After all they've suffered, rebel sorcerer Raythe Vyre and his fortune-seekers are still empty-handed, but they've found real treasure: peace.
Deep inside the Ice wastes, Raythe's people stumbled upon Rath Argentium, the legendary Aldar city, and the long-lost Tangato people. After fighting through betrayal, treachery and powerful magic, they forged a hard-won treaty with the Tangato and their extraordinary queen, Shiazar. Now they've put aside their dreams of wealth and revenge and embraced something better: a life outside the tyrannical Bolgravian Empire.
But the Bolgravian Empire never gives up.
The empire hasn't forgotten Raythe Vyre, and his enemies know where he is. Guided by Toran Zorne, the implacable imperial assassin, they are coming to claim Rath Argentium for themselves. Raythe and Shiazar know all too well that courage and cunning won't be enough this time: they are outnumbered, out-gunned and out of time.
Faced with total annihilation, it's up to Raythe to find an edge . . .
Release date: October 13, 2022
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Some days Raythe wondered whether he shouldn’t try disproving that theory by becoming a hermit, because sometimes the turmoil of daily life didn’t seem worth the risk of having another blade – metaphorical or actual – thrust into his back.
My wife left me for my best friend, who betrayed our country and everything I love. I’ve fought an empire and lost, and even out here, beyond the known world, I’ve been repeatedly deceived.
He wasn’t sure why he was feeling so gloomy, the morning after a miraculous escape from annihilation, but it had been costly. Of the three hundred who’d set out on this mad journey with him, barely two hundred remained. Most of the losses had been men, who’d borne the brunt of the fighting. Many widows had been left with children to feed; he could hear them now, mourning below.
But the real reason for his morose mood, he decided, was that all their tribulations had been for nothing. He’d promised them riches and freedom, but instead they were stranded with nothing to show for all their blood, sweat and belief. Last night, to stop the slaughter, he’d agreed peace terms with Queen Shiazar of the Tangato, and that meant they would join the Tangato nation – and remain here for ever.
I still don’t really know how I feel about that . . .
He was profoundly grateful to have survived, and to have found a way to save his people, but it was a high price to pay, giving up on everything they’d come here for. So much for their dreams of istariol and wealth, and returning to their homelands as free people. Now they’d never go home again.
I’ve failed them, which is pretty much the same as betraying them. And that was why, he reluctantly admitted to himself, he was hiding on the roof of the mansion they’d named Rim House, watching the dawn.
If he looked down, he’d see bodies lying around the grounds and piled up beside the crater rim fence, where the fighting had been fiercest. Instead, he looked up. Silhouetted against the pale glow of the planetary rings was a dark rock hanging in the air, tethered by four massive chains rooted in the lower slopes of the hill upon which Rath Argentium was built. Atop that rock, out of his sight, was the citadel, Shiro Kamigami, where another battle had been fought last night, a sorcerers’ duel against the deadliest foe imaginable. The after-images of that insane battle against a mad Aldar lord, in a place where time fluctuated and the past had come to life, still haunted him.
Shiazar, Kemara and I prevailed – but only just. We won the chance to move forward and fight another day. The sun would rise soon: life went on, and his people were his responsibility.
He stood, his joints creaking in the cold, reflecting ruefully that for all he was only in his thirties, he was no longer a young man. He shoved aside that unwelcome thought and gazed out over the ruined city, marvelling anew at the view.
Rath Argentium had been the seat of the Aldar Kings, a city built upon a hill so full of istariol that the peak had broken away and now floated above, leaving a massive crater. The city had been uninhabited for five centuries, but the Aldar had built well, and the place was surprisingly intact.
Beyond the city were plains, forests and hills, rivers and lakes – but for less than a hundred miles in any direction, for this miraculous place, lush and verdant by grace of the istariol in the soil, was deep within the Icewastes; that was how the Tangato had survived the Ice Age that devastated the rest of the planet.
Light footsteps brought him back to the present and he turned, not sure who he was expecting, but still surprised when a dark-skinned woman wearing a flax kilt and bodice and wrapped in a feather cloak appeared. Black hair billowed around her lively, pugnacious face.
‘Rima – what is it?’ he asked, worried some new emergency had arisen.
The young Tangato grinned at his anxious expression. ‘There’s no problem. The Queen merely asks that you attend upon her at noon. There’s much to arrange.’
‘That’s the truth,’ he sighed. ‘We must recover our dead and prepare them for burial, secure food and water and move back into the buildings we’ve been living in. That’s assuming my people don’t just shoot me for bargaining away their right to go home. They’ll take some convincing.’
‘My Queen believes strongly in your ability to talk.’
He snorted at the backhanded compliment. ‘How does the Queen fare?’
‘She has reclaimed her throne, Ikendo is dead and his son Onkado imprisoned, and all praise her for ending this conflict and asserting authority over your kind. Some are unhappy that she arrived in time to save your people, but most are just pleased to see peace restored.’
‘That’s nice,’ Raythe drawled. ‘Is Zar all right?’
When he’d been briefly reunited with his daughter last night, he’d expected her to rejoin him, but she’d chosen to return to the Tangato village where she’d spent months as a prisoner. She’d also announced she was married to Onkado, son of the man who’d usurped Shiazar’s throne: a man of Aldar blood.
Onkado did it to protect me, but it’s not been consummated, she’d reassured him, and rationally, he understood – but he hated his inability to protect her.
‘Zarelda is well,’ Rima reassured him. ‘Midday, just over the bridge, Rangatira Raythe.’
Shiazar had made him rangatira, or chieftain of his ‘tribe’, the Ngati Magnia in her tongue. He wasn’t yet sure if that was a gift or a curse. ‘I’ll be there,’ he told her.
She bobbed her head and was gone, and Raythe turned back to the dawn, to prepare himself for the arguments and anger he’d face today.
‘My Queen believes strongly in your ability to talk.’
It was all right for Shiazar: she was Aldar and was revered by her people. Magnians, on the other hand, viewed dissent against authority as their Deo-given right. But that attitude also made them resilient and adaptable, virtues they’d certainly needed on this journey.
Thinking about the Tangato Queen and her Aldar blood was its own maze of miracles. Though Shiazar was the child of an Aldar woman and a Tangato man, being ‘part-Aldar’ didn’t really exist: anyone with Aldar blood was Aldar, a being of innate sorcery, requiring no familiar to use magic. She usually wore a mask, but he’d seen her inhumanly beautiful, timeless face and been entranced. She was a courageous woman, dedicated to all her people, Aldar and Tangato alike. In the short time he’d known her, he’d come to admire her immensely.
The sun broke through the eastern hills; bouncing shards of colour fractured on the unseen ice sheets beyond the rim of the Fenua Tangato, a sight to dazzle even his tired, jaded eyes. Then Magga Kern’s roosters crowed and a baby cried in the rooms below, setting off others.
It was time to rejoin his people and face their music.
‘Kragga mor, Raythe, could you not have gained us something?’ shouted Relf Turner.
‘Did ye promise them our firstborn while you were at it?’ Ardo Myle threw in.
A storm of voices rose, some adding to the condemnation, others backing him, making the Rim House courtyard throb. They’d woken to grief, trauma and empty stomachs, all of which distilled into vocal anger.
He’d explained the terms of his deal with Shiazar the previous evening and they’d accepted it then, for anything was better than death. But now they’d slept on it, of course they had a thousand questions, picking away at details he couldn’t even answer—
‘Will these barbarians try and kill us the moment we drop our guard?’
‘What about our guns? Will we have to give them up?’
‘Can’t we ever visit Magnia?’
‘Can’t we even trade?’
‘What does being a ‘tribe’ actually mean?’
‘Who owns the land we’ve been given?’
‘What’s a kragging rangatira anyway? What if we want another leader?’
He was about ready to tell them to go ahead and restart your kragging war – but that would do no one any good; this needed to be worked through. ‘The Pitlord writes in the margins’ went the old saying: you had to get the details right in any contract if you didn’t want the knives to come out later.
Thankfully, he had some support.
Vidar Vidarsson, the gruff Norgan ranger, called out, ‘You’re damned lucky we’ve got a Raythe to pull our fat from the fire.’
Jesco Duretto told them some of what he’d seen in the citadel above, concluding, ‘Without Raythe and Kemara, we were all done.’
Even Kemara, who seldom took Raythe’s side, admitted, ‘You know what I think of Lord Vyre most times. Well, this time, he got it right – thank Gerda and Deo.’
But it wasn’t until Mater Varahana, the shaven-scalped Deist priestess whose flock included most of the caravan, rose to speak that the tide of anger began to ebb. ‘Shame on you all,’ she started. ‘We’ve been gifted our lives, when we all expected to die. This is the beginning of a process, and after Raythe’s meeting with the Queen at noon, we’ll know more. And we all know one thing for sure: he’ll be fighting our corner – as he’s always done.’
That took the wind from the protestors’ sails, and though there were still mutterings, most agreed that Raythe had saved them and the rest could follow.
‘But we do need those answers,’ Gravis Tavernier grumbled. ‘We din’ come’re to found a colony, least of all one we don’ even rule. We was always meant to go home.’
‘Aye, an’ go home rich,’ Lynd Borger added.
‘So did I,’ Raythe admitted. ‘I fought the empire for four years before this trek, and I intended to return to that struggle. But sometimes our destinies don’t match our dreams. If Deo has denied me my chance at revenge, I’ll accept His will, not fight it.’
If you want to win an argument, invoke God, he thought, throwing Varahana a grateful look. Even better, get a priestess to do it for you.
With that, the debate more or less fizzled out. Time was passing and there was much to do. They needed to reclaim their homes in the bridge district and start rebuilding their lives, yet again.
As he made for the doors, Raythe glanced at Vidar. The Norgan’s attention was entirely on Varahana, watching her with aching eyes. He’s in love. He’d seen the signs, and heard how in the midst of the battle, the bearskin and the priestess had kissed. When Varahana looked back at Vidar, he knew it was mutual.
Something else we’ll have to work out, Raythe worried, as he headed for the bridge.
Cal Foaley, the senior hunter, joined him on the road down. ‘Looks like the Tangato are keeping their side of the deal, Raythe. They’re recovering bodies but keeping clear of us, for now, at least.’
That was a major concession, as there were many Tangato bodies in the city. Raythe took it as a sign that Shiazar was in control of her people.
‘Keep your eyes open. I trust Shiazar, but some might hold a grudge.’
Foaley raised a thumb. ‘Already on it, Chief . . . or “Rangatira”, if you prefer?’
Raythe snorted humourlessly as they parted, but he was immediately intercepted by Kemara Solus, their healer and mizra-sorceress. ‘Lord Vyre,’ she greeted him ironically, as she fell into step.
‘Thanks for speaking up,’ he replied. ‘It’s appreciated.’
‘It’s the most I could do,’ she answered drily.
Up close, she looked terrible. She was naturally pale, like most redheads, but today she looked completely wrung out, her eyes bloodshot and her lips cracked. Her thick hair was matted and dirty and she was covered in bruises, cuts and grazes. Yesterday she’d lost more than most: she’d freed her mizra familiar, banishing that dark spirit. She was, right now, a sorceress without magic.
Back in the empire, mizra-witches like her were burned, and even out here, they hadn’t dared let anyone else know what she was. But she and Raythe shared a sorcerous meld. That was a rare occurrence, even between praxis-sorcerers – and unprecedented between the different strands of magic. They’d overcome much by working together. He feared what she was, but he needed her.
‘We’ll get you a new familiar,’ he said quietly. ‘I mean it. Our meld has saved our lives, and many times over.’
‘So you want me restored to being useful,’ she harrumphed, difficult as ever.
‘I value you, Kemara—’
‘How sweet – whereas I regard you as a half-arsed chancer who takes on massive tasks with no real plan or preparation, relying on wits and luck to pull you through.’
Harsh . . .
‘No one’s perfect.’
‘Kragga mor.’ She met his gaze. ‘Honestly? The mizra was killing me. I don’t want it.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said regretfully, and turned to move on, but she caught his arm.
‘I haven’t given up entirely. Rima has a form of magic she calls “maho”. She says she can teach me, as she did Zarelda.’ She sounded unusually hopeful.
‘I’m told it nearly killed Zar,’ Raythe warned, ‘and you’re our only fully trained healer and midwife.’
‘I won’t risk it until we’re through this mess,’ she assured him, then she gave him a hard look. ‘Will you really stop fighting the empire? Or were those just political words?’
Not long ago, he’d have died before giving up, but it felt impossible now. ‘I meant it.’
‘Look at you, going all “better man” on us,’ she snorted, before pointing upwards. ‘What about that floating castle? You’ve seen what’s up there: hourglasses that stop time . . . and enough istariol to level a mountain. We must have a say about how it’s handled.’
She wasn’t wrong, although it was uncharacteristically big-picture thinking for Kemara; she usually only fought her own corner. ‘Absolutely,’ Raythe agreed. ‘I’ve told Queen Shiazar she needs our help with it. She’ll keep us involved, I’m sure.’
Kemara raised sceptical eyebrows. ‘Your new sweetheart.’
‘She is not,’ he answered curtly.
‘Knew that’d rile you.’ Kemara drawled. ‘Go on, Lord Vyre, go and play at rangatira – and don’t give her an inch.’
When she turned to go, he called, ‘Wait – why don’t you come with me? You’re a sorcerer – a mahotsu-kai, as they say here. They’ll accept your right to attend. And you’re worth listening to – even if you think I don’t.’
He doubted she’d ever thought of herself in such a way, despite being part of his leadership group from the first day.
But she shook her head. ‘We’ve got to move the wounded back to the infirmary, and two women are close to labour. I can’t waste time jawing with the high and mighty.’
He went to protest, then let her go. Chances are we would end up arguing in front of the Tangato chiefs, anyway. No one needs that.
He went to meet the Queen of the Tangato.
Zarelda Vyre was washed and dressed early. Today would be her first time attending upon the Queen. Nerves and the trauma of the previous day had kept her awake most of the night and now she was yawning as she sat at her door, watching the Tangato village come to life.
Her secret wedding to Onkado, her escape and frantic flight to the city still made her head spin. But she knew her warning of the Tangato attack from the rear had saved lives. And she’d survived the fighting – although she’d hated having to kill – and now they had a truce. She was still struggling to take it all in.
But her thoughts were mostly of Banno Rhamp, who she’d thought she loved; and Onkado of the Manowai, who’d protected her when no one else could.
She and Onkado hadn’t consummated their marriage, so by Magnian law, it could be annulled. But it wasn’t a Magnian marriage, Zar thought, so who knows? And if it is annulled, I’ll lose my right to plead for his life and Shiazar will be obliged to execute him, to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for another coup.
It should have been simple: let Onkado die and the problem went away. She could go back to her people and marry Banno, and everyone would think she’d done the right thing.
But in all the chaos, Banno had broken her blind faith in him. The young warrior Hekami had saved her from drowning, but Banno, thinking Hekami was attacking Zar, had killed him. When she’d confronted him, shocked and upset, Banno had struck her.
‘He hit me,’ she whispered aloud. He’d given her a ‘tap’, he’d said – like men do to hysterical women.
She wasn’t sure she could ever forgive him for that, so after her father had accepted terms, it’d been easiest to plead tiredness and return to the Hiriwa village, trusting in Shiazar’s authority that she’d be safe, and giving her time alone to think things over.
And as for the new treaty and the prospect of staying here for ever? Back in Magnia, Father and I were fugitives and all we did was run and hide. But here, I’m a mahotsu-kai serving an Aldar Queen!
And then there was Onkado . . .
She remembered standing with him before Kuia, the Tangato priestess who’d married them, and how his unmasked Aldar face had amazed her, beautiful and eerie as a mountain at dawn, a lord of light and air. And how brave and noble he’d been, and thoughtful.
He could have had anyone, but he chose to protect me, even though it enraged his father.
Perhaps it was just chivalry? But what if it was more? Banno was solid, eager and comforting, but utterly earthbound. Onkado’s mystery fascinated her. She’d always wanted a life that was more than ordinary, and she firmly believed that had planted the seed of sorcery inside her. I want to find out more about him. Admitting that to herself made her gut churn, but it didn’t change her mind. She remembered her mother Mirella saying ‘we’re so alike’ – meaning, she was drawn to shiny things and tenacious in pursuing them. She pushed that thought away; she hated thinking about her mother, who was a Mandaryke now.
Just then, Rima appeared, calling, ‘Are you ready? The Queen’s about to leave.’
They pressed noses in greeting and Rima grinned and brushed her fingers over Zar’s ridged chin, which bore similar tattoos to her own. ‘It’s your first time attending her in counsel, so just follow my lead – and stay silent unless you’re invited to speak.’
‘Will the chiefs accept me?’
‘Of course – the Queen commands it. You’re one of us now.’
Clearly not everyone thought so, judging by the surly looks she got from the rangatiras and mahotsu-kai of the sub-tribes gathered outside Shiazar’s wood-and-bamboo palace. The gaudily coloured royal palanquin awaited, with four bronze-skinned warriors dressed in ceremonial flax kilts waiting to heft it. To Zar’s eyes, Tangato culture was a strange mix of almost barbaric simplicity and intricate beauty.
A gong sounded, silk-screen doors opened and the Queen emerged.
Yesterday, Shiazar had descended from Shiro Kamigami holding the head of the usurper Ikendo, with Onkado, his son, kneeling at her feet. She’d been masked, armoured and drenched in blood: a true Goddess of War.
Today, she was clad in beautiful emerald and yellow silks, which, Rima whispered, symbolised peace. Her mask was yellow too, rimmed with leaves of oak and laurel, and her hair was piled up in a delicate tower. She was once again the remote, doll-like figure who ruled with a light – if absolute – touch.
Everyone fell to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the ground, even those chiefs who’d actively supported the usurper. That was expected to be forgotten now.
Zar ran her eye over the rangatiras, wondering what her father would make of them. Sitoko of the Wakatoa tribe, a big man and reputedly cunning. Natomo now led the Hiriwa, his predecessor having died in Ikendo’s revolt. He was a silver fox who looked more politician than warrior. The Tanuahi, the second biggest tribe, were led by plump old Monarohi, who stood with Kuia, his tribal sorceress. Behind were Ihanodo of the Puketapu and Ranakodo of the Rotomaho, allied and of an age.
Shiazar walked past the five rangatiras, acknowledging each before halting before a sixth figure, a kneeling woman. ‘Anata ha darei?’ she asked, in her cool, musical voice.
Who are you? Zar’s familiar, Adefar, translated inside her head.
The woman, who looked about Zar’s age, raised her head. ‘I am Haru. Ikendo was my husband. I surrender myself to your will, Great Queen.’
‘Are you with child?’ the Queen asked.
‘No, Great Queen.’
‘Do you have living children? Clearly Onkado is not yours.’
‘No. And I knew nothing of Ikendo’s true nature,’ Haru said meekly.
The Aldar used ‘flesh masks’ made of real human skin to move incognito among the tribe, Zar knew, but it seemed improbable that this woman hadn’t even suspected that her husband and his son weren’t human.
Nevertheless, Shiazar chose leniency. ‘There will be no retribution. You are an honoured widow, entitled to all that brings. But who now claims leadership of the Manowai, Ikendo’s tribe?’
There was a stir among the warriors, then a burly man stepped forward. ‘I am Kotabashi, shoganai of the Manowai. As warleader, I submit myself as temporary leader of my tribe, until a new chieftain is appointed. Our mahotsu-kai are also dead, so only I have the experience.’
Zar shuddered, remembering the two Manowai sorcerers who’d tried to murder her; she knew it was mostly by luck she’d managed to kill them instead.
‘What of Onkado, son of Ikendo?’ Shiazar asked.
‘Onkado is a traitor to your rule,’ Kotabashi replied warily. ‘The penalty for treason is death – yet his wife refuses his execution.’
Everyone looked at Zar, who was that wife. The doubtful inflection he’d placed on the word ‘wife’ was unmistakable. He’s testing the waters, Zar sensed. Would Shiazar truly execute an Aldar, one of her own kind? Would she punish the Manowai for Ikendo’s revolt? Did she even countenance Onkado’s marriage?
Why the Tangato had a law allowing a spouse to prevent the execution of their partner, Zar had no idea. Perhaps it came from the early days of the Ice Age, when they could ill afford to lose anyone, even a criminal.
But I bet it suits Shiazar just fine to have the Manowai, the most dissident tribe, shorn of a true voice, she thought. Even though Kotabashi clearly thinks he should be rangatira now.
Shiazar considered, then said, ‘It’s not right that the Manowai do not sit upon my council of chiefs, and Onkado cannot be both rangatira and Yokei. The Manowai have my permission to elect a new rangatira. In the meantime, you may represent the Manowai.’
‘I shall serve her Majesty as if I were rangatira of my tribe,’ Kotabashi vowed.
‘Then come, all. The sun is high and there is much to discuss.’
Zar glanced at Rima, who gave her a firm nod. With Hetaru dead, Rima was now the senior sorceress of her tribe, and that made Zar her second. Here she was, barely sixteen years old, and from another culture, but somehow on the Queen’s council. She held her head high and joined Shiazar’s entourage like she belonged there.
Conscious of Kotabashi’s hostile gaze as she passed, she looked back suddenly and made a hand gesture Rima had showed her: the first two fingers placed to the eyes in a backwards vee: it meant You’re not worthy, so look elsewhere, more or less. Everyone saw, and Kotabashi went puce, but he dared not retaliate.
Making enemies wherever I go, she grinned inwardly. I’m a true Vyre.
Banno sat hunched over the body of his father. They’d found Sir Elgus Rhamp’s corpse near the gatehouse, and his remaining mercenaries – just a score left, now – had cleaned him up, combed his hair and beard and laid him in repose. Elgus had led the defence heroically, everyone said; even men who didn’t like him praised his spirit in that desperate last hour.
Gerda herself will raise him up, some were saying, although why Deo’s maiden would interest herself in a backsliding bully like Elgus, Banno had no idea. And heroic or not, everyone in his company had perished, apart from the twenty-odd married men he had permitted to retreat, under Tom Corday’s command. Tom was sensible and competent – not the usual type of man Elgus hired – and he’d been running things since, collecting bodies and preparing them for burial, ensuring any bequests were handled properly.
Banno knew he should be taking charge, showing he could lead, but that would mean opening himself up for challenge and possibly mortal combat. I don’t give a shit about that, he thought numbly. I’m glad the old bastard is dead and I don’t want the captaincy. Elgus had been a treacherous thug, not at all what Banno aspired to be. His grief right now was for himself. I’ve ruined it with Zar . . . I’ve ruined everything.
Why he’d slapped her, he could no longer say. They’d both been overwrought, having barely survived drowning in the river, and she’d been screaming at him about that stupid Tangato, and his hand had just swung. If he could have recalled that blow by cutting off that errant limb, he would have.
I thought that savage was trying to kill her – why can’t she understand that? he asked himself for the thousandth time.
Clearly, he needed to talk to her.
Abruptly, he realised that the room has gone silent: the priestess, Mater Varahana, had entered with her shadow, the hulking Norgan bearskin, who was oozing menace.
‘Our sympathy for your loss, Banno,’ Varahana said gently. ‘I’m here to give Gerda’s Final Blessing. Have you chosen the grave goods?’
Deo, I’ve not given it a thought.
‘Um . . . his sword is, uh, a family heirloom . . . His Gerda medallion?’
Varahana gave him a kindly smile and made the holy signs over Elgus’ body. He’d been killed by enemy sorcerers, who’d broken his neck, but there were no other serious wounds. A gravesite on the other side of the bridge had been chosen, and a mass burial was planned for the next day.
‘Are you all right, lad?’ the priestess asked softly, for his ears only.
When he nodded bleakly, she patted his arm, then moved on to the next body, Vidar close at her side. The watching mercenaries had shunned her religious services at Elgus’ behest, because Varahana supported Raythe Vyre, but soldiers were notoriously superstitious, and by extension, religious. Now everyone had bowed their heads and were mumbling prayers for the fallen.
When they left, everyone turned to face Banno.
The time had come.
I’ll stand down – let the company carry on without me. I don’t care.
But before he could speak, Tom Corday stepped forward and said, ‘So, this was always the Rhamp band, and as far as I can see, it still is. Anyone got words to say on that?’
Banno blinked, then he thought he understood. Tom had always been Number Two – perhaps he doesn’t want to be Captain, even though he’s the best soldier left?
But he wasn’t necessarily the best swordsman . . .
Banno held his breath, waiting for the challenges to rain in, for drawn blades and blood.
No one said a word for what felt like a month.
Then Tom Corday nodded, as if it was just as he’d thought. ‘It’s settled. Banno leads. Lad? Who’s your lieutenant gonna be?’
Banno swallowed. ‘Uh, right . . . You – you, Tom, of course it’s you.’
‘We’ll give your Pa a good send-off, lad. I promise ye that.’
Corday’s eyes told Banno who was really in charge.
The next few minutes were surreal as the mercenaries – every of them considerably older than him – filed up to Banno to kiss the hilt of his sword and pledge their loyalty. He kept having flashes of them pulling hidden knives and stabbing him, a waking nightmare he couldn’t shake.
Finally it was over and he was left alone with Tom, who asked, ‘So, what’s on your mind?’
To Banno’s surprise, his mouth opened and he just vented, from some deep pit of fear and rage inside him. ‘I want to ask Raythe kragging Vyre what in the Pit he thinks he’s doing, bowing and scraping to some Tangato whore and selling our lives into slavery when he promised me his daughter and said he’d make us all rich. Instead, what’ve we got? Nothing! Nothing at all, except friends and fathers to bury. I want to take what we were guaranteed and get out, whether Lord bloody Vyre likes it or nor.’
Abruptly his brain caught up and he slammed him mouth shut. He realised he was shaking, as if he was having a fit.
The grey-flecked sandy-haired veteran shook his head. ‘Nay, lad. That’s gone. There’s no will for that any more. The wild lads who would’ve backed you on that are all dead. Those left are family men, level-headed enough in their way – like you when you’re calm. Think about what you’re saying. We’re thousands of miles from an empire that has beaten us all down. If we walk back into it with a handful of istariol to peddle, we’ll be betrayed to the Bolgies and kragged over in pretty short order. Here, well, we’ve got a bit of freedom, and we can finally get out of the killing business. Raythe Vyre’s a tricky bastard, mark you, but he knows when to accept the hand that’s been dealt. You do the same and you’ll be fine. Maybe even win your girl back, too.’
Banno thought about that. He was self-aware enough to know that
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