Max blinked at Tavi and then said, incredulously, "You took it?"
Tavi grinned at him and tossed a heavy grain sack up into the bed of the supply wagon.
"She's been going insane about her purse. She hasn't stopped complaining to Cyril since she lost it." Max hit his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Of course. You took it and bribed Foss and Valiar Marcus to let you ride."
"Just Foss. I think he handled Marcus's cut on his own."
"You're a crowbegotten thief," Max said, not without a certain amount of admiration.
Tavi threw another sack into the supply wagon. There was room for only a few more sacks, and the timbers of the wagon groaned and creaked under the weight of the load. "I prefer to think of myself as a man who turns liabilities into assets."
Max snorted. "True enough." He gave Tavi and oblique glance. "How much did she have?"
"About a years worth of my pay."
Max pursed his lips. "Quite a windfall. You have any plans for what's left?"
Tavi grunted and heaved the last sack into the wagon. His leg twinged, but the pain was hardly noticeable. "I'm not loaning you money, Max."
Max sighed. "Bah. That everything?"
Tavi slammed the wagon's gate closed. "That should do it."
"Got enough to feed the Legion for a month there."
Tavi grunted. "This is enough for the mounts of one alae. For a week."
Max whistled quietly. "I never did any work in logistics," he said.
Max snorted. "How much money is left?"
Tavi reached into a pocket and tossed the silk purse to Max. Max caught it and shook it soundlessly. "Not much," Tavi said in a dry tone. "Not many Antillan-made crowns are floating around the Legion, so I've been getting rid of them a little at a time."
He walked back through the dark to the steadholt's large barn and traded grips with a gregarious Steadholder who had agreed to sell his surplus grain to the Legion-especially since Tavi was offering twenty percent over standard Legion rates, courtesy of Lady Antillus's purse. He paid the man their agreed-upon price, and returned to the wagon. Max held up the silk purse and gave it a last, forlorn little shake before tossing it back to Tavi. Tavi caught the purse.
And something clicked against his breastplate.
Tavi threw up a hand, frowning, and Max froze in place. "What?"
"I think there was something else in the purse," Tavi said. "I heard it hit my armor. Give me some light?"
Max shrugged and tore a bit of cloth from a knotted-closed sack in the wagon. He rubbed the cloth between his fingers a few times, and a low flame licked its way to life. Seemingly impervious to the heat, he lowered the burning cloth and held it a few feet over the ground.
Tavi bent over, squinting, and saw a reflection of the improvised candle's light shine off of a smooth surface. He picked up a small stone, about the size of a child's smallest fingernail, and held it closer to the light. Though it was not faceted, the stone was translucent, like a gem, and was such a brilliant color of red that it almost seemed to be wet. It reminded Tavi of a large, fresh-shed droplet of blood.
"Ruby?" Max asked, peering, bringing the flame closer.
"No," Tavi said, frowning.
"No, Max," Tavi said, frowning at the stone. "Your shirt is on fire," he said absently.
Max blinked, then scowled at the fire, which had spread from the strip of sackcloth to his shirt. He flicked his wrist in irritation, and the flame abruptly died. Tavi could smell the curls of smoke coming up from the cloth in the sudden darkness.
"Have you ever seen a gem like that, Max? Maybe your stepmother crafts them.'
"Not that I know of," Max said. "That's new to me."
"I've got the feeling I've seen this before," Tavi murmured. "But crows take me if I can remember where."
"Maybe it's worth something," Max said.
"Maybe," Tavi agreed. He slipped the scarlet stone back into the silk purse and tied it firmly shut. "Let's go."
Max clambered up onto the wagon, took the reins, and brought the team into motion. Tavi swung up beside him, and the slow-moving cart began its ten-mile trek back to the First Aleran's camp at Elinarch.
The march had taken them seven long, strenuous days from the training camp to the bridge over the vast, slow-moving Tiber River. Foss, once honestly bribed, had kept Tavi "under observation" while his leg healed. Lady Antillus clearly hadn't liked the idea, but since she'd dumped the responsibility into his hands, she could hardly take it away again without displaying her animosity for Tavi in an unacceptably flagrant lack of the impartiality expected in a Legion officer.
Even so, Foss had kept Tavi busy. Bardis, the wounded Knight who had been saved by Lady Antillus, required constant attention and care. Twice, during the march, Bardis had simply stopped breathing. Foss had saved the young Knight, but only because Tavi had noticed what was happening. The young Knight hadn't regained more than vague consciousness during the march, and had to be fed, cleaned, and watered like a baby.
As he first sat beside the wounded Bardis, Tavi was struck by how young the Knight looked. Surely, an Aleran Knight should have been taller, thicker in the shoulders and chest and neck, with a heavier growth of beard and more muscle than the wounded Knight possessed. Bardis looked like... an injured, not yet fully grown child. And it inspired an immediate and unexpected surge of pro-tectiveness in the young Cursor. To his own surprise, he set about the task of tending Bardis without complaint or regret.
Later, he realized that Bardis wasn't too young to be a Knight. Tavi was simply five years older. He knew far more of the world than the boy, had seen a great deal more of life's horrors, and had gained inches and pounds of physical size that he had, for most of his life, lacked. All of that made the wounded Knight seem much smaller and far younger. It was a matter of perspective.
Tavi realized, bemused, that he was no longer the child, unconsciously expecting those stronger and older than he to assist and protect him. Now he was the stronger, the elder, and so it fell to him to accept and discharge his responsibilities rather than to seek ways to avoid or circumvent them.
He did not know when this shift in perspective had happened, and though it might have seemed small in some ways, it was far deeper and more significant than he had at first realized. It meant that he could never again be that child, the one deserving of protection and comfort. It was time for him to provide it for others, as it had been provided for him.
So he cared for poor Bardis and spent much of that march in reflection.
"You've been moody," Max said, breaking the silence as the wagon bumped steadily down the trail-a path worn by use, not furycraft. "This whole march, you've been quiet."
"Thinking," Tavi said, "and avoiding attention."
"How's the fish?"
"Bardis," Tavi corrected him. "Foss says he'll be all right, now that we've stopped and he can be cared for more properly." He shook his head. "But he might not ever walk again. And I don't know if he'll be able to use his right arm. He's given his body in service to the Realm, Max. Don't call him a fish."
Sullen red fire played within the bone-dry storm clouds overhead, and one of the horses danced nervously. Tavi saw Max nod. "True enough," he agreed, a quiet gravity in his own voice. After a moment, Max said, "Magnus says Kalarus is making his move. That he came up with at least four extra Legions somewhere. That if they take Ceres, they'll roll right over Alera Imperia. Which doesn't make much sense to me. Placidus's Legions are going to pin them against the city walls and cut them to pieces."