Tavi pulled on the rope until he thought his spine would snap from the strain. “Hurry!” he said through gritted teeth.
“You can’t rush true learning, my boy,” said the old man from where he knelt at the mechanism’s release pin. Magnus fussed and grunted over the device for a moment, and then crudely forged metal scraped on metal. “Research is the essence of academia.”
Sweat broke out over Tavi’s whole body. “If you don’t get that pin in soon, the arm is going to slip and throw you halfway across the Vale,” Tavi growled.
“Nonsense, my boy. I’m well out of the way. It will shatter like the last one.” He grunted. “There, it’s in. Easy does it.”
Tavi slowly relaxed his hold on the rope, though his hands and arms screamed for relief. The long wooden arm of the device quivered, but remained bent back, locked into place and ready to be released. The haul rope, hooked up to several of the spinning wheels Magnus had manufactured, sagged to the ground.
“There, you see?” he said proudly. “You managed it all by yourself.”
Tavi shook his head, panting. “I still don’t understand how the wheels work.”
“By condensing your strength into a smaller area,” Magnus said. “You hauled forty feet of rope to move the arm back only five feet.”
“I can do the math,” Tavi said. “I’m just . . . it’s almost unreal. My uncle would have trouble bending that thing back, and he’s a strong earthcrafter.”
“Our forefathers knew their arts,” Magnus cackled. “If only Larus could see this. He’d start frothing at the mouth. Here, lad. Help me with the ammunition.”
Together, Tavi and Magnus grunted and lifted a stone weighing better than fifty pounds into place in the cup at the end of the engine’s arm, and then they both stood back from it. “Maybe we should have used some professionally manufactured parts.”
“Never, never,” Magnus muttered. “If we’d used crafted parts, we’d just have to do the whole thing again without them, or else Larus and his kind would discredit us based on that fact alone. No, my boy, it had to be done just as the Romans did it, just like Appia itself.”
Tavi grunted. The ruins of the city of his forefathers stood around all around them. They had been built upon the crown of an ancient mountain worn down to the size of an imposing hill, and everything had been made of stone. The walls of dozens and dozens of buildings, now reduced to jagged stone by time and the elements, stood all around them. Grass and trees grew among the ruined houses and old city walls. Wind sighed among the stones, a constant, gentle and sad song of regret. Deer paced silently on streets so faded that they could only be seen to be manmade if viewed from a distance, and sheltered amongst the walls during infrequent storms. Birds nested upon the remains of statues ground to featurelessness by time.
The stones used in ruined Appia’s construction did not have the smooth arcs and precise corners of furycrafted rock, but were built piecemeal, from smaller stones that yet bore traces of tool marks, a practice some of the ancient, stone-carved texts Magnus had uncovered in the catacombs beneath the ruins called “quarrying.” Other carvings, apparently of the Romans in action, had survived the years of weathering in the stillness of the caves, and it was from one of those carvings that Magnus and Tavi had seen the war engine engaging in a battle against a foe that seemed to be some kind of monstrous, horned giant.
In fact, everything Tavi had seen and learned there made it quite clear that the ancestors of the Alerans had, like himself, possessed no furycraft whatsoever. It was a fact so self-evident and obvious that Tavi wanted to scream with frustration every time he thought of how “scholars” like Maestro Larus at the Academy casually dismissed the claim without bothering to examine the evidence.
Which was why Magnus insisted upon using only crude and inefficient manual labor for every step of the creation process of the war engine. He wanted there to be no way to dismiss the fact that it was at least possible to manage such things without the use of furycraft.
“I understand why we have to do it like this, sir. But the Romans had a lot more practice than we do. Are you sure this one will work?”
“Oh,” Magnus said. “As sure as I can be. The fittings are stronger, the beams thicker. It’s quite a bit more stable than the last one.”
The last engine had simply shattered into a mound of kindling when they tested it. The current model, the fifth of its line, was considerably more sturdy. “Which means if it explodes again, it’s going to throw a lot more pieces around. And harder.”
They looked at one another. Then Magnus grunted and tied the end of a long cord to the pin that held the arm back. The pair of them backed away a good twenty paces. “Here,” Magnus said, offering Tavi the cord. “I did the last one.”
Tavi accepted it warily and found himself smiling. “Kitai would have loved to see this. Ready?”
Magnus grinned like a madman. “Ready!”
Tavi jerked the cord. The pin snapped free. The mechanism bucked in place as its arm snapped forward, and threw the stone into a sharp arc that sent the missile soaring into the air. It clipped a few stones from the top of a ruined wall, and arched over a low hilltop and dropped out of sight on the other side.
Magnus let out a whoop and capered about in a spontaneous dance, waving his arms. “Hah! It works! Hah! A madman, am I?”
Tavi let out an excited laugh of his own and began to ask Magnus how far he thought the engine had thrown the stone, but then he heard something and snapped his head around to focus on the sound.
Somewhere on the other side of the hill, a man howled a string of sulfurous curses that rose into the midmorning spring sky.
“Maestro,” Tavi began. Before he could say more, the same stone that they had just thrown arched up into the air and plummeted toward them.
“Maestro!” Tavi shouted. He seized the back of the old man’s homespun tunic and hauled him away from the engine.
The stone missed them both by inches and smashed into the engine. Wood shattered and splintered. Metal groaned. Chips broke off the stone and Tavi felt a flash of pain as a chunk the size of his fist struck his arm hard enough to make it go numb briefly. He kept his body between the wiry old Maestro and the flying debris and snapped, “Get down!”
Before Magnus had hit the ground, Tavi had his sling off of his belt and a smooth, heavy ball of lead in it, as a mounted man rounded the side of the hill, sword in hand, his string of profanity growing louder as he charged. Tavi whirled the sling, but the instant before he would have loosed, he caught the sling’s pouch in his free hand. “Antillar Maximus!” he shouted. “Max! It’s me!”
The charging rider hauled on the reins of his horse so hard that the poor beast must have bruised its chin on its chest. The horse slid to a stop in the loose earth and stone of the dig site, throwing up a large cloud of fine dust.
“Tavi!” the young man atop the horse bellowed. Equal measures of joy and anger fought for dominance of his tone. “What the crows do you think you’re doing? Did you throw that stone?”
“You could say that,” Tavi said.
“Hah! Did you finally figure out how to do a simple earthcrafting?”
“Better,” Tavi said. “We have a Romanic war engine.” He turned and glanced at the wreckage, wincing. “Had,” he corrected himself.
Max’s mouth opened and then shut again. He was a young man come into the full of his adult strength, tall and strong. He had a solid jaw, a nose that had been broken on several occasions, wolfish grey eyes, and while he would never be thought beautiful, Max’s features were rugged and strong and had an appeal of their own.
He sheathed his weapon and dismounted. “Romanics? Those guys who you think didn’t have any furycraft, like you?”
“The people were called Romans,” Tavi corrected him. “You say call something Romanic when it was built by Romans. And yes. Though I’m surprised you remember that from the Academy.”
“Don’t blame me. I did everything I could to prevent it, but it looks like some of the lectures stuck,” Max said, and eyed Tavi. “You nearly took my head off with that rock, you know. I fell off my horse. I haven’t done that since–”
“The last time you were drunk,” Tavi interjected, grinning, and offered Max his hand.
The big young man snorted and traded a hard grip with Tavi. “Furies, Calderon. You kept growing. You’re as tall as me. You’re too old to grow that much.”
“Must be making up for lost time,” Tavi said. “Max, have you met Maestro Magnus?”
The old man picked himself up off the ground, brushing dirt from himself and scowling like a thunderstorm. “This? This mental deficient is Antillus Raucus’ son?”
Max turned to face the old man, and to Tavi’s surprise his face flushed red beneath his tanned skin. “Sir,” Max said, giving an awkward duck of his head. “You’re one of the people my father bid me give his regards should I see you.”
Magnus arched a silvery eyebrow.
Max glanced at the wreckage of the engine. “Uh. And I’m sorry about your, uh . . . your Romanic thing.”
“It’s a war engine,” Magnus said in a crisp tone. “A Romanic war engine. The carvings we’ve found refer to it as a mule. Though admittedly, there seems to be some kind of confusion, since some of the earlier texts use the same word to describe the soldiers of their legions . . .” Magnus shook his head. “I’m wandering again, excuse me.” The old man glanced at the ruined war device and sighed. “When is the last time you spoke to your father, Maximus?”
“About a week before I ran off and joined the Legions, sir,” Max said. “Call it eight years or so.”
Magnus’ grunt conveyed a wealth of disapproval. “You know why he doesn’t speak to you, I take it?”
“Aye,” Max said, his tone quiet. Tavi heard an underpinning of sadness in his friend’s voice, and he winced in sympathy. “Sir, I’d be glad to fix it for you.”
“Would you now?” Magnus said, eyes glinting. “That’s quite generous.”
“Certainly,” Max said, nodding. “Won’t take me a minute.”
“Indeed not,” Magnus said. “I should think it a project of weeks.” He lifted his eyebrows and asked Max, “You were aware, of course, that my research compels us to use strictly Romanic methods. No furycrafting.”
Max, in the midst of turning to the war engine, paused. “Um. What?”
“Sweat and muscle only,” Magnus said cheerfully. “Everything from harvesting timber to metal fittings. We’ll rebuild it. Only the next one needs to be about twice as large, so I’m glad you’re volunteering your — ”
Tavi got nothing more than a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye to warn him, but suddenly every instinct in his body screamed of danger. “Max!” Tavi shouted, even as he dove at the Maestro again.
Max spun, his sword flashing from its sheath with the speed only a windcrafter could manage. His arm blurred into two sharp movements, and Tavi heard two snapping sounds as Max cut a pair of heavy arrows from the air with the precision only a master metalcrafter could bring to the sword, then darted to one side.
Tavi put a low, ruined wall between the attackers and the Maestro and crouched there. He looked over his shoulder to see Max standing with his back to a ten-foot thick stone column that had broken off seven or eight feet above the ground.
“How many?” Tavi called.
“Two there,” Max replied. He crouched and put his hand to the ground for a moment, closing his eyes, then reported, “One flanking us to the west.”
Tavi’s eyes snapped that way, but he saw no one amongst the trees and brush and fallen walls. “Woodcrafting!” he called. “Can’t see him!”
Max stepped out to one side of the column and barely darted back before an arrow hissed by at the level of his throat. “Bloody crowbegotten woodcrafting slives,” he muttered. “Can you spot the archers?”
“Sure. Let me just stick my head out and have a look around, Max,” Tavi said. But he fumbled at his belt pouch and withdrew the small mirror he used for shaving. He lifted it above the ruined wall in his left hand and twisted it back and forth, hunting for the reflection of the archers. He found the attackers within a second or two—though they had been under a woodcrafting when they attacked, they must have dropped it to focus their efforts on precision archery. Half a second after Tavi spotted them, another arrow shattered the mirror and laid open his fingertip halfway to the bone.
Tavi jerked his hand back, clutching at the bleeding finger. It only tingled now, but there was enough blood that Tavi knew it would quite painful momentarily. “Thirty yards, north of you, in the ruin with the triangle-shaped hole in the wall.”
“Watch that flanker!” Max shouted and flicked his hand around the column. Fire streaked from his fingertips, blossoming into an enormous cloud that reached toward the archers. Tavi heard Max’s horse scream in panic and bolt. Max sprinted around the far side of the column in the flame’s wake.
Tavi heard a crunch of stone on stone to the west and rose to a tense crouch, sling in hand and ready. “Hear that?” he whispered.
“Yes,” Magnus grunted. “If I reveal him, can you take him?”
“I think so.”
“You think so?” Magnus asked. “Because once I draw him out, he’s going to send an arrow at my eye. Can you take him or not?”
“Yes,” Tavi said. Somewhat to his own surprise, his voice sounded completely confident. To even more surprise, he found that he believed it. “If you show him to me, I can handle him.”
Magnus took a deep breath, nodded once, and then rose, flipping his hand in the general direction of their attacker.
The earth rumbled and buzzed, not with the deep, growling power of an earthquake, but in a tiny if violent trembling, like a dog shaking water from its fur. Fine dust rose from the ground in a cloud fifty yards across. Not twenty paces away, the dust cloud suddenly clung to a man crouched beside a row of ferns, outlining him in grime.
The man rose at once and lifted his bow, aiming for the old Maestro.
Tavi stood, whipped the sling around once, and sent the heavy lead sphere whistling through the air.
The attacker’s bow twanged.
Tavi’s sling bullet hit with a dull smack of impact.
An arrow shattered against a tumbledown rock wall two feet behind Maestro Magnus.
The dust-covered woodcrafter took a little stagger step to one side, and his hand rose toward the quiver on his shoulder. But before he could shoot again, the man’s knees seemed to fold of their own accord, and he sank to the ground in a loose heap, eyes staring sightlessly.
From several yards to the north came a ring of steel on steel, and then a crackling explosion of thunder. A man let out a brief scream cut violently short.
“Max?” Tavi called.
“They’re down!” Max called back. “Flanker?”
Tavi let out a slow sigh of relief at the sound of his friend’s voice. “Down,” he replied.
Maestro Magnus lifted his hands and stared at them. They trembled violently. He sat down very slowly, as though his legs were no more sturdy than his fingers, and let out a slow breath, pressing a hand to his chest. “I have learned something today, my boy,” he said in a weak voice.
“I have learned that I am too old for this sort of thing.”
Max rounded a corner of the nearest ruined building and paced over to the still form of the third man. Blood shone scarlet on Tavi’s friend’s sword. Max knelt over the third man for a moment, then wiped his sword on the man’s tunic and sheathed it on his way back to Tavi and Magnus.
“Dead,” he reported.
“The others?” Magnus asked.
Max gave the Maestro a tight, grim smile. “Them too.”
“Crows,” Tavi sighed. “We should have kept one alive. Corpses can’t tell us who those men are.”
“Bandits?” Magnus suggested.
“With that much crafting?” Max asked, and shook his head. “I don’t know about that third one, but the first two were as good as any Knight Flora I’ve ever seen. I was lucky they were dividing their attention to conceal themselves on those first two shots. Men that good don’t take up work as bandits when they can get paid so much more to serve in someone’s legion.” He squinted back at the dusty corpse. “Hell, what did you hit him with, Calderon?”
Tavi twitched the hand still holding his sling.
“Grew up with it,” Tavi said. “Killed a big male slive after one of my uncle’s lambs when I was six. Two direwolves, a mountain cat. Scared off a thanadent once. Haven’t used it since I was thirteen or so, but I got back into practice to hunt game birds for the Maestro and me.”
Max grunted. “You never talked about it.”
“Citizens don’t use slings. I had enough problems at the academy without everyone finding out about my expertise in a freeholding bumpkin’s weapon.”
“Killed him pretty good,” Max noted. “For a bumpkin weapon.”
“Indeed,” Magnus said, his breathing back under control. “An excellent shot, I might add.”
Tavi nodded wearily. “Thanks.” He glanced down at his bleeding finger, which had begun to swell and pulse with a throbbing burn.
“Crows, Calderon,” Max said. “How many times have I told you that you need to stop biting your nails?”
Tavi grimaced at Max and produced a handkerchief. “Give me a hand, here.”
“Why? You obviously aren’t taking very good care of the ones you’ve got.”
Tavi arched an eyebrow.
Max chuckled and bound the cloth around Tavi’s finger. “Just to keep the dirt out and stop the bleeding. Once that’s done, get me a bucket of water and I can close it up.”
“Not yet.” Tavi pushed himself to his feet and turned in the direction of the pair of archers. “Come on. Maybe they were carrying something that can give us a clue about them.”
“Don’t bother,” Max said, squinting at a point in the distance. His voice became very quiet. “It’ll take a week to find all the pieces.”
Tavi swallowed and nodded at his friend. Then he went and stared down at the man he’d killed.
His bullet had hit the man almost exactly between the eyes, with so much force that it had broken something in his head. The whites of his sightless eyes were filled with blood. A thin trickle of it ran from one of the man’s nostrils.
He looked younger than Tavi had expected, somehow. He couldn’t have been much older than Tavi himself.
Tavi had killed him.
Killed a man.
He tasted bile in his mouth and had to look away, fighting away a sudden attack of nausea that threatened to empty his stomach right onto his boots. The struggle was a vain one, and he had to stagger several paces away to throw up. He calmed himself afterwards, spitting the taste out of his mouth. Then he shut his sense of revulsion and guilt away into a quiet closet in his mind, turned back to the corpse and systematically went through the man’s belongings. He focused on the task to the exclusion of everything else.
He didn’t dare start thinking about what he had just done. There was nothing left in his belly to come up.
He finished and went back to the Maestro and Max, fighting not to break into a run. “Nothing,” he said quietly.
Max exhaled, a trace of frustration in it. “Crows. I wish we at least knew who they were after. Me, I guess. If they’d been here before me, they’d have killed you already.”
“Not necessarily,” Magnus said quietly. “Perhaps someone sent them to track you back to one of us.”
Max grimaced at Magnus, then glanced away and sighed. “Crows.”
“Either way,” Tavi said, “we may still be in danger. We shouldn’t remain here.”
Max nodded. “Kinda works out then,” he said. “The Crown sent me to bring your orders, Tavi.”
“What are they?”
“We’re taking a trip to the Black Hills at the southern tip of Placida’s lands. There’s a new legion forming there, and Gaius wants you in it.”
Tavi grunted. “That won’t please my aunt and uncle.”
“Hah,” Max snorted. “It won’t please Kitai, you mean.”
“Her too. She –“
Magnus sighed. “Crows, Antillar. Don’t start him talking about his girl again. He won’t shut his mouth about her.”
Tavi scowled at Magnus. “I was just going to say that she was supposed to come with my family to our get-together in Ceres next month. I’m going to miss it.”
“And missing it is a bad thing?” Max frowned and then said, “Oh, right, I forgot. Your family likes having you around.”
“It’s mutual. I haven’t seen them in more than two years, Max.” He shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong. I know this is important but . . . two years. And it isn’t as though I’ll make a good legionare.”
“No problem,” Max said. “You’re going in as an officer.”
“But I haven’t even served my compulsory term. No one makes officer their first tour.”
“You do,” Max said. “You aren’t going as yourself. Gaius wants eyes and ears in the command structure. You’re it. Disguise, false identity, that kind of thing.”
Tavi blinked. “Why?”
“New concept legion,” Max said. “Aquitaine managed to push the idea through the Senate. You’re to be serving with the First Aleran. Ranks and officers both consist of equal numbers of volunteers from every city. The idea is–”
Tavi nodded, understanding it. “I get it. If there’s someone from every city in the legion, that legion could never pose a military threat to any single city. There would be officers and legionares in the ranks who wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Right,” Max said. “So the Aleran Legion would be free to wander anywhere there was trouble and pitch in without ruffling anyone’s feathers.”
Tavi shook his head. “Why would Aquitaine support such a thing?”
“Think about it,” Max said. “A whole legion of folks from all over Alera training near Kalare’s sphere of influence. People always coming and going, messengers and letters from all over the realm. Do the math.”
“Espionage hotbed,” Tavi said, nodding. “Aquitaine will be able to buy and sell secrets like sweetbread at Wintersend—and since they’ll all be near Kalare and far from Aquitaine, he stands to gain a lot more intelligence on Kalare than he gives away about himself.”
“And Gaius wants to know all about it.”
“Anything more specific?” Tavi asked.
“Nope. The old man has flaws, but suppressing initiative in his subordinates isn’t one of them. This is a spanking new legion, too. No experience, no battle standard, no combat history, no tradition to uphold. You’ll blend right in with the other green officers.”
Tavi nodded. “What kind of officer am I supposed to be?”
“Third subtribune to the Tribune Logistica.”
Tavi arched a brow at the Maestro and asked Max, “Is that bad?”
Max grinned, and Tavi found the expression ominous. “It’s . . . well. Let’s just say that you won’t ever run out of things to do.”
“Oh,” Tavi said. “Good.”
“I’m going too,” Max said. “As myself. Centurion, weapons trainer.” He nodded at Magnus. “So are you, Maestro.”
Magnus arched a brow. “Indeed?”
“Senior valet,” Max said, nodding.
Magnus sighed. “It could be worse, I suppose. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had to play scullion somewhere.”
Tavi turned and blinked at Magnus in pure shock. “Maestro . . . I knew you were in the First Lord’s counsel, but . . . you’re a Cursor?”
Magnus nodded, smiling. “Did you think I made it a point to have wine and ale on hand for passing merchants because I was lonely for company the past twelve years, my boy? Drunken merchants and their guards let out quite a bit more information than anyone realizes.”
“And you never told me?” Tavi asked.
“Didn’t I?” Magnus said, eyes sparkling. “I’m sure I did, at some point.”
“No,” Tavi said.
“No?” Magnus shrugged, still smiling. “Are you sure?”
Magnus let out a theatric sigh. “I thought I had. Ah, well. They say memory is the first thing to go.” He glanced around him. “Though I’ll miss this place. At first my work here was just a cover story, but crows take me if it hasn’t grown on me.”
Tavi shook his head. “Shouldn’t I know something about soldiering if I’m planning to be an officer there? What if someone puts me in charge of something?”
“You’re only technically an officer,” Max assured him. “Everyone is going to walk on you, so don’t worry about being in command. But yeah, you need the basics. I’m to give them to you on the way there. Enough that you should be able to fake it until you pick it up for real.”
Magnus heaved himself to his feet. “Well then, lads. We’re wasting daylight, and we’d best not wait for more assassins to arrive. Maximus, go catch your horse and see if our visitors left any nearby, if you would. I’ll put together enough food to last us a while. Tavi, pack our things.”
They set about preparing to leave. Tavi focused on the task at hand the whole while—packing saddle bags, satchels, bundling clothes and equipment, inspecting weaponry. The assassins’ three horses became pack animals, once Max rounded them up, and shortly after high noon the three of them rode out, the string of spare mounts in tow. Max set a brisk pace.
Tavi tried to keep his mind on his work, but the steady throb from his wounded finger made it difficult to concentrate. Before they crested the rise that would put ruined Appia behind them, he glanced back over his shoulder.
Tavi could still see the dusty dead man sprawled in the ruins.C