“Keep your back straight,” Amara called. “Turn your heels out a little more!”
“Why?” called the girl on the pony. She was riding in the practice ring the small detachment of Garrison’s cavalry troopers had set up. It was, in essence, a four-foot-deep pit lined with soft earth, about two hundred yards long and half that across.
“It will help you maintain your balance,” Amara called from the side of the pit.
“My balance is good already!” the girl insisted.
“It is right now,” Amara said. “But when Ajax does something you weren’t expecting, you might find differently.”
The little girl had dark, curly hair and muddy hazel eyes, and was eight years old. She lifted her head and sniffed in a gesture that Amara found reminded her rather intensely of Kalarus Brencis Minoris. She folded her arms over her stomach and shivered a little. “Try to use your legs more, Masha,” she called. “Keep your head level. Pretend you’ve got a cup of water balanced on it, and that you don’t want to spill any.”
“That’s silly,” Masha called back, smiling at Amara as she went past. She shouted merrily, over her shoulder, “Why would I take a cup of water on a pony ride?”
Amara found herself smiling. Smiles had been a rare enough thing over this long and quietly heartless winter. Between all the great and terrible things that had been happening to the Realm, it was all too easy to lose track of one life lost, even if it had been lost in an act of courage and dedication to the Realm. One life balanced against all those lost was not a measurable fraction.
But that detail hadn’t mattered to Masha when Bernard had told the little girl that her mother wouldn’t be coming back to her.
The child’s wants were simple: She wanted her mother. That single lost life had turned a little girl’s world into bleak desolation. Masha hadn’t spoken for more than a week and was still plagued with nightmares. At first, Amara and Bernard had tried to calm her down and send Masha back to her own bed, but the trip down the hall was simply too far to walk for the fourth time in an evening when one hadn’t slept properly for several days. Now, as often as not, the child simply stumbled down the hall and into their bed for the comfort and warmth offered by someone who cared, and slept snuggled up firmly between them.
Great furies knew that Masha deserved a chance to smile and to feel joy.
Even if it might not last.
The quiet morning was broken by the distant roar of windstreams being raised to carry multiple flights of either couriers or Knights Aeris into the bright spring skies. Amara frowned back at Garrison, then murmured to her wind fury, Cirrus, and held up her hands before her face. The fury bent the light passing between her hands to give Amara a better field of view, and she saw several distant, dark shapes against the blue skies, racing northwest, southwest, and east.
She frowned. Anyone flying east from Garrison passed out of the lands of Alera altogether and into the wild country where the barbaric Marat held dominion. In the general direction of the southwest lay the vast encampment at Riva. To the northwest lay the Shield city of Phrygia, now all but empty of her native defenders and groaning under the weight of the refugees from the Vord-taken portions of the Realm–which made it little different than Calderon.
Amara took a moment to sweep her gaze down the valley, once more surveying the acres and acres and acres and acres of tents, lean-tos, converted carts and wagons, stone domes crafted directly up from the earth, and other makeshift shelters. There had not been room at Riva for more than a tithe of the folk displaced by the invasion. They had been shuffled out to cities lying between Riva and Phrygia, including up to the Shield city herself, and the Calderon Valley had willingly taken up its fair share of the burden. And then the acting First Lord had promptly tripled that burden.
It had been mildly nightmarish to come to terms with what the invasion meant. With the ground frozen by winter, scanty supplies, and practically nonexistent medical care, the very old and the very young had suffered terribly. Pyres for the dead had burned every single night. With the advent of the spring thaw, fury-accelerated crops had begun to alleviate the food shortage–but for many Alerans, the food had come weeks, or only days, too late.
Masha’s original pony had been left behind when she had been evacuated from the leading edge of the Vord invasion, as a means to convince the child’s mother, Rook, to undertake a mission for the Crown. Ajax had arrived only days before, a gift for the child from Hashat, the leader of the Horse Clan of the Marat. Had the horse come but a fortnight sooner, it would almost certainly have been stolen, slaughtered, and eaten by starving refugees.
Bernard had undertaken the refugee problem with the practical energy typical, as far as Amara could tell, among the longtime residents of the Calderon Valley. A lifetime spent fending for themselves on a savage frontier had given them a sense of self-sufficiency, confidence, and independence that was unusual among freemen. To her husband, the sudden influx of Alerans had not merely been a problem: It was also an opportunity.
Within weeks, the effort to provide shelter for every soul in the valley had become an organized drive, assisted by Bernard’s squad of Legion engineers and the holders of the valley, who seemed to regard the incoming tide of strangers as a challenge to their sense of hospitality. And once that drive was done, Bernard used the structure he’d established among the refugees to turn their hands to improving Calderon’s defenses and vastly widening the lands that could be cultivated for food crops.
It was incredible, what people could do when they pulled together.
The sudden thunder of hooves jerked Amara from her reverie as a large man rode up on a muscular bay gelding. The horse protested being drawn to a halt and complained loudly as it lashed the air with its front hooves. That scream, in turn, flickered down to little Ajax in the training ring. The pony promptly hopped up into the air and twisted his body with the sinuous ease of a cat. Masha let out a shriek and went flying.
Amara whipped a hand forward, sending Cirrus out to slow and cushion the child’s fall, and a sudden geyser of wind erupted from near the ring’s floor. Between Amara’s effort and the soft earth (intentionally prepared for just such an occasion as this), the child landed more or less safely.
Ajax, clearly pleased with himself, went running around the ring at full speed, tossing his mane, his tail held high.
“Bernard.” Amara sighed.
The Count of Calderon scowled at the big gelding as he calmed the animal, dismounted, and tied his reins to one of a long row of hitching posts. “Sorry,” he said, and gestured to the horse. “This idiot is practically quivering for someone to sound the charge. I don’t even want to think about what he was like before he was gelded.”
Amara smiled, and the two of them descended into the ring, where Masha lay sniffling. Amara examined the girl for injuries, but she’d received nothing more than bruises. Amara helped her up with her hands and with kind, gentle words, while Bernard narrowed his eyes and focused his earthcrafting on Ajax, slowly bringing the proud little horse to a halt. Bernard pulled a lump of honeyed wax from his pocket and fed it to the horse, speaking quietly as he took up Ajax’s reins again.
“Back straight,” Amara told the child. “Heels out.”
Masha sniffled a few times, then said, “Ajax should be more careful.”
“Probably,” Amara said, fighting off a smile. “But he doesn’t know how. So you need to practice proper form.”
The girl cast a wary glance at the pony, docilely eating his treat from Bernard’s hand. “Can I practice it tomorrow?”
“Better if you get on right now,” Amara said.
“Because if you don’t, you might not ever get back on,” Amara said.
“But it’s scary.”
Amara did smile, then. “That’s why you have to do it. Otherwise, instead of controlling your fear, your fear is controlling you.”
Masha considered this gravely for a moment. Then she said, “But you said fear is good.”
“I said it was normal,” Amara replied. “Everyone feels afraid. Especially when something bad happens. But you can’t let that scare you into quitting.”
“But you quit doing Cursor stuff for the First Lord,” Masha pointed out.
Amara felt her smile fade.
Behind Masha, Bernard rubbed studiously at his mouth with one hand.
“That was different,” Amara said.
“For a lot of reasons you might not understand until you’re older.”
Masha frowned. “Why not?”
“Come on,” Bernard rumbled, stepping in. He lifted the child into the air as lightly as a piece of down and put her on the pony’s saddle. He was a big man with wide shoulders, his dark hair and beard streaked with threads of silver. His hands were large, strong, and scarred with a lifetime of work–but for all of that, he was as gentle with the child as a mother cat with her kittens. “One more time around the ring, like before,” he said calmly. “Then we’ll need to go get some lunch.”
Masha gathered up the reins and bit her lower lip. “Can I go slow?”
“That’s fine,” Bernard said.
Masha clucked her tongue and began walking Ajax along the outside wall of the ring, her back practically bending backward in its efforts to stay straight. Her toes rested on the pony’s ribs.
“Well?” Amara asked quietly, once the child was several yards away.
“Again? She was here three days ago.”
“Senator Valerius has managed to put together a quorum of the Senate,” Bernard said. “He’s planning on challenging the legitimacy of Septimus’s marriage.”
A bad taste went through Amara’s mouth at the words, and she spat on the ground. “There are times when I wish you’d hit that egomaniac quite a bit harder.”
“There was a lot of confusion during the rescue,” Bernard said. “And Valerius wouldn’t shut up. Interfered with my thinking.” He pursed his lips, and mused, “I’ll do better next time we’re in that situation.”
Amara let out a small snort and shook her head, watching Masha ride. “Bloody crows,” she growled a moment later through clenched teeth. “Even now, with everything at stake, these idiots are playing their games. They’ll still be doing deals under the table when a bloody vordknight tears them to shreds–as if the Vord are some kind of transitory inconvenience!”
“They have to pretend that,” Bernard said. “Otherwise, they’d be forced to admit that they were fools not to listen to the warnings we tried to give them five bloody years ago.”
“And that would be terrible,” Amara said. She thought about the situation for a moment. “If Valerius is successful, it gives Aquitaine every excuse he needs to keep the crown, even i… even when Octavian returns.”
Bernard grunted agreement.
“What are we going to do?”
“Talk to my sister,” Bernard said. “Figure out which Senators might be swayed to our side.” Masha and Ajax had nearly completed their slow circuit of the ring. “How is she?”
“She was smiling earlier,” Amara said. “Joking. Almost laughing.”
Bernard let out a rumbling sigh. “Well. That’s something good today, at least. If we could win that much every day, it would add up.”
“It might,” Amara said.
He looked at her obliquely, then gently covered her hand with his. “How are you doing?”
She tightened her fingers on his, feeling their gentle strength, the rough texture of his work-hardened skin. “A woman whose death warrant I practically signed has charged me with protecting and rearing her child. Less than a day after she did, I killed Masha’s father. And every night, when she has nightmares, the little girl comes running to me to make her feel better.” Amara shook her head. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that, love.”
Masha looked up at Amara as she came closer. She made sure her back was straight, and her smile was in equal measure chagrined and proud.
Amara found herself smiling back. She couldn’t help it.
In the face of looming terror, the child’s smile was a victory banner of its own.
Bernard looked between the two of them and nodded, his eyes bright. “Why don’t you fly her back to Garrison? I’ll lead Ajax, and we’ll meet ‘Sana in my office.”
Amara looked at her husband and gave him a slow and gentle kiss on the mouth. Then she started walking toward Masha, tugging on her leather flying gloves as she went. The little girl noticed, and cheered.
Amara thought about her husband’s words and pursed her lips thoughtfully.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe enough of the little victories really will add up.