Gaius Isana, First Lady of Alera, was woken in the middle of the night by a stir in the courtyard below her chambers. The seat of the High House of Placida was shockingly staid, by the standards of the High Lords of Alera. While it was an exquisite home of white marble, it was a manor house of a mere four stories, formed in an open square around a central courtyard and garden like a common country estate. Isana had seen seasonal homes in the capital owned by other High Lords which were far larger and more elaborate than the ancestral halls of Placida itself.
Yet the home, while not gargantuan, had its own quiet integrity. Every block of stone was polished and perfectly fit. Every bit of woodwork, every door, every shutter was made of the finest woods, and crafted to simple perfection. The furniture, likewise, was exactingly made and lovingly maintained.
But more than that, Isana thought it was the household staff that made her like the place the most. The capital, and many of the other large cities of the realm she had visited, had been filled with a wide variety of the various strata of Aleran society. Citizens had swept by in their finery, while common freemen had tended to their tasks and stayed out of the way, and poorer freemen and slaves had scurried about their own duties in impoverished misery. In Lady Placida’s household, there were no slaves, and Isana was hard-pressed to discern the difference, at a glance, between Citizens and freemen. More to the point, the Citizens themselves seemed to place less emphasis on their station, and more upon their duties, whatever they might be—an attitude that embraced their aides and employees without the same overwhelming regard for social status that permeated most of the realm.
The gulf between Citizen and freeman hadn’t simply vanished here—far from it. But much of the sense of latent hostility and fear that went along with it certainly had. It was a reflection, Isana felt certain, of how the High Lord and Lady of Placida conducted themselves among their own people, in the halls of their own home, and Isana thought that it spoke very well of them.
Since her return from the war-ravaged region around the Amaranth Vale, Isana had been a guest of the High Lady Placidus Aria. While the abrupt end of Kalarus’ rebellion and the truce with the invading Canim had ended the war it had not halted the ongoing loss of life. The war had devastated harvests, displaced entire steadholts, ravaged the economy and disrupted government on every scale. Throughout the territory once governed from the late city of Kalare, slaves had arisen in bloody revolt. Wild furies, their Aleran bondmates slain by war, famine, or disease, roamed the countryside, far more dangerous than any rabid animal.
The subsequent scramble to find work, food, and shelter against the elements had resulted in widespread chaos. Banditry had arisen and begun to spread almost as fast as the diseases that began to torment the countryside.
The vast monies the Crown had poured into the rush construction of enough shipping to allow Aleran forces to escort the Canim back to their homeland had been a stabilizing force—as had, ironically, the presence of the Canim themselves, who had dealt with Aleran bandits every bit as ruthlessly and efficiently as the legionares deployed to hunt them down. Isana suspected that it was, in fact, why their departure had been delayed for several months. She could not have proved anything, of course, but she suspected that Gaius had slowed construction of the final ships in order to make use of the Canim’s presence, helping to establish a beachhead of social order amongst the chaos of the war-torn territory.
The Senatorial Guard and the Crown Legion had been slowly reasserting control, but it was an agonizingly methodical process, rife with the political maneuvering of Citizens struggling to seize new titles and power in the reclaimed territory–all while the holders who lived there coughed their lives out in the winter cold or starved to death after eating their shoes. With the financial and public support of the Dianic League, Isana had been doing all that she could to organize relief efforts into the region—until the night two men with drawn swords had reached the doors of her bedroom before her bodyguard had stopped them.
The news of the emergence of an heir to the Crown had spread like wildfire, of course, from one side of the realm to another within days. It had brought with it a storm of fresh political infighting, as the plans of every ambitious Citizen in the realm were abruptly sent crashing into ruin. A great many people did not like the notion at all, and many were already decrying Tavi as a fraud, and demanding that the Senate declare him an illegitimate heir.
The Senate had no grounds to do so. Septimus had seen to that, ensuring that there were witnesses and evidence enough to validate his son’s identity. Evidently, though, someone had decided that if some of the witnesses conveniently vanished, the Senate might be able to oppose Octavian’s installation. As the foremost of said witnesses, Isana was the natural target for such schemes.
At the First Lord’s suggestion, she had accepted Aria’s invitation to visit Placida, ostensibly to speak at several important gatherings of the Dianic league. In truth, she knew perfectly well why she had come: because it was the only place in the Realm where she could be reasonably certain of her safety. Gaius’ suggestion was a tacit admission that not even the First Lord could protect her in Alera Imperia now.
Of course, “reasonably certain” was not the same thing as “certain.”
There was no certainty anymore.
Isana had no idea of the cause of the raised voices and running feet in the courtyard below her window, but she took no chances. She rose from her bed, dressed only in her nightgown, and immediately seized the long armored coat from the stand by the bed. She slid into the heavy garment, the motion swift and automatic after the endless practice sessions Araris had forced her to endure. Though the coat seemed to be made of heavy leather, sections of the finest steel plate had been sewn into place between two layers of the lighter material. While not as effective as true lorica, the coat offered far more protection than her skin alone, and could be donned swiftly at need.
Once the coat was in place, she slid her feet into light leather shoes and, with a moue of distaste, slung a leather baldric over one shoulder, so that her sword, a standard legion gladius, hung at her side. She regarded the weapon with distaste. She had managed to acquire some rudimentary knowledge of self-defense using a blade, again at Araris’ insistence. She’d felt that she had little choice in the matter. After all, it was Araris who had risked his own life to stop the assassins who had nearly reached her, and it seemed the least she could do to follow his advice and to help him perform his duty as a singulare to the First Lady. She had diligently applied herself to learning the basics of swordplay–but she did not think that she would ever feel truly comfortable wearing one.
Although what made her most uncomfortable, she reflected, was the fact that the weight of the sword and armor, once settled upon her, made her feel more reassured than it did ridiculous.
She felt the presence of someone tense with anxiety a full second before a soft footfall sounded outside her door, and by the time it opened she had her sword in hand and held in a defensive guard. Light from the furylamp in the hallway made a black outline of the intruder, but Isana’s watercrafter’s senses identified him more surely than her eyes could have within another heartbeat.
“Araris,” she said quietly, lowering the sword. She waited until he had shut the door behind him to say, “Light.”
The little furylamp beside her bed responded to her voice, flickering to life, casting a warm yellow glow over the spacious chambers, revealing Araris. He was a man of medium height and average build. He wore his hair shorn close to his head, in the legion style, and one side of his face was hideously marred with a mass of scar tissue in the shape of the brand the legions used to mark men convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy. He wore simple, well-made clothing, including a coat not unlike Isana’s own, and bore a gladius upon one hip and a duelist’s long blade on the other.
His anxiety faded a little when his eyes met hers, and Isana felt the sudden warm rush of his affection and love—amongst other, rather less poetic expressions of masculine approval. “Good,” he said quietly, nodding at her sword. “But next time, come away from the window before you turn on the light.”
She stepped away from the window with a sigh, shaking her head, and extended her hand to him. “I’m sorry. I just woke.”
He stepped closer to her, and took her hand, just barely touching the tips of his fingers and thumb to her skin. “It’s all right. You never expected to be forced to live with this sort of thing.”
She gave him a small smile. “No. I suppose not.” She shook her head. “What’s happening outside?”
“A courier has arrived from the capital,” Araris replied quietly, lowering his hand. “Her Grace requests that you join her in her study with all possible haste. Beyond that, I have no idea.”
Isana looked down at herself and sighed. Then she carefully put the sword away. She’d given herself several minor cuts before learning the sufficient degree of respect for the weapon’s edge. “I look ridiculous.”
“You look like someone serious about survival,” Araris corrected her. He glanced back as more feet hurried down the hall outside. There was a rising amount of activity in the household, all around them, evidenced by the opening and closing of doors, and the sound of rising numbers of voices. “To be frank, my lady, this kind of disruption is an ideal situation for another attack. I’m just as happy to have you in the armor if you’re going to be moving around the hallways.”
“Very well,” Isana said. “Then let’s waste no more time.”
One advantage of such a modest-sized household, Isana reflected, was that one never had to plan an expedition complete with guides and pack animals to reach the other side of it, the way it had often seemed necessary at capital, or in Aquitaine. Isana traded greetings with a young Knight, a chambermaid, and a senior scribe, all of whom she’d broken bread with on several occasions, circled the courtyard and walked up a single flight of steps to reach the High Lady’s private study. Araris followed her silently, a constant presence, two paces back and slightly to one side, his eyes wary, calm, and everywhere.
Guards were posted outside of Lady Placida’s study.
Isana paused and traded a glance with Araris. This was a first. Aria was one of the more . . . confident women Isana had ever known, where matters of potential violence were concerned. If the reports Isana had heard were to be believed, it was with good reason. In Alera, most female Citizens gained their status through marriage. Aria hadn’t. As a young academ, she’d fought a duel with the newly installed High Lord of Rhodes—a situation arising from a rather forceful rejection of his attention during evenings at the Academy, if rumor was to be believed. She’d beaten the young man handily, too, and in front of far too many witnesses for anyone to question her claim.
Isana scarcely wished to consider what situation might have arisen that would cause Placidus Aria to post guards at her door. Her wishes, however, were quite immaterial to the matter. She strode forward, nodding to the guards, both of whom saluted her sharply. One of them opened the door for her without bothering to inquire of those within whether or not he should.
Isana felt herself begin to wince and forced the expression away. She felt quite rude, not to mention presumptuous, simply striding into the High Lady’s personal study—but as odd as she might find it, Isana was now, at least nominally, Aria’s peer and marginal superior. In an emergency situation, the First Lady of Alera did not need to ask permission to enter the room. Whatever Isana might have felt personally, she had an obligation to maintain the status of her office, as well as fulfilling its duties.
Aria’s study could easily have been mistaken for a garden. Several fountains chuckled quietly within, and growing plants were everywhere but upon the several bookshelves spaced around the walls. The fountains drained into a pool in the center of the room, and furylights of every color twinkled at the pool’s bottom like tiny, jeweled stars.
Lady Placida herself arrived less than a minute later, striding into the room with confidence, energy and purpose. She was a very tall woman, with lovely red hair and, like Isana herself, appeared to be a young woman in her early twenties. Also like Isana, she was in fact a good deal older than that. She wore the green-on-green of the House of Placidus in her gown and long tunic, and in the trim of her white travelling cloak and gloves.
“Isana,” she said, coming toward them, holding out her hands.
Isana took her hands and received a kiss on the cheek. At the touch, Isana felt the wrenching anxiety beneath the High Lady’s practiced, serene expression. “Aria. What’s happened?”
Lady Placida nodded politely to Araris before turning back to Isana. “I’m not yet certain, but sealed orders from the First Lord arrived, and my lord husband has already left to mobilize Placida’s legions. We are commanded to leave for the capital at once.”
Isana felt her eyebrows lifting. “Only us?”
The High Lady shook her head. “Half a dozen of my husband’s most powerful Lords have been summoned as well—and from what the messenger said, similar summons have gone out to the entire realm.”
Isana frowned. “But . . . why? Why do such a thing?”
Aria’s expression remained calm, but it could not hide the woman’s worry from Isana’s senses. “Nothing good. Our coach is waiting.”