WINDSINGER: PROLOGUE AND CHAPTER ONE
It was one of the first sunny days of spring: the kind of day when the relentless chill blade of winter finally lost its edge, and the air tasted of green growing things, and down in the city the workers went bare-armed in hopeful anticipation of summer’s return. Miles was able to say his morning devotions to the Sun Lord in the full and certain knowledge of His presence, instead of merely in hope.
Breakfast brought starfruit, the first of the season and his favourite. He sat beside Art, slicing the golden-yellow fruit and enjoying the sweet tang of the juice, while the high voices of the Nightshade children filled the air. Three of them, all under six years old; breakfast was necessarily a noisy affair. Perhaps Miles thought briefly of his own nephew, forever frozen at the age of three in his memory, but if so, he didn’t let it linger. He watched the faces around him – Ayla Nightshade, overlord of Darkhaven, his employer and friend; Tomas Caraway, her husband and Captain of the Helm; their adopted son and their two tiny daughters; Art – and enjoyed the warm, comfortable sensation of being part of a family once more.
After the meal he went straight down to his laboratory, a room that had once been a disused wine cellar but that Ayla had converted for his use when she’d invited him and Art to move into Darkhaven. The previous night he had made considerable progress on his latest project – a collar that would afford alchemical protection to ordinary men and women, not just Changers – and he wanted to try it out. So he put it on, and cut his finger, and made notes on the result. Yes, the knife blade still sliced through his skin without any difficulty. Yes, he still bled. But there was no denying that the blood flow was far slower and more sluggish than it would have been without the collar. Give him another year and he’d have the technology perfected.
That was all very satisfactory, and in itself would have been enough to content him. Yet as if the gods were determined to pour blessings on him, Art also had a rare afternoon off. Not that he wasn’t allowed time off; he just never took it. But this time he swore to stay out of the fifth ring, and to ignore any summons from Captain Caraway, should it come, and not even to touch the hilt of a sword.
‘We’ll take a balloon out of the city, Milo,’ he said with the twist of a smile. ‘Have a picnic. Even grown men need to indulge in romance from time to time.’
Miles scoffed at the idea, of course, but secretly he was delighted. Sometimes he worried that he and Art didn’t do enough together, that they were turning into the kind of couple who spent more time fretting about the unwashed dishes than enjoying each other’s company. So they had the picnic; and afterwards, eyebrows raised, Art looked around the glade where they were sitting and said, ‘Secluded, isn’t it? I wouldn’t think there’s another body about for leagues.’
It was all the invitation Miles needed.
Enjoying the seclusion took longer than they’d planned, and so the sun was already setting by the time their balloon touched back down in the city. Art went straight up to their room to wash before the evening meal, but Miles lingered in the grounds of Darkhaven, looking at the orange light gilding the temple roofs below him and enjoying being happy. For once, he wasn’t listening to the constant whisper of guilt in his ear. He wasn’t letting himself feel the simmering dread that one day, everything would come crashing down around him until there was nothing left but rubble. There was sunshine, and the scent of spring blossom, and for once that was enough.
But then, as he turned, he saw a messenger climbing the hill.
There was no reason to believe the message was for him. No reason at all. And yet a shiver crawled between his shoulder-blades. He stood very still, barely daring to breathe, and waited.
The messenger walked right up to him, handed him a folded piece of paper, then – without a word – turned back for the Gate of Death.
It is nothing, Miles told himself. A note from the university. Something from the fifth ring for Art … but his hands were shaking.
He unfolded the paper. He read: Luka’s temple. One week. And his stomach plunged as if he’d been cast off a precipice.
It had been a long time since he’d received a summons like this. Once a month, he delivered his report to a particular address in Arkannen, along with a letter to his sister Mara; in return, every so often, he received coded instructions and Mara’s replies. He’d been doing it for so long, it had become routine – though never without the uneasy edge of guilt. But a face-to-face meeting … that rarely happened any more. The last time had been almost three years ago, when a Kardise assassin had threatened Ayla Nightshade’s life.
Three years. It had almost been long enough to convince himself that his life would stay as it was forever. That, somehow, he could avoid all the consequences of his actions. He should have known that sooner or later, there would always come a reminder of what he was. Sooner or later, the dread always returned.
Still, he would keep going down this path, because what else could he do? On one side of the scales lay Art and Ayla and everyone he loved in Darkhaven. On the other side lay the only family he had left. And he would forever be in the middle, holding them in balance. Because if he let either side fall, even the slightest bit, someone would die.
Just keep going.
He tore the slip of paper into hundreds of tiny pieces, sprinkled them among the new green stems of the sprouting dragonlilies, and went in search of Art.
The wind had turned cold again, as it often did in the unsettled early days of spring. Ayla felt its icy fingers slip down the back of her neck as she crossed Darkhaven’s central square, a reminder that winter still clung to power. Yet for all that, change was coming, and with it something she could almost taste on the air: peace.
It had been long enough in the making. Border skirmishes between Mirrorvale and its southern neighbour were almost too common to comment on: a state of affairs that dated from well before Ayla was born. For as long as she could remember, it had gone without saying that Sol Kardis would take Mirrorvale for its own, if it could. Yet last autumn, the Kardise government had sent her a polite and carefully oblique letter that hinted, somewhere between the lines, at the possibility of a treaty. She had replied with delicately worded hints of her own that expressed her willingness to entertain the suggestion of that possibility. And so the correspondence had continued, shaping a shared intent out of allusion and obfuscation until, just before the onset of deepest winter drew a temporary halt to the proceedings, a meeting had been agreed for springtime.
Now springtime was here, and a Kardise ambassador was on his way to Darkhaven.
It would be the most important meeting she had yet held as overlord; Ayla was well aware of that. A peace treaty would put an end to the fighting at the border, fighting that was sporadic but still cost the patrolmen and women limbs and sometimes lives. It would strengthen Mirrorvale’s position against its other neighbours. It would increase the flow of trade and information between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis. And, on a personal level, it would put her in less danger of being murdered. After the first assassination attempt, three years ago, there had been a few others; and although none of them had ever come as close as the first – and indeed, it was some time since any attempt had been made at all – the disquieting possibility remained that one day, an assassin would succeed where the others had failed. Yet once the treaty was signed, she would no longer need to worry about the Kardise trying to kill her.
At least, so she hoped.
Don’t promise the fruit before the tree is grown, she told herself. Just because the ambassador is coming, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to reach agreement. All the same, it was a chance. It was far better than anything she’d achieved before, where the question of Sol Kardis was concerned. And for that reason, she couldn’t help but let her thoughts leap ahead to what she might be able to do – what Mirrorvale might be able to do – when there was no longer the constant need to be on guard. We can extend our railway. Build new and better airships. Concentrate our alchemical efforts on improved medical remedies, not defence. Tomas won’t have to worry about me so much … and maybe our children can grow up into a world that doesn’t threaten war at every turn.
But first, she had to convince the ambassador that Mirrorvale was strong enough to be worth dealing with as an equal, not a potential conquest.
She found Tomas with two of his men near the door to the transformation room, explaining something that involved sweeping hand gestures and a lot of laughter. Ayla stopped to watch, an unexpected surge of emotion swelling inside her. They had been together for long enough, now, that it was hard for her to view him with any kind of objectivity. It was like looking at one of her children, or her own face in the mirror: too familiar to judge. But every so often, she’d catch him in a moment like this – when he wasn’t aware of her presence – and it would be like falling in love with him all over again.
‘Captain Caraway,’ she said softly. All three of the men turned straight away, drawing themselves upright and saluting. Tomas’s expression softened into that particular look she’d never seen him give anyone else – the one that made her feel as though everything and everyone else had faded into the background, leaving the two of them alone – but he greeted her formally, as he always did when they were in company.
‘Lady Ayla. Are you ready?’
She walked right up to him, grabbed the lapels of his striped coat and stretched up on tiptoes to kiss him. ‘Now I’m ready.’
The two Helmsmen whooped in approval, and Tomas smiled.
Do you mind? she’d asked him once. When I break protocol in front of the Helm?
He’d grinned. Not at all. I can’t do it, because it would demonstrate an alarming lack of respect for my overlord. But please don’t let that stop you.
It was a strange game they played, Ayla thought sometimes. One with many changing roles: overlord and captain for the world at large, equals in private, something in between for the Helm. But after six years they’d found a balance that kept them both happy, and that was what mattered.
‘Are you ready?’ she asked. ‘And the rest of the Helm?’
He nodded. ‘Everything is in hand.’
‘Then I’d better get going. I don’t want to be late.’
She hesitated – it was one thing to play in front of others, quite another to seek genuine reassurance – before winding her arms around his waist and resting her cheek against his chest.
‘Safe journey,’ he murmured into her hair.
‘I’m only going as far as the third ring. It’s not quite the same.’
She would have liked to stay there a while, but instead she stepped back. Their fingers clung together a moment longer. Then Tomas and his men saluted her again, and she entered the transformation room.
The Kardise ambassador was coming in by airship. Perhaps, once, Ayla would have been content to wait in Darkhaven, allowing Tomas and a contingent of the Helm to meet the ambassador at one of the airship stations in the third ring and escort him up through the city to join her. But not today. She and Tomas had decided that where Sol Kardis was concerned, it was vital to display all of Mirrorvale’s strength right from the start.
They are bigger than us, more powerful, more advanced, Tomas had said. But there’s one thing they don’t have, and that’s you.
And so rather than wait passively for the ambassador to be brought to her, Ayla was going to meet him.
Suppressing a tiny stirring of doubt, she touched the intricate collar at her throat. She wasn’t sure how Miles had done it, but this particular piece of jewellery was nothing short of a miracle. It protected her in both human and creature form, allowing her to switch from one to the other without losing the shield that kept her safe from bullets. She could even access her lesser Changer gifts in human form – enhanced strength, heightened senses, the ability to manipulate ice and wood – without having to remove it. And in her creature form, she was genuinely invincible.
As far as anyone can tell, she reminded herself. We thought Changer creatures were invincible before firearms came along, and look what happened there.
Still, she was as confident as she could be. Miles had thrown every danger he could think of at her, and none of it had stuck. Now he was busy working on developing similar shields for ordinary people – a far harder task, since they had no alchemy in their blood to build on, but he didn’t think it impossible – and she …
She was going to fly out to meet the Kardise ambassador’s airship, alone.
Show him, and show the world, she vowed silently. Mirrorvale is not afraid of Sol Kardis.
Letting her hand fall, she summoned the Change.
As the swirling, prickling sensation subsided, she opened her wings to their full extent and arched her neck. She spent long enough in creature form, these days, that it took no more than the space of three heartbeats for her to adjust to the difference. In the past, when her father’s shame had kept her out of sight and largely confined to her human skin, it had always taken her some time to settle into her Alicorn form on those occasions she was allowed to enter it. Her creature-self had always been just as much a part of her as her human self, of course; but a somewhat unfamiliar part, alien and awkward like a rarely used limb. Since her father’s death, though, she’d exercised that limb more and more – until, now, she considered the strength and single-minded power of her Alicorn form to be her no more or less than the more emotion-driven complexity of her human self.
Ducking her head, she pushed open the double doors and left the transformation room.
Outside, the world had come alive. The city was a roar of sound: factories clanking, cartwheels trundling on the cobblestones, hundreds upon hundreds of people talking, a constant hum of voices. Nearer and louder, the clash of steel from the fifth ring, the thud of arrows hitting a target and the grunts of wrestlers; priestesses murmuring devotions, a tune played on the rippling strings of a harp. Darkhaven itself resonated with the soft tread of Helmsmen on patrol, Miles clinking glass in his laboratory, two maids gossiping as they swept the floor; up in the nursery, Marlon chattered about his latest imaginary adventure while Katya sang off-key. A hundred intertwining strands of sound, every one of them distinct. And the smells! In every breath she took, there was something new: hot oil and baking bread and grass and factory smoke and human sweat and a hint of blossom from the distant orchards …
‘Lady Ayla,’ her mate said softly. ‘Time to go.’
She regarded him steadily. In this form, she found him strange and distant: an incomplete creature, limited to a single way of being. Yet the scent of his skin was familiar, and the rhythm of his heartbeat. He was still the father of her children. So she allowed him to touch her neck with gentle fingers for a moment before stepping back.
Out of the way, she told the Helmsmen. She didn’t wait to see if they had obeyed, simply brought her wings down in a powerful stroke and launched herself into the air.
As she rose, Arkannen dwindled below her until she could see the whole of the city: seven rings full of beauty and wonder, industry and ambition and thousands of human lives. Fierce pride and renewed determination gripped her, because this was hers. All of it. And if she had to, she would defend it to the death.
The air changed as she moved away from the city, becoming colder and fresher. Now it tasted of grass and dung, not coal dust and smoke. Southern Mirrorvale wasn’t flat and fertile, like the east, which supplied Arkannen with much of its best fruit and grain; it wasn’t as rich in timber and coal as the west. It was hill country, inhabited largely by farmers whose small, hardy sheep and cattle were left to graze as they wished, and dotted with market towns where the people spun wool and made the finest cheeses in Mirrorvale. Hard lives, perhaps, but safe ones; yet only a little further south, the hills became less grassy and more unfriendly, rising up into the natural barrier that formed much of the border between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis. Those hills were the source of all the little streams and tributaries that eventually combined to form the river that passed outside Arkannen’s eastern wall; they were also the territory of the patrolmen, whose constant, bitter defence against Kardise incursions was the very thing Ayla was hoping to bring to an end.
As it turned out, she didn’t have to fly anything like that far. She’d barely travelled a quarter of the way between Arkannen and the southern border when she spotted the ambassador’s airship approaching. Easy enough to identify it – a government ship always displayed the Kardise lion on its envelope, distinguishing it from the striped red and white of a merchant, the gold circle on green background of a passenger ship, or the single plain colour of a wealthy family’s personal skyboat. Ayla focused her senses on the airship as the two of them drew nearer to each other, listening through the growl of the engine for the voices of the people who rode in the gondola. All speaking Kardise, of course, but she’d been perfectly taught.
‘Is that –?’
‘Gods. She’s bigger than I thought.’
‘I daresay she can hear you, you know.’ That voice was calmer than the others, with a warm hint of amusement. ‘They say Changer senses are ten times more acute than our own.’
Make that fifty, Ayla sent into their minds in the same language, then listened to the silence with some satisfaction. Speaking like this, silently, had been another aspect of her gift she’d been late to discover. Her father had been able to do it, but she’d never managed it – something he’d blamed on her hybrid nature, just like her inability to manipulate fire. But once Miles had put her straight on that score, three years ago, she’d begun to wonder if this was another skill that she’d given up on simply because her father had convinced her she was an inferior kind of Changer. And sure enough, as her comfort in her own second skin had grown, she’d found herself able to communicate at greater and greater distances – until now, if she could hear someone talking, she could make them hear her.
Welcome to Mirrorvale, she added, and caught one of the Kardise swearing under his breath.
‘Thank you, Lady Ayla,’ the calm-voiced man said, ignoring his compatriot. ‘I am Carlos Tolino, ambassador for Sol Kardis.’
He’d switched to pleasantly accented Mirrorvalese, which was polite of him. She wished she could see into the gondola – but unlike the smaller ships, this one was fully enclosed, and even Changer eyes couldn’t see through solid wood. She’d have to wait to assess the man until they were both back on the ground.
Pleased to meet you, she told Tolino.
‘Likewise. I hope you will pardon my aides. They are not used to dealing with people of your … stature.’
Yet you are?
He laughed. ‘No. I have not had the pleasure of visiting Mirrorvale before. But I believe I’m old enough not to be startled very much by anything. Even such a wonder as you.’
By now she had reached the airship. She circled it effortlessly, close enough to pierce the envelope with her spiral horn and send everyone in the gondola to a fiery death on the ground below, if she so chose.
Allow me to accompany you back to the city.
‘Thank you,’ Tolino said. ‘That would be most kind.’
As she headed back in the direction she’d come, she heard one of the Kardise swearing again.
She escorted the airship to Arkannen, as promised; yet once it began to descend towards its allocated docking station in the third ring, she left it behind. Tomas and the Helm would meet the ambassador and his party on the ground – she had seen the carriages waiting. Their journey up to Darkhaven would give her time to Change, get dressed, and be ready to receive her guests.
She was at her station outside the door to the great hall before two chimes had passed, wearing the kind of long, flowing dress that her father had always insisted she wear and that she’d barely spent any time in during the past six years, because they were so impractical as garments for Changers. The entire thing felt heavy and hampering, tangling around her legs in an irritating fashion. Still, formal occasions called for formal clothing. Warmly amused voice aside, she had no idea what sort of man Carlos Tolino might be, and there was no point jeopardising a possible peace treaty with the chance that he’d object to a woman wearing trousers.
To begin with, automatically, she faced the postern gate; it took her a while to remember that, because of the carriages, Tomas and his men would bring the Kardise in through Darkhaven’s vast main gates. The latter had been rarely used in her father’s time, and she’d found no reason to change that – the postern was far easier to manage for people on foot, as most of the tower’s inhabitants tended to be, and Ayla herself could take off from the central square in creature form. It would have been different if they’d used other methods of transport – carriages, horses, mechanical cycles – but Darkhaven didn’t own more than a single carriage and pair. Tomas had hired the other two from somewhere in the city.
Of course, visitors arrived in carriages, but Ayla couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a visitor. The Nightshade overlords might make state visits to Mirrorvale’s neighbouring countries, and travel the land to fulfil their duties to their own people, but their home remained private. If the stories were true, for centuries that had been by mutual agreement. Back when there were forty or fifty Changers living in Darkhaven, each spending as much time in creature as in human form, it wouldn’t have been a place that many ordinary folk dared venture. Yet now … looking around the square through new eyes, noticing a few cobwebbed windows and the occasional tuft of grass springing up through the cracks in the stone, she wondered what the ambassador would think of Darkhaven. Was it still imposing? Or would he see the worn and shabby seat of a once-great civilisation, a place as much in decline as those who ruled it?
She glanced over her shoulder at the six Helmsmen behind her, three to each side. They must be fed up with waiting by now, yet they didn’t fidget or whisper amongst themselves; they remained facing forward, as solid and reliable as the steps beneath her feet. At least she could be proud of the Helm. They knew how important this was, and they wouldn’t let her down. Six men, one for each of the first six rings of the city, with herself to represent the seventh; Tomas and another six gone to meet the ambassador. There was tradition in it, as there was in everything here. And although Ayla had broken many Nightshade traditions in her lifetime, she found herself obscurely reassured by this one. She might be the last full-grown scion of a fading line, but she had the weight of history behind her.
Before she turned back around, she noticed that one of her six men was a woman, and couldn’t resist giving her a small smile. Ree had saved her life, three years ago; it wasn’t the sort of thing one forgot. And besides … now that Ree was a fully fledged Helmsman, Ayla had the chance to talk to her sometimes, when Ree was on duty at the tower. As much as she loved Tomas, it was nice to spend time with another woman every so often.
Ree smiled back at her – very briefly, as though she thought it was probably the wrong thing to do in such a solemn situation – and Ayla faced the entrance once more. By the time the lookouts at their post above the main entrance called out and ran down to swing the gates open, she was thoroughly cold and fed up with waiting. Still, she summoned another smile as she descended the steps. This was her first chance to assess the ambassador using her human senses. She couldn’t let frozen fingers distract her from that.
She scanned the men who were emerging from the carriages, picking out the ambassador straight away. He was of medium height, brown-skinned and dark-haired like so many of his countrymen, with intelligent, jet-black eyes and a kind expression. Ayla hadn’t expected the kindness, not in an ambassador. He was dressed without ostentation, much like Ayla herself, although the fabric of his tunic was rich and a Kardise lion worked in gold adorned his belt. As she approached him, he returned her smile with what appeared to be genuine warmth. Encouraging.
She flicked a glance at Tomas, standing at the front of the Helm escort in his full captain’s uniform – because if anything had occurred to make him uneasy on their way up from the third ring, she’d be able to tell. But his face was untroubled, and he gave her the barest hint of a nod. Doubly encouraging.
By now she had reached the carriages, so there was no time left to consider the other men who had made the journey from Sol Kardis – the guards and aides, the ones who had been alarmed by her presence in the sky. They would have to wait.
‘Don Tolino,’ she greeted the ambassador, with her best attempt at a Kardise bow: dipping her knee, rather than bending from the waist, and ducking her head.
‘Lady Ayla.’ In return, he touched his fingertips to hers in the Mirrorvalese fashion.
Both countries’ honour thus satisfactorily upheld, Ayla gestured back up the steps. ‘Shall we …?’ The two of them climbed towards the formal doors together, with their respective protectors close behind.
‘Disheartening, is it not?’ Tolino murmured, with the same hint of humour he had shown during their airborne conversation. ‘All these people hard on our heels, just waiting for us to try and kill each other.’
She couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Sadly, yes. Though you, at least, shouldn’t take it personally. The Helm are trained to perceive everyone as a potential threat.’
‘I assure you, Giorgi does not mean anything personal either.’ Tolino threw a surprisingly mischievous look over his shoulder at his burly bodyguard. ‘He is merely labouring under the uncomfortable awareness that you outmatch me in every single way. Your power is far beyond anything Sol Kardis has to offer.’
‘Which is why we are here,’ Ayla agreed with a certain amount of malice – thinking of all those failed assassination attempts – but he only nodded.
‘Which is why we are here. And for my part, I am thoroughly grateful for it. Conquest does not suit my ideas of what is best for Sol Kardis at all.’ He curled a smile at her like the bow on a birthday gift. ‘Trade is far more profitable than war. Don’t you agree?’
‘Very much so.’ They had reached the great hall, where Ayla had planned to install the ambassador and all his aides for their initial conversation. A massive, echoing room – imposing, certainly, but also chilly and inconvenient – where the two of them would face each other amid frozen splendour and beneath the watchful eyes of twenty people … Impulsively she turned to Tolino. ‘Would you … perhaps we could retire to the library? Just the two of us. An informal talk, a drink to warm us up … tomorrow is early enough to begin the formal negotiations. And I’m sure your men could do with some refreshment after their journey.’
It wasn’t the plan. She and Tomas had agreed that their approach to the Kardise should be polite, but not friendly; that they shouldn’t offer anything more than the minimum of courtesy. Sol Kardis might be the larger country, but it was also in the wrong: though none of the councillors with whom she’d corresponded had ever admitted sending assassins her way, it had been an unspoken truth between them that the Kardise were making overtures of peace only because more violent methods had failed. Mirrorvale might desperately want to accept the peace, because it couldn’t afford the war, but that was all the more reason to give the impression of cool strength rather than fawning desperation.
Still, plans changed. Don Tolino seemed a pleasant man, and one who was as intent on creating a working treaty as Ayla. If the two of them could agree certain things now, alone and without a score of interruptions, then tomorrow’s negotiations could become no more than a rapidly concluded formality.
‘I would be very happy –’ Tolino began, only to be interrupted by his bodyguard.
‘Sir, if I may … I am not sure it would be a wise idea.’
‘Oh, nonsense!’ Tolino’s eyes met Ayla’s in a moment of shared ruefulness. ‘No doubt Lady Ayla will guarantee my safety.’
‘But sir –’
Ayla looked at Tomas. He didn’t like it either, she could tell. Once they would have argued about it, though never in public. But now, he simply scanned her face before moving his fingers in the small, private signal they had developed between them: the one that said I trust your judgement, and I’m letting you take the lead.
‘If it would make you feel more comfortable,’ he told Giorgi, ‘you and I can scan the room for concealed weapons together. And while Lady Ayla and Don Tolino are conferring, we can guard the door.’
‘Thank you, Captain,’ Tolino said firmly, with a quelling glance at his bodyguard. ‘That sounds more than adequate.’
Tomas murmured something to one of the Helm, who left his station and disappeared in the direction of the kitchens. By the time Tomas and Giorgi had finished checking the safety of the library, the oil lamps had been lit, a fire had been kindled in the grate and a maid stood patiently beside the two armchairs that faced each other in the centre of the room. Tomas looked at Ayla, eyebrows raised a fraction.
Thank you. She wished she could speak it into his mind, as she would have in Alicorn form, but he nodded as though he’d heard her anyway. Then he saluted, backed out of the room, and left her and Tolino alone.
‘Take a seat,’ Ayla said. ‘Can I offer you a drink?’
‘Thank you. That would be most welcome.’
‘There’s spiced fruit, or ale …’
‘Taransey, surely,’ Tolino said with a smile. ‘One cannot help but be curious about a liquor that isn’t supposed to leave its country of origin.’
‘Of course.’ Ayla nodded at the maid, who dropped a curtsey before leaving the room. Then she sat down opposite the ambassador, resisting the urge to touch her hair or fold her arms or smooth out the fabric of her unaccustomed skirts. He looked at her expectantly.
‘I hope we can reach an agreement, Don Tolino,’ she said. ‘The unnecessary loss of life at our shared border –’
‘Yes.’ His levity vanished, Tolino sat forward in his chair. ‘Utterly stupid, I agree. You have to understand, Lady Ayla, that my government has been divided on the issue of Mirrorvale for decades. We have debated and wrangled, back and forth, yet nothing was ever decided – and all the while, good men died for nothing.’
It was possible he was genuinely unaware of the assassination attempts, Ayla thought. Hard to be sure, without knowing exactly how the Brotherhood – the shadowy power behind the Kardise government – controlled their councillors. Which also raised the question of whether the Brotherhood were behind this attempt at peace, or whether the government had managed to overcome their inaction of their own accord.
‘But you have reached a decision now,’ she said, gently probing.
‘Reluctantly, yes.’ He sighed. ‘I won’t lie to you: a vociferous faction is still against this treaty. But they are now a minority.’
‘They won’t interfere?’
‘Ah, no. We are a democracy, Lady Ayla. The majority rules.’
A majority can be bought, Ayla thought – but she didn’t say it. Whether the Brotherhood had forced a vote for peace or whether it had happened despite their machinations, the outcome was a favourable one.
She opened her mouth to say something more, but at that point the maid returned with a silver tray that bore a bottle of taransey and two glasses. Accepting Ayla’s thanks with another bobbed curtsey, she placed her burden gracefully on the small table between the two armchairs and looked up.
‘Would you like me to pour, ma’am?’
‘No, thank you,’ Ayla said. As the maid left the library for the second time, Tolino raised an eyebrow.
‘You’re going to pour it yourself?’ he teased. ‘Should I be afraid of poison?’
‘I thought, given your curiosity, you might like to study the bottle.’ Handing it to him, she added drily, ‘You’ll notice the seal is intact, so if I’m going to kill you, it won’t be with this.’
He took it, examining the thick wax seal with its finely patterned imprint of seven concentric circles, the complicated design of knotted, coloured string. Almost impossible to recreate, though people had tried over the years. ‘Taransey has acquired almost legendary status in Sol Kardis, you know. I hear a bottle can sell for thousands on the black market. You could make a fortune if you were to lift the export ban.’
‘But then there would no longer be a legend,’ Ayla said.
‘You prize stories more highly than gold?’
She smiled. ‘Given what I am, how could I not? It isn’t the Nightshade wealth, such as it is, that’s kept Sol Kardis at bay all these years.’
Tolino lowered the bottle to look at her. She returned his gaze without speaking. After a moment, he nodded and passed the taransey back to her. ‘Then by all means let us drink, Lady Ayla. I am most curious to see how well the reality lives up to the legend.’
Silently, she broke the seal and poured a small quantity of the amber liquid into each glass, before handing him one. Swallowing some of her own drink, she managed to resist the urge to wince. She’d never admit it to anyone, but she didn’t understand the appeal of taransey; it tasted of fire and sharpness, just like every other spirit she’d ever tried. Yet a contented smile had settled on Torrino’s face.
‘Remarkable,’ he murmured. ‘Quite remarkable.’
He sipped his drink, gazing at the fire; Ayla matched him. The taransey was growing on her. Though it had a bitter aftertaste she didn’t like, she was at least beginning to distinguish some flavours in it beyond mere alcohol.
‘Well,’ Tolino said finally, replacing his empty glass on the table with a decisive click. ‘Thank you. That will give me something to boast about back home. But now I suppose we had better get down to business.’
‘I suppose we had.’
They looked at each other a moment in silence. Then, very slowly, Ayla reached up to the collar around her neck. Years of caution were screaming at her not to do it – she could imagine all too clearly what Tomas would say, and Miles too – but her instincts told her that Tolino was to be trusted. And besides, the two of them needed something to break through the polite wall that separated them. Her fingers found the catch, popped it open; before she could change her mind, she dropped the collar beside her own glass.
‘I thank you for your trust,’ Tolino said. He looked surprised and, Ayla thought, a little pleased. If he brought out a concealed weapon now, it might not go well for her. Indeed, if he were in fact an assassin – if this entire meeting were an elaborate ruse on the part of the Kardise – she had given him the perfect opportunity. But instead he leaned back, hands resting open-fingered on the arms of his chair as though he guessed her doubt and sought to reassure her. ‘In return, let me assure you that I have no intention of playing diplomatic games with you – despite what your correspondence with our government may have led you to believe. It is my firm intention to approve a treaty between our countries. Everything else is just a matter of detail.’
‘Thank you,’ Ayla said, startled in her turn. Taking a moment to hide the sudden rush of relief, she topped up both their glasses. ‘That’s … I’m glad to hear you say that. I feel the same way.’
‘Good.’ Tolino smiled. ‘Then shall we begin?’
By the time they had talked through all the most important points of the treaty, the sixth bell had rung, the bottle of taransey was half empty and Ayla was more than ready for a break. They had discussed trade, migration, aid in war, border control and found no desperately contentious areas, only insignificant disagreements that would need hashing out at more leisure. Perhaps she would have continued, pressing for more and more agreement until she was certain that a successful treaty could be signed in the days ahead; but Tolino looked tired, she herself was desperately hungry, and the points that remained to sort out were so minor that she couldn’t believe any of them would make a difference. As Tolino had said himself, it was just a matter of detail. So she sat back in her chair, offering him a grateful smile.
‘Shall we leave it there? We have days ahead of us. And I think it’s clear that we will be able to reach consensus.’
‘I admit, I would like something more than taransey to sustain me,’ Tolino murmured, and she nodded.
‘I’ll have someone bring refreshments to your room.’
Yet as she replaced the collar around her neck, the ambassador leaned forward in his chair. ‘Before we go, there is, ah … a rather delicate matter I must raise with you.’
‘You have, here in the city, a young man named Alezzandro Lepont. I believe he is currently working in the warriors’ ring … what number is that? The fifth.’ He watched her face as he added, ‘Three years ago, he was briefly and falsely suspected of being an assassin.’
Enlightenment dawned. ‘Of course. Zander.’ She didn’t know him, not really. Other than that unfortunate episode, their paths had rarely crossed. Tomas had always spoken highly of him, expressing regret that it would be impolitic to have him in the Helm. And Ree talked about him on a regular basis. But more importantly, in this context … ‘He is the son of one of your councillors, I believe.’
‘Yes, Lady Ayla.’ Tolino spread his hands. ‘And that brings us to the heart of the matter. Marco Lepont is greatly desirous of his son’s return.’
‘Isn’t that up to Zander?’
‘Yes and no. He is indeed an adult, and in that sense free to make his own decisions. But Councillor Lepont is an influential man, and Alezzandro his only son.’ Tolino paused, then said almost apologetically, ‘He has made it a condition of the treaty that the boy leave Mirrorvale and return to Sol Kardis.’
‘You want me to deport him?’ Ayla asked incredulously.
‘If it comes to that. I would hope he will listen to reason, and leave of his own accord.’
She shook her head. ‘I’d have to talk to him about this. I couldn’t just –’
‘That is exactly what we wish,’ Tolino said. ‘He has disregarded the repeated summons of his father. Perhaps you can persuade him where his own blood cannot.’
Ayla shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. I wouldn’t be seeking to persuade him home. I’d be telling him what you have demanded, and your price if the demand is not met. What he does with that knowledge is up to him.’
Tolino raised his eyebrows. ‘Even if the entire treaty stands or falls as a result?’
‘Even so,’ Ayla said coldly. ‘I don’t like blackmail.’
He looked at her steadily a moment longer, then smiled.
‘Very well, Lady Ayla. I respect your principles, though I cannot agree with your conclusion. We will begin to draw up the treaty in the morning, and as for the problem of Alezzandro …’ He shrugged. ‘Let us see what a new day brings.’
Ayla wasn’t entirely content with that, but it had to be enough. They had reached agreement on most points, after all. Perhaps in the morning she would be able to convince him to give up the ridiculous idea that it was acceptable to treat a young man like a criminal – and throw a peace treaty into disarray – because his father didn’t like the way he was living his life.
‘Let me find someone to show you to your room,’ she said, and they crossed the floor together. But before she could open the door, Tolino put a hand on her arm.
‘Don’t look so worried, Lady Ayla. We will find a way to honour both Councillor Lepont’s request and your own conscience. I promise.’
Curiously, she found she believed him. She began to say something, but he got there first.
‘You know, whatever the legends say, it is my opinion that the reality outmatches them in every respect.’
Then they were outside the library again, with aides and Helmsmen springing into action at this evidence that their employers had not, in fact, torn each other to pieces, and Tomas giving orders for the Kardise to be shown to their rooms and served a late meal. It was only when the ambassador was about to be swept off by his entourage that Ayla managed to get another word in.
He turned, smiling. ‘Yes?’
‘Not at all. Thank you.’
They clasped hands, briefly. And then he was gone.
Later, once she and Tomas were alone in their bedroom, Ayla stood at the window and gazed out at the stars. It was late, and she was tired, but she didn’t yet feel like sleeping. The events of the day kept playing through her mind, challenging her to find a flaw in what she had done. A weakness. Something that would bring all her hopes crashing down. Yet she couldn’t find one. Apart from the issue of Zander – and Tolino had as good as assured her that it wouldn’t be an issue after all – she couldn’t see a single obstacle in her way.
I did it. I actually did it.
‘So are you ready yet?’ Tomas stepped up behind her, sliding his hands over her hips to encircle her waist. ‘To tell me how it went?’
‘Well.’ She tipped her head back against his shoulder, smiling. ‘Don Tolino is a good man, and I really think it went well.’
‘I’m proud of you.’
‘Oh, Tomas.’ Still she smiled. She couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like an irrepressible light, bursting out of her despite her exhaustion and the restrictions of her highly annoying dress. ‘Thank you.’
‘For everything.’ She closed her eyes. Peace. We can have peace. This is really going to happen.
‘You look beautiful,’ Tomas said softly in her ear. She chuckled.
‘I feel like a trussed-up chicken awaiting the pot. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable these stupid things are.’
His fingertips trailed over her skin, leaving a tingle of anticipation in their wake. His voice held a promise. ‘I can help you take it off.’
And he did.