“Velin,” Agneja said. “How much do you know about it?”

“Our last stop before Ysoait,” said Scimoc. “Hilly. Mountainous. It’s said that the fortress is impregnable.”

“Mmm.” Agneja took a few more steps. “Do you fancy another stint in a dungeon?”

“Do you need me to say I’m sorry again?” snapped Scimoc. “How was I to know that Lady Termina was incredibly sensitive about her reputed ancestry?”

“You misunderstand.” Agneja drew close and pointed at the craggy rocks that had begun to rise near the road. “These foothills rise up into the North Mountains, which no man has ever climbed, and beyond which no man has ever ventured. They are incredibly inhospitable. Food needs to be taken up to Velin from lower in the valleys every day, because nothing will grow on the bare rock there. Yet Lady Eleury insists that it be the capital of her hold, and pays in gold for what is brought up.”

“She must live a very secure life,” Scimoc said. “All the better for us as her guests, I suppose.”

“What would you say if I told you that Lady Eleury, when she was a much younger woman, became the second wife of Lord Samej using every charm and wile she had to install herself in Velin and then to see her husband snuffed out with no heirs?

“It’s a story I hear quite often.”

“In the Imperial court, maybe. Who schemes to become mistress of a barren rock?”

Scimoc had learned to recognize the look on Agneja’s face. “You’re going to tell me,” he said.

“Velin is impregnable, a fortress that a dozen men could hold for a year as long as Lady Eleury switched from fresh to salted meat. Eleury set herself up here, on purpose, because she is paranoid. She is terrified that people are out to get her, and this fiefdom exists only to keep her protected. If we are not careful, we will wind up feeding that paranoia, and our broken bodies will roll down the slopes beneath Velin until the woods break out fall.”

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