“Well,” Amara murmured to the First Lord as they departed the command building. “That could have gone better.”
“Actually,” Gaius said, “it went as well as could be expected. “He strode purposefully toward the area of the square typically used by Knights Aeris for landings and takeoffs. That area of the camp was kept policed of detritus and debris, so that the gales caused by fliers’ wind streams sent a minimum number of objects flying around.
Amara had to hurry her own steps to keep up with the much taller First Lord. “I thought the young Captain held his own rather well.”
“Rather too well,” Gaius said testily. “Great furies know, Arnos needs someone to bleed his ego to manageable levels, but Scipio isn’t the one to do it. I need him right where he is.”
Amara shook her head. “I spent some time in the town last night, doing a little listening in the wine houses.”
” Amara,” Gaius chided her. “You’re serving as my liason now, not as an intelligence agent.”
“Habit, sire,” Amara said. “His men think new grass sprouts up in his bootprints and flowers bloom where he spits. They’d never stand for his removal.”
Gaius made a thoughtful sound. “Really? He’s that highly regarded?”
“I watched three brawls last night between legionares from the Senatorial Guard and those of the First Aleran. Every one was started by commentary about Scipio.”
“How’d his men do?”
“They won three times. ” Amara shook her head. “They’re a tough group, sire.”
“After two years out here alone, they’d have to be,” Gaius murmured. “I wanted to send them more help, but the pressures elsewhere were just too great. Especially with the increased pressure on the Shieldwall.”
Amara glanced around them, making sure no one was immediately nearby. “And it kept Scipio isolated from the rest of the realm.”
Gaius gave her a sharp look.
Amara shrugged. “There are rumors, sire.”
“Rumors,” Gaius said.
“About Scipio. About who his father might have been. “Amara drew in a deep breath. “The rumors say that he bears a remarkable likeness to Princeps Septimus, sire. And they say that a man named Araris—a man who might be Araris Valerian himself—is his personal singulare.”
“Rumors, Countess,” Gaius said.
“I thought so, too,” she said. “Until I saw Captain Miles’ face, when T— when Scipio walked in. “She looked up at the First Lord. “It was like he’d seen a ghost.”
Gaius’ voice hardened slightly. “Rumors, Countess.”
“Rumors you wanted to strengthen,” she said quietly. “That’s why you held the meeting here, instead of summoning everyone back to the capital. Out here, where he’s surrounded by his men, confident, obviously in command—and where none of them would be in a position of authority over him, and where you could oversee the situation. You’re priming them to accept him as something more.”
The First Lord glanced down at her, and the corners of his mouth twitched, though his voice remained stern. “I already know you’re clever, Countess. You don’t have to prove it to me. It’s considered good form to let such things go unsaid.”
Amara kept herself from smiling, and gave him a grave bow of her head. “Of course, Sire. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Gaius glanced back over his shoulder, toward the command building. “They really think that much of him?”
“They love him,” she said.
Gaius stepped out onto the swept-clean stones of the flight area. “It was like that with Septimus, you know,” he said quietly.
Amara tilted her head to one side, listening in silence.
“He had that quality about him. People loved him. He gave them . . . “Gaius shook his head. “Something. Something that made them feel that they could do more than they ever had before. That lifted them up. Made them greater. He gave them . . .”
“Hope,” Amara suggested.
“Yes,” Gaius said quietly, and his voice turned puzzled. “It wasn’t any kind of furycraft. It was him. I never understood how he did it. ” The First Lord shrugged. “He must have gotten it from his mother.”
“Sire . . . ” Amara began.
Gaius lifted a hand in a weary gesture. “I am not like Septimus. Or Scipio. I still command respect in some. In most, though, all I inspire is fear. “His eyes were unfocused, his voice thoughtful. “I am not a good person, Amara. I have had reasonable success as a First Lord, but . . . I don’t have their compassion. Only resolve.”
Amara only stared at the First Lord, in silence. He rarely spoke of himself in a personal sense. It was at moments like this that Amara felt the real difference in their ages—for though Gaius looked like a man in his mid-forties, perhaps graced with early silver hair, he was in truth approaching eighty years of age. He had seen a lifetime of intrigue and betrayal, and no small share of personal tragedy of his own. She had grown used to the image he projected—that of a man of fantastic power, inhuman will, and effortless personal and political grace.
It was in moments like these that she was reminded of what he truly was—a weary and almost viciously lonely old man.
Amara had made mistakes enough in her young life to give her a small but steady burden of regrets. Gaius’ decisions affected many more people than her own. How many regrets did the old man have piled upon his aching shoulders? How much darker were the dreams that came to haunt him? How many times, over decades in the treacherous world of Aleran politics, had he longed for someone to turn to, to talk to, to lean upon—knowing that there was no one, and never would be. Not after the death of his wife and son, the last of the ancient bloodlines of the House of Gaius. Everyone looked at the First Lord and saw exactly what he wished them to see: the leader of the realm, the power, and the riches.
Only in the last year of working with him had Amara realized how unutterably alone Gaius truly was.
It took extraordinary courage to lead the life he had lived, to endure in the face of all the problems, the enemies, the demands placed upon him. Even if she had the furycraft to do it, Amara would not be the First Lord for all the riches of Alera.
She drew herself up, faced him squarely, and said, “I serve you, sire.”
Gaius regarded her intently for a moment, and then briefly put a hand on her shoulder. “Countess,” he said. “It is entirely possible that I am not worthy of such loyalty. Summon the coach.”
“Yes, sire. “Amara raised one arm and flashed a hand signal at a group of Knights Aeris of the Crown Guard waiting on a nearby wall. The men secured harnesses to an aerial coach, and lifted into the air, descending to the landing ground with the First Lord’s coach, along with an escort of a score of Knights Aeris in the Crown’s scarlet and blue. Gaius traded some words with the commander of the Knights, then entered the coach. Amara came in after him.
Wind roared, and the coach rose up and away from the fortified town. Amara took a moment to regard the Elinarch, rising in a graceful arch over the grey-green waters of the slow, deep, steady Tiber. At one point in her life, Amara thought, she would have resisted anything but a direct command to ride in an air coach. After all, why ride when one could be reveling in the power and freedom of flight?
Granted, that was before the First Lord had her flying over the entire width and breadth of the realm for most of two years straight. After being worn to exhaustion, over and over again, Amara had come to the conclusion that perhaps a little bit of decadent relaxation while someone else did they heavy lifting might not be a bad thing. She had no intention of making a habit of it, but she’d worked hard enough to earn the occasional respite.
Especially given how long it had been since she’d seen Bernard.
Amara sighed. Bernard, her secret husband. Cursors were supposed to devote themselves solely to their duties. Cursors served the First Lord and the Realm, and their devotion was expected to be selfless and undivided—though, like active legionares, who were also supposed to remain unwed, Cursors generally took lovers. The only thing truly forbidden was marriage.
Of course, that was precisely what she had done.
Amara should never have allowed herself to fall in love with the formidable Count of Calderon. Regardless of how steady and caring he was, how strong, how handsome, how patient and loving, how passionate and skilled and—
Amara’s heart sped up, and she arrested her train of thought before she began to blush.
If love was so easily overruled by banal reason, it would not be love.
“Thinking of the good Count Calderon, Amara?” Gaius asked her. His eyes glittered with amusement.
“You don’t know it was him,” Amara replied. “Perhaps I’ve taken a dozen new lovers by now.”
The First Lord’s mouth quivered. Then he erupted into a rich, genuine bellow of laughter. It didn’t last before he subsided, belly shaking, to stare out the window of the coach. “No,” he said. “No, not you.”
Amara took a moment to compose herself. She often forgot that Gaius was as skilled at watercrafting as he was with fire or earth or metal. Worse, he was a perceptive individual who had been dealing with people two or three times as long as Amara had been drawing breath—all of which meant that it would be all too easy for him to discern awkward, potentially dangerous specifics. Her relationship with Bernard was a dangerous topic of conversation around Gaius.
Especially since it felt like it had been at least ten thousand years since her husband had touched her, or kissed her, or made her cry out in—
Crows take it. She was a grown woman. It was entirely unfair that simply thinking of Bernard should reduce her to a starry-eyed schoolgirl like that.
Amara cleared her throat, took her notebook from the cabinet built into the base of the seat, and proceeded to change the subject. “Very well, sire. We should arrive back in the capital sometime early tomorrow morning. The reports from High Lord Antillus should be waiting for you when you arrive, and the final movement orders for the Rhodesian legions should be in effect by then which—”
The coach swept into heavy cloud cover, and she paused to murmur a furylamp to life.
“Countess,” Gaius said gently, before she could. The First Lord reached out and folded the notebook shut, setting it aside. “Come with me, please.”
Amara blinked at him.
Without preamble, Gaius turned and opened the door of the coach. Wind howled in a sudden scream, whipping their clothing about, and the coach slewed slightly to one side as the sudden drag made the coach’s progress uneven.
The First Lord stepped out into empty air, lifting away from the coach so smoothly that he might have been moving out onto solid ground.
Amara lifted her eyebrows, but followed him, summoning Cirrus to support her as she left the confines of the coach for the cold, clinging, dark-grey dampness of the heavy clouds. They kept pace with the coach for a moment, and Gaius exchanged a nod with the leader of the accompanying Knights Aeris. Then he slowed pace, and within seconds the air coach vanished into the clouds, leaving Gaius and Amara hovering alone in featureless grey.
Gaius flicked a hand through the air, and the roar of wind suddenly vanished. For a second, Amara expected her windstream to collapse and send her plummeting toward the ground, but Cirrus’ support remained steady. Her hair still whipped around her head, as it always did, especially in a hover—only the sound vanished, dying to nothing more than the sigh of a quiet breeze. Around them, Amara could hear the distant grumble of thunder, as somewhere, miles away, a spring storm gathered in the cloud cover.
“Sire,” she said, confused. “The coach.”
Gaius shook his head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you before, Amara, but secrecy was absolutely imperative. No one can know where we’re going, when we left—nothing.”
She frowned and folded her arms against the ongoing winds. She wasn’t wearing her flying leathers, and she was surprised at how quickly a chill began settling into her skin.
“I take it we’re not returning to the capital,” she said quietly.
“No,” Gaius said.
She nodded. “Why am I here?”
“I need someone I trust to come with me.”
“Where, sire?” Amara asked.
“Kalare,” Gaius said quietly.
Amara felt her eyes widen. “Why there?”
His voice stayed quiet and steady. “Because I’ve been sitting in the capital playing diplomat for too long, Amara, and this chaos,” he gestured with a hand, taking in the entirety of the realm beneath them, “is the result. Allies and enemies alike have forgotten who I am. What I am. I can’t allow that to go on any longer.”
Lightning flickered somewhere in the distant clouds, sending a flood of silver light through the swirling mists behind the First Lord.
“I’m going to remind them, Cursor. ” His eyes hardened. “I’m going to war. And you’re going with me.”