There was a quick rap on the cabin door, and Antillar Maximus entered the cabin. One of Tavi’s oldest friends, Maximus had shared a room with Tavi for the better part of three years at the Academy and was one of the few people in the fleet who would have opened the door without being bidden to.
“Thought you should know,” Max began, but then he stopped and blinked at Tavi. He shut the door behind him before blurting out, “Bloody crows, Calderon. Are you sick or something?”
Tavi looked blearily at Max from where he sat at the cabin’s small writing desk, poring over maps. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”
Max’s rough, handsome face flashed into a quick, boyish grin. “Aye. Tough to go back to a cold bunk once you get used to a warm one.”
Tavi gave him a steady look.
Max’s smile widened. “Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s always a good thing when your Legion’s captain is more relaxed and calm than he might be otherwise. I’m all in favor of the captain having a woman. I could see about maybe finding some kind of replacement if you aren’t too terribly particular, Captain.”
Tavi picked up his cup of tea. “If you don’t finish before I’ve drunk this, I’m throwing this mug at your fat head.”
Max folded his arms and leaned back against the door with a serene smile. “Of course, Your Highness.”
The honorific stole whatever faint amusement Max had brought with him. Tavi knew that his grandfather was dead, but he had not spoken to the others about it. He had no way to prove it, after all–and Alera had made clear that she had no intention of displaying herself to others in the fleet.
Besides. There was a considerable difference between being the rightful heir and actually assuming the office of the First Lord.
Tavi pushed the thoughts from his mind. Those problems would attend to themselves in time. First, survive today.
“You came in here for a reason, Max?”
Max’s smile faded as well. He nodded, his neck slightly stiff. “Crassus is on the way back in. He should be on deck in the next few moments.”
Tavi rose and gulped down the rest of the strong tea. He doubted the mild stimulants in it would help him much after yet another grueling night of lessons with Alera, but he was willing to try. “Get me Magnus and the First Spear. Signal the Trueblood and invite Varg to come to the Slive at his earliest convenience.”
“Already done,” Max said. “Finish your biscuit, at least.”
Tavi frowned at him but turned to pick up his breakfast, a plain square of ship’s biscuit, a stiff and greyish bread made with some of the last of their flour and some of the less noxious portions of a taken leviathan. “I am not going to miss these,” he said, but he tore into it with a will. If things went badly that day, he might not get a chance to eat later on.
“I’ve been thinking,” Max said. “Kitai might have a point.”
Tavi shook his head. “If so, I don’t see it.”
Max grunted. “Look, Tavi. You’re my friend. But you’ve got some of the most crowbegotten blind spots.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the bloody Princeps of Alera, man,” Max replied. “You’re the bloody role model–or at least, you’re supposed to be.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Tavi said.
“Of course it is,” Max returned. “But like it or not, that’s what the office demands. That you comport yourself in all ways and at all times as the most honorable and dignified young Citizen of the Realm.”
Tavi sighed. “And, so?”
“And so the Princeps of the Realm can’t afford things running around to embarrass him,” Max said. “Mistresses are one thing. Bastards are another.”
Max’s mouth twisted up at the word. His own father, High Lord Antillus, had conceived Max with a dancing girl he had favored. His second son, Crassus, had been born legitimately, leaving Max bereft of any sort of title or claim. Tavi knew that Max’s entire life, including his very limited acceptance from the Citizenry of the Realm, had been powerfully shaped by his lack of legitimacy.
“That really isn’t an issue, Max,” Tavi said. “There’s never been anyone but Kitai.”
The big Antillan exhaled heavily. “You’re missing the point.”
“Then maybe you should explain it to me.”
“The point is that things like who the Princeps is sleeping with matter,” Tavi’s friend replied. “Rival claims to the Crown have caused wars before, Tavi. And worse. Crows, if old Sextus had left a bastard child or two running around Alera, great furies know what might have happened after they killed your father.”
“I’ll give you that,” Tavi said. “It matters. But I’m still waiting for the point.”
“The point is that the Realm didn’t know you were Septimus’s son until last year–and even then, you were way out in the hinterlands, fighting a campaign. You didn’t exactly attract a lot of visitors.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“When we get back home, that’s going to change,” Max said. “Everyone’s going to be watching you like hawks. They’re going to pry into your life in every way you could possibly imagine, and probably in some that you can’t–and every Citizen with a daughter even vaguely close to the right age is going to be hoping to turn her into the next First Lady.”
“You want to marry Kitai,” Max said. It wasn’t a question.
“Then you’re going to make a lot of people upset. And they’re going to pry up every little piece of information they can get against her. They’re going to try to bring pressure to bear against her, any way that they can–and if you just carried on with her the way you have been, you’d make it easy for them to begin rallying support against you.”
“I really don’t care what they think, Max,” Tavi said.
“Don’t be an idiot,” his friend replied, his voice tired. “You’re to be the First Lord of Alera. You’ve got to lead a nation filled with powerful Citizens with mutually conflicting interests. If you can’t build up enough support to accomplish that leadership, a lot of people are going to suffer because of it. You’ll try to send relief to a Count’s holding that’s been devastated by a flood but find that it’s been blocked by the Senate, or maybe choked off somewhere in the communications or financial chain. You’ll issue rulings in disputes between Lords and High Lords which they bring to you and find out that both sides were setting you up to look bad, regardless of what you did–and eventually, because that would be the point of the whole thing, someone will try to take the crown away from you.”
Tavi rubbed at his chin, studying Max. His friend’s words were… not what he’d really expected of him. Max had a fantastic instinct for analyzing tactical and strategic situations, a gift that his training at the Academy had sharpened and honed–but this kind of thinking was out of character for his old friend.
Tavi inhaled deeply, understanding. “Kitai came to you to talk about it.”
“Couple of weeks ago,” Max said.
Tavi shook his head. “Bloody crows.”
“I don’t know if it will work,” Max said. “Making your courtship a semipublic event, I mean.”
“Do you think it might?”
Max shrugged. “I think it will give the people who do support you a way to counter anyone who tries to start using Kitai to drum up some opposition. If you’ve courted her with the same consideration that would be expected of a young Aleran lady highly placed in the Citizenry, it lends her a certain amount of status by association.” He frowned. “And, besides…”
Tavi sensed his friend’s sudden reluctance to speak. He shook his head, feeling a smile tug wearily at the corners of his mouth. “Max,” he said quietly, “just say it.”
“Bloody crows, Calderon.” Maximus sighed. “I’m the one who treats girls like disposable pleasures. You’ve always been the smart one. The capable one. The one who went to every class and studied and did well. You’re the one coming up with ways to use furycraft that no one’s ever dreamed of before, and you can barely use it. You’ve gone up against Canim and Marat and Vord queens alike, and you’re still in one piece.” He met Tavi’s eyes, and said, “I know that you don’t think of Kitai the way I thought of my lovers. She’s not a playmate. You see her as your equal. Your ally.”
Tavi nodded, and murmured, “Yes.”
Max shrugged and dropped his eyes. “Maybe she deserves some romance, too, Calderon. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt you to go out of your way to make her feel special. Not because she can fight, or because she’s practically a princepsa of her own people. But just because you want to show her. You want her to know how much you care.”
Tavi stared at Max for a moment and felt somewhat thunderstruck.
Max was right.
He and Kitai had been together for a very long time. They had shared everything with one another. Whenever she had been gone, it had left an enormous, restless hole somewhere inside him that adamantly refused to be filled. So many things had happened to them together–but he hadn’t ever really spoken to her about the depth of his feelings. She’d known, of course, just as he had been able to sense her devotion to him through the odd link the two of them shared.
But some things needed to be said before they could be truly real.
And some things couldn’t be said. They had to be done.
Bloody crows. He’d never asked her what the marriage customs of her people were. He’d never even thought to ask.
“Crows,” Tavi said, calmly. “I… Max, I think you have a point.”
Max spread his hands. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“All right,” Tavi said. “Then… I suppose that while I’m finding a way to get the rest of Alera to accept the Canim’s help, and figuring out how to defeat the Vord, and coming up with enough support to actually be the First Lord, I’ll have to work an epic romance into the schedule.”
“That’s why you’re the Princeps, and I’m just a humble Tribune,” Max said.
“I… I don’t really know much about being romantic,” Tavi said.
“Neither do I,” Max said cheerfully. “But look at it this way. It won’t need to be much to improve on what’s gone before.”
Tavi made a growling sound and reached for his empty mug.
Max opened the door and saluted, banging his right fist against his armored chest, grinning openly at Tavi. “I’ll see to the incoming boats, Your Highness, and make sure everyone finds his way to your cabin.”
Tavi held on to the mug. It wouldn’t do to throw it at Max in plain view of everyone on deck. He put the mug down, gave Max a look that promised eventual repayment, and said, “Thank you, Tribune. Shut the door on your way out, please.”
Max departed and shut the door, and Tavi sank tiredly back onto his chair. He looked at the maps spread out on his desk–and drew out the one he hadn’t shown the others. Alera had helped him with it. It showed the spread of the Vord croach over the face of Alera, like gangrene oozing into the body from an infected wound.
The Vord had to number in the hundreds of thousands, by now, perhaps even in the millions.
Tavi shook his head ruefully. It said something about the world, he thought, that the Vord threat was arguably the second most perplexing problem he had. He wasn’t sure what, but it definitely said something.