Excerpt from the book:

 

DIVA WALKED JERKILY to her set of chambers, so angry that she was seeing everything through a red haze. Guards smoothed themselves back against the walls as she passed, and Bennel was forced to sweep Raven up in his arms again so as not to leave her behind.

"If it weren't already too late," snapped Diva, "we would leave now."

Tallen raised his eyebrows. "We can leave now, if you wish. I know my way around all Mesteta in the dark."

For a moment Diva was sorely tempted, but then she realized what comment such a leave-taking would raise. She shook her head crossly. "No. That would give rise to even more comments; we will have to stay here tonight. But at first light … as soon as day breaks tomorrow morning … we will be on our way."

Raven stared at her mother. "Eat?" she suggested tentatively.

Diva plucked her out of Bennel's arms and hugged the small body to her. "Food," she promised, "and then a nice long soak in a warm Mesteta wine bath. You will love it."

Raven's brow puckered. The sound of food was good, but she wasn't so sure about the bath part. "T'an? Be'll?" she asked, cautiously.

Diva grinned. "Today Tallen and Bennel can join us in the bath," she promised. "The one in my quarters can hold up to fifty people."

Raven was reassured, luckily missing the look of complete horror which crossed Tallen's face. The idea of soaking in a meritocrat's luxurious sunken pool with its gold trimmings did not sit happily with the clan's notion of civil disobedience. He opened his mouth.

"Don't even bother," said Diva. "—Bath I said, and bath you will. I have already defended the clans enough today. I think you can put up with a small thing like a hot tub, if it keeps my daughter happy."

Tallen shut his mouth again, but gave Bennel a sour look. The Coriolan companion smiled. This would be amusing. The thought of the Namuri pickling his thick hide in Mesteta wine was irresistible.

 


THE FOLLOWING MORNING they were out of the palace and on the road by first light, a sleepy Raven clinging to her mother. Diva took a pleased breath of the cold, early air. She needed to get away from this palace, from these people.

"Bennel, I believe that your family is from this area. I want you to go and visit them now," she told the companion. "When we reach the Mount Palestron crossing, you can take the road up to the mountains."

Bennel tried to object, but his cautionary words were brushed off. "Nonsense! Tallen here will be quite capable of taking care of us from here on. And Six said that you were to take a holiday. You certainly deserve one; you haven't seen your wife for a long time."
Bennel was torn. On the one hand, he hated to leave Diva and Raven with only Tallen's protection. On the other, he was longing to spend some time with his wife and children, especially since he knew that they had been evicted from their comfortable home. He hesitated.

"I give you my word that nothing shall happen to either of them," Tallen told him. "—And if there is any danger, I will take them to safety over the sacred marshes. Only clan members can find safe passage through them."

The elder man considered this, then gave a slow nod. It was time. He owed his wife and family that consideration. It must be torment for his wife to have to live on his brother's farm. Her allergy to the vaniven would be causing her huge difficulties. He had to get back to see both her and his two children. He turned to follow Diva, his spirits soaring in the cold morning air at the thought of seeing his family again, however unfortunate the circumstances.

They reached the turning to Mount Palestron before the sun was truly up and said their goodbyes there, arranging to meet at the shuttle in a week's time. Bennel bent to give a disrespectful tug at Raven's signature black hair.

"Be good, muffin!"

Raven gave him one of her ravishing smiles, and a huge hug. With difficulty, he disentangled her thin arms from around his neck, and settled her down on the road again.

A lump came into his throat as he turned away.

"Keep safe," he said gruffly.

Diva grinned. "Don't worry!"

Tallen waved him in the direction of the mountains. "Just get going!" Bennel broke into a jog, a gait the companions used to cover the miles quickly and efficiently, and was soon out of sight.

"Be'll?" said Raven wistfully, her brow crinkling up at his disappearance. Tallen foresaw tears and hastily began to tickle her, until she dissolved in bubbling gurgles. Then the Namuri threw her up over his shoulders, and he and Diva took the dirt path to the left, the one which led away from the paved and much-used roads of the meritocrats.
However, they had only traveled for a couple of miles when they found their way barred by a group of soldiers and a smiling Tartalus. Tallen put the little girl down behind him and drew his sword. There were no smiles on the Namuri's face.

Diva had pulled her own Coriolan dagger out of its scabbard too. She was facing her cousin warily, shield at the ready, and at the same time keeping an eye on his men.

"What do you want, Tartalus?" she asked.

He raised one exquisite eyebrow. "Why, cousin, I should have thought that you would have guessed that." His gaze wandered past Diva, to settle on the small figure that was peering at him around Tallen's legs. "I thought it would be nice to meet the future ruler of all Coriolis." He snapped his fingers. "Come here, girl!"

Raven, although only small, felt an instant antipathy to this posturing meritocrat. She put a mutinous expression on her face and shook her head, clutching at Tallen's knees for support. "Shan't."

Tartalus inhaled. "I think you will, little girl. Come here!"

The defiant face regarded him solemnly, then she shook her head again.

The meritocrat took half a step forwards, but found his way blocked by a very angry Diva and a very sharp dagger.

"Take one step further, and I will carve you in two, Cousin!" she snarled, from half-clenched teeth.

Tartalus lifted one hand, and his guards raised and aimed their weapons at the three strangers, as one. Diva lifted an eyebrow.

"Do you think they will be fast enough to stop me killing you, Tartalus?"

He smiled his smug smile again. "I am sure they would be. I pay them extra, you know, and they take my safety very seriously."

The blade moved an inch closer to his heart. "Then let's see, shall we?" she muttered, eye to eye.

There was a long silence until Tartalus gave a smooth laugh and took a small step backwards, away from the menacing blade. "Now, really, Diva! There is no reason to start a war, is there? I was merely interested to meet the latest addition to the family, nothing more. I think your reaction is most uncalled-for."

Tallen, who had been eyeing the surrounding countryside, gave Diva a slight gesture to the right, trying to indicate that the marshes lay that way and that it would be a safe route for them to take. She nodded her understanding.

"Raven," she called. "Come forward, I would like you to meet your second cousin once removed, Tartalus."

Raven stumped forwards, a contrary expression on her obstinate little face.

"Nasty man," she said.

Diva bit her lip. "Just say hello, Raven."

"Hello."

Diva met Tartalus's gaze. "Now you have met her," she said. "So, can we be on our way?"

"You should be very careful on this track," said Tartalus. "We often find Namuri thieves using it. And it can be dangerous." He smiled openly at Tallen, his posture a challenge. "—Especially for them."

Tallen tilted his own sword in the direction of the meritocrat, visualizing the point settling in right over the heart, and Diva kept her long dagger close to her cousin's precious skin.
Tartalus looked surprised. "It is our duty to ensure Coriolis is safe," he said smoothly.

"Surely nobody would deny us that?"

"And do you class the clans as a danger, Cousin?" demanded Diva.

"I wouldn't say that." But his eyes slipped past her and fastened on Tallen, and his expression said otherwise. Tallen stiffened even more. He looked eager to drop the man where he stood.

The Coriolan meritocrat licked his lips, and stared down the Namuri.

Tallen gave a tiny smile. "I have been waiting for this moment all my life."

"Then I will make sure that it is unforgettable."

"You personally used a machete on my teacher." Tallen raised his sword back behind his head, ready to attack if necessary, his gaze a dark challenge to the older Coriolan, his eyes an invitation to the tomb.