“First Spear!” bellowed a legionare’s voice.
Valiar Marcus had spent more years in the legions than many of the volunteers in the First Aleran had been drawing breath. Though he’d had the third watch, and been asleep for less than an hour, his feet swung off his cot and hit the cheap rug that he’d thrown over the bottom of his small, but private tent. He already had his tunic and boots on by the time the legionare reached his tent.
“Centurion,” panted Vilius, a young legionare in the cohort’s third century. “We’ve got reports of movement on the road to the east. A large force.”
“Bloody crows,” Marcus swore. “The relief column. ” He struggled to draw conclusions, but his sleep-fogged mind wasn’t cooperating. He shook his head with a growl and forced it to do its duty. “Captain will have the cavalry, the Knights, and the Battlecrows on the road. He’ll try to hold the Canim off long enough to get the column into the city’s walls. ” Fidelias turned to his armor and strapped into it, fastening the row of ties down its center front with fingers that flew with the effortless speed of long practice. “Prime Cohort will form up on the earthworks on the far side of the refugee camp. Tell Tribunes Martinus and Kellus that I recommend that they form up the Seventh and Ninth on First Cohort’s flanks. We march in five minutes.”
Vilius slammed his fist against the armor over his heart, and dashed from the tent.
Once he was gone, Marcus grimaced and rubbed savagely at the clenching cramp that had formed on one side of his neck. He must have pulled a muscle, sitting up that fast out of a dead sleep, but crows take him if he was letting any of those young men see it.
Maybe he was getting too old for this sort of thing.
Five minutes later, the Prime Cohort, double the size of any other cohort at eight centuries strong, moved out of the heavily fortified gates of the town on the northern side of the Tiber. They went out at a run, boots striking hard in unison on the paving stones, then becoming a muffled thunder as the column wheeled out over softer earth. Marcus led the column beneath the wan, cloud-obscured morning sun, running beside the first rank and calling the pace. They passed through the tent and shanty-filled warren that stretched for half a mile in every direction around the town of Elinarch.
The earthworks at the far side of the refugee camp were not the simple packed-earth walls that the legions had used for time out of mind. Instead, they had been built from clay taken from the bed and banks of the Tiber, then baked into a substance harder than most stone via the use of firecrafting. Those walls were fifteen feet high and twenty thick, and if they didn’t have the sheer, obdurate strength of furycrafted battlement stone, they were far more serviceable than standard earthworks or a wooden palisade.
Marcus led the cohort up onto the walls over the wide-mouthed gate, where the men took up positions with practiced speed. He bellowed at the few who performed with slight imperfections, and had the entire Prime Cohort in position and standing ready before the legionares of the Seventh and Ninth cleared the city walls and came pounding toward them.
Half an hour passed in nervous silence while, behind them, refugees began a slow, confused retreat into the safety of the city’s walls. Overhead, several Knights Aeris went flashing by, driven by torrents of wind, flying to and from the east. Marcus felt the familiar singing tension of fear that always came with preparation for a battle. Defending the city from an attack from this particular flank had been a worst case scenario, and no one had thought it would actually come to that—but if the Canim had crossed the river, then he and the other men here, at the forward defenses, were about to have a very bad morning. Worse, every one of them knew it.
So Marcus spent his time pacing steadily up and down the wall, berating troops for an improperly fastened sword-belt here, a small patch of rust on a breastplate there. His growled imprecations were creative, gratuitously foul-mouthed—and familiar. They were all the reassurance he could offer his men. They were all he could offer himself, as well.
Tribune Tactica Kellus, who had himself been a centurion when he first signed on with the First Aleran, paced briskly down the wall from the Ninth’s position, and nodded to Marcus. “Centurion.”
Though as the First Spear, Marcus exercised command of the Prime Cohort, made up of its finest legionares, Kellus still outranked him. Marcus saluted, and nodded his head. “Sir.”
“Have you any idea what’s going on?”
He shrugged. “Reports of an unknown force east of here.”
Kellus grimaced. “I know that.”
“Then your guess is as good as mine.”
“Another drill, you think?”
Marcus pursed his lips. “No. I don’t think so, sir. I know the Captain’s mad for them, but this doesn’t feel right.”
Kellus grunted. “Can’t be the Canim, can it? They’ve never been able to cross the Tiber in numbers.”
“Maybe they worked it out,” Marcus said. “Either way—”
“On the wall!” came a call from below.
Marcus turned to find a dapper, aging little man in the livery of a legion valet standing below. “Good morning, Magnus.”
“Permission to come up and speak to you?” called the valet.
“Granted. “ Marcus beckoned the valet, who hurried up the stairs and arrived on the battlements, laboring to catch his breath.
“Centurion, Tribune,” Magnus panted, nodding. “We just got a messenger in from the Captain. He wanted me to tell your men to stand down.”
Marcus lifted his eyebrows.
“It was a drill, then,” Kellus said.
Marcus frowned and turned to stare intently at the road to the east. “No,” he said quietly. “I don’t think it was.”
For a moment, there was nothing but the haze of a morning that had not yet become warm enough to burn off all the mist. Then, ranks of marching soldiers appeared in the east. Two long, broad columns of them, in fact, came marching along on either side of the road, leaving room for the relief column’s wagons and draft animals in the center. Marcus frowned, and began counting, before he realized what he was actually looking at.
“Two legions?” he murmured.
“Yes,” Magnus said quietly.
“And flying the blue and red,” Marcus noted. “Like us.”
The senior valet squinted out at the approaching troops. “Ah, I thought as much. These are the Senate’s new toys. The Senatorial Guard.”
Marcus grunted. “Arnos’ pet project, right?”
“The Senator is used to getting what he wants,” the valet replied. “And with the war stretching on, his arguments have gained much more support in the Committee, the Senate and among the Citizenry.”
“And now the Senate has its own legions, too.”
The old valet nodded. “Ambitious, that Arnos, commanding two-thirds the fighting power of a High Lord. He controls them completely.”
Marcus blew out a breath. “So the good news is that the Canim haven’t crossed the river. “He said the next sentence a bit louder, knowing word would spread rapidly up and down the wall. “No fighting today.”
“And the bad news,” the valet said in a quiet tone, “is that—”
“The War Committee has come to Elinarch to play,” Marcus said, his tone souring.
“Great furies help us. Yes.”
“Thank you, Magnus,” the First Spear said. “Looks like this has turned into your kind of fight.”
The legion’s senior valet sighed. “Yes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll toddle off and try to figure out where we’re going to put everyone. ” He nodded to them and departed again.
Kellus came to stand next to Marcus, scowling at the incoming legions. “We don’t need their help here,” he said. “We’ve held it ourselves for two years.”
“We’ve bled for two years, too,” Marcus said quietly. “I won’t mind letting someone else do that part for a little while, sir.”
Kellus snorted and departed to return to his own men, where Marcus thought he should have bloody well been standing to begin with. The young Tribune was right about one thing, though. Arnos’ presence here—and in command of two full Legions, no less—was anything but a good sign.
Marcus knew who truly owned Arnos’ allegiance.
An hour later, Valiar Marcus and his men returned to their quarters in the city, and Marcus returned to his own tent, aching for sleep. He drew the tent’s heavy flaps closed, tied them there, and then began to unfasten his armor.
“May I help you, my Lady?” he asked quietly, as he did.
There was a quiet, pleased sound from the direction of his camp stool, simple canvas on a wooden frame. The air shimmered for a moment, and a woman appeared there, seated primly, dressed in a rather plain russet gown. The gown did not suit her features, any more than an old rope halter suited a finely bred horse. She was lovely in a way that few women could match and none could surpass, dark of hair and fair of skin, seemingly in the flower of her late youth.
Marcus knew better. Invidia Aquitaine was neither young, nor particularly flowery. There was nothing delicate or fragile about her. In fact, he reflected, she was one of the more dangerous people he’d ever known.
“I’m not wearing my perfume,” she said in a velvet-smooth alto. “I was careful to move nothing in the tent. I’m quite sure you didn’t see me through my veil, and I made no sound. How did you know I was here?”
Marcus finished unlacing the armor and shrugged out of it. The surge of relief in his shoulders and neck at the sudden absence of its weight was heavenly. Then he glanced at her and said, “Oh. It’s you.”
Lady Aquitaine gave him a very direct look for several long seconds before her lips parted and a low chuckle bubbled from them. “I have missed you, Fidelias. Very few people have nerve enough to offer me insouciance, these days.”
“Doesn’t Arnos?” he asked her. “The way I hear it, he never shuts his crowbegotten mouth.”
“Arnos offers me a number of assets,” Lady Aquitaine replied. “Sparkling wit and clever conversation are not among them. Though I will grant that he is skilled enough in . . . other social pursuits. ” Her mouth curled into a merrily wicked little smirk—just a schoolgirl, out to amuse herself, all in good fun.
Fidelias didn’t believe it for a moment, of course. “My Lady, I don’t wish to seem rude—”
“But you had late watch last night, and have not slept, I know,” she said, her tone turning businesslike. “I, of course, have other concerns as well. “ She studied him for a moment, and then said, “That face you’re wearing. It really doesn’t suit you, you know. All the scars. The lumpy nose. It’s the face of a mindless thug.”
Marcus— Fidelias—sat down on the edge of his cot and began unlacing his boots. “I earned this face, as Marcus.”
“So I’ve been told,” she replied. “Valiar Marcus is quite the hero of the realm. “Her eyes remained very steady. “I have wondered, from time to time, if you have forgotten that Fidelias is most decidedly not.”
Fidelias froze for just a beat, and sudden trepidation made his heartbeat race. He cursed himself for the slip. He’d been soldiering so much, the past two years, that he’d lost some of his edge for intrigue. Lady Aquitaine would have read his reaction as quickly and easily as she might have looked at a playing card. He forced himself to bottle up his emotions as he finished removing his boots. “I know who I am, and what I’m doing,” he said quietly.
“I find it odd,” she said, “that you have not reported anything to me about this young captain, Rufus Scipio.”
Fidelias grunted. “I’ve reported to you. Young commander, natural talent. He led the Legion through something that should have killed them to a man, and they wouldn’t hear of having him replaced with a more experienced commander, after. He’s fought a campaign against the Canim that should go into the history books.”
Lady Aquitaine lifted an eyebrow. “He’s held on to a single city while taking back less than fifty miles of territory from the invaders. That hardly sounds impressive.”
“Because you don’t know who and what he’s done it against,” Fidelias said.
“The War Committee does not seem impressed with it.”
“The War Committee hasn’t stood to battle against an army of fifty thousand Canim with nothing but a half-trained legion with an under-strength corps of Knights to support it.”
Lady Aquitaine bared her teeth in a sudden, brilliant smile. “So military. That suits you, I think. ” Her eyes roamed over him. “And the exercise has agreed with you, it would seem.”
Fidelias kept himself from reacting at all, either to her words, to the sudden low fires in her eyes, or to the subtle wave of earthcrafting that swept out from her, sending a quiet, insistent tug of desire flickering through his body. “My Lady, please. Your point?”
“My point,” she said quietly, every word growing sharper, “is that rumor is running rampant that this young Scipio commands legions as if born to it. Rumor has it that he has shown evidence of subtle and potent furycrafting, to such a degree that he withstood attacks that all but annihilated the officers of an entire legion. Rumor has it that he bears a startling resemblance to Gaius Septimus in his youth.”
Fidelias rolled one shoulder as his neck cramped again. “Young men in legion armor, in legion haircuts, all look pretty much the same, my Lady. He’s tall, yes. So are a lot of young men. He’s a natural talent at command. But he’s got less furycraft than I do. He barely passed his basic crafting requirements for his first term in the legions. You can look them up, in Riva’s records.”
Lady Aquitaine folded her hands and frowned at him. “I’ll have to take a look at him myself, Fidelias. But frankly, he’s too well positioned to ignore. He commands the loyalty of an entire legion, after all—and a legion that contains not one, but two sons of Antillus Raucous, both of whom possess their father’s talents. And he’s operated in complete loyalty to Gaius. I’m not prepared to entertain the notion of a bastard of the House of Gaius running loose with that kind of power to support him. Not now. ” She smiled, and it was a cold, cold thing. “We’re almost there. Gaius will fall. I will not have some upstart playing havoc with my plans now.”
Fidelias took a slow breath, keeping himself carefully under control. If Lady Aquitaine sensed the sudden turmoil of his emotions now, he was as good as dead. “A reasonable precaution,” he said. “What would you have me do?”
“Remain where you are for now,” she said, rising. She flicked a hand, idly, and the features of her face melted, changed, and rearranged themselves into a far plainer set of features that looked nothing like her. Her hair changed colors and took on streaks of grey, and her body slumped slightly, as though aging several years within a few seconds. She lifted a bundle of clothing she’d held in her lap, and looked precisely like any of a hundred washerwomen that worked for the legion—but for the hard shine in her eyes. “And soon,” she said, “when the time is right, my dear spy, I’ll send you the word.”
“To what?” Fidelias asked quietly.
She paused at the tent’s flap and looked at him over her shoulder. “Why, to kill him, of course.”
Then she was gone, vanishing into the rising bustle of the camp outside his tent.
Fidelias—Marcus—shut the tent again, and saw that his hands were shaking. He returned to his cot and lay down upon it.
Kill the Captain.
If he did not, he wouldn’t survive it. Though they eagerly cultivated betrayal in others’ retainers, the Aquitaines did not tolerate it among their own. Fidelias knew. He’d killed half a dozen of them himself, at Lady Aquitaine’s bidding. He’d turned against Gaius Sextus, his liege. He’d betrayed his fellow Cursors. He’d turned upon his own student, and he knew Amara would never forgive him. He’d done it all at her command, because he had believed that she and her husband were the least destructive choice for Alera’s future.
That was before he’d met the Captain, before the young man had, somehow, hauled survival and victory out of the ashes of chaos and despair—and personally risked his life to save Marcus’ own along the way.
Now, Invidia Aquitaine commanded him once more.
Kill the Captain.
Marcus ached to his bones with fatigue, but he lay staring up at the sloping canvas walls of his tent, utterly unable to sleep.