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."
"Essentially," Gaius said, a smile toying at the corners of his mouth, "yes. Make whatever use of her you can and recover those hostages."
Amara shook her head. "He can't possibly be holding them nearby. Not someone as powerful as Placidus Aria. He'd need to have her within his own lands-probably at his citadel."
"I agree," Gaius said. "There has been much movement in the upper air over the past day, but I am sure that at least some travelers have departed for Kalare. You need to decide upon your course of action and leave before the sun is fairly risen tomorrow."
Amara frowned. "Why, sire?"
"You may note," Gaius said, "how the recent discussion avoided one particular subject most scrupulously."
"Yes. The stars," Amara said quietly. "What happened to them."
Gaius shrugged. "I've nothing but suspicions, at this point."
"I don't even have that much," Amara said.
"I believe," Gaius said, "that it is some working of the Canim. The change came from the west and spread over toward the east. I suspect that it is some kind of very high, very fine cloud, that colors the light of the stars as they shine down."
"A cloud?" Amara murmured. "Can you not simply examine it?"
Gaius frowned faintly. "In fact, no. I've sent dozens of furies up to investigate. They did not return."
Amara blinked. "Something... damaged them?"
"So it would seem," Gaius said.
"But... I did not think the Canim could do such an enormous thing. I know their rituals give them some kind of rude parallel to Aleran furycraft, but I never thought that they could manage something on this scale."
"They never have," Gaius replied. "But the remarkable thing about this working of theirs is that it has had some far-reaching effects I have never encountered before. I have been unable to observe activities and events passing in the Realm beyond perhaps a hundred miles of Alera Imperia. I suspect that the other High Lords have been similarly blinded."
Amara frowned. "How could the Canim have done such a thing?"
Gaius shook his head. "I've no way of knowing. But whatever they have done, the upper air groans with it. Travel has become quite dangerous in only a few hours. I suspect that it will only become worse as time passes. Which is why I must take my leave at once. I have a great many things to do, and if air travel becomes as difficult as I suspect it might, then I must set out at once-and so must you."
Amara felt her eyes widen. "Do you mean to say... sire, is Kalarus conspiring with the Canim?"
"It would seem a rather large coincidence that he would be in position to attack in so many places, with such precision, and just at the moment when the most powerful furycrafters in his path would have been disabled-just precisely at the same time the Canim released this working."
"A signal," Amara said. "The stars were a signal for him to begin."
"Probably," Gaius replied.
"But... sire, no one has ever found common ground with the Canim. No Aleran would ever..." She broke off and bit her lip. "Mmm. But the facts suggest that one has. I sound like Senator Arnos."
"Far less tiresome," Gaius said. He put a hand on Amara's shoulder. "Countess, I have two things to tell you. First, if Kalarus manages to prevent Placida and Attica from sending reinforcements, he will in all probability seize the capital and its furies. Aquitaine and the other High Lords will contest him. Our Realm will dissolve into utter chaos. Tens of thousands will die, and if Kalarus truly has thrown in his hand with the Canim, we may be facing the end of the Realm entirely." He lowered his voice, emphasizing the words. "You must succeed. At any cost."
Amara swallowed and nodded her head.
"Second," he said, more quietly, "there is no one else in the Realm to whom I would sooner entrust this task than you, Amara. In the last few years, you have rendered more courageous service than most Cursors do in a lifetime. You do them great honor-and I am proud to have the loyalty of so worthy an individual."
Amara felt her back straighten as she looked up at the First Lord. Her throat felt tight, and she swallowed and murmured, "Thank you, sire."
He nodded once, and withdrew his hand. "Then I leave you to it," he said quietly. "Good luck, Cursor."
"Thank you, sire."
Gaius flicked his hands a few times, and the privacy furycrafting dissipated, vanishing from Amara's senses. At the same time, a gentle wind that hardly stirred the plants of the garden lifted Gaius from the ground, even as he wove another delicate veil around himself, vanishing as he took almost silently to the skies.
Amara stood staring up after the departed First Lord for a moment. Then she felt Bernard's presence at her side. He slipped an arm around her waist, and she leaned against him for a moment.
"I don't like this," he said.
"Nor I," Amara replied. "But that doesn't matter. You and Giraldi should go and inform the Steadholder of what happened here."
"Giraldi can take care of it," Bernard said. "I'm going with you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Amara said. "Bernard, you're-"
"Your husband. A veteran. An expert hunter and woodsman," he said. His jaw set into a line. "I'm going with you."
"Going to stop me from going with you. No one is."
Amara's chest suddenly felt very tight. She turned to her husband and kissed him once, on the mouth, and very lightly. Then she said, "Very well. If you're going to be a mule about it."
Giraldi limped up to them and grunted. "Now you be careful, sir. I don't want to be the only centurion in the Legions to get two of his commanders cut down."
Bernard traded grips with him. "Keep an eye on 'Sana. When she wakes up, tell her..." He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. She knows better than I what I'd say."
"Course," Giraldi agreed. Then he caught Amara in a rough hug, hard enough to make her ribs creak. "And you. Don't let him distract you none."
Amara hugged back, and said, "Thank you."
The old centurion nodded, saluted them, fist to heart, and limped from the garden.
"Very well, my lady," Bernard murmured. "Where do we begin?"
Amara frowned, and narrowed her eyes. "With someone who has seen Kalarus's operation from the inside, and who might know his plans." She turned to Bernard and said, "We're going to the dungeons."