War Master's Gate

Adrian Tchaikovsky | 21 mins


To stare into the forest was to stare into the heart of time.

The darkness between those trees had not changed for centuries. Here had come no revolution, nor busy-handed Apt with their machines. The old ways still held sway in those green depths. The reclusive denizens lived by the bow and the spear, hunting and gathering what the forest gave up to them. Sometimes, in their season, they were hunted in turn by the great beasts they took their name from: Mantis-kinden, fierce and free.

And they fought. They honed their skills from the earliest age by practising against each other and against the world. Although the Apt kinden had shone their bright light across most of the Lowlands, here was a bastion of the old darkness that even the Ant-kinden had considered too costly to conquer. Generations of Sarnesh tacticians had turned their eyes to that brooding presence on their eastern horizon, then shaken their heads and turned away.

The forest itself was nameless, or else had a secret name as all the greatest of the Inapt things had secret names. The only labels the Apt ever recorded belonged to the two Mantis holds that held dominion within the trees: Etheryon to the west, Nethyon to the east.

They held to themselves, mostly, although a steady trickle of young Etheryen had broken tradition enough to take Sarnesh coin in exchange for the use of their skills. More recently they had gone to war, and the first tremor of change had disturbed the leaves of their forest. A conflict not of their own making: a war against the Wasp-kinden, because an Apt threat had finally arisen that would not just shake its head and go away.

If he stared into the trees long enough, Amnon felt that he could feel a faint connection, a path back to the same certainties he had once lived by, which had made him happy to serve, happy to lead, happy to know his place . . . His homeland was a city by a river a thousand years ago, the past held in gentle stasis as the seasons turned, all the sons and daughters of Khanaphes busy at their allotted tasks. He had lived most of his life with no question in his head that could not be answered by, Because it is so.

Then the Empire had come, the world he had been born to overwritten in just a pitiful few days: all the certainties crumbling to the touch. He had not missed it, not then. Instead, he had despised the old ways because they had failed his people. He had seen his exile from Khanaphes as a badge of honour.

He wished he could go back, now, but there was nowhere to return to. The Khanaphes that was marked as a protectorate on Imperial maps did not resemble the home of his younger days.

There had been a woman of Collegium, a machine-handed and clever beauty, and, as long as he had her, the past could blow away with the desert wind for all he cared. Praeda Rakespear, her name had been, and he had loved her, and she him. And the Wasps had killed her, and left him marooned in this island of the harsh present with no way back and nowhere to go.

When he stared into the Mantis forest, he almost felt that the dark past those trees harboured was somehow also the past of his youth, and that the bright sun of Khanaphes was what cast those deep shadows. Surely all pasts eventually converged on one another, if you walked far enough back down that river?

But now the drone of a Sarnesh spotter orthopter intruded, boring into his ears and as impossible to ignore as a mosquito. The distant, certain past was wrenched away. At his back stood the Sarnesh camp – hundreds of those tan-skinned Ant-kinden bustling there, armoured in chainmail with their rectangular shields slung across their backs. They were all of them busy, the logistical weight of keeping an armed force in the field divided precisely across all their shoulders. They cooked, cleaned, sharpened, practised, patrolled, slept, relaxed, raised tents and stood watch, all with the exactness of clockwork, each in touch with the minds of their fellows, as content in their busy Aptitude as Amnon himself had ever felt back in Khanaphes. He envied them.

The Imperial Eighth under General Roder had already bested the Sarnesh once, toppling their fortress at Malkan’s Folly and rebuffing their ground forces at the same time. After that, the Wasps had made swift progress until they began to pass south of this forest, where skirmishing raids from the Mantids had brought them to a halt.

Unlike most Ant city-states, Sarn knew the value of allies. Hence this camp at the edge of the forest. Hence Amnon, arrived here from Collegium as the bodyguard of a Beetle diplomat, because nobody there could think of much else to do with him. The Ants and their allies were planning their next move.

‘Hey, big man!’

Thus warned, Amnon did not start as a small form dropped down beside him, the blurring wings fading away to nothing as the figure touched the ground.

‘You coming back to us any time soon?’ the diminutive newcomer asked him. Amnon was indeed a big man: the Fly-kinden barely came up to his waist.

‘Back to you?’ For a moment Amnon thought he meant something more, some meaning connected with the dark, unrippled past between the trees.

‘Only, herself is starting to fret again. All these Mantids about: I don’t know why she wanted to come, if she’s so weird about them. Or maybe the weird is the why of it.’ The Fly cast his eyes over the shadow-hung forest, the haunt of a thousand years of history.

‘Spooky, isn’t it,’ was his verdict.

On the journey up from Collegium Amnon had found the man a troubling travelling companion, his abrasive good cheer matching poorly with Amnon’s own thoughts. Troubling, mostly though, because remarks like that last one could still drag a smile onto Amnon’s face, whether he wanted it or not. ‘You have no heart, Laszlo. You’re too Apt.’

‘You’re just as Apt as me,’ the Fly countered. ‘Now, seriously, Helma Bartrer is getting that look in her eye again, and there’s that Moth-kinden about and, without your sober and overly serious gaze on her, she’s likely to do something stupid.’

Amnon grunted, and turned away from the pensive regard of the dark trees. There was a core of lead within him since Praeda had died, and sometimes he felt that he should just cling to it and turn his back on the rest of the world. But Laszlo seemed an antidote to that, and the only way to shut off the little man’s irrepressible talking would be to kill him. Or perhaps remind the Fly of his own troubles.

‘Any luck?’ he asked quietly, and for a moment the question did seem to decant some of his own seriousness into the Fly.

‘Not yet, but the Sarnesh skipper hasn’t shown yet, and I’m betting she’s still with him. Hoping so, anyway.’ Laszlo was part of the Collegiate delegation on utterly false pretences, as only Amnon knew. Not that he was a spy, or rather a spy for any party other than Collegium, but he had his own agenda.

They picked their way back into the camp, following a curious order of precedence. The Ants got out of their way smoothly, each tipped off by a dozen pairs of eyes in advance, and finding it simply more efficient to get clear of these clumsy, closed-minded foreigners. Laszlo and Amnon could have run straight at a dense mob of them and not jostled an elbow on the way through.

The Mantids were different. When their paths crossed, Amnon and Laszlo stopped to let the locals stalk haughtily by. True, the Etheryen were at least somewhat used to outsiders, given Sarn’s proximity, but this was their home and to cross them here was to challenge them. The formal alliance between the Inapt and Apt was very new; nobody wanted to test its limits.

They were tall and graceful, and every one of them armed, even the youngest and the oldest who had ventured from the forest. Pale and sharp-featured, most of them looked on all who were not their kin with arch condescension. They were the masters of battle whose steel had once ruled the Lowlands in the name of their Moth-kinden masters. That five centuries of progress had erased that world, beyond their borders, was not hinted at in their expressions.

As Laszlo had observed, Helma Bartrer, Collegiate Assembler and Master of the College, was constantly twitchy. A jumpy look came into her eye every time she caught sight of a Mantis or a Moth. Amnon had thought at first it was fear, curious in a woman who had volunteered herself for this duty. By now he had a sinking feeling that it might instead be academic curiosity, as if Bartrer was forcibly restraining herself from stuffing each Mantis-kinden in a pickling jar for further study. He understood she belonged to the College history faculty, which covered a multitude of sins.

‘Ah, aha.’ She offered them a vague wave as they approached. ‘Good, in the nick of time. I think we’re close to getting under way.’ She was a broad, dark woman, solidly built as most Beetles were, with her hair drawn back into a bun and wearing formal College robes that somehow remained approximately white despite her living out of a tent. A delicate pair of spectacles sat on the bridge of her nose. Beside her was a man of around the same height, but of a slender build, grey of skin and with eyes of blank white: the ambassador from the Moths of Dorax. He had no name that Amnon had ever heard mentioned, and was dressed more like a scout than a diplomat, wearing a banded leather cuirass under his loose grey robe, and a bandolier of throwing knives over his narrow chest. Helma Bartrer became especially twitchy when Moths were about. If Amnon were to discover her dissecting the man for posterity, he would not be much surprised.

‘Is the Sarnesh fellow here, then?’ Laszlo asked eagerly,

‘The tactician? Just arrived, I think,’ Bartrer confirmed. ‘And Master . . . tells me that the Nethyen delegates are expected any moment.’

The Moth, whom Bartrer consistently addressed as ‘Master . . .’, in a pointed attempt at fishing for a name, nodded smoothly.

‘He says it’s a sign of how grave matters have become that the Nethyen have actually agreed to send someone,’ Bartrer went on, ‘They’re insular even for Mantids.’

‘I’ll be properly honoured, then,’ Laszlo said. ‘Look, I’ve got some official business to sort out for Sten Maker – you mind if I make myself scarce for a moment?’

Bartrer studied him narrowly through the lenses of her spectacles. ‘You seem to have a lot of official business that nobody told me about,’ she pointed out. ‘I am the ambassador.’

‘Mar’Maker’s a busy man, Helma Bartrer,’ Laszlo pointed out merrily, and with that he was off and winging on his way.

Bartrer made an undiplomatic grimace, then turned back to the Moth. While Amnon had a good idea why she always sought the man out when she could, why ‘Master . . .’ stood around for it was less clear. Perhaps, under the man’s unflappable exterior, he was frantically trying to navigate an imagined maze of Collegiate etiquette. Perhaps the Moths were as frightened of alienating their allies as was everyone else?

He missed what Bartrer said next, though, because of a commotion starting up to the north of the camp, and because all the Ants around them had abruptly drawn their swords.

Balkus was not having a good time of it.

He was surrounded by his own people, and that was the problem. All those dun-coloured faces he could see were sufficiently like his own to have been sisters and brothers – indeed they had once been as close as sisters and brothers. Just like in any family, though, shared blood did not mean that you got on. Whilst most Ant-kinden knuckled down and let the mill of their peers grind all the awkward edges off them, a few found that what such a process would leave behind would no longer be them.

You did not abandon a city-state and then come back later. That decision was made once, and never revisited. To become renegade meant never going home.

Balkus liked life simple, and that had mostly involved going to the opposite end of the Lowlands to Sarn and selling his services as a fighter and nailbowman to anyone who had enough coin. Then he had gone into politics.

He hadn’t realized that he was doing it, at the time. He had merely signed on with a Helleren crew that had turned out to be run by an agent of Stenwold Maker, the Collegiate spymaster. Then there had been a fight with the Wasps that had killed off several of Balkus’s friends, and going along with Maker’s plans to scupper the Empire had seemed the right and proper thing to do.

That had led to his becoming a sort of unofficial lieutenant to Maker, which had in turn led, somehow, to Balkus leading the Collegiate detachment at the Battle of Malkan’s Folly – the first scrap there, where the Sarnesh and their allies had smashed the Imperial Seventh and won the war, rather than the more recent one where events had gone somewhat the other way.

Leading a group of non-Ants in an Ant-led battle had been hard, but not because of the hostility of his former kinsmen. In the heat of battle, Balkus had lost it. Instead of being the defiant renegade, he had been seamlessly taking mental orders from the Sarnesh tacticians and shouting them out to his Collegiate followers, never stopping to question them. He had become one of the colony again, for all that they said you could never go back. Memory of the experience still woke him up at night in a cold sweat, convinced he was losing himself in a great sea of everyone else.

He had left Maker’s service for that reason, gone off with a friend to the new city of Princep Salma, which a rabble of idealistic refugees had been building west of Sarn. He should have known better. He should have gone far, far away.

Of course, he had turned out to be one of the most experienced fighting men that the young city possessed. Before he could really think about matters, he had ended up in charge of the defence of a part-built town with no borders and no real soldiers.

And when word came that the Wasps were coming again, and that the Sarnesh were gathering their allies, Balkus had found himself with a minuscule delegation sent to keep an eye on things. Princep had neither the capability nor the inclination to wage war, even on the Wasps, but Sarn was its shield, closest neighbour and greatest potential threat if things went wrong. It was imperative for Princep to know just what plans and promises were being made.

So here he was again – a big Ant, a head taller than most of his kin – had it been just that, in the end, that had marked him out as somehow wrong? – walking through an invisible sea of their comment and criticism, breathing in ill wishes while exhaling his own profound dislike of his native people. The pressure of them all around him kept him constantly on his guard – against the chance that they might decide that his being here was an insult demanding answer, against that small traitorous part of himself that wanted to give it all up and go home, even though he never could.

His delegation was all of two other people: his heliopter pilot and a Roach-kinden girl who was something approximating an agent of Princep’s government, if the place could be said to have one. Her name was Syale, she was no more than twenty, and most of the time Balkus had no idea where she was or what she was doing. He would have worried, except that it turned out Roaches seemed to have some weird understanding with the Mantids. At least, if she was in their company, she was in no danger from anyone else.

Sperra, his friend from Maker’s service, had not come, but Balkus reckoned that was mostly because the Sarnesh had tortured her last time she had been a guest of theirs, which tended to stick in the memory.

Balkus’s own self-determined mission here was to not get into any trouble or come to anyone’s attention, and he had just failed it.

He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, basically. The Princep trio had set up their own little camp just beyond the outer ring of Sarnesh tents, and he had been crossing between them when he had seen the returning patrol: a dozen Ant-kinden cloaked and surcoated in grey-green over their mail, scouts out keeping watch for intruders. Now it looked as though they had caught someone.

Balkus had drifted closer, despite the immediate angry warnings he heard inside his skull. The prisoners seemed an odd lot to be Wasp spies, that was for sure.

The hammer-blow of recognition came a moment later. There was a halfbreed woman there – some mangling of Moth and something else – whom he did not know; dressed like an itinerant beggar in a battered old Imperial long-coat, she seemed about as happy with the Sarnesh as Balkus himself was. He took her for old at first, for her hair was streaked with white and her oddly mottled skin and iris-less eyes misled him, but as he neared he saw that she was much younger than he was. A stranger, though – none of his business. The rest of them, however . . .

There was a Beetle girl there, a short, solid daughter of Collegium for all that she looked older than the mere passage of years could account for. Not really the awkward girl he recalled from Helleron and Collegium any more, but a serious-faced woman with enough of her uncle’s authority about her that the Ants at her side seemed to be her escort and not her captors. She wore robes, but not Collegiate ones: layered garments of silks in green and black and dark blue.

There was a Spider, too, and it took Balkus a moment longer to recognize her. She slowed the whole party by walking with an awkward limp, and her face – which he recalled as beautiful and mischievous – had been savaged by a scar running down one side of it, gashing the corner of her mouth and narrowly missing her eye. She was dressed after the Mantis fashion, arming jacket, breeches and boots and a Spider anywhere near this forest as much as promised bloodshed . . .

. . . If the last member of this little pack of spies didn’t get them all executed first, of course. Balkus looked upon the man without love, although with a sort of wonder that here he was again, the man for whom one master was never enough, and yet somehow always one too many. Turning up now at a conference squarely aimed at exterminating his kind, the Wasp was a strong-framed man of middle years, with a bleak, hard look to him. He wore a breastplate, greaves and bracers of glittering grey chitin over clothes of dark silk – the garb of a Commonweal warrior noble – but Balkus found that nothing could surprise him where Major Thalric of the Rekef was concerned.

Thalric he would happily have left to rot, and the halfbreed was a stranger, but the other two were going to get him into trouble because they were former comrades in arms, and Ants, even renegades, all suffered from the curse of loyalty.

‘What’s going on, then? What’s this?’ He used words because he did not trust what thoughts he might reveal to the mindlink.

The voice of their officer was inside his head in an instant – Nothing of yours – with a dozen echoes as the thoughts of his men leaked out, in various degrees of hostility.

Balkus put himself squarely in their path, already kicking himself for the move, but life had a way of dropping these sorts of situations on him. ‘Listen, I know them.’

That didn’t go down quite as he hoped: no change of circumstances for the prisoners, but Balkus himself had become a focus for suspicion. The protection afforded by his status as ambassador abruptly looked vulnerable.

Clear out, if you know what’s good for you. They’re for the cells and the Wasp is for questioning, the officer sent to him. If you want to come along, you might find yourself part of the show, renegade.

‘Balkus?’ It was the Beetle girl, Che Maker, now recognizing him after a second look. ‘It’s all right. They’re taking us to the tactician.’

‘They’re taking him to the torture machines, whatever they’ve told you.’ He pointed at Thalric, almost enjoying the extra ripple of betrayal from the Sarnesh. ‘Listen, you.’ He jabbed a finger at the officer, aware that he now had the attention of the whole camp. ‘I know them, and you don’t want to mess with them. This one, she’s Stenwold Maker’s niece. You’ve heard of him.’

Abruptly there were at least another score of Ant soldiers all around him, their blades out.

Surrender your weapons, renegade. In covering for these spies you’ve crossed the line, came the thought of the officer, slightly blurred by all the simmering malice of the others. And, believe me, nobody’s going to shed any tears if that rabble at Princep complain.

Balkus’s weapon was his nailbow, a solid firepowder-charged repeater, loaded and primed. He had no intention of surrendering it. ‘Listen, that’s Sten Maker’s niece. That Spider girl is his adopted daughter or something. I’m Princep’s chief soldier and I came here because of some stuff about allies. Where’d that go all of a sudden?’ He was listening out for the thoughts of the Sarnesh command, who surely had more sense than this, but although they were certainly hearing everything second-hand, they took no steps to stop it.

Then the Mantis-kinden was there.

He was a lean, weathered man, with his ragged beard iron-grey, dressed in brown leathers and a cuirass of chitin scales, and he had a spear in his hand. His fierce gaze barely admitted to the presence of any of them there save the scarred Spider girl. Balkus had not even thought that complication through. Certainly the Ants were not a trusting breed, especially not in the wake of a military defeat, but the Mantis-kinden out-and-out hated Spiders, beyond any reason, and though Balkus knew the girl was half-Mantis by blood, that was just about the single piece of knowledge that would make matters even worse.

Still, the spearman’s stare was narrowing to focus, not on her face, but on the badge she wore.

The Ants had gone quiet, watching intently as he levelled his spear towards the woman. ‘To wear that badge undeservingly is to die,’ he snapped.

‘Are you challenging me?’ The Spider girl, Tynisa, spoke sideways, her scar tugging at her mouth.

‘You claim to have even the right to be challenged, rather than cut down where you stand?’ the Mantis demanded.

‘Enough,’ Che Maker said, not even loudly, and Balkus fully expected nobody to pay her the blindest bit of notice. The Mantis started away from her, though, staring, and the half-dozen other Mantids close by were all staring too, even those surely out of earshot. That fierce regard caught the Ants’ attention as well, so that everyone heard her next words.

‘As I have told you, and as this man has confirmed, I am Cheerwell Maker of Collegium, and I’m no man’s captive. You will not torture the Wasp-kinden, for he is mine and under my protection. You will not duel my sister, for she is mine and I forbid it. You understand me.’ There was no question at the end of her words.

The spearman bared his teeth. ‘This is not permitted!’

Balkus’s immediate assumption was that Che must have said something as she stepped forwards, some word that silenced the man and staggered every Mantis-kinden in sight. Only in the confused mental babble that followed, from the Sarnesh comparing notes, did Balkus realize that no, she had not spoken: she had simply . . . It was as though there had been some sound, some great retort from that one footfall – one that only the Mantids had heard.

There was a flurry of motion from within the camp and the Moth ambassador, whom Balkus had never seen without an expression of smug self-satisfaction, came pelting out from amidst the Ants, robe flying behind him, white eyes as wide as lamps. ‘Who are you . . .?’ he got out, before skidding to a halt. The Mantids had backed off, even the spearman: Tynisa was apparently off the menu. All those Inapt eyes were squarely fixed on Che, and Balkus had never seen such expressions on Mantid faces before.

There was an awkward moment as Sarnesh thoughts shuttled back and forth, trying to weave some sense out of it. ‘I don’t know what you just did,’ the Sarnesh officer snapped at last, desperately trying to keep hold of the situation, ‘but it won’t wash with me.’ His voice grew more strained as the hostility of the Mantids seemed to be turning on him, now it had been deflected from elsewhere, and the Moth was making some gesture as if to shut him up. ‘It’ll take more than the word of this renegade to vouch for you.’

‘She is Cheerwell Maker,’ a fresh voice boomed.

The officer rounded on the intruder to find himself face to face with the entire Collegiate delegation, and face to chest with the huge Beetle warrior who had just spoken.

‘This is not your concern.’ He was a dogged one, this officer. Balkus had to admire him for that.

‘I know her. She is Maker’s niece. I know the Wasp, too.’ And if the big man’s glance at Thalric was less fond, he was still plainly vouching for him.

Amnon?’ came Che’s voice, more hesitant now, and stripped of its unaccountable power of moments before. ‘What are you doing here?’

A change whipped through the Ants, all at once. Even Balkus felt the lash of it. Abruptly they had stepped away from Che’s party, no longer guarding four people who were, therefore, no longer prisoners. The collective mind was now focused elsewhere, for a burly Ant-kinden was approaching with a half-dozen others dragged along in his wake. Balkus had never seen him before, but he knew who this man must be. The Sarnesh tactician, Milus, had just arrived.

Report, he gave out, and a concise and ordered account from the officer must have been served directly to his mind and for his consideration only. The tactician’s iron-coloured eyes flicked across the newcomers – Che, Tynisa, Thalric and the halfbreed woman – then passed swiftly by Balkus to size up the Collegiates, Amnon in particular. With so much of their social interaction lived within the minds of their fellows, Ant-kinden seldom had the knack of impressing outsiders with the force of their personalities, but Milus had a weight to him, a tangible force of will. In Balkus’s experience those who became tacticians were frequently those who tested the limits of public approval, their differences turned into virtues only when they were set above their fellows. That this man had been chosen to oversee the war against the Wasps argued that he was someone to be wary of.

Whatever this is about, it will wait, his thoughts told the Ants flatly, Balkus included. Keep an eye on them, the Wasp especially, but I myself have seen Maker, and this girl does look a little like him. We have other concerns, though. We Apt must at least seem united. His gaze swept over them: Balkus from Princep, the Collegiate woman Bartrer, Che Maker and the other newcomers. When he spoke, really spoke, his voice sounded gravelly and rough. ‘The Nethyen ambassador is coming and we can get down to business.’

The Sarnesh, who had been quietly industrious ever since they had arrived, now abandoned their tasks, all at once and to a man, assembling instead in ruler-straight ranks facing the forest, wordless and vigilant with swords at their side and snapbows sloping against their shoulders. Their tactician wished to impress, that much was plain. To one side some Mantis-kinden – the locals, and yet less than a tenth of the Sarnesh’s number – had formed a loose-knit mob, and Che found her gaze drawn to them. She had known very few of their kind, and none of them well, not even Tynisa’s father. Beside the Ants’ gleaming perfection, they looked scruffy, old-fashioned, provincial. She knew that they would each make deadly combatants, but how much did that truly count for in the age of the snapbow and the automotive? She herself, who had been robbed of her understanding of those technological wonders, found that she had more than a little sympathy for them.

‘You’ll stand with our delegation?’ Helma Bartrer suggested to her. ‘This is a historic moment. The Nethyen don’t usually meet with strangers, Master . . . tells me.’

The Moth had kept pace with them, not quite close, yet always in earshot. It was hard to say what his blind-looking eyes were watching, but whenever Che moved, he moved. He had the manner of a man who wanted to ask questions, but whose dignity was getting the better of him.

‘We’ve been on the road a long time,’ Tynisa declared. ‘And I’ll likely be fighting a duel soon enough, whatever Che says. Let’s leave politics to the statesmen.’

‘We’ll watch,’ Che decided, and then, relenting, added, ‘or I will. If you want to go and rest, then go and rest. I’m sure they can find a place for you here.’

Maure, the halfbreed magician they had brought from the Commonweal, was plainly about to do just that, but then Thalric spoke up: ‘Che, it’s clear that you’re the reason we’re still free right now. Let’s stay in your shadow, until we know the ground.’ His hand squeezed her shoulder, seeking reassurance under the pretence of providing it.

One of the Mantids was heading towards the forest now, a stern-looking woman with a green-brown cloak flowing behind her. Che’s party and the Collegiates added a small huddle to one corner of the great Ant formation, close to where Balkus stood alone. Looking from Balkus to Amnon to her own party, Che could only think, How we have all come up in the world.

From the forest verge emerged another Mantis-kinden woman, a lean creature in chitin armour that was chased with silver. She met with her opposite number, and the two stared at one another for a long, slow moment, as though they shared some private linking of minds that even Ants were not privy to. There were a few words exchanged, but too low to carry. The Etheryen woman nodded once, curtly, as if agreeing some single point of business.

The blades flashed and clashed almost instantly. Of all the watchers, perhaps only Che and her fellows would admit that neither had actually bothered with anything so prosaic as drawing a sword – the rapiers had been in their hands in the moment of lunging, and a swift patter of a dozen scraping blows passed before the Ants even understood what was going on. She could guess at their shared question: Is this a Mantis thing? And it was, of course it was, but it was not done for mere play.

The Moth understood too. He was abruptly running forwards, arms out. ‘No! Servants of the Green! I forbid it!’ His voice was surprisingly loud and clear for such a slight-framed man.

In that moment the newcomer, the Nethyen woman, had won. Che had not followed the interchange of strikes but suddenly the Etheryen delegate was falling back, her throat opened by the other woman’s rapier, and the Moth stumbled to a halt within inches of the sword’s bloodied point.

‘What have you done?’ he demanded, shaken out of his composure before so many witnesses.

The Nethyen woman simply stared at him, undaunted, her sword level with his breast as though giving him the chance to take up the gauntlet. Then she turned, the blade vanished from her hands, as though dismissing the entire martial assembly from her mind. She stepped back into the forest, and was gone.