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."