For my angel. For everything.
Many thanks to Jennifer and Anne, for their ongoing perseverance in dealing with me; to theBeta Foo Asylum, though by this point, I don't think any of you people are going to recover; tothe fine folk at NERO Central, without whom no one would pound on me with boffer weapons; andto my dog, without whom I would not be reminded daily that I am essentially little more than aridiculous human being who has somehow swindled somebody into paying me to write downconversations with my imaginary friends.
Amara soared down in a slow, gradual descent through cold, heavy rain as she neared the camp ofthe Crown Legion. Cirrus, her wind fury, held her aloft on the shoulders of a miniature gale,and though she wore the leather clothing any flier found necessary, she almost fancied shecould feel her skin chafing through it, and she was definitely sick of shivering with the cold.
A trio of armored figures took flight and swept toward her upon their own furies' gales, andAmara slowed, hovering in place to meet them. It was the third and last perimeter around thecamp, and one of the knights flashed a challenge in broad hand signals to her while the othertwo took position above her, ready to dive upon her if necessary.
Amara recognized the men by sight, just as they would recognize her, but in these troublingtimes, a familiar face was not necessarily any assurance of a friendly party. She gave them thecountersign, and only then did the three Knights Aeris take their hands from their weapons andform up around her in a friendly escort as she wearily flew the last mile or so to the camp.
Amara did not land at the standard location, just outside the camp's palisade. She'd coveredmore than three thousand miles in the past three days, and the very thought of walking throughthe camp was nearly enough to knock her unconscious. She came down just outside the commander'stent, despite the regulations against it and the debris Cirrus's approach would scatter allover the area. Her legs quivered, all rubbery with fatigue, as she settled her weight on themand ceased maintaining the effort to direct Cirrus.
"Countess," murmured a small, slender man, his few remaining grey hairs shorn close to hisscalp, Legion style. He was rather dapper in his fine tunic, but Amara knew that Enos, a formerCursor himself, was one of the deadlier knife hands in Alera. Mild disapproval in his voice didnothing to dampen his smile. "Soaring in here as bold as you please, I see."
"I'm sorry to make extra work for you, Enos," Amara replied, as they stepped underneath anearby pavilion, out of the rain.
"Nonsense. I'll get one of our Subtribunes Logistica to tidy up. We valets are far tooimportant for such things, you know." He offered her a warm towel, and after she had used it towipe her face and hands, he pressed a steaming cup into her fingers.
Amara sipped at the thick broth and let out a groan of pleasure. Long flights always left herenormously hungry, and there'd been far more flying than eating over the past few days. "Blessyou, Enos."
"Not at all, Countess," he replied. "The least I can do for someone who just beat the previousflight speed record from here to the capital by a full day."
"The First Lord doesn't pay me to lark about," Amara said, and flashed him a smile. "How muchdid you win?"
"Fourteen silver bulls," Enos said, his tone unrepentantly smug. "Lord Aquitaine's head valetjust can't seem to help himself when it comes to gambling."
Amara finished the broth, and Enos immediately filled her hand with another mug of tea. Shesipped it. Delicious. Perhaps she'd manage to walk all the way to a warm bunk before shecollapsed, after all. "Is he available?"
"The captain is in conference with Lord Aquitaine," Enos said. "But he insisted that I take youto him as soon as you arrived."
"Aquitaine," Amara murmured. "Very well. Thank you, Enos."
Enos bowed his head to her with another smile, and Amara strode over to the commander's tent.Winters here in the south weren't nearly so frigid as in Alera's more northerly reaches, butthey were generally cold, rainy, and miserable. The tent was doubled, one slightly larger oneoutside another, creating a small pocket of warmer air between the interior and the outdoors.Amara opened one flap after another, and strode into Captain Miles's command tent.
It was a fairly spacious arrangement, lit by a trio of bright furylamps hung from the centralpost. The post itself was part of the large sand table in the center of the tent, one currentlymolded in the shape of the topography between the Legion's camp, at one end, and the city ofKalare at the other, with small models representing the various forces scattered about it.Other than the sand table, the room contained a writing desk, several camp stools, and a singlesmall trunk and bedroll resting upon a folding cot, Miles's only personal gear.
"And I'm telling you that it's the only way," growled Miles. He was a man of average height butbuilt like a stone rampart, all stocky strength. His armor bore the dents, scratches, andpermanent scorch marks of the action it had seen since the beginning of Kalare's rebellion.There was grey threaded through his short, dark hair, and as he paced the length of the sandtable, studying it, he moved with a slight but definite limp. "If we don't move in concert,we'll risk defeat in detail."
"Don't be such an alarmist," the second man in the tent said. He was far taller than Miles,long-limbed, and sat on a camp stool with an easy confidence that made him seem to fill more ofthe tent than Miles. There was something leonine about him, from dark golden hair that hung tohis shoulders to his dark, hooded eyes, to the casual strength evident in his shoulders andlegs. Aquitainus Attis, the High Lord of Aquitaine, wore a red silk shirt, dark leathertrousers, and evidently felt no need to wear armor. "If two years here have shown us anything,it's that Kalare can no more easily maneuver through the fens than we can. The chances thathe'd be able to catch your force in time are minimal."
Miles glared at the other man. "I note that if we follow this plan, your own forces will becompletely insulated from danger."
"If it works," Aquitaine countered, "we roll up Kalare's mobile forces before summer is fairlyunder way, and besiege the city within two weeks after."
"And if it doesn't, my men face everything Kalare has left on their own."
"It is a war, Captain," Aquitaine said in a mild tone. "There does tend to be the occasionalrisk."
Miles snarled out something under his breath, and his hand fell to the hilt of his sword.
Aquitaine's teeth flashed in a slow, feline smile. "Captain, don't you think we should hearfrom the good Countess before we discuss this further?"
Only then did Miles glance over his shoulder and see Amara. There was color high in his cheeks,and his eyes glittered with anger. He glowered at Amara for a moment, then shook his head,composed his expression, gave her a nod, and said, "Countess, welcome."
"Thank you, Captain." She nodded to Aquitaine. "Your Grace."
Aquitaine gave her a speculative stare and a bland smile. Amara refused to allow herself toshow the discomfort she felt under the man's gaze. Aquitaine was quite probably unsurpassed infurycraft by anyone in the Realm, save the First Lord himself—and Gaius was no longer a youngman. Though she had never seen him using it, she knew Aquitaine was a man of tremendous power.It made her uncomfortable to be such a singular object of his attention.
"What news from the Crown?" Miles asked her.
"There is to be a council assembled for the War Committee to determine the course of thisseason's campaign," Amara said. "The First Lord requests and requires your attendance, Captain,
and yours, Lord Aquitaine."
Miles made a rude noise. "First a committee. And now a council."
for the Committee," Aquitaine murmured, his tone suggesting that the subject"It's a committee
was one of the few in which he was in wholehearted agreement with Captain Miles. "Ridiculous."
"When?" Miles asked. "Where?"
"Three weeks from yesterday, my lords—at the Elinarch."
"Elinarch, eh?" Miles said. He grunted. "Be nice to get to meet this young virtuoso running theFirst Aleran. Heard a lot of talk about him."
Aquitaine made a noncommittal sound. "If Kalarus decides to push our positions in person whilewe—" By which, Amara thought, he means himself."—are away, our forces could be hard-pressed."
Miles shrugged. "Intelligence reports suggest that the rumors of his invalidism are true. Iunderstand he sustained rather severe injuries in a fall, courtesy of Count Calderon. They seemto have incapacitated him."
"That may be precisely what he wishes us to think," Aquitaine pointed out, "to say nothing ofhis heir. Young Brencis lacks in experience, but his crafting talent is considerable."
"The First Lord has given us a command, Your Grace," Miles said.
Aquitaine rolled his eyes and sighed as he rose to his feet. "Yes, of course. The old man playsthe music, and the rest of us dance. Captain, under the circumstances, I believe we cancontinue this discussion later."
"Suits me," Miles said.
Aquitaine nodded to them both and strode out.
Miles watched Aquitaine depart, took up a soldier's tin mug that sat on the sand table, andthrew back a long draught of what smelled like ale. "Arrogant jackass," he muttered. He glancedup at Amara. "He's doing it again."
"Doing what?" Amara asked.
Miles gestured at the sand table. "Inflicting casualties on Gaius's loyal troops."
Amara blinked. "How?"
"Nothing I could prove in a court. Aquitaine's Legions fight beside us, but they're always justa little bit too slow, or too fast. When the fighting starts, the Crown Legion ends up takingthe worst of it." He slammed the mug back down onto the sand table. Granules of sand flew upfrom the impact. "My men are dying, and there's not a crowbegotten thing I can do about it."
"He's very good at this sort of thing," Amara said.
"And I'm not," Miles replied. "He wants to use us up on Kalare, leave us too weak to oppose his
Legions once all the fighting is over."
"Hence your argument over strategy?" Amara guessed.
Miles grunted and nodded. "Bad enough fighting a war against the enemy in front of you, withouthaving one marching next to you, too." He rubbed a hand over his bristling hair. "And theCommittee has too much influence on our strategies. Committees don't win wars, Countess."
"I know," Amara said quietly. "But you know the First Lord's position. He needs the Senate'ssupport."
"He needs their funding," Miles said in a sour tone. "As if he shouldn't have the right toexpect their loyalty in a crisis simply because of who he is." He turned and slapped the empty
mug off of the sand table. "Two years. Two years of slogging through these crowbegotten fens,fighting Kalare's madmen. We should have driven straight through to Kalare the same season heattacked. Now the best we can hope for is a hard fight through the bloody swamps and a siege ofthe city that might last years. I've had three men die of sickness for every one slain outrightby the bloody enemy. I've seen bad campaigns before, Countess, but this is enough to turn mystomach."
Amara sipped at her tea and nodded. "Then should I assume you wish the Crown to know that youwant to be relieved of your command?"
Miles gave her a flat stare of shock. Then he said, "Of course not."
"Who would you trust with it, if not me?" Miles demanded.
"I only thought—"
"What? That I couldn't handle it?" Miles snorted. "No. I'll think of something." He turned backto stare at the sand table. "But there's a major problem we've got to address."
Amara listened, stepping to the table beside him.
"Kalare and his forces aren't hard to contain. If he moves too far from his stronghold, we'llcrush them or else move in and take the city behind them. We have the numbers for it." Henodded toward the table's "north" end. "But the Canim are another story. Since they were thrownback from the Elinarch, they haven't pitched in on Kalare's side, but they haven't beenfighting against him, either, and their presence secures his northern flank."
his presence secures the Canim's southern flank in turn.""While
"Exactly," Miles said. "That's bad enough. But if they redeploy to actually support Kalare,
it's going to change the balance of power here dramatically."
"That's one of the reasons I'm here," Amara told him. "Gaius sent me to find out what you needto finish off Kalare."
"One of two things. Either we commit more—dependable—forces here in the southern theater anddrive to a decisive victory, or we neutralize the Canim in the northern theater so that we canhit Kalare from two sides at once."
Amara grimaced and nodded. "I suspect that will more or less be the subject of the council atthe Elinarch."
Miles nodded grimly, and scowled at the miniature forces deployed on the sand table. "Bloodyrebels. Bloody, crowbegotten Canim. If that new captain, Rufus Scipio, was all the rumors sayhe is, you'd think he'd have driven the dogs back into the bloody sea by now. He probably justgot lucky."
"Possibly," Amara said, keeping her face carefully neutral. She'd been anticipating Miles'sreaction to the identity of the new captain for some time, and didn't want to tip him off now."I suppose time will tell."
"Lucky," Miles growled.
* * * *
"You are a lucky man, Aleran," Kitai said, her tone brisk and decidedly cool. "A lesser womanthan I would have broken your neck by now and had done with you. Why not leave well enoughalone?"
Tavi looked up from where he sat on the ground, panting with effort. "It isn't well enoughyet," Tavi replied. "I'm still not where I want to be. And I haven't been able to work anymanifestation at all."
Kitai rolled her eyes and dropped lightly from the tree branch upon which she sat to thespringy grass of the little dale. The Marat girl wore a cavalryman's leather breeches alongwith one of Tavi's spare tunics—not that anyone with eyes would mistake her for a man. She'dtaken to shaving her silken white hair after the fashion of the Horse Clan of herpeople—completely away, except for a long stripe running over the center of her head, whichwas allowed to grow long, the effect something like a horse's mane. Her hair and pale skincontrasted sharply with her brilliant green eyes—eyes the precise color of Tavi's own—andgave her striking features an edge of barbaric ferocity. Tavi never tired of looking at her.
"Aleran," she said, frowning. "You can already do more than you ever thought you would be ableto. Why continue to push?"
"Because willing a manifestation of a fury is the first step to all of the most advancedcrafting techniques," he replied. "Internalized crafting is all well and good, but theimpressive things all rely upon manifestation. Bursts of fire. Healing. Manipulating the
, Kitai. of it."FlyingThinkweather.
"Why fly when you can ride a horse?" she asked, as if it was one of those questions only anidiot could have inspired her to utter aloud. Then she frowned and hunkered down on her heels,facing Tavi, and met his eyes.
Tavi felt his eyebrows go up. It was a piece of body language she only used when she was inearnest. He turned to face her, listening.
"You are pushing yourself too hard, chala" Kitai said. She touched his cheek with one slender
hand. "The Legion's war. Your work for Gaius. These practice sessions. You miss too many meals.You miss too many hours of sleep."
Tavi leaned into the warmth of her touch for a moment, and his eyes closed. His body ached, andhis eyes burned most of the time, lately. Savagely painful headaches often followed hard on theheels of his practice sessions, and they made it difficult to eat or sleep for a timeafterward. Not that he had much choice but to sacrifice time he might otherwise use to eat orsleep. Command of the First Aleran was responsibility enough to consume the full attention ofanyone, and his duties as a Cursor required him to gather information from every availablesource and report it back to his superiors in addition to his duties as the Legion's captain.Only the inexplicable resilience that he suspected came as a result of his bond to Kitai hadleft him with enough time and energy to teach himself all that he could of what meagerfurycraft he'd been able to grasp. Even so, the pace was wearing on him, he knew.
Kitai was probably right.
"Maybe," Tavi admitted. "But there's not a lot of choice right now. It takes years of practiceto develop crafting skills, and I'm about fifteen years late getting started."
"I still think you should tell someone. It might go faster if you had a teacher."
Tavi shook his head. "No."
Kitai let out an exasperated sound. "Why not?"
"Because what I can do now isn't much," Tavi said. "Not in the greater scheme of things. I'drather what little I do have come as a surprise if I'm ever forced to use it."
Kitai shook her head. "It isn't worth the risk that you might harm yourself by trying to learnwithout some instruction."
"I went to the Academy. I know all the theory," Tavi said. Every dreary, humiliating, failure-ridden hour of those classes was burned into his memory along with his other childhoodnightmares. "It's been two years, and we're fine."
"So far, perhaps," she said. "I know little of furycraft, Aleran, but I know enough to respecthow dangerous it can be. So do others. Would it not deter your would-be enemies if they knewyou were a mighty furycrafter?"
"Yes, but… but we still don't tell anyone," Tavi said stubbornly.
"Why not?" Kitai demanded.
He broke their gaze and looked away for a long moment. "I'm not sure," he said quietly. "Itisn't time yet. I feel it. I know it." He shook his head. "I don't know how to explain it toyou any better than that. I need you to trust me."
Kitai frowned at him, then leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead and rested hertemple against his. "You are insane. And I am insane to pay any attention to you. Very well."
Tavi leaned his head gently against hers. "Thank you."
"I reserve the right to change my mind, of course."
"Of course," Tavi said, letting a tired smile shape his mouth. He took a deep breath andsteeled himself. "All right. One more try to call out that boulder fury, and we'll call it aday."
"No," Kitai said, her tone perfectly firm. "Enough practice for the day. There are urgentmatters that require your attention."
Tavi blinked at her. "What?"
With a single, sinuous arch of her back and motion of her arms, Kitai stripped out of the whitetunic, and pressed her naked skin against Tavi's chest. Her arms twined around his neck, andher mouth lifted to his in a scorching kiss.
Tavi made a faint sound of protest, but the scent of her, of crushed wild-flowers and cloverand faint soap rose up and overwhelmed his senses, and the sheer, passionate fire of the kiss,the heat in her mouth and urgent hands left him unable to do anything but respond in kind.Suddenly, Tavi could think of no very good reason to dissuade the Marat girl, and could onlyvaguely remember why he might have thought he should try. His hands glided around her waist,stroking over the soft, pale skin of her naked back, tracing the slender strength of themuscles just beneath her fever-warm skin, and he returned the kiss with rising ardor.
Kitai let out a low, hungry sound, and all but ripped Tavi's tunic from him. She pushed him,but he turned with the force of it, spinning to press her down into the thick grass. She letout a wicked, sensual little laugh, and arched up to meet him as he kissed her again. Her handsran over his shoulders and back, her nails scraping deliciously over his skin, the sensation sointense and intoxicating that he didn't see the cavalry trooper who had approached them untilher boots were an arm's length from his nose.
Tavi let out a yelp and felt himself begin to blush from the roots of his hair to his toenails.He fumbled for his tunic and sat up again, fairly certain that he was about to expire of puremortification.
Kitai lay languidly on the grass for a moment, apparently unconcerned with her nakedness, andlet out a regretful little sigh before she began to sit up as well. "Hello, Enna."
"Good day, Kitai," replied the trooper. Enna wore Aleran-style boots and trousers, as Kitaidid, but sported a coat of leather armor modeled after the lorica of the Legions. Like Kitai,her hair was trimmed into a long mane allowed to flow down her back, but unlike her, thetrooper's hair was dyed a vibrant shade of blue. The Marat woman, a veteran of the Horse Clan,
gripped a cavalry spear casually in one hand and stood grinning down at the two of them. "Youneedn't stop on my account, you know. It's about time I got to look at more of this Aleranyou've chosen."
Kitai returned her grin. "See to it that looking is all you do."
Enna tilted her head to one side, studying Tavi with a frankness that accomplished theimpossible, by making him feel even more embarrassed than he already did. "Is he always pinklike that?" Enna asked. "Or is it merely something he does to amuse you."
"Bloody crows," Tavi muttered, shoving his arms back into his tunic.
Kitai let out a peal of laughter, then said, "He amuses me constantly, cousin."
Enna frowned, and said, "But he's not a horse."
"No one is perfect," Kitai replied smoothly.
Tavi cleared his throat and reminded himself who was captain of this Legion. "Centurion," hesaid, forcing his voice into the deliberate, calm tones he always used when conducting Legionbusiness. "Do you have something to report?"
Enna's amusement and interest lingered in her eyes, but she came to attention and saluted him,striking one fist to her heart. "Captain. Sir Cyril's compliments, and he thought you wouldwant to know that Ehren has returned."
Tavi gave her a sharp glance and inhaled deeply. His heart leapt in his chest, somehowtransfixed by relief and anxiety at the same time. Ehren had returned alive from his dangerousmission into the occupied Aleran territory now held by the inhuman Canim, and Tavi feltmightily relieved that he was back in one piece. Ehren's mission had not called for him toreturn this soon, though, and that was the cause of Tavi's anxiety. If Ehren had cut themission short early, it was because he had discovered something that couldn't wait. Tavi hadseveral ugly speculations on what might be important enough to merit such an action on behalfof his friend and fellow Cursor, and the least unpleasant of them was more than a littletroubling.
"Kitai," Tavi said quietly, and glanced at her.
The Marat girl was already several paces away, drawing her tunic back down over the supplecurve of her back. She untied the horses from where they'd left them.
"Enna," Tavi said, "ride ahead. Tell Tribune Maximus that I want all four of his alae ready tomove, and alert Tribune Crassus that his Knights had better be prepared to ride as well."
Enna nodded sharply. "Yes, sir. What shall I tell the First Spear?"
"Tell him I want the Battlecrows mounted up," Tavi said. "Beyond that, nothing. Valiar Marcusknows what needs to be done better than I do."
By that time, Kitai had returned with the horses, and Tavi swung up onto his own mount, a long-legged, deep-chested black he'd dubbed Acteon. The stallion had been a gift from Kitai's auntHashat. Well, not a gift, precisely, since the Horse Clan did not see their totem beasts asproperty. From what Tavi understood, he had been entrusted to the horse's care in matters wherespeed was necessary, and the horse had been entrusted to his, in matters of everything else. Sofar, the arrangement had worked out.
Tavi wheeled Acteon as Kitai mounted her own barbarian-bred steed, a dappled grey mare whocould run more tirelessly than any Aleran horse Tavi had ever seen. Enna turned and lopedswiftly over to her own roan, equipped with the minimal amount of tack the Marat called asaddle, and sent it into an immediate run. There would be little point in attempting to keeppace with her—no riders on the face of Carna could match the pace set by the Horse Clan of the
He didn't need to say anything to Kitai. The two of them had ridden out so often that by now,it was a matter of routine to send both their horses leaping into a run at the same moment, andtogether they thundered back toward the First Aleran's fortifications at the Elinarch.
* * * *
there haven't been orders yet," Valiar Marcus thundered, scowling at the stable master.know"I
"Even if they never come, it's good practice for my men. So you bloody well those mountsget
prepared for the Battlecrows, and you do it , or I'll have your lazy ass on a whippingnow
The stable master for Alera's first mounted infantry cohort gave the First Spear a surly saluteand hurried away, bawling orders at the grooms who cared for the extra mounts. Marcus scowledat the man's back. You practically had to kick the man all the way to his job to get him tofulfill his responsibilities, and he was getting too old to spend that much energy on fools.Good help, it seemed, remained hard to find, regardless of the fact that the Realm was fightingfor its life against the greatest threat to its integrity in at least four hundred years.
Marcus stalked through the lines of the First Aleran, their tents stretched in ruler-straightrows within the sheltering walls of the town at the Elinarch, the enormous bridge thatstretched over the broad Tiber River. He stopped to have a quick word with a number of seniorcenturions along the way, putting them on alert that something was happening in officercountry. As often as not, a stir in officer country meant that the rank and file of the Legionwas about to be ordered to hurry up and wait, but it was always good for the centurions to lookprepared and unfazed, no matter how sudden or urgent the news.
Marcus strode through the town. It had grown considerably in the two years the First Aleran hadbeen using it as a base of operations. In fact, the southern half of the town had been rebuiltfrom the paving stones up and made into a fortress that had withstood two ferocious assaultsfrom the Canim's elite warriors and twice as many tides of their howling raiders—before thecaptain had taken the initiative and begun carrying the battle to the Canim invaders, hardenough to teach them to keep their distance from the Elinarch. The streets were crowded withrefugees from the occupied territory to the south, and in the marketplaces the price of foodhad climbed to outrageous levels—there simply wasn't enough to go around, and the demand haddriven prices to unheard-of heights.
Marcus marched through all of it without slowing his pace. No one hampered his progress. Thoughhe wasn't a tall man, and though he did not look particularly more formidable than any otherlegionare, the crowd seemed somehow to sense his purpose and determination. They melted out ofhis path.
Marcus reached the command quarters just as hooves began to make rhythmic thunder on the pavingstone. Half a dozen of the First Aleran's Marat auxiliaries rode down the street, clearing theway for the captain and the Marat Ambassador, returning early from their daily ride, and sixmore brought up the rear. Ever since those deadly Canim assassins that had come to be known asHunters had tried their luck against the captain and his woman, the young man had never beenleft unguarded.
Marcus frowned. The captain's singulare, his personal bodyguard, normally a shadow rarely seen
more than a few paces away from his back, was still missing from the camp. There was noexplanation as to why, or where the man had gone. Marcus, though, had no business querying thecaptain on the matter. As the First Spear, the senior centurion of the Legion, he hadunparalleled access to the command structure, when compared to any other foot soldier of theFirst Aleran—but even his comparatively broad authority had limits, and he dared not pressthem.
It would make people begin to ask dangerous questions.
Marcus shook off the unpleasant line of thought and the uneasy quiver that ran through hisstomach whenever he allowed it to occupy his attention.
"Marcus," the captain said. The two traded a quick salute. "What have you heard?"
"Just got here, sir," Marcus replied.
The captain nodded. "I've sent orders to have the auxiliaries ready to ride, as
well as the Battlecrows."
"Already done, sir," Marcus said.
"Good man!" The captain flashed Marcus a quick grin, startling for its boyishness. The past two
the captain really was. His poise,youngyears had made even Marcus occasionally forget how
courage, and intelligence had guided the now-veteran Legion through a deadly war of maneuverwith an unforgiving foe, and he had stood front and center, facing the danger with his menevery step of the way. They loved him for it. The young captain wore the mantle of command asnaturally and capably as if he had been born to it.
Which was only natural, because, of course, he had.
Marcus's stomach twisted again.
It was easier to think of him as the captain. Whatever else the young man might be, in time,right now he was the captain—and a captain worthy of Marcus's loyalty. Worthy of his respect.
Worthy of your honesty, whispered a poisonous little voice in his heart.
"Come on," the captain said, his eyes and his thoughts both clearly focused on the commandbuilding. "If Ehren's back this soon, it means he's got something that can't wait. Let's findout what."
Valiar Marcus, whose true name was not Valiar Marcus, followed Captain Rufus Scipio, whose truename was not Rufus Scipio, into the fortified stone command building, and struggled with thesudden instinct that the days of pretending he was someone else were only too numbered.
* * * *
Steadholder Isana of the Calderon Valley grimaced as the wagon hit a rough spot in the road andmade her blur a digit in the column of numbers she was tabulating on the little lap desk. Shespared a moment to take a breath and calm down, reminding herself firmly that the frustrationwas a result of long weeks of labor and travel, and not the ineptitude of the wagon's builders,driver, the beasts pulling it, or the engineers who originally constructed the road.
She reached for a fresh piece of paper but found the wooden box empty. "Myra," she called tothe cart driver's daughter. "Have you any more paper?"
"Yes, my lady," called a young woman's voice. The wagon creaked as someone moved about thefront seat for a few moments, then the curtain to the covered back of the wagon parted, and ascrawny, frizzy-haired darling of a girl appeared, holding out a fresh sheaf.
"Bless you, child," Isana said, taking the paper.
"Of course, my lady," Myra said, beaming. "Did you know that we're in the refugee territorynow? The guard showed me and Papa the sight of a scare-mish with the Canim that happened righthere by the road."
"Skirmish, dear," Isana corrected her. "And yes, I know that there's been fighting on bothsides of the river, on and off."