Amara rode atop the swaying back of the towering old gargant bull, going over the plan in her head. The morning sun shone down on her, taking the chill out of the misty air and warming the dark wool of her skirts. Behind her, the axles of the cart squeaked and groaned beneath their loads. The slave collar she wore had begun to chafe on her skin, and she made an irritated mental note to wear one for a few days in order to grow used to it, before the next mission.
Assuming she survived this one, of course.
A tremor of nervous fear ran down her spine, and made her shoulders tighten. Amara took a deep breath and blew it out again, closing her eyes for a moment, and blocking out every thought except for the sensations around her: sunlight on her face, swaying of the pungent gargant’s long strides, creaking of the cart’s axles.
“Nervous?” asked the man walking beside the gargant. A goad dangled from his hand, but he hadn’t lifted it in the entire trip. He managed the beast with the lead straps alone, though his head barely came to the old bull’s brown-furred thigh. He wore the plain clothes of a peddler: brown leggings, sturdy sandals, with a padded jacket over his shirt, dark green on homespun. A long cape, tattered green without embroidery, had been cast over one shoulder as the sun rose higher.
“No,” Amara lied. She opened her eyes again, staring ahead.
Fidelias chuckled. “Liar. It’s not a brainless plan. It might work.”
Amara shot her teacher a wary glance. “But you have a suggestion?”
“In your graduation exercise?” Fidelias asked. “Crows, no. I wouldn’t dream of it, academ. It might invalidate the exercise.”
Amara licked her lips. “But you think that there’s something I should know?”
Fidelias gave her a perfectly guileless look. “I did have a few questions.”
“Questions,” Amara said. “We’re going to be there in a few moments.”
“I can ask them when we arrive, if you prefer.”
“If you weren’t my patriserus, I would find you an impossible man,” Amara sighed. “This is why the Cursor Legate keeps sending you away on missions, I think.”
“It’s a part of my charm,” Fidelias agreed. “Now, then. My first concern–”
“Question,” Amara corrected.
“Question,” he allowed, “is with our cover story.”
“What question? Armies need iron. You’re an ore smuggler and I’m your slave. You heard there was a market out this way and you came to see what money could be made.”
“Ah,” said Fidelias. “And what do I tell them when they ask where I got the ore? It isn’t just found by the roadside, you know.”
“You’re a Cursor Callidus. You’re creative. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Fidelias chuckled. “Delegating skills, at least. So, we approach this renegade Legion with our precious ore.” He nodded back towards the squeaking cart. “What’s to stop them from simply taking it?”
“You’re the harbinger of a smuggling network, representing several interests in the business. Your trip is being watched, and if the results are good, others might be willing to bring supplies as well.”
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Fidelias said, his expression innocent. “If this is indeed a renegade Legion, as rumors say, under the command of one of the High Lords, in preparation for overthrowing the Crown–aren’t they going to object to any word about them getting out? Good, bad, or indifferent?”
“Yes,” Amara said. She glanced down at him. “Which works in our favor. You see, if you don’t return from this little jaunt, word is going to spread all around Alera about this encampment.”
“Inevitable, since word would get out anyway. One can hardly keep an entire Legion secret for long.”
“It’s our best shot,” Amara said. “Can you think of anything better?”
“Yes, offhand. We sneak in close, furycraft ourselves into the camp, obtain evidence, and then run like the crows were after us.”
“Oh,” Amara said. “I had thought of that. I decided it was rather brainless.”
“It has the advantage of simplicity,” Fidelias pointed out. “We recover the information, give solid evidence to the Crown, and let the First Lord launch a more comprehensive anti-sedition campaign.”
“Yes, that’s simpler. But once whoever is running this camp knows that they have been observed by the Crown’s Cursori, they will simply disperse and move their operations elsewhere. The Crown will simply spend money and effort and lives to pin them down again–and even then, whoever is putting out the money to field their own army might simply get away.”
Fidelias glanced up at her, and let out a low whistle. “So you want to get in and out undetected, get word to the Crown and–then what?”
“Lead a few centuries of Knights Aeris back down here and crush them where they lie,” Amara said. “Take prisoners, have them testify against their backers and wrap it all up right here.”
“Ambitious,” he commented. “Very ambitious. Very dangerous, too. If they catch on to us, they’ll kill us. And it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll have Knights as well–and that they’ll be on the lookout for a Cursor or two.”
“That’s why we don’t get caught,” Amara said. “We play the poor, greedy smuggler and his slave, haggle for all the money we can get from them, and leave.”
“And keep the money.” Fidelias frowned. “On general principle, I like any mission that involves a profit. But, Amara–there’s a lot that could go wrong with this one.”
“We are the First Lord’s messengers, are we not? His eyes and ears?”
“Don’t quote the Codex at me,” Fidelias snapped, annoyed. “I was a Cursor before your mother and father had called their first furies. Don’t think that because the First Lord has taken a shine to you that you know better than I do.”
“You don’t think it’s worth the risk?”
“I think there’s a lot you don’t know,” Fidelias said, and he looked very old for some reason. Uncertain. “Let me handle this, Amara. I’ll go inside. You stay here and I’ll pick you up on the way out. There’s no reason to risk both of us.”
“No,” she said. “In the first place, this is my mission to run. In the second, you will need your full attention to play your role. I’ll be able to make observations–especially from up here.” She slapped the gargant’s broad back, and the bull snorted up a small whirlwind of trail dust in response. “I’ll also be able to watch our backs. If I get the impression that they’re onto us, we can get out of there.”
Fidelias muttered, “I thought we’d just use this guise to pose as travelers. Get close and slip into the camp after dark.”
“When no one else is coming in and when we’re certain to arouse suspicion if we’re seen?”
He blew out a breath. “All right,” he said. “All right. We’ll do it your way. But you’re gambling yourself with the crows.”
Amara’s stomach fluttered again, and she pressed a hand to it, trying to will the fear away. It didn’t leave. “No,” she said. “I’m gambling both of us.”
Though the gargant’s plodding steps seemed slow, each covered many strides of a man. The great beast’s stride ate the miles, though it stripped the bushes and trees of leaves along the way, adding to the layers of blubbery fat beneath its hide. If allowed, the humpbacked beast would wander into the richest forage and graze, but Fidelias handled it with a sure and calm hand, keeping the beast moving along the road, while he marched at the quickstep beside it.
A mile more, by Amara’s estimation, and they had come within picket distance of the insurgent Legion’s camp. She tried to remind herself of her role–that of a bored slave, sleepy and tired from days of travel–but it was all she could do to keep the mounting tension from rising in her shoulders and back. What if the Legion turned out to be nothing more than rumor, and her intelligence gathering mission, so carefully outlined and planned, turned out to be a costly waste of time? Would the First Lord think less of her? Would the other Cursori? It would be a paltry introduction into the ranks, indeed, if she stepped forth from the Academy and straight into a monumental blunder.
Her anxiety grew, like bands of iron stretching across her shoulders and back, and her head started to pound from the tension and the glare of the sun. Had they made a wrong turn? The old trail they followed seemed too well-worn to be an abandoned lumber track, but she could be wrong. Wouldn’t they be seeing the smoke of a Legion’s fires? Wouldn’t they hear something, by now, if they were as close as she suspected?
Amara was on the verge of leaning down to call to Fidelias, to ask his advice, when a man in dark tunic and leggings and a gleaming breastplate and helmet melted into view beneath the shadows of a tree on the road no more than ten strides in front of them. He appeared without a warning of any kind, without a flicker of movement–furycrafting involved, then, and a fairly skilled wood working at that. He was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall, and he bore a heavy blade at his side. He lifted one gloved hand and said, his tone bored, distant, “Halt.”
Fidelias clucked to the gargant bull, slowing the beast to a stop after several steps. The wagon creaked and groaned, settling onto its wheels beneath the weight of the ore.
“Good morning to you, master,” Fidelias called, his voice oozing nervous, obsequious good cheer. The senior Cursor doffed his hat and clutched it in his slightly trembling hands. “And how are you doing on this fine autumn morn?”
“You’re on the wrong trail,” said the dark giant. His tone was dull, almost sleepy, but he laid a hand on the hilt of his weapon. “This land is not friendly to travelers. Turn around.”
“Yes, master, of course we will, master,” Fidelias simpered. “I am but a humble peddler, transporting his cargo in the vain hope of finding a ready market. I have no desire for trouble, good master, only for the chance to attempt to recoup my losses on this most excellent but lamentably ill-timed bounty of–” Fidelias rolled his eyes skyward and dragged one foot through the dust of the trail. “Iron.” He shot the giant a sly smile. “But, as you wish, good master. I’ll be on my way.”
The dark man stepped forward and said, “Hold, merchant.”
Fidelias glanced back at him. “Master?” he asked. “Can I perhaps interest you in a purchase?”
The dark man shrugged. He stopped a few feet from Fidelias and asked, “How much ore.”
“Nearly a ton, good master. As you can see, my poor gargant is all but done in.”
The man grunted, eyeing the beast, and swept his gaze up it, to Amara. “Who is this?”
“My slave, good master,” Fidelias said. His voice took on a cringing, wheedling tone. “She’s for sale, if you like the look of her, master. A hard worker, skilled at weaving and cooking–and more than capable of giving a man an unforgettable night’s pleasure. At two lions, she’s surely a bargain.”
The man snorted. “Your hard worker rides while you walk, merchant. It would have been smarter for you to travel alone.” He sniffed. “And she’s as skinny as a boy. Take your beast and follow me.”
“You wish to buy, master?”
The soldier gave him a look and said, “I didn’t ask you, merchant. Follow me.”
Fidelias stared at the soldier, and then swallowed, an almost audible gulp. “Aye, aye, master. We’ll be only a pace or three behind you. Come on old boy.” He picked up the gargant’s lead straps in shaking fingers and stirred the great beast into motion again.
The soldier grunted and turned to start walking back down the road. He let out a sharp whistle, and a dozen men armed with bows appeared from the shadows and brush one the sides of the trail, just as he had a moment before.
“Keep the men here until I return,” the man said. “Stop anyone from coming past.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the men said. Amara focused on that one. The men all wore the same outfits: black tunics and breeches with surcoats of dark green and dark brown. The speaker, in addition, wore a black sash around his waist–as the first soldier had. Amara checked around, but none of the other men wore a sash–only those two. She made a mental note of it. Knights? Possibly. One of them had to have been a strong woodcrafter, to have hidden so many men so thoroughly.
Crows, she thought. What if this rebel Legion turns out to have a full contingent of Knights to go with it? With that many men, that many powerful furycrafters, they could be a threat to any city in Alera.
And, as a corollary, it would mean that the Legion had powerful backing. Any furycrafter strong enough to be a Knight could command virtually what price he wished for his services. They could not be casually bought by any disgruntled merchant set to convince his Lord or High Lord to lower taxes. Only the nobility could afford the cost of hiring a few Knights, let alone a contingent of them.
Amara shivered. If one of the High Lords was preparing to turn against the First Lord, then there were dark days ahead indeed.
She looked down at Fidelias, and he glanced up at her, his face troubled. She thought she could see the reflection of her own thoughts and fears, there in his eyes. She wanted to talk to Fidelias, to ask his for his thoughts on the matter, but she couldn’t break her role now. Amara ground her teeth and dug her fingers into the pad of the gargant’s riding saddle, and tried to calm herself again, while the soldier led them to the camp.
Amara kept her eyes open as the gargant’s plodding steps brought them around a bend in the trail, and over a small hill, into the valley beyond and behind it. There, the camp spread out before them.
Great furies, she thought. It looks like a city.
Her mind took down details as she stared. The camp had been constructed along standard Legion lines: a stake-wall and ditch fortification built in a huge square, surrounding the soldier’s encampment and stores. Tents of white fabric had been erected within, row after row of them, too many for easy counting, laid out in neat, precise rows. Two gates, opposite one another, led into the camp. The tents and lean-tos of the camp’s followers spread out around it in ragged disarray, like flies buzzing around a sleeping beast.
People were everywhere.
On a practice field beside the camp, entire cohorts of men were drilling in formation combat and maneuvers, ordered about by bawling centurions or men in black sashes mounted on horseback. Elsewhere, archers riddled distant targets with their arrows, while furymasters drilled other recruits in the application of their basic warcraftings. Women moved among the camp, as well–washing clothes at a stream that passed by, mending uniforms, tending fires, or simply enjoying the morning sunlight. Amara saw a couple of women wearing sashes of black, on horseback, riding towards the practice field. Dogs wandered about the camp, and set up a tinny racket of barking upon scenting the gargant as it came over the hill. To one side of the camp, not far from the stream, men and women had established what looked like a small market, vendors hawking wares from makeshift stalls and spread them upon blankets on the ground.
“You’re here between breakfast and lunch,” said the soldier. “Or I’d offer you some food.”
“Perhaps we’ll take lunch with you, master,” Fidelias said.
“Perhaps.” The soldier stopped, and looked up at Amara, studying her with quiet, hard eyes. “Get her down. I’ll send out a groom or two to care for your beast.”
“No,” insisted Fidelias. “I’ll be keeping my goods with me.”
The soldier grunted. “There’s horses at the camp, and they’ll go mad if they smell this thing. It stays here.”
“Then I stay here,” insisted Fidelias.
“The slave then,” he said. “She can stay here with the beast and keep him quiet. He’d spook if strange hands cared for him.”
The soldier squinted at him, hard and suspicious. “What are you up to, old man?”
“Up to? I’m protecting my interests, master, as any merchant would.”
“You are in our camp. Your interests are no longer an issue. Are they.” The soldier put no particular emphasis on his words, but he laid one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Fidelias drew himself up, voice shocked and outraged. “You wouldn’t dare.”
The soldier smiled. His smile was hard.
Fidelias licked his lips. Then shot a glance up at Amara. She thought she saw something in it, some kind of warning, but he only said, “Girl. Get down.”
Amara slid down off of the back of the beast, using the leather straps to help lower herself down its flanks. Fidelias clucked to it and jerked down on its straps, and the gargant settled lazily to earth with a contented rumble that shook the ground nearby. It leaned its great head over, tore up a mouthful of grass, and began chewing on it, huge eyes half-closed.
“Follow me,” the soldier said. “You too, slave. If either of you gets more than three strides away from me, I’ll kill you both. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” said Fidelias.
“I understand, master,” echoed Amara, keeping her eyes lowered. They followed the soldier then, and crossed the stream at a shallow ford. The water was cold and flowed quickly over Amara’s ankles. She shivered, gooseflesh racing up and down her legs and arms, but kept pace with Fidelias and the soldier.
Her mentor dropped back beside her and murmured, very low, “Did you see how many tents?”
She jerked her head in a nod. “Close.”
“Well kept and neat, too. This isn’t a gang of malcontent steadholders. Professional military.”
Amara nodded, and whispered, “Serious money behind them. Is it enough for the First Lord to bring it to the Council?”
“An accusation without anyone to accuse?” Fidelias grimaced and shook his head. “No. We have to have something that incriminates someone behind it. Doesn’t have to be iron clad, but we need something tangible.”
“Do you recognize our escort?”
Fidelias shot her a look. “Why? Do you?”
Amara shook her head. “I’m not sure. Something about him seems familiar.”
The other nodded. “They call him the Sword.”
Amara felt her eyes widen. “Aldrick ex Gladius? Are you sure?”
“I’ve seen him in the capital, in the past. I saw his duel with Araris Valerian.”
Amara glanced up at the man ahead of them, careful to keep her voice down. “He’s supposed to be the greatest swordsman alive.”
“Yes,” said Fidelias. “He is.” Then he cuffed her along the head and said, loud enough for Aldrick to hear, “Keep your lazy mouth shut. I’ll feed you when I please and not a second before. Not another word.”
They walked in silence, then, into the camp. Aldrick led them through the camp’s gate, and down the main path dividing the camp in half. He turned left and lead them to what Amara knew would be, in an Aleran Legion’s camp, the commander’s tent. A large tent sat there and two legionarii stood outside it, breastplates gleaming, armed with spears in their hands and swords at their belts. Aldrik nodded to one of them and went inside. He appeared a moment later and said, to Fidelias, “You. Merchant. Come inside. The commander wants to speak to you.”
Fidelias stepped forward, and Amara moved to follow him. Aldrick put a hand on Fidelias’ chest and said, “Just you. Not the slave.”
Fidelias blinked. “You expect me to just leave her out here, good master? It could be dangerous.” He shot Amara a glance which she did not miss. A warning. “To leave a pretty young girl in a camp full of soldiers.”
Aldrick said, “You should have thought of that before you came here. They won’t kill her. Get inside.”
Fidelias looked back at her and licked his lips. Then he stepped forward into the tent. Aldrick looked at Amara for a moment, his eyes distant, cool. Then he stepped back inside. A moment later, he came back to the opening of the tent, dragging a girl with him. She was petite, even emaciated, and her clothes hung off of her like a scarecrow’s. The collar around her neck, even on its smallest sizing, hung loosely. Her brown hair looked dry, brittle as hay, and she had dust on her skirts, though her feet were clean enough. Aldrick shoved the girl out unceremoniously and said, “Business.” Then he tugged the flap of the tent closed and went back inside.
The girl tumbled to the ground, along with a woven basket, and landed with a soft cry in a tangle of basket and skirts and frizzy hair.
Amara knelt down beside the girl and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, fine,” the girl snapped. She rose shakily to her feet and kicked a puff of dust at the tent with her toe. “Bastard,” she muttered. “Here I am trying to clean things up for him, and he throws me around like a sack of meal.” Her eyes sparkled with defiance and she turned to Amara. “I’m Odiana.”
“Amara,” she responded, feeling her mouth tug up at the corners. She glanced around her, licking her lips, and thought for a moment. She needed to see more of the camp. Try to find something she could take with her. “Odiana, is there any place to get a drink around here? We were traveling for hours, and I’m parched.”
The girl tossed her frizzy hair over one shoulder and sniffed at the commander’s tent. “What’s your pleasure? There’s some cheap beer, but it’s mostly water. Optionally, we could get a drink of water. And if none of that suits you, I think there’s some water.”
“I’ll have the water,” Amara said.
“A dry wit,” Odiana noted. She hooked the handle of the basket over the crook of her arm and said, “This way.” Then she turned, and walked with a kind of bristling, crackling energy through the camp, towards the opposite gate. Amara caught up with her, eyes flickering around. A troop of soldiers came jogging by, boots striking the ground in rhythm, and the two girls had to skip back, between two tents, to let them past.
Odiana sniffed. “Soldiers. Crows take them all, I am sick to death of soldiers.”
“Have you been here long?” Amara asked.
“Since just after the new year,” the other said. “But there are rumors that we’ll be leaving soon.”
Amara’s heart pounded. “Going where?”
Odiana looked at her with an amused smile. “You’ve not been around soldiers much, have you. It doesn’t matter where you go. This,” she gestured broadly, at the camp, “never changes. It’s the same, if you’re down by the ocean or up at the Wall. And the men never change. The sky never changes, and the earth doesn’t change enough to notice. This is it.”
“But still. You get to go new places. See new things.”
“Only new stains on uniforms,” said Odiana. The soldiers passed, and the girls stepped out onto the track again. “But I’ve heard further north and maybe east a ways.”
Odiana shrugged. “Is that what’s that way?” She walked along and opened the basket as they neared the stream, rummaging around inside. “Here,” she said. “Hold these.” She thrust a pair of dirty plates into Amara’s arms. “We can wash them while we’re here. Crows, soldiers are so messy. But at least the legionares keep their tents clean.” She fished out a bone and threw it towards a passing dog. Then an apple core from which she took a judicious nibble before wrinkling up her nose and tossing it into the stream. Next came a piece of paper, which she hardly glanced at before flicking it aside.
Amara turned and stomped the paper flat with her foot, before the wind could catch it. Then she bent over and picked it up.
“What?” asked Odiana. “What are you doing?”
Amara picked up the paper. “Well. Um. It hardly seems like a good idea to just toss it on the ground if you’re trying to clean it up.”
“If it isn’t in the camp, no one will care,” Odiana said. She tilted her head to one side, watching, as Amara unfolded the paper and studied the writing inside. “You can read?” the slave asked.
“Some,” said Amara, distracted. She read the note, and her hands started shaking as she did.
Legion Commander, Second Legion,
You are hereby ordered to strike camp and make for the rendevous point. You should arrive no later than the tenth full moon of the year, in preparation for winter. Maintain drilling until you march, and dispatch the men in the usual manner.
There was more, but Amara skipped over it, barely skimming, to see what was at the bottom.
Atticus Quentin, High Lord of Attica
Amara’s breath caught in her throat, her heart racing. Her fears were true. Insurrection. Rebellion.
“What does it say?” asked Odiana. She shoved another plate into Amara’s hands and said, “Here. Put these in the stream.”
“It says. . .” Amara fumbled with the plates, moving to the water’s edge and leaning down to drop them in. “It, uh. I can’t really read it.” She fumbled with the note, sliding it away, into one of her shoes, mind racing with the implications.
“You know,” said Odiana, voice bright and cheerful, “I think you’re lying. You don’t often run into literate slaves. Who ask questions about troop movements. And who are also politically learned enough to realize the wider implications of one little note. That’s the kind of thing you expect from, oh, I don’t know.” Her voice dropped, and she almost purred, “One of the Cursori.”
Amara stiffened, and turned just in time to catch Odiana’s bare heel in the chin. Pain flashed through her, dull and hot. The wasted-seeming girl had far more strength than Amara would have credited to her, and the blow stunned her and sent her tumbling back into the water of the stream.
She stood up out of it, shaking the water from her face and eyes, and drawing in a breath to cry out to her furies–but water rushed down into her mouth and into her nose as she inhaled, and she began choking. Amara’s heart raced with sudden panic and she reached up to her face–only to find it coated to above the nose with a thin layer of water. She scraped at it with her fingers, but it didn’t flow down, and she couldn’t clear it away. She struggled and choked, but only more water rushed in, coating her like a layer of oil. She couldn’t breathe. The world began to glaze over with darkness, and she grew dizzy.
The letter. She had to get the letter out, back to the First Lord. The proof he would need.
She made it to the bank before the water filling her lungs made her collapse. She writhed, smothering on dry land, and found herself staring at Odiana’s bare, clean feet.
Amara looked up as the wasted slave girl stared down at her, a gentle smile on her face. “You needn’t worry, love,” the girl said. And she began to change. Her sunken cheeks filled out. The gangling limbs gained rondure, beauty. Hips and breasts began to curve in enticing lines, filling out the clothes she wore. Her hair grew a bit longer, lustrous, darker, and she shook it out with a little laugh, before kneeling down next to Amara.
Odiana reached out and stroked fingers through Amara’s damp hair. “You needn’t worry,” she repeated. “We aren’t going to kill you. We need you.” Calmly, she removed a black sash from the basket, and tied it around her waist. “But you Cursori can be a slippery breed. We’ll take no chances. Just go to sleep, Amara. It will be so much easier. And then I can send all the water back and let you breathe again.”
Amara struggled and fought for simple breath, but none came. Darkness gathered, points of light appearing before her eyes. She clutched at Odiana, but her fingers had gone nerveless and weak.
The last thing she saw was the beautiful watercrafter leaning down to place a gentle kiss upon her forehead. “Sleep,” she whispered. “Sleep.”
And then Amara sank down, into the blackness.