The last few months of the moontide-when the bridge connecting East and West rises above the sea-has come, and in the West Emperor Constant prepares the final phase of his plan to conquer the East.
For failed mage Alaron and his companion Ramita-widow to the mage who built the Leviathan Bridge-the unthinkable has happened. They have lost the Scytale of Corineus, the key to the Rite of Ascendancy, as well as one of Ramita's infant sons, to the hands of their deadliest enemies.
In Javon, Cera Nesti, the imprisoned queen, has been freed, and plots to take on the overwhelming might of the Rondian Empire. But standing between her and her goal is a band of deadly mercenaries playing a dangerous game of their own.
And in the East, Seth Korion's Lost Legions must navigate treacherous roads to gain safety, bearing secrets that could bring down the Emperor.
The time has come for the Rite of Ascendancy to be performed. New powers must rise to save or damn Urte, and on the mighty Leviathan Bridge itself, all will be decided.
Release date: November 5, 2015
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 848
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The Vexations of Emperor Constant (Part Four)
The Leviathan Bridge is the first piece of inanimate gnostic artifice that is entirely self-sustaining: it draws energy from the Sun and converts it to gnostic energy to sustain it against the immense forces of the ocean. The Sun’s energy is harvested by giant clusters of special fused crystals in the domes of five great towers. They, more than the Bridge itself, point the way forward for the next developments in the craft of magic.
Ordo Costruo Arcanum, Pontus, 877
1 Year until the Moontide
A frightened falcon perched on the chandelier above and shrieked at the corpse in the middle of the Inner Council room. The counsellors just gaped, speechless. Gurvon Gyle pressed back into his chair, distancing himself from what he’d just seen. It was one thing to plot the sacrifice of an army; it was quite another to see the emperor sanctioning illegal use of the gnosis – in this case, the taking of a human soul and placing it into the body of a beast. Even here in Pallas, where the pure-blood magi-nobility ruled supreme and mere humans were little more than chattels, this was surely without precedent.
I’ve just seen a Souldrinker perform a soul-stealing, and in the emperor’s own Inner Council Chamber! I must always remember this moment . . . though Kore knows who I could ever tell.
His eyes moved from the bird to the man who’d just demonstrated this horror: the Souldrinker or ‘Dokken’ introduced as Delta, named for the Lantric brand on his forehead – though Delta appeared to be more pawn than perpetrator: it was the Dokken’s master, Ervyn Naxius, who’d truly done this. The old mage was cackling like a drunken grandfather in a Low Street tavern at the acclaim currently being heaped upon him. Gyle found his own hands applauding, his mouth spouting praise as if for a tourney victor, but his mind was reeling.
Beside him, Belonius Vult, his fellow conspirator, looked triumphant – as well he might: after all, this was his part of the plan for the conquest of Antiopia.
What else have you got up your sleeve, Bel?
Vult graciously accepted an appreciative nod from Mater-Imperia Lucia. The matronly former Empress – now a Living Saint – was effectively the ruler of the Rondian Empire; her opinion mattered even more than that of her son, Emperor Constant, who was staring into space, his sword-hand clenching and unclenching as if he might leap into the saddle and ride upon Antiopia this very instant. He might be an emperor, and in his mid-twenties, but few would deny – in private at least – that Constant had the demeanour of a spoilt squire.
The others present, some of the most powerful men in the Empire, also made great show of praising Naxius, though Gyle could detect wariness at all this acclaim being heaped upon another. Imperial Treasurer Calan Dubrayle, who’d sponsored Vult in bringing in Naxius, had the most reason to bask in the reflected glory. The great General Kaltus Korion clearly had his pleasure in anticipating new super-beasts for his armies tempered by seeing another’s stock rise so dramatically. And Tomas Betillon, Governor of Hebusalim, looked no better pleased: his smile was sour, his praise muted.
The only person present who wasn’t joining in the applause was Grand Prelate Dominius Wurther. The obese churchman lurched to his feet and denounced Naxius and his thrall in no uncertain terms. ‘My Lord Emperor, this is sacrilege! This abomination that Naxius has demonstrated is a violation of the Book of Kore! I must protest!’
Emperor Constant looked away, but he showed no sign of repentance, so the Grand Prelate turned to Lucia, raising his hands beseechingly. ‘Mater-Imperia, the Souldrinkers are our oldest enemies. This “Delta” must by our own law be put to death: his very existence is an affront to Kore. We must not allow ourselves to see virtue in this abomination.’
Lucia remained calm. ‘Dominius, you are forever telling us that Kore has a reason for all He does, and all He allows in this world, are you not? So does it not follow that the Dokken must be part of His plan?’
Wurther’s jowls wobbled. ‘Mater-Imperia, that is one interpretation, but our theologists—’
‘Please, don’t let him bore us with theology,’ Betillon groaned.
‘Hear hear,’ Kaltus Korion agreed. ‘Since when has morality ever troubled you, you old windbag? The Church of Kore takes a percentage on every slave sold, as we all know. All you’re worried about is that these new creatures might cause you to miss out on your cut.’
‘Not all are as venal as you, Kaltus Korion! This deplorable proposal cannot be sanctioned – it is in every way a violation of Kore’s Law!’ Wurther pointed skywards to invoke Kore Himself. ‘I can quote you every psalm that forbids such gnosis! The Church cannot support this.’
Gurvon was mildly impressed. He’d always believed the churchman to be utterly self-serving, but this display hinted at something resembling a moral compass. He was surprised such a thing had survived decades in the upper echelons of the clergy.
‘I hear you, Dominius,’ Lucia replied evenly, ‘and I understand your reservations. Indeed, I am pleased you’ve voiced them. But I will remind you of the governing principle of this gathering: that what is agreed by the emperor becomes the will of us all, separately and collectively; we each of us champion my son’s will when we leave this room.’
‘But Mater-Imperia, there has to be limits – the Laws of Kore stand above us all!’
‘But we are the Blessed of Kore,’ Vult put in. ‘We’re the living expression of His will: so surely what we agree upon now must outweigh a book written long ago and with no concept of the choices and threats that face us now.’
Gurvon glanced at Vult. You could justify anything you like with that, Bel.
‘Not the “morality versus pragmatism” argument again,’ Dubrayle sighed. ‘Haven’t we done it to death yet?’
‘I don’t think you should go back over our old disagreements on my or Bel’s behalf,’ Gurvon drawled. As my father used to say: if you’re going to blow with the wind, hoist your mainsail.
Wurther threw him a dirty look, then sat down ponderously. ‘You all know I respect the collegial nature of these meetings,’ he grumbled. ‘Of course I’ll support the will of this group from the moment I leave this chamber, if it is the will of my Lord Emperor.’
‘I support this proposal absolutely,’ Constant declared, after a glance at his mother.
And so that’s that.
The Dokken, Delta, bowed to the emperor, then turned and left, calling the falcon to his hand as he went. Naxius took a seat while a pair of guards bustled in and removed the body of the thief, their faces impassive.
So Naxius stays . . . ? Gurvon wasn’t happy with that; this plan was his and Vult’s; he didn’t want that old snake stealing their glory.
‘Make yourself comfortable, Magister Naxius,’ Lucia said drily. ‘You have been apprised of our intentions concerning Javon and the Duke of Argundy?’
‘I have been briefed by Governor Vult, your Holiness,’ Naxius replied obsequiously. ‘I commend his plan wholeheartedly.’
Kaltus Korion raised a hand. ‘A moment. What is he doing here? I have always held that a traitor is a traitor, even if that treachery benefits the empire. How can we trust him?’
Constant went to reply, but had no ready answer and as he stammered into silence Belonius Vult stepped in. ‘Magister Naxius’ knowledge of the Leviathan Bridge was vital. Gurvon found him, and I made the approach.’
‘And that is enough for me,’ Lucia said firmly, and the moment passed.
I don’t like the man, but involving Naxius was unavoidable, Gurvon reflected. The plan required someone who knew the workings of the Bridge intimately but who hated the Ordo Costruo, and they’d not found anyone who filled those criteria who was not also committed to the East – except for Ervyn Naxius.
Twenty-three years ago, in 904, as the Leviathan Bridge rose from the sea, Constant’s father Magnus had marched his armies across it to plunder Antiopia. Antonin Meiros, the founder of the Ordo Costruo, could have destroyed the Bridge then, but he’d hesitated and the moment was lost – for this, Meiros was reviled in the East. But few knew that Ervyn Naxius had been behind the founder’s confusion.
Naxius was a gnostic researcher, once a humane man, but his centuries of research into the extreme possibilities of the gnosis had eroded his empathy; he had long since stopped paying any attention to the constraints of morality. He had fallen out with Meiros and the Order, and the First Crusade had presented him with an opportunity to gain a patron with almost bottomless resources. He threw in his lot with the emperor, misinformed Meiros about the troop build-up outside Pontus, then betrayed the Order to Magnus’ Imperial Magi, enabling them to seize control of the Bridge. By the time Meiros had worked out what was happening, it was largely too late: the Crusade was proceeding, his reputation was destroyed and control of his Bridge was lost.
Naxius got his reward: Imperial approval to research without constraint. Gurvon had come across his handiwork during the Noros Revolt – some particularly vicious spells hidden in trinkets and talismans – and after the Revolt, he’d tracked down the source of these devices. The trail led in the end to Naxius’ secret base, and eventually to this moment.
Gurvon turned his attention back to Vult, who was saying, ‘Let’s discuss the final part of our strategy. Provided all runs to plan, we’ll have control of Javon and its resources, which will mean we’ll be able to provision General Korion’s armies in the field well beyond the end of the Moontide. Duke Echor of Argundy will be severely weakened, leaving him no choice but to retreat. Our new gnosis-beasts will ensure battlefield supremacy. So all that remains is to deal with the Bridge itself.’
Everyone sat up a little at his words. Though the Pallas Imperial Magi hated the Leviathan Bridge, the wider gnostic community were divided on the subject. Through the Bridge, the Merchant Guild had become fabulously wealthy, buying land, status and magi spouses, much to the annoyance of the Crown. Imperial control of the Bridge had not changed this: the boom-bust nature of the Moontide economy – two years of harvest and ten years of waiting – was worse than ever.
‘We all know that the Second Crusade was a financial failure,’ Vult went on. ‘I understand this group debated whether to destroy the Bridge after that crusade?’
‘The Bridge is a necessary evil,’ Betillon growled. Hebusalim was the greatest city in western Antiopia, and his governorship had been immensely enriching. ‘Destroying it would be cutting our own throats.’
Cutting yours, anyway, Gurvon thought.
Vult sailed on serenely, ignoring the choppy undercurrents. ‘The objections to the destruction of the Bridge still apply. Though the Crusades grow more costly each Moontide, with less reward, they still paralyse trade, which hurts the merchants far more than the Crown. The Crusades allow us to dominate and weaken Antiopia. It isn’t in our interests to let dangerous men like Rashid Mubarak grow more powerful.’
‘Exactly,’ Korion put in. ‘We must keep our foot on their throats.’
‘Quite,’ said Vult, ‘and thanks to Magister Naxius and his intimate knowledge of the Bridge, we have a new solution to propose.’
‘Which is?’ Betillon asked impatiently.
‘Are you familiar with the concept that Urte is made up of massive landmasses called tectonic plates, a bit like an egg with a cracked shell?’ He looked around, saw nodding heads and continued, ‘And you know that the Leviathan Bridge is built upon an undersea ridge that runs from Pontus to the coast of Dhassa, yes? But what you might not realise is that the ridge is the remains of an isthmus that once linked Yuros and Antiopia. Well, the Ordo Costruo have studied the drowned isthmus. They believe that it was swept beneath the sea no more than two thousand years ago, when it was struck by a meteor, causing massive earthquakes and floods, something that is reflected in the mythology of both Dhassa and Sydia. The impact caused the isthmus to collapse into the sea and separated the two continents.’
‘An Act of Kore,’ Grand Prelate Wurther commented devoutly.
‘Perhaps,’ Vult agreed, ‘but it is also an inconvenience. Rondelmar has the power to subjugate all of Antiopia, but the Bridge is open for only two years in twelve, and we don’t have enough windships to supply an occupying army that is large enough to subdue the Noorish races, who outnumber us vastly. We can hold Hebusalim, and that is all. So you can see that it would be far better if the isthmus were to rise once more from the sea, enabling permanent access and occupation. My Lord Emperor would then be able to seize Antiopia and rule the known world.’
‘You want to haul the isthmus up from the ocean depths?’ Korion scoffed. ‘You’re mad! An Earth mage can lift a boulder: he can’t lift mountains from beneath the ocean! You could assemble every mage on Urte and not have enough power to do such a thing—’
‘On the contrary,’ Naxius interrupted, his creaking voice oozing smugness, ‘we do have such power. The Bridge itself has that power.’
‘The Bridge? It’s just a lump of stone—’
‘Actually, General, the Leviathan Bridge is a repository for the greatest reservoir of gnostic power ever created,’ Naxius replied. ‘The five towers are each topped with massive clusters of the same crystal that you saw Delta use a few moments ago. They convert the energy of light, which we call solarus, to gnostic energy. That energy is required to keep the Bridge intact whilst it is under the ocean – if released, it could raze a city.’
Korion no longer looked dismissive. ‘Is this true?’
‘Everything we know supports it,’ Vult replied.
‘Then why aren’t we building weapons using solarus crystals?’ the general demanded.
Gurvon glanced at Dubrayle and Betillon, who were probably wondering how solarus could be used to make money. Wurther was likely speculating whether he could cook with it.
‘It’s a matter of logistics,’ Vult replied. ‘The crystals are only effective for short bursts unless clustered in masses too large to transport – on top of that, the materials are complex and rare, and using them is dangerous and debilitating – long-term use can be fatal without protection.’
‘Magister Vult is correct,’ Naxius agreed, ‘but the solarus energy can be unlocked. The nexus where the power is gathered, stored and distributed is Midpoint Tower, halfway along the Bridge. It’s controlled from thrones in each of the five Bridge towers. These are manned by senior pure-bloods of the Ordo Costruo, ensuring the flow of energy, converting solarus to Earth-gnosis, is maintained. Without it, the Bridge would be destroyed whilst it is submerged. It requires training and great power to control and maintain the flows – I myself have performed this duty,’ he added, preening.
The counsellors were staring at the ancient magus with unease, until Lucia asked, ‘So what exactly are you proposing, Magister Naxius?’ as if she didn’t already know.
Naxius showed some political instinct and handed the floor to his sponsor. ‘That is for Magister Vult to relate, for it is his idea. I merely supplied my expertise, my knowledge of the Bridge and the land beneath.’
Smart enough to share the glory, Gurvon noted. And, of course, the risk.
Vult resumed eagerly, ‘Those on the Tower thrones have the ability to rip the energy free of the Bridge and convert it to any form of the gnosis, though it can only be used within a narrow range. It could not, for example, be used to rain fire down on Hebusalim, three hundred miles away. But what we intend lies within its ambit: beneath Midpoint, wedged between the tectonic plates, is a rock the size of a hill: the heavenly body that destroyed the isthmus. If it were destroyed, the isthmus would rise again.’
Calan Dubrayle leaned forward. ‘Say that again, Magister?’
‘If the heavenly body were to be destroyed, the isthmus would rise again from the seas, permanently.’
‘A new, permanent link between Yuros and Antiopia? A road from Pontus to Dhassa, always above water?’
‘Allowing one empire to rule every known realm on Urte,’ Lucia added in a soft voice. ‘My son’s empire – our homeland.’
Gurvon raised a hand. ‘If we do this, there will be an earthquake like nothing ever seen before. It will destroy every building in Pontus and Dhassa, and likely cause damage all the way to the Brekaellen Vale in Yuros, and to the ranges dividing Dhassa and Kesh in the East. Tidal waves will swamp Dhassa and Pontus. It is unlikely that anyone in either place will survive. Millions will die, many of them people of Yuros.’
Even Kaltus Korion looked vaguely appalled at his words. Good, Gurvon thought. You need to know and understand the full extent of what you are considering. These are the decisions that Gods make.
And remember to pay my fee afterwards.
‘Let’s do it now,’ grunted Betillon, who had never been accused of having a conscience.
Naxius shook his head. ‘That is impossible: while the Bridge is beneath the waves, the solarus crystals are locked into sustaining it and are steadily drained of energy. They are virtually inert by the time the Moontide comes. Only when the Bridge is above water can the solarus energy reserves be rebuilt. We need that power to be at its zenith to be certain the meteor jammed into the tectonic fault-line is destroyed. That moment will come at the end of the next Moontide, Junesse 930, three years hence.’
Korion raised a hand. ‘What of my army? Where will my forces be when the hammer falls?’
‘My advice would be not return to Yuros at the end of the Moontide: if you remain east in Zhassi or Kesh, say – no further west than Ebensar Ridge – you will be on another tectonic plate and safe, barring some minor tremors. Provided your supply lines to Javon remain intact, you will be perfectly placed to weather the cataclysm and seize control of northern Antiopia afterwards.’
‘Fair enough.’ Korion frowned, then asked, ‘What of Echor’s army?’
‘They will have been mauled by the Keshi, thanks to the other arrangements we have in place,’ Gurvon answered. ‘He’ll probably be retreating across the bridge itself when we strike, or already in Pontus licking his wounds.’
‘Until the sea washes them away.’ Betillon guffawed.
‘Then afterwards,’ Vult added, ‘there would be nothing to prevent Rondelmar from invading all of Antiopia, and this time staying permanently – in fact, my Lord Emperor could send his armies all over the known world. The only limits would be our manpower.’
‘And after such destruction, and with the promise of untold plunder to come, I have no doubt our vassal states will be cowed into permanent submission,’ Lucia concluded, a quiet smile on her face. ‘At a stroke the Ordo Costruo will cease to matter, and the Merchants’ ability to leverage the Bridge to their own benefit would be gone. All tribute and plunder will go through our Imperial Governors and the heathen will be utterly subjugated and brought to their knees before the throne of Kore. Rondelmar will rule all of Urte in a new and never-ending Golden Age.’
We don’t make small plans, Gurvon reflected. We’re here to change the world.
The Messiah’s Murderess
The Murder of Corineus
Alas! One thousand times, Alas! How did we not see the snake which had nested amongst us, the evil viper in female form who had slithered into our midst and awaited the perfect moment to commit her crime. Imagine the Paradise on Urte that would have been, had Corineus but lived!
The Book of Kore
After five hundred years, we’re no closer to understanding why, in the midst of the Ascendancy of the Blessed Three Hundred, Lillea Selene Sorades, known to the world as Corinea, murdered Johan Corin. She vanished before most were even aware of the crime, and she was never seen again. What happened that chaotic night to prompt her attack? We may never know.
Antonin Meiros, Ordo Costruo, 880 (500th anniversary of the Ascendancy)
Teshwallabad, Northern Lakh, on the continent of Antiopia
Rami (Septinon) 929
15th month of the Moontide
Alaron Mercer sat on a muddy temple step, contemplating the waters of the Imuna River lapping his feet. A few feet away, the Zain monk Yash was playing with seven-month-old Dasra Meiros. Both little boy and young man were soaked, and gleefully happy.
‘I’ll look after him if you need a break?’ he called to Yash. The young monk had spoken for them when he, Ramita and Dasra had arrived at the monastery seeking shelter.
Yash looked vaguely offended. ‘Al’Rhon, this is the best time I’ve had since I got here.’
He’d never been the most spiritual of monks.
Alaron was glad to have someone else to keep an eye on the child. He couldn’t look at Dasra without seeing his twin brother, Nasatya, stolen away by Huriya Makani and Malevorn Andevarion two days ago. Scrying had given no clues as to where they had gone, and his thoughts were full of self-recriminations.
I had Nasatya in my hands and I lost him.
I held the Scytale of Corineus in my hands, and I lost it.
I faced Malevorn, and I lost. Again.
He lowered his face into his hands, borne down by the weight of his failings.
After fleeing the mughal’s palace in the wake of the carnage wrought by Ramita’s former blood-sister and her Souldrinker followers, they had taken refuge in this Zain monastery, where his friend Yash dwelt. Outside in the city, Mughal Tariq hunted them. It felt as if they were outstaying their welcome.
Why Malevorn was helping Huriya was unfathomable: he was an Imperial Inquisitor and sworn to the destruction of all Souldrinkers. It made no sense. Despite that, they’d trapped Alaron and Ramita and with the babies held hostage, forced an exchange: one of Ramita’s twins for the Scytale.
I let Ramita down . . . she must despise me!
What made his failure worse was how hopelessly in love with her he was. The realisation had struck at the worst possible time – in the midst of their battle with the Dokken – but it was now fact, as key to his being as water and air. It had been growing inside him during the months they’d spent together, training in the arts of the gnosis and sharing dangers and discoveries alike, and had crystallised as they faced death together. She was the drumming of his heartbeat. But he was pretty sure she didn’t feel the same way; after all, she’d made him her adopted brother in a Lakh ceremony called rakhi, probably to ensure he didn’t get any silly ideas. After all, she might have been born a lowly Aruna Nagar market-girl – but she was the widow of Antonin Meiros, one of the Blessed Three Hundred and greatest magician of the Age.
Who am I to dream so high?
Yash, his friend since they’d met at Mandira Khojana monastery and travelled together to Teshwallabad, had persuaded the Masters to take them in, but to stay much longer was to endanger their hosts. Having brought so much death and destruction, they owed it to the monks to leave soon.
He’d barely seen Ramita since they’d arrived; she had spent most of the last two days praying to her Omali gods in the temple. The Zains held all gods to be equal, but they had Lakh roots, so Omali shrines were maintained within their walls. So when her voice floated out of the temple door, quavering and uncertain, he was on his feet in an instant.
‘Al’Rhon?’ she called. ‘Have you a minute?’
Something in her voice shouted danger. He swept up his kon-staff and kindled gnostic shields. ‘Keep Das with you,’ he told Yash. ‘It may be nothing, but . . .’
But it might be Huriya and Malevorn, come back to finish the job.
‘Vishnarayan-ji, Protector of Man, hear me! Aid me! Darikha-ji, hear me! Help me, Queen of Heaven! Hear me, Kaleesa-ji, Demon-Slayer! Come to my aid! Makheera-ji, Goddess of Destiny, alter your weaving to save my son!’
For the best part of two days, ever since the awful battle in the Mughal Dome, Ramita had been on her knees, beseeching the gods to undo the wrongs that had been done, begging for justice and mercy with her mind, calling with the gnosis, because surely the gods could hear a mage? Surely they would hear her. Surely they would lead her to her lost son!
But for two days the gods had remained silent.
They only help those who help themselves, her father had always said. Humbled, she gave up. Her knees unlocked painfully as she rose and turned towards the doors. Then she halted, petrified.
The statue of Makheera-ji, Queen of Fate, was stepping down from her pedestal, and Ramita’s heart almost stopped. The life-sized icon was blue-skinned, with thick coils of hair like a nest of snakes. She held symbols of power and knowledge in her six arms, and her golden eyes transfixed Ramita where she stood.
‘Makheera-ji?’ Ramita gasped.
The goddess laughed, and changed form again . . .
Alaron paused at the small door and peered in. The temple was full of shadows and soft orange light flickering from the oil lamps and dancing over the faces of the Omali gods, some fierce, some wise, with their multiple arms and blue-painted stone skin. For a nightmare moment it was as if they were all alive, surrounding Ramita, who stood in widow’s white in the middle.
‘What is it?’ he asked softly, his eyes piercing the gloomy interior.
‘We have a visitor,’ Ramita said in an odd voice. She usually sounded so certain about the world; what she didn’t understand she placed in the hands of her gods. But right now her dark, serious face looked entirely mystified.
Alaron looked beyond her at a dark-robed figure standing at the edge of the light. She was slender and a little stooped, a Rondian woman with silvery hair, her skin fair, though darkened by the sun, her face a network of fine creases and faint wrinkles.
He raised his staff into a defensive position; though there was nothing in the least threatening about her posture or demeanour. But white-skinned women didn’t come here, and she had a gnostic aura: she was a mage.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
‘She is one of your Rondian gods,’ Ramita said in a voice pitched between awe and disbelief. ‘First she was a statue of Makheera-ji, then she changed.’
Alaron blinked. ‘Rondians have only one god: Kore. He’s a man.’
Disdain flickered across the woman’s face. ‘I didn’t claim to be a god.’
‘She wants to talk to us,’ Ramita told him. ‘She says her name is Corinea.’
Corinea! Dear Kore! Alaron’s heart thudded painfully and he took an involuntary step backwards. ‘Get behind me,’ he told Ramita, his voice coming out thin and shaky. ‘Ramita, she’s—’
She’s what – Hel’s Whore? The Murderess of our Saviour?
He had been raised as a sceptic and didn’t believe in any gods. His father maintained that Corineus had been just a man, and so too his sister Corinea . . .
How can this be her?
But Ascendant Magi can live a very long time, he reminded himself. If it’s really her, she’s not a goddess, she’s a mage: an old, very powerful mage. He put himself between the woman and Ramita, trembling like a newborn colt and almost blinded by cold sweat. ‘What do you want?’
‘To talk. I don’t mean you any harm.’
‘Why would you want to talk with us?’
‘Because I heard this young woman speaking of things that concern me. She prayed for you too, Alaron Mercer, and I have never before heard a Rondian name in the prayers of a Lakh woman.’
His eyes flickered to Ramita, who nodded, her face flushing a little, and for a moment his thoughts detoured as he wondered what she’d been praying about. Concentrate, idiot!
‘Can you prove that you are who you say?’
Corineus’ murderer. His lover and his sister.
‘I don’t suppose I can, very easily. Unless you’d like to link minds with me?’
He shivered at the casual offer. Unshielded mental links were dangerous, and the more powerful of the two magi involved controlled them.
‘I will do it,’ Ramita said firmly.
Alaron swallowed. ‘No!’
‘My husband told me I would be stronger than your Ascendant-magi,’ the little Lakh girl reminded him.
‘No one is stronger than an Ascendant,’ Corinea said loftily.
‘If she really is Corinea, then she’s had almost six hundred years of using the gnosis!’ Alaron protested. ‘I’ll do it. I’m expendable.’
‘You aren’t expendable!’ Ramita said, suddenly alarmed. ‘You are my brother. I refuse to let you.’
She really does have this whole brother–sister thing around the wrong way, Alaron thought. Even so, something inside him glowed.
‘You are the widow of Antonin Meiros,’ Corinea mused. ‘He was the best of them; time has certainly proved that. But even he wouldn’t see me.’ She looked at Alaron. ‘Even the Ordo Costruo, sworn to peace, tried to hunt me down.’
I’m sure they had good reason. Alaron glanced sideways at Ramita, then lowered his staff slowly; he was a quarter-blood, and it would do him no good against an Ascendant if Corinea chose to attack.
But we need to know . . . He made up his mind and stepped forward. ‘Do it.’
Before Ramita could protest again, the Rondia
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