Boot heels rang out under the high ceiling. Stiff. Precise. A military gait. The oratorium stood dark, its hearths unlit. Sunlight slanted down through arched windows on either side of the vast hall, but the stained glass filtered it into near irrelevance. Only when the gleaming surface of spaulders passed directly through a shaft of jewelled light was it possible to make out the figure moving along the wall.

She reached out, letting her hand trail along the stone until a flaw in the smooth surface caught her fingertips. Its contours were familiar to her now. It scarred the stone at thigh level, slanting upward from left to right. A left-handed swordsman, she judged, looking to open his enemy’s flank. She’d often tried to picture who might have dealt the blow, but the battle had been too frenzied, her part in it too brief. Her duty had been to get the king to safety. Whoever left this mark, whether guardsman or Greysword, might be alive or dead. His blow might have landed or not. Only the walls knew. These walls knew so much. They’d presided over weddings and funerals, coronations and banquets. They’d presided over treachery too. But that would never happen again. Not on her watch.

She paused under the stained-glass image of Ardin’s flame. Crimson light spilled over her, bloodying her armour and setting her copper hair afire. She gazed up at the magnificent window, frowning. A crack had appeared in the yellow band of flame. When in the hells did that happen? No more than a week ago, or she’d have noticed. She knew every inch of this room. Every knot in the gallery rail, every whorl in the polished stone floor. She’d studied it for days on end, in light and in shadow, with eyes and ears and hands, until she could be absolutely certain that she would notice anything, anything, out of place. Eldora herself, with her all-seeing eye, couldn’t know this room any better than Alix Black.

“Godwin.” Her voice echoed coldly off the stone.

A rustle of armour sounded behind her. Godwin hurried over from the door where he’d been hovering in anticipation of her orders. Alix always did the first sweep alone, the better to avoid distractions.


She pointed. “Do you see that?”

Her second squinted, cocked his head. “Afraid not, Captain. What am I looking for?”

“There’s a crack in Ardin’s flame. Look there.”

He grunted. “How do you reckon that happened?”

“That’s what I want to find out. Fetch Arnot. I want someone up a ladder on either side of that window.”

“Shall I ask for the braziers to be lit on my way out?”


Godwin held a fist to his chest in salute and hurried out, leaving Alix to scowl up at the offending glass. It was almost certainly nothing to worry about. Glass did crack occasionally, especially centuries-old glass. The cold, most likely. But Alix wasn’t taking any chances. By this time tomorrow, the most important lords and ladies in the realm would occupy this august hall. A tempting target in peacetime, let alone in the middle of the fiercest war the Kingdom of Alden had ever known.

Alix was about to resume her sweep when she sensed a presence behind her. Tensing instinctively, she turned. The shadow of a hulking beast darkened the doorway; yellow eyes met hers from across the room. It took a halting step forward, muscular frame pausing midstride. It waited.

Alix smiled. “Hello, Rudi.”

The wolfhound padded over, nub of a tail wagging enthusiastically. Alix dropped to her haunches.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice from the doorway. “He’s liable to tear your throat out.”

Alix laughed, tugging the hound’s ears. “Yours, maybe.”

Footfalls tracked across the hall. “What’s your secret, anyway?”

Alix glanced up to find her husband looking legitimately put out, arms crossed over the white wolf emblazoned on his breastplate. Liam was in dress armour already, improbably shiny, the hated white cape fixed to his left shoulder with a sunburst clasp. That explained the mood.

“There’s no secret to it,” Alix said, straightening. “Unless you count not being terrified of him. Dogs can smell fear, you know.”

“I’m not terrified of him. I just don’t trust him.” Liam gestured irritably at the wolfhound, a movement too sudden for Rudi’s liking; he growled. Liam spread his hands, vindicated.

“He’s still a puppy. He’ll settle down.”

“He’s the canine equivalent of a brooding adolescent, and he weighs ten stone. Such a delightful combination.”

“Maybe he resents you naming him Rudi.”

“Rudolf is a strong, wolfy name.”

“Which you shortened to Rudi.” Alix resumed her sweep, Liam tagging alongside. Rudi trotted ahead, slipping under the gallery rail to sniff at the benches. “If you didn’t want him,” she said, “you shouldn’t have got him.”

“Like I had a choice. Highmount was on me day and night about it. I was given to understand it was practically a matter of duty.”

“You could have said no. You are a prince, after all.”

He made a face. “Don’t remind me.”

Alix left that alone. She focused on the task at hand, running her gaze from floor to ceiling and back again, as systematic as a servant with a feather duster.

“Why do you do this in the dark, anyway?” Liam asked. “Isn’t it hard to see?”

“I only do the first pass this way. It’s not completely dark, and you notice different things than when the room is well lit. See there?” She pointed. “That nail in the bench, the way it catches the light? You’d never notice that if the braziers were lit.”

Liam looked at her sceptically. “It’s just a nail.”

“The king’s life is my responsibility, Liam. There’s no such thing as just a nail.”

As she spoke, a soft glow climbed the walls, spilled out under their boots. The servants had arrived with torches to light the braziers. And they did not come alone. A thin voice piped across the room. “Oh, dear!”

Rudi raised his head from between the benches and growled.

Arnot stood in the doorway, wringing his soft white hands. “Cracked, Lady Alix? Are you certain?”

“I’m afraid so,” Alix said, motioning the steward inside. Like all the servants, he knew better than to enter the oratorium without express leave from the king’s bodyguard.

“This won’t do at all.” Arnot rubbed his balding pate in distress, a nervous gesture that probably accounted for much of the baldness. “The banner lords will be here tomorrow!”

Alix couldn’t help sighing. “Not all the banner lords. Rig won’t be here.”

Arnot fluttered a pale hand dismissively. “Yes, but your brother doesn’t . . .” He caught himself, if not quite in time, at least before it got any worse. “That is, Lord Black has never shown much care for matters of courtly prestige.” He cleared his throat primly.

“You mean he thinks it’s bollocks,” Liam said.

Arnot managed to look horrified and apologetic at the same time. “Your Highness. I’m so very sorry, I did not see you there. Er . . . by your leave . . .” He gestured at a servant hurrying by and made his escape.

“Very princely,” Alix said in an undertone.

Liam shrugged. “Bastard.”

“Being a bastard gives you licence to behave boorishly?”

“It’s got to have some perks, doesn’t it?”

Alix rolled her eyes and kept walking. “You’d better be on your best behaviour tomorrow, love. Erik’s court is still getting used to you as it is. You don’t want to give people an excuse to dismiss you altogether. And you don’t want to embarrass your brother.”

Liam’s grey eyes clouded over, the petulant look returning. “I don’t know why I have to be there.”

“This is the most important council meeting Erik has ever convened. We’re at war, Liam. Facing imminent conquest. Of course you have to be there.”

“But it’s a political discussion, not a military one. I don’t see what use I’ll be.”

“You give yourself too little credit. Besides, you’re not there in your capacity as commander of the White Wolves. You’re there because you’re prince of the realm.” Whether you like it or not. Sometimes, she wondered whether Liam regretted letting his brother acknowledge him. Not that it made any difference; there was no going back on it now. Especially since, for the moment at least, Erik had no other heir. If anything were to happen to him . . .

Now there’s a thought. Alix took up her task with renewed focus.

“I might be prince of the realm,” Liam said, “but I’m still a bastard. They’ll never see me as one of them.”

“You’re worrying about it too much. It never bothered me. It doesn’t bother Rig.”

“You two are different.”

Alix snorted. Few of the other Banner Houses would disagree with that assessment. “Raibert Green and Rona Brown have both ridden into battle with you. That’s three banners in your camp. And Sirin Grey . . .” She paused awkwardly. “Well, you helped her once.”

“Oh, right, you mean the time I stopped her collapsing after my brother executed her true love? I’m sure she remembers that incident fondly.”

“The point is, most of the banner lords know and accept you. The lesser nobility will follow their lead eventually—unless you give them an excuse not to. It’s only been six months.” Saying it aloud, Alix had to pause. Had so little time really passed? It seemed an age since the Oridians surrounded the city walls. The Siege of Erroman had already acquired the lacquer of legend, as though it were the climactic end of a great and glorious war, instead of merely a punctuation point in an ongoing, bloody struggle. So much had happened since then. Rig’s appointment as commander general of the king’s armies. Alix and Liam’s wedding. The dismantling of the Greyswords and the division of half that family’s estates. Most of all, the war, dragging on and on, as much a feature of Aldenian life as the harvest or the Moon Festival. As though it had always been, would always be.

But of course that wasn’t true. The war couldn’t go on forever. If Rig’s reports from the front were anything to go by, it wouldn’t even last the summer. The Warlord had them by the throat; all he had to do was squeeze, and the Kingdom of Alden would be lost. Alix felt a familiar buck of panic at the thought.

She was grateful for the interruption of Liam’s voice. “It’s just . . . I belong at the front, Allie. I’m a soldier. What good are the White Wolves if they stay cooped up in their barracks? If they don’t see some action soon, I’m going to have a mutiny on my hands.”

“Don’t even joke about that.” Alix gripped his arm, glancing around furtively to see if anyone might have overheard. The loyalty of the White Wolves was still a touchy subject, given their role in the treachery at Boswyck. The Raven had been their commander then; after his execution, most of the officers serving under him had been dismissed. Still, the Wolves would carry that stain for a long time.

Liam growled under his breath. “There, you see? How am I supposed to manage a war council when I can’t even get through a conversation with my own wife without saying something stupid?”

“Do what I do and keep your mouth shut.” The voice was nearly as familiar as Alix’s own, but she could just as easily have recognised him by the authoritative toll of his boots as he made his way across the hall. Rig didn’t walk. He strode. Alix turned around, grinning. “Since when do you keep your mouth shut?”

“Don’t I? I always mean to.” Rig gathered her up in a bear hug. He smelled of leather and steel and the dust of the road. As always, Alix felt small and safe in his arms. His deep voice rumbled in her ear. “How’s things, little sister?”

“Suddenly better.” Alix had learned to cope with Rig being at the front, but it was never far from her mind. His visits, too short and too few, lifted a weight she was barely conscious of carrying, like shucking her armour at the end of a long day.

“They told us you weren’t coming,” Liam said, clasping arms with his brother-in-law.

“Well, they obviously didn’t see the summons I received from Albern Highmount. Apparently, missing a council of this magnitude simply isn’t done. Unbecoming of a banner lord, so on and so forth.”

“You’ll have to add that to your list of behaviours unbecoming of a banner lord,” Alix said.

“I don’t need to keep a list. Highmount is doing it for me.” Rig shook his head, dark eyebrows drawn into a scowl. “Can either of you explain to me how a meeting can possibly be more important than commanding Alden’s armies at the front?”

Alix sighed. “Not you too. Look, both of you, this isn’t just any meeting. We’re in serious trouble.”

Rig laughed humourlessly. “There’s an understatement. My men are exhausted, and the spring thaw is just around the corner. The war is about to come out of hibernation. We’ll be lucky to hold the enemy at the border until the Onnani fleet arrives on his doorstep.”

“That’s just it,” Alix said. “They may not be arriving anytime soon. Word is that they’re well behind schedule. The Onnani ambassador hasn’t been able to give us a clear indication of when they’ll be ready to launch, but it sounds like it’ll be months yet.”

Rig swore and rubbed his jaw, beard bristling beneath his fingers. “Bloody fishmen. I can’t hold them off that long, Allie. What in the Domains am I supposed to do until then?”

“That’s what you’re here to discuss, you and the rest of the council. There aren’t many options.”

“You don’t say.” He shook his head. “What about Harram? What’s the latest on that?”

“Bit of flirting,” Liam said, “but no action.”

“So much for the fierce fighters of Harram,” Rig said bitterly. “We’ll be halfway through the afterlife before those cowards join the war.”

Alix didn’t bother arguing. Aside from a westerner’s natural suspicion of foreigners, Rig harboured a particular dislike for the Harrami, whose failure to control their mountain tribes left the Blacklands vulnerable to raids. He’d faced Harrami tribesmen in battle, and it had marked him. It had also taught him hit-and-run tactics and the rare art of true horse archery, both of which the Blackswords had put to good use in the first six months of the war. But Alix doubted he would see the positive side.

“What’s with the shine?” Rig said, gesturing at Liam’s dress armour.

Liam grimaced. “In honour of your esteemed selves. Most of the banner lords are arriving tonight.”

“Is there a banquet?” Rig asked, brightening.

“There is,” Liam replied with considerably less enthusiasm.

“Thank the Nine Virtues. I’m lucky if I get a bite of venison these days. The Imperial Road is a mess this time of year.”

“Looks like it,” Alix said, inclining her head at her brother’s muddy boots. He’d left a trail of it across the polished stone floor. Arnot would not be pleased. “You’d better get cleaned up. You might even consider cutting your hair.”

Rig ran a careless hand through his coal-black locks. They were almost to his shoulders again, hanging in the same lazy waves as Alix’s. “Do you think it’ll annoy Highmount if I don’t?”


“In that case, I think I’ll leave it.”

Liam grinned. “A man after my own heart.”

Rudi padded over, having concluded his own sweep of the oratorium. He snuffled at Rig’s boots, but otherwise gave him a pass. “Holy Scourge of Rahl!” Rig held out a callused hand for the wolfhound to sniff. “Is that Rudi? He’s a monster!”

“Yes,” Liam said, “he is.”

“I can’t believe how much he’s grown! We could use a few like that at the front. Put some fear into those gods-cursed Oridian warhounds.” Rig gave the animal’s flank a solid thump, setting Rudi’s nub wagging.

“You want him? He’s yours.” Liam started to reach for the wolfhound, but Rudi bared his teeth.

“All right,” Alix said, “out of here, all of you. I need to finish this and get back to Erik.”

“Come on, Rudi,” Rig said, “let’s find something to eat.” The wolfhound trotted alongside him as happily as if Rig had reared him from a pup. Liam looked after them in disgust.

“Bye, Allie.” He dropped a kiss on Alix’s cheek. “See you at the banquet.”

Alix shook her head ruefully. A banquet. In the middle of war. She understood the politics of it, but even so, it felt wrong somehow. Like a death feast. A final indulgence before the execution.

She raised her eyes to the stained-glass window, watching detachedly as the servants tried to repair the crack. She no longer saw the symbol of Ardin’s passion. Instead, she saw the flames of war.

*   *   *

Erik White stood at the window of his study, gazing out over the rose garden. A light glitter of snow dusted the burlap sacks covering the rosebushes, giving them a sombre cast. Like a row of tombstones, he thought. An endless row, twisting back on itself and back again, an army of tombstones in tight, ordered ranks. Was that what the graves at the front looked like?

Don’t be ridiculous. They have no time to erect monuments to their dead.

Erik sighed, his breath fogging the glass. It was no good, giving himself over to grim thoughts like this. He knew it, but he could not seem to help himself. The longer the war dragged on, the less Erik could think about anything else. He was climbing the walls here in the palace, futile and frivolous, throwing banquets and convening council meetings while hundreds, thousands of his men died at the front. It was almost enough to make him long for the days when he commanded his own forces in the field. His kingdom had been torn in half then, its lands overrun by enemy forces, but at least Erik had not felt as though he were burrowed down, snug and safe, like a hedgehog waiting out the winter. At least then, he could face his enemy head on. If his kingdom was destined to be conquered, Erik would rather die on the point of a sword than be captured in the palace, forced to his knees in front of the Warlord. Thrown in the Red Tower, or worse, given his freedom in exchange for surrender.

Stop it. We are not conquered. Not yet.

“Your Majesty.”

Her voice was a welcome interruption. Erik turned.

“The oratorium is clear. There’s a crack in one of the windows, but the servants assure me it’s just ordinary wear and tear. It’ll be repaired by tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Alix. And what of the banner lords? Have they begun arriving?”

She smiled. Erik knew what that meant, and he smiled too. “So he did come, then?” He had been told not to expect Riggard Black.

Closing the door to make sure they were alone, Alix strolled into the room and threw herself casually into a chair. “Apparently, he got a letter from Highmount.”

“Ah.” Erik pulled out his own chair. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. My first counsel is convinced this is the most critical decision we’ve had to make since the siege.”

Alix toyed with the pearl-handled seal knife on his desk. “Is it?” she asked quietly.

“I think perhaps it is,” he said, just as quietly. “But the truth is, I’m not sure it’s really a choice at all. If our allies don’t enter the war, and soon, it’s over for us. We must do whatever it takes to see that they do.”

“And you and Highmount have an idea how to do that?” The barest hint of frost touched her voice. Few would have noticed it; Alix had grown better at concealing her thoughts these past months. Time at court did that to a person. But Erik spent at least twelve hours a day with this woman, and he could read her as easily as a favourite book. She was annoyed, and he thought he knew why.

“We’ve discussed it in detail, yes. And no, you were not present. That was deliberate, Alix.” Hardly likely to appease her, but he wanted her to understand. “I needed to discuss the options freely, without worrying about those whom it might affect.”

She gave him a wary look. “Meaning?”

“I see only one possible solution, and you’re not going to like it.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Ominous.” He sighed again, rubbed his temples. “That is how we live our lives, is it not? Ominously?”

Her expression softened; she reached across the desk and took his hand. Instinctively, Erik’s fingers tightened around hers.

“It won’t last forever, Erik. It can’t.”

For half a heartbeat, he let himself take comfort in her voice, in the warmth of her hand. Then he released her and sat back. “No, it can’t. It must end. My duty is to make sure it ends well, no matter what. I hope I can count on your support tomorrow, even if you don’t like what I have to say.”

The wary look returned. “In that case, maybe you’d better tell me now.”

“We will discuss it at length tomorrow, I promise. And I’m not asking you to agree with me blindly—just hear me out, without jumping to conclusions. If you still have concerns, you are free to air them, as always. I daresay you won’t be alone.”

She shifted uncomfortably. “This proposal of yours—it’s really that bad?”

“Bad? I sincerely hope not. Call it desperate, rather.”

She swallowed. “Are things really that . . . Are we desperate?”

His gaze moved back to the window, to the glitter of snow and the marching ranks of tombstones. “Yes, Alix, we are.”