Captain Cyril stared at Ehren for a long moment. Then his mouth turned down into a thoughtful frown. He studied the almost-too-bright silver of one of Gaiuss personal coins, given to the Cursors as tokens of their authority. A full minute passed before he asked, "Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir," Ehren said, his tone grim and calm.
They stood inside the captain's command tent, flaps down, lit by a pair of soft yellow furylamps. When they arrived, Cyril had been awake, armored, and waiting for them without a trace of sleep lingering in his eyes. His bedroll was neatly stored atop the standard trunk in the corner. The soldier who led by example.
A brief silence followed Ehren's reply, and Magnus used the time to refresh the captain's cup of tea. Max waggled his own empty cup at Magnus. Magnus arched an eyebrow at him, then passed him the carafe. Max smiled and poured his own, then refilled Tavi's as well.
"Marcus?" Max asked.
Valiar Marcus shook his head, declining. The ugly old centurion stood beside the captain, scratching at his head. "Sir, I have to wonder if this isn't a hoax of some kind. The Canim have never come to Alera's shores in such numbers."
Ehren looked ragged and tired, but he bristled at the First Spear's words. "Are you calling me a liar, centurion?"
"No," the First Spear said, meeting Ehren's eyes. "But a man may speak the truth and still be incorrect."
Ehren clenched his hands into fists, but Cyril stopped him with a hard look. "The First Spear is right to be cautious, sir Cursor," he said to Ehren.
"Why?" Ehren demanded.
"Because of the timing," Cyril said. "Kalarus's Legions have marched upon the forces of the First Lord."
Ehren stared at him for a moment. "What? "
Cyril nodded. "Ceres is under siege. Kalarus's forces have cut off the eastern High Lords for the time being. Placida and Attica stand neutral. If Kalarus could manage to create a false threat from the Canim and force Aleran Legions to respond, it could spread Gaius's supporters out more thinly, rob them of the advantage of numbers."
Ehren shook his head. "I saw them, Captain, with my own eyes. Hundreds of ships, driven before the storm that has made it all but impossible for us to fly, to carry word swiftly, to outmaneuver them. This is no mere raid. '
The First Spear grunted. "How come this didn't come through official channels of intelligence?"
"Because I made landfall at the harbor in Redstone to find that my contact in the Cursors had been murdered the previous week. I didn't dare reveal myself for fear that his murderers would be watching for other Cursors."
"A plausible explanation," Cyril said. "But one that does not readily lend itself to confirmation. My orders are to hold the bridge, Sir Ehren, not to mount expeditions against an incursion. I am willing to send out a party to verify-"
"Captain," Ehren said, voice rising in alarm. "There's no time for that. My ship outran the Canim armada, but not by much. If they kept their pace, they'll make landfall in the harbor at Founderport in the next few hours. There aren't many harbors along this coast. It's obvious that they must control the Elinarch or risk being attacked from several directions." He pointed to the south. "They're coming here, Captain. By this time tomorrow, you'll have the largest Canim bat-tlepack in the history of Alera coming over that hill."
Cyril frowned at Ehren for a moment, then looked at the First Spear.
"Crows," Marcus muttered, running a finger down the lumpy bridge of his often-broken nose. "Why?" he asked. "Why here? Why now?"
It came to Tavi in a flash. "Wrong question, centurion." Tavi looked at Cyril and said, "Not 'why,' sir. Who."
"Who?" Cyril asked.
"Who are they working with," Tavi said quietly.
"No," Max said after a moment. "No Aleran Citizen would have traffic with the Canim. Not even Kalarus. It's... no, it's unthinkable."
"And," Tavi said, "it is the most likely explanation. This storm has blinded us and severely harms our ability to coordinate."
"It does the same to Kalarus," the First Spear pointed out.
"But he knew when it was coming. Where his targets were. Where he would strike. His forces were already coordinated and in motion." Tavi glanced at Cyril. "That storm does far more to harm Gaius than Kalarus. The only problem is how the Canim told Kalarus that it was about to begin." Tavi chewed his lip. "They'd need a signal of some kind."
"Like red stars?" the First Spear snarled in disgust. He spat a vile oath, hand coming to rest on his sword. "Kalarus's attack began the night of the red stars. So did the Canim's."
"Bloody crows," Max said. He shook his head in disbelief. "Bloody crows."
Cyril looked at the First Spear, and said, "If they take the Elinarch, they'll run right through Placida's heartlands on the north side, and with the river protecting their flank, they'll be able to lay waste to Ceres' lands on the south."
"There's not another full Legion within eight or nine hundred miles, sir," the First Spear said. "And we can't send any requests for reinforcement by air. No one could reach us in time to make any difference." He set his jaw in a grim line, and said, "We're alone out here."
"No," Cyril corrected quietly. "We are a Legion. If we do not fight, the holders in the towns and steadholts the Canim will attack will be alone."
"The fish aren't ready, sir," Valiar Marcus warned. "Neither are the defenses of the town."
"Be that as it may. They are what we have. And by the great furies, they are Aleran legionares." Cyril nodded once. "We fight."
The First Spear's eyes glittered, and his teeth showed in a wolfish smile. "Yes, sir."
"Centurion, summon my officers here at once. All of them. Go."
"Sir," Marcus said. He saluted and strode from the tent.
"Antillar, you are to carry word to the cavalry and auxiliaries to prepare for immediate deployment. I'm sending Fantus and Cadius Hadrian over the bridge tonight, to slow any advance elements of the enemy forces, gather what intelligence they can, and to give our holders a chance to run, if need be."
"Sir," Max said. He saluted, nodded at Tavi, and strode out.
"Magnus. Go into town and contact Councilman Vogel. Give him my compliments and ask him to send any boats that can manage it up the river to spread the word of a Canim incursion. Then ask him to open the town's armory. I want as many militiamen as we can equip armed and ready to fight."
Maestro Magnus saluted the captain, nodded to Tavi, and slipped out.
"And you, Scipio," Cyril said, fixing a speculative stare on Tavi. "You seem to have a talent for finding trouble."
"I'd prefer to think that it finds me, sir. "
The captain gave him a humorless smile. "Do you understand the wider implications of a relationship between Kalarus and the Canim, and the attempt to prevent Sir Ehren, here, from reaching us?"
"Yes, sir," Tavi said. "It means that Kalarus probably has further intelligence assets within the Legion, and that they may well take other actions to leave us more vulnerable to the Canim."
"A distinct possibility," Cyril said, nodding. "Keep your eyes open. Carry word to Mistress Cymnea that the followers should ready to retreat to the town's walls, should battle be joined."
"Sir," Tavi said, saluting. "Shall I return here for the officers' meeting?"
"Yes. We'll begin in twenty minutes." Cyril paused and glanced from Tavi to Ehren. "Good work, you two."
"Thank you, sir," Tavi said, inclining his head to Cyril in acknowledgment of the captain's deduction. Then he traded a nod with Ehren and ducked out of the tent. He hurried through the lightning-strobed darkness as the camp began to waken from its late-night torpor to the sounds of shouted orders, nervous horses, and clanking armor.