Cursor's Fury

Chapter 50

Amara plunged into the fine mist and found it shockingly cold. She had flown through cloud cover before, of course, but never while wearing so little. The lands below were as uncomfortably sultry as anywhere in the Realm, this time of the year, but the sun seemed to have denied the unnatural clouds its warmth, somehow bypassing them to reach the land below. She could see no more than a few dozen yards in the mist, and at the speed she was flying she might as well have been blind.

Which did not bode well considering what dwelt in the sorcerous clouds.

Amara began to tremble, and she did not bother trying to tell herself it was because of the change in temperature.

It was eerily quiet for a time, with only the constant rush of wind to drown out her swift, panting breaths. And then she heard high-pitched, thready sounds, something like the howl of one of the small desert wolves of the dry mountains east of Parcia. The cries were immediately echoed from every direction, and though Amara could not see the creatures that voiced them, they grew swiftly louder and nearer.

She saw a flicker of motion in the corner of her eye and instantly changed course, banking into a slewing turn that sent the mist to swirling. Something tangible brushed against her hip, and she felt a sudden, sharp burn like the sting of red ants. Then she began to emerge from the mist, to find all four wings of Knights Aeris who pursued her cruising along the underside of the clouds, strung out in a search line-and coming straight at her.

Once more, Amara poured on the speed, even as the mist behind her suddenly exploded with howls and motion. The tentacle-waving horrors the Canim had placed in the mist rushed after her. The Knights Aeris saw them coming and struggled to evade the nightmarish mass-but again, Amara had timed things too well, and there was nothing they could do as they plunged into a forest of burning, writhing vines.

Men screamed, and died, and suddenly there was no one pursuing her.

Her heart pounded with terror and exaltation that she had survived-and at the same time, she fought down a nauseating shame and loathing of the death and pain she'd been responsible for. Some of the Knights might fight through the creatures, but none who did would be in any condition to pursue the coach. They were, if not dead, certainly out of the chase.

Amara dived and swept back toward the still-fleeing coach with all the speed she could muster, and found it under attack.

More Knights Aeris must have dropped out of the race, and perhaps a dozen of them had closed the distance and reached the coach. Flying above and ahead of the coach was a five-man wing-Lord Kalarus and his Immortals. Amara could not see why they hadn't attacked and downed the coach already. They appeared to be waiting for an opening of some kind.

Half a dozen Knights swept in on either side of the coach, below the level of its occupants, to strike at the bearers. Someone must have shouted a warning, because the coach abruptly dropped perhaps six feet and veered to one side, almost directly into the attackers on that flank.

The Knights Aeris dived in to thrust spears through the coach windows, but the coach's door suddenly flew open, and Aldrick ex Gladius appeared in the door, legs bent, one hand hanging on to something inside the coach, his long blade in the other. A pair of swift cuts shattered two spears, inflicted a wound on one Knights thigh that erupted in a deadly fountain of blood, and opened a long slash on a second Knights scalp, so that blood flew into his face and eyes and fanned out into a mist behind him.

Lady Aquitaine slipped up beneath Aldrick's arm and raised a hand in an imperious gesture. Wisps of white cloud gathered at her fingertips roiling like a miniature thunderstorm, then she hurled it out and away from her, where it expanded into an enormous bank of nearly opaque mist. From her position above and behind them, Amara saw the coach juke to one side and the other again, and the attacking Knights Aeris had to break off, blinded and unable to support one another-not to mention the fact that if they made a mistake or simply got unlucky, they might be slammed by the full weight of the dodging coach, an event likely to prove gruesomely fatal so close to the treetops below.

Then that explained it. Kalarus knew Lady Aquitaine was there, and employing only minor uses of watercrafting, saving her strength for when he, personally, assaulted the coach. Kalarus was hardly a courageous soul, spending his Knights' lives in an effort to tire-or if they were lucky, perhaps even wound or kill-Lady Aquitaine. But the tactic would give him the maximum advantage he could possibly attain in this situation, and he was playing it ruthlessly. Amara could tell just by watching the bearers at work that they were beginning to falter. Dodging and maneuvering with that much weight was exhausting them.

The enemy Knights were waiting when the coach soared out of Lady Aquitaine's cloud bank, and they immediately pressed the attack again. This time, they were ready when they closed to one side and the coach door slammed open, and as Aldrick struck at one Knight, a second's arm blurred in a furycrafted speed, hurling his spear at the big swordsman.

Aldrick's arm swept into a perfect parry-perhaps a tenth of a second too late, and the downward-cast spear drove into his right thigh and out the back of his leg.

The swordsman faltered and nearly fell, and though Amara knew that Aldrick could, at need, simply ignore pain great enough to drive a strong man unconscious, that talent would not serve to make his leg function and support weight if it had been damaged. Lady Aquitaine seized him by the collar and hauled him back into the coach, and the Knights Aeris swarmed in closer, spears and swords ready to strike.

One reeled back and fell, spinning wildly out of control as he vanished into the trees, perhaps struck by a blow or weapon. Another got too close, was hauled head-and-shoulders deep into the coach, then dropped like a stone, head lolling loosely on a broken neck. Another explosion of white mist hid everything from Amara, but she could hear cries and shouts as the enemy Knights stayed close, pressing the attack instead of withdrawing.

Kalarus led his wing a bit closer to the action and drew his sword with an anticipatory-seeming motion akin to a wolf licking its chops. He gestured with the sword, focused entirely on the coach, shouting to his escorts and...

... and, Amara realized, utterly failing to notice her presence.

Amara's mouth went completely dry, and for a second she thought her hands would lose their grip on her sword. Kalarus Brencis, High Lord of Kalare. One of the titans of furycraft, a man who had worn Ladies Placida and Aquitaine near to exhaustion, who had assaulted them and maintained a battle for control of the skies while holding up a veil, keeping himself aloft, and coordinating his men's attack. Reputed to be a swordsman of the highest caliber, his talent for firecrafting had once snuffed out an entire forest fire when a range of his expensive, exported hardwoods had nearly been consumed. Further stories claimed that he had once slain a leviathan that had haunted his coastline outright, and he wielded power and authority with consummate, calculated skill, so much so that he was threatening to topple Gaius from his throne.

Worse, Amara had seen some of what he had created in his city, for the people beholden to him, and she knew what he truly was: a monster, in every sense of the word that mattered, an odious murderer who had enslaved children with discipline collars, reared them into the mad Immortals who served him, whose agents had slain Cursors all over the face of Alera; Amara's compatriots. Some, her friends. The man had no regard for anyone's life but his own. If he turned upon Amara, he could swat her as easily as a man could an ant, and with the same amount of concern.

But if he never knew she was there-not until it was too late-then she had a chance. He was only a man. Dangerous, powerful, skilled, but he was still mortal. It might not even take a deadly blow. They were perhaps two hundred feet above the coach, but if she could drive him down, knock him out of control even for a few seconds, the forest would give him no more special treatment than it had his fallen men.

The least mistake would mean her death. Amara knew it.

If she did nothing, he would almost certainly send the coach down and kill everyone inside.

That made her choice a great deal easier than she had thought it would be. And though she began to shake harder, as she swam in a nauseating flood of her own terror, she also surged ahead, tightening her windstream down as much as she possibly could to prevent Kalarus or one of his Knights from sensing it. She flung herself out ahead of them, leading the group, judging as best she could where their course would take them.

And then she gripped her sword so hard that pain flared up and down her right arm, and dismissed Cirrus, and with the fury, her windstream.

Amara plummeted down toward the small shape of the coach far below, falling in total silence, without the use of the furycraft that might betray her presence to someone of Kalarus's skill and power. She knew how to guide her fall, arms and legs splayed out, as she rushed down with greater and greater speed, focused completely upon her target, the High Lord of Kalares bare neck, a strip of pale skin showing above the streaming cloth of his grey-and-green cloak.

Suddenly he rushed closer, in one breath several hundred feet away, and then suddenly beneath her, still flying on course, watching for the coach to emerge from the furycrafted fog. She raised the sword, both hands on the hilt, point down as she fell.

Amara screamed and struck, calling out to Cirrus as she did.

Wind rose in a massive, chaotic gale as Cirrus disrupted the windstreams of Kalarus and his escort.

At the last possible second, one of the Immortals flying beside Kalarus looked up, and snapped into an immediate roll, placing his own body between Amara's sword and Kalarus's back.

Amara struck the Immortal with bone-breaking power. The sword slammed through his mail as if it did not exist, plunged through him clear to the hilt. The impact came to her as a single hammerblow that somehow struck the whole of her body, all at once. She heard a snap, and her left arm dissolved into white-hot agony. The world spun in dizzying circles, and she could barely feel Cirrus's presence through the pain.

Something hit her lower leg, and she felt the straps of the sandal on that leg fall away, taking the sandal with them. The shock of it let her see that she had struck the thinnest branches of a particularly tall tree, and her shin had been laid open as sharply and cleanly as if struck by a knife. She called desperately to Cirrus, unable to sort out the haze of sensation, pain, color, and sound. Somehow, she managed to keep from vanishing into the trees, and found herself cruising along beside the coach, her course swaying like a drunkard, her left arm dangling uselessly, her sword no longer in her hand.

"Countess!" called Lady Placida. "Watch out!"

Amara blinked at her for a second, then turned and saw one of the Knights Aeris sweep down at her, spear in hand. She began to dodge, but knew that it was useless. She was too slow.

The enemy Knight drew back his sword to strike.

And an arrow struck him in the throat, drawing a sudden geyser of blood, and the Knight spun helplessly into the trees.

Amara blinked and looked back at the coach.

The Count of Calderon stood in a low crouch atop the coach, his war bow in hand, his legs spread and braced against the howling wind. He stood atop the coach simply balanced there, without any kind of safety strap, without so much as a rope to belay him. Bernard had cast off his cloak, and his expression held all the distant, cool indifference of a professional archer. Moving with unhurried precision, he drew another arrow, eyes focused above Amara and behind her, and another arrow flashed out.

She turned to see it strike another enemy Knight, though the shaft flew wide in the wind, slamming through the man's right arm rather than his heart. He screamed and slowed, carefully controlling his flight to let the enemy pull ahead.

"Amara! ' Bernard called. He took one end of his bow in hand and held the other out to her.

Still dazed, it took her a second to understand what she was to do, but she grabbed the bow and let Bernard pull her to a landing on the coach's roof. She sat there for a moment, and Bernard shot twice more-both misses. Without being able to touch the earth and call upon his fury's strength, he could only draw the bow part of the way back, which would both make aiming more difficult and changing the dynamics of the arrow's flight. And regardless of anyone's skill, the turbulence of flight made it enormously difficult to hit anything more than a few yards away, and the Knights Aeris were keeping their distance for the moment, dodging and weaving in and out to provoke Bernard into shooting-and expending his arrows on shots unlikely to strike his foes. They could see, just as Amara could, that only a handful of arrows remained in his quiver, but by the time Bernard realized what they were doing, only three remained.

Amara s wits unscrambled in a sudden rush. The pain was still there in her arm and left shoulder, but it was distant and of minimal importance. A glance down at the nearby treetops told her that though the coach was moving swiftly, it was weaving about, dangerously unbalanced as the bearers' strength waned.

"What are you doing, you fool? " she called to Bernard.

"No room to shoot inside, love," Bernard answered.

"If we survive this, I'll kill you with my bare hands," she snarled at him. She leaned over the side and called, "Lady Aquitaine! We've got to move faster!"

"She can't hear you!" Aldrick called back, voice tight with pain. "It's all the both of them can do to keep the coach in the air!"

Red lightning flashed, and a shadow fell across the back of the coach.

Amara looked back to see Kalarus descending toward them. His cloak had been torn in a dozen places by the same tree branches that had slashed the left side of his face to bloody, swollen meat. His teeth were gnashed in hate and rage, and when he met Amara's eyes, the blade of his sword suddenly began to glow like iron on the forge, red, then orange, then white-hot. The metal shrieked in anguished protest.

Bernard moved, hands blurring, and let fly two arrows as Kalarus closed in. The High Lord of Kalare flicked them aside with his burning blade, shattering them with armor-piercing heads. Kalarus came on, murder in his eyes. Amara hurled Cirrus against him, but she might as well have tried to stop a charging gargant with a silk thread. The High Lord powered through Cirrus as though the fury had not been there.

She wanted to scream in frustration and terror, in helpless protest that this scum, this, this... creature was going to kill her, kill her husband, kill everyone in the coach, and drag Alera into total chaos. She turned to Bernard, eyes searching for his. She wanted to be looking at him when Kalare's blade took her life. Not at the animal who had killed her.

Bernard's face was pale, but his eyes held no trace of defeat, no hint of surrender. He looked down at Amara, a single, fleeting glance-and winked at her.

Then he set his last arrow to string and loosed it as Kalare closed to within ten feet of the coach. Once more, Kalare sneered, blade moving with sinuous grace to strike the arrow before it could reach him. Its shaft shattered into splinters.

But the arrow's head, a shaped, translucent crystal of rock salt like the ones he'd loosed against the windmanes in Calderon, exploded into powder.

It tore into Kalarus's wind furies, blanketing him, ripping his windstream to shreds, murdering the power that kept him aloft.

Kalarus had time for one brief, mystified expression of shock and disbelief.

And then he screamed as he fell like a stone into the trees below.

Then there was silence, but for the surf-thunder of steady wind.

Bernard lowered his bow slowly and let out a long breath. He nodded his head pensively, and said, "I think I'll write Tavi and thank him for that idea."

Amara stared at her husband, speechless.

She needed to tell the bearers to keep going for as long as they could before setting down to rest beneath the canopy of the forest, somewhere near a large stream or small river, so that she could send word to the First Lord. But that could come in a moment. For now, the need to look at his face, to realize that they were alive, that they were together, was far more important than mere realms.

Bernard slung his bow over his shoulder and knelt beside Amara, reaching gently for her arm. "Easy. Let's see what you've done to it."

"One of your salt arrows," she said quietly, shaking her head.

He smiled at her, his eyes alight with green, brown, and flecks of gold; colors of life and growth and warmth. "It's always the little things that are important," he said. "Isn't it."

"Yes," she said, and kissed him gently on the mouth. "Excellent," said the water figure of Gaius, a translucent form that lacked the solid-color enhancement the First Lord used to favor. "Well done, Countess. What is the status of the rescuees?"

She stood beside a large, swift stream that rolled down from the hills many miles from Kalare. The forest here was particularly thick, and they'd barely managed to get the coach down through it in one piece. The bearers had all but collapsed into sleep, without even unhooking their flight harnesses. Bernard went around to each man, gently freeing them from the coach and letting them stretch out on the ground. The High Ladies were in a similar state, though Lady Aquitaine managed to seat herself primly at the base of a tree before leaning her head back against it and watching Odiana help Aldrick to the stream to tend to his wound.

Lady Placida hardly seemed strong enough to keep her head held up, but she insisted on staying with Atticus Elania, who had been injured during the flight-not by a weapon, but when the wounded Aldrick had half fallen back into the coach. He'd fallen hard against one of the crowded seats and broken the girl's ankle. Lady Placida had managed to ease Elania's pain, then promptly fallen back onto the grass to sleep.

Rook stepped out of the coach with her eyes closed, holding her daughter's hand. She found a patch of ground near the stream bank, where the sunlight reached the warm earth. She sat in the light, holding her daughter, her face weary and sagging with something rather like shock.

"Countess?" prodded Gaius gently.

Amara looked back to the water-image. "My apologies, sire." She took a deep breath, and said, "Atticus Elania Minora was injured during the escape, but not seriously. A broken ankle. Well have it crafted well again soon."

Gaius nodded. "And Lady Placida?"

"Exhausted but otherwise well, sire."

Gaius raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

Amara explained. "She and Lady Aquitaine spent themselves in an effort to speed our escape and hinder the pursuit. Only a bit more than a score of nearly a hundred Knights Aeris managed to catch up to us, and without the ladies' efforts I am certain we would have been overpowered and killed."

"Where are you now?" Gaius asked. Then immediately raised a hand. "No, best not say. This communication could be observed by others. In general, what is your situation?"

"We pressed on for as long as we could after Kalarus fell, sire, but we didn't make it terribly far. It's possible that a follow-up search could find us, so we'll only rest here for an hour or two, then move on."

Gaius lifted both eyebrows. "Kalarus fell?"

Amara smiled and inclined her head. "Courtesy of the good count Calderon, sire. I am not certain he is dead, but if he did survive it, I doubt he will be in any condition to run a revolution."

Gaius's teeth showed in a sudden, wolfish smile. "I'll want details in person as soon as you can manage it, Countess. Please convey my thanks to His Excellency of Calderon," the First Lord said, "and to the Ladies and their retainers as well."

"I'll try to keep a straight face when I do, sire."

Gaius threw back his head and laughed, and when he did the water-image changed. For a moment, there was color in it, greater detail, and more animation. Then he shook his head, and said, "I will leave you to your rest and travel then, Cursor."

"Sire?" Amara asked. "Were we in time?"

Gaius nodded once. "I think so. But I must move quickly." The image met Amara's eyes, then Gaius bowed, ever so slightly, to her. "Well done, Amara."

Amara drew in a deep breath as she felt a flash of ferocious pride and satisfaction. "Thank you, sire."

The image descended back into the stream, and Amara slumped wearily down onto its banks, her arm throbbing dully, but with slowly increasing discomfort. She glanced aside at Bernard, who stood near Lady Aquitaine, in the shade of the same tree, his eyes distant as, through his connections with furies of earth and wood, he kept watch for anyone approaching.

"Hello, Amara," said Odiana cheerfully.

Despite her weariness and discomfort, Amara twitched in surprise, and pain shot in burning silver lines from her shoulder to the base of her neck. The water witch had approached in total silence and spoken to her from a foot away.

"I'm sorry," Odiana said, a quiet laugh hidden in the words. "I didn't mean to scare you that way. That must have hurt awfully, jumping like that, poor darling."

"What do you want?" Amara said quietly.

Her dark eyes glittered. "Why, to repair your poor shoulder, little peregrine. You'll be as useful to your lord as a falcon with one wing. We can't have that."

"I'm fine," Amara said quietly. "Thank you anyway."

"Tsk, tsk," Odiana said, waggling a finger. "Lying that way. I promise you that I'll make it stop hurting."

"That's enough teasing," Lady Aquitaine said smoothly.

Odiana scowled at Lady Aquitaine, stuck her tongue out at her, then got up to wander idly down the stream bank.

Lady Aquitaine rose from the base of the tree and said, "We have now reached a crossroads, Cursor. There are difficult decisions that must be made."

"Concerning what?" Amara asked.

"The future," Lady Aquitaine replied. "For instance. I must decide whether or not allowing you to live is likely to prove helpful or inconvenient. You are, after all, a quite capable agent of the Crown. Given the political climate, you could be a small but significant obstacle to my plans should you turn your hand against me." She gave Amara a thoughtful look. "But you could be in a position to be very helpful indeed if we can reach some sort of arrangement."

Amara drew in a slow, deep breath, steadying herself. "I suppose it was too much to hope for that you would act in good faith, once you had what you wanted," she said quietly.

"We aren't playing the game for copper rams, Cursor. You know that as well as I do."

"Yes. But I've heard this offer before. I think you know what my answer was."

"The last time the offer was made," Lady Aquitaine said, "you weren't married."

Amara narrowed her eyes, and said in a cold voice, "Do you really think you'll get away with it?"

"If I take that path?" Lady Aquitaine shrugged. "I can simply explain how we were found by one of Kalarus's search parties, which came on us by night, and that there were few survivors."

"And you think people will believe that tripe?"

"Why on earth not, dear?" said Lady Aquitaine in a cold voice. "You just told Gaius yourself that the party was still in danger of discovery, after all." She narrowed her own gaze, her pale face bleak as stone. "And there will be no one to gainsay me. Not only will I get away with it, Countess. They'll most likely award me another medal."

"My answer is no," Amara said quietly.

Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. "Principle is well and good, Countess. But in this particular instance, your options are quite limited. You can either agree to work for me... or Aldrick can take Aria's head, at which point I will ask again."

Amara shot a hard look over her shoulder, where the still-limping swordsman stood over Lady Placida's recumbent form, sword held in a high guard.

"Right now," Lady Aquitaine said, "Gaius is likely contacting Placida, telling him that his wife is safe. But if she should die now, the furies she restrains will be freed with catastrophic results to Placida's lands and holders. From where he stands, he will have little choice but to draw the conclusion that Gaius betrayed him."

"Assuming," Amara said, "that you can make good on your threat. I don't think you'd kill another member of the League in cold blood."

"No, Countess?" Lady Aquitaine said, her voice cold. "You know I am perfectly willing to kill every one of you rather than risk having you in my way. You know it."

Amara glanced at Rook, who held Masha tight by the stream bank and had her head bowed, attempting to go unnoticed. "Even the little girl?"

"Children of murdered parents often grow up to seek revenge, Countess. That's a bitter life with a terrible ending. I'd be doing her a kindness."

Bernard placed the tip of his dagger lightly against the back of Lady Aquitaine 's neck, seized a fistful of her lustrous dark hair to hold her steady, and said, "You will kindly tell Aldrick to sheathe his sword, Your Grace."

Aldrick bared his teeth in a snarl.

Lady Aquitaines lip lifted in a contemptuous sneer. "Odiana, dear?"

Water suddenly surged up out of the stream in a set of writhing tentacles not too terribly unlike those of the Canim cloud beasts. They whipped up around Rook and Masha like constrictor serpents, twining around them. For a sickening second, one of the water tendrils covered their noses and mouths, strangling them, before Odiana gestured and they were allowed to breathe again.

Lady Aquitaine glanced at Amara and tilted her head, her expression daring Amara to respond.

"There's a flaw in your reasoning, Your Grace," Amara said quietly. "Even if your pet mercenaries kill them both, you will still be dead."

Lady Aquitaine s smile grew even more smug. "Actually, there's something you haven't accounted for, Countess. "

"And that is?"

Lady Aquitaine threw back her head and laughed, her body rippling through changes, her face contorting into different features-and by the time she lowered her head again, Odiana stood where Lady Aquitaine had been. "I'm not Lady Aquitaine."

Lady Aquitaines voice said, from behind Amara, "Really, Countess. I'm somewhat disappointed in you. I gave you even odds of seeing through the switch."

Amara looked over her shoulder to find Lady Aquitaine, not Odiana, holding the watercrafting that held Rook and Masha in its grasp.

"Can you grasp the situation now, Cursor?" Lady Aquitaine continued. "This game is over. You lost."

"Perhaps." Amara felt her mouth curl up into a slow smile, and she nodded at Rook. "Perhaps not."

Rook's mouth curled into a hard, unpleasant smile-and then there was a flash of light, a sudden cloud of steam, and the burning shape of a falcon, Lady Placida's fire fury. It shattered the water-bonds and streaked at Lady Aquitaine like a miniature comet.

At the same instant, Lady Placida's unconscious figure swept Aldrick's good leg out from under him, and the wounded one buckled, pitching him to the ground. Before he could recover, Lady Placida was on his back with a knee between his shoulder blades and a heavy strangling cord around his neck.

Lady Aquitaine threw her hands up to ward off the charging fire fury. She stumbled and slipped down the bank and into the stream.

Rook rose-then she, too, changed, growing taller, more slender, until Placidus Aria stood in her place, the bewildered child held on one hip. She lifted her other hand and the fire fury streaked back to her wrist, perching there, while she faced Lady Aquitaine.

At the same time, the figure atop Aldrick blurred as well, until it was Rook that held him down.

"I confess," Amara drawled to Lady Aquitaine, "I'm somewhat disappointed in you. I gave you even odds of seeing through the switch." She showed Lady Aquitaine her teeth. "You didn't really think I was unaware of your listening in on my conversations with Bernard, did you?"

Lady Aquitaines face began to flush an angry red.

"Did you believe it when I said I had no idea what you might do, no idea what I could do to prepare, no idea whether or not you'd turn on us?" Amara shook her head. "I never prevented you from listening in because I wanted you to hear it, Your Grace. I wanted you to think you would be dealing with a helpless little lamb. But to be honest, didn't think you'd be quite so egocentrically stupid as to fall for it."

Lady Aquitaine bared her teeth, furious, and began to rise from the stream.

"Invidia," warned Lady Placida, gesturing slightly with the wrist where the fire fury perched. "I've had a bad week."

"Can you grasp the situation now?" Amara said, her tone hard. "This game is over. You lost."

Lady Aquitaine inhaled slowly, making a visible effort to rein in her temper. "Very well," she said in a quiet, dangerous voice. "What are your terms?"

Amara said, "Nonnegotiable."

"May I ask you a question?" Bernard asked.

"Certainly," Amara said.

"How did you know that those two were going to be trading faces during the rescue?"

"Because Odiana was there," Amara said. "Honestly, why else would she be? Lady Aquitaine certainly didn't need to bring an extra healer, and I can't imagine that she would let a madwoman like her come along on an operation like this just to keep Aldrick company. She didn't need any of that. She needed someone who could look like her and serve as her double, her stalking horse. It seemed reasonable that Lady Aquitaine would want to hide her true identity during the rescue attempt. That way, if things went sour, or if in the long run Kalarus wound up with the throne, she'd be in a position to deny any involvement."

Bernard shook his head. "I can't think in circles that twisty. And you got Lady Placida and Rook to do the same thing? Switch identities?"

"Yes. So that in the confrontation, Lady Aquitaine would take action against the wrong targets and give us a chance to get the drop on her entirely."

"Some people," Bernard said quietly, "might argue that we should have killed them."

Amara shrugged. "Lady Aquitaine and her retainers could quite possibly have taken several of us with them, had they been sure that they were to die. Terms let us all walk away in one piece. And given Lady Aquitaine's contacts and influence, arresting her for trial would be a pointless exercise."

"Some people might not be happy with that answer," Bernard rumbled. "They'll say you could have killed them with impunity once they'd surrendered."

"People like Gaius?" Amara suggested.

"He's one," Bernard said, nodding.

Amara turned to her husband and met his eyes steadily. "I swore to uphold and defend the Crown, my lord. And that means that I am bound by the law. One does not arrest, judge, sentence, and execute prisoners without due course of law." She lifted her chin. "Neither does an agent of the Crown betray her word, once given. Besides, the First Lord still needs Aquitaine's support, until Kalare's Legions are put down. Murdering his wife might reduce the enthusiasm of his support."

Bernard studied her face, his features unreadable. "Those people are dangerous, Amara. To me, to my family, to you. We're in the wilderness, amidst the chaos of a war. Who would know?"

Amara met his gaze calmly. "I would. Decent people don't murder their fellow human beings if it is not necessary. And Invidia did, after all, do a great service to the realm."

"Right up until it went a little sour at the end," Bernard growled.

Amara put her hands on either side of his face. "Let her have her world. It's cold there, and empty. For us, it isn't enough to win, my lord. It isn't enough to simply survive. I will not live in a realm where calculations of power supersede justice and law-regardless of how inconvenient that may be to the Crown."

Bernard's teeth showed in another white, fierce smile. He kissed her gently. "You, ' he said, "are more than that old man deserves."

She smiled at him, warmly. "Be careful, my lord husband. If you say too much, I may have to report your seditious remarks to the First Lord."

"Do that. How long do you think it will take them to get out of there?"

They sat beside one another in the coach. Rook, reunited with her daughter, had fallen asleep while holding her, her cheek resting on Masha's curls. The little girl's cheeks were pink with the warmth of a young child's deep sleep. Lady Placida and Elania were likewise drowsing.

"Ten minutes, perhaps," Amara said. "Once Lady Aquitaine's had a little rest, she'll snap those ropes and free the others. But without transportation for her retainers, she'd have to pursue us on her own. She wouldn't do that, even if Lady Placida wasn't in a position to destroy her public image and her support in the Dianic League with damning testimony about conspiracy to commit murder."

Bernard nodded. "I see," he said. "And what's stopping the bearers from just dumping us out on the ground and going back for her?"

"They're mercenaries, my love. We offered them money. Lots and lots of money. "

"Right," Bernard said. "We're good for it. Though I feel I must ask... why did we leave them naked? To slow them down?"

"No," Amara sniffed. "Because the poisonous bitch deserved it."

Bernard's eyes wrinkled at the corners, and he turned to place a slow, gentle kiss upon her mouth, and one upon each eyelid. Amara found that once closed, her eyes simply refused to open, and she leaned into Bernard's delicious warmth and was asleep before she'd finished letting out a contented sigh.

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