No, sweetness, don’t be a general. Be a duchess. Fight with beauty and politics, but keep a knife on you. Rule a duchy with grace and support your cousins, but keep a militia.

I love you, dear one. Never forget that.

Lisheva Durasoona

 

The market outside continued, noise grating on Ionas’ nerves. He sat still on the workbench next to Gregor, staring at columns of numbers as his old friend carved a discarded piece of wood. Very still.

His entire right side hurt.

Whatever it was Sarea had put together made it hurt less, but it couldn’t stop pain shooting down his arm every time he lifted it. He was reduced to turning pages with his left hand, and staring at line after line of perfectly maintained accounts.

Gregor had to hate him. This was absolute torture. Since when did old Gregor Keyne ever get his accounts wrong?

“Sarea should be back by now,” he said. “I’ll just -”

“Stay right there,” Gregor said calmly.

Ionas glowered at him.

“That O’Hallorn girl that took a liking to her, she goes to every market,” Gregor said, solid and implacable. “They’ll have found each other. She deserves a friend. You’ve got an appointment with the old lord later, haven’t you? You’ll need your rest if you don’t want him knowing you went sneaking around his house.”

Ionas turned another page. “She shouldn’t be getting involved with that family.”

“It’s her choice to make, not yours.”

It was dangerous, letting her make her own decisions. But Ionas kept his mouth shut. He didn’t feel much like judging someone else’s choices, today.

“What did you learn from th’other one?” Chip, chip, chip. “You did get something, didn’t you?”

“She’s just working for Kilin,” Ionas muttered. “Nothing special.”

Gregor sighed. “Larone O’Hallorn works for the Grand Warlock?”

Ionas rolled his eyes. “The man that nearly killed me.”

Silence. Ionas glanced at Gregor. His old friend was staring at him.

“Twenty years ago,” Ionas said. “He’d gone digging around some of the old diaries from my predecessors and successors, and found out there were some places he should be able to get into but can’t. He made the leap between that and my continued existence. It was his bad luck to corner me near the Wall.” Ionas shrugged. “I have ways of surviving even death, Gregor.”

“Twenty years,” Gregor said, a quiet rumble, “And everyone who knew you gave up. If we’d known -”

“I only came back five years ago,” Ionas said, shrugging. “He knows I’m still alive, but why make where I am obvious? Not until I found a sun, and now there isn’t time to be subtle.”

“And Sarea is in with the sister of his agent.” Gregor went back to his carving.

Sister. Ionas slammed his left hand down, palm flat. “She looks like his niece!”

Gregor chuckled. “Oh, boyo.”

“She didn’t really believe it,” Ionas said, flexing his hand, “But she sent off a letter. By actual mail, thank the Wall. Even express post will take days to get to Kilin. We need to be out of Durabilis soon.”

His friend nodded. “You’ll have to deal with our problem fast.”

“Gregor -”

“You owe me that much, Ionas Pachin.”

Ionas closed his eyes, groaning. “I do.” Damn him, but he did.

He didn’t like looking back and seeing his ghosts behind him. There were far too many of them. Some of them were him…

He leaned back, staring upwards. Just on the roof, a faint blue glow emanated through – Amisine, the damn thing, waiting. “I’ll take myself out for a walk,” he said. “Make sure I get to the O’Hallorn house in time.”

“Come back,” Gregor said.

Ionas grinned. “I always do, in the end.”

:-#-:

Isaye disappeared back upstairs before anyone noticed her missing, leaving Sarea alone in the hidden chambers. On her own the empty rooms seem darker and haunted, but she knew where the hidden switches were. She’d been alone on darker nights.

She padded back to the main room and traced the outline of the continents with her feet. The world. It seemed too vast for her to grasp, to think about. All that space…

Sarea shook herself. She had more to deal with than stories. Ionas wanted her to practise with water until she managed fountains like she did with fire, but she’d barely managed a single drop. There were other things to work with. She found the switch and turned the lights off in the main chamber, stood still and steady in the blackness.

By a bonfire, Ionas had said, give me sunlight. Let me in. And something had risen up, almost like the surge of her first magic, warm and wonderful. Like she’d been holding heat inside her, safe, deep and warm. She cupped her hands, breathing evenly. Sunlight. If he can summon it, so can I –

Light flared, bright and beautiful and golden, settling around her body like a human sun, shining so bright she could see half the chamber. She raised her hand. It pulsed with her heartbeat, ripples from her wrist rolling up her arm and meeting the waves from her heart. Like a human sun? She was a human sun.

Tiles shifted under her. She stumbled backwards, catching herself against the wall. The floor was changing, blue and green dissolving into chaos before resettling into subtly different patterns. Here, more land. There, more sea. The dais in the centre sank into the ground. Sarea took a cautious step forward, then walked quickly. Something that happened around the sunlight?

A flicker, and a woman stood in the circle. She was taller than Sarea, a good three inches or more, dressed in what seemed to be a real suit of armour. It went well with her straight back and sharp face. The woman had her face fixed on the wall.

“My name is Lisheva Durasoona,” she said, imperious voice filling the room, “And I am not a Sun. I speak to you in place of my brother. He died not two months past, killed eating breakfast -” Lisheva’s face twisted in fury. “- by some fool who swears he knew not what he did.

“I believe him. It may be that I see demons everywhere I turn, but at least I see.

“Master Auros believes the way forward is to follow the plan set down by our ancestors, but I do not.” She fisted her hands, gauntlets sounding, metal against metal. “Patience, courage, and a plan, says he. No plan survives the first moment of battle. It has been five hundred years! This is no war. It’s a siege! Defended but defenceless we are, and the battle is theirs to lose!

“I do not hold with this. Whoever you are, I can only hope you feel the same.

“They will tell you that you are blessed. That you are their Sun, the saviour of the vast, unknown world, and I believe they are right. Yet I have walked the sands of the summer desert. I have felt the heat on my skin, and been burned by it. I stand here to beg you, whoever you are, please –

“Remember that the Sun is not always kind. Do not stand their abuse of your generosity. Guard yourself. Slay your enemies and love your friends. Fight like a general. Fight like a woman. Remember, too, that the Durasoona are your allies, against Titus and Le Nife, Ap-Merill and Varrol, against even Auros. We endure.” She pressed her clenched right fist to the metal above her heart. “This was our war first.”

Then a quick, proud smile. “That is what my great-aunt says,” she said. “I wish you could meet her. She frightens even Master Auros. I wish my brother had not died, and this message was not necessary. I wish we had known what lurked to tear apart our Durabilan heart. With an empire behind me, rather than fighting me -”

Another twist of anger, but this lesser than the first. Older, perhaps.

“I wish you luck,” Lisheva said, “And I hope you succeed.”

She disappeared.

Sarea stared blindly at the place the apparition had been. She shivered, hugging herself. She was related to that –

To a proud woman. A strong woman. Someone who wore armour like they’d been born in it. Another daughter of kings and emperors.

The woman reappeared. “My name is Lisheva Durasoona,” she said, and Sarea sank to the ground, listening again.

And again.

 

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