Isana, exhausted, did not lift her head to ask, "What day is it, Giraldi?" "The twenty-ninth day of the siege. Dawn's in a few hours more." Isana forced herself to churn thoughts through her weary brain. "The battle. Is Lady Veradis likely to be free today?"
Giraldi was silent for a long minute. Then he dragged a stool across the floor to Isana and sat down on it in front of her. He leaned down and lifted her chin with callused, gentle fingers, so that she had to look up at him. "No," he said quietly. "She won't, Isana."
Isana struggled to process the thought. Not today, then. She must hold another day. Another eternal, merciless day. She licked her dried, cracked lips, and said, "Gaius will come soon."
"No," Giraldi said. "There's something about this storm that keeps Knights Aeris from flying more than a few yards off the ground. The First Lord could not send rapid response troops to lift the siege, and Kalarus has disrupted the causeways between Ceres and the capital. It will take them another week to march here."
A week. To Isana, a week almost seemed like a mythical amount of time. Perhaps that was a mercy. A single day was a torment. Just as well that she could not clearly remember how many days were in a week. "I'm staying. "
Giraldi leaned forward. "Kalarus's forces have breached the city walls. Cereus and Miles managed to collapse enough buildings to contain them for a time, but it's only a matter of hours, probably less than a day, before he's forced back to the citadel here. The fighting is worse every hour. Cereus and Miles have lost more Knights, and now the enemy's take a greater and greater toll of the rank-arid-file legionares. Veradis and her healers work to save lives until they drop. Then they get up and do it again. None of them can come to help you."
She stared at him dully.
Giraldi leaned forward and turned her head toward Fade. "Look at him, Isana. Look at him."
She did not wish to. She could not quite remember why, but she knew that she did not want to look at Araris. But she could not summon up the means to deny the centurion's command. She looked.
Araris, Fade, her husband's closest friend, lay pale and still. He'd coughed weakly for several days, though that had ceased sometime in the blurry, recent past. His chest barely rose and fell, and it made wet sounds as it did. His skin had taken on an unhealthy, yellowish tinge in patches around his torso and neck. He had cracks in his skin, angry sores swollen and red. His hair hung limp, and every feature of his body looked softened, more indistinct somehow, as if he'd been a still-damp clay statue slowly melting in the rain.
Two things stood out clear.
The brand on his face, which looked as hideous and sharp as ever.
The mostly dried blood beneath his nostrils, and the accompanying flecks of ugly, dark scarlet on his lips.
"You remember what Ladv Veradis said," Giraldi told her. "It's over."
Isana stared at the blood and remembered what it meant. She didn't have strength enough to shake her head, but she managed to murmur, "No."
Giraldi turned her face back to his. "Crows take it, Isana," he said, his voice frustrated. "Some fights can't be won."
Fire-thunder erupted nearby outside, rattling the room's furniture and sending ripples across the glassy surface of the water in the healing tub.
Giraldi looked at the window, then back to Isana. "It's time, Steadholder. You haven't slept in days. You tried. Great furies know you tried. But he's going to die. Soon. If you don't withdraw, you'll die with him."
"No," Isana said again. She heard the unsteady quaver of her voice as she did.
"Bloody crows," Giraldi said, his tone at once gentle and anguished. "Stead-holder. Isana. Crows and ashes, girl. Fade wouldn't want you to throw your life away for no reason."
"The decision is mine." So many words took a noticeable effort, and she felt short of breath. "I will not leave him."
"You will" Giraldi said, his voice heavy and hard. "I promised Bernard I'd watch over you. If it comes to that, Isana, I'll cut you loose of him and drag you out of this room."
A quiet and very distant surge of defiance whispered through Isana's thoughts, and it gave her voice a barely audible growl of determination. "Bernard would never abandon one of his own." She took a breath. "You know that. Fade is mine. I will not leave him."
Giraldi said nothing. Then he shook his head and drew the knife from his belt. He reached for the rope that kept her hand in contact with Fade's.
The defiance returned, stronger, and Isana caught the centurion's wrist in her fingers. Joints crackled with tension. Her knuckles turned white. Then she lifted her head and glared into the centurion's eyes. "Touch us," she said, "and I'll kill you. Or die trying."
Giraldi's head rocked back-not from the grip of Isana's weakened fingers, she knew, and not from the feebly voiced threat. It had been her eyes.
"Crows," he whispered. "You mean it."
"Why?" he demanded. "Why, Isana? Don't tell me Fade is just a simpleton slave that took a liking to following your nephew around. Who is he?"
Isana struggled to think clearly, to remember who knew and who was supposed to know and who absolutely could not know. But she was so tired, and there had been so many years-and so many lies. She was sick to death of the lies and the secrets.
"Araris," she whispered. "Araris Valerian."
Giraldi mouthed the word to himself, his eyes visibly widening. Then he looked from the wounded man to Isana and back, and his face went absolutely white. The old soldier bit his lip and looked away. His features sagged visibly, as if he'd suddenly aged another ten years. "Well," he said, his voice shaking. "A few things make more sense."
Isana released his wrist.
He looked down at the knife for a moment, then returned it to its sheath on his belt. "If I can't stop you... I may as well help you. What do you need, my lady?"
Isana's eyes widened suddenly as she stared at Giraldi, and she suddenly saw how to get through to Fade. Her heart labored, sudden hope spreading through her exhausted mind in a wave of sudden, tingling heat.
"That's it," she said.
The old soldier blinked and looked behind him. "It is? What is it?"
"Giraldi, bring me tea. Something strong. And find me his sword."