Events proceeded at a pace which Amara remembered as a blur of desperate communications, shouted commands, and scrambling dashes from one building to the next while the panicked city of Ceres girded itself for battle.
By the deepest hours of the night, it all culminated in a meeting within the private garden of the High Lord Cereus, within the walls of the High Lord's Tower, the final redoubt and bastion of the city's defenses, and the most secure location in the city.
Amara arrived first, with Bernard and Giraldi. Bernard had, maddeningly, staggered up from a healer's watercrafting tub and refused to leave her unprotected for the space of a minute since the attack at the restaurant. Giraldi claimed that he had to remain nearby as well, in order to protect his Count, but Amara was not fooled. The men had decided that she needed protecting, and as far as they were concerned, that was that.
A wizened old majordomo showed them to the garden, a simple affair of flowers and trees that might be found at any steadholt in the Realm, and that the High Lord Cereus tended to with his own hands. The garden was arranged around a perfectly circular pool. Its mirrored surface reflected the colors of the low furylamps throughout the garden, as well as the sullen red light of the stars.
Servants produced food, and Amara's belly remembered that they'd been attacked before she'd had the chance to eat. Giraldi made both her and her husband sit, while he brought them food and stood over them as he might over his grandchildren, making sure that they ate before sitting down with a small round of cheese, a loaf, and a pitcher of ale for himself.
A few moments later, Lord Cereus arrived. Among the Citizenry of the Realm, Cereus Macius was something of a rarity-a silver-haired, elderly man. Either he had lacked the talent for preserving his outward youth, or he had simply never bothered to maintain it. There were rumors that Cereus's furycrafting abilities were somewhat stunted when it came to watercrafting, though Amara had no way to know if the rumors were based on fact, or if the fact of his appearance had given birth to the rumors.
Cereus was of medium height and slender build, with a long, morose-looking face and blunt, strong fingers. He entered, two hard-faced men flanking him, hands on their swords. Upon seeing Bernard and Giraldi, the two men paused and narrowed their eyes. Bernard and Giraldi returned their scrutiny with matching impassivity.
"I wonder, Countess Amara," Cereus murmured, his tone whimsical. "Are we to let them sniff one another's rumps and become friends, or should we tie their leashes to separate walls to avoid trouble."
"Your Grace." Amara smiled and rose, bowing deeply. "They mean well."
Cereus took her hands in both of his, smiling, and nodded back to her. "You may be right. Gentlemen, if there's fighting to be done tonight, I'd prefer that it not be in my garden. Very well?"
The two bodyguards nodded and withdrew by half a step and no more. Giraldi grinned and went back to his food. Bernard smiled and bowed to Cereus. "Of course, Your Grace."
"Count Calderon," Cereus said. "Welcome. Though I fear you have come to my city at a most unfortunate time."
"I am here, Your Grace," Bernard said firmly. "And I offer you whatever aid I can provide."
"Thank you," Cereus said, no trace of irony in his words. "Countess, are the others coming?"
"Yes, Your Grace," she said. "But it may take more time. Most of the survivors were badly traumatized by the city's panic."
Cereus grunted and lowered himself stiffly onto a richly, beautifully carved wooden bench. "Understandable." He squinted at Bernard. "Your sister, the..." He blinked as if mildly disbelieving, "... Steadholder. The woman Steadholder. She's a talented watercrafter, yes?"
"Yes," Bernard said.
"How is she?"
"Exhausted. Sleeping," Bernard replied. "She'd had a difficult day even before the stars changed."
"The panic was extremely painful to those of sensitivity to such things. If there is anything I can do to help her, please send word to me," Cereus said.
Bernard bowed his head. "Thank you, Your Grace. Your offer of secure quarters was more than generous enough. She's resting comfortably."
Cereus squinted at Giraldi. "Is that ale? Real, honest ale?"
"Crows and thunder," Cereus said. "Do you have another mug, soldier?" Giraldi did. Cereus sipped, let out a long sigh, and settled back down on his bench. "My daughter, you see," he explained. "She'll not let an old man have a well-earned draught. Says it isn't good for my heart."
"Got to die of something," Giraldi observed. "Might as well put back a few pints while you wait to see what it is."
"Exactly," Cereus said. "The girl's got a heart of gold, but she doesn't see that." He glanced over his shoulder, at the battlements rising above the garden, and the old lord's face settled into deeper lines, marks of worry and grief etched in the shadows on his face. Amara watched as he settled down to sip carefully at the ale and wait for the others to arrive. It didn't take long. Within half an hour, High Lord Cereus's little garden was crowded with visitors. "Well," he said, looking around with a somewhat lost expression on his face. "I suppose we should begin."
Cereus rose. He stepped up onto his bench with an apologetic expression and rapped a ring against his now-empty mug. "My lords, ladies. Welcome. Would that it were a happier occasion." He smiled faintly and gestured. "I have asked you here on behalf of the First Lord and his Cursor, Countess Amara. Countess."
Lord Cereus stepped down from the bench with a visible expression of relief.
Amara bowed her head to Cereus, took a small coin from her pocket, and dropped it into the pool, murmuring, "Amaranth waters, hasten word to thy master."
The water's surface rippled around the vanished coin, then began to stir. Then an extrusion of water rippled forth and resolved itself into the form of a tall, slender man in his late prime, colors slowly seeping into the shape of his tunic and breeches, forming into the blue and scarlet of the House of Gaius. Similarly, his hair became a seemingly premature grey-white, though he had seen nearly fourscore years.
Amara bowed her head. "My lord, we are ready."
The First Lord's image turned to face Amara and nodded. "Go ahead. Lords Atticus and Placidus"-he made a gesture as two more watery forms began to take shape on either side of his own-"will be joining us as well."
Amara nodded and turned to face the others in the garden. "My lords and ladies, I know that the past few hours have been confusing and frightening. The First Lord has instructed to me to share what information we have about recent events.
"We do not yet know the background and particulars of the attackers who struck last evening," Amara said. "But we do know that they attacked almost every member of the Dianic League, as well as the faculty and staff of the Collegia Tactica, the captain and Tribunes of the First Ceresian, and a number of visiting military officers who were attending a symposium at the Collegia.
"The assassins proved deadly and efficient. High Lady Rhodes was slain, as was High Lady Phrygius, Senator Parmos, and seventy-six other Citizens who had been targeted by the assassins. Several more citizens, including Lady Placidus, are missing." She reached into a pouch at her side and drew out the hinged metallic ring of a discipline collar, a slaver's device used to control troublesome slaves. "What we know is that each of the attackers wore a discipline collar, like this one. Each of them bears an engraving that reads: Immortalis. Each of the men involved in the attack appeared to be twenty years of age or younger. Each of them displayed an almost superhuman ability to withstand pain, and they were apparently acting without fear or regard for their own lives.
"We are fairly certain that these Immortals, for lack of a better term, are slaves trained, conditioned, and collar-disciplined from childhood to be soldiers. Simply put, they are highly proficient madmen with no conscience, no doubt, no aversion to pain, and a perfect willingness to sacrifice their own lives to accomplish their mission. Fewer than one target in four survived the attacks."
Quiet comments went around the little garden. A large, heavily built man with dark hair and an iron grey beard, wearing Legion armor, rumbled, "We all have some idea what they can do. But do you know who sent them?"
Amara took a deep breath and said, "Full, legal corroboration should be complete in a few days, but the given the timing of events, I am confident of what we will find. Last night, apparently simultaneously with the attacks here, Lord Kalarus mobilized his Legions."
Several people drew in sharp breaths. Low mutters ran through the garden again, voices quicker, nervous.
"One of Kalarus's Legions assaulted the western foothills of Parcia and diverted the Gaul through the floodplain. The Third Parcian Legion was forced to abandon the stronghold at Whiteharrow, and Kalarus's Legions now control the passes down out of the Blackhills.
"At the same time," Amara continued, "two more Legions assaulted the camp of Second Ceres, taking them completely by surprise. The attackers offered no quarter. There were fewer than a hundred survivors."
Lord Cereus's face became even more pale, and he bowed his head.
"Those Legions," Amara said, "are already marching on the city. Their Knights Aeris and other advance elements are already in the area, and we anticipate that the main body of troops will arrive within half a day."
"Pah," scoffed a voice from the edge of the garden. "That's ridiculous."
Amara turned to the speaker, Senator Arnos, dressed in the formal scholar's robes of the Collegia Tactica and wearing a haughty expression. "Sir?" she inquired politely.
"Kalarus is ambitious, but he is no fool. You would have us believe that he would make open war upon the whole of the Realm and leave his own city unprotected?"
"Unprotected, sir?" Amara asked mildly.
"Three Legions," Lord Arnos said. "Each High Lord has three Legions at his command. That is the law."
Amara blinked slowly at Arnos, then said, "Law-abiding High Lords do not make war upon the whole of the Realm and send fanatic madmen to assassinate their fellow Citizens. Generally speaking." She turned back to the others present, and said, "In addition to the forces already mentioned, two more of Kalare's Legions have already seized the bridges over the Gaul at Hector and Vondus. Intelligence suggests that another Legion will join the two on their way here, and that he holds at least one Legion in mobile reserve." She glanced back at the Senator. "If it makes you feel any better, sir, Kalarus also has a Legion stationed at Kalare to secure his city."
"Seven," muttered the grey-bearded soldier. "Seven bloody Legions. Where the crows did he hide four entire Legions, Countess?"
"For the time being, that is of secondary importance," Amara said. "What matters is that he has them, and he's using them." She took a deep breath and looked around the room. "If Kalarus's forces take Ceres, there will be nothing to stand between them and the capital."
This time there were no mutterings-only silence.
The First Lord's rich, smooth voice, murmured, "Thank you, Countess. Lord Cereus, what is the status of your defenses?"
Cereus grimaced and shook his head. "We aren't ready for something like this, sire," he said, his tone frank. "With Second Legion destroyed, I have only First Legion and the civic legion to man the walls-and we're going to be spread thin. Against three entire Legions and their Knights, we'll not hold for long. If Kalarus himself is with them..."
"I remember a young soldier," Gaius said, "who once told me that the more desperate and hopeless the battle, the more he wanted to face it and take the field. That he lived for such challenge."
"That soldier grew up, Gaius," Cereus said in a tired voice, without looking up. "He wed. Had children. Grandchildren. He got old."
Gaius regarded Cereus for a time, then simply nodded. "First Imperian must hold the northern pass from the Blackhills while Second Imperian secures the capital. I'm dispatching Third Imperian to your aid, but they cannot reach you before Kalare's forces. The Crown Legion, however, was on maneuvers south of the capital, and I ordered them to your aid within an hour of the first attack. They've been force-marching through the night, and Sir Miles should be arriving with his men within hours."
Cereus exhaled, evidently relieved. "Good, good. Thank you, old friend."
Gaius nodded, his stern features softening for a moment. Then he said, "There's no denying that you're still outnumbered, but all you need do is stand fast. I have already asked High Lords Placidus and Atticus to send relief forces to link up with Third Imperian. Aquitaine, Rhodes, and Parcia will be joining forces to retake the bridges over the Gaul."
Cereus nodded. "Once they do, you'll have Kalarus's Legions cut off from retreat or reinforcement."
Gaius's image nodded. "You have only to hold out, Macius. Don't risk your people on anything heroic."
"EXCELLENT ADVICE," boomed a voice that seemed to resonate up from the water of the pool. It rang off the walls around the little garden, unpleasant and sharp.
The pool stirred once more, and at its far side another shape rose-forming into a man Amara recognized as Kalarus Brencis, High Lord of Kalare. In person, he was not a particularly imposing figure of a man-tall, but thin, and his eyes always seemed sunken in shadows, giving his face a gaunt, stark look, his hair straight, fine, and limp. The figure formed from the waters of the fountain, though, was taller by half than the other forms there, and built with more apparent muscle than the actual Kalarus carried. "Gentlemen. Ladies. I trust, by now, that the shape of things to come is obvious to... well, not to everyone so much as to everyone who has survived." The image's teeth showed in a vulpine smile. "Thus far, at any rate."
Amara shot a glance at the image of Gaius. The First Lord looked from her to Cereus. The old High Lord sat very still and very quiet, not moving.
"Brencis," the First Lord said, his tone calm, "am I to understand that you are confessing before those here that you are to blame for these murders? And that you have unlawfully set your forces against those of your fellow High Lords?"
Kalarus's image turned to the First Lord's, and said, "I've looked forward to this since I was a boy, Gaius." He closed his eyes and exhaled in pleasure. "Shut your crowbegotten mouth, old man."
Kalarus's image clutched his hand into an abrupt fist, and the water-image of Gaius suddenly exploded into individual droplets that splashed back down into the pool.
Amara, and everyone else in the garden, drew in a sudden, sharp breath at Kalarus's display of power. He had simply cut the First Lord's contact through the pool, a show of furycrafting strength whose implications were terrifying. If Kalarus truly held as much or more power than the First Lord...
"Out with the old," Kalarus said, his image turning to address those in the garden. "And in with the new. Think carefully, fellow Alerans, which you would choose to be. We all know that the House of Gaius has failed. He has no heir and plays games with all the Realm at stake rather than accept his fall from power-and would drag each of you down to the grave with him. You can be a part of the next great age of Aleran civilization-or you can be paved under it."
Senator Arnos rose and faced Kalarus's image. "Your Grace," he said. "While your power and temerity are very much in evidence, surely you must see that your military position is untenable. Your opening moves have been audacious, but you cannot hope to prevail against the joined might of the other cities of the Realm and their Legions."
Kalarus let out a booming laugh. "Joined might?" he asked. "Ceres will fall within the day, and I will press on to Alera Imperia herself. There is not enough free might to prevent it." The image turned to Lord Placidus, and said, "Sandos, I had no idea that Aria had a birthmark on her left thigh." His gaze swiveled to the image of Lord Atticus. "Elios, may I compliment your daughter on a particularly lovely head of hair-a small section of which will be delivered to you by messenger, so that you may know that she is in my protective custody."
"Protective custody?" Amara asked sharply.
Kalarus nodded. "Quite. My lords Atticus and Placidus, my quarrels have never been with you or your cities, and I desire none now. I am holding those two as guarantors against your neutrality. I do not ask you to forsake any vow or to turn against the First Lord-only stand from my way. I give you my word that if you do so, when matters settle down, they will be returned to you, otherwise unharmed."
Cereus rose slowly to his feet and walked down to the edge of the pool. "This is why you have come here, Kalarus?" he asked quietly, not looking at the image. "To make promises to your neighbors that you will not attack them, even while you assault another before their very eyes?"
"I am delivering my terms to them," Kalarus said. "My terms for you are somewhat different."
"I am listening," Cereus said quietly.
"Yield your city to me now," Kalarus said. "And I will spare your life and that of your family. You will be free to depart and make what life you would elsewhere in the Realm."
Cereus's eyes narrowed. "You would seek to cast me from my family's home? To force me to abandon my people?"
"You should be grateful I'm giving you a choice," Kalarus replied. "Defy me, and it will go hard for you, and for your line. I promise to be thorough. I know all of their names, old man. Your three daughters. Your son. Your eleven grandchildren."
"You would threaten babes in arms, Kalarus? You're a madman."
Kalarus barked out a laugh. "A madman? Or a visionary. Only history will decide-and we all know who writes the histories." Kalarus's teeth showed again. "I'd prefer you to fight so that I might destroy you. But we both know that you aren't a fighter anymore, Macius. Walk away while you still can."
High Lord Cereus faced Kalarus's image for a silent minute before he lifted a hand, clenched it into a fist, and snarled, "Get out of my garden."
The waters of the pool rippled, and Kalarus's image, like Gaius's had, fell back into droplets of water that splashed back into the pool.
"Threaten my granddaughter. I'll wring your skinny throat, you cowardly slive." Cereus growled at the pool. Then he turned to face the assembly. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a city to defend. I welcome any help you might give. But if you don't intend to fight, you should depart the city as quickly as possible." He turned a hard look at the pool where Kalarus had stood. "If you can't help, then stay the crows out of my way."
Then the old man, his anger wrapped around him like a cloak, spun on his heel and strode from the garden barking orders to his startled-looking men, his voice ringing from the walls.
The others in the garden just stared after Cereus, startled at the change in the man. Then they began to speak quietly, most moving to leave. Amara turned to the images of Lords Placidus and Atticus. "My lords, please. Before you go, a word on behalf of the First Lord?"
The water-forms nodded, and Amara waited until the garden had emptied again. "My lords, may I ask your intentions?"
Lord Placidus, a plain, stocky man of unremarkable height and crystal blue eyes shook his head. "I'm not sure, Countess. But if he has Aria then..." The High Lord shook his head. "There are a number of dangerously volatile furies who are restrained from doing harm by my wife's will. If she dies without taking the proper measures to keep them neutralized, several thousand of my holders would perish. I have no qualms about sending my Legions into harm's way-but I am not willing to sacrifice the populations of entire steadholts. Women. Children. Families."
"You would let the Realm fall instead?" Amara asked.
"The Realm will stand, Countess," Placidus said, his voice hardening. "Only the face beneath the crown will change. I have never made it a secret that I wish nothing to do with the politics of the crown. In point of fact, if Gaius's page hadn't publicly manipulated us into supporting him, my wife might now be with me, safe and unharmed."
Amara ground her teeth, but nodded once. "Very well, Your Grace." She turned to High Lord Atticus. "And you, sir?"
"I gave one daughter to Gaius already," Atticus said, his voice bitter. "My Caria, taken to wife and held hostage in the capital. Now Kalarus has taken the other daughter. I see little difference between the two. But Gaius asks me to sacrifice men and blood, while Kalare wishes me merely to stand aside." He bared his teeth, biting off the words. "So far as I am concerned, you can all cut each other to shreds and let the crows pick clean your bones."
He turned, and the water-image flowed back down into the pool.
Lord Placidus grimaced at the departed lord of Attica. "I have no love for Kalarus or what he stands for," he told Amara. "I have no qualms about facing him on the field of battle. But if I must choose between the First Lord's life and those of my wife and thousands of my holders, I do not choose Gaius."
"I understand," Amara said quietly.
Placidus nodded once. "Tell Gaius I'll not contest him should the Legions need passage through any of my lands. It is all I can offer."
"Why?" Amara asked him, her voice very quiet.
Placidus was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Most High Lords marry for advantage. For political alliance." The image of Placidus shook its head as it slipped back down into the pool, receding. "I loved her, Countess. Still do."
Amara stared at the rippling pool for a moment, then sighed and settled down onto a nearby bench. She shook her head, struggling to work her way through a dozen trains of thought. She looked up a moment later, to find Bernard standing over her, offering her a mug of Giraldi's ale. She drank it off in a single, long pull.
Kalarus was far stronger than anyone had anticipated and had found some way secretly to train and transport entire Legions of men. He was ruthless, clever, and determined-and worst of all, to Amara's way of thinking, was that Lord Cereus's accusation seemed distressingly accurate. Kalarus might well be as mad as Cereus claimed. Though the forces of the Realm had the strength to beat him back, if only just, Kalarus had chosen a particularly vicious moment in which to attack and had struck at the most vulnerable point. If he moved swiftly enough, his coup might well succeed.
In fact, she could not think of anything the First Lord might do to stop him.
She could understand what Placidus had done, on one level, but on another she burned with fury at the man's decision to turn aside from the First Lord. He was a High Lord of Alera. He was honor-bound to come to the aid of the First Lord in the face of insurrection. Amara wished no harm to come to Lady Placida or to any innocent holders, of course, but she simply could not reconcile Lord Placidus's choice with his obligations as a Citizen and Lord of the Realm.
Bernard's ring, on its chain around her neck, felt heavy. She could hardly be the first to cast that particular stone. After all, hadn't she put her own desires ahead of her duties?
Bernard settled down next to her and exhaled slowly. "You look exhausted," he said quietly. "You need to sleep."
"Soon," she answered. Her hand found his.
"What do you think?" he asked her. "About all this." "It's bad," she said quietly. "It's very bad."
Gaius's voice rolled through the little garden, rich and amused. "Or perhaps it only seems so on the surface, Countess."