The old swordsman was kneeling in the dirt, blowing on the embers of last night’s fire when he saw the boy approaching. He paused, keeping low to the dusty ground as he watched the boy start up the hill toward his campsite. The boy was a tall one, skinny and fair but with the large shoulders and wide ribs that spoke of the man he’d become once he finished growing into them. The swordsman pegged him at seventeen, maybe a little younger, but he wore the two short swords at his hips like he knew how to use them.
The swordsman sat back with a long sigh and glanced at the great, black sword stabbed in the sand beside him.
“They never give up, do they?”
“No,” the sword answered. “Thank the Powers. I think we’d both die of boredom if they stopped coming.”
The swordsman sighed. “Speak for yourself.”
The sword didn’t answer, but the ground creaked as it settled itself deeper. The old swordsman shook his head and sat back to wait.
It took the boy the better part of an hour to climb to the top of the old swordsman’s hill. At last, he pulled himself over the final boulders and stepped panting into the circle of dusty brush outside the cave where the swordsman made his home. He caught his breath and straightened up, fixing his eyes on the swordsman with a challenging glare.
“I’m looking for Milo Burch,” he announced. “You him?”
The old swordsman frowned. “Why would a boy like you be looking for an old has-been like Burch?”
The boy stepped forward, planting his feet in first position. “I’ve heard he’s the greatest swordsman in the world, wielder of the legendary Heart of War. I’ve come to challenge him.”
“Really?” The old man rubbed his graying beard. “How did you get here?”
The boy paused, thrown for a second. “I walked.”
The swordsman looked at him, and then looked out over the scrubby, flat desert that stretched as far as he could see in all directions. “You walked?” he said. “Alone?”
“Yes, alone.” The boy’s voice was growing frustrated. “Are you Milo Burch or not? I was told he lived out here. If you’re not him, then I’ll be going.”
“Let’s say I am,” the swordsman said. “Who would be asking?”
The boy straightened up. “I am Josef Liechten, and I demand a duel for the title of greatest swordsman.”
The swordsman started to laugh. “You demand it, do you?” He choked out at last, wiping his eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll be a little disappointed. ‘Greatest swordsman’ isn't a hat you can pass around, and it’s not like there’s anyone out here to see your victory over an old man.” The wind blew as he spoke, its lonely whistle a sharp reminder of the vast emptiness around them.
The boy set his jaw stubbornly. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Are you going to fight or not? I didn’t walk all the way out here to stand around talking.”
The old swordsman stood with a deep sigh and walked over to the scrabbly tree that grew just beside the little space he used as his fire pit. “You certainly sound determined, Josef Liechten,” he said, reaching up to break off a dry branch. “I’m too old to go tumbling around with kids, but I can see that trying to talk you out of this duel nonsense would be nothing but a waste of breath.”
The boy, Josef, nodded.
The swordsman turned, holding up the branch he’d just taken from the tree. “How about we make a deal? If you can break this, I’ll fight you.”
Josef stared at the stick in the man’s hand. It was a sad thing, knobby and dead, its ends already cracking under the force of the old man’s grip.
“I think it would be a greater challenge not to break it,” he said, his voice turning cautious. “Is this some kind of trick?”
“If it was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you,” the old man said, his tanned, leathery face breaking into a grin. “Then again, the greatest swordsman in the world would hardly have to resort to tricks, don’t you think?”
Josef glowered and shifted his feet. “All I have to do is break the stick,” he said slowly. “Just break it, and you’ll fight me for real?”
The old swordsman nodded. “That’s it.”
Josef scowled, and then he drew his swords. They were good work, the old man noticed. Well balanced and a good size for Josef’s reach. It seemed the boy knew something. That was good. He was too old to waste energy on idiots.
“Come at me whenever you’re ready,” he said, lifting his stick.
With one final, annoyed look, Josef charged.
It was a good assault, a straight-on rush and then, three steps in, a feint to the left. Milo Burch stayed still just long enough to let the boy think he’d fallen for it and then quietly ducked out of the way. The boy charged past him and stopped, boots skidding on the loose dirt. He turned around, panting. Mile smiled at him, resting the stick on his shoulder.
“That was good,” he said. “Perhaps you should try—”
Josef was running before he could finish, cutting around to Milo’s left. Again, Milo let him get just close enough to commit to the blow before ducking down. Josef’s sword whistled over his head, and the boy stumbled past him. Josef cursed loudly, and Milo stepped right to avoid the second sword that thrust from below. He spun around as Josef carried the thrust through, bopping the boy on the head with the stick as he passed.
Josef yelped in surprise and stumbled, falling to the ground. Milo sighed.
“If I’d taken your duel, that would have been the end, you know,” he said, swinging his stick. “I won’t think less of you if you want to give up.”
He’d barely finished when Josef dropped the sword in his left hand. The knife came a second later. Milo opened his hand, letting the stick drop in his grip just before the knife sliced through the air where it had been. As soon as the knife was past, he sidestepped again as Josef followed through with a lunge at his legs.
“Again, not bad,” Milo said, grinning. “Why don’t you—”
“Shut up!” Josef shouted, grabbing for the stick with his now-empty left hand.
Milo stepped neatly out of his reach, making Josef stumble as he overbalanced. The boy was panting now, his face red from the sun and slick with sweat.
“You’re not a bad fighter, you know,” Milo said gently. “Surely you’re good enough to see the difference between us. You know you can’t win. There’s no point in pushing yourself.”
Josef scowled at him, breathing hard, and then flicked another knife right at Milo’s hand.
This went on all afternoon. Josef would attack and Milo would step out of the way. Josef never attacked the same way twice, but the end result never changed. As day wore into evening, Josef’s lunges grew slower, but he did not stop until finally, as the sun sank below the horizon, he tripped and fell and did not get up again.
Milo leaned on his stick. “Are we done?”
Josef didn’t answer. He just lay in the dirt, panting. Milo sighed and set the stick on the ground beside the fire. He walked over and shoving his hands under Josef’s arms began dragging him toward the cave.
“What are you doing?” Josef gasped.
“Keeping you from dying of dehydration,” Milo said. “I also imagine you would like some food.”
Josef stared at him. “But I’m your enemy,” he said, the words wheezing.
“You’re the only one who said that,” Milo said. “I was sitting here minding my own business.” He dumped Josef unceremoniously on the floor of the cave. “Do you want some water or not?”
“Yes, please,” Josef said, lying flat on his back. “Thank you.”
“Polite,” Milo said, handing him the water skin. “I like that.”
Josef was too focused on drinking to answer.
He drank the entire water skin and half of another, and then ate the five loaves of bread that were meant to keep Milo the next week. He was still chewing when he fell asleep. When he was sure the boy was out, Milo tossed his blanket over the boy and walked out to sit beside the great black sword that was still staked beside the fire.
“What do you think?”
“He's stubborn as a rock,” the sword said. “He’s slow, his movements lack subtlety, and he has no grace.”
Milo arched a white eyebrow. “Since when do you care about grace?”
“A minimum is required,” the sword grumbled. “Still, he lasted five hours. That’s the best yet.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Milo said, rubbing his aching arms. Dodging all day was harder than it used to be. “He’s spirit deaf, you know.”
He felt the sword’s ambivalence brush over him like a shrug. “I’ve had many deaf wielders. Hearing isn’t what matters. It’s everything else.”
“Well, you’ll have to stop being so picky,” Milo said quietly. “We don’t have much time left.”
“I have all the time in the world,” the sword answered. “Still, we’ll see. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“Tomorrow,” Milo said, lying back to watch the moon rising over the desert.
Josef woke with the sun in his eyes and the old man standing over him, poking him in the shoulder with the hated stick.
“Morning,” Milo said, grinning.
Josef smiled back, and then, fast as he could, rolled to grab the stick. For a second it was in his grasp before the old man snatched it away.
“Nice try.” He sounded genuinely impressed. “Shall we begin?”
Josef pushed himself up, wincing as every muscle in his body protested, and reached for his swords.
They fought all morning with nothing to show. Everything Josef tried, the old man countered. The desert sun was brutal, burning Josef’s skin through his shirt. Sweat soaked everything he owned, but he did not let himself stop. The old man had yet to admit it, but there was no more question in Josef’s mind. He was fighting Milo Burch, the greatest swordsman in the world, famous across all the Council Kingdoms. It had to be him; no one else could be this fast. This was the reason he’d traveled all the way to the desert, why he’d walked through the heat and the burning sand for two days. It didn’t matter if Burch was toying with him; he could not lose now. Not when he was this close.
Noon came and Josef kept going. His movements were jerky, and he could scarcely see through the burning sweat in his eyes. His limbs were so tired he actually dropped his sword a few times, but he pushed on until, at last, there was simply nothing left to push.
He didn’t realize he’d fallen until he saw Milo standing over him, pressing a water skin to his cracked, dry lips.
“You know,” he said softly, “there’s a fine line between being determined and being an idiot. If you keep this up, I won’t have to lift a sword to kill you. You’ll kill yourself.”
Josef choked on the water. He tried to sit up, but he had no strength left in his back. In the end, he settled for lying back and letting the water trickle down his throat.
“Josef,” Milo said. “Give up, would you? When you’re as old as I am, you’ve seen enough of the world to recognize its patterns. You think you’re unique, but I’ve seen you dozens of times. Let me guess: You were the best swordsman in your village, or wherever you came from. Sword work came as easy to you as breathing, and soon there was no one who could give you a challenge. You took to wandering, fighting whoever was strong enough to teach you something. You’ve probably defeated a hundred men, haven’t you?”
“More,” Josef croaked.
Milo shrugged. “Your problem is you’re young. Impatient. You think that by beating me you can somehow jump to the top, but you can’t. You can’t beat me, and you can’t jump ahead. The sword must be earned, Josef. Strength that comes easily is no strength at all.”
Josef opened his eyes, squinting in the bright light. “I know that,” he whispered. “But I’m not fighting for strength.”
The old man’s face was too far away for him to focus on, but Josef felt him frown. “What are you fighting for?”
“I hurt a lot of people when I decided to be a swordsman,” Josef wheezed. “Let a lot of people down. That’s why I have to be the strongest.”
“Do these people care if you’re the strongest?” Milo said quietly.
Josef shook his head. “But they will,” he said. “I have to show them—”
His words broke into coughs as he choked on the water again. It didn’t matter, though. Milo finished for him.
“You have to be the strongest to give meaning to their suffering,” he said, tilting his head.
Josef nodded, breathing deeply as the coughing subsided. “I was the one who left. If I’m not the best, then I hurt her for no reason.”
“That’s a dangerous way to think,” Milo said quietly. “There’s a good chance you will never be the best. That you will die alone and forgotten, remembered only as a disappointment.”
“I don’t believe in chance,” Josef whispered. He looked at Milo and raised his sword. His hand shook as he lifted it, the sword sliding in his weakening grip. Josef forced himself to be calm, to be strong one last moment. The shaking slowed, and then, for one breath, stopped. That was when Josef moved.
He tossed his sword into the air, over Milo’s head. The old man’s eye went wide, but Josef grabbed the old man’s wrist where he was holding the water bottle, pinning him in place. Trapped, the old swordsman could only watch as Josef’s short sword flew through the air, spinning in wobbly arcs, and landed behind him, on top of the stick he’d laid aside when he knelt to help Josef. The blade landed sideways, bouncing away the moment it stuck, but the branch was old and brittle, and it was enough. The stick cracked with a soft pop, breaking into two ragged halves.
For a moment, all Milo could do was sit there, watching the broken remains of his stick rocking in the hot desert wind. Then he turned and looked at Josef with a strange, bemused expression on his weatherworn face. Josef grinned back.
“I never stop fighting,” he said. “I’m holding you to your word, Milo Burch.”
“And I never go back on my word,” Milo said with a sigh. “Tomorrow, then. At dawn.”
Josef nodded and released the old man’s hand. He grabbed the water skin and drank until he drained it. When he was finished, he crawled across the baked ground and collapsed on a blanket just inside the cave, falling asleep instantly.
Milo picked up the broken pieces of his stick. When he had them both, he sat down with his back against the broad slab of scarred black metal that stood rooted in the sand and began feeding the pieces into the fire.
When Josef woke the next morning, the cave was empty. He took a long drink from the water barrel and helped himself to a breakfast of bread and dried apples from the swordsman’s supplies. When he finished, he grabbed his sword from where he’d dropped it and walked out onto the hilltop.
Milo Burch was already there, sitting beside the now cold fire pit with his back against the massive, black metal shape that dominated the open space. As Josef stepped into the sandy ring around the fire, Milo held out the sword Josef had thrown to break the stick. Josef took it, sheathing it opposite its brother on his hip. When they were both ready, he took his stance and waited for Milo to begin.
The old swordsman stood with a sigh, rubbing the small of his back as he straightened. But his hands were empty as he turned to face Josef.
“Wait,” Josef said. “Where’s your sword? I’m here to fight the master of the Heart of War. Let’s see it.”
Milo shook his head and laid his hand on the wrapped handle of the great metal monster in the ground beside him. Josef’s eyes widened. The black slab was enormous. He couldn’t even think of what it must weigh. A man Milo’s size shouldn’t even have had the muscle to lift something that heavy, and yet the old swordsman pulled it up as easy as a farmer pulling a weed out of new-tilled dirt.
“I thought we agreed, no more games,” Josef said. “What is that thing? Where’s your sword? Where’s the Heart of War?”
“This is the Heart of War,” Milo said, swinging the black blade in front of him.
Josef almost laughed out loud. “That is the Heart of War? That…that iron post is the greatest awakened blade ever made? You’re kidding. It doesn’t even have a sharp edge. It couldn’t cut paper.”
Milo smiled. “A sword cuts whatever its swordsman wants it to cut. The Heart is no different.”
Josef scowled. “We’ll see.”
They took their positions on either side of the dead fire. Josef readied his blades, keeping the man’s movements from their earlier fights clear in his mind. He almost thought the old man should have stuck to the stick. There was no way he could move fast enough carrying that enormous weight. There had to be a trick or something. Maybe the sword was hollow? Something that large couldn’t be solid metal, not if a human was meant to lift it. Still, the few awakened blades he’d beaten had all had their own oddities. He’d just have to push and see what happened.
“You know,” Milo said. “You don’t have to go through with this. I meant it when I said you were a good swordsman. Give you a few years and you could very well become the best, but not yet. The Heart won’t let me hold back. You should stop now, while you still can.”
“I told you before,” Josef said. “I never stop. I can’t stop.” He raised his sword. “Guard yourself.”
The words had barely left his mouth when he lunged. He pushed forward, slamming his feet down faster than he ever had before. He would get only once chance. He’d learned the first day that he couldn’t beat the old man in speed, but yesterday he’d proven he could still trick him. He’d seen the strain in Milo as he stood up. The days of fighting had taken their toll on his old body. Now, weighed down with that enormous sword, especially after so long fighting with a stick that weighed nothing, there would be a hesitation in his first swing as his body got used to the weight difference. That was when Josef had to strike.
He rushed forward, boots pounding on the sand, watching the old man’s arm for the moment he lifted the sword to parry. He had to parry. What else could you do with a sword that big? But the old man didn’t move. He just stood there, watching as Josef came closer and closer. When he was one step away, Josef realized he might have been wrong. The old man might be too slow to catch him. There might be no need to wait for the hesitation in the parry. Already his swords were racing for the man’s torso, one high, one low, and for one shining moment, Josef thought he might actually land the blow before Milo could move.
One moment, that’s all it was. And in that moment, Milo Burch attacked.
It happened so fast Josef couldn’t see the blows, but he felt them. There were three in the space of a second. The first shattered his left sword, the second broke his right, and the third hit him dead across the chest. That last blow knocked the breath from his lungs and sent him flying backward. He hit the side of the hill like a stone hurled from a catapult. For a moment, all he could feel was the rough ground on his back and the strange sensation of air against his chest through his sundered shirt, and then pain like he’d never felt before slammed down and he hit the ground with a sound that would have been a scream had he still had breath.
He floundered in the dirt, his whole body convulsing. Somehow, he ended up on his back again. That was when he saw it, though it took him several moments to realize that the bloody mess he was looking at was his own chest.
A deep, perfect cut ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. It was perfectly straight, as though he’d been cut by a razor, but so deep he had to look away. When he turned his head, he saw Milo crouching beside him, leaning on the Heart of War as he bent down to whisper in Josef’s ear.
“Worst pain you’ve ever felt, isn’t it?”
Gasping, Josef could only nod.
“This is the pain of defeat,” the old swordsman said. “You are dying. I have defeated you utterly. Even if I were to bind your wound right now, there’s no saving your life. This is the end. So now I’ll ask you: Was it worth it?”
Josef looked at him and wheezed, “Yes.”
Milo paused. “And if you’d known this was how it ended, would you still have broken the stick?”
“Yes,” Josef said, his voice little more than a grating of breath. “I would rather die trying than ever give up.”
“Is that so?” Milo said. “Then prove it. Take another breath.”
Josef grimaced and looked down at his sundered chest. He tried to talk, but he had no air for the words.
“I can’t,” he mouthed.
“If you can’t, then all your struggles to this point, all the pain you’ve caused, it’s all for nothing,” Milo said, his voice taut. “Take another breath, Josef Liechten.”
Josef closed his eyes and focused on his lungs. For an eternity, nothing happened. His body was going stiff. Nothing would obey him. He concentrated, pouring every speck of his consciousness into that one action. The pain was so intense now he could barely think, but he felt his chest rise and fall, and suddenly he had air again.
His eyes popped open just in time to see Milo’s face break into a grand smile. The old man held out his hand, offering something. Josef blinked, it was dark and heavy and, he could see now, larger than it looked.
“If you walk the path of the swordsman, you will feel this pain hundreds of times,” Milo said. “You will never know a moment’s peace, even if you move to a hill in the middle of the desert. Your life will be brutish, violent, and most likely short but it will also be glorious. This is what it means to live your life on the sword. You said you would rather die trying than give up. Now you must try living, or die. If you want to live, Josef Liechten, then reach out as far as you can and take your sword. Rise a swordsman, the master of the Heart of War, or do not rise at all.”
His words fluttered against Josef’s ears. The world felt very far away now. Even the pain was going, but Josef could still see the black shape of the sword hovering high above him. With the last of his will, he lifted his arm. He saw his hand moving above him, his fingers stretching up to clutch the wrapped handle. The moment his fingers made contact, a voice deeper and broader than any voice he’d ever heard spoke through him.
Welcome to your rebirth, swordsman. The words were more vibration than sound, but they were clear as carvings in his mind. As you gave your life to become a swordsman, so did I give my life to become a sword. We are the same, you and I. Will you fight with me?
Josef could not speak, but the answer echoed in his mind.
It is done, the voice said. Welcome to your mountain, master of the Heart of War.
As the voice faded from his mind, so did the pain. Strength like Josef had never felt flowed into his body. All at once he could breathe again. His eyes were clear and open to the world. His arms moved without pain, and he was able to stand enough to let Milo guide him back to the cave and wrap him in the blankets, all the while dragging the massive black blade behind him.
He fell asleep the moment Milo lay him flat, the Heart of War clutched to his chest. How long he slept, Josef never knew, but when he woke it was night and Milo Burch was gone. The cave was empty except for the bloody blankets Josef lay on, the water barrel, and a large supply of food. A loaf of bread and a water skin lay on the ground beside his head, and Josef ate greedily before falling asleep again. When he woke next, it was evening. This time he was strong enough to stand. He went looking for Milo, but the old swordsman was gone. There was, however, a message scratched in soot on the cave wall.
After fifty years as a swordsman, it read, I think I’ve earned the right to live my last few as just a man. Remember why you fight, Josef Liechten, and the Heart of War will never forsake you.
That was it. No name, no date, no direction. Josef smiled. Nothing else was needed. He read the note twice and then rubbed it out with his palm. He gathered the food and as much water as he could carry. Then, tying the great black blade across his back with strips torn from the blood-ruined blankets, Josef Liechten, master of the Heart of War, set off into the desert to become the world’s greatest swordsman.
Den the Warlord, unknowing owner of the highest bounty the Council of Thrones had ever issued, was bashing his way through a jungle. He ripped out the waxy green plants in wet handfuls, kicking the rotten ground whenever it tried to trip him. Insects whizzed by in the humid air above his head, flying at his eyes whenever they dared, biting and stinging and all the while buzzing, “Go away! Go away!”
Den smacked them out of the air and kept going.
He knew by this point that the jungle was another dead end, but he had nowhere else to go but through it. So through it he went, smashing the undergrowth with mechanical efficiency until he spotted something white through the trees. Den slowed at once, sliding into a stance as he pushed the last of the broad leaves back. There, hanging directly in his path between two large trees, was a hole in the world. The hole was rectangular, an inch taller than himself, which was to say very tall indeed, and easily wide enough for him to walk through. Its edges were smooth and white, and they shone brighter than the noon sun reflected off water, which explained the flash he’d seen earlier. But strangest of all was that the jungle he saw through the opening was not the one he stood in. It was as thick as his jungle, just as green and overgrown, but the wind that drifted through the white-edged hole was hotter than the humid air around him. The soil on the other side was sandier, the trees denser and older. Though he’d been following a ridge in this jungle, the new jungle was flat, the land unremarkable save for a knot of trees directly ahead, their roots tangled around the entrance of what looked to be a small dirt cave.
Den frowned and took a moment to consider. He’d seen such a portal once before, the only time he’d ever managed to corner a League man. His face broke into a grin at the memory. That had been a good fight.
If he hadn’t already decided his jungle was a dead end, that thought alone was enough to decide for him. Smiling in anticipation, Den stepped forward, ducking through the portal. When his feet hit the ground on the other side, he took up a defensive position, looking for his opponent. But the new jungle was as empty as the old one had been, its trees tossing in the lonely wind. Feeling cheated, Den turned back only to find that the portal was gone, leaving nothing but a fading white line in the baking air.
Den snarled. It wasn’t that he was angry to leave the first jungle. When you were searching blindly as he was, one place was as good as the next. But he didn’t like unknowns, and he certainly didn’t like having fights taken from him. He closed his eyes and listened, ears straining, just on the off chance the League man was waiting for an opening, but it was no use. If the League had been here, they were long gone. Den was working himself into a foul mood over this when he caught a faint sound on the wind, almost like a sob.
All at once, Den’s smile returned. Seemed this jungle wasn’t so empty after all.
He turned on his heel until he was facing the dirt cave below the tree roots. It was a wretched thing, a black hole in the mud held together by tree roots. The entrance crumbled a little as Den pushed his way in. The inside of the cave was dim and low, forcing Den to stoop almost double until he’d climbed down to the bed of mud and leaves that served as the cave floor. When he reached the bottom, he straightened as best he could and gazed through the dark at the woman hunched against the cave’s far wall. Den’s smile split into a toothy grin. Not a League man, true, but a better prize, the one he’d been walking through jungles for almost ten years now in search of.
Despite his noisy entrance, the woman didn’t appear to notice Den for several seconds. Finally, she shifted against the mud, glancing at him through slitted eyes.
“Oh,” she said, looking away again. “It’s you.”
Den crossed his arms. “It’s me.”
The woman didn’t answer, and Den, tired of crouching, sat down. Normally, he would have just knocked the roof out, but he’d been looking for her a long time and, much as it irked him, a little tolerance was a small thing compared to the hassle it would take to find her again if she ran, miraculous portals notwithstanding.
When it was clear Den wasn’t leaving, the woman pressed her face against the cool dirt as though she could somehow ignore him. It was a futile effort, for the cave was very small and Den was a large, large man.
“What do you want?” she grumbled at last.
“What you promised me,” Den said.
The woman laughed, a harsh, joyless bark. “Is your life so dull you’d search all across the Empire to collect a bad debt?”
“You promised me a war,” Den answered calmly. “I crossed half the world for that promise. Does it really surprise you that I would cross the other half to hold you to it?”
She glanced sideways at him, her dark eyes sharp and almost as he remembered them. “I suppose it doesn’t,” she said. “My apologies, Bloody Den, but you’ll have to find someone else to stage your fights.” She turned away, pulling herself against the wall again. “I have no more care to rule.”
“No!” Den’s shout rattled the earthen walls. The woman jumped, flinching as Den leaned in, towering over her despite his seated position.
“You promised me,” he whispered, low and deadly. “Twenty-six years ago you promised me a war. Twenty-six years I’ve waited, fought your warriors, and prepared your troops. I’ve held up my end of the deal tenfold, and you owe me. If you want to lie in the mud and feel sorry for yourself, do it on your own time, but right now you need to finish what you started. You will honor your pledge, or I will test your famous immortality for myself, Nara.” The name rolled off his tongue like a curse.
The woman leaped up from the mud and turned to face him, staring him down like he was a cockroach. “You will not speak so informally to me, barbarian.”
Den leaned back against the cool mud. “I’ll treat you like an empress when you start acting like one.”
For a moment, the rage burned in her eyes, and she was nearly herself again. Her authority radiated through her mud-stained rags, dismissing her long, matted hair and wretched surroundings until he could almost see the Empress he remembered, tall and dark and terrible in her rage. But then, between one second and the next, it crumbled, and she sank to the mud floor in a broken heap.
“What does it matter?” she whispered, letting the dirty mass of her dark hair fall over her face. “The Shepherdess has abandoned me. Everything I did, my entire life, it was all for her. I gave her everything—my soul, my love, my service—but she doesn’t even look at me anymore. All she cares about is that boy.”
The ragged, naked hatred that trembled through her voice when she said the word boy shocked even Den, and he seized his chance. “Of course she doesn’t want to look at you,” he said. “I can hardly stand to see what you’ve let yourself become.”
The woman hissed and turned on him, lashing out with her fist. Den caught the blow with one hand. “Who could love such a self-pitying, wretched hag?” he said, letting his disgust ring clear through the words. “You were the favorite of creation. The unquestioned ruler of half the world for twelve generations. Now look at you, a rat hiding in a cave, and all because your White Lady found a new pet.”
She snarled and the ground began to rumble, but Den held on, pulling her forward until they were eye to eye. “If you want your Shepherdess to love you again, become something worth loving. Even if her boy died tomorrow, she’d never look at you while you’re like this. Who would? No one loves a failure, Nara.”
Her eyes went wide and she wrenched herself free. Den let her go, watching her with a sneer as she stumbled back to her rut in the mud. She stayed there for a long time, not speaking, not moving. Den matched her silence, waiting to see if his gambit played true. If it didn’t, he was in for another long walk. But it seemed he was in luck, for at last she sat up.
“You are a horrible man, Den,” she whispered, pushing the filthy hair out of her face. “But you are also a keen one. Fine. My years of begging have earned me nothing. Perhaps it is time to see what action can do. We shall see who is called favorite when I rule all the world. After all…”
She closed her eyes, and the air in the cave rippled like water. Den flinched as her spirit opened over him. It rolled out of her, a roaring wave of power, and everywhere it touched, the world began to change. The cave walls shook like leaves, the spirits crying in obedient awe as they reshaped themselves to please her.
The roof of the cave vanished, replaced by clear, blue sky. The mud Den sat on flattened, drying and hardening and spreading until he sat in the middle of a court pressed with spiraling patterns of impossible beauty. At the edge of the clay circle, the jungle trees lifted their roots and began retangling them into walls of beautifully knotted shapes. Then, as quickly as it had started, the changes stopped, and Den found himself sitting in a beautiful open court as grand as any he’d ever seen. At its center, seated on a raised throne of living wood, was the Immortal Empress. The dirt had fallen from her skin and hair, leaving her radiant, her body almost glowing beneath a sheath of beautifully patterned silk, the ends of which were just finishing weaving themselves from the remnants of her rags. Her glossy black hair was piled on her head, each hair holding itself of its own accord in an impossible arrangement that seemed to float over her ageless face, now as stern and as proud as he remembered it.
“After all,” she said again, leaning back on her throne, “I am the Immortal Empress still, a star of the Shepherdess, and I will be victorious.”
She held out her hand, and a white line appeared in the air. Den blinked in recognition as it sank silently through the empty space, glowing like the full moon. Through it, Den could see the interior of the throne room at Istalirin, her war palace, and the chaos of the panicking staff as they realized what that glowing line meant.
A wide grin broke over Den’s face and he hopped to his feet. “So it was you then,” he said. “Suits me. Let’s go.”
“I have no idea what you’re babbling about,” the Empress said. “But this is for me. You’re walking.”
“What?” Den roared.
“You were very disrespectful toward your Empress,” she said with a cutting look. “Your punishment is that you must walk back to Istalirin. Your commission will be ready when you arrive.”
Den frowned. “And you will honor your promise at last?”
The Empress gave him a cruel smile. “Beyond your wildest dreams, Bloody Den.”
And with that, she was gone. The white line shimmered and faded, leaving Den alone in the beautiful court under the sky. He stood a moment, grinding his teeth until he could feel the pain shooting down his neck. Finally, he turned and stomped out. That had been petty, even for her, but he should have expected it. The Empress was a woman, and women were always petty, especially when their pride was bruised. Still, it didn’t matter. He’d just spent almost fifteen years walking the breadth and width of her cursed land, what was another few weeks? What mattered was that he’d done it. He’d found her, and better, he’d won. He would have his war.
A great smile broke over Den’s scarred face, and he began to walk faster, jumping into the jungle at the clearing’s edge. This time the trees parted for him, whispering apologies. Now that he was in the Empress’s favor again, the world was bending over to make his life easy. His walk became a run as the forest opened for him, and Den began to laugh. A war at last. Finally, after so long, he would reclaim his paradise.
Still laughing, Den fell into a mile-eating jog, running through the now-genteel forest. He didn’t know where he was still, but it didn’t matter. The spirits had their mistress again, and they would make sure he got where she wanted him to be. Grinning at the thought, Den picked up his pace, running full out along the path the trees made him, following the setting sun west toward the war palace of the Immortal Empress.
Two Months Later
“Are you sure?” Queen Theresa of Osera leaned forward, frail fingers tightening to white-knuckled claws on the velvet arms of her chair. “Absolutely sure?”
The fisherman looked almost insulted. “I can only tell you what I saw with my own eyes, your queenship,” he said, lifting his head to look at her for the first time. “For years now, my crew has sailed the roughest ocean in the world to be your eyes on the Unseen Coast, and I’m telling you the shipyards are active again.”
“But why now?” The queen shook, though with fear or rage even she could not tell. “She built like mad for twelve years after the war, and then fifteen years ago, everything stopped. Now you’re telling me she’s building again? Why? Why ships? Why now?”
The fisherman flinched and gave no answer.
None was expected. The queen had already hauled herself to her feet and was now pacing the length of the small stage at the end of her private-audience chamber, muttering under her breath.
“What changed?” Her whisper was tight and raspy. “Did we show some weakness? Or perhaps I was the fool to think she had given up.” Her jeweled heels clicked faster on the glossy wood floor. “How many ships?”
The fisherman jumped. “Too many to count. I took the time to spy on only one of the yards before coming to you. Was I wrong?”
“No,” the queen said, shaking her head so sharply that she knocked loose one of the carefully pinned curls of her once famous golden hair, now mostly white. “Without your information we wouldn’t have a candle’s chance in a storm. Tell me, though, in your hurry, did you see what kind of ships was she building?”
“I did,” the fisherman said, licking his chapped lips. “They was palace ships, lady. Every single one.”
The queen stopped walking and pressed a bony hand to her forehead. “Lenette?”
A strikingly beautiful woman in an elegant dress of stiff black silk appeared from a side door. “Yes, my queen?”
“Pay him. Double.”
Lenette nodded and walked across the room to the strongbox. She took a fist-sized bag from the bound chest and walked to the fisherman, holding it out for him with both hands. He took it with a blush and opened the bag at once, eyes bulging when he saw the pile of gold it contained. But the smile slipped from his face when the queen looked at him with a glare that could have cut iron.
“Spend it quickly.”
The captain swallowed loudly, but the queen’s attention was already back on her pacing. Lenette took the man’s arm and led him back to the doors, gently pushing him into the hall. Thus dismissed, the fisherman bowed several times before the guards shut the doors in his face. The moment they closed, the queen collapsed into her chair with a pained sigh.
“And there’s the other shoe,” she muttered. “Twenty-six years after her first invasion, the immortal sow finally rousts herself to finish the job.”
“The man was a fisherman, my lady,” Lenette said gently, walking over to kneel beside the queen’s chair. “Not a trained spy. He could have been mistaken.”
The queen gave an unladylike snort. “I’m not sending the fleet into the Unseen Sea to check his story. The deep trawlers are the only ones who dare that crossing. Fortunately for us, the same reckless greed that sends them chasing leviathan spawn in the deep current spurs them to take my money to spy for their country. Anyway, without that ‘fisherman,’ the old harpy would have caught us naked as a cheating lover.” She nodded at the closed door. “The captain is Oseran born and old enough to remember the war. If he says they’re palace ships, they’re palace ships. It’s not something you forget.”
“But we only know that she’s started building again,” Lenette countered. “Those ships might not even be for us. She could have a new target.”
“Where?” the queen said with an exasperated huff. “The woman rules half the world. There’s nowhere left for her to conquer save the Council Kingdoms, and our little island is dead in her way. Her army will roll over us without even a pause. When I think of all—”
A wracking cough stopped her midsentence. The queen doubled over, pressing a lace handkerchief to her mouth as her body convulsed. Lenette was with her in an instant, rubbing the queen’s back with her small, delicate hands until the attack subsided.
“You shouldn’t think about such things, lady,” Lenette whispered. “You’ll only worsen your condition. Remember, Osera and the Council have pushed the Empress back before.”
“Yes,” the queen wheezed. “Two and a half decades ago, when I was young.” She looked at her blood-streaked handkerchief with disgust. “When I wasn’t sick. When I could stand to look at myself in the mirror. Back when I was truly queen.”
She raised her gaunt face and gazed across the chamber at the portrait that took up most of the wall. It was enormous, large as life and set in a gilt frame that touched both floor and ceiling. On it, a steel-gray sea pounded the rocky eastern shore of Osera. The stony beach below the cliffs was filled with soldiers raising their swords in salute, or perhaps taunting, for the choppy sea was scattered with the Immortal Empress’s warships, some crashing on the reefs, some ablaze, all fleeing defeated back across the Unseen Sea. In the painting’s foreground, a young woman dressed in the heavy black armor of the Eisenlowe stood with her feet in the sea. She faced the fleeing ships with her head held high, hair flying behind her like a pale gold banner. Her hand was stretched out toward the ocean, the gloved fingers tangled in the long, black hair of the enemy general’s severed head.
Queen Theresa smiled. That was not how it had ended, but it was the way she wanted the war to be remembered—bloody, glorious, an absolute victory. The way it should have been and, she closed her eyes, the way it could never be again.
“Osera has always been ruled by the strong, Lenette,” the queen said quietly. “We’ve grown wealthy and civilized thanks to the Council, but it will take more than these few generations to tear us away from our bloody past. Were we a softer kingdom, more deeply rooted in law and nobility, perhaps I could re-create the miracle I stumbled onto all those years ago. But we are not. The Empress is coming, and an old, sick woman cannot lead Osera to war.”
Lenette stiffened, her face, still so lovely despite her advancing years, falling. “Will you abdicate, then? Give the country to your cousin?”
“Finley?” The queen made a disgusted sound. “He’ll get his soon enough, much as I hate to think of it. But he’s no Eisenlowe. Much as he hated to, father entrusted our line to me after my brothers died. I’ve spent the last thirty years fighting to stay on my throne. I do not intend to meekly hand it over now.”
Lenette shook her head. “But what will you do, lady?”
“Crisis demands stability, Lenette,” the queen said grimly. “I’d thought I could give him a little more time, but circumstance has left us little choice. The Throne of Iron Lions must follow the proper succession, whatever the cost.” She settled back into her chair with a pained sigh. “Wake up the Council wizard and have him bring me the Relay point. We must warn the Council tonight. I’ll need to speak with Whitefall personally, and then I’ll need that cousin of his, the one who runs the bounties.”
“Phillipe Whitefall?” Lenette said.
The queen waved her hand dismissively. “Whoever. I never could keep all the Whitefalls straight. Just get me the head of the bounty office. Also, get Adela in here. Your daughter is a sensible girl, and she has a larger stake in this business than most.”
Lenette pursed her lips. “It’s time then, is it?”
“Long past,” the queen said, patting her friend’s hand. “If the Immortal Empress is on her way, then we have no time left for patience. That boy is out there somewhere, and I don’t care if I have to hand over every scrap of gold in Osera, he will come home and do his duty.”
Lenette nodded and bent to kiss the queen’s hand. “I will bring Adela to you, lady,” she said, rising to her feet. “And send someone to fetch the Relay keeper. Meanwhile, I’ll have the maid bring up your medicine.”
The queen smiled. “Thank you, Lenette. What would I do without you?”
Lenette smiled and stepped off the little stage. She walked to the door, her heels clicking delicately across the polished floor, and vanished into the hall with a curtsy.
When she was gone, Queen Theresa lay back in her padded chair, staring at the picture of what she had been. As her eyes struggled to focus on the familiar brush strokes, she remembered not the gory glory of the artist’s rendition, but the real morning, twenty-six years ago, standing on the windy beach, too large for her armor at nine months pregnant, weeping in relief at the retreating ships while her guard made a square around her so that no one could say they’d seen the Lioness of Osera cry.
When the maid arrived a few minutes later with the medicine tray, the queen dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and took the cup that the girl offered, drinking the bitter concoction without so much as a grimace.
The Perod bounty office was packed with the usual riffraff. Dozens of men and a few scowling women lounged on long benches stolen from the tavern across the street, boredly polishing a startling variety of weaponry and trying to look like they weren’t waiting. It was a farce, of course. It was criminally early on a Monday morning, and the only reason bounty hunters ever came into a regional office before noon was to get their hands on the weekly bounty update from Zarin.
The only person who didn’t try to hide his anticipation was a young man toward the back of the crowd. He stood on his bench, hopping from foot to foot and ignoring his dour-faced companion’s constant attempts to pull him back down, an anxious scowl marring the boyish face that everyone should have recognized, but no one did.
“Honestly,” Eli huffed when Josef finally managed to drag him down. “Are they walking from Zarin?”
“It’s not even eight,” Josef said, his voice low and annoyed as he nudged the wrapped Heart of War farther under the bench with his foot. “The post isn’t due until eight fifteen. And can you at least pretend to be discreet? I love a good fight, but we walked all night to get here. I’d like some breakfast and a few hours of shut-eye before I have to put down an entire room of bounty hunters, if it’s all the same to you.”
Eli made a disgusted sound. “Go ahead. I could wear a name tag on my forehead and these idiots still wouldn’t notice. No bounty hunter worth his sword goes to a regional office for leads. There’s not a soul here who’s good enough to see what they don’t expect.” He slouched on the bench. “Sometimes I think there’s no pride in the profession anymore. You were the last of the bounty hunters worth the name, and even you got so bored you took up with the enemy.”
“Not bored,” Josef said. “I just learned that working with you got me better fights than trying to catch you. Anyway, Coriano was perfectly decent, and what about that man who attacked you at the hotel? Gave you quite a scramble for a dying profession, didn’t he?”
Beside him, Nico did her best to stifle a laugh, but her coat gave her away, moving in long, midnight waves as her shoulders shook. Eli rolled his eyes at both of them.
“Well, too bad you killed them, then,” he said with a sniff. “Knocking over the best of a dying breed without even leaving a calling card—it’s such a waste. No wonder your bounty’s only ten thousand.”
Josef shrugged. “Unlike some people, I see no need to define myself by an arbitrary number.”
Eli bristled. “Arbitrary? I earned every bit of that bounty! You should know; you were there for most of it. My bounty is a reflection of our immense skill. You should take some pride in it. After all,” he said, grinning painfully wide, “I’m now the most wanted man in the Council Kingdoms. Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards! That even beats Nico’s number. My head is worth more than a kingdom—no, two kingdoms! And to think, just last year I was struggling to break thirty thousand. This is an achievement no one else in the world can touch, my friends. You are sitting beside a national power. Tell you what. When they hand out my new posters, I’ll sign them for you. How’s that?”
Josef looked decidedly unimpressed and made no comment.
“It is a large number,” Nico said when the uncomfortable silence had gone on long enough. “But you’re not the highest. There’s still Den the Warlord with five hundred thousand.”
“Den doesn’t count,” Eli snapped. “He was the first bounty, made right after the war. The Council hadn’t even decided on a valuation for its currency yet. If they’d made the bounty properly with pledges from offended kingdoms rather than just letting old Council Daddy Whitefall pull some grossly large number out of his feathered helmet, Den would never have gotten that high. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be passing him soon enough, just you watch. This time next year I’ll be at a million, and see if I offer to autograph your poster then.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Josef grumbled, eyeing the crowd. “Look lively. I think the post is here.”
Eli was on his feet in an instant, elbowing his way through the crowd that was no longer even pretending to look bored. The hunters thronged around the door as a sleepy-eyed bounty officer and two harried men in Council uniforms with piles of paper under their arms attempted to push their way in.
“No shoving!” the officer shouted. “Stand back! Individual posters can be purchased after the official notices are hung!”
The crowd took a grudging step back as the Council postmen began tacking up the latest posters under the bounty officer’s direction. First they hung up the small-fry, lists of names with tiny descriptions and even tinier numbers beside them. Next came the ranking bounties, criminals with a thousand or more on their heads whose notoriety had earned them a sketch and a small poster of their own. These were all pinned between the floor and waist level. The top of the wall was reserved for the big money. Here, the Council men hung up the famous names.
Izo was gone. The men stripped his old poster down with minimal fanfare, moving those bounties below him up a notch. The old, yellowed poster offering two hundred thousand for the Daughter of the Dead Mountain was left untouched, as was Den’s large poster at the top of the board. Between these, however, the men tacked up a fresh, large sheet featuring a familiar face grinning above a rather astonishingly large number.
Eli stopped shoving the men in front of him and gazed up at his poster, his eyes glowing with pride. “It’s even more beautiful than I imagined,” he whispered. “Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards.”
Josef pressed his palm to his forehead as Eli resumed shoving his way forward. Thankfully, no one else seemed to have heard the thief’s remark. The bounty hunters were all loudly clamoring for copies, shouting over each other while the bounty officer tried to shout over everyone that no one was getting posters until the official copies were up.
Eli vanished into the fray only to reappear moments later with a scroll tucked under his arm. Josef raised his eyebrows and began easing the knives out of his sleeves, just in case, but the bounty officer was too busy screaming at the bounty hunters to get in line to notice that one of his carefully protected posters was already missing.
“They get better with every likeness,” Eli said, proudly unrolling his poster. “If it wasn’t black and white, I’d say I was looking in a mirror.”
Nico nodded appreciatively, but Josef wasn’t even looking. Eli turned to berate his swordsman for his shocking lack of attentiveness, but Josef was just standing there, staring at the bounty board like he’d seen a ghost. Eli followed his gaze, glancing over his shoulder at the bounty wall where the Council men were hanging one last poster, just below Den’s and just ahead of Eli’s. As the Council men tacked the poster’s corners up, a familiar, stern face glared down at the room, and below it, in tall block letters, was the following:
JOSEF LIECHTEN THERESON ESINLOWE
WANTED ALIVE, 250,000 GOLD STANDARDS.
“Josef,” Eli said, very quietly. “Why is your bounty larger than mine?”
Josef didn’t answer. He just stood there, staring. Then, without a word, he turned, pushed his way through the crowd to their bench, grabbed his bag and his wrapped sword, and stomped out the back door.
Eli and Nico exchanged a look and ran after him.
“Josef,” Eli said, running to keep up with the swordsman’s ground-eating strides. “Josef! Stop! What’s this about? Where are you going?”
Josef kept walking.
“Look,” Eli said, jogging beside him. “If you’re worried I’m upset that you have a higher bounty than I do, you shouldn’t be. I mean, I am upset, but you shouldn’t be worried. I’m sure it’s just a mistake. If you’ll stop walking for a second, I can go nick your poster and we’ll take a closer look. Maybe they added an extra zero by accident or—”
“I don’t need a closer look.”
Eli stumbled a little. Josef’s voice was quivering with rage. Quick as he’d taken off, Josef stopped and turned to face them. Eli shrank back at the cold, white anger on his face, nearly falling into Nico.
“It’s no mistake,” Josef said. “That bounty is her last card. I can’t let her do this.”
“Her who?” Eli said.
“I see,” Eli said, though he didn’t. “Well, if it’s not a mistake, then I’m stumped. What did you do to this queen to earn a number like that?”
The side of Josef’s mouth twitched. “I lived.”
Eli arched an eyebrow. “Could you try being a little less cryptic?”
“No.” Josef pulled his bag off his shoulder and tossed it to Nico. “I have to go away for a while. There’s food enough for the next day in there. Nico, I’m counting on you to keep Eli from doing anything stupid. I realize it’s a tall order, but do your best.”
Nico scowled at him and tossed the bag back. “I’m going with you.”
“And I’m with her,” Eli said, straightening up. “You can’t just walk out on us now.”
Josef crossed his arms. “And I suppose my opinion in this doesn’t matter?”
“Not in the least,” Eli said. “Where are we going?”
For a moment, Josef almost smiled. “The port at Sanche. We can catch a ferry from there to Osera.”
“Osera?” Eli made a face. “You mean the island with the carnivorous yaks, endless rain, and zero-tolerance policy toward thieves? Why?”
“Because,” Josef said, setting off down the road. “I’ve been called home.”
Nico fell in behind him, her feet kicking up little clouds of yellow dust as she hurried to catch up. Eli stared at their backs a moment longer, and then, cursing under his breath, he shoved his new poster into his bag and ran down the road after them.
Alber Whitefall, Merchant Prince of Zarin and Head of the Council of Thrones, was having a terrible morning. Actually, considering he hadn’t slept since yesterday, morning was a misnomer. What he was having was a terrible night that refused to end.
There were two others sitting in his office on this terrible morning. Sara was there, of course, and Myron Whitefall, his cousin and director of Military Affairs for the Council. As usual, Sara looked equal parts miffed at being called away from her work downstairs and intrigued by their new problem. Myron, however, looked like a man who’d just learned he’s dying from plague.
“Is there a chance she’s overreacting?” Myron said, pulling at his stiff military collar. “The queen is getting older.”
“Theresa is younger than I am, Myron,” Merchant Prince Whitefall said flatly. “She’s hardly to the age of senility.”
“And this is Osera we’re talking about,” Sara added with a sniff. “They’re not people who’d ask for help unless things were desperate. Especially Theresa. Shouldn’t you know that?”
Myron gave the wizard a disapproving look. Sara stared right back, daring him.
“Be that as it may,” Alber said, bringing the conversation back to himself before things could get any worse. “Osera’s borne the brunt of the Empress before, and they’ve never forgotten. If Theresa says the Empress has reactivated her shipyards, then I believe her. The only real question is, how much time do we have left to prepare?”
Sara looked away from Myron with a dismissive huff. “A decent amount, I’d wager,” she said. “Unless she’s spent the last twenty years making upgrades, palace ships are slow and the Unseen Sea is wide and treacherous. Even if she set sail tonight, we wouldn’t see her fleet for two months. Maybe three, if she’s bringing a larger army this time, which I assume she would.”
“Three months is hardly a ‘decent amount,’ ” Myron snapped. “Even if we called in conscripts today, I can’t raise an army on such short notice.”
Alber scratched his short beard thoughtfully. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Why is she moving now? Her initial attack was the disaster that birthed the Council. She was the only thing scary enough to finally convince the kingdoms to stop fighting each other and stand together. And stand together we did, but anyone in the know understands that the only reason we survived was because we had the Relay and the Empress didn’t. That, and the fact that her fleet was too far from home to maintain a supply line. Still, it was hardly what I would call a decisive victory. Were I the Empress, I would have renewed my attack the very next year while the Council was still unstable. Even five years later we couldn’t have turned back any sort of invasion force, but now? We’re stronger than ever. She has to know that. So why did she wait?”
“Maybe she was rebuilding?” Myron said. “The combined Council forces sunk nearly a hundred ships before her fleet retreated. Maybe even the Empress can’t pull that kind of firepower out from under her skirt.”
“This is the Empress, Myron,” Sara said, exasperated. “If our reports are anywhere close to right, she has enough people and resources to bury us in boats without batting an eye.”
“So why hasn’t she, then?” Myron said. “How do we know this resurgence is even aimed at us? There’s been no declaration of war. All we have is some fisherman’s tale about palace ships.”
“Where else is she going to go?” Sara said. “There are three continents in the world: hers, ours, and the icy wastes in the north sea. You don’t build a fleet of palace ships to go ghosthound hunting, so I think we can safely say she’s coming for us.”
Myron’s face went scarlet, but Sara seemed to have forgotten him entirely. She leaned back in her deep-cushioned chair, thin arms crossed over her chest as she met Alber eye to eye. “It’s a bad position any way you look at it. Forgetting the issue of whether or not the Empress is actually immortal, her empire has been a stable ruling power for as long as we’ve known there was another continent across the Unseen Sea. We know she has wealth, resources, and a troop capacity we can’t even quantify. Considering this, the force we sent running twenty-six years ago was likely little more than a small excursion.”
“Small excursion?” Myron cried.
“Yes,” Sara said calmly. “I wrote as much in my report at the time, which, by the way, you should read.”
Myron looked away with a sniff. Sara ignored him, focusing on the Merchant Prince.
“I believe it was a test,” she said. “An opening strike to reveal the strength of the opponent. That said, I don’t know why she’s waited so long to strike again. Maybe she truly is immortal and twenty-six years is nothing. Even so, now that she knows what we’re capable of, her course is simple. If our strength is our ability to communicate instantly through the Relay and move our troops to counter her attacks with our full strength at a moment’s notice, all the Empress needs to do is send enough soldiers that it doesn’t matter. Move, counter move. This time she will overwhelm us, plain and simple.”
“So what would you have us do?” Myron growled. “Roll over? Surrender?”
“I’m only being realistic,” Sara said. “The Relay was our trump last time, but that card’s been played.”
“So make us another,” Alber said, leaning back in his chair. “If she knows how to counter our advantage, make us a new one. That’s why you’re here.”
Sara clenched her jaw. “I’m working on it.”
“Well, it’s not going to be enough,” Myron said. “We can’t beat the Immortal Empire with wizard tricks. The Relay was fine and dandy, but it was our soldiers who fought and won. Talking tables and carts that roll themselves don’t sink ships.”
“Yes, Myron, thank you,” Alber said before Sara could snap back and make things even worse. “Your opinion is noted. Now, if you’re done antagonizing my wizard, what have you got for me?”
With one final, dirty look at Sara, Myron reached into his jacket and pulled out a packet of folded papers.
“We have five thousand soldiers on active duty across the Council,” he said, spreading out the stack of figure-covered papers on the table. He pulled a map from the satchel beside him and laid that out as well. “I think we can safely assume that any attack will begin as before, at Osera.” His finger tapped a long island just off the Council’s eastern coast. “As well as being geographically in the way for an invasion from across the Unseen Sea, Osera is the Council’s greatest naval power. Ignore them, and the Empress will have Oseran ships at her back while she’s fighting us on the mainland. Go far enough to get around them, and she lands in the mountains.” His finger traveled north, tapping the wild mountain country that formed the Council’s northern border. “Or the jungle.” His finger went south to the lush, tropical nightmare that covered the Council’s lower tip. “There’s no way around it. She has to take Osera first. Now, I can have our current forces to the coast in a month. With reserves, country-by-country conscripts, and heavy recruitment, we can probably field another ten thousand in the next two months. Training will take another four.”
“That’s six months,” Sara said. “We don’t have—”
“I can’t pull soldiers out of the air!” Myron roared, standing up so fast that his chair toppled behind him. “I’m talking about men, wizardess, not spirits! Men take time. I have to move them, equip them, train—”
The general stopped. Alber Whitefall was sitting at his desk as before, calm as ever, but his eyes were narrow and his mouth was a thin, clamped line.
“Myron,” he said again in a soft, measured voice. “Do your best. Don’t worry about Sara. Just get me as many soldiers as you can. Understood?”
“Yes, Merchant Prince,” Myron grumbled.
“Excellent.” Alber gave him a smile. “You’d better go get started. Time is wasting.”
Myron Whitefall did not look pleased by the dismissal, but he gathered his papers and stomped into the hall without comment.
“Why is he in charge of our army again?” Sara said the moment the page closed the door.
“Because his mother was very insistent,” Alber answered, standing up with a sigh. “And because he’s not a bad general. He did secure the northlands, if you’ll recall. You’re seeing him at his worst. He was never one for politics, but he’s quite good with the soldiers.”
Sara glanced at the door and gave a dismissive snort. “I could have told you the Empress would go for Osera.”
“Yes, well, you have the benefit of experience, don’t you?” the Merchant Prince said, pouring himself a finger of brandy from the bottle on the table behind him. “And the day you feel like marshaling our army, I will be more than happy to let you. Until then, Myron will have to do.” He paused. “It would also help if you didn’t treat him like some idiot child.”
“I treat him as he shows me he deserves to be treated,” Sara said, pulling her pipe out of her coat pocket. She lit it with a spark from a tiny ruby, one of nearly a dozen she kept on a chain in her pocket, and took a deep drag, pointedly ignoring Alber’s glare.
“He’s right, though,” she said softly.
Alber sipped his drink. “About what?”
“I don’t have a trick to beat the Immortal Empress.”
Alber lowered his glass. “Then why am I paying for your little playground downstairs?”
Sara grew very still. “The Relay was the idea that started my career, Alber. If I could have flashes of genius on call, I wouldn’t be working for you. But brilliant as the Relay was, we were fighting the Empress’s army, not the Empress herself.”
“Come now,” Alber said. “You don’t actually believe all that malarkey about the Empress being an unkillable, magical queen, do you? Everything we know came from captured soldiers who knew they were going to die. Of course they’d tell us the Empress is our doom incarnate.”
“There’s something going on with her,” Sara said. “Maybe she’s just a powerful wizard who’s good at selling herself, but one thing’s certain, Alber. I have a dozen different projects going right now, all with good potential, but I don’t have a miracle. Not this time, and not like we’re going to need.”
“Sara,” Alber said, swirling his drink. “I am an old man who has been up for nearly thirty hours. If you have a point, get to it.”
Sara took an angry puff from her pipe. “My point is that no matter how many poor farmers Myron shoves into Council uniforms, it’s not going to be enough. The Empress’s army isn’t just men. In the last war, the Empress’s forces used spirits on a scale I’ve never seen before. She had amalgam spirits, blends of fire and metal better than even Shaper work, specifically created for war and directed by trained teams of wizards.”
“How could I forget?” Alber said dryly. “And I suppose you’re going to say we can’t field something similar?”
Sara nearly choked on her smoke. “Powers, no. Even forgetting the combination of spirits for war, I would have written wizards working in teams off as impossible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I’ve tried for years to duplicate it, but individual wizard’s wills are simply too different to…” She trailed off when she saw Alber’s bored look. “Never mind. The point I’m trying to make is that we caught a very lucky break last time. We can’t count on that kind of lightning striking twice. If we’re to have any real hope of keeping our lands, we’re going to need a different sort of army than Myron’s putting together. A wizard army.”
“You have wizards,” Alber said.
“A hundred, maybe,” Sara answered. “And that’s counting the idiots I give Council kingdoms to mind their Relay points. A hundred’s not an army. I’m talking about a large-scale, organized, combat-ready force.”
The Merchant Prince’s eyebrows shot up. “You can’t seriously be suggesting what I think you are.”
“I am always serious,” Sara said. “The Spirit Court accounts for almost every wizard born in Council lands. We cannot do this without them.”
Alber sighed heavily, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “Banage is going to be a problem.”
“Who’s talking about Banage?” Sara said. “Banage hates the Council. Has for years. The only reason he goes along with us is because we’re too powerful for him to openly antagonize if he wants his Court to have any say on the continent. The second you go to him hat in hand asking for help, he’s going to try and shove his doctrine down our throats.”
“I am well aware of Banage’s low opinion,” Whitefall said. “He’s never bothered to hide it, after all. But the years have made you too jaded, Sara. Even Banage can’t stand around on his principles doing nothing while the Immortal Empress destroys everything he’s built.”
“Banage will stand on his principles until they gnaw his legs off,” Sara said with a puff of smoke. “But we don’t need Banage to get the Court. There are several Spiritualists, especially among the Tower Keepers, who would have no problem working with the Council.”
“Sara!” Whitefall said, shocked. “We are on the verge of a perhaps unwinnable war. I will not cause a schism in what might be our only salvation just because you don’t want to work with your former husband.”
“The Spirit Court’s already broken,” Sara countered. “Banage’s constant hard line has driven many of the more moderate members away. He almost tore the Court apart last year when they put his apprentice on trial. If Hern hadn’t gotten himself tangled up in that Gaol nonsense, the Court would already be ours.”
“Put it out of your mind,” Whitefall said. “You don’t win wars by ripping up your allies. Not if there is any other hope.” He turned away, looking out over the city. “I’ll send Banage an invitation to talk. Compromise is always possible, and who knows? Maybe this Empress thing will make him see we’re not actually that bad.”
Sara chuckled. “Want to wager on that?”
“I already am,” Whitefall said, looking at her over his shoulder. “I’m wagering our survival on the hope that Etmon Banage likes being Rector Spiritualis more than he dislikes working with you. After all, if we can’t find some way to work together, the Empress will crush us both, and you can’t be Rector when there’s no more Spirit Court.”
Sara bit her pipe between her teeth. “I wish you wouldn’t group the rest of us in on your impossible wagers.”
Whitefall set his empty glass on his desk. “We’re all going to have to do the impossible before this mess is done. Now, get downstairs and start working on that miracle. I’ll take care of Banage.”
Sara stood and walked out without a word. When she was gone, Alber called his pages in. One he sent to the Spirit Court, and the rest he set to opening windows. When his office no longer reeked of smoke, he poured himself another glass of brandy and lay down on his silk couch to contemplate the wreck his carefully cultured plans had become.