Isana awoke to a sensation of emptiness in the rough, straw mattress heside her. Her hack felt cold. Her senses were a confused hlur of shouts and odd lights, and it took her a moment to push away the sleepy disorientation enough to recognize the sounds around her.
Boots raced on hard earth, the steps of many men. Grizzled centurions bellowed orders. Metal scraped on metal, armored legionares walking together, brushing one another in small collisions of pauldrons, greaves, swords, shields, steel armor bands. Children were crying. Somewhere, not far away, a war-trained horse let out a frantic, ferocious scream of panic and eagerness. She could hear its handler trying to speak to it in low, even tones.
A breath later, the tension pressed in on her watercrafter's senses, a tidal flood of emotion more powerful than anything she had sensed in the dozen or so years since she and Rill, her water-fury, had found one another. Foremost in that vicious surge was fear. The men around her were terrified for their lives-the Crown Legion, the most experienced, well-trained force in Alera, was drowning in fear. Other emotions rushed with it. Primarily excitement, then determination and anger. Beneath them ran darker currents of what she could only describe as lust-and of another emotion, one so quiet that she might not have noticed it at all but for its steady and growing presence; resignation.
Though she did not know what was happening, she knew the men of the Legion around her were preparing to die.
She stumbled up off the mattress, dressed in nothing but her skin, and managed to find her blouse, dress, and tunic. She twisted her hair into a knot, though it made her shoulders and back ache abominably to do it. She took up her plain woolen cloak and bit her lip, wondering what she should do next.
"Guard?" she called, her voice tentative.
A man entered the large tent immediately, dressed in armor identical to that worn by the rest of the legionares, save perhaps for sporting an inordinate number of dents and scratches. His presence was a steady mix of perfect confidence, steely calm, and controlled, rational fear. He stripped his helmet off with one hand, and Isana recognized Araris Valerian, personal armsman to the Princeps.
"My lady," he said, with a bow of his head.
Isana felt her cheeks flush and her hand drifted to the silver chain around her throat, touching the ring that hung upon it beneath her clothing. Then she moved it down, to rest on the round, swollen tightness of her belly. "I'm hardly your lady," she told him. "You owe me no fealty."
For a moment, Araris's eyes sparkled. "My lady," he repeated, with gentle emphasis. "My lord's duties press him. He bid me find you in his stead."
Isana s back twinged again, and if that wasn't enough, the baby stirred with his usual restless energy, as though he heard the sounds in the night and recognized them. "Araris, my sister..."
"Already here," he said, his tone reassuring. The unremarkable-looking young man turned to beckon with one hand, and Isana s little sister hurried into the tent, covered in Araris's own large grey traveling cloak.
Alia flew to Isana at once, and she hugged her little sister tightly. She was a tiny thing who had taken after their mother, all sweetness and feminine curves, and her hair was the color of fresh honey. At sixteen, she was an aching temptation to many of the legionares and men among the camp followers, hut Isana had protected her as fiercely as she knew how. "Isana," Alia panted, breathless. "What's happening?"
Isana was nearly ten years her sister's senior. Alias furycrafting talents, like Isana's, ran to water, and she knew that the girl would hardly he able to remember her own name under the pressure of the emotions rising around them.
"Hush, and remember to slow your breathing," she whispered to Alia, and looked up at Araris. "Rari?"
"The Marat are attacking the valley," he replied, his voice calm and precise. "They've already breached the outpost at the far end and are marching this way. Horses are being brought for you. You and the other freemen of the camp are to retreat toward Riva at all speed."
Isana drew in a breath. "Retreat? Are the Marat really so many? But why? How?"
"Don't worry, my lady," Araris said. "We've handled worse."
But Isana could see it in the man's eyes, hear it quavering in his voice. He was lying.
Araris expected to die.
"Where?" she asked him. "Where is he?"
Araris grimaced, and said, "The horses are ready, my lady. If you would come this w-"
Isana lifted her chin and strode out past the armsman, looking left and right. The camp was in chaos-or at least, the followers in the Legion's camp were. The legionares themselves were moving with haste, with anxiety, but also with precision and discipline, and Isana could see the ranks forming along the palisade around the camp. "Do I need to go find him myself, Rari?'
His tone remained even and polite, but Isana could sense the fond annoyance behind his reply. "As you wish, my lady." He turned to the two grooms holding the reins of nervous horses nearby, flicked a hand, and said, "You two, with me." He started striding toward the eastern side of the camp. "Ladies, if you will come this way. We must make haste. I do not know when the horde will arrive, and every moment may be precious. "
And it was then that Isana saw war for the first time.
Arrows flew from the darkness. One of the grooms screamed, though he was drowned out by the cries of the horse whose reins he held. Isana turned, her heartbeat suddenly thunder in her ears, everything moving slowly. She saw the groom stagger and fall, a white-feathered Marat arrow protruding from his belly. The horse screamed and thrashed its head, trying to dislodge the arrow sunk into a long line of muscle in its neck.
Cries came from the darkness. Marat warriors, pale-haired, pale-skinned, erupted from the beds of supply wagons brought into the camp earlier in the afternoon, brandishing weapons of what looked like blackened glass and stone.
Araris turned and moved like lightning. Isana could only stare in shock as three more arrows flickered toward her. Araris's sword shattered them to splinters, and a casual flick of one of his steel-encased hands prevented even those from striking her face. He met the group of howling Marat and walked through them like a man in a crowded market, shoulders and hips twisting, bobbing up onto his toes to slide between passersby, turning a neat pirouette to avoid stumbling over something on the ground.
When he stopped, every one of the Marat lay on the ground, food for the crows.
He flicked his sword to one side, cleaning it of blood, sheathed it, and extended his hand as though nothing of note had happened. "This way, my lady. "
"This way, my lady," murmured a low, richly masculine voice, "we needn't worry about being too long parted. I'm sure you can see the advantages."
Isana jerked her head up from where she had dozed off in the comfortable seating within the litter the Aquitaines had sent to fly her down from Isanaholt. The vivid dream, full of the details of memory, lingered for longer than it usually did. Dreams of that last night had repeated themselves endlessly for the last two years. The fear, the confusion, the crushing weight of guilt replayed themselves to her mind as though she had never felt them before. As though she was innocent again.
She was sick of it.
And yet the dreams also restored to her those brief moments of joy, the heady excitement of those springtime days of youth. For those few seconds, she did not know what she did now. She had a sister again.
She had a husband. Love.
"I just bought you a brand-new girl, Attis," teased a woman's voice from outside the litter, the tone clear and confident. "You'll be amused until I return."
"She's lovely," said the man. "But she's not you." His tone turned wry. "Unlike the last one."
The door to the air coach opened, and Isana had to call upon Rill to halt tears from filling her eyes. Isana's fingers touched the shape of the ring beneath her blouse, still on the chain around her neck. Unlike her, it had remained bright and untarnished by the passage of years.
She shook away the remnants of the dream as best she could and forced her thoughts back to the moment.
High Lord Aquitainus Attis, who five years ago had perpetrated a plot resulting in the deaths of hundreds of her neighbors in the Calderon Valley, opened the coach door and nodded pleasantly to Isana. He was a lion of a man, combining grace of motion in balance with physical power. His mane of dark golden hair fell to his shoulders, and nearly black eyes glittered with intelligence. He moved with perfect confidence, and his furycrafting was unmatched by anyone in the Realm, save perhaps the First Lord himself.
"Steadholder," he said politely, nodding to Isana.
She nodded back to him, though she felt her neck stiffening as she did. She did not trust herself to sound civil when speaking to him, and so remained silent.
"I quite enjoy my holidays abroad," murmured the woman, her voice now near at hand. "And I am perfectly capable of looking after myself. Besides. You have your own work to do."
The woman entered the coach and settled down on the opposite bench. High Lady Aquitaine Invidia looked every inch the model of the elite Citizenry, pale, dark-haired, tall, and regal. Though Isana knew that Lady Aquitaine was in her forties, like her husband and Isana herself, she looked barely twenty. Like all blessed with sufficient power at watercrafting, she enjoyed the ongoing appearance of youth. "Good evening, Isana."
"My lady," Isana murmured. Though she had no more love for the woman than she did for Lord Aquitaine, she could at least manage to speak politely to her, if not warmly.
Invidia turned to her husband and leaned forward to kiss him. "Don't go staying up to all hours. You need your rest."
He arched a golden brow. "I am a High Lord of Alera, not some foolish aca-dem. '
"And vegetables," she said, as if he hadn't spoken. "Don't gorge yourself on meats and sweets and ignore your vegetables."