The life of a legionare, even that of officers, had, in Tavi's opinion, been vastly overrated. By the time a week had passed in the camp of the First Aleran, he had come to the conclusion that the vaunted glory and prestige of the officers corps was nothing more than a fiendish ploy on behalf of the Citizenry, designed to drive the ambitious to foaming insanity.
And that went double for the high reputation of the Cursors, which had gotten him ordered into this crowbegotten Legion to begin with.
Tavi had considered himself a stalwart, stoic, strong-minded agent of the Crown, especially after the trials he had faced at the Academy, where his time and focus had been in constant demand. There, he'd often been unable to find enough hours in the day to sleep, and constant runs up a monstrously sadistic stairwell had tested his physical and mental limits. There were some days where he had broken down into screaming fits of frustration, just to blow off steam.
The Legion life was worse.
Tavi tried not to give such cynical thoughts too much of his attention, but standing in the light, wooden storage building through the second chorus of yet another furious rant from Tribune Gracchus, to which he was not expected or allowed to respond, it was hard to keep from feeling somewhat bitter about the entire situation.
"Do you have any idea of the chaos you've caused?" Gracchus demanded. The beefy man slapped a pair of fingers against his opposite palm every few syllables, then jabbed them accusatorily at Tavi at the end of each sentence. "The measure of flour for each legionare is a precise calculation, Subtribune, and it is not subject to arbitrary adjustments by striplings on their first tour."
There was a pause as Gracchus drew breath, and Tavi promptly interjected, "Yes, sir." He had learned Gracchus's rant-rhythm before the end of the second day.
"That's why we use standardized, regulation measuring cups in the first place."
"Yes, sir," Tavi said.
"By introducing your shoddy replacements, you have thrown off my estimates, which will disrupt stores calculations for more than a month, Subtribune. I have every right to have you flogged for such a thing. In fact, I could have you up on charges for it and disenfranchised to repay the provisions budget."
"Yes, sir," Tavi repeated.
Gracchus's eyes were already beady. He narrowed them even farther. "Do I detect insubordination in your tone, Subtribune?"
"Sir, no sir," Tavi replied. "Only disagreement."
The Tribune's scowl darkened. "Do tell."
Freed to speak, Tavi kept his tone mild. "More than a score of veterans had complained to their centurions that they were receiving smaller measures of bread at meals. When enough of them had done so, the centurions requested that the First Spear look into the matter. He did. Per standard procedure, the First Spear approached a Subtribune Logistica. I happened to be the first one he found."
Gracchus shook his head. "Do you have a point, Subtribune?"
"Yes, sir. I investigated the matter, and it seemed likely that some of the flour was going missing between the storehouse and the mess." Tavi paused for a moment, then said, "I started by verifying the accuracy of the measuring cups. Sir."
Gracchus's face went florid and angry.
"Though the cups appear to be standard-issue, sir, they are in fact forgeries that hold nine-tenths of what the actual cups will contain. I asked one of the smiths to beat out a few cups of the proper size, sir, until they could be replaced with standard-issue gear."
"I see," Gracchus said. His upper lip had beaded with sweat.
"Sir, I figure that someone must have replaced the cups with forgeries, then skimmed the excess flour off to a market for it-or perhaps they were utterly unscrupulous thieves with the gall to sell the excess grain back to the Legion at a profit." Tavi shrugged his shoulders. "If you wish me to face charges, sir, I understand your decision. But I estimate that the amount of money gained from this business wouldn't buy much more than a silver ring and a new pair of boots. I think we caught it before any real harm could be done."
"That's enough, Subtribune," Gracchus said in a quivering voice.
"Of course," Tavi went on, "if you wish to put me up on charges or take disciplinary measures against me, the captain would be obligated to open an investigation. I'm sure he'll be able to sort out exactly who was stealing what from whom, sir. That might be for the best."
Gracchus's face turned purple. He closed his eyes, and the silver ring on his left hand rapped nervously upon his breastplate. His new boots rasped against the floor as he shifted uncomfortably in place. "Subtribune Scipio, you are sorely trying my patience."
"Beg pardon, sir," Tavi said. "That was not my intention."
"Oh yes it was," Gracchus snarled. "You're lucky I don't drop you into a pit where you stand and close it after you."
From the entry to the building, someone coughed politely and rapped knuckles against wood. "Good afternoon, sirs," said Maestro Magnus, stepping forward to smile politely at them. "I hope this is not a bad time."
Gracchus's stare was almost poisonous, and Tavi was sure that if looks could kill, he would already be a dead man. "Not at all, centurion," he murmured, before Gracchus could answer. "How may I assist you?"
"Captain Cyril's compliments, Tribune, and will Subtribune Scipio join him at the practice field?"
Tavi frowned at Magnus, but the old Maestro's expression told him nothing. "With your permission, sir?"
"Why not," Gracchus said, his voice smooth. "I can use the time to consider how best to employ your energies. Something in the way of sanitation, perhaps."
Tavi managed not to scowl at the Tribune, but felt his cheek twitch in a nervous tic. He saluted, then departed with Magnus.
"Was that about the measuring cups?" Magnus murmured, after they had walked away.
Tavi arched a brow. "You knew about it?"
"Tribunes Logistica skimming from their Legion is not precisely unheard of," Magnus said. "Though in general they cover their tracks a little more carefully. Gracchus lacks the guile to do it well."
They strode past one neat row of tents after another. In the week since they'd arrived, the fish had at least learned the proper procedure for pitching a tent. Tavi frowned at Magnus. "Did the captain know?"
"Then why didn't he do something about it?" Tavi asked.
"Because while Gracchus might be an incompetent embezzler, he's a capable logistics officer. We need him. Had the captain ordered an official investigation, it would have stained Gracchus's honor, ruined his career, and discharged him from the Legion over a few bits of jewelry and new boots."
Tavi grimaced. "So the captain is letting it slide."
"He's not a legate, Tavi. He's a soldier. His job is to build and maintain the Legion as a strong, capable military force. If that means ignoring an indiscretion or three within his senior staff, he's willing to pay that price."
"Even if it means short rations for the Legion?"
Magnus smiled. "But they aren't getting short rations, Subtribune. The cups have been replaced, the problem eliminated."
"The First Spear." Tavi sighed. "The captain sent him to me."
"He did no such thing," Magnus replied, smile widening. "Though I might have misunderstood some comments he made, and shared my misunderstanding with Valiar Marcus."
Tavi grunted and thought about it for a moment. "It was a test," he said. "He wanted to see how I'd react to it."
"Many men would have blackmailed their way into a share of the profits," Magnus said. "Now the captain knows you're honest. Gracchus's greedy impulses have been checked. The legionares are getting their full measure of food, and the Legion still has its Tribune Logistica. Everyone's a winner."
"Except me." Tavi sighed. "After today, Gracchus is going to have me knee deep in the latrines for a month."
"Welcome to the Legions," Magnus agreed. "I suggest you regard it as a learning experience."
They walked out the west gate and received overly precise salutes from the two fish standing sentry in their brown tunics and training weapons. A few hundred yards from the gate, there was a wide field, furyc rafted into a perfectly flat plane. A broad oval of stone road ringed the field-a practice course of roadway, built with the same properties as the roads throughout the Realm.
Four full cohorts of recruits were on the track, attempting to speed-march in formation. Properly utilized, the furies built into the Realm's roads would enable a traveler to maintain a running pace for hours at a time with little more effort than walking. The recruits, for the most part, were not utilizing the road properly, and instead of moving in neat ranks their formation resembled a comet-a solid leading element led the way, followed by stragglers who grew progressively slower, more distant, and more exhausted.
In the center of the field, centurions drilled some recruits in weapon play, while others practiced with the true steel shields of a full legionare, learning a basic metalcrafting discipline that would enable them to make their shields stronger and more able to resist impacts-and that would, incidentally, carry over into similarly reinforcing their weapons and armor. Still other recruits sat in loose groups around their instructors, being shown the correct way to wear and maintain armor, how properly to care for weaponry, and dozens of other facets of Legion business.
Tavi and Magnus waited for a comet-shaped cohort of fish to pound past on the training road, then walked across it toward a wooden observation platform at roughly the field's center. The grounds around the tower served as a watering station for the thirsty recruits and also featured an infirmary for the recruits who had succumbed to fatigue or who had, like Tavi, earned a pointed lesson from the weapon instructors.
Captain Cyril stood atop the observation platform, and the sun shone off his armor and bald pate. He leaned against a guardrail, speaking quietly with Tribune Cadius Hadrian, a small, slender man who stood beside him in the light armor and woodland colors of a scout. Hadrian pointed at the running trainees on the back stretch of the track and murmured something to the captain. Then he pointed toward a group of fish strapping into bulky suits of training armor. Cyril nodded, then glanced down to see Tavi and Magnus at the base of the platform.
Cadius Hadrian followed the captain's look, then saluted and slid down the platform's ladder to the earth. The leader of the Legion's scouts nodded silently to Tavi and Magnus as they saluted him, and paced away.
"I've brought him for you, sir," Magnus called. "And I told you so."
Captain Cyril had a blocky, largely immobile face, tanned to leather by his time in the field, and even a small smile sent creases across his features. "Send him up."
Tavi turned to the ladder, and Magnus touched his arm. "Lad," he murmured, almost too low to be heard. "Remember your duty. But don't play him false."
Tavi frowned, then nodded to Magnus and scaled the ladder to join the captain on the platform. He reached the top, came to attention, and saluted.
"At ease," Cyril said easily, beckoning with one hand as he turned back to the field. Tavi stepped up to stand beside him. Neither said anything for several moments, and Tavi waited for the captain to break the silence.
"Not many novice subtribunes would stand up to their commanding officer like that," Cyril finally murmured. "That takes a certain amount of courage."
"Not really, sir," Tavi said. "He couldn't come against me without revealing what he'd done."
Cyril grunted. "There are ways he can get around it. Not to hurt your career, perhaps, but he can make your duties unpleasant."
"Yes," Tavi said, simply.
Cyril smiled again. "A Stoic, I see."
"I'm not afraid of work, sir. It will pass."
"True enough." The captain turned speculative eyes on Tavi. "I looked into your records," he said. "You aren't much of a furycrafter."
A flash of irritation mixed with pain rolled through Tavi's chest. "I've just got my Legion basics, " Tavi said-which was true, as far as the false records provided by the Cursors were concerned. "A little metal. I can handle a sword. Not like the greats, but I can hold my own."
The captain nodded. "Sometimes men go out of their way to conceal their talents, for whatever reason. Some don't want the responsibility. Some don't want to stand out. Others will embarrass an illegitimate parent should they do too much. Like your friend, Maximus."
Tavi smiled tightly. "That's not me, Captain."
Cyril studied Tavi for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I don't have those kinds of gifts, either. Pity," he said, and turned back to the field. "I was hoping I might round up a few more Knights."
Tavi arched an eyebrow. "Knights? Don't we have a full complement, sir?"
Cyril's armor rasped as he shrugged a shoulder. "We have Knights, but you know what a valuable commodity that kind of talent can be. Every High Lord in the Realm wants all the Knights he can beg, buy, borrow, or steal. Especially given the tensions lately. Our Knights are largely, ah... how to phrase this."
"Fish, sir?" Tavi suggested. "Knights Pisces?"
The captain snorted. "Close enough. Though I would have said young and clumsy. We've only got one Knight Ignus, and he's currently being treated for burn wounds." Cyril shook his head. "A batch of a dozen or so Terra and Flora aren't bad, but they've got a lot of work to do, and there aren't nearly enough of them. We've got no Knights Ferrous at all. And all the rest, sixty of them, are Knights Aeris."
Tavi lifted his eyebrows. "Most Legions would kill to have that many Knights Aeris, sir."
"Yes." Cyril sighed. "If they could fly."
"They can't?" Tavi asked. "I thought that was what you had to be able to do to be one of those, sir."
"Oh, they can get into the air, for the most part. Getting down again in one piece has proven something of a problem. If Tribune Fantus and young Antillus hadn't been there to lessen the impacts, and Lady Antillus hadn't come down with her son, we'd have had fatalities already."
Tavi frowned, then said, "Perhaps Maximus could help them out? Instructing them, I mean."
The captain broke out into a single bark of laughter. "It would be inappropriate. And I need him where he is. But even if I didn't, I wouldn't let him anywhere near the Knights Pisces. Have you seen him^y?"
Tavi frowned for a moment and thought about it. "No, sir."
"He doesn't fly so much as make these great, bounding hops. He can land on his feet sometimes. Other times, he hits something. We pulled him out of a peat bog once. I can't tell you how many times he's broken his legs."
Tavi frowned. "That... hardly sounds like Max, sir."
"I would imagine he doesn't talk about it much. He never got it down, but I didn't think he'd ever give up trying. Then I saw him ride in here. Damn shame. But it happens like that sometimes."
"Yes, sir," Tavi said, unsure what to say.
"Scipio," the captain went on. "I haven't asked you for your oath to the Legion yet."
"No, sir. I figured that's what this was about."
"It is," Cyril said. He narrowed his eyes. "I'm no fool, lad. A lot of men are here for their own reasons. And some are here for someone else's reasons."
Tavi looked out over the practice field and remained silent, unsure what to say.
"I'll only ask you this one question. Can you swear your loyalty to this Legion, to these men, and mean it beyond any doubt, any question?"
"Sir..." Tavi began.
"It's important," the captain said. "We all need to know that we can rely upon one another. That we will serve the Crown and the Realm regardless of the hazard or difficulty. That we will not leave a brother behind, nor hesitate to give our lives for one another. Otherwise, this is no Legion. Just a mob of men with weapons." He faced Tavi, and said, "Can you look me in the eyes and swear that, young man?"
Tavi looked up and met Cyril's eyes. "I am here to serve the Crown, sir. Yes."
"Then I have your oath?"
The captain stared at Tavi for a moment, then nodded once, sharply, and offered his hand. Tavi blinked for a second and traded grips with Cyril. "I work my people hard, Subtribune. But I suspect we'll get along. Dismissed."
Tavi saluted, and the captain returned it. Tavi turned to the ladder, but paused when a wave of shouts rose up from below. He looked up to see a small mob of recruits in their brown tunics rushing for the infirmary, bearing an injured man. Blood stained them, and the grass behind them as they passed.
"Help!" one of them shouted, voice high with panic. "Healer!"
They grew closer, and Tavi could see more blood, pale flesh, and a sopping, bloody cloth pressed against the throat of a limp man whose skin was a shade of grey. A healer appeared from one of the large tents, and Tavi saw the man's expression flash with alarm. He started barking orders at once.
The recruits shifted their grip on him to let the healer get close, and the injured man's head lolled limply toward Tavi, eyes glassy and sightless.
Tavi's heart stopped in his chest.
It was Max.