They rode into the First Aleran Legion’s training camp in the middle of the afternoon. Tavi idly picked a few loose black curls from his collar, rubbed his hand over the stiff brush of short hairs left on his head, and glared at Max. “I just can’t believe you did that while I was asleep.”
“Regulations are regulations,” Max said, his tone pious. “Besides. If you’d been awake, you’d have complained too much.”
“I thought it was every soldier’s sacred right,” Tavi said.
“Every soldier, yes sir. But you’re an officer, sir.”
“Who should lead by example,” Magnus murmured. “In grooming as well as uniform.”
Tavi glowered at Magnus and tugged at the loose leather jacket he wore, the leather stiff and heavy enough to turn a glancing blow of a blade, dyed a dark blue in contrast to the lighter tunic he wore beneath. He wore a legion-issue belt and blade at his side, and though his favored training had been in a slightly longer weapon, the standard side-arm of the legions felt comfortable in his grasp as well, particularly after the practices with Max and the Maestro.
The Legion camp was fully the size of his uncle’s stronghold at Garrison, and Tavi knew that they were of similar size for a reason: all legion camps were laid out in precisely the same fashion in order to make sure that all commanders, messengers, and various functionaries of the armed forces always knew their way around any given camp, as well as making it possible for militia newly recalled to duty to fit in with the highly disciplined, organized troops of a legion. Garrison, Tavi realized, was quite simply a standard legion camp built from stone instead of canvas and wood, barracks replacing tents, stone walls and battlements replacing portable wooden palisades. It housed less than the full complement of men it could, and while Lord Riva claimed that this was because of his confidence in Count Bernard’s alliance with the largest clans of Marat in the lands beyond Garrison, Tavi suspected it had far more to do with funds being skimmed from Riva’s military budget and into other accounts.
The land around the camp had been trampled thoroughly by thousands of marching feet in the past several weeks. The thick green grass common to the Vale was mashed flat, only in places rebounding from repeated trampling. Tavi could see several hundred troops at training even now, at least half a dozen cohorts of recruits drilling in the brown-gold tunics they would wear until they’d earned their steel armor. They bore large wooden replicas of actual shields, weighted and heavier than the actual items, as well as wooden poles the length of the common legion fighting spear. Each recruit, of course, bore his own weighted rudius, and the marching men had the slack-faced, bored look of miserable youth. Tavi caught not a few resentful glares as they rode by the marching recruits, swift and fresh and lazy by comparison.
They rode into what would have been the eastern gates of Garrison, and were halted by a pair of men dressed in the arms and armor of veteran legionares. They were older than the recruits outside, and more slovenly. Both men needed a shave and, as Tavi approached near enough to get a whiff of them, a bath.
“Halt,” drawled the first, a man a few years Tavi’s senior, tall and broad and sagging in the middle. He dragged most of a yawn into the word. “Name and business, please, or be on your way.”
Tavi drew rein on his horse a few feet away from the sentry and nodded to him politely. “Scipio Rufus, of Riva. I’m to serve as subtribune to the Tribune Logistica.”
“Scipio, is it,” the legionare drawled. He pulled a wadded up sheet of paper from a pocket, brushed what looked like bread crumbs from it, and read, “Third subtribune.” He shook his head. “To a post that barely needs a tribune, much less three subbies. You’re in for a world of hurt, little Scipio.”
Tavi narrowed his eyes at the veteran. “Has the Captain Cyril given nonstandard orders with regard to the protocols of rank, legionare?”
The second legionare on duty stepped forward. This one was short, stocky, and like his partner, had a belly that also spoke of little exercise and much beer. “What’s this? Some young Citizen’s puppy thinks he’s better than us enlisted men cause he’s taken one turn around the rose garden with a legion that never marched out of sight of his city?”
“That’s always the way,” drawled the first man. He sneered at Tavi. “I’m sorry, sir. Did you ask me something? Because if you did, something more important bumped it clean out of my head.”
Without a word, Max hopped down off of his horse, seized a short, heavy rod from his saddlebag, and laid it across the bridge of the first sentry’s nose with a blow that knocked the large man from his feet and slammed his back onto the dirt.
The second sentry fumbled at his spear, the tip of the weapon dipping toward the unarmored Max. The young man seized it in one hand, locking it in place as immovably as if within stone, and swung the smaller sentry into the wooden palisade with such force that the entire section rocked and wobbled. The sentry bounced off and to the ground, and before he could rise, Max thrust the end of his wooden baton beneath the man’s chin and pushed. The smaller sentry let out a choking sound and froze in place on his back.
“Sir,” Max drawled lazily to Tavi. “You’ll have to forgive Nonus,” a thrust of the stick made the smaller man let out a croaking squeak, “and Bortus, here.” Max’s boot nudged the first sentry’s ribs. The man didn’t even twitch. “They managed to buy their way out of being cashiered out of Third Antillan a few years back, and I guess they just weren’t smart enough to remember that a lack of proper respect for officers was what got them into trouble in the first place.”
“Antillar,” choked the smaller man.
“I’m not speaking to you yet, Nonus,” Max said, poking his centurion’s baton into the underside of the legionare’s chin. “But I’m glad you recognize me. Makes it convenient to tell you that I’m serving as centurion here, and I’ll be in charge of weapons training. You and Bortus just volunteered to be the target dummies for my first batch of fish.” His voice hardened. “Who is your centurion?”
“Valiar Marcus,” the man gasped.
“Marcus! Could have sworn he retired. I’ll have a word with him about it.” He leaned down and said, “Assuming that’s alright with Subtribune Scipio. He’s within his rights to go straight to lashes if he’d like it.”
“But I didn’t . . .” Nonus sputtered. “Bortus was the one who–“
Max leaned on the baton a little harder, and Nonus stopped talking with a little, squealing hiccup of sound. The big Antillan looked over his shoulder at Tavi and winked. “What’s your pleasure, sir?”
Tavi shook his head, and it was an effort to keep the smile from his face. “No point in lashes yet, centurion. We won’t have anything to build up to, later.” He leaned over and peered at the larger, unconscious legionare. The man was breathing, but his nose was swelling and obviously broken. Both of his eyes had already been ringed with magnificent, dark purple bruises. He turned to the man Max had left conscious. “Legionare Nonus, is it? When your relief arrives, take your friend to the physician. When he wakes up, remind him what happened, hmmm? And suggest to him that at least while on sentry duty, greeting arriving officers with proper decorum should perhaps be considered of somewhat more importance than taunting puppies raised in rose gardens. Alright?”
Max jabbed the baton into Nonus again. The legionare nodded frantically.
“Good man,” Tavi said, then clucked to his horse, riding on without so much as looking over his shoulder.
He only got to hear Magnus descend from his own mount, fuss for a moment over the state of his saddlebags, and then present his papers to the prostrate sentry. He cleared his throat and sniffed, “Magnus. Senior valet to the captain and his staff. I can’t abide the state of your uniform. My bloody crows, this fabric is simply ridiculous. Does it always smell so bad? Or is that just you? And these stains. How on earth did you manage to . . . no, no, don’t tell me. I simply don’t want to know.”
Max burst out into his familiar roar of laughter, and a moment later he and Magnus caught up to Tavi. The pair of them rode through row after row of white canvas tents. Some of them looked legion-perfect. Others sagged and drooped, doubtless the quarters of fresh recruits still finding their way.
Tavi was surprised at how loud the place was. Men’s voices shouted to be heard over the din. A grimy, blind beggar woman sat beside the camp’s main lane, playing a reed flute for tiny coins from passersby. Work teams dug ditches and hauled wood, singing as they did. Tavi could hear a blacksmith’s hammers ringing steadily nearby. A grizzled old veteran drilled a full cohort — four centuries of eighty recruits each – at the basic sword strokes Tavi had learned so recently, facing one another in a pair of long lines and going through drilled movements by numbers barked by the veteran, shouting in response as they swung. The strokes were slow and hesitant, incorrect movements aborted in mid-motion to follow the instructor. Even as he watched, Tavi saw a rudius slip from the hands of a recruit and slam into the kneecap of the man beside him. The stricken recruit howled, hopping on one leg, and blundered into the man on his other side, knocking half a dozen recruits to the ground.
“Ah,” Tavi said. “Fish.”
“Fish,” Max agreed. “It should be safe to talk here,” he added. “There’s enough noise to make listening in difficult.”
“I could have handled those two, Max,” Tavi said quietly.
“But an officer wouldn’t,” Max said. “Centurions are the ones who break heads when legionares get out of line. Especially troublemakers like Nonus and Bortus.”
“You know them,” Tavi said.
“Mmmm. Served with them, the slives. Lazy, loud, greedy, drunken, brawling apes, the both of them.”
“They didn’t seem happy to see you.”
“We once had a discussion about the proper way to treat a lady in camp.”
“How did that turn out?” Tavi asked.
“Like today, but with more teeth on the ground,” Max said.
Tavi shook his head. “And men like that are given status as veterans. They draw higher pay.”
“Outside a battle line they aren’t worth the cloth it would stain to clean their blood off a knife.” Max shook his head and glanced back at them. “But they’re fighters. They know their work, and they’ve been in the middle of some bad business without folding. That’s why they got out under voluntary departure rather than forced discharge for conduct unbecoming a legionare.”
“And it also explains why they’re here,” Magnus added. “According to the records, they’re honorable veterans willing to start with a fresh legion—and that kind of experience is priceless for training recruits and steadying their lines in battle. They know they’ll have seniority, that they won’t have to do the worst of the work, and that they’ll get better pay.”
Max snorted. “And don’t forget, this legion is working up in the bloody Amaranth Vale. Plenty of freemen would kill to live down here.” Max gestured around them. “No snow, or not to speak of. No rough weather. No wild, rogue furies. Lots of food, and they probably think this is a token legion which will never see real action.”
Tavi shook his head. “Aren’t men like that going to be bad for the legion as a whole?”
Magnus smiled a little and shook his head. “Not under Captain Cyril. He lets his centurions maintain discipline in whatever way they see fit.”
Max twirled his baton with a sunny smile.
Tavi pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Will all the veterans be like them?”
Max shrugged. “I suspect that most of the High Lords will do everything in their power to keep their most experienced men close to home. No legion has too many veterans, but they all have too many slives like Nonus and Bortus.”
“So you’re saying the only men in this legion will be incompetent fish – “
“Of which you are one,” Max said. “Technically speaking, sir.”
“Of which I am one,” Tavi allowed. “and malcontents.”
“And spies,” the Maestro added. “Anyone competent and friendly is likely a spy.”
Max grunted. “They can’t all be rotten. And if Valiar Marcus is here, I suspect we’ll find some other solid centurions where he came from. We’ll slap the scum around enough to keep them in line, and work the fish until they shape up. Every legion has this kind of problem when it forms.”
The Maestro shook his head. “Not to such a dramatic degree.”
Max shrugged a shoulder without disagreeing. “It’ll come together. Just takes time.”
Tavi nodded ahead of them, to a tent three or four times the size of any others, though it was made of the same plain canvas as all the rest. Two sides of the tent were rolled up, leaving the interior open to anyone passing by. Several men were inside. “That’s the captain’s tent?”
Max frowned. “It’s in the right place. But they’re usually bigger. Fancier.”
Magnus let out a chuckle. “That’s Cyril’s style.”
Tavi drew his mount to a halt and glanced around him. A slim gentleman of middle age appeared, dressed in a plain grey tunic. The eagle-sigil of the crown had been stitched into the tunic over his heart, divided down the middle into blue and red halves. “Let me take those for you, gentleman.” He glanced at each of them and then abruptly smiled at the Maestro. “Magnus, I take it?”
“My fame precedes me,” the Maestro said. He pushed the heels of his hands against the small of his back and winced, stretching. “You have the advantage of me.”
The man saluted, fist to heart, legion-fashion. “Lorico, sir. Valet. I’ll be working for you.” He waved, and a young page came over to take the horses.
Magnus nodded and traded grips with the man, forearm to forearm. “Pleased to meet you. This is Subtribune Scipio Rufus. Centurion Antillar Maximus.”
Lorico saluted them as well. “The Captain is having his first general staff meeting, sirs, if you’d care to go inside.”
Max nodded to them. “Lorico, could you direct me to my billet?”
“Begging your pardon, centurion, but the Captain asked that you attend as well.”
Max lifted his eyebrows, and gestured to Tavi. “Sir.”
Tavi nodded and entered the tent, glancing around the place. A plain legionare’s bedroll sat neatly atop a battered old standard-issue travel chest. They were the only evidence of anyone residing in the tent. Several writing tables stood against the walls of the tent, though their three-legged camp stools had been drawn to the tent’s middle, and were occupied by one woman and half a dozen men. There were another score or so of armored men crowded into the space the tent provided, all of them arranged in a loose half-circle around an unremarkable-looking bald man in armor worn over a grey tunic. Captain Cyril.
Legion armor always made a man’s shoulders look wide, but the Cyril’s looked almost deformed beneath the pauldrons. His forearms were bare, scarred, the skin stretched tight over cords of muscle. His armor bore the same red-and-blue eagle insignia Tavi had seen on Lorico’s tunic, somehow embedded into the steel.
Tavi stepped aside to let Magnus and Max enter, and the three of them came to attention while Lorico announced them. “Subtribune Scipio, Astoris Magnus and Antillar Maximus, sir.”
Cyril looked up from the paper he held in his hand and nodded to them. “Good timing, gentlemen. Welcome.” He gestured for them to join the circle around him. “Please.”
“My name is Ritius Cyril,” he continued, after they had joined the circle. “Many of you know me. For those who don’t, I was born in Placida, but my home is here, in the legions. I have served terms as a legionare in Phrygia, Riva and Antillus, and as a marine in Parcia. I served as a Knight Ferrous in Antillus, as a Tribune Auxiliarus, Tribune Tactica and Knight Tribune, as well as Legion Subtribune. I have seen action against the Icemen, the Canim, and the Marat. This is my first legion command.” He paused to look around the room steadily, then said, “Gentlemen, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of pioneers. No legion like this one has ever existed. Some of you may be expecting to serve in a token fighting force—a political symbol, where the work will be light, and where the business of war will seldom cross paths with us.
“If so, you are mistaken,” he said, and his voice turned slightly crisp. “Make no mistake. I intend to train this Legion to be the equal of any in the realm. There is a great deal of work ahead of us, but I will ask nothing more from any of you than I do of myself.
“Further, I am as aware as any of you of the various agendas of the lords and Senators who supported the founding of this legion. Lest there be any misunderstandings, you should all know now that I have no patience for politics and little tolerance for fools. This is a legion. Our business is war, the defense of the realm. I will not allow anyone’s games to interfere with business. If you are here with your own agenda, or if you have no stomach for hard work, I expect you to resign, here and now, and be gone after breakfast tomorrow.” His gaze swept the room again. “Are there any takers?”
Tavi arched a brow at the man, impressed. Few would dare to speak so plainly to the Citizenry which made up most of the officers of every legion. Tavi glanced around the gathering of listeners. None of them moved or spoke, though Tavi saw uncomfortable expressions on several faces. Evidently, they were no more used to being spoken to in no uncertain terms than Tavi was to hearing them so addressed.
Cyril waited for a moment more, then said, “No? Then I will expect you all to do everything in your power fulfill your duties. Just as I will do all in my power to aid and support you. That said, introductions are in order.”
Cyril went around the room and delivered terse introductions of each person there. Tavi took particular note of a beefy-looking man named Gracchus, Tribune Logistica and Tavi’s immediate commander. Another man, a weathered-looking veteran whose face had never been pretty even before all the scars, was identified as Valiar Marcus, the First Spear, the most senior centurion of the legion. When Cyril reached the end of the introductions, he said, “And we have been the beneficiaries of some unanticipated good fortune,” Cyril said. “Gentlemen, some of you know her already, but may I present to you Antillus Dorotea, the High Lady Antillus.”
A woman rose from where she sat on the stool in a grey dress which bore the First Aleran’s red and blue eagle over the heart. She was slim, of medium height, and her long, fine, straight dark hair clung to her head and shone as if wet. Her features were narrow and vaguely familiar to Tavi.
Beside him, Max sucked in a startled breath.
Captain Cyril bowed politely to Lady Antillus, and she gave him a grave inclination of her head in response. “Her Grace has offered her services as a watercrafter and healer for the duration of our first deployment,” Cyril continued. “You all know that this is not her first term of service with the Legions as a Tribune Medica.”
Tavi arched an eyebrow. A High Lady, here in the camp? That was anything but ordinary for a legion, despite anything the Captain might have said to the contrary. The high blood of Alera wielded an enormous amount of power by virtue of their incredible talent of furycrafting. A single High Lord, Tavi had been told, had the strength of an entire century of Knights, and Antillus, one of the two cities that defended the great northern Shield Wall, was renowned for its skill and tenacity in battle.
“I know it isn’t traditional, but I’ll be meeting with each of you separately to take your oaths. I’ll send for each of you over the next day or two. Meanwhile, Lorico has your duty assignments and will show you to your billets. I would be pleased if you all would join me at my table for evening meals. Dismissed.”
Those seated on stools rose, and the men parted politely to let Lady Antillus leave first. There were a few murmurs as they left, each taking a leather message tube from Lorico.
“Go on, lads,” Magnus murmured to them without even opening his leather tube. “I’ll get started here. Good luck to you both.” He smiled and stepped back into the captain’s tent.
Tavi walked away with Max, and read his orders. Simple enough. He was to report to Tribune Gracchus and assist with the management of the legion’s stores and inventory. “He was different than I expected,” Tavi said.
“Hmmm?” Max asked.
“The captain,” Tavi said. “I thought he’d be more like Count Gram. Or perhaps Sir Miles.”
Max grunted, and Tavi frowned at his friend. The big Antillan’s face was pale and his brow was beaded with sweat. That was hardly new to Tavi, who had nursed Max out of hangovers more than once. But now he saw something different in his friend’s face, behind the distraction in his expression. Fear.
Max was afraid.
“Max?” Tavi asked, keeping his voice low. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Max said, the word quiet and clipped.
“Lady Antillus?” Tavi asked. “Is she your . . . “
“Stepmother,” Max said.
“Is that why she’s here? Because of you?”
Max’s eyes shifted left and right. “Partially. But if she’s come all this way, it’s because my brother is here. It’s the only reason she’d come.”
Tavi frowned. “You’re scared.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Max said, though there was no heat in the tone. “No I’m not.”
Something vicious came into Max’s voice. “Leave off, Calderon, or I’ll break your neck.”
Tavi stopped in his tracks and blinked at his friend.
Max froze a few steps later. He turned his head a bit to one side, and Tavi could see his friend’s broken-nosed profile. “Sorry. Scipio, sir.”
Tavi nodded once. “Can I help?”
Max shook his head. “I’m going to go find a drink. A lot of drinks.”
“Is that wise?” Tavi asked him.
“Heh,” Max said. “Who wants to live forever?”
“If I can—“
“You can’t help,” Max said. “Nobody can.” Then he stalked away without looking back.
Tavi frowned after his friend, frustrated and worried for him. But he could not force Max to tell him anything if his friend didn’t want to do so. He could do nothing but wait for Max to talk about it.
He wished Kitai was here to talk to.
Until then, he had a job to do. Tavi read his orders again, recalled the camp layout Max and the Maestro had made him memorize, and went to work.