For a Crandil male, he was big – tall, muscular, and clad in shining bronze mail over his russet pelt. His thick fur was marred in places by scars, sprinkled with grey, and his eyes were hard as he looked over his visitor.

Smaller even than most Crandil men, that visitor was in some ways what the big warrior was not. He was sleek, handsome, and dark, wearing an elaborate wrap of many separate lengths of cloth. He might be beautiful if one liked that sort of youthful look, but in neither form nor demeanour was he very imposing.

“So,” the bigger man sneered, “this is the mighty Jisarr that the locals are clamouring for?”

“If they are, you likely know more about it than I do,” the coal-furred young man replied. “But I am Jisarr, twenty-fifth of my name, which I’ve worn since my father died who bore it before me.”

A snort. “Fancy words. Do you think they make you fit to rule?”

“Hardly, General Keslar. They’re what I was reared on. If anything I bear does, I’d guess it might be candour, conscience, or simply the weight of tradition.”

The grizzled general snorted, but didn’t dignify the latter points with a direct reply otherwise. “You know who I am, then.” There was a dangerous edge to his voice, daring Jisarr to comment on some of his more infamous deeds.

Jisarr didn’t take the bait. “I know that you’re guard-captain of Tethrisal, militia-chief of the northern provinces, and commander of the Crandil element of the force that now holds the Deep.”

A growl rose in Keslar’s throat. “And against those decades of experience, what? How many battles have you been in, whelp?”

“Just the one,” Jisarr shot back, “in which, unarmed and compelled not to fight, I faced down an armed guard-captain who could kill me with one blow and convinced her to shun atrocity. I’m not a complete innocent, General – and this isn’t a fighting war anyway.”

“A politician would say that.”

“That’s more or less what I’ve been raised to be, I suppose.”

“And that’s what they were chanting for in the square? Another twisty tunnel-worm?”

It was Jisarr’s turn to scoff. “I have no love for scheming and machination, General. It killed my father; I’d rather not suffer the same fate.”

“Oh, yes. That would be the horrible deed that compelled the Dukes to impose more sanctions on the provinces, wouldn’t it?”

“They could hardly admit openly that they’d had it done themselves,” Jisarr replied.

Silence stretched out. For a moment Keslar seemed about to contest that assertion, but he paused, considering Jisarr’s expression, and in the end forebore. What he said, dangerously soft, was, “If you knew such a thing, why were they allowed to live to blame us?

“I could hardly have all of them killed over one assassin,” Jisarr shot back. “Nor even stripped of their positions. Even if I’d tried, it wouldn’t be long before another mysterious assassin from the restive provinces found me. I told you, General – I want nothing to do with courtly scheming.”

“If it’s such a miracle to survive each day, why do you want the title?”

“I don’t,” Jisarr breathed. “The thought terrifies me. But as you yourself have said several times today, General, there are a great many people who think I would do well to take it – and if I have some chance to do some good with my life, I can’t just turn my back on it.”