Amara frowned down from her seat in the gallery of one of the large lecture halls of the Collegia Tactica, one of the great prides of the city of Ceres and the largest military academy in Alera. She was one of only a handful of women present in the hall, among perhaps five hundred men, most of them wearing Legion tunics and armor. The gallery above the floor seats had been filled to overflowing with curious young nobles and other students of the Collegia, and she sat between a pair of young men who seemed uncertain of how to address a young woman who bore a faint dueling scar on one cheek and a sword upon her hip.
The hall's presentation platform was the size of a small theater stage, and was also crowded with people. A half circle of chairs lined the back of the platform. Several older men sat in the chairs, most of them experienced military commanders, retired and now serving as Maestros for the Collegia. In the next to last chair sat Centurion Giraldi, arguably the most heavily decorated noncommissioned officer in Alera, now that he bore not simply one but double scarlet stripes of the Order of the Lion down the outside seams of his uniform trousers. The grizzled, stocky old soldier had walked with a limp ever since sustaining injuries in battle with the monstrous creatures called the "vord." Giraldi's grey hair was cut in a legionare's short brush, his armor bore the nicks and dents of a lifetime of battle, and he looked intensely uncomfortable sitting before such a large audience.
Beside Giraldi sat Senator Guntus Arnos, Consul General of the Collegia. He was a short man, barely more than five feet tall, dressed in the formal, deep blue robes of the Senate. His grey hair was oiled and drawn back into a tail, his hands were steepled in front of his face, and he wore an expression of sober, somber judgment. He probably practiced it in front of a mirror, Amara thought.
Bernard wore his colors of green and brown, his sturdy and sensible tunic a marked contrast to Senator Arnos's rich robes. He stood at the podium at the platform's center, facing those present in the hall with a demeanor of calm, competent composure.
"In short," he said, "I believe that these vord are far and away the deadliest threat this Realm has ever known." His voice carried clearly through the hall thanks to the windcraftings built into the place to make sure speakers could be clearly heard. The windcrafted acoustics were necessary. The hall was filled with a continual low buzz of whispers and quiet speech.
"That single vord queen entered my holdings," Bernard continued. "Within a month, the vord had become a force that destroyed two-thirds of my command, including a half century of Knights, and the entire population of a frontier steadholt. Their use of tactical judgment, as Centurion Giraldi and I have enumerated it to you today, proves that these creatures are more than mere beasts. They are an intelligent, coordinated threat to all of mankind. If we do not exercise the highest levels of caution, immediately stamping out an infestation, that threat may well grow too swiftly to be stopped." Bernard exhaled, and Amara could see a bit of relief on her husband's face, though few others would have. Bernard was glad to be finished. "At this time, I will open the floor to questions."
Several dozen hands went up at once, but then faltered and lowered again as Senator Arnos calmly raised his own hand.
Bernard frowned at the hall for a moment, until Giraldi nudged Bernard's leg with his cane. Bernard glanced at him, then to Arnos.
"Of course, Senator," he said. "Please."
Arnos rose and faced the hall. "Count Bernard," he said. "I have heard several tales of what happened out in Calderon, and each seemed less plausible than the last. I confess that, upon the surface, your own tale sounds more fantastical than the others."
A low, rumbling round of chuckles rolled through the hall.
Bernard's eyes narrowed a bit, and Amara recognized the first sign of his irritation. "Be that as it may, honored Senator," he replied, "I fear that I have nothing to offer you except the truth."
"The truth," Arnos said, nodding. "Of course. But I think we all know how... amorphous, shall we say, the truth can be."
"Forgive me," Bernard said. "I did not mean to confuse you, Senator. I must amend my statement. I have nothing to offer you except fact."
"Fact," Arnos said, nodding again. "Excellent. I have questions about some of the facts you have presented today."
Amara got a sickly little feeling in her belly.
"By all means," Bernard said.
"Do I understand you correctly that you learned of these creatures' presence from a barbarian Marat. "
"From Doroga of the Sabot-Ha," Bernard said. "The most powerful and influential of their chieftains."
"But..." Arnos shrugged a shoulder. "A Marat."
"Yes," Bernard said.
"That is how you know that they are called the vord?"
"In fact," Arnos continued, "no Aleran had ever heard of this creature before the barbarian told you of it."
"Given the kind of danger the vord represent, I suspect that by the time one learns of them, it may already be too late to fight them. Without Doroga's warning, we might already have lost half the Realm."
"And you believe that?" Arnos asked.
"Yes," Bernard said.
"And yet, according to the barbarian, his own unlettered, tribal, pauper-folk, without a civilization, without furycrafting, somehow managed to defeat them in the past."
Bernard paused for a moment before speaking. Amara recognized the gesture: it was the same one he got on his face before rebuking a particularly foolish subordinate. "They did not defeat the vord, Senator," Bernard said. "The refugees of their civilization managed to flee and survive."
"Ah," Arnos said, skepticism flavoring the sound. "Come now, Count. What surety can you give that the entire situation was not some kind of ploy on behalf of the Marat? There are many dangerous creatures in the world. It seems to me that we had nothing to fear from these vord before the Marat spoke to you about them."
Bernard's jawline twitched. "Doroga very nearly gave his life in defense of me and mine, when we fought the vord together. He lost nearly two thousand of his own people fighting them before they came to Calderon."
Arnos waved a vague hand. "Come now, Your Excellency. The Collegia contains a thousand years of military history, hundreds of battles faithfully recorded, large and small. The morale of a military force in the field breaks well before it sustains fifty percent casualties. Are we really to take the barbarian's word that his people fought on after losing ninety percent of their force?"
"If Doroga says so. I believe him."
The Senator permitted himself a small, sly smile. "I see. It would appear, then, that your struggle together against these creatures the barbarian knew all about has engendered within you a sense of trust." He paused, then added lightly, "Or credulity."
Bernard stared levelly at Arnos for a long moment. Then he drew in a breath, and said in a patient tone, "Senator, disregarding any evidence I did not see with my own eyes, the vord are still clearly an intelligent, resourceful, ruthless foe who will not discriminate between armed forces and noncombatants. They clearly possess the wherewithal to inflict tremendous damage upon anyone unfortunate enough to be near them."
Arnos shrugged a shoulder, still wearing the faint smile. "Perhaps. But their most vaunted, feared trait seems to be their ability to reproduce at such a fantastic rate. That if even one of them remains, they could repopulate themselves at tremendous speed." He tilted his head, and said, "Yet, it has been three years since you fought them, Count, and they have not been seen again. I cannot help but wonder whether or not it might have been a lie, told to you by the Marat in order to heighten your sense of danger, and therefore the amount of trust you would place in them after successfully overcoming it."
"Do you mean to say that Doroga lied to me?"
"He is a barbarian, after all, Count."
Bernard gave the Senator a tight smile. "The Marat's tribal tongues had no word for 'lie' until they met us, Senator. The very idea of speaking falsehood was introduced to them only a few generations ago, and it never picked up much of a following. For one Marat to call another a liar is a challenge to a fight to the death, and one that is never refused. Doroga is no liar."
"I see no way to be sure of that."
"I do, Senator," Bernard said. "I believe him. I am a Count, a Citizen of the Realm, a veteran of the Legions who has shed and spilled blood in defense of Alera. I will vouch for his word with my own."
"I'm sure you would," Arnos said, his tone that of the kindly grandfather speaking to a foolish youth. "I have never questioned your sincerity. But I suspect that the Marat has manipulated you."
Bernard stared at the Senator and rolled his shoulder in a gesture Amara had seen him use when preparing to shoot his war bow. Bernard's voice suddenly rang out sharp and clear, though still perfectly polite in tone. "Senator. If you call my friend a liar one more time, I will take it badly."
"Excuse me?" Arnos said, his eyebrows rising up.
"I suggest you find an alternate shortsighted, egomaniacally ridiculous reason to blatantly, recklessly ignore an obvious threat to the Realm simply because you don't wish it to exist. If you cannot restrain yourself from base slander, I will be pleased to meet you in juris macto and personally rip your forked tongue from your head."
The muttering in the room stopped, and a bottomless silence fell.
Amara felt a rush of fierce, pleased pride flash through her, and she found herself smiling down at Bernard.
Arnos's face flushed dark red, almost purple. Without another word, he turned and strode from the hall, steps sounding angrily on the hall's floor. A little more than a third of the room, including several of the men also on the raised platform, rose and followed the Senator out.
When they had gone, Bernard shook his head and cast an almost imperceptible wink in her direction. "All right," he said. "Next question."
A small forest of hands went up. Those men who remained, all of them wearing Legion uniform tunics or armor, or with their hair cropped Legion fashion, settled down to listen.
Amara descended to the hall floor after Bernard's talk was over. He was shaking hands with the few members of the Collegia's staff who had remained when Senator Arnos left. Giraldi hovered in the background, leaning on his cane, and traded gibes with several other old soldiers apparently of his acquaintance.
Amara smiled as Bernard broke away from the men and came to her. "You will rip his forked tongue from his head?"
He gave her a fleeting smile. "Too much, you think?"
Amara imitated Arnos's clipped Rhodesian accent. "You are a barbarian, after all, Count."
Bernard let out a rumble of a laugh but shook his head. "He didn't believe me."
"He's one fool," Amara replied. "We knew when we set out to come here that there would be plenty of them around."
"Yes. I just didn't think that one of them would be the Senator holding the purse strings for all the Crown funds for the Legions." Bernard shook his head. "And he has a following. Maybe I should have let him strut a bit."
"If you had, you wouldn't be you," Amara replied. "Besides, you struck a solid note with the active duty soldiers here. They're the ones whose opinions will matter most."
"They're also the ones who will suffer the most from budget cuts," Bernard said. "It's hard to fight anyone when your equipment is wearing out and falling apart around you. Much less something like the vord."
"And would kissing up to the Senator make him more likely to increase the gold allowed to the Legions in order to increase their scouts and other auxiliary troops?"
"Perhaps not," Bernard admitted.
"Then don't gnaw at it. You've done what you can. And I should imagine that the cadets who were here will be talking about the way you dropped that challenge to the Senator for years. A source of long-term amusement."
"At least I accomplished something positive. Why didn't you say so?"
She laughed and took his arm as they left the lecture hall and strolled across the campus.
He smiled and tilted his head at her. "You look... I don't know. Happy, today. You haven't stopped smiling."
"I don't look happy," she said.
"No, Your Excellency." She took a deep breath, then said, "I look late."
He stared at her blankly for a moment. "You look..." Then his eyes widened. "Oh. Oh!"
She looked up at her husband and smiled. For a moment, she thought her heart might simply fly from her chest and take to the sky. She couldn't resist a little skip and a burst of wind from Cirrus, which carried her seven or eight feet off the ground, spun her about in a dancer's twirl, and dropped her back down to Bernard's side.
His smile stretched ear to ear. "Are you... I mean. Are you sure?"
"As much as anyone can be, this soon," she replied. "Perhaps you were right all along. This is the first time we've been together for more than a few days at a stretch."
Bernard let out a laugh, picked her up, and all but crushed her against him in a bearish embrace, drawing stares from cadets passing between classes all around them. Amara reveled in it. It was when she felt his strength, that casual, enormous power, that she felt the most soft, the most yielding-the most feminine, she supposed. He made her feel beautiful. Granted she wore a sword at her hip, and could use it to deadly effect if necessary-but it made it no less pleasant to feel otherwise for a time.
"I do need to breathe," she murmured a moment later.
He laughed and put her down again, and they kept walking together, now very close, his side pressed to hers, his arm around her shoulders. "How long have we been here?"
"Six weeks," Amara murmured. "As you well know."
"Has it been that long?" Bernard asked.
She gave him a look from beneath lowered lashes. "It can be difficult to judge the passing of time when one so seldom leaves his bedchamber, my lord."
He let out a low, pleased sound, something between a chuckle and a contented growl. "That's hardly my fault. The outside world holds little to interest me compared to the company I keep there."
"My lord," she said, miming a shocked face. "Whatever could you mean?"
His fingers tightened on the curve of her waist, above one hip, stroking lightly. She shivered. "Let me show you. "
"What about Giraldi? " she asked.
"He isn't invited."
She dug her elbow lightly into Bernard's ribs. "We're not leaving him alone tonight, are we?"
"No, no. He'll meet us for dinner when we pick up Isana. He's teaching some basic combat classes, meanwhile, as something of a celebrity instructor."
"Good," Amara said. "He'll get into trouble without something to keep him occupied."
"I thought you were married to me," Bernard said.
"I pick my battles," Amara said. "You're going to find trouble regardless of what I do. Perhaps it's a family trait. It would explain you and your nephew both."
"That isn't fair," Bernard said. "Tavi gets in much more trouble than I do."
"He's younger," Amara said with a sly, sideward glance, nudging him with her hip.
"I'll show you young," Bernard growled-but he glanced over his shoulder in the middle of the statement, and the smile faded from his face as he did.
"What is it?" Amara asked, leaning her head against him as if nothing had happened.
"There are two men following us," Bernard said. "But I'm not sure that they are our escort."
"What escort?" Amara asked.
He arched an eyebrow and glanced at her.
"All right." She sighed. "The Cursors have teams watching over a number of possible loyalist targets. I didn't want you to feel insulted."
She paused to straighten the hem of her skirts and called to Cirrus, spinning the fury into a new kind of crafting, one that would bend the light entirely back upon itself, blinding her to what lay before her, but letting her see what was behind. It was a difficult crafting to form and a strain to hold on to, but a quick look was all she needed.
"Those men aren't our escort," she said quietly. "I don't know them."
Bernard's eyes narrowed. "Something does not smell right, then."
"Yes," Amara said. "I don't like the way this smells at all."