Amara hadn't seen the Count of Calderon for months. When she and her escort of Knights Aeris swept down into the Calderon Valley, and to Bernard's fortress-town of Garrison, she felt a flutter of excitement low in her belly.
To her surprise, Garrison had grown visibly, even in the weeks since she had last visited. What had begun as a tent town on the Aleran side of the fortress walls had become a collection of semipermanent wooden homes, and she could see that Bernard had found the money to hire enough earthcrafters to begin erecting buildings of stone, which would provide shelter from the deadly furies of this frontier of the Realm.
The really surprising development was what was happening on the outside of the protective walls of the fortress. Tents were spread out over the ground into an open market, and she could see a few hundred people moving about them, doing business as they might on any market day. That wasn't so terribly unusual. The shocking thing was that most of the people moving around the improvised market were Marat.
The pale barbarians and their beasts had been little but an infrequent and vicious menace from the perspective of Aleran history, and only twenty years or so earlier, an invading horde had massacred the Crown Legion, which was still recovering from heavy losses in a previous campaign. Thousands of legionares and camp followers and holders of the valley had died in a single day, including Princeps Gaius Septimus and all but one of his personal armsmen-Sir Miles, now Captain of the newly re-created Crown Legion.
It had been one of Alera's bitterest defeats, and though the First Lord and his Legion had scoured the valley of Marat, nothing could bring his son and heir back from the grave. Alerans died. The next First Lord died. There was no shortage of hard feelings between Alerans and their barbarian neighbors.
And yet, there were the peddlers and merchants, doing business with the Marat as they might in any town in the Realm. Many horses grazed lazily over the plain leading deeper into Marat territory, and Amara could see two dozen massive gargants doing the same. A group of perhaps a dozen wolves loitered in the morning sunshine on a mound of weatherworn boulders half a mile away. The Horse and Gargant tribes were, more than any other Marat, allies of the Alerans-or more precisely, allies of Bernard, Count of Calderon, and so their presence was understandable. But the Wolf tribe had struck her as the crudest and most bloodthirsty of the Marat, and had invariably been a foe of the Realm.
Times, it would seem, were changing, perhaps for the better, and she felt a fierce surge of pride that Bernard had been one of the people responsible for that change.
Amara tried to remain relaxed and calm, but despite her efforts, she found herself hundreds of yards ahead of her escort. The sentry over the gate called up a relaxed challenge and waved her in before she'd finished giving her name. After years of visiting the Count of Calderon, most of the legionares regularly stationed there knew her face by now, especially the remaining veterans of Gi-raldi's century. Those men, cut down to a bare sixty serving legionares, were the only century in the history of the Realm to have twice received the scarlet stripe of the Order of the Lion for valor, and they enjoyed sporting the red blazon on both legs of their uniform trousers with the same casually false disregard other legionares did their weaponry and armor.
Amara swept down into the courtyard, willing her wind fury, Cirrus, to bring her to earth still moving, and stepped with unconscious grace into a smooth trot that carried her across the courtyard and up the stairs that led to the Count's office and chambers. She went up the stairs two at a time, though she knew it made her look like an overeager girl bound for the arms of her lover-but she couldn't manage any more than that.
Before she reached the top of the stairs, the door above her opened and Bernard appeared in the doorway. He was a large man, broad-shouldered and strong, his dark hair and beard, both clipped short in Legion fashion, salted with threads of premature silver. His strong, weather-darkened face broke into a wide smile, and he caught Amara up in his arms as though she weighed no more than a newborn lamb. She twined her arms around his neck and buried her face into the space between his throat and his shoulder, holding tight and breathing in the scent of him-leather and fresh-cut hay and woodsmoke.
He promptly carried her inside, into his spare, utilitarian office, and she nudged the door shut with her foot in passing.
As soon as they were alone, she caught his face between her hands and kissed his mouth, slowly, luxuriously, thoroughly. He returned the kiss with slowly building heat for several moments before breaking it off to murmur, "Are you sure this is the best way to conceal our marriage?"
Amara looked up at him, smiling, then nuzzled close and closed her teeth on the skin of his throat, a quick, delicate little bite. "What married couple," she murmured, her fingers already undoing the buttons of his tunic, "behaves like this?"
His voice deepened into a rough growl, and she felt him shift her weight to hold on to one arm, while the other slid along her thigh. "But no one's watching us now."
"I like to be thorough," she replied, lips moving against his skin, her breath coming more swiftly. "It's the safest thing."
Her husband's growl deepened into a rumble, and he abruptly turned with her and sat her on the edge of his oaken desk. There was the sound of steel rasping on steel as he drew the dagger from his belt and set it beside her on the desk. She protested, "Bernard, not ag-"
His mouth covered hers in a sudden, scorching kiss that briefly silenced Amara. He opened the heavy jacket of her flying leathers, and one hand tightened on the small of her back, all but forcing her to arch her body to meet his mouth as he nuzzled her through the thin muslin of her blouse. His teeth scored lightly over the tips of her breasts, a sharp and sweet little agony, and the sudden inferno that the touch ignited erupted through her body, utterly robbing her of the ability to speak anything but a low and desperate moan of need.
She found herself squirming, hips grinding against his, as he took up the knife and with quick, certain flicks, cut the leather cords binding the seams on the outside of one leg of her leather breeches. Far from objecting, she urged him to hurry with her hands and body and mouth, and began tearing at his own clothing as she felt the air touch more and more naked skin.
Her eyes met his, and as she always did, Amara felt stunned at the depth of desire in them, that this man, her secret husband, actually wanted her so very badly. At first she had hardly believed what she had seen in his face, and even now it was a feeling that remained fresh and new. More, it sparked an answering desire far beyond anything she had ever dared hope to feel. For Amara, it was exhilarating that a man should want her so genuinely, so desperately. This man. Her husband, her lover.
He made Amara feel beautiful.
He kissed her, hands and mouth roaming over her until she thought she would lose her mind. She let out a low cry, gave her desires free rein, and he took her there on the desk, his presence, his strength, his scent, his touch all blending into torturous pleasure she could hardly endure. Her desire to touch and to feel drove all thoughts from her mind. Nothing mattered but what she could taste, hear, feel, smell, and she embraced it with abandon.
Hours later, she lay with him in his wide bed, her long, slender limbs twined with his. She could not remember precisely when he had carried her into his chambers, but the angle of the sunlight striking one wall through a high, narrow window told her that afternoon was rapidly fading toward twilight. She was naked, but for the single silver chain she wore around her neck, and Bernard's heavy Legion ring set with a green stone that hung upon the necklace. One of his arms was around her, and his body was a heavy, relaxed presence.
Amara lay there, sleepy and content, idly stroking one of her own slender, honey brown hands over the cords of muscle in one of his arms. She had seen Bernard casually lift loads that even a gargant would not consider a light burden, through the power given him by his earthcrafting, and she found it eternally amazing that so strong a man could be so very, very gentle, too.
"I missed you, my lady," he murmured, his voice pitched low, a lazy, satisfied growl in his tone.
"And I you, my lord."
"I've been looking forward to this trip."
Amara let out a wicked little laugh. "If you had your way, we'd stay right here."
"Nonsense," he said, but smiled as he did. "I miss my nephew."
"And that's what you've been looking forward to," she murmured. She moved her hand. "Not this. "
Her husband's eyelids fluttered shut and he let out a low hiss. "Don't get me wrong. Mmmm. I have no objections to that. None at all."
He felt the soft, dark hairs of his chest brush against her cheek as she smiled. "I suppose it works out then."
Bernard laughed, a relaxed and warm sound. He tightened his arm around her slightly and kissed her hair. "I love you."
"And I you."
He fell quiet for a moment, and she felt herself tense up a little. She could sense that he wanted to ask her, and that he was uncertain about whether or not to speak. His hand slid over her belly, strong and gentle.
She knew that he could not feel the scars that the Blight had left over her womb, but she flinched for an instant regardless. She forced herself to remain quiet and relaxed, and covered his hand with both of hers. "Not yet," she said. She swallowed, and said, "Bernard..."
"Hush, love," he said, voice strong and sleepy and confident. "We'll keep trying."
"But..." She sighed. "Two years, Bernard."
"Two years of a night here, a night there," he said. "We'll finally have some time together in Ceres." His hand drifted over her skin, and Amara shivered. "Weeks."
"But love. If I can't give you a child... your duties as a Count call for you to pass the strength of your crafting down to children. You owe it to the Realm."
"I've done my part for the Realm," Bernard said, and his tone became unyielding. "And more. And I will give the Crown its talented children. Through you, Amara. Or not at all."
"But..." Amara began.
He turned to face her, and murmured, "Do you wish to leave me, my lady?"
She swallowed and shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
"Then let's have no more talk of it," he said, and kissed her rather thoroughly. Amara felt her protests and worries beginning to dissolve into fresh heat.
Bernard let out another low growl. "Think we've thrown off sufficient suspicion for this visit, my lady?"
She laughed, a throaty sound. "I'm not sure."
He let out another low sound and turned his body to her. His hand moved, and it was Amara's turn to shiver in pleasure at a touch. "We'd best play it safe, then," he murmured. "And attend to duty."
"Oh," she whispered. "Definitely."
In the coldest, darkest hours of the night, Amara felt Bernard tense and sit bolt upright in bed, his spine rigid with tension. Sleep dragged hard at her, but she denied it, slipping from the depths of formless dreams.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"Listen," he murmured.
Amara frowned and did. Gusts of winds rushed against the stone walls of Bernard's chambers in irregular surges. From far away, she thought she could hear a faint sound on the wind, inhuman shrieks and moans. "A furystorm?"
Bernard grunted and swung his legs off the side of the bed and rose. "Maybe worse. Light." A furylamp on the table beside the bed responded to his voice, and a golden glow arose from it, allowing Amara to see Bernard dress in short, hurried motions.