The Oridian Warlord amasses his forces for invasion. Without aid, the Kingdom of Alden will surely fall, but gaining new allies will mean risking the few Erik already has. Riggard and his men must hold the line at the border, while Liam is sent to Onnan City to secure their fleet of ships, leaving Alix and Erik to the most dangerous task of all: crossing the Broken Mountains to seek an alliance with the Kingdom of Harram, an aloof nation led by a famously prickly king.
The mountain pass cuts through enemy territory, is notoriously tough to navigate, and is plagued with warring tribes. But securing Harram’s army would turn the tide of the war, so Alix will do whatever it takes to protect Erik and his diplomatic mission. But even she may be no match for the insidious assault Erik’s enemies are preparing to deploy…
Praise for the Bloodbound series
“Lindsey’s mostly balanced mix of romance and heroic fantasy will [capture] readers’ hearts.” —Publishers Weekly
“Contains all the best of romance, warfare, magic and political scheming; all glued together by a cast of warm and wonderful characters.” —Tor.com
“Lindsey’s fabulous, descriptive storytelling, coupled with high-stakes conflict and distinctive characters, is guaranteed to draw readers in from the first page. … A stellar fantasy!” —RT Book Reviews
“Strong romantic elements and a dash of humor enliven Erin Lindsey’s fantasy debut set in a kingdom besieged by dark forces and torn apart by betrayal.” —Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author
“Puts the hero back into heroic fantasy.” —Tanya Huff, bestselling author
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Boot heels rang out under the high ceiling. Stiff. Precise. A military gait. The oratorium stood dark, its hearths unlit. Sunlight slanted down through arched windows on either side of the vast hall, but the stained glass filtered it into near irrelevance. Only when the gleaming surface of spaulders passed directly through a shaft of jewelled light was it possible to make out the figure moving along the wall.
She reached out, letting her hand trail along the stone until a flaw in the smooth surface caught her fingertips. Its contours were familiar to her now. It scarred the stone at thigh level, slanting upward from left to right. A left-handed swordsman, she judged, looking to open his enemy’s flank. She’d often tried to picture who might have dealt the blow, but the battle had been too frenzied, her part in it too brief. Her duty had been to get the king to safety. Whoever left this mark, whether guardsman or Greysword, might be alive or dead. His blow might have landed or not. Only the walls knew. These walls knew so much. They’d presided over weddings and funerals, coronations and banquets. They’d presided over treachery too. But that would never happen again. Not on her watch.
She paused under the stained-glass image of Ardin’s flame. Crimson light spilled over her, bloodying her armour and setting her copper hair afire. She gazed up at the magnificent window, frowning. A crack had appeared in the yellow band of flame. When in the hells did that happen? No more than a week ago, or she’d have noticed. She knew every inch of this room. Every knot in the gallery rail, every whorl in the polished stone floor. She’d studied it for days on end, in light and in shadow, with eyes and ears and hands, until she could be absolutely certain that she would notice anything, anything, out of place. Eldora herself, with her all-seeing eye, couldn’t know this room any better than Alix Black.
“Godwin.” Her voice echoed coldly off the stone.
A rustle of armour sounded behind her. Godwin hurried over from the door where he’d been hovering in anticipation of her orders. Alix always did the first sweep alone, the better to avoid distractions.
She pointed. “Do you see that?”
Her second squinted, cocked his head. “Afraid not, Captain. What am I looking for?”
“There’s a crack in Ardin’s flame. Look there.”
He grunted. “How do you reckon that happened?”
“That’s what I want to find out. Fetch Arnot. I want someone up a ladder on either side of that window.”
“Shall I ask for the braziers to be lit on my way out?”
Godwin held a fist to his chest in salute and hurried out, leaving Alix to scowl up at the offending glass. It was almost certainly nothing to worry about. Glass did crack occasionally, especially centuries-old glass. The cold, most likely. But Alix wasn’t taking any chances. By this time tomorrow, the most important lords and ladies in the realm would occupy this august hall. A tempting target in peacetime, let alone in the middle of the fiercest war the Kingdom of Alden had ever known.
Alix was about to resume her sweep when she sensed a presence behind her. Tensing instinctively, she turned. The shadow of a hulking beast darkened the doorway; yellow eyes met hers from across the room. It took a halting step forward, muscular frame pausing midstride. It waited.
Alix smiled. “Hello, Rudi.”
The wolfhound padded over, nub of a tail wagging enthusiastically. Alix dropped to her haunches.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice from the doorway. “He’s liable to tear your throat out.”
Alix laughed, tugging the hound’s ears. “Yours, maybe.”
Footfalls tracked across the hall. “What’s your secret, anyway?”
Alix glanced up to find her husband looking legitimately put out, arms crossed over the white wolf emblazoned on his breastplate. Liam was in dress armour already, improbably shiny, the hated white cape fixed to his left shoulder with a sunburst clasp. That explained the mood.
“There’s no secret to it,” Alix said, straightening. “Unless you count not being terrified of him. Dogs can smell fear, you know.”
“I’m not terrified of him. I just don’t trust him.” Liam gestured irritably at the wolfhound, a movement too sudden for Rudi’s liking; he growled. Liam spread his hands, vindicated.
“He’s still a puppy. He’ll settle down.”
“He’s the canine equivalent of a brooding adolescent, and he weighs ten stone. Such a delightful combination.”
“Maybe he resents you naming him Rudi.”
“Rudolf is a strong, wolfy name.”
“Which you shortened to Rudi.” Alix resumed her sweep, Liam tagging alongside. Rudi trotted ahead, slipping under the gallery rail to sniff at the benches. “If you didn’t want him,” she said, “you shouldn’t have got him.”
“Like I had a choice. Highmount was on me day and night about it. I was given to understand it was practically a matter of duty.”
“You could have said no. You are a prince, after all.”
He made a face. “Don’t remind me.”
Alix left that alone. She focused on the task at hand, running her gaze from floor to ceiling and back again, as systematic as a servant with a feather duster.
“Why do you do this in the dark, anyway?” Liam asked. “Isn’t it hard to see?”
“I only do the first pass this way. It’s not completely dark, and you notice different things than when the room is well lit. See there?” She pointed. “That nail in the bench, the way it catches the light? You’d never notice that if the braziers were lit.”
Liam looked at her sceptically. “It’s just a nail.”
“The king’s life is my responsibility, Liam. There’s no such thing as just a nail.”
As she spoke, a soft glow climbed the walls, spilled out under their boots. The servants had arrived with torches to light the braziers. And they did not come alone. A thin voice piped across the room. “Oh, dear!”
Rudi raised his head from between the benches and growled.
Arnot stood in the doorway, wringing his soft white hands. “Cracked, Lady Alix? Are you certain?”
“I’m afraid so,” Alix said, motioning the steward inside. Like all the servants, he knew better than to enter the oratorium without express leave from the king’s bodyguard.
“This won’t do at all.” Arnot rubbed his balding pate in distress, a nervous gesture that probably accounted for much of the baldness. “The banner lords will be here tomorrow!”
Alix couldn’t help sighing. “Not all the banner lords. Rig won’t be here.”
Arnot fluttered a pale hand dismissively. “Yes, but your brother doesn’t . . .” He caught himself, if not quite in time, at least before it got any worse. “That is, Lord Black has never shown much care for matters of courtly prestige.” He cleared his throat primly.
“You mean he thinks it’s bollocks,” Liam said.
Arnot managed to look horrified and apologetic at the same time. “Your Highness. I’m so very sorry, I did not see you there. Er . . . by your leave . . .” He gestured at a servant hurrying by and made his escape.
“Very princely,” Alix said in an undertone.
Liam shrugged. “Bastard.”
“Being a bastard gives you licence to behave boorishly?”
“It’s got to have some perks, doesn’t it?”
Alix rolled her eyes and kept walking. “You’d better be on your best behaviour tomorrow, love. Erik’s court is still getting used to you as it is. You don’t want to give people an excuse to dismiss you altogether. And you don’t want to embarrass your brother.”
Liam’s grey eyes clouded over, the petulant look returning. “I don’t know why I have to be there.”
“This is the most important council meeting Erik has ever convened. We’re at war, Liam. Facing imminent conquest. Of course you have to be there.”
“But it’s a political discussion, not a military one. I don’t see what use I’ll be.”
“You give yourself too little credit. Besides, you’re not there in your capacity as commander of the White Wolves. You’re there because you’re prince of the realm.” Whether you like it or not. Sometimes, she wondered whether Liam regretted letting his brother acknowledge him. Not that it made any difference; there was no going back on it now. Especially since, for the moment at least, Erik had no other heir. If anything were to happen to him . . .
Now there’s a thought. Alix took up her task with renewed focus.
“I might be prince of the realm,” Liam said, “but I’m still a bastard. They’ll never see me as one of them.”
“You’re worrying about it too much. It never bothered me. It doesn’t bother Rig.”
“You two are different.”
Alix snorted. Few of the other Banner Houses would disagree with that assessment. “Raibert Green and Rona Brown have both ridden into battle with you. That’s three banners in your camp. And Sirin Grey . . .” She paused awkwardly. “Well, you helped her once.”
“Oh, right, you mean the time I stopped her collapsing after my brother executed her true love? I’m sure she remembers that incident fondly.”
“The point is, most of the banner lords know and accept you. The lesser nobility will follow their lead eventually—unless you give them an excuse not to. It’s only been six months.” Saying it aloud, Alix had to pause. Had so little time really passed? It seemed an age since the Oridians surrounded the city walls. The Siege of Erroman had already acquired the lacquer of legend, as though it were the climactic end of a great and glorious war, instead of merely a punctuation point in an ongoing, bloody struggle. So much had happened since then. Rig’s appointment as commander general of the king’s armies. Alix and Liam’s wedding. The dismantling of the Greyswords and the division of half that family’s estates. Most of all, the war, dragging on and on, as much a feature of Aldenian life as the harvest or the Moon Festival. As though it had always been, would always be.
But of course that wasn’t true. The war couldn’t go on forever. If Rig’s reports from the front were anything to go by, it wouldn’t even last the summer. The Warlord had them by the throat; all he had to do was squeeze, and the Kingdom of Alden would be lost. Alix felt a familiar buck of panic at the thought.
She was grateful for the interruption of Liam’s voice. “It’s just . . . I belong at the front, Allie. I’m a soldier. What good are the White Wolves if they stay cooped up in their barracks? If they don’t see some action soon, I’m going to have a mutiny on my hands.”
“Don’t even joke about that.” Alix gripped his arm, glancing around furtively to see if anyone might have overheard. The loyalty of the White Wolves was still a touchy subject, given their role in the treachery at Boswyck. The Raven had been their commander then; after his execution, most of the officers serving under him had been dismissed. Still, the Wolves would carry that stain for a long time.
Liam growled under his breath. “There, you see? How am I supposed to manage a war council when I can’t even get through a conversation with my own wife without saying something stupid?”
“Do what I do and keep your mouth shut.” The voice was nearly as familiar as Alix’s own, but she could just as easily have recognised him by the authoritative toll of his boots as he made his way across the hall. Rig didn’t walk. He strode. Alix turned around, grinning. “Since when do you keep your mouth shut?”
“Don’t I? I always mean to.” Rig gathered her up in a bear hug. He smelled of leather and steel and the dust of the road. As always, Alix felt small and safe in his arms. His deep voice rumbled in her ear. “How’s things, little sister?”
“Suddenly better.” Alix had learned to cope with Rig being at the front, but it was never far from her mind. His visits, too short and too few, lifted a weight she was barely conscious of carrying, like shucking her armour at the end of a long day.
“They told us you weren’t coming,” Liam said, clasping arms with his brother-in-law.
“Well, they obviously didn’t see the summons I received from Albern Highmount. Apparently, missing a council of this magnitude simply isn’t done. Unbecoming of a banner lord, so on and so forth.”
“You’ll have to add that to your list of behaviours unbecoming of a banner lord,” Alix said.
“I don’t need to keep a list. Highmount is doing it for me.” Rig shook his head, dark eyebrows drawn into a scowl. “Can either of you explain to me how a meeting can possibly be more important than commanding Alden’s armies at the front?”
Alix sighed. “Not you too. Look, both of you, this isn’t just any meeting. We’re in serious trouble.”
Rig laughed humourlessly. “There’s an understatement. My men are exhausted, and the spring thaw is just around the corner. The war is about to come out of hibernation. We’ll be lucky to hold the enemy at the border until the Onnani fleet arrives on his doorstep.”
“That’s just it,” Alix said. “They may not be arriving anytime soon. Word is that they’re well behind schedule. The Onnani ambassador hasn’t been able to give us a clear indication of when they’ll be ready to launch, but it sounds like it’ll be months yet.”
Rig swore and rubbed his jaw, beard bristling beneath his fingers. “Bloody fishmen. I can’t hold them off that long, Allie. What in the Domains am I supposed to do until then?”
“That’s what you’re here to discuss, you and the rest of the council. There aren’t many options.”
“You don’t say.” He shook his head. “What about Harram? What’s the latest on that?”
“Bit of flirting,” Liam said, “but no action.”
“So much for the fierce fighters of Harram,” Rig said bitterly. “We’ll be halfway through the afterlife before those cowards join the war.”
Alix didn’t bother arguing. Aside from a westerner’s natural suspicion of foreigners, Rig harboured a particular dislike for the Harrami, whose failure to control their mountain tribes left the Blacklands vulnerable to raids. He’d faced Harrami tribesmen in battle, and it had marked him. It had also taught him hit-and-run tactics and the rare art of true horse archery, both of which the Blackswords had put to good use in the first six months of the war. But Alix doubted he would see the positive side.
“What’s with the shine?” Rig said, gesturing at Liam’s dress armour.
Liam grimaced. “In honour of your esteemed selves. Most of the banner lords are arriving tonight.”
“Is there a banquet?” Rig asked, brightening.
“There is,” Liam replied with considerably less enthusiasm.
“Thank the Nine Virtues. I’m lucky if I get a bite of venison these days. The Imperial Road is a mess this time of year.”
“Looks like it,” Alix said, inclining her head at her brother’s muddy boots. He’d left a trail of it across the polished stone floor. Arnot would not be pleased. “You’d better get cleaned up. You might even consider cutting your hair.”
Rig ran a careless hand through his coal-black locks. They were almost to his shoulders again, hanging in the same lazy waves as Alix’s. “Do you think it’ll annoy Highmount if I don’t?”
“In that case, I think I’ll leave it.”
Liam grinned. “A man after my own heart.”
Rudi padded over, having concluded his own sweep of the oratorium. He snuffled at Rig’s boots, but otherwise gave him a pass. “Holy Scourge of Rahl!” Rig held out a callused hand for the wolfhound to sniff. “Is that Rudi? He’s a monster!”
“Yes,” Liam said, “he is.”
“I can’t believe how much he’s grown! We could use a few like that at the front. Put some fear into those gods-cursed Oridian warhounds.” Rig gave the animal’s flank a solid thump, setting Rudi’s nub wagging.
“You want him? He’s yours.” Liam started to reach for the wolfhound, but Rudi bared his teeth.
“All right,” Alix said, “out of here, all of you. I need to finish this and get back to Erik.”
“Come on, Rudi,” Rig said, “let’s find something to eat.” The wolfhound trotted alongside him as happily as if Rig had reared him from a pup. Liam looked after them in disgust.
“Bye, Allie.” He dropped a kiss on Alix’s cheek. “See you at the banquet.”
Alix shook her head ruefully. A banquet. In the middle of war. She understood the politics of it, but even so, it felt wrong somehow. Like a death feast. A final indulgence before the execution.
She raised her eyes to the stained-glass window, watching detachedly as the servants tried to repair the crack. She no longer saw the symbol of Ardin’s passion. Instead, she saw the flames of war.
* * *
Erik White stood at the window of his study, gazing out over the rose garden. A light glitter of snow dusted the burlap sacks covering the rosebushes, giving them a sombre cast. Like a row of tombstones, he thought. An endless row, twisting back on itself and back again, an army of tombstones in tight, ordered ranks. Was that what the graves at the front looked like?
Don’t be ridiculous. They have no time to erect monuments to their dead.
Erik sighed, his breath fogging the glass. It was no good, giving himself over to grim thoughts like this. He knew it, but he could not seem to help himself. The longer the war dragged on, the less Erik could think about anything else. He was climbing the walls here in the palace, futile and frivolous, throwing banquets and convening council meetings while hundreds, thousands of his men died at the front. It was almost enough to make him long for the days when he commanded his own forces in the field. His kingdom had been torn in half then, its lands overrun by enemy forces, but at least Erik had not felt as though he were burrowed down, snug and safe, like a hedgehog waiting out the winter. At least then, he could face his enemy head on. If his kingdom was destined to be conquered, Erik would rather die on the point of a sword than be captured in the palace, forced to his knees in front of the Warlord. Thrown in the Red Tower, or worse, given his freedom in exchange for surrender.
Stop it. We are not conquered. Not yet.
Her voice was a welcome interruption. Erik turned.
“The oratorium is clear. There’s a crack in one of the windows, but the servants assure me it’s just ordinary wear and tear. It’ll be repaired by tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Alix. And what of the banner lords? Have they begun arriving?”
She smiled. Erik knew what that meant, and he smiled too. “So he did come, then?” He had been told not to expect Riggard Black.
Closing the door to make sure they were alone, Alix strolled into the room and threw herself casually into a chair. “Apparently, he got a letter from Highmount.”
“Ah.” Erik pulled out his own chair. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. My first counsel is convinced this is the most critical decision we’ve had to make since the siege.”
Alix toyed with the pearl-handled seal knife on his desk. “Is it?” she asked quietly.
“I think perhaps it is,” he said, just as quietly. “But the truth is, I’m not sure it’s really a choice at all. If our allies don’t enter the war, and soon, it’s over for us. We must do whatever it takes to see that they do.”
“And you and Highmount have an idea how to do that?” The barest hint of frost touched her voice. Few would have noticed it; Alix had grown better at concealing her thoughts these past months. Time at court did that to a person. But Erik spent at least twelve hours a day with this woman, and he could read her as easily as a favourite book. She was annoyed, and he thought he knew why.
“We’ve discussed it in detail, yes. And no, you were not present. That was deliberate, Alix.” Hardly likely to appease her, but he wanted her to understand. “I needed to discuss the options freely, without worrying about those whom it might affect.”
She gave him a wary look. “Meaning?”
“I see only one possible solution, and you’re not going to like it.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Ominous.” He sighed again, rubbed his temples. “That is how we live our lives, is it not? Ominously?”
Her expression softened; she reached across the desk and took his hand. Instinctively, Erik’s fingers tightened around hers.
“It won’t last forever, Erik. It can’t.”
For half a heartbeat, he let himself take comfort in her voice, in the warmth of her hand. Then he released her and sat back. “No, it can’t. It must end. My duty is to make sure it ends well, no matter what. I hope I can count on your support tomorrow, even if you don’t like what I have to say.”
The wary look returned. “In that case, maybe you’d better tell me now.”
“We will discuss it at length tomorrow, I promise. And I’m not asking you to agree with me blindly—just hear me out, without jumping to conclusions. If you still have concerns, you are free to air them, as always. I daresay you won’t be alone.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “This proposal of yours—it’s really that bad?”
“Bad? I sincerely hope not. Call it desperate, rather.”
She swallowed. “Are things really that . . . Are we desperate?”
His gaze moved back to the window, to the glitter of snow and the marching ranks of tombstones. “Yes, Alix, we are.”
“My lady?” Arnot poked his head in, a little warily. He’d grown accustomed to Alix’s mood on days like this, and learned to tread lightly.
She nodded distractedly, her gaze raking the oratorium one last time. Though she had no reason to expect trouble, she knew better than to take anything for granted. She’d taken plenty of precautions last summer, on that fateful day when Erik and his brother had met in parley to decide the future of the crown, and it hadn’t helped. Roswald Grey had still managed to smuggle his men inside. Erik had nearly been killed. Alix would never make a mistake like that again, not ever.
Having secured her leave, Arnot led a small army of servants into the room. Under his capable command, hearths and braziers were lit, flowers arranged, refreshments placed close at hand. The wood had been waxed, the floors polished. A new rib of lead had been added to the window bearing Ardin’s flame. Silk cushions of green and black, brown and gold and grey were carefully positioned so that each banner lord might know where to sit, in a position commensurate with his prestige. Everything was ready.
Albern Highmount was the first to arrive, as always, to do his customary inspection of the preparations. “Your Highness,” he said, acknowledging her with a grave nod. The first counsel was the only person at court who referred to her that way—possibly because he knew how much it annoyed her. She had been born Lady Alix, appointed captain of the royal guardsmen. These titles were her own, one a birthright, the other something earned. Your Highness, on the other hand, was something she’d acquired through association. The honorific belonged to Liam, not her. It didn’t speak to who she was. Not really.
“I am pleased your brother was able to join us,” Highmount said. I am pleased your brother saw fit to do his duty, was what he meant.
“It’s fortunate he found a window to do so, what with the war and all.”
“Wars are not fought with swords alone, Your Highness. Indeed, in many cases, they are not decided by swords at all.”
Alix treated herself to a brief, diverting vision of Highmount slipping on the freshly polished floor.
The first counsel concluded his inspection and departed, heading for his post at the main doors of the palace. Protocol demanded that he greet the banner lords personally. Alix was not sorry to see him go.
Godwin appeared at her side. “All clear, Captain?”
She nodded. “Let’s do this.”
A moment later, the herald announced the first arrival. “Lord Raibert Green.”
A familiar figure appeared in the doorway. As bearer of the kingdom’s oldest and most venerable banner, Green was first among his peers, and thus preceded them into any official gathering. One might expect such an august person to carry himself haughtily—but only if one had never met Raibert Green. He looked solemn as always, his thin face wise and world-weary, but when he spied Alix, a smile burst over him and set his gentle eyes sparkling. “My lady. It’s good to see you.”
She embraced him as if he were a favourite uncle. “You’re looking well.”
“As are you,” he said. “Married life agrees with you, I see.”
Alix started to reply, but the herald’s voice cut her off. “Lady Rona Brown.”
The newest of the banner holders entered tentatively, glancing around as though not quite sure what to do with herself. This was only her second council since inheriting the banner. At nineteen years old, a knight for barely a year, she had yet to fully grow into her office. Alix had no doubt that she would, though, judging by her attire. Rona had elected to wear ceremonial armour, a daring choice that would no doubt set Albern Highmount’s teeth on edge. A rampant white wolf, smaller but otherwise identical to Liam’s, adorned her breastplate, marking her an officer of that elite unit. Her only concession to her birthright was a brown satin cape over her left shoulder. To flout tradition barely six months after inheriting the Brown banner spoke volumes about her sense of independence.
It spoke of something else too, Alix judged. Wearing her White Wolf armour was a mark of Rona’s loyalty to her commander. Loyalty, and perhaps something a little more. It wasn’t the first time Alix had noticed this . . . devotion. Well, that was all right. After all, who could blame her? Liam was handsome, witty, and as talented a sword as any in the realm. Also, he was a prince. Banner lady or no, Rona Brown had every right to be smitten. So long as she kept her hands to herself.
“Lord Riggard Black.”
Rig wore armour too, but in his case, not even Highmount would have expected anything else. Like his predecessor, Arran Green, Rig was every inch a soldier. That meant he had a soldier’s sense of solidarity, so when he spied Rona Brown hovering awkwardly near the door, he went over and clapped her shoulder. Rona smiled, relaxing a little.
Norvin Gold was next to arrive, looking even more ancient than the last time Alix had seen him. Thin hair drifted in wisps over his spotted scalp; angular cheekbones threw shadows down over gaunt cheeks. Even his doublet looked worn. They have fallen on hard times, Alix thought. They all had, and none more so than the final arrival.
“Lady Sirin Grey,” said the herald.
Alix and Raibert Green exchanged a look. Sirin was not the holder of the Grey banner; that honour belonged to her mother, Alithia. To send a lower-ranking member of the family to a council of this importance could be taken as a slight. The Greys were already disgraced, thanks to the treachery of Sirin’s brother. It surprised Alix that Lady Grey would risk offending the crown barely six months after her son had plotted to wrest control of it.
“Perhaps Lady Grey is ill?” Alix ventured in an undertone.
Raibert Green shook his head. “I saw her only yesterday. She looked hale enough to me.”
Alix regarded him in surprise. It was none of her business, but as usual, she found it difficult to hold her tongue. “You had business with the Greys?”
The barest hint of a sigh passed Green’s lips. “Lady Grey was so gracious as to offer me the hand of her daughter.”
Alix looked down at her boots for the handful of moments it took to master herself. “That’s . . . unexpected.”
Green shrugged. “Lady Sirin is the daughter of a Banner House. All things being equal, she should have been married long ago.”
All things being equal, she should have married Erik. Alix couldn’t bring herself to be sorry that hadn’t happened, though she did pity Sirin her circumstances. Being in love with her fiancé’s brother was bad enough; seeing her lover beheaded for treason was a misfortune she surely did not deserve. Still, to suppose that she could still be worthy of a Green, the most illustrious of the Banner Houses . . . It was wildly ambitious. Politically, it would have made far more sense to offer her to Rig. Not that Alix would have welcomed that; having Sirin Grey as a sister-in-law would have been more than a little awkward.
“Lady Sirin is still young, and very beautiful,” Green said. “And I do not think it fair to hold her responsible for her brother’s sins, or the Raven’s. The fortunes of her house are not her doing, and their standing will recover in time.”
“But . . .”
He shrugged again. “But she doesn’t love me. We barely know each other. We both need heirs, it’s true, but I am not so desperate as to enter a marriage with someone in mourning. It’s been barely six months since Prince Tomald was executed. I know what it’s like to lose the one you love. Six months is not nearly enough time, Alix.”
Sirin Grey acknowledged the others with a nod and moved to find her seat. She carried herself with grave dignity, gaze straight ahead, acutely aware that every pair of eyes followed her across the hall. Silent steps moved her pale silk dress in dreamlike wisps, as if she were a ghost. In a way, Alix supposed, she was; a ghost of the influential figure she’d once been.
“That’s everyone,” Alix said as a few minor lords and ladies made their way in. Now that all the Banner Houses were represented, the rest of the council members were permitted to enter. That left only His Majesty the king and His Highness the prince.
She found them in the king’s study. Liam perched on the edge of Erik’s desk, looking casually beautiful in his dress armour. Erik sat with his head bowed, absently stroking Rudi’s fur, his gaze a million miles away. The wolfhound, for his part, had his eyes closed in bliss. Erik was his favourite—to Liam’s vast annoyance.
The sound of Alix’s footfalls drew the king’s head up. “Are we ready?” He looked nearly as tense as he had the day of the parley with the Raven, the day the stone walls of the oratorium had acquired an upward-slanting scar.
“Ready,” she said. “The last of the lords and ladies are just filing in now.”
Erik rose, revealing a white doublet with sky-blue embroidery that brought out the bright, clear topaz of his eyes. “To work, then,” he said, and headed for the door.
Liam strode at his side, Alix trailing just behind. Even after all these months, it felt strange to follow in Liam’s footsteps. For so long, he’d been the one to follow her, tracking her footfalls through the brush as she led them on a scouting mission. Figuratively, too, he’d always taken Alix’s lead—like a puppy, Arran Green had once said. But that was when he’d been merely Liam, a no-name commoner, a scout like any other. Things were different now. So different, Alix thought.
The high lords and ladies of the realm stood arrayed behind their designated seats, waiting. Erik acknowledged them all with a crisp nod, gestured for them to sit. Alix alone remained on her feet, hovering just over Erik’s right shoulder, close enough to rest a hand on it if she’d wanted to. No doubt many in the room would consider that overkill. Insulting, even, implying as it did that the king’s bodyguard didn’t really trust them. Alix didn’t give a flaming flea what they thought. This was war.
Erik’s solemn gaze took them in one by one. “My lords. Thank you for gathering on such short notice. Some of you have travelled great distances to be here, and the roads are difficult. The crown salutes your loyalty and service. Be assured that I do not presume upon them lightly. The matters we discuss today are of vital strategic importance to the realm.” He turned to Rig, who sat second from his left, with only Lord Green between them. Barely a year ago, such a position of honour would have been unthinkable, but the Blacks had come a long way since then. “Lord Black, perhaps we might begin with an update from the front.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.” Rig raised his voice a little above his customary rumble. “The winter has been difficult, as predicted. Things have been relatively quiet on the battlefield, but our supply lines have grown stretched. Aside from the usual difficulties of the season, our stores are at an all-time low following last year’s lost harvests. On top of which, banditry is rife on the Imperial Road, and worsening every day. We’ve been obliged to double the escort on our supply wagons, diverting men who are sorely needed at the front.”
“With your permission, General,” said Rona Brown. When Rig nodded, she continued. “The problem is even worse in the Brownlands. Highwaymen roam the farmsteads and villages, looting and preying on the people. It’s been especially hard on the womenfolk. They sometimes . . . That is, there have been several cases . . .” She swallowed, dropping her gaze.
“Yes,” Rig said, his eyes hard with fury. “That too.”
“Every sword we can muster goes straight to the front,” Rona said. “I have none to spare on law and order.”
“In the Greenlands too,” Raibert Green added. “Nearly a dozen untimely deaths reported this winter, and half as many disappearances. And those are just the incidents that have reached my ears. The real numbers are almost certainly higher.”
Rig’s hands balled into fists on the table, forearms twitching into cords of stiff muscle. He would consider all this a personal failure, Alix knew. She wanted to say something, to tell him it wasn’t his fault, but now was not the time.
“Please continue, Lord Black,” Erik said.
With a visible effort, Rig relaxed his hands. “The winter has been hard on the enemy too. Their supply lines are secure, thanks to their foothold in Andithyri, but disease has torn through their ranks. Some sort of cough, I’m told. Probably the same one our men had last winter. Meanwhile, their reinforcements have slowed.”
“Perhaps I might interject here,” said Albern Highmount. Unlike Rona Brown, he didn’t wait for Rig’s leave. “My spies report that the Oridian populace grows weary of war. They have been at it for much longer, of course, and with the Priest slain, their religious fervour has dimmed. They begin to question the purpose of unending expansion.”
“Even if the people are weary,” Rig said, “their soldiers are not. And neither is the Warlord. He’ll not stand down, not unless Varad forces him to.”
“That he is unlikely to do,” Raibert Green said. “Varad may be King, but with the Priest gone, his position is weakened. And it would not do for the two remaining Trions to appear divided. The King will support the Warlord for the time being, if I am any judge.”
“Agreed,” Erik said, “but even so, the news is welcome. The people are the backbone of any war effort. It may take time, but if the Oridian public opposes the war, it will sap their strength.”
“In the meantime,” Rig said, “we have thirty thousand soldiers on our doorstep, and only half that number to defend it. We’ve been plodding through the winter, but spring will set things galloping again.”
“How long do you estimate you can hold the enemy at the border?” Highmount asked.
“The raiding will begin straightaway, I expect. As for a full-scale invasion, it’s impossible to say, but I’d measure it in weeks rather than months. For the moment, the river is doing most of the work; otherwise, the Warlord would be halfway to Erroman by now. We’ve managed to destroy most of the bridges, but there are still a couple of fords the enemy could cross. Needless to say, my men are piled up at those points.”
“The spring thaw will help you out there,” Alix said. She remembered how dangerous the Black River became in spring, swollen with snowmelt.
“For a while,” Rig said. “The water levels have already risen enough to close off a few crossing points, but it won’t last. By midyear, two fords will become five, and I don’t have the men to plug that many holes.” Though his voice remained level, Alix knew her brother well enough to detect the hint of desperation creeping in. “I don’t know any other way to say this, Your Majesty: If we don’t find a way to strengthen our ranks, we won’t last the summer. We need solutions.”
“Yes,” Erik sighed, “we do. And that is why we are here.” He turned to his first counsel. “Lord Highmount, if you will.”
Highmount inclined his head ponderously. “Certainly, Your Majesty. First, a bit of good news. My spies have assured me that the enemy continues recruiting the old-fashioned way. That is to say, the Trionate has not resumed making thralls.”
Rig sat forward a little in his seat. “You’re absolutely sure? How do we know they aren’t busily bewitching peasants behind enemy lines?”
“My spies have assured me,” Highmount repeated coolly.
“We’ve problems enough without an army of mindless drones throwing themselves against our walls. We’d never survive another attack like that.”
“True,” said Highmount, “but fortunately, it would appear that the Priest kept his secrets close. The Trionate’s bloodbinders continue to forge bloodweapons at an alarming rate, but there is no sign they have learned how to warp their art into controlling men. Madan seems to have taken that knowledge to his grave. However, though the Priest’s secrets are not yet known, Nevyn tells me that a number of his fellow bloodbinders in Harram and Onnan are busily trying to discover it. It is only a matter of time before someone succeeds. It might be days or it might be years, but it will happen eventually.”
“And what about Nevyn himself?” asked Norvin Gold. “I presume he is also trying to work it out?”
Erik shifted in his chair. Alix knew he was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Alden wielding such a dark power, no matter how desperate the cause. Controlling another man’s mind is an abomination, he’d told her once. I want no part of it, ever. Erik had lost much of his principled idealism over the course of the war, but there were still some lines he was not prepared to cross, and enslaving men’s wills through dark magic was foremost on the list.
Not everyone shared his scruples, however. “If he managed it,” Lady Stonegate mused, “it could turn the tide of the war, especially if we were alone in mastering the technique.”
Raibert Green frowned. “You would win this war by bewitching thousands of innocents?”
“If that is what it takes to bring an end to it . . .”
Green started to object, but Highmount raised a hand. “Let us not descend into debate, my lords. The point is moot; Nevyn does not know the secret.” Alix noticed that he hadn’t answered Lord Gold’s question. Not for the first time, she wondered if Highmount might be pursuing the matter without Erik’s knowledge.
“Good to hear we won’t be facing thralls anytime soon,” Rig said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re outnumbered two to one. We need our allies to move.”
“Indeed,” Highmount said. “On that front, I fear the news is less positive. Ambassador Corse has informed us that in spite of previous promises, the Onnani fleet will not be ready for launch by spring. Instead, they are predicting midsummer at the earliest.”
A ripple of despair went round the table.
“How can that be?” cried Osmond Swiftcurrent. His outrage was understandable; his family had done more to finance the expansion of the Onnani fleet than any house save the Whites themselves. “It’s been nearly six months! How long does it take to build a bloody ship?”
Highmount gave him a reproving look. “There is no cause for coarse language, Lord Swiftcurrent.”
“I disagree,” Rig growled. “There’s plenty of cause. If that fleet doesn’t start pressing the enemy soon, we’re finished. I can’t hold them at the border unless a new front opens up, and they’ve conquered everything to the south. With Harram still dithering away, that fleet is everything.”
“Onnani bloodbinders are working day and night to help supply bloodweapons,” Highmount said, “and they have promised to send a battalion to join you at the front.”
“A whole battalion? Lucky me.”
Highmount opened his mouth to reply, but Lady Stonegate beat him to it. “Have the Onnani given any explanation for the delay?”
“They have offered an explanation,” Erik said, “but I think it’s fair to say that Lord Highmount and I did not find it especially satisfying.”
That was an understatement. Alix had been present for that meeting, and the Onnani ambassador had been slippery as a fish. Something was up in Onnan City—that was clear. Something the ambassador wasn’t keen to admit.
“Ambassador Corse suggested that their early efforts were not satisfactory,” Highmount said, “and they were obliged to start from scratch.”
Liam gave an incredulous little laugh. “What, like they’ve never built a ship before? They don’t call them fishmen for nothing.”
“They do not call themselves fishmen at all, Your Highness,” Highmount said, “a fact you must remember at all costs.” An odd remark, Alix thought; she and Liam exchanged a bemused glance.
“From scratch indeed,” Swiftcurrent said disgustedly. “Well, what does Woodvale have to say about it?”
“Rather too much, unfortunately,” Highmount said. “Lord Woodvale has quit Onnan City following a somewhat . . . effervescent appearance before the Republicana.”
“They’ve expelled our ambassador?” Norvin Gold’s moustaches quivered in outrage. “How dare they?”
Erik sighed. “Not quite expelled, but they made it clear that he would no longer be an effective envoy. I was obliged to recall him. He should be back in Erroman within the week.”
“But who will replace him?” Green asked. “We cannot leave his position vacant at a time like this. We need someone looking into the situation with the fleet.”
“Quite so, my lord,” said Highmount. “That is among the issues we must resolve today.”
“In due course,” Erik said. “But first, the rest of the news, thankfully of a more positive nature. The Harrami have indicated that they are willing to discuss entering the war.”
“Willing to discuss it?” Rig smiled thinly. “They really shouldn’t overcommit themselves.”
“It’s been a frustrating dialogue, I admit, but Lord Highmount and I agree that King Omaïd is showing more openness to the possibility than ever before. After months of exchanging letters, he has agreed to receive a diplomatic mission to confer over the matter.”
“That is a good sign,” said Green. “A more committed isolationist has never been. I cannot recall a single diplomatic mission to Ost since Omaïd assumed the throne. He would never invite a delegation if he were not prepared to seriously consider what it had to say.”
“Agreed,” said Highmount. “It is the opening we have been waiting for, and we absolutely must capitalise on it.”
“Easier said than done,” Green said. “How will we get there, with things as they are? The usual route is in enemy hands.”
“It will not be easy,” Erik admitted, “but we cannot afford to let this chance pass us by. If the Harrami do declare war, it could change everything.”
Norvin Gold hummed a sceptical note. “No one can doubt that the Harrami are skilled fighters, Your Majesty. I have seen their horse archers with my own eyes, and their fearsome reputation is well deserved. But they have known only a single war in their entire history. Their failure to subdue their own mountain tribes stands testament to their ineffectiveness as a coherent fighting force. What makes you think their role would be so decisive?”
Rig answered for him. “They don’t have to be particularly effective. It’s enough for them to open another front, put just enough pressure on it that the Oridians have no choice but to deploy. It will stretch their forces even more thinly.”
“If we can get the Harrami to declare,” Erik said, “it could dramatically change the complexion of the war.”
“So how do we do that?” Liam asked.
Erik cleared his throat.
Here it comes, Alix thought.
You’re not going to like it, Erik had said. And from the way he was looking at his brother, it was obvious Liam wasn’t going to like it, either.
“I want us all to be absolutely clear about what is at stake here,” Erik said. “It may be nothing less than our survival as a nation. Which means that this mission to Ost, however difficult, may be the most important diplomatic undertaking in our history.”
A moment more was all it took for Alix to realise where he was going with this. Her eyes rounded in horror, and she seized the back of Erik’s chair in a white-knuckled grip. Oh, please, Erik, no. Stay your tongue. Let me talk to you first . . . But she knew him better than that. He’d made up his mind to table this, and so he would. What followed would be in the hands of the gods, but Alix knew one thing for certain: Her job was about to get much, much harder.
Erik glanced briefly over his shoulder, but otherwise ignored his bodyguard’s silent outburst. “I propose to lead the delegation to Ost myself,” he said. “As soon as possible.”
They all stared.
“You can’t be serious,” Liam said.
“I am perfectly serious. Despite the obvious risks—”
“Obvious risks?” Rig echoed incredulously. “It’s suicide, Erik!”
Highmount tsked. “Let us not be dramatic, Lord Black.”
The look that came over Rig did credit to the family name. Not for the first time, Alix feared her brother might leap across the table and throttle the first counsel.
“I’m afraid I quite agree with the commander general,” said Norvin Gold. “Unless my geography fails me, I don’t see how you mean to reach Harram without crossing enemy lines, of one sort or another. The southern road takes you straight into the arms of the Warlord, and the west into the mountain tribes. Quite frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.”
“I am,” Rig said. “I’ve fought off more than a few tribal raiders in my time. They’re hard enough to defeat when you catch them out in the open, and you want to try your luck on their home territory?” He shook his head. “Suicide.”
“Crossing the mountains in spring is dangerous at the best of times,” Lord Swiftcurrent added. “It’s avalanche season, not to mention those unpredictable springtime blizzards . . .”
Erik listened to it all patiently, hands folded on the table in front of him, gaze shifting levelly between speakers. He’d been prepared for these objections, Alix knew. He’d been through them all with Highmount, probably more than once; he was just waiting for the council to reach the same inescapable conclusions he had.
“Is there any chance we could cross the mountains without the tribes knowing?” Rona Brown asked.
“You might get that lucky once,” Rig said. “Not twice. Even if you somehow managed to make it to Ost, you’d never make it back.”
“What if Omaïd were to send an escort?” Swiftcurrent asked, demonstrating a poor grasp of regional politics.
“That would draw the mountain men like moths to a flame,” Green said. “The tribes take any opportunity to strike at Harrami soldiers. The only hope is to pass unnoticed.”
“Which is exactly what I propose to do,” Erik said. “It will require a small force composed mainly of scouts, relying on stealth. Fortunately, the stealthiest scout in the land happens to be my personal bodyguard.” He didn’t turn around, but Alix felt her skin warming all the same. “What’s more,” Erik said, “she also happens to hail from the Blacklands, and knows the terrain.”
“The foothills aren’t the mountains, Your Majesty,” Alix said, “and I’ve never dared set foot across the border, for obvious reasons.”
“Isn’t this what ambassadors are for?” Lady Stonegate asked, adding wryly, “Or have the Harrami ejected our envoy as well?”
“Lord Sommersdale has devoted an entire year’s worth of diplomacy to this sole matter,” Highmount said. “Visibly, he is not succeeding.”
“Perhaps he should be replaced.”
“A brand-new ambassador, a stranger to Omaïd’s court, to negotiate the most important agreement in the history of our two nations?” Highmount raised his eyebrows.
Her Ladyship sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Aside from which,” Erik said, “the invitation has been made, and it comes from Omaïd himself. Were we to refuse it now . . .”
“So we have no choice,” Rig said. “Wonderful.”
“There is always a choice,” Erik said. “But inaction has consequences, and these must be weighed against the risks.”
“This is not a quandary, my lords,” Highmount said, “it is an opportunity. As you said only moments ago, Lord Black, we are in dire need of military support. This is our chance to get it.”
“But why does it have to be His Majesty?” Alix felt her grip tighten on the back of Erik’s chair. “Surely someone else . . . Lord Green, perhaps . . .”
Highmount was shaking his head before she even finished. “The Harrami are very proud, Your Highness. Anything less than royalty at the head of the delegation would be a slight.”
“Then let me do it,” Liam said. “I’m a member of the royal family, and I’m a lot more expendable than the king. The Wolves are hungry for action anyway.”
“Before you volunteer yourself, brother,” Erik said, “hear me out. We have another task in mind for you.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I think I’m not going to like this?”
“I would indeed have you as my envoy, but not to Ost. I would see you travel to Onnan City to oversee the construction of the fleet.”
Liam’s mouth dropped open. “But that makes no sense! I don’t know the first thing about ships. I’ve never even seen the sea!”
“I need eyes and ears in Ost,” Erik said, “and fortunately, we have an opening. After the ugly incident with Woodvale, the Republicana felt obliged to extend an invitation to me personally, to show there was no ill will.”
“Perfect. You go to Onnan, I’ll go to Harram.”
“I’m afraid that is impossible, Your Highness,” said Highmount. “As I mentioned, the Harrami are”—he cleared his throat—“very proud.”
“Oh, I see.” Colour crept up the back of Liam’s neck. “A half-breed isn’t good enough for them, is that it? But it’s good enough for the Onnani?”
Silence dropped over the hall. Alix squeezed her husband’s shoulder. All around them, lords and ladies acquired an abrupt interest in the grain of the oak table.
“Well, that’s just great,” Liam growled.
“Someone had better find out what’s going on over there,” Rig said. “I can’t emphasise it enough: I need that fleet.”
“You have made that clear,” Erik said. “As to whom, in spite of certain ill-considered intimations to the contrary”—he fired an icy look at his first counsel—“the Onnani are also very proud. As they see it, we are their former imperial masters. We must tread carefully, especially following the incident with Woodvale.”
“His Majesty is right,” Green said. “The Onnani have been staunch allies. If we send a royal delegation to Ost, but not to Onnan City, the Republicana will certainly take offence.”
“So you see,” Erik said, “both of our allies demand royal blood, and I cannot be in two places at once.”
Rig snorted. “Tell me again we aren’t in a quandary, Highmount.”
Erik ignored that. He spread his hands, offering the floor. “You have heard my proposals, my lords. If there are others, now is the time to air them.”
Alix’s mind whirred, searching for something, anything, that might pass for an alternative. She came up empty-handed. Worse, she could tell from the grim expressions around the table that she wasn’t alone. “It’s too dangerous, Your Majesty,” she said feebly.
“I will not deny the risks,” Erik said. “That is why I convened this council. If the stakes were any less, I would have taken the decision myself. Believe me, I would like nothing better than to find another way.”
Raibert Green sighed. “For my part, I cannot offer one, sire, though it pains me to admit.”
“Nor I,” said Norvin Gold, “though if you ask me, our allies are behaving like spoiled children.”
“Spoiled children with a toy we badly need,” Rig said. “Bloody fishmen . . .”
Highmount tsked again. “If Lord Black is quite through indulging himself, are there any other suggestions from the council?” He raised his eyebrows, met only silence. “So we are decided, then?”
“So it would seem,” Gold said, “may the gods help us.”
“Excellent. Then let us discuss the details. First, Onnan.”
“I’m not a diplomat,” Liam said sullenly.
“That is well understood, Your Highness,” said Highmount, “which is why I recommend that you take Lady Brown with you.”
One could say so much with silence. In the ensuing pause, Highmount transmitted three things: One, Liam was going to Onnan whether he liked it or not; two, Highmount didn’t trust him not to cock it up without help; and three, Rona Brown had been bred at court and would hopefully keep the bastard prince from stepping into what Liam typically referred to as a steaming pile of politics.
Gods, Alix wanted to wring his neck.
“What is more,” the first counsel continued, “it will be necessary for you to appoint someone of Onnani stock as your second.”
Rig snorted, offering a soldier’s opinion of political appointments in the military.
“I have a second,” Liam said through gritted teeth. “Ide earned her place. What am I supposed to do, demote her?”
“The symbolism is important.” Erik, at least, had the grace to look uncomfortable. “It will ease your way, I promise you.”
“And just where am I supposed to find an Onnani knight?”
“I have one,” Rig said. “A damned good one too. Former Brownsword. I’m loath to part with him, but he’s yours if you want him. But for the record, this is bollocks.”
“The record so notes,” Erik said dryly.
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” said a smooth voice. Sirin Grey hadn’t spoken until now; Alix had almost forgotten she was there. Erik’s former intended sat perfectly poised, pale face composed, keen eyes unreadable. “Since we have decided that both you and His Highness will go abroad, might I enquire who will govern the kingdom in your absence?”
A question so fundamental that Alix couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to the rest of them until now.
“His Majesty intends to appoint me chancellor,” Highmount said, “to rule in his absence.”
Rig burst out laughing, bleak and humourless, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose as though to ward off a terrible headache. The other lords and ladies exchanged glances.
“That is not quite how I put it,” Erik said with a wry look at his first counsel. “I ask that this council serve as advisors to Chancellor Highmount throughout my absence. Decisions of importance will be taken by two thirds majority, not by fiat. The chancellor will not be ruling so much as presiding, much in the way First Speaker Kar presides over the Onnani Republicana.”
“Democracy?” said Lord Gold, looking very much like a man who has just discovered a rat in his soup.
Erik smiled faintly. “I wouldn’t go that far. I have always relied on the wisdom of this council. Chancellor Highmount will do the same.”
Alix pursed her lips to forestall an outburst she would regret. It was so very like Erik to portray all this as a minor affair, a trivial, cosmetic thing. Oh, I’m just abdicating for a while. Don’t fuss about it.
“I will have the details drawn up,” Erik continued, “and delivered to your chambers. Take the evening to read them, carefully. We will reconvene tomorrow, at which point you may address any questions or concerns to Highmount and myself. And now, my lords, all that remains is for me to thank you for your voices in this matter. I trust we are all comfortable with the decisions we have reached here today.”
Comfortable was surely a stretch; the council members looked more dazed than anything, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they’d just agreed to.
Erik rose, indicating the session was over. Chairs scraped across a taut silence. The council members bowed and took their leave. All except Rig and Liam, both of whom hovered over their seats, glaring at their king.
“Godwin,” Alix called, “please seal the doors.”
The four of them stood staring at each other as the guards shuffled out, the rustle of armour echoing off the walls. They waited until the doors sounded with a muted boom. Then they all started talking at once.
“Erik, you can’t—”
“It would have been nice if you’d—”
“Have you lost your—”
“Stop.” Erik raised his hands. When he was certain he commanded silence, he said, “I know you’re angry, but you all know me too well to imagine that I tabled this lightly.”
“You should have warned us,” Rig said. “The Broken Mountains, Erik? You can call it a diplomatic mission all you like, but you’re not fooling anyone. This is nothing less than a stealth incursion into hostile territory.”
“Yes,” Erik said, “it is.”
“Oh good, well I’m glad we cleared that up.” Rig took two ringing strides toward the door before whirling back around. “What are you going to do when you run into some glory-hungry tribesmen looking for easy prey? Not to mention the half a hundred other dangers of a mountain pass in springtime?”
Erik scowled. “Is this Riggard Black lecturing someone on taking calculated risks? You of all people?”
Rig blew out an oath, ran a hand roughly over his beard. “No. The fact is, I don’t see any way around it, either. I just wish it didn’t have to be you. Or my sister.”
“But it does, and we both know it.”
Alix steadied herself against the heavy oak table and drew a deep, calming breath. Erik and her brother were right; there was no alternative, at least none any of them could see. Still . . . “It could hardly be a worse time for you to leave the capital,” she pointed out. “The White Ravens might be broken, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of danger. The nobility is divided.” That was putting it politely. The families that had thrown their lot in with Tom and Roswald Grey had been punished, some of them harshly. Scions in prison, lands confiscated, fines levied . . . Some of them, surely, would be only too happy for a chance at revenge. “What if your enemies use the opportunity of your absence to try to wrest control?”
“Why do you think I’ve delegated so much power to the council? Now each of those lords and ladies has a personal stake in maintaining the current order. If one begins to gain supremacy, he does so at the expense of the rest. They will keep each other in check.”
Or they will ally against you. Alix didn’t bother to say it aloud. Erik knew the risks better than anyone. But here again, he had no choice.
“Let me come with you,” Liam said. “The Pack can protect you.”
Erik shook his head. “We’ve discussed this. I need you in Onnan. That fleet is everything. You must find out what the delay is.”
“How am I supposed to do that? ‘Hey, look, chaps—I see your problem.’” Liam pointed at an imaginary spot in the air. “‘The thing hanging from the other thing is loose, see? There you go—problem solved.’”
“I haven’t told you everything,” Erik said. “There are certain details I did not wish to make public before the council.” He threw a look at Alix.
“Ambassador Corse wasn’t telling us the truth,” she said, keeping her voice low. They were alone, supposedly, but one could never be too careful. The ears at court were notoriously keen. “Not all of it, anyway. His whole manner was off. Whatever’s holding up the fleet, it’s not a technical problem. I’d bet my eyeteeth on it.”
“It’s almost certainly a political issue of some kind,” Erik said.
Liam scowled. “Well, that’s a relief. Here I thought I was being sent to fumble my way through something I know nothing about.”
“You are a prince, Liam. Politics is in your blood. You’ll have to get used to it.”
The anger drained from Liam’s eyes, replaced by a resigned look. “I know. I just wish it didn’t have to be today.”
Erik flashed an anaemic smile. “We all wish a lot of things, brother. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to write to His High Lordship King Omaïd.” Alix started to follow, but Erik waved her off. “You can join me in my study later. The two of you should take some time together.”
There will be little enough to come. The words hung, unspoken, in the air.
Rig swore quietly. “That’s it, then. My king off to try to sneak through enemy territory, my prince exiled to a political viper’s nest, and Albern sodding Highmount left in charge. Did I miss anything?”
“Just those thirty thousand enemy soldiers at our doorstep,” Liam said.
“Blessed Farika.” Rig headed for the door, shaking his head. “We’ll be lucky to last a month.”
* * *
“It isn’t right, Allie,” Liam murmured, touching his forehead to hers. His hands went to her waist, drawing her in until they tangled together. “If I can’t go with you and Erik, then I should at least be at the front. I’m a soldier. I’m not—”
“Yes, you are. And you’ll be fine.” She spoke the words with such conviction that she almost believed them. Almost.
It should be me.
The rebellious thought raced through her mind for only a moment before she wrestled it down. Your duties lie elsewhere, she told herself firmly. You are the king’s bodyguard. Whatever else you might have been, those doors are closed now. The choice had been made. It was as unchangeable as Erik’s decision to go to Harram, as Liam’s adoption of the White name. They had all made their choices, and this was where it had led them.
“You have to believe in yourself,” she said. “If you don’t, they’ll see it, and they’ll take advantage of it. Just remember, you’re a White.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Alix said, struggling to keep the exasperation from her voice. “If anything, they’ll like you better for being a bastard. If there’s one thing the Onnani hate, it’s a haughty Aldenian. Their pride is still recovering from the time they spent as slaves, no matter that it was centuries ago. Your humility will go over well with them. You’ll see.” She smiled. “So long as you don’t call them fishmen.”
Liam groaned softly. “I wish you could come with me. You’re so much better at these things than I am.”
Alix knew she should argue, but she couldn’t.
His lips dropped to her ear. “I don’t know how I’ll even sleep without you.” She felt a gentle tug at her side as Liam pulled at the laces of her undershirt.
“Now. Later. As often as we can. Who knows how long it’ll be until we . . .” The tugging stopped. He stood motionless, his breath uneven in her ears. Alix swallowed against a growing ache in her throat.
“We’ll be fine,” she whispered. A promise or a prayer? If only she knew.
A warm hand slid into the gap in her shirt, along her skin, fingers trailing up the back of her rib cage. His thumb moved over the swell of her breast and found its mark. Alix sucked in a breath.
“Swear you’ll come back to me, Allie.” His fingertips brushed the scar on her back, the one left by the assassin’s dagger. When he spoke again, his voice was ragged. “Swear.”
“I promise.” His thumb moved, and she gasped again. “I swear.”
He let out a long, resigned breath. Then he reached down and swept her legs out from under her, cradling her as easily as if she were a child. “Right, that’s your part done.” He started toward the bed.
She gazed up at him. Mischief pooled in the slate grey of his eyes, a flammable substance about to take light. She shivered with anticipation. “What’s your part?”
“Disturbing news indeed,” the rasping voice said. A plume of breath vented from the hood, the only evidence of the face obscured in its depths.
“Don’t give me that,” Alix said. “You already knew this, or you aren’t worth nearly what I pay you.”
She sensed the smile within the hood. “Then why bother to tell me?”
“In case there were any missing pieces in the account you received.” She glanced at him. “From someone whose identity you will give me one day.”
A dense cloud accompanied the laughter. “I doubt that, Lady Black.”
Alix didn’t bother to correct him. For some reason, it amused the spy to refer to her as Lady Black, as though it were she, and not her brother, who held the banner. It seemed to be a sign of respect, albeit of a mocking sort. “We’ll leave as soon as possible,” she said. Huddling deeper into her cloak, she added, “Hopefully it will warm up soon.”
“Don’t be too eager to greet the warm weather. With spring comes war.”
“I know.” Rig had ridden out that morning. It was never easy, but this time had been especially difficult. Alix had barely been able to keep her tears in check when he’d planted a rough kiss on her forehead. Be good, Allie, he’d told her, just as he’d done when she was a child. Let Eldora be your sign, she’d replied. And he’d said what he always did: She doesn’t fancy me. So Alix had called on Olan instead—as though her brother had ever lacked for courage.
“As difficult as you will find the mountains,” Saxon said, “Prince Liam may have the more challenging task before him.”
“How do you figure that?”
“The politics of the Republicana are . . . complex. Even seasoned diplomats find themselves lost in the maze.”
“How complicated can it be? Court is court, surely, whatever you call it. If anything, things should be simpler there. The speakers have only five years to build alliances and make enemies, and then their terms in office are done. Here, the same families have been plotting and scheming for centuries.”
“As they have in Onnan. Do not be fooled by lofty talk of democracy, Lady Black. The Onnani have their dynasties, whatever their pretensions to the contrary. The same handful of families has been churning out speakers for generations. Nor is family the only claim upon their loyalties.”
The hood rippled in assent. “That is another, though by no means the most influential. True power lies with the secret societies, and those cut across league lines. A speaker who represents the Worker’s Alliance might be a Son of the Revolution, while another Alliance member is a Shield. If forced to choose, they will side with their society brothers rather than their league members.”
“Seems simple enough. All you have to do is find out what a secret society’s agenda is, and you know where its members stand.”
The grating laughter sounded again. “Discovering a secret society’s agenda is a quest akin to finding the Lost Kingdom. They are called secret for a reason, my lady. Even their membership is kept in the strictest confidence. Those in my trade do a brisk business in Onnan, as you can imagine. And then there is the religious angle. Most high-ranking members of the Republicana are also priests.”
Alix swore under her breath. Liam had enough trouble fitting in at his own brother’s court. How in Eldora’s name was he ever going to navigate his way through that?
“I could accompany His Highness,” Saxon said, as though reading her thoughts. “I have a strong network in Onnan City, even stronger than in the Trionate. I could be of tremendous value to him.”
“I have no doubt, but unfortunately, I need you here.”
Saxon gave a thoughtful grunt. “You fear instability in His Majesty’s absence.”
“Things are not as uncertain as they once were. War has a way of bringing a nation together.”
“The king’s position may be more stable than it was, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. He nearly lost his crown. However much the war may have glossed over the cracks, they’re still there.”
“I need you to keep an eye on Highmount and the council.” She paused, threw him an arch look. “Good thing you have your tick to help you.”
“My tick may change his mind about feeding me information once he realises how much power he holds under the new dispensation. His ambition is what allowed me to recruit him in the first place. It could turn him from an asset to a liability very quickly.”
“In which case, you’ll know what to do.”
The hood twisted to face her. Dark eyes stared out from the shadows, glinting like moonlight on coal. “Be careful, Lady Black. Some stains never wash away. Some paths, once set upon, cannot be turned from.”
“You’re giving me advice now?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Bloodbound
“Strong romantic elements and a dash of humor enliven Erin Lindsey’s fantasy debut set in a kingdom besieged by dark forces and torn apart by betrayal.”—Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of Poison Fruit
“Action and intrigue and flawed but likeable characters who, in complex political/personal situations, make hard decisions and stand by them.”—Tanya Huff, national bestselling author of The Future Falls
“Sturdy characterizations and intriguing magic anchor this solid series launch...[Lindsey’s] balanced mix of romance and heroic fantasies will [capture] readers’ hearts.”—Publishers Weekly
“Lindsey does a fine job of building tension…I genuinely liked the characters and want to read more about them.”—SFFWorld
“Sword and sorcery with a kickass heroine that would do any urban fantasy proud, The Bloodbound offers romance, intrigue, and a fast moving plot that will immerse readers in this new world…An effortless adventure that will sweep readers away.”—All Things Urban Fantasy