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Home > Queen of Fire (Raven's Shadow #3)(12)

Queen of Fire (Raven's Shadow #3)(12)
Author: Anthony Ryan

Reva paused at the empty chair, naturally the most ornate in the room with an ample cushion for the old bastard’s bony behind. She sighed and pushed it out of her way. Can’t kill him twice, more’s the pity.

“Now, now, my Lord Commander,” she told Arentes. “We should respect the good bishops’ privacy. Leave us, for we have much to discuss.”

They sat in dumb silence as the doors closed with an echoing boom. She waited for it to fade before speaking, all vestige of respect stripped from her tone. “So, have you chosen?”

Only one spoke up, a slight man with a prominent nose, a little younger than his colleagues. “We had not yet counted the ballots, my lady.” He indicated a plain wooden box in the centre of the table.

“Then do so now.”

Reva studied him closely as he reached for the box, finding she remembered his face from the day the Reader died, one who smiled when she charged the old man. A possible ally? She steeled her thoughts against the suggestion; Marken’s revelations left no room for accommodation. I have no friends in this room.

“The Bishop of the Southern Parish,” the thin bishop reported after counting the ballots. “By unanimous assent.”

Reva scanned the faces around the table, finding six scared old men and one sleeping ancient who hadn’t raised his head since her entry. “Who is?” she enquired.

The thin bishop cleared his throat in discomfort. “I am, my lady.”

She gave a short laugh and turned her back on him, her gaze drawn to a candlelit alcove at the rear of the chamber where ten large tomes sat on lecterns. The books were ancient, the bindings flaking and cracked with age. The first to be bound in the land of Cumbrael, she knew, finding it odd that she felt no upswelling of awe at the sight. Just a collection of old books in a room of old men.

“I have in my possession,” she said, turning back to the table, “what I believe to be a complete list of adherents to the heretical sect known as the Sons of the Trueblade. In due course each and every name on this list will be captured and put to the question. I am sure you will join me in rejoicing at this news, given the wealth of intelligence they are sure to provide.”

She scanned each face in turn, finding confusion on most, but fear on others. They knew, she realised. Not all, but some. She saw how the Bishop of the Southern Parish avoided her gaze, a few beads of sweat forming on his wrinkled brow. Him in particular. She was right; there were no allies here.

She walked slowly around the table, watching each stooped back flinch as she passed by. She wore no weapons today, having returned her grandfather’s sword to its place in the library, but had little doubt she could snap every neck in this room should she choose. She halted behind the chair occupied by the Reader-elect and pointed at the ballots neatly piled at his side. “Give me those.” His spotted, bony hands trembled as he complied, dropping the ballots and scrambling to retrieve them before managing to fumble them into her palm.

“‘Deception is both sin and blessing,’” she quoted as she took the ballots from him, the Fifth Book, the Book of Reason, fast becoming her favourite. She turned and walked slowly back to the alcove, ballots in hand. “‘The paths set for us by the Father are many and their course is ever winding. At every turn the Loved find themselves presented with a plethora of choices as their paths fork, split by war or famine, love and betrayal. To walk the varied paths of life without deception is impossible.’” She stopped before the alcove, holding the ballots to one of the candles, letting the flame consume half their length before tossing them onto the stone floor where they continued to burn, soon no more than a swirl of black cinders.

“‘But,’” she told the bishops with a smile, now staring in outrage or horror, “‘the Father forgives the lie spoken in kindness, or service to a greater purpose.’”

She stood, the smile fading from her lips, waiting for a single voice to be raised in dissent. But they all just sat and stared, stoking her anger with their dumb inaction. This venal church collaborated with murderers, she knew. Allied themselves with the servants of an enemy that brought slaughter and slavery to this land. The people of this city would hang you all from the towers of this cathedral if I wished it. I won their love, whilst you cowered here and prayed for miracles that never came. With sword and bow I won their love.

One word to Arentes and it would be done, the bishops dragged outside, charges read as the people looked on and she fired their rage with a few well-chosen truths. They were all killers now, save the children and even they were hardened to the sight of death. There would be no protest, no hand raised to stop her, and she would have what the priest once made her lust for, a new church to be moulded into her father’s vision.

My mad father’s vision. The thought dispelled her anger, replacing it with a weary realisation. They had lost so much, but the church had endured for centuries and this land would not heal if she ripped open yet more wounds.

The sleeping ancient stirred, snuffling awake with a bleary-eyed glance around the room. “Lunch!” he demanded, thumping his walking stick on the table.

Reva moved to the ancient, smiling down at his reproving scowl. “And who might you be, good bishop?”

“I,” he began, drawing himself up, “am the Holy Bishop of . . .” He frowned in confusion, his shoulders slumping a little, licking his lips. “The Bishop of . . .”

“The Riverland Parish,” the bishop at his side supplied in a tense whisper.

“Yes!” The ancient bishop brightened, fixing Reva with an imperious glare. “I am the Bishop of the Riverland Parish and I demand my lunch.”

“You shall have it,” Reva assured him with a bow. “And more besides.” She moved to the door, pausing to cast an expansive gesture at the other bishops. “For your colleagues have voted you Holy Reader to the Church of the World Father. Please accept my heartfelt congratulations, Reader, and be assured of House Mustor’s most pious loyalty. I await your first sermon with the keenest interest.”

• • •

The sword room was mostly bare now, the once-full racks empty of blades save a few too highly set on the wall to be easily reached. She spent an hour in practice with her grandfather’s sword, dancing her dance with the heavy blade whirling and slicing, her muscles straining.

“I could watch you do that for hours.”

Reva stopped in mid-pirouette, finding Alornis standing in the doorway, charcoal-stained fingers still clutching her leather case. “I doubt you’d have liked the view a few days ago,” Reva said, massaging her back.

Alornis’s gaze became sombre. “It was bad, I know. So much of the city destroyed. On the march here I saw things . . . Things I felt I had to draw.” She tapped her case. “I thought putting them on paper might get them out of my head. But still they linger.”

The severed heads raining down . . . The Volarian’s defiant glare as he was led to the block . . . “They should,” Reva told her. “Will you be coming to Varinshold? There are rooms aplenty here if you wish to stay. And I’m sure Lady Veliss would like the company.”

Alornis smiled but shook her head. “Alucius and Master Benril. I have to find them.” She hesitated then came into the room, eyes widening in appreciation at the paintings on the upper walls, the swordsmen in their various poses. “This was done by a skilled hand.”

“At the cost of my great-grandfather’s coin, no doubt. He seems to have been a little too free with it, according to Veliss’s records. Perhaps why he lost so many wars to the Asraelins. I find governing a fief to be mostly a matter of coin.”

Alornis’s brow creased as she looked at Reva, shaking her head in faint wonder. “So changed in such a short time.”

Reva found her scrutiny hard to bear and turned away, hefting the sword. “You,” she told it, “are just too heavy.”

“What happened to your old one?” Alornis asked. “That was a thing of beauty.”

Standing over Arken’s body, her arm moving in a ceaseless, deadly arc, the rage spilling from her lips in a meaningless torrent . . . “I broke it.” She raised her gaze to the few remaining blades on the higher racks, picking out an Asraelin sword somehow missed by the servants sent to ransack the place for arms. “You can help me find another.”

She cupped her hands to create a stirrup and Alornis placed a foot in it, reaching up as Reva hoisted her, snatching the sword from the rack before slipping from her grip and falling. Reva caught her, holding her tight as she laughed, drawing back to meet her gaze.

“My brother says Lady Veliss was once a spy in King Janus’s service,” Alornis told her.

“I know. She has been many things.”

“Well, I think she’s lovely.” She stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to Reva’s forehead. “I’m happy for you.”

She turned, retrieved her case of sketches and left. Reva closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the kiss fade from her skin. Her gaze was always far too keen. Foolish to imagine she wouldn’t know.

She hefted the sword, drawing the blade free of the scabbard, finding it old but not rusted, the edge notched but not so bad it couldn’t be sharpened keen. “So,” she said, putting the scabbard aside and assuming a fighting stance. “Let’s see if you’re a better fit. We have much work to do.”

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