Amara, Countess Calderon, wiped the sweat from her brow and regarded the thinning cloud cover with a certain amount of satisfaction. Once again, the local wind furies had attempted to marshal their strength for an assault upon the folk of the Calderon valley, one of the dangerous furystorms that so often sent its holders running for the shelter of its stone buildings. And once again, she had been able to intervene before the storm could properly take shape.
It wasn’t a monumental effort, really, to unravel such an affair, provided she could reach it early enough. A great many things had to happen before a storm could build enough power to be a danger to the people under her husband’s care, and if she could break it up at its earliest stages, it was a fairly simple matter to ensure that the storm never took place. It had surprised her, really.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have. It was always easier to demolish something than to create it. Look at her sense of dedication to the First Lord, for example. Or her trust and love for her mentor, Fidelias.
The bitter thoughts brought quiet pain and sadness with them that were at direct odds with the cheery sunbeams that began to break through the disrupted storm clouds, bathing Amara with the wan, feeble warmth of early winter sunlight. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking in whatever warmth she could get. It was always cold, once one flew more than a mile or so above the ground, as she was now—particularly if one wore a dress instead of flying leathers, as she was now. She hadn’t felt that she would need the heavier gear, given that she would only be up here for half an hour or so—a brief errand, up to moderate heights, and then back to her duties at Garrison, where the Countess of Calderon had a great many very minor, undeniably useful, and extremely satisfying tasks that required her attention.
Amara shook her head, dismissing the thoughts as much as she could, and called out to Cirrus, her wind fury. At one time, she would have sped as recklessly as she possibly could have toward Garrison—but the thunder and racket of such speeds could prove an annoyance to the holders, and it seemed unthinkably impolite to her now. And it would leave the hem of her dress in tatters and her hair in a hideous mess, besides. At one time, that wouldn’t have mattered to her in the least—but appearances mattered to many of the people she had to deal with on a daily basis now, and it made them easier to deal with if she looked like the Countess they expected.
And besides. While he’d never actually said as much—he never would—her husband’s eyes had spoken volumes about his approval of her more . . . polished, she supposed, appearance of late.
Amara smirked. As had his hands. Et cetera.
She glided back to Garrison at a swift but practical pace, passing over the much-expanded town to land in the original fortress that straddled the narrow mountain pass at the eastern end of the Calderon Valley, now itself serving as a citadel in a township nearly the size of a Lord’s holding, rather than a simple County. What had begun as an open-air market run by a score of ambitious peddlers hawking their wares to a few hundred of the nomadic Marat passing through the area had become a regional trading post involving dozens of merchant interests and attracting thousands of visitors interested in trade, including both the pale-skinned barbarians and ambitious Aleran businessmen.
The growing town had demanded increasingly large supplies of food, and the farmers of the Valley’s steadholts had expanded their households and their fields, growing more prosperous with each passing season. Alerans from other parts of the realm, attracted to the opportunity in the Calderon Valley, had begun to arrive and settle in, and Bernard had already approved the founding of four new steadholts.
Amara frowned, as she cruised in for a landing. Technically, she supposed, only two of them were actually new. The others had been rebuilt atop the ruins of the steadholts that had been destroyed by the vord infestation some years before.
Amara shuddered at that memory.
With the help of the Marat, they had been destroyed—for the moment. But they were still out there. She and Bernard had done everything they could to warn their fellow Alerans of the threat they represented, but few had been willing to listen with an open mind. They didn’t understand exactly how dangerous these creatures could be. If and when the vord returned, the fools might not have time to realize their mistake, much less to correct it.
Amara had despaired of ever making enough people understand. But her husband, in his usual fashion, had simply turned his hand to another course of action. If Bernard had done all that he could to strengthen the realm as a whole, then he had done all that he could. Instead, he returned to Calderon and began to fortify the valley, doing everything within his power to prepare to defend his home and his people against the vord or any other threat that might come against them. And, given the revenue from the taxation of the booming business in his holding, those preparations were formidable indeed.
She exchanged greetings with the sentries on the walls and descended to the courtyard, before crossing to the commander’s quarters. She nodded to the legionare on duty outside, and went in, to find Bernard poring over a set of plans with his secretary and a pair of legion engineers. He stood a head taller than the rest of them, and was broader across the shoulders and chest. If his dark hair was frosted with more silver at the temples than it had been in the past, it did not detract from his appearance—far from it. He still wore the short beard he always favored, though it was rather more heavily salted with gray. Dressed in a forester’s green tunic and leather breeches, he wouldn’t have looked like a Citizen at all, but for the excellent quality of material and manufacture of his clothing. His eyes were serious and intelligent, though the faint lines of a scowl had appeared between his brows.
“I don’t care if it’s never been done before,” Bernard told the older of the two engineers. “Once you do it, no one will be able to say that again, now will they?”
The engineer ground his teeth. “Your Excellency, you must understand—”
Bernard’s eyes narrowed. “I understand that if you speak one more word to me in that condescending tone of voice, I’m going to roll up these plans and shove them so far up your—”
“Assuming that you aren’t too busy,” Amara interjected smoothly, “I wonder if I might have a quiet moment with you, my lord husband.”
Bernard glared at the engineer, then took a deep breath, composed himself, and faced Amara. “Of course. Gentlemen, shall we continue this after lunch?”
The three men murmured agreement. The senior engineer seized his stack of plans from the table without ever taking his eyes off of Bernard, quickly put both hands behind him, and began rolling the papers up in an almost frantic hurry as he backed from the room. Amara was put in mind of a chipmunk stumbling upon a sleeping grass lion and fleeing for its life.
She found herself smiling as she shut the door behind the chipmunk.
“Rivan legions,” Bernard spat, pacing the functional, plainly appointed office. “They haven’t stood to battle in so long, they might as well call them Rivan construction crews. Always finding reasons why something can’t be done. Most often, because it isn’t done that way.”
“The useless parasites,” Amara said, nodding in compassion. “Aren’t your own men members of the Rivan legions, my lord?”
“They don’t count,” Bernard growled.
“I see,” Amara said gravely. “Did not you, yourself, serve in the Rivan legions, my lord?”
Bernard stopped pacing and looked at her helplessly.
Amara couldn’t stop herself. She burst out laughing.
Bernard’s face twitched through half a dozen separate emotions. Then a smile broke the surface of his features and he shook his head wryly. “Breaking up storms before they have time to properly gather themselves again, are we?”
“It is my duty as Countess Calderon,” Amara said. She crossed the room to him, stood on her toes, and kissed him lovingly on the mouth. He slipped an arm around the small of her back and drew her close against him, drawing the kiss out over a slow, delicious minute. Amara let out a pleased little sound as their mouths parted, and smiled up at him. “Long day?”
“Better now,” he said. “You must be hungry.”
“Starving. Shall we?”
They had just stepped outside when the sentry sounded a ram’s horn—a challenge to incoming Knights Aeris. A moment later, the distant sound of another horn came to them in answer, and a few seconds later, a flight of Knights Aeris swept down from overhead at maximum speed, twenty strong, bearing a wind coach among them.
“Odd,” Bernard said. “Twenty for a single coach? The harness only needs six.”
“An escort, perhaps,” Amara said.
“Nearly a legion’s allotment of Knights Aeris as escorts? Who would be that important who would need them?”
The Knights waited until the last possible moment to slow down, and landed in the courtyard in front of Garrison’s command building amidst a hurricane roar of furycrafted wind.
“Extra hands,” Amara said, understanding, as the roar died down. “They’re flying at top speed, taking turns as bearers.”
Bernard grunted. “What’s the rush?”
One of the Knights Aeris came running over to Bernard and slammed a fist to his breastplate in a legion salute. Bernard returned the gesture automatically.
“Your Excellency,” the Knight said. He offered a sealed envelope. “I must ask you and the Countess to come with me at once.”
Amara lifted her eyebrows and traded a glance with her husband. “Are we under arrest?” she asked, carefully keeping her tone neutral.
“The details are in the letter,” the Knight replied.
Bernard had already opened the letter, and was reading it. “It’s from the First Lord,” he said quietly. “We are commanded to come to Alera Imperia at once.”
Amara felt a hot flash of anger. “I don’t work for Gaius anymore,” she stated, her tone precise.
“Are you refusing to comply, Countess?” asked the Knight, politely.
“Amara—” Bernard began.
Amara should have remained silent, but the fires of her anger sparked memories of other fires, far more horrible, and her pain got the better of her. “Give me one reason why I should.”
“Because if you do not,” said the Knight politely, “then I have been ordered to arrest you and bring you to the council in chains, if necessary.”
Amara felt her knuckles pop in protest as her hand clenched into a fist.
Bernard put a large, strong hand on her shoulder, and rumbled, “We’ll come, captain.”
“Thank you,” the Knight said, his expression serious. “This way, please.”
“Let me fetch a few things for the trip, please.”
“Two minutes,” the Knight said. “I can delay no more than that, your Excellency.”
Amara blinked at him. “Why not?” she asked him quietly. “What is happening?”
“War,” he said shortly. For a moment, his eyes looked haunted. “We’re losing.”