Cursor's Fury

Chapter 9


Tavi spent the day and most of the night in the tent by his friend's side. Valiar Marcus had spelled him for time enough to bathe and eat a cold meal. Captain Cyril himself had come in the hours before dawn, and Tavi had simply thrown himself down on the floor and slept, armor and all. He awoke stiff and sore in midmorning, and stretched the kinks out, doing his best to ignore the complaints of his body. The captain had waited until Tavi was fully awake before departing, leaving him to resume his watch over his friend.

Foss came in now and again, checking up on Max.

"Shouldn't we get him into a bed?" Tavi asked.

Foss grunted. "Take his armor off. Water is better, so long as he doesn't get cold."

"Why?"

"M' fury's still in it," Foss said. "Doin' what she can to help im."

Tavi smiled. "She?"

"Bernice. And don't give me no mouth, kid. I know you Citizens make fun of us pagunus types for giving them names. Back in my home, they'd look at you just as funny for sayin' they didn't need them."

Tavi shook his head. "No, I'm not criticizing you, healer. Honestly. It's the results that matter."

"Happen to be of the same mind m'self," Foss said, grinning.

"How'd you wind up here?" Tavi asked.

"Volunteered," Foss said. He added hot water from a steaming kettle to the tub, careful not to let it burn the man within.

"We all volunteered," Tavi said.

Foss grunted. "I'm career Legion. Shieldwall. Antillus to Phrygia and back, fighting off the Icemen. One hitch for one city, then one in the other. Did that for thirty years."

"Got tired of the cold?" Tavi asked.

"Manner of speakin'," Foss confirmed, and winked at Tavi. "Wife in Phrygia found out about the wife in Antillus. Thought I might like to see what the south was like for a spell."

Tavi chuckled.

Max said, his voice very weak, "Don't play cards with him, Calderon. He cheats."

Tavi shot up off the camp stool and went to his friend. "Hey," he said. "You decide to wake up, finally?"

"Got a hangover," Max said, his voice slurred. "Or something. What happened to me, Calderon?"

"Hey, Max," Tavi said, gentle urgency in his voice, "don't try to talk yet. Wake up a little more. Let the healer see to you."

Foss knelt by the tub and peered at Max's eyes, telling the young man to follow his finger when he waved it around. "Calderon?" he asked. "Thought you were Rivan."

"Yes," Tavi said smoothly. "My first hitch was in Riva. I was in one of the green cohorts they sent to Garrison."

Foss grunted. "You was at Second Calderon?"

"Yes," Tavi said.

"Heard it was pretty bad."

"Yes," Tavi said.

Foss peered up at Tavi from under shaggy black brows, his eyes thoughtful. Then he grunted, and said, "Maximus, get out of that tub before I drown you. I never cheated at cards in my life."

"Don't make me hit you," Max said, his voice only a shadow of itself. He started to stir up out of the tub but groaned after a second and sagged back.

"Bucket," Foss said to Tavi. Tavi grabbed a nearby bucket and tossed it to Foss. The healer deposited it on the floor just as Max turned on his side and threw up. The healer supported the wounded legionare with one broad arm. "There now, man. No shame in it. You had a close call."

Max sagged back a minute later, then blinked his eyes several times and focused them on Tavi. "Scipio," he said, gentle emphasis on the word. Max had recovered his wits, Tavi surmised. "What happened?"

Tavi glanced up at Foss. "Healer? You mind if we have a minute?"

Foss grunted, got up, and left the tent without speaking.

"You had a training accident," Tavi said quietly, once Foss had left.

Max stared at Tavi for a long minute, and Tavi saw something like despair in his friend's eyes. "I see. When?"

"About this time yesterday. One of your recruits lost his grip on his gladius and threw it through your neck."

"Which one?" Max asked in a monotone.

"Schultz."

"The crows he did," Max muttered. "Kid's got some real metalcraft, and he never even knew it until he joined up. He gets some experience, he could be a Knight. He didn't slip."

"Everyone says he slipped," Tavi said. "The captain agrees that in the absence of other evidence, it was an accident."

"Yeah. Captains always do," Max said, his tone flat and bitter.

"What?" Tavi asked.

Max shook his head and sat upright in a slow, painful-looking motion. Water sluiced down over the heavy muscles of his shoulders and back, smooth rivulets broken by the heavy, finger-thick ridges of scar tissue that crisscrossed his upper back. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, and gingerly touched the stripe of furycrafted pink skin where the sword had struck him. "Toss me that towel."

Tavi did. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened to you, is it?"

"Fifth," Max said.

"Crows," Tavi muttered. "And it's her?"

Max nodded.

"What do we do about it?" Tavi asked.

Max dried off, the motions slow, halfhearted. "Do?"

"We've got do something."

Max looked around until he spotted his uniform pants and tunic on a nearby chair, folded and laundered. He dropped the towel on the floor and shambled over to his clothes. "There's nothing to do."

Tavi peered at his friend. "Max? We have to do something."

"No. Leave it."

"Max-"

Max froze, his shirt in his hands, his shoulders and voice tight. "Shut up. Now."

"No, Max. We've got to-"

Max spun, and snarled, "What?" As he spoke, the ground lashed up at Tavi and bounced him into the air and to one side. He landed in a sprawl.

"Do what?" Max snarled, sweeping his tunic like a sword at one of the tent's support posts in a gesture of futile rage. "There's nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do." He shook his head. "She's too smart. Too strong. She can get away with whatever the crows she wants to." He ground his teeth, and the tunic burst into sudden flame, white-hot tongues of it licking up around Max without harming his skin. Tavi felt the heat, though, intense, just short of painful. "Too..."

Max dropped his arms in a limp, weak gesture, flakes of black ash that had been his tunic drifting down. He sat down and leaned his back against the support post and shook his head. Tavi gathered himself to his feet and watched as Max's head fell forward. He was silent for a time. Then he whispered, "She killed my mother. I was five."

Tavi went to his friend's side and crouched beside him.

"People like her get to do what they please," Max said quietly. "I can't just kill her. She's too smart to be caught. And even if she was, she has family, friends, contacts, people she controls and blackmails. She'll never face justice. And one of these times, she'll get me. I've known that since I was fourteen."

And suddenly Tavi understood his friend a little better. Max had lived his life in fear and anger. He'd run away to join the Legions to escape his stepmother's reach, but he knew, or rather, was convinced that he'd only managed a stay of execution. Max believed that she would kill him, believed it on a level so deep that it had become a part of who and what he was. That was why his friend had caroused so enthusiastically in the capital, why he had blown off most of his classes at the Academy, why he had made merry with wine, women, and song at every opportunity.

He believed he would never live to die of old age.

Tavi put his hand on Max's shoulder. "No one's invincible. No one's perfect. She can be beaten."

Max shook his head. "Forget it," he said. "Stay clear. I don't want you to get caught up in it when it happens."

Tavi hissed out a breath of frustration and rose. "Bloody crows, man. What is the matter with you?"

Max never looked up. "Just go away."

Footsteps approached the tent, then Maestro Magnus thrust his head inside, looking around quickly. "Ah," he said. "He's awake?"

Foss nudged in past Magnus and scowled at Tavi. "That's it. Everyone out."

"What?" Tavi asked.

"Everyone out. Patient needs to clean up, dress, get some water in him, and let me check him before he'll be able to move around. You people staring at him won't help. So get out."

"Actually, a fair idea," Magnus said, giving Tavi a direct look.

Tavi nodded at him, and said, "All right. I'll be outside, Max."

"Yeah, " Max said, waving a vague hand. "Out in a bit."

Tavi slipped out of the tent, walking close to Magnus. "Where have you been?" Tavi asked him.

"Keeping an eye on our Tribune Medica," Magnus replied. He led Tavi on a brief walk, away from the tents and past several groups of drilling recruits, variously shouting and being shouted at by instructors, creating plenty of noise in which to hide any conversation. "Has anyone come?"

"The captain and the First Spear," Tavi said quietly. "This morning that Knight, Crassus, was standing not far off, but he didn't come over."

"Were you able to find out about that messenger that keeps going back and forth between Tribune Bracht and the village?" Magnus asked.

"I've been with Max," Tavi said. "Maestro, that's more important than-"

"Our duties?" Magnus asked archly. "No, Tavi. The security of the Realm is more important than any one of us. Remember why we are all here."

Tavi ground his teeth together but nodded once, sharply. "I should be able to find out in the next day or so."

"Good. While you're at it, I want you to find out whatever you can about the master farrier and his staff. And that veteran squad from the fifth cohort."

"I already did that last," Tavi said. "They're aphrodin addicts. They've been buying it at the bordello in the camp."

Magnus hissed through his teeth. "Addicts can still be spies. Find out who deals with them there. Whom they talk to."

Tavi coughed. "That's really more in Max's traditional waters than mine."

"Great furies, man. I'm not letting Maximus anywhere near an aphrodin den at a time like this. He'll get himself killed."

"Sir, Max likes to chase the ladies and drink, and furies know how well I know it. Sometimes he'll drink laced wine. But he isn't... that doesn't control him."

"It's got nothing to do with whether or not he's able to control himself," Magnus said. "But it will be far too easy for someone to arrange an accident for him if he's lying drugged and besotted in a pleasure den when he should be watching for a knife in the back."

"From his stepmother?"

"Careful," Magnus said, looking around. "Has Max ever spoken to you of his family?"

"No," Tavi said. "But I always thought the scars on his back said plenty about them."

Magnus shook his head. "Maximus is the illegitimate, publicly acknowledged son of High Lord Antillus. The High Lord married three years after Maximus was born, a political arrangement."

"Lady Antillus," Tavi said.

"And Crassus was the product of their union," Magnus said.

Tavi frowned. "She thinks Max is a threat to Crassus?"

"Maximus is popular in the northern Legions and with at least one other High Lord. He's a powerfully gifted furycrafter, he may one day be one of the finest swordsmen in Aleran history, and he made a great many friends at the Academy."

"Uh," Tavi said. "He was friendly. I don't know if most of those who spent time with him would count as 'friends,' per se."

"You'd be surprised how many times alliances have been forged between former casual lovers," Magnus replied. "More to the point, he is known to be friendly with the First Lord's page, among others, and has a widely known defiant streak when it comes to authority."

"Max doesn't want to be a High Lord," Tavi said. "He'd run screaming within half an hour. He knows it."

"And yet," Magnus said, "he has made allies. He has a power base of influence among several Legions, and with several Lords-including those in the personal retinue of Gaius himself. Forget your personal knowledge of him and think of it in terms of an exercise, lad. What if he decided that he did want it?"

Tavi wanted to protest, but he ran through the angles in his mind, playing things out in numerous possibilities directed by logic, instinct, and the examples of history, as he had been taught by the Cursors.

"He could do it," Tavi said quietly. "If something happened to Crassus, Max would be the only reasonable choice. Even if it didn't, if Antillus's Legions favored Max over his little brother, if he had support from other High Lords and the First Lord, that would be the end of the matter, practically speaking. It wouldn't even be particularly difficult for him."

"Precisely."

"But he doesn't want that, Maestro. I know him."

"You do," Magnus said. "But his stepmother doesn't. And this isn't young Antillar's first accident." As he finished the sentence, they completed their brief circuit of the interior of the practice field, returning to the infirmary. They were in time to see Lady Antillus and Crassus cross the practice track and walk toward the infirmary tent.

"Max is afraid of her," Tavi murmured.

"She's had a lifetime to teach him fear," Magnus said, nodding. "And she's deadly clever, lad. Powerful, wicked, devious. Several disturbing fates have befallen her foes, and not a shred of evidence has been found, not a drop of blood stained her hands. There are few in the Realm as dangerous as she."

"She looks familiar," Tavi said quietly. "Like someone I should know."

Magnus nodded and said, "There are many who say her nephew Brencis is almost a mirror image of her."

Tavi clenched his teeth. "Kalarus."

"Mmmm," Magnus said, nodding. "Lord Kalare's youngest sister-and only surviving sibling. "

Tavi shook his head. "And Max's father married her?"

"As I said. A political marriage." Magnus watched them approaching. "I doubt Lord Antillus likes her any better than Max does. And now, young Scipio, I'm off to attend to the captain and do a great many other things. I think you should entertain the Lady and her son until Maximus gains his feet and can face her in the open, in front of witnesses."

Tavi grimaced. "I'm not good at smiles and charm."

"Now, now. You're a loyal servant of the Realm, Scipio. I'm sure you'll manage." Magnus smiled at him, but whispered, "Be careful." Then he saluted Tavi and vanished into the normal, bustling industry of the Legion camp.

Tavi watched him go for a second and turned his gaze to Lady Antillus and her son. She wore the sky-blue on deep blue of the city of Antillus. Max had once remarked that the city colors had been chosen based on what shade the skin of one's... well, parts, assumed when exposed to the weather in winter and autumn, respectively. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the dress flattered her face, her hair, her figure in every measurable sense. Tavi thought that the blue made her skin look too pale, somehow, as though it was a covering for a mannequin rather than for a human being.

She was speaking quietly, emphatically, to Crassus. Her son was dressed in the brown training tunic of the Legion, though he wore his armor over it-a mark of respect for someone new to the Legions. Only the most solid and promising recruits wore steel before the recruits were issued it generally. Or the most well connected ones, Tavi supposed. Though he could hardly cast stones on that account, all things considered. Crassus was scowling, an expression that made his face look more petulant than formidable.

"I don't understand why we can't just get it over with," he was saying.

"Darling child, you have the judgment of a goat," Lady Antillus snapped back. "I have some experience in these matters. One cannot rush them." She put her hand on her son's arm, a motion that silenced him, as Tavi approached.

"Good afternoon, Your Grace," Tavi said, bowing to Lady Antillus, combining it smoothly with a salute. He nodded to Crassus. "Sir Knight."

Crassus saluted Tavi, fist thumping against his breastplate. "Subtribune."

Lady Antillus bowed her head very slightly to Tavi, giving him a flinty look.

"I've been meaning to ask you, Your Grace," Tavi said. "I am told that the training regimen of our novice Knights has been, ah, taxing on those involved. I thought that we might find a way to add more milk or cheese to the younger Knights' rations if they've been breaking bones a bit too often."

"It probably isn't a terrible idea," Lady Antillus allowed, though the words seemed to come out reluctantly.

"We'd be grateful for the gesture, sir," Crassus said, his tone respectful, carefully neutral.

"You'll be glad to know that Maximus is recovering well," Tavi said, smiling politely. "In fact, he was rising to dress a few moments ago."

Lady Antillus looked past Tavi to the tent, frowning. "Was he? Did he seem himself?"

"As far as I could tell, Your Grace," Tavi said. "I believe that the captain intended to check on him as well."

Her tone turned flat, and she dropped even the pretense of being polite. "Did he."

"He takes the well-being of his men very seriously," Tavi said, trying to sound cheerfully oblivious to her reaction.

"Like a mother cares for her son, I suppose?" she muttered. She glanced at Crassus. "Perhaps we should go in immediate-"

"I also wished to ask you," Tavi said, walking over her words. "Maximus's injury is really rather unusual given that we haven't seen any actual combat. The healers in my last Legion favored strong wine and rare meat to restore an injury with so much blood loss, but I've read others who favor an herbal tea and increased vegetables."

"Read whom?" Lady Antillus demanded.

"Lord Placidus's treatise on common military injuries and complications, Your Grace."

Lady Antillus rolled her eyes. "Placidus should stick to tending his cows and leave the healing of nonedibles to those who know better," she said.

Tavi frowned at her, tilting his head. "How so, lady?"

"To begin with, Placidus rarely has to deal with injuries sustained upon a strenuous campaign," she said. "His forces are generally deployed on a short-term basis, and their provender reflects that fact. His herbals are fine for men who are eating fresh meat every day or two, but for men marching on jerky and hardtack, the dietary requirements for..." She frowned at him for a moment, her eyes narrowed. Then she waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. "Though I suppose Maximus is hardly the victim of a winter's privation, is he? Give him whatever is the most cost-effective."

"Yes, Your Grace," Tavi said, bowing his head. "Is there anything I should know about the preparation?"

"Why, Subtribune," Lady Antillus said. "If I didn't know better, I would think you were trying to interfere with my visit to my stepson."

Tavi lifted both eyebrows. "Your Grace? I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

She gave him a prim little smile. "I'm sure you don't know what you're playing with, Scipio." She glanced at the tent, then back at Tavi. "How long have you known my Maximus?"

Tavi fixed her with the same cheerful smile he had always used when his aunt Isana had asked him loaded questions, relying upon her empathie senses to gather information from the answers. He had learned to baffle her before he turned thirteen years old. He certainly wasn't going to allow this creature to do what his aunt could not. "A season or so. We traveled here together from the capital."

She frowned faintly, narrowing her eyes. "You seem quite close to him for such a brief acquaintance."

Tavi threw in a bit of truth in order to confuse the issue. "We were attacked by armed bandits on the way here. We fought them together."

"Ah," Lady Antillus said. "A bonding experience. Are you sure you didn't meet him before that?"

"Your Grace?" Tavi said. "No, I'm certain that I'd have remembered it. Max is the sort to stand out in one's memory."

Crassus snorted quietly.

Lady Antillus glared at her son, then turned back to Tavi. "I was told he was quite close to a page in service to the Crown."

"Could be, Your Grace," Tavi agreed. "But you'd have to ask him about it."

"Would I?" she pressed. "Are you sure you are not the young man from Calderon, Subtribune?"

"I was only stationed there for a week or so before the battle, Your Grace. After that, I was based at a town named Marsford, about twenty miles south of Riva."

"You are not Tavi of Calderon?" she asked.

Tavi shrugged his shoulders at her and smiled. "Sorry."

She answered his smile with her own, wide enough to show her sharply pointed canines. "Well. That's cleared up. Now be a dear for me, Subtribune, and light this campfire? '

Tavi felt his smile falter for a second. "Beg pardon?"

"The campfire," Lady Antillus said, as though speaking to the village idiot. "I think an herbal tea would be nice for all of us to enjoy if Maximus is up and about. You've had your basic furycrafting. I've seen your record. So, Subtribune Scipio. Light the campfire."

"Mother, I'll get it for-" Crassus began.

She flicked her hand in a slicing gesture, and her smile grew wider. "No, darling. After all, we are Legion, are we not? I have given dear Scipio a lawful order. Now, he must follow it. Just like all the rest of us."

"Light the fire?" Tavi asked.

"Just a little firecrafting," she said, nodding. "Go ahead, Subtribune."

Tavi squinted at her, then up at the sun and chewed on his lip. Til be honest with you, Your Grace. Fire isn't my best subject. I haven't practiced it since my tests."

"Oh, don't sell yourself so short, Scipio," Lady Antillus said. "It isn't as though you're some kind of freak with no crafting at all."

Tavi made himself smile as naturally as he knew how. "Of course not. But it might take me a moment."

"Oh," she said, gathering her skirts and stepping away from the campfire, laid but not lit, before the infirmary tent. "I'll give you a bit of room, then."

"Thank you," Tavi said. He went over to the fire, squatted, and drew his knife. He took one of the more slender sticks lying in an upright tent-shaped stack, and struck a small mound of shavings from it in rapid order.

Tavi glanced up to find Lady Antillus watching from ten feet away. "Don't let me distract you," she said.

Tavi smiled at her. Then he rubbed his hands on his thighs and stretched them out over the tinder, narrowing his eyes.

Behind him, Max emerged from the tent and walked toward them, his steps growing louder. "Oh," he drawled, his voice still a bit weak. "Hullo, stepmother. What are you doing? '

"Watching your friend Scipio demonstrate his firecrafting skills, Maximus," she said, smiling. "Don't spoil it by helping. He'll miss the chance to prove himself."

Max's steps faltered for a second, but he kept walking. "You can't take his basic fieldcraft on faith?"

Lady Antillus sounded like she was almost laughing. "I'm sorry, darling. Sometimes I just need to have my trust in others vindicated."

"Scipio..." Max said, lowering his voice.

"Leave off, Max," Tavi growled. "Can't you see I'm concentrating, here?"

There was a brief silence in which Tavi's imagination provided him with an image of Max staring openmouthed at his back. Then he set his shoulders, let out a quiet grunt of effort, and a wisp of smoke curled up from the tinder.

Tavi leaned over and blew gently on the spark, feeding it more shavings, then small pieces, then larger ones, until the fire was going strong and set to the prepared sticks of the campfire. They took in short order, and Tavi brushed off his pants, rising.

Lady Antillus stared at him, with her smug smile frozen stiffly upon her lips.

Tavi smiled at her again and bowed. "I'll fetch water for the tea, Your Grace."

"No," she said, her voice a little too clear and sharp and polite. "That's all right. I've just remembered another obligation. And Crassus must return to his cohort. "

"But-" Crassus began.

"Now," Lady Antillus said. She dismissed Max with a glance and shot Tavi a spiteful glare.

Tavi dropped the false smile he'd been wearing. Suddenly, he found the memory of Max's pale face, the water pink with his blood, growing in his mind. In the space of a breath, it became painfully sharp and clear. A breath later, Tavi recalled with sickening clarity the cruel, vivid scars that crisscrossed his friend's back-the marks of a many-tongued lash barbed with bits of metal or glass. To leave such vicious scars, the injuries had to have been inflicted on him before Max had come into the power of his furies, when he was twelve years old. Or younger.

And Lady Antillus-and her son-had been responsible for it.

Tavi found himself planning quite calmly. The High Lady had enormous power of furycrafting, and so would have to be the first target. If she did not die all but instantly, she might be able to prevent an injury from killing her, or to strike out with power enough to slay Tavi as she died. Where she stood, the lunge would be a little long, but so long as she did not absolutely expect a physical attack, he should be able to drive his slender poniard up through the hollow of her throat and into her brain. A twist, a ragged extraction to tear the wound wider, and he would be left with only Crassus.

The young Knight had little experience, and it was the only thing that would have let him react in time to save his life. A sharp blow to the throat, a gouge to the eyes and the young lord would be in too much pain to defend himself effectively. Tavi could take a length of wood from the newly lit fire, a rather symbolic statement, he thought, and finish Crassus off with a sharp blow to his unarmored temple.

And suddenly Tavi froze.

The rage he felt fled, and instead he felt, sickened, as if the cold dinner he'd eaten last might come flying back out of his mouth. He realized that he was standing in the bright afternoon sun, staring at two people he hardly knew, planning to murder them as coolly and calmly as a grass lion would might stalk a doe and her fawn.

Tavi frowned down at his hands. They had started shaking a little, and he wrestled with the bloodthirsty thoughts that had risen up in him, pushing them away. He had actually done violence to other people, classmates at the Academy who had been bullying him at the worst possible time. Tavi had hurt them, and badly, because he'd had little choice in the matter. He had felt sick afterward. Though he had seen the ugly aftermath of that kind of violence, he was nonetheless capable of planning such a brutal attack. It was frightening.

More frightening still, he was all but certain he could actually do it.

But whether or not Max's injuries were their doing, regardless how burning hot the rage Tavi felt in his belly, murdering Lady Antillus and her son would not wipe Max's wounds away-to say nothing of the consequences that would fall on Tavi, and upon the First Lord, by reflection.

She was not the kind of foe one could simply assault and do away with. She would have to be overcome by other means-and if what Magnus said was true, Lady Antillus was a dangerous opponent.

Tavi smiled faintly to himself. He could be dangerous as well. There were more weapons in the world than furies and blades, and no foe was invincible. After all, he had just turned her trap back upon her rather neatly. And if he had outwitted her once, he could do it again.

Lady Antillus watched his face as the thoughts flowed through his head, and seemed hardly to know how to react to Tavi's changing expression. A flash of unease went through her eyes. Perhaps, in his anger, he had let too much of his emotions slip free of his control. It was possible she had sensed his desire to do her harm.

She took her son's arm and turned without a further word, walking away with regal poise. She didn't look over her shoulder.

Max rubbed a hand through his short hair, then said, "All right. What the crows was that all about?"

Tavi frowned at the retreating High Lady, then at Max. "Oh. She thought I was someone you knew at the Academy."

Max grunted. Then he flicked his hand, and Tavi felt a tightness against his ears. "There," Max rumbled. "She can't possibly overhear us."

Tavi nodded.

"You lied to her," Max said. "Right to her face. How the hell did you manage that?"

"Practice," Tavi said. "My aunt Isana is a strong watercrafter, so I was motivated to figure it out as a child."

"There aren't many who can do something like that, Calderon." Max gestured at the fire. "How the crows did you do that? You been holding out on me?"

Tavi smiled. Then he reached down to his trousers and drew out a rounded lens of glass from his pants pocket and turned his palm enough to show it to Max. "Nice, sunny day. Old Romanic trick."

Max looked down at the glass and made a small choking sound. Then he shook his head. "Crows." Max's face turned pink, and his shoulders shook with restrained mirth. "She was listening for your fury. And she never heard it. But you got the fire anyway. She'll never think of..." This time he did burst out into the rolling laughter Tavi was familiar with.

"Come on, Scipio," Max said. "Let's find something to eat before I fall down."

Tavi put the glass away and grunted. "Last meal for me. Gracchus is going to have me knee deep in latrines as soon as he finds out I'm not sitting up with you anymore."

"That's the glamorous officer life for you," Max said. He turned to swagger toward the mess, but his balance swayed.

Tavi was beside his friend in an instant, providing support without actually reaching out for him. "Whoah. Easy there, Max. You had a close call."

"I'll be all right." Max panted. Then he shook his head, regained his balance, and resumed walking. "I'll be fine."

"You will be," Tavi said, nodding. After a moment, he added more quietly, "She isn't smarter than everyone, Max. She can be beaten."

Max glanced aside at Tavi, head tilted, studying him.

"Well, crows," he said at last. "If you can do it, how hard can it be?"

"I've got to stop encouraging you." Tavi sighed. "But I'll watch your back. We'll figure something out."

They walked a few more paces before Max said, quietly, "Or maybe she'll just kill both of us. '

Tavi snorted. "I'll handle her by myself if you aren't up to it."

Max's eyebrows shot up. Then he shook his head, and his fists slammed gently down on the pauldrons of Tavi's armor, making the steel ring out a gentle tone. "You'd never let me live that down," he said.

"Bloody right I wouldn't," Tavi said. "Come on. Let's eat." He walked steadily beside his friend, ready if Max's balance should waver again.

Tavi shivered, and in the corner of his eye caught Lady Antillus watching them cross the camp, never quite openly staring at them. It was the steady, calm, cautious stare of a hungry cat-but he could feel that this time, rather than tracking Maximus, her dark, calculating eyes were all for him.


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