Amara spread her arms and arched her back as she finally cleared the heavy cloud cover along the coast of the Sea of Ice, and emerged from the cold, blinding mist into the glorious warmth of the sunrise. For a few seconds, the edges of the clouds swirled as her wind fury Cirrus lifted her out of them, and she could see the fury’s appearance in the motion of the clouds-the ghostly form of a lean, long-legged courser of a horse, swift and graceful and beautiful.
Clouds rose in peaks and valleys like vast mountains, an entire realm of slow grace and breathtaking beauty. The golden sunshine of spring turned them to flame, and in turn they shattered the light into bands of color that danced and spun around her.
Amara laughed for the sheer joy of it. No matter how often she flew, the beauty of the skies never ceased to fill her heart, and the sense of freedom and strength only grew more intense. Amara called to Cirrus, and the fury bore her straight up with such speed that the wind tightened her face to her cheekbones and a portion of cloud the size of the citadel in Alera proper was drawn into a column in her wake. Amara angled her arms so that the wind of her passage spun her in dizzying circles, until her head spun and the air began to grow thin and cold.
Cirrus’s presence allowed her to breathe without difficulty, for a time at least, but the blue of the sky above her began to darken, and a few moments later she began to see the stars. The cold intensified, and Cirrus himself began to tire as the fury struggled to draw in enough air to keep her aloft.
Her heart pounding with excitement, she signaled Cirrus to cease.
She felt her ascent slow, and for a single delicious second she was suspended between the stars and the earth. And then, she twisted her body like a diver and fell. Her heart hammered with electric apprehension, and she closed her legs together and her arms in tight to her sides, her face toward the ground below. Within seconds, she was rushing down more swiftly even than she had risen, and her eyes blurred with tears in the wind, until Cirrus slid a portion of its being over them to protect her.
As the air thickened, she willed Cirrus back into propelling her, and her speed doubled and redoubled, a faint nimbus of light forming around her. The rolling green hills of the Calderon Valley came into sight, already defying the winter with new growth. The Valley grew larger with deceptive deliberation.
Amara poured on the speed, focusing every ounce of her will to strengthen her furycrafting, and she picked out the causeway that ran the length of the valley to the fortified steading at its east end. Then the outpost of Garrison itself came into sight.
Amara howled her excitement and stretched her power to its limits. There was a sudden and deafening thunder. She gasped and spread her arms and legs to slow her fall, only a thousand feet from the valley’s floor. Cirrus rushed to place himself in front of her, helping to slow her even more, and then she and Cirrus pulled out of the dive, redirecting her momentum to send her flashing along the causeway in a howling cyclone of wind. Exhausted and panting from the effort of producing that much speed, Amara shot toward the gates of Garrison, swifter than an arrow from the bow. She drew the winds about her as she approached the gates, and the guard standing watch over them waved her in without rising from his stool.
Amara grinned, and altered her course to bring her down on the battlements over the gate. The winds around her sent dust and debris whirling up in a billowing cloud all around the guard-a grizzled centurion named Giraldi. The stocky old soldier had been peeling away the wrinkled skin of a winter-stores apple with his dagger, and he flipped a corner of his scarlet and azure cloak over it until the dust settled. Then he resumed his peeling.
“Countess,” he said casually. “Nice to see you again.”
“Giraldi,” she said. She loosened the straps of the sealed courier’s pack she carried on her back and slid it off. “Most soldiers rise and salute when nobility visits.”
“Most soldiers don’t have an ass as grey as mine,” he replied cheerfully.
Nor do most bear the scarlet stripe of the Order of the Lion, the mark of the First Lord’s personal award for valor on their uniform pants, Amara thought, and fought not to smile. “What are you doing standing a watch? I thought I brought the papers for your promotion last month.”
“You did,” Giraldi confirmed. He ate a wrinkled stripe of apple skin. “Turned it down.”
“Crows, girl,” he swore with a certain merry disregard for the delicacy tradition demanded be accorded her sex. “I made fun of officers my whole career. What kind of fool do you think I am to want to be one?”
She couldn’t help it any longer, and laughed. “Could you send someone to let the Count know I’m here with dispatches.”
Giraldi snorted. “I reckon you already told him yourself. There ain’t so many people that make great pounding bursts of thunder rattle every dish in the valley when they arrive. Everyone who ain’t deaf knows you’re here already.”
“Then I thank you for your courtesy, centurion,” she teased, slinging the pack over one shoulder and heading for the stairs. Her flying leathers creaked as she did.
“Disgraceful,” Giraldi complained. “Pretty girl like you running around dressed like that. Men’s clothes. And too tight to be decent. Get a dress.”
“This is more practical,” Amara called over her shoulder.
“I noticed how practical you look whenever you come to see Bernard,” Giraldi drawled.
Despite herself, Amara felt her cheeks flush, though between the wind and cold of her passage, she doubted it would show. She descended into the camp’s western courtyard. When Bernard had taken over command of Garrison from its previous Count, Gram, he had ordered it to be cleansed of the signs of the battle now two years past. Despite that, Amara always thought that she could still see stains of blood that had been overlooked. She knew that the spilled blood had all been cleaned.
What remained were the stains it had left in her thoughts, and in her heart.
The thought sobered her somewhat, without really marring her sense of happiness in the morning. Life here, on the eastern frontier of Alera, she reminded herself, could be harsh and difficult. Thousands of Alerans had met their deaths on the floor of this valley, and tens of thousands of Marat. It was a place that had been steeped in hardship, danger, treachery and violence for nearly a century.
But that had begun to change, in large part due to the efforts and courage of the man who oversaw it for the Crown, and whom she had braved the dangerous high winds to see.
Bernard emerged from the commander’s quarters at the center of the camp, smiling. Though the cut of his clothing was a bit more stylish, and the fabrics more fine, he still wore the sober greens and browns of the free steadholder he had been, rather than the brighter colors proclaiming his bloodlines and allegiance. He was tall, his dark hair salted with early grey, and like his beard cropped close in Legion-fashion. He paused to hold the door open for a serving maid carrying an armload of laundry, then approached Amara with long, confident strides. Bernard was built like a bear, Amara thought, and moved like a hunting cat, and he was certainly as handsome as any man she had seen. But she liked his eyes best. His grey-green eyes were like Bernard himself-clear, open and honest, and they missed little.
“Count,” she murmured as he came close, and offered her hand.
“Countess,” he responded. There was a quiet smoldering in his eyes that made Amara’s heart race a bit more quickly as he took her hand in gentle fingers and bowed over it. She thought she could feel his deep voice in her belly when he rumbled, “Welcome to Garrison, lady Cursor. Did you have a nice trip?”
“Finally, now that the weather is clearing,” she said, and left her hand on his arm as they walked to his offices.
“How are things at the capital?”
“More amusing than usual,” she said. “The Slavers Consortium and the Dianic League are all but dueling in the streets, and the Senators can barely show their faces out of doors without being assaulted by one party or another. The southern cities are doing everything they can to run up the prices of this year’s crops, screaming about the greed and graft of the Wall lords, while the Wall cities are demanding an increase in levies from the miserly south.”
Bernard grunted. “His Majesty?”
“In fine form,” Amara said. She made it a point to inhale through her nose as she walked. Bernard smelled of pine needles, leather and wood smoke, and she loved the scent of him. “But he’s made fewer appearances this year than in the past. There are rumors that his health is finally failing.”
“When aren’t there?”
“Exactly. Your nephew is doing well at the Academy, by all reports.”
“Really? Has he finally . . .”
Amara shook her head. “No. And they’ve called in a dozen different craft-masters to examine him and work with him. Nothing.”
“But otherwise, he’s performing excellently. His instructors are uniformly impressed with his mind.”
“Good,” Bernard said. “I’m proud of him. I always taught him not to let his problem stand in his way. That intelligence and skill would carry him farther than furycrafting. But all the same, I had hoped . . .” He sighed, tipping a respectful nod to a pair of passing legionares callidus, walking from the mess hall with their officially nonexistent wives. “So, what word from the First Lord?”
“The usual dispatches, and invitations for you and the valley’s Steadholders to Festival.”
He arched a brow. “He sent one to my sister as well?”
“Particularly to your sister,” Amara said. She frowned as they went inside the command residence, and up the stairs to Bernard’s private offices. “There are several things you need to know, Bernard. His majesty asked me to brief you both on the situation surrounding her attendance. In private.”
Bernard nodded and opened the door. “I thought as much. She’s already packed for the trip. I’ll send word and she should be here by this evening.”
Amara entered, looking back over her shoulder, her head cocked. “By this evening, is it?”
“Mmm. Perhaps not until tomorrow morning.” He shut the door behind him. And casually slid the bolt shut, leaning back against it. “You know, Giraldi’s right, Amara. A woman shouldn’t dress in tight leathers like that.”
She blinked innocently at him. “Oh? Why not?”
“It makes a man think things.”
She moved slowly. At his heart, Bernard was a hunter, and a man of great patience when need be. Amara had found that it was a distinct pleasure to test that patience.
And even more of a pleasure make it unravel.
She started unbinding her honey-brown hair from its braid. “What sorts of things, your Excellency?”
“That you should be in a dress,” he said, voice edged with the slightest, low tone of a beast’s growl. His eyes all but glowed as he watched her let her hair down.
She undid the plaits in her hair with deliberate precision and began to comb them out with her fingers. She’d worn her hair much shorter in the past, but she’d been growing it out since she found out how much Bernard liked it worn long. “But if I was in a dress,” she said, “The wind would tear it to shreds. And when I came down to see you, milord, Giraldi and his men would all get to stare at what the shreds didn’t cover.” She blinked her eyes again, and let her hair fall in mussed waves down around her face and over her shoulders. She watched his eyes narrow in pleasure at the sight. “I can hardly run around like that in front of a crowd of legionares. As I told the good centurion. It’s merely practical.”
He leaned away from the door and approached, a slow step at a time. He leaned close to her, and took the courier’s pack from her. His fingertips dragged lightly over her shoulder as he did, and she almost felt that she could feel them through her jacket. Bernard was an earthcrafter of formidable power, and such people always carried a certain sense of purely instinctive, mindless physical desire around them like a tactile perfume. She had felt it when she first met the man, and even more so since.
And when he made the effort, it could cause her own patience to vanish first. It wasn’t fair, but she had to admit that she could hardly complain about the results.
He set the pack of dispatches aside, and kept stepping forward, and it bodily pressed her hips against his desk and forced her to lean back a little from him. “No it isn’t,” he said in a quiet voice, and she felt a slow, animal thrill course through her at his presence. He lifted a hand and touched her cheek with his fingertips. Then gently slid his hand down over her shoulder and flank to her hip. The touch of his fingers lingered and made her feel a little breathless with sudden need. He rested his hand on her hip and said, “If they were practical, I could slide them out of my way at once. It would save time.” He leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek, nuzzling his nose and mouth in her hair. “Mmmm. Having you at once. That would be practical.”
Amara tried to draw things out, but she hadn’t seen him in weeks, and almost against her will she felt the sinuous pleasure of her body yielding and molding to his, one leg bending to slide her calf along the outside of his own. Then he bent his mouth to hers and kissed her, and the slow heat and animal delight of the taste of his mouth did away with any thought whatsoever.
“You’re cheating,” she whispered a moment later, panting as she slipped her hands beneath his tunic to feel the heavy, hot muscles on his back.
“Can’t help it,” he growled. He parted the front of her jacket, and she arched her back, the air cool on her thin linen undershirt. “I want you. It’s been too long.”
“Don’t stop,” she whispered, though it was edged with a low moan. “Too long.”
Boots thumped up the stairs outside Bernard’s office.
One at a time.
Bernard let out an irritated groan, his eyes closed.
“Ahem,” coughed Giraldi’s voice from outside. “Achoo. My but what a cold I have. Yes, sir, a cold. I’ll need to see a healer about that.”
Bernard straightened, and Amara had to force her fingers to move away from him. She stood up and her balance wavered. So she sat down on the edge of Bernard’s desk, her face flushed, and tried to get all the clasps on the jacket fastened closed again.
Bernard tucked his tunic more or less back through his belt, but now his eyes smoldered with quiet anger. He went to the door, and Amara was struck by how large the man was as he unlocked it and stood in it, facing the centurion outside.
“Sorry, Bernard,” Giraldi said. “But . . .” He lowered his voice to a bare whisper, and Amara couldn’t hear the rest.
“Crows,” Bernard spat in a sudden, vicious curse.
Amara jerked her head up at the tone in his voice.
“How long?” the Count asked.
“Less than an hour. General call to arms?” Giraldi asked.
Bernard clenched his jaw. “No. Get your century to the wall, dress uniform.”
Giraldi frowned, head cocked to one side.
“We aren’t preparing to fight. We’re turning out an honor guard. Understand?”
“Perfectly, your Excellency,” Giraldi answered, his often-broken nose making the words thick. “You want our finest century on the wall in full battle gear so that we can beat some Marat around if they’ve got a mind to tussle, and if they don’t you want your most beautiful and charming centurion doing the greeting to make them feel all welcome.”
Giraldi’s smile faded, and he lowered his voice, his expression frank but unafraid. “You think there’s a fight brewing?”
Bernard clapped the old soldier on the shoulder. “No. But I want you to personally tell Knight Captain Gregor and the other centurions it might be a good idea to run a weapons and arms inspection in their barracks for a while, in case I’m wrong.”
“Yes, your Excellency,” Giraldi said. He struck his fist to his heart in a crisp Legion salute, nodded at Amara, and marched out.
Bernard turned to a large, sturdy wooden armoire and opened it. He drew out a worn old arming jacket, and jerked it on with practiced motions.
“What’s happening?” Amara asked.
He passed her a short, stout blade in a belted scabbard. “Could be trouble.”
The gladius was the side arm of a legionare, and the most common weapon in the realm. Amara was well familiar with it, and buckled it on without needing to watch her fingers. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a Marat war party on the plain,” Bernard said. “They’re coming this way.”