One would think that sneaking into the citadel of a High Lord of Alera, the single most secure bastion of his power, would be a nigh-impossible task, Amara mused. And yet, when guided by that same High Lord's master spy, the task was evidently quite simple.
After all, Fidelias had demonstrated the same principle only a few years before, when he led Lady Aquitaine into the First Lord's citadel in Alera Imperia on a desperate mission to save the First Lord-so that she and her traitorous husband could be assured that they, not Kalarus, would be the ones to replace him.
Politics, Amara decided, really did make strange bedfellows. An idea that acquired an uncomfortable spin, given its proximity to the focus of thought demanded by her current role.
Amara swayed sleepily along the streets of Kalare in her slave costume, holding herself with a loose-limbed air of decadence, her lips constantly parted, her eyes always half-lidded. There was a peculiar sensuality to the movement, and though some part of her was fully cognizant that they were in mortal danger simply moving openly through the city, she had forced the reasoning, analytical aspects of herself to the rearmost areas of her mind. Walking, then, became an activity that carried a sensuous, almost wicked sense of indulgence, in equal parts sweetly feminine and sinfully titillating. For the first time in her life, she drew long, silently speculative looks from the men she passed.
That was good. It meant that her disguise was more complete than if it hadn't happened. And, though she could barely admit it to herself, it gave her an almost-childish sense of pleasure, simply to be stared at and desired.
Besides, Bernard, dressed in the plain garments and equipment of a travelling mercenary, walked only an arm's length behind her, and she knew from the occasional glance over her shoulder that he was staring at her far more intently than any of the men passing by.
Lady Aquitaine walked in front of Amara. She had altered her appearance via watercrafting, darkening her skin tone the deep red-brown of the inhabitants of the city of Rhodes and changing her hair to waves of exotic, coppery red curls. Her shift was emerald green, but other than that her outfit was a match for Amara's. The High Lady moved with the same half-conscious air of wanton sensuality, and if anything, was better at it than Amara. At the front of the slave line was Odiana, in azure silk, all dark hair and pale skin and sweet curves. Aldrick paced along in front of her, and the big swordsman carried such an aura of menace that even in the teeming streets of Kalare, they were never slowed by foot traffic. Rook walked beside him, her expression bored, her manner businesslike as she guided the party toward the citadel.
Even as she concentrated on her role, though, Amara noticed details of the city and extrapolated on her observations. The city itself was, for lack of a more accurate term, a squalid cesspool. It was not as large as the other major cities of the Realm-though it housed a larger population than any but Alera Imperia herself. It was hideously crowded. Much of the city was in savage disrepair, and impoverished shanties had replaced more solid construction, in addition to engulfing the land around the city's walls for several hundred yards in every direction. The city's waste disposal was abysmal, likely because it had been designed for a much smaller population and never updated as the city overflowed with inhabitants, and the entire place reeked of odors that turned her stomach.
The inhabitants of the city were, as a group, the most miserable-looking human beings she had ever seen. Their clothing was mostly rough homespun, and mostly in disrepair. They went about their business with the kind of listless deliberation that screamed of generations of deprivation and despair. Vendors hawked shabby goods from blankets spread beside the street. One man whose clothes proclaimed him a Citizen or a wealthy merchant passed by surrounded by a dozen hard-eyed, brawny men, obviously professional bruisers.
There were slaves everywhere, even more beaten down than the city's free inhabitants. Amara had never seen so many of them. In fact, from what she could see, there were very nearly as many slaves as freemen walking the streets of Kalare. And at every crossroads and marching along at regular intervals, there were soldiers in Kalare's green-and-grey livery. Or at least, there were armed and armored men wearing Kalare's colors. From the slovenly way in which they maintained themselves and their equipment, Amara was sure that they were not true legionares. There were, however, a great many of them, and the automatic deference and fear they generated in the body language of those passing nearby them made it clear that Kalarus's rule was one of terror more than of law.
It also explained how the High Lords of Kalare had managed to put together a fortune larger than that of every other High Lord in the Realm, rivaling that of the Crown itself-by systematically and methodically stripping everything from the people of Kalare and its lands. Likely, it had been going on for hundreds of years.
The last section of the city before the citadel itself was where the most powerful lords of Kalare kept their homes. That level of the city was at least as lovely as those she had seen in Riva, Parcia, and Alera Imperia-and the contrast of the elegant white marble, furylit fountains, and exquisitely artistic architecture made such a stark contrast to the rest of the city that it literally made her feel physically ill to see it.
The injustice proclaimed by even a simple stroll through Kalare stirred a deep anger in Amara, one that threatened to undermine her concentration. She fought to divorce her feelings from thoughts, but it proved to be nearly impossible, especially after she saw how richly the elite of Kalare lived at the expense of its non-Citizenry.
But then they were past the Citizens' Quarter, and Rook led them up a far less crowded road-a long, straight lane sloping up to the gates of the innermost fortress of Kalare. The guards at the base of the road, perhaps slightly less shoddy-looking than their counterparts in the city below, nodded at Rook and waved her and her party of slaves by them without bothering to rise from their seats on a nearby bench.
After that, they had only to walk up a long hill, which led to the main gate of the citadel. Kalare's colors flew on the battlements, but the scarlet and blue of the House of Gaius were conspicuous by their absence.
Amara sensed immediately that the guards at the gate were nothing like those they had seen at the bottom of the hill or in the town below. They were young men in superb physical condition, one and all. Their armor was ornate and immaculately kept, their stance and bearing as suspicious and watchful as any Royal Guardsman. As they drew nearer, Amara saw something else-the metallic gleam of a collar at their throats. By the time they had ordered Rook and her company to halt, she was close enough to see the etching on the steel: Immortalis. More of Kalarus's Immortals.
"Mistress Rook," said one of them, evidently the leader of the guards on station. "Welcome back. I received no word of your coming."
"Centurion Orus," Rook replied, her tone polite but distant. "I am certain that His Grace feels little need to inform you of the comings and goings of his personal retainers."
"Of course not, Mistress," the young centurion replied. "Though I confess that it surprises me to see you enter here, rather than by air coach upon the tower."
"I am come ahead of His Grace and his captains," Rook replied. "I was ordered to make ready the citadel for a celebration."
Orus's eyes gleamed, as did those of the other Immortals there. Amara did not see much in the way of thought in those eyes. "His Grace is victorious in the field?"
Rook gave him a cool look. "Did you have doubts?"
Orus snapped to attention. "No, Mistress Rook."
"Excellent," Rook said. "Who is on duty as Watch Tribune?"
"His Excellency the Count Eraegus, Mistress," Orus said. "Shall I send a runner ahead of you?"
"Unnecessary," Rook replied, brushing past him. "I know where his office is."
"Yes, Mistress Rook. But regulations prohibit armed retainers from entering the citadel." He nodded at Aldrick and Bernard and gave Rook an apologetic glance. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask them to leave their arms here."
"Absolutely not," Rook said. "His Grace charged me with the particular protection of these slaves until such time as he permits liberties with them."
Orus frowned. "I understand. Then I will be pleased to assign a pair of my own guardsmen to you for such a duty."
Amara struggled to remain in her drowsy, languidly sensual stance. It was difficult, given that she was quite certain that Aldrick had just shuffled his feet slightly in order to have them already in position for when he drew steel.
"Are they eunuchs?" Rook asked, her tone dry.
Orus blinked. "No, Mistress."
"Then I'm afraid they don't qualify, centurion." Rook dropped the mildest emphasis on the pronunciation of the rank. "I'll be sure to clear this with Count Eraegus at once, but for the time being I have my orders. Here are yours. Remain at your post."
The young centurion looked more than a little relieved. He saluted her with perfect precision and stepped back to his post.
"You," she snapped, looking at Aldrick. "This way."
The guards stood aside as Amara's group calmly walked in through the citadel's front door.
"Quickly," Rook said quietly, once they were past the guards and in the small courtyard on the other side. "Until we reach the upper levels, there's too much chance someone might see me and start asking questions."
"Someone just did," Bernard murmured.
"Someone with a mind," Rook clarified. "Kalarus controls the Immortals completely, but the collars have damaged their ability to ask questions or take the initiative in exchange for providing perfect obedience. The Immortals won't question me or act against me unless ordered to-but Kalarus's staff and officers might. They're the ones we have to avoid." She picked up the pace to a more brisk walk, led them down a side hallway, then to a wide, spiraling staircase that wound up through the heart of the tower.
Amara counted one hundred and eighteen stairs before they heard a footstep ahead of them, and an overweight, sallow man in overly fine livery stained with wine appeared four steps above them. His jowls were pocked with scars, his hair thick and uncombed, his face unshaven. He drew up to a halt and squinted at them.
"Rook?" he said.
Amara saw Rook's spine tighten with tension, but she gave no other sign of nervousness. She bowed her head, and murmured, "Milord Eraegus. Good morrow."
Eraegus grunted, and eyed the other women. His mouth spread into an appreciative leer. "Bringing in some fresh toys for us?"
"Yes," Rook said.
"Pretty bunch," Eraegus said. "When did you get in?"
"Late last night."
"Didn't expect you back this soon," he said.
Amara could see the curve of Rook's cheek as she gave Eraegus a disarming smile. "We were fortunate on the road."
Eraegus grunted. "Not what I meant. There were reports that you might have been capt-"
He broke off and stared, just for an instant. His eyes flicked from Rook to Aldrick, and then down to the big man's sword, and everyone there froze. For an agonizing second, Eraegus's eyes darted around, then he licked his lips and took a sudden, deep breath.
The stiffened edge of Rook's hand slammed into his throat before he could cry out an alarm. Eraegus shoved at her with vicious strength that could only have been the result of furycraft, and turned to go.
Before he could move, Aldrick was on his back, knife in hand.
"Stop!" Rook hissed. "Wait!"
Before she'd finished the first word, Aldrick had opened Eraegus's throat with his knife. The pockmarked man twitched and twisted, and managed to slam Aldrick's back against the stone wall beside the staircase. But the mercenary rode out the blow, and within seconds Eraegus collapsed, and Aldrick let his corpse fall to the stairs.
"Idiot!" snarled Rook in a furious whisper.
"He would have sounded an alarm," Aldrick growled.
"You should have broken his crowbegotten neck" Rook snarled. "We could have put him in his office, splashed some wine on him, and no one would notice anything unusual until he started to bloat." She slashed a hand at the bloodstains. "The next sweep will be through here in no more than a quarter hour. They'll see this. And the bloody alarm will go up anyway."
Aldrick frowned at Rook, then gave Odiana a glance. "She can clean it up."
"And sound the alarm," Rook said, furious. "Were you even listening when I told you about the security measures? Anyone in the tower who uses any furies Kalarus hasn't permitted rouses the gargoyles. I've seen the bodies of twenty-three different morons who did so despite being warned not to."
"Then you do it," Aldrick said. "You're a watercrafter, and one of Kalarus's own. Surely you have been cleared. "
Rook's eyes narrowed. "Kalarus is arrogant, sir, but not so arrogant that he trusts his assassins with full access to their crafting in his own home." Rook paused, then added, heavy with vitriol, "Obviously."
"Obviously?" Aldrick asked, his voice rising in anger. "Then it should be equally obvious that our friend there was using earthcrafted strength. I physically couldn't have broken his neck, but he'd have broken mine if I hadn't put him down at once."
Amara stepped forward between them. "Silence, both of you," she said. They did. She nodded at them, and said, "We don't have much time. And none to waste on argument and blame." She nodded at Rook. "So move."
Rook nodded once and half ran up the stairs, boots laboring noisily on the stone. She stepped out into a hallway and across it to an open door. She went inside, and Amara followed her into a small office.
"Eraž█guVs office," Rook said, voice terse. She started raking her eyes over the papers on his desk. "Help me out. There should be a record here of where they're keeping your Citizens. Look for anything that might indicate their location."
Amara joined her, swiftly going over page after page of reports, accounting statements, and other records of all kinds. "Here," Amara said. "What's this, about sending blankets to the aviary?"
Rook hissed. "It's at the top of the tower. An iron cage on the roof. We'll have to reach it through Kalarus's personal chambers. Come."
They hurried back to the stairs and started up them, following Rook to the top of the tower, passing the occasional window slit in the wall.
"Wait," Bernard growled. "Quiet."
Everyone there froze in place. Amara closed her eyes and heard a distant sound, though the tiny openings that passed for windows obscured most of what she could only describe as distant tones of some kind.
"What's that?" Bernard wondered aloud.
Rook's face suddenly went bloodless. "Oh," she said, and the young woman's voice was thready with panic. "Oh, oh crows and bloody furies. Hurry."
"Why?" Amara demanded, following hard on Rook's heels. "What is that?"
"It's the fanfare," Rook stammered, terrified. "High Lord Kalarus has just returned to the citadel."
"Bloody crows," Amara snarled.
And then there was a cry from somewhere far below on the staircase, and the alarm bells of the citadel of Kalare began to ring.