Isana woke to the sound of distant trumpets and a clamor in the hallway outside her room. She sat up, disoriented. She was in her bed. Someone had bathed her, and she wore a soft, white nightgown that was not her own. On the table next to the bed were three bowls and a simple mug. Two of the bowls were empty. The third was about half-filled with some kind of broth.
She sat up, a shockingly difficult task, and pushed her hair back out of her face.
Then she remembered. The healing tub.
The tub was gone, and the maimed slave was not in sight.
If she hadn't been so tired, her heart would have been racing with fear for the man's fate. As it was, her worries were merely galvanizing. Isana got out of bed, though it became an act of sheer will, so weak did she feel. One of her simple grey dresses hung over the back of a chair, and she pulled it on over the nightgown, and walked carefully to the door.
There was shouting in the hallway outside, and the thud of running footsteps. She opened the door, and found Giraldi standing in the hall outside, facing the half-open door of the chamber across the hall from hers.
"That's as may be," the old soldier growled, "but you aren't the one who gets to decide whether you're well again or not." He paused as a trio of youths, probably pages, went sprinting by. "Lady Veradis says you're lucky to be alive. You stay in bed until she says otherwise."
"I don't see Lady Veradis anywhere," said a man in a legionares tunic and boots. He stood in the doorway, looking down the hallway so that Isana saw him in profile. He was handsome, if weathered, his brown hair flecked with grey, and shorn in a standard Legion cut. He was thin, but built of whipcord and sinew, and he carried himself with relaxed confidence, the heel of one hand resting in unconscious familiarity on the hilt of the gladius at his hip. He had a deep, soft voice. "So obviously, she can't say otherwise. Why don't we go and ask her?"
The man turned back to Giraldi, and Isana saw that the other side of his face was horribly maimed with burn scars, seared into the skin in the Legion mark of a coward.
Isana felt her mouth drop open.
"Araris," she said quietly.
Giraldi grunted in surprise and turned to her. "Steadholder. I didn't know you were awake..."
Isana met Araris's steady gaze. She tried to say something, but the only thing that came out of her mouth was, "Araris."
He smiled and gave her a small, formal bow. "I thank you for my life, my lady."
And she felt it. She felt it in him now, felt it as she met his eyes. She had never sensed it in the past, never in all the years he'd served her brother and then her. It was his eyes, she thought. In all those years, with his hair grown long and ill kempt, she had never, never once seen his entire face, seen both of his eyes at once. He'd never been willing to let her see him. Never been willing to let her know what he felt for her.
Selfless, quiet, strong.
It was love that had sustained him through years of labor and isolation, love that had prompted him to surrender his identity, brand himself, disguise himself, even though it cost him his position, his pride, his career as a soldier-and his family. He had willingly murdered everything he was in the name of that love, and not only that which he felt for Isana. She could feel that in him as well, the bittersweet, bone-deep sorrow and love for his friend and lord, Septimus, and by extension to his friend's wife and son.
For his love, he had fought to protect Septimus's family, endured a life of difficult labor in a steadholt smithy. For his love, he had destroyed his life, and if he was called upon to do so, he would spend his last breath, shed his last drop of blood to protect them without an instant's hesitation. Flis love would accept nothing less.
Isanas eyes blurred with sudden tears, as the warmth and power of that love washed over her, a silent ocean whose waves rippled in time with the beating of his heart. Isana was awed-and humbled-by it. And something stirred in her in answer. For twenty years, she had felt it only in dreams. Now, something broke inside her, shattering like a block of ice beneath a hammer, and her heart soared in exaltation, in the sheer, golden, bubbling laughter she thought was gone forever.
That was why she had never sensed it in him. She had never felt it growing in herself, over the long years of work and grief and regret. She'd never allowed herself to understand the seed had taken root and begun to grow. It had lain quietly, patiently, waiting for the end of the winter of mourning and grief and worry that had frozen her heart. Waiting for a new warmth. Waiting for spring.
His love had slain Araris Valerian.
Hers brought him back to life.
She didn't trust her legs to walk, so she held out one hand to him.
Araris moved carefully, evidently still recuperating himself. She couldn't see anything but a blur, but his hand touched hers, warm and gentle, and their fingers twined together. She began to laugh, through the tears, and she heard him join her. His arms wrapped around her, and they held one another, choking on laughter and tears.
They said nothing.
They didn't need to.
Amara wearily looked up from her book as the knob to the door to their chambers in guest quarters of Lord Cereus twisted. The door opened and Bernard came in, carrying a tray laden with various foods. He smiled at her, and said, "How are you feeling?"
Amara sighed. "You'd think I'd be used to cramps by now. I've had them every month since I was a girl." She shook her head. "I'm not curled up and whimpering anymore, at least."
"That's good," Bernard said quietly. "Here. Mint tea, your favorite. And some roast chicken..." He crossed to where she sat curled up in a chair in front of the fireplace. Despite the summer's heat, the interior of the thick stone walls of Cereus's citadel made it cool enough to be uncomfortable for her, particularly during her cramps. Between the exhaustion of travel, the bangs and scrapes and abrasions she'd acquired, the shoulder she'd dislocated, and the horrible new memories of violence and death, the disappointment as her cycle continued unabated had assumed monstrous proportions. So much so, in fact, that she'd accepted Bernard's offer to attend the debriefing with the First Lord and High Lords Cereus and Placidus in her place.
Perhaps that had been unprofessional of her. But then, it would hardly have been professional to break down weeping from the weight of so many different flavors of agony. No doubt, she would look back at that decision and berate herself for it in the future, when the memories of pain had softened-but where she was now, still in the shadow of some of the worst physical and emotional torment she'd ever felt, she did not begrudge herself the time to recuperate.
"How was the meeting?" she asked.
Bernard settled the tray on her lap, uncovered the chicken, and poured a few drops of cream into the tea. "Eat. Drink."
"I'm not a child, Bernard," Amara said. She certainly didn't mean for her voice to sound quite so petulant. It drew a smile from Bernard as he read her expression. "Don't say it," she told him.
"I wouldn't dream of it." He got the other chair and settled into it. "Now. Eat your dinner and drink your tea, and I'll tell you all about it."
Amara gave him another glowering glance and picked up the tea. It was the perfect temperature, just barely cool enough to drink without scalding herself, and she savored the warmth as it spread down her throat to her belly.
Bernard waited until she took the first bite of chicken to begin. "The long and short of it is that Kalarus's forces are in retreat. Which is good, because they're no longer coming here-and bad because there are still Legions able to retreat and fight another day.
"Aquitaine crushed both Legions holding the passes from the Blackhills, though they were able to retreat in reasonably good order."
Amara smirked. "He's probably negotiating with their officers, trying to bribe them away from Kalarus. Why destroy when he can recruit?"
"You've spent too much time with Lady Aquitaine," Bernard said. "Finish your chicken, and I'll do something nice for you."
Amara arched a brow at him, then gave a diffident shrug and went back to eating.
"Once Atticus's daughter was freed," Bernard continued, "and he was certain that Kalarus wasn't going to bushwhack him the minute he revealed himself, Atticus froze the bloody floodplain into one enormous sheet of ice. Then he marched his Legions right over it to cut off the easternmost of Kalare's Legions and trap them in the fortress they'd taken. He's got them under siege now, and Gaius is sending Second Imperian to aid them."
"What about the clouds?" she asked.
"Apparently they started breaking up over the cities farthest inland the day before we reached Kalare. After two or three days they fell apart completely."
Amara sipped tea thoughtfully. "Do we know how the Canim did it?"
She nodded. "How did Placida's Legions arrive at Ceres so quickly? They got there before we did, and we were windborne. I thought he'd have to march them all the way from his home city."
"I suspect everyone was supposed to think that," Bernard replied. "But instead he marched all three of them down to the very edge of his territory the day after Kalarus took his wife. The second Gaius told him Aria was safe, he force-marched all the way to Ceres. Got there in less than a day by highway."
Amara arched an eyebrow. "All three of his Legions?"
Bernard nodded. "Said he figured either Aria would be freed, in which case he'd be able to aid Ceres at the earliest opportunity, or else she'd be killed, in which case he was taking every soldier he had and going after the crowspawn who had done it." Bernard shook his head. "He doesn't strike me as the kind of man to live and let live with someone who touches his wife."
"No," Amara said quietly. "He isn't. But there will always be fools who believe that if a man dislikes violence and goes to great lengths to avoid it, it is a sign of weakness and vulnerability."
Bernard shook his head. "There's an unlimited supply of fools in general. Take, for instance, Lord Kalarus. You remember you told me you thought he must have been in cahoots with the Canim?"
"I'm fairly sure he never used the word cahoots to describe it," murmured Amara.
"Hush and eat," Bernard scolded. "Gaius asked me to make sure you knew that there has, apparently, been a significant Canim incursion, which began at approximately the same time as Kalarus's rebellion."
Amara sucked in a breath. "Indeed? What has happened?"
"Details are still sketchy," Bernard said. "The Cursors in the area were under attack from Kalarus's Bloodcrows. Several are dead, many more missing and presumed underground. But apparently Gaius has some way of seeing things that are happening out there once the clouds were out of his way. The Canim came ashore near..." He frowned, brow furrowing. "It's a big bridge over the Tiber. I can't remember the name, I hadn't heard of it before."
"The Elinarch," Amara said. "It's the only place a sizeable force can cross the river securely."
"That's it," he agreed. "He sent the First Aleran Legion to hold the bridge."
"First Aleran? That... dog and pony Legion? There's a pool on in the Cursors as to how many years it will be before that circus actually sees combat."
"Mmm?" Bernard said. "I hope you bet low."
Amara's eyebrows lifted.
"Apparently, they managed to stand off about sixty thousand Canim."
She nearly choked on the bite of chicken. "What?"
Bernard nodded. "They landed near the bridge, but they've moved south, and they're securing several fortified towns in the area and along the coast."
"The Canim have never done anything like that before," Amara said. "Or come in numbers like this." She fretted her lower lip. "Sixty thousand..."
"The next best thing to ten Legions of their own, yes," Bernard said.
There was a knock at the door. Bernard rose and went to it. His deep voice rumbled quietly as Amara finished her meal, and he returned with Plaeidus Aria in tow.
Lady Placida was once again regal, calm, and immaculately dressed in green silk. Her deep auburn hair was worn loose and flowing, and she smiled warmly at Amara as she approached and bowed her head. "Count, Countess."
Amara started to set her tea aside and rise, but Lady Placida lifted a hand. "No, Amara, please. I know you've been injured. Please, rest."
Bernard gave Lady Placida an approving glance and offered her his chair.
"No thank you, Count," she said. "I shan't keep you long. I only wanted to see you both, so that I could thank you for taking me out of that awful place. I consider myself to be deeply indebted to you both."
"Your Grace," Amara said, shaking her head. "There is no need to-"
"Thank you," Lady Placida cut in, "because you were only doing your duty and my thanks should rightfully go to the First Lord, yes, yes. Save yourself the trouble of making the speech, Amara. What you did was more than simply a job. Especially given the murky group dynamic of your associates. Which was, by the way, very well handled." Her eyes flashed, wickedly merry. "Especially the bit where you took their clothes."
Amara shook her head, and said, "It probably would have been better not to do that."
"Never fear, dear," Lady Placida said. "You're too decent to court her favor, too smart to believe everything she tells you, and too loyal to the Realm to involve yourself in her little games. You could never have been anything but In-vidia's enemy." She smiled. "You just... started it a bit early. With style."
Amara felt a little laugh escape her.
Lady Placida's expression sobered. "You went beyond the call of duty." She turned her head to Bernard and bowed again. "Both of you did. I and my lord husband are in your debt. If you are ever in need, you have only to ask."
Amara frowned at her, and then glanced at Bernard. "Is Rook...?"
"I spoke to Gaius on her behalf," Bernard said quietly. "Pardoned and free to go."
Amara smiled, somewhat surprised at the sense of satisfaction his words brought her. "Then, Lady Placida, there is something I wish to ask of you."
"Only," she said sternly, "if you stop Ladying me. I have a name, dear."
Amara's smiled widened. "Aria," she said.
"Rook and her daughter have nowhere to go, and don't even own the clothes on their backs. She doesn't want to remain involved in the game-not with her daughter to care for. If it isn't too much to ask, perhaps you know a steadholt where she might fit in. Somewhere quiet. Safe."
Aria pursed her lips, looking thoughtfully at Amara. "I might know such a place."
"And..." Amara smiled at Bernard. "One other thing."
"What?" Bernard said. Then his expression changed to one of understanding, and he smiled. "Oh, right."
Amara looked back at Aria and said, "She'll also need a pony. Her daughter, you see. Rook had promised her, and I want her to be able to make good on it."
"She'll need two," Bernard said, smiling at Amara. He glanced at Aria, and said, "My favor can be the other pony."
Lady Placida looked at both of them, then shook her head, a smile growing over her mouth. "I think I'm going to like you both very much," she said quietly. Then she bowed to them again, more deeply this time, and said. "I'll see to it. If you will excuse me?"
"Of course, " Amara said, bowing her head. "And thank you."
Bernard walked Lady Placida to the door, and returned to Amara. He stopped to regard her for a moment, pride in his eyes. Then he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, on both eyes, on her lips. "I love you very much, you know."
Amara smiled back at him. "I love you, too."
"Time for something nice," he said, and slipped his arms beneath her. He picked her up lightly, carrying her to the bed.
"Bernard..." Amara began. "You drive me mad with lust, but today isn't the best time..."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Bernard replied. "But all that flying around in that little red silk number wasn't good for your skin." He laid her down on the bed and gently removed her clothes. Then he took a small jar from the night stand drawer and opened it. A warm scent, something like cinnamon, rose into the air. Bernard settled down on the bed beside her, and poured some of the jar's contents, some sort of scented oil, onto his palms. He rubbed his hands together for a moment and murmured, "The healer said this would be best to help your skin mend itself. Your legs first, I think."
Then his strong, warm hands began to slide over her legs, spreading oil over irritated, tender, dry skin. Amara felt herself melt into a puddle of contented exhaustion, and for the next hour or so, she just lay beneath his hands. He would move her limbs from time to time, and then he turned her over to take care of that side, too. The warmth of the oil, the sensation of his gentle hands on her worn muscles, the satisfying, heavy heat of the meal in her belly combined to keep her warm and send her into a languid torpor. She shamelessly reveled in it.
Amara woke up later with his arms around her, and she laid her cheek against his shoulder. It was dark. The only light came from the last embers of the fire.
"Bernard?" she whispered.
"I'm here, " he said.
Her throat swelled up, tightened, and she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I haven't ever been late before." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I didn't mean to disappoint you."
"Disappoint me?" Bernard murmured. "This just means that we'll have to try harder." His finger traced the line of her throat, and the touch sent a pleased little shiver through her. "And more often. I can't say I'm disappointed about that."
He turned to her and kissed her mouth very gently. "Hush. There's nothing to forgive. And nothing has changed."
She sighed, closed her eyes, and rubbed her cheek against his warm skin. The various pains had eased, and she could feel drowsiness filling the void they left in her.
A thought occurred to her, just at the border of dreams and consciousness, and she heard herself sleepily murmur, "Something's missing."
"Lady Aquitaine. She took Aldrick and Odiana to assist her."
"You're right. I was there."
"So why didn't she take Fidelias? He's her most experienced retainer, and he's done this kind of rescue mission a dozen times."
"Mmmm," Bernard said, his own voice thick with sleep. "Maybe she sent him somewhere else."
Maybe, Amara thought. But where?
The hour was late, and Valiar Marcus stood alone at the center of the Elinarch, staring quietly out over the river.
It had been ten days since the battle ended. The town s southern walls had been built into a far-more-formidable defense in anticipation of a fresh Canim assault that never came. The work had gone swiftly, once they'd cleaned out the charred remains of the buildings that the captain had burned down, and the engineers were rebuilding that portion of the town from stone, designing the streets into a hardened defensive network that would make for a nightmarish defense, should the walls ever be breached again.
The unnatural clouds had emptied themselves into several days of steady rain, and the river's level had risen more than three feet. The waters below were still thick with sharks that had feasted on the remains of fallen Canim, dumped there over the course of more than a week.
Few furylamps had survived the battle, and funeral pyres for fallen Alerans provided the only dim lights Marcus could see. The last of the pyres still burned in the burial yards north of the bridge-there had simply been too many bodies for proper, individual burials, the rain had complicated burials and pyres alike, and Marcus was glad that the most difficult work, laying the fallen to rest, was finally done. Dreams of faces dead and gone for days or decades haunted his sleep, but they didn't disturb his rest as they might have three years ago.
Marcus felt sorrow for them, regret for their sacrifice-but also drew strength from their memories. Those men might be dead, but they were still le-gionares, part of a tradition that stretched back and vanished into the mists of Aleran history. They had lived and died Legion, part of something that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Just as Marcus was. Just as he always had been. Even if, for a time, he had forgotten.
He sighed, looking up at the stars, enjoying the seclusion and privacy of the darkness at the peak of the bridge, where the evening breezes swept away the last stench of the battle. As difficult and dangerous as the action had been, Marcus had found himself deeply contented to be in uniform again.
To be fighting a good fight, in a worthy cause.
He shook his head and chuckled at himself. Ridiculous. Those were notions that rightfully belonged in far-younger, far-less-bitter hearts than his own. He knew that. It did not, however, lessen their power.
He heard nothing but a faint rustle of sound behind him, cloth stirred by wind.
"Good," he said quietly. "I was wondering when you'd get here."
A tall man in a simple, grey traveling cloak and hood stepped up beside Marcus and also leaned his elbows on the stone siding of the bridge, staring down at the river. "Well?"
"Pay up," Marcus said quietly.
Gaius glanced aside at him. "Really?"
"I've always told you, Gaius. A good disguise isn't about looking different. It's about being someone else." He shook his head. "Watercrafting is the beginning, but it isn't enough."
The First Lord said, "Perhaps so." He watched the river for a time, then said, "Well?"
Marcus exhaled heavily. "Bloody crows, Sextus. When I saw him in uniform, giving orders on the wall, I thought for a moment I'd gone senile. He could have been Septimus. The same look, the same style of command, the same..."
"Courage?" the First Lord suggested.
"Integrity," Marcus said. "Courage was just a part of it. And the way he played his cards-crows. He's smarter than Septimus was. Wilier. More resourceful." He glanced aside at the First Lord. "You could have just told me."
"No. You had to see it for yourself. You always do. "