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Home > Queen of Fire (Raven's Shadow #3)(10)

Queen of Fire (Raven's Shadow #3)(10)
Author: Anthony Ryan

“Quite so, my lord,” Frentis told him. “Quite so.”

• • •

He busied himself with cleaning his weapons, long after the others had taken to their tents, the familiar drone of Draker’s snores drifting across the camp. When his sword and knife were gleaming, he cleaned his boots, then his saddle, then unstrung his bow and checked the stave for cracks. After that he sat and sharpened every arrowhead in his quiver. I do not need to sleep, he told himself continually though his hands were beginning to tingle with exhaustion and his head constantly slumped unbidden to his chest.

Just dreams. He tried to force conviction into the thought, casting a reluctant gaze at his tent. Just the stain of her company, the stink of her in my mind. Just dreams. She does not see me. He finally surrendered when his fatigued hands left him with a bleeding thumb, returning the arrows to his quiver and walking to the tent on weak legs. Just dreams.

• • •

She stands atop a tall tower, Volar spread out beneath her in all its ancient glory, street after street of tenements, marble mansions, gardens of wondrous construction and myriad towers rising from every quarter, though none so tall as this one: the Council Tower.

She raises her gaze to the sky seeking a target. The day is clear, the sky mostly unbroken blue, but she spies a small cloud some miles above, thin and wispy but sufficient for her purposes. She searches inside herself for the gift, finding she has to suppress her song to call it forth, but when it does the power of it staggers her, making her reach for the parapet as she sways. She feels a familiar trickle from her nose and understands the price for this one will be harder to bear even than the wonderful fire she stole from Revek, his words returning now with precise irony: Always the way with stolen gifts, don’t you find?

What did he know? she thinks, though the scorn is forced and hollow. He knew enough not to be blinded by love.

She forces unwelcome thoughts from her head and focuses on the cloud, the gift surging, more blood flowing from her nose as she releases it, the small cloud swirling into a tight vortex before flying apart, tendrils fading in the clear blue sky.

“Impressive.”

She turns to see a tall man in a red robe emerge from the stairway onto the tower roof. Two Kuritai follow him into the light, hands resting on their swords. She has yet to test the skill offered by this new shell and has to resist the urge to do so now. Hide an advantage and you double its value. One of her father’s axioms, though she suspects he may have stolen it from a long dead philosopher.

“Arklev,” she greets the tall man as he moves to her side. She can see a change in him, a new weariness around his eyes, an expression she knows well. He grieves.

“The Messenger did not linger,” he tells her. “Save to say that the Ally’s guidance will now be spoken only by you.”

The Ally’s guidance . . . As if he could comprehend the true meaning of those words, what it means to a soul in the Void to hear the Ally’s voice. She almost laughs at the ignorance of this ancient little man. Centuries of life and still he knows nothing.

He is staring at her in expectation, a faint concern on his brow, and she realises it has been several moments since he spoke. How long had she been standing here? How long since she climbed the tower?

She breathes deeply and allows the confusion to fade. “You’re grieving,” she tells him. “Who did you lose?”

He draws back a little, concern deepening into fear, no doubt wondering how much she already knew. She was learning the appearance of omniscience could offer as much power as omniscience itself.

“My son,” Arklev says. “His vessel never reached Varinshold. The scryers can no longer find a trace of him in times to come.”

She nods and waits for him to say more but the Council-man fixes a mask on his face and stays silent. “The Ally wishes you to elevate me to Council,” she tells him. “The Slaver’s Seat.”

“That is Council-man Lorvek’s seat,” he protests. “One he has discharged with care and diligence for near a century.”

“Lining his pockets and failing to breed enough Gifted in the process. The Ally feels his guidance has not been fully appreciated. And with our new assets coming to maturity, he feels I would offer a more trustworthy overseer for this very particular enterprise. If Lorvek won’t step down, I’m sure ample evidence of corruption will be found to justify a charge of treason. Unless you prefer a quieter method.”

He says more but she doesn’t hear him, feeling time slip away once more. How long has she stood here? When the confusion fades she is alone again and the sky is a darker shade of blue. She turns her sight to the west, tracking the broad estuary to the coast and the ocean beyond. Please hurry to me, beloved. I am so very lonely.

CHAPTER FOUR

Reva

She had seen enough corpses to know the dead rarely retained expression. The rictus smiles and fear-filled grimaces merely the tightening of sinew and muscle as the body’s humours drained away. So it was a surprise to find the priest’s face such a picture of serenity; but for the deep narrow cut in his throat he could easily have been mistaken for a slumbering man, his features betraying a soul content with the world.

Content, she thought, moving back from the corpse to rest on her haunches. How fitting he should only find peace in death.

“This is him?” Vaelin asked.

She nodded and rose as Alornis came to her side, touching her hand in reassurance. Vaelin held up his sister’s sketch, eyes switching from the priest’s face to the rendering on the parchment. “What a talent you have,” he told her with a smile before turning to the hulking man standing near the tent wall. “And you¸ Master Marken. Quite the eye for detail.”

Marken’s beard constricted with a brief smile and Reva noted how tightly his hands were gripped together, and his staunch refusal even to look at the second corpse. It lay alongside the priest, the features more typical of Reva’s experience, the skin a pale blue, the lips drawn back and the tongue protruding from the bared teeth, part severed by his death rattle. However, as with the priest his features were sufficiently recognisable to match Alornis’s sketch.

“Uncle Sentes said his name was Lord Brahdor,” she told Vaelin. “Lady Veliss tells me he owned land a little east of here, good vines. More renowned for white than red.”

“That’s all?” Vaelin asked. “No suspicions? Tall tales of strange powers or unexplained events?”

“That’s all. Just a minor noble with a few hundred acres of grapes . . . and a barn.”

Vaelin looked expectantly at Marken. The big man gritted his teeth for a moment then pointed a thick finger at Lord Brahdor’s corpse, still refusing to look at it. “This one I’ll not touch, my lord. I can feel it, seeping out of him like poison. Forgive my cowardice. But . . .” He shook his shaggy head. “I can’t. I . . .”

“It’s all right, Marken,” Vaelin assured him, nodding at the priest. “And him?”

Marken huffed a relieved sigh and turned to crouch beside the priest, rolling up his sleeve and placing a meaty hand on the corpse’s forehead. After a moment he winced as if in pain, his mouth twisting in disgust as it seemed he was about to draw his hand away, but she saw him stiffen his resolve, closing his eyes and maintaining a statuelike stillness for several minutes. Eventually he exhaled a long slow breath, sweat shining through the mass of hair that hung over his heavy brow. He rose, his gaze resting on Reva, warm with sympathy and sorrow. “My lady . . .” he began.

“I know,” she told him. “I was there. Master Marken, please tell Lord Al Sorna all you saw.”

“His early years are confused,” Marken said to Vaelin. “It appears he was raised in the Church of the World Father. There are no images of his parents so I judge him an orphan, apprenticed to a priest, a common fate for Cumbraelin orphans I believe. The priest who raised him was kind, a former soldier in the Lord’s guard, called to the church in later life, keen for his charges to acquire both his martial abilities and the fierceness of his devotion. The boy spent long years steeped both in study of the Ten Books and training for war. In manhood he endured long years of shame when he looked at women. The younger the woman, the greater the shame, and the more he looked. I sensed a compulsion to hide in the Ten Books, to find refuge from his desires in the church’s teachings.

“Alltor and the cathedral loom large in his memory and I believe he was sent there in preparation for priesthood. I saw him meet the Reader and receive his priestly name. They never met in public and I sensed the priest had been chosen for a secret role. I saw a journey away from Alltor halting when he finds a man with a scar, here.” Marken paused to touch his cheek. “The man is speaking before a large crowd and the young priest burns with new passion on hearing his voice. He returns to the Reader and is sent forth again. Then there are many months of meetings in dark rooms and secluded hollows, men clustering together and fearful of discovery as they pass letters and gather weapons in hidden caches. He never sees the scarred man again but the memory comes to him often. Then at another hidden meeting he finds this thing.” Marken nodded at the second body, grimacing as his gaze touched Brahdor’s dead face. “It talks, the words are lost to me as you know, my lord. But they make his passion burn even brighter. The thing leads him to a farmhouse at night, inside an old couple sit before a fire fussing over a little girl.” He looked again at Reva and swallows. “The priest’s shame is deeper than ever when he looks at her.”

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