Amara soared down in a slow, gradual descent through cold, heavy rain as she neared the camp of the Crown Legion. Cirrus, her wind fury, held her aloft on the shoulders of a miniature gale, and though she wore the leather clothing any flier found necessary, she almost fancied she could feel her skin chafing through it, and she was definitely sick of shivering with the cold.
A trio of armored figures took flight and swept toward her upon their own furies’ gales, and Amara slowed, hovering in place to meet them. It was the third and last perimeter around the camp, and one of the knights flashed a challenge in broad hand signals to her while the other two took position above her, ready to dive down upon her if necessary.
Amara recognized the men by sight, just as they would recognize her, but in these troubling times, a familiar face was not necessarily any assurance of a friendly party. She gave them the countersign, and only then did the three Knights Aeris take their hands from their weapons and form up around her in a friendly escort as she wearily flew the last mile or so to the camp.
Amara did not land at the standard location, just outside the camp’s palisade. She’d covered more than three thousand miles in the past three days, and the very thought of walking through the camp was nearly enough to knock her unconscious. She came down just outside the commander’s tent, despite the regulations against it and the debris Cirrus’ approach would scatter all over the area. Her legs quivered, all rubbery with fatigue, as she settled her weight on them and ceased maintaining the effort to direct Cirrus.
“Countess,” murmured a small, slender man, his few remaining grey hairs shorn close to his scalp, Legion-style. He was rather dapper in his fine tunic, but Amara knew that Enos, a former Cursor himself, was one of the deadlier knife-hands in Alera. Mild disapproval in his voice did nothing to dampen his smile. “Soaring in here as bold as you please, I see.”
“I’m sorry to make extra work for you, Enos,” Amara replied as they stepped underneath a nearby pavilion, out of the rain.
“Nonsense. I’ll get one of our Subtribunes Logistica to tidy up. We valets are far too important for such things, you know. ” He offered her a warm towel, and after she had used it to wipe her face and hands, he pressed a steaming cup into her fingers.
Amara sipped at the thick broth and let out a groan of pleasure. Long flights always left her enormously hungry, and there’d been far more flying than eating over the past few days. “Bless you, Enos.”
“Not at all, Countess,” he replied. “The least I can do for someone who just beat the previous flight speed record from here to the capital by a full day.”
“The First Lord doesn’t pay me to lark about,” Amara said, and flashed him a smile. “How much did you win?”
“Fourteen silver bulls,” Enos said, his tone unrepentantly smug. “Lord Aquitaine’s head valet just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to gambling.”
Amara finished the broth, and Enos immediately filled her hand with another mug of tea. She sipped it. Delicious. Perhaps she’d manage to walk all the way to a warm bunk before she collapsed, after all. “Is he available?”
“The Captain is in conference with Lord Aquitaine,” Enos said. “But he insisted that I take you to him as soon as you arrived.”
“Aquitaine,” Amara murmured. “Very well. Thank you, Enos.”
Enos bowed his head to her with another smile, and Amara strode over to the commander’s tent. Winters here in the south weren’t nearly so frigid as in Alera’s more northerly reaches, but they were generally cold, rainy, and miserable. The tent was doubled, one slightly larger one outside another, creating a small pocket of warmer air between the interior and the outdoors. Amara opened one flap after another, and strode into Captain Miles’ command tent.
It was a fairly spacious arrangement, lit by a trio of bright furylamps hung from the central post. The post itself was part of the large sand table in the center of the tent, one currently molded in the shape of the topography between the Legion’s camp, at one end, and the city of Kalare at the other, with small models representing the various forces scattered about it. Other than the sand table, the room contained a writing desk, several camp stools, and a single small trunk and bedroll resting upon a folding cot, Miles’ only personal gear.
“And I’m telling you that it’s the only way,” growled Miles. He was a man of average height, but built like a stone rampart, all stocky strength. His armor bore the dents, scratches, and permanent scorch marks of the action it had seen since the beginning of Kalare’s rebellion. There was grey threaded through his short, dark hair, and as he paced the length of the sand table, studying it, he moved with a slight but definite limp. “If we don’t move in concert we’ll risk defeat in detail.”
“Don’t be such an alarmist,” the second man in the tent said. He was far taller than Miles, long-limbed, and sat on a camp stool with an easy confidence that made him seem to fill more of the tent than Miles. There was something leonine about him, from dark golden hair that hung to his shoulders to his dark, hooded eyes to the casual strength evident in his shoulders and legs. Aquitainus Attis, the High Lord of Aquitaine, wore a red silk shirt, dark leather trousers, and evidently felt no need to wear armor. “If two years here have shown us anything, it’s that Kalare can no more easily maneuver through the fens than we can. The chances that he’d be able to catch your force in time are minimal.”
Miles glared at the other man. “I note that if we follow this plan, your own forces will be completely insulated from danger.”
“If it works,” Aquitaine countered, “we roll up Kalare’s mobile forces before summer is fairly underway, and besiege the city within two weeks after.”
“And if it doesn’t, my men face everything Kalare has left on their own.”
“It is a war, Captain,” Aquitaine said in a mild tone. “There does tend to be the occasional risk.”
Miles snarled out something under his breath, and his hand fell to the hilt of his sword.
Aquitaine’s teeth flashed in a slow, feline smile. “Captain, don’t you think we should hear from the good Countess before we discuss this further?”
Only then did Miles glance over his shoulder and see Amara. There was color high in his cheeks and his eyes glittered with anger. He glowered at Amara for a moment, then shook his head, composing his expression, gave her a nod and said, “Countess, welcome.”
“Thank you, Captain. “She nodded to Aquitaine. ” Your Grace.”
Aquitaine gave her a speculative stare and a bland smile. Amara refused to allow herself to show the discomfort she felt under the man’s gaze. Aquitaine was quite probably unsurpassed in furycraft by anyone in the realm, save the First Lord himself—and Gaius was no longer a young man. Though she had never seen him using it, she knew Aquitaine was a man of tremendous power. It made her uncomfortable to be such a singular object of his attention.
“What news from the Crown?” Miles asked her.
“There is to be a council assembled for the War Committee to determine the course of this season’s campaign,” Amara said. “The First Lord requests and requires your attendance, Captain, and yours Lord Aquitaine.”
Miles made a rude noise. “First a Committee. And now a council.”
“It’s a committee for the Committee,” Aquitaine murmured, his tone suggesting that the subject was one of the few in which he was in wholehearted agreement with Captain Miles. “Ridiculous.”
“When?” Miles asked. “Where?”
“Three weeks from yesterday, my lords—at the Elinarch.”
“Elinarch, eh?” Miles said. He grunted. “Be nice to get to meet this young virtuoso running the First Aleran. Heard a lot of talk about him.”
Aquitaine made a noncommittal sound. “If Kalarus decides to push our positions in person while we—” By which, Amara thought, he means himself. “—are away, our forces could be hard pressed.”
Miles shrugged. “Intelligence reports suggest that the rumors of his invalidism are true. I understand he sustained rather severe injuries in a fall, courtesy of Count Calderon. They seem to have incapacitated him.”
“That may be precisely what he wishes us to think,” Aquitaine pointed out, “to say nothing of his heir. Young Brencis lacks in experience, but his crafting talent is considerable.”
“The First Lord has given us a command, your Grace,” Miles said.
Aquitaine rolled his eyes and sighed as he rose to his feet. “Yes, of course. The old man plays the music and the rest of us dance. Captain, under the circumstances, I believe we can continue this discussion later.”
“Suits me,” Miles said.
Aquitaine nodded to them both and strode out.
Miles watched Aquitaine depart, took up a soldier’s tin mug that sat on the sand table, and threw back a long draught of what smelled like ale. “Arrogant jackass,” he muttered. He glanced up at Amara. “He’s doing it again.”
“Doing what?” Amara asked.
Miles gestured at the sand table. “Inflicting casualties on Gaius’ loyal troops.”
Amara blinked. “How?”
“Nothing I could prove in a court. Aquitaine’s legions fight beside us, but they’re always just a little bit too slow, or too fast. When the fighting starts, the Crown Legion ends up taking the worst of it. “He slammed the mug back down onto the sand table. Granules of sand flew up from the impact. “My men are dying, and there’s not a crowbegotten thing I can do about it.”
“He’s very good at this sort of thing,” Amara said.
“And I’m not,” Miles replied. “He wants to use us up on Kalare, leave us too weak to oppose his legions once all the fighting is over.”
“Hence your argument over strategy?” Amara guessed.
Miles grunted and nodded. “Bad enough fighting a war against the enemy in front of you, without having one marching next to you, too. ” He rubbed a hand over his bristling hair. “And the Committee has too much influence on our strategies. Committees don’t win wars, Countess.”
“I know,” Amara said quietly. “But you know the First Lord’s position. He needs the Senate’s support.”
“He needs their funding,” Miles said in a sour tone. “As if he shouldn’t have the right to expect their loyalty in a crisis simply because of who he is. “He turned and slapped the empty mug off of the sand table. “Two years. Two years of slogging through these crowbegotten fens, fighting Kalare’s madmen. We should have driven straight through to Kalare the same season he attacked. Now the best we can hope for is a hard fight through the bloody swamps and a siege of the city that might last years. I’ve had three men die of sickness for every one slain outright by the bloody enemy. I’ve seen bad campaigns before, Countess, but this is enough to turn my stomach.”
Amara sipped at her tea and nodded. “Then should I assume you wish the Crown to know that you want to be relieved of your command?”
Miles gave her a flat stare of shock. Then he said, “Of course not.”
“Who would you trust with it, if not me?” Miles demanded.
“I only thought—”
“What? That I couldn’t handle it?”Miles snorted. “No. I’ll think of something. “He turned back to stare at the sand table. “But there’s a major problem we’ve got to address.”
Amara listened, stepping to the table beside him.
” Kalare and his forces aren’t hard to contain. If he moves too far from his stronghold, we’ll crush them or else move in and take the city behind them. We have the numbers for it. ” He nodded toward the table’s ‘north’ end. “But the Canim are another story. Since they were thrown back from the Elinarch, they haven’t pitched in on Kalare’s side, but they haven’t been fighting against him, either, and their presence secures his northern flank.”
“While his presence secures the Canim’s southern flank in turn.”
“Exactly,” Miles said. “That’s bad enough. But if they redeploy to actually support Kalare, it’s going to change the balance of force here dramatically.”
“That’s one of the reasons I’m here,” Amara told him. “Gaius sent me to find out what you need to finish off Kalare.”
“One of two things. Either we commit more — dependable — forces here in the southern theater and drive to a decisive victory, or we neutralize the Canim in the northern theater so that we can hit Kalare from two sides at once.”
Amara grimaced and nodded. “I suspect that will more or less be the subject of the council at the Elinarch.”
Miles nodded grimly, and scowled at the miniature forces deployed on the sand table. “Bloody rebels. Bloody, crowbegotten Canim. If that new captain Rufus Scipio was all the rumors say he is , you’d think he’d have driven the dogs back into the bloody sea by now. He probably just got lucky.”
“Possibly,” Amara said, keeping her face carefully neutral. She’d been anticipating Miles’ reaction to the identity of the new captain for some time, and didn’t want to tip him off now. “I suppose time will tell.”
“Lucky,” Miles growled.
“You are a lucky man, Aleran,” Kitai said, her tone brisk and decidedly cool. “A lesser woman than I would have broken your neck by now and had done with you. Why not leave well enough alone?”
Tavi looked up from where he sat on the ground, panting with effort. “It isn’t well enough yet,” Tavi replied. “I’m still not where I want to be. And I haven’t been able to work any manifestation at all.”
Kitai rolled her eyes and dropped lightly from the tree branch upon which she sat to the springy grass of the little dale. The Marat girl wore a cavalryman’s leather breeches along with one of Tavi’s spare tunics—not that anyone with eyes would mistake her for a man. She’d taken to shaving her silken white hair after the fashion of the Horse clan of her people—completely away, except for a long stripe running over the center of her head, which was allowed to grow long, the effect something like a horse’s mane. Her hair and pale skin contrasted sharply with her brilliant green eyes—eyes the precise color of Tavi’s own—and gave her striking features an edge of barbaric ferocity. Tavi never tired of looking at her.
” Aleran,” she said, frowning. “You can already do more than you ever thought you would be able to. Why continue to push?”
“Because willing a manifestation of a fury is the first step to all of the most advanced crafting techniques,” he replied. “Internalized crafting is all well and good, but the impressive things all rely upon manifestation. Bursts of fire. Healing. Manipulating the weather. Flying, Kitai. Think of it.”
“Why fly when you can ride a horse?” she asked, as if it was one of those questions only an idiot could have inspired her to utter aloud. Then she frowned and hunkered down on her heels, facing Tavi, and met his eyes.
Tavi felt his eyebrows go up. It was a piece of body language she only used when she was in earnest. He turned to face her, listening.
“You are pushing yourself too hard, chala,” Kitai said. She touched his cheek with one slender hand. “The Legion’s war. Your work for Gaius. These practice sessions. You miss too many meals. You miss too many hours of sleep.”
Tavi leaned into the warmth of her touch for a moment, and his eyes closed. His body ached and his eyes burned most of the time, lately. Savagely painful headaches often followed hard on the heels of his practice sessions, and they made it difficult to eat or sleep for a time afterward. Not that he had much choice, but to sacrifice time he might otherwise use to eat or sleep. Command of the First Aleran was responsibility enough to consume the full attention of anyone, and his duties as a Cursor required him to gather information from every available source and report it back to his superiors in addition to his duties as the Legion’s captain. Only the inexplicable resilience that he suspected came as a result of his bond to Kitai had left him with enough time and energy to teach himself all that he could of what meager furycraft he’d been able to grasp. Even so, the pace was wearing on him, he knew.
Kitai was probably right.
“Maybe,” Tavi admitted. “But there’s not a lot of choice right now. It takes years of practice to develop crafting skills, and I’m about fifteen years late getting started.”
“I still think you should tell someone. It might go faster if you had a teacher.”
Tavi shook his head. “No.”
Kitai let out an exasperated sound. “Why not?”
“Because what I can do now isn’t much,” Tavi said. “Not in the greater scheme of things. I’d rather what little I do have come as a surprise if I’m ever forced to use it.”
Kitai shook her head. “It isn’t worth the risk that you might harm yourself by trying to learn without some instruction.”
“I went to the Academy. I know all the theory,” Tavi said. Every dreary, humiliating, failure-ridden hour of those classes was burned into his memory along with his other childhood nightmares. “It’s been two years and we’re fine.”
“So far, perhaps,” she said. “I know little of furycraft, Aleran, but I know enough to respect how dangerous it can be. So do others. Would it not deter your would-be enemies if they knew you were a mighty furycrafter?”
“Yes, but . . . but we still don’t tell anyone,” Tavi said stubbornly.
“Why not?” Kitai demanded.
He broke their gaze and looked away for a long moment. “I’m not sure,” he said quietly. “It isn’t time yet. I feel it. I know it. “He shook his head. “I don’t know how to explain it to you any better than that. I need you to trust me.”
Kitai frowned at him, then leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead and rested her temple against his. “You are insane. And I am insane to pay any attention to you. Very well.”
Tavi leaned his head gently against hers. “Thank you.”
“I reserve the right to change my mind, of course.”
“Of course,” Tavi said, letting a tired smile shape his mouth. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. “All right. One more try to call out that boulder fury and we’ll call it a day.”
“No,” Kitai said, her tone perfectly firm. “Enough practice for the day. There are urgent matters that require your attention.”
Tavi blinked at her. “What?”
With a single, sinuous arch of her back and motion of her arms, Kitai stripped out of the white tunic, and pressed her naked skin against Tavi’s chest. Her arms twined around his neck and her mouth lifted to his in a scorching kiss.
Tavi made a faint sound of protest, but the scent of her, of crushed wildflowers and clover and faint soap rose up and overwhelmed his senses, and the sheer, passionate fire of the kiss, the heat in her mouth and urgent hands left him unable to do anything but respond in kind. Suddenly, Tavi could think of no very good reason to dissuade the Marat girl, and could only vaguely remember why he might have thought he should try. His hands glided around her waist, stroking over the soft, pale skin of her naked back, tracing the slender strength of the muscles just beneath her fever-warm skin, and he returned the kiss with rising ardor.
Kitai let out a low, hungry sound, and all but ripped Tavi’s tunic from him. She pushed him, but he turned with the force of it, spinning to press her down into the thick grass. She let out a wicked, sensual little laugh, and then arched up to meet him as he kissed her again. Her hands ran over his shoulders and back, her nails scraping deliciously over his skin, the sensation so intense and intoxicating that he didn’t see the cavalry trooper that had approached them until her boots were an arm’s length from his nose.
Tavi let out a yelp, and felt himself begin to blush from the roots of his hair to his toenails. He fumbled for his tunic and sat up again, fairly certain that he was about to expire of pure mortification.
Kitai lay languidly on the grass for a moment, apparently unconcerned with her nakedness, and let out a regretful little sigh before she began to sit up as well. “Hello, Enna.”
“Good day, Kitai,” replied the trooper. Enna wore Aleran-style boots and trousers, as Kitai did, but sported a coat of leather armor modeled after the lorica of the legions. Like Kitai, her hair was trimmed into a long mane allowed to flow down her back, but unlike her, the trooper’s hair was dyed a vibrant shade of blue. The Marat woman, a veteran of the Horse Clan, gripped a cavalry spear casually in one hand, and stood grinning down at the two of them. “You needn’t stop on my account, you know. It’s about time I got to look at more of this Aleran you’ve chosen. ”
Kitai returned her grin. “See to it that looking is all you do.”
Enna tilted her head to one side, studying Tavi with a frankness which accomplished the impossible, by making him feel even more embarrassed than he already did. “Is he always pink like that?” Enna asked. “Or is it merely something he does to amuse you.”
“Bloody crows,” Tavi muttered, shoving his arms back into his tunic.
Kitai let out a peal of laughter, and then said, “He amuses me constantly, cousin.”
Enna frowned and said, “But he’s not a horse.”
“No one is perfect,” Kitai replied smoothly.
Tavi cleared his throat and reminded himself who was captain of this legion. “Centurion,” he said, forcing his voice into the deliberate, calm tones he always used when conducting legion business. “Do you have something to report?”
Enna’s amusement and interest lingered in her eyes, but she came to attention and saluted him, striking one fist to her heart. “Captain. Sir Cyril’s compliments, and he thought you would want to know that Ehren has returned.”
Tavi gave her a sharp glance and inhaled deeply. His heart leapt in his chest, somehow transfixed by relief and anxiety at the same time. Ehren had returned alive from his dangerous mission into the occupied Aleran territory now held by the inhuman Canim, and Tavi felt mightily relieved that he was back in one piece. Ehren’s mission had not called for him to return this soon, though, and that was the cause of Tavi’s anxiety. If Ehren had cut the mission short early, it was because he had discovered something that couldn’t wait. Tavi had several ugly speculations on what might be important enough to merit such an action on behalf of his friend and fellow Cursor, and the least unpleasant of them was more than a little troubling.
” Kitai,” Tavi said quietly, and glanced at her.
The Marat girl was already several paces away, drawing her tunic back down over the supple curve of her back. She untied the horses from where they’d left them.
” Enna,” Tavi said, “ride ahead. Tell Tribune Maximus that I want all four of his alae ready to move, and alert Tribune Crassus that his Knights had better be prepared to ride as well.”
Enna nodded sharply. “Yes, sir. What shall I tell the First Spear?”
“Tell him I want the Battlecrows mounted up,” Tavi said. “Beyond that, nothing. Valiar Marcus knows what needs to be done better than I do.”
By that time, Kitai had returned with the horses, and Tavi swung up onto his own mount, a long-legged, deep- chested black he’d dubbed Acteon. The stallion had been a gift from Kitai’s aunt Hashat. Well, not a gift, precisely, since the Horse Clan did not see their totem beasts as property. From what Tavi understood, he had been entrusted to the horse’s care in matters where speed was necessary, and the horse had been entrusted to his, in matters of everything else. So far, the arrangement had worked out.
Tavi wheeled Acteon as Kitai mounted her own barbarian-bred steed, a dappled grey mare who could run more tirelessly than any Aleran horse Tavi had ever seen. Enna turned and loped swiftly over to her own roan, equipped with the minimal amount of tack the Marat called a saddle, and sent it into an immediate run. There would be little point in attempting to keep pace with her—no riders on the face of Carna could match the pace set by the Horse Clan of the Marat.
He didn’t need to say anything to Kitai. The two of them had ridden out so often that by now, it was a matter of routine to send both their horses leaping into a run at the same moment, and together they thundered back toward the First Aleran’s fortifications at the Elinarch.
“I know there haven’t been orders yet,” Valiar Marcus thundered, scowling at the stablemaster. “Even if they never come, it’s good practice for my men. So you bloody well get those mounts prepared for the Battlecrows, and you do it now, or I’ll have your lazy ass on a whipping post.”
The stablemaster for Alera’s first mounted infantry cohort gave the First Spear a surly salute and hurried away, bawling orders at the grooms that cared for the extra mounts. Marcus scowled at the man’s back. You practically had to kick the man all the way to his job to get him to fulfill his responsibilities, and he was getting too old to spend that much energy on fools. Good help, it seemed, remained hard to find, regardless of the fact that the realm was fighting for its life against the greatest threat to its integrity in at least four hundred years.
Marcus stalked through the lines of the First Aleran, their tents stretched in ruler-straight rows within the sheltering walls of the town at the Elinarch, the enormous bridge that stretched over the broad Tiber River. He stopped to have a quick word with a number of senior centurions along the way, putting them on alert that something was happening in officer country. As often as not, a stir in officer country meant that the rank-and-file of the legion was about to be ordered to hurry up and wait, but it was always good for the centurions to look prepared and unfazed, no matter how sudden or urgent the news.
Marcus strode through the town. It had grown considerably in the two years the First Aleran had been using it as a base of operations. In fact, the southern half of the town had been rebuilt from the paving stones up, and made into a fortress that had withstood two ferocious assaults from the Canim’s elite warriors and twice as many tides of their howling raiders—before the Captain had taken the initiative and begun carrying the battle to the Canim invaders, hard enough to teach them to keep their distance from the Elinarch. The streets were crowded with refugees from the occupied territory to the south, and in the marketplaces the price of food had climbed to outrageous levels—there simply wasn’t enough to go around, and the demand had driven prices to unheard-of heights.
Marcus marched through all of it without slowing his pace. No one hampered his progress. Though he wasn’t a tall man, and though he did not look particularly more formidable than any other legionare, the crowd seemed somehow to sense his purpose and determination. They melted out of his path.
Marcus reached the command quarters just as hooves began to make rhythmic thunder on the paving stone. Half a dozen of the First Aleran’s Marat auxiliaries rode down the street, clearing the way for the Captain and the Marat Ambassador, returning early from their daily ride, and six more brought up the rear. Ever since those deadly Canim assassins that had come to be known as Hunters had tried their luck against the Captain and his woman, the young man had never been left unguarded.
Marcus frowned. The Captain’s singulare, his personal bodyguard, normally a shadow rarely seen more than a few paces away from his back, was still missing from the camp. There was no explanation as to why, or where the man had gone. Marcus, though, had no business querying the Captain on the matter. As the First Spear, the senior centurion of the Legion, he had unparalleled access to the command structure, when compared to any other foot soldier of the First Aleran—but even his comparatively broad authority had limits, and he dared not press them.
It would make people begin to ask dangerous questions.
Marcus shook off the unpleasant line of thought, and the uneasy quiver that ran through his stomach whenever he allowed it to occupy his thoughts.
“Marcus,” the Captain said. The two traded a quick salute. “What have you heard?”
“Just got here, sir,” Marcus replied.
The Captain nodded. “I’ve sent orders to have the auxiliaries ready to ride, as well as the Battlecrows.”
“Already done, sir,” Marcus said.
“Good man!”The Captain flashed Marcus a quick grin, startling for its boyishness. The past two years had made even Marcus occasionally forget how young the Captain really was. His poise, courage, and intelligence had guided the now-veteran Legion through a deadly war of maneuver with an unforgiving foe, and he had stood front and center, facing the danger with his men every step of the way. They loved him for it. The young Captain wore the mantle of command as naturally and capably as if he had been born to it.
Which was only natural, because, of course, he had.
Marcus’ stomach twisted again.
It was easier to think of him as the Captain. Whatever else the young man might be, in time, right now he was the Captain—and a Captain worthy of Marcus’ loyalty. Worthy of his respect.
Worthy of your honesty, whispered a poisonous little voice in his heart.
“Come on,” the Captain said, his eyes and his thoughts both clearly focused on the command building. “If Ehren’s back this soon, it means he’s got something that can’t wait. Let’s find out what.”
Valiar Marcus, whose true name was not Valiar Marcus, followed Captain Rufus Scipio, whose true name was not Rufus Scipio, into the fortified stone command building, and struggled with the sudden instinct that the days of pretending he was someone else were only too numbered.
Steadholder Isana of the Calderon Valley grimaced as the wagon hit a rough spot in the road, and made her blur a digit in the column of numbers she was tabulating on the little lap-desk. She took a moment to take a breath and calm herself, reminding herself firmly that the frustration was a result of long weeks of labor and travel, and not the ineptitude of the wagon’s builders, driver, the beasts pulling it, or the engineers who originally constructed the road.
She reached for a fresh piece of paper, but found the wooden box empty. “Myra,” she called to the cart driver’s daughter. “Have you any more paper?”
“Yes, my Lady,” called a young woman’s voice. The wagon creaked as someone moved about the front seat for a few moments, and then the curtain to the covered back of the wagon parted, and a scrawny, frizzy-haired darling of a girl appeared, holding out a fresh sheaf.
“Bless you, child,” Isana said, taking the paper.
“Of course, my Lady,” Myra said, beaming. “Did you know that we’re in the refugee territory now? The guard showed me and papa the sight of a scare-mish with the Canim that happened right here by the road.”
“Skirmish, dear,” Isana corrected her. “And yes, I know that there’s been fighting on both sides of the river, on and off.”
Myra nodded, her dark eyes intent, her young face serious. “This caravan is very important, isn’t it, my Lady?”
Isana began the botched page anew. The eagerness she felt in the girl’s presence was undermined by a sense of slowly dawning worry, an emotion Isana felt as clearly as she felt her own weary impatience, thanks to the constant, steady presence of her water fury, Rill. “Yes, it is,” she said, keeping her tone steady and calm to reassure the girl. “That’s why we’re so well protected. The food and supplies we’re bringing to the refugees will help them survive the coming winter.”
“And without it they’d starve,” Myra said. “We’re helping them.”
“Precisely,” Isana said.
“And it’s here because of you!” the girl said.
That was an oversimplification of staggering degree, but there was little point in trying to explain it to the carter’s daughter. “The supplies and money came from a great number of important and generous Citizens,” she replied. “The leaders of the Dianic League. I’m only keeping things organized.”
Myra frowned. “But Papa said without you, all those old biddies wouldn’t have done anything!”
Partly true, though she should hardly like to be the one to call, say, Lady Placida an old biddy. But Isana had managed to parlay the exposure she’d been given as Lady Aquitaine’s rallying standard for the Dianic League into something far more useful than a trough for her patron’s thirst for power. Lady Aquitaine had not been at all amused at what Isana had done with the personal influence she’d gained, but if she’d tried to undermine Isana’s relief project, it would have turned a great many minds in the League against her—and Lady Aquitaine knew it. That barely-simmering edge of irritation that had tinged Lady Aquitaine’s presence every time Isana had spoken to her recently was almost reason enough to have endured the endless hours of effort she’d needed to gather support and put the relief column together. Though if she admitted it to herself, that small victory was nothing compared to the misery and suffering the caravan would alleviate.
Isana was helping. She was doing something good, something that she could be proud of—something Septimus would have been proud of.
Isana fought off a smile and a faint shimmer of tears at the same time. “Everyone wanted to do something to help the refugees, child. They only needed someone to give them a way to do it.”
Myra chewed on a fingernail and studied her steadily. “Papa says you’re important.”
Isana smiled at the girl. “Everyone’s important.”
“Myra,” came the carter’s voice from the front of the wagon. “Come away now, and let the Steadholder work.”
“Coming, papa,” the girl said. She gave Isana a smile and scampered back out of the wagon’s rear.
Isana went back to her work on the inventory, and didn’t look up from it until the caravan halted for its midday rest. She kept working while the carters and muleskinners took their lunch. She hadn’t been walking or driving or loading all morning, after all.
A shout of challenge went up outside from one of the caravan’s mounted guards, and Isana felt herself tense up. The caravan, while not transporting a great deal of liquid wealth, did have a considerable amount of material of use and value. It was too large a target for bandits, but there was always the chance that the Canim might seize the food and supplies in order to feed their own doubtlessly-hungry soldiers.
No furor arose, though, and Isana relaxed, and kept to her inventories, until the trotting hoof-beats of an approaching horse came up to the wagon and stopped.
Isana looked up, frowning faintly, concentrating on her link with Rill—and suddenly bolted up from where she sat, spilling ink on her most recent page, and not caring in the least. Her heart pounded in a fashion entirely too girlish to suit anyone of her age or her station or responsibilities, and she found herself fidgeting with her hair and straightening her dress. Then she stared in dismay at her ink-stained fingers. Doubtless she had just managed to spread smudges over her entire outfit, and possibly upon her face as well. She felt a blush rise to her cheeks.
Boots hit the ground outside the wagon, and the horse shifted its weight. Someone knocked upon the sideboards.
Feeling mildly ridiculous, Isana parted the curtains with one hand, and descended from the wagon, emerging into the noonday sunshine of the earliest days of spring in the Ameranth Vale.
A man of average height stood waiting for her, his dark hair shorn to regulation Legion length, his armor plain and showing signs of use. The features of one side of his face were strongly carved, striking. The other half of his face was marred by horrible burn scars centered around the shape of the Legion brand for cowardice, high on his cheekbone. He wore a simple sword at his side, and the scarlet half-cape of a Legion singulare.
Isana felt her heart speed up again as she smiled at him. ” Araris.”
His face turned up into one of his rare, swift smiles, and his eyes all but glowed from within. The sudden warmth of his emotions flooded over Isana, and she felt as if she might float up off the ground. She could feel his happiness and excitement at seeing her, his affection, and a certain, lazily controlled hunger for her that she knew would draw out spots of pink high on her cheeks.
“Isana,” he said quietly. She offered her hand. He took it and bent over it, brushing his lips over the backs of her fingers. Isana felt the warmth of his breath as an impact that spread deliciously up her arm to dance along every fiber of her body.
He straightened, eyes sparkling, fingers tightening very gently around hers. “You look . . . ” His eyes wrinkled at the corners. “Inky.”
Isana tilted her head back and laughed.
“And beautiful,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”
“And I you,” she replied, covering his hand with her other one. “What are you doing here? We were to arrive at the Elinarch in another two days.”
Some of Araris’ smile trickled away. “I bring you word. Can we speak here?”
Isana glanced around them. The carters and their crews were setting to a simple lunch at the cook’s wagon, further down the line. There was no one nearby. “I believe so.”
Araris nodded once. “I am sent to caution you, of course, to remember that while you may be Tavi’s blood kin, you have never met Rufus Scipio. You must take every precaution not to reveal his identity.”
“Of course,” Isana sighed. “I’m not quite senile yet. What else?”
Araris regarded her with a steady gaze for a moment. Then he said, “When he was a child, it was right and proper that you should make decisions for him. ” He leaned forward, his fingers tightening on hers, giving his words gentle emphasis. “He is no longer a child.”
Isana felt her shoulders stiffening. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, in that same gentle tone, “that he has a right to know, Isana. He has a right to know the truth. He has a right to make his own decisions, now.”
Isana jerked her chin up, the habit of two decades of worry and caution condensing into a flash of outrage and anger. “Oh? And who are you to decide such a thing?”
Araris’ face never wavered. “His singulare, Isana. His bodyguard and protector. I safeguard his well-being and ward his life and freedom, with my own if necessary. And in my judgment, ignorance may prove dangerous to him. Even deadly.”
Isana bit her lip, and looked down, unable to meet Araris’ calm, unwavering eyes, awash in his continued, steady love, acutely aware of his concern for her, his respect, and his absolute sincerity.
He touched her chin with his fingertips, lifting her eyes to his. “Isana,” he said. “He’s your son. It is your place to tell him. He should hear it from you. ” He shook his head. “But if you can’t—or won’t—I will.”
Isana flinched a little at the words, if not their quiet, steady tone. “Has it come to that? Really?”
The simple answer held absolutely no room for doubt. Isana bit her lip. “He’ll . . . Will he understand? Why I had to do it? Lie to him . . . ” She shook her head. “He’s grown so fast, Araris.”
“He’ll understand,” he said quietly. “Or he won’t. Either way, he deserves to know. He needs to know.”
Isana shivered, and without being asked, Araris stepped forward, putting his arms around her. She leaned against him gratefully, closing her eyes. His armor was warm from the gentle sunshine, and he felt steady, immovable, like an obdurate stone in a rushing stream. He was that. He had always been there for her, and for Tavi, had always watched them, helped them, protected them, his presence and his trustworthiness something so elemental that she’d barely thought to question it, any more than she would have tested fire to be sure that it was hot, water to be sure it was wet.
All the same, it was a daunting thought. Telling Tavi the truth, after so many years of hiding it from him. From everyone.
“I don’t want to tell him,” she said quietly.
Araris nodded, silent and steady.
“But you’re right.”
He nodded again.
“I’ll tell him.”