The Empire’s Ghost

The empire of Elesthene once spanned a continent, but its rise heralded the death of magic. It tore itself apart from within, leaving behind a patchwork of kingdoms struggling to rebuild.

But when a new dictator, the ambitious and enigmatic Imperator Elgar, seizes power in the old capital and seeks to recreate the lost empire anew, the other kingdoms have little hope of stopping him. Prince Kelken of Reglay finds himself at odds with his father at his country’s darkest hour; the marquise of Esthrades is unmatched in politics and strategy, but she sits at a staggering military disadvantage. And Issamira, the most powerful of the free countries, has shut itself off from the conflict, thrown into confusion by the disappearance of its crown prince and the ensuing struggle for succession.

Everything seems aligned in Elgar’s favor, but when he presses a band of insignificant but skilled alley-dwellers into his service for a mission of greatest secrecy, they find an unexpected opportunity to alter the balance of power in the war. Through their actions and those of the remaining royals, they may uncover not just a way to defeat Elgar, but also a deeper truth about their world’s lost history.

Isabelle Steiger’s The Empire’s Ghost is the first book in a haunting new epic fantasy series—available now from Thomas Dunne Books.

 

 

Prologue

The last time it snowed, Roger took a bundle of firewood and some biscuits to the Dragon’s Head.

The streets of Sheath Alleys were perpetually dank, as narrow and twisting as a guilty thought—and they inspired many, as Roger knew all too well. It was as if Valyanrend itself fled to Sheath to escape its past, to disappear into the shadows as so many of its citizens had done. For the city, at least, it was a lost cause. A stray motif here, a crumbling cathedral there—all pointed to the capital’s storied history, its follies and its fall. Even the cobbles of the streets were suspect—you could fancy you saw dried flecks of red in the mortar, the remnants of countless uprisings and revolts. As a boy, Roger himself found what he convinced himself was a bone from a human finger in a crack between two pieces of brick in an alleyway; now he admitted it was as likely a fragment of chicken picked clean by a dog, but it could have been the lost remains of a dethroned emperor. Who was anyone to say?

But now the jagged streets of Sheath looked almost peaceful, all the grime covered by cold, cloying white. Roger pulled off his cap before he’d gotten halfway, feeling the snow settle behind his ears and catch in his hair. Whenever he stepped into the shadows—there were always shadows to spare in Sheath—he watched his breath, pale and smoky in the dark. The moon was high and full, but even if every star had been snuffed out, he could have found his way by less than a candle flame.

His ears had gone numb by the time the old tavern came into sight, but he didn’t mind. He stood before it for a few breaths, feeling the cold so fresh and sharp in his lungs that it seemed almost to have bitten him, left a pain gentle enough to cleanse. Too bad ale’d soon ruin all that, he thought, and rapped three times.

Little Seth, Morgan’s only hired hand, opened the door for him, his pale face brightening at the sight of what Roger held. “Miss Imrick!” he called through teeth that were slightly chattering. “Mister Halfen’s here!”

Morgan Imrick came out from the back room, shaking her head. “Gods’ sakes, you two, pull the door closed!” She grabbed a fistful of Roger’s coat, dragging him inside and shutting the offending object on its hinges—the wood was old and scarred, and the hinges were so loose that you didn’t so much open the door as send it hurtling toward the wall. But it was so tightly fitted to the frame that when she slammed it, you’d believe even death couldn’t slip past. Only then did she turn to him. “Good to see you, Roger. Get that wood to the fireplace, all right? Braddock!” she called to the tavern’s only other occupant, snapping her head in the direction of the far corner. “Help Roger with the firewood, would you please?”

As far as Roger had been able to tell, Braddock never went anywhere without three things: a shabby brown coat, three-day-old stubble, and a surpassingly gruff demeanor. Roger usually tried to keep clear of anyone with a large assortment of weapons and a small sense of humor, but Braddock had earned Morgan’s trust somehow. And Roger had never known him to be disorderly in her tavern, no matter how drunk he got. He’d been sitting in his accustomed spot by the window, but he stood up and plunked his tankard down when Morgan spoke, with a vague grunt that could not possibly have been an honest attempt at a word. “Right then,” Roger said, dropping the bag of biscuits on the bar and passing Braddock half the wood. “Where are Lucius and Deinol?” he asked Morgan over his shoulder.

She clicked her tongue. “Out,” she said flatly, pouring some ale into another tankard. “Here.” She slid it down the counter toward him as if the movement signaled an end to the discussion.

But Roger couldn’t have a drink until he got the wood settled, and with his reward secure, he figured he could keep talking a bit. “Those two are on the ups, eh?” he asked. “Big job going down tonight?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Morgan said, so primly that he knew there were secrets to be ferreted out.

He grinned. “Well, I hear that old merchant Lorrin’s planning on moving house tonight, and their best route takes them right through Ebon Corners. Rotten luck, that—everyone knows Ebon’s crawling with brigands of the worst sort. Be pretty hard to find the culprits if anything were to go missing, eh?”

“I suppose it would be,” Morgan said, as if she couldn’t care less. “Try your drink.”

“Don’t mind if I do!” He raised his tankard to the room at large. “And a hearty gods’ grace to you all.”

“Grace,” Seth said, with a timid smile. The other two were silent.

Roger laid claim to his favorite stool, placing the tankard back on the bar and draping himself beside it. You couldn’t say much for the decoration in the Dragon’s Head—Morgan refused to hang anything on the walls, and Seth’s attempts to brighten up the mantel over the fireplace were more well intentioned than effective. Roger supposed he understood flowers, even if he held no personal attachment to them, but the boy had found much more than that: oddly shaped stones, bits of colored glass, four-fifths of a porcelain dish he’d pulled out of some rubbish heap. Morgan complained about nearly every new addition, but she’d outright refused him only the pigeon feathers—if Seth wanted to catch diseases, she had said, there were plenty of poorer districts that could accommodate him. In fact, as far as Roger was concerned, Morgan’s fastidiousness more than made up for her lack of aesthetic sense: he didn’t doubt that the Dragon’s Head was the cleanest establishment in Sheath, despite the best efforts of some of its patrons. How she got the wood of that bar to gleam like that was beyond him.

“So,” he said after polishing off the ale, wiping his mouth contentedly with his sleeve, “can a fellow get another swallow or so? It is mighty cold out there.”

Morgan rolled her eyes. “You’re just the same as ever, aren’t you, Roger?”

“And why should I be otherwise, my dear?” He aimed a cheeky smile at Seth, who started to grin back, though the expression immediately disappeared when Morgan turned on him.

“Seth,” she said, “if you have time to flirt with Roger, you have time to stoke the fire. I suggest you get to it.”

“R-right away, Miss Imrick!” Seth squeaked, nearly throwing himself at the hearth. One of the Dragon’s Head’s best features, it was large enough for the boy to curl up in, but the resulting fire never seemed to bother him—it was the cold he couldn’t handle.

“You needn’t shrink from her so,” Roger said, laughing. “When has she ever laid a hand on you?”

“I hit far too hard for one so delicate,” Morgan—quite rightly—pointed out. She turned to Roger with her arms folded, but he caught the wry smile tugging at one side of her mouth. “I do appreciate the supplies, Roger—and the company, believe it or not—but this is a tavern, not a home for the destitute. And tavern means business, and business, as I know you’re not too familiar with the term, means standards.”

Morgan had been saying that since she’d first taken over the Dragon’s Head, and, well, she did mean it, but her tavern didn’t attract the types it did for nothing. A thief had to choose his haunts carefully, after all, and the Dragon’s Head had become Roger’s because Morgan was one of the precious few people he both trusted and liked—which, given his profession, meant trusting her discretion as much as her honesty. Her standards, if she had them, were a good sight stranger than everyone else’s.

“There’s something doing in the streets,” Braddock said suddenly, peering outside. “I don’t think I like the look of it.”

The Dragon’s Head had two walls open to the street, both generously studded with windows. But the glass was cheap and milky, and all Morgan’s attempts to clean it couldn’t change that. The light that filtered in always had a muted quality, and you had to get up close to the windows in order to get a detailed view of the other side—no doubt that was why Braddock always chose to sit there. Morgan strode over to stand by Braddock’s stool, following his gaze. “Soldiers passing through,” she said for Roger’s and Seth’s sakes. “More than I’d like. Were there supposed to be military maneuvers tonight?”

Roger scratched his head, trying to remember. “I want to say no, but I don’t recall, honestly. Course, the usual channels aren’t infallible.”

“This is bad,” Seth said, his voice skidding high on the last syllable. “What if Lucius and Deinol—”

“Hush,” Morgan said, with an abortive wave of her hand. “If anything had happened to Lucius and Deinol, there’d be no reason for soldiers to show up here, would there?” But her face was drawn, and Roger knew what she was thinking: if Lucius and Deinol were doing what Roger was almost certain they were doing, there was a chance they’d bring the loot back here—and they couldn’t do that with a bunch of soldiers making the rounds.

It was Braddock, surprisingly, who broke the silence. “Doesn’t look like a patrol to me,” he said. “Strange for little pests like those to be passing through so far from their fellows, though.”

“It is strange,” Morgan said—but she only looked puzzled now, not anxious, and Roger would have flashed Braddock a grateful smile if he’d thought for a moment it would have been accepted. “It didn’t seem like they were responding to a crime—”

“Pah,” Braddock spat. “Whenever there’s real trouble, those dogs are nowhere to be found. I’d say they’ve caught the scent of a profit, but there’s slim chance of that down here.”

“And we’d’ve heard if there were some sort of plot about,” Seth added.

Morgan looked to Roger. “You’re sure there’s been nothing?”

He shook his head. “Quiet as a Ninist vestry—for the last fortnight, no less. Nothing doing in all Sheath Alleys, I warrant you.”

As their imperator’s war with Lanvaldis had dragged on, he’d started pulling more and more soldiers out of the capital, either to join the front lines directly or to replace men he’d taken from other strategic locations across the country. Perhaps that was why it felt so strange to see them now, though Roger had always known them to give Sheath a wide berth regardless. It was probably good for him that their presence was reduced in his city, but thinking about the war always made him uneasy, for reasons he’d never been able to determine. It wasn’t that he feared for himself: every battle so far had taken place on Lanvaldian soil, and the vast majority of them had ended in victory for Hallarnon, especially of late. Better still, a month ago Imperator Elgar himself had left Valyanrend to join his troops on the front lines as they inched ever closer to the Lanvaldian capital of Araveil. Most of the people Roger trusted to understand military matters had even claimed that the Lanvalds’ defeat, at this point, was practically inevitable. So then why did seeing those soldiers give him such a bad feeling? Surely it wasn’t pity for people he’d never seen?

Morgan frowned, drawing her fingers absentmindedly across the windowsill. “I suppose,” she said at last, “that if the soldiers are only passing through, there’s no sense in getting worked up over it. Isolated little groups like that one probably make many inconsequential movements over the course of a single day, and we’d think nothing of it if we weren’t … on edge.” Waiting, Roger thought, was the word she was looking for—waiting on a couple of brigands, no less.

“I could go,” Seth offered suddenly, trying to draw himself up to his full height—which wasn’t much. “I could go ask—”

Morgan shook her head with surprising gentleness. “They’ll be all right,” she said. “They always are. You’ll just have to trust in them, Seth.”

“They’re fond of flash,” Braddock added, “and they talk a good game, but they’ve skill to back it up—we all know it. And even if Deinol sometimes lacks the sense to be discreet, Lucius always makes him mind in the end. They won’t go courting danger tonight.”

“I think,” Roger said, “we could all use another round. And nobody’s so much as touched these biscuits yet. I guarantee they’re fresh enough—fully half delicious, in fact. Allow me to demonstrate.” He strode over to where he’d left the biscuits atop the bar, fished in the bag until he found one, and then took a huge bite, chewing merrily. “You see? Perfectly edible, and not half hard. I spoil the lot of you, swear on the gods I do.”

Seth smiled at him, and Morgan said, “I’ll take one—pass them here.” Even Braddock raised his head and looked at him. Roger grinned at them all and then tossed another biscuit across the room to Morgan, then held the bag teasingly over Seth’s head when the boy asked for one too.

When they were all supplied with biscuits, Morgan passed out the tankards: stout for Braddock, another ale for Roger, and the same for Seth, albeit it was one-third water. Morgan herself didn’t drink during business hours, though she wasn’t overfond of the stuff in the first place, having as she did to kick out passels of drunkards nearly every evening. Roger and Seth stoked the fire, and once his ears had forgotten what it felt like to be cold, Roger said, “End of the year’s approaching, isn’t it? Good time for aspirations, I’d say.”

“Aspirations?” Morgan asked, her elbows resting on the bar.

“I mean,” Roger said, “look to the future, and say what you’d like to see. Why not?”

Morgan shook her head, casting free a brief laugh that wasn’t quite bitter. “What aspirations, Roger? We’re all stuck down here, and you know it.”

“Nothing’s permanent,” Roger said, but somehow it didn’t sound as forceful as it had in his mind.

Lacking a tankard, Morgan raised one fist in a mock-salute. “I suppose we shan’t see you around here much longer, then. No aspirations, I’m sure, ever thrived long in the Dragon’s Head. And you’ll be wanting bigger and better things, won’t you?”

“Things are always changing,” Roger said, because saying nothing was tantamount to sulking. “There’s another year about to go by, and … and perhaps it’ll snow again tomorrow, and perhaps it won’t.”

Seth looked about to speak, but Braddock’s grunt silenced him. “Thinks he’s a bard,” he said, “thinks he’s—”

But Roger was not destined to find out what he thought he was, for at that moment the door leaped nearly off its hinges, banging with such force against the opposite wall that all four of them were stunned into silence. And into that sudden absence the two interlopers poured enough commotion for all of them, nearly dancing into the room, hands full and lips brimming with merriment. “Shut the door!” Morgan yelled over the tumult, and Lucius Aquila cast the cloth bag he was carrying to the floor, pausing only a moment to make sure the entrance was well and truly closed. Then he looked up in triumph, the customary enigmatic smile smoothing his face.

Deinol had already bounded into the center of the room, dropping his own sack and throwing an arm around Seth’s shoulders. “And there’s my boy!” he said in full jubilance, mussing Seth’s pale hair. “And he’ll come with us one of these days, won’t he?”

“He certainly will not,” Morgan replied, as unamused as only she could look. “No hired hand of mine is going gallivanting off for a night of pilfering, I warrant you that for certain.”

“Ah, Morgan, the boy’ll grow up as dull as one of Roger’s fake flints if you don’t loose your hold on him.”

Morgan arched a single eyebrow. “I seem to recall that someone was entirely convinced the boy wouldn’t get the chance to grow up at all if I didn’t take him in.”

“You did say something of the sort,” Lucius said, clapping a hand on Deinol’s shoulder. “Besides, Seth’s a right proper boy, isn’t he? He’s an honest living to put us both to shame, and Roger, too.”

“Hey there,” Roger said, “don’t lump me in with your sort. There’re leagues of difference between us—for one thing, I’m a coward, the way a true swindler ought to be—”

“As much as I love being made privy to confessions of dishonesty and criminal acts in my own establishment,” Morgan interrupted, “I don’t believe I gave you two any impression—any at all—that this was the proper place to stash your spoils.”

Deinol looked genuinely puzzled. “But, Morgan, where did you think we were going to stash it? These days we do everything here.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” She sighed. “Well, let’s see it then. What’ve you got?” Then, as she saw what he was about to do, she tried to grab his arm. “No, no, don’t—”

But Deinol, of course, had already upended the bag, pouring its contents onto the floor. In spite of himself, Roger peered at the lumps eagerly: he saw jewelry, good silver, and several odd little trinkets, as well as more than a few coins. “You godsforsaken idiot,” Morgan hissed. “How are we going to hide all this if someone comes in?”

“Morgan,” Deinol said, “it’s the darkest hour of the night on one of the coldest days of the year. No honest man is going to come this way—they’re all in their beds.”

“If only there were any honest men in Sheath, then,” Morgan replied, and Braddock barked out a laugh. “Well, Lucius?” she asked. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to show us your treasures as well.”

He smiled gently, picking his own sack back up and fishing around inside. “It’s mostly the same as Deinol’s lot. We grabbed whatever we could get our hands on, once we’d gotten the wagons in disarray. But I did find this.” He pulled out a small figurine: a dragon with outspread wings and a pensive gaze, looking down on them as if from a lofty height. Its scales looked blue in the shade, but when Lucius turned the figure in the firelight, they glinted a perfect green. Roger stared at it, thinking on deep caverns, pathless forests—a different, stranger sort of adventure than his city’s twisting alleyways, and one he had never seen.

“It’s beautiful,” Seth said at Deinol’s elbow, his little voice shrouded in awe.

“Isn’t it? It seems I can’t bring myself to sell it.” Lucius’s smile turned inward as he spoke, as if he amused himself.

“It is lovely,” Morgan agreed. “But I hope you didn’t think I could display it at the bar. A stolen trinket—there’s no way I—”

“Oh no, I understand,” Lucius said. “It has nothing to do with the Dragon’s Head, really, except that I—well, I like dragons. Always have.”

“I suppose it’s lucky you’re not likely to ever meet one, then,” Roger said. “I expect that would take the romance right out of it.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Morgan said—at her words, Lucius shut his mouth, concealing whatever response he would have made—“how about we get all this safely stashed away, and I’ll serve everyone another round? I ought to charge you two double, but you did a damned good job with the roof, so I’ll let it go this time.”

“I’ll take that bargain, Morgan,” Deinol said, and scooped his treasure back into the sack—all except one coin, which he proffered to Seth with a wink. (Morgan pretended not to notice.) Lucius passed over his own sack, and Deinol disappeared into the cellar to hide them. He left the little dragon, but Lucius promised he’d make sure it stayed hidden securely enough not to cause trouble for anyone. Deinol had just returned, and Morgan had just started her sigh of relief, when the door banged open once again, admitting a tousled, wild-eyed young man it took Roger a few seconds to place. He finally recognized Harvey Wapps, an apprentice tinker and one of Morgan’s occasional patrons.

“It’s fallen!” he cried, before any of them could react. “The news is spreading through the city—Lanvaldis has fallen!”

Morgan shook her head vaguely, as if she thought she disagreed. “What?”

“How do they know that?” Roger asked at the same time. “Elgar can’t have reached Araveil already, can he?”

“By now he might well have,” Wapps said, “though I don’t expect that news will reach us for some time. But King Eira’s army is finished, they say—crushed so decisively that it’ll never recover. If that’s so, even Araveil won’t hold out for long.”

“We’ve won, then?” Deinol asked.

Wapps nodded darkly. “Aye, we’ve won, all right—another kingdom, reduced to a mere jewel in Elgar’s crown. He has the whole north now, and most of the east—he has half the continent.”

“Better a win than a loss, though, isn’t it?” Roger said, but he couldn’t grin, not with Wapps’s face so pale. “Our boys’ll come back home—your own brother, Wapps—”

“And what of the conquered?” Lucius asked suddenly, with uncustomary harshness, his face drawn and grim. “I don’t want to think of the kind of mercy that man will extend to them.”

That put them all to silence for a few moments, as well it might: Lucius was originally from Aurnis, the country to the far north that Elgar had crushed more than two years ago. He had said very little about how he had come from there to here, but Roger doubted that it had been a pleasant journey, or that he had been able to salvage much of what his life had been before Elgar’s forces had come. But Lanvaldis was far larger than Aurnis—it was as large as Hallarnon, mirroring the territory in the east that Hallarnon held in the west. With them both under his control, and Aurnis above them … Wapps hadn’t exaggerated. Elgar really did rule half the continent.

Finally Morgan spoke. “There’s nothing we can do for the conquered, Lucius. And what’s Lanvaldis to us, anyway? I’m just as glad I don’t have to wonder what kind of mercy they’re going to serve me.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Roger said, but his mouth was dry.

“You’re welcome to a drink as well, Wapps, if you’d like,” Morgan said, but the apprentice shook his head, snow fluttering about his ears.

“I’m spreading the word. Everyone ought to know about this.”

“Then shut the damn door,” Morgan said, without any bite.

After Wapps had gone, Deinol looked to Lucius, who was still casting dark looks at the empty air. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Lucius said. “Morgan’s right; I’m glad it isn’t me.”

But something more than cold had sharpened the air, and Roger’s eyes were stinging with it. He traced the rim of his tankard with one finger, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of the deepening silence.

*   *   *

The snow was falling thick throughout Araveil, and for just a moment Shinsei let himself imagine that it was snowing everywhere, that the world was fully blanketed in white, stifled into perfect stillness. It would be beautiful, he thought—quiet and peaceful, untouched by grossness and irregularity. He would walk through the streets, and the falling snowflakes would erase his footsteps behind him, like a slow, bittersweet forgetting. That was what memory should always be like.

But tonight his presence was stark and incisive, unyielding as a knife’s edge, brazen as a firebrand. He left a bitter trail behind him—it was the blood he scattered through the streets.

It was unfortunate; it was not how he would wish it. But it was what his master willed.

The streets of Araveil were beautifully formed, sprawling and yet somehow orderly, like a daydream shaped into verse. It was a shame to mar them with carnage, but his work was nearly done. King Eira’s famed army had been in ruins since the battle at Blackridge, and now even the soldiers left guarding the capital were decimated. There was but one objective remaining, and it lay here, beyond these palace doors.

A handful of men—Shinsei counted them: seven—guarded the great hall. They were panting and frayed, nearly staggering toward him. They were too tired to hide their fear.

Shinsei removed them quickly—it was growing late, and his master wanted the city before the sun rose—and passed into the inner chamber. It was white and silver and pale blue—it reminded him of the snow.

“Your Grace,” he said.

The aging man before him started back, his grimness touched with surprise. “They would send such a one as you?” he asked.

“I am the best they have,” Shinsei informed him. “I have killed the most tonight of anyone.”

King Eira made an expression Shinsei did not understand—eyes narrowed, lip slightly curling. “That is evident,” he said.

Shinsei followed the king’s gaze to his own bloodstained garments, his arms darkened past the elbows—the red dripping in his footsteps, marring the marble and soft carpet at his feet. “I am sorry,” Shinsei said. “This is a beautiful chamber, and I have ruined it.”

The man’s eyes were level and steady, his shoulders shifting slightly with his breath. “This was a beautiful city, once,” he said. “I wonder you do not apologize for that.”

“It will be beautiful again,” Shinsei told him. It would be better than it ever was, because his master would rule it.

The king shook his head. “I do not think so. But then, I don’t suppose I will ever know.”

“No,” Shinsei agreed. “You will not.”

King Eira let free a soft sigh. “I have committed sins enough,” he said. “If I must die for them now, I suppose I cannot complain. But do not think”—he was already charging, his blade half free of its scabbard—“I will go without a fight—”

Shinsei calculated the distance, took a careful sidestep. The Lanvaldian king overreached, almost stumbled, and was just whipping himself back around to try again when Shinsei’s weapon struck him through the spine. The crunch of bone boded well.

After he freed his sword from the body of the king (unfortunately, he had to brace his foot against the man’s back to yank it out, which made an even bigger mess of the chamber), Shinsei crouched beside him, listened for his breath, heard nothing. Good.

This was a man with excellent taste, he thought, casting one last look back at the once-immaculate room before shutting the door behind him.

*   *   *

The messenger had been covered in wet, from all the snow that melted as he rode, but he had not brought it home with him to Stonespire. It wasn’t just the area around the capital, either—he claimed that even northern Esthrades was clear, with little more than a flurry after he’d crossed the border from Lanvaldis. Well, that was something, Gravis thought. Winter hung lightly, as yet, about this land he loved, leaving only the ghost of a chill in the air, silent overnight frosts that faded after a few hours of sun. Perhaps the gods favored Esthrades still, or perhaps the cold merely lay coiled, waiting to strike.

His feet weighed heavier than the stone they trod as he trudged back up the long steps and passed under the gate. He touched the double doors of Stonespire Hall, his hands weak against the wood, trembling like a coward’s. The doors opened at last, and he strode a silent passage to Stonespire’s great hall—still warm and lit, even in the depths of this winter’s night. There were no sconces on the walls—they were hung floor to ceiling with heavy tapestries, each depicting some triumph of one of Esthrades’s past rulers. Instead the light came from candleholders planted the length of the hall, each nearly the height of a man. They were set some distance from the walls so that the smoke would not ruin the tapestries, and formed a sort of avenue down which potential supplicants could approach the throne. But the room lay deserted, empty of servants and guards, of subjects of any kind. He raised his head, staring at the most painful absence of all: the great oaken throne of Esthrades, standing cold and empty.

He sank to one knee—it seemed the old patterns of obeisance were too deeply etched in him to die. “My lord,” he whispered, only half aware he spoke aloud, “my lord, this is no time to be abed! Where is the strength I saw in you of old?”

Grief, perhaps, would have mastered him then, but for a croaking voice: “Is that you, Gravis?” He leaped to his feet, but it was only Verrane, Lord Caius’s elderly nurse, shutting the tower door softly behind her. Age and care had lined her face, but they had not stooped her shoulders, had inspired no trembling in her limbs. Her pale gray eyes were intent on his. “What troubles you so? I thought you a man of action, not oratory.”

“A weaker man than I might weep, confronted with such news as this,” he told her. “Lanvaldis has fallen.”

Verrane’s sharp intake of breath only made Gravis realize just how deathly silent it had been in the hall. “When?” she asked, darting glances into every corner of the room, as if Gravis had said they’d been the ones invaded.

He shook his head. “It’s difficult to say. Elgar’s men shattered their army at Blackridge some time ago—that’s when the signal fires started, when birds and horsemen began to carry messages. King Eira’s reinforcements are heading south from Helba Fortress, but they’ll never reach the capital in time. Once Elgar has taken Araveil, he can pick them off at his leisure—if they do not surrender outright.”

“Lanvaldis is twice the size of Esthrades,” she said. Her voice was strong—she might almost have been making a casual observation, save that she was as still as stone.

“That’s hardly the worst of it,” Gravis said. “Lanvaldis has a standing army—the best on the continent, or so Eira boasted. If Hallarnon can crush them, what chance do we have?”

Verrane was pale, her fingers fumbling absently at the air. “But … but will Hallarnon’s army come here?”

He shrugged hopelessly. “It’s surely only a matter of time.”

“You can’t truly believe that.”

“Why not? Why should Elgar stop until he’s grasped the whole continent? Esthrades is an easy target.”

She brought her fingers together and clasped her hands as if to steady them. “What should we do?”

“What can we do? We have not even a master to guide us.” He glanced at Verrane. “His lordship is no better?”

She shook her head. “No better.”

Gravis started to pace, darting another look at the empty throne. “Has he his wits about him? I can manage things in the capital well enough, but he needs a proper general to maintain the borders. If he would but name a commander to succeed him—”

“Lord Caius has an heir,” Verrane said, a note of genuine surprise in her voice. “What other successor does he need?”

“What he has,” Gravis retorted, “is a snake at his heels—a daughter only, and a daughter who loves him not. I wish, at the least, he’d give her a husband.”

Verrane actually smiled. “You say that as if he had not tried.”

“Tried?” Gravis scoffed. “The marquis is her father, and sworn lord of his realm—he had every right to make her mind. I wonder how he did not.”

“In truth it is no wonder at all,” came the reply, and this time Gravis’s hackles were raised before he even turned, because there was no mistaking that voice.

Though her bearing belied it, Arianrod Margraine was still young—it had been twenty-two summers since, but he could still remember the ill-fated day of her birth. Lord Caius was broad and dark-bearded, but his daughter looked like the winter that waited to engulf Esthrades: tall and fair-haired, with blue eyes fading into gray and skin that stayed ever pale—no blush of modesty, Gravis was sure, had ever darkened that face. Though she had the sleek vivacity of the young and prosperous, there was something in her slender frame and quick, searching eyes that hungered perpetually.

“Your ladyship,” Gravis growled.

“My father,” she continued, unperturbed, “is in love with the legacy of his blood, and there is none left to carry it but I. That is why he will name no other successor, and why, no matter how many ways I may devise to vex him, he would never harm my person or position.” She smiled. “Did you think it was out of affection for me? I am sorry to disillusion you.”

“I wonder, then, that he never doubted the blood in your veins was his,” Gravis dared. Verrane shot him a panicked look, but his master’s daughter did not flinch.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” she said carelessly. “I may not like it, but I don’t doubt it. Who could doubt my lady mother? Everyone tells me how unendurably devoted she was to him. So much the worse for her.”

“My lady, do not speak of your poor mother so, I beg you,” Verrane said.

The marquis’s daughter eyed Verrane with some amusement. “She is long dead. What harm can words do her now?”

“Some would say,” Gravis said, trying for Verrane’s sake to curb his tongue at least a little, “you have no right to speak of her at all. You killed her with your birth.”

At least the woman had enough grace not to smile openly, but the expression seemed to lurk somewhere in her eyes. “Yes, well, I am hardly the first child to have done so. I am sure I would have behaved myself better, could I have helped it.”

Gravis did not trust his tongue, so he said nothing.

His expression must have revealed something, however, for she turned serious for the briefest of moments: “Come, Gravis, don’t you think I would wish the woman alive again, if wishes could help her?” But then she smiled, irreverent once more. “They tell me she never wished harm on another soul, not as long as she lived. I would have liked to see so rare a creature; I cannot claim ever to have had the good fortune to meet one.”

“I don’t believe your ladyship would have any use for one such as your mother was,” Gravis said.

Arianrod Margraine did not answer that; she gave a thoughtful pause instead, glancing about the empty hall. Though all else in the room was pristine, the steps to the oaken throne were covered in an unaccustomed layer of dust, a testament to how long it had been since Lord Caius had taken his seat there. “I must admit,” she said, “I did not come here to talk about my mother. Before I entered this discussion, Gravis, I heard you speak of Lanvaldis’s defeat, of Esthrades’s future. Will you not continue?”

She was listening in, then. Of course she was. He scoffed. “I extended you no part in this discussion.”

“Yet you would speak of strategy to Verrane? Surely you admit I know more of military matters than she, at least.”

“You know a great deal, your ladyship, there’s no denying it,” Gravis said. “Indeed, I don’t doubt you are skilled in matters no mortal ought to think on.” He would have said more, but Verrane bit her lip, looking anxious. Gravis remembered that she, like so many women, possessed an all-enduring propensity to dote on the child she had raised, and so he fell silent.

Yet he had not spoken out of turn. All of Stonespire, all of Esthrades whispered of it—that the marquis’s daughter was that most forbidden thing, a sorceress.

It wasn’t just the way she seemed to know things—she’d been clever since she was born, reading before Lord Caius had even dreamed of calling a tutor for her, and flustering said tutor entirely by the age of seven. Many of her ancestors had been scholars; the Margraines had made a grand tradition of it. But Gravis had seen his share of scholars, and he knew enough to know that there was clever and there was strange. She didn’t just seek knowledge; she devoured it; she hoarded it. She sharpened it like a weapon, and who could say where she meant to aim it? Gravis had always suspected that she knew far more than books, more than the dry tomes and treatises of her father’s library. She knew things about the world that were best forgotten, and things about people she had no call to know, as if she could read every thought in their heads before they could themselves.

She turned her gaze on him as if to prove his point, smug and serene despite the severity of her father’s illness. Or, for all he knew, perhaps because of it. That seemed somehow more likely, where she was concerned.

“That’s what I like about you, Gravis,” she said. “You shun everything fair, everything alluring, and cleave always to what is simple and stark, what can be laid bare at a glance. Even your wife is plain.”

Gravis ought to strike her one for that, but everything she said was true. “I’m in no mood for jibes, your ladyship,” he said instead, like a sullen young subordinate.

“Then I’ll be brief,” she replied. “Esthrades is in crisis. I think it is time for you to convene your men in the hall.”

“Only my lord the marquis can give such an order,” Gravis said immediately.

The look she gave him was indulgent; he wanted to spit at the sight of it. “You well know he is indisposed. He has difficulty commanding his own four limbs, let alone more distant vassals.”

“And so I should countenance a usurper to stand in his place? Lady, not while I live.”

What irritated him most of all was how genuine the woman’s good humor was. There were some who smiled to hide the rage that stuck in their throats, the gall that roiled their stomachs. But her amusement, the wry delight she could find even in intended insults, rang true every single time. “Gravis,” she said, “I know you value a candid tongue.”

“I’d rather know the heart behind it,” he said, “but yes, I do.”

“Then let me speak plainly.” She let her smile fade, and gazed brazenly on him, with one flick of her eyes toward Verrane to show the old woman she was not forgotten. “I know the great respect you have for my father. However, I must confess that I have never shared it. I find him and have ever found him neither a wise ruler nor a worthy man, and my life with him has been naught but one quarrel after another. I doubt we were meant to coexist.” She paused. “I assume this is not news to you.”

“Indeed it is not,” Gravis let himself growl.

“Then when I tell you, Gravis, that the illness that now has him in its grip causes him so much suffering that even I would grant him peace if I could—if you will not believe for mercy’s sake, at least believe that he is too far gone now to answer for anything—when I tell you this, Gravis, for it is the gods’ plain truth, I trust you will understand the full import of my words.” She paused again, drew in a breath. “If not, then I’ll be plainer still. The man you call your lord is in his last illness. He lives still, but he will nevermore rise from his bed. He will leave his chamber only in a coffin. That is all I can say for him.”

Gravis could not bring himself to look at her, nor at the empty throne, the ancient tapestries. His gaze found purchase somewhere near his feet, on the tiled stone floor, gray upon gray. “Then Esthrades is lost,” he said quietly.

She let another smile flick across her face, swift and fleeting. “Why do you say that?”

Gravis gritted his teeth. “Because, my lady, I will take orders from none but my sworn lord, and that dying man is he.”

“And when he is dead?”

“He is not dead,” Gravis said. “I do not like hypotheticals.”

She sighed as if indulging a simple child, but there was nothing of indulgence in her eyes, which had gone coldly, dangerously hard; Gravis could almost have wished for the smirk again. “And I, sir, cannot and will not abide a lack of wit. Believe that I respect the abilities that allow you to execute your office, but do not play the fool with me or I will treat you as a fool deserves. Whether you admit the fact or no, I will imminently have your life in my hands, and you are not the only man in Esthrades capable of being captain of the guard.”

Gravis’s pride burned strong in him—pride driven by encroaching despair, but pride nonetheless. “You speak as if it matters,” he said. “What is it to me what you do with my life? Hallarnon’s imperator will have it soon enough, and yours as well.”

She shook her head. “I don’t blame you for believing it, Gravis, but you’re wrong.”

“And why is that, your ladyship, if I may ask?”

She strode idly to the nearest tapestry, running a finger along its edge. Gravis had forgotten what ancestor it depicted—a man standing on a promontory looking out to sea—but he didn’t doubt she knew all their stories by heart. “How do you imagine Imperator Elgar is feeling at this moment?”

“I have heard he is a man of solemn humor,” Gravis said, “but even such a man would not be blamed for dancing upon the Lanvaldian cobbles at such a juncture.”

She smiled. “And I would bet you twice the contents of my father’s treasury that he is in a fury.”

That got his attention. “What could he possibly have to be angry about?”

“The messenger to whom you spoke was not the only one to arrive at the hall tonight, Gravis,” she said, pacing back toward the throne. “I heard something very interesting from one of them—even though their supply lines remained unbroken, when Hallarnon’s forces broke the Lanvaldian army, they had nearly run out of the foodstuffs Elgar had set aside. In another two weeks they would’ve had to forage among the populace.”

Gravis shrugged. “So Elgar and his men won’t starve. Good for them.”

“If my father had been leading the invasion, Gravis, I would have said the same. But Imperator Elgar is not my father. His every maneuver bespeaks a cautious, nearly paranoid man. Such a man does not attack another country if he thinks victory is probable; he would not move without being certain, several times over, of success. He would plan for every pitfall, every possible thorn in his path, until victory was not a question of if but of when. He would calculate the young and prosperous, there was something in her slender frame and quick, searching eyes that hungered perpetually.

“Your ladyship,” Gravis growled.

“My father,” she continued, unperturbed, “is in love with the legacy of his blood, and there is none left to carry it but I. That is why he will name no other successor, and why, no matter how many ways I may devise to vex him, he would never harm my person or position.” She smiled. “Did you think it was out of affection for me? I am sorry to disillusion you.”

“I wonder, then, that he never doubted the blood in your veins was his,” Gravis dared. Verrane shot him a panicked look, but his master’s daughter did not flinch.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” she said carelessly. “I may not like it, but I don’t doubt it. Who could doubt my lady mother? Everyone tells me how unendurably devoted she was to him. So much the worse for her.”

“My lady, do not speak of your poor mother so, I beg you,” Verrane said.

The marquis’s daughter eyed Verrane with some amusement. “She is long dead. What harm can words do her now?”

“Some would say,” Gravis said, trying for Verrane’s sake to curb his tongue at least a little, “you have no right to speak of her at all. You killed her with your birth.”

At least the woman had enough grace not to smile openly, but the expression seemed to lurk somewhere in her eyes. “Yes, well, I am hardly the first child to have done so. I am sure I would have behaved myself better, could I have helped it.”

Gravis did not trust his tongue, so he said nothing.

His expression must have revealed something, however, for she turned serious for the briefest of moments: “Come, Gravis, don’t you think I would wish the woman alive again, if wishes could help her?” But then she smiled, irreverent once more. “They tell me she never wished harm on another soul, not as long as she lived. I would have liked to see so rare a creature; I cannot claim ever to have had the good fortune to meet one.”

“I don’t believe your ladyship would have any use for one such as your mother was,” Gravis said.

Arianrod Margraine did not answer that; she gave a thoughtful pause instead, glancing about the empty hall. Though all else in the room was pristine, the steps to the oaken throne were covered in an unaccustomed layer of dust, a testament to how long it had been since Lord Caius had taken his seat there. “I must admit,” she said, “I did not come here to talk about my mother. Before I entered this discussion, Gravis, I heard you speak of Lanvaldis’s defeat, of Esthrades’s future. Will you not continue?”

She was listening in, then. Of course she was. He scoffed. “I extended you no part in this discussion.”

“Yet you would speak of strategy to Verrane? Surely you admit I know more of military matters than she, at least.”

“You know a great deal, your ladyship, there’s no denying it,” Gravis said. “Indeed, I don’t doubt you are skilled in matters no mortal ought to think on.” He would have said more, but Verrane bit her lip, looking anxious. Gravis remembered that she, like so many women, possessed an all-enduring propensity to dote on the child she had raised, and so he fell silent.

Yet he had not spoken out of turn. All of Stonespire, all of Esthrades whispered of it—that the marquis’s daughter was that most forbidden thing, a sorceress.

It wasn’t just the way she seemed to know things—she’d been clever since she was born, reading before Lord Caius had even dreamed of calling a tutor for her, and flustering said tutor entirely by the age of seven. Many of her ancestors had been scholars; the Margraines had made a grand tradition of it. But Gravis had seen his share of scholars, and he knew enough to know that there was clever and there was strange. She didn’t just seek knowledge; she devoured it; she hoarded it. She sharpened it like a weapon, and who could say where she meant to aim it? Gravis had always suspected that she knew far more than books, more than the dry tomes and treatises of her father’s library. She knew things about the world that were best forgotten, and things about people she had no call to know, as if she could read every thought in their heads before they could themselves.

She turned her gaze on him as if to prove his point, smug and serene despite the severity of her father’s illness. Or, for all he knew, perhaps because of it. That seemed somehow more likely, where she was concerned.

“That’s what I like about you, Gravis,” she said. “You shun everything fair, everything alluring, and cleave always to what is simple and stark, what can be laid bare at a glance. Even your wife is plain.”

Gravis ought to strike her one for that, but everything she said was true. “I’m in no mood for jibes, your ladyship,” he said instead, like a sullen young subordinate.

“Then I’ll be brief,” she replied. “Esthrades is in crisis. I think it is time for you to convene your men in the hall.”

“Only my lord the marquis can give such an order,” Gravis said immediately.

The look she gave him was indulgent; he wanted to spit at the sight of it. “You well know he is indisposed. He has difficulty commanding his own four limbs, let alone more distant vassals.”

“And so I should countenance a usurper to stand in his place? Lady, not while I live.”

What irritated him most of all was how genuine the woman’s good humor was. There were some who smiled to hide the rage that stuck in their throats, the gall that roiled their stomachs. But her amusement, the wry delight she could find even in intended insults, rang true every single time. “Gravis,” she said, “I know you value a candid tongue.”

“I’d rather know the heart behind it,” he said, “but yes, I do.”

“Then let me speak plainly.” She let her smile fade, and gazed brazenly on him, with one flick of her eyes toward Verrane to show the old woman she was not forgotten. “I know the great respect you have for my father. However, I must confess that I have never shared it. I find him and have ever found him neither a wise ruler nor a worthy man, and my life with him has been naught but one quarrel after another. I doubt we were meant to coexist.” She paused. “I assume this is not news to you.”

“Indeed it is not,” Gravis let himself growl.

“Then when I tell you, Gravis, that the illness that now has him in its grip causes him so much suffering that even I would grant him peace if I could—if you will not believe for mercy’s sake, at least believe that he is too far gone now to answer for anything—when I tell you this, Gravis, for it is the gods’ plain truth, I trust you will understand the full import of my words.” She paused again, drew in a breath. “If not, then I’ll be plainer still. The man you call your lord is in his last illness. He lives still, but he will nevermore rise from his bed. He will leave his chamber only in a coffin. That is all I can say for him.”

Gravis could not bring himself to look at her, nor at the empty throne, the ancient tapestries. His gaze found purchase somewhere near his feet, on the tiled stone floor, gray upon gray. “Then Esthrades is lost,” he said quietly.

She let another smile flick across her face, swift and fleeting. “Why do you say that?”

Gravis gritted his teeth. “Because, my lady, I will take orders from none but my sworn lord, and that dying man is he.”

“And when he is dead?”

“He is not dead,” Gravis said. “I do not like hypotheticals.”

She sighed as if indulging a simple child, but there was nothing of indulgence in her eyes, which had gone coldly, dangerously hard; Gravis could almost have wished for the smirk again. “And I, sir, cannot and will not abide a lack of wit. Believe that I respect the abilities that allow you to execute your office, but do not play the fool with me or I will treat you as a fool deserves. Whether you admit the fact or no, I will imminently have your life in my hands, and you are not the only man in Esthrades capable of being captain of the guard.”

Gravis’s pride burned strong in him—pride driven by encroaching despair, but pride nonetheless. “You speak as if it matters,” he said. “What is it to me what you do with my life? Hallarnon’s imperator will have it soon enough, and yours as well.”

She shook her head. “I don’t blame you for believing it, Gravis, but you’re wrong.”

“And why is that, your ladyship, if I may ask?”

She strode idly to the nearest tapestry, running a finger along its edge. Gravis had forgotten what ancestor it depicted—a man standing on a promontory looking out to sea—but he didn’t doubt she knew all their stories by heart. “How do you imagine Imperator Elgar is feeling at this moment?”

“I have heard he is a man of solemn humor,” Gravis said, “but even such a man would not be blamed for dancing upon the Lanvaldian cobbles at such a juncture.”

She smiled. “And I would bet you twice the contents of my father’s treasury that he is in a fury.”

That got his attention. “What could he possibly have to be angry about?”

“The messenger to whom you spoke was not the only one to arrive at the hall tonight, Gravis,” she said, pacing back toward the throne. “I heard something very interesting from one of them—even though their supply lines remained unbroken, when Hallarnon’s forces broke the Lanvaldian army, they had nearly run out of the foodstuffs Elgar had set aside. In another two weeks they would’ve had to forage among the populace.”

Gravis shrugged. “So Elgar and his men won’t starve. Good for them.”

“If my father had been leading the invasion, Gravis, I would have said the same. But Imperator Elgar is not my father. His every maneuver bespeaks a cautious, nearly paranoid man. Such a man does not attack another country if he thinks victory is probable; he would not move without being certain, several times over, of success. He would plan for every pitfall, every possible thorn in his path, until victory was not a question of if but of when. He would calculate the time it would take him to wage his war, and then he would provision his men for that length of time and half again. But the war between Hallarnon and Lanvaldis has lasted just over six months, and he wins his victory with only two weeks’ worth of rations remaining? It isn’t like him.”

“He must have thought it would take him five months,” Gravis realized. “Perhaps even four.”

She grinned at him. “Precisely. So what Imperator Elgar sees, when he looks at his army, is not the unstoppable force that won him a new country, but the band of fools he overestimated by nearly two months.”

Gravis’s thoughts raced, hurrying to catch up with hers. “His figures were all wrong. He does not know his own strength as he thought he did, and that worries and infuriates him. He must take stock of his forces; he must redraw his plans again and again, incorporating the weaknesses he has discovered into his strategies.”

“It will be a long time indeed,” she finished, “before he gains the confidence to attack again. There is no hope for Lanvaldis, but for us there is very much hope indeed, provided we use our time wisely.” She shot Gravis a level stare. “First of all, you’ll need to learn to obey me.”

Gravis shook his head. “My lady—”

“We do not and will never agree on the subject of my father,” she interrupted. “But there is at least one thing more important to you than your service to him, and that is Esthrades itself. You love this land, Gravis, and I know it.”

Gravis wanted to say that a woman like her had no business speaking of service, or of love. Instead he gave the slightest of nods.

“So save Esthrades,” she said—it was not quite a command, and yet there was nothing about it of entreaty. “Summon your men to the hall.”

“But I”—Gravis seemed to have grown hoarse—“my lady, how can I trust you? Do you expect me to believe you love Esthrades?” Or anything at all, save your own person, he did not add.

She seemed to consider the question. “I suspect I shall love it, once it belongs to me,” she said. “And even if not, you need not fear on that account. I wish to rule, not to be ruled, and to that end no one will fight harder for Esthrades than I.” She regarded him calmly, smiling once more. “Well, Gravis?”

Where did she learn to speak so well? It was not from her father; that was certain. She made him feel—or perhaps it was really true—that he had no choice. And so he looked away, at the empty throne, and said quietly, “It is done. I will call my men.”

He turned his back on her as he left, grateful not to have to look on those mocking eyes. Such a wretch of a woman knew nothing of a soldier’s pain, he told himself, but in thinking it, he only felt like a mongrel cur licking its wounds.

*   *   *

The capital had grown relatively quiet, and Shinsei found he was able to relax. With the Lanvaldian army ravaged, the Hallern soldiers had thought to command the city unopposed, but some unexpected civilian resistance had flared up in the streets. Fortunately, Shinsei was there to take care of it, and the damage to Hallarnon’s army was negligible. But his master, sour enough to begin with, was displeased at having to enter his new city to such a welcome. He had given Shinsei one more task: he was to scour the remaining districts for agitators before reporting to the palace. Shinsei was looking forward to getting some sleep, but a mission was a mission, and this one would not be difficult.

There was a bloody lock of hair stuck to his knee; the hair was not his. Shinsei frowned, then bent to remove it, and when he straightened again, there was a girl standing before him.

The girl was slightly built, a bit small for one who had fully grown. Her hair shone pale in the moonlight, though it was golden against the snow. She was dressed like an ordinary citizen, in heavy linen and white wool, the ends of her pale blue scarf flapping slightly in the wind. But she carried a sword, as thin and quick as she was. They faced each other in the darkened street, and Shinsei stopped, puzzled. She was not fleeing.

“Did you kill all these people?” Her voice, in the cold air, came very clear. It had a pleasant ring to it, not quite musical but reminiscent of it.

“Yes,” Shinsei answered.

Her eyes were bright and vibrant; he thought they were green. “Why?”

“We are invading,” Shinsei informed her—did she not know? “I was ordered to dispense with any resistance.”

She gestured at the corpses. “But these were no soldiers.”

“Yes,” Shinsei said patiently. “They were resisting me.”

She looked at the items strewn on the ground. “With brooms and shovels? These people were no threat. Why did you not press them to surrender?”

“I believe some of them attempted to,” Shinsei said. “But I am tired, and it was quicker to dispose of them.”

Her eyes were angry; her sword seemed somehow naked, gleaming and stripped bare. “It is a cowardly thing you have done,” she said.

Shinsei did not understand. “Why is that?”

“You slaughtered the weak,” she said, as if it were obvious. Shinsei thought, not for the first time, that there was something about her that made her seem very young indeed.

He tried to explain. “It is always the strong who win. That’s why they win.”

“Just because you have the brute strength of arms—”

“My will is strong enough too,” Shinsei said. “It must have been, or they would have defeated me.”

She was very quiet, very still. It made her like the snow. People must find her very beautiful, Shinsei thought. “And what is your will?” she asked. “Your strength is proven. But what do you wish for?”

“My will is my master’s will,” Shinsei said.

“And what does your master want?”

“He wants many things,” Shinsei said. “Today he wants your country.”

“Well,” she said quietly, “I guess he has it now.”

“He does,” Shinsei agreed.

“Then why are you still here?”

“Your people have angered him with their resistance,” Shinsei explained. “Before I can rejoin him, I must destroy any who seem capable of causing further unrest.”

For a moment the girl looked away from him, down the deserted street, and Shinsei thought she was uncertain. “Those who seem … capable?”

“It would not be you,” Shinsei said, wondering if that was what she feared. “You are only one girl. Soldiers, or mobs of civilians … those are my targets. You do not concern me.”

For some reason, she looked at him not with relief but anger, curling her fingers into a fist. “If my brother were here, you’d see what a truly capable person looks like. If he could fight, you’d never—none of you would get away with any of this! But even I—even I can be more than you think. I can stand between you and him.” She raised her sword. “I challenge you, soldier of Hallarnon, whoever you are. Let us see which is stronger—your will or mine.”

“Do not be foolish,” Shinsei said. “You cannot defeat me. My swordsmanship is perfect.”

“A battle is not over before it is fought,” she said stubbornly.

“You are capable of fleeing. You ought to flee,” Shinsei told her. “There is no reason for you to die.”

“There was no reason for any of these people to die,” she said, motioning again to the corpses. “And yet you killed them.”

“They were resisting me—”

“I am resisting you!” Her voice was loud; her gaze was level, proud and determined and clear. “So fight me.”

“I do not understand the reason for this waste,” Shinsei said slowly. “But if you truly intend to resist, I shall indeed kill you here.”

“You can try,” she said. “But I … I will protect him, no matter what. I do not fear you.”

In the seconds before they closed in combat, he examined her carefully. Her movements were quick, but she was very light, very slender, very young. She was incorrect; this fight was over before it began.

He shifted his grip on his sword, and struck.

*   *   *

It never snowed in Hallarnon anymore. The cold was just as bitter; some said it had even more bite. Some days the sky was so gray with clouds that you could swear the snow was caught up there, swirling perpetually, unable to fall. Three years since the fall of Lanvaldis, and Roger had walked the streets on many a cold winter’s night, but he couldn’t claim to have seen so much as a single flake. It was a pity—he’d always loved the snow.

Conflicting theories abounded; there was never a shortage of gossip in Sheath. Some said that, after conquering Lanvaldis, Imperator Elgar had found some hidden magic that stopped the snow from falling; some said it was the gods that had stopped it, as punishment for his atrocities. Some said it was the result of malevolent substances seeping into the earth and air, and some said it was just one of nature’s moods. One idea sounded as good as the next, as far as Roger was concerned, and he’d stopped thinking about it overmuch. But he did miss it, sometimes—the old winters, the way they used to be.

It still snowed in the north, in the country that used to be Aurnis; it had snowed in Lanvaldis as Elgar tightened his hold on it, parceling it out to administrators and filling its old castles with his soldiers. It still snowed in Reglay and Esthrades to the east, as their people waited anxiously to find out which of them Elgar would attack next—and then waited longer, as the months turned to years with only occasional border skirmishes to show for it. It did not snow in temperate Issamira to the south, but then it never had, so its residents could hardly be expected to worry about it. But the people of Hallarnon worried—about the snow, and about Elgar’s wars, and which would return first.

But Roger wasn’t one to wear himself out with worrying, and he settled for turning his eyes up to the cloudy sky, drinking in the chill fog of early morning. He’d look, and he’d muse for a bit, and then he’d put away that too-seductive word, adventure, and saunter off down the nearest alley, letting the day begin. Sometimes he thought of Lucius’s dragon—the one he had brought home that night, with its outspread wings and beautiful eyes. Lucius still treasured it, and sometimes, during late nights at the Dragon’s Head, when all those who didn’t know the trinket’s history had left, he’d bring it downstairs with him, set it down on the edge of the bar. He’d let it perch there as the night marched on, keeping watch over them as they remembered. And Roger would sit by the fire with Seth, setting embers a-twirl with a stray twig.

He should have been a bard, Roger thought. He and Lucius both.

Excerpted from The Empire’s Ghost, copyright © 2017 by Isabelle Steiger.

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