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Extracts

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Red Tide400   DHCoverUS 400   HeavensFall 400

 

 

Red Tide

Chapter 1

Galantas Galair drew up as he entered the Great Hall. The air was heavy with blackweed smoke and the sour smell of unwashed bodies. His father’s krels were already at the table to his right, while Dresk sat slouched in his throne at the end of the room, stroking his braided beard. Magdella was in the chair to his left, his chamberlain, Talet, behind. Of the stone-skins there was no sign. Still on their way up from the harbor, no doubt. But then it wasn’t surprising that they should have taken longer to reach the fortress than a native like Galantas—particularly since he’d told Qinta and Barnick to intercept them, and delay them by whatever means necessary.

He leaned against the wall beside the door, his heart drumming from the briskness of his walk. Dresk was glowering at him through eyes made bloodshot from last night’s drinking. For a heartbeat Galantas thought his father would order him to leave. Apparently Dresk knew better than to try, though, because he kept his silence. Hard to cling to the illusion of authority, after all, when even your own son defied you. Galantas met his glare with a smile, and it was Dresk who looked away first. He’d never been able to hold Galantas’s gaze since that raid when Galantas had taken a sword strike meant for his father. And at the cost of his own left arm, too.

Galantas took in his father’s tousled hair and swollen belly. His face twisted. This was the man who styled himself warlord of the clans? This was the man by whom the rest of the Isles would be judged? Nine years ago Dresk had put down a Raptor insurgency, and for the briefest of moments he’d had a chance to unite the clans under his rule. Instead he’d allowed the old rivalries to fester, while he wasted time chasing girls like the dew-eyed trophy sitting next to him now. And all so he could try to father on them another son to rob Galantas of his birthright—a birthright Dresk had already attempted to bestow on Galantas’s younger brother, Kalim, before Kalim’s untimely death on the Shark Run.

Galantas scanned the hall. The chamber was a mirror to its lord in its lost glory, with its stained rugs and its smoke-blackened tapestries. Mounted in one corner was the skull of a sea dragon, its mouth missing most of its teeth. The eyes of Dresk’s krels gleamed in the gloom. Clamp was there, along with Worrin and Faloman and Karsten Berg. These were hard men, weathered by sun and sea and storm. Men who deserved a better leader than Dresk. Galantas had sailed with them all in his time; his blood had mixed with theirs on the decks of a dozen enemy ships taken. A few stared at him now with the reflected hatred of their lord, but most looked glad to have him here. And why not? The stone-skin messenger hadn’t said why his masters wanted this audience. If their minds were on conquest, they weren’t going to be dissuaded if they thought Dresk was the extent of the Isles’ resistance.

It was more likely, of course, that their coming here was connected to Dragon Day. The Dianese governor, Piput Da Marka, had tried to hush up the events around the sabotage of the Dragon Gate. But a group of stone-skinned warriors running amok through your citadel wasn’t the sort of thing you kept under wraps. Trouble was brewing between the Augerans and the Storm Lords. Perhaps the stone-skins had come here seeking allies for that fight, but if so they were going to leave disappointed. Galantas’s people had more sense than to pick a scrap with an empire as powerful as the Sabian League. Besides, the Rubyholters weren’t warriors, they were prospectors. And where was the profit in war? Where was the advantage in disturbing the flow of Sabian trade that was the lifeblood of the Rubyholt nation?

Footsteps sounded along the passage to Galantas’s right. He looked across to see six stone-skins enter the hall. At the front was a huge warrior with swirling golden tattoos on his cheeks. Behind him came a man with spiked hair and a face crisscrossed with scars that made him look like he’d been sewn together from scraps of unwanted flesh. Both Augerans wore red cloaks, as did the four men who trailed after. The party halted a dozen paces in front of Dresk’s throne. For a while no one spoke. Dresk frowned at the newcomers. The Augerans looked about them, taking in every detail of the hall. Finally one of their number—an older man with a receding hairline—stepped forward.

Galantas pushed himself away from the wall and circled to his left for a better view of proceedings.

“Warlord,” the balding stone-skin said to Dresk in heavily accented common tongue. “It is an honor to meet you. I am Commander Eremo al First of the Augeran empire.”

Dresk rubbed his temples as if the man’s words had given him a headache. “Never heard of it.”

“Nor would I expect you to. My homeland lies beyond the Southern Wastes, hundreds of league from here.”

“Then I’m guessing this ain’t a social call.”

Eremo inclined his head. “Allow me to introduce my companions. This”—he indicated the man with the scarred face—“is my mage, Hex, while beside him”—a man with eyes unnaturally far apart—“is my Keeper, Ilabari.”

“Your Keeper?” Dresk said. “Tucks you in at night, does he?”

From the krels came a scattering of laughter and the pounding of fists on the table.

The Keeper stiffened, but Eremo merely smiled. “My people have strict rules when it comes to dealing with other cultures. My friend’s job is to ensure I abide by them.”

“Any of them rules say anything about turning up when you say you will?”

Galantas had heard enough. “Please forgive my father’s ill manners,” he said to Eremo. “Sender knows, the rest of us have had to long enough.” He advanced and offered his hand to the Augeran. “Galantas,” he said.

Eremo gripped it. Galantas didn’t squeeze—that would be immature. Plus the other man could probably squeeze harder. He’d expected the Augeran’s skin to be as coarse as the granite it resembled, but it proved no more rough than Galantas’s own.

Eremo took in Galantas’s missing arm, his sharkskin cape, his necklace of shark teeth. Something in his look suggested he hadn’t needed the introduction to know who Galantas was. “A pleasure,” he said. His gaze shifted back to Dresk. “Apologies if my arrival has caught you unprepared. The crossing proved swifter than we expected. If you prefer, I can return—”

“What do you want?” Dresk growled.

The scarred man, Hex, was on the move, capering toward the krels’ table. As he settled into an empty chair, those nearest to him edged back. He crossed his arms on the table, lowered his head onto them . . . and fell asleep. His snores reverberated around the hall.

Eremo didn’t bat an eyelid. “You have heard, I take it, about the part we played in Dragon Day?” he said to Dresk.

“Nice bit of work,” the warlord replied stiffly. Stiffly, because he’d tried to do something similar eight years ago, and failed.

“How did you pull it off?” Galantas asked.

“Anonymity helped,” the commander said. “At first, the Dianese governor was wary of hosting our delegation on Dragon Day. But the opportunity to impress his guests with a few stone-skinned strangers proved impossible to pass up.” He gave a half smile. “Somehow I doubt the trick will work a second time.”

“Somehow I think you made your point the first. Assuming there was a point.”

The commander regarded Galantas evenly. “You want to know why we targeted the Sabian League?”

The Keeper bristled. “We are not in the habit of explaining—”

Eremo raised a hand to cut him off. “Call it a preemptive strike, if you will. We had reason to believe our interests in the region would make conflict with the League inevitable.”

Interests in the region? Galantas winced. “Sorry. I just felt a sudden pain in my pocket.”

A lone krel banged his fist on the table in approval. Galantas would have to tip him later.

Eremo’s tone remained affable, yet there was a tightness about his eyes that suggested his patience was already being tested. “Let’s cut to the chase. We have unfinished business in these parts, and it is business that cannot easily be conducted across an ocean. We are looking to set up a base in the Isles from which to operate.”

“A military base?”

Eremo nodded.

“You’re going to war with the League?”

“Does it matter who our target is?” The commander looked about the hall. “Are you worried we might strike at one of your allies? Oh no, wait, you don’t have any, do you?”

Galantas said, “There’s a lot of water between not being allied with someone and being at war with them.”

“We’re not asking you to go to war. We’re asking you to help us in ours.”

“A fine distinction. I hope our neighbors appreciate it.” From the bailey outside, the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer struck up. Over it Galantas said, “You see the problem we face, Commander? What happens when you lose this war? What happens when you disappear back across the ocean, leaving us to pick up the tab?”

Some of the krels banged their fists on the table again. Eremo waited for the noise to die down, then said, “We will not lose.”

Galantas pursed his lips, unimpressed. The words had been spoken with an unshakable assurance, but when did an invader ever embark on a campaign thinking it would fail?

Eremo swung his gaze to Dresk. “In addition to a base, we would need free passage through your waters, reliable charts—”

Dresk’s snort interrupted him. “Charts?” He looked at his krels. “Hear that? The man wants charts!”

Laughter greeted his words.

Eremo’s expression was wary. “I suspect your cartographers lack the skill of ours. We have collected more than a dozen different charts of the Isles, yet no two are alike in anything but the most cursory details.”

More chuckling.

Galantas came to the stone-skin’s rescue. “Those discrepancies are deliberate, Commander. Years ago, a neighbor used one of our charts to mount an invasion. Afterward the decision was taken to flood the market with false charts—so outsiders couldn’t tell the real from the fake. Even if you did find an accurate chart, it would be covered in symbols you wouldn’t understand, showing which waterways are passable and which are not.”

Eremo’s glance over his shoulder suggested whichever of his companions was responsible for intelligence would be enduring a testing half-bell when this was over. “Then you will have to explain them to us,” he said to Galantas. “We will also need navigators to guide us through the waterways—until we know our way round.”

“At which point we will cease to be of use to you.”

Eremo ignored the comment. “Of course,” he said to Dresk, “we don’t expect you to give this help for free. Does the sum of fifteen thousand talents seem fair to you?”

Galantas’s heart skipped a beat.

Dresk stared at the commander. The hall had gone still.

“Twenty thousand, then,” Eremo said, a glint in his eye.

Galantas let his breath out slowly. Twenty thousand talents. More than a hundred million sovereigns. It was an outlandish sum. Absurd, even. With that money Dresk could buy all the ships in the Sabian League, and crews to man them besides. An awed muttering started up among the krels. Eremo was trying to dazzle Dresk with wealth, and Galantas was struggling to see past the glare himself.

Easy giving something away, though, when you intended to take it back straight after.

“This base you mentioned,” he said to the commander. “Where would you put it?”

“That’s something we’ll need to reconsider, since you tell me the charts we’ve been working from are likely fakes.”

“How long?”

“You mean how long would we need the base? Until we have established a presence on . . . the mainland.”

That hesitation was telling. If he’d been about to say “the Sabian League,” why not just say it? And why spend twenty thousand talents to sail through the Isles to the League when you could sail around them for free, with only a few bells lost? No, the more Galantas thought about it, the more he suspected the stone-skins’ real target here was Erin Elal with its vulnerable eastern seaboard. “And then the base would be decommissioned?”

“Of course. It won’t be much use to us afterward.”

“Enough!” Dresk said to Galantas, but Galantas pressed on.

“How many of your ships would enter our waters?”

The commander cocked his head. “Surely you don’t expect us to reveal the size of our fleet.”

“Why not? You said you couldn’t lose this war. Are we supposed to just take you at your word?”

“Enough!” Dresk said again to Galantas. “Your whining is making my head hurt.” Then, to Eremo, “You said you ain’t from round here. Where’d you get twenty thousand talents from?”

“We didn’t get twenty thousand talents from anywhere. We got one sovereign, and produced copies.”

“But still made from gold?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.”

Eremo took a coin from his pocket and tossed it to Dresk. The warlord missed with his snatch, but the sovereign landed in his lap. He inspected it by the dim light. “Where are the rest?”

“Somewhere safe. They will be available when you sign the treaty.” The Keeper twittered in Eremo’s ear, and the commander nodded and added, “My friend here has reminded me of something. In our agreement the twenty thousand talents will be expressed as a loan—”

Dresk scowled.

“But a loan repayable only after a thousand years.”

The warlord stared at Eremo as if the stone-skin had started speaking in his native tongue.

“As I said,” the commander explained, “my people have strange rules when it comes to dealing with other cultures.”

“A thousand years?” Dresk said. “The treaty will have crumbled to dust by then. How will you prove the debt?”

“How indeed?”

“And the interest payable?”

“Nothing.”

Galantas struggled to marshal his thoughts. What game were the Augerans playing? Why call the money a loan if you had no intention of asking for it back? That particular question would have to wait until later, though, for a more prickly concern had occurred to him. “What about the other Rubyholt clans?” he asked Eremo.

It was Dresk who responded. “What about them?”

“I assume the commander isn’t going to want to pay our kinsmen on top of what he’s paying us.”

Eremo said, “You assume correctly.”

“But you expect the other clans to abide by this treaty, correct?”

“I expect you to control your subjects.” The commander swung to Dresk. “Is that a problem?”

“No problem,” Dresk said, with a look at Galantas that warned him to be silent. As if Eremo wouldn’t already know of the fractured relations between the warlord and the other tribes. As if he wouldn’t know the risk of dealing with Dresk alone. The stone-skins would want to pass through the waters not just of Dresk’s Spears, but of the other clans as well. And the leaders of those tribes would want a cut of the gold in return for not harassing Augeran ships. Somehow Galantas couldn’t see his father sharing, though. How typical of him to see his position as warlord not as responsibility but as opportunity—to expect loyalty from the other clans, yet offer nothing in return.

Galantas’s gaze slid from his father to Eremo. Could that be the stone-skins’ true purpose here? Widen the rifts between Dresk and the tribes before attacking? After all, when a man like Dresk was floundering, heaping gold on him just served to hasten his journey to the bottom. Hells, the clans had fought over a lot less in their time. Twenty thousand talents, they would say, meant there was plenty to go around, and who could argue with them? Not Galantas, certainly.

And yet would a conflict between Dresk and the other tribes be a bad thing? If Galantas played his hand right, might there be an opportunity to speed his father’s fall from power?

“What if another tribe breaches the treaty?” he asked Eremo.

“Then we hold you accountable, of course.”

“Meaning?”

Eremo waved the question away. “Details. We can discuss them later. First I need to know if we have an agreement.”

Dresk tossed the commander’s coin from hand to hand, making a show of considering the offer. “Twenty thousand talents,” he said.

Eremo nodded.

“For one base and free passage through the Isles.”

“Yes.”

Dresk grimaced like his arm was being twisted. “Agreed.”

“Excellent. I will bring the treaty with me when I return. Shall we say, at the seventh bell this evening?”

Bring the treaty with him? So it had already been drafted, then? So much for negotiating the details. Galantas did not voice the thought, however. Sometimes knowing when to shut up was as important as knowing when to speak.

Eremo turned away. As he did so his scarred mage, Hex, abruptly stirred and sprang from his chair as if he hadn’t been sleeping at all.

Galantas watched them make for the door. Strange, Dresk had been promised twenty thousand talents, yet Galantas couldn’t shake the feeling that the stone-skins had got the better of the exchange. How could Dresk lose from the deal, though? War between the stone-skins and Erin Elal—if indeed that was their target—would disrupt the trade on which the Spears preyed, but twenty thousand talents would more than make up for lost profits. And if Erin Elal should come seeking revenge when the Augerans were gone, well, they’d tried invading before. Why should the result this time be any different from the last?

Eremo stopped by the door. “Oh, one final thing,” he said over his shoulder. “We were attacked by two ships on our way here this morning. They ambushed us near some underwater ruins a league or so to the south.”

Galantas knew the spot. It was a favorite place to pick off outsiders as they exited the South Corridor. “These ships . . . what flag were they flying?”

“A red feather.”

Ravin, then. The clan leader of the Falcons wasn’t the sort to let a profit sail past unchallenged. “Two ships, you say. But they let you pass when you told them you were meeting us?”

“Hardly.”

Before Galantas could reply, Dresk said to his chamberlain, Talet, “Get the word out to the other clans. Make sure they don’t bother our new friends again.”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Eremo said, resuming his walk to the door. “We’ve sent out our own message loud and clear.”

 

 

Dragon Hunters

Prologue

Through the eye slits of her mask, the woman studied the Chameleon priest. Standing motionless in the darkness beyond the doorway, he blended in seamlessly with the other shadows. With his power employed he would have been invisible to eyes other than the woman’s. His gaze lingered on her before moving off to scan the room in which she waited. He took in its walls with their carvings of masked and animal-headed figures, its headless statue of a winged creature in the southwest corner, its large arched window in the wall behind the woman.

Then he surrendered his power and entered the chamber. Potsherds and shattered floor tiles crunched beneath his sandals. He advanced to within a dozen paces of the woman.

“That’s close enough,” she said, her hand straying to the hilt of her sword.

He halted.

The moonlight spilling through the window to his right gave one side of his face a ghostly sheen. So deeply was the darkness gathered in his sunken eyes that it seemed as if he’d brought some of the shadows in with him from the passage. The gray streaks in his hair gave him the look of a man old before his time. He carried no weapons— as she had insisted in her message. Round his lower arms were armguards of blackened metal.

The silence dragged out. The woman could hear the hiss of waves breaking against the Natillian cliffs, then over that the clang, clang, clang—regular as a shipwright’s hammer—of a sea dragon ramming its head into the Dragon Gate. The floor trembled.

When the priest spoke, his voice was scratchy from lack of use. “This used to be a temple of the Lord of Hidden Faces.”

The woman smiled behind her mask. The priest would be feeling uncomfortable in another god’s abode, she knew, no matter that the shrine had long since been abandoned. There was an emptiness to the place that was more than just the stillness of the night. The air in the chamber felt thin, as if it had passed through the lungs of too many people.

“Strange place for a meeting,” the priest added.

“I like it here. It’s quiet.”

“Also gives you access to the rooftops in case you need to make a sharp exit.”

“I hadn’t noticed. Now, where is my payment?”

From a pocket in his robe the priest produced a perfume bottle made of pearlshell. The woman could sense the protective sorcery invested in the container to protect it from its contents.

“Put it on the floor and step back.”

He did as he was bid.

The woman edged forward, her gaze not leaving the priest, then picked up the bottle before retreating. She withdrew the stopper and sniffed its contents. The metallic sharpness of dragon blood made her eyes water. Replacing the stopper, she gave the bottle a shake.

“A little less in here than we agreed, I think, but still enough to set me up far beyond the reach of your mistress.”

The priest’s eyes narrowed. “My mistress?”

“Oh, come now, how many people in the Sabian League can lay their hands on dragon blood at short notice? How many of those people have an interest in the information on this scroll?” She tossed the parchment in her left hand onto the floor. “It’s all there—everything you need to know about the Dianese citadel.”

He made no move to collect it. “Tell me.”

The woman considered, then began speaking. She told the priest about the guard postings and squad rotations, about the bastions along the fortress’s outer walls, about the invisible pockets of sorcerously condensed air scattered about the guardhouse to ensnare intruders.

“What about the chamber with the mechanism that raises the Dragon Gate?” the priest said when she had finished.

The woman laughed. “You haven’t been listening, have you? You won’t make it as far as the fortress’s grounds, never mind the control room. In the week leading up to Dragon Day, the number of soldiers patrolling the outer wall is trebled. All of the gates are sealed, except for the main gate, which is guarded by fifty of the governor’s elite.” The corners of her mouth turned up. “Not even the Chameleon god himself could slip through undetected.”

“Humor me.”

Humor him? Judging by the priest’s dour demeanour, she stood as much chance of doing that as he did of piercing the citadel’s defenses. “The door to the control room is locked from the inside,” she said, “and the corridor leading to it is guarded by twenty soldiers. Two more soldiers are stationed inside the chamber itself. Then there are the men whose job it will be to raise the gate.” She lifted the bottle of dragon blood as if toasting him before slipping it into a pocket. “I almost feel bad taking this from your mistress. The information she has paid for is useless to her.”

“The more closely a place is guarded, the less wary are the soldiers who’re watching it.”

“If you say so.”

A scratching sound came from the doorway through which the priest had entered. He looked across. The woman followed his gaze, but it was only a rat nosing along the passage outside.

She said, “One more thing you should know—”

The priest sprang to the attack.

For a heartbeat the woman stood frozen in surprise. Then she pushed herself into motion. She’d been careful to keep her distance from the man, yet he closed the gap between them so quickly she barely had time to draw her sword. Her backhand slash was deflected by one of the priest’s armguards. Before she could recover her blade, his hand closed around her wrist. The fingers of his other hand formed a spear that jabbed toward her throat. She swayed aside.

Too late.

Pain exploded in her neck. She tried to draw a breath, but her throat felt as if a rock had lodged in it. She tried to scream, but all that came out was a wheeze. The priest’s hand about her wrist twisted and squeezed, and her sword slipped from her fingers. She tried to pull loose from his grip, but he was too strong. She flailed with her free arm, hoping to catch him a chance blow, but he ducked and moved behind her.

A kick to the back of her legs, and she fell to her knees. Her sword lay on the floor, but when she reached for it, the priest curled an arm round her neck and hauled her back. The pressure on her wounded throat caused another stab of agony. Black spots flashed before her eyes. She bucked and heaved, but there was no give in her attacker’s arm. She opened her mouth to try to reason with him, but the words would not come.

The pressure on her throat intensified. Darkness gathered at the edges of her vision.

 *   *   *

Fingers fluttering, the goddess known as the Spider looked down at the woman’s corpse.

Since throttling his victim, the Chameleon priest had made himself busy. After retrieving the bottle of dragon blood, he’d removed the woman’s rings and the fishbone charm round her neck. Next he had stripped her naked and checked her body for distinguishing scars or birthmarks. Finally he’d used the pommel of her sword to smash her mask and the face beneath it into bloody ruin. And all so she wouldn’t be identified by her masters at the Dianese citadel, for surely the disappearance of someone so familiar with the workings of the fortress would not go unnoticed.

A reasonable assumption, but wrong, as it turned out.

The goddess waved her fingers, and the illusion of the woman’s corpse, along with the pool of blood beneath it, faded to nothing.

“Perrrfect.”

Looking out of the window, the Spider saw the priest leave the temple and move along Gable Street, hugging the walls of the Elissian Sanctum. He’d been clever, she conceded, to keep the woman talking until the rat distracted her. Even though the goddess had suspected he would attack, his speed had still caught her off guard. Doubtless he was wondering what his victim had intended to reveal with her final words—One more thing you should know—but he’d already made his move by then, and he could hardly have broken off his assault to let the woman finish her sentence. The Spider smiled. If he made it as far as the Dianese control room, he’d be in for a surprise—a surprise that could jeopardize the success of both his and the goddess’s own schemes. But that only added more spice to the pot.

The rhythmic clang of the dragon bashing its head into the Dragon Gate started up again. Strange that one of the creatures should stray so far north at this time of year. Usually they prowled the Southern Wastes until they were lured here at the end of the summer in readiness for the Dragon Hunt. The goddess’s fingers fluttered. Dragon Day and all it presaged was still months away, but she would have to be patient. Today she had set a spark to the kindling. Soon it would grow into a fire that swept the length and breadth of the Sabian League.

And where chaos ruled, there was only one place for the Spider to be.

Right at its heart. 

Chapter 1

The time had come for Senar Sol to learn his fate.

The Guardian had known it as soon as the bolts of his cell door were thrown back, for this was the first time it had happened in all the months he had been imprisoned. He pushed himself to his feet, found his legs were trembling. How long had he been a captive? How long since he’d stepped through the Merigan portal and swapped Emperor Avallon Delamar’s knife at his back for a sword at his throat? The best part of a year, he realized, for through the bars across his room’s window he had seen autumn, winter, spring, and much of summer pass by. As the weeks of his imprisonment had turned into months, he’d begun to wonder if his jailers would just leave him there to rot. But then why had they kept passing food and water through the grille of his cell door? Why bother keeping him alive at all?

Something told him he was about to find out.

The door opened and torchlight flooded through the doorway, banishing the gloom about the cell. Senar squinted into the light. A balding man entered—the same man to whom the Guardian had surrendered his sword on stepping through the Merigan portal all those months ago to find himself surrounded by enemy soldiers. The guard wore leather armor covered with metal plates that overlapped like fish scales. In one hand he held a sword with a blade made from the snout of a sawfish. Three stripes on his left shoulder marked him as an officer. Senar searched his gaze for any hint as to what his coming here signified, but the man’s expression was masked. He gestured to the open doorway.

Senar scratched at the stubs that were all that remained of the two smallest fingers of his left hand. Beyond the officer waited an escort of no fewer than twelve soldiers. High honor, indeed. Another time, odds of thirteen to one would have meant nothing to the Guardian, but he rejected the idea of attacking for the same reason he’d yielded up his blade after he passed through the portal three seasons ago: even if he could defeat the guards facing him, what about the reinforcements that would inevitably come? And what was the point in trying to escape when he didn’t know what lay beyond the four walls of his cell, didn’t even know in which city of which empire he was imprisoned? Then there was the fact that his time in captivity would have left his skills as rusty as the hinges of his cell door. No, he would not throw his life away while his captors’ intentions remained unclear.

Not when he still had unfinished business with the emperor who had sent him here to die.

Why, then, when the officer beckoned him through the door again did Senar hold back? A smile touched his lips. He had been a prisoner all this time, yet now when he was offered a glimpse of freedom, he hesitated? Better the gallows than this lingering death of the spirit he’d endured these past few months. Though he might see things differently, of course, when he was swinging from the noose.

He hadn’t been heedless of the risks of traveling through the Merigan portals when he stepped through all those months ago. Only two such gateways had been found in Erin Elal—at Bastion and at Amenor—but there were innumerable others beyond the borders of the empire. And while the symbols etched into each portal’s architrave denoted the destinations to which one could travel, the emperor’s scholars had yet to decipher the code behind those symbols. Senar’s destination had been chosen at random, and if that destination had proved to be a gateway that no longer existed, his journey to it would have killed him instantly. Even if the passage had not proved immediately fatal, Senar could have been transported to any one of a hundred different kingdoms, thousands of leagues from home. Few of those kingdoms would look kindly on visitors dropping by unannounced.

So where had the portal brought him? He hadn’t had any visitors in his time here, so no help there. Nor had his captors left any clues in his cell, for the books of poetry and philosophy he’d been given were written in the common tongue by authors from numerous different cultures. Badly written, as it happened. He’d tried looking out of his cell’s window for clues, but there was only so much information he could deduce from the blank wall opposite. From time to time he’d heard people talking outside, but never clearly enough to make out their words. And why? Because they were drowned by the sound of the sea.

The sea.

Senar had come to know its many voices in the months he’d been a prisoner. At times its gentle gurgle put him in mind of sleepy days spent fishing with his father in the sheltered bays east of Amenor— before his father had died. At other times it would rage in the grip of a storm so savage it seemed the Furies themselves were battering at the shutters. Those storms had been one of the things to awaken in Senar a suspicion as to his location. Then there was the style of the armor and sword worn by the officer before him, together with the emblem on the man’s breast of a shaft of silver lightning over a storm cloud.

The Storm Isles—that was where the clues were leading him.

Throughout his imprisonment, he had tried to remember everything he’d heard of that empire. Located in the Sabian Sea to the north and east of Erin Elal, the Storm Isles were a chain of islands ruled by a fellowship of water-mages—the Storm Lords—that held in its thrall a confederation of cities known as the Sabian League. In return for the Storm Lords protecting the League’s shipping from pirates, as well as from the supernatural storms that swept down from the Broken Lands, the League’s members paid tribute to the Storm Lords. The Storm Lords’ seat of government was the city of Olaire on the island of Faeron, a handful of leagues from the fabled Dragon Gate that spanned the Cappel Strait between Dian and Natilly.

The Dragon Gate. Just to speak the name in his mind made Senar’s pulse quicken. Once each year the gate was raised to allow a sea dragon to pass into the Sabian Sea. Awaiting it would be ships from the Storm Isles and the cities of the Sabian League, and they would hunt the creature for the honor and riches that came to the vessel that slew it. Dragon Day. Two words that inspired awe even in Erin Elal.

The balding officer gestured again to the open door, and Senar glanced down at his clothes. They were the same clothes he’d arrived in last year. He looked like a beggar, and he smelled like one too, but if they’d been going to kill him, surely they’d have let him wash and change first. Die with a little dignity, and all that. He stepped through the doorway.

To his right stretched a passage that was featureless but for several closed doors to either side. At the end of the passage was another door, and beyond it was a corridor that seemed cavernous to Senar after the confines of his cell. Its floor was covered by a blue and white mosaic so artfully crafted that, for an improbable moment, the Guardian thought he was standing on a frothing tide.

The officer led the way through a maze of passages. Senar’s legs ached as he struggled to keep pace, but then the months of captivity would have left a few creases it would take time to iron out. The sound of the sea grew louder until eventually he came to a corridor where the boom of waves made it feel as if he were inside a drum. The wall to his right had no windows and was imbued with such powerful watermagic he suspected the sea lay just the other side.

And where there was powerful water-magic, there were powerful water-mages.

The Storm Isles. It has to be.

If Senar’s theory concerning his location was correct, the news was both good and bad. Good in that if he ever got the chance to return home, Erin Elal was only a few weeks’ travel away.

But bad for the same reason. For even though Emperor Avallon Delamar had yet to lock horns with the Storm Lords, it could only be a matter of time. Over the past decade Erin Elal had fought its northwestern neighbor, Kal, to a standstill, and while Avallon would never abandon his ambition to conquer the Kalanese empire, the loosely allied nations to the northeast of Erin Elal surely represented easier pickings. If the emperor were to learn of the Merigan portal in the Storm Isles, the strategic advantages he would gain from a back door to the Storm Lords’ empire could not be overstated.

So why am I still alive?

The question had plagued him throughout his imprisonment. Even if his captors were ignorant as to his identity—and doubtless they were, since no one had bothered to question him—why take the risk of keeping him alive? Why not kill him and be done with it?

Of course, that could be what was about to happen.

The balding officer—a Storm Guard, Senar supposed, if these were indeed the Storm Isles—came to a staircase, and the Guardian followed him up into blistering sunshine. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he stepped onto the roof of the corridor he had been walking along moments ago. He was on a terrace overlooking the sea. The terrace stretched for hundreds of paces in either direction, ending to the east in black cliffs and to the west in a rocky shoreline. Its tiles were slick with spray. Immediately to the south Senar saw the roofs and courtyards of a sprawling building complex. Beyond lay a hill, its lower slopes crowded with white-plastered houses that gave way to trees near the hill’s summit.

To the Guardian’s left stood five figures, all staring down into a courtyard. They turned as he approached. At the center of the group was a woman with skin so pale she might never have set foot outdoors before. Her hair was gray—a curious detail, since she looked only a few years older than Senar. Her blue eyes were as cold as glacial pools, and perhaps ice ran through her veins as well, for her face showed not a bead of sweat in spite of the crushing heat.

To her right stood two young women, identical twins. And a handspan taller than Senar. He disliked them instinctively. Each wore a sword strapped to her waist, and one of them was holding Senar’s scabbarded blade. To the other side of the gray-haired woman was a bearded man wearing a brown shirt and trousers. The whites of his eyes were gray, marking him as an oscura addict. Beside him stood a one-eyed old man with the olive skin of a Remnerol. Like all Remnerol, he was missing the little fingers of both hands. In his left hand he held a black bag. When a gust of wind tugged at the bag, its contents made a clacking noise. Bones. A shaman, then, for the elders of the Remnerol tribes were said to be able to read the future in the cast finger bones of their kinsmen.

The Storm Guard officer bowed to the gray-haired woman. “The prisoner as you ordered, Emira,” he said, raising his voice to make himself heard above the sound of a wave striking the seawall. The spray thrown up cooled Senar’s skin.

The emira inclined her head, and the soldier retreated.

So this was Imerle Polivar, leader of the Storm Lords and reputedly the most powerful water-mage ever to have sat Olaire’s throne; the woman who had brought to an end an ancient dispute between the Storm Isles and the city of Hunte by draining Hunte’s harbor and diverting the river that ran through it; who had destroyed the stronghold of the notorious pirate lord Kapke Kar in the Uscan Reach by pummelling the fortress with waves of water-magic until it slipped into the sea. Of the woman behind the legend, Senar had heard nothing, but all the clues as to her temper were there in her thin mouth and wintry gaze.

The emira studied the Guardian with the same scrutiny with which he regarded her. Then she turned to look down into the courtyard. Senar followed her gaze. At the center of the yard was a wooden post. Tied to it was a stocky man with gray-green skin, naked but for a loincloth. His hands and feet were webbed, and there were gills on his cheeks. An Untarian. Beyond the prisoner, another figure entered the courtyard. Senar did a double take. The man was a giant, half again as tall as the soldiers standing guard along the walls. At first Senar thought he was wearing armor, but when he looked closer…

Matron’s mercy. Years ago, in the Tresson Mountains, Senar had encountered an Uddin tribe who mixed molten iliafa ore with rose blood to create a metal that could be spun into threads as supple as string yet as strong as steel. For every enemy defeated in single combat, the tribe’s warriors would stitch one of these strands through the skin of their upper arms. The giant below Senar, however, had woven the threads across his entire body from the bottom of his ankles to the top of his neck to form a metallic skin that shimmered as he walked. Over his arms, legs, and chest, black hairs sprouted from between the strands. The hilt of a sword was visible over his left shoulder.

He halted beside the Untarian and looked up at the emira.

She nodded.

Senar glanced from Imerle to the prisoner. It seems a show has been put on for me.

The Untarian must have known what was coming, for he started pulling against his bonds. The giant placed a paw on his right shoulder before bending until his face was level with the other man’s. The prisoner gabbled in a language Senar did not recognize. His words had a pattern to them, as if he was chanting some mantra.

On the giant’s left hand was a metal gauntlet with long curved talons. He lifted the gauntlet to the Untarian’s chest and drew its claws across his skin. They left threads of blood in their wake.

The prisoner’s voice grew louder, his eyes bright with defiance.

The giant bared his lips in a snarl.

Then he pulled back his gauntleted hand and plunged its talons into the Untarian’s chest over his heart.

Senar’s expression tightened. The prisoner’s gasp was barely audible above the sound of cracking bones. Blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth, and he slumped against his bindings. He managed another few words of his mantra before his voice abruptly faded as if he’d run out of breath. Five metal claws in your chest would do that, though, the Guardian supposed. Poor sod, Senar thought. What crime had the man committed to warrant such a punishment? Perhaps no more than to be brought before Imerle on the day Senar was released, for the spectacle had clearly been intended as a warning to the Guardian of what would happen if his answers to the emira’s questions failed to please.

When the emira spoke, her voice was as sibilant as the sea. “We are Imerle Polivar, emira of Olaire and first of the Storm Lords.”

We? The woman referred to herself in the plural? But then doubtless she had an ego big enough for two.

The emira nodded toward the oscura addict and continued, “This is our chief minister, Pernay Ord, and beside him”—she indicated the Remnerol—“is our seer, Jambar Simanis.” She paused as if expecting Senar to introduce himself, but when he kept silent she glanced at his halfhand and added, “And you are Senar Sol, member of the Guardian Council of Erin Elal and former apprentice of Li Benir. A diplomat, a spy, an assassin. Which of those three are you here, we wonder?”

Senar rubbed the stubs of his missing fingers. So it was his halfhand that had given him away? His mouth twitched. With the aim of hiding his identity, he had spent countless bells during his captivity inventing an alter ego with a history as rich and detailed as his own. Now, within the space of a few heartbeats, Imerle had rendered his efforts redundant. He had to smile, though. People who couldn’t laugh at themselves were missing out on a rich vein of humor. In response to her question, he gave his best bow and said, “Here, Emira, I am naught but your prisoner.”

“Why were you sent through the Merigan portal?”

So that was the end of the small talk, apparently. Senar was silent, considering. He didn’t want to volunteer information unnecessarily, but neither did he want to be caught being economical with the truth. “If you know about me, you will know of the history between the Guardians and Emperor Avallon Delamar—”

“We did not ask you to tell us what we already know,” Imerle cut in. “We are aware of what happened on the night of the Betrayal. We are aware of your opposition to the emperor, and the reasons why Avallon chose you to travel through the gateway. Our question is, why were you sent here?”

“I was not sent here. I was sent to wherever the portal took me.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning the emperor has been trying to rid himself of the Guardians for years. The opportunity to pluck a few thorns from his flesh by sending us through the gateway was too tempting to pass up.”

“You are saying Avallon has no interest in navigating the portals?”

“I am saying his professed intention of using the Guardians to decipher the portal’s code is incidental—”

“A moment.” It was the chief minister’s turn to interrupt. “The code? You mean the symbols on the gateway’s architrave?”

The Guardian nodded.

“What is the symbol for Olaire?”

“I do not know. As I stepped through the portal, the symbol was hidden from me by Avallon’s pet mages.”

“And the symbol for Amenor—the city from which you traveled?” “If I knew that, would I not have used the gateway here to return to Erin Elal when I was confronted by your soldiers?”

Pernay threw up his hands. Yes, how dare Senar bring his logic and good sense here? “This is absurd!” the chief minister said. He looked at the emira, then pointed a finger at the one-eyed Remnerol. “He plays you for a fool!”

The Remnerol smiled inanely. “Your barbs strike at my heart, yet my bosom is armored in the steel of righteousness.”

Pernay shook his head in disgust. To Imerle he said, “You would place your faith in this… this—”

The emira silenced him with a look.

There was plenty going on here that Senar did not understand, but before he could think on it, he noticed a flicker of movement in the courtyard. The dead Untarian had begun thrashing against his bonds once more. And since there was no question of the man still being alive, that could only mean… dragon blood. The claws of the giant’s gauntlet must have been dipped in the poison. Dragon blood was said to scar not just the flesh but also the soul, ensuring the victim’s suffering extended beyond his passage through Shroud’s Gate.

A reminder, as if one were needed, that Senar would have to be on his best behavior.

Imerle said, “You say it was Avallon who ordered you through the portal.”

“Correct.”

“We were of the understanding the Guardians served the empire of Erin Elal, not its emperor.”

“To Avallon the distinction has ceased to have any meaning.”

“And you value his opinion above your own?”

Senar frowned. “Your point is well made. A few years ago his view would have carried little weight with our Council, but the Guardian order has fallen far in that time. The emperor has made sure of it.”

“You hold him accountable for your losses?”

Damned right he did. “He has never acted openly against us, but neither has he passed up any opportunity to whittle down our numbers.”

“Even if by doing so he weakened Erin Elal?”

“The emperor cares not if his horse dies under him, so long as he remains in the saddle.”

“So we understand. In the last two years over a hundred Guardians have been lost, yes? Including your master, Li Benir.”

Senar felt the familiar anger bubble up inside him. He took a breath and let it out slowly. The emira was trying to provoke a reaction in him, but he could not afford to let her succeed. Best behavior, he reminded himself. And at least his spell in captivity had given him time to grieve properly over Li Benir, and Jessca, and other friends lost.

Imerle said, “And yet in spite of Li Benir’s death, when the emperor orders you through the portal, you obey. Why?”

“The word ‘no’ is not one Avallon recognizes.” In hindsight, Senar should have been suspicious of the emperor’s intent when he was summoned to Amenor, but then Senar had long thought himself too important for Avallon to try strong-arming him through the portal. Maybe he still did. Conceited, perhaps? To that charge he had to hold up his hands. Or a hand and a half at least. Thirty of the emperor’s Breakers had quickly disabused him of his pretensions.

The emira said, “Six Guardians were sent through the Merigan portal before you, is that not so? Considering your enmity toward Avallon, you must have known he might make you the seventh.”

“You think I should have run? To where? To do what?”

“The Guardians are all you know.”

“The Guardians are all I have known, yes.” After the death of his father thirty years ago, the Guardians had become the only family Senar had.

“Then you must be anxious to return to Erin Elal.”

Senar was under no illusions on that score. Trapped as he was on an island of water-mages, the chances of him escaping to the mainland were slim at best. More to the point, whatever Imerle’s reasons for keeping him alive thus far, they would count for nothing unless he could convince her his old allegiances were dead. “Return, Emira? So the emperor can send me somewhere else through the portal?”

“So you can avenge Li Benir’s death. So you can help the Guardians regain their preeminence.”

“The Guardians are finished.” It was hard for Senar to say the words, but he couldn’t let any sentiment show in his voice. Even though he feared it might be true. What had happened back home in the months he’d been away? Somehow he doubted the emperor’s campaign against the Guardians had stopped just because Senar was out of the picture. “Even if Avallon does not disband the order, he will make sure its numbers never return to what they were.”

“And you are just going to stand aside and let that happen?”

“There is nothing I can do to prevent it.” He paused. “That does not mean, though, that I will forget the part the emperor played in the Guardians’ demise.”

Imerle turned back to the courtyard. The Untarian’s body had been untied from the post and was now being dragged away by two soldiers. The executioner stood to one side, staring at nothing.

“If revenge is what you seek,” the emira said, “you have come to the wrong place. We have no quarrel with Erin Elal.”

“Not yet, perhaps.”

Pernay sneered. “Would you have us believe Avallon has set his sights on the Storm Isles? Is he in the habit of confiding his plans in you, then?”

Senar caught the man’s gaze and held it. “If you’ve done your homework on me, you’ll know I was sent to Balshazar three years ago to sound out the city’s Ruling Council on the possibility of joining the emperor’s Confederacy against the Kalanese.”

“Balshazar is not a Storm Lord city.”

“But it is part of the Sabian League. It pays you tribute. If Avallon were to gain a hold on the city, do you think he would continue paying? And if Balshazar refused to pay, would that not set a dangerous precedent?” Senar turned to gauge Imerle’s reaction to his words, found her expression as blank as a slab of ice. “But whatever plans the emperor has concerning the Storm Isles, there is one thing of which you can be certain. He is not a man to settle for what he already has.”

Into the silence that followed came footfalls, and Senar looked across to see the balding Storm Guard officer approaching. He halted a few paces away.

“Forgive my interruption, Emira. Mazana Creed’s ship has just docked at the harbor.”

Mazana Creed? A name Senar had heard before, but where?

Imerle had gone still. “Mazana Creed. You are sure, Septia?”

“That is the message I was given.”

When the emira exchanged a glance with Pernay, Senar noticed with a start that a smoldering flame had kindled in her eyes. And not the sort of flame that left him feeling any warmth, either. He’d thought it a reflection of a fire behind him, but no, the flame was actually within the orbs themselves. When she looked back at him, he knew the time of his judgment was upon him. He scratched at the stubs of his missing fingers. What could he say to sway her decision? In an effort to persuade her of his usefulness he had exaggerated the threat posed by Avallon, but the longer Imerle’s gaze bored into him, the more he suspected she was no more taken in by his deception than she was by his feigned indifference to the Guardians’ plight.

He looked at his sword in the hands of one of the twin sisters and saw she was holding it by the scabbard, not the hilt. Did she know he could use his Will to summon the blade to him? Li Benir, the consummate diplomat, used to say that if you had to draw your sword you’d already lost. And the reality was, there was no chance of Senar fighting his way clear of this terrace—when you were standing a handful of paces from the sea, you didn’t take on a water-mage of Imerle’s repute and expect to walk away from it. But there were different types of losing, Senar reckoned, and any death at the hands of the emira or the twin swordswomen beat losing a lump of his chest to that metal giant in the courtyard.

You had to take your consolations where you found them.

His look at the weapon had not gone unnoticed by Imerle. She smiled faintly. “Perhaps we should adjourn to the throne room to greet Mazana,” she said. “Join us, Guardian.”

It took a heartbeat for her words to sink in. Was he to be spared, then?

“Emira—” the chief minister began.

Imerle waved him to silence. “Do you know,” she said to Senar, “why we kept you imprisoned for so long?”

He shook his head.

“How many months has it been since you came through the portal? Nine? Ten?”

It was Pernay who answered. “Ten.”

“A man could travel far in that time; is that not so, Guardian?” “He could,” Senar said cautiously.

“Aside from the Storm Guards who saw you arrive, the only people who know how you came to be in Olaire are those here now, and they can be relied on to keep the information to themselves. We trust the same can be said of you.”

Senar paused, thinking. There was a certain logic to Imerle’s reasoning. When Avallon discovered Senar was in Olaire, all he would know for certain was that the portal to which the Guardian had journeyed was within ten months’ travel of the Storm Isles. Yet if Senar were to reveal the truth of what had happened here… I’m missing something. It was clear the emira didn’t trust him, so why was she taking a chance on his silence? True, she could prevent him from leaving the island, but how could she stop him sending a message to Erin Elal if he chose to do so?

Senar’s gaze shifted to the Remnerol shaman. What had Pernay said to Imerle earlier? He plays you for a fool. Somehow Jambar had convinced the emira to spare Senar’s life, but why?

Rousing himself, the Guardian looked back at Imerle. There was an expectation in her eyes, and Senar knew what she wanted to hear. He had no hesitation in speaking the words, though if his hands hadn’t been on show he would have been crossing his fingers. Or the fingers he had left, that is.

“My sword is yours, Emira,” he said.

 *   *   *

The Chameleon priestess, Karmel, crept a step closer to her target. Elarr stood ten paces away, the back of his shirt emblazoned with a dark butterfly of sweat. Unlike Karmel he was pale-skinned, and as he turned toward her she saw his face was flushed. His eyes seemed to fix on her, but with her power employed Karmel knew she would be invisible to him while she remained still. Sure enough, the initiate’s gaze was already sliding away to the east.

The priestess scanned the temple courtyard with its carpet of broken glass. Near the eastern edge was a huge sand-glass, its top globe now all but empty of sand. Beyond, in the shade of a colonnade, a small crowd of Karmel’s fellow priests and priestesses had gathered to watch the contest, for unlike a mere initiate such as Elarr they would be able to track her movements as she closed in on her adversary. Imrie was there with her mismatched sandals. Beside her stood Colley, the belt of his robe drawn so tightly round his waist it was a wonder he could breathe. Both were watching the scene intently. The object of the game she was playing was to reach the center of the courtyard and touch her opponent without being spotted, yet most Chameleons never made it that far. The best they could hope for was to go a turn of the glass undetected.

Before commencing the game Karmel had removed her sandals, and the courtyard’s flagstones burned beneath her feet. The ground would be cooler ahead and to her right in the shadow of Vaulk’s Tower. The priestess had rejected an approach from that direction, though, because if she’d been in Elarr’s shoes she would have expected her hunter to come from there. Time had proved the wisdom of her choice. Since the start of the game Elarr had concentrated his attention on that side of the square, and as he looked that way again Karmel stepped forward, easing her weight onto the ball of her left foot before settling back on the heel. All the while her gaze was on her opponent, not on the ground in front of her. Earlier she’d mapped out a mental path through the glass, but she was still taking a risk in moving without checking for shards. It was a risk she had to take, though, for by keeping Elarr in her sights she gave herself a chance of stopping if he spun round unexpectedly.

As he had a habit of doing.

Karmel glanced again at the sand-glass. Judging by the level of the grains she had already exceeded her best time, but that was hardly surprising considering who her opponent was. The gangly youth, Elarr, was flintcat-quick, and he was taking care to ensure his movements never settled into a pattern, that his gaze never rested for long in one place. She’d known what to expect from him, obviously, for she had danced this dance with him once before—a contest six months ago from which she’d emerged victorious, but only after two turns of the glass. Why, then, had she chosen Elarr of all the initiates as an adversary today?

For the same reason she’d opted to have broken glass scattered on the ground: she needed a challenge. Because if she could defeat an opponent such as Elarr when he knew he was being hunted, how much simpler would it be to bring down an unsuspecting target when she was finally trusted with a mission beyond the temple walls?

Patches of shadow glided across the courtyard as a flock of limewings passed overhead. To the west the flags of the Ingar countinghouse fluttered in the breeze. Thinking to take advantage of the cover offered by the sound, Karmel raised her right foot to step forward—

Elarr turned, his sandals scuffing on the flagstones.

The priestess froze.

Something had drawn the initiate’s gaze. That something could not have been Karmel, though, for Elarr was looking toward the scriptorium’s archway on her left. For an instant she considered lowering her leg, then rejected the idea in case her opponent spied her in his peripheral vision.

She waited.

Footsteps approached from the archway. Elarr’s mouth opened as he recognized the newcomer, and he touched the fingers of both hands to his forehead in a gesture of deference.

Curious, Karmel followed his gaze—moving her eyes, not her head.

Then frowned.

Beneath the western colonnade stood her brother, Caval. The high priest always claimed it was coincidence that brought him to this part of the temple when Karmel was playing the game, but the priestess knew otherwise. He’d been here the last two times she’d tasted defeat, and Karmel suspected he’d had a hand in both failures. It would be easy for him to sabotage her efforts, after all; all he had to do was allow his gaze to linger on her and thus give Elarr a clue as to her whereabouts. If Karmel was going to reach the youth now, before Caval interfered, she would have to take more risks than she’d intended.

Perhaps that was no bad thing, though. Since her brother had gone out of his way to seek her out, it seemed only fair she entertain him properly.

A breeze stirred the leaves of a tree in the southwest corner of the courtyard, and their rustle blended with the susurration of the distant sea. Still balanced on one leg, Karmel looked at Elarr. The initiate had dragged his gaze from Caval and was now staring at something behind Karmel. A needlefly buzzed past his face, and he swiped at it with a stick in his right hand—the stick with which he must strike Karmel to bring the game to an end. The priestess worked saliva into her mouth. The muscles of her thighs were beginning to tremble from keeping her leg up, but she wasn’t yet concerned—such twitches would be imperceptible to Elarr so long as they remained minor.

From beside her right ear another needlefly’s whine sounded. The insect settled like the touch of a feather on her arm. She silently swore as she felt its stinger pierce her skin. The needlefly’s body darkened and puffed out as it drew in her blood. Her flesh round the bite began to blister. The urge to scratch the swelling was strong, but Karmel ignored it. A breath of air tugged at her, and it took all her concentration to keep her balance. Her leg muscles were cramping. She reckoned she had only heartbeats before her strength gave out. Elarr would have to turn away soon, though. The longer he went without seeing her, the more he would worry she was creeping up on him from behind.

Gritting her teeth, she waited for some sight or sound to snare the youth’s attention. Who knew, maybe Imrie or Colley would do something to distract him. It was against the rules for spectators to interfere, of course—but it wasn’t breaking the rules if you didn’t get caught.

Her friends, though, seemed to be enjoying her discomfort. Colley in particular was grinning. But then maybe he had every right to, since when he’d played this game last week, Karmel had sprinkled pepper on the ground to make him sneeze. Pranks were common among the younger priests and priestesses at the temple. Indeed, they were expected.

Not today, though. Not when there was glass on the floor that Karmel could step on.

Just then the sands of the timer ran out, and two female initiates scampered over to it from the eastern colonnade. As they wrestled the glass end over end, Elarr looked toward them. It was the opportunity Karmel had been waiting for. Lowering her leg, she took two paces forward, praying she hadn’t left sweaty footprints on the flagstones behind.

The needlefly on her arm took flight. It flitted across Elarr’s field of vision, and he waved his stick at it.

Karmel was now only half a dozen paces from her opponent but these last few steps would be the most difficult, for the closer she came to Elarr, the greater was the chance of him seeing her when she moved. Some sixth sense must have warned him she was near, because he began thrusting out with his stick in all directions as if he were play-fighting an imaginary foe. Safely beyond range, Karmel considered her next move. Immediately ahead the ground was blanketed in a covering of glass so thick she could see no way through. If she stepped over it to clearer ground, the initiate would surely hear her foot coming down. If she went round, though, she would have to plot a new path to her opponent. And if she was looking down at the flagstones, she couldn’t also be watching Elarr.

Fortunately she had a plan. It would mean trusting more to luck than she would have liked, but with Caval standing by to spoil her game, what choice did she have?

Elarr turned to survey the courtyard again. When his back was to Karmel, she bent down and snatched up a shard of glass from the ground. Her pulse was racing, but her thoughts remained calm. Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy herself. The thrill of the hunt was back: the buzz that came from feeling the gazes of the watchers— Caval included—upon her, from seeing her opponent’s frustration as she crept closer.

Karmel rose and advanced, her right foot touching down in the space the shard of glass had occupied.

So far, so good.

Now, though, she would need a touch of the Lady’s fortune, for there was no way of knowing how Elarr would react to what she planned to do. On the previous occasion she’d hunted the youth, she’d duped him into turning away at the critical moment by throwing a fragment of glass onto the flagstones behind him. When he’d spun toward the sound—thinking, no doubt, that Karmel had inadvertently disturbed the carpet of glass—the priestess had sprung forward to touch him on the back.

If it worked last time…

Karmel tossed the shard of glass onto the ground. It made a tinkling noise.

Elarr smiled. He must have remembered the ruse she’d played in their last encounter, for he turned not toward the sound but away from it, plainly expecting a repeat of the priestess’s deception.

As Karmel had hoped he would.

For she had thrown the shard not beyond the initiate, but merely a pace ahead and to one side of her. Elarr, by turning away from the noise, had put his back to the priestess, and two quick steps now brought her behind him. She rested a hand on his left shoulder.

“Better luck next time,” she said.

Elarr groaned, his head dropping.

The sound of crunching glass marked Caval’s approach, and Elarr bowed to the high priest before scurrying away. Karmel searched her brother’s gaze for some hint of approval at what he’d seen, but there was nothing. There had been a time when they were able to share in each other’s successes; now Caval seemed to treat her victories as if they’d come at his expense. His beard was freshly oiled, and his shoulder-length hair was held back from his eyes by a silver band. He halted before Karmel.

“Impressive,” he said, though his tone gave the lie to his words. He stroked his crooked nose. “I think there must be something wrong with your sand-glass, though. I noticed the initiates turning it earlier. Surely it hasn’t taken you half a bell to finish the game.”

“The only problem with the sand-glass is that I haven’t fixed it so the grains run more slowly.”

“Still obsessed with beating my time?”

“You mean once wasn’t enough?”

“Ah, you are referring to your efforts last month against that girl—Silina, wasn’t it? I had understood the point of the game was to touch your opponent before she touches you, not at the same time.”

“Silina got lucky. Luck-y.”

“Either that or she heard you approach.”

“She couldn’t have done, because I made no sound. She must have heard something else and thought it was me.”

“I can see why you would want to believe that,” Caval said, smiling his gap-toothed smile.

Karmel scratched at her needlefly bite. There was something unconvincing about that smile, just as there had been something unconvincing about the whole exchange. It was as if the high priest’s jousting had been done for her benefit—as if he’d merely been going through the motions. The old banter between them didn’t feel the same anymore. Too often there was an edge to their words that could cut.

At the edge of the eastern colonnade hovered two initiates with brooms ready to sweep the glass from the courtyard. A further two acolytes were carrying the sand-glass toward the scriptorium with stilted steps.

“Walk with me,” Caval said to Karmel, setting off for an archway on the far side of the square.

The priestess bridled at the note of command in his voice but followed him all the same. She had left her sandals next to a pool of water by the arch Caval was heading for, and she paused to wash her feet before slipping on her shoes. Imrie and Colley waited to her right. Karmel nodded to them, but there was no time to talk. Her brother had gone on ahead, and she hurried through the arch to catch up to him.

A chill hung about the temple’s passages. Karmel’s sweat cooled against her skin. In front Caval passed the doorway to the Quillery, acknowledging with a raised hand a greeting from within. His footsteps echoed along the corridor, one moment as loud as if he were walking beside Karmel, the next so soft he might have been at the other end of the temple. The sorcery invested in the shrine’s walls was responsible, the priestess knew—it could play such tricks on the senses. Even now the walls rippled as Caval strode by, briefly taking on the hue of his black robe before fading once more to white.

Karmel drew alongside her brother. “Did you know Mother is in Olaire?” she said.

Their mother had always been a distant figure in their childhood— emotionally as well as geographically. Too often she’d abandoned them to their father’s care while she disappeared on some mission or other. Recently she’d tried to ingratiate herself into their lives, but neither Karmel nor Caval had let her. It was easy to play mother now that her children had earned independence from their father. Parenthood wasn’t supposed to be easy, though. And Karmel wouldn’t forgive her mother for being absent through the difficult times.

“I know now,” Caval replied.

“I would have thought as high priest—”

“Ah, Anla reports to the emira now, not me. Imerle has been keeping her busy in the east, spying on the new pasha of Hunte.”

At the end of the corridor they entered a courtyard and followed its colonnade round to the left. At the center of the square a mithreni initiation ceremony was under way, and a statue of the Chameleon throbbed in and out of focus as six priests circled it with outstretched hands. The slap of Karmel’s sandals drew a scowl from the bearded mithren leading the ritual. Karmel gave him a wave.

“She asked if she could see you,” she said to Caval as they reached the next passage.

“The emira?”

“No. Mother.”

“Maybe she wants to remind herself what I look like.”

Karmel smiled sweetly. “Or maybe she has a message for you from Father.”

They had arrived at Caval’s quarters. He pushed open the door.

“Well?” Karmel said. “What shall I tell her?”

“Tell her I have not forgotten.”

She pretended ignorance. “Forgotten what?”

A coldness entered her brother’s eyes, and Karmel wondered if she’d pushed him too far. That was always her problem: not knowing when to stop. But then when Caval’s moods slipped as quickly as they did, it could be hard sometimes to tread the line between teasing and taunting. Sometimes that line could shift midsentence. Karmel tried to think of some quip that would take the sting out of her words, but Caval had already walked into his quarters.

Karmel trailed him inside.

She felt a familiar knot in her stomach as she stepped over the threshold. These chambers had belonged to their father, Pennick, until Caval deposed him as high priest in a bloodless coup last year. Since then Caval had tried to erase all marks of his predecessor. Gone were the grim-faced images of the Chameleon glaring down from the walls; the gnarled fellwood furniture; the stale odor of sweat and old blood. In their place were white-plastered walls adorned with Elescorian tapestries; bookcases filled with books on philosophy, history, and mercantile law; and covering the floor was a mosaic showing the Dragon Gate rising over the Sabian Sea. Yet even though Caval had been high priest for more than a year, the room seemed to Karmel to have an… impermanence to it. As if behind the plaster on the walls, the cold gray stone of Pennick’s time was just waiting to be exposed once more.

For all her brother’s changes, the room’s most striking feature remained its transparent, west-facing wall, pulsing with sorcery. That sorcery meant that while Caval’s chambers appeared from this side to be open to the elements, anyone outside staring back at the building would see only a blank wall. Karmel looked down on Olaire’s black-tiled roofs. Years ago the Chameleon Temple had stood alone on the flank of Kalin’s Hill, but with the sea having risen to flood the low-lying districts of the city, a tide of humanity had swept up the slope to surround the shrine. Dominating the skyline to the northwest was the Founder’s Citadel, while farther south and east were the guildhouses, the mercantile courts, and the embassies of the Commercial District. One of the embassies was hosting a reception, and a dozen figures were gathered on a second-floor balcony. Some of those people seemed to be looking back at Karmel, but there was no way they would be able to see her.

The high priest had seated himself behind his desk, and Karmel sat down opposite him. He gazed down on Olaire as if he’d forgotten she was there, but then doubtless he liked having her wait on him. He rubbed his left shoulder—the shoulder that had never healed properly even after all these years—and Karmel’s face twisted as she saw again the blow that had broken his collarbone, heard her father’s voice gasping the Chameleon’s name over and over in time to the rising and falling of his cane…

Caval’s gaze focused on her. “I have a task for you,” he said. “One uniquely suited to your talents.”

Karmel blinked. “Flattery, Caval? You must need my help very badly indeed.”

“You are familiar with Piput Da Marka, the governor of Dian?”

“I know the name.”

“Ah, then you must be aware of the trouble he’s been stirring up for the emira recently.”

“Remind me.” In truth, the politics of the Sabian League always made Karmel’s eyes glaze over.

Caval’s smile was knowing. “Since coming to power, Imerle has been steadily increasing the Sabian cities’ tribute—this year alone she raised it by two hundred and fifty imperial talents—and Piput has finally had the temerity to object. With the Dragon Gate barring the dragons from the Sabian Sea, and the storms from the Broken Lands having abated of late, the Storm Council’s only function, as Piput sees it, is to protect Sabian shipping from piracy.” He spread his hands. “And since piracy is on the increase, Piput has been left wondering whether Imerle is really earning her keep.”

The sun was bright in Karmel’s eyes through the transparent wall, yet she could not feel its heat, nor detect the touch of the wind that rustled the branches of the ketar trees a short distance away. “So?”

“So he has been finding support among the leaders of the other Sabian cities. Muted support, it must be said, for while those leaders are keen to reduce their tribute, they are more anxious still not to draw the emira’s eye.”

Karmel could see where this was heading. “Imerle wants Piput taken down a peg or two.”

Caval nodded. “She believes—rightly, I suspect—that if Dian’s governor were to lose face with his allies, his cause would flounder.”

The priestess was silent, considering. Then it came to her. “Dragon Day,” she said.

“Very good. On Dragon Day the heads of every city in the Sabian League will converge on Dian and Natilly for the Dragon Hunt. If the Dragon Gate should fail to rise, thus depriving those leaders of their day of sport…”

Karmel’s voice betrayed her doubt. “Fail to rise? You are the historian, I know, but as I recall, the gate hasn’t failed to rise in more than three hundred years.”

“Three hundred and eighty-six, to be precise. Oh, there have been plenty who wanted to stop it in that time. The Rubyholters tried to smuggle some men into the citadel a few years back. But tricking your way past the guards is going to be harder than just putting on a hat and claiming your name has been missed off the guest list.”

“And that’s where I come in?”

“Correct.” Caval looked down at the floor mosaic of the Dragon Gate. “For the gate to rise, the hoisting mechanisms in both Dian and Natilly must be operated simultaneously. Which means it just takes one of those mechanisms to malfunction and Dragon Day will be over before it has started.”

“As easy as that?”

“Ah, I never said it would be easy. In two days’ time the citadel will be crawling with soldiers, and even if you make it past the outer wall you still have to get to the fortress’s control room where the hoisting mechanism is located. Then there is the small matter of escaping afterward through a citadel up in arms. Of course, if you think I should find someone else…”

Karmel ran a hand through her short-cropped hair. Her brother was trying to play on her pride, but he needn’t have bothered. For months she’d been waiting for a chance such as this to prove herself, and she would have accepted the mission whatever the dangers. What was the point of all her training, after all, if she did nothing with it? It felt sometimes as if Caval was trying to protect her, but at other times it felt like he was holding her back. A voice inside her urged caution, though. Caval had never before trusted her with an assignment of note, yet now he would trust her with this? Breaking into the Dianese citadel? On Dragon Day? She shifted in her seat. Even for a Chameleon it sounded… ambitious. “What happens if I get caught?”

“I wouldn’t advise that.”

“I mean, aren’t you taking a risk in sending your sister? If I should be seen, the finger of suspicion will point at you.”

“Whether it’s you or another Chameleon, the suspicion will be the same.”

“Then why did you choose me?” Karmel said, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it from him.

The high priest did not respond.

Karmel gave him an impish look. “It’s all right, Caval—you can say it. I’m good. I may even be better than you. Of course we’ll never know for sure if you keep refusing to spar with me.”

Her brother’s voice was bitter. “And that’s the height of your ambition? To outdo me?”

Not that it mattered, obviously. However many times she challenged Caval, he would always find an excuse not to face her. It wouldn’t do, after all, for a high priest to be beaten by one of his juniors. More to the point, it wouldn’t do for a brother to be beaten by his little sister. “What about the emira? What’s in it for her?”

“I’ve already told you. Piput gets the wind taken out of his sails—”

“Oh, come on, you can do better than that. Imerle’s time as emira is up at the end of this year, meaning Piput will soon become her successor’s problem. Why should she care about what tribute Dian pays when she won’t be there to receive it?”

“Won’t she?”

At first Karmel thought Caval was mocking her, but when his gaze held steady on hers, she realized she’d read him wrong. She leaned back in her chair. So Imerle was planning a coup, was she? For weeks the city had been alive with rumors of a plot. But then there were always rumors when an emir or emira’s tenure came to an end, and none of those rumors had ever come to anything before. With good reason, too: however powerful the head of the Storm Council might be, there were five other Storm Lords to oppose them. The fact Imerle intended to risk those odds was surprising enough… but more surprising still was the fact she had apparently confided her plans in Caval. It was less than a year, after all, since her brother had first approached the woman to offer his services.

Caval made to rise, but Karmel remained seated. “Dragon Day is, what, three days away? If I’m supposed to infiltrate the Dianese citadel in that time, we’re cutting things a little fine.”

“Ah, that’s why you’re leaving tonight.”

“Who else is coming?”

The high priest stared at her.

Karmel grinned. “I may be good, Caval, but even I need someone to carry my bags.”

“His name is Veran.”

“A Chameleon?”

“Of sorts.”

“Meaning?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself. You’ll be meeting him soon enough.” The high priest’s gap-toothed smile was back, but there was no more humor in it this time than there had been the last. “I’m sure he’ll be only too happy to answer your questions.”

 

 

 

 

When the Heavens Fall

 

Chapter 1

Luker had sworn never to return to this place.

He was not a man who gave his word lightly, yet here he stood, staring at the Sacrosanct through the wrought iron gates at the entrance to its grounds. His gaze took in the boards across its windows, the tiles missing from the roofs of its turrets, the bleak lines of its walls that rose like black cliffs to seemingly impossible heights. Home sweet home. The place looked deserted, but there was light coming from the windows at the top of the First Guardian’s tower—like a beacon guiding him into harbor. He did not need its glow to tell him he had entered dangerous waters.

The scar running from the corner of his right eye to his jawline itched again, and he scratched it absently. He’d expected to feel something on seeing the Sacrosanct again. Had hoped to. But when he searched inside he found only emptiness tinged with disappointment. And he being such a cheerful soul normally. He took a breath. Two years ago he’d closed these gates behind him and walked away without looking back. The place had meant nothing to him then, he was a fool to have believed it would be different now.

I shouldn’t have come back.

The gates were unlocked and guarded only by the twin statues of the Patrons, their grim expressions a foretaste of the reception Luker would no doubt receive inside. He pushed open the gates. Before him stretched a path flanked by rows of kalip trees, their branches casting long shadows in the half-light. Luker set off along the trail. To either side, the grounds of the Sacrosanct grew unchecked. Insects swarmed over shadowy shapes part-hidden in the undergrowth. From tangled grasses protruded the gravestones of the Lost, their epitaphs faded. Some of the graves had been disturbed, and soil lay heaped beside the stones. As an apprentice Luker had spent many evenings wandering the burial yard with his master, Kanon, listening to tales of the fallen Guardians and the sacrifices they had made. There was a time when Luker had known all their names, but not now—the ranks of stones had swelled while he’d been away.

Still, at least he now knew where everyone had got to.

The first drops of rain began to fall. A storm was blowing in from the south, the same storm that had buffeted Luker’s ship into port earlier. Through the trees ahead, the Sacrosanct was a darker grey against the gathering gloom. The path ended at a flight of steps which Luker took two at a time. The door at the top was twice his height and made from a wood so dark it looked fire-blackened. It was set in a frame of stone engraved with runes that shone softly green. As Luker brushed his fingertips against them he felt only a faint tingling. The wards were failing. Like every other damned thing round here.

Four years ago Luker had watched from one of the windows above as Emperor Avallon Delamar ascended these same steps. The door to the Sacrosanct had been shut then as it was now, but the runes had cast a glow that stained the emperor’s face even in bright sunshine. Before entering, Avallon had taken off his coronet and set it on the top step. The gesture had brought a gasp from those watching with Luker, for its message was clear: the emperor left his sovereignty outside the walls of the Sacrosanct. He came to the Guardians to petition, not to command.

And yet the bastard still left with what he came for. The Guardians’ decision to side with the emperor that day had opened rifts in their ranks, leaving them vulnerable when Avallon came calling again, this time with poorly-concealed demands for allegiance. Luker had known the episode would mark the beginning of the end for the Guardians, but he had never imagined they would be brought to their knees so quickly.

Not that he was about to get all tearful at their fall. It was too late for regrets. He had made his decision two years ago. There was no going back.

So what in the Nine Hells am I doing here?

He drew the sword on his left hip and used the pommel to pound on the door, then re-sheathed the blade and waited, head bowed in the rain. A while later he heard bolts being thrown back. The door opened inward. In the shadows beyond, Luker saw the weathered face of an old man, his white hair standing disheveled as if he had been disturbed from his sleep. Luker towered over him.

What do you want?” the doorman asked.

A little courtesy for starters,” Luker muttered. “My name’s Luker Essendar. I’m here to see the First Guardian.”

The old man looked him up and down like he’d never before seen someone with honey-colored skin. Maybe he hadn’t.

Luker reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a roll of parchment. The movement caught the doorman by surprise, and he stepped back, arms raised as if to fend off a blow.

Relax.” Luker held up the scroll for the doorman to inspect. The wax seal was broken, but the stamp impressed upon it could still be made out. “Look here—the First Guardian’s mark.”

The old man bent to peer at the scroll, his nose almost touching the parchment. After a handful of heartbeats he grunted and stepped aside to allow Luker to pass. Once Luker was inside, the doorman set his shoulder to the door, and it closed with a noise like rolling thunder. Luker waited in near-blackness as the locks were secured. Water dripped from the hem of his cloak and collected in a puddle at his feet.

Follow me,” the doorman said.

Save your legs. I know the way.”

Nevertheless. The First Guardian will expect me to announce you.” Without waiting for a response the doorman shuffled into the gloom. Luker fell into step behind.

They passed through a series of corridors and entered the Great Hall. A knot of shadows marked the Council table and the wooden thrones surrounding it. Gone were the rich rugs and tapestries, and Luker could hear the room’s vastness in the echoes of his footsteps.

The doorman reached the far side of the chamber and entered the maze of passages beyond. Luker could have found his way through with his eyes closed. In his first years at the Sacrosanct he had spent countless nights pacing the corridors, fleeing the memories that sleep would bring. Every time, his footsteps led him to the Matron’s shrine—they passed it now—where he’d sit huddled at the feet of her statue, waiting for the goddess to break the silence. And as each day dawned grey and empty he retreated to his room no closer to answers than he’d been the night before. He had lost his childhood somewhere down here in the darkness.

The doorman led him through an archway and up a spiral stairwell. There seemed to be more steps than Luker remembered, but then maybe that was down to the torturous pace his escort was setting. Reaching a door at the top, the old man turned and bid Luker wait, then knocked and went inside. Luker heard muffled voices before the old man reappeared and beckoned him to enter.

The First Guardian’s tower was much as Luker remembered it: the open fire; the candles in their holders; the desk with its covering of scrolls. A quill pen lay on a piece of parchment, the last words on the page glistening as the ink dried. The heat felt oppressive after the chill of the Great Hall.

With his back to Luker, First Guardian Gill Treller stood gazing out of a window. When he finally turned, Luker saw that the last two years had not been kind to him, for his neatly-trimmed beard was shot through with grey and his hairline had retreated a few fingers’ widths. He clutched his black robes tightly about him in spite of the heat. But his look still held the same intensity. And hostility, Luker realized, frowning. He’s no more pleased to see me than I am to be here.

The usual warm welcome, then.

What took you so long?” the First Guardian said.

Good to see you too, Gill.”

The summons was delivered a week ago. You could have swum from Taradh Dor in that time.”

You’re lucky I came at all.”

Indeed? I don’t recall giving you a choice in the matter.”

Luker shrugged, then crossed to the desk and poured himself a glass of red wine from a decanter.

Help yourself to wine,” Gill said.

Luker took a sip. “Not bad. A bit young maybe.”

If I’d known you would arrive today I’d have ordered something more to your taste. Now perhaps we can begin.”

I’ve got a question first,” Luker said. “How did you find me?”

I didn’t need to find you. I knew exactly where to look.”

You’ve been scouting me all this time?”

That surprises you? A Guardian does not simply disappear, Luker, however much he might wish to. The emperor would not allow it.”

The emperor?” Luker said, his eyes narrowing. “What’s he got to do with this?”

You thought the summons came from me?” Gill shook his head. “You walked out on us, Luker. Not for the first time, either. If I’d had my way, you’d have been left to rot on Taradh Dor.”

Luker pulled the sheet of parchment from his cloak and tossed it on the floor. “Then why’s your seal on the Shroud-cursed scroll? Since when have you been Avallon’s errand boy?”

The emperor judged you would not have come if the summons had been his.”

Damned right. I don’t take orders—”

I suspect Avallon may see things differently,” Gill interrupted. Pulling a handkerchief from his sleeve he dabbed at his watery eyes. “You’ll find much has changed in the time you’ve been away. The emperor’s power has grown. We are all his servants now, whether we like it or not.”

Luker stared at him. Seeing the Sacrosanct’s neglect had been surprise enough, but to hear such words from the First Guardian’s mouth . . . “We’ve really fallen that far?”

Gods below!” Gill said, throwing up his hands. “Look around you, man! The Sacrosanct is falling into ruin. The Council hasn’t convened for more than a year. What would be the point? There are barely a score of us left.”

Better the Guardians go the way of your hairline than stain their knees before Avallon.”

You really mean that?”

Aye.”

Then why did you answer the summons? Why are you here now?”

Luker swirled the wine in his glass. “Maybe I was just curious.”

The Abyss you were. You came back because you’re one of us. You always will be.”

One of us? This from the man who would have left him to rot on Taradh Dor? “You’re way off the mark Gill, but I’m not going to argue with you. You can’t dress this up as some test of my loyalty. The summons came from the emperor, not you.”

The lines around Gill’s eyes tightened, then he turned his back on Luker and looked out of the window once more. The silence dragged out. Luker was beginning to think he was dismissed when the First Guardian spoke again. “Did you see the new citadel on your way up from the docks? The Storm Keep.” He pointed. “There, beside the White Lady’s temple?”

Luker squinted at him. Just like that, the summons was forgotten? Had the First Guardian conceded defeat already? No, not Gill. A new line of attack, then. Luker joined him at the window and looked down on Arkarbour. He hadn’t noticed the Storm Keep on his walk from the lower city, but its towers could be made out easily enough through the rain, silhouetted against the twin fires at the entrance to the harbor. They’d been built just tall enough to eclipse the tower he was standing in. A pissing contest in stone.

You’re looking at the stronghold of the Breakers,” Gill said. “You remember them?”

I know the name. Some squad in some legion. Just one more cog in the emperor’s military machine.”

Oh, come now, the Breakers were always more than that. Their commander is a Remenol shaman—Rakaal—who was spared the noose at Avallon’s order. The rank and file are also chosen from men in the emperor’s debt. In the fifth Kalanese campaign they gained a reputation for doing the jobs no-one else would do. And because of that they became to the emperor what the Guardians could never be.”

You reckon Avallon’s grooming them to replace us?”

I’m sure of it.”

Then he’s an idiot. Whatever the Breakers’ loyalties, they’re still just soldiers.”

Because they don’t have the Will, you mean? Oh, but they do, Luker. Amerel and Borkoth are training them. They walked out on the Guardian Council last year.”

Luker mastered his surprise. “Borkoth, I get, but Amerel? How did the emperor get his claws into her?”

Next time she stops by I’ll be sure to ask.”

Luker sipped his wine. “Even with Amerel on their side, it’ll be years before the Breakers master the Will. Just as well, too. It’s probably the only reason you’re not floating face down in the harbor already.”

You think I don’t know that? The emperor needs the Guardians for now, but each day our position becomes more precarious. We must use the time we have left to counter his plans.”

Right. A score of you left, you said.”

A gust of wind set the tower’s windows rattling. The First Guardian moved to the fire and held his hands out to the flames. “We are not without allies. The Senate won’t stand by and watch us die out. It fears the emperor’s growing power, just as we do. For now there are only a few dissenting voices—the senators won’t risk open conflict with the emperor while the war with the Kalanese goes badly. But when it ends there will be a reckoning. We just have to make sure we survive long enough to see it.”

The war’s turned sour?” Luker said. “I thought Tyrin Malek was holding his own.”

You haven’t heard the news?”

Would I ask if I had?”

Reports say Malek has suffered a crushing defeat west of Arandas. He was lured into the shadow of the White Mountains by a Kalanese feint and hit with a flank attack by troops hidden in the foothills. The offensive drove a wedge through his forces, then the main Kalanese host fell on them before they could re-form. The Seventh was routed and scattered across the Gollothir Plains. The Fifth—what’s left of it—is retreating south to Helin.”

Malek himself?”

Taken. The Kalanese may try to ransom him, but I doubt the imperial treasury has any coin to spare, even for one of the emperor’s brothers.”

Not all bad news, then. “What about Arandas?”

Avallon has ordered a full withdrawal.”

Luker grunted. “The Aldermen will love that. emperor spends years bullying Arandas into joining his Confederacy, then cuts the city loose at the first sign of trouble.”

Avallon had no choice. The Kalanese and their allies are massing in the tens of thousands. Arandas cannot be held.”

The fire cracked and popped as wood settled in the grate. Luker finished his wine and set the glass down on the desk. “All of this is fascinating, but it changes nothing. Avallon started this war. If he wants to finish it, he’ll have to shovel his own shit for a change.”

The First Guardian seemed unperturbed. “I haven’t even told you what the emperor wants. Hear me out at least. You may find you’re more sympathetic to his cause than you suspect.”

Luker eyed him warily, wondering where this was heading. Somewhere with a sharp drop on the other side, most likely. He thinks he’s got me, in spite of all I’ve said. What’s he got hidden up his sleeve? “I’m listening.”

The corners of Gill’s mouth turned up. “Let me get you some more wine.” He lifted the decanter and topped up Luker’s glass, then poured one for himself. “Won’t you sit?” he asked, gesturing to a chair. When Luker shook his head, Gill drew his robes about him then said, “You recall the night of the Betrayal? The assault on the Black Tower?”

The change of subject took Luker aback again. Another feint? He’s trying to keep me off balance. Disguise the real strike when it comes. “Aye,” he said finally.

Then you must remember Mayot Mencada. No? He was one of the mages that sided with the emperor. Along with Epistine he pierced the Black Tower’s defenses long enough for us to slip through.”

If you say so.”

Gill moved back to the window. “After the attack, Avallon installed Mayot and a few others on the Mage’s Conclave. Most were quietly removed by the mages when the emperor’s attention was focused elsewhere, but Mayot survived.”

You going somewhere with this?”

If you’ll let me. Mayot fled Arkarbour recently. No doubt the mages were delighted to see the back of him—except that he took something from the Black Tower when he left.”

What?”

The Book of Lost Souls.”

Luker scratched his scar. “That supposed to mean anything to me?”

I’d be surprised if it did. I know little myself, save that the mages consider the Book to be valuable and are anxious to see it returned.”

What’s this got to do with me?”

I would have thought that was obvious. The emperor wants you to hunt down Mayot and get the Book back.”

Luker blinked. Then he burst out laughing.

Gill’s expression darkened. “I fail to see what is so amusing.”

You’re serious? Malek’s troops have taken a mauling. Malek himself is probably staked out over a fire somewhere in Kal Kartin. The Confederacy’s on the verge of collapse.” Luker ticked them off on his fingers. “And the emperor wants me to look for a book?”

Apparently so.”

Why? What’s in it for him?”

I don’t know.”

You didn’t think to ask?”

Gill waved a hand. “In case it’s escaped your attention, the emperor isn’t in the habit of confiding in me of late. Perhaps he seeks to win favor with the Black Tower now that the tide of the war has turned.” The First Guardian shrugged. “In truth, I don’t care. All that matters is that Avallon wants the Book and has come to us for help. This is a chance to earn his gratitude. One we can ill afford to pass up.”

Prove we’re still useful, you mean.”

If you like.”

Luker picked up his wine glass and raised it to his lips, his gaze still locked to Gill’s. “Why me?”

Why has the emperor chosen you?” The First Guardian shrugged a second time. “As I said, there aren’t many of us left. Senar Sol, Jenin Lock, Alar Padre, all gone.” He cast Luker a calculating glance. “I can’t afford to lose another member of the Council on this mission. And for some reason Avallon seems to hold you in high—”

Luker held up a hand to cut him off. “Wait. You mean I’m not the first to be sent after Mayot?”

No. There was another, but he vanished some time ago.”

Luker’s throat was suddenly dry. “You said someone on the Council. Who?”

Kanon.”

Luker set his glass down on the desk with a crack. Wine spattered the sheets of parchment like drops of blood. “Kanon’s disappeared? When? Where?”

The First Guardian frowned at the scrolls. “I can’t tell you.”

Can’t or won’t?”

I’m not in the mood for word games.”

Luker ground his teeth together. He should have seen this coming. Gill had remained confident in spite of Luker knocking him back because the First Guardian had always known he had Kanon’s disappearance to fall back on if persuasion alone failed to win Luker round. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing, Gill? You’re trying to use Kanon to bring me to heel.”

You leave me little choice.”

And Kanon himself? You going to just—”

Oh, spare me!” Gill cut in. “This is about more than Kanon. The future of the Guardians is at stake, yours included. You think the emperor will let you walk away if you refuse him? He’ll see it as a betrayal.”

So now he threatens me. Luker turned for the door. “We’re done here.”

Wait!” There was a touch of the Will in Gill’s voice.

Luker froze in mid-step, then shook his head to clear it of the First Guardian’s lingering touch. He dares use his Will on me? Luker slammed up his defenses. “Get out of my head!”

The First Guardian studied Luker for a heartbeat, then placed his wine glass on the mantelpiece. Luker felt Gill’s power brush his thoughts again, a subtler but more insistent probing. In response, Luker gathered his own Will and used it to slap the First Guardian’s questing aside. As their powers collided, the candles in the room were extinguished. The fire in the grate flickered and died, plunging the room into darkness.

Gill stood silhouetted against the window. “Think carefully before you do something you'll regret. This is not a fight you can win.”

Even as he spoke, Luker sensed him drawing on his power again. Gill’s next attack struck his wards with a force that made him wince. The pressure in the room increased. A candle holder toppled to the ground with a clang, sending candles rolling across the floor. It felt to Luker as if a great weight pushed against his chest, and he drew in a breath with difficulty. His hands hovered over the hilts of his swords. “I don’t like people riding me. And I sure as hell don’t like seeing Kanon thrown to the wolves just so you can get cozy with Avallon.”

And this is how you would help him? You want to find Kanon, yes? Tell me, what will you do without my aid? Where will you look?” Gill’s voice took on a conciliatory tone. “Track down Mayot and he may lead you to your master.”

Luker’s head was beginning to throb. The First Guardian’s Will hammered against his defenses, driving him back a step. He needed time to think. Gill was right: Luker would need help if he was to find Kanon, but help from where? There was no guarantee anyone else on the Guardian Council knew about Kanon’s mission, and even if they did, what reason would they have to share that knowledge? As for the emperor’s army of minions, Luker had no way of knowing which of them had the answers he needed. And if he walked out on Gill now, he’d be a hunted man—not in itself a concern, but working out Kanon’s last movements would be hard enough without having Avallon on his back. Luker brought his attention back to the First Guardian. I’m out of options and he knows it. Biting back on his anger, he let out a shuddering breath. “Alright, Gill. I’ll play your game.” For now.

You’ll find the Book before you search for Kanon? I want your word on this.”

You have it. But I warn you, if Kanon dies because of this I’ll be calling on you again.”

There was a flash of white as Gill showed his teeth. “I look forward to it.”

A heartbeat later the First Guardian released his Will. Luker waited for the pressure in the room to ease before following suit.

Gill shuffled to the desk and rummaged through one of the drawers. There was the sound of flint striking steel, and light blossomed as the First Guardian moved round the room, relighting the candles. “To business, then. Kanon’s last report came from near Arandas. That was over a month ago. Start your search there.”

Luker crossed his arms. “You think Kanon might have got caught up in the Kalanese invasion?”

I don’t know.”

What did his last report say?”

He was following Mayot. That’s all.”

That sounded like Kanon. Never one to waste time on words. “Did he say where the trail was heading?”

If he did, I wasn’t told.”

Meaning?”

A look of disgust crossed Gill’s features. “Meaning this is Avallon’s mission, not mine. Kanon has been reporting to the emperor’s men. I know only what they tell me, and that is precious little.”

What about the Guardians’ spies? Kanon must have checked in with one of them.”

I’m afraid not. With Borkoth’s and Amerel’s knowledge, the emperor has moved quickly to dismantle our network of informants. We are now entirely reliant on the scraps Avallon feeds us.”

Then you’ll have to speak to him again. I’ll need more than ‘near Arandas’ if I’m to find Mayot.”

That’s where your traveling companions come in.”

Luker thought he must have misheard. “What?”

The First Guardian drained his wine glass. “Did I forget to mention them? How careless of me. Avallon is sending one of his Circle to keep an eye on you.”

Luker shook his head. “I travel alone.”

You’re a slow learner, Luker. This isn’t a suggestion. It’s a command.”

Luker’s breath hissed out. “Shroud’s mercy, does the emperor want me to fail, then? How am I supposed to track Mayot down if I’m playing nursemaid to one of Avallon’s lackeys?”

Gill arched an eyebrow. “I hardly think you need worry in this case. We’re talking about Tyrin Merin Gray here, formerly commander of the Seventh.”

And now a Breaker, I take it.”

Whatever he is, you’ll need his contacts to find Mayot. This is not the time to be sniffing round Arandas for a trail that’s likely gone cold.”

If he slows me down I’ll strike out alone and take my chances.”

Do what you must.”

I won’t take orders from this Merin Gray either. He’ll have to do what I tell him.”

The First Guardian’s lips quirked. “I’ll leave you to work out the details yourselves.”

Is there someone else?” Luker asked. “You said traveling companions.”

Indeed. A necromancer from the Black Tower. The head of his order, no less. Don Chamery Pelk.”

Luker’s face twisted. “Emperor’s got a sense of humor, at least. A Guardian and a mage traveling together? I must remember to sleep with my eyes open.”

No doubt the feeling is mutual.” Gill righted the fallen candle holder, then seated himself at the desk. “Now, unless there was something else, I suggest you get some rest. You leave at dawn. Meet the others at the Imperial Stables for a briefing at the tenth bell tonight. Don’t be late.”

I’ll be there,” Luker said.

But in his own time.

He had some personal business to attend to first.

#

Romany hated it when her goddess dropped by unannounced. Why could the Spider not knock at the door and present herself like other visitors, instead of treating the temple as if she owned it?

Taking a breath to compose herself, the priestess settled back in the pool. Perfumed candles floated among the bubbles on the water, filling the room with the scent of moonblossom and mint. Clouds of steam rose into the air, and the delicious heat of the pool was already easing her aches. She could sense the Spider skulking in the shadows behind, but Romany was not about to acknowledge her until the goddess observed the customary courtesies. Instead the priestess spent some time admiring the fresco of Mercerie’s harbor on the opposite wall. Such vibrant colors. Such exquisite detail where the sunlight glinted off the sea . . .

A cough sounded at her back, and she sighed. It was no good. Her equanimity was slipping away. It would be no coincidence, of course, that the Spider had arrived while Romany was bathing, for the goddess never missed an opportunity to ruffle her feathers, particularly during those rare moments when the priestess was taking a well-deserved break from the tedium of her temple duties. And yet, after an absence of more than a year, it seemed unlikely the Spider had come for no other reason than to nettle her.

She sank deeper into the pool. More galling even than the goddess’s arrival was the fact Romany had not sensed her coming. The priestess’s carefully crafted web of sorcerous wards extended not just throughout the temple but also into every corner of Mercerie: the slave markets, the shrines of the other immortals, the halls of the great and the good. There would be outrage if their denizens ever found out, of course, but Romany had yet to encounter anyone with the wit to detect her illicit and watchful presence. As a result, little went on in the city she did not know about, and absolutely nothing in her sprawling temple. Many of the acolytes soon discovered this to their cost. Only yesterday one of the new girls had seen fit to mock Romany’s modest girth to a friend. The priestess had been on the opposite side of the temple at the time, but her web had brought her word of the affront all the same, and the acolyte had swiftly come to regret her impropriety.

For some reason, though, Romany’s sorcerous creation had given her no warning of the Spider’s approach. She considered checking the integrity of her wards, but resisted the temptation. To do so, after all, would only underscore the fact that Romany’s spells had failed her.

A flap of feet, and a red-faced acolyte emerged from the steam to her right. The girl was struggling under the weight of a huge copper kettle. As she wrestled it to the far edge of the pool, metal scraped against the terracotta floor tiles. To compound her blunder, the acolyte then tilted the kettle too sharply, sending a gush of water cascading into the pool. The floating candles bobbed precariously, and Romany tutted her displeasure.

Naturally the Spider chose that moment to step into the fuzzy light.

The acolyte squealed and dropped the kettle. It clanged against the tiled floor before falling into the pool. Water splashed into the priestess’s eyes and nose, and she half rose, spluttering. The acolyte stood trembling, her gaze moving from Romany to the goddess, then back again, evidently uncertain as to which of them represented the greater cause for alarm. From the girl’s expression it was clear she had no idea who the Spider was. The acolyte was new to the temple—the priestess could not remember her name, if indeed she had ever known it—but still, a disciple who did not recognize her own goddess? Absurd!

And yet strangely gratifying.

True, the Spider did not look much like an immortal. Romany had no idea what a goddess wassupposed to look like, but the Spider was certainly not it. Her ageless, heart-shaped face was memorable only in its plainness. She was short—one of the few people the priestess could look down on—and had long auburn hair. Her gaze never rested for more than an instant in any one place, and her fingers were forever caressing the air as if she strummed the strings of an unseen harp.What sound would she make, Romany wondered idly,if I were to place an instrument before them?

Rousing herself, she sent the acolyte scuttling away with a look. The girl disappeared into the steam. A few heartbeats later a door opened, then slammed shut.

The Spider approached and made a show of studying Romany’s face. “Ah, it is you, Rrromany,” she said, putting that little trill on the ‘r’ as she sometimes did. “For a moment I thought I’d taken a wrong turn and stumbled into the Augustine Springs.”

Time has not stood still since you last graced us with your presence, my Lady. You are aware the temple was attacked earlier this year?”

Someone broke in and built you a bathhouse?”

Very droll. Alas, the intruder destroyed various parts of the shrine, this chamber included. I took the chance to introduce some much needed trappings of civilization.”

Though only in your personal quarters, I see. So refrrreshing to see a high priestess lead by example.”

Romany sniffed. “Perhaps if you had responded at the time to my call for assistance—”

I’d assumed,” the Spider cut in, “that you were capable of keeping your own house in order. Apparently I was mistaken.”

This was no ordinary intruder. A disciple of Shroud.”

The goddess’s eyes went cold. “Who?”

I have no idea,” Romany said. “Shroud’s vermin all look the same to me. Without question, one of the god’s elite, though. He cut through the temple’s wards as easily as if his master were guiding his hand.”

The Spider started pacing along the length of the pool. “You kept the body?”

Romany licked her lips. “Ah. Sadly, no. He escaped. Fortuitously. He left empty handed, of course, tail between his legs. I remain alive and safe, as you can see. Imagine thinking he could best me in my own temple! Such impertinence!”

Yes, you really showed him. You’re sure it was you he was after?”

Who else?”

The Spider crouched at the opposite end of the pool and dipped a hand into the water. For an uncomfortable moment Romany thought the goddess intended to join her in the pool, and she was grateful suddenly for the covering of bubbles on the water. “It seems Shroud has become more brazen in my absence,” the Spider said. “I have been away too long.”

Romany had been trying to tell her as much, but when did the goddess ever listen?“How fare your concerns in the Storm Isles?”

Adequately. A new empire is about to rise from the ashes of the old, but the battle for its soul continues. It is only a matter of time before the conflict spreads beyond the borders of the kingdom.”

And the Emira?”

Is no more than a minor player, though she knows it not. When the game begins in earnest she will soon be swept aside.”

And which faction do you favor?”

The Spider laughed. “Oh, Romany. You should know by now that I am never on justone side. Only a fool would risk everything on a single roll of the dice.”

Who, then, are the other players?”

That does not concern you.”

Romany sighed. “How is a high priestess meant to further her goddess’s cause when she is kept ignorant of such matters?”

I tell you what you need to know,” the Spider said mildly. “And besides, I have other plans for you.” She stood up. “Perhaps we could continue this somewhere more comfortable.”

Romany sighed again, deeper this time. “Very well.” She clapped her hands to summon the acolyte before remembering the girl had gone. Romany’s robe was folded over the back of a chair a few paces away.

Beyond reach.

She looked at the goddess, but decided against asking her to pass it. The Spider watched her with a hint of a smile.

If you would turn away please,” the priestess said.

The Spider’s grin broadened, but she did as she was bid.

Romany rose and climbed the steps that led from the pool. She toweled herself down hurriedly, then slipped into her robe. The silk clung to her still-damp skin in a most unflattering manner. Her slippers, too, quickly became soaked when she slipped them on. As she crossed to the door to her living quarters, she lifted her chin in an effort to preserve whatever dignity remained to her.

Her footsteps squelched on the floor.

The air in the next room was delightfully cool. Light flooded through the windows to her left, silvering the strands of the huge web that spanned the far wall. There was a flicker of movement as her silverback spider scuttled along the gossamer threads. Romany reached out a hand to it. The creature’s legs tickled her arm as it moved down to settle on her shoulder. Her acolytes had not yet lit the candles in the wall niches, and the Spider set them burning with a flick of her hand.

The goddess settled into one of the leather chairs surrounding a low table in the middle of the chamber, then selected a scroll from one of the bookshelves stacked like wine racks along the wall behind her. She unrolled the scroll and raised it to catch the light. Romany sank into one of the other chairs, but the Spider ignored her. Suppressing her irritation, the priestess looked at her desk beneath the windows and saw the acolytes had left one of her astronomical instruments fractionally out of alignment. As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the invisible strands of her magical web—focused in a tangle, here, at the hub of her empire—were quivering softly, indicating that somewhere in Mercerie a scandal was in the offing. Romany’s fingers itched, but she would have to wait a while longer to find out what developments the tremors signaled.

She looked back at the Spider. The goddess was gazing at the silverback on Romany’s shoulder, her forehead crinkled in distaste. “You realize,” she said, “that one bite from that thing will turn your blood to poison.”

The priestess snorted. “An absurd notion, my Lady! The silverback makes for a most devoted pet.”

Indeed. Just keep it away from me.” The goddess gestured to the parchment she was holding. “What is this?”

Romany squinted to make out the muddle of words and diagrams. “Ah, yes! An exciting discovery at Elipene. A priestess has found a dry well at the center of the village where, at noon on Cartin’s Day, the rays of sunlight shine right to the very bottom, meaning—”

The sun is directly overhead. What of it?”

I have had a post erected in one of the courtyards here and measured the angle of its shadow at the exact same time and date. Thus, knowing the distance between Mercerie and Elipene, I am able to calculate the approximate circumference of the globe.”

And?”

I estimate it to be fourteen thousand four hundred and twenty leagues.”

You misunderstand. I meant, of what rrrelevance is this?”

Romany rolled her eyes. “The writings of Isabeya, if they are to be believed, put the distance from Mercerie to the Alkazadh Sea at eleven hundred and forty leagues. This continent, therefore, is but a small part of the world’s vastness.”

The goddess tossed the parchment onto the table. “My congratulations on proving something I have known for millennia.”

Ah, but I have ascertained the truth through empirical evidence.”

Meaning you do not trust my word?”

Of course I do. I would simply observe that at times you can be less than generous in sharing your knowledge.”

The goddess regarded her with raised eyebrows for a while, then said, “Game of hafters? It has been so long since I had a worrrthy opponent.”

Romany’s eyes narrowed. It would be just like the Spider to try to use the game to distract her from some more important matter. On the other hand, she had come so close to beating the goddess last time . . . “As you wish.” She rose to fetch the playing board.

No need,” the goddess said. With another flutter of her fingers, a checkered battlefield appeared, floating in the air between them. Romany could not help but notice the Spider had given herself the queen’s pieces. The figures had been animated in breathtaking detail. A harpy’s wings beat the air as the goddess advanced it three spaces.

They exchanged a few moves in silence.

It was the Spider who finally spoke. “An unexpected opportunity has arisen to gain revenge for Shroud’s raid on your temple. A powerful artifact has surfaced in an empire to the south. You have heard of Erin Elal, of course.”

Romany succumbed to her curiosity. “What sort of artifact?”

A book containing forgotten lore from the Time of the Ancients. It was an era of great upheaval for the pantheon. Many elder gods perished. Some fell to the titans, some to . . . pretenders. The knowledge of the fallen died with them.”

Or not, in this case.”

The Spider nodded. “Somehow the Book of Lost Souls, as it is known, found its way into the possession of a fellowship of mages. They must have recognized its potential, for they wisely decided to keep it concealed beneath formidable wards. By pure chance, word of its existence came to me along the threads of my web.”

And you want this book . . . stolen?” Romany could hardly bring herself to say the word.

No, that task has already been accomplished. At my instigation, of course, though the thief and his emperor are unaware of that fact.” The Spider moved one of her witches to a position where Romany could capture it. “And besides, I have no interest in acquiring the Book for myself. Its use would draw attention to me, and as you know I prefer to remain hidden behind the veil.”

Romany hesitated, then took the Spider’s unprotected piece. The witch gave a piercing cry as she vanished from the board. “So instead you will arrange for the Book to fall into the hands of someone sympathetic to your cause?”

Not quite. The thief himself, a mage by the name of Mayot Mencada, should be a suitable tool for what I have in mind.”

And how does Shroud fit into this?”

In the hands of the right person, the Book could do him untold harm, for the secrets contained within it are inherently linked to the source of his power.”

Death-magic, then.”

Yes.”

Romany advanced her wyvern one space, ignoring the goddess’s amused look. “If the threat is as great as you claim, will Shroud not intervene personally to quash the danger?”

And risk setting foot on unsanctified ground? I think not. No, he will send his disciples to do his grunt-work.”

As immortals are wont to do. “And you intend for them to walk into a trap?”

Very good. The elimination of a few of Shroud’s most capable followers would prove highly damaging to him. There is, however, a problem.”

As the goddess spoke, she advanced another of her harpies in an apparently sacrificial move. Romany frowned. A ruse, perhaps, to draw Romany’s pieces out of position? She tore her gaze from the board. “Problem?”

Until now the thief’s attempts to unlock the Book’s mysteries have proved ineffective. He will be easy pickings when Shroud’s disciples arrive.”

You mean to help him?”

I mean for you to help him, yes—not just in penetrating the Book’s defenses, but also in opposing whichever disciples Shroud sends to claim the artifact once it is activated. Ultimately the forces arrayed against Mayot will prove irresistible, but before then you should get a chance to exterminate some of Shroud’s rrrabble.”

Romany moved her king’s champion to the center of the board. “And when Shroud finally gets his hands on the Book? Could he not use it as a weapon against you?”

I suspect the Book contains few secrets that are not already known to him. He owned it once himself, after all.”

Owned it once . . . and lost it?”

The Spider shrugged. “As I said, it was a time of great upheaval.”

All the same, you are taking quite a risk.”

I do not see it so. After all, how can one lose a game if one has staked nothing on it? If there is a price to pay, Mayot Mencada will pay it for me.”

Not that you have ever hesitated to sacrifice your own followers in the past.

The goddess considered the battlefield for a moment longer before waving a hand. The board faded. Romany had been holding a piece, and she watched open-mouthed as it too melted away. Looks like I was winning, then.

We don’t have much time,” the Spider continued. “No doubt you will want to leave instructions before we leave.”

Romany stiffened. “Leave? I had assumed . . .”

The goddess wagged a finger. “Tut-tut. You should know better than that.”

Where are we going?”

The Forest of Sighs.”

Romany’s hope rekindled. The forest was scores of leagues to the west. “A voyage of many weeks, my Lady. By the time I arrive the contest may be over.”

The Spider looked to the heavens. “Romany, Romany. Have you never wondered how I’m able to travel so quickly between my various concerns?”

The priestess had, actually, but there were more important things on her mind just now. She adopted what she hoped was a suitably rueful expression. “Alas, it has been a long time since I left the temple.”

Too long, one might say.”

Nevertheless, my appetite for adventure is not what it was. I have a number of capable deputies. The vigor of youth . . .”

The goddess shook her head. “I cannot afford any mistakes. Shroud is unlikely to be forgiving if he discovers my involvement in this matter. I need someone I can trust. Someone who can walk the trail without leaving footprints behind.”

But my responsibilities at the temple—”

I’m sure your ‘capable deputies’ can cope without you for a while.” The Spider’s voice hardened. “No-one is irreplaceable, after all.”

A threat? No, surely the goddess would never stoop to anything so vulgar. And yet her expression did have a distinctly uncompromising cast to it. “But a forest,” Romany said, aware of the desperation in her tone. “Perhaps the thief could be persuaded to relocate to more congenial surroundings.”

As it happens, Mayot Mencada’s choice of destination is inspired. It should be, since I chose it for him. Why else do you think he would travel so far from his homeland?” She rose. “You are familiar, of course, with the history of the Forest of Sighs?”

Most distasteful,” Romany said. “Though I fail to see what relevance it has to the Book.”

The Spider’s slow smile cut through her like an arctic wind.

Copyright Marc Turner | All Rights Reserved

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