Her body drenched in sweat, Novesh let out a long, slow breath and climbed off the couch. Putting on a silk robe, she crossed to the window and threw open the shutters to let the light come streaming in. The heat was oppressive: she’d never got used to living so far south. An onshore breeze sometimes moderated the discomfort, but the faint wind seemed to have shifted to deliver scorching air from the heart of the island.


            Novesh judged from the position of the sun that the afternoon was half over and it was time to be up and about again. She looked down at the street beneath her window, watching the people of the suburb in which her mansion stood. She insisted on being able to see the world outside, though the captain of her guard constantly argued that she should have a chamber somewhere deep within the house, secure from assassins.


            It was true, of course, that there was a danger. Several factions in Faiz alone would gladly see her dead, as well as the rulers of Osomo and Ar Telri, not to mention the ever-present threat from the Triarchy of the Mountains. The gods alone knew how many others across the former Empire might blame her for what had happened.  


            Novesh didn’t ignore her security. Guards were posted just outside, ready at a shout, and she slept with a sword by her side. She could use it, too: Jhikaa, her teacher and lover when she was young, had seen to it that few could stand against her. He’d been a harsh weapons-master but a tender and exciting lover, and the lonely teenage empress had adored him. She’d never forgiven the petty officials that had ruled the Empire for disposing of him.


            She loved to watch the world go by from the window two storeys above the street, believing that she would have gone mad shut deep in the bowels of this fortress. It seemed worth the risk.


            She was still agitated from the disturbing dream, but watching the people who passed below calmed her. A carter yelled at children playing in his path, a couple of whores tried to pick up clients, women gossiped, a cutpurse relieved good citizens of their coin, and members of two factions traded insults. It was all the same to Novesh: ordinary people living their lives. She enjoyed everything as the sweat of her distress dried under the silk gown.


            The young woman walking beneath the window caught her attention at once. She made an exotic sight: short and pale-skinned like the old stock of Marenth, she wore the travel-stained leather jerkin and leggings common in the Highlands, with a heavy staff tied across her back. Her face, when it turned up for a moment, struck Novesh as vivid and unusual, even though not especially beautiful. Although so different in appearance, dress and station, the girl’s air of calm determination reminded Novesh of herself when she was younger.


            As Novesh watched, three men ran out of the shadowed alley opposite. The blue and yellow kilts and the tattoos on their bared upper bodies told her at once that they were from the faction called the Royals, a fine name for what was little more than a criminal gang. Each carried a long, curved dagger, and Novesh realised that they were converging on the girl.


            Their quarry must have heard the running footsteps, because she had the staff off her back and on guard by the time they reached her. The fight was a brief maelstrom in which the whirling staff seemed to be everywhere at the same time. Then the three men were on the ground, one lying motionless with blood seeping from his head, the other two barely conscious. None appeared to have got in a blow at their intended target.


            The young woman looked up. It was as if their eyes met, though Novesh was sure she remained unseen. Her face, flushed from the action and dripping with sweat, was still and calm.


            Novesh turned and called, “Morrold.” The guard was in the room almost before she’d spoken the second syllable of his name, his expression set in its usual impossible mixture of alertness and emptiness. “Your Majesty?”


            “Come here.” She pointed down to the street where the girl stood over her conquests. “I’d like to speak to her. Bring her to me.” As Morrold nodded and turned to go, Novesh added, “Gently.”


            She glanced back at the girl. At the very least, they had to meet.