Isana awoke to a sensation of emptiness in the rough straw mattress beside her. Her back felt cold. Her senses were a confused blur of shouts and odd lights, and it took her a moment to push away the sleepy disorientation enough to recognize the sounds around her.
Boots raced on hard earth, the steps of many men. Grizzled centurions bellowed orders. Metal scraped on metal, armored legionares walking together, brushing one another in small collisions of pauldrons, greaves, swords, shields, steel armor bands. Children were crying. Somewhere, not far away, a war-trained horse let out a frantic, ferocious scream of panic and eagerness. She could hear its handler trying to speak to it in low, even tones.
A breath later, the tension pressed in on her watercrafter’s senses, a tidal flood of emotion more powerful than anything she had sensed in the dozen or so years since she and Rill, her water fury, had found one another. Foremost in that vicious surge was fear. The men around her were terrified for their lives—the Crown Legion, the most experienced, well-trained force in Alera, was drowning in fear. Other emotions rushed with it. Primarily excitement, then determination and anger. Beneath them ran darker currents of what she could only describe as lust—and of another emotion, one so quiet that she might not have noticed it at all but for its steady and growing presence; resignation.
Though she did not know what was happening, she knew the men of the legion around her were preparing to die.
She stumbled up off the mattress, dressed in nothing but her skin, and managed to find her blouse, dress, and tunic. She twisted her hair into a knot, though it made her shoulders and back ache abominably to do it. She took up her plain woolen cloak and bit her lip, wondering what she should do next.
“Guard?” she called, her voice tentative.
A man entered the large tent immediately, dressed in armor identical to that worn by the rest of the legionares, save perhaps for sporting an inordinate number of dents and scratches. His presence was a steady mix of perfect confidence, steely calm, and controlled, rational fear. He stripped his helmet off with one hand, and Isana recognized Araris Valerian, personal armsman to the Princeps.
“My lady,” he said, with a bow of his head.
Isana felt her cheeks flush and her hand drifted to the silver chain around her throat, touching the ring that hung upon it beneath her clothing. Then she moved it down, to rest on the round, swollen tightness of her belly. “I’m hardly your lady,” she told him. “You owe me no fealty.”
For a moment, Araris’ eyes sparkled. “My lady,” he repeated, with gentle emphasis. “My lord’s duties press him. He bid me find you in his stead.”
Isana’s back twinged again, and if that wasn’t enough, the baby stirred with his usual restless energy, as though he heard the sounds in the night and recognized them. “Araris, my sister . . .”
“Already here,” he said, his tone reassuring. The unremarkable-looking young man turned to beckon with one hand, and Isana’s little sister hurried into the tent, covered in Araris’ own large grey traveling cloak.
Alia flew to Isana at once, and she hugged her little sister tightly. She was a tiny thing who had taken after their mother, all sweetness and feminine curves, and her hair was the color of fresh honey. At sixteen, she was an aching temptation to many of the legionares and men among the camp followers, but Isana had protected her as fiercely as she knew how. “Isana,” Alia panted, breathless. “What’s happening?”
Isana was nearly ten years her sister’s senior. Alia’s furycrafting talents, like Isana’s, ran to water, and she knew that the girl would hardly be able to remember her own name under the pressure of the emotions rising around them.
“Hush, and remember to slow your breathing,” she whispered to Alia, and looked up at Araris. “Rari?”
“The Marat are attacking the valley,” he replied, his voice calm and precise. “They’ve already breached the outpost at the far end and are marching this way. Horses are being brought for you. You and the other freemen of the camp are to retreat toward Riva at all speed.”
Isana drew in a breath. “Retreat? Are the Marat really so many? But why? How?”
“Don’t worry, my lady,” Araris said. “We’ve handled worse.”
But Isana could see it in the man’s eyes, hear it quavering in his voice. He was lying.
Araris expected to die.
“Where?” she asked him. “Where is he?”
Araris grimaced and said, “The horses are ready, my lady. If you would come this w—“
Isana lifted her chin and strode out past the armsman, looking left and right. The camp was in chaos—or at least, the followers in the legion’s camp were. The legionares themselves were moving with haste, with anxiety, but also with precision and discipline, and Isana could see the ranks forming along the palisade around the camp. “Do I need to go find him myself, Rari?”
His tone remained even and polite, but Isana could sense the fond annoyance behind his reply. “As you wish, my lady.” He turned to the two grooms holding the reins of nervous horses nearby, flicked a hand and said, “You two, with me.” He started striding toward the eastern side of the camp. “Ladies, if you will come this way. We must make haste. I do not know when the horde will arrive, and every moment may be precious.”
And it was then that Isana saw war for the first time.
Arrows flew from the darkness. One of the grooms screamed, though he was drowned out by the cries of the horse whose reins he held. Isana turned, her heartbeat suddenly a thunder in her ears, everything moving slowly. She saw the groom stagger and fall, a white-feathered Marat arrow protruding from his belly. The horse screamed and thrashed its head, trying to dislodge the arrow sunk into a long line of muscle in its neck.
Cries came from the darkness. Marat warriors, pale-haired, pale-skinned, erupted from the beds of supply wagons brought into the camp earlier in the afternoon, brandishing weapons of what looked like blackened glass and stone.
Araris turned and moved like lightning. Isana could only stare in shock as three more arrows flickered toward her. Araris’ sword shattered them to splinters, and a casual flick of one his steel-encased hands prevented even those from striking her face. He met the group of howling Marat, and walked through them like a man in a crowded market, shoulders and hips twisting, bobbing up onto his toes to slide between passersby, turning a neat pirouette to avoid stumbling over something on the ground.
When he stopped, every one of the Marat lay on the ground, food for the crows.
He flicked his sword to one side, cleaning it of blood, sheathed it, and extended his hand as though nothing of note had happened. “This way, my lady.”
* * * * *
“This way, my lady,” murmured a low, richly masculine voice, “we needn’t worry about being too long parted. I’m sure you can see the advantages.”
Isana jerked her head up from where she had dozed off in the comfortable seating within the litter the Aquitaines had sent to fly her down from Isanaholt. The vivid dream, full of the details of memory, lingered for longer than it usually did. Dreams of that last night had repeated themselves endlessly for the last two years. The fear, the confusion, the crushing weight of guilt replayed themselves to her mind as though she had never felt them before. As though she was innocent again.
She was sick of it.
And yet the dreams also restored to her those brief moments of joy, the heady excitement of those springtime days of youth. For those few seconds, she did not know what she did now. She had a sister again.
She had a husband. Love.
“I just bought you a brand new girl, Attis,” teased a woman’s voice from outside the litter, the tone clear and confident. “You’ll be amused until I return.”
“She’s lovely,” said the man. “But she’s not you.” His tone turned wry. “Unlike the last one.”
The door to the air coach opened, and Isana had to call upon Rill to halt tears from filling her eyes. Isana’s fingers touched the shape of the ring beneath her blouse, still on the chain around her neck. Unlike herself, it had remained bright and untarnished by the passage of years.
She shook away the remnants of the dream as best she could and forced her thoughts back to the moment.
High Lord Aquitainus Attis, who five years ago had perpetrated a plot resulting in the deaths of hundreds of her neighbors in the Calderon Valley, opened the coach door and nodded pleasantly to Isana. He was a lion of a man, combining grace of motion in balance with physical power. His mane of dark golden hair fell to his shoulders, and nearly black eyes glittered with intelligence. He moved with perfect confidence, and his furycrafting was unmatched by anyone in the realm, save perhaps the First Lord himself.
“Steadholder,” he said politely, nodding to Isana.
She nodded back to him, though she felt her neck stiffening as she did. She did not trust herself to sound civil when speaking to him, and so remained silent.
“I quite enjoy my holidays abroad,” murmured the woman, her voice now near at hand. “And I am perfectly capable of looking after myself. Besides. You have your own work to do.”
The woman entered the coach and settled down on the opposite bench. High Lady Aquitainus Invidia looked every inch the model of the elite Citizenry, pale, dark-haired, tall and regal. Though Isana knew that Lady Aquitaine was in her forties, like her husband and Isana herself, she looked barely twenty. Like all blessed with sufficient power at watercrafting, she enjoyed the ongoing appearance of youth. “Good evening, Isana.”
“My lady,” Isana murmured. Though she had no more love for the woman than she did for Lord Aquitaine, she could at least manage to speak politely to her, if not warmly.
Invidia turned to her husband and leaned forward to kiss him. “Don’t go staying up to all hours. You need your rest.”
He arched a golden brow. “I am a High Lord of Alera, not some foolish academ.”
“And vegetables,” she said, as if he hadn’t spoken. “Don’t gorge yourself on meats and sweets and ignore your vegetables.”
Aquitaine frowned. “I suppose you’ll act like this the entire time if I insist upon joining you?”
She smiled sweetly at him.
He rolled his eyes, gave her a quick kiss, and said, “Impossible woman. Very well, have it your way.”
“Naturally,” she said. “Farewell, my lord.”
He inclined his head to her, nodded at Isana, shut the door and withdrew. He thumped the side of the litter twice and said, “Captain, take care of them.”
“My lord,” replied a male voice from outside the door, and the Knights Aeris lifted the litter. The winds rose to the low, steady roar that had become familiar to Isana in the last two years, and unseen force pressed her against her seat as the litter leapt into the skies.
Several moments passed in silence, during which Isana leaned her head against her cushion and closed her eyes, in the hopes that the pretense of sleep would prevent the need for conversation with Lady Aquitaine. Her hopes were in vain.
“I apologize for the length of the trip,” Lady Aquitaine said after a few moments. “But the high winds are always tricky at this season, and this year they are particularly dangerous. We must therefore fly much lower than we usually would.”
Isana did not voice the thought that it was still a great deal higher than a walk along the ground. “Does it make a difference?” she asked without opening her eyes.
“It is more difficult to stay aloft closer to the earth, and more difficult to fly quickly,” Lady Aquitaine replied. “My Knights Aeris must count the journey in miles instead of leagues, and given the number of stops we must make to visit my supporters, it will take us a great deal longer to reach our destination.”
Isana sighed. “How much longer?”
“Most of three weeks, I am told. And that is an optimistic estimate which assumes fresh teams of Knights Aeris await us at way stations.”
Three weeks. Rather too long a time to pretend to be asleep without openly insulting her patron. Though Isana knew her value to the Aquitaines, and knew that she could afford to avoid the usual fawning and scraping such powerful patrons required, there were limits she would be ill-advised to press. Consequently, she opened her eyes.
Lady Aquitaine curled her rich mouth into a smile. “I thought you would appreciate the information. You’d look rather silly sitting there with your eyes closed the whole way.”
“Of course not, my lady,” Isana said. “Why would I do such a thing?”
Invidia’s eyes hardened for a moment. Then she said, “I am given to understand that you plan a small reunion with your family in Ceres.”
“After the meeting with the League, of course,” Isana said. “I have been assured of alternate travel arrangements back to Calderon, if my plans should inconvenience you.”
Invidia’s cool features blossomed into a small, even genuine smile. “Hardly anyone fences with me any more, Isana. I’ve actually looked forward to this trip.”
“As have I, my lady. I have missed my family.”
Invidia laughed again. “I shall ask little of you beyond our visits with my supporters and the League meeting,” she said. Then she tilted her head to one side and leaned forward slightly. “Though you have not been apprised of the meeting’s agenda.”
Isana tilted her head.
“Gracchus Albus and his staff have been invited to attend.”
“The Senator Primus,” she murmured. Then her eyes widened. “The emancipation proposal to the Senate?”
Lady Aquitaine sighed. “If only the rest of the League perceived the significance as well as you.”
“They should spend time running a Steadholt,” Isana said, her tone wry. “It makes one acutely aware of the extended consequences of small but significant actions.”
The High Lady moved one shoulder in a shrug. “Perhaps you are correct.”
“Will Gracchus support the proposal?”
“He has never been a foe of the abolitionist movement. His wife, daughter and mistresses assure me that he will,” Lady Aquitaine said.
Isana frowned. She disapproved of such manipulations, though it was the Dianic League’s first and favorite tool. “And the Senate?”
“Impossible to say for certain,” Lady Aquitaine said. “There is no knowing what debts may be called in on such an important issue. But enough to make a real fight of it. For the first time in Aleran history, Isana, we may abolish the institution of slavery. Forever.”
Isana frowned in thought. It was indeed a worthy goal, and one which would rally the support of folk of conscience everywhere. Slaves in most of the realm faced a grim lot in life — hard labor and little chance of ever working their way free, even though the law required owners to sell a slave’s freedom should he ever earn his (or her) buying price. Female slaves had no recourse to the uses their bodies were put to, though neither did males, when it came to it. Children were all born free, legally at least, though most owners employed various forms of taxation or indenture for them which amounted to outright enslavement from birth.
The laws of the realm were supposed to protect slaves, to limit the institution to those who had been willing to enter bondage and who could, in time, repay their indenture and walk free again. But corruption and political influence allowed each High Lord to virtually ignore the laws and to treat slaves in whatever fashion each saw fit. In the time since she had become Lady Aquitaine’s ally in the Dianic League, Isana had learned more than she had ever dreamed about the abuses slaves suffered in much of the Realm. She had thought her own encounter with the slaver Kord was nightmarish enough to last a lifetime. She had been sickened to learn that in much of the rest of the realm, his conduct was but marginally worse than average.
The Dianic League, an organization consisting solely of female Citizens of the realm—those with status, influence, but little actual, legal power–had struggled for years to engender support for the abolishment of slavery. For the first time, they were in a position to cause it to be, for while the High Lords and the First Lord controlled the military assets of the Realm, the criminal codes of Alera, and the enforcement of civil law, it was left to the elected Senate to create and administrate those laws.
Slavery had been a civil institution since its inception, and the Senate had the power to pass new laws regarding slavery – or to abolish it altogether. The Dianic League considered it the first step toward gaining legal parity for the women of the realm.
Isana frowned. Though Lady Invidia had always been true to her word and her obligations as patron, Isana harbored no illusions that she had any personal interest in emancipation. Even so, it was difficult for Isana to resist the inherent lure in the accomplishment of such a dream, the destruction of such an injustice.
But then, she was hardly in any condition to think with the cool, detached logic required by politics. Not with a reunion with her loved ones so near at hand. Isana wanted nothing so much as to see Tavi again, whole and well — though the uncomfortable silences resulting from slips in conversation, when one of them mentioned something loosely related to politics or loyalty made it a somewhat bittersweet proposition. She wanted to speak with her brother again. Between running the steadholt and the infrequent but regular voyages from her home on behalf of Invidia Aquitaine, there had been fewer and fewer opportunities to get together with her little brother. She missed him.
The irony in traveling halfway across the Realm to break bread with them again – and taken there by the Aquitaines, no less — was not lost on Isana. Neither was the sobering reality that she had brought it all upon herself, by allying herself with her current patron, one with ruthless, ambitious designs upon the Crown.
Even so, Isana forced herself to push her family from her thoughts and to regard the situation with detached intellect. What did the Aquitaines have to gain by outlawing slavery?
“This isn’t about freedom,” she murmured aloud. “Not for you. It’s about crippling Kalare’s economy. Without slave labor, he’ll never profit from his farmlands. He’ll be too busy fighting to remain solvent to rival your husband for the Crown.”
Lady Aquitaine stared at Isana for a moment, her expression unreadable.
Isana did not let her eyes waver from her patron’s. “Perhaps it’s just as well that many in the League do not perceive as much as I do.”
Lady Aquitaine’s expression remained detached. “Do I have your support – and confidence — in the matter or not?”
“Yes. As I promised,” Isana said. She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes again. “Nothing I do can stop you from scheming. If some good can be accomplished along the way, I see no reason not to attempt it.”
“Excellent,” Lady Aquitaine said. “And practical of you.” She paused for a thoughtful moment, and Isana could feel the sudden weight of the High Lady’s full attention. “Hardly a freeman in the realm would be able to recognize the situation for what it is, Isana. It makes me wonder where you acquired the necessary perspective for these kinds of politics. Someone must have taught you.”
“I read,” she said, not needing to falsify the weariness in her voice. “Nothing more.” Isana used years of practice and experience to keep any expression from her face, but in the wake of the dream, it was almost painfully difficult to prevent her hand from rising to touch the outline of the ring hanging over her heart.
There was another long silence, and then Lady Aquitaine said, “I suppose I must applaud your scholarship, then.”
The weight of her attention passed, and Isana almost sagged with relief. It was dangerous, lying to the High Lady, whose talent for watercraft and thus for sensing lies and deceptions was greater than even Isana’s own. The woman was capable of torture, of murder, even if she preferred to use less draconian tactics. Isana had no illusions that those preferences were the result of practical logic and self-interest, rather than ethical belief. If necessary to her plans, Lady Aquitaine could kill Isana without batting a long-lashed eyelid.
Should it ever come to that, Isana would die before speaking.
Because some secrets had to be kept.
At any price.