Amara blinked, rising abruptly, and turned to find Gaius standing behind them in the flesh, emerging from a windcrafted veil so fine and delicate that she had never had an inkling that it had been present. "Sire?" she said. "You were here all along? But Kalarus..."
The First Lord arched an eyebrow. "Kalarus Brencis's ego is enormous-and an enormous weakness. The larger it grows, the more of his view it will obstruct, and I have no objections to feeding it." Then he smiled. "And my old friend Cereus needed someone to remind him of what he is capable. It was generous of Kalarus to volunteer."
Amara shook her head. She should have known better. Gaius Sextus had not retained his rule in the face of dangerous, ruthless men like Kalarus by being weak or predictable. "My lord, you heard what Lords Atticus and Placidus said."
"I did indeed," Gaius said.
Amara nodded. "Without their forces to help hold Ceres, Kalarus's gambit may well succeed."
"I give him five chances in six," Gaius agreed.
"Sire," Amara said, "this is... this..." Her outrage strangled her voice for a moment, and she pressed her lips firmly together before she said something that, in the eyes of the law, could not be retracted.
"It's all right, Cursor," Gaius said. "Speak your mind freely. I will not hold anything you say as a formal accusation."
"It's treason, sir," Amara spat. "They have an obligation to come to the defense of the Realm. They owe you their loyalty, and they are turning their backs on you."
"Do I not owe them loyalty in return?" Gaius asked. "Protection against threats too powerful for them to face? And yet harm has come to them and theirs."
"Through no fault of your own!" Amara said.
"Untrue," Gaius said. "I miscalculated Kalarus's response, his resources, and we both know it."
Amara folded her arms over her stomach and looked away from Gaius. "All I know," she said, "is that they have abandoned their duty. Their loyalty to the Realm."
"Treason, you say," Gaius murmured. "Loyalty. Strong words. In today's uncertain clime, those terms are somewhat mutable." He raised his voice slightly and glanced at the far corner of the little garden. "Wouldn't you agree, Invidia?"
A second veil, every bit as delicate and undetectable as Gaius's had been, vanished, replaced by the tall, regal figure of Lady Aquitaine. Though her eyes looked a bit sunken, she showed no other signs of the trauma the city's sudden surge of panic had inflicted upon its more powerful watercrafters. Her expression was cool, her pale face lovely and flawless, her dark hair held back into a wave that fell over one white shoulder to spill over her gown of crimson silk. A circlet of finely wrought silver in the design of laurel leaves, the badge of a recipient of the Imperian Laurel for Valor, stood out starkly, against her tresses, the ornament emphasized by its contrast against her hair.
"I think," she said, her tone steady, "that regardless of our ongoing differences, we can both recognize a greater threat to our plans when it appears."
Amara drew in a sharp breath, and her eyes flicked from Lady Aquitaine to Gaius and back. "Sire? I'm not sure I understand. What is she doing here?"
"I invited her, naturally," Gaius said. "We have a common interest in this matter."
"Of course," Amara said. "Neither of you wishes to see Lord Kalarus"-she emphasized the name ever so slightly-"on the throne."
"Exactly," said Lady Aquitaine with a cool smile.
"Kalarus's timing was quite nearly perfect," Gaius said. "But if the Legions of Attica and Placida are freed to act, we should be able to stop him. That's where you and Lady Aquitaine come in, Countess."
Amara frowned. "What is your command, sire?"
"Simply put, rescue the hostages and remove Kalarus's hold on Lords Placidus and Atticus with all possible haste." Gaius nodded toward Lady Aquitaine. "Invidia has agreed to assist you. Work with her."
Amara felt her spine stiffen, and she narrowed her eyes. "With... her? Even though she is responsible for-"
"For saving my life when the Canim attacked the palace?" the First Lord said gently. "For taking command of a situation which could have dissolved into an utter disaster? For her tireless efforts to rally support for emancipation?"
"I am aware of her public image," Amara said, her voice sharp. "I am equally aware of her true designs."
Gaius narrowed his eyes. "Which is the very reason I offered her this opportunity to work together," he said. "Even if you do not believe that she believes in acting for the good of the Realm, I am sure that you trust her ambition. So long as she and her husband wish to take the throne from me, I am confident that she would do nothing that would give it to Kalarus."
"You cannot trust her, sire," Amara said quietly. "If she gets the chance to move against you, she will."
"Perhaps so," Gaius said. "But until that time, I am confident of her assistance against a common foe."
"With reason," Lady Aquitaine murmured. "Countess, I assure you that I see the value of cooperation in this matter." The tall woman's eyes suddenly burned hot. "And politics aside, Kalarus's murderous attempt upon my life, on the lives of my clients, upon so many Citizens and members of the League cannot be ignored. Any animal as vicious and dangerous as Kalarus must be put down. It will be my pleasure to assist the Crown in doing so."
"And when that is done?" Amara asked, her tone a challenge.
"When that is done," Lady Aquitaine said, "we will see."
Amara stared at her for a moment before turning to Gaius. "My lord..."
Gaius lifted a hand. "Invidia," he said. "I know that you are still weary from tonight's trauma."
She smiled, the expression elegant and not at all weary. "Of course, sire. Countess, High Lord Cereus has offered the safety and security of his guest wing to all those attacked by Kalarus's Immortals. Please call on me at your convenience."
"Very well, Your Grace," Amara said quietly.
Lady Aquitaine curtseyed to Gaius. "Sire."
Gaius inclined his head, and Lady Aquitaine departed the garden.
"I do not like this, my lord," Amara said.
"A moment," the First Lord said. He closed his eyes and muttered something, making a pair of swift gestures with his hands, and Amara sensed furycraft at work, doubtless to ensure a few moments of privacy.
Amara arched an eyebrow at him. "Then you do not trust Lady Aquitaine."
"I trust her to bury a knife in my back at her earliest opportunity," Gaius replied. "But I suspect her contempt for Kalarus is genuine, as is her desire to recover the abducted members of the League-and her aid could be priceless. She is quite capable, Amara."
The Cursor shook her head. "And the busier she is with me, the less time she has to plot against you."