Isana opened her eyes and thought she was going to faint. Septimus, with his usual delicate, precise touch, had slipped a ring onto her finger so lightly that she had not felt him doing it.
The hand looked like silver, hut was so delicately wrought that she could barely feel its weight. The setting was of a pair of eagles, facing one another, supporting the jewel upon their forward-swept wings. The stone itself was cut into a slender diamond shape, hut the gem was like nothing Isana had ever seen, brilliant red and azure, divided precisely down the center without any detectable seam.
"Oh," she breathed quietly. She felt her eyes bulging, her cheeks growing pink. "Oh. Oh, my."
Septimus let out a quiet laugh, and she could sense his pleasure at her reaction, and Isana felt that same surge of joy well up inside her, just as it had the first time she had heard his laugh. Her mouth failed her, and she only sat, staring up at Septimus, drinking in his features. Dark hair, intense green eyes, tall, strong. He was so handsome, his expressive face able to convey volumes of meaning without speaking at all, and his voice was low, rich, strong.
They sat together on a spread blanket at the shore of the little lake near the Legion garrison in the Calderon Valley, under the harvest moon. They had taken their meal together there, as they had so many times since the spring, feeding one another and speaking quietly, laughing, kissing.
He had asked her to close her eyes, and Isana had complied, sure that he was about to show her some new jest.
Instead, he had slipped a ring bearing all the marks of the House of Gaius onto her left ring finger.
"Oh, Septimus," Isana breathed. "Don't say it."
He laughed again. "My love, how could I not?" He reached out and took both of her hands in his. "I cursed my father when he sent the Legion all the way out here," he said quietly. "But I never thought I would meet someone like you. Someone strong and intelligent and beautiful. Someone..." He smiled a little, and it made his face look boyish. "Someone I can trust. Someone I want to stand beside me, always. I can't take the chance that I might lose you if the Legion is ordered elsewhere, my love." He lifted her hand and kissed it. "Marry me, Isana. Please."
The world started spinning in wild circles, but Isana could not take her eyes away from the only stable thing in it-Septimus, his eyes bright and intense in the moonlight.
"Your f-father," Isana said. "I'm not even a Citizen. He would never allow it."
Septimus flicked an irritated glance in the general direction of the capital. "Don't worry about that. I'll deal with Father. Marry me."
"But he would never accept it!" Isana breathed.
Septimus shrugged and smiled. "The shock will be good for him, and he'll get over it. Marry me. "
Isana blinked, shocked. "He's the First Lord!"
"And I am the Princeps," Septimus said. "But our titles don't really come into it. He may be the First Lord, but he is also my father, and great furies know that we've locked horns more than once. Marry me."
"But it could cause you such trouble," Isana pressed.
"Because Father seeks to preserve the old ways, my love." He leaned toward her, eyes bright and intent. "He does not see that the time is coming when those ways must change-when they must make Alera a better place for everyone-not just for Citizens. Not just for those who have power enough to take what they want. The Realm must change." His eyes blazed, conviction and passion suffusing his voice. "When I become First Lord, I'm going to be a part of that change. And I want you with me while I do it."
Then he moved, pressed Isana gently down to the blanket, and kissed her mouth. Isana s shock was transformed into a sudden hurricane of delight and need, and she felt her body melt and move, pressing sinuously against his as he kissed her, his mouth soft, strong, hungry, searing hot. She had no idea how long the kiss went on, but when their lips finally parted, Isana felt as if she was on fire, burning from the inside out. The need was so great that she could barely focus her eyes.
His mouth slid over her throat, then pressed a slow, tingling kiss against the skin covering her fluttering pulse. He lifted his head slowly, and met her eyes with his own. "Marry me, Isana," he said quietly.
She felt an answering need in Septimus, the feral call of the flesh, the rising tide of his passion, the warmth and the love he felt for her-and then she saw something else in his eyes. There, just for an instant, was a flutter of uncertainty and fear.
Septimus was afraid. Afraid that she would say no.
It nearly broke Isana s heart, just seeing the potential for his grief. She lifted a hand to touch his face. She would never hurt him, never bring him pain. Never.
And he loved her. He loved her. She could feel it in him, a bedrock of affection that had grown and grown and grown, answered by the same in Isana.
She felt her eyes blur with tears at the same time she let out a breathless burst of laughter. "Yes,"she said. "Yes."
A surge of Septimus's joy flowed into her, and she flung herself onto him, rolling him onto his back so that she could kiss him, face and throat and hands, to taste him, to drink in the warmth and beauty of him. Reason disintegrated under the joy, under the need, and Isana's hands moved as if of their own will, tearing open his tunic so that she could run her hands and nails and mouth over the tight muscle beneath it.
Septimus let out an agonized moan, and she felt his hips surge up against hers, felt the hot hardness of him pressed against her so tightly that she thought they might simply burst into flame together.
He seized her face between his hands and forced her eyes to his. Isana saw everything she'd already felt in them, saw how much he wanted to simply let go, give in to the moment. "Are you sure?" he said, his voice a growling whisper. "You've never done this. Are you sure you want this now?"
She couldn't trust her lips to answer, her tongue to function. They were far too intent upon returning to his skin. So she sat up and stared down at him, panting, mouth open, and dug her fingernails into his chest while arching her back, pushing her hips back and down against him, a slow, torturous motion.
Septimus could feel her, just as she could him. Words were neither needed nor wanted. His eyes glazed over with hunger and need, and he lifted her and pressed her down again, savagely took another kiss from her open, willing lips. His hand slid up one of her legs, brushing skirts aside, and there was suddenly nothing in her entire world hut passion, sensation, pleasure.
They lay in one another's arms much later, the moon now settling down, though dawn was nowhere near. Isana could hardly believe what was happening to her. Her arms tightened on Septimus in languorous wonder, feeling the warmth of him, the strength of him, the beauty of him.
He opened his eyes slowly, smiling at her the way he smiled at nothing and no one else, and it made Isana feel deliciously smug, delighted.
She closed her eyes and nuzzled her face into his chest. "My lord, my love."
"I love you, Isana," he said.
The truth of it rang in Isana's heart. She felt it between them, flowing like a river, running endlessly through both. "I love you, " she whispered, and shivered in pure delight. "This is... this is like a dream. I'm terrified that if I open my eyes, all of this will be gone, and I'll find myself in my cot."
"I couldn't bear it if this wasn't real," Septimus murmured into her hair. "Best you stay asleep then. "
Isana opened her eyes and found herself in a strange bedchamber.
Not in the moonlight.
Not in love.
Not with him.
She'd had the dream before-memories, really, perfectly preserved, like a flower frozen in a block of ice. They made the dream so real that she could never remember, while it happened, that she was dreaming.
It hurt just as much to awake from the dream as it had all the times before. Slow, slow agony pierced her, taunted her with what might have been and never would be. It was pure torment-but to see him again, to touch him again, was worth the pain.
She didn't weep. She was long since past the tears. She knew the memories would fade before morning, washed away into pale ghosts of themselves. She just held on to those images as tightly as she could.
The door opened, and Isana looked up to find her brother leaning in the doorway. Bernard entered at once, strode to her bedside, and gave her a warm smile.
She tried to smile back. "Bernard," she said in a weary voice. "At some point, I would like a few weeks to go by in which I do not faint during a crisis."
Her brother leaned down and enfolded her in a vast hug. "Things will settle down again," he told her. "Lord Cereus says its because your watercrafting is so strong, without being complemented by enough metalcraft to endure your own empathy."
"Lord Cereus," Isana said. "Is that where I am?"
"Yes," her brother answered. "In his guest quarters. Cereus has offered the hospitality of his citadel to the Citizen refugees trapped here."
Isana lifted both her eyebrows. "Trapped? Bernard, what is happening."
"War," Bernard said shortly. "Lord Kalarus marches on Ceres with his forces. There will shortly be battle joined here."
"The fool." Isana shook her head. "I take it there is not time to leave?"
"Not safely," Bernard said. "You were particularly targeted by the assassins who attacked the restaurant, and there are agents of Kalare in the city and advance forces already in the area. You're safest here. Giraldi will stay here with you, as will Fade."
Isana sat bolt upright. "Fade. He's here, in Ceres."
Bernard hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "In the hall, in fact. And armed. And I've never seen anyone fight like he did." Bernard shook his head. "I always thought him just a disgraced legionare."
"Why is he here?" Isana demanded. "Why is he not with Tavi?"
Bernard blinked mildly at her. "Tavi? I know Gaius took Fade to the capital to serve as a slave in the Academy..." His frown deepened. " 'Sana? You're upset..."
Isana forced herself to set aside the rising sense of panic, smoothing her expression back to calm. "I'm sorry... I'm just so... I'll be all right, Bernard."
"You're sure?" Bernard said. " 'Sana, I... well, when you told me to buy Fade, I did it. Never asked you why. I was sure you had your reasons, but..." A heavy silence fell, and Bernard asked, "Is there anything you should tell me?"
Isana dared not meet her brother's eyes. "Not yet."
Bernard frowned at the answer.
Before he could ask another question, Isana nodded at Bernard's working clothes, his woodland cloak. "Where are you going?"
He hesitated for a moment and gave her a lopsided smile. "Can't say," Bernard said. "Not yet. Mission."
"What mission?" Isana asked. She tilted her head to one side and then said, "Ah, I see. Amara's mission."
Bernard nodded, somewhat sheepishly. "Yes."
"She makes you happy, doesn't she."
Her younger brother's face spread into a little smile. "Yes."
As Isana had Septimus. A little pang went through her, but she covered it with a smile. "From the rumors I've heard," Isana added drily, "very happy."
"Isana," Bernard rumbled, his face flushed.
Isana let her lips curl around a small silent chuckle. "Leaving soon, I take it?"
"Before it gets light. I was about to go," he said. "I was hoping you'd wake first."
"Will you..." She frowned. "Is it..."
He smiled at her and touched her shoulder again. "I'll be fine. I'll tell you all about it when we get back."
She could feel Bernard's confidence and honesty, through his touch on her shoulder, but she also felt uncertainty and fear. Though her brother was not in fear of his life, or ruled by his trepidations, he knew full well that he was going into danger and that nothing in the future was certain.
There was a knock at the door, and Giraldi opened it and stuck his head in. "Your Excellency," he said. "Your skinny Countess just blew past on her way to the tower. Said you should catch up."
Bernard nodded sharply, then turned and gave his sister another, tighter hug. Isana knew that her ribs weren't really about to collapse, as she had endured many such embraces from Bernard in the past, but she finally made a sound of complaint and pushed at him. It was, she sometimes thought, the only way he knew when to stop.
"Giraldi will be with you," he said. "Love you."
"And I you," Isana said. "Good luck."
Bernard bent down and kissed her forehead, then rose, leaving. "Take good care of her, centurion."
"Go teach yer grandmother to suck eggs," Giraldi muttered, winking at Isana.
"What?" Bernard called over his shoulder.
"Sir!" Giraldi answered. "Yes, sir."
"Terrible," Isana murmured. "The lack of discipline in today's Legions."
"Shocking," the veteran concurred. "Steadholder, you in need of anything? Victuals, drink?"
"Some privacy first," Isana said. "Then something simple?"
"I'll find it," Giraldi said.
"Centurion. If you would, please send Fade to speak to me."
Giraldi paused by the door and grunted. "That scarred slave? The one-man Legion?"
Isana stared at him for a moment, saying nothing.
"Seems kind of odd, old Fade would be out there at your Steadholt all those years, and never saw him use so much as a knife. Figured all those scars on his arms were from working his smithy. Then tonight, he just went through those maniacs like they was made of cobwebs. Sort of makes a body wonder who he is."
Isana folded her arms, one finger tapping in slight impatience, and said nothing.
"Hngh," Giraldi grunted, limping out. "The plot thickens."
Fade entered a few moments later. He was still dressed in the simple, blood-sprinkled smock of a scullion, though he wore a Legion-issue sword belt and his old blade at his side. He had acquired a worn, old cloak of midnight blue, and wore the military boots of a legionare. A bloody rag was tied crudely around his left hand, but if the wound caused him pain, he showed no sign of it.
Fade shut the door behind him and turned to face Isana.
"Tavi?" she asked quietly.
Fade took a steadying breath. "On assignment. Gaius has him in the field."
Isana felt the first flutterings of panic. "Gaius knows?"
"I believe so," Fade said quietly.
"Tavi is alone?"
Fade shook his head, letting his long hair fall forward over his face, as usual, hiding much of his expression. "Antillar Maximus is with him."
"Maximus. The boy whose life Tavi had to save? Twice?"
Fade didn't lift his face, but his voice hardened. "The young man who twice proved his loyalty to his friend and the Realm. Maximus laid down his life to protect Tavi against the son of a High Lord. You cannot ask more than that of anyone."
"I don't deny his willingness to lay down his life," Isana retorted. "It is his aptitude for it that concerns me. Great furies, Araris, Antillar has practice at it."
"Lower your voice, my lady," Fade said, his tone warning and gentle at the same time.
She never understood how he could do that. Isana shook her head tiredly. "Fade," she corrected herself, "I'm not your lady."
"As milady wishes," Fade said.
She frowned at him, then dismissed the argument with an idle throwaway gesture of one hand. "Why didn't you stay with him?"
"My presence would have drawn attention to him," Fade said. "Gaius has inserted him into the newly formed Aleran Legion." He gestured at the horrible brand on his face, the coward's mark of a soldier who had fled combat. "I could not have remained nearby him. If I had to fight, it is probable that someone would recognize me, and it would raise a great many questions about why one of Princeps Septimus's singulares, supposedly dead for twenty years, was guarding the young man."
"Gaius didn't have to send him there," Isana insisted. "He wanted to isolate him. He wanted to make him vulnerable."
"He wanted," Fade disagreed, "to keep him out of the public eye and in a safe location."
"By putting him into a Legion," Isana said, her disbelief heavy in her tone. "At the eruption of a civil war."
Fade shook his head. "You aren't thinking it through, my lady," he said. "The First Aleran is the one Legion that will not see action in a civil war. Not with so many of its troops and officers owing loyalties to cities, lords, and family houses on both sides of the struggle. Further, it has been forming in the western reaches of the Amaranth Vale, far from any fighting, and it would not surprise me to learn that Gaius issued orders to send it even farther west, away from the theater of combat."
Isana frowned and folded her hands on her lap. "Are you sure he's safe?"
"Nowhere would be totally safe," Fade said in a quiet tone. "But now he is hidden among a mass of thousands of men dressed precisely like him, who will not enter combat against any of the High Lords' Legions, and who have been conditioned by training and tradition to protect their own. He's accompanied by young Maximus, who is more dangerous with a blade than any other man his age I've seen-save my lord himself-and a crafter of formidable power. Knowing Gaius, there are more agents nearby about whom I was told nothing."
Isana folded her arms in close to her body. "Why did you come here?"
"The Crown had received intelligence that you had been personally targeted by Kalare."
"The Crown," she said, "and everyone else who was at that Wintersend party, and the servants and anyone they might have spoken to, or who might have heard rumors."
"More specific," Fade said. "He asked me to watch over you. I agreed."
She tilted her head, frowning. "He asked?"
Fade shrugged. "My loyalty is not Gaius Sextus's to command, and he knows it."
She felt herself smile at him a little. "I can't trust him. I can't trust any of them. Not with Tavi."
Fade's expression never changed, but Isana felt a flash of something in the scarred slave she never had before-an instant of anger. "I know you only seek to protect him. But you do Tavi a grave disservice. He is more formidable and capable than you know."
Isana blinked her eyes. "Fade-"
"I've seen it," Fade continued. That same sense of anger in him kept on rising. "Seen him act under pressure. He's more capable than most men, regardless of their skill with furies. And it's more than that..."
Isana wrenched her thoughts from her worries and really looked at the scarred man. His skin was too pale, blotchy with patches of red and glistening with a cold sweat. His eyes were dilated, and his pulse fluttered fast and hard in his throat and upon one temple.
"He makes those around him be more than they are," Fade snarled. "Makes them be better than they are. More than they thought they could be. Like his father. Bloody crows, like the father I left to die..
Fade suddenly lifted his wounded hand and stared at it. He was trembling violently and there were flecks of white on his lips. He blinked in utter bafflement at his quivering hand, opened his mouth as though to speak, then jerked in a convulsive spasm that threw him onto the floor in a violent seizure. Seconds went by as he kicked and thrashed, then he let out a soft groan and simply went limp.
"Fade!" Isana breathed and pushed herself from the bed. The world pitched about, then left her on the floor. She did not have strength enough to stand, but she crawled on all fours to the fallen man's side, reaching out to touch his throat, to feel his pulse.
She could not find it.