Max regarded Tavi, grinning. "They say if you breathe through your mouth instead of your nose, it will help you keep your breakfast down."
Tavi sighed. He looked down at himself. His trousers were soaked to above midthigh and stained with the most vile effluvia imaginable. More of it had splattered onto his tunic, arms, neck, and he felt sure there was some in his hair and on his face. "And slog around in that with my mouth open? Smelling it is bad enough. I don't want to taste it, too."
Max lounged on a camp stool next to the practice grounds, watching Schultz and his spearmates drilling with live steel and their shining new armor. Schultz was running the drill, while Max watched over the recruits. "Schultz!" Max called. "Relax a little. You hold your shoulders that tight, it's going to slow down your thrust."
Tavi grunted. "He still thinks you're going to kill him?"
"It was fun at first," Max said. "Useful, too. But it's been almost a month. I think he's getting it figured out now."
Tavi grunted and grabbed a ladle in a nearby bucket of water.
"Hey," Max protested. "Downwind."
Tavi idly flicked the ladle of water at Max, then drank one of his own, being careful to swallow in small, controlled motions. He had learned to his own dismay that gulping down liquid on a stench-soured stomach could produce unpleasant results.
"What's he got you doing now?" Max asked.
"Inspections." Tavi sighed. "I have to take measurements of each latrine, make sure it's got the right dimensions. Then estimate volume and compare the rate that they're all filling up. Then I have to supervise the digging of new ones and filling in the old ones."
"That stomach bug clear up?" Max asked.
Tavi grimaced. "Finally. Took four days. And the captain's asked Foss to brew me up some kind of tea to help me fight off other sicknesses."
"How's that working out?"
"I'd almost rather get the diseases. You should smell that stuff Foss makes."
Max grinned. "And if you think it smells bad..."
"Thank you. I needed a little more humiliation," Tavi said.
"In that case, you should know what the legionares are calling you. "
Tavi sighed. "What?"
"Scipio Latrinus. Is that enough humiliation for you?"
Tavi suppressed a flash of irritation. "Yes. That's perfect, thank you."
Max glanced casually around, and Tavi could feel the air around him tightening as Max ensured privacy. "At least it's given you a good excuse to go to the Pavilion every night. And I've noted that you aren't whining about Kitai anymore."
"I'm not?" Tavi asked. He frowned and thought about it. That hollow, unpleasant sensation in his stomach, the empty pang, had been absent for some time, and his frown deepened. "I'm not," he mused.
"Told you you'd get over her," Max said. "I should have bought you a girl for the evening weeks ago. Glad you did it on your own."
Tavi felt his face heat up. "But I didn't."
Max's eyebrows lifted straight up. "Ah," he said. He squinted at his recruits and said, "You didn't buy a boy, did you. '
Tavi snorted. "No," he said. "Max, I'm not there to enjoy myself. I go there for the job."
"The job," Max said.
"You go to the Pavilion because it's a duty."
"Yes," Tavi said, half-exasperated.
"Even though there's all those dancers and such?"
"Crows, Calderon. Why?" Max shook his head. "Life is too short to pass some things by."
"Because it's my job," Tavi said.
"Easy to argue that you have to maintain your cover," Max pointed out. "A little wine. A girl or two. Or three, if you can afford it. What's the harm?"
Tavi frowned and thought about it. Max was quite correct when he said that the girls at the Pavilion could be quite enticing, and Tavi had avoided watching them dance. It was a given that any dancer with earthcrafting would use it to hone the appetites of the men watching. Often, several danced at once, and such an environment was geared to fleece the pockets of the legionares who succumbed to their urges. Since the legionares by and large went there with exactly that purpose in mind, it tended to work out.
Tavi had been propositioned by several of the doxies there, but had declined to purchase anyone's charms for a night or to sample the wine and other intoxicants available. He had no intention of clouding his judgment-his wits were what had kept him alive.
"You should enjoy yourself," Max said. "No one would begrudge you that."
"I would," Tavi said. "I need to keep my wits about me."
Max grunted. "True, I suppose. As long as you aren't constantly mooning over Kitai, I guess it's all right if you don't tumble a doxy now and then."
Tavi snorted. "Glad you approve."
Three cohorts of recruits, nearly a thousand legionares, pounded by on the practice road, now moving in a solid block and in full armor. Their footsteps thundered in uniform rhythm, even through the muting effect of Max's screen. After they passed, and the racket faded away, Max asked, "Turn up anything?"
Tavi nodded. "Found two more legionares reporting to that contact from the Trade Consortium."
"Do we know who he's reporting to yet?"
"He thinks he's reporting to a Parcian merchant's factor."
"Heh," Max said. "Who is the factor working for?"
Tavi shrugged a shoulder. "I crossed a few palms. I might get something tonight." He gave Max an oblique look. "I heard about an unlicensed slaver operating nearby. Apparently grabbed a couple of camp followers. But someone beat him unconscious, tied him to a tree, sneaked past his guards, and released his slaves."
Max lowered his windcrafted screen long enough to stand up and shout, "Crows take it, Karder, get that shield up or I'll give you a few lumps on top of your fool head to remind you! If Valiar Marcus's spear humiliates my best, you'll all be running circles for a week!"
Recruits gave Max sidelong, dark looks until Schultz bellowed them back into formation.
"Yeah?" Max said to Tavi, sitting down again. "I heard the same thing. Good for whoever did that. Never liked slavers."
Tavi frowned. "It wasn't you? "
Max frowned back. "It wasn't you?"
"No," Tavi said.
Max pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Wasn't me. There are a lot of Phrygians hereabouts. They hate slavers. Crows, plenty of folk do. I hear that Ceres has a whole big gang of men in masks who roam around at night and hang any slaver they can get their hands on. They have to employ a whole army of personal guards to stay safe. Gotta love a town like Ceres."
Tavi frowned and glanced eastward.
"Oh, right, " Max muttered. "Sorry. Your family reunion."
Tavi shrugged a shoulder. "We were only planning on being there for a month or so. They've probably left already."
Max watched the recruits at their drill, but his expression turned a bit bleak. "What's it like?"
"What is what like?"
"Having a family."
Tavi drank another ladle of water. "Sometimes it felt like they were strangling me. I knew it was because they cared, but it still drove me mad. They were worried about me because of my crafting problem. I liked knowing that they were there. I always knew that if I had a problem, they'd help me. Sometimes at night, I would have a bad dream or lie awake feeling sorry for myself. I'd go and look in their rooms and see they were there. Then I could go back to sleep."
Max's expression never changed.
Tavi asked, "What was your family like?"
Max was quiet for a second, then said, "I don't think I'm drunk enough to answer that question."
But Max had been the one to bring up the subject. Maybe he wanted to talk and just needed some encouragement. "Try," Tavi said.
There was a longer silence.
"Notable for their absence," Max said, finally. "My mother died when I was five years old. She was a slave from Rhodes, you know."
"I knew. "
Max nodded. "I don't remember much about her. My lord father all but lives at the Shieldwall. He only comes back to Antillus during the summer, then he's got a whole year's worth of work to make up for. He'd sleep maybe three or four hours a night, and he hated being interrupted. I'd maybe have dinner with him once, and a furycrafting lesson or two. Sometimes I'd ride with him to review the new recruits. But neither of us talked much." His voice grew very quiet. "I spent most of my time with Crassus and my stepmother."
Tavi nodded. "Wasn't fun."
"Crassus wasn't so bad. I was older and bigger than him, so there wasn't much he could do. He followed me around a lot, and if he saw something of mine that he liked, he'd take it. She'd give it to him. If I said anything, she'd have me whipped." He bared his teeth in a rictus of a smile. "Course, if I did anything, she'd have me whipped."
Tavi thought of his friend's scars and clenched his jaw.
"At least, until I came into my furies." His eyes narrowed. "When I figured out how strong I was, I blew the door to her private chambers to cinders, walked in, and told her that if she tried to have me whipped again, I'd kill her."
"That's when the accidents started," Tavi guessed.
"First one was at flying lessons," Max said. "I was hovering a couple of feet outside the city walls, maybe thirty feet up. Ajar of rock salt fell out of a window of a tower, hit the wall, and pieces flew through my windcrafting. Disrupted it. I fell."
"The next time was in the winter. Someone had spilled water at the top of a long staircase, and it froze. I slipped on it and fell." He took a deep breath. "That's when I ran off and joined the Legions in Placida."
"Max," Tavi began.
Max abruptly rose to his feet, and said, "Feeling kind of nauseous. Must be your stench."
Tavi wanted to say something to his friend. To help him. But he knew Max, and he was too proud to accept Tavi's sympathy. Max had ripped open old wounds in speaking of his family and didn't want anyone to see the pain. Tavi cared about his friend, but Max wasn't ready to let anyone help him. It was enough for one day.
"Must be my stench," Tavi agreed quietly.
"Work to do," Max said. "My fish have a practice bout with Valiar Marcus's veteran spear in the morning."
"Think they'll win?"
"Not unless Marcus and all his men have heart attacks and drop dead during the bout." Max glanced over his shoulder and met Tavi's eyes for a moment. "The fish can't win. But that isn't the point. They just need to put up a decent fight."
Max meant more than the words were saying. Tavi nodded at his friend. "Don't count the fish out yet, Max," he said quietly. "You never know how things are going to turn out."
"Maybe," Max said. "Maybe." He gave Tavi a token salute as he lowered the screen, nodded, and walked back out onto the practice field. "Crows, Scipio!" he said when he was thirty paces away. "I can still smell you all the way from here. You may need a bath, sir!"
Tavi debated finding Max's tent and rolling around in his cot for a while. He rejected the idea as unprofessional, however tempting. Tavi glanced at the lowering sun and simply headed from the practice field over to the domestics' camp.
Camp followers were as much a part of a Legion as armor and helmets. Six thousand or so professional soldiers required a considerable amount of support, and the domestics and camp followers provided it.
Domestics were by and large childless, unmarried young women serving a legally required term of service with a Legion. They saw to the daily needs of the legionares, typically consisting mostly of food preparation and laundry. Other domestics helped repair damaged uniforms, maintain spare weaponry and armor, handled the delivery of packages and letters, and otherwise assisted in the duties required by the camp.
While the law required nothing more than labor, placing that many young women in close proximity to that many young men inevitably resulted in the growth of relationships and the conception of children-which was the point of the law, Tavi suspected. The world was a dangerous place filled with deadly enemies, and the people of Alera had need of all the hands they could get. Tavi's mother and his aunt Isana had been serving a three-year term of service with the Legions when he had been born, the illegitimate son of a soldier and a Legion domestic.
Other followers of the Legion included domestics who had decided to remain in a more permanent capacity-often as the wife to a legionare in every sense but the legal one. While legionares were not permitted to marry legally, many career soldiers had a common-law wife in the camp following or a nearby town or village.
The last group was those folk who sensed an opportunity near the Legion. Merchants and peddlers, entertainers, craftsmen, doxies, and dozens of others followed the Legion selling their goods and services to the regularly paid and relatively wealthy legionares. Still others simply lurked nearby, intending to follow the Legion and wait nearby until the conclusion of a battle, hoping to loot whatever could be had in the fighting's aftermath.
The camp followers formed in a loose ring around the wooden fortifications of the Legion, their tents ranging from surplus Legion gear to garishly colored contraptions to simple lean-tos and shelters made of a sheet of canvas and rough-cut wooden poles. Lawless folk abounded, and there were parts of the camp where it would be very foolish for a young legionare to wander after dark-or a young officer, for that matter.
Tavi knew the safest routes through the camp, where legionares' families tended to gather for mutual protection and support. His destination was not far past the invisible boundary of the "decent" side of the camp.
Tavi walked up to Mistress Cymnea's Pavilion, a ring of large, garishly colored tents, pitched together to form a large circle around a central area like a courtyard, leaving only a narrow walkway between tents to allow entry. He could hear the sound of music, mostly pipes and drums, inside, as well as the sound of laughter and raucous voices. He slipped into the open ring of well-trampled grass around a central fire.
A man the size of a small bull rose from his seat as Tavi entered. He had weather-reddened skin and no hair, not even eyebrows or eyelashes, and his neck was as thick as Tavi's waist. He wore only tooled-leather breeches and boots, and his hairless upper body was heavy with muscle and old scars. A weighty chain around his neck marked him as a slave, but there was nothing like mildness or submission in his expression. He sniffed, made a face, and gave Tavi a steady glower.
"Bors," Tavi said politely. "Is Mistress Cymnea available?"
"Money," Bors rumbled.
Tavi already had his money pouch off his belt. He dumped several copper rams and a few silver bulls into his palm and showed them to the huge man.
Bors peered at the coins, then nodded politely at Tavi. "Wait." He lumbered off toward the smallest tent in the circle.
Tavi waited quietly. In the shade beside one of the tents sat Gerta, a vagabond Mistress Cymnea had taken in and something of a fixture outside her tents. The woman wore a dress that looked more like a shapeless sack than clothing, and smelled none too clean. Her hair was a dark, brittle bush that clung together in mats and stuck out at improbable angles, showing only a part of her face. She wore a binding across her eyes and nose, and beneath the grime on her skin, Tavi could see the angry red pockmarks of a recent survivor of the Blight or one of the other dangerous fevers that could strike down the folk of Alera. Tavi had never heard the simple woman speak, but she sat in place playing a small reed flute in a slow, sad, and haunting melody. A beggar's bowl sat on the ground before her, and as he always did, Tavi dropped a small coin into it. Gerta did not react to his presence.
Bors reappeared and grunted at Tavi, tilting his head toward the tent behind him. "You know the one."
"Thank you, Bors." Tavi put his money away and headed for the smallest of the tents-though even so, it was larger than even the captain's tent within the fortifications.
The interior of the tent was carpeted with rich rugs, the walls hung with fabrics and tapestries to make it look almost like a real, solid chamber. A young girl, perhaps twelve years old, sat in a chair near the door reading from a book. Her nose wrinkled, and without looking up from the book she called, "Mama! Subtribune Scipio is here for his bath!"
A moment later, the curtains behind the child parted, and a tall woman entered the front chamber. Mistress Cymnea was a dark-eyed brunette taller than most men, and looked like she could pick an armored legionare off the floor and throw him out of her tent, if there was a need. She was dressed in a long gown of wine red silk, worn with an intricately embroidered corset of black and gold. The gown left her broad shoulders and arms bare, and emphasized the curves of her figure.
She swept into a graceful curtsey, and smiled at Tavi. "Rufus, good evening. I would say that this is a pleasant surprise, but I could time my baking on your arrival if I had a mind."
Tavi bowed his head in reply and smiled back at her. "Mistress. Always nice to see you."
Cymnea's smile widened. "Such a charmer. And I can, ah, see that you are still in disfavor with Tribune Gracchus. What can the Pavilion provide for you this evening?"
"Just a bath."
She made a mock-severe expression at him. "So serious for a man so young. Zara, darling, run and prepare the good Scipio's bath."
"Yes, Mama," the girl said. She got up and scampered out, taking her book with her.
Tavi waited a moment, then said, "I hate to be too forward but..."
"Not at all," Cymnea said. She wrinkled her nose. "Given your fragrant circumstances, the less time spent in close quarters, the better."
Tavi bowed his head, half-apologetically. "Were you able to learn anything?"
"Of course," she said. "But there is a matter of price to consider."
Tavi winced, but said, "I can go somewhat higher than yesterday's amount, but for more than that..."
Cymnea waved a hand. "No. This isn't about money. The information has the potential to be dangerous."
Tavi frowned. "How so?"
"Powerful men might not appreciate potential enemies learning more about them. If I share the information, I might pay a price for having done so."
Tavi nodded. "I understand why you might be concerned. I can only assure you that I will keep the source of the information confidential."
"Yes? And what guarantee do I have of that?"
"You have my word."
Cymnea burst out into a merry peal of laughter. "Really? Oh, young man, that is just so... so very charming of you." She tilted her head at Tavi. "But you mean it, don't you."
"I do, Mistress," Tavi said, meeting her eyes.
She stared at him for a moment. Then she shook her head, and said, "No, Scipio. I haven't done as well as I have by taking foolish chances. I'm willing to trade for the information, but only in kind. Something that might protect me in return."
"Such as?" Tavi asked.
"Well. Such as who you are working for. That way, if you talked about me, I'd be in a position to talk about you."
"Sounds fair," Tavi said. "But I can't."
"Ah," she said quietly. "Well. There we are, then. I'll return your silver."
Tavi held out his hand. "Don't. Consider it a retainer. If you come across anything juicy that offers you less risk, perhaps you'd pass it along."
Cymnea tilted her head and nodded once. "Why would you trust me to do that?"
Tavi shrugged a shoulder. "Call it instinct. You run an honest business, in its way." He smiled. "Besides. It isn't my money."
Mistress Cymnea laughed again. "Well. I haven't done as well as I have by turning away silver, either. Zara should have your bath ready by now. I believe you know the way?"
"Yes, thank you."
She sighed. "Honestly. It isn't as though I mind your business, but Gracchus seems to be taking your chastisement a bit far."
"I'll manage," he said. "As long as I can get a bath at the end of the day."
"Then I'll not keep you from it," she said, and smiled.
Tavi bowed his head to her and left the tent. He crossed the little green courtyard, where the blind woman played her reed pipe. The tent where wine and girls were served erupted into a louder round of roars and shouts than were normal this early in the evening, drowning out the reed pipe for a time. Bors turned his head toward the sound, the motion reminding Tavi of a dog taking note of activity in its territory.
Tavi walked to another tent, this one bright blue and green. Inside, several alcoves had been partitioned with heavy drapes, each one containing a large, round wooden tub large enough to fit two or three people comfortably. Loud splashing and a woman's giggles came from one of the curtained chambers. In another, a man slurred out a quiet song in a drunken voice. Zara appeared from behind another curtain and nodded to Tavi. Then she emerged, holding a gunny-sack, and wrinkled her nose at the smell as he entered.
Tavi slipped into the alcove and drew the curtain shut. He removed his filthy clothing and passed it out through the curtain to the waiting girl. She took it from him with brisk motions, tucked it into the gunnysack, and carried it out at arm's length, to have it laundered, swiftly dried, and brought back to him.
A large bucket of lukewarm water sat beside the tub, a washcloth upon it. Tavi used it to wipe the worst of the grime from his body before testing the steaming water. He added a bit more hot water from a large container on a swinging arm next to the tub, then sank into it with a sigh. Warmth enfolded him, and he luxuriated in it for a time. The work Gracchus had assigned him was as strenuous and tiring as it was distasteful, and he looked forward to soaking tired muscles in hot water at the end of each day.
He thought about his family for a moment and felt bad to have missed their reunion in Ceres. He had to admit, though, that it would have been awkward speaking to his aunt now that she had thrown her support to Lord and Lady Aquitaine. So long as the conversation didn't come anywhere near politics, things might have been all right-but Tavi's training as a Cursor meant that he was involved with politics nearly every waking moment, in one fashion or another.
He'd missed his uncle, too. Bernard had always shown Tavi the consideration and respect that he'd never realized were all too uncommon. Tavi felt proud that his uncle had proven himself a hero of the Realm, and on more than one occasion, and he had been looking forward to Bernard's reaction upon seeing Tavi after his years of education and training. Bernard had worked hard to make sure Tavi had the raw materials to build an honorable life for himself. Tavi wanted Bernard to see with his own eyes what his nephew had made with them.
Tavi frowned. And Kitai. She would have been there. If Tavi had not felt the little lonely pangs that had plagued him since leaving her in Alera Imperia, it was not because he no longer desired her company. She was often in his thoughts, especially her laughter and her pointed wit, and if he closed his eyes he could picture her face-exotic and arrogantly lovely with her canted Marat eyes, white silken hair, her long, strong limbs, tight with shapely muscle, skin softer than...
In the other alcove, the woman's giggles segued into quite different high-pitched sounds, and Tavi's body reacted to the thoughts of Kitai and the sounds of the nearby doxy with an almost-violent enthusiasm. He ground his teeth, suddenly sorely tempted to follow Max's advice. But no. He needed all of his focus and attention to be on his duty, to be alert for even the smallest scrap of intelligence he could report back to the First Lord. The last thing he wanted to do with his time was to undermine his own effectiveness with foolish-if undeniably alluring-distractions.
Besides. He didn't want one of Cymnea's girls there with him. He wanted it to be Kitai.
His body made its agreement with the sentiment uncomfortably clear.
Tavi groaned and sank under the water for as long as he could hold his breath. When he surfaced, he seized the nearby bowl of soap and a clean washcloth and scrubbed his skin until he thought it might slough off, struggling to turn his thoughts to something less involving. Clearly, he missed Kitai. Clearly, he wanted to be near her as much as he ever had. But if so, then why had the odd, uncomfortable sensations of loneliness that had spurred him to speak about her ceased?
He had always felt the pangs when he thought about... her presence, he supposed. Her voice, her touch, her features all felt like something perfectly natural to his world, as much a part of it as sunshine and air. When he had been touching her, even only so much as holding hands, there had been a kind of peaceful resonance in the touch, something warm, reassuring, and deeply satisfying. It was the memories of their loss that had brought on the unpleasant sensation of loneliness. Even now, the memories should, by all rights, have brought on more of the same.
But they didn't. Why?
He had just finished rinsing himself of the soap when it hit him, all at once.
Tavi snarled a muted curse, heaved himself out of the tub. He seized a towel, quickly swiped it over his body, and snatched up a plain robe folded on a nearby chair, shoving his still-damp arms into it. He stalked out of the bathing tent into the central yard.
The wine tent was in an uproar of one kind or another, and Tavi emerged in time to see Bors lumber up to its entrance and go inside. He spotted the blind woman beside one of the tents, still playing her reed pipe, and stalked toward her.
"What are you doing?" he hissed at the woman.
The blind woman set her pipe down and her mouth quirked into a smile. "Counting the days until you realized who I was," she replied. "Though I was about to start counting the weeks. "
"Are you insane?" Tavi demanded in a harsh whisper. "If someone realizes that you are Marat-"
"-they will be considerably more observant than you, Aleran." Kitai sniffed.
"You were supposed to be in Ceres at the family reunion."
"As were you," she said.
Tavi grimaced. Now that he knew who "Gerta" truly was, the disguised elements of Kitai's appearance seemed painfully obvious. She had dyed her fine, silvery white hair to crude black and let it grow matted and tangled deliberately. The pockmarks on her face were doubtless some kind of cosmetics, and the blind woman's bandage covered her exotic, canted eyes.
"I can't believe the First Lord just let you ride away."
She smiled, and it showed very white teeth. "No one has ever told me where I may or may not go. Not my father. Not him. Not you."
"All the same. We need to get you out of here."
"No," Kitai said. "You need to learn to whom the Parcian merchant's factor reports his information."
Tavi blinked at her. "How did you..."
"If you recall," she said, smiling, "I have very good ears, Aleran. And as I sit here, I learn much. Few guard their words near a madwoman."
"You've just been sitting here?"
"At night, I can move more freely and learn more."
"Why?" Tavi asked.
She arched her brows. "I do what I have done for years now, Aleran. I Watch you and your kind. I learn of them."
Tavi let out a short, exasperated breath, but touched her shoulder. "It is good to see you."
She reached up and squeezed his hand with hers, her fingers fever-warm, and she made a small, pleased sound. "I did not enjoy your absence, chala"
There was a shriek from the far side of the Pavilion, then a mussed, besotted legionare flew out of the wine tent. Bors came out after him a second later and applied sweeping kicks from his great booted feet to wherever he could reach upon the drunk, until the man had been driven from the Pavilion.
Kitai withdrew her hand from Tavi's, and the spot felt peculiarly cool in the absence of her heated skin. "Now, Scipio Rufus. It will be strange for you to be seen conversing with a simpleton. Go away. You'll scare off the game."
"We must speak again," Tavi said. "Soon."
Kitai's lips curled up into a sensual little smirk. "There are many things we must do, soon, Aleran. Why ruin them with talk?"
Tavi flushed, though the sunset was particularly red tonight, which might have hidden it. Kitai lifted her reed flute to her lips again, hunching down once more into her role. Bors returned from evicting the rowdy drunk and settled down into his spot by the fire. Tavi shook his head and returned to the bath tent to await the return of his laundered clothing.
He closed his eyes and sat listening to Kitai's flute as he did, and found himself smiling.