The captain of the wolf-headed boat they rode on finally deigned to introduce himself to the circle of Singers he had aboard when the noon sun hung high in the sky. The man wore a wolf pelt over his shoulders, pinned to the cloth of his tunic with gold-and-ivory pins. Reki raised an eyebrow: somehow, given how long she had been left to bake in the sun, she had not expected the Captain to be wealthy enough for such ostentation. Her eyes ached from the brightness, and she had accepted hours ago that she would have a painful sunburn to deal with.

Still, even beyond the rich pins, the Captain was not the sort of man she would have expected. He seemed almost bloodless, of the sort who is nearly impossible to rattle, as he actually looked down his nose at his distinguished ‘guests’ standing before him, encircled by their ‘honor guard’ and denied even a shawl or a cloak for shade. “Good day to you, ladies,” he began. “I hope you are enjoying your stay aboard my ship?”

“It’s lovely,” Reki answered through clenched teeth. She struggled not to squint at the man. “Although the accommodations seem a little spare. Tell me, are all of your lord’s guests treated so warmly?”

The corner of his lip curled in a sneer. “I should think you would be glad of the light. It can’t be healthy, being always hidden away from view like that.” Reki seethed, but the man wasn’t done. “You should be honored. You are the first sorcerers of any stripe to set foot on my deck, and you’re being escorted to the Lord himself. A rare honor indeed.”

Bea stepped forward. “Now wait just a moment-”

“Hold your tongue, woman.”

Beatrix was so surprised she actually did.

“I do not hold with the use of Song, or of any of the other so-called Arts. They make men disinclined to rely on their own power. That I have allowed not one but six of you aboard is a testament to my devotion to Thane Ulfr. While you are aboard you will not be ill-treated, but neither will you be allowed to wander about at your leisure, nor to conceal your doings. I do not trust those who can so freely manipulate men’s hearts. Some call this a failing: I call it wisdom. And now, please, I hope you enjoy the rest of your journey. We should reach port early on the morrow.”

As the Captain turned on his heel and stepped away, his boots clicking on the deck as though he were perpetually walking on stones, Reki’s jaw dropped.

Runa’s face had gone red, and not from the sun. “Who does he think,” she started to mutter.

“Well.” Eydri said, sounding as nonplussed as Reki felt. “That explains a few things.”

“More than I cared to know, truth be told,” Reki answered. “How does a man like that come to be a captain at all – let alone a rich one?”

Aema shook her head. “Does it matter? We know now that we’re stuck like this until he sees fit to escort us up to Raenshold. Here, Reki, you can at least sit in my shadow. It’s not much, but…”

“Thank you Aema. I’ll take you up on that.” Reki shifted a little bit and sank down onto the deck. The other woman’s shadow was poor shade at best, but it was still better than nothing.

Breidelstein harbor was broad and deep, with high cliffs rising to either side and up behind the port town itself. As they drew near, a path up the cliffs became visible, and Reki got her first glimpse of Raenshold where it squatted over the port like an overprotective hound.

The town was unnaturally subdued as they were led through it under armed guard, and it had nothing to do with the six of them. If it had, the people they passed would have either stared or pointedly looked away. Instead, they went on with their day as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on. A surprisingly high portion of the city appeared unwell. Malnourished, really. It was as though Ulfr had proven to be unskillful at rulership after he seized the reins of power.

Reki snorted quietly and suppressed a smirk – not at the people’s misfortune, but at the fate common to usurpers. Would men never learn? Leadership was a skill like any other, and rulership passed from father to son so that the skill could be taught. Would be taught, barring gross incompetence, as a consequence of raising the heir.

The walk up the road leading to the Hall was steep even after accounting for the switchbacks. No matter what else Reki wanted to say about Stigander’s father, the man had good tactical sense. This may well have been one of the most defensible locations she had ever seen. Were it not for the Weaver’s treachery, it might never have fallen.

She glanced over. Beatrix walked between the rest of them and the sheer drop below, as though she, too, were guarding them. She couldn’t help but like the Imperial Princess, so very different from the Lady Runa and not just in culture. How she could have been mistaken for a Singer was a mystery none of them had an answer to yet, but for her part Reki was glad to have someone along who thought like a warrior. Later, when they finally slipped the leash of their guards, they could wonder about things like that. Right now, though, Reki needed to be preparing herself to face lord Stigander’s half-brother.

It felt impossible, and yet she knew it was not, not truly. All she knew about the man she had learned from the Lay, but that should be enough to extrapolate from. That and the (ahem) quality of the man who had been sent to capture them. And she was almost out of time: the grim stone walls of Raenshold towered over their party now. Their so-called honor guard did not slow as they neared the gate, though Reki wished they might. The time was at hand.

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