They rode into the First Aleran Legion's training camp in the middle of the afternoon. Tavi idly picked a few loose black curls from his collar, rubbed his hand over the stiff brush of short hairs left on his head, and glared at Max. "I just can't believe you did that while I was asleep."
"Regulations are regulations," Max said, his tone pious. "Besides. If you'd been awake, you'd have complained too much. '
"I thought it was every soldier's sacred right," Tavi said.
"Every soldier, yes, sir. But you're an officer, sir."
"Who should lead by example," Magnus murmured. "In grooming as well as uniform. '
Tavi glowered at Magnus and tugged at the loose leather jacket he wore, the leather stiff and heavy enough to turn a glancing blow of a blade, dyed a dark blue in contrast to the lighter tunic he wore beneath. He wore a Legion-issue belt and blade at his side, and though his favored training had been in a slightly longer weapon, the standard sidearm of the Legions felt comfortable in his grasp as well, particularly after the practices with Max and the Maestro.
The Legion camp was fully the size of his uncle's stronghold at Garrison, and Tavi knew that they were of similar size for a reason: all Legion camps were laid out in precisely the same fashion in order to make sure that all commanders, messengers, and various functionaries of the armed forces always knew their way around any given camp, as well as making it possible for militia newly recalled to duty to fit in with the highly disciplined, organized troops of a Legion. Garrison, Tavi realized, was quite simply a standard Legion camp built from stone instead of canvas and wood, barracks replacing tents, stone walls and battlements replacing portable wooden palisades. It housed less than the full complement of men it could, and while Lord Riva claimed that this was because of his confidence in Count Bernard's alliance with the largest clans of Marat in the lands beyond Garrison, Tavi suspected it had far more to do with funds being skimmed from Riva's military budget and into other accounts.
The land around the camp had been trampled thoroughly by thousands of marching feet in the past several weeks. The thick, green grass common to the Vale was mashed flat, only in places rebounding from repeated trampling. Tavi could see several hundred troops at training even now, at least half a dozen cohorts of recruits drilling in the brown-gold tunics they would wear until they'd earned their steel armor. They bore large wooden replicas of actual shields, weighted and heavier than the actual items, as well as wooden poles the length of the common Legion fighting spear. Each recruit, of course, bore his own weighted rudius, and the marching men had the slack-faced, bored look of miserable youth. Tavi caught not a few resentful glares as they rode by the marching recruits, swift and fresh and lazy by comparison.
They rode into what would have been the eastern gates of Garrison, and were halted by a pair of men dressed in the arms and armor of veteran legionares. They were older than the recruits outside, and more slovenly. Both men needed a shave and, as Tavi approached near enough to get a whiff of them, a bath.
"Halt," drawled the first, a man a few years Tavi's senior, tall and broad and sagging in the middle. He dragged most of a yawn into the word. "Name and business, please, or be on your way."
Tavi drew rein on his horse a few feet away from the sentry and nodded to him politely. "Scipio Rufus, of Riva. I'm to serve as subtribune to the Tribune Logistica."
"Scipio, is it," the legionare drawled. He pulled a wadded-up sheet of paper from a pocket, brushed what looked like bread crumbs from it, and read, "Third subtribune." He shook his head. "To a post that barely needs a Tribune, much less three subbies. You're in for a world of hurt, little Scipio. "
Tavi narrowed his eyes at the veteran. "Has Captain Cyril given nonstan-dard orders with regard to the protocols of rank, legionare?"
The second legionare on duty stepped forward. This one was short, stocky, and like his partner, had a belly that also spoke of little exercise and much beer. "What's this? Some young Citizen's puppy thinks he's better than us enlisted men cause he's taken one turn around the rose garden with a Legion that never marched out of sight of his city?"
"That's always the way," drawled the first man. He sneered at Tavi. "I'm sorry, sir. Did you ask me something? Because if you did, something more important bumped it clean out of my head."
Without a word, Max hopped down off of his horse, seized a short, heavy rod from his saddlebag, and laid it across the bridge of the first sentry's nose with a blow that knocked the large man from his feet and slammed his back onto the dirt.
The second sentry fumbled at his spear, the tip of the weapon dipping toward the unarmored Max. The young man seized it in one hand, locking it in place as immovably as if within stone, and swung the smaller sentry into the wooden palisade with such force that the entire section rocked and wobbled. The sentry bounced off and hit the ground, and before he could rise, Max thrust the end of his wooden baton beneath the man's chin and pushed. The smaller sentry let out a choking sound and froze in place on his back.
"Sir," Max drawled lazily to Tavi. "You'll have to forgive Nonus," a thrust of the stick made the smaller man let out a croaking squeak, "and Bortus, here." Max's boot nudged the first sentry's ribs. The man didn't even twitch. "They managed to buy their way out of being cashiered out of Third Antillan a few years back, and I guess they just weren't smart enough to remember that a lack of proper respect for officers was what got them into trouble in the first place. "
"Antillar," choked the smaller man.
"I'm not speaking to you yet, Nonus," Max said, poking his centurion's baton into the underside of the legionare's chin. "But I'm glad you recognize me. Makes it convenient to tell you that I'm serving as centurion here, and I'll be in charge of weapons training. You and Bortus just volunteered to be the target dummies for my first batch of fish." His voice hardened. "Who is your centurion?"
"Valiar Marcus," the man gasped.
"Marcus! Could have sworn he retired. I'll have a word with him about it." He leaned down, and said, "Assuming that's all right with Subtribune Scipio. He's within his rights to go straight to lashes if he'd like it."
"But I didn't..." Nonus sputtered. "Bortus was the one who-"
Max leaned on the baton a little harder, and Nonus stopped talking with a little, squealing hiccup of sound. The big Antillan looked over his shoulder at Tavi and winked. "What's your pleasure, sir?"
Tavi shook his head, and it was an effort to keep the smile from his face. "No point in lashes yet, centurion. We won't have anything to build up to, later." He leaned over and peered at the larger, unconscious legionare. The man was breathing, but his nose was swelling and obviously broken. Both of his eyes had already been ringed with magnificent, dark purple bruises. He turned to the man Max had left conscious. "Legionare Nonus, is it? When your relief arrives, take your friend to the physician. When he wakes up, remind him what happened, hmmm? And suggest to him that at least while on sentry duty, greeting arriving officers with proper decorum should perhaps be considered of somewhat more importance than taunting puppies raised in rose gardens. All right?"
Max jabbed the baton into Nonus again. The legionare nodded frantically.
"Good man," Tavi said, then clucked to his horse, riding on without so much as looking over his shoulder.
He only got to hear Magnus descend from his own mount, fuss for a moment over the state of his saddlebags, then present his papers to the prostrate sentry. He cleared his throat, and sniffed. "Magnus. Senior valet to the captain and his staff. I cant abide the state of your uniform. My bloody crows, this fabric is simply ridiculous. Does it always smell so bad? Or is that just you? And these stains. How on earth did you manage to... no, no, don't tell me. I simply don't want to know."
Max burst out into his familiar roar of laughter, and a moment later he and Magnus caught up to Tavi. The pair of them rode through row after row of white canvas tents. Some of them looked Legion-perfect. Others sagged and drooped, doubtless the quarters of fresh recruits still finding their way.
Tavi was surprised at how loud the place was. Men's voices shouted to be heard over the din. A grimy, blind beggar woman sat beside the camp's main lane, playing a reed flute for tiny coins from passersby. Work teams dug ditches and hauled wood, singing as they did. Tavi could hear a blacksmith's hammers ringing steadily nearby. A grizzled old veteran drilled a full cohort-four centuries of eighty recruits each-at the basic sword strokes Tavi had learned so recently, facing one another in a pair of long lines and going through drilled movements by numbers barked by the veteran, shouting in response as they swung. The strokes were slow and hesitant, incorrect movements aborted in midmotion to follow the instructor. Even as he watched, Tavi saw a rudius slip from the hands of a recruit and slam into the kneecap of the man beside him. The stricken recruit howled, hopping on one leg, and blundered into the man on his other side, knocking half a dozen recruits to the ground.
"Ah," Tavi said. "Fish."
"Fish," Max agreed. "It should be safe to talk here," he added. "There's enough noise to make listening in difficult."
"I could have handled those two, Max," Tavi said quietly.
"But an officer wouldn't," Max said. "Centurions are the ones who break heads when legionares get out of line. Especially troublemakers like Nonus and Bortus."
"You know them," Tavi said.
"Mmmm. Served with them, the slives. Lazy, loud, greedy, drunken, brawling apes, the both of them."
"They didn't seem happy to see you."
"We once had a discussion about the proper way to treat a lady in camp."
"How did that turn out?" Tavi asked.
"Like today, but with more teeth on the ground," Max said.
Tavi shook his head. "And men like that are given status as veterans. They draw higher pay."
"Outside a battle line they aren't worth the cloth it would stain to clean their blood off a knife." Max shook his head and glanced back at them. "But they're fighters. They know their work, and they've been in the middle of some bad business without folding. That's why they got out under voluntary departure rather than forced discharge for conduct unbecoming a legionare."
"And it also explains why they're here," Magnus added. "According to the records, they're honorable veterans willing to start with a fresh Legion-and that kind of experience is priceless for training recruits and steadying their lines in battle. They know they'll have seniority, that they won't have to do the worst of the work, and that they'll get better pay."
Max snorted. "And don't forget, this Legion is working up in the bloody Amaranth Vale. Plenty of freemen would kill to live down here." Max gestured around them. "No snow, or not to speak of. No rough weather. No wild, rogue furies. Lots of food, and they probably think this is a token Legion that will never see real action."
Tavi shook his head. "Aren't men like that going to be bad for the Legion as a whole?"
Magnus smiled a little and shook his head. "Not under Captain Cyril. He lets his centurions maintain discipline in whatever way they see fit."
Max twirled his baton with a sunny smile.
Tavi pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Will all the veterans be like them?"
Max shrugged. "I suspect that most of the High Lords will do everything in their power to keep their most experienced men close to home. No Legion has too many veterans, but they all have too many slives like Nonus and Bortus. "
"So you're saying the only men in this Legion will be incompetent fish-"
"Of which you are one," Max said. "Technically speaking, sir."
"Of which I am one," Tavi allowed. "And malcontents."
"And spies," the Maestro added. "Anyone competent and friendly is likely a spy."
Max grunted. "They can't all be rotten. And if Valiar Marcus is here, I suspect we'll find some other solid centurions where he came from. We'll slap the scum around enough to keep them in line, and work the fish until they shape up. Every Legion has this kind of problem when it forms."