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We Lie With Death (The Reborn Empire #2)

Into Kisia’s conquered north, a Levanti empire is born.

Loyal to the new emperor, Dishiva e’Jaroven must tread the line between building a new life and clinging to the old. Only Gideon can lead them, but when he allies himself with a man returned from the dead it will challenge all she thinks she knows and everything she wants to believe.

Now empress of nothing, Miko is more determined than ever to fight for her people, yet with her hunt for allies increasingly desperate, she may learn too late that power lies not in names but in people.

Rah refused to bow to the Levanti emperor, but now abandoned by the Second Swords he must choose whether to fight for his people, or his soul. Will honour be his salvation, or lead to his destruction?

Sold to the Witchdoctor, Cassandra’s only chance of freedom is in his hands, but when her fate becomes inextricably linked to Empress Hana, her true nature could condemn them both.

There is no calm after the storm.

Chapter 1 – Rah

Time does not pass in darkness. There are no days to count. No nights to sleep. No sun to sear a path across the sky. In darkness you cease to exist as solitude wears your soul to a stub, but nothing could erode the truth in my heart. I was Levanti. A Torin. And this was not how a warrior of the plain died.

“Gideon!” I shouted, pressing my face to the bars. The echo of my voice bounced in the darkness, returning no answer. “Gideon!”

I gripped the bars, and sucking a deep breath through parched lips, began to sing our lament. We sang it for loss. We sang it for pain. We sang it beneath the stars and the scorching summer sun. We sang it when weak and we sang it when strong, but more than anything we sang it when we were alone. Gideon had taught me the words, along with a clutch of other young children released from chores at the end of a travelling day. We had sat at his feet, fighting to sit closest as though his worn, sweaty boots were a shrine at which to pray.

“But what does it mean?” one of the others had asked – a child whose face and name had been lost to the haze of time, leaving only gratitude that someone else had asked so I need not look foolish.

“It’s a prayer,” Gideon had said, smiling at the foolish one. “In lifting your voice to the gods you will never be alone, because they will see you. Will hear you. Will honour you.”

He had ruffled the foolish one’s hair and left us staring after him. He might have been the Torin’s youngest Sword, just a child to the warriors he served with, but he had been like a god to us. To me.

When I finished, the song echoed on, bouncing back from the darkness until at last it faded.

Silence returned.

Gideon did not come.

 

*****

 

I dozed to be woken by my aching gut. Mere minutes might have passed, or whole hours. All I knew was hunger and thirst and darkness. My legs shook as I got to my feet, and I could not but think of our walk south, whipped and starved and shamed by the Chiltaens – Chiltaens later slaughtered by Levanti blades. Had Gideon released their souls? Or burned them like animals, head and all?

“Gideon!” my voice cracked, thirst cutting like razors into my dry throat. “Gideon!”

No answer came and I paced the length of the small cell, touching each of its bars in the darkness. Seventeen in all, each perfectly smooth, the six that made up the door slightly thicker than the rest. No light. No breeze. No life. Nothing but darkness, and like the gnawing in my gut, a fear began to eat at my thoughts. Had I been forgotten?

“Gideon! Yitti!”

Only echoes answered.

 

*****

 

I did not hear footsteps, yet when I next opened my eyes I was no longer alone. Bright light pierced the bars and I winced, shuffling back across the floor until my shoulder blades hit stone.

“Sorry. I did not think.”

With a scrape of metal the light faded from noon-sun to gloaming.

“You look terrible.”

I laughed. Or tried to, but it came out as a wheeze and my stomach cramped. “You should have let me know you were coming so I could bathe,” I said, every word a dry rasp.

“At least being stuck down here hasn’t affected your sense of humour,” Sett said, his customary scowl coming into focus as my eyes adjusted. “I’m not sure if—”

“I want to see Gideon.”

The only answer was the tink tink of the metal lantern growing hot, magnified by the silence. I let the words hang until at last Sett cleared his throat. “You can’t.”

“He cannot refuse to see me. I am a Sword of the Levanti. Of the Torin. I am—”

“He isn’t here, Rah.”

I stared at Sett’s harsh features as though at lines of script containing answers. “What do you mean he isn’t here? He’s gone home?”

Sett barked an explosive laugh that echoed along the passage. “No, he hasn’t gone home. He’s an emperor now, but it’s not exactly safe here, is it? The Chiltaens broke the city’s defences and why bother rebuilding them when your empire is north of the river, not south. This is enemy territory now.”

“Enemy—?”

“No more questions, Rah. You are the one going home.” A key scraped in the lock and, with a grunt of effort, Sett unlocked the door.

Home. I had wanted nothing else since arriving, yet I did not move toward freedom.

Sett folded his arms as best he could while still holding the lantern. “Really? After everything that’s happened you’re still going to be a stubborn ass?”

“We don’t kill. We don’t steal. We don’t conquer.” I raised my voice over his complaints. “And the only way to remove someone from leadership of their Swords is through challenge or death. I am Captain of the Second Swords of Torin until one of them challenges me for the honour.”

Sett growled, his fingers tightening upon the lantern’s handle. “Just go home, Rah. Go home.”

He turned then and, leaving the cell door wide open, started back along the passage. I followed the retreating light, my legs shaking. “Where are my Swords?”

“With Gideon,” Sett said, not stopping or slowing though I struggled to keep up, my feet dragging on the damp stone.

“What about Dishiva?”

“The same.”

“Leo?”

Sett stopped, turning so suddenly he almost swung the lantern into my face. “The Chiltaen’s god-boy? Dead. You saw him die. His condition hasn’t improved.” Sett sighed. “Don’t do anything stupid, Rah. I know that’s hard for you, but this is your chance to escape this place, to go home, because if you give him trouble again, Gideon won’t have a choice but to—”

“To what?” I said as he started walking again, his swaying lantern leading the way like a drunken star. “To kill me?” I hurried after him. “Is that the new Levanti way? To kill those who question his decisions without challenge?”

Giving no answer, Sett started up a flight of stairs, each step a frustrated slam of boot on stone. I paused at the bottom to catch my breath, and nearly leapt from my skin as the fading light of Sett’s lantern lit the cell closest to the stairs. A man stood as close to the bars as he could get, staring at me, unblinking, in the manner of one committing my face to memory. I fought the urge to step back, to look away, though I was glad of the bars between us. Untidy strands of hair hung around his dirty face but through the shroud of neglect, familiarity nagged.

Sett’s footsteps had halted on the stairs.

“Who is this?” I said, still not breaking my gaze from the man.

“Minister Manshin,” came Sett’s reply from the stairwell. “The man who was sitting on the throne in the empress’s battle armour when we arrived.”

Minister Manshin, who had taken the empress’s place to trick her enemies, now stared at me through the bars of his cell. I wanted to assure him I had never sought Mei’lian’s ruin, that I was not his enemy, but I had fought with my people against his and no amount of words could change that. Words he couldn’t even understand.

“Come on,” Sett grumbled, and as his footsteps resumed the light bled from Minister Manshin’s face. I unpinned myself from his gaze and mounted the stairs.

Sett climbed slowly, yet still I fell back, increasingly breathless and aching as each step renewed my body’s demands for food and water and rest. Had pride and anger not kept me stiffly upright, I would have crawled on hands and knees.

When at last I reached the top I steadied myself with a hand upon the rough-hewn stone and sucked deep, painful breaths. Sett’s footsteps continued on a way, only to stop and return when I didn’t follow.

“I’m sorry I left you down there so long,” he said, his face swimming before me. “I had no choice. You could only slip away unnoticed at night and I had to wait for Gideon to leave. There’s food upstairs so you can eat before you go. And I’ve packed your saddlebags. Jinso is waiting in the yard.”

Jinso. I had hardly let myself hope I would see him again, let alone be allowed to ride free, but anger overtook relief on its way to my lips. “You’re smuggling me out of the city like an embarrassment.”

“You could say that, yes. Can you walk again? Food isn’t much further.”

The inner palace had changed. Once bright and filled with soldiers, it lay blanketed now in silence and shadows, turning its finely-carved pillars into twisted creatures that lurked in every corner. Light bloomed behind paper screens and whispers met the scuff of our steps, but we saw no living soul.

Sett led me to a small chamber on the ground floor where a pair of lanterns fought back the darkness. A spread of dishes covered a low table, but my gaze was drawn to a bowl of shimmering liquid and, not caring if it was water or wine, I poured it into my mouth. It burned my throat like a ball of flame and I dropped the bowl, coughing.

“Kisian wine,” Sett said over my coughing. “I think they make it from rice. There’s tea, too, but don’t drink it so fast. It’s served hot.”

“Why?” I managed, my voice even more strained than before.

“I don’t know. When I find one that understands me, I’ll ask them.”

“Is there water?”

Sett examined the table. “Doesn’t look like it. They aren’t keen on water. They think it’s dirty, and maybe it is here, I don’t know.” He shrugged, and then added in a sullen tone: “They don’t cook whole animals either. That’s dirty too, so instead they—” he waved his hand at the myriad of tiny dishes “—slice it all up very finely and ignore all the best parts. I saw one feeding livers to the dogs.”

Hunger and nausea warred in my stomach as I chose the most recognisable hunk of meat and bit into it. It was heavily spiced and drowned in a strange, thick sauce, but hunger won and I crammed the rest into my mouth followed by another piece, and another. The sudden ingress of food made my stomach ache, but hunger kept me eating until I had filled its every corner.

While I ate and drank, trying not to slop the food down my already stained and stinking clothing, Sett stood by the door like a sentry. He didn’t speak, didn’t move, just stood with his arms folded staring at nothing, a notch cut between his brows.

Once my hunger had been crushed, nausea flared and I crossed my still-shaking arms over my gut. The sickly-sweet smell of the foreign food clogged my nose and I sat back, hoping my stomach wouldn’t reject it.

Only when the nausea subsided did I say: “You’re not really going to let me leave, are you?”

“You don’t think so? You think I had Jinso saddled for someone else?”

I grunted and got slowly to my feet, still clutching my stomach. “You’re really smuggling me out of the city in the middle of the night so no one sees me leave? What does he want people to think? That I’m dead? That he killed me?”

“He doesn’t want people to think of you at all. You’ve caused too much trouble, Rah. Now it’s time you listened. Leave Gideon alone. Leave Yitti alone. They’ve made their choices as have the rest of the Swords who want a new home and a better life.”

“We already have a home.”

“Then go fight for it!”

Silence hung amid the shadowed screens, a silence choked with dust and spiced food and the lingering scent of incense. I could taste the ghosts of another’s life on every breath, an ever-present reminder of how far I was from home.

I eyed Sett. “Do I get my sword back?”

“And your knives if you want them. If you want a replacement for the sword you dropped at Tian, you’ll have to put up with a Kisian blade. Hardly a matched pair, but it’s all we have.”

I wanted a Kisian sword as little as I wanted to eat their food, live on their land or conquer their cities, but I nodded and something like a strained smile spread Sett’s lips. “Come, we’ll get you some fresh clothes.”

We met no one on the way out, the inner palace like an empty tomb. The bodies might be gone, but broken screens and railings remained, and many doors were little more than apertures choked with tangled nests of wood and paper.

Stepping in through another door, Sett swung his lantern before him, revealing not an orderly room but a mess of weapons piled by type amid a sea of cloth and leather and chainmail vests.

“Most of it’s too small, but with a few cuts in the right places it’s wearable,” Sett said, sitting the lantern on a ransacked chest and picking up a green silk robe. “The Imperial army uniforms weren’t too bad, but most of those have gone.”

I wanted to wear Kisian clothes as little as I wanted to carry one of their swords, but my own leathers had seen more filth than I cared to think about. I had worn them into battle and the cooling blood of many severed heads had dribbled down my knees. Here, despite the disorder, everything was clean and crisp.

Sett tossed the robe at me and its threads caught on my rough skin as it slipped through my fingers. I let it fall and it pooled upon the floor like the shimmering green waters of Hemet Bay.

Once more Sett stood silent as I made my way around the room, sorting through the scattered garments. The pants I chose were too loose, the tunic too long, the leather undercoat too thin and the cloak too heavy. It all cut into my flesh in the wrong places and made my skin itch, and the closeness of the collar around my throat was like a choking hand, but I needed clothes. The layers would boil one alive beneath the Levanti sun, but if the Kisian rains were half as bad as the Chiltaens believed then I’d be glad of them. The dreaded rains. If the Chiltaens had been less afraid of a little water, they might have noticed the coup brewing beneath their noses. Or not. I hadn’t, and Gideon was my blood.

I spread my arms, inviting Sett’s approval. “Well? How do I look?”

“Ridiculous. But clean. Now come on, it’ll be dawn soon.”

Having grabbed a replacement blade and bundled my own clothes into a bag, I once more followed Sett into the silent darkness of the inner palace.

“Where is everyone?” I said, having to walk quickly to keep up.

“It’s the middle of the night. Where do you think they are?”

He stepped into the entry hall and though Sett was a tall man, he shrank as the great height of the palace spire stretched away above him. His last words rose to the moon-lit heights and his steps echoed as he crossed toward the open doors. No, not open. Broken. The Chiltaens had smashed the main doors like so many others, leaving Leo to stride through as though they had been opened by the hand of his god.

A stab of guilt silenced further questions. I had sworn to protect him and failed. Just as I had sworn to protect my Swords. And my herd.

Sett stepped through the broken doors like an ant sneaking between jutting teeth. Shallow stairs met us beyond and but for the smothering night I might have been walking along the colonnade behind Leo once again.

“What happened to Leo’s body?”

Sett didn’t turn his head. “I don’t know.”

“How do you not know?”

“I didn’t ask.”

He sped his pace, striding along a colonnade choked with the scent of rotting flowers we crushed beneath our feet. Beyond the tangle of vines the gardens spread away, and above the outer palace a shock of lightning lit the night sky. Inside had been airless and oppressive, but this was worse. Heat pressed in like a heavy hand, its damp touch sending sweat dripping down my forehead.

By the time Sett reached the outer palace I had to jog to catch up, an ache twinging my knees. “Sett—”

“Just walk, Rah, I have no more answers for you.”

Thunder rumbled as he hurried beneath the great arch and into the outer palace.

“Where are the First Swords?”

Sett did not answer. He walked on, outstripping my cramping gait by half a length each step, leaving me to scramble after him along dark passages and through twisting courtyards. His urgency made the lantern swing sickeningly, its handle creaking as light rocked to and fro upon the walls. Not that Sett seemed to need it. He knew the way. Leo had known the way, too.

I tightened my hold on the sack full of dirty armour and caught up with him. “Sett, tell me the truth,” I said. “What is going on?”

“Nothing. Look, just as I promised.” He gestured as we stepped once more into the night, the rush of his feet descending the outer stairs like the clatter of a rock fall.

Jinso waited in the courtyard exactly as Sett had promised, Tor holding his reins. With Commander Brutus dead, the boy was as free as the rest of us, yet dark rings hung beneath his eyes and he stood tense.

“You were just supposed to give the instructions, not stay,” Sett said as he approached. “I need you inside to help with the messages. That scribe doesn’t understand half the words I say.”

“Sorry, Captain,” the young man said, pressing his fists together in salute that let Jinso’s reins fall. “I didn’t wish to leave Captain Rah’s horse alone in this strange yard with the weather so wild. He might have fretted.”

Sett grunted. “It’s not ‘Captain’ Rah anymore.”

I set my forehead to Jinso’s neck and tangled my fingers in his well-brushed mane, pretending not to hear though the words cut to my soul. Not a captain. The strange food in my stomach churned, bringing back the nausea.

In silence I checked Jinso over, more through habit than fear he had been poorly tended. Sett just stood, arms folded, watching, waiting, the scowl upon his face unvarying with each glance I risked his way. Tor had remained too, shifting foot to foot as though expecting at any moment to be sent away. He licked his lips and pressed them into a smile when he found me watching, but the smile didn’t even convince his lips let alone his eyes.

Thunder rumbled – distant still, but no less threatening. The crowding of clouds beginning to blot the stars from the sky made some sense of the Chiltaen fear.

My sword and knives had been stashed in one of the saddlebags – Kisian saddlebags I noted – and though I wondered what had happened to my own, I could not force the words out. They seemed to congeal inside my mouth, glued by the creeping sense that something was very wrong.

“I could stay, you know,” I said, thrusting my sack of armour into one of the saddlebags and patting Jinso’s neck. “If you need me. You are my brother as much as Gideon.”

Sett laughed, its humourless sound sending a shiver through my skin. “Get on your horse, boy.”

I risked another glance at Tor, but the saddleboy stared at the stones as a fork of lightning lit his untidy length of black hair.

“All right,” I said, and saluted him as I would Gideon. “May Nassus guide your steps and watch over your soul.”

He made no reply, barely seemed to hear me. My legs twinged as I climbed onto Jinso’s back, but whatever weakness my body owned became nothing in that moment for I was a rider once more, Jinso’s strength inflating my soul. With his reins in my hands I could sit tall and proud despite weakness and doubt, despite guilt and fear and pain. In the saddle I was a captain once more.

“Ride north,” Sett said then, as though the restless clop of Jinso’s hooves woke him from his trance. “And don’t stop until you reach the Ribbon. When you get back—”

“I’m not going back,” I said. “Not yet. But I will ride north to catch up with Gideon.”

The snarl of a wounded animal tore from Sett’s lips and in two steps he had gripped Jinso’s bridle. “Don’t you ever fucking listen, Rah? Go! Get out of here.”

“I am still Captain of the Second Swords of Torin and I know my duty. I will not go home without them.”

Sett leaned in close, pressing my leg to Jinso’s side as he said: “That duty will get you killed.”

“Then it is my duty to die. I will follow them, whatever—” I bit down a howl as pain tore up my leg like lightning, mimicking the burning trails of fire that crazed the night sky. Sett’s scarred fist sat upon my thigh, the hilt of a knife peeping between his fingers.

“Consider this your last warning,” he said, leaning even closer. “Leave. Now.”

I tightened my grip upon Jinso’s reins until it hurt my hands, but it made no difference to the pain swelling in my leg. “No,” I said through gritted teeth. “If you want to stop me then you’ll have to kill me yourself.”

Sett twisted the blade, tripling the tearing pain in my thigh. I wanted to cry out, to sob like a child and retch my pain upon the stones, but I pressed my lips closed and breathed slowly. Beneath me Jinso tried to leap sideways and I fought hard to keep him still, to keep the blade from being ripped free.

“Leave this place,” Sett said, spitting the words like an angry snake. “You wanted to know where the rest of the First Swords are. Where the Second Swords are? They are all on the walls, waiting to fill your back with arrows if you don’t listen to me. So for the first time in your life, Rah, listen. Leave Gideon alone. Ride north. Ride fast. And don’t look back.”

He yanked the blade out and I sucked a gasp. The courtyard spun. Hot blood soaked my pants and dribbled down my leg and, smelling it, Jinso backed. Before I could calm him, a slap to his rear sent him plunging forward. His hooves clattered across the courtyard and all I could do was hold tight or fall.

The blur of the gates passed as we picked up speed, the effort of clinging on with my legs growing more painful with every stride. I was losing blood fast. It needed to be bound, needed to be sewn, but I had none of Yitti’s skill and he… How many of my Swords had wanted me dead?

Ride fast. And don’t look back.

The city passed in a haze of flickering lights and shadows. Unlike the palace the city was still alive, and people already starting their day leapt aside with cries that mingled with the clatter of racing hooves.

The road from palace to northern gate was straight and broad and Jinso followed it toward the brewing storm, its forks of lightning mirroring the spears of pain flaring behind my eyes. Past burned-out shells of once great buildings, past fountains and shrines and piles of the dead, past barricades and great trees that grew amid it all like hands reaching to the sky. And ahead the broken walls of Mei’lian appeared from the night like jagged mountains, its gate gaping open.

Jinso didn’t slow and I let him have his head. Blood was pooling in my boot and I needed to stop, needed to bind it, but lights flickered atop the surviving sections of wall and I could not. Not yet. To die for duty was honourable. To be killed in the saddle by my own blood was not.

Head down, mane whipping, Jinso plunged through the broken gates and into the night. Darkness swallowed us, but we kept on without slowing. Every thud of hoof upon road seemed to burst still more blood from my wound, but I gritted my teeth in anticipation of arrows. My back tingled, waiting, sure the silent death would hit at any moment. Dread turned to hope with every racing step Jinso took along the moonlit road, until at last I dared to look back. A line of flickering torches lit the top of the wall like watching eyes – the watching eyes of every Levanti I had led to this cursed place. Every Levanti I ought to be taking home.

Let’s start with not bleeding to death and then—

I turned back to the road and, as everything spun, fell headfirst to meet it.