/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: A trial of blood and steel

Petrodor

Joel Shepherd


Joel Shepherd

Petrodor

Sasha sat on the prow of the boat, and saw a number of red and white floats bobbing on the surface ahead. She turned, shielding her eyes against the glare of the sun, and pointed. “That's them,” she announced to Mari, back at the tiller.

“Of course that's them,” Mari retorted. He was a broad, squat man with powerful arms and a rotund middle, weathered and browned in the sun. He squinted into the glare with no shielding hand, well used to that intensity. Sasha still did not understand how he could know where to find the floats. The sea was slippery calm, save for the rocking of a gentle swell. Off to the right, the hills of the Torovan shoreline loomed brown and green, a series of rocky bays and headlands, small waves lapping at the feet of rugged cliffs. Mari simply seemed to know where he was, out here on the featureless sea, the same way a Lenay woodsman might find his way about the forests and hills of Sasha's native Lenayin.

A gentle, shoreward breeze pushed at the sail, bringing the floats closer. Sasha counted twelve in this cluster. Far off to the right, she could see some more floats, these were green and brown though, not the red and white that belonged to House Velo.

“Sasha, look up,” said Errollyn from his post beside the sail. “White-headed albatross.”

Sasha squinted into the blue sky, and saw a wide-winged bird far overhead. Clearly an albatross, for its wings were long and thin, and barely flapped. But white-headed? Not only did serrin see better by night, they saw further by day as well.

She glanced at Errollyn-he leaned back on the side of the boat, head tilted to gaze enthralled at the sky. She'd never seen Errollyn more happy than in the last several weeks, coming out on the boat. The ocean was nearly as strange to him as it was to her, and he delighted at its wonders. He wore an old, work-stained shirt and rough pants, dark grey hair falling back in disarray. His arms were bare in the unseasonal warmth, flexed with the knotted muscle of a svaalverd warrior. Very few serrin were given to such casual untidiness, yet Errollyn seemed infinitely more relaxed now than at formal occasions, or in social company. And Sasha realised that she ought to be staring at the albatross instead, and tore her gaze away…but not without a small, private smile.

“Forget the damn bird!” Mari exclaimed. “Boy, let out the sail! Valenti, get off your arse!”

Sasha moved back to help Mari's son Valenti, cautiously lest the small boat rock, grabbing the second float to come alongside as Valenti grabbed the first. They hauled wet rope, hand over hand, Valenti racing her with a grin, bare arms straining against the waterlogged weight…but it was Errollyn on the other side who beat them both, dragging a wicker cage from the sea with a rush of water. Sasha pulled her own clear at the same time as Valenti, and peered into the round, flat contraption to see if anything had climbed into the hole in the top.

She was lucky-there were two lobsters, flapping and kicking, and she pulled each out in turn, tossing them into the crate at Mari's feet which was already crawling with strange creatures. Valenti added another from his cage, and Sasha turned to watch as Errollyn prised an enormous crab through the hole, holding carefully to its huge pincers. It was red, with a white underbelly and blue trim on its legs.

“Excellent!” Mari exclaimed. “Another that size and Mariesa will have enough for her crasada dosa!” Tonight was Sadisi, the birthday of Sadis, a local prophet who had brought Verenthaneism to Petrodor more than seven hundred years ago. Tonight, there would be more seafood than she'd yet seen in nearly a month of living in Petrodor. Her stomach threatened to turn at the prospect. Maybe she could find a good juicy steak.

Errollyn peered curiously at the crab, as it jabbed its pointed feet at him and snapped helplessly with its pincers. Then he dropped it into the crate with the rest and turned to pull out a second, smaller crab. Sasha and Valenti grabbed bait from the bait box, reached in to spear it on the hooks within the cages, and dropped them overboard once more.

“Too small,” said Errollyn of the crab.

“It'll do,” Mari retorted. “Toss it in.”

“Too small, and female,” Errollyn replied, peering at the markings. “Throw it back and you'll have many more crabs hatching in years ahead.”

Mari was unimpressed. “We need the meat, now throw it…” Errollyn did throw it-straight over the side. Mari rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Blasted serrin,” he muttered, stomping past the boxes, rocking the boat alarmingly. “It's a blasted crab. I want to eat it-you want to make love to it.”

He grabbed a pole from the gunnels and reached for the next float. Errollyn caught Sasha's eye and grinned, a flash of piercing dark green eyes behind a long, unkempt fringe.

“Aren't there some serrin who won't eat any meat at all?” Sasha asked, making her way up to the bow to grab the next float. The boat's rocking had been a concern at first, but she was getting used to it now. And her balance, of course, was excellent.

“Yes,” said Errollyn, throwing his baited cage back in with a splash. “But they're stupid.”

Sasha laughed, hauling the rope. Serrin never dismissed alternative opinions so readily. Errollyn had, by serrin standards, a most unusual sense of humour. Rebellious, almost.

“Why wouldn't they eat meat?” Valenti asked, making his way past Sasha. He put a hand on her waist in passing. It might have cost a Lenay man his arm, but Petrodor men were just like that, she was discovering. One learned to avoid unnecessary arguments, and make allowances. Sometimes.

“To avoid killing animals,” Errollyn replied, following Valenti up to the bow.

Valenti turned a frown on Errollyn. “But you love animals! Why do you eat them?”

“Why do you?” said Errollyn.

Valenti grinned. “You crazy? They taste good! I'm not going to feel sorry for some crab!”

“Then there you are,” said Errollyn with a smile.

“Crabs don't feel sorry for the small animals they eat,” said Sasha, unwinding arm lengths of dripping rope into the boat. It was hard work, for the cages dragged in the water, and her arms and shoulders ached. But she had strength there that few human women could match, and the sword calluses on her hands kept the rope from chafing. “Why should we feel sorry for crabs?”

“How do you know crabs don't feel sorry for what they eat?” Errollyn asked her. “Maybe they do. Maybe they say a little prayer and beg their gods for forgiveness.”

“Now you're just being difficult,” Sasha retorted.

“That's what Rhillian always tells me,” Errollyn said with a grin, hauling his own rope in. He was faster than any of his shipmates-not only powerful, but certain with his hands, and poised with his balance. He made it look effortless.

“Then explain yourself, ma'she das serrinim,” Sasha teased, invoking a Saalsi term for serrin debates. “How does your truth flow?”

Errollyn made a face. “That's an awful translation.”

“In Torovan, it's the best I can do.”

“I think,” said Errollyn, as rope fell from his hands into a gathering pile by his feet, “that it is difficult to swim against the stream. Life feeds on life. We are all creatures of nature, and in understanding animals, I try to understand myself. We are what we are, and we need what we need. I need meat. No other creatures feel the need to apologise for that, and I don't either.”

“That's wonderful,” Mari said with grand gesticulation. “I could burst into song. If you lot worked as hard as you talked, we'd be knee-deep in dinner by now.”

The sun was sinking to late afternoon by the time they'd made the rounds to all of House Velo's floats. The wind gave out completely, and while Mari furled the sail, Valenti unracked the oars. Sasha insisted firmly that she should take an oar, and was rebuffed even more firmly by Valenti, the young, sun-browned man quite scandalised at the prospect. Sasha settled herself on the bow once more, unwilling to further the argument in such a small boat, surrounded by deep water.

Family Velo had been incredulous enough that she would wish to go fishing, and not join the other, rare Nasi-Keth women in practice of medicines and herb lore, or educating poor dockfront children. Once again, she'd managed to offend nearly everyone-the womenfolk, for snubbing their very worthy activities, and the menfolk, for thinking to show everyone their work was so easy that even a woman could do it. It was an annoyance, to have to prove herself all over again. But in all honesty, these days, she was caring less and less. People would either accept her as she was, or not. At least this way, she could know who her friends were.

The little boat surged through the water with each stroke of the oars, then glided, then surged once more. The sound was soothing. The water gleamed like glass, and the still air was warm on her bare arms. She rubbed at her left bicep, absently, where the tattoo still itched.

To the right, out into the Sharaal Sea, a great ship was also under oars, its sails hopefully unfurled to catch any returning breeze. Further beyond, Sasha fancied she could see another, a distant smudge of mast and rigging through the sea haze.

Ahead, the Alaster Promontory jutted into the sea, marking the southernmost point of Petrodor Harbour. Beyond it, within the bay's deeper waters, numerous ships could be seen at anchor. Doubtless shore leave would be in great demand this evening so sailors could enjoy the Sadisi.

Once beyond the promontory, the small boat moved slowly into Petrodor Harbour. The city of Petrodor encircled the bay like a giant amphitheatre. The sprawling expanse of clustered sandstone and brick buildings crowded the slopes, a seething mass of human habitation where it was difficult to tell where one property began and the others left off. Roads could be barely seen, as they wound their way up and down the cluttered incline, but Sasha knew they were there…along with the maze of alleys, little stairways, back entrances and secret paths known only to local residents or to the shadowy figures who moved only beneath the cover of darkness.

Even now, with the famed Petrodor incline sunk deep into shadow as the sun set at its back, the sheer scale of detail baffled Sasha's eyes. Here and there across the slope, a larger building broke clear of the confusion-here a mansion, there an old fortress that had once stood alone, now consumed amidst the city sprawl, or a Verenthane temple with soaring spires. The incline itself was uneven-sometimes gentle, at other times looming into a cliff face of yellow sandstone that shone when the morning sun struck it directly.

A third of the way along from Alaster Promontory, the Petrodor Bowl was broken by a protruding ridge, topped with a great, multi-floored mansion behind high walls. Cliffs on two sides plunged straight into the mass of buildings below. The ridge was Sharptooth, and the mansion was Maerler House, not to be confused with “House Maerler,” which described the family. The Torovan tongue, as well as Sasha knew it, was revealing itself to be somewhat vague in matters of power-the “fog of intrigue,” as Kessligh called it. One of the two great families of Petrodor, House Maerler led a collection of allied houses that locals often referred to as the “Southern Stack,” in literal Torovan, stack meaning “alliance”…or at least as Sasha understood it.

The “Northern Stack,” by contrast, was headed by House Steiner, whose residence was less visible from the bay, lost against the northern ridgeline of grand residences. It was no accident, many said, that the northern mansions seemed grander than those of the south. While House Maerler clung grimly to their ancestral lands and trading routes, House Steiner had always pursued expansion. Their preferred method of expansion had been the Verenthane religion.

It was no coincidence either, Sasha reckoned, that further along that northern ridgeline, a rocky path led out onto the Besendi Promontory, where, high above the yellow cliffs, soared the Porsada Temple, the greatest house of Verenthanes in all Torovan. Its four spires flung their star-pointed tips into the sky, in all defiance of the precipitous drop below. The entire, magnificent structure blazed a pure, gleaming white in the late afternoon sun, catching that light even as the rest of the city fell into shadow. A beacon to arriving ships, a watchtower from which to survey the city, the temple reminded all where the true power of Petrodor lay.

The small fishing boat came close by the side of one of the harbour ships now.

Valenti was clearly tiring, his technique with the oar becoming erratic, and Errollyn's effortless strokes threatened to pull the boat around to starboard. “You're dropping your head,” Sasha told him. “Don't bend your back, pull through your shoulders.” Valenti muttered something, struggling to correct his posture.

“Leave the boy alone,” said his father with a frown from the tiller. “Rowing isn't like swordwork, girl. It's harder than it looks.”

“It must be,” Sasha retorted. “Because it looks as easy as falling over.” Errollyn was laughing as he rowed. Where many serrin found human arguments alarming, Errollyn never ceased to be entertained.

“You wouldn't last fifty strokes,” Valenti said through gritted teeth.

“How would you know if you never let me try? You're just scared I'll be better.”

“Fine!” said Valenti in a temper. He stopped rowing, and climbed from the bench seat as Errollyn also paused, watching with amusement. “Have your turn, little Princess!”

Sasha grinned in triumph, and slid past the young man who for all the youth of his seventeen summers, was still a half head taller than her. She took her seat, pulled her pair of leather training gloves from the back of her belt and yanked them on.

“Soft hands,” Errollyn suggested.

Sasha snorted. “My calluses have been carefully crafted over many years. I don't want new ones in the wrong spots.” She grasped the oar, braced her boots on the inner hull rib, and began to pull. It was a little awkward at first, but she watched Errollyn, timed her hands to move opposite his, and used her bodyweight rather than her arms as the oar tugged at the water. They gathered speed with each surge, and then the oar flowed through the water more smoothly, and the effort to keep it steady became less.

It felt good, and made use of all the familiar muscles she liked to use. Each unsteady surge of the boat was a strange sensation…but then, she recalled that she had found riding a strange sensation, once, as a girl. Mari was frowning at her from the tiller, with obvious disapproval. She liked Torovan people…but, good spirits, they believed in some nonsense! Valenti, now seated on the bow, was out of her sight entirely.

She began to sing, a Goeren-yai chant, in her native Lenay. It was something she'd learned as a girl, at her new home in the hills above Baerlyn in the Lenayin province of Valhanan. Men had sung it while chopping wood. Goeren-yai men of Baerlyn, with their long hair, braids, rings and tattoos of ancient Lenay tradition. Men who had become her friends as she'd grown, and impressed her with their honesty, their courage, and their earthy good humour.

The song's rhythm fitted well with the strokes of the oars, and Errollyn, after listening for several verses, joined in as the words repeated. A little corner of Lenayin they made, rowing and chanting in unison across the vast, wide bay of lowlands Petrodor.

They continued singing, rowing the boat slowly into the fishermen's dock, a section of wood-planked pier that ran in parallel to the main dock, surrounded by a wide, creaking cluster of fishing boats all lashed together. Mari brought them alongside the family's other boat, hulls bumped, and ropes were flung across, Sasha shipping her oar as Mari and Valenti leapt across and began securing them together. Sasha went to the space beneath the bow and pulled out her sword, bandoleer still attached, and began securing it over her shoulder. Then followed the belt knives, and the boot knife. Errollyn did the same. No Nasi-Keth nor serrin went unarmed in Petrodor…in these times, least of all.

Then began the task of carrying the crates of squirming, crawling, snapping seafood across the neighbouring boats to the pier's ladder. Sasha carried the bait box across, her balance nimble on the shifting decks beneath her feet. Valenti made to take it from her, but she put it on her shoulder and climbed the ladder one-handed.

On the pier, Mari talked with a fisherman Sasha did not recognise, the two men peering over the catch, their manner coarse and businesslike. Sasha took the opportunity to swing her aching arms and look about.

This was the South Pier, where the fishermen and small-time merchants reserved a portion of dock for themselves. The pier planks were grimy and rotten in places, and littered with a refuse of fish scales and old rope. Facing the pier upon the stone dock was the chaos of docklife, crowds and stalls, folk selling everything that could be imagined, and some that could never have been until you'd seen it. Men and women moved aside for horse or bullock carts loaded with crates or barrels, some carrying armoured guards in colourful house livery. The shouts of the touts and hawkers competed with the cries of various animals, and the squawks and squabbles of the ever-present white gulls searching for scraps with a beady eye, and the air smelled of a chaotic melange of cooking, strange spices, old wood, rotting fish and salt.

Rising above the fray, the brick and stone facades of buildings, their plaster crumbling, their many small windows framed with worn shutters. Beyond, the Petrodor Incline began its steady climb, a pile of crumbling brick and standstone that looked far less impressive from close range. Only the scale of it still impressed.

To the north, the docks broadened, and larger, well-maintained piers hosted the looming masts of great ships. Sasha could see perhaps a dozen currently at berth, arranged so that the hulls could overlap bows with sterns and save space. Men pushed handcarts, or loaded bags or crates directly onto waiting carts. Great piles of cargo were stacked upon the dock, watched by men with weapons. Horse and bullock carts crowded the remaining space, with people somehow flowing through the gaps between, pursued by the ever-present hawkers, beggars and the occasional stray dog. All in all, it was a scene of the greatest, most spectacular human confusion Sasha had ever beheld. She'd been living with it for nearly a month now, and still it baffled her.

“It's a long way from Lenayin,” he said at her shoulder. She nearly jumped, not having heard his approach. But somehow, with Errollyn, the alarm never quite registered. She gave him a smile.

“And a long way from Saalshen,” she replied.

Las re'han as'e baen,” said Errollyn with a shrug. “The world is a place,” in Saalsi. Although frequently very blunt for a serrin, Errollyn could also be as vague and obtuse as the best of them. He leaned close, a hand on her shoulder, and added against her ear in Lenay, “The place is where you are.”

And he moved to help Mari with the crates, leaving Sasha to consider that. And to consider further that if a Lenay or Torovan man had touched her so intimately, she'd have wanted to rattle his skull. With serrin, it was different, and with Errollyn in particular. Amongst human men, she'd learned by long experience to guard her personal space. Errollyn simply didn't mean it that way…or rather he did, as all relations between serrin men and women meant something in that way…but somehow, it was still different. Not disrespectful. Not…

“Oh hells,” she muttered, and went to grab the remaining crate of their catch, trying to shake free of her confusion. Valenti interposed himself with a look of cold hostility, and grabbed the crate himself. “Hey!” He ignored her. “Oh come on, you're not upset with me?”

Valenti stalked off, carrying his crate. Sasha took up the bait box and walked at Errollyn's side. “You're such a diplomat,” Errollyn remarked, watching the lad depart.

“Oh bugger,” Sasha muttered. And more loudly, “Valenti! Look, you don't tell me I'm no damn good at something I know damn well I'd be good at! Valenti!”

“Leave the boy alone,” said Mari, carrying his own crate. “You upset a man's pride, but he'll get over it.”

“What about a woman's pride?” Sasha exclaimed. Mari shook his head and sighed.

“You don't think that maybe a princess could afford to forgo a little pride once in a while?” Errollyn suggested.

Sasha scowled. “Meaning?”

“Even your sister Alythia wouldn't choose to wear all her jewellery to attend a court filled with poor dockfront girls in sackcloth.”

“Why do you always talk in riddles?” Sasha snapped. “And besides, I'm not like Alythia! I'm nothing like Alythia!”

“If you say so, I'm sure it must be true.”

Sadisi cleared the docks of merchants and their stalls, and replaced them with revellers. Many fires burned along the waterfront, lighting the buildings and sparkling off the dark, heaving waters. There were some chairs and upturned crates for the old folk, but mostly people stood-eating, drinking, talking, singing and dancing. Thousands of them. Sasha could barely believe her eyes, ears and nostrils.

Her own fireplace was near the Velo house, one of many cramped, crumbling buildings near a side alley off the docks the locals called Fishnet Alley. Gathered about the main fire were members of all the neighbouring families, hardy men and women in rough clothes, and largely in the fishing trade. There were maybe a hundred about the central fire, and hundreds more about the smaller fires. Crasada dosa steamed upon great, round pans. A jumble of mixed seafood in a vast tomato sauce, garnished with just about everything.

Sasha stood with her tin plate, eating steaming bits of crab with her fingers and wiping excess sauce with a chunk of bread. Nearby, little blonde Aisha fussed about a fireplace where she was preparing mussels in a vast, steaming pan. A young man Sasha did not recognise came to offer Aisha a sip of his wine as she cooked. Mari's wife, Mariesa, shooed him away with a scowl, but Aisha only laughed, while around the fires Mari and his friends burst into passionate song.

Out on the water, moored ships made a mass of lights, long, gleaming streaks reflected on the dark water, above a spidery tangle of rigging. From the serrin ships, there came the occasional coloured streak of a firework, drawing awed shouts from the children scampering along the jetties. To the far north of the bay, the white spires of Porsada Temple gleamed ghostly bright from fires atop Besendi Promontory. There, the priests held service for Saint Sadis. Below, Petrodor celebrated.

A new arrival stepped through the crowd, with several others close behind. Men stared, for her beauty was spectacular. Lean and as tall as some men, she moved gracefully through the press, smiling to those who greeted her. Firelight lit her white hair to a brilliant gleam, as crisp as mountain snow, and tied into a single braid that fell down her back. Her eyes shone a sharp, emerald green, flicking from person to person with that piercing, almost animal intensity that was peculiar to serrin.

Rhillian.

She greeted Aisha with a hug, and her eyes found Sasha's.

“Good evening,” Rhillian greeted Sasha with a smile. “Or Happy Sadisi, whatever the proper term.” They exchanged a hug.

“Isn't this amazing?” Sasha exclaimed, gesturing to the firelit commotion.

“You think this is amazing?” Rhillian's enthusiasm only made her all the more stunning to behold-burning green eyes, flashing white hair and perfect white teeth. “I've just come from the Endurance, it's reached the Slipway now. Crazier a sight I have never seen.”

“Mari was telling me about the Endurance! I'd love to see it.”

“It goes on all night, why don't we go up and see after you've eaten? It'll come down the Corkscrew after the Slipway anyhow, much closer to here…I can't imagine how they'll keep those carts from running away and ploughing through someone's house.”

“You're here to see Kessligh?” Sasha asked her, chewing on some bread.

“No, you,” Rhillian said mildly. And smiled at her. “You seem surprised.”

Sasha shrugged in exasperation. “Everything's so political these days. I hadn't thought you and Kessligh had finished your business.”

“We haven't.” Rhillian picked a prawn off Sasha's plate. “But even the ‘White Death of Petrodor’ needs some time to relax every now and then.” She said it with a faint edge. It was what the rich men of Petrodor's highest families called her, Sasha knew. The “White Death of Petrodor.” Rhillian was, by human reckoning, the most powerful serrin in the city. By serrin reckoning…well, serrin did not view things in such simple, hierarchical terms. But she had great ra'shi, the serrin term for respect and credibility, through all Saalshen. Serrin had no kings or queens, or anything that might say “power” to a human. Kessligh said that Rhillian was perhaps one of the ten most powerful serrin in all Rhodia. Which was about as precisely as anyone had managed to explain what Rhillian actually was, to Sasha's memory.

A handsome young man sauntered between Rhillian and the steaming pan of seafood. “Please, my most beautiful lady!” he exclaimed. “I cannot allow you onto our dock without savouring our hospitality! You must accept some food!”

Rhillian considered him with an elegant tilt of the head, chewing on the tail of Sasha's prawn. The young man was game-he barely even flinched as those green eyes found him. “But I've eaten,” she said.

“A drink, a drink for the beautiful lady!” said the young man, in search of whoever now had the wine jug. Quickly a cup was filled, and placed in her hand. Sasha grinned, watching the serrin's dismay.

“Who is that young man anyway?” Rhillian asked as he moved away to pester some other attractive woman. Sasha drained her own cup, and took Rhillian's so she could eat.

“I think he's a Malrini,” she said. “There's at least thirty families just in this little block, I'm still learning them.”

“Petrodor is so crowded,” Rhillian agreed glumly, taking another prawn. Her voice felt strained, having to half shout over the top of it. “I'm not obliged to have sex with him now, am I?”

Sasha laughed. “That's up to you. I'm sure he wouldn't complain.”

“Even I must draw the line somewhere, I suppose.”

Sasha considered Rhillian with amusement. “You know, you're nothing like what I'd been led to expect before I met you.”

Rhillian raised eyebrows at her. “How so?”

“The White Death of Petrodor,” said Sasha, teasing. “Errollyn has so much respect for you when he usually has no respect for anything…” Rhillian grinned, “and the archbishop wets his bed when he dreams of you, and even Kessligh doesn't push you around. But you're not two spans tall and breathing fire. I must say, I'm disappointed.”

“Good,” said Rhillian, around her mouthful. Even with juice dribbling on her fingers and chin, she still managed to look poised and elegant. Catlike, Sasha thought. She'd heard people described like that before. Rhillian was the first who truly matched the description. “Let me tell you a little something about Errollyn.”

“Yes?”

Rhillian licked some juice from her finger. “He's insane.”

Sasha laughed. “You two are impossible! Can't you just call a truce?”

“No seriously,” Rhillian insisted, in a manner that was not serious at all. “I've been thinking on it. Of all the many philosophical inflections of the Saalsi tongue, all the many shades of meaning and description that you're always complaining about…”

“I am not.”

“They all fail to do Errollyn justice,” Rhillian concluded. “He's a raving loon.” She managed to keep a straight face for several heartbeats, before she and Sasha burst into laughter.

Errollyn, Sasha had gathered, was different. A du'janah, they called him, a term which Sasha still did not entirely understand. All the serrin seemed to have great affection for him, and he for them, as always seemed the case between serrin…yet there seemed an unspecified distinctness about Errollyn and his position amongst his own people. All of those who served Saalshen's interests abroad-the talmaad-were direct and straight talking, by the convoluted standards of the Saalshen serrinim, but Errollyn was even more so. Sometimes, Sasha thought, he enjoyed human company more than serrin. And sometimes, she fancied that some serrin, perhaps including Rhillian, found that…disconcerting.

Yet for all their strangeness, Sasha was only too well aware that her new serrin friends were far more at home in Petrodor than she was. She had been here a matter of weeks, Rhillian had been in Petrodor for three years now, and while Errollyn was younger and less experienced, even he was nearing the end of his second year in Petrodor. Saalshen's trading interests in Petrodor were vast, and had deep roots. There had been serrin outposts here for more than three hundred years, it was said. Two hundred years ago, following the invasion of Saalshen by the Bacosh King Leyvaan, Saalshen had expanded its trading range in the hopes of new human allies from other parts of Rhodia. Petrodor, then a simple fishing town, had erupted into unanticipated wealth, size and power. Yet, despite all the serrin had done for the city, its residents were not always grateful.

Some Lisan sailors moved slowly through the crowd, careful not to touch anyone. They had long, dark hair, broad faces and slanted eyes. The swords in their belts were curved, and even their sleeveless undershirts were light skins, to go with their leather pants and hide boots. They stared at Rhillian and Sasha as they passed, with neither friendliness nor curiosity.

Rhillian smiled at them. She waved and called a greeting in the Lisan tongue…Rhillian was not much of a linguist, by serrin standards. She only spoke five foreign tongues, besides all the Saalsi dialects. Amongst the talmaad that was almost retarded. The Lisan stared, expressionless, and moved slowly on.

“Spies?” Sasha suggested, watching them go.

“Assuredly. The families know their own cronies wouldn't be very welcome down here. So they pay the Lisan to come wandering through, knowing the locals can't very well object to sailors on the docks. There's not much the Lisan won't do for gold.”

“You're just so popular with everyone,” Sasha remarked.

“Oh, they're here to watch you at least as much as me,” Rhillian said cheerfully. Sasha didn't like that. “Uma to Kessligh Cronenverdt, the hero of Lenayin, returned to Petrodor to reunite the Nasi-Keth. The families always hated the Nasi-Keth, at least as much as the serrin, possibly more. Demon serrin they expect to fight, but for humans to actually join forces with those demon serrin…well, that's traitorous.”

“That's okay,” said Sasha. “I'm used to wealthy Verenthanes hating me. Makes me feel at home.” A running child thudded into her leg, stumbled, then kept running, oblivious. Another chased her. “Hey!” Sasha called, spilling some of Rhillian's wine on her shirt sleeve. “That was my leg, if you don't mind!” But she was more amused than annoyed. She'd done far worse at that age.

“Human children can't see in the dark either,” Rhillian observed. Her green eyes flashed as the firelight caught them, an inhuman gleam.

“So far I've fallen amongst the commonfolk,” Sasha remarked, shaking wine from her sleeve and examining the stain. “I led the first Lenay rebellion in a century and the Udalyn people pronounced me their saviour. Now just look at these indignities.”

“It's the indignities that remind us what life really is,” Rhillian replied. “Even the greatest king suffers minor indignities. And can be undone by them.”

“Only a serrin could find something profound in a wine stain.”

Rhillian smiled. Her gaze shifted to the north, as she retrieved her cup to take a sip. “Just look at Porsada Temple.” The white walls and spires seemed to shimmer above the dark waters. The reflection on the bay was ghostly, amidst the outline of ships. “Such a beautiful thing. It's almost enough to make one wish to be a Verenthane.”

“It's very pretty,” Sasha agreed, dryly. “But I wouldn't go that far.”

“You don't think it's a little revealing?” Selyna asked her princess, dubiously.

“Oh nonsense, I think it looks wonderful.” Alythia considered herself in the full-length mirror. The gown was a radiant lime green, with flowing folds and a decorative bustle at the back. The front clasp was a gold and onyx brooch, pinned upon a somewhat lower bust than was typical for Petrodor. The brooch went well with the pins in her waves of dark hair, falling about her partly bare shoulders. “Oh I love these earrings, too. Where did you find them, Vansy?”

“A wedding gift from Lord Nandryn of Valhanan,” said Vansy, fastening a lace tie at the back.

“I must go through some of those boxes again,” Alythia thought aloud, adjusting the lie of fabric on one shoulder. So many gifts, they'd been piled into an entire cart for the journey from Lenayin. Upon the wedding train's arrival in Petrodor, there'd been a second, even larger round of gift-giving. Most of Petrodor's ruling classes had turned out for the marriage of the heir of Family Halmady to a Lenay princess.

The splendour had been breathtaking. Long processions out along the Besendi Promontory to Porsada Temple. Families in colourful costume, with coloured flags flying in the breeze, before an azure ocean view. The Porsada Temple, as white as polished quartz against the sea, its spires soaring skyward. The ceremony itself, the guests asparkle with more jewellery than all the lords of Lenayin could possibly have owned.

Ceremony enough to allow her to forget the disaster of her train's send-off from Baen-Tar. The turmoil and delays, the fighting, her father's absence when her betrothed, Gregan, had arrived to escort her to Petrodor. It had been a rebellion…and of course her wretched sister Sashandra had just happened to be leading it. Sasha had always hated everything that Alythia thought best about Lenayin, everything that counted for true civilisation. She had thrown in her lot with the pagan Goeren-yai to fight the Verenthane Hadryn in the north; which had meant that King Torvaal had been in Hadryn when her future husband had arrived in the capital Baen-Tar.

Alythia had been so embarrassed, and so angry. But she was here now, and the wedding had been a wonderful success. For sheer finery, the Petrodor Families were a whole level above even Lenayin royalty. She and her two maids had worked all afternoon to select this dress and its accompaniments. She'd done some extra tailoring herself to get it looking this good. Princess Alythia was renowned as the most beautiful Princess of Lenayin, and that from a good crop, too. She'd show the Petrodor families she belonged.

She turned away from the mirror as Selyna and Vansy continued their adjustments. The chambers’ windows were many-paned, and worked into a light, wooden doorway that opened onto a balcony. Glass doors. Alythia had never seen such architecture. How wonderfully sophisticated beside the heavy stone and thick wood of Baen-Tar! The Halmady Mansion's walls were a sandstone brick, creamy yellow in colour, as was much of Petrodor. The chambers’ floor was polished floorboards, but downstairs, many of the important rooms were spanned with polished marble.

Beyond her balcony, a firework streaked across the sky. Most seemed to be coming from the ships out on the harbour. Each ship shone with many lamps, and from this height, they seemed like a collection of children's toys, all lit up with festival charm. Alongside Halmady Mansion sat Torgenes Mansion, a beautiful building of three floors, great forward columns, many balconies and a sloping, red-tile roof. And, of course, great perimeter walls topped with spikes and guard posts…but Alythia had lived all her life in Baen-Tar, surrounded by enormous city walls as tall as five men, and such modest defences as these took little getting used to. Beyond Torgenes Mansion, the great, curving sweep of Petrodor Harbour continued, alive tonight with even more lights than usual.

A door opened and Alythia turned to find Gregan Halmady paused in the doorway, staring at her. She curtsied and pretended a shy smile. “Good evening, my husband,” she said, with a forced effort to get her thoughts back into Torovan. Chatting with her Lenay maids, it was sometimes difficult. How strange to be married to a man who only spoke Torovan. “You look very handsome.”

And he did. Gregan Halmady had twenty-five summers (three more than herself) and a breadth of shoulder that was pleasing. He had a round face and curly hair that grew out as much as down. That was odd too. Alythia couldn't recall having ever seen a Lenay man with such curly hair. He had nice eyes, a widish nose, and excellent taste in clothes. He was dressed now in an embroidered dark tunic with a wide Torovan collar and a silver clasp at the throat. There were rings on his fingers, a silver-pommelled sword at his hip and tight pants that tucked into knee-high black leather boots.

Gregan always dressed nicely. Most Torovan men did. When Alythia had first seen him, she'd been so relieved. Her father and eldest brother had assured her that she would not be marrying an ugly man, but then, what would they know?

“How do I look?” she pressed impatiently when her husband did not immediately reply.

“You look…amazing.” Alythia believed him. The night following their wedding, he'd made those feelings clear enough. And on most nights since. Alythia smothered a dainty giggle behind her hand.

“I could tell Selyna and Vansy to leave us for a moment, if you wished? The carriages will not expect us immediately, will they?”

Gregan, to her disappointment, appeared somewhat anxious. “I…well…no, M'Lady, I think I really must attend to the procession. Mother will be up to see you shortly.”

And he departed, closing the door behind. Alythia frowned. “He's so timid!” she exclaimed, turning back to the mirror. “I wish he'd just grab me sometimes!”

“A Torovan man is not a Lenay man,” Vansy said knowingly, combing out her princess's hair, with several pins yet to go in. Vansy was tall and sensible, an older girl from Tyree. Selyna was smaller and dark, from northern Banneryd. “Torovan men have more manners.”

“Too much so, sometimes. And why must he call on his mother all the time?” Alythia and Lady Halmady were not on good terms. The old lady was a witch.

“Family is so important here,” Selyna ventured.

“Hmph,” said Alythia. “And he called me ‘M'Lady,’ did you hear that? He always does that, even when we're alone sometimes. And he's always anxious, like he's scared he'll offend me or something.”

“I think he merely needs time to get to know you,” Vansy said decisively, sliding in another pin. “Marriage is a big thing to a young man, especially one who's never had much experience with women before.”

Alythia frowned. “Don't you think?”

“With Lady Halmady watching over him?” Vansy countered.

“I suppose,” Alythia conceded. She was so glad of her maids. Especially Vansy. Not only was it nice to speak Lenay, it was nice to have two people around who weren't afraid to tell her what they thought. So many Torovans seemed afraid to tell the truth to a person's face. Sometimes they were so polite, and so gracious, it became exasperating. “He is rather…well, let's just say that he fumbles a lot.” Selyna giggled.

“And,” Vansy continued, “M'Lady can be somewhat intimidating.”

“Intimidating?” Alythia gaped at her in the mirror. “Exactly how am I intimidating?!”

“M'Lady is very beautiful, and very headstrong, and in case M'Lady has not noticed, Petrodor is not a city accustomed to beautiful, headstrong women who say what they think.”

Alythia had to laugh. Vansy was right, of course. But that only made the challenge greater, and more exciting. “They'll come to like me,” she said slyly. “You'll see. I'll win them over. I'll become the talk of all Petrodor. They've never seen anyone like me before.”

Lady Halmady, however, had other ideas. “The front of that dress,” she said disdainfully, upon entering the chambers, “is disgracefully low. Remove it at once and find another.”

Lady Halmady dressed principally in black, as was fitting for a high-class lady of Petrodor whose hair was beginning to grey. Her face was round, and her hair curled like her son's, but her eyes were hard, and tight with little wrinkles. Alythia found her stiff with formality, and utterly obsessed with matters of status and decorum. It made a distasteful spectacle. Nobility and royalty should be graceful, not uptight and insecure.

“Oh, but really, Mother,” Alythia laughed, trying to make light of it.

“Really nothing.” Her mother-in-law's lips pursed together tightly. “The festival celebrations of Sadisi are some of the grandest on the Petrodor calendar. The honour of House Halmady is at stake. I'll not have it said that the heir of Halmady is wedded to a highlands wench of easy virtue.”

“You…you accuse highlanders of easy virtue?” Alythia asked. “Mother, I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth!”

“From where I'm standing,” Lady Halmady said coldly, “and from where countless men shall no doubt also be standing at the festival, with wide, salivating mouths, there seems little truth to your claim.”

“At least they're no brothels in Lenayin!” Alythia retorted. “I never even understood what a brothel was until someone who'd travelled to Petrodor explained it to me!”

“You watch your tongue with me, young lady! I'll tolerate none of your highland lip in this house, I warn you!”

“If you have such contempt for highlanders,” said Alythia in exasperation, “then why in the world did you allow your son to marry one?”

Lady Halmady slapped her. Alythia's head snapped about, a cheek and temple stinging. The force of the blow astonished her.

“You do not question the motivations of this family's elders, do you understand me?” The older woman's voice was tight with rage. “You are your husband's servant, and thus a servant of this house. You do not question. You obey. I know that you are a princess. It may seem to you that this family is nothing more than commoners. But let me assure you, young lady, that a noble family of Petrodor is of a vastly higher station than even the royalty of that highland barbarian cesspit could aspire to. You did not marry down, my dear. It is we who married down, I am quite sure.”

Lady Halmady turned and stalked out, her black dress sweeping the polished boards in her wake. Alythia put a hand to her face, her ears still ringing. Selyna and Vansy hurried to her side.

“Oh, M'Lady,” Selyna gasped, “you're bleeding!”

Alythia looked at her fingers and saw that it was true. Lady Halmady wore many rings. Who'd have thought that old lady could wield such a blow? Alythia had little experience in being hit. In fact, she thought dazedly, she'd not been hit since…since that little bitch of a sister Sashandra had given her a right hook at their brother Krystoff's funeral. She'd been hitting everyone, then. That was twelve years ago.

“That will swell up,” Vansy said matter-of-factly. “Look, you can see it swelling now.”

“Swell up?” Alythia felt a wave of panic. She pushed her maids aside and staggered to the mirror, peering close. The cut was as long as a fingernail and, as Vansy had said, already swelling. “Oh that…that horrid old bitch! Look what she's done! I'm going to kill her! All this work for nothing…I can't go to Sadisi like this! Like a sailor straight from a dockside brawl! What will people say?”

“M'Lady,” Selyna ventured in a small voice, “perhaps you should keep your voice down a little…”

“What does it matter?” Alythia fumed. “She can't speak this barbarian tongue anyhow!” She yelled toward the door in Torovan, “She wouldn't learn a single syllable of that heathen monstrosity of a language, it's too far beneath her! She married down, you see! Down into the sewer, down into the swamp! Well how is she such a fucking sophisticate, when I can speak four languages and she can only manage one?”

She stumbled on one thick-heeled sandal in her fury, nearly falling. She tore it off her foot and threw it hard at the door. It hit with a loud crack and fell impotently to the floor.

Family Halmady left for Sadisi Festival without her. Alythia stood and watched through a small, barred window as the carriages left. Hooves clattered between mansion walls, and she caught a glimpse of armed guards hanging off the trailing carriages. Half of the house contingent, and many men from loyal, lower families, would be guarding the family's seniors: Patachi Elmar Halmady (her father-in-law), Lady Halmady, Gregan, brother Vincen and his wife Rovina, younger brother Tristi, little sister Elra and her rag-doll, Topo. The rag-doll got to go. The Lenay princess did not.

There were few good views over neighbouring streets, for defensive purposes. Serrin archers were good shots. Soon Alythia grew tired of peering through the little stone window in Vincen and Rovina's chambers, and went back to her own. But there was nothing to do besides sit on her bed and sulk.

This year's Sadisi Festival was going to be thrown at the Steiner Mansion. Family Steiner was the wealthiest, most powerful family in Petrodor. Family Halmady liked to style themselves the second-most powerful, but in Petrodor, such things were always debatable. Steiner Mansion was even more grand than Halmady Mansion, and their celebrations and parties were opulent beyond imagining. Such grand events were Alythia's raison d’etre. She loved to socialise. She loved to impress. She loved to be near real power, and feel its warmth radiating through her. She'd been looking forward to this day since she'd first arrived in Petrodor. Now, it was all ruined.

The family would say she was ill. A few might believe it at first, but not later, when the gossip started. Halmady Mansion had many servants, and where there were servants, there was gossip. It had been the same in Baen-Tar. News of the conflict between Lady Halmady and her son's new wife would soon make the rounds. Such conflicts were not uncommon, she'd gathered. No doubt everyone would find it very amusing.

She snorted at the thought and curled her bare feet up on the bed, touching the swelling on her face. It wasn't all bad, she realised. Such gossip could easily hurt Lady Halmady worse than it hurt herself. Men in particular might take the beautiful princess's side before they took that crusty old battle-axe's. Especially if she gave them some extra persuasion. She thought about it for a while, watching the odd firework streak across the bay, and refusing to become too dispirited. She was clever at this kind of thing, she knew she was. It was a puzzle, but all puzzles had a solution.

After a while, she began to wish she hadn't allowed Selyna and Vansy to leave. There was a servants’ party somewhere along the lower slope. They'd volunteered to stay behind and keep her company, but obviously their hearts weren't in it. Alythia couldn't blame them. Both would stay with her in Petrodor for a year to help her settle in. The pay was good, some of which would be sent back to their families in Lenayin. There was also the prospect of a Petrodor husband, one reason both were so eager to attend the Sadisi celebrations. But until that husband arrived, or the year was up and they returned home to Lenayin, they were both very much in the same position that she was-young Lenay women abroad for the first time in their lives, and very often overwhelmed by the foreignness of it all.

They were the lucky ones, though, said a small voice at the back of Alythia's mind. They'd either find a husband and stay here by choice, or they'd get to go home. You're stuck here for life, whether you like it or not.

She shoved the voice aside angrily and jumped from the bed. Damned if she'd sit here and sulk, that was just what the old witch would wish her to do. The night air was lovely in the memory of a hot day. She'd go for a walk.

The gardens of Halmady Mansion were terraced as the slope began to descend. And they were truly beautiful. Alythia walked barefoot on the lush grass, then stepped onto smooth, stone pavings. Trimmed bushes waved their leaves in a cool breeze, and the garden lamps cast gentle shadows across the slope. Water tinkled in a nearby fountain.

Alythia paused behind a garden chair. The lower garden fell away beneath, affording her a clear view over the top of the perimeter wall. At the very bottom, where the dark sea met the shore, the lights burned especially bright. Sounds carried faintly from far below; distant celebrations. The docks were full of rough folk, it was said, and they celebrated accordingly. Rough folk, serrin, and Nasi-Keth. Alythia still thought it odd that the serrin, who had so much wealth, would spend more time near the bottom of the Petrodor Incline than the top. She'd asked some of her new family about it, but none of them had an answer. None of them had ever been to the bottom of the slope, save passing through for the occasional sea voyage. And none of them expressed a desire to ever do so.

The mild air felt lovely on her skin beneath a simple, summer dress. The garden air was alive with fragrances, and the view across the fire-lit curve of Petrodor Harbour was more spectacular than even the most wonderful mountain-view in Lenayin. For a while, her face ceased to ache so badly and her frustrations faded from her mind. This transition in her life was full of challenges, but she would face them and make a good life for herself. All royal women had to go through this. Her second-eldest sister, Petryna, had married to the Lenay province of Yethulyn, where there was considerably less culture and excitement than Petrodor. Her eldest sister, Marya, of course, had married the Heir of Steiner…and would now be happily entertaining at the Sadisi Festival that Alythia was missing. And her littlest sister, Sofy, would soon have to manage an even more difficult transition than this one when she married the heir to Regent Arrosh in Larosa, the most powerful of the Bacosh provinces. Of all her sisters, Alythia was surely the most in her element in a social cacophony like Petrodor. If she could not survive this experience, then no one could.

The soldiers in the garden watched her as she climbed the gentle terraces back toward the house. There were always soldiers on guard these days-men from loyal houses, mostly sons of Patachi Halmady's numerous cousins, their loyalties carefully vetted.

They watched her as she walked, with just the right combination of anxious deference and obvious lust. Alythia smothered a smile and allowed her hips to swing just a little more, within the breezy folds of her dress. Torovan men were a fascinating puzzle of many contradictions. Intensely selfless in their loyal service to higher families, and yet intensely proud, too, of their own heritage. Very protective of their own female family members, and yet (she'd heard) scandalously forward in their lascivious discussions of other men's wives, sisters and daughters. Devoutly Verenthane and pious when it suited them, and yet utterly obsessed with women and sex. It made a young woman who had the gifts and the aptitude for such games feel alive.

The mansion loomed above, four floors of stone walls, segmented windows and sloping, red tile roofs. It was the most beautiful fortress Alythia had ever seen. She walked the smooth, paved patio past another fountain. Rows of columns and arches lined the patio, and she stepped through the main arch into a lamp-lit passage.

The passage opened onto the inner courtyard, a square patio overlooked with balconies on two sides, and windows on two others. About the patio, great ceramic pots with flowering plants, more water features with golden fish and green lilies, and more columns, lit with lamps. A servant hurried past the columns, but otherwise the courtyard was quiet. At least half the household staff were at Sadisi celebrations. With nothing else to do, Alythia picked a direction she'd not yet walked. She would explore.

The direction she chose led to the southern defensive wall, lined with metal spikes. Alythia walked along the wall, glancing up to see guards atop their posts. So strange to think that a house like Halmady Mansion might consider itself vulnerable. And yet she'd heard some hair-raising tales of what Nasi-Keth fighters had done to several great houses in the past. Night Wraiths, the family men called the Nasi-Keth, and sometimes the serrin too. Shadows in the night, bloodthirsty and godless. Some men made the holy sign when they spoke of them.

The path ended in a wooden fence. Alythia peered over the gate, inside was dark. A lattice covering made for a ceiling, overgrown with a grapevine. Alythia reached over the gate and undid the latch. Closing the gate behind, she reached up for the nearest bunch of grapes. She popped one into her mouth and it was delicious. Another bunch hung near and she moved to sample it.

A throaty snarl in the dark was the first hint that she was not alone. Alythia froze, her heart pounding. That sounded like…She turned, very slowly. Two reflective eyes were watching her, not six paces away. The eyes moved and a chain tinkled. A shadow resolved itself. A dog, shaggy and chained. It snarled again, bloodcurdlingly. It was a big dog, too. Alythia had never particularly liked dogs. Now, that sentiment was reconfirmed a thousandfold.

Trying to stop herself from shaking with fear, she began a very slow retreat to the gate. Dogs, she recalled someone in Baen-Tar saying, could smell fear and see it in a person's posture. They reacted to that fear with fear of their own, and aggression. Best not to let them see your fear, that person had said. Well, it was too late for that, because she was terrified.

As she reached the gate, she began to hope that she might make it out without getting mauled. Then the dog lunged. Alythia screamed, colliding with the gate as she stumbled backward. The dog's chain pulled tight with a snap, its teeth snarling barely an armspan from her throat. Alythia scrambled along the overgrown fence, then fell on her backside. The dog strained, thrashing and darting, but Alythia was out of its reach.

Running footsteps came up the path and the gate rattled open. A man yelled at the dog, running at it. It backed off, then turned and lunged, only to receive a savage whack from the man's scabbard. It yelped and scrambled to retreat. Another soldier grabbed Alythia by her arm and pulled her out of the gate.

“M'Lady, are you hurt?” Other soldiers were running up, and a few servants. Alythia struggled for breath, her limbs trembling. Her knees felt as though they were about to give way. “M'Lady?” From within the enclosure, there came yells, whacks and yelps as the other soldier meted out some harsh punishment.

“I'm…I'm all right,” she managed, breathlessly. “The chain stopped him short.”

“I'm very sorry, M'Lady,” said the young soldier, gallantly. He seemed most pleased at his successful rescue. “Someone should have warned you about the wolf. It was an oversight. Someone shall be punished for it, I assure you.”

“Wolf?” Alythia blinked at him.

“Yes, M'Lady, it's a wolf. A she-wolf.” The second soldier was emerging now, his sword and scabbard in hand, closing the gate behind him. “It was a gift from a merchant just eight months ago. A beautiful little cub it was then, with big paws and big ears, and soft grey fur. Master Tristi and Mistress Elra were very fond of it and it followed them everywhere.” The soldier's lips twisted with an ironic smile. “But pretty wolf cubs, you know, they soon grow into big wolves.”

“You can't keep a wolf for a pet!” Even Alythia knew that. “They can't be tamed, no matter how friendly they are when they're little! And they grow up so fast!”

“Doubtless M'Lady has much highland knowledge of such things that we lowlanders have not learned,” said the soldier. “I think the animal should be killed, myself, for its own sake as much as others’. But the children still recall the little cub, and cannot bring themselves to…”

“Wait…highland knowledge?” Alythia looked back toward the gate. “It's a Lenay wolf?”

“Yes, M'Lady.” The soldier's look was quizzical. “There are few wolves left in Torovan, they kill the farmers’ livestock. The dukes of many regions offer great rewards for wolf pelts. The merchant who brought this cub had just returned from Lenayin. What happened to its mother, I do not know.”

Alythia ventured cautiously back toward the gate. The second soldier stood aside, with a questioning look to his companion. Alythia ignored them, and peered over the gate. The wolf now huddled in a far corner, mostly invisible in the dark. A Lenay wolf. She'd heard them howling, once or twice, when she'd visited Baen-Tar town nearer the forest at the bottom of Baen-Tar hill. Now it was here, chained in a Petrodor mansion, where no Lenayin wolf had any business being.

Strangely, she found herself recalling a silly argument her wild brat sister Sashandra had had with their brother Damon upon one of her rare visits to Baen-Tar many years ago. “They don't attack people, Damon!” Sashandra had insisted, as loudly as always. “That's a Verenthane myth! They might eat you once you're already dead, but they're scared of people, mostly. They'll only attack if they're scared and cornered, or if they're protecting their cubs!” Sashandra might have been a crazy, selfish tomboy, but she certainly knew animals.

Scared. She'd walked into its enclosure, a stranger in the dark. Those snarling teeth, those laid-back ears…they'd certainly scared her well enough, but it'd been the wolf who'd been terrified first. Perhaps it had cause to be terrified. Perhaps it had learned to be. Now it huddled in the dark, beaten, bruised and chained.

“Perhaps,” said the small, dark voice in the back of her head, “in a few more years, that will be you.”

The narrow path climbed steeply up a flight of crumbling stairs, then took a sharp turn past a garden wall. Sasha moved quietly in Rhillian's wake, hoping she could be half as quiet as the graceful serrin. Errollyn followed and Aisha brought up the rear, their blades drawn. The alley narrowed, then opened and suddenly there was a marvellous view of the harbour, and light enough to see the path clearly. The three serrin and Sasha pressed close to an uphill wall, and the protective shadow. Directly below were people's yards, small vegetable gardens. From here, agile people could climb onto roofs, run along walltops, and into courtyards. For people who knew Petrodor's alleys, and had the vision to move through them at night, the city lay exposed.

The alley turned uphill again; a steep, ragged stairway between walls so close Sasha had to keep her arms tight to her sides. A cat sprinted before them in panic, and leapt a wall. Rhillian jogged easily, leaving the steps where they curled around a large tree growing from the rock, finding foot holds on its big, exposed roots. Then she paused, and pointed at the step ahead with her blade, for Sasha's benefit. When she hurdled the step in question, Sasha vaguely saw a trip-string in the gloom, doubtless rigged through a gap in the neighbouring wall, where it would ring a bell and warn of wraiths passing in the night. Petrodor's alleys were full of such devices, more use against night-blind humans than serrin. Sasha pointed to the step for Errollyn, hurdled it and jogged onward up the steep, winding stairs.

They crossed several narrow roads that wove their way across the slope, past brick and stone buildings with shutters tightly closed. The din of voices and music seemed to grow louder as they climbed. Further along one road, Sasha saw a great mass of people gathered outside a bar, with fires, music and dancing. At another crossroad, a stray dog barked madly and charged them, but Aisha hit it with a stone from her pocket and it sprinted yelping in the other direction. Its companion, however, chased them up the alley, growling and barking, and another of Aisha's well-thrown stones only seemed to infuriate it.

Aisha prepared her blade, but Errollyn pushed back past her, fake-stepped left, then hook-kicked with his right, crunching the dog so hard to the head it fairly spun about and rebounded off the wall. It lay still, then tried to rise, then fell again.

“Errollyn!” Aisha said with annoyance, moving back to kneel by the scraggly, bony animal. She felt its neck, then made a face, drew her blade and cut its throat. “Why not just use your sword? It's kinder.”

“My tel'shan'til needs practice,” Errollyn explained easily. It was a form of unarmed combat, mastered in Saalshen, like the svaalverd. Aisha wiped her blade on the dog's mangy coat and waved them onward, irritated. The path was briefly wide enough for two and Sasha fell back to Errollyn's side.

“And here I thought you loved animals,” she remarked. She had no great love of the stray mutts of Petrodor, but Errollyn's methods seemed needlessly callous. Sometimes, he just seemed…unpredictable. Dangerous, even.

His green eyes flashed in the dark as he looked at her. He was not a small man, nor a weak one, yet his presence seemed to fill more of her awareness than mere size could explain. “The strays around here are diseased,” he said. “The aggressive ones are either so hungry they're insensible, or possibly rabid. In the wild, nature culls the weak and sick. Here, they are kept alive.”

“You could have used your sword,” Sasha echoed Aisha's scolding.

“When a mouse attacks a bear in the woods,” Errollyn continued, “and the bear swallows the mouse whole, do you feel sorry for the mouse?”

“If one happens to have a soft spot for suicidal mice, I suppose one might.”

“There's a great difference,” Errollyn replied with a smile, “between those who say they merely love nature, and those who proclaim to learn from it.” Sasha gave him a long, wary look…but then the path was narrowing again and she had to move ahead to keep in single file.

Finally, as the noise ahead seemed at its peak, Rhillian paused beside a wall where the growing trunk of a tree had cracked the bricks outward. Rhillian climbed with ease while Sasha sheathed her sword and clambered over branches in Rhillian's wake, then along the wall to a flat rooftop. Along the hard tiles of the rooftop, then a stiff-fingered climb up a short length of vertical, stone wall, and pulled herself over the top.

Here was a wide, flat roof of paved tiles, flanked on all sides by plants in clay pots and walls made light with patterned holes. There were also some chairs, a little table and a trapdoor in the centre of the roof.

The noise from the street below was deafening. Rhillian sat on a bench behind the low wall, and peered over. Sasha, Errollyn and Aisha gathered alongside. The street was broad enough for two carts, and cut diagonally up the slope. Its sides were lined with crowds of people. Directly below, a team of shirtless men were manoeuvring a big, open cart down the hill, backward. Towering within its tray loomed a great, stone statue of a half-naked man with enormous muscles, a sword in one hand, a staff in the other. The statue looked to be solid rock, and more men stood within the cart to keep it from toppling on the sloping cobbles.

The statue stood adorned in a giant, purple cloak with golden arrowheads, and had a huge, eight-pointed Verenthane medallion about its neck. Around its great, muscular arms were flower garlands, silk tresses and silver bells. The men on the ropes heaved and yelled, muscles straining, while others moved ahead downslope, directing the way or helping to steer. Several carried great wooden blocks to jam under the wheels and the cart tried to run away. The crowd yelled and threw things. Musicians followed the descent, a colourful, unholy racket of trumpets and drums.

“House Firis!” Errollyn shouted over the noise, grinning. “They look to be struggling a little! The night's young yet, perhaps they went out too hard on the first climb!”

Sasha stared down in wide-eyed amazement. Behind the musicians trailing House Firis, another cart was descending into view between close, roadside walls. What happened if one of them lost control? The thought didn't seem to bother the roadside crowds, many of whom moved alongside their chosen team yelling encouragement. The Endurance would go on all night. Surely not all of these teams would have enough fit men to make the final, dawn climb back up the incline.

The statues, Sasha knew, were of Saint Sadis himself. It had astonished her when she'd first seen them. Her knowledge of Verenthane saints was limited to Saint Ambellion, the man who had brought the faith to Lenayin. He was depicted as an old man in robes, walking in worn sandals with the help of a gnarled staff. Saint Sadis was, by comparison, sexy.

When Saint Sadis had first come from the Bacosh, Petrodor was just a little fishing village ruled by a local duke who lived in a castle atop the incline. Legend had it that Sadis's preaching had insulted the duke, who sentenced Sadis to ten days of the worst labour in Petrodor-hauling carts up and down the slope from the shoreline below. In those ten days, the story went, Sadis had borne incredible loads with tireless determination, and had shown no sign of weakness. Men had asked for the secret of his strength, and had learned that it came from the Verenthane gods. From that inspiration, the Verenthane faith had grown strong in Petrodor. Every Sadisi, men spent one day, and all of the night, hauling laden carts up and down the slopes to commemorate Sadis's efforts, and to demonstrate their own faith-through-endurance to the gods. They'd been going since dawn, and the strain was showing.

“Whose house are we standing on?” Sasha thought to ask.

“Friends,” said Rhillian, with a vague shrug. Despite her usual directness, Rhillian could be as obtuse as any serrin where questions of security were concerned. “I don't see any of the Firis sons present.”

“Busy elsewhere, no doubt,” Errollyn agreed. “The sons are usually the most eager to represent their house. I see a few cousins I recognise, some uncles, lots of minor related houses. No, wait…there's Georgy Firis. At the end of the second rope.”

“Only a grandson,” said Rhillian, with a faint shake of the head. “Not a great commitment from a senior Steiner ally to the Endurance. Evidently they have matters more pressing.”

“More talks?” Sasha asked, frowning. “Even on Sadisi?”

“House Steiner holds a great festival celebration at the Steiner Mansion,” said Rhillian. “Everyone shall be there. Your sisters included.”

Marya and Alythia. It felt strange to be so far from home, and to know that two of her sisters were so near. Marya was wife to Symon Steiner, the eldest son of Patachi Marlen Steiner. Once the patachi died, Marya would be the wife of the most powerful man in Petrodor. There were four children, none of whom Sasha had met. It had been fourteen years, in fact, since she'd last seen Marya. Sometimes she hoped, perhaps forlornly, for a reunion. She doubted that the grand house of Steiner would be pleased at the prospect.

She'd beaten Alythia's wedding train into Petrodor by ten days. The wedding had been five days after that…two weeks ago now. She'd only seen the wedding from a distance. She was not insulted at having been excluded from the invitations. She greatly doubted that House Halmady would have been any more thrilled to see her than House Steiner. And, unlike Marya, Alythia would most likely have shared the sentiment.

By such ties did the greatest trading city in all Rhodia bind itself to the highlands barbarian kingdom. Houses that were not even royal-made noble only by their colossal, garish accumulation of wealth-wedded various princesses of Lenayin in order to ensure the loyalty of their uncivilised neighbours. Sasha had never been one to place much store in the divine rights of noble birth, and yet she still found something about it all distasteful. Well, she thought grimly, watching the men of House Firis straining against their burden, this is one Princess of Lenayin who's not for sale.

“You didn't just invite me up here to watch the parade, did you?” Sasha asked Rhillian, warily. Rhillian gave her a brilliant, faintly dangerous smile.

Ar'mahler t'eign,” she said, reproachfully. Arnai, meaning “indelicate” or “graceless,” elided to leimahler, meaning “opinion”…but very close to leimas, meaning “view.” And eign from rhe'leign, meaning “future”…but elided to the omnipresent tas, implying the subjective, rather than the objective. Implying, perhaps, that the holder of such an indelicate opinion (suspicion?) was…paranoid? Was not thinking clearly? Had struck close in her suggestion, but not accurately? Or all of the above…or none?

Ny as'sere sa'toth khan,” Sasha retorted. “Don't play games with me.” Saalsi was poetic, and obtuse, and could be read backward, forward and any combination in between. A language of poets, philosophers and dreamers, for whom the form was often more important than the function. She'd learned it well, by human standards, in her twelve years in the Lenayin wilds with Kessligh. When she was younger, he'd sometimes insisted they spoke nothing but Saalsi for months. But it still confused her at times, to hear those familiar forms upon the lips of serrin. Serrin who used words as a dockside juggler tossed knives, a dazzling play of surprise and misdirection.

“You can often tell who's plotting what just by watching people,” Aisha said cheerfully in Saalsi, gazing down on the road. Aisha was usually cheerful, and had the good manners not to twist her Saalsi into knots that strained a poor human's comprehension. Being half-human herself, she had more sympathy for their shortcomings. “For instance, look…up the road here, at the next cart. That's House Esheron. And here carrying the wheel blocks is Ellot Esheron, Patachi Esheron's brother…only his arm is in a sling, and he appears to be limping, which explains why he's carrying the blocks instead of manning a rope. An accident, or has he been fighting with someone?”

“It's rumoured he and his brother don't get along well,” Errollyn said thoughtfully. “There was that missing Ameryn shipment, and the shortchanging of the moneylenders.”

“Perhaps the moneylenders tried to get even,” Rhillian suggested.

“Or perhaps his wife beat him up again!” Aisha laughed. “She's a fierce one!”

The three serrin continued the commentary as house after house passed with their laden carts down the Corkscrew. Their knowledge of the inner doings of the Petrodor families seemed inexhaustible. But then, the talmaad served Saalshen. It was their business to know, and they had plenty of gold to spend for the knowing.

Sasha's interest increased considerably as the cart of House Halmady came into view. The livery was black and red, the statue of Saint Sadis pointing with one accusing forefinger, eyes intent above a flowing beard. The crowd of followers about the Halmady cart seemed particularly large and vocal. The trailing musicians made a din that could barely be described as music.

“You'd think the second-most powerful house in Petrodor could afford some decent musicians,” Sasha suggested with a wince.

“Look,” said Rhillian, with a deadly straight stare. “By the left wheel. He wears a silver bracelet.”

“Oh yes,” Aisha agreed, leaning on the wall to peer closely. Errollyn, Sasha noticed, was watching the windows and rooftops of surrounding buildings. His vision was even sharper than Rhillian's and he'd strung his bow. His skill with that bow had to be seen to be believed. “That's a silver chain. Pretty.”

“So what?” Sasha said.

“Duke Tarabai's men have a liking for silver jewellery,” Aisha explained, her blue eyes not leaving the scene. In the confusion of men, alive with shadows in the light from many torches and lamps, Sasha had no idea how they could make out individual pieces of jewellery. “Danor has some marvellous silver mines. We trade for silver quite frequently, there's not much in Saalshen.”

“Thieves,” Errollyn added. “We've not had a fair price from them yet, since there's so little competition. Tassi was the only one who came close.” There was a sadness in his voice. Aisha looked sad, too. Sasha remembered their friend Tassi, and then the sadness was hers as well.

“To his left now is Daneri Belary,” Rhillian added.

“Truly?” Aisha peered more closely. “Errollyn, can you see?”

Errollyn spared the approaching cart a brief glance. “Daneri Belary, and Jonti Maer,” he said.

“Where?” Rhillian searched. “Oh yes, in the cart, supporting the statue.”

“Daneri Belary would be Duke Belary's heir?” Sasha wondered.

“No, second son,” said Rhillian. “Duke Belary and heir will be at the Steiner Mansion. The Endurance is a boy's adventure. A symbol of trust and allegiance between the dukes and House Steiner. Jonti Maer is the heir to Family Maer, another of Vedichi's most prominent.”

“Steiner's allegiance grows wide,” Sasha observed.

Rhillian nodded. “The question is how wide?”

Duke Tarabai was the feudal lord of the northern Torovan province of Danor. Duke Belary was the lord of western Vedichi. Sasha knew little enough of Torovan lords and their doings, except that here, the land was worked and owned in feudal ways that had not yet been successfully introduced in Lenayin, and spirits willing never would be. Sasha had led a rebellion, in part, to prevent such a thing. And had been exiled from her homeland by her own father, King Torvaal of Lenayin, for her trouble.

The relationship between the city of Petrodor and its feudal provinces, she was gathering, was curious. Most of Petrodor, when drawn upon a map, fell within the province of Coroman, but two hundred years of accumulated wealth and power had made the city a power unto itself, far beyond the control of feudal dukes. Petrodor was also the seat of Verenthane power in Torovan, and indeed in all northern Rhodia. Most of Torovan's wealth found its way through Petrodor at one time or another, and regional dukes and nobles who knew what was good for them paid homage, and were rewarded.

Until recently, the great houses of Petrodor had needed the Torovan dukes for one thing only-trade. Now, with war afoot in the Bacosh, the houses discovered that the dukes had one other thing that Petrodor could use. Soldiers. At the bidding of the holy brotherhood in the Porsada Temple, House Steiner and its allies were trying to raise an army to reclaim the “holy lands”-the Bacosh provinces of Rhodaan, Enora and Ilduur, which had fallen under the sway of Saalshen two centuries before. When the then-king of all the Bacosh, Leyvaan, had failed in the invasion of Saalshen, Saalshen's counter-invasion had taken the three nearest Bacosh provinces for a buffer, and changed them beyond recognition. That change had profoundly disturbed Rhodia's holy brotherhood, leading finally to the Archbishop of Petrodor's most recent declarations of Holy Crusade. And the Petrodor talmaad, under the archbishop's very nose, now attempted to disrupt those preparations for war by any means possible.

Rhillian drew a deep breath, a hand on her stomach. She belched, softly. “Too many prawns?” Sasha suggested.

Rhillian smiled. “Humans can claim most follies as their own, except excess. We serrin invented that.”

“And arrogance,” Errollyn added. Rhillian shrugged. “Indecisiveness,” Errollyn continued. “Self-importance. Complacency. Lust.”

“Oh no,” said Aisha, shaking her head, “I like lust.”

“Ambiguity,” said Errollyn. “Moral equivalence. Laziness.”

“Never knowing when to shut up,” Rhillian added, with a sharp glance. Errollyn met her gaze with a half-smile. For a brief instant, the air between them seemed to crackle.

A loud crash from upslope interrupted. Music and shouting on the road below paused. Then came distant yells from around the uphill corner. The crowd began to surge in that direction.

“There was bound to be at least one,” said Errollyn, sliding to his feet, bow in hand. “Come on.”

They abandoned their rooftop and made their way along the dark back alleys parallel to the road. When the shouting grew louder, Rhillian led them up another winding stairway. The alley mouth opened onto the road. Rhillian took the left corner, Errollyn the right, with Sasha in the middle. Aisha remained behind, to cover their backs.

To the left, now downslope after their climb, a confused crowd pressed about an overturned cart. The Sadis statue had clearly fallen, injured men were carried from the press, some clutching broken limbs. Others yelled and gave directions, frantically, searching for family or friends.

“House Ragini,” said Rhillian. “Another of House Steiner's lackeys.”

Errollyn, Sasha noted, was once again searching the surrounding buildings, with barely a glance at the chaos. He held his enormous bow like a staff, one hand lingering by the quiver of arrows at his hip.

Now from the crowd, a man was being carried, arms limp, head lolling. His hair was wet with blood. “Looks like he broke more than just his arm,” Sasha observed.

“That's Randel Ragini.” Rhillian's voice was hard, with suspicious certainty. “Patachi Ragini's heir. How convenient.”

Sasha frowned. “Convenient?”

“In Torovan it's maradis nal-maradis,” Rhillian explained. Fortuitous ill-fortune, Sasha translated. She almost hadn't noticed they were still speaking Saalsi. “The convenient accident. Like when the Endurance statue topples over, and it just happens to be the family heir who's killed.”

“How do you know it's no accident?” Sasha replied. “This whole crazy festival's just an accident waiting to happen!”

“Those are the best kinds,” said Errollyn, his eyes not leaving the surrounding buildings. “Welcome to Petrodor.”

“Come,” said Rhillian, watching as the men laid the body by the side of the road. Some were weeping, gesticulating with both hands to the night sky. “We'd best go. This one will have repercussions.”

“Why?” asked Sasha. “What was House Ragini involved with?”

Duke Alexanda Rochel watched the stone walls pass his carriage window, as the wheels clattered over cobblestones. It had been a long bumpy ride on bad roads, climbing switchbacks through some truly bad neighbourhoods of crumbling hutments and outright slums. Now, the cobbles jarred his teeth and bounced the wide-brimmed hat upon his head.

On the seat opposite, his daughter Bryanne peered wide-eyed through the window, trying to see above the high walls that lined the ridgetop road. Bryanne had never seen Petrodor. Like all Torovan noble children, she had been raised on stories of its wealth and grandeur. Alexanda saw the faint bewilderment on her face, the surprised dismay. So far, she'd seen slums and walls topped with sharpened spikes. Not to worry, child, Alexanda thought grimly, it only gets worse from here. Gods how he hated Petrodor. He was so pleased to be invited to Patachi Steiner's Sadisi party, he could just hit something. Preferably Patachi Steiner.

“Don't look so grim, dearest,” said his wife, the Duchess Varona, from his side. She was dressed in her finest gown, a tight-waisted, shoulderless, velvety black and sequinned silver piece that displayed a figure well preserved for her thirty-eight summers. The curls in her black hair, and the pale powder and red paint of the makeup, had taken her and her maids since lunchtime to arrange. “I'm sure it shall be a lovely evening. Bryanne, I'm so looking forward to introducing you around. You look truly lovely.”

Bryanne, a pale, slightly pudgy girl who at fifteen had yet to grow properly into her womanhood, bit her lip. Her hair, dress and makeup only added to her father's sour mood. This was not the little girl he knew. All dressed up to impress some boot-licking little Petrodor mummy's boy. Bryanne was a quiet, obedient girl who liked to paint flowers in the garden on a warm summer's day. He'd have more gladly thrown her into a den of hungry wolves than the pack of insolent, insufferable masculinity he was sure to find at Patachi Steiner's but Varona had insisted. She meets so few eligible boys in Pazira, she'd complained. She needs to broaden her horizons, instead of sitting around all day painting and daydreaming.

Alexanda recognised the walls of several great mansions from the crests beside their huge, metal-barred gates. Here was House Halmady, headed by the particularly vile Patachi Elmar Halmady. His heir Gregan had recently married a Lenay princess. Lenay princesses were apparently all the style these days, in Petrodor. Royalty-the latest accessory for the fashionable elite. Alexanda snorted to himself. Lenay royalty only, however. It had the sad desperation of the nouveau riche, buying gaudy jewels from the worst dockside merchants without questioning their true origin or quality. Still, any royalty was impressive enough for Torovan, whose last true king had been some seven hundred years ago. Or rather, it was impressive enough for families whose wealth and power barely dated one and a half centuries. Family Rochel, on the other hand, was old money. Alexanda Rochel traced his noble claim to the Dukedom of Pazira back through twenty-three generations of forefathers. Petrodor wealth and promises might have impressed others of the Torovan dukehood, but it certainly did not impress him.

The carriage clattered to a halt. Ahead, there came shouts from the leading guard cart to Steiner soldiers manning the gate. Immediately there were Pazira soldiers to the left and right of the carriage, maroon and gold colours over armour, eyes watchful beneath crested helms. These days more than others, a heavy guard was required to travel through the City of the Night.

A loud squealing from ahead, and the forward carts resumed their clatter. The carriage followed, and then the walls of Steiner Mansion were passing, manned by watchful Steiner guards. The cobblestone path descended, turned, and then there were great, stone columns on the right. Soldiers opened the carriage doors, and Duke Alexanda Rochel of Pazira took a deep breath and stepped into the warm Petrodor night.

He turned to help his wife and daughter from the carriage, and was then greeted by a handsome, thin-bearded man with a pointy chin and dagger-sharp eyes, splendidly dressed in a tight, embroidered jacket and colourful shirt with a wide, angular collar.

“Duke Alexanda,” said Symon Steiner, heir of Family Steiner. He bowed, as did Alexanda, then clasped hands. The man wore enough rings to make a woman blush, the duke noted acidly. “A great pleasure to greet you once more. My father shall be so pleased that the duke of Torovan's most beautiful province has managed to attend our little function.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Alexanda said gruffly, but Symon had already moved to kiss his wife's hand. Varona loved it, of course.

“My beautiful Duchess, you look ravishing this fine evening.”

“Oh Master Steiner, you flatter me.” Alexanda made a low growl in his throat, but no one noticed.

“But not at all, my Lady. Your beauty defies even Master Time, you grow only more radiant each time we meet. And this lovely creature must be Bryanne.” He kissed the girl's hand as well. Varona shot her husband a stern glance, silencing his impatience. Alexanda grunted. “Dear girl, I can vouch that there will be many, many young men desperate for your hand in a dance tonight. Please do not disappoint too many of them, we have not the medicines in our house for so many broken hearts.”

Bryanne blushed bright red and mumbled a reply. Symon looked about in further surprise. “Duke Rochel, you have only brought your lovely daughter? But where are your handsome sons?”

“My husband felt that the household should not be left unattended,” said Varona, smoothly intervening. “The rains shall be on us soon, and the planting, and Carlito can use the experience of managing affairs on his own.”

“Oh, a great pity,” Symon said sadly. “I had looked forward to seeing them both again.”

Do you think I'd bring my heirs to this treacherous snakepit? Alexanda fumed silently. With whatever devious poison you and the priests are no doubt conniving? If disaster befalls on this journey, you'll only get me, not my sons.

The entrance hall of Steiner Mansion was imposing. A huge, wide floor of polished marble so smooth it gleamed like ice. Overhead, five great chandeliers blazed the incandescent light of a hundred candles each, refracting from many thousands of crystal beads.

Some Steiner cousins attended them across the floor, Duchess Varona leading the way, Bryanne staring about in awe. This was the Petrodor of her bedtime stories. Everywhere were bustling servants and watching guards. Ill-gotten gains, all of it, Alexanda thought darkly, surveying the surroundings as he walked. Serrin wealth. In his great-grandfather's day, merchants had held a station little above that of prostitutes. Now, they built preposterous monstrosities like this to intimidate the true nobility, and make stars in their wives’ and daughters’ eyes.

They were led along the main hall through the mansion's centre, one magnificent, gleaming room after another. Finally they emerged onto broad steps opening onto a vast patio and expansive gardens beyond, crowded with people. Jewellery flashed, and embroidery glimmered under the light of ornamental torches. A small orchestra played and perhaps a hundred elegant ladies and gentlemen made slow, spinning circles on the pavings. There were long tables, piled with luscious food, and servants darting amidst the guests to replace all that was consumed with new dishes from the kitchens. Draping the tables, the columns above the stairs, and even some trees, were colourful festival decorations. Beyond, and about, lay the vast, glittering expanse of Petrodor Harbour.

“Excuse me, Duke Rochel?” Alexanda turned to find a woman approaching up the stairs, a little girl in her arms. The woman had long, dark hair, tastefully arranged to a knot at the back, and wore a rich, green gown. She seemed perhaps thirty-five, with a round face, a pleasant smile, and a weight to her hips and bust that was typical of a wealthy Torovan woman. “Oh how lovely to see you once more. My husband is performing his duties well at the door, I trust?”

“Lady Marya Steiner,” said the duke, gravely, and kissed her offered hand. “Your husband was most eloquent, as always. I believe you have not made the acquaintance of my wife, the Duchess Varona?”

“A true pleasure.” Unlike most wealthy Torovan women, with Marya Steiner, one could almost believe she meant it. Though married to a Torovan for fourteen years, she still spoke the tongue with a thick, musical highlands brogue. As Duke of Pazira, the western half of which was one long, uphill climb into Lenayin, Alexanda had had plenty of experience with highlanders. There were those who said that the accent was so strong it was infectious and could be caught when the wind changed from the west, like a cold. Once caught, it stayed for life.

“And you must be Bryanne!” Marya exclaimed. “Aren't you pretty!”

“Thank you, Princess Marya,” Bryanne said shyly. “Is that Shyana you're carrying? She's very pretty.”

“Yes, this is Shyana.” Marya said, kissing the sleeping girl on the hair. “She's only two, she's very tired. I was just about to take her upstairs to sleep. Would you like to come?”

“Oh could I?”

“Lady Marya, you're too kind,” Varona interrupted, “but I had really thought to introduce Bryanne to the dance at the earliest-”

“Oh, dear Duchess,” Marya laughed, “I'll make certain she's introduced to all the most handsome boys personally. But first, she can help me put my little girl to bed, yes?”

“Oh…well, of course.” Varona smiled, thinly.

Marya appeared not to notice the discomfort, took Bryanne's hand, and swept toward the big, guarded rear door. “Do you know any lullabies, Bryanne? Tell me which are your favourites?”

“All these servants and nannies to take care of the children, but she takes her girl to bed herself,” Alexanda said approvingly, watching them leave. “That's a true Torovan woman for you. Pity we have to go to Lenayin these days to find one.”

“Oh, Alexanda, really,” Varona huffed. “It's all very well for her, all the most eligible men will be falling over themselves trying to marry her daughters.”

“My vast apologies for only being the Duke of Pazira,” Alexanda growled.

Before long, the senior men were invited to gather in Patachi Steiner's study, on the third floor overlooking the celebrations. The room was grand, its walls lined with books in polished bookcases, a large writing desk in a corner, with a view of the harbour. Alexanda stood before the open balcony doors, a glass of wine in hand, and gazed out at the view until Patachi Steiner himself had arrived. The pompous git had to be the last one in, of course.

Reluctantly turning, Alexanda considered the gathering. Patachi Marlen Steiner was looking old, his broad shoulders now stooped, his white shoulder-length hair thinning on top. Where once his beard had accentuated a fine jaw, it now hung sagging upon loose folds of neck. But his eyes were watchful, and full of knowledge.

Symon Steiner stood talking to Duke Tarabai of Danor, a tall man with a square face and big ears. As far away as possible, examining books on an ornate shelf, was Duke Tosci, a man as solid and squat as a statue. Tosci and Tarabai continued the tradition of hatred between Coroman and Danor provinces. Surely even a man as dull as Duke Tosci knew that the families liked to play Coroman and Danor against each other? Or then again, Alexanda pondered, perhaps he was the only thinking duke in Torovan.

Also present were four other patachis. Alexanda recognised only one-Patachi Elmar Halmady, Marlen Steiner's right-hand man. He had far better things to do than memorise the faces of this quibbling crowd. Duke Belary of Vedichi, fat, bearded and stupid, sidling now to Steiner's side, Alexanda knew only too well and he loathed him most of all.

“My friends,” said Patachi Steiner, “a toast to Saint Sadis.” He took a cup from a nephew, there were no servants in the room tonight, and held it aloft. All drank.

“A toast to the archbishop!” said Patachi Halmady, and all drank to that as well.

“A toast to our gathering of families,” Patachi Steiner finished. A nephew made the rounds with a wine decanter, refilling the men's cups. Even the boys had swords at their hips. “I shall begin proceedings by relating the latest news from my good friend King Torvaal Lenayin. The rebellion in their north has truly ended. Lenayin stands ready to serve the Verenthane cause, and preparations are being made even now to muster a great army.”

“That is good news,” said one of the patachis. “Our forces grow strong. Even the Saalshen Bacosh cannot stand against us.”

“Good news?” exclaimed Duke Tarabai of Danor. “It's phenomenal! The only thing in all the world those barbarians are good for is fighting! Usually they just fight each other or the Cherrovan, but now! An entire, united army of Lenayin! Good gods, should they march with us on our crusade they'll wipe the Bacosh clean of serrin single-handedly. The rest of us will just need to watch and applaud.”

“And what of the girl?” asked Duke Tosci of Coroman. “Is it true that she's come to Petrodor?”

“Assuredly,” said Patachi Halmady, gravely. “And her uman.”

“Then Kessligh Cronenverdt truly led the Lenay rebellion?” asked another patachi.

“No,” said Symon Steiner. “It seems that the great Nasi-Keth left Lenayin for Petrodor well before the rebellion. Sashandra Lenayin led the rebellion on her own, and survived.”

“And fled in terror for her life!” Duke Tarabai added.

“She was expelled from Lenayin by her father,” Symon Steiner corrected, elegantly fingering his wine cup. “After producing from him some very reasonable terms, sparing the lives and fortunes of those who followed her.”

Some of the men appeared disquieted at that. No one questioned the heir of Steiner's information. Family Steiner, it was well known, had a great many sources, in all the most unlikely places.

“Well, better her leading the rebellion than Cronenverdt,” said another of the patachis. “That man has too much standing already, Lenay Commander of Armies and hero in a land that loves war and heroes more than most. If the Nasi-Keth unites beneath his leadership, we shall have trouble.”

“No,” said Duke Tosci, somewhat gloomily. The expression suited his dark, downcast features. “Not better. Much, much worse. A Nasi-Keth uman draws much status from his uma…his pupil, if you will. It was said of Kessligh Cronenverdt that his achievements in Lenayin are so formidable, the only thing he lacked was an uma to match them. And now, his uma has become legend by her own hand. And she's a princess. This will complicate King Torvaal's position. And ours, when Cronenverdt's prestige rises even higher, with the girl now at his side, here in Petrodor.”

Alexanda saw the dark look that passed between several of the dukes and patachis. Being of Coroman, Duke Tosci was the best informed of all the dukes on affairs in Petrodor. His knowledge gave him an advantage, and the others didn't like it.

“Duke Rochel,” said Patachi Steiner, his gaze settling upon Alexanda. “You know the highlanders well. What think you of this outcome?”

“Outcome?” Alexanda said dryly. “There is no outcome, Marlen.” Several men frowned at that informality. Alexanda did not care. “The matters that divide the men of Lenayin divide them still. I believe this rebellion was overdue, in truth. King Torvaal is an honest and trustworthy man, but his circumstance makes him a poor ally. Lenayin is unstable, it always has been, and always shall be. Only a fool would hope otherwise. Should an army of Torovan march into the Bacosh to fight with the Larosa, the army of Lenayin could just as likely prove our doom as our victory, you mark my words.”

“If you don't wish to fight, Alexanda,” Duke Tarabai said loudly, “just say so. Rather than invent these pitiful excuses to frighten us all.”

“Only a fool, I said,” Alexanda repeated, with a glare at the tall Duke of Danor.

“Will you not fight, Alexanda?” Patachi Steiner asked. His tone was still, his eyes unreadable. This man had ordered more men killed than Alexanda had drunk cups of wine. The gaze of such a man held a great weight, regardless of his expression. “I am informed that you have come with a guard of four hundred soldiers?”

“Five hundred,” Alexanda replied, matching Steiner's gaze. “These are but a token. Archbishop Augine himself has called for men of faith to make war in the Bacosh, to reclaim the holy lands of Enora, Rhodaan and Ilduur from the serrin. I have many more men of faith in Pazira who stand ready to join such a quest. I merely state that no battle was ever won by wishful thinking. Should the men of Pazira join an army of Torovan in the march south, we should be fully prepared for all eventualities.”

“And beneath whose banner shall you march, Alexanda?” asked Duke Belary. His jowled, bearded face was pink with the pleasure of his insinuation.

“I am here, aren't I?” Alexanda said coldly. “Where are the Dukes of Songel and Cisseren, might I ask? Why not aim your barbs at them?”

“They accepted other invitations,” Patachi Halmady said coldly. Family Maerler, he meant. The rivals. The enemy. Family Steiner were not the only ones who knew how to throw a Sadisi party.

“As is their right,” said Patachi Steiner, mildly. “Family Maerler have stronger holdings in the south, it is only natural that Songel and Cisseren should accept their invitation. More talks shall be had. We shall see if there is an understanding to be reached between us.”

Which, Alexanda thought darkly, could mean anything from innocent dialogue to mass slaughter. He had not brought five hundred soldiers merely to demonstrate his readiness for war-he'd brought them for protection, too. Patachi Steiner, for reasons that eluded Alexanda, saw a profit in this mad war. If an army of Torovan was to be formed, Family Steiner wanted command. House Maerler most likely wished the same. Gods prevail upon them all a rare common sense and civility, Alexanda thought. Or else there'll be trouble.

“The girl,” said Duke Belary, scratching at where his beard failed to cover his second and third chins. “She should be killed.”

“And Cronenverdt too,” agreed Duke Tarabai, nodding vigorously.

The patachis, Alexanda noted, showed little enthusiasm at the suggestion. “Easier said than done,” said Patachi Halmady. He was a tall, thoughtful man of a mild temperament. It was said he had a taste for books and learning. It was also said that his interests sometimes made the brothers from the Porsada Temple uncomfortable. He did not show any outward sign of ambition, and was said by some to lack the spine of Patachi Steiner and his ilk. It made Halmady a safe, reliable ally for Steiner-a rare thing in Petrodor. “The Nasi-Keth are formidable warriors, and they have much support across the lower slopes. We do not venture there lightly, my Dukes.”

“Allow entry for two hundred of my best men,” Duke Tarabai boasted. “I have swordsmen in Danor without equal. Tell us where they live, and we shall storm the place and have their heads.”

Amongst the patachis, eyes were rolled. “Are you that eager to lose two hundred men, Duke Tarabai?” one asked.

“Such has been tried before,” Symon Steiner said coolly. “There are many hundreds of Nasi-Keth, my Duke. Perhaps as many as fifteen hundred. They fight like demons, and they own the alleyways as surely as the cats. The poor love them and will warn of any move in force. Worse, the poor will barricade, and spy, and drop flaming jars from the windows. And, in all likelihood, the serrin will help them. There are at least two hundred of the talmaad in Petrodor, probably more of late. Senior Nasi-Keth also move from house to house and rarely stay in the same lodgings for long, so their location can hardly ever be guaranteed. Even should your two hundred men survive long enough to reach the target, the house would likely be empty…and very few of your men would live to escape back here to the higher slopes.”

Duke Tarabai drew himself up, bristling. “You underestimate my men, young Steiner-”

“There shall be no such attempt,” said Patachi Steiner, with a sharp gesture of his hand. “The forces of the provinces shall not operate in the city without the consent of the families. And we do not give it.”

Duke Tarabai paled a little beneath the patachi's stare. “As you say, Patachi. I meant no offence.”

“You are correct in one thing, though,” the patachi continued. “Cronenverdt and his girl make matters complicated. It shall be difficult to raise any army and come to an understanding with the Maerler, with the Nasi-Keth suddenly militant and interfering beneath Cronenverdt's command. But one must know the city, Duke Tarabai. You are a foreigner from the countryside. I-” he raised a crooked forefinger, “I have lived in this city for all my sixty-four years. I have done business here, and I have made fortunes here. I tell you that there are other ways, Duke Tarabai, to resolve a problem, than the brutal force of a direct assault. Such is not the Petrodor way.”

Duke Tarabai made a small bow. “I concede to your wisdom, Patachi. What are your plans?”

The great man of Petrodor gave the Duke of Danor a lingering, watchful stare. “When I need you to know,” he said simply, “I shall tell you.”

“Well it wasn't me,” said Rhillian, sipping a cup of water. “It's the usual Petrodor tangle. Anyone could have killed Randel Ragini.”

The bar was dingy, old plank walls lit with dull lamps, small, scattered tables frequented by a few quiet patrons. Most of The Fish Head's usual customers were outside.

Sasha sat alongside Rhillian, watching Kessligh's expression. Aiden, one of Kessligh's closest allies amongst the Nasi-Keth, wore a thinking look. They spoke Saalsi, as was common between Nasi-Keth and serrin in Petrodor. Very few who were not one or the other could speak it with any fluency. It made spies less of a problem.

“I hear Randel Ragini was actually a good man,” Aiden volunteered. He had a homely face, with a wide neck and unremarkable chin, black hair slicked back from his forehead, and friendly brown eyes. But he wore the sword at his back svaalverd-style and had passed the useen of the Nasi-Keth-the graduation ceremony, from uma to uman, student to teacher. Such men were not to be taken lightly, no matter what they looked like. “He gave money to the Riverside Brothers, and helped fund an orphanage at Cuely. It's sad.”

“Good men usually die first amongst the families,” said Kessligh. He looked grim, and just a little tired. The dull lamplight seemed to weary his features even further. It seemed to Sasha that, for the first time in all the years she'd known him, only now did he truly look the fifty years she knew him to have. A craggy face, sharp-edged and worn. Her uman for twelve of her twenty years. The nearest thing to a father she'd ever have. Certainly her true father, King Torvaal of Lenayin, would never qualify.

It was strange to see him in this environment. Kessligh was born in Petrodor, the son of poor dockworkers who'd died young from the then-rampant infestations of disease. The Nasi-Keth had become his family, and their teachings had granted him hope. He'd been a loner even then, desperate for escape and wide horizons. When Torovan volunteers had come calling for men to go and fight the Cherrovan warlord Markield, young Kessligh had leapt at the chance.

Fighting in Lenayin had been vicious, and casualties high, which had afforded a brilliant young officer opportunities for rapid advancement. Kessligh had demonstrated a rare genius unmatched in that conflict, and had risen right to the very top-Lenay Commander of Armies-and inflicted upon the Cherrovan a thrashing from which they had still not recovered. It was a post he had held for the following eighteen years, over which time he had become known by many as the second most powerful man in Lenayin. But then King Torvaal's heir, Krystoff, whom Kessligh had been training as uma, had been killed, and Kessligh had resigned his post, and taken Krystoff's grieving, tomboy sister into the wilds of Valhanan to live on a wild hillside and breed horses.

Twelve years of training, and now they arrived at this. Kessligh had great status still, despite his thirty-year absence from Petrodor, and, as his uma, so did Sasha. She saw in his face now the accumulated strains and frustrations of a man who was not particularly happy to have been forced back into this old life once more. Kessligh had never particularly liked Petrodor, nor appreciated the petty squabbles of its residents. Sasha, for her part, was finding more to like about the place than she'd hoped to dare…but still it was not difficult to empathise with her uman. All this intrigue became exasperating.

“Randel was rumoured to have had an affair with a servant girl,” Rhillian offered. “Surely someone's honour was offended, if true.”

“Yes,” said Errollyn, “but they'd usually kill the servant girl, not the heir.” His finger traced a scar on the table's surface, absently. “Wasn't he to be betrothed to one of Halmady's girls? Maybe Halmady took the affair for an insult.”

“More likely it was Family Maerler,” Aiden disagreed. “All kinds of things go on in the trade that even the Nasi-Keth don't know about. Maerler and Steiner are always killing each other over something.”

“My coin's on Steiner,” Kessligh said grimly. “Murder is one thing. This was public, made to look like an accident. When Maerler and Steiner people kill each other, no one bothers to disguise the knife wound. They want each other to know it was payback. Payback is currency in Petrodor, and merchant families understand currency and trade all too well.”

“You think they killed their own ally's heir?” Errollyn asked. He found such things intriguing.

Rhillian's frown was more typical of serrin confronted with such tasteless human cruelties. “Why?”

Kessligh shrugged. “As Aiden says, we only see a fraction of it. It could be anything. Outsiders might not guess it was murder, but I reckon Patachi Ragini will have no doubts. A warning to him, if you like, from Patachi Steiner.”

“The stack rearranges itself,” said Rhillian, her emerald eyes thoughtful. “There is power in the offing. Torovan raises an army, but who will lead? Patachi Steiner no doubt fancies himself the general, but Patachi Maerler will disagree. The dukes are all in town, pledging the support of their men and coffers to one or the other, and each receptive to temptation. Perhaps Ragini flirted with the wrong maiden. Perhaps this was his leader's warning not to stray too far from the flock.”

Sasha snorted. “If straying from the flock was enough for murder, we'd have nothing but corpses all across the upper incline. They're all doing it.”

Aiden shrugged. “Some more than others.”

“They're doing more than just raising an army,” said Kessligh. “The weapons trade now accounts for perhaps one in every ten gold coins the houses make. Almost all of it's going to the Bacosh. And there's talk of larger shipments on the seas even now. We're trying to find the time and place, but no luck so far.”

“All weapons?” Sasha asked. “The Larosan armies have no want of weapons, surely?”

“But Lenayin does,” Kessligh replied. “Lenay warriors have plenty of swords, but not much else. Lowlands fighting is different than highlands. They'll need shields, helms, heavier armour.”

“And the Petrodor families will buy all this for Lenayin?” Sasha asked. Armoury on that scale would be horrendously expensive. That the families were willing to spend lives for the cause of a free, Verenthane Bacosh, there was no doubt. But gold?

It seemed too generous by half.

“There's a lot of trade between Petrodor and Lenayin,” said Errollyn, shaking his head. “Lots of ways for the families to receive return payment. Probably your father will be sending many large wagon trains down to Petrodor to pay for it all.”

“Money that should be spent on feeding the poor and keeping the roads open,” Sasha muttered. “One bad flood can wipe out half a province's harvest, and he's wasting gold on chain mail.”

Footsteps approached, and all about the table looked up. “Now what are you lot muttering about over here in your evil foreign tongues?” said the cheerful barkeeper, dumping a new jug of water on the table. “A recipe for cooking small children, perhaps? So do you fry them? Or boil them in great, steaming pots with lots of onions?”

“Fuck off, Tongren,” Sasha told him in Lenay with a broad smile. Saalsi had its sophistication, and Torovan its clever turns of phrase, but, for swearing, no tongue beat Lenay.

Tongren laughed. “Oh ho! The little princess has a foul tongue. Stop scratching the damn arm or it'll swell up all red and nasty-looking, I'm warning you.”

Sasha looked in surprise at her right hand, which was scratching the tattoo on her left bicep again. She smiled, sheepishly. “It itches.”

“Of course it bloody itches! It's three days old; it's supposed to itch.” His dark, lively gaze fell to Rhillian. “I don't suppose I could interest the lovely lady Rhillian in an ancient marking of the spirit world? Sasha can tell you my prices are quite reasonable, and my quality unmatched.”

“I know,” said Rhillian, “she's shown me. But no, I'm afraid not.”

“Ah, but M'Lady, it's said all across the highlands that the wise folk of Saalshen are as one with the spirits! Have you not felt the tug of the ancient highland ways that have drawn so many of your ancestors into the hills and valleys?”

“I have,” Rhillian admitted, and flashed him a stunning smile. “But even you, Master Tongren, cannot improve on perfection. No tattoos.”

“Modesty, thy name is Rhillian,” Errollyn remarked.

“In the highlands,” said Tongren, with a glinting smile, “we say that perfection is the light, but all light casts a shadow.” He gave a short bow and swaggered back to his rickety bar.

Rhillian gave Errollyn a sideways stare and remarked something to him in dialect that no one else at the table could possibly understand. Errollyn only grinned. Sasha reflected that if any person had the right to be immodest of her appearance, it was Rhillian. Although Errollyn was surely not far behind…

To Sasha's undying embarrassment, the day she'd first met Tongren she'd mistaken him for a fellow Lenay. In fact, he was Cherrovan. It was the first time in her life she'd come face to face with the mortal Cherrovan enemy and not had to kill him. Petrodor had many folk of highland origins, Lenay and Cherrovan. Some had come in search of work, others in search of adventure, but most were outcasts of one sort or the other. Highlanders, Lenays and Cherrovans alike, were fiercely tied to the land of their origins and few left willingly. Tongren had never fully explained why he and his family had made the long trek to Petrodor, nor why he showed little enthusiasm for returning to Cherrovan. He did not, he'd said, find the Cherrovan of today very welcoming. Hearing what she'd heard herself, Sasha had some idea what he might mean.

“You met with Patachi Maerler today?” Kessligh asked Rhillian, returning to Saalsi. Rhillian did not reply immediately. For a brief moment, Sasha thought that she might refuse to answer.

Then she nodded. “We had lunch.” Eyebrows raised at that admission. Lunch implied trust. Trust well placed, it seemed, since Rhillian had evidently not been poisoned.

“Did you have an interesting talk with the Dukes of Songel and Cisseren?”

Rhillian gazed at Kessligh for a long moment. Kessligh, who was far too wise in the ways of serrin to flinch at the piercing gleam of those eyes. Then she smiled, a slow spread across her face. “My dear Kessligh,” she said mildly. “Have you been spying on me?”

“We were agreed, Rhillian,” said Kessligh. “We were agreed that Saalshen and Nasi-Keth would work together. We both seek to prevent a war against the Saalshen Bacosh. We were agreed that neither would take action without consulting the other-”

“I have taken no action,” Rhillian objected. “I seek to talk to all the game's players, that is all.”

“You seek to make common cause with Family Maerler against the Steiner,” Kessligh retorted. “Don't you?”

For a moment, Rhillian's gaze was undaunted. Then she looked at the tabletop with a heave of her shoulders. Finally, she looked up at Sasha. Sasha watched her, cautiously. “I cover all my options,” Rhillian said quietly. “I tell you this, although there are many of the talmaad who would not wish me to, because you are my friends. But Kessligh…the Nasi-Keth cannot even agree on who leads them-”

“Kessligh leads the Nasi-Keth,” Aiden interrupted, with a flash of temper.

“Do you?” Rhillian asked Kessligh, earnestly. “When will you tell Alaine? Or his followers?”

“It's not Alaine who causes the biggest trouble, it's Gerrold,” said Aiden, his voice rising. “And that's your fault Rhillian, not ours-”

“Aiden.” Kessligh held up a hand. “Let her finish.” He folded his hands on the tabletop and waited.

“They all gather, Kessligh,” Rhillian said sombrely. “All the dukes. Most are with Steiner. Steiner has the most money, and quite possibly the backing of the temple. The momentum is with him, and if it continues, he shall surely lead an army of Torovan to the Bacosh next spring. Our friends in the Saalshen Bacosh can withstand the Larosa alliance, and perhaps the army of Lenayin…but if the Torovans march south as well, I fear it shall be too much.”

“I agree,” said Kessligh. “Danor alone can give perhaps eight thousand. The others, somewhat less…but if Songel and Cisseren come on board, it will be at least thirty thousand men, possibly more. The Larosa have perhaps sixty thousand. Lenayin could muster as many as forty, although thirty seems more likely given the ongoing instabilities…but thirty thousand Lenays, well equipped, are worth twice that many Torovans. Perhaps more than twice. At least one hundred and twenty thousand men, and possibly as many as one hundred and fifty…and perhaps Telesia and Raani will send a token force as well.

“Enora, Rhodaan and Ilduur can between them muster perhaps forty thousand. They comprise the most formidable army in all human lands, but even with their defences, odds of three- and four-to-one against are treacherous. Saalshen can add great numbers for harassment but, against all logic, Saalshen has refused to create heavy forces, despite two centuries of warning that they must.

“We must win the conflict here, Rhillian. If the army of Torovan can be held up, or split, or prevented from forming and marching entirely, we can win the war before the forces even take the field in the Bacosh. Better yet, if we can intercept these weapon shipments to Lenayin, that will give the Saalshen Bacosh more time to prepare. But it can't happen if the Nasi-Keth and the talmaad cannot work together here in Petrodor. If we get in each other's way, or work toward conflicting ends, it will be a disaster. And I'm telling you that forming an allegiance with House Maerler is a crazy risk to take-”

“Riskier than putting all faith in a Nasi-Keth leader who does not command all of the Nasi-Keth?” Rhillian's tone had hardened. “What will you do, ask them nicely? And which of the families will listen, when they know you do not have the force to back up any threats?”

“I'll get the force,” Kessligh said shortly. “I am getting it.”

“You play politics while my entire people are threatened with annihilation! We have tried playing politics with humans before. We tried with King Leyvaan two hundred years ago. He repaid us with slaughter. These people hate us. These Verenthanes, they think we are the demons of Loth incarnate, and they wish us nothing but death, right down to our smallest children…”

“Not all Verenthanes,” Aiden said quietly.

Rhillian's emerald stare found him, and flicked down to the eight-pointed star medallion upon his chest. “Of course, Aiden my friend.” She reached to him across the table and grasped his hand. Her expression was pained. “Of course not all Verenthanes. But the priests, and the powerful, and the fanatics…it is enough, Aiden. It is the majority, in fact, in all places except amongst the Nasi-Keth and the peoples of the Saalshen Bacosh itself.

“Humans hate so easily. I think you need to. It tells you who you are. Such hatred is visceral. We serrin…” she shook her head, helplessly. “We do not understand it. We try, but it is beyond us. We are not so territorial. We know who we are, and such hatred has no use for us. We only understand one thing, a thing in which we have been two hundred painfully slow years in the learning. These people, these haters? They only stop when we kill them.”

Her gaze travelled about the table, stopping at one after another. There was no imploring search for understanding now. Only a cold, deadly certainty. Serrin, Kessligh had said often enough, were peaceful by choice, not by nature. It was, to say the least, a significant distinction.

“Saalshen shall not allow Patachi Steiner to form this army,” Rhillian said coldly. “We shall prevent it however we have to. If our Nasi-Keth friends can offer a better solution, we'll take it. Only know where we stand. If the Saalshen Bacosh falls, the fanatics will not stop at the border. They'll march on into Saalshen, and they have all the mercy of death itself. We do not fight for an ideal, or a king, or wealth or land. We fight for the right to exist. And we refuse to fail.”

Jaryd Nyvar circled, flexing his left hand against the grip of his stanch. Opposing him circled Teriyan Tremel, long red hair tied into various braids down his back. Shouts and yells filled the air, and the clash of wooden stanches, followed by the thump of a landing blow. Jaryd barely heard them, watching only Teriyan's feet, and his centre, as old Lieutenant Asheld had taught him long ago in the yard of Nyvar Holding.

Teriyan attacked, a deceptive, sliding approach preceding a vicious slash from the right. Jaryd parried, danced back, knocked the next attack sideways and nearly caught Teriyan's padded banda as the taller man leapt aside. Teriyan grinned, sweat dripping, and gave a nod of approval, wrist-spinning his stanch. Jaryd's face never moved.

Teriyan attacked twice more, and both times Jaryd faded, the second time clipping Teriyan on the shoulder. His left forearm throbbed where it had been broken nearly two months before, but it felt strong beneath splints and a wooden guard. Teriyan favoured the right-foot half-step, he decided. It preceded most of his attacks, just for an instant. When the next attack came, Jaryd parried and cut hard for the left, just where the transition from high defence to low was most difficult…but met a firm defence, followed by a hard blow to his midsection.

He fell hard in the dirt, jarring his old injury. Teriyan grinned again, spinning his stanch as he stood over the fallen man. “Nice try, lad, don't think that half-step hasn't been obvious to four dozen other opponents too.” He reached down, but Jaryd ignored the hand, and got back to his feet.

“Again,” said Jaryd, stonily, resuming his stance. Teriyan shrugged, and did likewise. Two exchanges later, and Jaryd's next hard cut also met with firm defence and a killing blow.

“You're leaving yourself too far open,” Teriyan advised, shaking his head as Jaryd once again struggled to his feet. “It's no good going for the kill all the time if you get killed in the process. You don't have to risk so much when you attack.”

“All war is risk,” Jaryd replied, wiping sweat from his forehead, and dust from his pants. “Again.” His forearm was throbbing now. He'd been first to arrive for evening practice and intended to be last to leave. It was a pattern he'd been repeating since his arrival here in the small Lenay town of Baerlyn one and a half months ago. Back then he'd been restricted to basic drill, strength-building and technical exercises. Only now was his arm recovered enough that he could match himself against the village seniors. But, after so long without sparring, his form was rustier than a farmer's scythe.

Twenty exchanges later, and he'd been knocked down another four times. Each time, he dusted himself off and resumed his stance. The sun now sank below the lip of the Baerlyn Valley, casting shadow across the training hall, its surrounding grassy paddocks and the long, winding strip of ramshackle wooden buildings that was the town.

“Enough,” said Teriyan, finally, as the tachadar circles about them were abandoned by the other combatants, and the outdoor yard grew cool and silent. “I've a hard day tomorrow, and you'd best be riding back before dark.”

“The dark doesn't frighten me,” said Jaryd. “Once more.”

“I said no, lad.”

“Perhaps you grow too old for fighting,” said Jaryd. “Perhaps your wife could find better use for you in the kitchens.”

Teriyan just looked at him for a moment. Then resumed his stance, wordlessly. The next time he attacked, it was faster and harder. Two blows had Jaryd reeling, and the third took his leg from under him. Then he was on his back, blinking into that darkening blue sky, with Teriyan's stanch pressed point-first into his chest.

“You're an angry little bunny, aren't you?” Teriyan observed. “You really think your grand revenge will come sooner for all your puffing and blowing?”

Jaryd knocked the stanch aside and climbed slowly to his feet. He ached and throbbed all over. He'd run that morning, performed the most tiring stable chores after that, then practised taka-dans and knife throwing beneath the old vertyn tree at the ranch, then gone hunting with bow and arrow for game in the wild hills. He'd only managed a rabbit, but it was all experience. When he had been heir of Tyree, he'd always believed that enemies were most honourably killed in single combat, preferably when challenged to a duel. Lately, however, he'd become less fussy. If the Great Lord Arastyn of Tyree died by formal challenge or by an arrow shot from the bushes in the dark, he cared not either way. Arastyn had invoked Sylden Sarach, an old law, and had dissolved Jaryd's family, stripped him of noble title and perhaps, though no one was certain, even murdered his father.

Jaryd cared little for his lost title. He had not relished the prospect of becoming Great Lord of Tyree in the first place. He had never loved his father, nor had his father loved him. His sisters and younger brother had seemed to accept their fate willingly enough, and Jaryd found in their willingness nothing but contempt for them. Wealth was often nice, but now that he lacked it, he found that he did not miss it particularly. And as for status, every Lenay man worth the name knew that the only true status in Lenayin was honour, and the only true honour came from courage, steadfastness and skill with a blade.

Jaryd did not seek revenge for any of these lost, petty things. When they invoked Sylden Sarach, Arastyn's men had killed Jaryd's little brother Tarryn. For that, all would die.

“Lad, look at you,” Teriyan sighed. “You're a mess. Even Sasha didn't work this hard, and she's harder to keep still than a bobcat with a bee up its arse.”

“I'm fine,” Jaryd muttered, straightening with difficulty. His back was suddenly stiff, and his shoulders hurt-muscle, bone and all. “I grow stronger.”

“Aye, you do. One day soon you'll be so strong, you'll be dead.” Jaryd stretched, gingerly, trying not to wince at the various accumulated pains. Teriyan shook his head. “Look, why don't we grab a meal at the Steltsyn instead? I'll bet it's a damn sight better than whatever mess Lynnie's cooked up for you, and I'll tell you how I read that last overhead cross so easily-”

“I don't need your pity!” Jaryd snarled at him. “I can feed myself, I can train myself, I can claim revenge myself! And I will!”

He stalked off, trying not to limp. Teriyan watched him go, eyes faintly narrowed, stanch across his shoulders, muscular arms hung on the ends.

As Jaryd rode back to the Baerlyn main road, he could smell dinner wafting through town, or smoke that rose from stone chimneys above brown slate roofs. Children looked at him as he passed, guardedly, which was most unlike Lenay children anywhere. Jaryd thought they'd been warned not to bother him. Which suited him fine.

He passed Parrachik's, the moneylender where wagons were waiting down the side lane, and Torovan merchants in bright shirts and broad hats were seated about a table on the verandah, sipping wine with Parrachik himself. All looked at the once heir of Tyree as he passed. All nodded, cautiously, as Jaryd's dark stare passed over them. He felt that he would burn alive from the heat of his shame. He wanted to strike the heads off those smug bastards, but none of it mattered. He deserved his shame. His little brother Tarryn was dead. He, the big brother Tarryn had so looked up to and adored, had been incapable of protecting him. The men who had killed Tarryn would all die screaming, and until that blessed day arrived, all other concerns were as nothing to him. For that day he worked, and strove, with every fibre of his being.

Past the Steltsyn Star, the inn bustling as the meals were prepared and the fires lit, and Jaryd dug in his heels. His horse was a fine chestnut gelding, taken from a fallen Hadryn cavalryman at the Battle of Ymoth after Jaryd's own horse had been felled. It was good to have a horse of his own. He wanted as little of Baerlyn's, or Sashandra Lenayin's charity, as he could possibly accept.

It was nearly dark by the time he reached the ranch, and he saw lamplight glowing from the house windows as he galloped across the open, grassy slope, and then came the barking of the boarhounds. Jaryd skirted the huge, broad vertyn tree, and its surrounding vegetable gardens and chicken run, and headed for the stables.

He stabled his horse in the empty place once reserved for Sashandra's big black, and trudged on weary legs down the grassy slope toward the glowing lights. On the rear verandah, the boarhounds, Kaif and Keef, sniffed at him and wagged their tails-Jaryd gave them each a scratch between the ears, and pushed through the rear door into the kitchen.

Beyond the kitchen, a visitor stood before the fireplace, a cup in hand. He was a young man, dressed in plain travelling clothes, yet even that could not hide the refinement of his bearing. There was a silver clasp at his collar, and a neck chain too. His short red hair shone faintly in the firelight, his skin pale, his features fine, a light dusting of freckles across nose and cheeks. He looked at Jaryd, and his light green eyes registered at first surprise, and then caution. Finally, he gave a weak, sheepish smile.

“Jaryd,” he said.

“You,” said Jaryd. “You get the fuck out of this house.” The young lordling's face fell. The extra horse must have been stabled with the others, Jaryd realised, but he hadn't noticed. Damn he was tired.

“You can't boss him about,” said Lynette from Jaryd's side in the kitchen, “this isn't your house.” Jaryd stared at her, blankly. Stupid pest of a girl. He hadn't seen her either, there at her kitchen bench chopping vegetables. She had long, tangled red hair, a flaming red unlike this new arrival's pale rose. She was skinny and freckled, and a pain in the neck. Worst of all, she was Teriyan Tremel's daughter, a dear friend of Sashandra's, and was in fact, if not in title, the person-most-senior for the entire gods-damned ranch. At sixteen summers.

Jaryd didn't mind taking instruction from a woman beneath a roof, least of all in the kitchen. That was the way through most of Lenayin-men ruled outside, and women ruled within. But this brat was a horsewoman too, and an annoyingly good one, even if she couldn't see the point of lagand. Around the ranch, all of his victories at grand lagand tournaments, all of his fame as a rider and a horseman and victor in countless swordwork contests, all counted for nothing.

“Aeryl, don't mind him,” Lynette called, returning attention to her vegetables. “He's just grumpy all the time. You've my invitation to stay, and Andreyis's too.”

“M'Lady,” said Aeryl with a light bow. “Jaryd come, share a drink with me.” Earnestly. “It's so good to see you, I can't tell you how…”

He stepped forward, and Jaryd drew his sword. “They sent you, didn't they?” Aeryl stared at the naked steel. “They sent you to talk with me, just like they sent Rhyst to talk with me while they murdered my little brother!”

“Jaryd, you stupid fool!” Lynette yelled at him. “Put it away right now! Andreyis!”

“Jaryd, I swear, I wasn't even at Rathynal, my sister was ill in childbirth, we were not certain that she would live-”

“Liar! You're all the same, all the Tyree nobility, all a mob of liars and murderers and honourless thieves!”

“Andreyis!” Lynette yelled again and then Andreyis was there, stopping between Jaryd and Aeryl, tall and dark, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Put it away,” said the younger man. He was awkward, this lad of eighteen summers, not yet grown into his gangling frame. But there was a confidence in his young eyes, and the effect was not entirely spoiled by the big ears that stuck out from under his ragged mop of dark hair. Rabbit ears, the other Baerlyn boys sometimes called him. And other names besides.

Jaryd snorted. “What are you going to do, draw that thing? You couldn't take me in your dreams.”

“I could too,” Andreyis retorted, but Lynette was advancing on Jaryd in fury.

“You stupid, idiot bonehead!” she shouted, stirring spoon waving in one hand. “What's the matter with you? Is everything a war to you now? Do you solve every argument by killing someone?” Jaryd's lip curled, and he tried to think of some suitably cutting riposte, but he only knew the language of men, all threats, insults and bluster. A redheaded girl with a kitchen spoon was nothing he was equipped to handle. “You're five years older than me, but at least I'm aware that being a great warrior is far more about who you kill and why than just whether or not you can! When are you going to grow up?”

Jaryd stood where he was, sword trembling in his hand. He couldn't recall it feeling this heavy before. It seemed to be made of iron, dragging his arm toward the floor.

“I mean, when are all you young men of Lenayin going to-”

“Lynnie,” Andreyis interrupted and shook his head, dark eyes watching Jaryd warily. “Enough, Lynnie.” A moment passed. Jaryd sheathed his sword and leaned a hand against the wall. The world was spinning. “Jaryd, come and take a seat. I'll get you something to drink.”

Jaryd went, because there was nothing else to do. A chair presented itself and he collapsed into it, somehow managing to avoid tangling the sword. He could hear Lynette and Andreyis in hushed conversation in the kitchen and, quite unexpectedly, he felt a sudden affection for the lad. Andreyis remembered what Jaryd had been, even when everyone else seemed to have forgotten. Andreyis still looked up to him.

For no particular reason, his hand strayed to his chest, feeling at the rings beneath his shirt. There were two of them, slim metal, gleaming with a hint of gold when observed in the firelight. They would bend and come apart to pierce through an ear, or sometimes a nose-Goeren-yai rings, decorations for men, not for women. He had declared himself Goeren-yai to free himself from the restrictive practices of Verenthanes. Those practices would not allow him his revenge. But the old ways of the Goeren-yai knew the tale of blood and steel all too well.

Princess Sofy had given him these rings. A dying man had pressed them into her hand on the battlefield. But a warrior's decorations belonged in battle, and so she'd granted the rings to Jaryd in turn. He wore them now on a chain around his neck. There was no expectation of such decorations amongst Goeren-yai-Teriyan himself, as fiercely proud a Goeren-yai warrior as one could meet, wore neither rings nor tattoos. Yet somehow, Jaryd felt like a fraud, that he could not put the rings in his ear. It was one thing to declare oneself Goeren-yai, and to throw the Verenthane medallion to the floor before his king. But to come here and live amongst the Goeren-yai themselves, to feel their gaze upon him, watching his every move, considering his every foreignness, his every misunderstanding…

Andreyis pressed a cup into his hand, and he drank. The wine reminded him once more of Sofy. Princess Sofy, he corrected himself. One did not abandon that formality as one abandoned the Verenthane gods, for the Goeren-yai loved the youngest Princess of Lenayin as much or more than the Verenthanes. In the two days after Sashandra's parley with her father, Sofy and Jaryd had shared wine and talked. What they had talked of, he could no longer remember. Probably, he realised, he'd not been lively conversation. In the battle, he'd wished for death. That denied him, he had only revenge left. But Sofy had evidently not found his morbidity too off-putting. She'd granted him the rings, had sipped wine that no Verenthane princess was supposed to sip, and had wished him luck.

Then Sashandra had come and told him that, since she and Kessligh would be absent from the ranch, there was a place available for someone prepared to work hard. A place amongst townfolk accustomed to controversial outsiders in their midst. A place, no doubt, where they could keep an eye on him. His old resentment resurfaced, dark and brooding.

He looked up and found Aeryl watching him from the chair opposite, a cup in hand. Aeryl managed another faint smile. “Your hair is growing,” he observed. “Perhaps soon you'll have to tie it in braids.”

Jaryd sipped his wine and took a deep breath. “Enough with the small talk. What did they send you here to tell me? What threats?”

“I did not attend Rathynal because my sister was ill,” Aeryl said quietly. “She died, Jaryd. I played no part in the great gathering of provinces, nor the events that befell you there. I had my own grieving to attend to.”

“I'm sorry.” Jaryd stared into the fire. He did not want to look at his old “friend.” Amongst those people he had once called his own, he had no friends.

“Your brother Wyndal has been adopted by Family Arastyn,” Aeryl offered. “He is most well. He sends his regards.”

“Did he send word that he wished me to surrender myself?”

Aeryl paused for a brief moment. “No,” he said, then carefully, “no, he did not.”

“Good. Because then I'd be forced to kill my own brother for a traitor.”

Jaryd sipped his wine again. Aeryl stared for a moment. “Galyndry's marriage preparations are nearly complete,” he tried again. “Family Iryani are pleased. Your sister Dalya sends word that she would like you to be there.”

“I bet she does,” Jaryd muttered. “Just so long as her precious banquets and dances are not disturbed, I'm sure her little brother's murder won't bother her a bit.”

“Will you attend?” Aeryl was nothing if not persistent. He'd assisted Jaryd with his studies, when the words and symbols had refused to make sense. The fifth son of Family Daery, he'd always been quiet and studious, excelling in studies, while having much less interest in Jaryd's passions of swordplay and horsemanship. In all their studying together, he'd never voiced exasperation or contempt at Jaryd's complete inability with letters. He'd just made him repeat the same phrases, again, and again, and again. Jaryd had found his attention span with such tedious things astonishing.

“No,” he answered. “I've no interest in seeing the last of Family Nyvar abolished before my eyes.”

“And so you mean to live out your days here?” Aeryl looked about. “A fair place…but something of a fall, wouldn't you say?”

“It was enough for a Lenay princess. Besides, I'm not planning to sit here for long.”

“You plan revenge,” Aeryl said flatly. Andreyis came from the kitchen and sat beside Aeryl, placing a plate of sliced bread and a bowl of hashal on the table between the chairs.

“I mean to kill them all,” Jaryd said darkly.

“That's real smart, that is,” Andreyis announced, dipping some bread in the bean paste. “Tell them all about your plans. That'll improve your chances no end.”

Aeryl looked incredulous. “Jaryd…there are a hundred and seventeen noble families in Tyree alone. They have allies and family through marriage with many other provinces. All have accepted Great Lord Arastyn. How can you possibly think to best them all?”

Jaryd said nothing, and stared at the flames.

“He has a death wish, that's what,” said Lynette, coming from the kitchen with bowls of grapes and plums. She pulled up another chair. “He's too damn stubborn to imagine an alternative.”

“If I killed you,” Jaryd said, “would your father be any different?”

Lynette snorted, tossing her wild hair back. “If you killed me, most of Baerlyn would chase you to the ends of the world. But you're all alone. No one came with you, Jaryd. You've no allies, no support, no army. You'll die, it'll be messy, and it'll be a great waste.”

“I used to hear all these great stories from the men in the Falcon Guard,” Jaryd muttered. “Stories of Goeren-yai heroism. Now I arrive here, I find they're all cowards.”

“I'd think twice before using that word around here.” Andreyis said warily.

“What else would you call a people who dissuaded me from taking revenge against those who murdered my eleven-year-old brother!” Jaryd shouted.

“Your honour is your own,” Andreyis said. “What you choose to do with it is your concern. No man in Baerlyn will stop you should you choose to continue this path. But neither will we assist or approve if you give us no cause to.”

“Listen to your friends, Jaryd,” Aeryl pleaded. “They're young, but they speak with great wisdom.”

“Growing up in Kessligh's shadow will do that,” said Andreyis. Lynette rolled her eyes a little. Now that Andreyis was a warrior, blooded in battle and successful in his Wakening, she thought him far too big for his boots.

“Jaryd,” Aeryl tried once more, “Great Lord Arastyn does not want your head. He's willing to grant you a pardon, if only-”

“The only reason he no longer wants my head is that he's not entitled under the king's law to punish a Goeren-yai who has in turn challenged him to a duel,” Jaryd snarled. “My challenge stands, and so long as it stands, his claim and my claim cancel each other. It shall stand until either he accepts, or one of us dies.”

“For you to challenge a Verenthane great lord to a duel will require a lord of similar stature to endorse your challenge!” exclaimed Aeryl. “Not just anyone can challenge a great lord, Jaryd, and you might not have noticed, but you're no longer the heir to Tyree!”

“I noticed. My brother died in a pool of blood that made me notice. Princess Sashandra will support my claim.”

“Aye, no doubt she would, but she's not here, is she?”

“So will Kessligh Cronenverdt,” Jaryd said stubbornly, although he felt less certain of that.

“And he's not here either. Very good, Jaryd, you've named two people who can't possibly speak on your behalf…and Kessligh, although a very heroic figure, has no actual noble pedigree whatsoever, and is in fact well known to be in opposition to the very concept.”

Prince Damon, Jaryd nearly said, but didn't. Prince Damon was in trouble enough, being perceived to have had some sympathy with the rebellion led by his sister Sashandra. Endorsements from Jaryd Nyvar would do him no favours at all.

“Princess Sofy,” he said, with a glare. “Princess Sofy will support my claim.”

Aeryl blinked. “Princess Sofy? Do you honestly think she would publicly support your right to chop the Great Lord of Tyree into very small pieces?”

“She said she would.” Actually she hadn't. But it had been implicit, he thought.

Aeryl took a deep breath and looked elsewhere for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Well, Princess Sofy is a woman, so I don't know…”

“She's nobility. No, she's far more than nobility, she's royalty. Her claim would stand.”

“She's about to be married to the heir of the Regent of all the Bacosh, Jaryd-”

“And she's not happy about it.” That was common enough knowledge, and Aeryl didn't contradict him. “Or she wasn't. She's suddenly the most important woman in all Lenayin. Maybe even the most important royal. Without her, there's no marriage, no alliance and no war. She can say what she likes, no one will dare touch her.”

“I am quite certain, Jaryd,” Aeryl said with the beginnings of impatience, “that if Princess Sofy were here, she would counsel you against this foolishness, and tell you not to throw your life away so cheaply!”

“It won't be cheap, I can promise you that.”

“Princess Sofy is a kind and gentle woman,” Aeryl persisted, “with no great love of battles and bloodshed. If you think she will support you on this blind insanity of yours, I fear you're deluded.”

“If you're so certain, why don't you ask her?”

Aeryl stared. Jaryd knew he had charged well beyond the bounds of common sense or caution, but he could not stop himself now. Princess Sofy was a kind and gentle woman, but she was also a just one. She had braved the battlefield and comforted the wounded and dying soldiers until she had dropped from exhaustion. Sofy had been appalled at Tarryn's fate, and infuriated by the actions of the Tyree lords, Great Lord Arastyn in particular. Surely she'd not deprive him of his justice.

All the world wanted Jaryd dead. That suited him fine. Just so long as he could take Arastyn and a few of his rotten, scheming friends with him.

Sasha woke the next morning to the sound of the ocean swell against the pier. Sunlight peered through the shutters of her small room.

From the floors below came the sounds of footsteps and muffled voices. More voices on the docks, fishermen greeting the morning. On the roof above, a gull's feet scrabbled. Then a piercing cry. Another gull answered, circling nearby. The creaking of ropes, as boats strained at their moorings. The air smelled of salt, and the skin of her hands was still dry and taut from the previous day's fishing.

Strange sounds, and strange smells. So far from Lenayin. And yet peaceful, in the strange way that dangerous, overcrowded Petrodor could sometimes spring on a person, right when she least expected it. If she relaxed on her back in the warm morning air, and listened to the rise and fall of the ocean, she could just about drift off to sleep once more…

The door creaked open before her eyelids could close entirely. Sasha jerked awake, a hand moving fast to the knife beneath her pillow. But it was only Fara, wrapped in a towel from her morning wash and holding two mugs of tea.

“Thanks,” said Sasha, as the other girl placed the mug on the floor beside the bed. Fara returned to her own bed and began dressing.

Neither being a princess, nor the uma of Kessligh Cronenverdt, had been enough to gain Sasha a room of her own. She didn't mind. She and Fara shared the best upstairs room at the Velos, a crumbling little brick-walled space with floorboards that creaked, and rickety wooden shutters that let in the rain in a storm. At least they had a view of the docks-Liam and Rodery were stuck in the back room with only a dingy courtyard to look upon.

The tea was spiced something fierce. Sasha winced as she sipped it, opening the window shutters enough for a view. Already there were small fishing boats heading out past the large ships at mooring. Men clambered over boats along the piers, tending to ropes, nets and sails. The sun glared several hands above the ocean horizon…someone had been nice to her, Sasha realised, and let her sleep in past the dawn. Quite likely some of the men would be back from their first fishing trip soon, having set out before sunrise. Others would be off to North Pier to work at the warehouses, shifting the rich families’ cargo. Another day in Petrodor.

Serrin put something in their tea that woke a person up real fast. She sat on the floor and did her stretches. Then came the exercises, fast sit-ups and push-ups in her underclothes. Then she lifted her chin repeatedly above the crosswise ceiling beam, with relative ease.

“You should do more exercises,” she encouraged Fara, who sat on her bed and arranged little parcels of medicines in small leather pouches, along with other implements Sasha did not recognise, and placed them carefully in a wooden carry box. “Then the boys won't beat you up at training so bad.”

“I do enough,” said Fara. Fara was a quiet girl with long, light brown hair and eyes that never quite met a person's gaze. Her uman was a healer, skilled primarily in the serrin lore of medicines. Her uman was also a woman; and that, in Sasha's estimation, was where the problems began.

“You could do better,” Sasha suggested, stretching her arms.

“Not everyone has to learn to fight with swords,” Fara said with irritation, her eyes not leaving her precious medicines. “Fighting was the last of the serrin's skills the Nasi-Keth learned to do.”

Sasha shrugged, extended her arms, and leapt for the beam once more. “The last and most important,” she added, lifting herself up and down, breathing hard.

“Important to you, maybe. Not everyone's a muscle-bound warrior like you.” There was an edge of sarcasm to her voice.

Sasha snorted. She completed several more lifts, then dropped to the floor and pulled off her sweaty undershirt. “Do you know your problem?” she told Fara, tossing the shirt on her bed. “You enter the Nasi-Keth, the home of all open-mindedness and learning, yet you cling to old prejudices like a child to a mother's skirts. All these serrin women, and now me as an example, and no Petrodor woman wants to admit that women can fight.”

“Oh, you're a wonderful example,” Fara said with gritted teeth, uncomfortable now that Sasha wore no top.

Sasha knew that her physique made the locals edgy. Her new tattoo, even more so. Tongren had made it curl expertly about her upper bicep, three interwoven strands, like the tri-braid on the side of her head, dark like forest vines against the pale skin.

“I'd much rather heal people, thanks.”

“Most male healers can do both,” Sasha reasoned.

“I'm an exception,” said Fara, testily.

“Look, why don't you at least come on a run with me? It'll do you good, I find all my skills improve when I'm fit.”

“Sashandra, why don't you leave me alone?” Fara retorted, looking up for the first time. Sasha could see the alarm in Fara's eyes, to observe her muscular arms, her hard stomach, her compact breasts. “I'm not a highlands warrior princess! Now why don't you go off and…and eat raw lizards, or rub sand in your hair, or whatever it is that you do in the mornings to stay so warriorlike!”

Sasha took her towel off the end of the bed. “You think I'm uncivilised, don't you?”

“Heavens forbid I should think such a thing,” Fara said beneath her breath, eyes down once again.

“I've met sheep with more character,” Sasha muttered in Lenay, putting the towel around her neck and taking her sword and scabbard.

“What was that?” Fara asked suspiciously.

“Just a little something in barbarian-speak,” Sasha told her in Torovan once more. “Never you mind your civilised, cultured little Torovan head about it.”

She nearly ran into Liam in the narrow hall. “Hey!” the young Nasi-Keth protested, spinning about to avert his gaze. “Sasha! For the gods’ sakes, put a shirt on!”

“What!” Sasha snapped at him. “You don't like it either?”

“Like it?” Liam tried to look at her, but propriety kept dragging his eyes away. He seemed caught, like a puppet with two masters each pulling in separate directions. “Sasha, you're naked!”

Sasha laughed. “If you think this is naked, kid, you're in for a nasty surprise on your wedding night.” And gave him a playful kick on the backside before strolling to the washroom and shutting the door.

Sasha's morning run took her through narrow lanes until the bottom of the slope where alleys snaked up precarious stairways between crumbling walls. She ran with several local Nasi-Keth as it was always safer to move in groups, even across the lower slopes.

The run ended in Fishnet Alley by a nondescript lane between buildings. Squeezing through, the lane opened into a broad courtyard. Within it, men wielded practice stanches in single combat and the air echoed with the sharp crack of wood on wood, and the grunting exertion of combatants.

Sasha walked to the courtyard's north side and crouched to splash cold water from a bucket on her face. She grabbed some breakfast from a table under the awning, apologising to the lady for being late. There were doorways leading from the training courtyard into neighbouring houses, and people came and went.

A little girl with tangled hair and a brown-cloth dress watched her shyly as she ate, seated on an old footstool. Sasha smiled at her. In Lenayin, there were no children allowed in the training hall. And no women, either…herself, the exception. Here amongst the dockfolk, everything was communal. People had no choice but to cooperate, she supposed as she chewed, watching the men fight. They all lived cheek by jowl and space had to be shared.

Finishing breakfast, she strode to the opposite side of the courtyard, strapped on a padded banda, took up a stanch and stepped onto the pavings.

“Rodery,” she said, interrupting the boy's taka-dan. “Your quarter-step is mistimed, I've been watching. Here, I'll show you.”

Rodery was a big lad of nineteen summers with broad shoulders and dark freckles across his square face. He turned and frowned at her, displeased at the interruption. “Uman Torshai says my footwork's good.”

“It is good,” Sasha agreed impatiently, taking stance opposite. “I can make it better.”

She took him through his moves. To Rodery's credit, he watched and listened, regardless of the occasional dark stare coming from other parts of the courtyard. The svaalverd-the serrin martial art-was all about balance, technique and timing. She demonstrated Rodery's slow adjustment to a roundhouse strike, and gave him some bruises to prove the point. Then she drilled him until his feet adjusted properly, and comprehension dawned in the big lad's eyes, as he deflected her attacks with new poise and speed.

Sasha grinned at him, twirling her stanch. “You see? Much better.”

“I'd never thought of doing it like that,” Rodery conceded, repeating the steps. “The timing's complex.”

Sasha shook her head impatiently. “No, there's no complexity in svaalverd. Look for the simplicity, every time. It's just basic balance, see?” She demonstrated the six basic stances that every five-year-old learned. “And the balance dictates the stroke, see? It's all the same thing. Kessligh tells me that improving at svaalverd is a constant quest to make everything as simple as possible. There's always one thing that drives everything else. Look for it.”

“But…” Rodery shook his head, with a spreading half-smile. “But there's so many things…”

Ele'sherihl,” Sasha told him.

Rodery winced. “Wait, I know that, that's…um…”

“Study your Saalsi!” Sasha said in exasperation. “Petrodor is full of serrin and they could all talk a stone to boredom! Ask them a question, they'll go on till sundown! Ele'sherihl means ‘the product of many things’…terrible translation, of course, but if you learn the tongue you'll realise how it works. Some things are made that are made up of many things. Like a boat-the hull, the mast, the sails, all are made separately. But, once completed, it's just one boat. Ele'sherihl. When you fight, make each stroke just one stroke, not a combination of feet and hands and torso. One thing. Simplicity. That's the key to svaalverd.”

There came a thud from nearby and a cry of pain. Sasha looked and found a teenage girl clutching her arm. Liam, her opponent, looked exasperated.

Sasha strode over. “Liam! Go easy! The object is to help her improve, not break her bones!”

“I'm okay,” the girl protested, shaking her arm. It was Yulia, a slight girl a little shorter than Sasha. She wore her auburn hair in a ponytail and her banda looked a little too big for her. She'd only started attending the training regularly after Sasha had arrived in Petrodor. “It's not bad.”

“It was a simple move!” Liam protested. “It's not my fault if she's no damn good!” Yulia, to Sasha's disappointment, only stared at the ground. Damn it, was she the only human girl in Petrodor prepared to fight back?

“Would you beat up a child?” she asked coldly.

“Look…” Liam turned to face her, slinging his stanch over his shoulders with a swagger. Cocky, like so many young Torovan men. “She's not a child. She has fifteen summers. And for that age, she's pathetic. Or are you going to tell me otherwise?”

“She needs work,” Sasha retorted. “So do you. Girls in this city don't have access to male umans, and they're usually the ones who can fight. And, what a surprise, I find girls aren't made to feel welcome in the courtyards, either. No wonder they fall behind the boys when fools like you try to break their arms whenever they try to learn!”

“Bah!” said Liam, with a dismissive wave. “You make excuses like all the others.”

“You truly think women can't fight the svaalverd?” Sasha asked dangerously.

“Sure! Serrin can! And you can, you're a wild, crazy highlander, they fed you raw sheep's bladders in the crib and you grew up strangling wild wolves with your bare hands!” There was laughter from watching men. Many had stopped their sparring to observe the confrontation. “But it's not our culture! And you, you should know better than to come into Petrodor from your mountain kingdom and try to turn all our women into wild amazons like yourself-”

“Ha, you're just scared of women.” She could see Uman Torshai circling behind to her left, tapping his stanch with one hand, appearing to watch the argument.

“Scared of women!” Liam thought that hysterical. “Truly, do I look scared?”

“Most of you Verenthanes are scared of women. Your entire world revolves around controlling women: make them marry, make them cook, make them make babies until they burst…”

“You're crazy!” Liam retorted.

“And all sin comes from women,” Sasha continued, “and all lust, and adultery's always a woman's fault, and husbands’ tempers…all your faults! All your faults, but don't take responsibility, oh no! Just blame your mother, your wife, your daughter. You're just a spoiled little brat who never had his ears boxed and thinks the stars all circle his arse. You couldn't take responsibility for your own fart. And you can't let your women do what they want, because then who'll you have to blame all your failures on?”

It was too much. Liam levelled his stanch at her, his face flushed red. “You watch your mouth.”

Sasha snorted. She'd been putting up with this for weeks now, and she was finally sick of it. “Did your mama not raise you properly, or do you just have a really small cock?”

Uman Torshai's stanch whistled at her knees from behind, to Sasha's little surprise. She swivelled, deflecting, and smacked Torshai viciously hard across the banda. The older man staggered and fell.

“Hey!” Liam yelled in fury and swung at her. Sasha performed a simple deflection, which flowed into a sidestep and strike, hitting him across the shoulder. Another attacker aimed angrily for her head and Sasha overbalanced him with an angled parry, twisted for maximum power through the same motion of feet-through-shoulders, with a crack that sent him flying.

Torshai came back to his feet and at her, but his timing was off and predictable with anger. Sasha crushed it, sending his stanch flying and neighbours ducking for cover, then took an arm with a downward strike. Liam stood bewildered, wondering what to do. Sasha jabbed, dancing forward. Provoked the awkward parry, and disarmed him with a flick to the wrist, then stabbed hard to the midriff with her full weight of momentum behind it. Liam fell hard on his backside, clutching his wrist and stomach.

About her, all was silent. Men stared. Torshai was on his knees, holding his forearm and grimacing. The third man was half sitting some distance away, feeling his ribs. Little Yulia stood wide-eyed and aghast. Sasha held her final pose, stanch poised, and glared at them all.

“I am the uma of Kessligh Cronenverdt!” she announced, in case there was any doubt. “I am not just his plaything, whatever some may say! You call yourself Nasi-Keth, and enlightened, but I see nothing but superstition and prejudice here! If I find one amongst you who is even half my standard with a blade, I'll let you know!”

She turned to leave, tugging the straps of her banda…and found Errollyn, leaning against a post regarding her.

“Oh, very subtle,” he said in Lenay, apparently very amused. “Kessligh shall be pleased.”

From the end of the longest pier on the fishermen's dock, Sasha could see all along North Pier, where the big ships moored and cargo moved from their holds to the warehouses and back. In the other direction, Sharptooth jutted into the water, blocking all view of Angel Bay-the southernmost half of Petrodor Harbour-save for Alaster Promontory, further beyond.

“Randel Ragini was one of Rhillian's?” Sasha asked Errollyn incredulously.

Errollyn nodded. He sat with his back to the pier's corner post, facing away from the ocean's glare. Partly, Sasha thought, so that he could keep an eye on the docks, and partly because a serrin's sensitive eyes were no friends of the bright sun. He carried no bow today-it would have been too conspicuous in the daytime.

“They're not all bad, the families,” he said tiredly. He looked dishevelled, dark grey hair falling haphazardly about his face. Sasha wondered how much sleep he'd had. “Randel Ragini had a taste for serrin things. Probably if he were poor, he'd have become a Nasi-Keth. But, being wealthy, he confined himself to trading curious artworks.”

“Patachi Steiner killed him for that?”

Errollyn shook his head. “No. Rhillian offered him things. Probably the patachi found out. I don't know how…I only just found out.”

“Offered him things?” Sasha squinted at him. There were men clambering on nearby boats, preparing to set sail. They were barely within earshot and unlikely to know Saalsi even if they heard. A swell rose beneath the pier as mooring ropes creaked and groaned. Wooden hulls clunked. “What things?”

“I wouldn't tell you if I knew,” Errollyn said with a faint smile. “I'm in enough trouble with Rhillian as it stands. If she finds out we talked, anyhow.”

“Things.” Sasha gazed past Errollyn to the North Pier. Heavy loads dangled in webbing from rope pulleys. Men and mules pulled carts loaded with more freight. Trade from Saalshen. Trade from Ameryn. Trade from the Bacosh, the Lisan Empire and far distant Xaldia. Trade made power. Trade made Petrodor, and the families. No move was made in Petrodor, and no blood was spilt, without it. “Rhillian offered Ragini good terms of trade with Saalshen,” Sasha ventured. “Didn't she?”

Errollyn shrugged. “It's possible.”

“But good terms to do what? Side with Saalshen against Patachi Steiner? It would be suicide. Surely Randel Ragini did not love Saalshen so much?”

“You're asking the wrong man,” said Errollyn. “Rhillian is my friend but, on some things, she trusts me little.”

“Well you're here talking to me,” Sasha observed, “so I suppose that's logical.”

Errollyn smiled, and gazed away at North Pier. “We didn't know what it would do, you know.”

“I'm sorry?”

“Trade,” he said. “Two hundred years ago, Saalshen left humans alone. We thought it unwise to interfere. Then King Leyvaan invaded and we realised we had no choice.

“And so we began trading. Petrodor seemed a good place to start-only a sleepy village back then, but well positioned on the mouth of the Sarna River with access to inland Torovan and Lenayin beyond. Saalshen knew many skills and crafts that humans did not. Our medicines were in great demand, and our steel even more so. For a while, Saalshen was influential. There was so much wealth in the trade, and every human was desperate to please us lest we stop the supply. The great serrin thinkers who led the push for trade with humans were commended. This way, it was reasoned, we could control humans without having to resort to human concepts of empire and conquest. Empire and conquest sits with us very ill. Even today, much of Saalshen remains vastly uncomfortable with our role in the Saalshen Bacosh. Despite all the good we've done, still many wonder if we did the right thing in occupying those lands and changing them as we did.

“And today…well.” Errollyn locked a bare muscular arm about an upraised knee and sighed. “The Saalshen Bacosh trades many of the items that were once only available from Saalshen. Those skills, too, are spreading. Today we threaten the families with boycott, and they merely shrug. Worse, I fear our threats of boycott are only encouraging them to make war on the Saalshen Bacosh. They feel the Saalshen Bacosh, once captured, will be ample restitution for the trade they shall lose from Saalshen itself. Trade is no longer a potent weapon of Saalshen. Some say we should withdraw trade now, to punish those who move against us…but then, we lose leverage entirely.

“I tell Rhillian every day that we do not understand humans well enough to move against them as we do. Two centuries ago, not a soul predicted what has come to pass today. Humans are a dynamic society, fast to change. Serrin are not. And yet serrin, with our superior talents, refuse to accept our own ignorance. We are digging a hole for ourselves, Sasha. Rhillian insists that it is a tunnel with the bright light of hope at the far end. I say it is our graves.”

“Not all humans stand against you,” Sasha said quietly.

Errollyn gazed at her. His green eyes were not as sharp as Rhillian's. They were deeper, more jade than emerald. But still, they were brilliant and far from human. “I know,” he said simply. “If only someone would tell Rhillian.”

“Surely Rhillian does not consider all humans her enemy?” Sasha asked, incredulously.

“No.” Errollyn shook his head. “Rhillian believes…it is the philosophical precept of the rhan'ist and the tula'shan.” Or that was what Sasha thought he'd said. Errollyn was the most plainspoken serrin Sasha had ever met and yet, when he switched to serrin philosophy, even he sounded alien.

“Go very, very slowly,” she told him.

Errollyn made a face. “It's too difficult in Saalsi,” he said instead in Lenay, “most of the words lack even basic translation. Rhillian believes that there is no problem with humans at all. She likes humans.” A massive overtranslation, Sasha knew-serrin were rarely so simple in their feelings toward anything. But such was Errollyn's style. “She believes the problem lies in human society. Buy her an ale one night and I'm sure she'll be happy to explain it to you.”

Sasha frowned. “You mean one human is good, but a hundred humans is bad?”

Errollyn smiled. “Exactly. One human is just a person. A hundred humans make a society. And societies have kings, and religions and priests, and all these other things serrin completely fail to understand.”

Sasha shrugged. “Sounds quite sensible to me. I mean, look at Master Tongren in the The Fish Head. I've only dealt with Cherrovan before as a society, and they're no fun at all. But one Cherrovan…well, he's just Tongren. A decent, good-humoured man.”

Errollyn nodded. “Rhillian believes that human societies always define themselves by their narrowest possible interests. That they are exclusive, not inclusive. She likes humans, but distrusts their societies. And so she expects no help at all for Saalshen from humans. She feels Saalshen has been too forgiving and gentle for too long. She has a good heart, Sasha, but she is convinced that the time has come for Saalshen to take hard actions and make difficult choices.”

Given what she knew of Saalshen's enemies, Sasha did not feel she could blame Rhillian particularly for that. “And what do you believe?”

Errollyn sighed. “I believe that the fate of Saalshen is in humanity's hands,” he said quietly. “Humans shall either be our salvation, or they shall be our destruction. And Rhillian, I'm afraid, may make the latter all the more likely.”

He looked up, seeing someone approaching. Sasha looked and found Kessligh striding along the planks. He wore a loose shirt, rough pants and a floppy hat like Sasha's own, but she'd have recognised that stride anywhere. His approach gave her an unaccustomed feeling of trepidation deep in her stomach.

Kessligh sat cross-legged in the middle of the pier, straight-backed and perfectly flexible, whatever his fifty summers. “I've just come from the Fishnet Alley Courtyard,” he said, without preamble. “Some of your peers were a little upset.”

“I'm sorry!” Sasha exclaimed. “I just couldn't take it any more! They say they're enlightened, but they're all bigots!”

“Bigots?” Kessligh asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Yes, bigots! They treat women like the bigots treat the serrin, or the Xaldians! And worst of all, I'm a Lenay and a woman…I know I promised I'd hold my temper, but how are they ever going to learn otherwise if I don't prove them wrong?”

Kessligh exhaled hard and glanced at Errollyn, who seemed as amused as ever. “They have been a little slower in accepting the notion of a female uma than I'd hoped,” Kessligh conceded. “It's been thirty years since I was last here. I'd hoped things had changed, at least a little.”

Errollyn shook his head. “They're worse,” he said. “The rise of pagan ideas has alarmed the priesthood. There is a campaign for morality in all the temples, including the proper behaviour of women. Petrodor Nasi-Keth are open-minded by local standards, but they are also Verenthanes. Many attend temple services. The Nasi-Keth have never tried to shove serrin teachings down people's throats, they understood that the teachings would only succeed if people were allowed to pick and choose.”

“Maybe that was a mistake,” Kessligh said grimly. “So many people can't see their own hand before their face. No wonder Rhillian doesn't see much hope in the Nasi-Keth when she sees them moving backward.”

Errollyn shrugged. “If the Nasi-Keth do not reflect the values of the local population, how can they ever maintain their support? When balancing upon a high wall, one must sway both forward and backward.”

“I'm sorry I made them angry,” Sasha said earnestly. “But people like that are always going to be angry, one way or another.”

“It's all right, Sasha,” Kessligh said tiredly, holding up a hand. “I'm not angry at you. Many Nasi-Keth do respect you. The others just require some work.” He seemed more frustrated than Sasha had ever seen him, as if something gnawed at him, deep inside. In Lenayin he'd always seemed so calm, so certain. Perhaps Petrodor had always made him feel this way. Constrained. Limited by other people's petty prejudices.

He had left her in Lenayin, whilst she remained embroiled in her homeland's squabbles, to come to Petrodor, leaving the brewing war in the north. That had come to rebellion. She'd come to forgive him his absence for she knew that his loyalties to the Nasi-Keth were as inseparable to him as her love for Lenayin was to her. Now, however, she occasionally wondered if he regretted the decision himself.

“We have the name of a vessel en route from Ameryn,” said Kessligh. “It should arrive shortly. There's a large weapons shipment aboard. We're going to stop it.”

“You think this will win support from Gerrold and Alaine?” Sasha asked warily.

Kessligh shrugged. “I can't control that, their people will either follow me or not. We'll stop that weapons shipment because it's what we need to do. It's what I came to Petrodor to do.”

“But you want me to take a leading role?”

Kessligh gazed at her for a moment then smiled. “It would help,” he admitted. “The tradition here is that the uma's deeds reflect well on the uman. If I'm to build a following, it'll take a little more than a few bruises to some thick-skulled swordsmen in a training session.”

“Leading Lenayin's first rebellion in a century and defeating the Hadryn armoured cavalry in battle isn't enough?” Sasha asked, edgily.

“To these people, Lenayin's a long way away.”

Sasha snorted. “I'll help,” she said. “I don't want to see this war any more than you do. But there's something you should know first.” She looked at Errollyn.

Errollyn told Kessligh about Randel Ragini. Kessligh made a face and squinted off toward the ocean horizon. “Rhillian is too clever for her own good,” he said. “A sailor told me once that he'd known men who were brilliant at tying knots. But the real trick, he said, was to know when to tie them, and which knot went with which situation. Rhillian's tying her clever knots all over the city, but all she makes is a tangled rope.”

“The question is why Ragini?” said Sasha. “Is she trying to break up the Steiner alliance from within?”

Kessligh looked at Errollyn warily. “I rode all the way to Lenayin,” Errollyn said, “against Rhillian's wishes, to fight in a battle she said was none of my business. She no longer includes me in her plans.”

“Kessligh…” Sasha took a deep breath. “I have a contact. A potential contact, right at the highest level of Family Steiner.”

Kessligh shook his head. “It's too dangerous. And it's been fourteen years, you've no idea how she's changed…”

“Look, everyone says information is power, right?” Kessligh looked decidedly reluctant, but did not argue the point. “How stupid would we be, to have such an important contact and not use it at all? Just one piece of information! Marya's possibly the nicest person I've ever known, she wouldn't hurt a beetle! Maybe she doesn't even know half of what her new family does. Surely we should at least try?”

Jaryd had never seen a traditional Lenayin wedding before. The main road before the Steltsyn Star was a mass of dancing, cheering, feasting people. The inn's tables had been arrayed in a rough circle across the road, and serving boys and girls ran back and forth, hauling trays of roast meat, vegetable raal, breads, wines, fruits and cheeses. Musicians played and drums thundered as the sun disappeared behind the far valley ridge and the bonfire at the centre of the circle was finally lit, to the delight and shouting of all.

Jaryd sat on a far railing of the inn's verandah, eating from a tin plate, a cup resting on a nearby post. There were more people present than he'd ever seen in Baerlyn before. Half of neighbouring Yule had arrived in town with the bride, to accompany her to her husband's home, and her new life. This entire celebration had already been performed yesterday in Yule, as the village had sent off their girl. This was the welcoming ceremony, and it had been going since the bride's arrival in midafternoon.

Jaryd saw Lynette arrive, plunging into the crowd to where Teriyan was in animated conversation with friends. Teriyan handed off his cup, picked up his daughter and spun her around. They looked so happy as they danced through the firelit crowd, talking and laughing all the while. Jaryd swallowed a mouthful, and looked somewhere else.

Suddenly there was a pretty girl standing close, directly beneath the railing to his side. She had light brown, curly hair and wore the plain dress of a village girl…yet decorated in the Goeren-yai style, beads and braids in her hair, a knotted red sash about her waist, rings on her fingers and bangles on her wrists. She curtseyed prettily.

“Master Jaryd,” she said demurely, “I would be most honoured should you choose to dance with me.”

Jaryd stared down at her. In Algery, they'd had rude names for girls who asked men to dance. Here in the villages, women were more forward. She was very pretty, no more than sixteen, he reckoned. He recalled many pretty girls, from that other life. When he'd asked them to dance, they'd rarely refused. When he'd asked them to do other things as well, they'd rarely refused that, either.

“I'm sorry,” he told the girl. “I no longer dance.”

The verandah rail shook and a hand reached onto his plate and stole a piece of cheese. “Why are you even here?” Lynette asked him around that mouthful. Her red hair was all tangled from her ride into town, and she smelled of horses. “I mean, why come to a wedding if you're just going to sit here away from everyone and look morose?”

“Jaegar told me at training I should come,” Jaryd said stonily. “Jaegar is village headman, I do what he tells me.”

“Pity he didn't tell you to have some fun too.”

Jaryd ground his teeth and did not reply. She'd never had a brother murdered in cold blood, and she had precious little respect for his grief. It was an effort not to strike her.

“Have you welcomed the bride yet?”

“No.”

“You should. I'm sure she's heard all about Jaryd Nyvar. She'll be expecting a greeting and good wishes. That's what Sasha and Kessligh always did.”

“Aye, well, they're not here now, are they?”

Lynette sighed. “I so wish Sasha was here now, she loves weddings.”

“She does?” It didn't sound like the Sashandra Lenayin Jaryd knew.

“So long as it's not her own,” Lynette added with a grin. “But, oh yes, she loves traditional weddings. If she were here she'd be feasting and dancing, and telling all the boys how handsome they looked. She could be such a tease sometimes.”

Jaryd exhaled hard. “I wish I'd had the chance to come to know Sashandra a little better,” he conceded. Sometimes he envied Lynette and Andreyis that. The entire village, in fact. “She's a remarkable warrior, and she won a great victory at Ymoth. Kessligh himself could not have done better.”

Lynette shrugged, chewing on her cheese. “She's Kessligh's uma, after all. But the most remarkable thing about Sasha is how she became brilliant while still managing to be such a pain in the arse.”

Jaryd looked at her. He almost smiled. Lynette put a hand on his arm. “You're nice when you smile,” she told him. “Hold on, I have to go and talk to the other most morose-looking man in Baerlyn for a while. I'll be back.”

She jumped off the rail and slid through the crowd. The other man was, of course, Andreyis. Jaryd spotted him on the far side of the bonfire, sitting with two other lads, drinking and looking gloomy. Becoming a warrior didn't change all things, then. He could grow his hair long, get tattoos if he wanted, and move away from home as he pleased, but Andreyis remained awkward and ill at ease, with girls in particular. Except Lynette…but she was more like a sister to him, complete with name calling and hair pulling.

Jaryd almost felt sorry for the lad. He missed Sasha, that much was obvious. Perhaps he'd even fancied her a little…and what lonely, awkward young man wouldn't have? But she'd been more like a sister too, and so dominantly, ferociously overbearing that the poor boy must have known from the start he had no chance…

Neither did Andreyis have many good friends among young Baerlyn men. Lynette conceded that Sasha had first grown to like Andreyis precisely because he wasn't one of those arrogant, rude little boys whose ears, knees, ribs, backsides and finally skulls Sasha had had to box to gain some respect…and some fear. Jaryd did not know letters, but he knew young men as he knew swords and horses. They'd have resented Andreyis his friendship with someone who had humiliated them. They'd have resented him further his friendship with Kessligh. It was remarkable that a friendship with the greatest warrior in Lenayin could actually make someone less popular…but Lenayin was like that. Men who gained respect by becoming friends with the powerful were mistrusted. Men should gain respect by gathering honour for themselves.

Some men in colourful Torovan dress were walking up the main road, talking with Parrachik and skirting the children playing games at the edge of the bonfire's glare. Parrachik was an unremarkable man to look at-bald and slim, he wore only a knife at his belt and smiled when local men would taunt him for his lack. A Torovan like the merchants who so often called on him, he'd arrived in Baerlyn fifteen years ago and adopted the local customs sparingly yet for all his success, he wore little finery.

He led his Torovan guests now to the feast, where they looked on with curiosity. Wine was pressed upon them and soon they were talking and laughing with rowdy locals, Parrachik providing translation where local accent or general noise proved too great for the traders’ Lenay. Soon the merchants were clapping along to the rhythm with the rest of them, and being invited to dance by local Baerlyn women, all eagerly accepted.

Lynette was dragging at Andreyis's arm, trying to get him to the dance, but Andreyis was resisting. Jaryd pushed himself off the balcony railing with a thud of boots on the deck…and nearly missed the second thud on the wall behind. He turned, frowning, thinking someone had thrown something. Instead, he saw a crossbow bolt protruding from the wall.

He dove flat, but no further shot came. Then he scrambled for the inn's doorway and crouched there, staring up at the opposing row of rooftops, bright and dancing in the glare of the bonfire. There was a flash of movement…or was it merely a shadow? No one had noticed his little commotion, one more flailing, dancing man at a wedding was hardly an event. If he yelled warning to them, none would hear.

Besides, warning of what? They were not in danger. The assassin was after him. Maybe, the cold thought occurred to him, as he edged back into the cover of the doorway, one of the locals had arranged it. Maybe they felt his presence threatened Baerlyn's relations with the lords. Or maybe Great Lord Arastyn had partisans, or at least paid help here in Baerlyn. If he shouted warning, he would only advertise that their attempt had failed, and perhaps invite a second or third attack. No, he had to capture the assassin himself. Only then could he know what he was dealing with.

He strode through the inn, adjusting his swordbelt where it had twisted in his dive. Through the main room, stripped of chairs and tables, Jaryd found the side exit and pushed out into the paved lane to the stables. Then he ran back toward the road, where the fringe of the crowd milled across the lane's mouth hoping any waiting crossbowman on the surrounding roofs would have far too brief a sighting to take a shot. He ran fast, hand on his sword hilt, to keep his legs free, taking a wide route through the crowd. He skidded between two men, hurdling a running child, collided with the arm of a lady, her drink spilling.

Then he was down a narrow lane between two houses, unscathed and, as far as he knew, untargeted. He hurdled a fence between the houses and took shelter beneath the rear verandah roof. Crouched against a wall, he drew his sword and listened. He heard only the raucous music and laughter of the wedding. He moved as lightly as he could across the verandah planks, pausing with a wince each time one began to squeak. He stopped and listened again.

Nothing. Then a muffled slide overhead. A creak. Two thumps. Then nothing. Jaryd reached to his belt and drew a throwing knife. Reversed it with a flip, catching the blade, his sword now in his left hand. Someone jumped from the verandah roof, thumped into the grassy yard and rolled, pausing to retrieve a fallen crossbow.

“You missed,” Jaryd told the crossbowman. The figure spun in shock. Jaryd threw the knife and took him in the thigh. The man yelled, dropping the crossbow again, and fell, clutching his leg. Jaryd stepped from the balcony and walked to him, sword ready, his grip tightening. This must be one of those who had schemed to kill Tarryn. This, he had waited for for a long time.

More movement from the gloom of orchard trees in the neighbouring yard. Jaryd's eyes widened as he saw the questing muzzle of a crossbow through the branches. He threw himself flat. Frustratingly, the crossbowman held his fire. Jaryd rolled desperately for the fallen man, holding him as a shield. The bowman emerged from the orchard and cursed, darting one way, then the other, seeking a shot over the fence. Jaryd rose, his hostage sobbing and holding his leg. A rush of footsteps from behind told him a third man was coming.

Jaryd reached for his boot knife-not really a throwing knife, but he threw it anyway. The bowman ducked, the knife deflected off the crossbow and Jaryd charged. The bowman dropped the crossbow, scampering back as Jaryd hurdled the fence, drawing his blade. Jaryd swung hard, the other man defended desperately, fended the second and third with a clash of steel, yet was simply overpowered by the fourth, lost his hand on the fifth, and was sliced through the chest by the sixth before he could scream.

Jaryd turned and found the third man staring in horror. This man had no crossbow, just a sword. Evidently he did not relish the prospect of using it now. This was no hired blade. This man knew exactly whom he'd been sent to kill. The assassin turned and fled. Jaryd chased, his heart pounding, blood singing in his ears. He hadn't felt this alive since Tarryn had still been in the world. He pursued the fleeing shadow past a chicken run, then hurdled another fence onto a vegetable patch. Another fence, and he was out into an open field in the middle of the Baerlyn Valley. The light of the wedding bonfire grew dimmer behind and the stars overhead were bright and clear. His boots sank into the grass as he ran, stumbling on an uneven patch in the dark. The fleeing shadow before him was slim, and fleet of foot. Jaryd was a powerful young man, and knew how to use that power to intimidating effect with a blade. But now, his legs grew weary, and his breathing came hard, and the light figure ahead seemed barely troubled when he hurdled the next fenceline and raced on into the dark.

It was two fencelines later before Jaryd finally gave up. He'd headed up-valley, past empty farmhouses, tripping on plough furroughs and splashing in irrigation ditches as he went.

“Come back and fight, you horse-fucking coward!” he roared at the dark, with the last of his energy. Now that he'd stopped, the night air chilled his sweat. He was exhausted from the effort, and barely able to keep his feet. The unfairness of it infuriated him. He swung his blade at the dark, smiting invisible foes. Gleaming in the night sky, he saw Ambellion's Star, bright and clear. Cathaty's Eye, the Goeren-yai called it. In the lowlands, and amongst Lenay Verenthanes, it was the Verenthane Star. “You!” Jaryd yelled, pointing his sword at the star. “You saved him! You defy me once more, you bastards! Well I've had it with you! I've rejected you, do you hear? This isn't your land, and you can't fuck with me any longer!”

A sharp wind blew upon the Cliff of the Dead. Marya Steiner put a hand to her hair and hoped that the pins would not tear out from the force of it. She walked with her other hand in that of her nine-year-old son, and her husband by her side, with a pair of guards to their front and back.

“I absolutely forbid it, Symon!” Marya insisted in a low voice. “This is my sister, she would never put me in danger.”

“I hear stories, my love,” replied Symon Steiner, edgily. He looked good in black, with a gold-pommelled sword at his hip. A little slimmer and shorter than a Lenay bride might typically have hoped, but he was handsome, and clever, and kind. “This particular sister of yours-and the gods know you have so many I am frequently confused-has a reputation that would insult the good breeding of a rabid dog-”

“Oh, Symon, don't be like that! The Sashandra I remember was a gorgeous little girl, always full of life and mischief…”

“There are many definitions of mischief, my love.” Symon threw a glance up and down the terraced incline. “One might think that leading an armed rebellion against Verenthane patriots in the north, against the wishes of her father the king, goes a little beyond simple mischief.”

Marya sighed, not halting her stride. “Sashandra always went a little beyond simple mischief,” she admitted. “But…oh Symon, you never knew her like I did. You don't know how much fun she was! She was a delightful little scoundrel.”

Behind them, toward the end of Besendi Promontory, the funeral for Randel Ragini was dispersing. The seniors of Family Steiner, and all their allies, bereaved and sorrowful in black. Marya had never liked that silly Endurance that the men all insisted upon every Sadisi. Three days ago now. Every year, someone was hurt. This year, just like she'd warned would happen, it was someone important. Young Randel, such a nice boy. His father had seemed in shock, barely looking at anyone while the priest had recited the last rites. Doubtless losing a son in such pointless circumstances was difficult, to say nothing of an heir. When she'd taken Patachi Ragini's hand to offer her condolences, it had been shaking.

“Look,” said Symon, “at least allow me to place some extra men on the upper terrace. Just in case.”

“Symon, she is Nasi-Keth,” Marya said reasonably. “And from what I hear, quite talented. Your own sources say she has friends among the serrin, she's been seen frequently with that Rhillian woman…”

“All the more reason to-”

“Her note said to come alone!” Marya insisted. “If she has serrin friends, don't you think there might be serrin archers hiding somewhere?”

“Where?”

“If I knew that, dearest, they wouldn't be hiding, would they?”

“It's very windy for archers, Mummy,” said Krystoff. He was watching a big gull soaring just above, using the updraughts to hold almost motionless against the overcast sky, save for twitches of its tail.

“Not for serrin archers it's not, darling,” Marya corrected her eldest son. Even she knew that. “And if your papa insists on moving some men where they're not supposed to be, those archers might use his men for target practice. Mightn't they, dearest?”

The path rounded a bend, and now they could see it-a small, wooden hut where the terrace ended and the sheer cliff resumed. Beyond, where the slope became more gentle, Petrodor began, a mass of buildings up the incline. Upon the docks, men looked like swarms of ants.

“At least you should leave Krys with me,” Symon attempted, one last time.

“No,” Marya said firmly. “He should meet his aunt, it will do him good.”

“For all damnation, woman,” said Symon, with the beginnings of cold temper, “would you put your own son's life at risk?”

“No.” Marya stopped, and gave him a cold look of her own. “No, I would not.”

“I'm not afraid, Papa,” said Krystoff earnestly. “I'd like to meet her.”

Symon spared the ocean an exasperated stare. “I know you're not afraid, son. I never doubted it.”

“Symon,” said Marya, her tone softening. “You claim to know something about my sister. Our son's name is Krystoff. If you know anything about her, you'll know why she of all people could never harm a hair on his head.” Her husband just looked at her, for a long, calculating moment. Marya had seen him give that look before, making deals with powerful men. Wondering if all was, in fact, as it appeared. “You Torovans,” she said with exasperation. “Truly, one might believe you thought you were the only people to whom family mattered. You have so many family here, Symon. I see so few of my old family. Please.”

“Go,” he said. “I'll be right here.”

Marya kissed him on the cheek gratefully. She clutched Krystoff's hand all the more tightly and walked toward the wooden hut.

Krystoff took the door's latch, well trained in the ways of gentlemanly conduct. The rusty iron squealed and Marya stepped in behind him, eyeing the gloom with trepidation, a hand on her son's shoulder.

“Hello?” she called. Her heart was beating very fast. Surely Symon could not be right? Much of his information came indirectly from Alythia, she knew, and Alythia…well, she was prone to making up all sorts of accusations about people she didn't like. Alythia and Sasha…Sofy had said, in her occasional letters, how truly alike they were in their high-strung tempers, and how ironic it was that neither could recognise the fact. Surely Alythia had not been more than just tale telling?

Krystoff closed the door behind them, and the wind ceased. Marya's eyes adjusted, and she saw that there were headstones and pavings stacked in stone piles, with shovels and spades to maintain the small flower gardens that grew between the stones. Wind shook the walls and lifted the roof planks against their nails. The panes in two small windows rattled.

“Hello,” said a voice to her right, and Marya spun. There was a dark figure there. “Is that your husband? He's a bit small, isn't he?”

“Dear gods,” Marya exclaimed, with a hand to her chest. “You startled me.”

“Sorry,” said the figure. “It happens.”

A female voice. But the gloom was too deep for visible detail, and Marya's eyes had not adjusted. “Sashandra?” Marya ventured, a little breathlessly.

A small laugh in the darkness. “You never used to call me Sashandra,” said the voice. The Torovan was excellent, yet the accent very broad.

“Gods, come out of that dark corner!” Marya exclaimed, backing toward the windows, her hand still on Krystoff's shoulder. “I want to look at you!”

The dark figure followed, a lithe, soundless movement. Then she emerged into the silver light coming through the glass panes. Not a big girl, especially not for the reputation she had attained, victorious rebellion against the Hadryn and all. The clothes were scandalously unfeminine, yet really quite well made. A jacket of soft leather, neatly fitting pants and snug boots. And a bandoleer, of course, worn over the jacket, the hilt of a sword protruding above her left shoulder. Her short hair had been mussed by the wind, her tri-braid dangling free down the left side of her jaw.

And her face…Marya put a hand to her mouth. Big dark eyes, formerly full of mischief. Now watching her, curiously. The same, slightly wicked slant to the eyebrows. The same impudent nose. All grown up, and oh-so different…and yet, to a degree she'd not dared hope possible, clearly the same girl from her memories, all those years ago.

“Sasha?” she said softly. “Is that really you?”

Tears came to Sasha's eyes, unexpectedly. Marya's eyes also filled. The sisters embraced as the little wooden hut above the roaring surf shuddered in the howling wind. How silly to have worried, Marya managed to think past the happiness and relief. How silly to have worried about my little sister. Good lords, she felt absolutely solid beneath her leathers! A little less than average size, perhaps, but made of rock!

“Oh here, Sasha, look!” Marya disentangled herself, wiping her eyes. “Here's someone I'd like you to meet! Sasha, this is my eldest boy. Krystoff.”

Krystoff bowed. Sasha gazed, her eyes still wet. Such a pretty girl in her own curious way. But then, it had never been looks her family lacked. “I am honoured to meet you, Aunt Sashandra.”

Sasha grinned. She changed expressions fast, Marya observed with fascinated remembrance. The same little Sashandra. Temperamental, even now. “And I am likewise honoured to meet my nephew,” she said, returning the bow. “Do you speak any Lenay, Krystoff?”

“A little.” Krystoff gave his mother a cautious glance. “Mother teaches me. And she says bad words in Lenay when she's angry.”

“Oh I do not!” Marya exclaimed, but smiling.

“That's good,” said Sasha. “It's good to know where your parents come from. Both of your parents.” With a knowing glance at Marya.

“Papa says the Lenays are fierce warriors,” Krystoff agreed. “Grandpa says all of Lenayin shall some day make fine Verenthane allies. I think it's a good language for me to learn.”

Sasha's face fell. Not angry, but the smile disappeared as fast as it had come. “Well, your grandpa's not perfect, I suppose.” There was an edge to her tone. Krystoff frowned, not understanding.

“Krys,” Marya said, “you go and wait outside with your father. Sasha and I need some time alone to catch up. We haven't seen each other in a long time.”

“A long time,” Sasha repeated with a laugh. “Fourteen years! I was a little brat up to your knee!”

“It was very nice to meet you, Aunt Sashandra,” said Krystoff. “Perhaps we can meet again another time.”

“I'd like that,” said Sasha. Marya thought she meant it. “Oh, and Krystoff?” she added as the boy opened the hut door, letting in a swirl of wind. “Best tell your father that I'm not alone here. Tell him we're being watched by people with excellent aim. He'll understand.”

Krystoff nodded, warily. He understood, too. One was not born the heir to the Steiner Empire, of any generation, to not understand such things. The door closed.

“He seems a nice boy,” said Sasha.

“He's very sweet,” Marya agreed. “He'll make a fine patachi one day.”

“Hmm,” said Sasha.

“And really, Sasha,” Marya scolded gently, “you needn't worry about Symon. He's just worried about me, that's all. There's no need to threaten him.”

“I'll never threaten anyone who doesn't threaten me first,” Sasha said coolly.

There was a look in her eye as she said it that gave Marya a chill. That hadn't been there, in the eyes of the little girl she'd known. The little girl was now a young woman, and this young woman had killed people. Quite a few people, if the tales were true.

“He doesn't look very much like Krystoff,” Sasha added, thoughtfully watching the door where the boy had stood.

“Well he doesn't really have to, does he?” Marya countered. “It's the thought that counts.”

“I suppose,” said Sasha. Marya did not tell her that Patachi Steiner had encouraged her to use the name of Lenayin's deceased heir and Sasha's most beloved brother. The patachi encouraged strong relations with Lenayin wherever possible. Marya did not think Sasha would be pleased to hear it.

“But look at you!” Marya exclaimed, changing the subject. “You look just amazing! Like a hero from some story that has yet to be told!”

Sasha actually appeared to blush, just a little. “Serrin think I'm pretty,” she admitted, with just a hint of shyness. “It'd be nice to find a human who thought so.”

“You look wonderful.”

“You don't seem very surprised. When I first returned to Baen-Tar after I'd left to live with Kessligh, people stared like they were seeing a ghost. They only remembered a little girl with long hair in dresses, I guess…”

“I think it suits you,” said Marya. “Anyone who'd seen you sliding down staircase railings, and chasing terrified little boys with a stick and yelling, would recognise you now.” Sasha laughed self-consciously. “This is the inner you, perhaps. Not many people grow up to become the thing they've always desired. You should be proud.”

From the way Sasha smiled, Marya could tell that she'd pleased her. “And look at you!” she said. “You're looking very…well, motherly.”

“I know,” Marya sighed, placing hands on her hips. “But they feed me so well, and the food's so excellent…”

“Oh, no, no,” Sasha protested. “You look wonderful! Motherliness suits you. I always…I mean, all my memories of you are of you being kind to me. I remember whenever I'd hurt myself, you were always there to clean my scrapes. You were like the mother I never…or rather, almost never had.”

You really never did know mother like I did, Marya thought sadly. You don't know what she suffered. You were too young.

“Oh, Sasha,” Marya said kindly, “I always wanted to tell you-I'm so sorry that I was not around when Krystoff died. It must have been so terrible for you. How lonely you must have felt.”

Sasha gave a small shrug. “It's the fate of Lenay princesses that they be married when their father deems it convenient. How could that be your fault?”

“Even so, when I received the news, I felt so terrible. I cried for days. But mostly, I was thinking of you. I did not know that you would survive.”

The kinship between the heir of Lenayin and his little sister had been cute and lovable in many ways. And yet, Marya recalled an edge to the friendship that others did not. Krystoff had been driven, largely by forces known only to him. He had not understood how others did not share his passions and impulses. Only little Sashandra had understood.

“Did you enjoy growing up with Kessligh in Baerlyn?” Marya ventured.

The younger woman's smile flashed. “I loved it. I finally got to run wild.” She laughed. “But with some discipline too.”

“You did not miss your family at all?”

“Did you?” Sasha countered.

“Oh, of course! But…well, I had a new family. And the Steiners treated me wonderfully from the beginning. Symon is a perfect husband, and I have children of my own now. I was homesick for a while, it's true, and I missed you and Krystoff and the others terribly. But I don't know that I can say I was lonely. I always had company and things to do. I always felt included. This is my home now.”

Sasha sighed. She walked two steps to the small window and gazed through the cracked, clouded glass. “My home is in Baerlyn,” she said. “The townsfolk are my family. And Kessligh. He was the father I never had. He taught me so many things, things I failed to appreciate until recently.”

“And so…” Marya paused, wondering how to put it. “You feel the…the Nasi-Keth are your family now?”

Sasha bit the inside of her lip, thinking as she gazed down on the windswept docks below. “I get tired of all these divisions,” she said finally, and decisively. She met Marya's gaze. “People are always telling me that I have to pick one side or the other. I have loyalties to many sides. I won't pretend that I love all my family, but I certainly love Sofy…and Damon too, I think. I love Kessligh. I love Baerlyn and the ancient ways of Lenayin. And I love the serrin too. The serrin believe that this human instinct to pick one side and fight all the others is the cause of all humanity's troubles. I think I agree with them.”

“Have you spoken to Alythia since she's arrived?” Marya ventured, knowing the answer in advance, but…

Sasha gave a short laugh. “I'd get a more friendly response from one of the sea lions on Alaster Promontory, I'm quite sure.”

“Have you tried?”

“I ruined her wedding, Marya. Surely you heard?”

“Well yes, but…” Marya wrung her hands in exasperation. “Oh, it's so frustrating, Sasha! I mean look at us! Three sisters, all together in the one city. Surely this is fate, to bring us all together so!”

“Tempting fate, maybe,” Sasha said, warily eyeing the Verenthane medallion about Marya's neck.

“You don't believe in fate?” Marya asked sadly.

“There's many old notions I no longer believe in,” Sasha replied. “And many others I'm starting to. Fate's not high amongst them.”

“Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be a family again?” Marya persisted. “I'm not entirely naive, I do know that Petrodor can be a…a cold and cruel place at times. But Sasha, it's exactly in such places that the bonds of family matter so much! And I'd so love for you to meet your other nephews and nieces…”

Sasha looked at the ground. “I'd like that too,” she said quietly. “But with things as they are, I don't know how welcome I'd be.”

“Sasha.” Marya placed a gentle hand on her sister's shoulder. “Family is important to everyone in Petrodor. If you came to House Steiner with an open heart, you would be entirely safe there. Whoever your friends, and whoever your uman.”

“Safe like Randel Ragini was safe?” said Sasha sombrely.

Marya blinked at her. “Randel? Sasha, Randel was killed in an accident…they happen all the time during the Endurance, I've been warning people about it for years, but do they listen to a woman? Of course not.”

“Your father-in-law ordered Randel Ragini killed,” said Sasha. Marya blinked again. Sasha's gaze was direct, searching, as if studying her response.

“And who told you that?” said Marya, unperturbed.

“People who know.”

“Look, Sasha.” Marya put her other hand on Sasha's shoulders too. “Petrodor is full of rumours. People say nasty things, about Patachi Steiner most of all. I know him quite well. I won't pretend that he's the gentlest, kindest man in Petrodor, but believe me when I tell you this one thing-he's not half of what his enemies say he is. Not a quarter, even.”

“He killed Randel because he suspected Randel, and possibly Patachi Ragini, were dealing with the serrin,” Sasha continued, equally unperturbed. “My sources say the priesthood were possibly involved, they're the ones most upset by senior Petrodor families dealing with the pagan serrin. Randel collected serrin artworks, including some the holy fathers found blasphemous…”

“Sasha,” Marya said sternly, “you've been listening to men with evil tongues, the holy fathers do not go around ordering people killed!”

“Seriously, Marya,” Sasha said tiredly, with the air of a woman suddenly twice her age. “Your father-in-law is building an army to go and fight a war entirely on the behest of the priesthood. It will assuredly kill many, many thousands of people. The priesthood don't order people killed? Do you honestly believe that?”

Marya stared at her for a moment. Gods, how she hated politics. She half spun, a hand to her forehead. Then spun back. “And is that truly why you smuggled a message to meet me here today?” she asked, woundedly. “I mean…seriously, Sasha, what do you want from me?”

“And do you think Symon Steiner would risk his wife and his heir to meet with his sworn enemy in a darkened hut if he didn't see some kind of advantage in it?” Sasha replied. “Or if Patachi Steiner didn't? Marya, we're both being used. People on both sides are looking for some advantage, and perhaps some information.” She stepped forward and took Marya's hands gently. Her eyes were earnest. “I came because I desperately wanted an excuse to see my sister again. This was the first and best excuse I've had. But also, I wanted to tell you what I know. You don't have to believe me…it's hard, I know. But I wanted you to think about what I've told you. That's all. What you choose to do about it…well, that's none of my business.”

“Sasha,” Marya said quietly, “don't pick a fight with Patachi Steiner. Please.”

Sasha's eyes narrowed, head cocked to one side. Fearless, Marya saw despairingly. Of physical danger, at least. This, too, confirmed the memories of the little girl she'd known. “I thought you said he was a good man?”

“Amongst a good man's many duties are the elimination of his enemies,” said Marya, sombrely.

Sasha's gaze was long and level. Studying her.

“Patachi Steiner wants this war,” she replied, finally. “If it concerns you, tell him to stop.”

“Sasha, I'm his daughter-in-law,” said Marya, reproachfully. “I can do no such thing.”

Sasha shrugged. “Then there's not much I can do.”

“You would truly fight?” Marya pressed, with desperation. “Against your own flesh and blood?”

“He's not my flesh and blood,” Sasha said coolly. “You are.”

Dear lords, Marya thought helplessly. She doesn't understand a thing. “Krystoff is too,” she tried. “He's old enough to wield a proper blade in training. He's very good.”

“Marya, what the Larosa want to do in the Bacosh is evil, do you understand me?” Sasha's tone betrayed the first sign of impatience. “Not merely misguided or unfortunate, but evil. The serrin have done nothing but good for the Saalshen Bacosh, and the Larosa would kill them all if they could, right through all of Saalshen. If your father-in-law brings a huge Torovan army to Regent Arrosh's side, along with the army our true father intends to bring him, they might just finish the serrin off once and for all. The serrin are a bright light in this dark world, Marya. I'll not allow that light to die if I can do anything to help it.”

“There are those who say that evil is the human who would fight for the strange folk against her own kind.” Marya refrained from making the holy sign as she spoke. The tri-braid in her sister's hair was not just an innocent decoration back in Lenayin. It was pagan. “It would be a sin, they say.”

“My own kind?” Sasha's stare was incredulous. “What in the world does that mean? I fight for what is right against what is wrong…how do evil slugs like the Regent Arrosh suddenly become imbued with holy virtue simply because they're of ‘my own kind’? As if humans have never fought humans before and called each other evil?”

“Family is always right, Sasha,” said Marya, with a shake of the head. “Family is always good. The betrayal of family is the greatest evil known.”

“Tell that to Patachi Ragini,” Sasha said firmly, a hard light in her dark eyes. “Your father-in-law murdered his son!”

“Oh, Sasha,” Marya sighed, gazing sadly at her little sister. “That's what I'm afraid of.”

Riverside stank. The Nasi-Keth moved quietly along the narrow streets and alleys, trying not to tread on anything foul in the dark. There were no sewers here on the bank of the River Sarna, on the opposite side of the Petrodor Incline. Only streets with small, open channels of running filth on either side. A few streets were cobbled and firm beneath Sasha's boots, but most were just hard earth that would turn to mud in the winter rains.

The only light came from within the dirty hovels that passed for houses. Firelight flickered between broken boards, and from behind soiled curtains of rough cloth that served for doors. The walls were so thin and irregular that Sasha could hear the voices within: the women scolding, the children crying and many folk coughing-a horrid, sickly sound. The accents were coarse, and not all spoke Torovan. Many were outcasts from neighbouring regions, Kessligh had said. Poor, unskilled and desperate, they came to Petrodor with little more than the clothes on their backs, and threw together ramshackle dwellings with whatever scrap they could find.

Here, they worked, begged and stole, eking out a living along the overcrowded river docks in conditions unfit for animals. The Nasi-Keth's latest count put the number of tortured souls in Riverside at more than sixty thousand. They had tried to gain converts here, but the people were mostly of superstitious country stock and clung to Verenthane ritual for comfort. Many called the Nasi-Keth witches, and it was not merely for protection from the families that the Nasi-Keth and serrin carried weapons in Riverside.

Soon the slums gave way to large wooden warehouses. Several Nasi-Keth took positions on the corner, while Aiden led the way down a tight alley alongside an old warehouse. Blades drawn, they came to a halt in the confined, garbage-strewn dark, while Aiden peered about the corner. Then he dashed, and disappeared in the gloom. Kessligh was next, and then Sasha. One look about the corner and she saw that they were directly on the River Dock, with water glinting in the darkness ahead and a great mass of barges and ships tied to piers.

Sasha ran, low and fast to a pile of broken wooden crates, and arrived beside Aiden and Kessligh, crouching on the pavings. “Can you see it?” she whispered, peering above the pile. Along the dock, shadows moved against sporadic firelight and she could make out the shape of a spear, or the point of a helm. Guards protecting the boats and their cargo.

“The fourth warehouse along,” said Kessligh, squinting into the darkness. “But I can't see the guards.”

A fourth set of footsteps arrived behind, and then Errollyn was at Sasha's side. No other serrin had come on this mission, but Errollyn had insisted.

“I see two guards by the Torack warehouse,” he said. “They wear Torack colours and the Torack emblem on their coats.”

“That's them,” Kessligh said grimly. The quarter moon had already been and fled, leaving the night black save for the flickering guard lights. “Can you see any carts? Any sign of transport?”

“No,” said Errollyn. He did not squint into the night-he gazed, eyes wide like an owl. Sasha watched him, faintly disconcerted. “Perhaps all the weapons are still on the boats.”

“They were supposed to start moving them off this afternoon,” said Aiden.

Kessligh gnawed at his lip. It was the only nervous gesture Sasha knew him to have. Steiner knew better than to unload weapons bound for the Bacosh or Lenayin on the main Petrodor Dock, with so many Nasi-Keth and serrin around. Instead they transferred cargo to smaller boats out at sea, which in turn came up the Sarna to unload in Riverside.

“Errollyn,” said Kessligh, “how many boats on the Torack pier?”

“Looks like…three square sloops and four barges. Barges at the far pier, sloops at the near.”

“Do we even know for certain those are the ships?” Sasha wondered.

“Yes,” said Aiden. “Three sources, all paid. None knew the others existed so they could not have coordinated their stories.”

“It's a high pass in hostile territory,” Sasha observed. In mountainous Lenayin, a high pass meant a narrow place where advancing forces could be trapped, and slaughtered. “I don't like it.”

“There's never anything to like about fighting in cities,” said Kessligh. “If there's been no unloading, it should all be on the boats still. We'll go with plan five for now, but tentatively. I need a scout. If we commit ourselves to the Torack warehouse entirely, we'll need to know what's in the neighbouring ones.”

“I'll go,” said Errollyn, flashing a smile in the dark. “I'm the only one here who can see.”

“Good,” said Kessligh. “And…”

“Me,” said Sasha. “I'm small and I'm sneaky.”

“But in a nice way,” said Errollyn. Sasha grinned.

“Sneaky in a Lenayin forest and sneaky in a city are not the same thing,” said Kessligh. “Better one of Aiden's lads should go.”

“I've ridden on campaign with Errollyn and fought two battles with him,” Sasha said firmly, giving Kessligh a firm stare. “We'll move better together.”

Kessligh's lips twisted unhappily. As if he felt guilty for pushing her into such a position. Sasha felt her heart swell at the sight of his concern. She knew it was stupid, but she couldn't help it. That concern, however, was not evident in his voice. “Stay low,” he said, “and pull back immediately if there's trouble.”

Sasha took the lead, moving between the old warehouse front and more piles of old crates, where little light penetrated. The warehouse looked abandoned, with nothing stored near that might require a guard. Errollyn followed, his bow in one hand.

The next alley provided cover, and the old warehouse's warped sides provided foot and hand holds for a climb to the roof. Errollyn covered Sasha, then slung his bow over a shoulder and climbed-the bow was nearly as tall as him, but it seemed to give him no problems. When he was up, Sasha pointed to the beam at one end and indicated up the sloping slate roof where it should run. Errollyn nodded, and Sasha moved up that line, careful not to put a foot to either side where the poor construction could plunge her straight through both roof and ceiling.

She paused at the roof's apex and peered across. The next warehouse was guarded. She could see figures standing watch along the riverside dock. From this high angle, she could see others seated behind crates and sacks, their crossbows leaning nearby. Some played dice by lamplight, and she could hear muted conversation and laughter. To her left, away from the river, Riverside sprawled, with only a few lights to break the desolation. Higher beyond rose Backside, referred to by the higher classes as the arse-end of Petrodor.

A hand came down on the tile to her side, and she realised that Errollyn had crawled almost directly on top of her to gain a view without abandoning the support of the beam beneath. The Torack warehouse was still three further along.

“The next roof,” he whispered in her ear. “We can jump the gap. Even I can't see enough from here.”

His knee was between her own, his body nearly pressing on her back. And she was amused at herself for noticing, with all else that was important in the night. She slithered over the apex and crawled down the opposing roof-side, careful to disperse her weight lest she dislodge a tile and bring guards running to investigate the clatter.

At the gap between warehouses, she paused and peered down. She could see nothing below, but there was a guard on the corner. The gap ahead was two armspans-simple enough in daytime, but at night, onto loose tiles, not so easy. She gathered to a crouch, then uncoiled and leapt. She landed comfortably enough, not even displacing a tile.

She crawled onward, feeling very pleased with herself-years of sneaking about forbidden places in Baen-Tar Palace, or climbing trees around Baerlyn, had not been in vain. She paused to wait for Errollyn, only to see that he'd already jumped behind her. She hadn't even heard him land.

Atop the apex of this rooftop, he crawled over her again. “I count nine guards,” he murmured in her ear, “but there could be plenty more. We should wait awhile, and see what comes.”

“Like this?” The thought was not unappealing. If Errollyn rolled to one side, the tiles would quite likely give way. If he crawled forward above the roof's apex, he'd risk being seen. No choice, really…

“You could slide down,” Errollyn suggested. “I see more than you.”

“Two pairs are better than one,” Sasha said quickly. “I might see something you don't recognise.”

Errollyn simply lay on her back, taking part of his weight on his arms. Sasha bit her lip. “Don't get too excited,” he told her. “This is strictly business.”

“Business can be fun too,” said Sasha. Dear spirits, they were twenty paces from men who would gladly kill them and she was flirting.

Sasha knew that however nice Errollyn's gentle bodyweight felt, and however his supporting arm seemed to half wrap around her in a partial embrace, she should not take it too personally. She'd seen serrin exchange even more intimate physical affections without appearing to mean very much by it…or not as a human might understand such things.

“Look,” he said and pointed down at the riverside dock. Some figures walked along a narrow pier lit with the dancing light of a torch. One was a lordly man in fancy clothes. Behind him walked a man in a dark robe and hood…strange for the night was warm. Several guards walked with them. “Symon Steiner,” Errollyn murmured.

“Really?” Sasha peered more closely. The lordly man wore a broad-brimmed hat, lowlands style, with a plume in the band. The brim cast a shadow, obscuring the face. “Are you certain?”

“Of course. I can see the family resemblance.”

“Don't remind me,” Sasha muttered. Her own brother-in-law. Dear spirits. “Who's in the hood?”

“Someone who doesn't wish to be recognised, I'd guess. I'll bet you three quarters it's a priest.”

“Three quarters? Serrin are so cheap.”

“Only because humans fleece us so often.”

“Besides, a priest?” Sasha said as the implications of that began to sink in. “Why?”

“Who better to supervise a holy war than a priest?” Errollyn said.

“You think the priesthood has that much control over the preparations for war?”

“Moral guidance,” said Errollyn, staring at the figures on the dock. They'd stopped at the beginning of the pier and were discussing something. Their hands barely moved as they spoke, so they were in relative agreement. When Torovans were agitated, their hands waved around a lot. “Steiner provides the money and trade, the dukes and your father provide the men, and the priesthood provides the moral justification.”

“And puts the fear of eternal damnation into them,” Sasha murmured.

“Exactly.” Errollyn moved against her back, and that was an interesting sensation too. “Someone's coming.” A soldier jogged across the dock to Symon and the hooded man, and murmured something in Symon's ear. The hooded man turned to look about as they spoke…and even Sasha could see the torchlight catch the black robes beneath his cloak, and the glint of something large and gold about his neck. “You owe me three quarters,” said Errollyn.

“I don't recall agreeing to that bet,” Sasha said.

“Humans are so cheap.”

“Only because serrin keep screwing us all the time,” Sasha retorted.

“You wish,” said Errollyn, with a playful pat at her hip.

“So who sent him?” Sasha wondered. “The archbishop?”

“Perhaps,” said Errollyn. “Though the priesthood has factions too.”

“Everyone in Petrodor has fucking factions,” Sasha muttered in Lenay. She only realised then that they'd been whispering in Saalsi. “I bet even Mari's crabs have fucking factions.”

“The nippers against the biters?” Errollyn seemed amused at the concept. “Do you think crabs frame political arguments in terms of steps forward and steps backward, given they all walk sideways?”

Sasha tried to give him an incredulous gaze over her shoulder, but found it difficult in that position. “You're crazy,” she told him.

“And you're lying beneath me,” said Errollyn. “What does that make you?”

“Female,” Sasha nearly replied, but refrained. “Trapped,” she said instead. Errollyn muffled a laugh in her hair. Sasha nearly missed the look that Symon Steiner gave to one of his men. She stared as the man pulled something from his belt. Errollyn stiffened. “Oh no,” she murmured, aghast.

The garrotte encircled the priest's neck from behind, and tightened. The man flailed, frantically. Sasha could nearly see it, that horrified instant when he realised that he was about to die, and nothing in all the world could stop it. A priest had his gods. A priest should not have feared death. Yet he flailed and kicked all the same. And, sinking to his knees, was finally still.

Men set about stripping the body. Symon Steiner went to talk to another man, with some urgency. With large piles of crates to either side, there was no chance of the dockfront men having seen.

“What just happened?” Sasha asked.

“I'm just a poor serrin lost in the woods,” said Errollyn. “Don't ask me.” He sounded edgy. His body, once warm and comfortable, now felt tense and hard against her. No serrin had killed another for over a thousand years. A cold chill flushed Sasha's skin as she glimpsed a very familiar human phenomenon through serrin eyes. It scared her.

“Why do you like us?”

“I like you,” Errollyn corrected tautly, watching the limp white body emerge from the priest's robes on the dock. Sasha felt both warm and cold at the same time.

From off to the left, amongst the jumble of slum roofs, there came a yell. Then another and a clashing of metal…not weapons, Sasha thought, but a duller steel.

“That's a signal,” Sasha muttered. “Let's go.” Caution abandoned, she slid onto the rooftop ridge and ran at a crouch away from the river. On the slum side of the warehouse, she peered down on the opposing street. Dark shapes ran through the shadows, carrying weapons. They were heading downriver, toward Kessligh and the Nasi-Keth. “Shit.”

“Mudfoots,” said Errollyn. “Looks like an ambush.”

It didn't make sense…the riverside gangs usually didn't care if Nasi-Keth, serrin or the families came sneaking around their territory, so long as they were only intent on killing each other. But she didn't have time to ponder that now. “Let's get down there.”

“Wait.” Errollyn pulled a roof tile aside and made a hole. He pulled a ceramic cylinder half the length of his forearm from a belt pouch Sasha hadn't even realised he'd been wearing. He gave it a good shake, then threw it hard down through the hole. There was a blinding white flash, then a whoosh of yellow flame. The white light faded, but the flame remained, and grew. “Go,” said Errollyn.

Sasha slithered down the roof. There were no guards at the mouth of the alley below. Now she heard the yells and screams of battle. The mudfoots had run into one of Kessligh's perimeter traps, and the ambushers had become the ambushed.

Sasha found a toehold on the plank wall and began to climb. She was halfway down when a running shadow on the street paused. Then stopped and came over, staring upward. Sasha swore beneath her breath and prepared to drop the remaining distance. From above came a heavy thump, like the high note of a big, Lenay bassyrn drum. A projectile buzzed and the dark figure staggered backward, clutched at his shoulder, then fell and began screaming with pain.

Sasha found several more fast hand and footholds, then dropped the remaining distance and drew her blade. Above, Errollyn was descending…he dropped his bow for her to catch, which she did one-handed. She pressed herself to the wall, peering out at the street. There were lights appearing amidst the ramshackle huts opposite and raised voices. The whole of Riverside seemed to be waking up.

Two men and a woman came to check on the screaming man, one holding a burning torch. “Come on!” Sasha muttered beneath her breath as Errollyn descended. Errollyn should have shot to kill. But then, she could hardly blame him. Several more runners came along the street, and paused. Looked at the arrow wound, and then looked about, staring up at the surrounding rooftops. There was no way out down the other end of the alley, Sasha realised. That way was the docks and family soldiers. If it was a fight, the odds against the mudfoots were far better.

Errollyn dropped to the ground beside her, took his bow from her hand, and said, “Let's go. I'll cover us, I don't think they'll have any archers.”

One saving grace-bows were expensive in a big city where good wood was rare, and all expensive things were rare in Riverside. They ran out together, Sasha in the lead. For a moment, their emergence met with no response. Then a yell from behind. Errollyn spun, an arrow from his hip quiver abruptly on his string, even moving backward. The pursuers flinched, breaking away in fear…one charged and Errollyn's bow thumped. The man spun like a top, knocked clean off his feet, a shaft through his shoulder. Errollyn had another arrow on his string almost immediately and the pursuers fled for the cover of walls.

Sasha slowed to let him catch up, more shadows fleeing their approach. Further ahead was a confusion of running, shouting, hand-waving men amidst a dancing chaos of light and shadow. They seemed to be departing away from the river, and now there were large numbers of men running straight toward the crowd, from the far end of the road. They'd been outflanked, Sasha realised in that instant, the primary escape route downriver had been blocked. It would take a very large number of men to do that. The mission was well and truly off; escape now the only path left, and the only way was south, straight through the swarming, stinking, angry slum.

Sasha turned right and ducked into a dingy alleyway. It was nearly too dark to see and she stumbled over some debris before her eyes adjusted. A dog fled, barking madly, as the alley wound back and forth between squalid dwellings and piled refuse. A girl screamed in fear from a doorway as they ran past. Ahead, Sasha could hear fighting…although it seemed to be coming from many locations. The alley joined another, became larger, and Sasha paused, crouching by a wall that stank of urine.

Footsteps and shouting came past, very close. Sasha wiped sweat from her eyes, staring furiously into the dark. They could be ambushed around any corner…Errollyn covered the way they'd come with his bow. She briefly considered letting him lead, considering his eyesight, but then thought better of it. Whoever ran into a mudfoot in the dark had better be holding something sharp. Her breath was coming in hard gasps. There was no room, no light and no fresh air.

A little boy ran from a doorway not five paces away, stopped, and then stared at her. He was ragged, his hair a mess, and there were sores about his mouth. Sasha moved past him, Errollyn following, and the boy just stared at them dumbly. Another bend, and a darker patch of shadow…she stepped in some foul water, then froze to see some men gathered ahead in a patch of light. Their weapons were rough-rusty knives, some clubs with nails or spikes, an improvised spear. Crude, but effective enough at close quarters.

Movement behind the wall at her right caught her ear, and she stepped back a little…then dived as a spear thrust came fast through a gap in the wall, fending with one arm. Ahead, the men saw and yelled. Errollyn shot one as Sasha raced back past him, her forearm stinging. They ran toward the little boy once more, his mother emerged to grab him and screamed…Sasha saw a narrower alley to the left and took it, Errollyn in close pursuit.

“Keep right!” he shouted, and she hugged the right wall, missing some obstacle she could barely see in the gloom. The alley's end was blocked so she darted through an open door, to the horror of residents-a pregnant woman clutching a sickly infant, an old man lying on a dirty blanket on a bare dirt floor, a small fire for light and the air thick with smoke. In the adjoining room, a huddled family leapt screaming for the walls. Sasha hurdled their little fire, spying a doorway beyond, and went through it. Rats scurried in the lane, squealing as she passed, and into a wider alley.

Several men ran by, then halted at the sight of her. They were ragged and dirty like the rest, but better armed. One had a long staff, with a rusty blade jammed in the end, another held a genuine sword.

Sasha moved before they could decide what to do, cutting the man's staff clean in two. He stumbled and another tried to dart past, but she slashed his arm and he fell, clutching a shallow wound. The big man swung his sword, but his terrible technique was made worse by his panicked fury…she knocked it aside, kicked him in the groin, then cracked his skull with the hilt.

The others ran, but now there were rocks flying past-someone behind her was throwing stones. She made another turn and ran, desperately trying to recall her bearings…a woman ahead fell to the ground and covered her head, Sasha simply hurdled her. “Which way?” she yelled to Errollyn.

“Next left,” he said, close behind. He knew cities better than she did. She'd always thought her sense of direction excellent, but now she had no idea which way she was going.

She took the left and realised that somewhere near, something large was burning. Light danced on rooftops and shadows wavered. There were many voices yelling. And fighting, very near.

Peering about the next intersection, she found trouble. Three fighters, clearly Nasi-Keth, were trying to move down the alley. At least twelve mudfoots pursued. Two Nasi-Keth turned to slash at their pursuers, keeping them back, the third coming ahead…and now, three more mudfoots emerged from a door between Sasha and the Nasi-Keth. The twelve charged, emboldened. Sasha ran. Errollyn shot one of the near three in the back, the arrow hissing past Sasha's ear.

One of the remaining two did not notice-wielding a big axe in fury. His Nasi-Keth opponent was small and not particularly good, awkwardly dodging one blow, barely parrying a second. The second man noted his companion's fall, and spun about, his club raised. Sasha feinted left, sprang right and slashed him across the middle. The axeman disarmed his opponent with a slashing blow and aimed the next to kill, only for Sasha to drive her blade through his middle before the axe could fall.

“Move!” Sasha yelled at the besieged Nasi-Keth behind. Both were fighting desperately, several bodies on the ground and another falling as the big Nasi-Keth felled him. And suddenly Sasha recognised Rodery and Liam. Errollyn shot one mudfoot, somehow finding a gap in the confined space, Liam barely parried a blow from a sword, retreating as he went, and then a spear thrust found Rodery's leg. He stumbled and a mudfoot bodily tackled him, pulling him down. Another angled a long knife for a killing blow-Errollyn's bow thumped, and arrow punched through skull like a melon.

Sasha charged, but already there were more mudfoots coming from further along. A wall of them, yelling and waving weapons. Liam took the hand off one attacker, then Sasha arrived at his side, and killed the next two with fast, simple blows.

“Go!” she yelled at Liam. And looked back to Rodery, to find a mudfoot had already driven a spear through his throat, and was twisting it viciously. A girl behind her screamed-the disarmed Nasi-Keth, a rare woman. But the wave was almost on them.

Sasha ran after Liam, and Errollyn sent another arrow past her, felling the leader of the wave whose fall tangled those behind. Someone tried to club Sasha from a doorway as she ran, Sasha replied with a slash that took the club and half the wielder's face with it. Only as she ran on did she realise it had been a woman.

Stones came at the four of them as they ran, ducking along new alleys. A stone struck the top of Sasha's head, stinging but not felling her. Children on the roofs, she realised, glimpsing a small shape against the firelit sky. All of Riverside was trying to kill them.

She did not know how far they ran. Gloomy alleys and lanes became a blur, the occasional stone thudding nearby, the yells of pursuit and other, nearby fighting. Sometimes they would come across bodies, corpses dealt by some other group of Nasi-Keth. Several more times they had to fight clear-Sasha killed two more men, Liam one, and wounded several more between them. Errollyn began to run low on arrows, sometimes firing into the dark at targets Sasha could not see. His earlier mercy, it seemed, was all evaporated. The girl was Yulia, and she'd not recovered her lost sword. Mostly, she was crying and terrified, and tried hard to keep up and stay out of the way, with little more than her belt knife for a weapon.

Finally they emerged onto the banks of a dark lake. Its level was low, and the water putrid, afloat with debris. Sasha, Errollyn, Liam and Yulia ran along the muddy, exposed lake bed headed toward the eastward hills of Backside and the high ridge beyond. Shouts and yells pursued them, armed men gathering on the lake edge beyond, waving weapons and torches. Some threw stones and bits of wood, but their aim was poor in the dark.

“Walk!” Sasha gasped to the others, her boots sinking in the foul mud. “Walk. They'll not venture beyond Riverside.” Above the lake, and beyond, larger houses rose, several of them grand and old, surrounded by fields and trees. Old lands, not yet claimed by the expanding city.

A stone made a wet smack nearby, another splashed in the water. Yells reached a crescendo and men began pouring off the lip and onto the muddy lake bed. Sasha swore, pulling a knife and noting that Errollyn had only three arrows left. He shot the most well-armed man first-a sword-drew fast and shot the next squarely through the chest. Her target struggling slowly through the mud, Sasha had plenty of time to aim and throw, and hit her man in the gut. Several of the attackers faltered, save one who came straight at Sasha, and died immediately after from the simplest of swings. The others turned and ran back the way they'd come.

Sasha shook her head in disbelief and trudged through the mud to reclaim her knife, sidestepping stones as she went. The screams of abuse grew louder. The man she'd struck was still alive. Then she saw his face, wide-eyed and panicked, and barely more than thirteen. She swore and pulled her knife clear-it would increase the bleeding, but there was no choice if the wound was to have any chance of healing.

“Here,” she said in Torovan, and barely recognised her own voice-hard, tired, devoid of emotion. She bunched up a handful of his ragged shirt and pressed it hard onto the bleeding gash. “Press hard. Hard, understand?” She placed his hand over it and made him press. A stone hit her shoulder, another hit the boy's leg. Shit-eating fools didn't care who they hit.

“Sasha, come on,” said Errollyn, directly behind her. He swayed aside from a stone lazily. The last arrow was on his bowstring. “The kid has no chance, not in this cesspit.” He was right, of course. The wound would turn nasty and the kid would be dead in two days. They couldn't take him with them, that would just invite pursuit, and the look in the kid's eyes as he stared at her suggested he would fight any attempt to save him, if such help came from the likes of her. “Witches!” they screamed on the rim of the lake. “Demons of Loth!”

Errollyn yanked her backward as a stone whistled through the spot where she'd been. She staggered to her feet and stared darkly at the gathering line of hysterical slum dwellers. A new man arrived in their midst, holding a makeshift spear with something dark and hairy on the end. A human head. He lofted it skyward and there were screams and shouts of furious, frightened triumph. Sasha could not recognise the head in the chaos of fire and shadow, but she was certain it was someone she knew.

Errollyn raised his bow as the spear holder turned side-on to address the crowd. The bow thumped and thrummed, and the arrow skewered its target in one ear and out the other. People scattered in panic as body and spear-stuck head toppled. Sasha stared at Errollyn. Grey hair wild and matted, his face wet with sweat, his green eyes burned like the torch fires themselves. A demon of Loth indeed.

“Who was it?” she asked him quietly.

Errollyn looked as though he'd like to kill several more. He took a deep breath, and lowered his bow. “Never mind. Let's go.”

“Errollyn,” said Sasha, in rising alarm. Her heart stopped. “Surely it couldn't be…”

Errollyn saw. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not Kessligh.” Her heart restarted. “It was Aiden.”

The foursome limped tiredly across a field, headed for some tall poplar trees along the next wall. A farmhouse loomed near-three floors, like no farmhouse Sasha had ever seen in Lenayin. The night was dark and shadowy against the dim background light, occasional hung lamps and lit windows on the Backside slope above. Grass felt wonderful underfoot. How long had it been since she'd walked on grass? All in Petrodor was stone. Across the vast arc of sky above, a swathe of stars.

Yulia walked quietly, except for an occasional, shaking inward breath. Errollyn had unstrung his bow and walked now with sword in hand. Liam limped on a twisted ankle, but said nothing and refused to slow down. As the heat of battle left her, Sasha felt aches and injuries that she did not recall accumulating. Her head was cut from a stone, her temple swollen from where she'd bashed it on a corner in the dark. Her shoulder ached from that last stone and her right forearm had been gashed from the first spear thrust through the wall. But mostly, she was worried about the other Nasi-Keth, scared for Kessligh, and her other friends. They'd not seen anyone else on this walk away from the battle. Surely many others had taken different directions. Riverside was large and there were many, many routes of escape, she told herself with each aching, worrying step.

When they reached the low wall, Sasha leaned against a poplar and considered the rising Backside slope, dotted with light. “See anything?” she murmured to Errollyn.

“Just the same lights along the ridgetop,” he replied. All of the big family houses along the ridgetop were awake, having seen or heard the commotion down in Riverside. Along the riverfront, there was a big fire burning-probably started by Errollyn's little whatever-it-was that he'd thrown into the warehouse roof. She could see several other fires in the near distance. Further west, there were more lights from the river port town of Cuely, a short distance upstream from Riverside. When Riverside erupted, all the neighbours became alarmed. It gave her little comfort to know that she was not alone in having a sleepless night.

“We should go up,” said Liam, tautly, gesturing up the slope. “All this walking around is pointless. We could walk for leagues.”

“The families will guess it was Nasi-Keth that caused the commotion,” said Sasha, shaking her head. “There'll be a big line of them, all along the ridgetop, waiting for us. It's the perfect chance to catch some scattered Nasi-Keth trying to make it over the top to dockside.”

“So where do we go?” said Liam, unimpressed.

“I know a place,” said Sasha.

“And where the hells is that?”

“Let her alone, Liam,” said Yulia, quietly. “She saved our lives.”

“After you got Rodery killed!” Liam hissed. Yulia's young face was stricken. “You're useless! We had to fight twice as hard to make up for you, and it killed Rodery! The first thing we should have done is thrown you in the river…”

“Liam!” Sasha snapped furiously. “You arrogant shit, you're not half the fighter you think you are! It's just as likely you got Rodery killed!”

Liam might have swung at her, but Errollyn grabbed him from behind, twisting an arm while locking an elbow about the young man's throat. The hold was effortless and held Liam as helpless as a fly in a spiderweb. He struggled, twice, then held still, breathing heavily.

“The mudfoots killed Rodery,” Sasha told him. “I don't know why they attacked us. Maybe some traitor tipped Symon Steiner off and he told the mudfoots some lies about how we were coming to attack them. Put your blame where it belongs, Liam. Be useful because I've no time for baggage right now, d'you hear?”

“So the warrior princess has herself a pet serrin to do the hard work for her,” Liam spat.

“He's saving your life, idiot,” Sasha retorted. “Don't fight me, Liam. I'm not big enough to box your ears. If there's fighting, all I have is this-” and she patted the hilt of the sword over her shoulder. “And you've seen how I use it.”

Liam blinked at her, finally disconcerted. He looked at the ground. “Let go,” he said. “I said, let go!”

Errollyn let loose his arm, but took a hard grip on Liam's throat. “Pet serrin?” he said, leaning close, staring the young man in the face. His green eyes seemed almost to glow in the dark. Liam grabbed his wrist, but could not dislodge the fingers. Sasha was not surprised-a lifetime of archery had made Errollyn's grip like steel.

“You don't scare me,” said Liam, clearly scared. “Serrin don't kill in cold blood.”

“Doesn't mean I can't break a few bones,” said Errollyn, his voice low with threat. “I'd never killed anyone for just waving a spear in the air before tonight, either. Now you drop your selfish whining and pull yourself together. The night's not over yet and there's a fair walk ahead of us. Can you do that?”

Liam nodded stiffly. Errollyn let him go, with a last, deliberate pat on the shoulder. Liam had the makings of a strong young man, but Errollyn was all quickness and all muscle.

“Did it work?” said Errollyn in Lenay as they set out across the next field in the dark.

Sasha spared Liam a glance. He walked with his head down and did not look likely to make more trouble. “I think so,” she said. “Did you mean it?”

“I'm not certain,” said Errollyn. “Maybe. If he'd tried to hurt you.”

“I can look after myself.”

Errollyn shrugged. “Even wolves hunt in packs,” he said.

Sasha looked at him sideways. “Are you proposing to be my mate?” she suggested. “Or just commenting on my table manners?”

Errollyn smiled. “I thought you liked wolves?”

Sasha sighed. “I do. But not everyone has the luxury of such a close-knit family.”

“Serrin do.”

“Is that how you describe the serrinim? A pack?”

“Every analogy is fraught. But we share many things amongst ourselves. We hunt together. We raise young together.”

“You don't pair-bond for life,” Sasha objected.

“Some do,” said Errollyn.

“Truly? I've never heard of it.”

“There's much about the serrinim you've never heard.”

“There's much about humans you haven't heard,” Sasha countered.

“I know,” said Errollyn, sombrely. Tiredly. “One day, I'd like to learn more.”

Nearby, some sheep bleated. There was a pen over by the farmhouse. This near to Petrodor, it was not safe to leave livestock unattended in the fields at night. Not with so many hungry Riversiders so near.

“What are you talking about?” asked Yulia in Torovan. Her voice was small in the darkness. She walked close, thumbs in her belt, in obvious distress.

“Oh, just things,” Sasha replied in Torovan. “Serrin things.”

“Lenay sounds so different,” said Yulia, bravely. “My father thinks it's an ugly language, but I think it's pretty.”

“I've had the same argument with Lenays about the Torovan language,” Sasha admitted.

“To say nothing of the Torovan people,” Errollyn remarked. Sasha gave him a wry look.

“Is Lenayin very beautiful?” asked Yulia.

“Oh yes,” said Sasha, wistfully. “It's stunningly beautiful.”

“Tell me about it,” said Yulia, with faint desperation.

“Maybe later,” said Sasha, squeezing the girl's shoulder. “There's a road approaching. Be on your guard, we're a long way from safe yet.”

The grand gardens of Pazira House were surrounded by a stone wall, but here, away from the treachery of Petrodor, the walls were not rowed with spikes, nor guarded by watchposts. Errollyn ran first across the road and took position at the base of the wall. Sasha followed, placed her foot into Errollyn's cupped hands and was propelled upward. She lay flat atop the wall for a moment, searching the ground below in the dark, and then jumped, landing on soft grass.

Yulia came second, and fell heavily as she landed. Sasha helped her up, but the girl refused attention. Liam and Errollyn followed.

Ahead, its outer walls lit with lamps, stood Pazira House, a grand mansion of three floors and several turrets. The turrets, Sasha had gathered, were only ornamental-this was a house for living, not a castle for defending. All of the Torovan dukes owned such properties about Petrodor.

Sasha took a stone from the garden and followed Errollyn between tall, trimmed hedges. Beneath the branches of some tall trees, Errollyn gestured them flat, and Sasha pressed herself against a tree trunk. She heard a dog bark somewhere across the gardens, but the wind was blowing into their faces and the dogs would not smell them. Not immediately, anyhow.

Errollyn gestured them up once more and they moved into a maze of waist-high hedges. They stayed low and finally arrived at a wide courtyard with a long, rectangular lake. The house loomed nearer, its outer lights reflected in the dark water between lilies. Sasha could see guards by the main doors, with still more patrolling the perimeter. Soft footsteps approached alongside the lake.

Sasha peered about the hedge and saw a guard in armour with the obligatory broad-brimmed hat, the Pazira maroon and gold colours barely discernible in the gloom.

The guard strolled past them, oblivious. Sasha hefted the stone in her hand, measured the throw, then lobbed. It sailed past the guard's hat and splashed in the water. He spun. Then spun again, searching the night, a hand on his sword hilt.

“The duke prefers mint tea!” Sasha hissed at him. The guard spun a third time, finally facing the right way. But relaxing somewhat, to hear the password. Sasha stood up and he came over cautiously.

“What do you want?” the guard hissed back.

“To see the duke.”

“He's abed.”

“I'll make it worth his while.”

Errollyn, Liam and Yulia were held in the vestibule while Sasha advanced alone down the main hall with two guards. Candles lit the checker-tiled floor-the household was roused if the candles were lit, Sasha realised with little surprise. Riverside was burning and everyone was on guard.

Sasha and the guards waited at the hallway staircase as servants hurried past. The guards’ swords were sheathed and they did not seem particularly afraid of her. Wary, perhaps, but she'd not been a complete stranger to these grounds over the past few weeks.

Finally Duke Alexanda Rochel thumped down the stairs in a thin maroon robe and eyed Sasha with displeasure.

“Damn fool of a girl,” he rumbled. “What have you and your crazy uman gone and done now, set half of Riverside ablaze?” His white hair was rumpled, his eyes bleary.

“We were betrayed,” said Sasha, hooking her thumbs into her belt. “Someone told the mudfoots we were coming and that we meant to do them harm. Lies, of course.”

“The only part that wasn't,” the Duke of Pazira snorted, reaching the bottom and stopping before her. He fixed her with a beady eye. “Did it ever occur to you that not everyone in Petrodor views the Nasi-Keth as the source of all moral rectitude and goodness? You declare yourselves the saviours of the poor while ignoring the simple human truth that not everyone wishes to be saved. You of all people, Sashandra of the Goeren-yai, should know that.”

His stare was knowing. Sasha drew a deep breath. “I've information for you,” she said. “The doings of Symon Steiner. I think you'll find them-”

Duke Rochel made an irritated face and waved his hand. “You don't have to play favours with me, girl, you know damn well I'm still in your debt.”

Sasha blinked at him. “And on my side, too, I'd hoped,” she ventured.

“Damn fool,” Rochel muttered. “How did you ever rise so high with so little wits?”

Soon enough Sasha and Errollyn were seated on a sofa before some open windows on the mansion's first floor. The cool night breeze was a welcome relief from the stuffiness of the house. Sasha grimaced as Errollyn washed the wound on her forearm. It was shallow, but it hurt.

“So explain to me this relationship,” said Errollyn as he worked. A servant hurried across the central carpet, placed steaming cups on the table, and departed once more. “Sasha never has. Or at least, not to me.”

“I'm very pleased to hear it,” said Rochel darkly from a sofa opposite. He sipped at his tea. His eyebrows were as bushy and wild as his hair, and he had the habit of raising just one, beneath which to fix a suspicious stare. “Perhaps six years ago now…is it six?”

“Six,” Sasha agreed, reaching for her tea with her free arm.

“Six years ago, I had some trouble with the villagers of eastern Valhanan in Lenayin. There was a dispute over land boundaries with the earls of western Pazira, some silly nonsense that goes back at least five hundred years. Word spread to the great warrior Kessligh Cronenverdt, who rode from Baerlyn with his skinny, cantankerous fourteen-year-old uma at his side. The Lenays were very angry and I'm quite sure they would have attacked, as Lenays are wont to do at the slightest provocation-” Sasha snorted, “had Kessligh not persuaded them otherwise. And made quite certain I knew about it. That man's a devil in negotiations.”

“And so you owe Sasha and Kessligh some gratitude,” Errollyn concluded to Duke Rochel. “But I hear you also oppose this coming war.”

“Oppose,” the duke snorted. Glanced about the room, and the lovely old furnishings, the bright walls, the ornate ceiling. “You speak as if I had any choice.”

“A man's choices are his own,” said Errollyn. The duke gave him a stare. Errollyn gazed back, green eyes intent within a dirt-stained face.

“The war is a fool's adventure,” the duke snapped. “But this is the city of fools, and this city rules all Torovan with its foolishness. It's your fault, you know.” With a hard, accusing nod at Errollyn. “You serrinim.”

“I know,” Errollyn said mildly.

“You gave Petrodor all your trade and you created a monster. Two hundred years ago I could have spanked the patachis’ insolent backsides. One hundred years ago even. The dukes ruled Torovan then. My grandfather was such a man. I recall him to this day, despairing at the growing tide of wealth from Petrodor, the promises of trade and fortune that bent one duke after another to the will of the greedy, bloody-handed patachis. Those men don't deserve such power, they've neither the wits nor the breeding. For hundreds of years Torovan has been peaceful and prosperous beneath the rule of the oldest families, and we raised our sons with the skills and wisdom to rule wisely, and not for simple profit. Now we are reduced to mere vassals, competing desperately for the right to lick the patachis’ boots.”

“It seems the way of much human power,” Errollyn observed, “that those who deserve it least acquire it most.”

“Don't you make sniping jousts of your lofty serrin wisdom with me, boy,” the duke snorted. “It was the wisdom of the serrinim that led to these dire straits in the first place. Fancy building up a band of fishermen to be the great power in Torovan and not foreseeing the consequences. Fancy occupying three wealthy, holy Bacosh provinces and not foreseeing that the priesthood would one day want them back, and would bend every man of faith to do so.”

“The serrinim have always tried to act with mercy,” said Errollyn.

“And exactly!” exclaimed Rochel, waggling a finger. “What do the serrinim know of human mercy? Is it merciful to show visions of the unattainable to the hopeless? Is it merciful to show a starving man only the smell and the promise of food, but never an actual meal? Is it merciful to tell the poor folk of Riverside that their gods are frauds, and thus deprive them of their one small comfort?”

“Most Petrodor Nasi-Keth are practising Verenthanes,” Errollyn corrected, “no one ever told them that their gods are frauds…”

“You play with human society as if it were your toy!” exclaimed Rochel. “You understand nothing, none of you serrinim, yet you seek to remake us in your own image.”

“Duke Rochel, the Nasi-Keth are a human movement. Saalshen holds no reins of power there.”

“That's not what I hear,” Rochel said darkly.

“Then why-”

“Oh please,” Sasha cut in with exasperation, “this is exactly the wrong time to start a debate about it.”

Rochel sipped his tea. “Women,” he snorted. “Never had heads for politics. Another thing to blame the serrin for. Crazy ideas.”

“How many Lenay rebellions have you successfully negotiated, Duke Rochel?” Sasha snapped. “I've been breathing nothing but politics the last few months, most of which is trying to get me killed. I'm trying to maintain some kind of logical focus, here.”

“Dear girl, setting Riverside ablaze does not constitute a logical focus, nor a political nous, nor the general common sense the gods gave a dead, smelly herring.”

“We were trying for an arms shipment bound for Lenayin,” said Sasha, trying to keep a hold on her temper.

Trying seems to be the operative word.”

“Oh, look you smug, self-important git, if you don't wish to know about the goings-on we saw between Symon Steiner and an important-looking priest, just say so!”

Duke Rochel blinked, his cup frozen halfway to his lips. “A priest was at the Steiner docks at Riverside?”

“The Torack dock,” Sasha corrected.

“With Symon Steiner?”

“They appeared to have just completed an inspection of a boat's cargo.”

“You're certain it was Symon?”

“Errollyn saw him clear enough.”

The duke looked suspicious. “In matters of Petrodor politics, the priesthood are neutral. It is tradition.”

“Huh,” Sasha snorted, “and you think me naive.”

“Dear girl, naivety has nothing to do with it. All of the families give sons to the priesthood, do you understand? The balance was agreed long ago, and the ceremonies decree that the gods are neutral. Of course it would be utterly naive to believe that the holy fathers abandon all previous family loyalties upon the taking of the oath, but for the archbishop to take sides openly would be to begin a civil war within the priesthood! And Archbishop Augine is not such a fool as to…” The duke stopped, to see Sasha and Errollyn exchanging looks. “What?”

“I don't think you'd be interested,” Sasha sniffed. “Such information from a silly, witless girl like me with no head for politics…”

“Thank the dear gods for granting me a daughter of pleasant and modest temperament,” Rochel said with exasperation. “What?

“They killed the priest,” said Errollyn. Watching the duke carefully, awaiting a reaction. “Murdered him.”

Duke Rochel stared. Seemed about to say something, then stopped as if lost for words. Then, finally…“Symon Steiner…killed a priest? Himself?”

“Not by his own hand,” said Errollyn. “But facing him as you are facing me. He ordered it with his eyes, to the man with the garrotte.”

“Who else saw? Besides yourselves?”

“Some Torack guards on the dock. Several family men I did not recognise.”

“Yet you recognised Symon Steiner?”

“Duke Rochel, even Sasha recognised Symon Steiner. My eyesight at night is considerably better than hers. The families have many men, and I do not know them all, despite my years here in Petrodor.”

“Who else?” Rochel was more intense, and more serious, than at any time that evening.

“There were piles of crates on the dockfront. I doubt anyone else along the dock saw.”

“What did they do with the body?” Rochel pressed.

“Stripped it. We saw no more, we became rather busy just about then.”

Duke Rochel took a deep breath. “Damn,” he muttered. “Damn, damn, damn.”

“What does it mean?” Sasha asked, too exhausted for any notion of subtlety. “Why the hells would my sister's lovely husband murder a member of the highest authority in Petrodor?”

“I don't know,” Rochel rumbled. “I only know this-any hope that this power dispute between Steiner and Maerler could be settled peacefully is vanishing fast. Now, there'll be Loth's ransom to pay.”

Sasha poured cold water over her head and scrubbed. Pazira House was not poor, and there was soap and hair oils on a tiled shelf in the washroom. She discovered yet more bruises and scrapes as she washed, but was too tired now to recall from where she had earned them.

She recalled the confusion of the Riverside alleys, and the fear. The light in Rodery's eyes as she'd taught him some new techniques. The big lad had had three brothers and two sisters. One morning, Liam had been teasing him that a neighbourhood girl fancied him. Most unlike the majority of cocky Torovan lads, Rodery had blushed.

Aiden, sitting with Kessligh by the fireplace of her home in Baerlyn. Cheerful, principled Aiden. He'd had a family that she'd never met. The Nasi-Keth were his life. He'd believed they could help all humanity, as they'd helped improve the lives of thousands along the Petrodor dockfront. He'd had hopes for the wretched poor of Riverside. He'd not expected them to parade his head on a spear. He'd only wanted to help.

Suddenly she was in tears. She steadied herself against a wall, sliding to the floor as sobs wracked her body. It was a while before she could stop. Never had she felt so helpless as now, confronted with a horror already passed, that she could do nothing to prevent or undo. She sat naked against the cold stone and cried. It could have been Kessligh's head on that pole. Or Errollyn's. A true warrior should surely cope with such fears, and continue regardless. But she had no idea how.

When the sobs had passed, she rinsed herself, dried, wrapped herself in the robe provided, and gathered her clothes and sword. The hall outside was quiet and dark, but for a sole lamp on a side table. She looked in Liam and Yulia's chambers, even sleeping, they looked exhausted. The weariness was a blessing, she reckoned. Without it, sleep would be hard.

She pushed into her and Errollyn's chambers, and found Errollyn lying on his bed, looking at the ceiling. Light from the lamps outside cast a dim, flickering glow upon the decorated ceiling. He looked beautiful. Calm, in a way she envied more than words could describe.

Errollyn took one look at her in the gloom and got up, pushing his bed across to hers, a squeal of wooden legs on floorboards. Sasha dumped her clothes, hung her sword and bandoleer over a bedstead, slid a sheathed knife beneath the pillow, and then fell into Errollyn's arms. She cried some more, and his arms were comforting in a way that no words could possibly manage. He smelled nice and his chest was more comfortable than any pillow. They spoke not a word.

The man with the wounded leg hung in his chair, breath snorting through his bloodied nose. When Jaryd entered the room and saw the council's handiwork, he was not impressed.

“That's what you call an interrogation?” he exclaimed in disbelief. “That's it?” Raegyl the stonemason was unwinding strips of cloth from his knuckles and flexing his fingers. The prisoner's face was swollen, and there was blood all down his shirt, but it didn't look like Raegyl had been striking very hard. Even the ropes that tied the prisoner to his chair did not look particularly tight.

“You'll address your accusations to me,” said Jaegar, Baerlyn headman. He leaned by one window, massive arms folded, long hair tied into a single, knotted braid that fell down his back. “This interrogation shall go as far as I wish it to, and no further.”

Teriyan was there too, and Ryssin, Geldon the one-handed baker, and Byorn from the training hall. Old Cranyk sat in a chair near the fireplace, his cane between his legs, and watched the prisoner through narrowed eyes.

“Let me question him,” said Jaryd and pulled a knife from his belt.

“No,” said Jaegar, unmoving.

“He has transgressed on the honour of Baerlyn,” Jaryd said incredulously, “and now you grant him favours?”

“No man of Baerlyn will stick a blade into a defenceless opponent and consider Baerlyn's honour unsullied,” Jaegar said bluntly.

“I'm not a man of Baerlyn,” Jaryd retorted.

Jaegar's stare was flat and level within a face set like granite. One eye dark within a maze of intricate black tattoos that covered half his face. “While you live here,” he said, “you are.”

The prisoner groaned and moved his legs. Blood dripped. Raegyl's fists had made a mess, but it was a mercy compared to the fate of such a man in other parts of Lenayin. In Isfayen, Jaryd had no doubt, the man's face would have been his prettiest feature by now.

“Look at him!” Jaryd exclaimed in frustration. “He knows this is the worst you will do! He's survived this far, he probably thinks he can survive the rest!”

“Betraying the Great Lord will gain him far worse,” Cranyk agreed. “But should he hold his silence now, his reward will be even greater. Such are the moments that can make a man's life. He grasps his chance with both hands, with the honour of a whipped dog whining at his master's feet.”

“No,” Jaegar repeated, this time to Cranyk. “Not while I am headman.”

“When I was a boy,” Cranyk replied, his aged voice high and thin, “I saw Cherrovan prisoners flayed alive on the road.”

“That was revenge,” said Raegyl, still massaging his knuckles. “Revenge is different.”

“The young daylthar has claim for revenge,” said Cranyk, nodding at Jaryd. Daylthar, good gods, that was an old word. Jaryd had heard it only in recitals of Tullamayne epics, and similar old tales. It meant “stranger,” in that very Lenay sense that could mean the person from the next village, or the invading Cherrovan warlord, or the travelling serrin from Saalshen. “All the rest of the world,” in totality. Jaryd hadn't thought anyone still used the term. “If the Great Lord had any honour, he would meet the honourable challenge with a blade in his hand. Instead, he sends gold and trades favours to buy the likes of this…” with a disdainful nod at the slumped prisoner, “and a cowardly shot from a distance. All who fall outside our honour are no longer protected by it.”

“The serrin fall outside our honour too,” Jaegar replied, as unmoved as the rock his face and build resembled. “They share none of our beliefs and convictions. Should we then accord them no respect either?”

“The serrin,” Cranyk replied, “would never stoop to such an act. They have their own honour, whatever they might call it.”

“So do the nobles,” said Jaegar.

“Why are you defending them?” Jaryd demanded, folding his arms, his knife still in hand. “What have they done to make you so enamoured of them?”

“It's not a question of liking them, kid,” said Teriyan. “It's a question of law. Our laws exist because they are what we have decided is right and just. If others don't share those values, that's no reason to just ignore it all. Honour is honour. End of discussion.”

Jaryd shoved his knife back into its sheath in disgust. “This is why civilisations are destroyed,” he said darkly. “They lack the conviction to defend themselves by every means possible against those who would destroy them.”

“Aye,” Cranyk agreed, nodding slowly.

“If we must defeat dishonour by becoming dishonourable,” Jaegar replied, “then what have we won?”

Jaryd stared at the men. Teriyan looked sombre, but in general agreement with his friend Jaegar. Raegyl too, and Ryssin. Geldon looked more troubled, his round face etched with a frown. Byorn, too, looked uncertain. Jaryd gave a slight bow to Cranyk. “I thank you for your support, Yuan Cranyk,” he said.

Cranyk looked up at him shrewdly. He studied Jaryd's dripping sweat and the weariness of his posture. “You train hard, young Jaryd. Most likely this quest of yours will kill you. But I wish you an honourable death, and the blood of your enemies. Perhaps we shall sing songs of it.”

From a man such as Cranyk, Jaryd reckoned, that was great praise. He gave another slight bow, turned on his heel and departed the room.

At the ranch Jaryd went to the stables to see what needed doing, and found Parrachik there looking at some horses with the Petrodor merchants who'd attended the wedding last night.

Lynette had saddled one of the fillies-Felsy, Jaryd saw, noting the white-socked hindleg-and was showing her off to the merchants as they leaned on the enclosure fence. Jaryd stood back, unnoticed for the moment, hands on his head as he tried to stretch his aching shoulders. After watching awhile, he found he could only admire, however grudgingly, the sheer audacity of the skinny red-haired girl who commanded the men's attentions in the manly business of horses. She moved quickly and expertly around the filly, handling her with the surest touch, lifting a hoof with the easy pressure of a hand, reciting breeding and conditioning from immediate memory.

Soon Parrachik glanced back and saw him. “Jaryd!” All present turned to look. “I was hoping to find you here. Tell me, have we found that last scoundrel yet?”

Jaryd shook his head, moving wearily to the fenceline. “Not yet.” There was a party of woodsmen out looking for the escaped assassin. Such woodsmen were the reason Kessligh and Sasha had never particularly feared an attack-travelling on the roads in these parts would get you spotted, and travelling off them would get you tracked.

Jaryd exchanged greetings with the merchants and leaned on the fence to watch as Lynette held Felsy's bridle and the prospective buyer climbed astride. A nudge of heels and the buyer moved off, walking the filly at a gentle pace.

“She's a nice horse, that one,” Jaryd remarked to the men. “Quick like lightning, she'll be a racer when she's filled out. Hasn't quite the temperament for lagand, but then most mares don't.”

“There is no lagand in Petrodor,” one of the merchants assured Jaryd in a thick lowlands accent. “We race. And we hunt…ah…foxes. Big hunts, lots of dogs. We like a good horse. Very pretty, very fast, very…well-behaved, yes?”

Jaryd nodded at Felsy. “Well then, that's your girl. She's very sweet.”

The rider nudged Felsy up to a canter, and the filly responded briskly. Clearly she wanted to run and the rider obliged – they took off at a gallop, heading upslope.

“We heard the captive and the man you slew were dressed as Torovans?” Parrachik said, looking concerned.

“Aye.”

“Most alarming,” said the elder of the merchants. “Should you uncover this dishonourable person's true identity, and his employers, you must instruct us. We shall sever ties and do no more trade with these people. We will not have the goodwill between Lenays and Torovan merchants damaged in such a manner. We are appalled.”

There was a chorus of agreement from the others, and much nodding of heads. Jaryd wondered if Lord Arastyn had figured that into his plans or not. Certainly Arastyn was as beholden to the wealth of Petrodor as any other Lenay noble family. Jaryd wondered if there was more to it.

He excused himself and took his place beneath the vertyn tree to practise taka-dans. His muscles protested, and his form was terrible. He could barely manage three precise strokes in a row. He stopped, a hand against the tree, breathing hard. Parrachik's eldest son was watching, having more interest in swords than horses. The lad looked nothing like his father-tall with dark, curling hair in Goeren-yai custom. He dressed like any other Baerlyn boy, wore a sword at his hip and was reputed to be one of the better lads at the training hall. What his Verenthane, lowlands, sword-shunning father made of it, Jaryd did not know. Surely he did not disapprove, or else why did the boy dress like this so openly? And Parrachik seemed to have nothing but fatherly affection for him.

Jaryd gave up the taka-dans, called his gelding from happy grazing on the hillside and rode to a rock pool with a waterfall, which Sasha had told him was her favourite place. He left the gelding to graze near the pool, pulled off his clothes and all but fell into the water. The cold hit him with a welcome shock. It was so calm and still, with nothing but the trickle of the waterfall to break the silence. He drifted while river trout flitted amidst the rocks below.

When the cold became too much, he climbed out and lay on a patch of sun-warmed rock. He thought again of Parrachik's son-a boy nothing like his father, yet his father loved him all the same. Parrachik was a good man, he decided. An outsider who made no attempt to copy Lenay ways, but neither caused them any offence. And now his eldest son was more Goeren-yai than Torovan.

His own father was dead, yet Jaryd did not miss him. He supposed that made him a bad son, which was fitting because the old Great Lord Nyvar had been a terrible father. Some rumoured he'd been poisoned by Arastyn. Jaryd couldn't see that it mattered. If his father had died naturally, then he was now with his gods, and out of Jaryd's life. If he'd been murdered, it was just another thing for Jaryd to avenge himself of when the time for revenge came near. Jaryd just wished he didn't feel like a fraud, to be claiming revenge for his father who would certainly not have done the same for him.

His father had always liked Wyndal better. Wyndal was clever, could read in three languages and had a head for treasury sums. He was also thoughtful and rarely answered back. Memories assailed him…Wyndal's reproachful stare above a stack of papers as Jaryd came strolling in from another lagand practice. Wyndal all red-faced and embarrassed over a village girl at a dance. He'd rejected Jaryd's advice on how to handle an insistent, buxom young maiden…“Not everyone can be like you, Jaryd. A lord should have manners.”

Wyndal teaching Tarryn to read before the fireplace. Tarryn had been delighted and intrigued at the beautiful calligraphy. He'd learned fast, to Jaryd's dismay. It had been a battle between him and Wyndal over Tarryn. Thankfully, Tarryn loved his big brother's books and sums just as much as he loved his biggest brother's horses and swords. He'd always been so pleased to see either of them, running out with a grin and a hug…Jaryd and Wyndal had become friends almost by accident, mostly because of Tarryn. Because Tarryn loved stories and Tarryn loved horses, and Tarryn was always laughing and exuberant and drawing everyone else into his little circle of sunshine. So many conversations he'd started between Jaryd and Wyndal simply because one of them would be playing with Tarryn first. And then there was the incident with the lame puppy that Tarryn had tried to hide in his room to save from the knife, and the scandal over the hole in Lady Heryn's expensive gown, and the whole uproar about Tefyd the gardener's ruined flowerbeds…

Jaryd felt the tears coming, and did not fight them. He curled up on his side, naked on the rocks beside the peaceful rockpool, and sobbed like a baby. About him, the pines stood tall and proud like the columns of some magnificent cathedral, and golden rays of sunshine speared through the branches.

By the time he returned to the ranch, the weather had closed in with a rush. Wind snapped and tossed at the treetops, and drizzling rain threatened to turn to heavier squalls.

Lynette was bringing the horses back and Jaryd helped her stable them. The merchants had departed, taking Felsy with them. She'd sold for thirteen crowns and fifty-seven shingles…a small fortune in local terms. Lynette's money pouch rattled at her belt as they ran down to the house in the first drenching downpour. Kessligh had taken the finest horses from Baen-Tar's royal stables as a gift from the king, and the Torovans knew good bloodlines when they saw them.

Jaryd ducked under the house to get some more firewood, while Lynette set about preparing dinner. Andreyis was still out with the hunting parties searching for the assassin. Rain rattled against the shutters, wind heaved at the roof timbers, and Jaryd was glad he was not in Andreyis's boots this evening.

He'd just relaxed in front of the kitchen fire, when there came a thumping at the kitchen door. Lynette spun with a gasp. Jaryd climbed from his chair and took up the scabbard he'd hooked over a chairback. Usually the dogs barked when strangers arrived, but Andreyis had taken them with him. And with many of the woodsmen also out on the hunt, the ranch was less protected than usual. Jaryd pulled the sword from its sheath and advanced toward the door. Lynette took up a kitchen knife, evidently thinking the same thing.

Jaryd stopped a stride from the door, recalling the crossbow bolt that had gone half through the Steltsyn's wall. Could a bolt go straight through this door? Could the house be surrounded?

“Who's there?” he called.

“Someone who's very cold and wet,” came a thin, female voice, “and who would very much like to come in!”

Jaryd blinked at Lynette, then grabbed the door latch and pulled it open. A cloaked figure stood in the doorway, dripping wet, holding a hood in place with one hand against the wind. The stranger carried a lamp and lifted it now to face level…it shone within the hood, and Jaryd stared in disbelief. He swore.

“Oh dear gods…Your Highness, please, come in from the rain at once!”

“Your Highness?” said Lynette, disbelievingly. Jaryd sheathed his sword, took the lantern, then hurried to grab the dripping cloak as it was removed, revealing a slim female figure in pants and jacket, with long brown hair in a bedraggled ponytail. “Your Highness!” Lynette squeaked. “Is that…I mean…are you…?”

Princess Sofy blinked at the red-haired girl and her weariness seemed to lift as a delighted smile crossed her face. “Oh, you must be Lynette!” She embraced the stunned younger woman. “How wonderful to finally meet you! Sasha's told me all about you. Even though we've never met, I feel like we're related!”

“Hardly,” said Jaryd, hanging the cloak and blowing out the lamp. “That would make her a princess.”

Lynette grinned in disbelief…then realised she was still holding the kitchen knife and put it on the bench. “Oh lords,” she said excitedly, peering at the new arrival, “I can see the resemblance! You have Sasha's eyebrows, and her eyes a bit too…oh!” She clamped a hand to her mouth and curtseyed quickly. “Forgive me, Your Highness, I shouldn't be so forward.”

“I'm very pleased to have Sasha's eyes and eyebrows,” Sofy agreed happily. “I'm also rather pleased I don't have her shoulders and terrible haircut…I mean, I suppose it's useful sometimes…” She pulled at her bedraggled ponytail. “But it's still such a shame. You haven't felt compelled to cut yours, I see,” Sofy observed, brushing at Lynette's red tangles with a hand.

“Oh, my father would kill me!”

“I rode with your father on the way to the Udalyn Valley. He's a wonderful man!”

“He is a lovely man, and he'd still kill me! This hair is a Tremel family heirloom, he tells me. ‘My father and his father's father went into battle with this red hair flowing in the sunlit breeze…’” It was a fair approximation of Teriyan's rough inn-talk, an imaginary ale clasped in one hand.

Sofy laughed delightedly. “You're exactly like Sasha described! What a delight…we're going to have some stories to-”

“Uh…girls?” Jaryd interrupted from the doorway. Both young women turned, each with a hand on the other's arm in midconversation. Women were astonishing sometimes, they could establish love or hate at first sight. “I hate to spoil something so beautiful as friendship, but I think I'm missing something here. When last I saw Princess Sofy she was about to agree to wed some horrible shit in the Bacosh…someone by the name of Arrosh, I recall, Regent Arrosh's first son and heir. There was this whole war thing depending on it, and the future of Lenayin or something. Now she's turned up here in Baerlyn in a storm, a long way from where she should be, with no apparent guard or escort. What am I missing?”

Sofy blinked at him, then looked at Lynette. “Is he always this sarcastic?”

“Oh sarcasm is an improvement,” Lynette returned drily. “Usually he just snarls, or communicates in animal grunts.”

Lynette refused to let Sofy tell her tale until she'd had some food. Sofy ate ravenously, sitting before the fireplace, her clothes only a little damp thanks to the heavy cloak she'd worn. Jaryd and Lynette ate too, as the fire leaped and snarled.

Sofy, Jaryd noted, looked different from the way he remembered her. How was that possible, when it had only been a month and a half? She wore different pants and jacket than she had on the ride to the Udalyn Valley. Those had been hurriedly borrowed from the spare clothes of men in the column, clothes intended for younger brothers or cousins. These were tailored, the pants a thick, soft cloth with a leather belt and a light black leather jacket with designs and filigree stitching weaving down its front. She even had a lowlands-style hair clasp to hold her ponytail, although it was carved with Lenay craftsmanship.

Lynette noticed too. “Where do I get a jacket like that?” she said enviously between mouthfuls.

“It is rather nice, isn't it?” Sofy balanced her plate on her lap and moved to the edge of her chair, offering Lynette a feel of the leather. “I've been riding quite a bit since I returned to Baen-Tar, and I found that dear Sasha was right after all-it's just impossible in dresses. But of course there are no riding clothes for women. No women ride save for you and Sasha. I had these made especially, so that I had something nice to wear while riding.”

“And what's made you so interested in riding?” Lynette pressed, clearly fascinated.

Jaryd could tell what she was thinking; another woman in Lenayin who rides! And not just any woman, but Princess Sofy!

“Well, I became very attached to my little horse, Dary,” said Sofy with a private smile at Jaryd. Jaryd remembered Dary well, he'd been tasked with protecting the horse and his royal rider for much of the journey north, being capable of little else with his broken arm. “I went to see him in the stables every day, and of course he needed exercise, so I would ask stablehands if they could take him riding…but it was so sad not to be riding him myself. And after a few days back in Baen-Tar, facing the grim displeasure of the world in general,” and here her tone took on a sombre maturity, but only for a moment, “I began to miss the open fields and the wind in my face. There's nothing more amazing than trying something entirely new that you never thought you'd be good at or interested in, and discovering that you're both.”

“And the king let you ride?”

“The king,” Sofy said primly, the sobriety returning, “is not the problem. Koenyg is the problem. Koenyg blames me for the rebellion, in part. After a few animated discussions, I grew tired of arguing with him and sought refuge elsewhere.” She took another mouthful and chewed thoughtfully, then washed it down with some wine. Jaryd might have blinked at that, too. Before the ride north, Sofy had never drunk wine in her life. “He forbad me from riding when he heard of the preparations I made with the tailors. He said it would be a disgrace to the crown and a reminder to all Lenayin of the rebellion and my part in it.”

“And what did you do?” Lynette asked breathlessly.

Sofy shrugged, but gave a faint smile. “I ignored him. I truly don't know why I hadn't thought of it sooner.”

“Did that work?”

“Oh, wonderfully!” Sofy said with enthusiasm. “I mean, what can he do? If I'm unhappy or upset about something, it doesn't take very long for the staff, servants, stablehands and all to be spreading rumours throughout Baen-Tar, and those rumours spread to the cityfolk who then carry it all over Lenayin. I told Koenyg that the only way he could stop me from riding was to lock me in my chambers. I mean, I'm about to be wed to the heir of Regent Arrosh-” with a meaningful glance at Jaryd, “and the future of Lenayin depends on it…” She raised her eyebrows as Jaryd smiled faintly, “and the heir to the throne and the princess in question are having a blazing row, and now he's gone and locked her in her chambers with armed guards to restrain her from doing or saying anything she shouldn't…I mean, can you imagine? It would look terrible, just as he's trying to recover people's faith after a rebellion, too. He dare not lay a hand on me, and he knows it.

“So we compromised. I would ride when and where I pleased, and he would give me a Royal Guard escort to ensure my safety. And, wouldn't you know it, it worked wonderfully. People were actually pleased to see me…I mean, they don't get to see princesses very often, we're always holed up in the palace. So I would ride through the fields and farmers would wave, and their children would chase me, and then I'd ride through Baen-Tar town and people would actually come out and cheer. I began stopping to talk with them sometimes, and that went down very well…some had complaints or petitions, but others were just pleased to talk. Recently I went out to Mesheldyn to see the new temple they're building on the king's coin, and I found the temple looked grand, but the irrigation channels from the river were falling apart and farmers were complaining their water was low and crops were dying, so I told Damon about it and he's seeing it fixed.

“So Koenyg doesn't bother me about the riding any more, I'm sure his spies tell him the people like it and it seems to be helping them forget the rebellion, not remind them of it. I wouldn't be surprised if he tried it himself, just riding out and meeting people. Gods know it would do him some good.”

It was the same Sofy Lenayin, Jaryd decided, she'd just grown up a bit. She could still talk endlessly without prompting, and her eyes and voice would sparkle at every point of fascination, which with Sofy meant several times a sentence. And yet, it seemed there was something different about her manner, even if her character remained unchanged.

“Good spirits,” Lynette exclaimed, her eyes wide, “you're probably the only person in Lenayin who'd dare defy Prince Koenyg!”

“Someone has to,” Sofy said cheerfully. “And he's not so scary really. Lenay people just have this way of building everyone into a legend, good or bad. Koenyg's just Koenyg and, however annoying, he's still my brother.”

Doubt, Jaryd realised. Sofy's character was the same as he recalled, but she was missing something, and that something was doubt. The girl he remembered from the ride north had been quiet and uncertain, her eyes darting, worried that she was making an inconvenience of herself simply by being there…which she was. But that girl had also ridden in a rebellion, slept on hard ground, shared meals with warriors, cared for her horse, minded a pair of headstrong Udalyn children, learned as much as she could of a forbidden language, and tended the grievously wounded upon the field of battle. She'd also risked death, defied her father, drunk wine and had even got her hands dirty in a Udalyn garden. Such experiences might change a girl, even a princess. They had certainly changed some men.

“Highness,” said Jaryd, drawing her attention. She met his gaze, then lowered her eyes for the briefest moment. The same, uncertain flicker. Then back again, with firmer resolve as princessly dignity reasserted itself. It disappointed him that she should fall back on form with him of all people. “Why are you here? Koenyg would never have let you ride here without guard. In fact, I can't imagine him allowing you to ride here at all.”

Her eyes darted away again, and he knew he'd hit the peg on the head. “I'm tired of doing everything he tells me,” she said churlishly, suddenly an eighteen-year-old again. “To say nothing of father. I've hardly seen father since the Udalyn ride. Some of us thought maybe he would assert himself more, but no, he's retreated into the temple and Koenyg seems to handle even more affairs now than he did before. I know I'm not the only one unhappy about it.”

Jaryd had often been accused of not being very bright in lordly politics, he'd hated all that pointless, puffing sophistry, and hadn't understood why people couldn't just talk straight to each other. But he thought, just maybe, he could see where this was heading.

“Did you discover something?” he asked. “Something about me?” Sofy met his gaze, sombrely, chewing slowly. “Sofy, what are they up to?”

Sofy swallowed and sipped her wine. She took a second, larger gulp, and stared into the fire. “Jaryd,” she said then, “I hear lots of things. It was always just fun before. People like me, and I've always loved gossip, I can't help it. Only recently have I started to realise what power it gives me…and how worrying that power is for someone like Koenyg. He's been worried about my love of gossip for years, when I thought it was all just a game…” she shook her head in disbelief. “Seriously, I can't believe I've been such a naive little girl.

“There was a lot of talk after your father died.” She met his gaze firmly once more. “They need Tyree, Jaryd. The lords. The rebellion was strongest in Taneryn, Valhanan and Tyree…and Tyree is central, wealthy and close to Baen-Tar.”

“And most of Lenayin's bread is made there, I know,” said Jaryd impatiently. Maybe Sofy thought he was stupid too. “I didn't spend my whole life as Great Lord-in-Waiting ignoring everything important about my own province, I do know a few things.”

“I didn't mean-”

“What are they up to, Sofy? Just tell me straight.” He said it hard and blunt. Sofy looked somewhat crestfallen at his response. Perhaps she truly hadn't meant it like that. Jaryd told himself firmly that he didn't care, even as his heart told him he did.

“Well,” she said, gathering herself, “there's a big debate amongst the Tyree lords. Some say Family Nyvar's removal was poorly done, because it's set a precedent. Many are quite upset, and not just in Tyree either. They're all suddenly watching their backs and double-checking their alliances, just to be certain their own family is not the next one dissolved by ancient clan-law.

“That debate is making Arastyn nervous. I hear he means you dead, Jaryd.” Her gaze was concerned. “I've heard rumours of hired assassins and all kinds of things. The longer you remain alive, the more you fuel the debate and ensure no one forgets what's been done.”

Jaryd smiled, humourlessly. “You're a day late.”

Sofy frowned at him, uncomprehending.

“Three men dressed as Torovan merchants tried to shoot Jaryd with a crossbow at a wedding yesterday,” Lynette explained. Sofy's hand went to her mouth. “Jaryd killed one and captured another, but the third got away. Men are searching for him now.”

“So if you rode all this way to warn me that the new Great Lord of Tyree was trying to kill me,” said Jaryd, “I thank you for the concern, but I'm already aware.” Sofy took another breath, and did not reply immediately.

“That's not the only reason you rode, is it? Tell me.”

“Your brother Wyndal,” Sofy said bluntly, looking him straight in the eyes. “Arastyn means to have him killed too.”

Sasha awoke at dawn, hearing guards out in the hall and men talking outside beneath the window. Still she was exhausted, and knew she'd had hardly any sleep.

“Sleep,” Errollyn murmured alongside. “The house is quiet. There is no hostility here.” He sounded so certain. He had no reason to trust Duke Rochel, nor her relationship with him, and yet he lay on his back, eyes closed, seeming to know that she was awake without looking.

How do you know? she wanted to ask. Who are you? And why do I feel so safe, with you lying at my side?

Sasha awoke again to find the day bright and sunny beyond the window shutters. The bed beside her was empty. Furthermore, her robe was open, and she was naked beneath. No doubt Errollyn had had an eyeful. The thought did not displease her.

She crawled over and peered through the strange shutters-thin wooden slats that opened and closed when one pulled on a string. She'd never seen their like before. Beyond, the broad gardens of Pazira House glowed in brilliant, multiple shades of green and the lake reflected sun and blue sky.

Sasha stretched, and ignored her weariness. There was nothing like a close brush with death to convince a fighter to work on her condition and technique, no matter the discomfort. Her forearm wound was scabbing over nicely, she noted as she did her taka-dans, and the big, tender lump on the top of her head no longer throbbed without provocation.

Sasha made her way through the house and then out into the bright morning. She walked down to the stables where a boy was shovelling muck from the doorway of a stall. He paused to see her coming, wide-eyed. “Lady Sashandra!”

“Hello Mikel,” Sasha said with a smile. “Did he hurt anyone while I've been gone?”

Mikel nodded vigorously, wiping sweat from his forehead. “He threw off Ralin, but he wasn't hurt bad, just a few bruises. Master Faldini can ride him, but no one else dares.”

Sasha frowned. “Master Faldini?”

“The Earl of Shashti, M'Lady. He's Captain of the Pazira Guard; for now, anyhow.”

Of course, Sasha realised, Duke Rochel had brought a good five hundred men or more to stay in Cochindel, the town on whose outskirts Pazira House lay. Pazira families owned most of Cochindel, Sasha understood, and the Pazira Guard consisted of earls and their families, as well as regular, professional soldiers. Beneath them, each province could muster militia from peasants and small landholders. Those would only be raised when the war was imminent. Their quality was not much compared to Lenay militia or regulars, but still, one did not say so too loudly in these parts.

Each of the Torovan dukes had brought forces with him to this present gathering and those forces were now barracked around Petrodor wherever the dukes held ownership. It seemed like a lot of soldiers for some simple meetings, but then this was Petrodor and paranoia spread worse than a Riverside cough.

“Is Master Faldini a good horseman?” Sasha asked. She didn't like the idea of some man she'd never met riding Peg. In fact, she didn't particularly like anyone else riding Peg. As luck would have it, neither did Peg.

“Some say he's the best horseman in Pazira,” said Mikel. Further ahead, there was a loud familiar whinny, then a crash. Peg had heard her.

Sasha saw a huge black head peering over the gate, a muscular chest shoving hard against the barrier. She hugged Peg, and her enormous, petulant warhorse snorted big, horse-smelling breaths all over her. “Oh here, look,” she said, fishing some breakfast fruit from her pocket. But Peg seemed less interested in the fruit than in her. He pushed at Sasha with his nose, with force enough to jolt her backward, and sniffed at her hair. Sasha found she had tears in her eyes. “You never realised you loved me until I left you for a while, did you?”

She rode him out across the mounting yard and through the open gate onto a worn track beyond the walls of Pazira House. Immediately opposite was Cochindel Lake, its banks thick with reeds, willows and waterside bush. Sasha took off along a track to the right, which headed around the lake.

On the far side of the lake, the trail ran into thick trees and she rode through dappled shade. Some of the broad leaves were beginning to change colour, adding a tinge of yellow and red to the green. It was a distinct change from Lenayin's pine forests, but it was beautiful, even at speed.

Before the forest ended, she passed another rider from the duke's stables, and gave a wave as she took his lead. Now heading back around the far side of the lake, the vast, high slope of Backside rose up before her. It was green at the base, but that soon disappeared as the hill grew higher and buildings took over. Atop the high ridge, against the bright blue sky, she could make out the small shapes of great mansions. Beyond them, unseen, lay the Sharaal Sea.

Approaching now on the right, as the trail turned for home, was the village of Cochindel, a tight cluster of brownstone walls and red tile roofs. There were folk out tending the fields where crops grew thick. In one, a harvest was underway and several villagers waved as she passed. The Cochindel temple spire soared high above, a beautiful structure of simple stone. Such lovely buildings, the Verenthanes created. It made her sad.

She returned to Duke Rochel's stables and set Peg loose in a paddock. Sasha removed the sword from her back and sat on a bench beneath a tree, facing the horses. Peg did not stray far, grazing happily in the sunlight, and looking up at her occasionally.

Movement at the stables caught her eye-some new horses mustered in the mounting yard. Nearer, a lithe figure was walking, long-legged in pants, with a broad-brimmed hat on her head. She seemed to see Sasha and broke into an easy jog. Only then did Sasha recognise Rhillian.

Rhillian embraced her with evident delight. “Sasha! I was worried, no one knew of you!”

“You've news of the others?” Sasha pressed, pulling back to look Rhillian in the face. At such close range, Rhillian's brilliant eyes sent a chill up Sasha's spine.

“I've heard news this morning,” said Rhillian, “they were speaking of perhaps fifteen missing from Kessligh's party, with you and Errollyn amongst them-”

“Is Kessligh well?”

“Oh yes.”

Sasha gasped with relief. She'd never truly doubted it, but still…Rhillian smiled, hands on her friend's shoulders. “I haven't seen him, but I'm told he's fine. I don't know much more, I've been busy with other matters.”

“Errollyn's fine too,” Sasha assured her. “We were separated from the main group, he's-”

“I know,” said Rhillian. “He joined us this morning while you were asleep.”

“Joined you? Joined you where?”

“Cochindel.” Rhillian pointed back past the stables toward the town. “We had a meeting there. Errollyn's arrival was a most pleasant surprise.”

Sasha blinked at her. “You…a meeting?” Then she realised. “With Duke Rochel?” Rhillian nodded. “My word. He does get around, doesn't he?”

“It appears. Come, let's sit…you still look exhausted, Sasha. And your eye is swelling.”

Sasha put a hand to her temple, feeling the light swelling there. “I've had worse.” They sat together on the bench. “I ought to be jealous,” Sasha said wryly. “I'd thought I was the only woman the duke was two-timing with.”

“In Petrodor today, almost everyone is unfaithful. I've met with numerous folk who would deny knowing me on their mother's grave. The duke seems a good man, in his way. He wants no part of this war, that's certain. All that remains to be seen is whether he feels he has the option to say no. The ramifications for his province and his family could be dire.”

“I know,” said Sasha, gazing across the paddock. “He does not lack courage, to flaunt his relations with us so openly. Both of us. Surely word has spread.”

“He keeps the patachis guessing,” Rhillian agreed. “The patachis are strong collectively, but know better than most that such collectivity is an illusion. Individually, they fear Saalshen, and they fear the Nasi-Keth even more. By announcing his relations with both, Duke Rochel gives the patachis more reason to fear him. It's all a game, Sasha. For now, it suits all sides to maintain an equal balance of fear. But when the time for balancing ends, and the final act is made, be certain you know where you stand, and who stands with you.”

More horses arrived at the mounting yard. Soldiers, by the look of them, with broad hats and gleaming buckles.

“Sasha,” Rhillian ventured, a little cautiously, “Kessligh's position is seriously weakened. He meant this strike in Riverside to bolster his position within the Nasi-Keth and unite them behind him. Now it's failed. It seems that Alaine is now the strongest of the Nasi-Keth leaders, and-”

“Don't bet on it,” Sasha said darkly.

Rhillian sighed. “I try only to be realistic, Sasha. Alaine is friendly enough to Saalshen, perhaps it would be better for the Nasi-Keth to unite behind his leadership, if anyone's.”

“Aye, you'd like that, wouldn't you?” Sasha said with temper. “You've been trying to split us from the start, play Kessligh against Alaine and Gerrold…”

“No, Sasha, that's not it at all…”

“Some will say it was you that betrayed us in Riverside. We didn't tell you everything, but the talmaad knew enough.”

Rhillian stared at her, her emerald eyes intent. “Do you seriously think that I would?” Her voice was hard.

Sasha shifted uncomfortably. “Not you, personally. But the talmaad…Rhillian, you've said yourself this is a battle you will do anything to win!”

“I never said that,” Rhillian said shortly.

“You did! You said that your people's very existence is at risk and that you refuse to fail!”

“Curse this clumsy tongue,” Rhillian muttered. And in Saalsi, “We have our limits, Sasha. I warned only of our determination, not of our cruelty. Trust me that I would never hurt you. Never.”

Sasha just gazed at her, helplessly hypnotised by that emerald stare. “I killed people in Riverside,” she said quietly. “I lost friends. I saw Aiden's head paraded atop a spear.” The intensity vanished from Rhillian's eyes, replaced by shock. “You didn't know.”

“No,” said Rhillian, with sadness. “I'm sorry. Aiden was a lovely man.”

Sasha took a deep breath. “Serrin are so logical, Rhillian. You do not become attached to your arguments and you waste no emotion on your philosophies. It's why you're such a peaceful people; amongst yourselves, at least. But I'm not serrin. And I'm not about to give up on Kessligh, not when it would mean all those people died for nothing…”

“No, Sasha, you misunderstand me.” Rhillian placed a firm hand on Sasha's arm. “Kessligh is a great leader. I disagree with him on some matters, but he is committed to the betterment of all humanity, and I respect that intensely. I wish only that he would not continue this futile fight amongst the Nasi-Keth, Sasha. If we could only work together, we may stand a chance of ending Torovan involvement in this war entirely.

“Duke Rochel is our friend…or at least he would be, given a chance. Other dukes feel the same. We can split them from the patachis, Sasha. We can prevent this great Torovan alliance from forming. We should not be bickering amongst ourselves as to how we should achieve it, not when we are all truly fighting for the same thing.”

“You want me to persuade him?” Sasha asked incredulously. Her voice was pained. Everything hurt-her body, her head and her heart. Petrodor was too confusing, even for someone raised on fractious Lenay politics.

“No,” said Rhillian. “I want you to think, that's all. Together, Saalshen and the Nasi-Keth are strong. We should not be divided. Think about it, Sasha, that's all I ask. You cannot convince Kessligh of anything if you do not believe it yourself.”

“In my experience,” Sasha said quietly, “he's usually right about most things.”

“He abandoned you in Lenayin,” Rhillian said sombrely. “He thought the Udalyn a lost cause. He thought a rebellion would lead to civil war. And he was wrong.”

“He thought the Udalyn a peripheral cause,” Sasha countered, “not a lost one. He had conflicting priorities.”

“So do we all. So did you. It doesn't make him less wrong. Everyone's allowed to be wrong sometime. He's only human.”

“As you're only serrin,” said Sasha firmly, looking her friend in the eyes.

Rhillian smiled. “I am. But on this, I'm not wrong. I can't afford to be.”

Sasha leaned back on the bench and watched the horses. She felt lost. Rhillian copied her pose, took Sasha's hand in her own, and squeezed.

“That must be Peglyrion,” she said.

“It is.”

“He's every bit as beautiful as you described to me. See the way he stands to keep you in view? See his ear flicking in our direction? That's love.”

“You're suddenly an expert on horse behaviour?” Sasha asked. “You're a city girl.”

“I know love when I see it.”

“Oh go on,” said Sasha. “It's not even a serrin term.”

Rhillian shrugged in the vague, all-encompassing way of serrin. “Yes, it's a strange human concept. It's intrigued the serrinim for endless centuries because it translates into so many Saalsi words that all mean very similar things, but not entirely. Usually it's the Saalsi terms that have trouble finding precise translations in human tongues, not the other way around. ‘Love’ has obsessed nearly as many serrin as it has humans over the years.”

“I doubt that,” said Sasha, with a faint smile.

“Ah,” said Rhillian, holding up a warning forefinger, “don't make the mistake of assuming we don't know what it means. Serrin love. We just have a hundred words for it, and a hundred concepts of deep affection, not one. I think humans struggle so greatly with their singular concept because they refuse to accept that there are so many different kinds.”

“Huh. Where's the romance in that? Humans like mystery, Rhillian. Mystery is…well, mysterious.”

“So is ignorance,” said Rhillian, smiling. “And humans love ignorance all too dearly.” A bee buzzed to some flowers nearby. Peg swished his tail, chewing contentedly. “You could have left him with Saalshen's holdings in Eldin. Kessligh left Terjellyn there.”

Sasha shrugged, a little warily. As much as she liked Rhillian, there were some concerns she was less eager to share with her. “It gives me an excuse to visit Rochel. Kessligh approved-I always got along better with Rochel than he did. He's a conservative, aggravating old grouch, but he admires spirit. He seems to think that I'm an example of character over common sense, which appeals to him.”

“You probably are,” said Rhillian.

Sasha smiled. “Aren't we all?”

En'ath,” said Rhillian, with another shrug. The universal truth. Or, in simple human parlance, “well spoken.” Sasha did not add that neither she nor Kessligh had wanted both their horses in Saalshen's Petrodor stables. There was that old Lenay saying about too many eggs in the one basket.

“Sasha? Did you seriously think it might have been me who betrayed you?” Rhillian sounded hurt.

“No,” Sasha sighed, “not you personally. But some of the serrinim…they're not all as nice as you, Rhillian.”

“Kiel,” Rhillian said shortly.

“Aye, well, there's him.”

“He's a principled man,” said Rhillian, without conviction.

“Aye he is,” Sasha agreed. “Most serrin are. So's Patachi Steiner. I just don't like any of his principles.”

Rhillian twisted her lips in wry assent. “I just…” she began and paused. Sasha gazed at her in surprise. If there was one thing serrin very rarely did, it was begin a sentence and not finish it.

“What?”

“I did not want to make you doubt Kessligh, Sasha,” Rhillian said earnestly. “I just thought that it would be truly grand if I could join with some of my closest human friends in fighting for a common goal. And I would be honoured to fight with you.”

Sasha blinked at her. Honour, another of those human concepts that barely translated. And this one was far less well received amongst the serrinim than “love.” Rhillian was trying to say…something. Trying to escape the bonds of language that separated them, however many words they shared. Did Rhillian doubt? Did she wonder, perhaps, at her own strategies, even as she insisted she did not? Did she wish for human guidance? Or did she simply fear that it could be as Errollyn had warned, and that the moral, principled, high-minded serrin could be driven so hard by the need to survive that they would become everything that they despised and were fighting against?

Sasha smiled at her and grasped her hand more tightly. “I would be honoured too,” she said simply.

Rhillian disappeared for the rest of the day, taking Errollyn with her, and leaving Sasha with little to do. It had been a long while since she'd had a genuinely lazy day. She practised taka-dans, and walked in the gardens and chatted with Bryanne Rochel.

Rhillian returned after the evening meal and, as dusk fell, they began the long trek up the Backside slope toward home. The journey would be safer now, with a day between them and the events at Riverside. Serrin company now that Rhillian had completed her meetings, would make it safer still. The Backside slums were an improvement on Riverside. They were still rickety and cramped, but the slope ensured the water flowed downhill and did not accumulate in poisonous puddles. Some folk actually waved to them in the dusk and called greetings. Women washed clothes, or prepared meals on exposed kitchen ledges, chatting with their neighbours or scolding rowdy children. Sasha knew well from Lenayin that people did not need to be wealthy to be happy and decent. It was a relief to see that in at least this part of Petrodor, the harsh lessons of Riverside did not hold entirely true.

Further up the slope, signs of wealth grew more pronounced. Houses had hard foundations and brick walls were held together with mortar. Dwellings overlapped, or loomed one above the other, as the slope increased. They mingled with the run-down shacks of more recent squatters, all jumbled together with the planning and forethought of a messy, forgetful child. Roads and trails began to multiply, and the party left the larger path they were on and made headway on narrow steps and winding paths. The serrin took the front and rear of the group as night fell and they progressed by the half-light of a fading moon.

After a long climb through winding alleys beneath ever-heightening walls, they found themselves in a narrow street leading onto a courtyard. Above loomed the spires of Garelo Temple, the second largest temple in Petrodor and a rare break in the almost impenetrable barrier of heavily guarded mansions that separated Backside from eastward Petrodor. Even so, it was a dangerous bottleneck to pass through if they did not wish a long trek around the entire city.

Rhillian murmured to one of the three other serrin Sasha did not know. Liam and Yulia waited-Yulia still without a blade. A nice present that would make for some mudfoot, although they would probably sell it to one of the merchant houses soon enough for a handsome price. Serrin did not sell their swords outside the Nasi-Keth. Any Nasi-Keth could make a small fortune by selling their blade to humans who couldn't get it any other way. Losing a blade cast great suspicion upon the dedication and loyalty of any Nasi-Keth. No wonder Yulia looked so guilty.

Sasha peered past Errollyn to the dark wall that rose at the edge of the courtyard. “Can you see anyone?”

“No, they've all got arrowslits.” Errollyn had a shaft on his string, but did not draw. That was House Belis, over there, behind that wall. They had a view of all comings and goings through Garelo Temple. The patachis had once tried to mount a joint guard around the temple, to stop the nightwraiths passage. The death watch, its unfortunate members had called it. Life expectancy on the death watch had been measured not in days, but in hours. At night, no part of Petrodor outside the fortress walls of the great mansions did not belong to the Nasi-Keth. At Garelo Temple, they had written that message in blood.

The walls of Garelo Temple were lined with arches, like ribs along the temple's sides. Errollyn looked that way now, and even Sasha saw movement by one pillar. Hand signals in the dark, too indistinct to make sense of.

“We'll have to run,” Rhillian said grimly. The signals had meant nothing good, Sasha gathered. She peered to the right where buildings overlooked the courtyard opposite Belis Mansion. There was no telling where a man of the families might be hiding with a crossbow, this dangerous night…

“I'll go,” said Liam, with intensity. “I'll draw their fire.”

“Adele will go,” said Rhillian, nodding to a serrin woman with gleaming, pale hazel eyes. “She sees better. You'll follow. We go rapidly from then. Give them no chance to reload.”

One of the other serrin also had a bow, and took position behind and to one side of Errollyn. Adele whispered some last-minute advice in Liam's ear, hands gesturing the way ahead, then she readied behind Errollyn and the other archer. Both men drew their bows with creaking force. Adele sprinted, a lithe shadow fading into the dark, her soft boots making barely a sound. Sasha held her breath, but no arrowfire came.

Rhillian gestured and Liam set off in pursuit. “Damn, I hate archers,” Sasha muttered to herself. All her training, and she had no defence against archers but to move fast, hide silently and pray. It wasn't fair.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” came Errollyn's voice. Sasha blinked. She hadn't meant that.

Another serrin ran, and still no firing. Sasha peered across the courtyard gloom, seeking the shapes of people. Adele seemed to arrive at the temple, Liam gaining behind. Another signal from Rhillian and Yulia took off running. Two thuds from the Belis wall and a frightening hiss. Yulia fell. Errollyn and his companion fired, and Rhillian sprinted into the courtyard. Sasha watched in horror as Rhillian reached the fallen girl, hauled her to her feet and dragged her stumbling onward. More thuds from the wall, and a clatter of crossbow bolts off pavings as Rhillian threw Yulia flat, falling together.

Another thump from Errollyn's bow, and a scream from the Belis wall. One of the crossbowmen had evidently stuck his head up too high.

“Go!” Sasha told the other serrin bowman. He loosed another arrow and sprinted.

“You next,” said Errollyn, drawing his third arrow and seeking a target. Pitch black, firing at hidden archers at a hundred paces, and Errollyn was actually seeking targets, expecting to hit someone. Just ridiculous.

Sasha checked the narrow road behind them, to be certain there was no one sneaking up. Errollyn fired and cursed in Lenay. Sasha sprinted across the courtyard. Dark shapes along the way were flower gardens, she realised as she ran, every sinew dreading the imminent hiss of arrowfire. A shot came, and she flinched in midsprint, but the hiss-and-clatter fell some distance behind.

Ahead, the temple and its surrounding protection of arches and pillars approached. She heard another two thuds, but again, the bolts were far away. And then she arrived, skidding to a halt behind the pillars. Immediately there were footsteps and then Errollyn arrived. He must have been fast to have nearly overtaken her. She was quick but her legs were not nearly as long.

Against the wall of the temple, Yulia sat. Sasha ran across. “Yulia! Are you hit?”

“She's fine,” said Rhillian.

“I'm sorry,” said Yulia, miserably. “I…I heard the shot and I flinched, and then I tripped up…”

“It's okay,” said Sasha. “I flinched too. We don't have to do that again, do we?”

Rhillian shrugged. “I don't actually go looking for trouble, you know.”

“If you shout loudly enough, and wave your knickers in the air, trouble will find you,” Errollyn remarked. Rhillian gave him an emerald stare that might have pinned a more timid person to the wall.

“You actually missed back there,” Sasha told him, waiting for her heart to slow once more.

“You imagined it,” said Errollyn.

“His second shot did not miss,” said the second serrin bowman, covering the courtyard with his bow from a neighbouring pillar. “He's the only one who actually found the arrowslit.”

Sasha stared at Errollyn. “You shot a man through the arrowslit? I thought he just stood up too high.”

“Those wall posts have roofs,” said Errollyn. “You can't stand up high.”

There were several more serrin already waiting at the temple. One was Terel, tall with red-brown hair and deep bronze eyes. “Nice to see you well,” he said at Sasha's side as they made their careful way around the temple, away from the Belis Mansion.

“And nice to see you,” said Sasha. Like Errollyn and Aisha, Terel had fought with Sasha in Lenayin and she knew him quite well from their time together on the road to Petrodor. Unlike Errollyn and Aisha, Terel was quite the traditional serrin…if “traditional” was any sort of word to apply to a people who did not practise traditions in the sense that most humans meant them. He was formal and reserved, but no less likeable for it. “Been waiting long?”

“One waits,” said Terel, in eloquent Saalsi. “One lives, one ponders, one counts the stars.”

“Quite,” said Sasha, repressing a smile.

There was a passage between the temple and the rectory, and the party slipped down it, gathering again beneath the columns on the temple's far side, directly upon the main ridge road. The ridge road ran along the top of the Petrodor Incline, from one end of the city to the other, connecting the most powerful properties in Petrodor. Here, the opposing walls were high, but without guard posts-only the most powerful families willingly picked fights with the nightwraiths. The nearest off road was to the right, Sasha knew, having come this way a few times before, though never on a night like this.

“Errollyn, Adele, Marlen, Liam, Yulia,” said Rhillian, “you go ahead. I'll guard the rear with Sasha, Vinae, and Terel.” She was more worried about House Belis than whatever lay ahead, Sasha realised.

Errollyn leapt the steps from the temple grounds down to the road and ran softly beside the opposing wall. The others followed, spreading out to avoid giving wall archers an easy shot into a bunch. Vinae-the second archer-watched back toward the Belis Mansion, an arrow at the ready. There would be other serrin in the temple grounds, Sasha knew, invisible in the shadows, or on rooftops, securing these strategic grounds from the families.

There came a noise from the right, the sound of a gate creaking open. Then yells as men poured forth from a property in Errollyn's path, a stream of waving torches and weapons. Rhillian swore. “House Therold,” she muttered. “And so the ground shifts once more.”

Errollyn's bow thrummed. Vinae launched a shot into the dark, then more shots came from temple shadows, and from the roof overhead. Men screamed and swords flashed, a chaos of fighting in the firelight.

“Come on!” Sasha urged, desperate to assist.

Rhillian held up a firm hand. “Wait!” As if expecting something more. From a property much further up the right-hand road, more men with torches came charging. And then, to the left, the Belis gate squealed and ground. “Vinae, we'll take the left,” said Rhillian, as calmly as if she were noting the warm weather. “There's a lane opposite Belis House, we'll never make the right-hand lanes now.”

Sasha saw immediately what Rhillian had in mind. They could not go right, the odds were against it. They had to stop Belis's men from hitting Errollyn's group from behind. May as well go through them.

Men were streaming from the Belis gate, some armed with swords, others with polearms with wicked heads, and a few with axes. The Belis men looked like no family soldiers Sasha had yet seen, with steel helmets and metal breastplates that glinted in the torchlight. Plate armour. Sasha, Rhillian and Terel crouched while Vinae held fire. To the right, Errollyn's group seemed to be winning through.

The Belis soldiers ran past the temple and Rhillian charged. Sasha and Terel followed, and arrowfire tore from the grounds. Six men fell in an instant. Sasha and the others tore into their side, diving into the sudden gaps in their ranks. She slashed low across one pair of legs, parried a blow and removed a head. She was about to parry a new threat, but he fell to Rhillian's flashing blade, and another dropped with an arrow in the throat.

In an instant, a charging formation of twenty-plus men were transformed to a fleeing, shrieking band barely half that number. Rhillian was already charging up the road toward Belis Mansion, from where more men were emerging. Perhaps these had expected to follow behind their braver fellows, or to harass the serrin archers in the temple grounds. Surely they did not expect to see one lone, female serrin come charging at them with blood on her mind.

Rhillian, too, was faster afoot than Sasha, and arrived well ahead. She faked a strike, spun past, and felled one and then another with magnificent precision. Another aimed a halberd for her head, but Rhillian skipped back like a dancer, killed his companion who tried to outflank her, deflected a stab for her middle with a downward, vertical blade which miraculously changed to a horizontal, upward cut with a twist of wrists and elbows. The halberd-wielder fell, gushing blood from the throat.

Four dead before Sasha and Terel even arrived, the men from House Belis did not know what hit them. Sasha cut through one and found the others already scattering, those on the periphery falling as serrin arrows found them. Rhillian was already running to a dark gap in the walls opposite the corner of the Belis Mansion. Atop the mansion walls, Sasha caught a glimpse of activity within the guardpost arrowslit, confused crossbowmen not knowing who to shoot in the melee. She dived through the gap as Rhillian waited behind for Terel and Vinae.

There were steps in the narrow alley, leading downward, and Sasha risked her poor human eyesight, hoping to secure some distance for those behind to follow. She found a corner where a second alley ran off to the right and the slope dropped sharply. Above the next house, there was suddenly a view of the harbour well below, agleam with the last light of a half moon upon the horizon. Little ships, in silhouette against that silver light. Now, they just had to survive the descent.

Soft footsteps behind, above the ongoing yells and screams of men on the ridge road above. Terel emerged on the stairs, half carrying Vinae who seemed to have caught a crossbow bolt in the shoulder. Damn. Rhillian came past at speed, feet flying on the steps as Sasha would never have dared in the dark. She took the lead and Sasha fell behind, guarding the rear from any pursuit. It seemed unlikely. An open road was one thing, but an alley in the dark meant single combat with serrin for whom the night was as bright as any day.

They continued down the steps for a fair time, slowed by Vinae's injury. Rhillian took twists and forks with what Sasha presumed (or hoped) was local knowledge, occasionally turning back uphill, or over a short rise of stairs. Many times they passed rear gates in the walls and Sasha suffered bad memories of Riverside, spears and clubs lashing at her from unexpected dark corners. One time Rhillian actually missed a tripwire and triggered a nearby bell, which set a dog barking madly behind its wall. Rhillian seemed not to care, but Sasha could not escape the feeling of unseen eyes upon her back, aiming crossbow bolts in the dark.

Finally Rhillian paused atop some steps where a big tree grew against one wall, spreading thick roots through the surrounding stone. Terel helped Vinae to rest against the tree and tended to his injury. The bolt had struck him from behind, lodging through one shoulder blade. Terel took a knife to his clothes and began to relate his findings to Vinae in some Saalsi dialect Sasha could make no sense from at all. Vinae seemed somewhat reassured, pale and gasping, but alert.

“Those didn't look like family soldiers,” Sasha murmured to Rhillian as both of them crouched atop the uneven stone stairs. “All that clumsy armour, and silly weapons for city fighting. Halberds.”

“They were men of Danor Province,” said Rhillian. She seemed barely even out of breath, her green eyes sharp and calm, cutting through the dark. “That fool Duke Tarabai has been itching to have at us within the city for a while now. He disdained Patachi Steiner's warnings. Now he learns the patachi's wisdom.”

Sasha raised an eyebrow at her. “That's the only nice thing you've ever said about Patachi Steiner.”

“Nice? The wise are rarely nice, in this city. Petrodor wisdom is the mother of Petrodor brutality and intelligence its father. These terms are strange to serrin philosophy. No, I'm sure Patachi Steiner was pleased to set traps along the ridgetop after Riverside, and in light of the increased Nasi-Keth and serrin activity. But I don't think he'll shed tears for his upstart duke to learn his place, either.”

“I'm sure he'd rather have killed us all even more,” Sasha remarked.

Rhillian shrugged. “Tian'as fahr.” One could have said, “that meant, if one could know everything.” “Although captured for torture might be even more preferable to him.”

“Serrin are very good at assassinations,” Sasha remarked. “Why not just kill him?”

Rhillian shrugged. “Patachi Steiner is not the easiest target. Our numbers are not enormous. And there's no guarantee Symon Steiner will be any better. Patachi Steiner is at least open to more subtle forms of persuasion, and he is not yet in a state of total war with Saalshen.”

“Just limited war,” Sasha muttered.

“A perpetual state in Petrodor,” said Rhillian. “Today is just another day of business to the Big Patachi.” She eyed Sasha sideways. “You show distaste.”

“Say what you like about we highland barbarians,” said Sasha, “but at least we take war seriously. Here, it's just another transaction.”

“Honour,” said Rhillian, dubiously.

Sasha nodded. “Yes, honour. It's not such a bad concept, Rhillian. It imparts a price for every action.”

“And a reward for every crime,” said Rhillian, taking some dead leaves off the top step and wiping her bloody sword with them. “Lenays place honour on codes of behaviour in order to maintain the social order and hierarchy. Patachi Steiner places honour on power and wealth. It is a flexible concept, this ‘honour,’ neither inherently good nor evil. Like your blade, it depends on the hand that wields it.”

“At least Lenay honour is gained from the means rather than the ends,” Sasha insisted. It seemed important that Rhillian should understand. This woman was the most powerful and influential serrin in Petrodor. So much rested upon her decisions. The fate of humanity, in many ways. “In Petrodor, the ends can impart any crime with honour, should they be rewarding enough.”

“If you're asking for my personal preference of Lenay honour above the Petrodor variety,” said Rhillian, “then you have it. But I shall always dislike ‘honour’ as a concept. Too often it serves to impart respectability upon the most vile of crimes. King Leyvaan's men gained great honour murdering serrin children two centuries ago. Even your wonderful Lenays have a long, bloody history of pillage, murder and rape, all in the name of honour. You are better behaved these days, and honour means different things to you, but that only proves the dangerous ambiguity of the concept.”

Rhillian's emerald gaze fixed onto Sasha with spine-tingling force. There was a droplet of blood trickling down one pale cheek. These beautiful people, this beautiful civilisation, was a shining light for all the world, Kessligh insisted. They are peaceful and good because they are philosophical, and do not to leap to conclusions. They neither hate nor fear easily. They do not kill on a whim. They are frequently long-winded, gentle and indecisive.

But what if that changed, Sasha wondered, staring at that terrible, beautiful vision of luminescent eyes and trickling blood. What if we pushed them too far? What it we made them so angry, and so scared, that they lost their indecisiveness and replaced it with determination? There was determination in Rhillian's eyes now. Determination and focused, deadly intensity. Sasha had now seen Rhillian fight. She'd seen Errollyn fight, and other serrin too. Saalshen would be a terrible enemy for humanity. Terrible for the damage they could do, and terrible for the simple tragedy of such good and decent people forced into conflict with those who should do far better to befriend them. She could not let it happen. She would not.

“You need honour to confirm your identity,” said Rhillian, unblinking. “Your honour tells you who you are. We serrin don't need it. We know who we are.”

Vel'ennar?” Sasha asked quietly.

Vel'ennar,” Rhillian agreed. “The one soul,” literally translated. A concept of serrin unity. Whether it was real or imagined, cultural or merely philosophical, no human seemed to know…and no serrin had yet definitively explained. Not to Sasha's hearing, anyhow.

Vinae hissed in pain as Terel applied something to the wound. He was not removing the bolt, Sasha saw. Probably there were better facilities available to serrin than a dingy alleyway for that. “Do you need any help?” she asked Terel.

“Do you have any skills with medicine?” Terel asked as he worked.

“Um…not for something like that, not really.”

“Then I don't need your help.”

Rhillian's eyes flicked uphill, back the way they'd come. Sasha spun in alarm, but saw nothing. Then, after a moment, a small, indistinct shadow crossed the path. A cat.

“Do you see better,” she asked Rhillian warily, “or do they?” Meaning the cat.

Rhillian shrugged. “I've never asked one. Possibly they do. But do they know what they're seeing?”

“Do you? Maybe the cat knows everything and we're all fools.”

“A serrin answer,” Rhillian said coyly, with an impressed smile. “You're spending far too much time with us. We'll corrupt you.”

“Too late. You remind me of a cat, sometimes.”

Rhillian's grin seemed to light up the dark, flashing white teeth and gleaming eyes. “Meow,” she said with her entire, lean, poised body.

Further down the winding alleys, the party finally arrived at a nondescript gate in the rear wall of a narrow passage. Rhillian reached into a hole beside the gate and pulled something. Faintly, Sasha heard a bell ring. A moment later, a hatch slid aside, and something whispered in dialect. Rhillian replied. Several latches were undone and the gate opened on silent, oiled hinges. Sasha waited until last, passing a serrin she did not recognise, who shut the gate behind her. They made their way through a stone passage with arrowslits at the end, and another gate, reinforced yet open for now.

A turn and then they emerged into a patio centred by a fountain, with gardens about the surrounding wall. The house had broad, slatted doors opening directly onto the patio, behind a row of pillars supporting an overhead balcony. More serrin were waiting, and took Vinae into the house. Sasha followed Rhillian and Terel, and found herself in an adjoining sitting room, chairs about a tiled floor and bookshelves against the walls. Most welcoming of all, Errollyn, Liam, Yulia and Adele were all waiting there.

“Where's Marlen?” Rhillian asked immediately.

“Inside somewhere,” said Adele. “He's fine.” Rhillian looked relieved. Sasha looked questioningly at Errollyn. He'd leaned his bow against a wall and was cleaning his sword. Evidently he'd had to use it. He met her gaze and gave a faint smile. “I never doubted I'd see you here,” that smile said. Somehow, she knew what he meant.

Servants brought them drinks…human servants, dressed much the same as serrin-plainly, with few frills or trinkets, but with quality and style all the same. Upon first visiting a Saalshen property in Petrodor, Sasha had been astonished to find human servants in the house. Errollyn had explained to her that the first serrin talmaad in Petrodor had resisted it at first-service was not a profession nor a social condition of any sort in Saalshen-but it had been a waste of resources for well-trained talmaad to be doing household chores.

The Nasi-Keth had suggested the solution. There were plenty of folk on the Petrodor lower slopes who needed work. Folks with deformities, that often led to them being rejected by their families as cursed. And so the talmaad had taken in many such folk as houseworkers-a term the serrin preferred to “servants.” The houseworkers were undyingly loyal and the serrin were happier. The houseworkers would surely be in a dismal state were they not “serving,” and so “serving” became an alternative no serrin could begrudge them from having.

A bald, round-faced man with an anxious smile handed Sasha a drink and then shuffled off, one leg stiff, one hand and arm curled tight. Yulia was slumped in a chair in a corner. Liam paced, anxious to be on his way.

Rhillian addressed her fellows in Saalsi. “I must meet with Patachi Maerler tonight,” she said. “Words were exchanged with Duke Rochel. There are possibilities.”

“Shall we send a message ahead?” asked one serrin. “I'm not certain of his whereabouts tonight.”

“He'll be home,” said Rhillian, with assuredness. “He'll be expecting me.”

“What did Rochel say?” asked another man, newly arrived into the room. His jet black hair fell with stylish disarray about a well-formed face. His eyes were a pale, almost colourless grey. Kiel.

“Another time awaits,” said Rhillian, in the most abstract form that Saalsi allowed. “Not with others listening,” Sasha interpreted that. “Adele, Marlen, stay and rest. Kiel, I want you along. Errollyn too.”

“Must he?” said Kiel. The question was blandly put. Much about Kiel was bland, and expressionless. Most serrin were disconcerting to basic human instincts, as was Kiel but in a different way. Rhillian startled with her intensity. Kiel startled in his impassivity. He was the only serrin Sasha had ever met toward whom her instinctive reaction was dislike.

“Must I?” said Errollyn.

Rhillian's stare was displeased. “You know humans better than most. You read Patachi Maerler well. You may notice things others will miss.”

“I don't know humans as well as Sasha does,” said Errollyn. He sheathed his sword over one shoulder. “Why not ask her along?”

Rhillian's stare became even more displeased. She said something in dialect.

“Rhillian says that I'm being difficult,” Errollyn translated to Sasha. “She says I know very well why she cannot ask you along.” Rhillian made a sharp gesture of exasperation. “Why don't you tell us all, Rhillian, why Sasha cannot come along? Why is it that you plot things, in a human city, that do not concern our human allies?”

“He becomes more and more human every day,” Kiel said mildly. He sounded almost amused.

“Sasha has her own people to return to,” said Rhillian, glaring.

“And I'd so much rather go with her.”

“Are you talmaad, or are you not?”

“Do you define the talmaad now?” A human might have folded his arms in defiance. That pose, however, seemed foreign to serrin. Errollyn stood calmly, a thumb in his belt. “You're right, I do read Patachi Maerler quite well. You're a fool to trust him, I said so from the start, and I'm sure I'll tell you the same after this meeting too. What more can I add to your expedition?”

“Loyalty,” said Kiel, in Torovan.

Errollyn snorted. “Well may you change tongues,” he told Kiel, in Torovan. “And you accuse me of becoming more human?”

“We serve the serrinim,” said Kiel, in Saalsi once more. “The serrinim cannot be disunited, or we shall fall. Such have we decided, and such does our vel'ennar tell us. Will the du'janah follow? Or do we have to drag you?”

Errollyn gave Kiel a look that was almost…anger. Amongst serrin, in debates, it was rare indeed. “When charging headlong toward a cliff, disunity is no bad thing.”

“When the cliff charges toward us,” said Kiel, utterly unmoved, “then disunity will kill us all.”

“And I tell you that debate has saved us in the past,” Errollyn said firmly, “and shall do so in the future, if we are to survive at all.”

“No one doubts your conviction, Errollyn,” said Rhillian, more gently this time. “Your opinions have always been respected.” Kiel, Sasha saw, nearly smirked. “But these are not the councils and teahouses of Saalshen. This is Petrodor, and I lead. We are talmaad. You swore an oath.”

“Another foreign concept,” said Errollyn. “You accuse me of foreign thinking, but your own is worse. I learn sarcasm. You learn fear and cynicism.”

“Come down from your lofty mountain, great mind,” Rhillian said more coolly. “You're right, we do live amongst humans and their ways at times dictate ours. I can give an order if I must, Errollyn. Do you say that I must?”

Several questions to dockside residents told Sasha of Kessligh's whereabouts quickly enough. She walked along the dock, with only Liam for company, and listened to the creak and heave of the boats tied along the piers. Some folk wandered in the warm evening, unaware of commotions elsewhere in the city. Here, some wealthy types with a foreign look about them-Ameryn, perhaps, walking with several prominently armed guards. There, some rowdy sailors, singing as they wandered from bar to bar. Some men played a loud game of dice before their doorway. Some others sang songs to the accompaniment of guitars. They paid little attention to a couple of passing Nasi-Keth.

“You did well,” Sasha told Liam as they walked. “Up there, and at Riverside. I was impressed.” Liam said nothing. Sasha thought she knew the cause of it. “You were right about Yulia. She should not have come.”

Liam gave her a hard, suspicious stare. “Now you admit it. After Rodery's dead.”

“And what good would it have done to admit it at the time? We were stuck in a situation, Liam. Yulia was there, frightening her further would have only made matters worse.”

“Kessligh should never have selected her for the mission,” Liam said darkly.

“It wasn't entirely his choice. His seconds chose the personnel, Kessligh cannot know the standard of every Nasi-Keth on the dockfront. Besides, her technique in training was not so bad; she should have been all right against mudfoots. But she panicked and her technique deserted her. That's one thing training can never tell. But now we know.”

They arrived at the entrance to The Fish Head where some sailors and locals were having a loud, drunken disagreement, with much shouting and fingerpointing. Sasha and Liam slipped past, down some steps and into the gloomy, lamplit interior.

The space was crowded, with as many Nasi-Keth as Sasha had ever seen gathered in one place. From the stairs, she could see that there appeared to be three sides to the gathering-a triangle, some fancy, serrin-educated folk called it. Near the middle, men were sitting, tables shoved aside. Further back, men stood, perhaps fifty in all. The air smelled staler than usual, hot and musty. The conversation was loud and animated, and so intense that no one saw her enter.

She left Liam, pushed past men along a side wall and headed for the bar where Tongren the Cherrovan waited and watched, a scowl on his dark face. Sasha nearly smiled. She rapped on the bar and his face lit up. Sasha put a finger to her lips to quiet his exclamation.

“What's going on?” she asked him as he leaned close.

“You're alive!” he exclaimed softly. He clapped her on the shoulder-her sore shoulder-and she winced. Tongren ran a finger on her swollen eyebrow. “What man dared do this to your pretty face?”

“Probably some kid with a rock,” Sasha murmured.

He made a dismissive gesture. “You're always beautiful to me. I worried so much for you! Though not as much as one I could name…” He jerked his head toward the group. Sasha looked, but could not see Kessligh amidst the crowd. “Kessligh's in trouble. Alaine and Gerrold made lots of noise. Now they challenge him, say he made a big mess in Riverside, lost precious men.”

“How many did we lose?”

“One less now we have you back…Who else?”

“Liam and Yulia, two more,” said Sasha. “And one confirmed dead. Rodery.”

Tongren shrugged. “Sharl,” he said. “War,” in Cherrovan. One of her small handful of Cherrovan words; the ones every Lenay knew from four centuries of occupation. “That would be thirteen dead, I think five badly wounded and still two missing.” Sasha exhaled hard. It was not as bad as she'd feared. But it was still bad. The whole thing had been bad; there was just no way around it. “Alaine blames Kessligh. Gerrold doesn't blame anyone…he's a good man, sensible. But still, he argues. You'll hear.”

Sasha pulled herself onto a bar stool. “Get me a drink, will you?”

“Ale?” said Tongren, brightening.

“Juice, please.”

“Bloody Nasi-Keth,” Tongren muttered, going to do that. “Take over my bar, scare away my customers, but you don't drink. How can you be real fighting men if you don't drink?”

“I never claimed to be a real fighting man,” Sasha said pointedly.

“Just my point.”

“The plan would have worked,” one of Kessligh's men was saying. It sounded like Bret. From her seat, Sasha could not see him. “I'm telling you, our plans were sound, we had good numbers for the assault, Steiner's men would have had no chance against us…”

“Would have this, could have that!” That was Alaine, loud and angry. Alaine was always loud and, for a Nasi-Keth, frequently unreasonable. “We hear excuse after excuse from you and your great warrior hero!” Sasha bristled. “Did he make this many excuses when he drove the Cherrovan invaders from Lenayin? You complain like an old woman, and make up fantasies like a child! I don't care what you could have done, it only matters what did happen! And this attack was a disaster!”

“Because we were compromised from within,” said Bret, from between what sounded like gritted teeth.

“So you say! How long have we been trying to expand the Nasi-Keth's influence into Riverside? The poor, the hungry and dispossessed are our natural allies, and yet you kill them in their dozens, and set fire to their houses-”

“Rubbish…”

“And now you sit here and declare before us that you have done nothing wrong! Riverside is lost to us now, for years at least…”

“And a great pity,” said someone else, sarcastically, “because you were making such wonderful progress there too. Its inhabitants positively reek of wealth and enlightenment.”

“You make fun,” Alaine retorted, “but thanks to you, now they likely never will!”

“We do what we can for the poor,” said Bret, attempting reason. “The odds against our success are huge, yet we make small progress every year. Not every poor child's blistered feet, nor his mother's hacking cough, is our fault.”

“Normally, yes, I would agree!” said Alaine. “But now, with Kessligh at your helm, you make a bad choice of priorities. The Nasi-Keth has whatever power and support it has in Petrodor thanks to the poor. Most of us are drawn from the ranks of Petrodor's poor. It was the sons of poor families who died in Riverside in this ill-advised attack. They support us because we do good things for them. We give them knowledge, and medicines, and ways to improve their living so they don't get sick. And we defend them from the cruelty of the families.

That is a wise use of force. That is the only use of force we should contemplate. Not this…this brash, dangerous action against the most lucrative arms shipments of the greatest family in Petrodor! Yes, we should help the serrin to defend the Saalshen Bacosh as best they can, but our first priority should always be to our own!”

“If the Saalshen Bacosh falls,” came a retort, “then Saalshen itself is threatened. If Saalshen falls, the Nasi-Keth shall wither on the vine. We do fight for our own, it's only that your vision is neither broad nor perceptive enough to perceive it!”

“We have neither the strength,” said Alaine, decisively, “nor the strategy to contemplate this course of action. We are many, yet not so many that we can afford to waste man after man against the power of the patachis. Have you seen the forces they gather from the provinces? The dukes swear their loyalty and they command entire armies. If they attack us here, we can defeat them, for we own these streets and alleys and no force can take them from us. But to waste good men on such foolish diversions is pointless!

“Look at the good people we have lost! Galthraite, one of our best swordsmen. Aiden, a fine leader. My friend Bron, the mason. Even Kessligh's own uma, legend though some claimed her to be…if even she cannot survive such folly, what chance do the rest of we mere mortals have?”

“Why, Alaine!” Sasha said loudly. “That's the nicest thing you've yet said about me. Legend? That sounds much nicer than whore, or fool, or pagan barbarian!”

The room stopped, and everyone turned to look. Men she knew, Kessligh's followers, stared in disbelief. One grinned. “Sweet Sadis, girl! I didn't even see you back there!”

Sasha climbed up on the bar and walked across mugs and hands to the thick of the group, her temper at a slow boil. Alaine, further from the bar, stared up in disbelief. “It's nice to know you'll respect me so much more when I'm dead,” she told him.

Nearer the bar, men moved aside to clear a space. And there was Kessligh, risen from his chair, and looking at her with…a look of as great an emotion or relief as she'd ever seen him wear. She struggled to contain her own emotion, and jumped down into the space. And grinned up at her uman. He nearly grinned back, a smile of wry, twisted delight, and took her arms. “You'll be the death of me,” he said, attempting gruffness.

“That seems only fair,” Sasha retorted and hugged him, hard. Kessligh hugged her back, harder. “I'm sorry I'm late, but I got cut off. Yulia is well, Liam is back there…” and she pointed back toward where she'd seen him last, “and our serrin friend Errollyn is also well. Our friend Rodery died with great honour, against formidable odds, and took several of his enemy with him. He shall be remembered with pride.”

Men turned to find Liam and shake his hand, or clap his shoulder. He took it sombrely, with little apparent joy.

“You speak the brave words of a Lenay warrior,” said Alaine as the commotion died. Alaine was a man of memorable appearance and no little charisma. He had shoulder-length black hair in light curls. His nose was big, his cheekbones pronounced, and his eyes were deep and dark beneath prominent brows. On his pointed chin, he wore a black goatee. “Yet it is not for you, Lenay princess, to speak of how our fallen men shall be remembered.”

“Does honour mean nothing to you, Alaine?” Sasha asked sharply. “It certainly meant something to Rodery.”

“Honour means as much to the people of Petrodor as it does to you!” Alaine retorted, dark eyes flashing with anger. “It is not for foreigners to try to tell us what our honour means!”

Sasha recalled her recent conversation with Rhillian in the alley. “A dear friend of mine told me recently that honour, like most human concepts, has no fixed meaning and should thus be distrusted. I say that all human concepts have no fixed meaning, and yet, should we distrust them all, we shall be left with nothing. I am Lenay, yet should you choose to confer Torovan honour upon me, I would be flattered. It would be most enlightened of you, Alaine, to accept my Lenay honour in the same spirit.”

“Oh aye,” said Alaine, imitating her accent, “and would it also be enlightened of me to die for your highland honour? If I'll die for any honour, it shall be for the honour of Petrodor, not for the glory of Lenayin!”

“This solves nothing,” said Kessligh, pulling Sasha back before she could advance on Alaine. “Alaine, you say that as Nasi-Keth our primary loyalty should be to Petrodor.”

“And have always said so!” Alaine said proudly.

“Your argument is sound-your path is indeed a path we could follow.” Kessligh spoke with none of Alaine's loud passion. When Kessligh spoke, each word mattered and men listened intently, whatever their personal persuasion. “Yet Petrodor is no island. Neither is any of the powers of Rhodia. Petrodor's current wealth was granted it, unwittingly perhaps, by Saalshen. Lenayin's current stake in Verenthane politics was inflicted upon it by Petrodor. The Bacosh invaded Saalshen two centuries ago, and Saalshen replied with a considerably more successful invasion. Now, the fates of both Saalshen and the Bacosh are inextricably interwoven.

“The fates of all the powers of Rhodia are likewise interwoven. You state that we should not place the fate of the Saalshen Bacosh, nor of Saalshen herself, above our own fate. Yet you fail to see that these two fates are in fact one, single fate. Indeed, were it not for the occupation of the Saalshen Bacosh, the Nasi-Keth would not have been granted such a safe haven from which to grow and spread across Rhodia-in particular here, to Petrodor. You attempt with your arguments to isolate what cannot be isolated.

“Should a united Verenthane army march against the Saalshen Bacosh, the patachis would strike perhaps their greatest blow against the gravest threat to their own power here in Petrodor-us. They will surely attack on into Saalshen, and the serrin will find themselves with more pressing matters at home than the fate of the Nasi-Keth in Petrodor. Imagine, no more cheap serrin blades. No more medicines. No more friendly advice, and occasional military assistance. No more precious information. Then, Alaine, we should truly be alone, and it would be no good thing at all.”

Alaine shook his head with a grin of disbelief. “You argue just like Gerrold!” he exclaimed, pointing to a man seated upon the other side of the triangle. Gerrold was older, of more than sixty summers, with long white hair and a kindly lined face. “Why not just join with him, should you love your serrin brothers and sisters so kindly? Why pursue this madness against targets that even Gerrold does not support?”

“Gerrold loves the serrin,” Kessligh said calmly, “and the serrin surely love him. He would follow their lead, especially the lead of Rhillian. I say that Rhillian does not know humanity as well as she thinks. She tries to make House Maerler and House Steiner fight, and thinks to side with Maerler. It is the worst thing she can do. If either of the great families actually wins, and wins conclusively, it shall be a disaster for us. Rhillian does not understand that it is not final conclusions that are essential, but a continued balance of power. Such a balance keeps the great houses constrained, too scared of each other to take great risks. But one of the great families, victorious and unconstrained, will have no such hesitation. Maerler would happily lead a Torovan army to Saalshen to slaughter all the serrin it could find, they have no greater love of Rhillian and her cause than Steiner does.”

“Your solution is to do nothing,” said Gerrold, with a helpless shrug. Sasha thought it sad that he and Kessligh should find themselves opposed. “Saalshen have had enough of doing nothing. Rhillian does not trust human politics, and I agree with her. She wishes that Saalshen should finally demonstrate its power, and its willingness to use it.”

“I say we contain them,” said Kessligh. “We play the houses against each other and allow neither to gain the upper hand. We attack their arms shipments and make clear to them that such trade will not be tolerated. We make them stew in their own incapacity and frustration. We show them that we control this city, not they. We give them enough rope and let them hang themselves.”

“Worked wonderfully, didn't it?” said Alaine sarcastically.

“If he weren't endlessly undermined from within,” said Bret, “perhaps it would have.”

“He's all talk,” said a new voice to one side. Sasha looked and saw Liam, pushing his way to the front. His young face was set, his lips thin with determination and anger. “He comes to us from a foreign land with great legends of his warlike deeds, but it's all just talk.” Sasha stared in utter disbelief. “I was there, in Riverside. I was taken in by all his talk. So was my friend Rodery. The whole attack was a disaster. We didn't know where we were going, there was no planning and everything went wrong.

“He tells us that women should take a greater role in the Nasi-Keth, just like his uma! But he chose Yulia to come with us and Yulia can't fight! Her incompetence got Rodery killed! And then we had to protect her, and Kessligh's uma's no damn better; she can't fight a jot either! All the tales they tell about her in the highlands are lies-she might be good in the training courtyard, but in battle she's just another useless girl! And then she tries to blame me for Rodery's death, her and her pet serrin, and-”

Sasha charged him, getting in a solid blow with one fist before she was grabbed and dragged backward. “I'll fucking kill you!” she screamed at Liam, who hung upon the supporting arms of neighbours, clutching his bruised cheek. “You scum-sucking traitor!” As men wrestled her backward, and more men restrained Liam as he tried to come back at her, and the whole room exploded in uproar.

“Right here, you stupid pagan bitch!” Liam yelled.

“A duel!” Sasha yelled, wrestling an arm free to jab a hard finger at him. “I want a duel, right now! I'll show you who's the useless girl, I'll cut your fucking head off!”

Gerrold took station in the space between the combatants, with a cold stare for them both. Sasha gave up struggling, heaving for breath. “You're not in Lenayin here,” he said firmly to Sasha. “There can be no honour duel. We don't do that here.”

“I'll start a new tradition!” Sasha blazed. “He insulted my honour, and I'll have his head!”

“No, you will not!” Gerrold shouted.

“Stupid pagan fool,” someone else remarked.

“I'll have you too!” Sasha shouted, glaring in that direction. “You think I'm no warrior? Prove it, you fucking cowards!”

“Kessligh!” came another shout. “Control your bitch! She's gone mad!”

“Sasha!” Kessligh stepped before her, darkly furious. But his fury, to the mild surprise of that part of her mind that could still think clearly, was not solely for her. “Calm down.” The room quieted somewhat. Sasha calmed, with difficulty, the grip on her arms relaxing a little. “Liam makes allegations without proof,” said Kessligh. Sasha recognised that pose, and that tone. It was a fighting stance, but without the blade yet drawn. Men near him became quiet and careful. They might doubt her abilities, but they knew better than to doubt his. “There must be some recourse.”

“Liam is entitled to his say!” said someone, angrily. “We are the Nasi-Keth and we welcome truth in all its forms, not merely that which you find convenient!”

“All Nasi-Keth are entitled to their say,” Kessligh agreed, “but Liam does not merely voice opinions. He makes allegations. That's different. It is the nature of our truth that allegations must be backed by evidence. My uma merely claims the right to contest these allegations.”

“We don't fight barbarian honour duels amongst the Petrodor Nasi-Keth!” Gerrold insisted crossly. “We're more civilised than that!”

“Aye,” snarled Sasha, “there's no provision for duels because all your enemies are dealt with by a knife from behind in the dark! How civilised.” She was somewhat astonished that Kessligh was defending her. Usually when she lost her temper and caused trouble, he'd give her a whack about the ears, metaphorically or otherwise.

“You work out the best solution,” said Kessligh to those opposite, “because this is presently an impasse. For truth to out, lies must be given their chance to be exposed. Liam's allegations hold no truth until proven, and they can only be proven if challenged. Such is our way.”

“Not this way!” Gerrold insisted.

“Then find another,” said Kessligh firmly. “Liam entered onto this ground of his choosing. He knows Sasha well enough, and Lenay honour. I have lived in Lenayin for thirty of my fifty years. You cannot imagine the gravity of Liam's insult to a warrior of her standard. Sasha's response is truly most restrained. Most Lenays would not even ask for a duel, but would have simply killed him on the spot.”

“Well you're not in Lenayin!” someone shouted. “This is Petrodor and we do things our way!”

“Sasha is my uma.” With an unwavering, deadly stare. “She is Nasi-Keth, and the Nasi-Keth belong to no single city, nor race, nor kingdom. Her truth is her own. Such is our way. Some have accepted her. Liam chose to fight at her side. He placed himself within her truth, by choice. And then, he pissed on it. It was his choice, and so the consequences must also be his. Sasha's origins have naught to do with it. She merely follows her truth. Who disputes?”

“Errollyn,” said Aisha, “you're going to make Rhillian really angry one of these days.” They walked along a narrow lane that wound parallel to South Pier. The rise was growing steeper as they approached Sharptooth, its sheer cliff wall rising straight from the harbour waters. The lane cunningly ducked beneath the foot of a wall, descending and climbing narrow steps, with a view of the harbour beyond waterfront buildings. Errollyn often wondered at the mindset of a people who had built such a clandestine network into their city. And wondered further if they now regretted it, since its takeover by jumped-up paupers and serrin devils.

“Oh come on,” Errollyn replied, “you enjoy making Rhillian angry as much as I do.” They spoke in the customary Petrodor-whisper, Errollyn moving close behind his friend, whose pale-blonde head came barely level with his armpit.

“I'd feel so much more comfortable if I actually believed you didn't enjoy it so much,” Aisha stated, padding lightly down some steps carved into the sandstone cliff. The path now had a wooden fence on one side, Errollyn kept his bow ready and Aisha moved with her blade drawn.

“Patachi Maerler will kill us all at the first opportunity,” said Errollyn.

“All the more reason why you should be with her,” said Aisha. She paused, pressing herself to the rock on their right. They listened. Nothing moved. “Rhillian does actually desire your guidance, Errollyn.” They resumed, cautiously, as the lane rose once more. “Why don't you want to give it to her?”

“She's ignored it so many times before,” said Errollyn. The entire situation frustrated him. The Nasi-Keth would determine the outcome of events in Petrodor, not Rhillian. He was certain of it. “She did not even see that outcomes in Lenayin would be important.”

“Neither did Kessligh,” Aisha reasoned. “He came here instead.”

“He has not our advantages,” Errollyn replied. “Rhillian does.”

“I didn't go to fight in Lenayin because of that,” said Aisha. “I went because I did not wish to see the Udalyn destroyed in Lenayin. It would have destroyed the entire Lenay equilibrium-the entire balance of cultures, languages and powers. Lenayin has great beauty, and great potential. If the talmaad do not exist to further the interests of beauty in Lenayin, then we do not exist for much.” The lane dropped into an alley between two property walls. “I defied Rhillian then, but I do not doubt her, as such. She is quite brilliant, Errollyn. You should not give up on her.”

“There was a great Torovan painter, a man named Yonaglese…”

“I know Yonaglese,” said Aisha.

“Perhaps a century and a half ago, he painted the ceiling of a big temple in Songel. Serrin who visited at the time said it was a masterpiece. But within ten years, the plaster had begun to crack, and soon, despite efforts to preserve it, the plaster had crumbled entirely and the painting was lost.” They paused at an intersection of alleys and listened. Aisha peered one way and then the other. “Rhillian has masterful strokes, Aisha. But she paints on poor plaster. She has superb detail, yet her broader scope is missing.”

“I understood the analogy the first time,” said Aisha, with a faintly reproachful look. She smiled mischievously. Not an uncommon expression for Aisha. “I think you're just worried for your little dark-eyed beauty.”

“I don't really care what you think,” said Errollyn.

Aisha grinned. “You should. I'm half human, I see the things my serrin siblings miss.”

“Would you stop chattering and move?”

Tall, ugly buildings bordered the base of the Sharptooth cliff. Rock had been cut away to make space for the buildings, and then bricked up to prevent the sandstone collapsing. Down a narrow, bad-smelling alley they crept, until at a sharp zigzag, they paused.

Rhillian emerged from the shadow of a wall overgrown with tall, thorny redberries, then Kiel. “Hello, Aisha,” said Rhillian, seeming both pleased and surprised to see her. And a little annoyed. “Errollyn said he needed to fetch something on the way here. I'd no idea he meant you.”

“He does know how to make a girl feel wanted, doesn't he?” Aisha said brightly.

“Four people may be too many for the patachi, Errollyn,” said Kiel.

“Too many diverse opinions is never too many, Kiel,” said Errollyn. Kiel gazed at him with unblinking grey eyes. Perhaps Rhillian thought herself the impartial middle to Kiel and Errollyn's two extremes. But to Errollyn's mind, there was nothing impartial about Rhillian's mood lately. She stood more and more with Kiel, and less and less with him. He trusted Aisha's impartiality far more. As serrin and human both, Aisha saw both sides.

Kiel knocked softly at a rusted metal gate amidst the thorny vines, while the others stood guard. A plate moved aside and whispers exchanged. The gate opened, but it did not squeal-the ancient, rusted appearance was for disguise, Errollyn knew, and the hinges were well maintained.

Kiel led them into a narrow passage cut in the rock, then a man with a lamp led them up some stairs, past a guardroom and into the depth of Sharptooth. The climb was long-the most elaborate back entrance that Errollyn knew of in Petrodor-and old. Surely it had cost House Maerler a lot of money and time to chisel it from the rock, but then sandstone was not difficult to tunnel, and House Maerler lacked neither money nor time.

After a very long climb, from almost sea-level to near the top of the Petrodor incline, they finally arrived at a trapdoor, which opened to reveal a grand cellar, stocked with barrels. Some stairs led up to the great Maerler Mansion above, but the guardsman took them instead to another door in the wall and through another corridor. After a short flight of stairs, the guardsman knocked on a door and it was opened from the far side.

They emerged into a square, ornate room with a high ceiling. Grand cabinets full of expensive ornaments lined walls hung with intricate tapestries and paintings. From the centre of the floor sprouted a multi-levelled fountain, above which hung a huge, glittering chandelier, alive with at least fifty candles. The room had no windows, but was designed to impress and awe its visitors with ostentatious wealth. And it was designed to be visited directly from the tunnel, without any chance of observation from nosy house servants, or nosy neighbouring houses.

One guard stayed by the door, while another left to alert the house of the arrivals. Errollyn, Kiel and Aisha spread themselves about the room, leaving Rhillian alone in the centre before the fountain. There was only one other doorway at the far end. Only a fool would assault four talmaad through one doorway. Or two doorways, counting the one behind.

They waited, not speaking. Perhaps the patachi was in bed, Errollyn thought. Or perhaps the patachi had other, more pressing business. Finally the door opened and the second-most powerful man in Petrodor walked into the room.

Alron Maerler was young for a patachi, at thirty-nine summers. He was tall and slim, with dark curly hair, a trimmed curly beard and blue eyes. His boots were tall, and his clothes cut to suit his lean figure. He moved with an air of sophistication and elegance that was lacking amongst Family Steiner and their allies on the northern slope. Those were merchants, nearest the trading North Pier, and their manner was that of merchants-brusque and blunt, always ready to haggle, to strike a deal, to shake your hand or cut your throat.

Here on Petrodor's southern slope, Maerler headed the other half of Petrodor's power elite-the half that fancied itself more sophisticated, and more well bred, than their northern cousins. Errollyn did not know from where they took that particular pretension-the oldest money in Petrodor was barely two centuries old. But Maerler claimed lineage to old lords, and even to an old king, back in the ancient days when Torovan had had a king. Rhillian thought Alron Maerler more trustworthy than Marlen Steiner, perhaps for that reason, perhaps for others. Errollyn was as suspect of such a judgement as he was of anything.

“Patachi Maerler,” said Rhillian, with a bow.

Maerler inclined his head. “Lady Rhillian.” Two house guards remained by the door at his back. Otherwise, he was alone and unprotected, save the ornamental sword at his hip. Doubtless he could use it, like most Torovan nobility. And equally doubtless, as a realist in the game of power, he knew himself severely outmatched by even a serrin woman, to say nothing of four talmaad all at once.

Errollyn gazed at the man, eyes faintly narrowed. Patachis were always well-protected, yet Maerler made a statement with this defencelessness. Trust, he said. I trust you. And Errollyn recalled what a talmaad veteran had advised him upon his first arrival in Petrodor two years ago: “When they smile at you, and call you brother, and use words like trust, and bond, and family, that's when you look for the knife in the hidden hand.”

“My good lady,” said Maerler then, having surveyed the room. He walked to her and extended his hand. Rhillian gave hers, and the patachi kissed it, like a true gentleman should. “I do look forward to our little visits together. A beauty such as yours is quite a thrill in such proximity.”

“The patachi is too kind,” said Rhillian with a flashing smile. Oh, she was so good at this. Errollyn had known many women in Saalshen who would have simply stared in puzzlement at such odd human customs. But Rhillian knew just what to do. “I would have come alone, but the streets of Petrodor are so dangerous these days.”

Maerler smiled, genuinely amused at the outrageous flirt. Or at least, his amusement seemed genuine. Errollyn had yet to figure the young patachi out. Either he was simply a very good actor, or he truly did enjoy these fun and games. Neither possibility made him at all trustworthy.

“But not at all,” he insisted, glancing about at the other serrin. His gaze settled on Aisha. “In fact, I do not believe I have been introduced to all of your party.” Rhillian gestured to Aisha. Aisha came, and bowed somewhat lower than Rhillian had. Human customs gave her no difficulty either.

“This is Aisha,” said Rhillian.

“Another serrin beauty,” the patachi sighed. “I swear there must be something in the water in Saalshen. Please, you both must come and sit with me. It shall be my evening's entertainment. Guards, another chair, if you please.”

“My dear Patachi,” said Rhillian woundedly, following him to the chairs. “I fear you shall make me jealous.”

“A-ha!” Maerler turned in midstride, levelling a playful finger at Rhillian. “I have been informed that serrin do not suffer jealousy as humans do. Do you deny it?”

Rhillian gave a sultry smile. “I do not.”

“Oh the possibilities!” Maerler exclaimed, looking first at Rhillian, then at Aisha. The women gave each other a sultry smirk. Errollyn nearly laughed.

They sat, Rhillian and Aisha to one side, the patachi to the other. “And to what do I owe this pleasure?” the patachi asked.

“I have news from Riverside,” said Rhillian, crossing her legs. “And I have spoken with Duke Rochel.”

“My dear lady, everyone has news from Riverside,” said the patachi, lazily. “Your Nasi-Keth friends causing trouble again. You should really keep them on a shorter leash.”

“The patachi knows very well that there is no leash. And I greatly doubt that you have heard this news from Riverside.”

Maerler looked at her, cautious for the first time, but hardly worried. “And what do you offer, with this gesture of information?”

“Cooperation. On matters of common interest.”

The patachi looked thoughtful. “There is a priest missing from the Porsada Temple,” he said then. “The cousin of Gregan Halmady. He has not been seen for a day at least, my sources tell me.”

Rhillian smiled faintly. “The patachi is most perceptive. My sources tell me that Symon Steiner had a priest murdered on the Riverside dock last night. A coincidence, do you think?”

“Sources?” There was no doubting the sudden light in Maerler's eyes.

“A witness,” Rhillian assured him. “You know how we see in the dark.”

A slow smile spread across Maerler's face. “Well, well,” he mused. “So the great allies of Steiner and Halmady are in conflict. Your little ruse worked.”

Rhillian inclined her head. “Randel Ragini was not a ruse, I had intended him for an ally. But discord within the Steiner ranks serves just as well.”

“M'Lady has the makings of a great patachi.”

Errollyn hid his expression with difficulty. Randel Ragini, killed in the Endurance. Rhillian had been cultivating him as an ally. Errollyn had been witness to several of those meetings. Surely Rhillian had not had him…? No, he dismissed the thought. Rhillian had been with him and Sasha when it happened, and had been genuinely surprised. But not dismayed. Nor had she let on to Sasha or Kessligh her relationship with young Randel. Errollyn had actually liked Randel. But Rhillian saw him only as part of a game for power.

It chilled him. The Rhillian he'd known was a kind person, if a determined one. Now she was changing. Family Ragini had close ties to Family Halmady by marriage. Steiner had come to suspect Ragini, and now evidently Halmady, too. Rhillian and Patachi Maerler were conspiring to bring down the Steiner alliance from within, by setting their most powerful families at each other's throats.

“It seems the conflict has moved to include the priesthood,” Rhillian observed. “A curious development for a body that does not take sides.”

Alron Maerler smiled. “The priesthood are on the gods’ side, M'Lady. Symon Steiner had better hope they don't find out.”

“I'd thought the Verenthane gods were omnipotent?”

Maerler's smile grew broader. “Like the serrinim, it seems. The priesthood wishes for a war, M'Lady. They'll support anyone who can bring it to them. Who that might be, however, is a matter for conjecture.”

“Even amongst priests?”

“Even amongst the gods, I'm sure.”

“And you, Patachi Maerler?” said Rhillian, fixing him with her most penetrating emerald stare. “Do you too desire this war?”

“No more than the last time you asked me. War is bad for business, M'Lady. It is no secret that the Maerler alliance is on the decline in Petrodor, relative to the enormous wealth of the Steiners. I would do well for my family merely to hold onto what we have, and perhaps reverse our decline in this city. I have no time to worry about foreign empires and old religious relics the archbishop insists should be returned to Enora. I have better things to worry about.”

“Then why have the priesthood not discarded him entirely?” Errollyn pressed as they followed a guard back down the long, dark stairway to the base of Sharptooth. “Clearly he offers himself to them as a potential leader of this army, or they would have abandoned him by now and thrown all their support behind Steiner.”

“It makes no difference,” said Kiel. “Steiner moves against us. They should be punished, as should all who would threaten Saalshen. We should make of them an example, as Maldereld once made an example of King Leyvaan and his army.”

They spoke in the alderese dialect, used mostly amongst the serrinim to discuss scholarly matters.

“You fear that I shall allow Patachi Maerler to win a decisive victory,” said Rhillian. “I know it is Kessligh's fear, he's expressed it to me often. But the balance here is fixed. Errollyn, you see the way the houses balance each other. It is kel'an tai.” In alderese, the term meant a symmetry of numbers. “Maerler may desire to win, yet the obstacles before him are vast. Even he cannot overcome the symmetry.”

“You're thinking like a serrin,” Errollyn retorted in profound frustration. “This…this symmetry, it's not a concept easily applied to human civilisations-”

“All the universe is a symmetry, and such symmetries encompass all,” said Rhillian with certainty. “Besides, even should Steiner fall to ruin, his lesser allies would survive. Maerler would face continuing opposition from trading families determined to preserve their fortunes. And Patachi Maerler is right in one thing-Maerler is much weaker than Steiner.”

“You think to control him?” Errollyn knew that Sasha sometimes suffered from the urge to strangle someone. His current frustration was not so intense, yet it was profound nonetheless. There had to be an angle of attack through Rhillian's carefully constructed logic, yet he could not find it. “We have neither the power nor the influence to control anyone! You cannot put a great grey bear on a leash and take it for a walk, Rhillian. It walks us. Or worse, turns and eats us.”

“There are always risks,” Rhillian said as the stairs turned a corner, and switched back the other way. “But they are less than the risks of doing nothing. We cannot value stability above change, Errollyn. For too long, we have attempted to purchase peace with the stability of tyrants, and achieved neither peace nor stability.”

“Errollyn does not speak for stability,” said Aisha from behind Errollyn. She spoke the dialect with greater delicacy than any of them and there was concern in her voice. “He speaks for change. He merely observes that a serrin perspective is an imperfect platform from which to view human society and thus judge the nature of impending change.”

“He would hand over the direction of the talmaad to the humans,” said Kiel, distastefully. “Into the hands of those who wish us dead.”

“You think the Nasi-Keth want us dead?” Errollyn snapped.

“I'm quite sure that Alaine would not care if we all dropped dead tomorrow.”

“Kessligh's friends lost lives in Riverside,” Errollyn said coldly, “fighting to stop the armament of forces preparing to attack the Saalshen Bacosh. You give precious little respect to their sacrifice, Kiel.”

“I did not ask them to make it,” said Kiel, unconcerned. “Saalshen has for too long placed the fate of the serrinim in the hands of humans. That time has passed. Either we show that we act for ourselves, or we admit weakness and invite our enemies to destroy us.”

“I agree,” said Rhillian. How surprising, Errollyn thought bitterly, with a stare at the low, rock ceiling. “I gained this post because I demonstrated to the councils that I could act, and act fast. As did we all, to varying extents. We follow the course, Errollyn. Should Steiner continue these preparations, he shall pay.”

“You dress up these ignoble thoughts with pretty words,” Errollyn muttered. “Your independence is just another word for bigotry.”

Rhillian not only stopped, but came back up the stairs at him. Errollyn stopped as Rhillian put her nose to within a hand's breadth of his own. Her gaze was hard. “That's one hell of an accusation,” she said, putting a finger against his chest, all trace of subtlety vanished from her tone. Further down the stairs, their guard paused with his lamp, surprised to have lost his charges. “You think I don't care about these people? I'm hoping to save these people. Kessligh is right. Saalshen is a good influence on humanity, we've demonstrated it often. If we don't survive, humanity's future is bleak. Worse, if we and they end up locked in constant war, we may well destroy each other. But I will not sacrifice Saalshen's greatest hope for survival because your objections make you uncomfortable!”

“And if we gain victory at the cost of everything that makes serrin serrin?” asked Errollyn. Finally, Rhillian looked troubled. But whether that was at the fact of his objection, or its content, Errollyn could not tell. “Will we truly have won?”

“Failure is annihilation,” Rhillian said softly. “Anything better than that is serendipity.”

Alythia entered her father-in-law's private chambers with trepidation. Patachi Elmar Halmady, her husband Gregan, Gregan's brother Vincen, and their uncle Raymon watched her enter, food half eaten on their plates. Alythia had heard loud voices before she'd knocked on the door. Now, the air seemed strained, and Gregan looked uncomfortable.

“You asked for me, Father?” said Alythia, with a curtsy before the men. Elmar Halmady's usually calm face now wore a frown. Vincen's look was unpleasant, almost leering. Alythia pitied Vincen's wife Rovina and was glad she'd been wed to Gregan instead.

“Daughter,” said Elmar. He was nearly blond, with a lean face and blue eyes beneath drooping eyelids. “Are you well this evening?”

The question made Alythia uncomfortable. Uncle Raymon's eyes bore into her, as if suspecting her of something. He was a big man, with a beard covering his second chin, and heavy, dark brows. “Quite well, Father,” she said. She'd been dining in her own chambers with her maids, feeling angry, and lonely, in truth. She'd been almost relieved to receive this summons, if only for some insight into the events that caused turmoil in the hallways of late.

“Do you like this family, Daughter?” asked Patachi Halmady. “Are you happy here? Or do you regret your wedding day?”

Alythia blinked, astonished. “Father?” The patachi was usually reserved and intellectual, preferring to discuss the arts or trade, rather than engaging in anything emotionally taxing. But his lips were pressed thin and sour, and he seemed displeased. Alythia tried her best, disarming smile. “Have I done something wrong, Father? I may speak the language, but I am still very recently from Lenayin-I'm never entirely certain when I've offended someone. Please tell me if I do. I am trying very hard, I assure you.”

“Jasin Daran has been released of his service to House Halmady,” said Uncle Raymon bluntly.

Alythia frowned. “Jasin…?”

“Of House Daran. Handsome lad. Patrolled the walls for us.” Alythia's breath caught in her throat. Surely they could not have…She held her composure with an effort. “You were passing him messages to take to Patachi Daran. You met at his sister's wedding feast, but a week ago. You were observed to make eyes with him.”

“I did nothing of the sort!” Alythia exclaimed, genuinely outraged.

“Jasin confessed,” Raymon continued, his eyes dark with suspicion. “He took your correspondence to Patachi Daran, who would reply in turn.”

“Patachi Daran is an ally of this house and of House Steiner!” Alythia exclaimed. “He and I had an interesting conversation at the birthday feast, and he insisted we should correspond…”

“Oh-ho, is that all it was?” said Vincen, with amusement.

Alythia glared at him. “I'm never allowed to do anything, I've been cooped up in my room for the better part of the last week, and I'm only allowed out of the house for formal occasions…what do you expect? I want some friends! I want some company! At least I'd like to entertain some of the other ladies…and I could be so useful too, you've no idea how much information there's to be had from women's chatter! Why won't you let me be a full part of this family?”

“You sneak behind my back,” Gregan said quietly. He sounded hurt.

“Oh no, my love! I just…”

“They say you are a whore.” Still Gregan did not look at her. “My mother has always said so, and now it seems her words are true.”

“You think I bedded Patachi Daran? How would that even be possible, given that I'm never allowed from the house?”

“You are disobedient!” Gregan shouted, his voice trembling. “A woman of virtue shall always obey her husband.” Dear gods, Alythia thought to herself in despair, I've married a child.

“Who else have you been contacting behind our backs?” asked the patachi.

“Who else?” She was missing something here. Suddenly, she could feel it-the cold, creeping sensation that something was going on that she did not entirely understand. Something dangerous. “What…why do you suddenly accuse me?” She forced a laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. “What do you think…?”

“Cousin Gilbrato is missing,” said the patachi. “It seems almost certain that he has met some foul end. Someone seeks to damage us. Someone with knowledge.”

Gilbrato…the priest? Alythia recalled the man at the wedding feast. A young Halmady man, groomed from childhood to represent the interests of his family in the most powerful institution in Petrodor. The priesthood took men from each of the families, and was influenced by each in turn. Now…Gilbrato was dead? How could that possibly concern her? Unless they thought…unless they thought…Alythia stared at them in horror. “Surely you don't think that I…?”

“You show disloyalty. You pass messages beyond our walls. Someone seeks to undermine us. There is a rumour that Lady Marya Steiner has recently been in contact with your feral sister, the Nasi-Keth. Have you been passing messages to her also?”

“To Sasha? Good gods no! Sasha and I have always hated each other! We can barely stand in the same room without a fight breaking out!”

“You claim to be nothing like her,” Gregan said hotly, “yet you both come from the same highland stock! Treacherous, uncivilised and lacking in womanly virtue!”

Alythia swallowed hard, and stared at the wood-boarded floor. “You accuse me unfairly, my husband.” She struggled to keep the emotion from her voice. This was not going at all the way she had planned. “I am hurt.”

Gregan looked away, tore a piece of bread and wiped his plate with it to cover his emotion. For a moment, Alythia thought he might apologise. “Jasin will live,” Uncle Raymon said darkly. “He is Patachi Daran's nephew, and they each have uses. But the scars will take a time to heal. Have a care, dear niece. It would be a shame to tarnish so royal a beauty.”

Alythia swallowed hard. For one of the few times in her life, she felt fear, cold and hard in her gut. “As you say, Uncle.”

Alythia wandered the garden, the grass cool beneath her bare feet. She breathed deeply and tried to dispel the awful memory of fear. She was born into Lenay royalty and she knew what power was. Baen-Tar had always been full of armed men, but she'd never been afraid. Home was the place where a person felt secure and comforted. She'd hoped that House Halmady could be such a place, but her dreams were turning to dust.

She'd dismissed the attentions of Selyna and Vansy-she did not wish to explain what had happened. It was humiliating. In Baen-Tar, she'd been so popular. It was usually so simple to wind men and women around her little finger. She'd assumed that the exotic charms of a Lenay princess would be enough to win popularity in Petrodor. But, instead, there'd been whispers of “easy virtue,” and the attention of men at feasts, which had inspired envy from women in Lenayin, gained only evil stares from the ladies of Petrodor.

She stood behind her favourite garden bench for a moment, gazing out at the nighttime view of the harbour below. There was a lump growing in her throat, a great, inescapable despair. It advanced on her like a dark wave, threatening to drown her within its cold, churning depth.

She'd never meant for Jasin to get hurt. He'd rescued her from the wolf that night. Ever since, he'd been friendly. Evidently it had suited him to be on terms with the beautiful Princess Alythia. No doubt he'd boasted about it to other men, and implied something more intimate. She'd found it amusing. He'd introduced her to his Patachi at the wedding feast, and…and, well. Perhaps she'd simply wished an adventure. Or perhaps she'd truly been seeking companionship. Or, she admitted now to herself, she'd done it simply to get back at her new family.

But they'd harmed Jasin. Possibly tortured him. Whatever she tried, it turned out wrong. She wondered how Marya had managed to become the very image of a devoted Torovan mother so soon after her arrival. Marya had become pregnant, for one thing, she realised. Not immediately, but soon enough. Perhaps she should think about a child. Her maids kept the serrin's white powder for her, safe from Lady Halmady's pryings-it would keep her belly from swelling for however long she wished. But Lady Halmady had not even spoken to her about a son. Perhaps the Halmadys considered there to be no rush.

Or perhaps, the cold thought occurred to her, this was merely a marriage of convenience, for the duration of the war. Halmady secured its ties to Lenayin and the Lenay army until the Saalshen Bacosh was once again free, and then she'd not be needed any more. Perhaps they'd dispose of her, like refuse after some great feast.

The fear returned. She was going to cry any moment now. She'd cry like a little girl, here before the garden guards. Most of them had surely known Jasin, and some probably blamed her for his fate. Her own weakness sickened her. For the first time in her life, she felt truly helpless. None of her talents would help her here, and she did not know what to do.

She turned from the view and walked back toward the house. Guards watched her beneath their broad hats-the stares that had seemed so playful just weeks before now seemed intrusive and unfriendly. After a short walk, she found herself at the gate to the wolf enclosure. Her heart thudding, she peered over the gate, but could see nothing inside. She reached over, feeling for the latch…and withdrew her hand in sudden fear of a lunging grey shape. But no such shape emerged.

Frightened little girl! she thought to herself, furiously. Coward. Sasha would laugh at you. That made her angry. What did she care what Sasha thought? She never had before. But then, Sasha had always thought her a coward. She remembered Sasha laughing at her in the stables when she'd been scared to get close to the horses. And again, when she hadn't liked the kennel dogs any better. In fact, she'd never liked animals very much at all. It had not bothered her then that Sasha thought her a coward. It only bothered her now, when it seemed events might finally prove Sasha right.

She had an idea. She made her way briskly to the kitchen. Even late, there were meals being prepared, an entire bench full of ingredients being chopped, a vast pot of soup bubbling over a flame, the delicious smell of baking bread. The kitchen hands did not pay her much attention-there were always family wandering through the kitchens, investigating tomorrow's meals, or in search of a snack.

Alythia found a bone largely stripped of its meat, but still with some good chunks attached. She took it and walked from the kitchen with no attempt at concealment. It was a trick she'd learned long ago in the halls of Baen-Tar Palace-if you looked like you knew where you were going, no one would question you. And a princess always knew where she was going.

Back at the wolf enclosure, she looked around, but the path between house and outer wall was empty of guards. She reached inside and undid the latch.

The gate moved slowly open. She peered anxiously into the shadow, the bone clutched in one hand-part temptation, part weapon. “Hello?” she called faintly, prepared to leap back at the slightest movement. “Hello puppy?” She was speaking Lenay, she realised, and nearly laughed, in sudden, hysterical humour. Why would a wolf pup be more likely to speak Lenay? It had lived in Torovan most of its life.

A chain tinkled. Two ears appeared, a faint silhouette in the dark. Two eyes glinted. Alythia froze, but the wolf did not move. Her eyes adjusted further, and now she could see it, lying near the enclosure's far side, as far from the gate as its chain would allow. It wasn't really that big, she realised…and was pleased that she remained calm enough to notice such things, despite her pounding heart, dry mouth and trembling hands. In Lenayin, they grew much bigger. She remembered Jasin saying that the wolf had been brought just recently…cubs were born in the spring, and it was now nearly autumn. This one would be four, maybe five months old. Huge, for a puppy. But not for a wolf.

The wolf growled, but did not charge. Instead, it crawled further away, low on its stomach. Its tail was down, tight between its hind legs. It was terrified, Alythia realised. Perhaps it remembered her and the beating it had received afterward. Or perhaps it merely expected beatings from strangers who wandered into its enclosure on a late night, probably reeking of wine.

Shakily, Alythia sank down on her haunches, rearranging her dress. The chain would pull the wolf up short if it charged again, she told herself firmly. She was safe here. She reached back and pushed the gate shut behind her. The wolf stopped crawling. Perhaps it registered something was unusual. Or perhaps its chain had pulled tight. Its nose twitched, sniffing furiously. Alythia remembered the bone in her hand and threw it. The wolf flinched, growled…and paused, sniffing.

“Oh there, you recognise that smell, don't you?” Obviously someone fed the wolf, for it did not seem starved. But she doubted they gave it fresh bones.

The wolf wriggled forward, quite pathetically, straining for the bone yet held back by some invisible force. It was really quite pretty, Alythia saw with surprise as it came closer. There were some evil legends about wolves in Lenayin, but some good ones too. The latter would be Goeren-yai tales, it occurred to her now. Goeren-yai always liked wild animals, especially the dangerous ones. This wolf had thick, dark grey fur, big ears, large paws and round eyes. Still young, with the ears and paws all out of proportion.

Suddenly it lunged, and Alythia stifled a scream…but it only grabbed the bone and scampered back to the far wall. But not all the way, Alythia saw as her heart started beating once more. It settled, with some slack still left in the chain, and began savaging the bone. Surely it would damage its teeth, Alythia thought. Crack! went the bone. Dear lords. Just as well this half-grown puppy hadn't gotten its teeth into her when it had tried to.

Alythia sat down properly and watched the wolf eat. It was strangely relaxing to focus all her attention upon something else. Something strange, and not human. The wolf had its own problems. Alone of all the residents in Halmady House, it cared not a jot for the Princess Alythia's trials and tribulations. The wolf did not begrudge her anything, and would not pass judgment, it merely counted itself lucky to have been fed, and not beaten.

“You need a name,” she said to the wolf, smoothing the dress over her legs as she sat. “I mean, if I'm going to sit here and get grass stains on my dress for someone, they'd better at least have a name.” The wolf watched her sideways as it cracked on the bone. “I could call you Sasha. She's a bitch too.” It amused her for a moment, but it was too immature and spiteful, even for her.

But there was a name she recalled a palace tutor using for Sasha. “Tashyna.” The tutor had been from Isfayen and in his native tongue a tashyna meant a great commotion, or something crazy and out of control. “Tashyna,” he'd said, with a shake of the head, every time Sasha would come tearing into the room, a noisy little whirlwind in a dress. Once, Sasha had heard him mutter and had confronted him. “Why do you always call me Tashyna?” she'd shouted, stamping her foot. “My name's Sasha!”

Those in the know had laughed. Alythia found herself smiling now to think of it. But sadness came with the humour. Her old home seemed so near, she could taste it, could hear the echo of conversation in the grand stone halls, and smell the waft of flowers from the gardens. Familiar faces. Familiar routines-feasts, play recitals, Verenthane ceremonies at the temple. Her brothers playing lagand upon a broad green field at festival time, the snorting of horses, the shouting of men, and the cheers of the onlookers. Her old maids and her many dresses. The view from her bedchambers, across courtyards and flower gardens, overlooked by lovely stone walls and windows. Flowers in the vase her mother had given her before she'd died.

“Tashyna,” she said softly, with tears in her eyes. “I don't know if you're from Isfayen. I doubt it, it's too far away. But why don't we make this enclosure a little corner of Lenayin for just the two of us?”

Tashyna chomped on her bone and seemed content.

Half of Baerlyn's council sat about the dining table in the ranch's main room as morning sun spilled through the windows. The storm was gone and Lenayin was shining once more. Jaegar, Teriyan, Ryssin, Raegyl, Geldon and Cranyk all sat about the table. Princess Sofy had the head chair-a sight not often seen in Lenayin, a woman leading a village council meeting. Jaegar sat at the far end, Cranyk to Sofy's right was the esteemed elder, and Jaryd to her left. Lynette and Andreyis served breakfast, Andreyis weary-eyed from his long night in the storm, having returned at first dawn to report that the assassin was still at large. “Surely the king shall not allow the murder of Jaryd's surviving brother.”

All eyes came to Sofy. She gazed at the tabletop for a moment, a slim hand wrapped about the warmth of a mug of tea. “I'm afraid there's not much the king can do,” she said. “With war approaching, the king needs the great lords and the nobility more than ever. The last thing he needs now is more trouble in Tyree.”

“The lords claim power over their own domains,” Jaegar added. “It will cost the king a great deal to intervene in Tyree, the great lords are already smarting at what they see as the king's capitulation to the Udalyn rebellion-”

“But Princess Sofy comes to us herself with news of the other great lords’ disquiet at events in Tyree!” Ryssin insisted. “Surely there will be those who would support the king in any action against Great Lord Arastyn…”

“Precisely the problem,” said Teriyan, with a shake of his head. “This could become a fight between great lords, when the king needs everyone united. He won't do it.”

Sofy did not disagree.

“All this politicking is dishonourable,” Cranyk said. “Warriors do not seek solutions through parley. The Great Lord Arastyn means to murder the brother of a resident of this village. Clearly our honour compels us to act in his defence, as warriors should.”

“We have no proof of Arastyn's intentions,” Jaegar countered. And looked at Sofy. “Begging Your Highness's pardon.”

Sofy gave him a somewhat imperious look. “My sources are quite specific, Yuan Jaegar.”

Jaegar nodded his respect, but his hard features remained unmoved. “This village has just partaken in one grand rebellion against the king's authority. To partake in another, on a matter yet unproven, might seem disloyal.” Typically for Jaegar, his tone held a flat, dry irony.

“Dishonourable, I say,” Cranyk replied. The two men locked stares.

Jaegar blinked, the only motion discernible on his face. “In Lenayin today,” he said firmly, “one does not charge into every grievance with swords drawn. Perhaps we did once, but Lenayin has changed. I believe it's called civilisation.”

“Dishonourable, I say,” said Cranyk, his eyes half-lidded within a maze of wrinkles and faded tattoos.

Jaegar sighed. “Civilisation comes hard to some Lenays.”

“Honour comes hard to others,” said Cranyk. Jaegar gave the old man a warning look. Cranyk snorted.

“Begging Your Highness's pardon,” said Teriyan, “but what might the king do when he notices the Princess Sofy is missing?” All eyes turned to Sofy again. She blushed. “It's four days ride from Baen-Tar.” When can we expect the armoured cavalry to descend on our heads? he meant. Everyone watched the princess, and waited.

“I didn't tell anyone where I was going,” she said, attempting an even, reasonable tone. “I took Dary out for an evening ride, just around the walls, no need for a guard. Then I just kept riding. There was a festival in town, lots of people and horses, it covered my tracks and scent.”

“Aye,” Teriyan said wearily. “I reckon we've got a day, at most. Best we decide what to do before they arrive.”

Sofy frowned. “I'm not sure they could track me through that festival…”

“You don't think they'd guess?” Teriyan asked. “Smart men like your father and brother?” Sofy looked crestfallen. “There'll be riders here soon enough, just to check, even if they don't track you directly. I'd imagine Baen-Tar is in an uproar.”

Sofy bit her lip, and looked both embarrassed and stubborn. Clearly she knew the uproar her disappearance would cause. Clearly she thought it served her father and Prince Koenyg right. And would, perhaps, serve to demonstrate why she shouldn't be bossed around any longer. Teriyan empathised, but still, it was a reckless thing to have done. It seemed a common trait that ran through more of the Lenay royal sisters than people had guessed.

“I say we ride,” he continued, looking about the table. “I say we go and solve this one ourselves, quietly. No invoking any grand rebellion, no great statements, just a few men on horses through the woods. We grab Wyndal, we get him out and we leave-Arastyn and his fools can kick up all the fuss they like, but Wyndal belongs with his brother. There's enough disquiet about the whole affair that Arastyn won't find many friends in his outrage, especially if we then have some kind of proof of what Arastyn was trying.”

“He just tried to kill Jaryd,” Geldon pointed out. “Don't need no more proof than that, suspicion will do just fine. No one'll blame us.”

“Aye,” said Jaegar, nodding slowly. “It'll be a regional affair, the king won't touch it and it needn't touch the king. The princess can stay here and sweet-talk the king's riders when they come, and deny she knows where we went…they can't force information from a princess.”

“No,” said Sofy firmly. “I'm coming too.” About the table, the men stared at her. Jaegar took a deep breath, but Sofy cut him off before he could start. “If Father's riders find me here, they'll know for certain I came this way for a reason!”

“They'll know for certain anyway,” Teriyan objected, “they're not daft. Some of us will be missing, there'll be tracks in and out, perhaps they'll have dogs…”

“But there'll be doubt!” Sofy insisted. “They'll have to ride back to Baen- Tar-four days-with an incomplete report, and Koenyg hates those, he likes to know everything before he acts. And he'll have no clues, no idea of why I came riding out here, if I did at all…you men, with all respect, you simply don't know Koenyg like I do! I can guess what he's thinking, but he knows me that well too. If his riders bring me back with them, he'll guess all kinds of things. I'm a good liar but not with him, and he knows it. He'll send riders to Tyree, Tyree's closer than Valhanan…he's even got birds now! Pigeons, they carry messages and-”

“Pigeons?” Ryssin looked baffled. “What are pigeons?”

“Lowlands birds,” said Teriyan, looking glum. “They can carry messages. They don't last long up here because our hawks and eagles are so hungry, but if you sent two to a target, I'd guess one might get through. Lenayin will seem like a smaller country if everyone starts using pigeons. Imagine, one day for a message to Baen-Tar. Two from here to Isfayen.”

“Lowlands nonsense,” Cranyk muttered. “I'm glad I'll not live long enough to see my land completely spoiled by their inventions.”

“I'll not want to take the future wife of the heir to the Bacosh throne on a hunting expedition,” Jaegar interrupted. “This village is in trouble enough with Prince Koenyg as it is.”

“I am your royal princess, you know,” Sofy replied, chin raised. “I could just command you.”

“I'm village headman of Baerlyn with my boots on Baerlyn soil,” Jaegar replied. “I could just ignore you.”

“Or,” Sofy continued as though she hadn't heard him, “I could just ride there on my own. I rode here on my own.”

“You don't know where Algery is,” Jaegar retorted.

“I'll find out,” said Sofy. “If I travel on my own, three or four strides behind you.” Jaegar pressed his lips thin, and looked to be repressing a mutter of something rude. Sofy smirked.

“No,” said Jaryd, when the building frustration and anger became impossible to control. All turned to look at him.

“No what?” said Teriyan.

“You're not going. Any of you.” Silence about the table. Jaryd unclenched his fist, it had been steadily tightening as the discussion had progressed. “This is my affair. I swore to resolve it myself, and I shall. I shall accept no assistance.”

“Even if it kills Wyndal?” Jaegar said flatly.

Jaryd jumped to his feet, his chair toppling with a clatter. “I never asked for all your assistance!” he shouted. “This is my honour, not yours! I won't let you ruin it!”

“Ruin it?” Jaegar raised his eyebrows. “We make it happen. You declared yourself Goeren-yai, Master Jaryd. That is the only reason your head has not been removed from your shoulders by the king's law. You come to live here among us, you make use of our isolation, of our hospitality, and now you think to refuse our assistance in return?”

Jaryd stared at him, unable to speak. This was turning out all wrong. All his life, others had tried to dictate his future. Always they got it wrong, always they expected from him that which he could not give, or snatched his most precious goals and turned them to their own ends. He needed to do this for himself, for his own sake, for Tarryn's, for Wyndal's, before these meddling fools made a mess of everything once more…

“Tell me,” Jaegar continued, “when you gave yourself to the old ways, did you have it in your heart to actually learn something of them? Or are the ways of the Goeren-yai simply a convenience, to be followed when it suits your purposes and ignored when they do not? To be of the village means to abide by the decisions of its elders. We make these decisions in the best interests of Baerlyn and its people. You have brought these troubles amongst us with your presence, and now we shall deal with them as we see fit. And if you are truly Goeren-yai, you shall abide by that and be grateful.”

Jaryd stared at the tabletop, quietly fuming. He wanted to sit, or to turn and stride out, but he could not decide which. Neither seemed appropriate. He was trapped.

“To be Goeren-yai is not to wear a ring and mark your face with lines,” said old Cranyk, grimly. “Myself, I could not care if the boy knows a passing spirit from a horse's fart. He has mad courage, he is a warrior and he knows revenge. These, and these alone, are the soul of the ancient ways. All that he has done, Yuan Jaegar, has been in pursuit of his revenge. If you did not wish the troubles that come with his presence, you should have refused him hospitality. I say it is a sad day for this village when the concerns of selfish custom, and the fear of others’ opinions, even that of the king, should rule our honour.”

Jaryd blinked at Cranyk in mild surprise. The old man's continued support astonished him in its ferocity. He could not recall the last time any elder from his past life had supported his headstrong urges to any degree. Only…only Cranyk did not do it for the love of Jaryd Nyvar. Cranyk did it, it seemed, because Cranyk saw something in Jaryd Nyvar that reminded him of that which he valued most in the Goeren-yai. Jaryd could not deny that his decision to cast off the ways of Verenthanes had been driven entirely by selfish rage and the opportunism of revenge. But now, could it be that one of the Goeren-yai's most respected would look at him and find approval for his decision?

Jaegar looked at Cranyk for a long moment, lips pursed in consideration. Then he nodded. “So,” he said, not contesting Cranyk's words. “The matter is laid out. Now we all must decide.”

Sasha was sitting at the end of the pier near Family Velo's boats, gutting fish. It had been five days since the meeting at The Fish Head. The day was perhaps the hottest she'd ever experienced, and the air was thick enough to drink. She fairly dripped with sweat, in long sleeves to keep the sun off her arms.

Footsteps approached up the pier planks, a middle-aged man with a white beard was coming toward her. Not a docksman-he did not look work-worn, nor did he swagger with a working man's gait-his tunic and pants were plain yet good. He wore his hat low on his brow, his eyes hidden in shade.

He stopped nearby and gazed out to the horizon where thick stormclouds were building, a dark shadow on the sea. Now, a flash of lightning. “It's coming this way,” said the man. “We could use some rain, the reservoirs run low.”

“Aye,” said Sasha, scaling a fish from the tail to the head, as Mari had shown her. “I wouldn't like to be out on one of those ships when the lightning comes. Not beneath those masts.”

“It's said that lightning strikes the highest point because the gods discourage the immodesty of height,” said the man.

“Is that right?” Sasha glanced up at the Porsada Temple, high atop its far promontory, its spires reaching for the sky.

The man followed the direction of her gaze and smiled. “The temple has never been struck. The gods are selective.”

“And here was I thinking they were impartial and fair.” She remembered priests boasting the same thing once about the Saint Ambellion Temple in Baen-Tar. Until one stormy night a bolt had blasted the iron star right off the left spire. Then the priests pretended they'd never made the claim in the first place. She would have had so much more respect for Verenthanes in general, she thought, if they didn't make such silly claims.

“No,” said the man, turning back to the distant storm. “No Verenthane ever claimed the gods impartial.”

“Pity,” said Sasha. She laid the fish flat and chopped its head off, then its tail. “Bias is no blessing.”

The man looked at her oddly as she scooped the head and tail into a basket, and the meat into another. “You're very handy with that knife,” he observed as she took up a new fish. “You must be Sashandra Lenayin.”

Sasha smiled. “And I'm sure you only just figured that out now.”

The man shrugged. “There are only so many sworld-wielding women on the dockfront who can dissect a fish in the blink of an eye. And you have that lovely accent.”

“A lovely accent,” Sasha repeated, scaling fast. “That's far nicer than I've heard it called recently.”

“And what do men call it?”

“Barbarian.”

“My dear girl, I would never.”

Sasha slit the fish, scooped out the guts with her knife, turning to drop them into the water behind. Chopped its head and tail, disposed of them, and looked up at the man. She gave a final, fancy twirl of the knife for effect. “So now you know my name, stranger. What's yours?”

“I am Father Portus,” said the man. “Father Portus Ragini.”

“Ragini?” She blinked. “So you're Patachi Ragini's…?”

“Younger brother.”

Sasha nodded, considering. “And what do you want with me, Father Portus?”

Sasha walked the docks, a short time after Father Portus had departed. Enough time for her to wash, in the vain hope of scrubbing some of the fish smell from her hands, and deliver her fish to the Velo family stall. She'd been planning to go out on the evening boat, but that was before the storm arrived. In bad weather, Mari would want experienced sailors only. The Nasi-Keth being what they were, it was difficult to make time to help on the dawn boats-at that time, most Nasi-Keth were asleep, recovering from long nights. And so, she helped however she could, to pay for her free board.

She walked with a small waterskin under one arm, weaving her way through the early afternoon chaos. Here were a mass of fish stalls, the morning's catch on display with buyers haggling over price. There, a small mountain of octopus, a squeamish writhing of tentacles. Everything smelled of fish, including her. Seagulls wheeled overhead and occasionally scrabbled underfoot, daring the forest of moving legs for a few smelly scraps.

Sasha sipped from her waterskin as she walked, making certain never to let anyone brush against her, keeping her right hand free for the knife at her belt. Despite the crowds, it was unlikely that too many of the wrong sort of people could infiltrate here with ease-upslope men were rarely welcome and could be spotted by their hair, the trim of their beards, or their lack of fish smell even if their clothes were plain. Locals had an unerring eye for such folk, and for every Nasi-Keth amongst the crowds, there were ten more with family who were Nasi-Keth. Still, Sasha had never felt entirely at ease amongst so many people. She'd seen crowds before, at Baen-Tar festivals and the like, but those were nothing compared to this.

Nearing the big ships of the North Pier, she saw a building of whitewashed brick with a single, simple spire above its doors. Rows of vegetable stalls stood in front, doing a brisk trade with dockfront wives and their big wicker baskets. Sasha ducked through the stalls and slipped inside.

Inside was the typical high ceiling and many pews of a Verenthane temple. The entire right wall was a labyrinth of wooden scaffolding, where the pews had been moved to make way. A number of great white sheets now lay across those pews, spattered with coloured paint. Where the scaffolding neared the ceiling, it branched outward, seeming to defy a certain fall. On planks beneath the ceiling, men moved and mixed paints. Sasha walked down the central aisle, gazing upward. Goeren-yai or not, she loved this place. The air smelled of wet plaster and the men's murmured, almost reverent, conversation echoed off the high ceiling. This was a creativity she had never witnessed before coming to Petrodor, and it was mesmerising.

Father Portus stood by the first pew before the altar, gazing upward. Sasha stopped beside him. “You've never been here before?” she asked him.

Portus shook his head. “No. It is…remarkable.” A priest of the high slopes would rarely visit those of the lower. The priesthood of the Porsada Temple were wealthy men of the families. These small, dockfront temples interested them as little as did the poor, uncivilised labourers who frequented them.

“The artist's name is Berloni,” said Sasha. “That's him up there.” She pointed to one man, high on the scaffold. “He drew the original outlines. Now he's filling them in, and his assistants do the details.”

Across one side of the ceiling, a beautiful mosaic was unfolding. Half-naked figures, scenes of the Verenthane Scrolls of Ulessis, in majestic, sensual poses. Sasha recognised no more than a third of the scenes, but it hardly mattered. The mosaic background was blue, like the sky on a warm summer day, and the figures seemed to fly. Indeed, some had wings-angels, the Verenthanes called those.

“I love this fellow here,” said Sasha, pointing to a figure high on the wall opposite. A muscular man with a great beard, mostly naked, holding a babe in the crook of one arm. Both seemed to be emerging from the sea, draped in bits of seaweed, while a beautiful lady in a flowing dress looked on with love in her eyes. “He looks a bit like some Lenay men I know.”

Father Portus gave her an odd look. “You must know these men well. He wears so little. They all do.”

Sasha shrugged. “It's the style in the Saalshen Bacosh. You recognise the scenes?”

“Of course!” Father Portus looked somewhat…uncomfortable. “That's Ronard, God of the Oceans, and his son Trione. The woman is Deyani, Goddess of Love.”

“I didn't do so well in scripture class,” Sasha admitted. “But if classes were this beautiful, I might have done better. Don't you like it?”

“It's…it's…” the priest shook his head, helplessly. “They wear so little! Archbishop Augine would turn green.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked it,” Sasha said edgily. “Who cares what they wear or don't wear, look how beautiful they are! How godly!”

“I fear…I fear these may be considered indecent,” said Father Portus. “The indecent cannot be beautiful. Indeed, it cannot be art.”

“And yet here they are,” said Sasha defiantly. “Beautiful, naked, thoroughly indecent, and most certainly art.”

Father Portus shook his head, and made a holy sign with one hand. “Such thoughts come out of the Saalshen Bacosh,” he murmured. “Whatever shall they dream up next?”

Sasha repressed a smile with difficulty. If he disliked that, what followed would be amusing indeed. “Come, we can talk in private, just through here.”

She led Father Portus through a door at the back of the temple, where the priests’ private quarters might be expected to be, but instead they stepped into a wide, open space of bare brick walls and a plain floor littered with statues. The high ceiling echoed to the rhythmic taps of chisels.

Directly confronting them as they entered the room was a man-sized nude-bearded, muscular, and hauling a great rock on one shoulder. Father Portus stared. Statues of Saint Sadis were common enough in the Endurance, but those were naked only to the waist. Here, even his manhood was lovingly carved in fine detail and (to Sasha's amusement and appreciation) considerable proportion. Father Portus made another holy sign.

“Oh please,” said Sasha, stepping about to admire the statue of Sadis from another angle. “Look at the balance, the shift of weight on his hips from the stone he carries. I fight with the svaalverd, Father-trust me, I know all about balance. He captures it beautifully.”

“Most ingenious,” said Father Portus, averting his eyes. But there was nothing more to see but many other statues in varying degrees of nudity. Some were women, but most were men, fighting, posing, wrestling and stretching. Stone transformed into flesh, so real and sensual in form that it seemed it should feel soft to the touch and not stone-like at all.

“Father Berin loves his art,” said Sasha as she led Father Portus on toward the nearest, loud chiselling. “He could have extended the temple with this space, but instead he lets the artists use it. The serrin love it, and some of the Saalshen Bacosh traders now are taking interest, they say Petrodor forms are unique, and demand grows there as well. Father Berin takes a share of commission for upkeep of this and other temples, and the artists support their families with the rest.”

A man appeared behind several statues, working on a large block of haggard stone. He saw Sasha and stopped his chiselling with a grin. “Sasha! When are you going to pose for me?” He was a young man, in his mid-twenties, with long, wild hair that would have been entirely black were it not spattered white with stone dust. He wore a long leather apron, and little more than a loincloth beneath that, his limbs slick with sweat from the heat.

“Just as soon as you learn to do women, Aldano,” Sasha teased.

Aldano gaped. “What do you mean? Have you seen my fine Princess Felesia? Look, look here…” He pointed to a nearby statue-a lady clad in little more than a silk scarf that wound around one outstretched arm and curled languidly down one shapely hip. Elegant, high class and…a little bored, Sasha reckoned.

“Hello there, are you a collector?” Aldano asked, suddenly noticing Father Portus.

Father Portus cleared his throat. “An appreciator,” said Sasha, smiling.

“Of course you are, of course! Tell me, sir, have you ever seen as fine a pair of breasts as these? And what an arse! Have you ever seen as fine an arse?” He slapped the statue on the backside. Father Portus looked as though he'd swallowed something the wrong way.

“Every time I look back,” said Sasha. Aldano roared with laughter, and slapped his thigh. “Only better…look, look, your women, Aldano…they all sag.” She gestured with a hand, across one stone hip. “This is formless, all…all soft and pudgy.”

“I believe the term is ‘womanly,’” quipped Aldano, highly amused.

“No! No, you live on the dockside of Petrodor, you have all these serrin women around, and Nasi-Keth like me-”

“Very few Nasi-Keth like you, dear Sasha.”

“Look! Look at this!” Sasha pulled up her shirt to expose her midriff. Father Portus nearly toppled over. “Do you see this? Six equal portions. Flat and hard, and accentuates the line, here, to the hip, and the thigh…” She indicated, but not quite at the point of having to remove more clothes. “Now look at her.” Indicating the statue. “Shapeless, no form or tone of muscle, nothing. You have the frame right, but there's nothing on her bones.”

“You'd rather I did her as a man?” said Aldano with consternation.

“No!” Sasha nearly laughed for sheer exasperation. “This is exactly my point…this is womanly, Aldano! I am a woman and this is what I look like!”

“You're an amazon!” Aldano protested.

“So do a statue of an amazon! That's what you can call it! ‘Amazon with a Sword’! You've…you've done gods, and muscular heroes, and old men, and young boys…all these different types of men…why aren't women allowed to come in different types too? Some women look like this, sure…but why do they all have to look like this?”

Aldano looked at her for a long moment, unconvinced. “I'd be laughed at,” he said reproachfully.

“You'd be the first!” Sasha retorted. “You'd be original! No one would have seen anything like it!”

That caught the young sculptor's attention. Everyone wanted to be at the forefront of the new trends in Petrodor. “You would pose for me?” Aldano asked. “If I did this?”

“Of course! If I can find the time, and if the gods don't sink Petrodor into the sea for its many sins.”

Aldano laughed. “Oh, but carving is all about sin, dear Sasha! It is all form, and shape, and my hands all over your body, feeling its curves, testing its firmness…” Sasha only grinned, enjoying the teasing. With Aldano, that was all it was.

She found a quiet space behind several rough, uncarved blocks of stone as Aldano took up his chisel once more. “Young lady,” said Father Portus, somewhat grimly, “I do fear for your soul. You should seek absolution.”

“I am a Lenay pagan, Father Portus,” Sasha told him. “I don't need your absolution.” Father Portus seemed to swallow whatever he was going to say next. He was a tallish man with a homely face, a large nose and a narrow chin within a thin white beard. “Now of what did you wish to speak with me?”

Thunder rumbled outside, a long echo beneath the high ceiling. Father Portus looked about, but there was no one to see them hidden behind the stone blocks. “I carry a message from your sister Marya,” he said in a low voice.

Sasha blinked at him. “Marya sent…Why?”

“She fears that you were right about her family. She knows that her husband had Father Gilbrato Halmady killed. There is tension between Halmady and Steiner. Steiner suspects Halmady of plotting against them. Now, some of Halmady's key allies are meeting with accidents, particularly within the priesthood. Everyone blames the old enemy Maerler, but not everyone believes it. Father Andrel Tirini is missing, and Father Jon Amano has fallen down some stairs and is yet to wake. I am an old friend of your sister's. She fears I may be next, like my nephew Randel. I ask for your help, in her name.”

Sasha took a deep breath and wiped sweat from her brow. She took a sip from her waterskin, needing the time to think. Conflict between Steiner and Steiner's closest ally, Patachi Halmady. It did not seem likely that Halmady was seriously plotting anything. Kessligh thought it was Rhillian's work, sowing seeds of suspicion between the two, weakening Petrodor's strongest alliance from within. She'd used Randel Ragini's interest in things serrin to form a relationship with him, thus making Steiner suspect all of Family Ragini, and all of Halmady too, by connection. Halmady and Ragini remained close. Circles within circles, as ever in Petrodor. Had Rhillian truly set up poor Randel for the fall? She didn't want to think about that right now.

Father Portus Ragini. One priest per family, sometimes two for big families. Portus was Family Ragini's representative in the Porsada Temple. So why would Steiner, or anyone, want to start killing priests?

“The priesthood is supposed to be neutral,” she said. “It's only useful to get rid of priests if they're planning something. What's going on up in that damn temple, anyway?”

“Dear girl,” said Portus with irritable temper, “you really must watch your language! If I knew why my life was in danger, I would hardly need your help, would I?”

Sasha folded her arms, unconvinced. “And what could I do to help?”

“Meet again with your sister. She is wife to the heir of Steiner. She has access to information and she says she knows what the killings are in aid of.”

“And she'd tell me?” Sasha did not know whether to believe it.

“You are her sister.”

“I'm her crazy pagan sister. I've no doubt she loves me, but love and trust are two different things entirely.” She narrowed her eyes at the priest. “You say she sent you? Prove it.”

The fishing boat of Family Darno was somewhat larger than most and had a covered hold. Sasha and Kessligh sat on benches near the bow, above a pile of bundled nets and folded sails. Rain thundered on the wooden roof as a light chop rocked them from side to side against the moorings. Outside, Darno men prepared nets, stowed rigging and made ready for the afternoon run, in hopes that the weather might clear.

“He knew all about it,” she said to Kessligh. “I don't know how he could have known if Marya hadn't told him.”

“Krystoff's exploits were common enough knowledge in Lenayin,” said Kessligh, unconvinced. “Anyone could know that.”

“Not that incident, and not with that detail,” said Sasha, shaking her head. “And not my part in it. I found the girl in Krystoff's chambers, Krystoff sent me out and I told Marya about it. Marya explained some things to me, and I wasn't so angry with Krystoff for sending me out then. Father Portus recited it in detail.”

Kessligh made a face and glanced at the hold doorway. Beyond, men were bailing water overboard in the downpour. “Your memory's amazing.”

“I remember everything about Krystoff,” Sasha said faintly. “Everything.”

Kessligh frowned at her. “You were more angry with him for sending you out of his chambers than for bedding some courtly slut?”

Sasha shrugged. “I didn't know what they were doing. Krystoff only explained that to me later. I was just mad that he preferred her company to mine. And you shouldn't use that language about her, whatever she did. I've been hearing that talk from too many Torovan men, and I'm sick of it.”

“Petrodor's not growing on you, I see,” Kessligh observed wryly.

“It was,” Sasha said. “It was, then it stopped.” No one had resolved the dispute with Liam. No one seemed to truly believe his claims about her swordwork, but it made little difference. People sided with him, or with her and Kessligh, based upon their previous inclinations. Liam's defiance was a symbol, and the facts counted for nothing. Sasha hated it. What could a person do when others cared nothing for facts? Her credibility, and thus Kessligh's, was at stake, and yet there remained no recourse. In Lenayin, such lies and accusations were a lethal offence, trialled by lethal means. Sasha could not see how a society such as the good and honest one the Nasi-Keth were trying to build here in Petrodor could survive if truth had no recourse, and thus no value. It made her doubt if there was anything in Petrodor worth fighting for. Anything besides Kessligh, that was. And the serrin, Rhillian and Errollyn in particular.

Liam had moved out of the Velo household and travelled with Alaine's group these days. Some others who had followed Kessligh now did the same. Kessligh's following shrank, and some of those Sasha saw would not speak to her. Lately, when not helping Family Velo earn a living, she'd spent more time with the serrin. Errollyn seemed angry and disillusioned too. Of Rhillian, there'd been little sign.

“I don't like it,” said Kessligh. “It might be a trap. You might go there to find Marya and discover a hundred Steiner soldiers instead.”

“On that cliff? There's no way to hide from our approaches, we can scout the area in advance. Kessligh, she was concerned. I think she might have even been scared of what she'd married into.”

“I don't see how someone as smart as your sister could live in that household for any period and not grasp what her beloveds do for a living,” Kessligh said bluntly.

“The way men treat women in this city?” Sasha retorted. “She's little more than a servant, she does what she's told, she raises the children…Marya's never been political, she was never interested in which lords were doing what things to whom…”

“You were six when she married,” Kessligh reminded her.

“Yes, but I used to talk with Krystoff about her, she was Krystoff's friend too.”

“And you were only eight when Krystoff died.”

“And my memory is amazing, you said it yourself.” Kessligh exhaled hard. “I know her, Kessligh,” Sasha insisted. “I know her well. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she didn't have a clue the way her family go about business in this city. Look, she's very devout, I remember that very well, the only times I recall enjoying temple services were with her, she'd take my hand and explain all the devotions as we went, and who all the saints and gods were, and I'd think that if Marya thought it was important, then I'd do it just to please her. Someone's killing priests. If it's her family that's involved…she'd be horrified, Kessligh. Father Portus says she's his friend. What if she's scared for him? Who could she turn to? Not her own family, obviously. Not Maerler, that's treason, and she's too loyal.”

“Halmady,” Kessligh suggested. “They're supposed to be allies.”

“And right now that might be considered treason too.” Kessligh made a face as if conceding the point. “Or proof that Halmady really are plotting something against Steiner, with Marya their first recruit within Steiner walls. Who can help? I'm Nasi-Keth, but I'm also her sister. Nasi-Keth can sneak into all sorts of places, and the docks could be a refuge for priests whose lives are in danger-they'd be safe here, even fat-bellied Porsada Temple blue-bloods. They might be high-slopers, but they're priests, and-” Boom! a nearby thunderclap cut her short. Sasha swore as men outside cursed and laughed. “Damn I hate lightning.”

“That's because you're superstitious,” Kessligh said unhelpfully, having barely flinched.

“And,” Sasha resumed her train of thought, “dockfront labourers are Verenthanes too. They'd not harm a priest, and would probably protect him from any outsiders who sought to do so.”

Kessligh thought about it for a moment as the boat rocked and heavy boots thumped overhead, and the rain fell even harder. It seemed suddenly absurd-the two of them sitting here plotting such grand things. Two little people, alone in a boat in a storm. They could be struck down by a lightning bolt at any moment. And yet they sat, and plotted, as if they thought to change the fate of the entire city. And many things beyond.

Kessligh's lips twisted, a humourless grimace. He kicked lightly at the bench alongside where Sasha sat. “I'm sorry I dragged you into all this,” he said then. And met her gaze, sombrely.

Sasha stared back. “No, you're not.” And then, as the portent of his words struck her, “No, you're not…gods! Don't say that! You said it yourself, all my life has been leading up to this, in one way or another! Don't you dare tell me I've wasted it!”

“I didn't mean it like that,” Kessligh said simply. “I'm just…” He sighed and shook his head faintly. “I'm just sorry, that's all.”

“There's a lot of things in the world to be sorry about,” Sasha retorted, somewhat disturbed by this uncharacteristic display of uncertainty from her uman. “It changes nothing.”

“On some big matters,” said Kessligh, businesslike once more, “the archbishop's council will be sought. Exactly how he arrives at his decisions is a guarded secret. Rumour has it that there is a vote of some kind, amongst the brotherhood. Other rumours say the archbishop decides alone, or waits for signs from the gods.”

“Like lightning strikes,” Sasha muttered, glancing toward the hold door.

“Exactly. Killing priests could be a precursor to something. A big decision. If we knew what that decision was going to be, perhaps in exchange for the protection of a few priests, it could be worth a lot.”

Sasha nodded. But, “You still don't sound very certain.”

“I'm not. Suspicion is wise, Sasha, when everyone's trying to kill you. Who will you take with you? I cannot offer anyone, our numbers are too small now as it is. Time spent on missions for the Nasi-Keth is time away from work and livelihoods.”

“I'd thought maybe Errollyn,” Sasha admitted. “But I've been told he's away. Saalshen's been spread even thinner than we have. Rhillian tries to watch everyone and trusts few other sources of information these days.”

Kessligh nodded. “Take whoever you can find. When did Father Portus say?”

“Tomorrow.”

Sasha climbed a paved path at the foot of the incline. The rain was light now and rays of sunlight speared orange through broken black cloud. Recalling the directions she'd been given, she turned left into a narrow alley overgrown with thick tree roots and knocked on a door.

“Who is it?” came the call from inside-a woman's voice.

“A friend of Yulia's!”

The door opened readily enough-once upon a time, folks in these parts had been too scared to open doors to strangers, but that had changed as the Nasi-Keth's power had grown and law came to the streets. The people's law, not the families’. A woman peered out at her suspiciously. Sasha adjusted her hat, now wet with rain. “Nasi-Keth,” the woman snorted. “What do you want?”

“To speak to Yulia,” said Sasha, attempting patience.

“Yulia doesn't speak to Nasi-Keth any longer!” the woman snapped. “Go away!”

Sasha put a hand on the door to stop it from closing. “Are you her mother?”

“I'm her aunt, and I'm telling you to go away!”

“That's not your decision,” Sasha said firmly.

“What are you going to do?” the woman shouted in anger. “How dare you come here and tell me what should happen to this family? Who do you think you are, you damn Nasi-Keth, pushing people about-”

Sasha lost patience and pushed past her, into the dingy room. The woman grabbed her arm, but Sasha twisted free and shoved her hard at a wall, one hand hovering warningly near a knife.

“Thief!” the woman shrieked. “Help me! Somebody help me, I'm being attacked!”

“Would you just shut up?” Sasha said incredulously. “There's rules here, not even family can intervene on Nasi-Keth business.”

“It's you, isn't it?” The woman jabbed a finger at her. She wore a scarf over her hair, as did many Petrodor women, and her dress was plain and brown. Her eyes were squinted with hard lines. “You're that scabby Lenay bitch, the one who got our Yulia in all that trouble!”

Sasha wondered if it would be bad etiquette to remove the hag's head from her shoulders in her own house. “Yulia!” she called instead. “Are you here?”

Already there were footsteps overhead and shouts from outside. A girl of perhaps ten summers arrived on the stairs and a baby started squalling. Sasha glanced about the room, it was typically spartan, a paved floor and brick walls, a bare bench for a table and a few chairs.

“Why don't you just get out of here!” the woman shouted. “We're honest Verenthane folk here, we don't need your pagan type!” Several men appeared in the doorway, one was holding a chopping axe.

“What's going on here? You, what's your business?”

“I'm Nasi-Keth,” said Sasha, trying to keep her temper even. “I want only to speak to Yulia, as is a Nasi-Keth's right. Her aunt tried to stop me, and now calls me names.”

“Right enough she'll call you names,” said the man with the axe, dangerously, stepping in through the door. “You're standing in her house!” He was bald and bearded, with thick forearms and a rough manner. Perhaps he might have intimidated other people, but Sasha had grown up in Lenayin and had seen plenty of men more scary than this. Perhaps the contempt showed in her eyes, for the man seemed suddenly wary and did not advance.

“You've no right, Rena,” said the second man, also bald, but fat and somehow intelligent-looking. “Nasi-Keth are a family unto themselves, that's the rule. You can't keep her out if she wants to see Yulia.”

“I'm sick of the Nasi-Keth!” shouted Aunt Rena, hands waving. “They cause nothing but trouble! We used to live like good, honest Verenthanes until they came along! Everything was better then, we didn't have all these demon serrin telling us what to do!”

“Don't you say that,” retorted the fat man, edging in front of the man with the axe, as yet others gathered in the doorway behind. Why was it that everything in Petrodor became a drama, Sasha wondered. “I lost five brothers and sisters to the water sickness, and my father was a half-cripple who could barely use his legs until the serrin fixed him! When he was dying, I walked in and saw him on his deathbed, surrounded by healthy grandchildren. He died with a smile on his face, and hopefully so will we, and I thank the serrin and the Nasi-Keth for that, Rena. And so should you.”

“Yes, yes, all right!” Rena retorted. “That's all well and good, but it's not right, these other things they ask! It's not natural!”

“Who are you to say what's natural? The families think it natural that we slave for them like dogs for no pay, and lose our heads to the sword should we dare to complain of it! The gods cursed you with a short memory, Rena-I remember my father's stories well.”

Sasha turned to the stairs as the argument continued at high volume, and found Yulia standing behind the younger girl. She looked pale, Sasha thought. Pale and drawn. Sasha walked to her, remembering her hat suddenly, and took it off as was the custom indoors.

“Hello,” she said to the younger girl. “Are you Yulia's cousin?” The girl nodded. Yulia's mother was sickly and her father dead, Sasha had learned some time ago. Yulia lived with her father's sister and, rather than burden the family with another girl, she'd chosen the Nasi-Keth. Yulia had never told Sasha how that decision had been received amongst her family. Somehow, this reception did not surprise her.

“She's Marli,” said Yulia, meaning the cousin. “What do you want?”

“To talk,” said Sasha. “Can we go upstairs?”

Yulia nodded mutely. They ascended and came into an untidy upper floor. There were a number of beds, and no privacy or separate rooms. A wooden trunk for clothes, some half-repaired linen, and washed clothes drying on racks. In one corner, the baby's cries came loud from its crib, a simple wooden box on a small table. She counted seven beds…eight, if one included the baby, and there was barely enough space between the clutter to walk.

She'd seen poverty in Lenayin, but never with this overcrowding. In Lenayin, there was plenty of space. If a family grew, one built a new room, or an entire new house.

Cousin Marli went to the baby and gathered it up. Yulia sat on a bed by a window.

“I haven't seen you at training,” Sasha remarked.

Yulia shrugged, cross-legged and fidgeting. “I haven't been.”

“You're giving up?” Sasha asked with a frown.

“Not on the Nasi-Keth, no.” More fidgeting. She wore a plain dress, such as ordinary Petrodor girls might wear. Even in the Nasi-Keth, some people frowned on girls in pants. “I just thought maybe I'd do better studying medicines. Like Fara.”

“You thought? Or your aunt thought?”

Yulia looked up, and there was desperation in her eyes. “I have nightmares. About Riverside. Do you have nightmares?”

Sasha wanted to tell her yes, that she understood. But that would be lying, and lying was dishonourable. She'd lied before, on occasion, when need had required it. But lately, her Lenay honour had seemed even more precious than usual. “No,” she said.

“Liam was right,” said Yulia. “You were born a warrior. I wasn't.”

“Liam,” Sasha said sharply, “now insists that I'm not a warrior either.”

Yulia shrugged and resumed fidgeting. “I heard. Liam is upset that Rodery died.”

“It's no excuse.” Sasha was still angry. She knew herself to be a basically good person, if a little hot-tempered and self-centred. She angered easily, but she did not hate easily and was always quick to forgive. But something about what Liam had done still made her fume. Such things, one expected of an enemy. But of a friend, or one who had called himself a friend…it was betrayal. Dishonour. A Lenay warrior did not go against his word or his friends. A Lenay warrior would rather die. Liam, it was clear, was no Lenay warrior. Even now, he did not appear to believe that he'd done anything wrong. Worse, many Nasi-Keth appeared to agree.

Honour, Rhillian had said, means different things to different people. My wise friend Rhillian, Sasha thought sourly. You may yet be proven right.

“I…I think maybe Liam's right in other things too,” Yulia said quietly. “I…I panicked. I lost my sword. Rodery and Liam had to protect me. If…If I hadn't lost my sword, maybe Rodery wouldn't be…”

“Or maybe he would,” said Sasha. “Or maybe Liam would be, or you would be. I don't claim to be the most hardened veteran of war, but I've seen my share of battles. There's just no predicting it, Yulia. Yes, Rodery and Liam had to protect you once you'd lost your blade…but then, they're supposed to. As you're supposed to protect them, should they lose theirs. Yes, you panicked. It happens to all kinds of warriors. Many survive and go on to become great regardless. They learn from their mistakes and improve. They don't just quit, Yulia.”

“Sasha, I'm not very good, all right!” There was temper in her tone now and tears in her eyes. Across the room, the baby's wails had lessened somewhat. Cousin Marli watched on, wide-eyed, rocking the baby. Privacy would be too much to expect, Sasha knew, and didn't bother to ask. “Even at training, I…I only started going that regularly because of you!”

“Don't you try and pin this on me,” Sasha said warningly. “Your actions and your choices are your own, that's the first thing your uman told you.”

“No, I…I didn't mean it like that.” Yulia shook her head. “I just meant that…gods, Sasha, look around.” Sasha did, reluctantly. Downstairs, she could hear the continuing argument through the floorboards. “Do you see why I wanted to be Nasi-Keth? I wanted more, Sasha. More than this. And no one ever rises to great prominence within the Nasi-Keth without some talent in the svaalverd. I wanted to work on it more, but the boys always teased me, and some of the girls too, but then you came along. A human girl, and Kessligh's uma, and you're good! Staggeringly good. Men here couldn't believe it-trust me, I heard what they said when you weren't around. They were shocked. But about half came to accept it, and that gave me hope. Half is enough, for some respect at least.

“So I went to training more regularly. I practised a lot even before, but always on my own…and it's not the same. I can look good in training, sometimes. Better than I actually am, I think. Maybe that's why I was picked to go on the mission to Riverside. Kessligh was short of fighters and people thought I was better than I am.”

“What does your uman say?”

“She…” Yulia sighed, hanging her head. “She didn't approve. I didn't see her as much after I started attending training more. It's not for girls, she said. I pointed to you and she just snorted. She'd rather I studied and learned to teach children. It's good work, but…”

“I know,” Sasha said sombrely. “I'll tell you this, Yulia-in all my life, nearly all of my greatest supporters, and greatest friends, have been men. Women don't wish to see other women doing something different because it makes them feel less of themselves. Women have too little pride because they are taught from the cradle to be weak.”

Yulia nearly smiled. “Maybe,” she said, reluctantly. “But then, look at Aunt Rena. She's very proud of what she is, that's why she's yelling at you.”

Sasha shook her head. “That's not pride. That's fear. Pride is being so certain in yourself that you're not intimidated by the strangeness of others. Pride is being so certain that you can look after yourself that you don't need to threaten or complain or make malicious whispers behind others’ backs. I see too little pride here in Petrodor, from men or women. Only fear and anxiety.”

“Pride has many meanings to many people.”

Sasha sighed. She'd been hearing that kind of thing a lot lately. “Yulia, I need you to help me with a job.”

“A Nasi-Keth job?” Sasha nodded. “You'd trust me? After…?”

“There shouldn't be any fighting.” Yulia looked a little panicked. “There won't be any fighting,” Sasha corrected. “I'm going to see my sister Marya. I need someone to help keep watch, and there's no one else available. Kessligh can't spare a more seasoned fighter when there are so many other threats to cover, and neither Alaine nor Gerrold's followers will be likely to help me.”

“Surely there's someone?” There was fear in Yulia's eyes. “I'm…I mean…I'm just not sure if I can…”

“It's your choice,” Sasha told her. “I'll go alone if I have to. I just need someone to watch my back, you can do that, right?” Yulia looked at her lap, fidgeting furiously. “You're not a bad fighter Yulia. I've sparred against you, you're not that far behind Liam. You just froze up in battle. That's understandable, you've not the experience the others do. But you'll not need to fight anyway. Will you come?”

Sasha sat on the bow of Mari's boat and blinked wearily into the light of the rising sun. A breeze came from the south, filling the little boat's sails, pushing them northward across the harbour. Ahead loomed Besendi Promontory, its cliffs gleaming gold in the low light from across the sea.

“You look tired,” Mari observed from his seat beside the mast. Valenti was at the tiller, and handling the mainsail rope-no great affair in the light breeze. Opposite Mari sat Yulia, her slim arms bare, her back to the sun.

“I was never the earliest riser,” Sasha admitted, stifling a yawn. “Baerlyn farmers tease me about it, but they don't have to run up a mountain and back before breakfast. And now I'm rarely getting to bed before midnight.”

“Bah,” said Mari, waving a dismissive hand. “Try working for a living.”

“How many thoroughbred horses have you hand-reared and sold to Torovan and Lenay nobility?” Sasha retorted. “All you do is fish; I run a stable and train as a Nasi-Keth warrior.”

“You want I should hold her close off the shore for a while?” he asked her.

“It'll look suspicious. Just let us off at the steps, then go your own way. You've pots out beyond the bluff, by the time you fetch them we'll be finished.”

“Right confident are you,” said Mari dubiously as he gazed ahead at the Cliff of the Dead. Its terraces rose most of the way from the sea to the sky. “What if you strike trouble?”

“Look, there's no hiding places.” Sasha pointed across the terraces. “If we get attacked we can descend, there's shelter from archers and there's the rocky shoreline along here…”

“That's damn slippery,” said Mari, shaking his head. “You can't move far along that.”

“We won't need to, just long enough to find shelter. Let them come at us along those rocks-I could hold off thirty men on my own.” Mari looked at Yulia, presumably to judge if she was boasting. Yulia shrugged, to say she didn't think so. “Sure, if you see us in trouble, hold off and we'll swim to you. Or head back and get help. But for the men it'd take to catch us here, it'd be a silly waste of effort. Even Steiner don't have that many men. They're all guarding their properties, expecting violence.”

“Can you swim?” Mari asked Yulia.

“A little,” said Yulia, uncertainly. “Can you?” she asked Sasha.

Sasha nodded. “There was a nice big pond near the ranch in Baerlyn,” she said. “A waterfall fell into it. Ten strokes from side to side, and river trout at the bottom. The most crystal water you've ever seen.”

“I live right next to the ocean,” Yulia muttered, “but you even swim better than me.”

There was no movement along the gravestone terraces in the early morning, save for the gulls. Out further toward Porsada Temple, recent stonework marked where terraces were being extended along the cliff face. This was where the wealthiest families buried their dead. The temple priesthood owned the land, and a plot was said to be exorbitant. But there was so little free land in Petrodor, save for that on rises far too steep for dwellings. For Petrodor families, paying respects to the ancestors was a matter of importance, and it would not do for them to be buried too far away. Sasha wondered what they'd do when, in several more generations, the stoneworkers ran out of cliff.

Steps rose from the water, carved in stone and encrusted with barnacles. Mari let out the sail as Valenti steered them alongside, allowing Sasha and Yulia to jump easily to a step, then the boat regathered speed, steering out, away from the rocks.

Sasha and Yulia ascended the terraces, past rows and rows of little stone blocks.

It was a long climb up many flights to reach the undertaker's shed where she had met Marya previously. The cliff face curved here, hiding all view of the temple. On the terrace below the shed, Sasha sent Yulia past the end of the terrace, onto the narrow trail she remembered from the last time she'd been here. Yulia edged her way along with ease, and soon disappeared as the cliff face turned again.

After a while of watching and listening, Sasha edged her way up the narrow stairs to the next terrace, keeping close to the inner wall. Peering over the lip, she saw nothing but headstones, and the little wooden shed, just as it had been last time. Then the door opened and she ducked down a little. A young woman in a dress emerged, but not Marya. She appeared to be looking and waiting for an arrival, wringing her hands nervously. A maid, Sasha decided. Openly displayed, no threat intended.

Even so, she waited a while longer, peering occasionally over the terrace rim. Finally, when convinced it was safe, she moved. She'd seen the terraces from way out to sea, and there was no cover to hide an ambush. The shed itself was the only place where men could hide, and neither she, Yulia, Mari or Valenti had seen anyone. Besides which, the sheer gall of anyone, to make preparations for ambush in a cemetery was beyond imagining.

The maid stopped fidgeting when she saw Sasha walking toward her. When she arrived, the maid curtsied. “Lady Sashandra, I am Tesslyn. My mistress awaits inside.”

“You're Lenay?” Sasha asked in surprise. The accent was unmistakable.

Tesslyn smiled. She seemed perhaps the same age as Marya. “Aye, M'Lady,” she said in Lenay. “I came out with Princess Marya in her wedding train, fourteen years ago. I decided to stay.”

“Fourteen years,” said Sasha. “That's a long time.”

“Your sister's service is most rewarding,” said Tesslyn. “And I found myself a lovely husband and now have children of my own.”

“Where are the guards?” she thought to ask Tesslyn, turning to survey the terraces eastward. Always a good idea to take a final look at the surroundings before entering a building.

“There is an old Steiner cousin who is buried just there,” said Tesslyn, pointing to a gravestone not ten plots away. “Princess Marya made a great fuss when she discovered none of the present family had come to pay their respects for several years. She said it should be private for the deceased cousin's soul would surely be angry. The family soldiers are a little superstitious, they're waiting well beyond the curve in the cliff here.”

“Clever,” Sasha observed, smiling.

“Princess Marya is never anything but sincere,” said Tesslyn mildly.

“You're not superstitious?” Sasha asked.

“I'm quite certain Princess Marya's prayers have consoled her cousin's angry spirit.”

Sasha gave her a sideways look. “Right,” she said. She turned to open the cabin door and allowed it to swing, creaking, so she could observe the gloom within. Paused in the doorway, a hand on her knife, looking for ambush. There was nothing, just piled headstones, shovels and other work gear. And Marya, standing by the same little window with the view across the harbour. Sasha smiled at her. “Sorry,” she said. “I have to be careful. Kessligh would kill me.”

“Oh, Sasha,” said Marya with evident emotion. “It's so good to see you!” Sasha went to her and hugged her. And felt a sting on the back of her neck as they embraced.

“Ow!” She pulled back and looked at Marya in puzzlement. Marya looked pale, she realised. Suddenly frightened. Then the dizziness began. “Oh no,” Sasha exclaimed incredulously. “Oh no. You didn't!” She put a hand to the back of her neck and found blood on her fingers; grabbed Marya's wrist, twisted, and found a small needle protruding from a ring about her middle finger.

“Oh Sasha, I'm so sorry!” There were tears in Marya's eyes. “I'm so sorry, I didn't want to do it…” Sasha's knife came out fast and Marya's eyes widened. “It's not fatal, Sasha! Oh gods, I'd never…it'll just make you sleep!”

Sasha thumped her left hand against the wall, trying to hold her balance as her vision swam and faded. There was strength in her right arm yet. Marya's figure swam close, then far, hot then cold. One thrust. One…She hurled the knife at the window instead, but her arm was weak and the glass cracked without breaking. No warning to Yulia. Yulia wouldn't know. “Family!” she gasped. “I'm…family!”

“It's been fourteen years since I came to Petrodor, Sasha,” Marya said sadly. “Steiner are my family now.”

Sasha awoke with a perfect recollection of what had happened. And cursed herself for the greatest fool in all the history of fooldom.

She was lying on her back. On a bed, by the feel of it. And it was hot. She tried to raise her head, and found that was possible, if awkward. She had a nasty headache, a stiff neck and the distant sensation of nausea. Distant, but ready to roll over her like a tide if she moved too suddenly. She lay in a small, stone room. Sunlight shone through a tall, slit window. Despite the discomfort, she was surprisingly clearheaded. The potion had been a serrin concoction, no doubt. The most effective ones always were.

She stretched and found herself thankfully free of other injuries or stiffness…except that her legs were bare. Where were her boots? Or come to that, her clothes? She slapped hands to her waist and found, to her alarm, that she was wearing…a dress! Damn. She'd spent most of the last twelve years avoiding the prospect of ever wearing one of these horrible things ever again. Now, her efforts had finally been foiled. It was nearly funny, and she fought back an exasperated laugh.

A new, unpleasant thought occurred to her and the laugh died on her lips. She pulled the dress up, and found to her relief that she was still wearing her old, thigh-length woollen underwear. Thank the spirits. She'd not have put it past some Steiner soldier to take liberties with an unconscious woman. Nor a dead one, came the uncharitable thought. She felt herself, but found no irritation, no soreness. Just as well. The serrin's white powder she always carried was with her clothes, and they were…

She rolled on the bed and looked around the room. It had three walls-one curved, the other two straight, with a door in one. There was no furniture but for her bed, and no sign of her clothes. Nor, obviously enough, her weapons. Beside the bed, a bucket of water stood on the flagstones with a clean cloth draped over the rim. She dipped a finger in the water and tasted it, suspiciously. Nothing happened, and it tasted good. She was thirsty as all hells. She lowered her upper body off the bed, not game to try squatting just now, and drank directly from the bucket. She wiped cool water on her face as she lay back.

From beyond the slit window she could hear the cries of gulls. She strained her ears, but heard nothing more. Was she in the Steiner Mansion? It would be busy, surely, with guards and servants. Her window opened onto sky, yet she could not hear the clatter of a passing cart, nor the distant commotion of the docks. Just gulls. She thought about getting up, and trying to see out, but she didn't feel up to that just now.

Marya. Marya had betrayed her. Except that now, so soon after the event, it did not surprise her. How could she not have seen? Fourteen years. She'd said it herself, to Marya's maid, just before she'd gone inside. Fourteen years was a long time. Marya had always been traditional. Conservative. She cared for people, and had always conformed her own needs to the needs of the family. And now Marya had children of her own, heirs to the great power of Family Steiner. Of course they mattered more to her than a long-lost sister. Sasha had made the mistake of assuming that Marya's simple compassion would override that family loyalty at least to a small degree, when she discovered that her family were doing bad things. But no…that would mean Marya placing herself, and her own opinions and wants, ahead of those of her immediate family. And Marya never had. And now, it seemed, probably never would.

Sasha put a hand to the back of her neck. It hurt, and was swollen. She hoped Marya had at least heated the needle first, for her sister's sake. Probably Patachi Steiner had ordered it, and Father Portus had been the bait. Why her? Had she been in danger of discovering something? Or were they looking for leverage on Kessligh? A cold knot formed in her stomach. As a hostage, they could threaten her with things, if Kessligh did not do what they wanted. How Kessligh would respond, she could not guess. Did not want to guess. Kessligh would not take kindly to blackmail. But then, surely he would not wish her in greater danger, either. Sasha had heard of the families’ methods in such matters, the fingers or ears sent to the loved ones…

She hit the mattress in a rush of frustration. All her life she'd fought the natural expectation of weakness that came with being what she was-a girl, and a princess at that. Now she was a weak, pitiable hostage. Well, she thought grimly, not for long. The first chance I get, I'm either getting out, or I'll die trying. Better that than for them to use her as a knife at Kessligh's heart. Even if she lived to tell of it, she wasn't certain she could survive the shame.

Soon enough, a plate slid aside on the door and a man peered in. Then the door unbolted and an armoured guard stepped in, carrying a tray. Sasha eyed him from her bed. If she was going to try something, it was better she scouted a little first. The guard wore black over chain mail that covered head and arms. There were metal gauntlets for gloves and extended forearm guards, to say nothing of shin guards and helm. He even carried a shield-square on top, pointed at the bottom. Emblazoned in silver on his black vest was an eight-pointed Verenthane star.

He set down the tray and left the room, with barely a glance in her direction. Sasha sighed as the bolts clacked shut once more. At least now she knew where she was. She'd not seen a man of the Holy Guard before, but she'd heard them described. They were heavily armoured after a little incident half a year back when Rhillian had managed to sneak inside the temple and confront Archbishop Augine directly. Exactly what she and the archbishop had discussed, Rhillian had never exactly said…but she had admitted to killing three of the Holy Guard before making her escape. There would be no tackling one of the Holy Guard barehanded, that was certain. But all that armour slowed a man down. If she could deprive him of a weapon, perhaps…

Then she would have to think of a way to escape from within the confines of the Porsada Temple. Once again, she'd only heard it described. The Holy Guard were numerous these days. Even if she stole a guardsman's sword, it would not have the balance of a svaalverd blade, nor the sharpness. Fighting her way out single-handed was possibly not the smartest plan.

She ate the meal, figuring that light bread, soup and water meant it was still lunchtime. The lack of shadow from the window seemed to confirm that. The food was plain, but not bad. At least it seemed the priests did not wish her punished in any way. Yet.

To better absorb her lunch, she sat cross-legged on her bed, and meditated. Kessligh swore by it, but Sasha was more sceptical; she'd never been one to sit still and think of nothing for any period. Still, it made her feel better to be doing something, an activity she could control toward her own ends. And, when thinking of nothing lost its appeal entirely, she thought instead of everything she knew about Porsada Temple: which way the road came in along the ridge, the nature of its cliffs, the proximity of its walls to the sheer drop below.

After her headache had cleared somewhat, she sat on the flagstone floor and did stretches. It was common Nasi-Keth knowledge that poisons or potions of any sort could be hastened from the body by exercise. When she felt up to it, she tried sit-ups and push-ups, and then jumps and running on the spot…which felt a little ridiculous with the dress bouncing around her legs. The air inside the cell was stifling and she was soon dripping with sweat, making unsightly dark stains beneath the armpits of her dress sleeves. Take that, horrid thing.

She turned her attention to the slit window, but it seemed entirely out of her reach.

She shifted the bed directly beneath the window-the bedframe was heavy wood and squealed on the flagstones. Jumping from the end, she came close, but not enough.

She examined the mattress, which seemed to be stuffed with straw. Beneath, the bed frame was wooden slats. Easy solution. She wrestled the mattress off the bed, with some effort, and set about turning the bed frame on its end. Her balance was still not fully recovered, but she finally managed it and pushed the frame as close as possible to the wall. Then she climbed the slats.

Peering through the window slit, she could see nothing but ocean, and the sun seemed to be now to the right…so she guessed she was facing roughly east, straight out to sea. Right at the tip of the promontory, perhaps. If she were not, she should be able to see the huge temple spires. Perhaps she was directly beneath a spire. Or in one.

The door bolts squealed and clacked, but Sasha didn't bother moving. The door swung open and she looked down to see a guard blinking up at her. “Hello,” she said cheerfully. “Have you come to look up my dress?”

“Get down from there.”

It would have been too much to ask for the Holy Guard to have a sense of humour, Sasha supposed. “You think I'm going to escape through this little thing? I can barely get my arm through.”

“Get down or I'll knock you down.” If he risked physical contact, she could grab his sword, or his knife. But there was his companion behind, and doubtless more outside. She'd do better to wait.

Sasha sighed and climbed down the slats. “You could have at least put me in a room with an accessible view.”

“The archbishop wants to see you,” said the guard.

“The Archbishop of Torovan?” said Sasha, feigning astonishment. “Gosh. But I have nothing to wear!”

The guard tied her wrists with tight cord first. Sasha decided against resisting or refusing-they could have beaten her senseless first, had they chosen. Besides, she wanted to get out of her cell and take a look around. The guard escorted her out of the door, which opened onto a downward spiral of stairs. She was in of one of the spires then. One guard led the way, another at her back, each with a shield and a sword at the hip.

The stairs descended into a grand room, high-ceilinged with great, gilt-framed paintings on the stone walls. Gold filigree traced patterns across the ceiling, from which golden chandeliers hung. On the right, large windows looked onto Petrodor Harbour and a warm breeze whispered at white, billowing curtains. At a table before the windows sat an old man in black robes. He sipped at a golden winecup and gazed out at the harbour below. He had white hair about a bald spot and a big chin that had surely once been square, but was now developing jowls. Upon the stand behind him hung a tall, black hat. A cane rested against the wall beside his chair.

He studied Sasha with sharp blue eyes and smiled thinly. “Dear girl.” His voice was educated, and condescending…and yet, somehow, not entirely convincing for a man of his stature. “Please, do sit.” He gestured to the chair opposite.

Sasha walked, a guard at her side, testing her bonds as she went. They were tight and her right hand was going numb. The guard pulled the chair for her and she sat.

“It is customary, my dear, to first kneel before the archbishop, when entering his presence. Even for a princess.”

“Is it also customary to bind the hands of your lunch guests?” Sasha retorted.

The archbishop made a vague gesture with his winecup, sunlight shining upon his many gold rings. “You are not my lunch guest and I'm certain you can kneel with your hands tied.”

“And get back up again? Not when I'm dizzy from that needle.”

The archbishop looked at her, his blue eyes cool. “You are a pagan. That is why you do not kneel. You have rejected your gods.”

“Not my gods,” said Sasha. They regarded each other. This was the most powerful Verenthane in all Rhodia, she knew. With the holy temples of Enora, Rhodaan and Ilduur in the Saaalshen Bacosh out of direct Verenthane control, Petrodor had become the centre of Verenthane faith in Rhodia. For no better reason, Kessligh said, than it was where all the money was. This was Archbishop Augine himself, one of the very greatest men of all the lands. And yet she was not impressed.

He tried to look at ease. He tried to look comfortable. Yet unease lurked behind his smile and the comfortable remark. Perhaps the archbishop simply suffered from being compared, in her mind, to great Lenay men she had known. Men who wore power comfortably, and indeed radiated it as a cloak of honour. Or perhaps he was simply not a very impressive man. In Lenay opinion, there was nothing more contemptuous than a fraud, except perhaps a coward. Sasha resolved to find out.

“Regard this view,” the archbishop offered, gesturing with his winecup. “It is magnificent, is it not? The best view in all Petrodor.”

Sasha looked, and found that it was. The city-every dwelling, every road, every detail, in sprawling profusion about the harbour. The high sun, sparkling on the waters, and the silhouette of ships and rigging against that golden light.

“I've been out fishing on that harbour,” Sasha volunteered. “Have you?”

“In my youth,” said the archbishop. He flicked her a sideways glance. Then up, about at the walls. “Do you recognise these paintings?”

Sasha half turned in her chair and surveyed the walls. “That one would be the Enoran High Temple. And that's Saint Tristen on Mount Tristen. And that's Saint Sadis, and that's Saint Ambellion, of course. Not the others, though.” She was supposed to be impressed. And intimidated. The cumulative weight of Verenthane history pressed down upon this grand chamber. As though all of the gods and saints were watching.

Sasha stared at the archbishop. “You're drinking wine? Is that proper?”

“It is the Torovan tradition, even amongst clergy,” said the archbishop with a frown. “Tell me-”

“Is it proper that I should be here?” Sasha continued, not missing a beat. “I mean, this is Porsada Temple, the holiest temple in all Rhodia.”

“Second holiest,” said the archbishop, with the first trace of temper.

“Ah yes, the Enora High Temple comes first, doesn't it? These are your private chambers.” Sasha glanced around. “The archbishop's quarters? When was the last time a woman set foot in these quarters? When was the last time you even spoke to a woman? In Baen-Tar, even the new priests would run away from me. But now I'm being held in a secure room in your chambers. Tell me, are you in the habit of holding young women hostage in your chambers? Does anyone else even know I'm here?”

There was no mistaking the temper in the archbishop's eyes now. “You should recall to whom you're speaking, young lady.”

Sasha shrugged. “I'm just wondering how seriously you take this ‘holy vows’ stuff here in Petrodor. I mean, we hear all the stories in Lenayin-all the little boys buggered behind the altar, that kind of thing. And now you're drinking wine and holding pretty girls hostage for your private amusement…”

“You are being held here as a direct favour to your dear sister Marya!” hissed the archbishop between clenched teeth. “I did inform her that it would be highly improper for a woman to be quartered in the temple, but she did insist! You should be thankful for my mercy that you were not given directly into the hands of Family Steiner, I doubt they'd have arranged such comfortable lodgings for you as we have.”

“What would they do?” Sasha asked darkly. “Start pulling out fingernails?”

“At the very least. You cause great difficulties for Family Steiner, young lady. Have you no sympathy at all for the difficult position into which you put your sister?”

“Oh poor darling,” Sasha muttered. “I'm sure her fancy clothes and jewellery are just chafing right now.”

“Your love of family seems wanting,” the archbishop observed, recovering some of his poise. “Do you hold as much disdain for all the tenets of Verenthane morality?”

“Marya made her choice,” Sasha said shortly. “I've made mine.”

“Be aware, Sashandra Lenayin, that your position here is most tenuous.” The archbishop sipped at his wine and considered the view. “I could hand you to Family Steiner at any time should your behaviour displease me. As you have observed, it is not proper for you to be here at all. Do not grant me an even greater incentive to unload this burden with which I am presented.”

“Unload?” Sasha said with contempt. “Or sell cheap, like the cheap salesman you are? You don't practise morality here, the priesthood of Petrodor never has. You just buy and sell like all the other merchants. Buy off the families to keep you happy. Trade favours when it suits you. Peddle influence. I may be Goeren-yai, but I've known many good Verenthanes in Lenayin, priests amongst them. Their gods were never so short of gold and treasure as yours seem to be.”

“You doubt my resolve,” said the archbishop icily. “We have already disposed of one Nasi-Keth girl this morning. My guards found her hiding near your meeting place on the Cliff of the Dead. I'm told she put up a stubborn resistance and would have escaped had it not been for an excellent crossbowman. If you wish to join her at the bottom of the harbour, please just say so, and we shall dispense with these tiresome games and insults…”

Sasha lifted the table with an explosive heave. The archbishop toppled backward and Sasha rushed forward, but a guard threw her to the ground. She fell awkwardly, struggling to rise with tied hands, but a shield crashed into her side, throwing her further from the archbishop. She rolled fast, but an armoured boot in the side stopped her, and then one crashed into her head and stunned her. It was several kicks later before her head cleared. A kick in the back was agony and one in the stomach drove the breath from her lungs. She curled up and braced as hard as she could, arms over her head to protect what mattered most. Then the kicks stopped.

She lay still, breathing hard, trying to listen past the pain. She heard the archbishop's voice, disappointingly calm and reassuring, talking to the guards. The squeal and crash of the table being returned to its place. Candleholders resettled. Then a hand grabbed her under each armpit and hauled her up. Her feet barely touched the floor until the guards dumped her in the chair once more.

Sasha tried licking her lips, but it hurt to move her jaw. Her ear stung and her mouth was tender. When she dared to move her tongue past her lips, she tasted blood. She couldn't quite manage to sit straight on the chair, her back and ribs hurt and the world kept trying to tip sideways.

“That was ill advised,” said the archbishop. A servant came scurrying to put a new cup of wine in his hand. He sipped it, trying hard to look unperturbed. Smug shit, Sasha thought. She nearly rushed him again, just to prove her contempt. Only the thought of injury stopped her. If she were injured further, she'd never escape. “You seem a little dense, although given your reputation, that is hardly surprising. Let me explain to you how this arrangement will work.

“You will tell me things about the Nasi-Keth. Or not me, not precisely-my interrogators. Where they live, how many they are, what the current political situation is like-and I understand it is quite fragmented-all of this. Should you not, I shall change my more polite interrogator for a less gentlemanly variety with ingenious inventions to make even the stubbornest Lenay princess talk. And then, you shall be very sorry.”

“You hurt me,” Sasha half mumbled with uncooperative lips, “and Kessligh will kill you. No…he'll gut you and make sure you live long enough to see what colour your insides are.”

“Kessligh's followers are Verenthanes, even if he himself has lapsed,” the archbishop said confidently. “If he wishes to retain any of his fast-fading support on the dockfront, he'll not dare touch a hair on my head.”

It didn't make sense, Sasha reflected, back on her bed in the cell. Her hands had been untied and she lay on her back with arms above her head to stop her bruises from stiffening.

The archbishop only wanted her for information? Not likely. He seemed very concerned about Kessligh, that was certain. It was more likely blackmail, she reckoned. Blackmail to keep Kessligh from interfering in whatever came next. Probably they would not risk harming her, as long as she remained useful-which would be for as long as Kessligh remained powerful. Kessligh would not remain powerful for very long if blackmail prevented him from acting…or, if in acting, he lost his best guarantee of prestige within the Nasi-Keth-his uma. However she figured it, she had to get out of here.

So what came next? Priests were being murdered. Something was afoot within the brotherhood. Something concerning Family Steiner. Something for which those involved wished Kessligh neutralised in advance. She knew she could not begin to guess. Possibly Kessligh would…but she doubted the plotters would leave much advance warning. Just long enough to let Kessligh know they had her. No fingers-probably Marya had made them swear they would not harm her. Marya was important enough that even the archbishop didn't dare break faith with her. Perhaps Marya herself would tell Kessligh. Kessligh would believe her with no severed fingers necessary.

Soon. Whatever was coming, it would come soon.

They'd killed Yulia was her next thought. Grief and horror threatened to surge and overwhelm her. No, she thought desperately. No. Perhaps it was a lie to upset her. But how would they know where Yulia was if Yulia had remained hidden? And how would the archbishop have known Sasha's accomplice was a girl? There weren't many female Nasi-Keth. Yulia alone would not have been able to outmanoeuvre them. In all Sasha's plans, she'd assumed she would be there herself to help Yulia out of trouble. It had never occurred to her that she would be the first to fall and Yulia would be left all alone.

She'd led Lenay men into battles in which hundreds had died. More recently, she'd come to know Rodery of the Nasi-Keth quite well, and he had been killed before her eyes. All was different to this, though. Those men had volunteered. They'd known exactly what they were getting into. But she'd gone to Yulia's home, and asked her to come, knowing that the girl half worshipped her, telling her she was not a bad warrior and assuring her that it would not be particularly dangerous, certainly far less dangerous than Riverside…

Less dangerous for Sasha, perhaps. Priests and powerful families could ransom Sashandra Lenayin. She was worth something. But what use would such powerful people have for a raggedy Dockside girl with dreams of becoming a warrior? For those people the likes of Yulia were barely worth the cost of the crossbow bolt that killed her.

Sasha knew that she was sometimes arrogant. She knew that she could be self-centred, and could at times fail to consider things from the perspectives of others. She'd thought she was getting better. More worldly and more mature. Wiser. She'd thought she was on her way to becoming the kind of uma that would raise Kessligh's prestige throughout Petrodor. The kind of uma who would make him proud. But now she'd got a nice Dockside girl killed for no better reason than she'd been too damn impressed with herself to consider how it wasn't all as easy for some people as it was for her. She'd been too damn certain that Marya would never betray her.

People like Sofy told her. Oh dear spirits, Sofy. Sofy would have told her not to trust Marya, not now, not in this situation, where her own children's futures were at stake. Sofy would have told her that it wasn't fair on Yulia to pressure her to do something she didn't particularly want to. Sofy would have told her not to get the poor girl killed because Sasha was too damn selfish to stop for a moment and consider other people's problems.

The ceiling began to swim in her tears. She stifled the sobs, as they hurt her bruises, but that felt like penance, and richly deserved. Tears ran down her temples and into her hair. “Oh, Yulia, I'm so sorry,” she sobbed. “Please forgive me.”

But she didn't deserve forgiveness, and she knew it.

When Alythia walked into the garden that night with Tashyna on a leash, the guards on the patio stared. The wolf heaved at the leash, straining toward the open grass.

“Hey, steady!” Alythia scolded, pulling back with her entire body, hoping the wolf didn't wrench her arms off. “Steady, steady! Calm down, you crazy fool, you!”

“M'Lady?” asked a guard, approaching uncertainly. “What are you…?” Tashyna growled, backing away as fast as she'd lunged forward, tail down, ears flat, neck bristling.

“Stop!” Alythia commanded the guard, holding out a firm hand. He stopped, a wary hand on the hilt of his sword, eyes wide on the wolf. “Don't approach her, she's not used to it. Just stay back.” To her delight, the guard obeyed. At last-power! The guard looked a little scared, as did his companion further away. How wonderful. Alythia crouched, offering a hand to the wolf. “It's all right, Tashyna,” she said in Lenay. “It's all right, I'm here. I won't let him hurt you.” Tashyna let her stroke her neck and scratch her head. The ears rose and the growling stopped.

“M'Lady,” said the guard cautiously, “is this wise? That's a wolf!”

“It's a Lenay wolf,” said Alythia imperiously. “Her name's Tashyna. She listens to me.” The guard blinked at her. It had been six days since she'd given Tashyna her name. Since then she'd visited the wolf every day, sometimes twice a day, always with food. Alythia was astonished how little time it had taken for the wolf to come to trust her. Probably, she thought, Tashyna remembered a time when she'd been an adorable puppy and humans had been nice to her. Probably she'd only wanted some of that affection back again and had no idea why the exuberance that her human masters had once found so charming was now met with fearful exclamations and beatings. Alythia thought she knew how that felt.

Now, Tashyna had one human in Halmady Mansion who was nice to her, and flung herself upon that protection with desperate hope. Wolves, Alythia recalled her brothers saying, were proof of the natural order of kings. They wanted to be commanded. They needed a dominant ruler to obey. Perhaps Tashyna now believed that dominant ruler was her. It gave Alythia a strange feeling of pride. Someone needed her. Someone enjoyed her company. That someone had four legs, smelled poorly at the best of times and had terrible eating habits, but it was better than no one at all.

Alythia pulled Tashyna onto the grass, where the wolf quickly regained her enthusiasm and began hauling desperately on the leash. Alythia struggled to keep up, her sandalled feet slipping. She tried to keep left of a row of garden bushes, then slipped and fell on her rear, losing the leash from her hand. Tashyna shot off across the grass, rounded the central fountain, half tripping on her lead, then came bounding back, a sinister, lunging shape in the evening torchlight. For a brief moment, Alythia recalled her previous fear, to see that ferocious outline coming straight toward her. But Tashyna slowed, then jumped on her playfully and tried to lick her face.

“Oh get off! You're too heavy!” Alythia struggled to her feet and tried to regain the leash, but Tashyna was off once more, with boundless energy. Alythia sighed and brushed the grass from her arms. This was most undignified, and irritating too. The guards were surely laughing at her. Her heart was thumping with exertion and half-fear, and the stupid animal would simply not do what it was told. But Tashyna had been her only friend for the past week, and deserved this brief freedom. And Tashyna was…well, really quite funny too, she thought, watching the wolf weaving between the flowerbeds, tongue lolling, a mad excitement in her eyes. She arrived at the far wall, skidded to a halt and came back the other way, nearly falling. Much to her own amazement, Alythia found herself laughing.

Tashyna came back to Alythia and dodged around her, jumping and snapping at her skirts. Guards on the patio came to stare, and some house staff too. Some looked anxious, but others were laughing. “The Lenay wolf-girl!” someone exclaimed loudly in good humour. Alythia had the grace to turn and curtsey, and gained more laughs. It was more goodwill than she'd experienced at any time since her wedding, she thought, with a surge of happiness. The next time Tashyna returned to harass her, she managed to grab the wolf and give her a big hug. Tashyna whined, struggled and licked.

And raced off once more. Alythia turned back to the onlookers and found that little Tristi Halmady had emerged from the house, escorted by a pair of maids, one of whom carried even littler Elra in her arms. The maids looked anxious, but Tristi was wide-eyed with amazement.

“Alythia's friends with the wolf!” Elra said loudly. She was a pretty girl, her black hair done up at the back, rosy-cheeked and clutching Topo, her favourite ragdoll.

“Alythia, Papa says the wolf is wild and dangerous!” exclaimed Tristi. “He told us we weren't to go near it!”

“Well I assure you,” Alythia announced primly to them all, “he demanded no such thing from me!”

“How did you make friends with the wolf?” Elra demanded.

“She fed it,” said one of the cooks, who knew.

“I spoke Lenay to it,” Alythia corrected. “Tashyna's a Lenay wolf, she only speaks Lenay.”

“Her name's not Tashyna, it's Dessi!” Tristi insisted.

“Ah, but that's where you're wrong!” Alythia said brightly. “You see, all Lenay animals have true names. They have old, pagan spirit names-Goeren-yai names. But you need to speak Lenay, and you need to speak it to them nicely, or they won't tell you their true names.” It was utter horse manure, all of it, but the crowd on the patio all stared with a look somewhere between discomfort, amazement and respect. Alythia nearly laughed. Perhaps now, finally, she'd found a way in. A way toward respect. Through a wolf, of all things. A wolf that they were all scared of. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps the only way to gain respect amongst wealthy Petrodorians was through fear.

“Can I pat her?” Tristi asked wistfully. “I've wanted to keep seeing her, but Papa wouldn't let me. I'm sure she'll remember me.”

“Did you ever beat her?” Alythia asked doubtfully.

“Oh no, I never did! I was always nice to her, honest!”

“Master Tristi,” said a maid, “I really don't think that you should…”

“Nonsense!” announced a guard. “The third son of Halmady isn't scared of some stupid wolf! If a girl can do it, so can Master Tristi!”

Alythia turned to look back at the garden. She caught only a brief glimpse of Tashyna, a fast shadow against the far, downhill wall. “Come quickly,” she said to Tristi, who came running. Alythia put her hands on the boy's shoulders when he arrived and turned them both downslope. Tashyna seemed far more interested in racing from one side of the lower garden to the other as fast as her legs could take her.

“Look how fast she is!” Tristi exclaimed. “I bet she'd make an excellent guard dog. Maybe we could let her loose in the garden more often. Maybe all night. She'd deal with any sneaking nightwraith!”

“I think that's an excellent idea,” said Alythia. In truth, she wasn't sure at all-she knew from her brothers that wolves did not bark, so she wouldn't make much of a guard dog if she couldn't raise the alarm. And she was still so wild, probably even this huge garden would not be enough for her. But anything would be better than that little enclosure against the side wall. “Now just remember, move very slowly and be very careful. She's really very sweet, but she gets scared easily. And scared wolves are dangerous. Understand?”

Tristi nodded. He was nearly nine now and curly-headed like her Gregan. Also like Gregan, he was a bit of a mummy's boy…or a daddy's boy, at least. Fancy not visiting the pet wolf just because daddy had forbidden it! It would never have stopped her brothers, not even Wylfred.

Tashyna leapt through some bushes, tongue lolling, now slowing as she loped past the fountain. She looked tired and happy. Tristi stiffened anxiously and Alythia squeezed his shoulders. Tashyna saw him and pricked her ears. She ran about them in a circle, head poised, more curious than alarmed.

“It's all right, Tashyna,” said Alythia, forcing confidence into her voice. “Come and say hello to your old friend. He's missed you.”

Tashyna stopped circling and trotted closer. Stopped, ducking her head nervously, trying to go sideways. “Oh here, come on!” Alythia crouched beside Tristi, a hand out. “It's all right, it's only me!” It astonished her how easily she could read the wolf's thoughts. Fear battled yearning, self-preservation struggled against risk. She'd seen it in people, in the courts of Baen-Tar Palace. The young noble from the provinces, uncomfortable in his newly bought clothes, sighting a glamorous Lenay princess and torn in two directions-backward, toward safety; and forward, toward opportunity. And she'd seen it in the palace girls upon sighting some particularly handsome arrival. For herself, the instinct had always been forward. She'd never known what it was to retreat, until she'd come to Petrodor. Perhaps it was a common affliction for Lenays in Petrodor, walked they on four legs or two.

Tashyna came close enough for Alythia to pat. “Let her sniff your hand,” she told Tristi. Tristi did so, breathlessly, and Tashyna sniffed. And licked, as if remembering a familiar taste. Tristi grinned. “Pat her. Scratch her neck, she likes that.”

Tristi did that too, his smaller hand sinking into the wolf's thick fur. Tashyna whined, wriggled on her stomach, then rolled on her back.

“That means she likes you,” Alythia laughed, rubbing Tashyna's chest.

“She's very pretty,” said Tristi, matter-of-factly. “Sister, would you help me ask Papa to let me see her more often?”

Alythia climbed the stairs with more energy and purpose in her legs than she recalled since her wedding day. Finally, she had a reason to go and see her father-in-law. Only a little thing, to be sure, but perhaps that was best… and, besides, the patachi doted on Tristi. If brave Tristi had befriended the wolf, then surely his father would find some pride in that.

Perhaps Gregan would be in his father's chambers, she thought as she walked the polished boards of the ornate upper hallway. She'd barely seen Gregan for a week. For some of that time, he'd gone to pay respects to the various dukes gathered in their properties neighbouring Petrodor. The short while he'd been home, he'd slept in a separate room and spent his time at great luncheons for Halmady and Steiner allies, or plotting in his father's chambers. Alythia began straightening her hair as she walked…and considered the grass stains on the sleeves of her dress. She nearly turned for her room to change, but she dared not lose this opportunity. And besides, soon word would spread that the barbarian daughter-in-law had dangled dear Tristi's head in a wolf's jaws for sport, and she preferred to be the one breaking news of events, instead of always reacting to them. That lesson, she'd learned long ago.

Arriving at the patachi's chambers she made a final adjustment to her hair and necklace, and knocked on the twin wooden doors. There was no reply. No footsteps either. Perhaps he was out…but there was typically a commotion when the patachi left the residence and there had been none tonight.

It frustrated her, to have such an opportunity, only to turn back now. She knocked again. Come to think of it, there was usually a guard outside this door. Where was he? Concerned, she opened the door. At the far end, glass doors opened onto a balcony, and a broad desk faced the view. Candles and lamps were lit. How odd that it should be empty. Perhaps the patachi was in his adjoining bedchambers…but if he were preparing for an early night, where were the private servants?

She walked forward past the table…and saw something odd on the floor beneath the desk. Only when she was nearly at the far windows did she recognise the shape in the shadow cast by the chandelier. It was a body. The body of Patachi Halmady, his face to one side, staring at her. Face down in a spreading pool of blood.

A hand clamped over Alythia's mouth before she could scream, and a knife pricked at her throat. “Not a word!” hissed a voice in her ear. “The signal's been given. It will be over soon!”

The man dragged her backward into the patachi's bedchambers. She was thrown onto the bed, and recovered to find herself staring at a man she recognised as a servant, in black tunic and lace collar, levelling a wicked looking knife. “Make a noise and you're dead,” he snarled. He was sweating, and seemed highly agitated. Through her terror, Alythia realised there was a weight on the bed to one side. She looked, and found Lady Halmady, her face pale and expressionless, eyes wide with shocked disbelief. Beneath her, the bedcovers were soaked red. On the floor beyond lay a maid, likewise unmoving.

Another man entered the patachi's chambers, giving a small whistle for recognition. He talked with the first in low, hushed tones, giving quick glances in Alythia's direction. Alythia saw that they had both armed themselves with sword belts-most unservantlike. Assassins.

Suddenly she could hear yells from beyond the balcony. Her heart leapt, hope and fright in equal measure. Someone had discovered the treachery. Any moment there would be armed men battering down the door and she'd be in the middle of the fighting. But, as hard as she listened, she could hear no running footsteps in the hallway. Instead, there came a faint metallic sound then a shriek of pain. The yells and clashes grew louder, seeming to come from all about the house. A battle, Alythia realised. Halmady was betrayed. The entire house was falling.

Alythia lay on the bed, frozen with fear. Only a few times in her life had she been truly frightened for her safety, but those had been nothing compared to this. She could not bring herself to move, barely even to breathe. Her left elbow was wet with Lady Halmady's blood. As much as she'd hated the old lady, she'd never wished upon her anything like this. Or if she had, she surely hadn't meant it. Nor imagined it so horribly, gut-wrenchingly awful a sight. Inexplicably, her frantic eyes fixed upon an ornate, golden sword in its sheath above the doorway. She'd seen such swords in her father's chambers in Baen-Tar and knew that, for all their decorative value, they were as sharp as any armoury weapon. But what could she do with a sword, even if she could retrieve it? Against two well-trained, professional murderers?

Footsteps rushed along the hall outside. A hammering at the door to the patachi's chambers. “Patachi! We are attacked! You must get to safety!” Alythia heard the door open, followed by a scream of pain. Then yelling in the chambers and the clashing of weapons. More screams and yells of rage. Through the doorway, Alythia saw a man fall, crash and roll. He struggled to rise, but seemed to register a helpless horror, for the sight of all the blood that poured out of him. Then to panic, tears in his eyes, a young man sobbing at the prospect of his own death, slashed from breast to navel and soaking in blood. Alythia nearly vomited, and then the world went black.

She awoke barely a moment later, for now the screams and howls of combat rang in her ears. Beyond the balcony windows, she could hear fighting in the garden. Vansy and Selyna! The thought of her maids thrust her from the bed and she leapt for the decorative sword above the door. It didn't come down the first time, so she knocked it upward instead, and it clattered to the floor. She picked it up and stared into the chambers beyond. There were bodies on the floor, Halmady soldiers, perhaps five. A bookshelf had collapsed, chairs overturned and the floor awash with blood. Beyond the central table, a struggle continued on the floor with desperate gasps and shouts. There was a final, horrifying scream, then a gurgle, as an arm thrust a knife repeatedly into a body.

A man rose-one of the assassins, his black servant's tunic bloodied and torn, a dripping knife in his hand. He turned, surveyed the carnage, and saw Alythia. Alythia's heart nearly stopped. The man's eyes were wild, yet cold. He saw the sword in her hands and snickered.

“You're not your sister, little Princess,” he said. “Put it away. I'll not lose my reward so easily.”

“I'm a princess of Lenayin! My father will double any reward you've been offered!” The words were out of her lips before she could think. She was aghast at herself.

Something hit the bedroom window behind from the outside, a shatter of falling glass. “What good is Lenay gold to me?” said the assassin, limping about the end of the table. He held his bloody thigh with one hand. “I live in Petrodor. So do you, Princess. The favour of Patachi Steiner will carry me further than your father's ever shall.”

Alythia stared at him. Patachi Steiner? They were attacked by Steiner? Their great and powerful ally? Marya! was her first thought. Her sister would save her. Marya would not see her harmed. But the roar of battle came loud and near from all about the mansion now and she was scared for her maids, and scared for Tashyna, and scared for little Tristi and Elra, and Halmady were so powerful, and there were so many guards, and surely they could not lose this fight in a direct assault…

She tore the sheath off the sword and circled the table, about the motionless body of the dying boy. She tried to hold the sword as she'd seen Lenay soldiers hold them, but this was a Torovan sword, thinner and lighter, made more for stabbing than cutting. There was only really room on the hilt for one hand, but she held it with two anyway, having no idea how it was done, otherwise.

The assassin blocked her way to the door. He held only a knife against her sword, yet to get past, she would have to go through him. It was clear from the look on his face that he didn't believe she could do it. Neither did she.

Suddenly there were new footsteps in the hall and a figure appeared in the doorway. The assassin half turned and Alythia saw a lithe man in embroidered tunic and tight leggings surveying the scene with horror, a sword in his hand. Gregan. In an eye blink, the assassin scooped up a fallen blade and threw the knife at Gregan. Gregan ducked aside before Alythia could scream, the knife slashing his sleeve, and charged the assassin. Blades clashed and Gregan half stumbled on a body, struggling to defend himself as he staggered sideways. Before she knew what she was doing, Alythia had charged, her blade upraised. The assassin cut at her and she jumped back just in time. Gregan took that chance to slash, taking the assassin across the forearm. He spun away with a strangled yell and Gregan was on him before he could recover, hacking once, twice, three times before the fourth finally exposed the man's defence and the fifth stabbed him clean through the ribs. The assassin fell into a wall and slid down, leaving a bloody trail behind.

“Papa!” cried Gregan, dashing immediately for the body behind his father's desk. He stared down at it, then spun and ran into the bedchamber as Alythia stood in helpless tears. When Gregan reemerged, he was ashen-faced. He stared at Alythia with haunted eyes.

“I'm so sorry!” Alythia sobbed. “I just came to talk to him about Tristi. Tristi wanted me to ask him if he could spend more time with the wolf, and I found that…that man here, and them already…already…”

Gregan embraced her. He looked her in the eyes and Alythia was surprised at the strength she saw there. And the fury. “He nearly had the better of me,” he said, jerking his head toward the dead assassin. “Your attack saved me. Today, I am Patachi Halmady. And you are Lady Halmady.” Alythia could only stare through tear-filled eyes. “Come, my love. We shall fight and defend our home.”

Petrodor was burning. Errollyn stood on the balcony and watched the flames and smoke rise from across the lower north slope. The house was a nondescript residence, humble for its position, upon the upper stretch of the Corkscrew, hemmed in on either side by crowded neighbours. But the balcony afforded a good view of the great houses of the upper ridge and a figtree ensured some privacy.

The door opened behind, but he knew it was Rhillian well before she spoke. “Word from Family Velo,” she said softly. “Mari Velo fished a body from the waters off the Cliff of the Dead this morning. It was Yulia Delin.” Errollyn recalled young Yulia from the Riverside raid. Strangely, he could not recall her from the fight itself. Rather, he saw her now in his mind as he'd found her that following day at House Rochel, curled in a chair, reading a book. His hands tightened on the railing. Rhillian stood against his side, a gentle warmth. “I'm sure they won't harm Sasha. I've not heard from Kessligh whether he's received a ransom demand or not. He's not talking to me.”

Errollyn gazed into the night. He felt no presence at his side, beyond the immediate warmth. Only emptiness. Such was the world of the du'janah. He did not feel it. He could not. Rhillian could not understand. Only Sasha could. He wanted her back so badly it hurt.

“Halmady's allies burn,” he said. “I count six fires. You've done your work well.”

“The northern stack turns on itself,” said Rhillian. “The predominant alliance of Petrodor is weakened. We are safer now.”

“No,” said Errollyn grimly. “They consolidate, that is all. The loss of six houses will weaken the Steiner alliance only a little. All you've done is give them an excuse to eliminate their internal divisions. They will rise from this stronger than before.”

“This is not all my doing.” Rhillian's emerald eyes were cool as she gazed out at the fires. “The divisions were real. Do not blame me because Sasha took a risk. I love her like a sister, but in truth, she is reckless. Probably her capture had something to do with this assault. But I can't be responsible for Sasha's wild urges, Errollyn.”

“This isn't about Sasha. It's about you not seeing what you've done.” Rhillian folded her arms and leant against the balcony railing. With her eyes, she challenged him to explain himself, as she'd done so many times before. “The Princess Alythia. What happens to her?”

Rhillian shrugged. “Events will tell. More importantly, the Steiner alliance shall be weakened from within and take many casualties.”

“No, not more importantly,” said Errollyn, frustrated. “She is royalty, Rhillian. Only Lenay royalty, but even that counts for something in Petrodor, however little the families like to admit it. Steiner already have Princess Marya, and Steiner's heirs have Lenay blood. Steiner has forged an alliance with Lenayin for at least three generations, and likely well beyond. Lenayin is the greatest fighting force of Rhodia, save for the Saalshen Bacosh. I've fought in Lenayin, and I've seen it. Warrior for warrior they are formidable, and if Lenay kings ever manage to bring the provinces to heel, they will grow more powerful yet.

“Rhillian, it's not just the serrinim who have miscalculated. King Torvaal miscalculated in wedding Princess Alythia to House Halmady. One daughter married to the powers of Petrodor did not seem sufficient, as power in Petrodor is spread so wide. He judged that wedding Alythia to Halmady, the second most powerful of the Steiner alliance, would strengthen those bonds further. Instead, he created a rivalry.”

“There are rivalries everywhere in Petrodor. Everyone assumed Halmady and Steiner were friends…what surprise that it turns out otherwise?”

“No.” Errollyn shook his head firmly. “Alliance to Lenayin could be the single most significant possession any great house of Petrodor holds. Alliance to Lenayin grants power with the priesthood, who are in search of an army, you may have noticed. And lately, priests have been disappearing. Primarily those from Halmady-allied families.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Rhillian admitted.

“We've been looking the wrong way,” Errollyn insisted. “This is not just another Petrodor power game, this is about Lenayin. Rhillian, we cannot allow Steiner to have possession of both Lenay princesses. Surely Steiner will take Alythia alive, and probably then find some way to wed her to one of their own…”

“That would run against all the Verenthane traditions of marriage,” said Rhillian, frowning.

“Who cares? They don't, not when there is this much power in the wind…”

He was interrupted by noise from within the house. He pushed through the door, Rhillian following, and found Aisha leaning against the fireplace, gasping for breath and covered in sweat. A woman of the local family who owned the house poured her a cup of water from a jug. Aisha drank thirstily.

“Halmady Mansion's gone,” she said, as her breathing recovered. “The fighting ends. They have not put the house to fire. I think they mean to keep it.”

Errollyn pictured what he knew of Halmady Mansion's layout. He added the length of time since the fighting had started, and the time it must have taken Aisha to run here with the news…“That was fast,” he concluded. “Well planned.”

“It's not as though they don't know Halmady's defences,” Rhillian reasoned. “Friends are easier to spy on than enemies.”

“There were Danor soldiers involved,” Aisha added, wiping blonde hair from her forehead. “And Vedichi. Adele reports seeing Coroman soldiers involved further down the slope against Family Ragini, but I did not see those myself.”

“How many would you estimate?” asked Rhillian.

“Oh…I think there's at least four hundred provincial soldiers in the city tonight,” said Aisha. “They play their hand early.”

“They are confident,” said Errollyn. “They do not fear Maerler, nor us.”

“Or desperate,” Aisha cautioned. “Halmady has many friends. Six houses were struck, the bulk of the force against Halmady Mansion, but the total force looks to me perhaps two thousand or more. That is no small commitment.”

“Petrodor politics are the art of using the small threat to imply the large,” Rhillian agreed. “There's no need to kill ten men when you can kill one and frighten the other nine into doing what you want. No one wants to show the other how big their knife truly is because nine-tenths of the fear is the uncertainty. Now Patachi Steiner has been forced to pull his knife and show all Petrodor just how big it is.”

“It's big enough,” Errollyn muttered. “I'd have thought Halmady could hold out twice as long.”

“But Danor and Vedichi have declared their allegiance to Steiner for all to see,” Rhillian countered. “Perhaps Coroman too. Things become clearer. Only three provinces have declared for Steiner. It's not enough. And now the others see how Steiner treats its so-called allies.”

“It won't shock them,” Errollyn said firmly, shaking his head. “This is their world. Aisha, did you see anything to tell the fates of Patachi Halmady or Princess Alythia?”

Aisha shook her head. “No…we've no spies in Halmady, sadly. Or fortunately, perhaps, given this. I know that Halmady had plans to save the patachi in case of an attack, but most families have those, and secret passages or compartments for the family to hide or escape in. I'd guess that Steiner would want Halmady dead-a former best friend alive would pose too many discomforting questions. My guess is that Steiner had some assassins on Halmady's staff and used them before the family could escape. There's always some men of low station in Petrodor desperate enough to take such risks for huge rewards.

“There were some carts moving along the Sawback Road, though. Likely to transport any important prisoners.”

“They'll move Alythia out that way, if she's still alive,” said Errollyn. “I have to go.”

“And rescue her?” said Rhillian incredulously as Errollyn picked up his bow. “Such prisoners will be heavily guarded, we cannot spare any talmaad for such a deed…”

“No, these days we can't spare the talmaad for anything useful at all,” Errollyn muttered.

“There are two thousand Steiner soldiers loose in the city and you think we have nothing to defend?” Rhillian retorted.

“If Patachi Steiner gains a second Lenay princess, he will at the very least gain extra bargaining power with King Torvaal,” said Errollyn. “How can you just allow-”

“No,” said Rhillian firmly. “The issue is Petrodor. The Maerler alliance has at least ten thousand men under arms within the city alone. This two thousand of Steiner's is nothing, even with three provincial dukes taking Steiner's side. The other dukes are not committed-Pazira, Flewderin and Cisseren are openly hostile to Steiner, Songel is little better. If we keep them all divided, there will be no Torovan army marching south next spring.

“Patachi Steiner can make whatever alliance he wishes with Lenayin, he can ransom back King Torvaal's daughter, he can marry her to one of his other allies, send her to a holy convent to consolidate relations with the priesthood, whatever he chooses. It will all make no difference if Patachi Steiner commands nothing more than merchants and coins. Armies make leaders, Errollyn. If Patachi Steiner has no army of Torovan to command, then he's nothing more than a moneylender for this cause. This action will shake Steiner's base of power to its core, it will increase suspicion, kill many of their men, and make all Steiner allies consider their position. No one will follow this man, Errollyn. If we deny him that, then we stop the army of Torovan from ever forming. Without the army of Torovan, the Saalshen Bacosh is safe.”

“And if the pendulum swings so far the other way that Patachi Maerler takes power instead?” Errollyn asked, stringing his bow with a powerful heave on the string, fitting the loop over the notch as the wood creaked and groaned. “Friendly Patachi Maerler with his ten thousand men under arms?”

Rhillian sighed and went to the table to pour Aisha another cup of water. “Errollyn, where are you going? You're needed here…what if Steiner's men attack this house? Our other properties?”

“If you're smart, you'll run away.” When Errollyn plucked the fitted bowstring it made a deep, satisfying thrum. “Aisha, a second pair of eyes would be useful.”

“I forbid it,” said Rhillian, handing Aisha the cup. “Either of you. We are in danger, the talmaad cannot split in the face of it.”

“This is stupid,” said Errollyn fiercely. “I've listened to your horseshit for weeks. You've set half the city on fire, you've set forces in motion you have no idea how to control, and now the only decent advice you're receiving, you're determined to ignore. I'm tired of it. I'm leaving.” Rhillian blinked. Errollyn had spoken that last in Lenay-as Sasha always said, the swear words were far superior to anything in any Saalsi dialect. “Aisha?”

Aisha looked at Rhillian for a long moment, then at Errollyn, then back again. “I'm…I'm sorry, Errollyn. I can't.”

“Errollyn,” Rhillian tried again, “I understand you're upset about Sasha…”

Errollyn nearly laughed at her, humourlessly. “If the sane are irrational, then the irrational must be sane?”

Rhillian's expression hardened. “I give you an order, Errollyn. I make a habit of it.”

“And I've made a habit of submitting,” said Errollyn bluntly. “No longer.”

Rhillian just stared at him. As did Aisha. Vel'ennar. The one truth. Beyond a certain point, serrin simply could not disagree. The one truth united them. The eternal presence. The light in the dark. It was each other. It was all serrin, their common beliefs and lives, aspirations and dreams. All serrin shared it. Except the du'janah.

“Errollyn,” Rhillian protested, almost plaintively. “You can't just leave!”

Now Errollyn did laugh in helpless exasperation. “I can't? Watch me.” He walked to the stairs across the rickety floorboards.

Rhillian caught his arm halfway there. “Don't you care about us?” There was temper in her voice now, a fire in her emerald eyes. “Doesn't it matter to you if this place is attacked? If innocent residents are killed?”

“You.” Errollyn jabbed a finger in Rhillian's chest. “You understand nothing. You accuse humans of prejudice, yet in the years you've known me, you've never once understood what it feels like to be me.”

“You're playing the victim, Errollyn,” Rhillian said warningly, “it doesn't become you.”

He could have hit her. He stepped back with a deep breath, snatching his free hand back lest it betray him. “You know what? Fuck you. Fuck all of you.” He spoke in Lenay and the strength of his anger scared him. He backed up, wanting only to escape.

Rhillian shook her head. She seemed at a loss. “You've almost become human,” she said in Saalsi.

Errollyn felt something snap. “Don't you dare use that like an insult!” he shouted at her, still in Lenay. “You fucking bigot! I don't feel what you feel, Rhillian! I don't feel what most serrin feel! You're supposed to be big enough to accept that, of course you are, you are the serrinim! The great and godly, the intellectual, the sophisticated who accept all truths because it is your nature…well how sophisticated is this, you can't even understand a single du'janah!”

“I cannot confront this,” Rhillian sighed. “You are emotional, you complain like a child…I don't know what to do with you, Errollyn.”

“I know. I know you don't. You never did. From the moment I arrived in this city, I've been alone.” He used Saalsi now. The word meant far more than just solitary, in that tongue.

“That is unfair,” Rhillian said firmly.

“Yet you have no idea why I'm leaving, do you?” He walked back to her and stood, confronting her face to face. A little taller than she, and considerably broader. “You accuse me of not caring? Don't you realise that it is a curse to be born like this? Don't you understand that I would love to feel what you feel? To wake every morning and know that I belong? You misunderstood me from the first, Rhillian. You attribute false motivations to my actions, and false thoughts to my words. And now you wonder why I distrust your judgment of humans?

“I will tell you this one piece of wisdom, Rhillian, and listen closely, for it may save many serrin lives. Serrin are only good at understanding serrin. The vel'ennar binds us to each other, yet in doing so, it blinds us. Or at least, it blinds you. Humans cannot feel vel'ennar. I cannot. I could not describe it to you if you asked. And yet you presume to comprehend human feelings as though they were your own.”

“Errollyn,” said Rhillian, choosing her words carefully. “I'm sorry that you feel left out. I have always valued your insight, as I value the insight of many of my talmaad. We each have unique skills, and I would utilise them all. But I cannot be riven by such self-doubt, Errollyn. My judgment tells me our course is sure. I can do no better than listen to my better judgment. The eternity equipped me with nothing more.

“Now, you profess to understand human concepts better than I. It's possible, I admit. So understand this concept. I order you to stay at this post. Lacking perception of vel'ennar is no excuse for disobeying orders. Humans don't. Humans obey discipline. It is their greatest advantage over us. Now we must do the same.”

“Humans obey discipline in their various parts,” Errollyn agreed, unflinching. “But they have variety, Rhillian. They all fight each other. It's a tragedy, yes, but not a weakness. They have many views and many values. But now, you ask all serrin to follow just one. Yours.”

“Not mine,” said Rhillian, with temper. “I listen. My opinion is informed by others. We are collective, Errollyn. We stand together.”

“And are condemned by it. We need division, Rhillian. It may save us. I'm sorry.”

Rhillian's stare was unwavering. “If you leave now,” she said, “don't come back. You won't be welcome.”

“I've never been welcome.” Errollyn turned and strode for the stairs. Behind him, he heard Aisha's upset, disappointed exclamation…at Rhillian, it seemed. Footsteps followed him down the stairs.

“Errollyn, stop.” Aisha was fast, and caught his arm. “Errollyn, she doesn't mean it. Forgive her.”

“This isn't a question of forgiving. It is a question of symmetry. Rhillian's is not mine.”

“Errollyn, it's just…you baffle her sometimes.” Aisha's look pleaded understanding. “No serrin acts as you do.”

“And instead of tolerating my difference, she fears it. Aisha.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “You are half human. Do you find me so strange?”

“No.”

Errollyn smiled at her. “You're human enough to lie, but serrin enough to be awful at it.”

“Errollyn, she has a great responsibility. No serrin has carried such responsibility before. The threat we face is vast. The old ways of serrin will no longer serve. She seeks the new. I do not envy her in that, Errollyn. She needs our support, not our criticism.”

“Even if the only support I have to offer is a lie, and the only truth I see is criticism?” Aisha sighed and hung her head. “You think just like her. You think I do this just to be difficult. I don't. I do it because it's what I am.”

“What we are, Errollyn, is of the serrinim.” Aisha's voice was firm. As though her feet were finally steady upon the only solid ground she'd yet found in the whole argument. “I am half human, yet even I am drawn to it. That is what we were meant for. I believe that more strongly than I believe in anything.”

“I know you do,” Errollyn said softly. “And that is why there is no longer any place for me within the serrinim.” He kissed his friend gently on the forehead and continued down the stairs.

“Errollyn,” Aisha said plaintively from behind, “you are the serrinim! Whether you feel it or not, that's what you are!”

Errollyn did not stop his descent. Nor did he look back.

The night was alive with danger. Errollyn could smell it on the wind as he moved, a dark shadow through the alleys, paralleling the upper ridgeline as close as safety allowed. He paused often, and listened to the distant crackle of flames and the ringing of bells. Carts clattered up cobbled roads-wealthy folk on the move, protected by many guards, eyeing the shadows with weapons at the ready.

Once, he heard an approaching whisper of footsteps, and whistled warning in the darkness. The answering whistle revealed Nasi-Keth, three of them, well-armed and moving in the opposite direction. The passing was friendly, but neither party revealed their destination. When they were gone, Errollyn wondered which of the three Nasi-Keth factions they belonged to-conservative Alaine, serrin-friendly Gerrold, or progressive Kessligh.

As he moved between crumbling walls, scanning the ground for tripwires, he considered the situation. It appeared that Steiner had sent carts to Halmady Mansion to transport prisoners. Normally, the route between Steiner Mansion and Halmady Mansion was simple-a short distance along the Sawback Road with mostly grand mansions on either side. But on nights like tonight there came a complication-Family Ganaron. Family Ganaron was a Maerler ally, surrounded by a cluster of Steiner-friendly mansions on Sawback Road, midway between the Steiner and Halmady residences. Most northern families were Steiner, and most southern families were Maerler, but not all. To have a position so near to the enemy's heart was valuable. Steiner would not risk transporting valuable prisoners past Ganaron Mansion. So which route would they take?

Errollyn took a downhill path, descending a steep, winding stairway then dashing across a narrow road and advancing up one side, pressing close to the walls. He ducked into another lane until he reached one of the giant fig trees that loved the sandstone incline. He climbed up its gnarled, twisting trunk until he could see the uphill stretch of the Slipway, one of north Petrodor's two best roads, winding up to the ridge from the docks far below.

He could see the looming rooftop of Halmady Mansion on the distant ridge. There were no flames, unlike those on Halmady's allies downslope. Those houses were disposable, he supposed. Halmady Mansion was too grand to burn.

He waited a long time, but saw no traffic. He heard the clatter of horse and cart here and there, but no one dared the Slipway. The waiting did not bother him. He'd waited for long periods before, hunting in the wilds of the Telesil foothills in Saalshen.

A clatter of hooves and wheels broke the stillness. Finally, horses came into view, and a cart driver, pulling hard on the reins to slow the animals where the Slipway turned steep and treacherous. It was an open cart, Errollyn saw, filled with armed soldiers. In the light of the half moon, he saw blue and white-Family Steiner. The next cart was also open and full of armed men. Then passed three covered carts. Then two more guard carts. He waited a moment longer, knowing it would be slow going around the switchback elbow where a hundred years of wagonloads to and from the docks had smoothed the cobbles slippery. Horses hated it.

If Princess Alythia was alive, she could be in one of those carts…but which? Or perhaps there would be a second convoy. A decoy, in case of ambush. But which would be the decoy? Was it possible that…

A dark shape on the road caught his eye. Small and fleet, hugging the shadows in the wake of the carts. On four legs, not two. A dog, maybe… but it was a strange looking dog, for certain. Errollyn strained his eyes. The dog paused against a wall, ducking this way and that. Errollyn had seen such behaviour many times before. It was scared, yet felt compelled to press on. It sniffed the air, seeking a familiar scent. Clearly it was following the carts. And this was no dog. It was a wolf.

Errollyn nearly smiled. A wolf, in Petrodor? Following some carts? Well, the merchant trade loved exotic animals and the families were known to keep exotic pets. There were plenty of wolves in nearby Lenayin. So Halmady had a Lenay princess, and a Lenay wolf…could it be that simple? No, surely not…Sasha had told him all about her sister Alythia. She ran squealing from bats. But this was just too, too odd. Odd things often required odd explanations. Perhaps he and the wolf were seeking the same thing.

He was climbing from the tree when he heard men yelling, and the clash of weapons. He leapt, bow in hand, and darted along the alley. Horses shrieked, and there came the crash of a cart overturning. An ambush. The ambushers would have blocked the downslope-upslope was the place to be. At the next junction, Errollyn turned left, taking some uneven steps three at a time.

Finally he came clear onto a stretch of the Slipway, perhaps sixty paces upslope of the elbow corner. The corner was in chaos, carts banked up, several turned half-around, but the Slipway was not quite wide enough for such a manoeuvre, and now they were stuck. Men fought, and random fires lit the scene, casting crazy shadows on neighbouring walls. Steiner soldiers appeared to have formed a perimeter about the last of the covered carts and were fighting hard to maintain it, while prisoners were unloaded.

Directly before Errollyn's position, crouched low against the flanking walls, were a pair of Nasi-Keth archers. Neither was firing. Probably they feared hitting prisoners, or their own men. Uphill, with a walled street before them, they had the Steiners trapped…unless heavily armed Steiner soldiers managed to fight their way free, of course. At such close quarters, shoulder to shoulder, it was certainly possible.

Errollyn whistled at the archers…both spun with alarm. He approached in a crouch against a wall, and the men relaxed to see that he was serrin. “We must move now,” he observed grimly. “If their perimeter holds, they'll break into neighbouring houses, from there it's a maze through the city, and they may escape.”

“There's no clear shot,” the nearest archer disagreed, tersely. “What's a serrin doing here?”

“Helping. Just hit what you can, don't take any risks.” With that he stood up, nocked an arrow, and loosed.

A Steiner soldier struggling with the horses fell, shot through the side. Errollyn walked forward as he reloaded, eyeing the cover of a doorway just ahead. His next shot killed a man guarding the rear, and pandemonium spread through the rear contingent, men yelling alarm, fingers pointing uphill. Errollyn reloaded, and saw several crossbows being brought to bear from the back of the rear cart. He pressed himself into the covering doorway, bolts whizzed past, and one cracked off the wall. He drew left-handed this time, to keep his right shoulder pressed to the doorway, and put an arrow through a crossbowman's throat.

One of the Nasi-Keth archers behind him loosed an arrow at a flanking target, and missed, but the most exposed men were now scattering, or pressing themselves low, or hiding behind carts or trapped, thrashing horses. Several were pounding on adjoining doorways with the hilts of their swords, desperate for escape. Unluckily for them, doors in Petrodor were secured against the night with very heavy locks.

Something dark and burning at one end fell from an overlooking rooftop onto the last guard cart and burst into flame. Men ran and rolled aside, one burning. The cart's horses went crazy, smashed into a wall at an angle, and wedged themselves as the burning cart half tipped, one wheel climbing a wall. Errollyn had more targets, yet refrained. He'd killed enough these past weeks. Beyond the flames, dark shapes leapt, swords flashing orange in the firelight.

Suddenly there was a woman running free, her skirts smouldering, arms bound awkwardly at the back. A big Steiner man pursued, sword in hand. Errollyn drew fast, but the running woman blocked his sight-she was not a good runner either, slipper-shod feet sliding on the cobbles, she could fall straight into his line of fire at any moment. He stepped clear of the doorway, risking crossbow fire for a better angle…and blinked as a dark shape rushed past his legs and tore downhill at tremendous speed, trailing a leash.

The wolf shot past the running woman and leapt at her pursuer, who fended with a yell, losing his balance. His sword swing was wild, the wolf dancing clear then leaping at him again. An arrow fizzed past Errollyn's ear and struck the soldier in the shoulder. He fell, as the woman also fell, slipping and exhausted, to the cobbles.

Errollyn ran to her, an arrow ready, searching the firelit confusion behind…but the Nasi-Keth were breaking through now and the last Steiner soldiers were either surrendering or dying. He arrived at the woman's side as she struggled to sit. Her pursuer screamed and yelled, having lost his weapon in his fall, a shaft protruding from his shoulder while he tried vainly to beat off the leaping, snarling wolf that savaged his legs and arms.

Errollyn took a knife to the woman's bonds and her arms came free. She had long, dark hair that had once been lustrous, and large, beautiful dark eyes. Now, the hair hung in matted tangles, and her lovely face was swollen about the left cheek and eye. Lips that had once been full and unblemished now bore a cut, and dried blood streaked from one nostril. Despite her exhaustion, she did not seem especially horrified. Instead, she stared at the screaming man barely five paces away and watched the wolf grabbing his leg, shaking him like a toy. She seemed mesmerised.

“Is that your wolf?” Errollyn asked.

“She's her own wolf,” said the once-beautiful woman in a hoarse, emotionless voice. “But she's my friend.”

“Don't you think you'd better call her off?”

The woman gazed up at him. Screams filled the air, loud and panicked, but the lovely dark eyes registered no alarm. “Why?” she asked.

Sasha stood in the middle of her cell and closed her eyes. Outside the slit window was a pale blue dawn. She could hear the distant swell of the ocean, rising and rushing against the rocks at the base of the promontory cliff. A gull muttered and cawed. She raised her arms and began a slow taka-dan with an invisible sword.

Balance. Symmetry. Serrin thoughts, both. Serrin obsessed about them, and humans wondered why. With feet in primary stance, the arms were limited in range of motion. Change the feet, and the arms changed, motion with motion, stance with stance, balance with balance. Power flowed in lines through the body. The power of balance, the power of symmetry. Universal powers. One did not impose them upon the universe. The universe imposed them upon her. If she flowed with them, she would harness their power. And no mere weight of muscle, nor strength of arm, nor thickness of armour, could stop her.

It seemed so clear, this morning. Perhaps this was what isolation did. Kessligh insisted so. This was what he sought when he meditated. Stillness. Her bruises ached, and she had not slept well, but somehow, the tiredness seemed to help for she could not think straight at all. Thoughts cluttered the head. The best svaalverd, Kessligh always said, was reflex. The conscious mind could be your enemy. Train it. Do not be a slave to it. Make it serve you.

The patterns of svaalverd were so beautiful, sometimes they took her breath away. Like one of Aldano's sculptures, but in constant, shifting motion. Sofy had asked her once what she saw in such a sweaty, macho activity. Sofy, who loved her arts above all other pleasures…and who, reluctantly, had begun to see the error of her ways.

A hard cross met an upward-slashing counter-a shift of the left foot back would create room for a downcut, the left foot to the side would lead to a low-quarter slash, the left foot forward would bring her inside the attacker's reverse and kill him. Little motions of the foot, barely half a paving stone between all three, and the possibilities altered radically. Each possibility branched out into many extra possibilities, and all of those had many branches too. Be careful which way you go. Know your centre. Never abandon it, or you'll get lost.

Angles intersected, and the better angle won. Shapes and patterns. All the universe was shapes and patterns, making forces and counterforces. Even people. Krystoff pressed hard, and died. Force and counterforce. Sofy did not press hard enough, and so others shaped her future. Insufficient force, a weak stance. Sasha needed to find a middle. Kessligh tried, and pleased no one-a step too far back, poor range, poor contact with the opponent's blade.

Find your centre. Stand on it. Make them come to you. Step into the swing. Use their power against them. Let them dash themselves against the rocks, explosions of white spray against the cliff.

Sasha blinked, realising that she'd abruptly found a connection between two unassociated moves. Her hands replayed the thought, her body shifting in time. Threads slipped into place, a beautiful sensation that made her smile, whatever her recent pains. Symmetry, the likeness between things one had previously assumed unconnected. The footwork was dissimilar, but the transition, and the philosophy of attack, were identical. That move would now kill, whereas before, it had merely defended. And so she grew a little wiser this still morning. A little deadlier. If only she were free.

The day passed slowly. Sasha ate bread and soup, paced her cell, stretched and performed taka-dans. She had always been bad at doing nothing, and soon enough, she was climbing the walls-literally. First she manoeuvred her bed once more to look out the window, and discovered that no matter how she angled herself, she saw nothing but sea and cloudless blue sky. The cell became hot, which was fine for her legs, but the dress sleeves and shoulders clung tight to her arms. Surely Petrodor seamstresses made few dresses for girls built like her.

She entertained herself for a while by tearing the sleeves off with her bare hands, after stripping bare to her waist. The sound of ripping cloth brought looks from the guards outside her door, who pulled the plate aside to see…and closed it just as fast, when confronted by the sight of a topless woman. But the door remained closed. Sasha wondered where the temple drew its guards from. Holy-minded Petrodor youth who for some reason could not become priests? Or just random, hired thugs? More likely the former, she decided. Surely the latter might have at least favoured her with a lewd remark or two by now. Or worse.

Her back hurt where she'd been kicked, and her bruised jaw made eating difficult. Her left ear seemed to ring a little, like a perfect bell that had been struck hard some time ago. She hoped that would not be permanent. By early afternoon, she was down to reciting a Tullamayne verse out loud, straining her memory to recall the blood-rousing third and fourth acts. With that accomplished to the best of her ability, she began translating it into Saalsi. Which proved actually quite interesting, and very challenging. “And by his fiery eye he did see, a vision beheld in glory gold…”

Glory? No such Saalsi term. “A vision beheld”…one beheld an abstract concept like glory? In Saalsi, it could be said in the literal, the figurative, the active and inactive, or if one were very clever, the dryly ironic or the highly suggestive. Choose the wrong one and serrin listeners would get the wrong idea entirely. But none of them really fit. How did one translate between the glorious passion of Tullamayne and civilised, sophisticated serrinim? Serrin, of course, did not bother trying-if they wished to understand such writings, they'd learn the entire language and read it in the original. But did that mean they truly understood it better that way? Errollyn didn't think so.

That over, and more exercises done, she was mentally and physically exhausted, and it was still only midafternoon. Any more of this, and she would scream. Evening brought dinner-a bowl of half-decent stew-and the relief of cool air. And a priest, after she had eaten, who threw her a robe and told her it was time for a bath.

He led her down the stairs and into the archbishop's chambers, which were empty and lit with candles They continued into a vast hallway with a vaulted ceiling and grand tapestries and paintings. Sasha could not help but look up as she walked-she'd never imagined to see the inside of the Porsada Temple. Not as a Nasi-Keth, and certainly not as a woman. The huge hallway was eerily quiet, save for the footsteps of their four guards. Had they emptied the hall lest anyone spy a woman in the temple? Or was it always this quiet?

Outside Sasha had only a moment to observe the spectacular night lights of Petrodor stretching far out around the harbour, before she was led down some stairs cut into the side of the cliff. The stairway was lit with lamps, steps smoothly hewn with the sharp-edged precision that seemed natural to sandstone. To the right and below, she could hear the ocean swell heaving. Only now did she realise exactly where she would be taking a bath. Probably the priesthood were scandalised enough at a woman in residence at the temple-the idea of her stripping off and bathing there was too much to contemplate. She was struck by a sudden image, as they descended, of a small army of priests hand-scrubbing the stones of the cell in her absence until their knuckles bled. She nearly laughed. Just as well for them it was not yet her time of the month.

After a long, switch-back descent, they reached a small cave, within which was a landing. Lamps lit the rocky ceiling to ghostly effect, as the swell roared in and climbed the landing's broad steps, and cast an ankle-depth of water across the flat flagstones.

“I'm bathing in there?” Sasha asked, as they paused on a ledge several steps above the awash flagstones. “That's salt water, I'll need a bath after my bath.”

“Salt water will do fine,” said the priest. His voice was thin and reedy within his hood, and she had yet to see his face. “There will be fresh water to wash your hair later, and soap. In case you are thinking of swimming to escape, there are permanent posts for holy guards just beyond the cave, one on the rocks to either side of the cave. They use crossbows extremely well. Should you miraculously be only wounded, and not killed outright, the swell is large tonight, as you can see. It should surely dash a wounded swimmer against the rocks.”

And many healthy ones, Sasha thought, watching the next surge come roaring through the cave, and rush up the barnacle-covered steps. What an amazing place. The ocean had mesmerised her ever since she'd first laid eyes upon it two months ago. It was strange, and fearsome, but she was Goeren-yai, and loved all things wild and beautiful. Surely there were ancient spirits here, deep in the depths.

The guards retreated from the cave, and the priest followed. They had not bound her arms, perhaps considering (correctly) that she was not as formidable as a man barehanded, and that her recent bruises would slow her even further. And there were four of them, all big, and armoured with shields. Even she wasn't quite that stupid.

Sasha pulled off her dress and underwear, and stepped onto the slippery flagstones. The water was cold on her feet, but in Lenayin, she'd swum in water far colder than this. The swell surges were not so strong on the far side of the cave, she saw, and splashed her way across the landing, observing the wooden posts driven into rock where small boats, on calmer seas, would tie up to allow passengers to disembark for the temple. And she wondered how many visitors the priesthood received, in the dead of night, direct from ships from foreign lands.

Bathing was a challenge, and several times she had to jump up the steps to avoid a pummelling swell. But, in between surges, the water stayed calm enough for her to get thoroughly wet. The chill seemed to help her bruises and she emerged feeling refreshed. Certainly, she thought as she splashed her way back to her clothes, it was much nicer down here than in her cell. Perhaps they'd let her stay a while longer. The waves made such an amazing, echoing roar as they came in, and the patterns of lantern light reflecting off the water, and dancing across the ceiling, were truly beautiful.

She was drying herself with the robe she'd been given when she sensed movement from the corner of her eye and spun. It was the priest. Sasha stared at him, warily, and continued drying herself. Her nudity was a weapon against men such as these. Damned if she'd try and hide it.

“I'm not dressed yet,” she stated the obvious. “Come down to observe your holy vows?”

“I've got something for you,” said the priest, and reached inside his robe.

Oh great, I bet you do, Sasha thought with exasperation. Another horny priest, as in all the Goeren-yai jokes. Well, she might struggle barehanded against four holy guards, but she was pretty sure she could handle this scrawny little idiot.

When he pulled out her sword in its scabbard instead, she was completely astonished.

“You can have it,” he continued, his face still hidden within the hood, “but you have to swear something first.”

Sasha stared at him. And realised that some clothes might actually be good, right about now. She pulled on the robe and tied the sash at the waist. “I'm not swearing anything. Who the hells are you?”

The priest pulled back his hood, and revealed the face of a small man, bald and bearded, with lively eyes now earnest and…anxious. The face of a man who was up to something. “My name's not important. What I'll do for you is very important. I'm going to help you escape. All you have to do is listen.”

Sasha nodded warily. Escape was good. Just keep him talking. “I'm listening.”

“My brothers are being murdered,” the small priest said. “The archbishop has taken sides-and his chosen side is that of Family Steiner. He is behind the murder of my brothers, I am sure of it. I expect I shall be the next victim, or close to it, so it's very important that you listen very closely.

“Something very big is coming. The archbishop and Patachi Steiner have made plans, I'm certain of it. Halmady were a threat, and I'm not entirely sure why-maybe they really were plotting against Family Steiner, it's possible, but I simply don't know. Now Halmady have been eliminated, and-”

“Eliminated! When?”

“Last night. Eight families in all, most of their patachis are dead, and the Dukes of Danor, Coroman and Vedichi lent soldiers to the fight. The Steiner alliance has purged their ranks, and something far bigger looms. I do not know what to do. Fear lurks the temple halls, and the Holy Guard are supposed to provide protection, but there are rumours that some are bought men. Family Maerler would challenge Steiner on these murders, but a threat to the archbishop would give Steiner all the excuse they need to eliminate Maerler, and many of the dukes may join them, in the name of defending the archbishop.”

“And Steiner's alliance is the northern stack,” Sasha half murmured, aghast. The little priest frowned at her. “They're closer, Father. They can blockade the temple if need be. Or capture it. Maerler can do neither from the south.”

The priest nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. I fear that the archbishop merely ploughs the field for decisions to come, decisions that require holy blessing. The other fathers can be troublesome, they have a voice in the council and they are drawn from all the families…it has always been a balance before, but now the balance is tilting. Do you understand?”

“You…you think that Patachi Steiner will strike at Maerler for good, with the archbishop's blessing?”

The priest shrugged hurriedly. “Perhaps. I cannot speculate, I am a man of the gods, not of politics. All I know is that the archbishop has violated his holy vows and approved the murder of those who should be most beloved to him. He is no longer an agent of good, but an agent of evil. I cannot allow him to succeed. Should I do so, I could never face my gods again.”

“And how will my escape aid you?”

“It will unbind the hands of Kessligh Cronenverdt, whom the archbishop fears. And something else that shall become clear later. How well do you swim?”

Sasha frowned. “Well enough for a Lenay. Where am I swimming?”

“Out there.” The priest pointed out beyond the mouth of the cave. “I have arranged with loyal men to have a small boat waiting, beyond the light. If you can reach it, they will take you to Dockside.”

“What…tonight?”

The priest nodded. “Now. This very moment.”

“And the crossbowmen?”

“The far emplacement is only for show, it's rarely ever manned. Tonight it is not. I have just visited the men of the near emplacement, and they now sleep.” He held up a hand, displaying a familiar-looking ring. On its inside protruded a slim needle, just like the one Marya had used. “But you must go now, or they will be discovered.”

“They'll be discovered anyhow!” Sasha exclaimed. “Or they'll tell what happened to them…unless you…?”

“No.” The priest shook his head and gave a little, helpless smile. “My vows do not allow murder, and the gods despise a hypocrite. They will catch me, and I will probably die. Such is life.”

“You could come with me,” Sasha suggested.

The smile grew a little broader. “I can't swim. It was not meant to be. Here, take this as well.” He reached into a pocket within his robes and withdrew a leather pouch. “You will need both hands, so fasten this about your neck. It has a clasp, make it tight, for the sake of all the holy spirits do not drop it.”

“What's in it?” Sasha asked dubiously, taking the pouch.

“There's no time. Don't unwrap it, I packed it tight. Just be certain you tell Kessligh Cronenverdt what I've told you, and give that to him. The rest will explain itself. Now you must go. The guards wait further up the stairs, they will grow suspicious.”

Sasha fastened the pouch about her neck as suggested and took her sword from him and tied the leather bandoleer together where it should clip to her belt…which she now lacked. Slipped the bandoleer over her shoulder. And paused on the step down to the landing, looking back at the small priest.

“Look,” she attempted, “if the boat's just out there, you could make it. You just stroke and kick, like this…” she demonstrated.

The priest smiled more broadly. “It is not my fate, Sashandra Lenayin. May the gods look upon you.”

“I'm Goeren-yai,” Sasha objected.

“The gods are generous.”

Sasha nodded and descended the steps. “Thank you,” she said. And splashed across the landing to the barnacled steps. A swell crashed on the lower steps and rushed on, water spraying about her shins. Staring out into the dark beyond the cave, she was struck by sudden, frightening doubt. Perhaps it was a trick. Perhaps they needed to dispose of her in some manner that did not look like cold-blooded murder. Here she was, making an escape attempt with a stolen object of some description, only to be shot by vigilant archers. She stared up at the small priest suspiciously.

“Have faith, Sashandra Lenayin,” he said. “And know this-if you do not escape now, you shall be disposed of eventually. You have been a troublemaker all your life, I know. In Petrodor, the powerful dislike troublemakers. They'll never let you go alive. Take your chance while you have it.”

Still eyeing him warily, Sasha made first the Goeren-yai spirit sign, then the Verenthane holy sign, in quick succession. The priest's smile grew wider, and he repeated her actions. Sasha had never, ever seen a Verenthane priest make a pagan spirit sign. Most would never risk it, for fear of their souls. It was good enough for her.

The next swell rushed up the steps and, as it came to its peak, she dove into the water. The water churned as the receding wave rushed back down the steps, and spun her into the middle of the cave. She splashed hard, and the bandoleer strap immediately slipped from her shoulder and dragged at her arm. Kicking to keep her head above water, she adjusted it…and found herself being swept dangerously close to the cave side. She put her head down and tried swimming again, but the bandoleer was slipping around now, the weight of the sword pulling down, alternately banging an arm and then a leg. And now a new swell approached, heaving her upward and pushing her back into the cave mouth despite her struggles. Already her arms were aching, and her breath coming hard, and she began to wonder if this were such a smart idea after all.

But then the backwash from the second swell swept out of the cave, and took her out with it. Suddenly she was in deep, cold water, and could see brief glimpses of cliff face through the salt that stung her eyes. There behind her, a small, square guardpost with arrowslits. She swam harder, heart thudding, telling herself that if she just survived the first shot, she could dive, and swim underwater, and come up for air only briefly. But now, her lungs were beginning to burn. She was extremely fit, she knew, but swimming was not an accustomed activity. Fitness meant different things for different activities. Worse, the sword was trying to drown her. Probably, the thought occurred to her as she struggled and gasped and splashed, that was some kind of divine, poetic justice.

At least she hadn't been shot. She clung to that optimistic thought as the swell heaved her up once more, and forced her to swim uphill. She tried not to think about the vast, dark, gloomy distance that now stretched below her, within which all kinds of strange and usually hungry creatures she knew to dwell. She simply made stroke after stroke, and tried to find a rhythm despite the frustration of the sword, justifying that swimming must surely be like running, where rhythm was everything.

Finally she stopped and trod water, and looked about. She couldn't see any boat. Well great, just fucking wonderful. Out into deeper water, she could see the lights of ships at anchor. There was no way known she was going to make it out that far. She should head back, only westward, back toward Petrodor. If she could get ashore just downshore of the cave, she might be able to make her way down the cliff face, hopping along the rocks, until she reached the Cliff of the Dead. If the waves didn't smash her against the cliff first. But she didn't see that she had any choice-too much longer out here and she would drown.

She'd barely begun stroking again when she heard a splash nearby. She looked about and saw with shock the bow of a boat coming straight at her. It pulled alongside and a man in a hood shipped his oar and leaned over to offer her a hand. Sasha grabbed it, hauled, and embarrassed herself by barely managing to get her arms over the edge. The man grabbed her about the waist and pulled her over, and she fell gracelessly onto hard wood and bench seats. And lay there, gasping. Whoever that little priest had been, she owed him in a big way. And she hoped that his gods would save him from an ill fate.

“I…I didn't see you,” she gasped, heaving for air. “I thought I'd have…to swim back.” The boat was moving now, steady strokes of the oars. She propped up her head to look, and found that the wet robe had ridden up as she'd come overboard, exposing her from the waist down. Thankfully, the two oarsmen now had their backs turned as they rowed, and in turn blocked the view of the man at the tiller. She'd hurt her hip coming into the boat, and she rubbed at it, pulling the robe into some kind of modesty. One more bruise to her collection.

She struggled up, and took a seat at the bow, pulling off the dangling sword and putting it aside. She remembered suddenly to feel at her throat and found the leather pouch still in place. They were headed into deeper water now, but roughly back toward Petrodor. Behind, Porsada Temple loomed, white and shimmering in torchlight. Strange how the whiteness of the exterior made no impression inside. Strange to think that she'd been there at all.

The oarsmen stroked on as the boat rose up on the heaving swell. Sasha blinked her eyes clear of sea water and gazed back at the men in the boat. All hoods and cloaks. She clambered back a bench, to look between the oarsmen at the tillerman.

“Thank you,” she told him. “Are you priests too?” There was no reply. Nor, she observed, the prospect of receiving one about anything. “Sure, I understand. No questions. Fine with me. Thank you anyway.”

They were good oarsmen though, she reckoned, having seen enough of small-boat seamanship to be a judge of that. She doubted they were priests. Possibly they were simply men for hire. In which case, she should sit still and shut up, before they realised she might be worth more money to someone else than whatever the little priest in the cave had paid them. Possibly they didn't even know who she was.

She passed the time examining her sword for damage and watching the passing ships at anchor. The sword looked fine, though she would need to polish it soon-serrin steel rarely rusted but salt water wasn't good for anything. And she'd need to rewrap the handle binding.

Eventually the boat brought her alongside a pier at Dockside, and Sasha jumped off onto a tied-up fishing boat. The men rowed off immediately, leaving her to climb across two more boats and then up a ladder to the pier. The pier was mostly empty, as was the dockfront. That was unusual. The air seemed tense with danger, even here in Nasi-Keth heartland. She crouched where she was, knowing that it would be near impossible to see her amidst the rigging of tied boats against the black background of the harbour. She searched the docks with her eyes. She'd been away two days, she had no idea what had happened, nor how far the Halmady trouble had spread downslope.

Seeing nothing, she unfastened the strap about her neck and poured water from the leather pouch. Then, figuring that it would be best to be prepared, before bringing Kessligh anything of value, she undid the pouch. It took a while, as the fastener string was tied with tight knots. Once opened, there was another bag made of silk. She undid it and pulled out a hard, round metal disk. Even this far from the dockside houselights, the glint of gold was sharp.

Expensive, then. It didn't excite her particularly-if she'd wished nothing but wealth in her life, she'd have remained in Baen-Tar and been a proper Princess of Lenayin. It was a Verenthane star, she realised. A star had guided Saint Tristen to Mount Tristen, and in the blazing light of that star, the word of the gods had been proclaimed to him. Stars marked the holy path, and such stars had eight points, for justice, truth, love, brotherhood, and…and…damn, she forgot. All archbishops had a new star forged upon appointment, and each star became a unique signature of that man's life and order. The stars of the saints were legend, and said to be imbued with powers granted to those saints by the gods themselves.

This star…she peered at it closely, trying to discern its features in the dim light. This star had eight shallow points, the spaces in between encrusted with precious jewels. It was smaller than some, fitting within the hollow of her palm. It had a slim, gold chain, to be worn about the neck. And it had writing on the back in a circle about a central gemstone-a ruby. The writing looked to be in some Bacosh language, most likely old Enoran. She knew a little, as much of the Torovan tongue borrowed from Bacosh religious terms, and thought she could make out a couple of words…

And her heart nearly stopped. No. No, surely not. Surely the priest had not given her that one? Had that little, smiling, bearded man gone completely and utterly mad?

“Dear Lords, it is.” Alaine leaned over the table, staring at the golden object on its surface. His narrow face was pale beneath falling curls of dark hair and he made the holy sign to his forehead repeatedly. Gerrold had not left his chair, his eyes were troubled, but not reverent. “It is the Shereldin Star. The holiest of the holy. The gods favour us beyond measure.”

“They unleash upon us a calamity,” Gerrold said sombrely. “This will cause upheaval through all Petrodor. Through all Torovan, in fact. We must give this back.”

“Give it back?” Alaine rounded on his elder companion. “Good gods man, can you not see what a gift this is? This is the first and oldest of the Verenthane holy stars, forged upon the founding of the Enoran High Temple in the presence of the first saints! The single most sacred object of the faith! With this, we can rally the faithful to our cause! We can instruct the priesthood to leave off their foul war. We can be certain that the will of the gods is with us, and we shall surely be victorious!”

The meeting was held on the second floor of the Velo Family household, Alaine and Gerrold had each brought two supporters. Sasha sat on a bench behind Kessligh, with Bret. She wore a change of clothes from her room, and a borrowed pair of boots. Only the nine people in this room knew of the treasure that had fallen into their laps. Or ten, if one counted Mari. Kessligh had told him, for courtesy, and invited him to be present at the meeting, as head of the household. Mari had declined, and looked ill and gone to his room to pray.

“The archbishop will say this was stolen,” Gerrold replied. “He will call us thieves. He will mount a holy war on Dockside to retrieve it. He will unite all Verenthanes against us.”

“No,” said Kessligh. Of all three leaders, his expression was the most unreadable. “Father Terano told Sasha that the archbishop plots with Patachi Steiner.” Those who knew the priesthood well had recognised the small, bearded priest from Sasha's description. Father Terano Maerler. Patachi Maerler's brother, no less. Sasha now doubted if he would be killed for his actions. To kill the holy relatives of lower families was one thing, but Father Terano Maerler's death could turn the dukes to Maerler's side in the Maerler-Steiner conflict.

“It is unclear whether Father Terano acts from divine outrage,” Kessligh continued, “or if he is merely a partisan, furthering his brother's interests. Either way, it seems clear that all power was accumulating to Patachi Steiner's hands. The archbishop was with him, the obstacles within the priesthood were being removed. The archbishop has declared that he shall not rest until the Shereldin Star has been returned to its rightful place in the Enoran High Temple, following the liberation of Enora and all the Saalshen Bacosh from the serrin. It is the symbol of this crusade, the rallying cry of the holy army. If Steiner becomes the leader of this crusade, with an army of Torovan at his disposal, he shall become a ruler of Petrodor unlike Petrodor has ever seen, answerable only to the archbishop, and possibly not even to him. Father Terano gives us the star to remove Patachi Steiner's authority to raise that army. There is no way that Patachi Maerler will help Patachi Steiner regain it. I think he'd rather we keep it. Better it lie in neutral hands than opposing ones.”

“Then why not give it to Patachi Maerler?” Gerrold asked. “If Patachi Steiner is so power hungry?”

“What, and let the holy warriors rush to Maerler's side instead?” Alaine said. “Don't be fooled just because your beloved Rhillian has befriended him, Gerrold-he'll be every bit as bad as Patachi Steiner, given the chance. Perhaps worse.”

“I agree,” said Kessligh. Alaine gave him a look that was part surprise, part wariness. Gerrold looked down, his lips pursed. Kessligh took his seat and gestured for Alaine to do the same. There was an eerie silence in the little room, as though a great weight made even the air feel heavy. “We will keep it. The archbishop may not even know where it went.”

“Try keeping that a secret around here,” said Bret.

“Word will spread soon enough,” Kessligh agreed. “We will let the archbishop and Patachi Steiner decide their next move. There may be a falling out. We shall see.”

“Wait, wait,” said Alaine with an intense smile, leaning forward in his chair. “Hold on just a moment. You're not giving the orders here. Just because your girl got lucky enough to sneak away with this doesn't suddenly make you the ruler of the Nasi-Keth.”

“I didn't sneak,” Sasha snapped. “I swam. Father Terano gave it to me, and told me to give it to Kessligh. He said specifically that the archbishop feared Kessligh. He did not say that the archbishop feared Alaine Endaran.”

“Yes, well Father Terano is not Nasi-Keth,” Alaine retorted, “and as far as I know, he doesn't get a say! Besides, for all we know, you've lied about it anyway-how you got it, what Father Terano said, if anything, all of it. Maybe you were in league with Maerler and his priest all along!”

“Maybe if you were a slightly bigger fucking fool, we could put a cap on your head and watch you dance for entertainment.”

Alaine came out of his seat at that, his eyes wide and angry.

Sasha remained seated, glaring, knowing that he'd never get past Kessligh anyhow.

“You watch your tongue!” Alaine blazed at her.

“Anytime, anywhere,” Sasha said darkly. She let the implication hang. They would not let her fight Liam. Now, surely they would not let her fight Alaine. She thought them cowards, and they knew it. She was not above using it to advantage.

“Alaine, sit,” said Gerrold, his eyes shut as if suffering a headache. “She has a coarse tongue, but you did accuse her unfairly. How you could expect anything else in reply is beyond me.”

Alaine sat, reluctantly mollified. Gerrold's views did not find universal appeal within the Nasi-Keth, but his age and manner made him a figure of respect nonetheless. If only, Sasha thought tiredly, he had a few more interesting ideas than just following Saalshen's lead in everything. The man loved the serrin to excess.

“The star will stay here for now,” Kessligh said calmly.

“Why here?” Alaine retorted.

“Because moving it elsewhere will cause disagreement. I submit that we all agree not to move it anywhere. This stretch of dock is one of the most defensible, and the neighbours are all devout Verenthanes and loyal friends to the Nasi-Keth. If it pleases everyone, and should the moment arrive when word has spread, we can call a priest. Father Berin is a good man, and sympathetic to our cause. We could consult with him about the keeping of the star. He is neutral in our disagreements and will not play favourites.”

Gerrold nodded slowly. “Father Berin is a good man. Though I submit we should call on him immediately. He will not betray us-he is the last one to call down any trouble on our heads, he loves his flock too dearly.”

Sasha left the men to their debate and climbed the rickety staircase in the hall. Before the nearest door, she paused. Raised her fist to knock on the door, and paused again, her heart beginning a hard, unpleasant thumping. She had slept little last night and her head remained filled with Alaine's irritations. Perhaps this was not the best time.

But then, some things simply could not be put off. She knocked. When there was no reply, she turned the latch. No sooner had the door creaked open a handsbreadth, there sounded a vicious, snarling growl from within the room. “Tashyna!” came the irritated reply. “Tashyna, no.”

There were footsteps and the door pulled open a little…and there, sullen-eyed and swollen-faced, was her sister Alythia. Sasha stared. This was not the Alythia she knew. There was no life in her eyes, no confidence, no sparkling flash of self-importance. The left side of her face was swollen and she had a cut on the right side of her mouth, perhaps a knuckle long. Her hair fell in tangles and she looked out at her long-lost little sister with only the barest hint of recognition.

“What do you want?” she asked, sullenly.

Sasha nearly lost her temper immediately. She'd been planning to make an effort, to be nice, to try consolation, and now Alythia gave her this. She swallowed it with difficulty. Alythia had always had that knack. “To come in would be nice,” Sasha suggested.

“So you can laugh at my misfortune?” Alythia muttered. “Go away.”

“Laugh? For the spirits’ sakes, Lyth, who around here's been doing any laughing lately?”

Alythia looked uncomfortable. She looked at the floorboards for a moment. Then, “Wait a moment, I'll get the wolf.” And she disappeared. Sasha blinked at the empty space, trying to put that last phrase into some kind of logical context. It didn't work. The universe, she concluded, was taking a turn for the absurd.

Sasha waited, then pushed open the door.

Alythia's room was much like all the others in Mari Velo's house-brick walls, two small windows overlooking the docks from the third floor, and creaking floorboards. There was a simple bed, upon which Alythia now sat, her legs folded to one side. She wore a plain dress, such as Dockside women wore, with no adornment whatsoever. Beneath her right arm, grey-brown fur bristling, was a Lenay timberwolf.

Sasha moved very slowly to the room's one chair and sat. Kessligh had told her about this, too. Kessligh hadn't found it any easier to conceive than she did. The wolf watched her, ears flat, front lip edging back in the beginnings of a snarl. Snarling at her, while protective of Alythia. If she'd ever imagined this scene in her youth, she'd have surely imagined it around the other way. Obviously this wolf was very confused.

“She's very pretty,” Sasha observed. “She's about…oh, five months old? Maybe six?”

“I think.” Alythia tightened her arm about the wolf, protective and comforting. The wolf relaxed a little, more comfortable now that Sasha was sitting.

“Her name's Tashyna?” Alythia nodded and gave her a surreptitious look. Sasha smiled, with genuine humour. “I remember. Master Islyll. He never liked me.”

“He had to put up with you,” said Alythia, as if that explained it.

Sasha refrained from retorting with difficulty. “She slept in here last night?”

Alythia nodded.

“She's housetrained?”

“No. I cleaned it up.” With no grimace, or sense of great horror. Another amazement. “I think I'll try and teach her though.”

Sasha shook her head. “You can't do it, Lyth. That's a full-blood wolf, they just don't train. And even if she were a dog, she might be too old now anyway…I mean, look how big she is. Five months! I'm amazed she hasn't started tearing things apart just for fun-they do that, you know. You're not the first Lenay to try and domesticate wolves, it's never worked. Even half-breeds are hard.”

“Aye, well maybe I'll surprise you,” Alythia said shortly.

Sasha shook her head. “It's not about you, Alythia, it's about the wolf.”

“Of course it's about me,” Alythia snapped. “It's always been about me. You never liked me, you've never missed a chance to attack or humiliate me, you gleefully ruined my wedding send-off from Baen-Tar! Well, are you happy now? I'm a widow, at twenty-two summers. Does it please you?”

“I didn't come in here to fight, Alythia,” Sasha said coldly. “You can fly off into your selfish fantasies all you like, but believe it or not, I've had problems of my own to attend to. I've been trying my best not to think about you at all, and generally, I've been succeeding.”

“Fine,” said Alythia, her lip trembling. “Just fine. You can go now.”

“No,” Sasha said firmly. “I can't go. I live here, a guest of the Velos. Now you do too. It's not right that we bring our private arguments under their roof. They're proud people and they deserve our respect.”

“I just watched my husband and his family butchered before my eyes!” Alythia's wide eyes were incredulous. There was a horror there, of depth and substance previously unknown to the most glamorous princess of Lenayin. “You're telling me to just forget it!”

“I…damn, Alythia, I never said that!” Sasha held up her hands helplessly. “Why do you always confuse everything, always turn it into an attack on me? On something I did wrong, on something I should have done differently…”

“I don't care a pile of shit about you!” Alythia screamed. “Get out of this room! NOW!”

Tashyna lurched backward, frightened, ears suddenly back and snarling in Sasha's direction. Sasha sat very still. Alythia sat on the edge of the bed, breathing frantically, agony etched wide-eyed on her face. Pain seemed to claw at her throat, constricting it, making the tendons stand out. Sasha had never seen Alythia like this. Alythia's tantrums and tempers were nearly as famous as Sasha's own, but they were always of the minor kind-something someone had said to her, something someone had or had not done, a wine cup spilt, a thread frayed, a mess left uncleaned. Now her eyes had witnessed a horror so great, it seemed she was unable to even sob.

For the first time, it occurred to Sasha what the past night must have been like for Alythia. Shut in this room, sleepless, with only the wolf for company. Reliving the horror in the dark, over and over. She had that look, sleepless and stretched thin, her hair a mess, her nerves jangling. One remark could set her off. Much like the frightened wolf, snarling at everyone, insensible to considerations of friend and foe.

“Alythia,” Sasha said quietly, “you're scaring the wolf. Please don't. I don't want to get eaten.”

Alythia looked across at the wolf. Immediately Tashyna stopped growling and whined. She lay flat on the bed, grovelling. Sasha blinked in amazement. Alythia recovered her breathing, slowly. Hands rigid like claws began fidgeting in her lap.

“She thinks you're angry at her,” Sasha observed. “They feel your emotions. Don't give them an emotion you don't want them to have.”

“I know that,” Alythia muttered. She held out a hand. Tashyna licked it, then crawled into Alythia's lap and began to lick her chin. Alythia hugged her, and held tight while Tashyna squirmed. There were tears in her eyes. Utterly unexpected, Sasha found that there were tears in her eyes too. Two lost, frightened souls. Somehow, they were perfect for each other.

Sasha took a deep breath and tried again. “You know that the little Halmady girl is alive?”

Alythia nodded, face half buried in Tashyna's thick fur. “Elra. How is she?”

“Well. Errollyn cares for her. There's no more room in this house, so she's several houses down, the Giana Family. They're good people.”

“I heard she was burnt.” Hoarsely.

“Only a little. Errollyn thinks she'll be fine.”

“I saw a maid burn alive. In your Nasi-Keth attack. They threw things that burned. She screamed for a long time. I started running just to get away from the screams.”

“I'm sorry,” said Sasha. “Kessligh told me what he did. He doesn't have enough people, Lyth. He had to use burning bottles, otherwise you'd all be prisoners of Patachi Steiner.”

“You weren't there.”

No, Sasha nearly said, I was almost drowning in the harbour off Besendi Promontory, hauling the holiest Verenthane artefact. But she didn't.

“Lyth…look,” she began instead, “we're not really talking here, are we.” She said it as a statement, not a question. Alythia stared blankly at the base of a wall, somewhere to Sasha's side. Tashyna settled into her lap-the front half that could fit, at least-rested a wolfish muzzle on Alythia's knee, her eyes warily on Sasha. “We're just talking at each other, not to each other. We have too much history. But all that history belongs in another place, in another time. It doesn't do anyone any good here, certainly not either of us, not Tashyna, and sure as shit not all the poor folk here who'll have to put up with our bickering.

“We're both very stubborn people, and we can both be very difficult. I think I've grown up a little, I'll be the first to admit I can be a pain in the neck sometimes. But…I don't know, can't we just draw a line under everything that's been written in our history to this point, and start something new? That old history is getting pretty stale.”

“I tried to help Gregan,” Alythia said faintly. Her eyes remained fixed on the wall, but she was seeing only her memories. “I had a sword, but I hadn't any clue how to use it. There were so many soldiers. They had a…a big ram of some kind. They knocked the main gate down. There were hundreds of them. Gregan organised a defence of the main floor, and then the upper storeys when they fell, but…but they climbed through the windows when the stairs were blocked. They were prepared, I think. Some had ropes.

“A lot of Halmady men were killed. I saw them falling. The lead Steiner men had shields, they'd…they'd attack the Halmady soldiers, and press them, and…and I don't think they could handle the shields. Gregan grabbed my arm at the end, tried to run me to the main hall stairs, and fight through with a small guard. But the stairs were blocked. They stabbed Gregan eight or nine times before he died. He was brave. He screamed, but he fought too. He took two Steiners down. I screamed at them for mercy, that he was valuable, that there could be ransom. They didn't listen. They just kept…stabbing. He bled so much.”

There was a chill on Sasha's skin, at odds with the warmth of the morning sun through the shutters. Alythia's stare was vacant, her voice thin, trembling. Remembering all. Sasha had seen horrors, death and bloodshed…but she had not watched someone she loved butchered before her eyes. For all her youthful ignorance, Sasha had always been certain that she was far wiser in the ways of the world than Alythia. Now, for the first time, she was not so sure.

“The guards were all killed,” Alythia continued, softly. “They just…murdered them, even once they'd stopped fighting. I…I tried to fight them, but one just knocked the sword from my hand. They dragged me downstairs. I saw maids being raped. I thought they would rape me too, but a senior man claimed me for a prize. On the patio, I saw little Tristi. They'd killed him.” Alythia's voice finally broke, a strangled sob. “He was just a little boy, but they killed him. I couldn't see Elra. I thought they'd killed her too.”

Heirs, Sasha thought, past the lump in her throat. Girls could not inherit. Boys could. Patachi Steiner had wanted the Halmady name erased. It seemed he'd succeeded.

“I don't know where Tashyna was. She must have hidden and followed me later.” Her eyes met Sasha's, struggling for composure. “Gregan wasn't a wonderful husband for most of our marriage. But he died like one. All my life, I wished for the day I was wed to a dashing, handsome man like him. Two months I was married, and in much of that time he ignored me. Only at the end, when I finally won him back, he was killed. Some fairytale.”

“I'm so sorry, Lyth,” Sasha said quietly. “I don't know what to say.”

Alythia sniffed and wiped at her eyes. She stroked Tashyna's head. “Well, I still have Tashyna,” she said, attempting lightness.

“Elra will need you, once she's woken,” Sasha added. “Errollyn's made her sleep for now, he says she'll heal faster that way. But she'll need a familiar face when she wakes.”

Alythia nodded. “I'll be there. Can you help look after Tashyna? She's not good with most company, and Elra's scared of her. I thought…I thought if anyone could help me look after a wolf, it'd be you.”

Sasha blinked in astonishment. A compliment. Of sorts. It was the first she could remember in…well, ever. “Of course,” she said. “Of course I will.”

“There were rumours that you'd met with Marya,” said Alythia with a dark, level gaze. “Did you?”

Sasha nodded. “She stuck me in the back of the neck with a needle. I should have seen it. We're now her second family, Lyth. Steiner are her first. The ones that matter.”

“I'm going to kill her,” Alythia said in a low voice. “If I ever get close enough again, I'm going to slit her throat.” Sasha had heard Alythia offer threats before, usually in high temper at the top of her lungs. This was the first time she believed Alythia really meant it.

Sasha didn't reply. She didn't hate Marya like that, despite what had happened. Marya was who she was-a good mother, a devoted wife, the perfect woman of the household in Lenayin or Petrodor. Alythia might have seen death, but she'd never killed. Killing enemies was hard enough. Killing sisters…dear spirits. She didn't want to think it. Marya had been the other great friend of her childhood, besides Krystoff. One did not banish such memories easily. And Krystoff's spirit would never forgive her. Nor her mother's. Nor all her other, still living siblings. Everyone loved Marya. Or had done, before the sides were chosen.

Tashyna squirmed in discomfort and tried to lick Alythia's face Sasha noticed that the water bowl by the bed was empty. “Here,” she volunteered, “I'll get her some more water.”

When she returned to Alythia's room, she placed the bowl on the floor. Tashyna waited until Sasha was sitting once more, then jumped from the bed and drank thirstily.

“Look,” said Sasha, as the idea formed, “she'll need some exercise, I don't imagine she got much in Halmady.”

Alythia shook her head. “Just a small pen. She ran lots of circles, it must have driven her mad.”

“Well, I can take her on my run easily enough. She just needs to trust me. The first step's easy, here.” Sasha got up and sat on the bed beside Alythia. Tashyna paused drinking and looked at them with big, yellowish eyes. “See?” said Sasha to the wolf, putting an arm around Alythia's shoulders. “My sister. I'm a part of your pack too. See?”

She put her head on Alythia's shoulder. Alythia felt stiff and uncomfortable. Tashyna cocked her head, ears pricked. Sasha smiled-she could see the wolf thinking. Reasoning. Doubting. Alythia seemed to relax-Sasha looked, and saw she was smiling too. And put her arm, too, around Sasha.

Tashyna went back to drinking, still watching from the corner of her eye. “Don't think this makes us sisters or anything,” said Alythia. A joke, Sasha realised after a moment. With heavy irony. She was trying. Lords, it couldn't have been easy.

“Perish the thought,” she replied, smiling. “Lyth, you're safe here. Or as safe as you could be in Petrodor, anyhow. No one here will hurt you in any way. Just…just know that.”

Alythia nodded, biting the inside of her cheek. “Thanks” did not quite escape her lips. But that was fine. Sasha could wait.

Tashyna finished drinking and looked at the sisters. She stepped forward, wanting Alythia's lap once more, but pausing. Sasha eased herself slowly to the floor and, kneeling, held out her hand. Tashyna sniffed, cautiously, but no longer with such obvious worry. She licked. And lowered her head, paws braced, observing this new person from several angles.

Sasha planted her hands on the floor and imitated the wolf on all fours. Whined at her. Tashyna's ears pricked. Her tail wagged, then stopped. “Sasha, what in the world are you doing?” Alythia asked, a trace of that old, imperious tone returning. Sasha ignored her and risked a small jump, bracing her arms straight out in front, head and shoulders low. Tashyna jumped as well, backing a little. Sasha repeated it, several times. Then panted. Tashyna jumped at her, then backed away.

Sasha jumped at the wolf and Tashyna sprang up onto the bed. And then, to Alythia's exclamation, jumped straight onto Sasha from that height. Sasha rolled and Tashyna sprang aside, darting to the far wall and crouching. Her tongue was lolling now, excitedly. Sasha laughed.

“Oh, Sasha, stop it,” Alythia complained, half wearily as if having expected no better. “That's undignified, even for you. You shouldn't go down to her level, she's just a wolf!”

“That's no way to speak of a friend,” Sasha retorted and sprang at the wolf. Tashyna leapt sideways, with far greater agility, then jumped on Sasha's side. Sasha grabbed her and wrestled. Tashyna was nice enough not to bite hard, and jumped away, tail wagging madly.

Soon even Alythia was having to smother a smile behind her hand. Sasha had worked up a sweat by the time Kessligh pushed open the door, to stare with some concern at the cause of all the noise. Tashyna immediately backed away from the door, nervously. Sasha put a comforting arm around her and scratched her neck. “Oh look, Tashyna,” she said brightly, “it's the dominant male!”

Kessligh raised an eyebrow. “Just checking. I thought maybe someone was dying.”

“Oh, come on, if Alythia and I were fighting, it wouldn't last very long.”

“Oh that's charming,” said Alythia drily.

Kessligh squatted opposite Tashyna and offered a hand. Tashyna stretched forward hopefully, tail high and curled. “She's at least known some good treatment,” Kessligh observed, “or she'd be impossible.” Tashyna sniffed his hand. “She looks like a northern wolf. She's a little lighter on the chest and her coat's thicker.”

“Aye,” Sasha agreed, still on her haunches by the bed, breathing hard. “She's probably Hadryn. Which would make her the most agreeable Hadryn I've met in ages.”

“Just as likely Taneryn,” said Kessligh. Tashyna stopped sniffing and went to take a drink. Which was remarkable in itself, Sasha reckoned. Some new people, at least, no longer terrified her into demanding her full attention. Some could safely be ignored. “Better hope it's a cold winter, or she'll be hot in her new coat.”

The wolf jumped back onto the bed and nudged at Alythia's shoulder. New friends or not, Alythia would remain her best friend. And deservedly so, Sasha conceded to herself thoughtfully. Wild animals did not give loyalty lightly. Alythia must have earned it.

“Come on Lyth,” said Sasha, rising to her feet. “There's breakfast downstairs, we'll see if we can find some scraps for Tashyna.”

“Give her a few more months and she'll need a lot more than scraps,” Kessligh warned, leading the way to the stairs.

“Oh but Kessligh!” Sasha complained, in her best, well-remembered little girl voice. “Can't we keep her? Please? She won't be any trouble, honest!”

Behind her, fixing a lead to Tashyna's collar, Sasha could have sworn she saw Alythia smile.

Taking a young wolf on a leash for a run was not as simple as Sasha had thought. Tashyna reacted to everything, sometimes with fear and, at other times, with uncontainable excitement. She leaped from one side of the alley to the other, avoiding strange-looking people who stared, then bounding toward doorways from which wafted interesting food smells. Her ears would prick pleasantly upon the sight of children, tail raised, her whole posture alert and positive. And then she would halt, go sideways, or retreat at the sight of a man with a sword at his hip. Then Sasha would have to halt and yank her onward, and say reassuring words while she growled and slunk past the man in question…who usually pressed himself against the opposite wall for good measure. Thankfully most men with hip-worn swords were sailors who rarely ventured far from the docks.

Running up the incline paths and stairs was also a challenge, as Tashyna tried to bound up four steps at a time, only to be yanked short and entangle Sasha's legs with the leash. Worse yet, several times on the incline they encountered stray dogs. At the first one, Tashyna nearly tore Sasha's arms from the sockets…but within five strides, the other animal's nature-given instincts seemed to alert it to the fact that this was no big dog, but in fact a wolf, even though it had surely never seen a wolf before in its life. It ran baying with terror. Tashyna looked a little crestfallen.

Sasha laughed. “Don't worry,” she said. “You're not missing much.”

By the time Sasha ran her final leg along the dockfront, Tashyna didn't seem particularly tired. Instead, she leaped and snapped at the leash as Sasha laboured along. Surely Tashyna was unfit after so much captivity, spirits forbid she came into good condition, there weren't many Nasi-Keth runners who could keep up. Perhaps they'd have to send her on consecutive runs.

Dockfront crowds stared and pointed as she ran. Some men setting up their market stalls called out, “It's the Lenay wolf girl!”

“She's not mine, she's my sister's!” Sasha called back, cheerfully. And was amused by the thought of the rumours that would now spread along the dockfront of a Lenay warrior princess even bigger and meaner than the first, who befriended wild wolves.

Arranging for an extra supply of meat scraps was not hard-she simply took Tashyna to The Fish Head and said hello to Tongren. Tongren and his three sons greeted Tashyna as though she were a long-lost relative, giving her water, bacon rinds, and bones with scraps from the kitchen, promising better to come.

At a lane off Fishnet Alley, Sasha rapped on a warped old door, then opened it without waiting. A brick lane led through a dark corridor and into a small courtyard surrounded by several floors of old, brick building. Through some window shutters, Sasha could see people moving.

She tied Tashyna's leash to a small tree in the courtyard and gave her a final pat-Tashyna seemed to get the idea, and lay down with a yawn. Remarkable wolf, Sasha thought as she walked to the door. Maybe it was possible to train her.

She knocked and entered. Inside a small room was a bed, in which there lay a little girl with light brown hair. There was a paste on her left arm, which rested on the sheet that covered her. She looked flushed as she slept, and the young woman at her bedside wet her forehead with a damp cloth from a basin. At the bedside sat Alythia, holding the girl's good hand. By the end of the bed, Errollyn stood with another woman, whom Sasha recognised as a Nasi-Keth healer. Errollyn was explaining something. His green eyes met Sasha's as he talked.

Sasha put a hand on Alythia's shoulder. “Lyth, Tashyna's just outside,” she said quietly. “Best warn these people there's a wolf in their courtyard.”

“Thanks,” Alythia murmured, her eyes not leaving little Elra's face. The last surviving child of Patachi Halmady…unless Vincen had somehow survived, which didn't seem likely.

Errollyn finished his conversation and hugged her, hard. Sasha hugged him back, and held on for a long, long time. She felt suddenly exhausted, wanting nothing more than to burrow her head against his chest and stay there forever. Finally Errollyn released her and took her face in his hands to look at her. “The spirits favour you,” he said with a smile. “You make more trouble than a bear in a beehive.”

“Just once in my life,” Sasha murmured tiredly, “I'd like to be compared to something other than wild animals.”

“You don't need to do this, you know,” Errollyn told Sasha as they climbed the lower slope from Dockside. Sasha did not reply. “Yulia made her own choices. You aren't responsible for what happened.”

“I'm not discussing this.” Again the familiar, winding road, its sides cluttered with ramshackle brick buildings.

At the lane that led to Yulia's aunt's residence, Sasha nearly stopped. But she didn't, and walked up to the little side door and rapped. There was no reply. Sasha rapped again. Finally, it opened. Looking out at her was a young girl, perhaps ten.

“Hello Marli,” Sasha said. Her voice was steady, which surprised her. She would push through it, she thought. Like diving into cold water, you pushed through the shock, safe in the knowledge that the sooner you began, the sooner you could climb out and begin drying. “Is your mother home?”

Marli shook her head. “She's out. Making preparations.”

“Preparations?”

“The funeral.” Marli's eyes were lowered.

Sasha took a deep breath. “When is the funeral, Marli?”

“Tomorrow. The rites say within three days.” As if Sasha, a Lenay pagan, might need that explained to her.

“Is it at Angel Bay?” Sasha asked. There were cremation pyres there. In the strict Verenthane faith, bodies had to be buried, but cemetery plots were beyond the means of lower-slope residents and so the lower-slope priests had resurrected cremation.

Marli nodded, sullenly. “You're not welcome,” she muttered. “There's no Nasi-Keth welcome.”

Sasha stared down at the girl. Took a deep breath and tried to retain her composure. “Marli,” she said quietly, “I'm very sorry about what happened to Yulia. It was my fault. I shouldn't have asked her to come. I should have gone on my own.”

Marli met her gaze for the first time, with incredulous eyes. “You admit it?”

“Of course I admit it. Marli, do you understand?” She gazed at the girl hopefully.

Marli stared back, her wide eyes unreadable. “Responsible?”

“Yes, responsible. I'd like to be at the funeral, Marli. I have to be there.”

“Mama wouldn't like it.”

It was a less hostile response than it could have been. Sasha's hopes rose further, desperately. “I know that, Marli. I'm very sorry about that. But I knew Yulia too, and I know she didn't always agree with what her aunt thought. What do you think?”

“Me?” Marli blinked. “You actually ask what I think? Yulia's mother is dying, did you know that? She's not just sick, that's what Yulia always told people. She's dying. She was always my favourite aunt, and Yulia was my favourite cousin. We were always friends. I know I shouldn't have been happy that Yulia came to live with us, because she only did it because her mother was dying…but I was happy. I had to take care of the babies. Mama's always toiling, and she doesn't have time. My brother works as staff for a midslope Family. He's a groundsman, I never see him. It's just me here now.

“It was me and Yulia. Yulia helped with the babies. She helped Mama cook, and fetch water. She took care of Grandpa when he fell ill and took six months to die, I don't know how we'd have managed without her help. She taught me to read after the Nasi-Keth taught her, even though Mama said I was wasting my time. We played games together. I never played games before Yulia came to stay. I had someone to talk to, for the first time in my life.

“Now she's dead, because you thought she might be useful to your stupid Nasi-Keth games. But that's the way it always is, isn't it? Wealthy folk always use up poor folk like firewood, don't they? And now you come around here, and demand that you be allowed to come to the funeral, and say how you want to become even more involved with this family…doesn't it even occur to you that you're the last person in the whole world we'd like to see right now?”

There were tears running down Marli's cheeks, and an awful, hollow pain in her eyes. Sasha stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. She wanted to run, but her honour would not let her. She wanted to never have come, but her principles had demanded it. Most of all, she wanted to have been smarter than she was, and more sensitive of other people's lives, and to never have asked Yulia to come with her to the Cliff of the Dead. But she had, and all the wishing in the world would not change it.

“Marli, I'm so sorry,” she whispered. “I want to help, Marli. Please, let me help.”

“You murdered my best friend in the whole world!” Marli sobbed. “We don't need your help! Don't you ever come back here! I hope you burn in hell!”

She slammed the door. Sasha stood, stunned. She could not think, or speak. The situation demanded something, but she had no idea what that was.

It was Errollyn who finally put a hand on her back, and steered her away from the doorway and off down the lane away from the road. She had no idea why they were going that way, which was the longer way, but she walked regardless.

“Well,” she managed to say, past the thickness in her throat, “I suppose that couldn't possibly have gone any worse.” She tried a hoarse laugh, but that sounded stupid and callous. For a brief, horrible moment, she hated herself. It was the first time in her life she'd ever felt that way. She wondered how Errollyn could possibly stand her company.

Errollyn said nothing, continuing to steer her with a hand on her back. They'd rounded a narrow bend in the lane when the tears finally escaped her control. Now she realised why Errollyn had steered her down the lane. Here, she had privacy. She collapsed into his arms and sobbed as though her heart were being torn in two. Errollyn held her.

It was still only midmorning when Sasha and Errollyn arrived back at the Velo residence, and already there were crowds gathering. She counted perhaps three hundred people clustered across the dock, blocking the path of frustrated passers-by. Stall owners were shouting at them, waving their arms, trying to clear a space for their business. Cart drivers pushed through regardless, horses or donkeys skittish amidst the clustered bodies.

Mari wasn't going to be very happy, Sasha thought as she pushed through the crowd. There was a whispering in her wake and furtive glances searched her face, suspiciously, hopefully, disdainfully. Many of the crowd were old men and women, some leaning on sticks, too old to work. But not too old to hear a rumour, and come. The Dockside faithful. She felt uncomfortable in the press, but not threatened. Not yet. That, she was certain, would come later.

Two young priests guarded the entrance to the Velo household, barehanded in plain, black robes. Caratsa, they were called in Torovan-priest apprentices, boys in whom the fathers saw potential. Not so different from Nasi-Keth umas really, Sasha reckoned. These two seemed barely more than sixteen summers, and looked nervous in the face of the crowd, but they were a better choice of guards than armed Nasi-Keth. Even Dockside, there were those who distrusted Nasi-Keth, as peddlers of pagan serrin ideas. If a big crowd were to become angry, a few Nasi-Keth would not stop them. Two unarmed, innocent caratsa, however, just might.

The boys knew her and let her in, though she had to vouch for Errollyn.

On the second floor, she found Father Berin and two younger priests kneeling before the small table in the centre of the main room. One of the younger priests held a large, silver-bound book for Father Berin, who mumbled prayer and made symbols with his right hand at the appropriate moment. On the table, propped against the base of a candle stand, its chain hung over the stand's arms, stood the Shereldin Star.

Only one of the two windows had its shutters open, spilling in the overcast midmorning light. Kessligh stood by the other, gazing through a gap in its slats upon the crowded dock below. Sasha walked to him, eyeing the kneeling priests warily as she passed. Verenthane rituals made her uncomfortable. It was a prejudice, she knew, and she tried her best to smother it. Yet she could not deny it, all the same.

She joined Kessligh at the shutters and peered out. “How big is that going to get?” she asked quietly, so as not to interrupt the holy matters at their backs. And in Lenay, to avoid being understood. Educated priests in Petrodor were more likely to speak a little Saalsi than any Lenay.

“I'm afraid to say,” Kessligh murmured, also in Lenay. His expression was no more readable than usual. He looked tired and drawn, but that was nothing new. Yet somehow, he did not look as concerned as she might have expected. His eyes were slightly narrowed, a thinking look. He saw an opportunity in this, she guessed. And, quite possibly, he simply preferred the prospect of an approaching climax, no matter how bloody, to interminable waiting. Knowing her uman as she did, Sasha was not particularly surprised. “Petrodor is a city of believers, and the poor are the most devout. Not like the rich, who follow the priests only for the power of holy blessings and the archbishop's goodwill. It's real faith here on the lower slopes, Sasha. It's not to be toyed with lightly.”

“You're telling me it'll get huge out there, aren't you?” Sasha said.

“Probably,” Kessligh agreed. “There's no helping it.”

“Is this the best place for…for it?”

“Where else?” Kessligh asked.

Even as Sasha watched, she could see more people joining the massed crowd below. Word was spreading.

“How far will the archbishop go to get it back?” she asked Kessligh.

“No limit,” said Kessligh. Sasha glanced at him. “He'll be frantic. The star is the symbol of this coming war. The holiest relic, long separated from its rightful home. Now it's gone. I don't know what he'll do.”

“I met him,” Sasha said grimly. “He didn't strike me a reasonable man.”

“It's not his unreasonableness that bothers me,” said Kessligh. “It's his stupidity. He doesn't understand the real world, only the priesthood. He sees that only Patachi Steiner is powerful enough to lead the Torovan army, but has no idea of how to handle Patachi Maerler's rival claim. So far he's been as subtle as an ironmonger's hammer, and about as cunning.”

“Men with faith in the gods have no need of reason,” Sasha said with certainty. “What use is reason when heaven is on your side?”

“Or when the spirits guard your flanks?” Kessligh countered, with a raised eyebrow.

Sasha snorted. “That's different. The Goeren-yai follow no dogma from a book.”

“Only silly tales from campfires. People substitute all kinds of things for reason, Sasha. We use different names for it, but it's all unreasonable, just by a different name.”

Behind them, the prayers stopped and Father Berin climbed gingerly to his feet, assisted by one of his companions. Berin was a broad-faced and usually cheerful man, of brown beard and hair, and a wide girth. He walked with a limp from childhood disease, and grasped now the cane a younger priest handed to him. “Yuan Kessligh,” he said, coming across the creaking floorboards. The Lenay title-typical of the man, always interested in foreign peoples and their doings. From the first day she'd met him in the sculpture studio out the back of the North Pier Temple, Sasha had found him far more pleasant and interesting than she'd ever thought possible in a priest. “May I ask, what you have decided to do?”

“I was thinking to ask you that question, Father.”

Berin licked his lips, pale and nervous. “Please, Yuan Kessligh, I am just a humble father of the lower slopes. It is not my place to make decisions…decisions regarding such as this.” His voice lowered at the end as if he feared the star would overhear.

“But you take instruction?”

Father Berin spread his hands in defence and forced a strained smile. “Yuan Kessligh! The archbishop pays me no attention at all! I am a bug beneath his shoe.”

“He never had cause to find you interesting before,” Kessligh agreed. The sharp eyes narrowed. “What about now?”

Berin took a deep breath and glanced out at the harbour. He shook his head shortly. “I have received no instruction from him.”

“And what would you say, should you receive instruction?”

Father Berin met Kessligh's eyes gravely. “I could not tell you if I did.”

“Ah,” said Kessligh, nodding slowly. “Now we come to the truth of it.” Kessligh gestured at the window behind. “There are many people out there who would like to see you take possession of the star yourself. Would you desire it?”

A short shake of the head, eyes staring at the floor. “I am not worthy of such an honour,” Berin muttered.

“And yet you come here, and give blessing and perform ritual. And verify.”

Father Berin looked up, his eyes desperate. “Yuan Kessligh, I do not spy against you, nor against the Nasi-Keth! I…I have heard how this blessing came into your possession, and while I cannot conceive of it, I can only surmise that the gods must have had their purpose in bringing it to you. It is not my intention to work against the will of the gods.”

“I understand, Father,” said Kessligh. “You are caught between two worlds. Long have the priests of the upper slopes ignored their lower-slope brethren. They preach that the Nasi-Keth are a pagan influence opposed to Verenthane teachings, yet you live here and you have seen differently. Now, these two worlds come into conflict. Your order says you must obey the archbishop, yet in your heart, you cannot do anything to betray your flock. You do not know whether to work with me, or against me.”

Father Berin shook his head and managed a small smile. “I could never call the Nasi-Keth pagan, Yuan Kessligh, when they produce from their ranks men as wise as you.”

“Whatever wisdom I have, Father Berin, comes mostly from knowledge of my own limitations. I have no knowledge of this artefact, nor its meaning to the people of Petrodor. Tell me what you think I should do.”

Berin looked at Kessligh for a long moment, his head faintly to one side. “And how is it that you became so lapsed in your faith, Yuan Kessligh?” His manner suddenly wise and assured, as though he now found his slippered feet upon confident ground. “I know a little of your upbringing amongst these alleys. Your childhood was hard, but no harder than many others.”

Kessligh folded his arms. Sasha watched curiously. Searching his face for signs that she alone might notice. “The faith and I had a little disagreement,” Kessligh said simply.

Father Berin nodded, lips pursed. “Please tell.”

“The Nasi-Keth offered solutions. The priests offered prayer. I preferred solutions.”

“But prayer itself is a solution, Yuan Kessligh. And most of your Nasi-Keth brethren insist that Verenthane and Nasi-Keth teachings each complement the other. The Nasi-Keth teach knowledge that improves people's lives, and prayer gives the Nasi-Keth members a sense of how to implement such knowledge so that it shall best serve the will of the gods.”

“Exactly,” Kessligh said firmly. “There should be no division. The Nasi-Keth are not just a society of useful skills, Father Berin. We are not merely a collection of scholarly learnings on medicines and advanced trades. We exist to expand minds, Father. What is the use of wise and clever hands, when the head remains as clumsy and stupid as before?”

“Ah!” said Father Berin, the twinkle returning to his eyes. “So this is the source of your contention-your brethren should believe what you believe, or else they are stupid. How does this make your beliefs more enlightened than my faith?” Sasha grinned, and smothered it behind her hand. Berin glanced at her, smiling. “Your uma is familiar with this train of debate, I see.”

“You have no idea,” said Sasha, with feeling.

“Of course they should not believe what I believe,” Kessligh replied, as calmly as he'd ever instructed his argumentative uma. “The Nasi-Keth have no dogma, that's the whole point.”

“No dogma except that they should ideally not be Verenthanes,” Berin countered. “Which is a dogmatic view, no?”

“A philosophy of tolerance cannot be tolerant of all things, Father,” said Kessligh, with an edge to his voice. “A philosophy of tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance. A philosophy of freedom cannot tolerate slavery. A philosophy of plenty cannot tolerate starvation and a philosophy of abstinence cannot tolerate gluttony. That would be to welcome the wolf into the chicken coop, to encourage the very thing that would be the philosophy's destruction. I promise you, the day that the leaders of the Verenthane faith can prove to me that the faith need not be dogmatic, I shall become more tolerant of your beliefs. Until then, we are helplessly at odds.”

“Tell me, have you seen the beautiful paintings Master Berloni puts on the ceiling of my temple?” asked Father Berin. “Ah, they are marvellous. Such free expression, such unrestrained artistry and creativity. There are freedoms of expression within the faith that you fail to credit us with.”

“They are very pretty,” Sasha agreed. Father Berin favoured her with a smile.

“And they would not exist should the high-slopes priesthood care even a little what goes on in a lower-slopes temple, and what adorns its ceiling,” Kessligh said firmly. “And they should not exist had the inspiration not first arrived from the Saalshen Bacosh, where the faith and the serrin have mingled so much more forcefully than here.”

Father Berin shrugged. “Even so.”

“Could you refuse the archbishop?” Kessligh asked, bluntly. “Could you defy his instruction, in any matter?”

“The archbishop rarely gives such instruction,” Berin replied, somewhat less ebullient than before. “Such is not how the parishes function, we are-”

“You could not,” Kessligh answered for him. “He is your lord, and you owe him your obeisance. And you claim an absence of dogma in your faith? A freedom of thought? Do you see why I can't let you have the star, Father Berin? Why it would be profoundly foolish of me?”

Father Berin sighed and scratched at his beard. From the docks below, the sounds of human commotion seemed even louder-argument and conversation, and many people pressed close together.

“The people grow restless, Father,” said Kessligh. “What do they want?”

Father Berin pursed his lips. Tested the grip upon his cane, adjusting his weight and stance. “To know why,” he said at last. “Fate is a precarious matter in calamitous times. They wish to know their fate. They wish to know if they have been blessed, or cursed. They fear for their families, especially for the little ones. And so they look for a sign.”

“And of course, I have to give them this sign,” Kessligh added, with evident sarcasm. “As if it were from the gods themselves; who are evidently far too tardy and bored with human concerns to offer one themselves.”

Another priest might have taken offence. Father Berin smiled. “The gods will show what the gods will show. If you feel the need to make a sign, that is their will. If you feel no need and curse them to the stars, that is also their will.”

“My will is my own,” Kessligh replied, irritated.

“If you say so,” said Father Berin, still smiling. “Yuan Kessligh, do not fear the flock at your door. Neither insult them, nor patronise them as you now patronise me…” and he paused for an impish smile. Kessligh looked unimpressed. “And nor should you think them stupid or unwise. They follow their path as you follow yours. Is it not a serrin saying that two paths, separated by half the world, may still arrive at the same destination?”

“No,” said Kessligh. “If two paths continue for far enough, they will inevitably arrive at the same destination. The world is round, Father Berin.”

Father Berin blinked at him. “Round?” And shook his head briefly in bafflement. “A figure of speech, no doubt. Serrin are so clever with their wordplay, no?”

“If you say so,” said Kessligh, with a faint smile.

“I'm sorry about Kessligh,” Sasha told Father Berin as she helped him down the narrow stairs. “He's not always subtle.”

“He is a man who says what he means, and does what he says,” Berin replied. “The gods admire such a man, whether he follows them or not.”

Downstairs was filled with Velo relatives and neighbours, seated about the dining table or standing, while Mariesa and her daughter Frasesca served them with grapes, cheese and bread. Sasha knew grapes and cheese did not come cheaply to the Velos. But most of the relatives seemed unconcerned, talking loudly amongst themselves, mostly about the crowd outside. It occurred to Sasha that not everyone would view the coming of Verenthane's most holy artefact as a curse.

All rose as Father Berin entered and he blessed the household, and in particular the agitated Mariesa. The Velo boys, Valenti and Rasconi, were probably out preparing the boat for the afternoon trip. The boat stuck in Sasha's mind. A memory of Yulia seated by the mast on that last trip to the Cliff of the Dead, the sun across her face.

On an impulse Sasha took Father Berin's arm just as he was about to open the door. “Father,” she said quietly, “can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course, Sasha,” the priest replied in surprise. And added, as it occurred to him, “Would you like to speak in private?” Sasha nodded. Father Berin excused them both and walked to the rear door beneath the stairs. Some odd looks followed them, but animated conversation continued as before.

The rear door led to a dark little courtyard between neighbouring buildings. No one else moved in the lanes-Kessligh had posted Nasi-Keth guards at the ends, locals who knew other locals by name.

Father Berin looked at Sasha expectantly as she pulled the door closed behind her. Sasha took a deep breath. “I'm…I'm not very good at this,” she admitted. “I haven't seen a priest in…well, not since I was little.”

Father Berin nodded slowly. “But…you think of yourself as Goeren-yai. Do you not? I mean, that is what I'd heard and everyone…”

Sasha rolled her eyes. Everytime she had to make that a formal declaration, to a man of authority like Father Berin, it still felt like a risk. Or a dangerous blasphemy. “Yes, it's true,” she said shortly.

Father Berin folded his hands before him. “Then why do you need a priest?”

Sasha blinked at him. “Oh no, wait, wait…” she held up both hands. “I don't need a priest.” Father Berin just looked at her, mild and curious. “I mean, I do…” she stopped, took another breath and looked away down a lane, hands on hips. “Yulia Delin. She died.”

“I heard,” said the priest. “I knew her and her family only a little. I'm very sorry.”

“I killed her.”

Berin just looked at her. Waiting for her to amend the statement. Clearly he didn't believe her. Past the lump in her throat, she felt a surge of affection for the plump, limping priest. “She shouldn't have been there. I asked her specifically. I knew she lacked confidence. I knew she wasn't all that good, honestly. But I needed a partner to cover my meeting, and she was all that was available. She thought highly of me. I knew she'd agree, if I pushed. She shouldn't have been there, and now she's dead, and it's my fault.”

Father Berin sighed, and leaned on his cane. “I'm not certain I understand what you need a priest for.”

“I said I don't need a priest,” Sasha retorted.

Berin gave a small, helpless smile. “Then why am I here? Why not talk to someone else?”

“Yulia Delin is dead, Father!” Sasha snapped. “One of your flock, and this pagan holds herself responsible. Doesn't that mean anything to you? Don't you…I don't know…don't you have something to say about that?”

“Sasha,” Father Berin said gently, “what do you want? I mean truly. You feel guilty, and that is good. You should feel guilty.” Sasha swallowed hard. “Not because you are to blame, but because it shows you have a good soul. Do you wish me to absolve you? I cannot do that-we each must live with our sins, Sasha. And besides, you declare you are Goeren-yai…that makes you answerable to your spirits, not to my gods. Of what use to you is absolution from me?”

“I don't want absolution!” Sasha insisted. “I didn't ask for it.”

“Then what do you want me to tell you?”

“I don't…I don't know.” She tilted her head and stared despairingly at the small slit of sky between the uneven brick walls overhead. Small windows looked down, old shutters faded, plaster crumbling. “I'm not used to this. Kessligh is. He's ordered thousands of men to their deaths.”

“Do you think he feels guilty?”

“No. Or…not guilty. Sad. But Kessligh, he's a fatalist. He thinks the world is a sad place. Maybe I'm…I don't know. Maybe I expect too much.”

“Or maybe he expects too little,” Father Berin countered. Sasha shrugged and wiped at the corner of her eye. “Perhaps you are frightened that this is the life you are born to. You were a princess by birth, Sasha, however revoked that title now. You were born to command. The gods willed it so, I believe.”

“Did they also will that I should reject them?”

Berin shrugged, helplessly. “Who can say? The good shepherd always welcomes the straying sheep back to the flock. Perhaps that shall be your fate too.”

“I wouldn't count on it.”

Berin smiled. “Trust me, I'm not. Fate is nothing to be taken for granted. Do not the Goeren-yai believe in the fates too? I know a little of the old Lenay ways, they are not so dissimilar to my own faith. But please don't tell the archbishop I said so.”

“I won't.” Sasha managed a reproachful smile. “You've tricked many Lenay pagans before with those words in the past.”

Berin snorted. “And a great many priests were put to the sword for saying so too loudly.”

“Shouldn't have been there in the first place,” said Sasha. “We never tried to convert you.”

“No, you only rode down from the mountains every few months to rape and slaughter entire villages. How you bunch of bloodthirsty ruffians manage to claim persecution with a straight face is beyond me.”

Sasha saw movement across the courtyard to her left and half spun…but it was Rhillian, moving warily, with a serrin at her side whom Sasha did not recognise. Father Berin looked across in surprise. Rhillian straightened and considered them curiously.

“Have I come too late to witness the conversion?” she asked mischievously.

“Who let you in?” Sasha retorted, but she was smiling.

“I promised the young man guarding the lane a night of wild debauchery,” said Rhillian, all green-eyed amusement beneath the brim of her hat. Eyeing Father Berin, hoping to shock him. “And I let him feel my thigh. Astonishing, isn't it? A woman's thigh, such a strange and unsighted thing, subject of so many rumours.”

“No, no, Lady Rhillian,” said Father Berin, jabbing his cane at her, “it's what lies between the lady's thighs that makes for the rumours.”

Rhillian gave a little shake as she approached, like a cat with a brief chill. “Brrr. Such excitement! So many to be educated, but so little time.” She gave Sasha a hug. Sasha returned it, hard. “I heard you were having adventures, nearly getting killed, making crazy escapes.”

“Just another day,” said Sasha.

“One observes. I'm so glad you're safe.” Rhillian gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Now, you two seemed to be having a religious moment, which this pagan, unbelieving serrin would surely not comprehend, so I'll go inside and leave you your privacy. Good day, Father, stay out of trouble.”

“Said the wolf to the lamb,” Father Berin said slyly. Rhillian flashed him a smile as she entered the house. “That girl is trouble,” said the priest, but the amusement remained. “I shall have to bathe twice tonight and beat myself with birch leaves.”

“That girl,” Sasha replied, “has nearly forty summers.”

“I know.” Father Berin shook his head and made the holy sign. “She looks barely older than you. Like I said, trouble.”

“The archbishop certainly thinks so.”

Berin shook his head impatiently. “No, no, not that sort of trouble. Trouble like the small child with the stick that never stops poking things that have no business being poked. The serrin, they think themselves so wise, but I see them as innocents. Children, marvelling at the world. We should forgive them their innocence, they are no more dangerous than any child.”

Sasha smiled. “They see us the same way. They think religion is a child's game-an interesting game with fascinating characters and wonderful drama, but a game nonetheless. Or a stage play. Only not so harmless.”

“Sasha, Sasha.” Father Berin put both hands on her shoulders. “There are those in my faith who say that the world does not matter, only the Scrolls of Ulessis matter. Only the writings, and the word. I say differently. I say that the gods gave me eyes with which to see, and ears with which to hear, and a mind with which to think. To me, all the things that happen in the world are all the will of the gods. That means that the serrin are who they are because the gods willed it that way, and you are who you are because the gods willed it that way, and all this crazy complexity happens for a reason. The holy fathers of the scrolls, they say the world should be simple like the scrolls. But I look around, and I see what the gods have made, and I see no simplicity anywhere.

“Have faith in the fates, Sasha. You yourself are impulsive. Even in grief, you laugh and make jokes, then go back to grieving. You are full of life, and feel many things at different times. Perhaps your friend's death was a message, one that had meaning in itself, but also meaning to you. Perhaps you are destined for great leadership and the gods merely wished to show you the weight of the burden. Yulia Delin's death is only in vain if you allow it to be. But perhaps, if you learn from tragedy, and grow strong from it rather than allowing it to destroy you, Yulia's death, and her life, may yet serve a far greater purpose than any of us could have dreamed.”

Father Berin had nearly reached his temple when a dark-robed man stepped away from a fish stall to walk at his side. “What do you want?” Berin snorted as he waddled along the dockfront. His two companions fell back, making space for the man in robes.

“Is it real?” asked the man. He had a grim face and short beard, hard with knowledge, but not with piety. Such were the men who surrounded the upper-slopes priesthood these days.

“You know it is,” Berin said shortly, puffing hard. “Now see what you've done. You family fools, playing your games in the halls where no games should be played.”

“Such is not your concern, preacher,” the robed man said darkly, edging past the intervening crowd.

“Such is obviously my concern,” Berin retorted. “I am a man of the gods, it gives me little cheer to see war between priests! We serve the gods, not your blasted families! Now see where it has taken you, involving even the holiest of symbols and stirring the passions of all the devout in Petrodor! Madness.”

He edged his way between the stalls that sprawled across the temple entrance, and limped his way up the stairs. “You should have these people moved,” the robed man observed, eyeing with distaste the beggars on the temple steps-two skinny men in rags, heads bowed and hands outstretched. “They show disrespect for the house of the gods.”

Berin pushed through the big wooden doors. “If the house of the gods offers no good for even beggars, then what are we here for? Michelo, see to them, if you please.” The younger of his companion priests walked across the steps to the beggars, withdrawing a pouch of coins from the folds of his robes. “They must be from upslope, or new arrivals from the country,” Berin explained, waddling down the aisle of his temple. Overhead, men were once again at work on the ceiling. Pews had been pushed aside or covered with drop sheets, now that the morning service had finished. They had until evening service to put everything back, or there'd be trouble. “We work with the Nasi-Keth to offer food and shelter for those who would otherwise be beggars, most have no need of it.”

“The archbishop disapproves of such collaboration,” the robed man said, eyeing the overhead painting with suspicion. “He has spoken with you of it before.”

“Nonsense,” Berin snorted, stopping before the altar to confront the visitor. He kept his voice down with difficulty, lest the painters overhead strain their ears to catch an echo. “The archbishop has not set a foot on Dockside in more than thirty years, he sends men like you instead. Not even a priest. Dare you instruct me on how best to serve the gods?”

“I am a messenger, Father,” said the robed man. “Nothing more.”

Father Berin waved his hands in exasperation. “Well, message your superiors this-if they can think of a better way to assist the poor than to work with the Nasi-Keth, who have made that their mission in Petrodor for the past half century and more, then I'll be very open to suggestions. We train the destitute with trades and skills, and those without families who cannot or do not wish to join the Nasi-Keth, we try and convince a patachi to take them in.”

“You play with the fabric of Torovan society,” said the robed man impassively. “You destroy the nature of family, of marriage, of the people with their priests. You paint lewd scenes on the ceilings of your temples. You associate with godless serrin and those who worship them. You walk on very thin ice, Father Berin.”

“You fool!” Berin hissed. “You think to flex your muscles with me now? Now, as the devout crowds gather on the docks and wonder how their guiding fathers have let so precious an artefact fall through their fingers? You have no idea how much the patachis are hated here! The only thing stopping them from hating the priesthood just as much is that they blame the patachis for corrupting us, not the archbishop! Gods forbid they ever learn the truth!”

“Would you be making a threat, Father Berin?” the robed man asked, dangerously.

“No threats!” Berin jabbed at the man's chest with the hand holding the cane. “When you walk out of here, Master-whatever-your-name-is, take a good look around. You will see many people who are not as poor nor as ignorant nor as helpless as they were when I was new to the priesthood. They have grown and they are not a force to be taken lightly. I have helped to make them our friends, and to make certain the faith is not lost to their hearts. I am one of them, and they trust me. I warn you-if you dispose of me, you will have trouble.”

The robed man gave a small smile. He reached into his robes and withdrew a small scroll. “Father Berin,” he said. “Let me be certain that I am understood. Tomorrow morning, at your sermon, you will address the contents of this scroll. You shall be precise, and you shall be specific. The archbishop shall be watching. As shall the gods.”

He handed the scroll to Father Berin and then swept off down the hall. Muttering, Father Berin removed the seal and undid the scroll. He read the first passage, angrily. The second with growing disquiet. And the rest with cold dread.

“Father?” asked young Father Michelo anxiously from alongside. “What does it say?”

“I am not going to preach this,” Father Berin muttered. He rerolled the scroll with tight, shaking hands. “I will never preach the likes of this.” He stuffed the scroll into his robes.

“Father? What does the archbishop instruct?”

“Nothing, boy,” Berin muttered. “Nothing at all. Now go and attend the gods’ work. I need to pray.”

“Oh dear,” said Rhillian, peering over the edge of the rooftop. Below, the dock was a seething mass of people. Some people held large eight-pointed stars on poles, others held small drawings or engravings of saints. They spilled all the way out to the waterfront and onto the piers, blocking all traffic. Strangely, they made less noise now than when their numbers had been fewer. They gazed up at the plain bricks and shutters of the Velo house, and waited.

Sasha sat on one of the small stools upon the flat rooftop, and placed the tray she'd been carrying on the edge of a small, bricked flower garden. She poured herself some water from an earthen jug and drank thirstily. Rhillian took the stool beside her and accepted a bowl of soup. “Mmm. This smells delicious.”

“Mariesa makes great soup,” Sasha agreed, taking her own bowl. “What did you and Kessligh talk about?”

Rhillian shrugged, sipping her soup. “I'm surprised you weren't there.”

“I can't be around for every one of Kessligh's meetings,” said Sasha. “He's in charge, not me. I was shoring up the protection through the back lanes, making sure we're well covered.”

“I would think you might need more than two archers on the roof,” Rhillian suggested. At each corner of the rooftop crouched a single Nasi-Keth archer, his longbow strung and ready. Further along, on adjoining rooftops, were several others-it was all one rooftop, really, here along the dockfront, broken by rows of washing, small rooftop gardens and half-mended boat sails.

“If this lot gets out of hand,” said Sasha, “a few archers won't stop them. We're guarding against family men, not worshippers.”

Rhillian sipped another mouthful, then half stood to peer over the edge once more. It seemed a compulsive act. When she sat again, she looked troubled, almost bewildered. “This artefact,” she said. “This star. It represents the Enoran High Temple?”

Sasha nodded. “Every temple has a star when forged. And every new saint. This one was forged upon the founding of the Enoran High Temple, the oldest in Enora.”

“Itself two hundred and forty years after the revelation on Mount Tristen,” said Rhillian. “Shereldin is a small village in Enora, near Remel. There was a great war there, where the first Bacosh king to follow the Verenthane faith, met and defeated the last pagan king. This Shereldin Star, this great symbol of peace and virtue, is named after a battlefield. A battlefield not far from the High Temple itself.”

Sasha dunked bread in her soup and chewed. “You know the history far better than I, yet you ask me questions,” she said around her mouthful.

“What I know as facts,” said Rhillian, “and what humans understand as faith, are two completely different things.”

“I know,” said Sasha. In truth, she was more interested in consuming her lunch than entering into another semantical serrin debate over the varying natures of truth.

“Is this star supposed to hold special powers?” Rhillian pressed.

“I suppose,” said Sasha with her mouth full.

“Of what kind?”

“The stars of the saints are supposed to hold those saints’ holy favour, long after their deaths. I don't know what kind of power the founding star of a temple would hold.”

“But people believe they can gain positive energy by being near it?”

Sasha gave an irritated shrug and swallowed. “Rhillian, I make a very poor expert on Verenthanes. I think they're crazy too.”

Rhillian shook her head faintly. “I don't think they're crazy,” she said. “I just try to understand. I mean, look at them all. What are they thinking? What can they possibly expect to gain?”

“You mean they're crazy,” Sasha summarised.

“Emotion is a fact unto itself,” said Rhillian, fixing her friend with an emerald gaze. No doubt Rhillian intended the gaze to be mild. Somehow, with Rhillian, that intention never entirely translated. Beneath the shadow of her hat, her eyes burned in the shadow. “I may not comprehend the cause of the emotion, but I cannot deny that it exists. Serrin take existence alone as proof of meaning. We seek only to understand, not to ridicule, nor to discredit.”

Rhillian's Saalsi was so much more eloquent than Errollyn's, Sasha reflected, and realised that she'd barely even noticed Rhillian had switched to Saalsi.

“Changes the balance of power somewhat,” Sasha suggested, nodding toward the dock as she ate. “Doesn't it.”

Rhillian shrugged. “A little. Not greatly.” Beyond the docks, the sea shone silver beneath the overcast sky. Behind the high cloud, the sun was not so strong today. Perhaps the long delayed winter was finally on its way.

“You wait to see how the play moves,” Sasha continued, watching her friend warily. “Kessligh has more power now.”

“Does he control the star?” Rhillian asked.

“It was granted to him, through me.”

“By a rogue priest.”

“Father Terano Maerler is not so much a rogue. Last I heard, he's still alive.”

“How long will that last, I wonder?” Rhillian murmured, gazing at the silver horizon. “The Steiner alliance have purged their discontents. Perhaps the priesthood is next.”

“If that happens, the checks on Steiner's power will grow even less.”

Rhillian nodded sombrely. “That is why Maerler must be supported. Patachi Maerler is no friend of Saalshen, I am not such a fool as to believe so. But he remains today the only power in Petrodor capable of opposing Patachi Steiner and his friend the archbishop. In human societies, power works. This lesson I have learned in my time amongst you. It troubles a serrin's sensibilities, but slowly we learn to accept the truth. To have influence, amongst humans, one must have true power. The means to kill in large numbers. And so, we learn.”

There was a hole in the back brim of Rhillian's hat. Sasha recalled the crossbow bolt at the Garelo Temple. Rhillian had nearly died saving Yulia. Mercy was the serrin's instinct. Now, she spoke of slaughter.

“Rhillian,” Sasha ventured after a moment, “does it occur to you that perhaps the great powers have been reluctant to push too hard in Petrodor for a reason? I mean…the great houses are split roughly north and south, and that is a logical division, yes? A balance. A symmetry, even.”

“To human eyes, perhaps,” Rhillian said doubtfully. “Myself, I would hesitate to call the balance of terror and ignorance symmetry…but I quibble.”

“The provincial dukes have been reluctant to choose sides until now,” Sasha continued. “The balance in Petrodor serves them well. No one patachi has too much power, and the priesthood is neutral between them. Arguments over wealth and power hold no monopoly on one or another man's support. But now, the argument is religion. Faith. And faith can only ever have one side.”

Rhillian stared at her.

“Faith can have many sides,” she said eventually. She looked…disturbed. As though Sasha's words had shaken her. “Many of these people below, they are both Verenthane and Nasi-Keth. In the Saalshen Bacosh, interpretations of the scrolls are very liberal. Belief is not such a simple thing as you describe.”

“To serrin, no.” Sasha matched Rhillian's gaze as best she could. “You're not in Saalshen, Rhillian.”

Rhillian's eyes narrowed and she made an expression as close to a dismissive snort as Sasha had ever seen a serrin make. “You sound like Errollyn.”

“Serrin seek many truths,” Sasha insisted. “Humans seek one. It is our weakness, and our strength. Our diversity ensures that one truth shall never entirely triumph. Serrin have little diversity, yet your very nature ensures you do not need to.”

“We are diverse enough,” Rhillian said quietly.

“Errollyn insists not.”

“The very fact of which surely supports my assertion,” said Rhillian, a little testily.

“And that he's the only one who disagrees with you supports Errollyn's,” Sasha said firmly. “Rhillian, from the human perspective, that's just…odd. A little scary, even. I don't understand the vel'ennar, Rhillian. Neither what it is, nor how it works. But look at the Nasi-Keth. Or my native Lenays. They split in so many directions over the simplest of things, they are almost too numerous to count. Serrin all move together like a tide. I find that a little frightening, Rhillian. In truth.”

“We find your need to massacre each other in order to express a diversity of opinion somewhat frightening,” Rhillian said coolly.

Sasha nodded vigorously. “Indeed. Me too. But here, in this city, you've picked the one issue that might unite the people. Faith. North or south, rich or poor, Dockside or Backside or Riverside, they're all Verenthane. Not as many distrust the archbishop as ought to, for he's been held in check for so long by the stalemate of priesthood neutrality. The issue of the day is Saalshen and its occupation of holy sites. The Enor