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"Have you seen your family yet?"

Ullsaard shook his head.

"Haven't plucked up the courage for it yet. I'm going to get it in the neck because of the whole Meliu and Noran divorce… thing. I can't face my wives just yet. Ullnaar came with me; he headed to the house as soon as we arrived. I'll let him comfort his mother for a while before I show my face."

Anglhan said nothing. He had not delivered the letter from Ullsaard announcing his intent to divorce his youngest wife. Ullsaard must have seen something in Anglhan's face.

"Is there something else I should be worried about?" asked the king. "My wives are well? Noran is still alive?"

Anglhan couldn't meet Ullsaard's fierce stare.

"I didn't exactly hand over the letter…" said the governor. He continued before Ullsaard could say anything, the words spilling out. "Look, it didn't seem the right time when Noran was so bad, and you weren't king yet, and Allenya was heartbroken, and so was Meliu. They didn't need anything else to concern themselves with."

Ullsaard growled and stalked away. Anglhan watched the king until he had stepped into the tower. It was clear that not everything was going as well as Ullsaard had imagined. The governor would have to tread lightly while the king was around.

And that reminded him of another appointment. If he hurried back to the palace, he would have a bit of free time before Furlthia arrived.


It seemed as if every third person on the streets was a legionnaire. Furlthia weaved through the crowds, his hood drawn up as a gentle shower enveloped Magilnada. From the shadow, his eyes roved over everything. He noted the shield insignia of the different legions — at least five that he recognised, two others that were new to him. He watched the captains and victuallers haggling with craftsmen and armourers, while groups of soldiers emptied entire stalls of meat and vegetables into their sacks. The army had taken so much grain there was barely a sack or loaf of bread for the people of the city.

Furlthia grunted with annoyance. This was exactly what he had warned Anglhan would happen; the Askhans taking what they wanted and leaving nothing for anyone else. He knew any protests he might make would fall on deaf ears. Anglhan was involved in every part of the city, from the gate taxes to the bribes and contract levies. No doubt the governor was enjoying every moment of the boom.

And there was little likelihood of the situation changing. Magilnada was perfectly placed between Greater Askhor and Salphoria, and when the empire had conquered everything to duskward, the city would remain the pivotal centre of trade, dominating the road between the mountains.

As Furlthia cut through the Garden of Spirits, he dawdled for a while, paying his respects at the multitude of shrines. He looked at the decorated trees, the piles of pebbles on the chapelstones, the prayer-scripts and colourful ribbons hanging tattered from the flowering bushes. At least Anglhan had kept the Askhan Brotherhood out of the city. If he had not, these shrines would have been swept aside. Furlthia imagined one of the austere pyramids of the Brotherhood where he was standing, glowering down upon the city below.

As he heard bells ringing the time, he admitted to himself there were a few Askhan innovations that were preferable. The water clocks and watch candles were one example. Furlthia had learnt their Askhan measure of time when he had been among the pretend rebels who took Magilnada for Ullsaard. It was the second hour High Watch, halfway through the afternoon. He had another hour until he was due to meet Anglhan and left the gardens to find something to eat.

A plaza dawnwards of the gardens was filled with tables and benches, which in turn were filled with people eating and drinking. The majority of them seemed to be native Magilnadans, doubtlessly driven from their usual haunts by the mass of soldiers coming in and out of the city.

He found a space on a bench beside two older women, who were happy to ignore him and carry on their conversation in hushed voices. A serving girl, no more than eight or nine years old, came over with a steaming bowl and a cup of water.

"What is it?" Furlthia asked as she plonked the bowl in front of him. The contents were brownish-grey sludge with islands of unidentifiable meat poking from a gravy sea.

"Meat stew," she said.

"What sort of meat?"

The girl gave him an exasperated look and held out her hand.

"Best not to ask. Seven salts."

"Seven?" Furlthia was horrified at the price, almost double what he would have paid before the arrival of the Askhan legions. He glanced at the bad fare as he counted out the tin coins. There were pitifully few left; the loose group of anti-Askhan sentiment he represented gave him a stipend for each visit, but he could not afford to stay in the city any longer than necessary. Next time he would have to ask for more from the shadowy collection of Magilnadan chieftains, traders and ex-rebels who supported the cause for a free Magilnada.

Despite its grisly even gristly appearance, the stew was not unpleasant. The meat was probably rabbit, though it was impossible to tell for sure. It certainly didn't come from any animal raised on a farm. The water was also clean and refreshing, one of the other benefits of Askhan influence. In the short time they had been in control of the city, half a dozen more wells had been dug and improvements had been made to the sewers beneath the city.

Furlthia idled for a while, glad to surround himself with the normal folk of the city. He listened in to their conversations, detecting excitement about the Askhan invasion. He didn't hear a single word of dissent or anger, which irritated him considerably. He wanted to ask how they could be so careless about the future of their city, and point out just how hard times would be for them once they became just another Salphorian province of Greater Askhor.

He knew it would make no difference and held his tongue. He, and others who shared his allegiance, had tried hard to build a popular movement against Askhan rule, but they had failed to stir up any trouble at all. The Askhan system was clever, giving people the illusion of security and wealth, while at the same time it robbed them of dignity and freedom. It was no great thing to labour under the self-serving warlords of Salphoria, but at least the chieftains were a part of the society they ruled, raised in the same traditions and values. The Askhans obliterated people's identity; crushed their beliefs in everything but the glory of Askhor; imposed their laws and their customs.

Getting agitated, Furlthia left the plaza and headed up the Hill of Chieftains to the governor's palace. Anglhan's influence was clear to see. The plain white pillars of the great porch on its front were now covered with gilded pictures, and the steps up to them had been replaced with red and black marble. Colourful banners hung from newly constructed balconies, while a full company of legionnaires from the First Magilnadan stood guard to either side of the huge double doors.

The doors were open and a steady procession wound in and out; the palace did not just house the governor, but also his many treasurers, clerks, customs officers and sundry officials. Supervising this organised chaos was Lenorin, Anglhan's chamberlain, chief treasurer and overall civilian second-in-command. He was, luckily for Furlthia, also a vehement opponent of the Askhans and one of the chief sponsors of Furlthia's anti-Askhan movement. The chancellor saw Furlthia enter the dim hallway and gestured for him to approach.

"Busier than usual," said Furlthia as the two of them sat down on a low bench along the wall.

"Ullsaard's army will be marching in a few days' time," said Lenorin. "Everybody's running around trying to sell their last stock, or secure a contract, or offer their services. It's embarrassing."

Furlthia raised an eyebrow.