If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: large things are made of smaller things.
Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built of many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blended together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.
Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold:
Large things are made from small things.
Significance is cumulative-but not always obvious.
-From the writings of Gaius Secondus, First Lord of Alera
Wind howled over the rolling, sparsely wooded hills of the lands in the care of the Marat, the One-and-Many People. Hard, coarse flecks of snow fled before it, and though the One rode high in the sky, the overcast hid his face.
Kitai began to feel cold for the first time since spring. She turned to squint behind her, shielding her eyes from the sleet with one hand. She wore a brief cloth about her hips, a belt to hold her knife and hunting pouch, and nothing else. Wind threw her thick white hair around her face, its color blending with the driving snow.
“Hurry up!” she called.
There was a deep-chested snort, and a massive form paced into sight. Walker the gargant was an enormous beast, even of its kind, and its shoulders stood nearly the height of two men above the earth. His shaggy winter coat had already come in thick and black, and he paid no notice to the snow. His claws, each larger than an Aleran saber, dug into the frozen earth without difficulty or hurry.
Kitai’s father, Doroga, sat upon the gargant’s back, swaying casually upon the woven saddle cloth. He was dressed in a loincloth and a faded red Aleran tunic. Doroga’s chest, arms and shoulders were so laden with muscle that he had been obliged to tear the sleeves from the red tunic-but as it had been a gift and discarding it would be impolite, he had braided a rope from the sleeves and bound it across his forehead, tying back his own pale hair. “We must hurry, since the valley is running from us. I see. Maybe we should have stayed downwind.”
“You are not as amusing as you think you are,” Kitai said, glowering at her father’s teasing. Doroga smiled, the expression emphasizing the lines in his broad, square features. He took hold of Walker’s saddle rope and swung down to the ground with a grace that belied his sheer size. He slapped his hand against the gargant’s front leg, and Walker settled down amicably, placidly chewing cud.
Kitai turned and walked forward, into the wind, and though he made no sound, she knew her father followed close behind her.
A few moments later, they reached the edge of a cliff that dropped abruptly into open space. The snow prevented her from seeing the whole of the valley below, but for the lulls between gusts, when she could see all the way to the bottom of the cliff below them.
“Look,” she said.
Doroga stepped up beside her, absently slipping one vast arm around her shoulders. Kitai would never have let her father see her shiver, not at a mere autumn sleet, but she leaned against him, silently grateful for his warmth. She watched as her father peered down, waiting for a lull in the wind to let him see the place the Alerans called the Wax Forest.
Kitai closed her eyes, remembering the place. The dead trees had coated in the croach, a thick, gelatinous substance layered over and over itself so that it looked like the One had coated it all in the wax of many candles. The croach had covered everything in the valley, including the ground and a sizeable portion of the valley walls. Here and there, birds and animals had been sealed into the croach, where, still alive, they lay unmoving until they softened and dissolved like meat boiled over a low fire. Pale things the size of wild dogs, translucent, spider like creatures with many legs once laid quietly in the croach, nearly invisible, while others prowled the forest floor, silent and swift and alien.
Kitai shivered at the memory, then forced herself to stillness again, biting her lip. She glanced up at her father, but he pretended not to have noticed, staring down.
The valley below had never in her people’s memory taken on snow. The entire place had been warm to the touch, even in winter, as though the croach itself was some kind of massive beast, the heat of its body filling the air around it.
Now the Wax Forest stood covered in ice and rot. The old, dead trees were coated in something that looked like brown and sickly tar. The ground lay frozen, though here and there, other patches of rotten croach could be seen. Several of the trees had fallen. And in the center of the Forest, the hollow mound lay collapsed and dissolved into corruption, the stench strong enough to carry even to Kitai and her father.
Doroga was still for a moment before he said, “We should go down. Find out what happened.”
“I have,” Kitai said.
Her father frowned. “That was foolish to do alone.”
“Of the three of us here, which has gone down and come back alive again the most often?”
Doroga grunted out a laugh, glancing down at her with warmth and affection in his dark eyes. “Maybe you are not mistaken.” The smile faded, and the wind and sleet hid the valley again. “What did you find?”
“Dead keepers,” she replied. “Dead croach. Not warm. Not moving. The keepers were empty husks. The croach breaks into ash at a touch.” She licked her lips. “And something else.”
“Tracks,” she said in a quiet voice. “Leading away from the far side. Leading west.”
Doroga grunted. “What tracks?”
Kitai shook her head. “They were not fresh. Perhaps Marat or Aleran. I found more dead keepers along the way. As if they were marching and dying one by one.”
“The creature,” Doroga rumbled. “Moving toward the Alerans.”
Kitai nodded, her expression troubled.
Doroga looked at her and said, “What else?”
“His satchel. The pack the valleyboy lost in the Wax Forest during our race. I found it on the trail beside the last of the dead spiders, his scent still on it. Rain came. I lost the trail.”
Doroga’s expression darkened. “We will tell the master of the Calderon Valley. It may be nothing.”
“Or it may not. I will go,” Kitai said.
“No,” Doroga said.
“No,” he repeated, his voice harder.
“What if it is looking for him?”
Her father remained quiet for a time, before he said, “Your Aleran is clever. Swift. He is able to take care of himself.”
Kitai scowled. “He is small. And foolish. And irritating.”
“Weak. And without even the sorcery of his people.”
“He saved your life,” Doroga said.
Kitai felt her scowl deepen. “Yes. He is irritating.”
Doroga smiled. “Even lions begin life as cubs.”
“I could break him in half,” Kitai growled.
“For now, perhaps.”
“I despise him.”
“For now, perhaps.”
“He had no right.”
Doroga shook his head. “He had no more say in it than you.”
Kitai folded her arms and said, “I hate him.”
“So you want someone to warn him. I see.”
Kitai flushed, heat touching her cheeks and throat.
Her father pretended not to notice. “What is done is done,” he rumbled. He turned to her and cupped her cheek in one vast hand. He tilted his head for a moment, studying her. “I like his eyes on you. Like emerald. Like new grass.”
Kitai felt her eyes begin to tear. She closed them and kissed her father’s hand. “I wanted a horse.”
Doroga let out a rumbling laugh. “Your mother wanted a lion. She got a fox. She did not regret it.”
“I want it to go away.”
Doroga lowered his hand. He turned back toward Walker, keeping his arm around Kitai. “It won’t. You should Watch.”
“I do not wish to.”
“It is the way of our people,” Doroga said.
“I do not wish to.”
“Stubborn whelp. You will remain here until some sense soaks into your skull.”
“I am not a whelp, father.”
“You act like one. You will remain with the Sabot-ha.” They reached Walker, and he tossed her halfway up the saddle rope without effort.
Kitai clambered up to Walker’s broad back. “But father-”
“No, Kitai.” He climbed up behind her, and clucked to Walker. The gargant placidly rose and began back the way they had come. “You are forbidden to go. It is done.”
Kitai rode silently behind her father, but sat looking back to the west, her troubled face to the wind.
Miles’ old wound pained him as he trudged down the long spiral staircase into the depths of the earth below the First Lord’s palace, but he ignored it. The steady, smoldering throb from his left knee was of little more concern to him than the aching of his tired feet or the stretching soreness of weary muscles in his shoulders and arms after a day of hard drilling. He ignored them, his face as plain and remote as the worn hilt of the sword at his belt.
None of the discomfort he felt disturbed him nearly as much as the prospect of the conversation he was about to have with the most powerful man in the world.
Miles reached the antechamber at the bottom of the stairs and regarded his distorted reflection in a polished shield that hung upon the wall. He straightened the hem of his red and blue surcoat, the colors of the Royal Guard, and raked his fingers through his mussed hair.
A boy sat on the bench beside the closed door. He was a lanky, gangling youth, a young man who had come to his growth but recently, and the hems of his breeches and sleeves both rode up too far, exposing his wrists and ankles. A mop of dark hair fell over his face, and an open book sat upon his lap, one finger still pointed at a line of text though the boy was clearly asleep.
Miles paused and murmured, “Academ.”
He jerked in his sleep, and the book fell from his lap and to the floor. The boy sat up, blinking his eyes, and stammered, “Yes, sire, what, uh, yes sire. Sire?”
Miles put a hand on the boy’s shoulder before he could rise. “Easy, easy. Finals coming up, eh?”
The boy flushed and ducked his head as he leaned down to recover the book. “Yes, Sir Miles. I haven’t had much time for sleep.”
“I remember,” he said. “Is he still inside?”
The boy nodded again. “As far as I know, sir. Would you like me to announce you?”
The boy rose, brushing at his wrinkled grey Academ’s tunic, and bowed. Then he knocked gently on the door and opened it.
“Sire?” the boy said. “Sir Miles to see you.”
There was a long pause, and then a gentle male voice responded, “Thank you, Academ. Send him in.”
Miles walked into the First Lord’s meditation chamber, and the boy shut the soundproof door behind him. Miles lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head, waiting for the First Lord to acknowledge him.
Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, stood in the center of the tiled floor. He was a tall man with a stern face and tired eyes. Though his skills at watercrafting caused him to resemble a man only in his fifth decade of life, Miles knew that he was twice that age. His hair, once dark and lustrous, had become even more heavily sown with grey in the past year.
On the tiles beneath Gaius, colors swirled and changed, patterns forming and vanishing again, constantly shifting. Miles recognized a portion of the southern coastline of Alera, near Parica, which remained in place for a moment before resolving into a section of mountainous wilderness that could only have been in the far north, near the Shieldwall.
Gaius shook his head and passed his hand through the air before him, murmuring, “Enough.” The colors faded away completely, the tiles reverting to their usual dull, stationary colors. Gaius turned and sank down into a chair against the wall with a slow exhalation. “You’re up late tonight, Captain.”
Miles rose. “I was in the citadel and wanted to pay my respects, sire.”
Gaius’s greying brows rose. “You walked down five hundred stairs to pay your respects.”
“I didn’t count them, sire.”
“And if I am not mistaken, you are to inspect the new Legion’s command at dawn. You’ll get little sleep.”
“Indeed. Almost as little as you will, my lord.”
“Ah,” Gaius said. He reached out and took up a glass of wine from the bureau beside his chair. “Miles, you’re a soldier, not a diplomat. Speak your mind.”
Miles let out a slow breath and nodded. “Thank you. You aren’t getting enough sleep, Sextus. You’re going to look like something the gargant shat for the opening ceremonies of Wintersend. You need to get to bed.”
The First Lord waved one hand. “Presently, perhaps.”
“No, Sextus. You’re not going to wave this off. You’ve been here every night for three weeks, and it shows. You need a warm bed, a soft woman, and rest.”
“Unfortunately, I’m likely to have none of the three.”
“Balls,” Miles said. He folded his arms and planted his feet. “You’re the First Lord of Alera. You can have anything you want.”
Gaius’ eyes flickered with a shadow of surprise and anger. “My bed is unlikely to be warm so long as Caria is in it, Miles. You know how things stand between us.”
“What did you expect? You married a bloody child, Sextus. She expected to live out an epic romance, and she found herself with a dried up old spider of a politician instead.”
Gaius’ mouth tightened, the anger in his eyes growing more plain. The stone floor of the chamber rippled, the tremor making the table beside the chair rattle. “How dare you speak so to me, Captain?”
“You ordered me to, my lord. But before you dismiss me, consider. If I wasn’t in the right, would it have angered you as much as it did? If you weren’t so tired, would you have revealed your anger so obviously?”
The floor quieted, and Gaius’ regard grew more weary, less angered. Miles felt a stab of disappointment. Once upon a time, the First Lord would not have surrendered to fatigue so easily.
Gaius took another sip of wine and said, “What would you have me do, Miles? Tell me that.”
“Bed,” Miles said. “A woman. Sleep. Festival begins in four days.”
“Caria isn’t leaving her door open to me.”
“Then take a concubine,” Miles said. “Blight it, Sextus, you need to relax and the realm needs an heir.”
The First Lord grimaced. “No. I may have ill used Caria but I’ll not shame her by taking another lover.”
“Then lace her wine with aphrodin and split her like a bloody plow, man.”
“I didn’t realize you were such a romantic, Miles.”
The soldier snorted. “You’re so tense that the air crackles when you move. Fires jump up to twice their size when you walk through the room. Every fury in the capital feels it, and the last thing you want is for the High Lords arriving for Wintersend to know you’re worried.”
Gaius frowned. He stared down at his wine for a moment before he said, “The dreams have come again, Miles.”
Worry struck Miles like a physical blow, but he kept it from his face as best he could. “Dreams. You’re not a child to fear a dream, Sextus.”
“These are more than mere nightmares. Doom is coming to Wintersend.”
Miles forced a note of scorn into his voice. “You’re a fortuneteller now, sire, forseeing death?”
“Not necessarily death,” Gaius said. “I use the old word. Doom. Fate. Wyrd. Destiny rushes towards us with Festival and I cannot see what is beyond it.”
“There is no destiny,” Miles stated. “The dreams came two years ago, and no disaster destroyed the realm.”
“Because of one obstinate apprentice shepherd and the courage of those holders. It was a near thing. But if destiny doesn’t suit you, call it a desperate hour,” Gaius said. “History is replete with them. Moments where the fate of thousands hangs at balance, easily tipped one way or the next by the hands and wills of those involved. It’s coming. This Wintersend will lay down the course of the realm, and I’ll be blighted if I can see how. But it’s coming, Miles. It’s coming.”
“Then we’ll deal with it,” Miles said. “But one thing at a time.”
“Exactly,” Gaius said. He rose from the chair and strode back onto the mosaic tiles, beckoning Miles to come with him. “Let me show you.”
Miles frowned and watched as the First Lord passed his hand over the tiles again. Miles sensed the whisper of subtle power flowing through the tiles, furies from every corner of the realm responding to the First Lord’s will. From upon the tiles, he got the full effect of the furycrafted map, colors rising up around him until it seemed that he stood like a giant over the ghostly image of the citadel of Alera Imperia, capital of Alera itself. His balance wavered as the image blurred, speeding westward, to the rolling, rich valley of the Amaranth Vale, and past it, over the Blackhills and to the coast. The image intensified, resolving itself into an actual moving picture over the sea, where vast waves rolled under the lashing of a vicious storm.
“There,” Gaius said. “The eighth hurricane this spring.”
After a hushed moment, Miles said, “It’s huge.”
“Yes. And this isn’t the worst of them. They keep making them bigger.”
Miles looked up at the First Lord sharply. “Someone is crafting these storms?”
Gaius nodded. “The Canim ritualists, I believe. They’ve never exerted this much power across the seas before. Ambassador Varg denies it, of course.”
“Lying dog,” Miles spat. “Why don’t you ask the High Lords on the coast for assistance? With enough windcrafters, they should be able to blunt the storms.”
“They already are helping,” Gaius said quietly. “Though they don’t know it. I’ve been breaking the storm’s back and letting the High Lords protect their own territory once it was manageable.”
“Then ask for further help,” Miles said. “Surely Riva or Placida could lend windcrafters to the coastal cities.”
Gaius gestured, and the map blurred again, settling in the far north of the Realm, along the solid, smooth stone of the Shieldwall. Miles frowned and leaned down, looking closer. Leagues away from the wall, he could see many figures moving, mostly veiled by clouds of finely powdered snow. He started making a count and quickly realized the extent of the numbers there. “The icemen. But they’ve been quiet for years.”
“No longer,” Gaius said. “They are gathering their numbers. Antillus and Phrygia have already fought off two assaults along the Shieldwall, and matters are only growing worse. The spring thaw was delayed long enough to promise a sparse crop. That means the southerners will have the chance to gouge the Shield cities for food, and with matters as tense as they are already, it could well trigger further unpleasantness.”
Miles’ frown deepened. “But if more storms strike the southerners, it will ruin their crop.”
“Precisely,” Gaius said. “The northern cities would starve, and the southerners would be unprepared to face the icemen that pour over the wall.”
“Could the Canim and the Icemen be working together?” Miles asked.
“Great furies forbid,” Gaius said. “We must hope that it is merely coincidence.”
Miles ground his teeth. “And meanwhile, Aquitaine makes sure everyone hears that your incompetence is the cause of it all.”
Gaius half-smiled. “Aquitaine is a rather pleasant, if dangerous opponent. He is generally straightforward. I am more concerned with Rhodes, Kalare, and Forcia. They have stopped complaining to the Senate. It makes me suspicious.”
The soldier nodded. He was quiet for a moment, the worry he’d felt before settling in and beginning to grow. “I hadn’t realized.”
“No one has. I doubt anyone else has enough information to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Gaius said. He passed his hand over the mosaic tiles again, and the ghostly image of the map vanished. “And it must remain that way. The realm is in a precarious position, Miles. A panicked reaction, a single false step could lead to division between the cities, and leave Alera open to destruction at the hands of the Canim or the icemen.”
“Or the Marat,” Miles added, not bothering to hide the bitterness in his voice.
“On that front I am not unduly worried. The new Count of Calderon seems to be well advanced into forming friendly relations with several of their largest tribes.”
Miles nodded his head, but said nothing. “You’ve much on your mind.”
“All that and more,” Gaius confirmed. “There are all the usual pressures of the Senate, the Dianic League, the Slaver’s Alliance, and the Trade Consortium. Many see my reactivation of the Crown Legion as a sign of growing weakness, or possibly senility.” He drew a breath. “Meanwhile the whole of the realm worries that I may already have seen my last winter, yet have appointed no heir to succeed me–while High Lords like Aquitaine seem ready to swim to the throne through a river of blood, if necessary.”
Miles considered the enormity of it for a moment in silence. “Balls.”
“Mmm,” Gaius said. “One thing at a time indeed.” For a moment, he looked very old and very tired. Miles watched as the old man closed his eyes, composed his features, and squared his weary shoulders, steadying his voice to its usual brusque, businesslike cadence. “I have to keep an eye on that storm for a few more hours. I’ll get what sleep I can then, Miles. But there is little time to spare for it.”
The soldier bowed his head. “My words were rash, sire.”
“But honest. I should not have grown angry with you for that. My apologies, Miles.”
Gaius let out a pent up breath and nodded. “Do something for me, Captain.”
“Double the Citadel guard for the duration of Festival. I have no evidence to support it, but it is not beyond reason that someone might attempt dagger diplomacy during Wintersend. Especially since Fidelias left us.” The First Lord’s eyes grew more shadowed at this last, and Miles winced with sympathy. “He knows most of the passages in the citadel and the Deeps.”
Miles met Gaius Sextus’ eyes and nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”
Gaius nodded and lowered his arm. Miles took it as a dismissal and walked towards the door. He paused there and looked back over his shoulder. “Rest. And think on what I said about an heir, Sextus. Please. A clear line of succession might lay many of these worries to rest.”
Gaius nodded. “I am addressing it. I will say no more than that.”
Miles bowed from the waist to Gaius, then turned and opened the door. A grating, buzzing sound drifted into the meditation chamber, and Miles observed, “Your page snores very loudly.”
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Gaius said. “He was raised to be a shepherd.”