Rodrigan snorted — he welcomed the removal of the Emperor’s wineskins. He retrieved the red leather scroll case from his robes, and showed it. “All is ready.”

“And you are sure that the Emperor’s Guard will receive it, let alone believe it? I want that decoy to work.”

“They can’t fail but to act.”

Molric clasped his hands together. “Then I shall detain you no longer. I look forward to good news tomorrow.”

Rodrigan forced a smile and tried to share in Molric’s humor. To hide his own unease. So close to success, the unexpected could still ruin well-laid plans. Seeing the Duke Dalathos had nettled his confidence. Still, if that man and his companions proved to be any threat, he would simply have them killed.


 

Blind Faith

Erin

 

Erin sat on the floor, the wooden covers to her Book of Faith open on her lap. Her presentation was just two days away, but she could not concentrate.

Noise disturbed her from everywhere, the thin paneled walls of the rooms letting through every sound. Footfalls echoed through the floors of the inn. Chatter came from outside on the street. A baby began to cry from somewhere close by.

Her hearing sharpened at that, listening for any sense of desperation in the tone. The baby wailed a little more, then quickly quietened — probably suckling. That was a relief. She remembered too well how those in Pora had weakened to pathetic gasps. She pushed the memory from her thoughts, forcing herself to focus not on the past, but the future, no matter what that held in store for her.

She stared at the pages, willing herself to study. Though her beeswax prayer candle provided a warm glow to read by, the letters in the text seemed to whirl into one another.

Erin sighed and looked up to the small ikon above the door. It was of Blessed Pantocles, the fifth incarnation of Pollos, set against a blue background — his sacred color. Merchant, explorer, and sailor, he was necessarily the patron of travelers. His virtue was bravery, to face the unknown. Erin said a silent prayer for him to inspire her.

Footsteps approached in the hall. Jerine entered their room.

Erin smiled meekly, fearing to have been considered rude for leaving their table downstairs. It had disturbed her too much to remain after the confrontation with the merchant, and the sight of Ulric having to restrain Dalathos. “Are the others still in good health and spirits?”

“They are.”

Erin remained mindful that another was supposed to join them. “And what of the other person who will share our rooms?”

Jerine stopped and frowned. “Ezekiel? No, I’ve not seen him since I paid for our lodgings.” She placed her satchel under the bed. “What are you reading there?”

Erin lifted up her Book of Faith.

Jerine nodded. “I thought it might be. Else the Book of Laws.”

Erin patted that on the floor beside her. There was little chance of study now, and it would be impolite to ignore company. As she closed her book she remembered Jerine had spoken of visiting the Great Library in Mardin. “How familiar are you with the Order’s writings?”

Jerine seated herself on the bed. “The past few years I served as a scribe. I mostly wrote letters people wanted sent home to family, as well as simple merchant contracts. I did copy some books, including the Deidecalion of Eptemian legends. And parts of the Book of Faith.”

That was surprising. Erin had simply wondered if Jerine might have encountered commentaries on the Blessed. The answer made Erin’s heart rise, gave her a glimmer of hope — that Jerine might provide some insight on the doubts she wrestled with. “And what opinion did you form of our teachings?”

Jerine paused for a moment. “Would you prefer a proper answer?”

“If you would be so kind.”

Jerine retrieved her satchel again. She unstrapped the buckles and removed a book bound in red leather. “This is a guide, of sorts, to the city of Corianth. It was commissioned by Borron II, early last century, and compiled by Vallerios.”

The Recent History of the Corianths?” Erin asked.

“You’re familiar with it?”

“I am.” Instead of a political history, it documented how the unrest of the Broken Empire affected the ordinary people of the city. Vallerios wrote of the riots and marches that forced the election of a city council. And of the abolition of slavery throughout the empire — agreed to more because the rich found slaves more expensive than hiring labor. He also documented starvation, the effects of the plague, and the beheading of the ringleaders for change. Truly, human tragedy had been captured like no playwright’s pen could accomplish. And yet, Erin had asked Jerine a simple question, but failed to understand the reference. “What purpose does your reply serve?”

“Just as this book is like a guide to the city of Corianth, so are your books like a guide to describing faith. The key is not in memorizing the words, but understanding the thoughts that formed them. So, using this example, if you wished to learn about the city of Corianth, then which would give the greater revelation? Reading of it, or visiting the city for yourself?”

Erin recognized the argument. Blessed Arthaxes had debated it with Faresh, to demonstrate the importance of received authority. “I can no more visit the events in the Book of Faith, than you can visit the city of Corianth during the Broken Empire. In each instance, we must respect the record left to us.”

“But doesn’t that demonstrate blind faith? Belief not from insight, but from accepting another’s words?”

“What other way is there?”

Jerine leaned forward. “By seeing the world how it truly is.”

Erin could only shrug, disappointed the conversation had degenerated to empty statement. “To learn about God, we must submit to the authority of the Order.”

“Yet doesn’t the Order teach that Divinity surrounds us?”

“Yes ... ”

“Then simply open your eyes and look at the world with an enquiring mind. Admit that you know nothing. Ask questions of everything, like children do. But do so not to find truth, but the possibilities of truth. For truth itself is known only to the Divine. Without infinite knowledge a mind is imperfect. Yet to question can lead to insight. And that is the only way to acquire understanding. Otherwise, if you seek answers from another, you’ll remain blind, and let doubt cloud your mind.”

Erin was already full of doubt. What she needed was not more questions, but answers. Yet Jerine recognized no difference between the temporal world and eternal God, which was surely a contradiction. The Book of Faith contained the Word of God — an infallible, unquestionable, sole authority. If otherwise, there could be no basis for faith. And how could one have knowledge of God without faith? Yet, Erin dourly reflected, that was the root of her own problem. Without faith, she had lost sight of God. She feared her ordination would lead to a life of continual blindness. She stopped. Had Jerine not said something on that? Tiredness robbed her of her wits. “I will try to consider your words, even though you wholly ignore the matter of divine revelation.”

“But that’s exactly what I’m talking about! The Divine is within us. It’s outside of us, too. It’s everywhere, even in our actions. Everything is connected.” Jerine stared into Erin’s eyes. “Look carefully, and you may see Her.”

Erin smiled politely, but her heart fell to hear Jerine speak like that. There had been some in Pora who had spoken of the Mother. Erin had truly sympathized with them. Yet even Father Clement had condemned that belief as heresy. The last thing Erin needed was to become confused by different beliefs, when she struggled to hold even one.

It was clear she was not going to get answers from outside the Order. So why was it so hard to get them from within? She could only will her ordination to come sooner. And with it, some form of meaning. Until then, her life held none.


 

Setting a Trap

Rodrigan

 

Rodrigan rode a dappled gelding at a trot, west along the Avenues of the Emperors, and away from the Lion Inn. His arms prickled hot with tension, ready to act if attacked. With the future of both the empire and his father at stake, nothing must go wrong tonight.

The city watch marched in small patrols. Drunken crowds loitered outside of taverns. Gangs of apprentices hung back in shadowed doorways, looking for trouble. Rodrigan kept to the lantern light. He had to watch for being rushed from some dark alleyway — some fools thought it manly to pull someone from their horse, before stealing it.

He turned left onto Southgate, the busy street pushing him too close to laborers and sailors coming up from the docks. Rodrigan kept alert for sudden movement, but only coarse laughter and rude songs assailed him.

At the corner of Carters Row, a rider waited — the man’s muscle plain, even under his cloak. The rider lifted two fingers from his saddle pommel, indicating that it was safe to continue. Rodrigan turned onto the road, and Trooper Barbos fell into trot behind.

They continued onto Oldgate, and passed draymen and cellarmen as they worked by their lamps. Shadows returned. A cold wind blew. Clipping hooves echoed from dark building fronts.

Two cloaked riders waited before a grain exchange. One held an iron lantern with horn panels, to produce a dimmed light. Rodrigan slowed and gave the password. Troop Sergeant Cario answered, and  added the signal that all was fine. He briefly pulled back his hood to confirm his identity, as did Trooper Salvian.

Joining together, they rode to the Tower of Faresh, then turned onto Polinos Square. Piles of crates littered the pavement, a sweet stink of rot everywhere. Clouds of flies erupted from the offal of the day’s meat market. Rodrigan led his troopers back through Oldgate, to ensure they weren’t followed.

Finally, he reached the cobbles of Farrier’s Lane in the Wagoner’s District. The area was now given over to glass foundries, storehouses, and poor tenements. Rodrigan dismounted. He took a sack from Cario, then sent the men and horses away to await his signal.

Away from the main streets darkness hung like a shroud. The quiet was oppressive, broken only by the distant cries of gulls at the docks. The sky was matted with clouds, but Saturnyne provided a whisper of light to see by.

It was perfect.

He removed his cloak and placed it in a prepared barrel. Then he opened the sack, and donned the black robes of a deacon over his breastplate and tunic. He took out the scroll tube of red leather, a broken sword, and bladder of pig’s blood. Then squatted in a gateway piled with rubbish and broken crates. As a commander in the College of Armaments he’d long learned to delegate, but a mission of this importance required his personal attention. Especially while Father Dinemetis increased the size of his web.

The sword had only a handbreadth of dulled blade. He crooked it under his right armpit. The bladder of blood he left close to his chest to warm, but only after squirting a few drops over his left hand. Grasping the scroll tube, he waited.

A chill breeze teased his robes. Though his heart still beat fast, a dead stillness enveloped him. If this ruse failed then he had an agent who could deliver a copy of the scroll directly. But it might not be believed if received too easily.

Lamplight appeared through a window, at the top floor of the burned out Harte’s Head inn. That signaled his troopers were in position on the next street. The shutter would be pulled closed when Tam Candles approached.

Rodrigan dragged his robes tighter against the cold, his breath misting to the air. He rehearsed the words he would use. A dog barked from a yard, disturbed by a cat or rat.

A fox wandered in front of him, almost casual in its gait. It glanced at Rodrigan but paid him no heed. Startled, he watched it pass, and wondered how it had entered the city. Then he realized that it must be a sign, sent just for him. A trickster, cunning, dressed in red, it was a good portent.

Once all this subterfuge was played out he would be free to rebuild the Order. It was a help that the presentations would shortly begin — that would bring fresh blood into the colleges. Father Dinemetis held little sway outside the city, but would attempt to corrupt acolytes in the dormitories. Rodrigan would end that, and astonish them all with the return of the Cardinal Pontifex. So long as Molric’s grand plan worked.

Rodrigan licked his lips, his mouth too dry.

If his daughter still lived she would be approaching an age for the presentations. It was a small hope. She had been born strangled by her own cord, but survived. Yet the physicians feared that she would grow up to be simple-minded. The Cardinal Pontifex had secreted her to a monastery for her own safety, and visited her during the last years of his duties. Despite the distress of her birth, she had been said to be bright and good-natured. Rodrigan had heard no more since taking his father into hiding, after Wrenis began to murder the cardinals.

And Sharaya had died.

Truly, the world had never been so bright as the short time she had lived and loved him. All that remained of her was their secret child, and that was tragedy itself. Rodrigan tried to cast Sharaya’s lost perfection from his thoughts, his chest aching empty.

Distant footsteps clacked the cobbles, growing louder. A drunken song echoed through the darkness. The shutter closed for two beats — Tam Candles approached.

Rodrigan’s heart drummed hard and his muscles tensed. He checked the scroll was in reach, and crooked the broken sword under his armpit. He squirted more pigs blood over himself, for effect. Then crouched and readied his cold legs to act fast. Time to spring this trap, and pray to Omicron, Pollos, and the Light for success.

A figure approached with a stagger, singing tunelessly to himself — short, with thick hair and eyebrows, and a stillborn hand. Tam Candles. One of Black Fist Jack’s burglars. Who also served as a nose for one of Councilor Amberlin’s agents. He was a believable route for information intended for the Emperor’s Guard.

Rodrigan jumped up and grabbed him. Then dropped to his knees and cried out as if in pain. Tam stumbled back with a shriek of surprise, but Rodrigan kept a firm grip on him. “Help me,” Rodrigan gasped. It was imperative the man not flee, from fright or even disgust. “It’s worth gold.”

Tam’s eyes were wide and white. “You’ve been run through!”

“The Order ... have killed me.” Rodrigan coughed dramatically and held the scroll case out. “The Emperor’s Guard ... will pay richly for this.”

Tam snatched the scroll tube and stepped away.

Rodrigan released his grip and fell back. And cried out as loudly as he could, as if from pain. Then contrived to collapse to the cobbles.

From two streets away, Cario answered the signal with a shout. Horses broke from position and hooves hammered stone. Yelling pierced the air, drawing near, and quickly.

Rodrigan remained as still as he could. Footsteps pattered away in flight. Riders clattered closer. A muted light grew from a horn-paneled lantern. Cario and both troopers came about a corner at a fast trot. They pulled back their reins.

Cario dismounted and rushed to his side. “My lord, are you hurt?”

Rodrigan stirred. “I am safe, thank you. You timed your entrance well.” He stood and pulled away the broken sword and removed the deacon’s robes. He wrapped them together and back into the small sack. For good measure, he spilled the last of the pig’s blood about the doorway, to leave evidence of a mysterious death.

Despite the chill in the air, Rodrigan was flushed with the heat of accomplishment. But they must leave immediately, if the ruse was to work. He retrieved his traveling cloak, dragged it over his shoulders, then mounted up. He pulled the hood down as he turned his gelding, and led the others away to Oldgate.

He had to physically stop himself from laughing aloud — from relief, for joy, and for the sheer theatricality of it all. For the sense of achievement. For the empire’s salvation. For the return of his father.


 

Sword of Power

Dalathos

 

Their boots scuffed and stomped up the steps, the staircase a mine of deep shadows. Dalathos made his way tiredly up the long flights, Ulric with him. It was a relief to reach the top floor.

Two clay lamps barely illuminated the wood-paneled hallway ahead. As Dalathos approached, the floor seemed to shift and sway. He thought he’d been drinking small ale all night, but his head spun too much for that.

Reaching their door, he fumbled for the iron key, tied at his belt under his mail shirt. After a few attempts he finally unlocked their room. He staggered in, and began to unbuckle his baldric. He lay his greatsword alongside the bed, then dropped onto the straw mattress and waited to catch his breath.

This would be his first night in the city.

Ulric brought in the lamp from above their door, and placed it on the stool in the corner. Realizing his bad manners, Dalathos offered the bed. Ulric spread his black fur cloak on the floor and knelt down on it. “Prefer to sleep on this.”

Dalathos was thankful there was no argument about that. He rose and shut the door. The lamp flickered; shadows danced, then settled. Muffled chatter drifted up from the common room. A cart or wagon rumbled outside on the street. Somewhere, a cat began to caterwaul.

Ulric set up a handful of small wooden figures on the floor. He crossed his arms over his chest, his hands on his shoulders, and mumbled a prayer to his ancestors.

Dalathos watched with quiet envy. When his father abandoned him, he took away that birthright. He had no ancestral spirits to pray to for guidance and protection.

Looking to distract his gloom, he eyed Ulric’s sword, sheathed in sheepskin. Dalathos’s own scabbard was two lengths of wood wrapped in leather and filled with wool, to keep it clean, dry, and naturally oiled. Dalathos waited until the big man had finished, then pointed to the sword. “Can I see that?”

“Aye.” Ulric passed it over.

Dalathos felt the weight in his hands. He unsheathed it, disappointed to find it a dull, gray iron. More so because they only forged steel at the camps. That meant this must have been brought in from some distance. The weapon was simple, but Ulric and his auntie had probably paid through the nose for it. 

“Thoughts?” Ulric asked.

Dalathos grimaced and tried not to offend. “It’s iron, which isn’t ideal. It’ll blunt easily, and the blade might bend in a fight. Should be tough and not snap, though.”

“That bad, eh?”

Dalathos felt his cheeks flush and tried to avoid the question. “I could have forged you better. Maybe cheaper, too.” He sheathed the weapon and returned it to Ulric. “You trained in it?”

Ulric shook his head. “Learned quarterstaff from my auntie. Cut mine into firewood yesterday, when the weather turned bad. Can make another. You make your sword?”

“Aye, that I did.” Dalathos carefully unsheathed it, and caressed the polished steel. He breathed onto the blade, to bring out the golden sheen made by tempering in mare’s piss. A surge of pride rose in his chest. “I always wanted to make the greatest one in the world, a sword of legend. My uncle, Tollin, said every man should think that about his weapon. That different people suit different styles, from the weighting of the shaft and length of blade, to the method of fighting.”

Ulric nodded. “You made just the one?”

“Oh, no. Tried first when I came of age. Got as far as hammering the rod before it shattered.” Dalathos shrugged. “Sometimes, through no fault of the smith, a flaw can appear in the metal. A crack that can’t be seen until it breaks open. I’d really wanted my first sword to be the best, so I was upset. But, my uncle said that everything happens for a reason. If that one had broken it was because the next would be better.”

Ulric lay down on his cloak. “You tried again?”

“It was some while before I did.” Dalathos didn’t explain that was because of the boy who’d gone on the rampage in Tulst market, attacking everyone — or how Dalathos had only been protecting his uncle, and struck to injure, behind the knees. But the wound had festered and the lad had died. Dalathos had refused to go near a blade for a long time after that, let alone forge one. “When I finally got the nerve to, my uncle had finished Little Giant, a new furnace with mighty bellows, built downstream and powered by the rush of water. It promised a hotter flame for a better class of steel. I took care to choose the best ore, and plenty of it. It was a wish it might include a fragment from the Sword of Pheiros, so I could call together the heroes of the world.” He smiled, embarrassed to recall that openly, even though he’d meant it. “Then I made a prayer offering from wood, of Pheiros the Warrior, then cut it into fine pieces, and mixed in the lime. And carved an oversized cast for the melt. My nephews had laughed at that. My uncle had just raised a brow, but let me carry on. I planned for a greater loss in the new furnace, and if this rod snapped I could make more than one blade from the pieces. So we set the bellows running, and after the flame reached the right color we broke the plug and got a good bloom out. But a dread came over me, that it might shatter like the first. I put the cooled steel away, and it was left hanging for months. Anyway, one night in our cups, my uncle teased me about not finishing it. He said I’d be too old to wield it by the time I was done. He claimed I always struck soft, and the edge would only be good for cutting flowers. That we’d have to give it to Ringneck’s daughter, Roseblade. Flustered and wound up, I heated the billet and we both pounded it. Drinking too freely in the heat of the forge, we got the mad idea to destroy it on purpose, through firing and hammering. We took turns to strike it with all our strength, challenging the metal to break. When I woke the next morning, I nearly shat myself thinking on the damage we could have done. But when my head cleared, my uncle said we’d achieved a fine blade, with a good balance of hardness and toughness.”

With no idea how many times it had been folded, the hot steel had been quenched and reborn as a living, enchanted weapon. Dalathos had named it Protector, and prayed for its spirit to defend against injustice. After that, his uncle helped with the taper and tang, and they fitted a plain ball of iron at the pommel, for balance. Dalathos then ground in the fuller, and spent days on the file and polish. He bound the handle with leather, but left the hilt and pommel plain and undecorated.

Dalathos offered the blade so that Ulric could see his work. Lamplight flowed along Protector and reflected about the room.

Ulric carefully touched it. “Feels sharp. A good tool.” He smiled, then yawned. He turned into his cloak for sleep.

Dalathos stared at his sword — and into its secret.

When he’d drunkenly struck and tempered it, he’d put all his rage into it. For his mother dying at his birth. For his father abandoning him as a baby. And for himself being in love with another man. His Uncle Tollin and Auntie Bronda cared for him, but could never love him like a true son. Borras and Edras acted like brothers, but in their hearts they knew they weren’t. Men in the camps gave Dalathos respect for his uncle’s patronage, but without it, they would have shunned him. Especially if they knew what an abomination he was. Dalathos was a man with no place in the world — a cuckoo.

Through the magic of the forge he’d made the sword of power he’d always dreamed of. Only by holding such a symbol might he right the wrongs of his life, and the world with it.

He re-sheathed Protector.

Dalathos undressed, removing his mail over his head, then his padded tunic. He sat down and unstrapped his boots. The floorboards were cool beneath his feet, and his linen undershirt was light on his chest. He pissed in the bucket at the corner, taking care not to splash Ulric’s gear. Then he blew out the lamp and got into the bed. He pushed aside dried fleabane flowers and their soapy smell from the mattress, and pulled the blanket over himself.

What would the city smiths think of his blade? Surely they’d marvel at the quality of his work, and put him up with tools and a room to begin his apprenticeship? He could only hope so. Else his journey, and life, were wasted.


 

First Kill

Lora

 

She banked aside, stretching out wings as black as a bat. The rooftops pulled away and she cut through the wood smoke that drifted up. The night air was freezing, but she felt exhilarated and free as she flew over Corianth. Nothing but this moment in life mattered; nothing else existed.

Tiny lights flickered and flowed along her harness, and she knew it was their magic that held her on the wind. Her uncle had given her that marvel and more, and tonight she would put it all to good use.

She glided over the lamps that marked the Avenue of Processions. Shadowed figures below looked so tiny! She wondered if any of them might see her. She had been instructed to wear thin gray robes over close-fitting leather, to make her less visible, while still keeping warm. And the lights of her harness were too small to be seen from a distance. But she had painted her face white, and streaked it with black lines from her hair to her chin. If she was seen, let them think her a demon from a Varryn painting. She willed, dared even, for someone to look up and spy her. But nobody did. She flapped over streets then soared again.

She laughed with glee as the rush made her tummy rise. She used rods attached to the wings for steering. It had taken a month to perfect using the harness. Flying required different control. But this magic was all down to the mind — she thought, and it happened. It wasn’t the natural way to move, and she had tumbled and bruised herself when first trying to land. She had learned to think to swoop, slow, and lower herself. Then it was simply a matter of stepping out from the wind.

She had practiced hard and now she would need it. For her first mission she would have to land in a confined space. She had already spied out her position in the Artisan’s District. But she was going to have a little more fun flying before she began.

Her heart beat fast as she wheeled before stars and danced by the moons. Twisting, rolling, diving, she was the mistress of the sky, and master of the night. When her muscles finally began to ache, she pulled back into steady flight.

Time to begin.

She glided back down, low and level over the rooftops. Grand buildings appeared ahead, and she began to pull back; this landing would be tricky and there was no room for error. Go in too fast and she’d tumble below. At best she might fall soft in a garden and break an arm; at worst, smash her skull on the road and everything would be over.

Time to focus.

She lifted her arms out — her wings opened fully and slowed her descent. As she began to drop, she poised her legs like a dancer, and readied to land. The rooftops came rushing up below. She concentrated as trained, and then seemed to float, drifting on the wind rather than racing it. She marked her spot, kept her attention on it, and stepped down with barely a noise.

She crouched. For a moment, it was strange to have stopped, as if the roof should be moving beneath her. Then she touched a hand to her harness and the wings folded in.

The houses here were timber and stone, with small gardens before them. Lanterns raised on iron frames lined the road. A black carriage rattled along, coachman steady on top. A knight of the Emperor’s Guard, in blue and his breastplate, clipped by on a black horse.

A slate rattled beside her, teased by the breeze.

She stared across the road. Lamplight came from behind a glazed window on an upper floor. A hunched gray figure and rich red draperies were visible inside the apartment.

She smiled. He was perfectly placed. There would be no need to wait tonight.

She took the pack from her back and opened it — removed limbs of black lacquered wood, and clicked them together to create a bow. Stringing it was more difficult as she had to stand, but she accomplished that without incident. She rummaged in her pack again and took out a long arrow, a tube fixed behind the head. She then took out a small pot with holes that held a glowing coal. She notched the special arrow and sighted her range to aim for the window. Satisfied that the bow held with the draw, she memorized her position, then lowered it. She took the lid from the pot and touched the coal to the back of the tube, and blew on it. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a bright white spark flared with smoke.

She notched it quickly and looked away, blinking back the afterglow. She remembered her aim from a moment ago, and returned to that position. She drew and held steady, glancing ahead only to fix her target clearly.

Then loosed the string from her fingers.

The arrow crossed the street and left a thin trail of smoke. It embedded in the window frame. The paper tube on the arrow hissed white.

She put the bow down and pushed the pot back into her bag. She pulled her wings over her head and about her, like a cover. She left a crack only to peep through.

The figure within the apartment stood, looked out of the window, then returned to a desk.

The white spark disappeared.

For a heartbeat, nothing.

A red flash, a shock of thunder. The front of the building shattered. Broken masonry and spinning timbers thudded and clanked across the road. She thought she saw a body tumble through the debris, then billowing dust obscured it.

There was a whinny, and the carriage horses bolted. The coachman shrieked and cracked his whip as he fought for control.

She grinned and quickly dismantled her bow, returning all her things to her pack. She fixed it upon her back. Then she stood, and with a hand to her chest she strode forward and leaped from the roof. The wings outstretched behind her. The ground rushed closer. Then she arced up.

She banked to gain height. The knight of the Emperor’s Guard lay on his back in the road, his mount rearing. As her shadow swooped over him he looked up and saw her — and screamed.

She laughed from sheer accomplishment.

As she flew toward the stars, she could only wonder with joy at who her next targets would be.


 

End of Part 1


Coming next in Part 2: Tilirine begins the councilor’s work, but it’s Sirath who makes a breakthrough — and Dalathos who leads them into an explosive confrontation.

The rest of the novel is available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MA15JNW/