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."
"Placidus isn't moving," Tavi said.
"The crows he isn't. I know the man. He doesn't care much about getting involved with the rest of the Realm, but he doesn't care for treason, either. He'll fight."
"He isn't," Tavi said. "At least, according to the last-the only-dispatch that got through from the First Lord, though it didn't say why."
"That was a week ago," Max said.
Tavi nodded up at the sky. "Wherever this storm came from, it's pretty well prevented the use of Knights Aeris as messengers. The First Lord and the High Lords can communicate through the rivers, but they know there's nothing to stop others from listening to everything they send that way. "
"Or worse," Max said. "Altering the message en route."
"They can do that?" Tavi asked.
"It can be done," Max said. "I can't manage it yet. It's too delicate. But my lord father could. So could my stepmother."
Tavi stored the fact in memory for future reference. "Do you think Ceres will hold?"
Max was quiet for a moment before admitting, "No. Cereus is no soldier, he's getting long in the tooth, and he doesn't have a male heir to help with any of the fighting." His voice took on the note of a scowl. "His daughter Veradis has got talent, but it's mostly in healing. And she's a real cold fish."
Tavi found himself smiling. "She pretty?"
"Turned you down, huh?"
"About a hundred times." Max's tone turned somber again. "Kalarus is a powerhouse. Even my lord father thinks so. And that twisty little bastard Brencis had me fooled about how strong he was, too. Cereus can't beat them. And if the First Lord takes them on, he'll be turning his back on Aquitainus. He's pinned down."
Silence fell. Tavi watched the lightning play through the clouds. "I suppose I should be used to this."
"Feeling very small," Tavi said.
Max snorted out a laugh. "Small? Crows, Tavi. You've foiled coups orchestrated by the two most powerful High Lords in the realm. Twice. I don't know anyone less small than you."
"Luck," Tavi said. "Mostly luck."
"Some of it," Max allowed. "But not all. Hell, man, if you had furies of your own..."
Max's teeth suddenly clicked together as he choked the sentence to a halt, but Tavi still felt the familiar old stabs of frustration and longing.
"Sorry," Max said a moment later.
"I just wish we could do something," Tavi said. "Something. We're stuck out here in the back end of nowhere while the Realm is fighting for its life." He waved a hand. "I understand that this Legion isn't ready to fight yet. That no one is sure it could be trusted, with troops from all sides in the ranks and officers. But I wish we could do something other than sit out here and drill and"-he tilted his head at the back at the wagon-"shop for groceries."
"Me, too," Max said. "But I can't say we'd be enjoying the fight if we were there. This Legion wouldn't last long. Garrison duty on the bridge is dull, but at least it won't get us killed."
Tavi grunted and fell quiet again. The furylights of the town of Elinarch, as well as the vast, lit span of the bridge itself, came into sight at last. A few hundred yards later, the hairs on the back of Tavis neck tried to crawl up into his eyebrows.
Max wasn't a terribly skilled watercrafter, but he had raw talent, Tavi knew, and would have felt Tavi's sudden surge of unease. He sensed Max tensing beside him.
"What?" Max whispered.
"Not sure," Tavi said. "Thought I heard something."
"I do not see how, Aleran," said a voice from not a yard behind Tavi's head. "Stones and fish hear better than you."
Tavi spun, drawing the dagger from his belt. Max reacted even more swiftly, turning at the waist and sweeping an arm back in a blow of fury-born power.
Red lightning bathed the landscape for a pair of breaths, and Tavi saw Kitai smile as Max's flailing arm missed her by perhaps half of an inch. She sat crouched atop the sacks of grain, the pale skin of her face all but glowing within her cloak's hood. She wore the same ragged clothes Tavi had seen her in before, though her blindfold had been pulled down to hang loosely around her throat. Mercifully, she did not also wear the same odor.
"Blood and crows," Max spat. The horses danced nervously, making the cart lurch, and he had to bring them under control. "Ambassador?"
"Kitai," Tavi said, now understanding the odd, instinctive reaction he'd felt. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," she said, arching a brow. "Obviously."
Tavi gave her a level look. Kitai smiled, leaned forward, and gave him a firm and deliberate kiss on the mouth. Tavi's heart abruptly raced, and he felt short of breath. He didn't really intend to reach up and grip the front of her cloak to pull her momentarily closer, but Kitai let out a pleased sound a moment later and slowly drew away. Tavi stared into her exotic, gorgeous eyes and tried to ignore the sudden flames of need that raged through his flesh.
"No justice in the world," Max sighed. "Middle of the night, middle of crowbegotten nowhere, and you're the one with a woman." He drew the horses to a halt. "I'll walk in from here. See you in the morning."
Kitai let out a quiet, wicked laugh. "Your friend is wise." Then her smile vanished. "But I have not come here for us to pleasure one another, Aleran."
Tavi struggled to ignore the hunger that rose in the wake of the kiss and drew his thoughts into order. Kitai might be able to switch her thoughts gracefully from one trail to another, but Tavi didn't share that talent-and though he could see the obvious concern in her expression, it took him a heartbeat or three to ask, "What's happened?"
"Someone came to the camp," Kitai told him. "He claimed to have a message for your Captain Cyril, but the guards on watch sent him away, to return in the morning. He told them it was important, to wake the captain, but they did not believe him and-"
"So?" Max interrupted. He looked at Tavi. "Happens all the time. Practically every messenger anyone sends thinks the world will end if he isn't seen at once. A Legion captain needs to sleep, too. No one wants to be the one that gets him out of bed."
Tavi frowned. "In peacetime," he said quietly. "There's a war on, Max. Captains need all the information they can get, and we're practically blind out here. Cyril's left standing orders for any messengers to be taken to him immediately." Tavi frowned at Max. "So the question is, why wouldn't they obey those orders?"
"There is more," Kitai said. "When the messenger left, the guards set out after him, and-"
"What?" Tavi demanded, thoughts racing. "Max. Who is on duty at the gate tonight?"
"Erasmus's century. Eighth spear, I think."
"Bloody crows," Tavi said, his voice grim. "They're Kalarans. They're going to kill him and intercept the message."
Kitai snarled in frustration and clamped a pale, slender, strong hand over Tavi's mouth and another over Max's. "By the One, Aleran, will you shut your mouth for a single instant and let me finish?" She leaned forward, eyes almost glowing with intensity. "The messenger. It was Ehren."