They came against her as a child. Now they face the woman.
The ice is advancing, the Corridor narrowing, and the empire is under siege from the Scithrowl in the east and the Durns in the west. Everywhere, the emperor’s armies are in retreat.
Nona Grey faces the final challenges that must be overcome if she is to become a full sister in the order of her choice. But it seems unlikely that she and her friends will have time to earn a nun’s habit before war is on their doorstep.
Even a warrior like Nona cannot hope to turn the tide of war.
The shiphearts offer strength that she might use to protect those she loves, but it’s a power that corrupts. A final battle is coming in which she will be torn between friends, unable to save them all. A battle in which her own demons will try to unmake her.
A battle in which hearts will be broken, lovers lost, thrones burned.
About the Author
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Markus had grown beyond Nona's expectations. She remembered a fierce spiky-haired farm boy who had welcomed her to Giljohn's cage by demanding her age and had appeared to find comfort in establishing his seniority over her. A bad beginning, but his affection for the child-taker's mule had softened her opinion of him by the end of their journey. Now he stood a solid six foot two, handsome in a friendly way, a face that would laugh with you. The black hair had been tamed with oil and lay flat to his skull in the way of monks. The only sign of the boy from the cage was a sharpness to his features and a quickness in the dark eyes that studied her.
Nona had wrapped her cloak around her once more. Sweat stuck the material to her back, making her uncomfortable, or perhaps that was just the frankness of Markus's regard. She offered a smile in return for his and hugged her hands under her arms. Her knuckles ached from repeatedly punching Denam. Nona was sure she'd punched practice timbers that were softer than the gerant's side. She felt good, though, her body glowing, her step so light that with a little effort she might just shrug off gravity entirely.
She leaned in. "Let's talk outside."
Markus nodded. They pushed a path towards the main doors. Already the Caltess's patrons were flocking back to the other ring. A couple of hulking apprentices were helping Denam over the ropes of the first.
"I'm surprised the convent lets novices come down here to fight," Markus said behind her.
"They don't." Nona slipped between the doors as they opened to admit more thrill-seekers.
"Why did you-" Markus broke off to draw his robes around him, the black habit of a holy brother. He followed her out into rain-laced wind, a loud brrr escaping at the cold shock of it.
"An old dispute that needed settling," Nona said. It was partly true. Mostly she had wanted to hit someone, hard, again and again. Markus probably knew that already; classified church reports named him as one of the most effective marjal empaths currently in the Ancestor's service.
Nona led Markus around the corner of the great hall where they would be sheltered from the gale. The walls loomed dark above them, the sky crossed with tatters of cloud beneath the crimson spread of a thousand dying stars.
"Why did you want me? Send the message, I mean?" Markus seemed less sure of himself than she had expected. Someone who could read her like a book should be more confident. She certainly wished her own empath skills would tell her more of his mood than she could glean from the intensity of his stare or the tight line of his lips.
"That day at the Academy." The words blurted from her. "Did you make that girl attack me?" Nona forced her mouth closed. She had had it all planned out, what she would say, how, when. And now her idiot tongue had cut through all of it.
"She . . . she was already attacking you." Guilt came from him in waves.
"She was using the darkness to scare me. Or trying to. But then she went mad." Nona remembered how an animal fury had risen across the girl's face. "You did that!"
"I did." A frown now, his brow pale and beaded with rain.
"She tried to shadow-rend me. I could have been torn apart!"
Markus raised his hands. "I made her angry. I didn't know she could do that."
"Well, she could!" Nona felt her own anger rising from the well she'd thought emptied in the ring.
"I'm sorry." He looked down.
"Well . . ." It felt like honesty, but Nona supposed he could fake that better than anyone she'd ever known. "Why?"
"Abbot Jacob told me to."
"Jacob?" A chill ran through Nona. "High Priest Jacob? I mean the one who used to be?"
Markus nodded, still looking down.
"But . . . he's not . . . you don't have to . . ."
"He was appointed to St. Croyus as abbot a year after Abbess Glass had Nevis replace him as high priest."
"St. Croyus? But Jacob's a monster!" Nona couldn't see how the former high priest could have risen from disgrace so swiftly.
"A monster with friends in high places. Including the Tacsis." Markus shrugged. "And he's not a stupid man, just a cruel and greedy one."
"So he bought you from Giljohn, sent you to St. Croyus, and followed you there to take over?" Nona had seen the high priest beat Giljohn's mule to death and leave Markus broken. And that was just on the day he'd purchased him as a frightened boy of ten. How must it have been to grow up under that man's command?
"I'm sorry." Markus looked up and met her eyes. She gave him points for not using his power to try to influence her. She would know. At least she hoped she would know. He couldn't be that good, could he? Markus coughed. "So, did you ask me down here to beat me senseless? Kick me in the groin? Or is my apology enough?"
A man hurried around the corner before Nona could answer. He approached them, hunched against the rain.
"Regol?" Nona asked. She'd looked for the ring-fighter in the crowd before she took on Denam but not spotted him.
"At your service, my lady!" He made a sweeping bow, managing to keep both eyes on Markus.
Nona couldn't help but smile. "I'm not your lady, or anyone else's."
"A remarkable victory, novice." Regol straightened. "Our ginger friend can be a stubborn fellow." His eyes held a certain distance, a reassessment perhaps.
"You saw?" She had wanted him to.
"The whole thing. And did you hear the newest recruits cheering in the attic?"
Nona flexed her hands, grimacing. "I thought he wasn't ever going to go down."
Regol winced. "The real question is whether he's going to get up again, and what he'll sound like." He squeaked the last part, then turned his gaze on Markus as if noticing him for the first time. "I would ask if this monk is bothering you, but I guess if he was he'd be on the ground looking for his teeth." Again that look, as if he saw a different person before him tonight.
"I'm sure Nona can have a disagreement without punching anyone in the face." Markus returned Regol's stare. "Not everyone who climbs out of the ring just steps into a bigger one."
Regol shrugged, that mocking smile of his firmly in place. "The whole Corridor is a ring around Abeth, brother. And when the ice squeezes, everyone fights."
"Go away," Markus said.
Regol opened his mouth with some reply but a puzzled look overtook him. He turned to go, then spun back as if he had forgotten something.
"You would rather be watching the fights." Markus spoke without emphasis but the waves of power bleeding from him shocked Nona with their intensity. It was as if someone had opened a furnace door and an unexpected wall of heat had broken across her.
Regol turned back and walked off without comment.
"He won't be pleased when that wears off," Nona said.
"No." Markus nodded. "But it would have been worse if he'd stayed longer. He didn't like me at all, and we both know why."
"Oh." Nona laughed, though it came out wrong. "Regol's not like that. He flirts with all the girls. The ladies of the Sis practically worship-"
"It's you he wants, Nona. You don't have to be an empath to know that."
"No, he's just . . ." She trailed off as Markus shook his head, his smile half-sad. "Anyway, you got rid of him easily enough." A twinge of disappointment had run through her at that.
"Easily?" Markus leaned back against the wall. "He put up a hell of a fight. I would never have suspected it of a Caltess brawler." He put his fingers to his temples. "I'll probably have a headache all night . . ."
Nona said nothing, only glanced towards the corner. After Joeli had made Regol abandon Darla mid-fight at Sherzal's palace the ring-fighter had asked Nona to help him. He hadn't wanted to be manipulated like that ever again. Nona had spent hours training him to erect barriers against that kind of thread-work. He would take this defeat badly.
Nona defocused her vision and looked at Markus amid the glory of the threads, the Path's halo. Marjal empathy was essentially thread-work that concentrated only on living threads and manipulated them more intuitively, based around emotional clusters. It was, in many senses, a tool designed for a specific job; whereas a quantal thread-worker had ultimately more potential and flexibility, the task was always more fiddly and harder work. The threads around Markus formed a glowing aura, brighter and more dynamic than any she had seen before. The host of threads that joined him to her-some years old, some freshly formed-ran taut, shivering with possibility, unvoiced emotions vibrating along their length. Markus would read it better than she could, but he would feel the answer rather than seeing it before him in the complexity that filled the space between them.
In fact, Sister Pan had revealed that all marjal enchantment was simply the power of the Path and the control of thread-work, but collected together into useful tools in the same way that iron and wood may be turned into many different implements, and many of those are of more immediate use than a log and a bar of iron and the option to shape both.
Nona realised that Markus had said something she missed. She looked back.
"You asked me here . . ."
"I did." She stepped closer and he pressed his shoulders to the wall, every thread he had bent towards her, like the reflex of a river-anemone to touch. "I need your help."
Markus frowned. "I can help you?"
"I need to do something dangerous and illegal."
Markus's frown deepened. "Why would you trust me? Because we rode together for a few weeks in a cage when I was ten and you were eight? I nearly got you killed two years later."
"I trust you because you didn't ask me why I thought you would help, just why I would trust that help. And also because you didn't lie about what happened at the Academy."
"All right." He met her eye. "Why would I help you? It's dangerous and against the law."
"You'll help me because when they put us in that cage we never really came out of it again. And because your Abbot Jacob is still tied to the Tacsis name and so are his plans for further advancement. Doing this will help make sure that never happens. Hessa told me what happened to Four-Foot when Giljohn took you to Jacob's house."
"I suppose you think me weak, serving a man who did something like that? I suppose you would have beaten him to death?" Markus didn't try to hide the mix of anger and shame bubbling through him.
"Maybe I would have killed him, but you're a better person than I am. I'm not proud of my temper."
Markus twisted his lips into half of a doubtful smile. "So, you need me, and you trust me. What is it that you need me for, and trust me not to betray you over?"
Nona glanced over her shoulder into the night. From inside the Caltess the crowd's roar swelled. Another bout coming to a bloody end, no doubt. "I have to break into the Cathedral of St. Allam and steal something from High Priest Nevis's vault of forbidden books."
Three Years Earlier
In the dark of the moon by the side of the Grand Pass two dozen citizens of the empire huddled away from the wind. Dawn would show them an unparalleled view of that empire, spread out before them to the west, marching between the ice towards the Sea of Marn.
Nona stood close to the rock wall, pressed between Ara and Kettle. Her leg ached where the stump of Yisht's sword had driven in, pain shooting up and down as she shifted her weight, the whole limb stiffening.
Abbess Glass had gathered the survivors in a bend where the folds of the cliff offered some shelter. There were among their number men and women who owned substantial swathes of the Corridor, who had been born to privilege and to command. But here in their bloodstained finery, with flames from the palace of the emperor's sister licking up into the night behind them, it was to Abbess Glass they turned for direction.
"It will take Sherzal's soldiers a while to navigate around Zole's landslide but they'll come. It won't take long then to alert the garrisons and send riders down the road to Verity. There's no chance of making the capital that way."
"We don't need to reach Verity." Lord Jotsis spoke up. "My estates are closer."
"Castle Jotsis is formidable," Ara said, looking between her uncle and the abbess.
Abbess Glass shook her head. "Sherzal will bottle us up anywhere but the capital. She might not be insane enough to lay siege to your castle, my lord, but she would likely encircle your holdings to prevent word reaching the emperor. And besides, I fear that closer is not close enough."
"So we've escaped only to be hunted down on the road?" One side of old Lord Glosis's face had swollen into a single bruise but she still had enough energy to be temperamental. "Unacceptable."
"It's the shipheart that Sherzal wants above anything else." The abbess nodded to where Zole waited, some thirty yards closer to the landslide, her hands dark around the glowing purple sphere she had recovered from the Tetragode. "If we give her good reason to think that it has gone in another direction she won't spare many soldiers for chasing us. Maybe none."
"And how," Lord Jotsis asked, "can we make her think we haven't taken the shipheart with us?"
Abbess Glass turned to stare at the darkness of the slopes rising above them. "By making them think it has gone south, towards the ice."
"How can we make them think it's been sent south?" Lord Glosis asked, leaning on the arm of a young relative.
"By actually sending it south, to the ice," the abbess said. "Zole will take it and let them see the glow upon the slopes."
"But that's madness." Lord Jotsis drew himself to his full height. "You can't entrust a treasure like that to a lone novice!"
"I can when it's the lone novice who somehow stole that treasure from the heart of the Noi-Guin's stronghold in the first place," Abbess Glass replied.
"She won't be alone." Nona limped forward.