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Captains Fury, Page 11

Jim Butcher

Chapter 19~20

  Chapter 19

  Bernard suddenly froze, then lifted his hand and flattened it out again at his side, the signal to take cover. Amara hurried two steps forward to support Gaius as he went awkwardly to one knee, clutching the walking staff Bernard had cut for him after they'd set out on the trail again. She helped the First Lord to lie down flat on the cool, damp earth, and then followed suit.

  Gaius let out a hiss of pain and clutched at his leg before going still and silent again. His expression was twisted into a pained grimace.

  Amara laid a hand on the old man's arm by way of encouragement, and frowned at Bernard-or more accurately, at where she presumed Bernard was still standing. The shadows of the very trees and brush of the forest itself had fallen over him like a cloak, and the woodcrafting hid him entirely from view.

  She heard a soft step on the ground in front of her, and then the light changed subtly as Bernard's woodcrafting slipped over her and the First Lord. Bernard became visible to her as it happened, though his features were softened and dimmed, as if by a deep shadow. He had his bow in hand as he stood over them, an arrow on the string, and his eyes were focused intently ahead of them.

  Then Amara heard it-the click-click, click-click of a walking horse's hooves striking a firm trail. They were joined by the sounds of several more, and within half a minute, she saw the riders appear. There were six of them, all dressed in woodsman's leathers, though each wore a device upon the front of his jacket set with the green-and-grey colors of Kalare. Outriders, then, for a Legion-or more likely bandits who had accepted Kalarus's coin and authority to continue doing what they always did, plus the occasional odd job. They were heavily armed, each bearing a huntsman's bow, a broad-headed spear, and additional blades and axes strapped to their saddles.

  They passed by in silence, but for the steps of their mounts. This was the second such patrol they had come across in two days, though the other had been more than twice as far away. These men were close enough for Amara to see the stains on their tunics and the scuff marks on their boots. She found herself holding her breath, straining to remain silent.

  The patrol passed by, and Amara slowly began to relax again-until the last rider looked around, then reined in his horse and dropped to the forest floor. He tossed the ends of his reins over a low-hanging branch, and began walking toward them.

  Bernard moved very slowly, very calmly. He lifted his bow and drew it in careful, deliberate silence.

  The outlaw swerved away from them when he was less than twenty feet off, sighed, and began relieving himself against the trunk of a tree.

  Though Amara could not even string her husband's bow, Bernard held the powerful weapon at full draw without a quiver. He remained still, his breathing measured, his eyes half-closed and lazy-looking. Amara felt herself quivering with tension, and she realized that her knuckles had gone white where she had ahold of the First Lord's forearm. She itched to move her hand down to her sword, but refrained. The motion might stir a leaf, or break a twig, and warn the enemy of their presence. More to the point, her sword wouldn't do her any good at the moment, even were it already in her hand. Bernard's bow would be their best defense.

  The bandit finished up, muttered something under his breath, and turned to go.

  Gaius's weight shifted. Amara glanced sideways at him in alarm. His face had gone pale with pain, and his right leg, the one still recovering from his injuries, was quivering against the ground. It didn't make much noise-but it was enough.

  The outlaw suddenly turned, his hand flying to his sword, his eyes narrow as they scanned the forest around them. Amara was lying utterly unprotected on the forest floor, within range of a good, long lunge, and the man was facing her. He simply stared, eyes moving slowly from left to right. He stood there for a full minute, just looking and listening.

  Amara's nerves began screaming in anxiety. If the First Lord's leg twitched again, there was no chance, none at all, that the man would miss it. If he had the capacity to craft through Bernard's woodcrafting, he would be within a heartbeat of striking out at Gaius, unless Bernard's first shot was instantly lethal. If the man managed to survive the first shot, even if only briefly, Gaius might not be able to defend himself. If that happened, Amara would have to put herself between the outlaw and the First Lord, and she drew upon Cirrus to give her limbs the speed she would need to interpose herself in time.

  All the while, Bernard stood directly in front of the man, bow drawn, never moving.

  "What the crows are you doing?" blared a sudden voice.

  Amara jerked in surprise, and half panicked as the movement stirred the earth and brush beneath her.

  The outlaw didn't hear it. He reacted the same way, whirling in place and drawing his sword.

  "Crows take you, Tonnar," the outlaw growled. "Scared me out of ten years of life. "

  Another outlaw appeared, his horse nudging slowly through the brush toward the first man. "Life you lead, I did you a favor. "

  "Bastard. "

  "You don't go off alone, fool," Tonnar said amiably. "Do it again, and Julius will have your balls. "

  "Julius," the outlaw said, his voice sullen. "He has us riding around in crow-begotten nowhere when there's a war on. You know what kind of loot we could be getting if we were at the real fight?"

  "Stomach plague mostly, the way I hear it. We're getting paid steady for this. Don't knock it. "

  "There's no spy running around out here," the outlaw complained. "We're wasting our time. "

  "Knights Aeris don't fly this far behind enemy lines for no reason. They either dropped someone off-"

  "Or picked someone up, in which case we're out here wearing our asses to nothing for no reason. "

  "You're riding. You're getting paid. Maybe we find someone, maybe we don't. Either we get the five-hundred-bull bounty, or we go back without anybody trying to gut us. There's no loser here. "

  "Except me, Tonnar. I have to listen to you run your mouth. "

  "You don't get that nag back in line, you won't have to listen to anything ever again," Tonnar replied. Then he turned his horse away and continued on in the direction he had been.

  The outlaw scowled after him, savagely kicked a stone on the ground.

  The stone bounded across the earth and bounced off of Bernard's leg.

  Amara tensed.

  But the outlaw hadn't seen it. He had already turned to his horse. He mounted, kicked the animal with unnecessary vigor, and sent it cantering after the rest of his party.

  Bernard didn't lower his bow until a full minute after the man was out of sight, then he released the tension on the weapon and his breath with the same slow, careful exhalation. He lowered the bow and rolled his right shoulder, as if working out stiffness. Then he turned back to Amara.

  "I'm going to shadow them for a bit," he murmured. "Make sure that they're not doubling back. Stay here, stay low. I'll be back shortly. "

  "Be careful," she told him.

  He winked at her, and then turned away. The woodcrafting slid away from Amara, and the dappled sunlight brightened again, bright enough to make her squint against it.

  She turned to Gaius, and whispered, "Sire? Are you all right?"

  "Leg cramped," Gaius growled softly. "Started twitching. " He rubbed one hand hard on his right leg. "Crows, that's uncomfortable. Pardon my language, Countess. "

  "Yes, sire," Amara said, giving him a small smile. She glanced after Bernard, and said, "We can change the bandages while we're here. "

  Gaius grimaced but nodded to her. He hauled himself about roughly, sitting up and extending his right leg toward her.

  "Well," she said, as she went to work, "what did you think of that?"

  "I think our young friend there isn't going to survive this patrol," Gaius replied. His voice tightened as she peeled the bandages from his right foot, revealing the discolored sores that had refused to completely heal. "And I think it'
s lucky they rode by in front of us. If we'd passed through a few minutes sooner, they'd have walked right across our trail and followed it straight to us. "

  Amara got out the canteen of salted water and poured it over Gaius's foot. He looked away, his expression distant and cool, but his leg jerked as the cleansing wash entered the sores. Amara set about washing and drying his foot, then putting a fresh bandage over it, before replacing his stocking and the heavy leather slipper Bernard had fashioned for Gaius.

  "Quite cool in a crisis, your man. " Gaius sighed, once she was finished.

  "You noticed. I thought I was going to have to scream, at the end there. "

  "As was I-though for different reasons. I didn't dare use any metalcrafting to keep the pain down. " He smiled and dug into his pack, extracting a flask of water. He swallowed most of it down, and then settled back onto the forest floor again, closing his eyes. "I can't ever remember going for so long without per-forming any crafting. It's like. . . walking around with my feet and hands asleep all the time. I hadn't realized how difficult it would be. " He shook his head once, then closed his eyes and dropped into what looked like a light slumber.

  Amara didn't disturb him. Though Gaius had insisted upon moving ahead, each hour cost him considerable effort. Though he never complained, the pain of his foot clearly wore greatly on him, and he leaned more heavily on the staff as each day went on.

  She sat down with her back to a tree, drew her sword, and quietly stood watch over the sleeping First Lord, until Bernard suddenly appeared from beneath his woodcrafting, half an hour later.

  Amara twitched in surprise and frowned at him.

  "Sorry," he murmured. Then he knelt down and hugged her.

  Amara sighed, shook her head, and returned the embrace. He felt large and strong and warm, and she suddenly felt a great deal less worried. She knew that it was really a somewhat ridiculous thing to feel. Bernard, after all, was as vulnerable to harm as anyone. But somehow, when he was holding her, that didn't matter. She felt better for no rational reason at all-and she loved that feeling.

  "How is he?" Bernard rumbled quietly.

  "The same. Or if he's any better, I can't see it. Bernard, shouldn't those sores have closed by now?"

  "Mmmm," he said. "Older folks can be slow to heal without a watercrafter to help them. He hasn't any fever, and there's no sign of blood poisoning. I'd prefer it if he rested for a couple of days, but. . . "

  "But he won't," Amara sighed.

  "It could be worse," Bernard said. "So long as they close up before we hit the swamps, we should be all right. "

  "What if they don't?" Amara asked him.

  He leaned back from her and traced a fingertip over her cheekbone. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch.

  "We'll worry about that if it happens," he said quietly.

  Gaius stirred and sat up, blinking his eyes once or twice. He nodded to Bernard. "Count. Our friends have moved on?"

  Bernard nodded. "Yes, sire. It won't hurt us to take a bit of rest here, if you like. "

  The First Lord shook his head, planted his staff, and clambered to his feet. "No, out of the question. We've no time to spare. "

  "Aye, sire," Bernard said.

  He offered Amara a hand up, and she squeezed his fingers once after she was on her feet. Bernard set off in the lead of the little group again, and Gaius grunted with discomfort on his first few steps, then determinedly lengthened his stride, using his staff to help him.

  Amara stared at the limping First Lord for a moment, biting her lip. Then she followed him, glancing frequently around them and over her shoulder, and they continued on their way to Kalare.

  Chapter 20

  Isana followed the young valet to Sir Cyril's office, on the ground floor of the Legion's command building. Only a single legionare was on duty at the door, this time-indeed, since the First Aleran and the Guard Legions had departed, the entire town of Elinarch seemed almost deserted, and any little sound rang out with an eerie clarity in the quiet streets.

  The valet led her through a little antechamber and nodded at the door. "There you are, Steadholder. "

  "Thank you," Isana said quietly. "Should I knock?"

  The valet shook his head. "He's expecting you, ma'am. "

  Isana nodded at the young man and turned to the office door. She opened it and stepped into a rather large office. It was crowded with tables and bookshelves, all of them neatly, precisely stacked with books, papers, and scrolls. One wall was covered entirely by at least a dozen maps on broad sheets of parchment.

  Sir Cyril sat behind a much-used wooden desk, and he rose with a polite smile.

  Isana felt it when a flash of pain went through the remains of his leg, a savage stroke of agony that bored into the joint of his thigh and hip. Her own leg twitched in sympathy at the ghostly sensation. She felt him assert control over the pain an instant later, smothering the fire of it in a blanket of pure determination.

  "No, please, sir," Isana said. "Don't get up. "

  "Nonsense," Sir Cyril said. He swept into a restrained bow. "It's not often I entertain a celebrity. "

  She shook her head wryly and replied with a simple curtsey. "Hardly that. "

  "I disagree," Cyril said, sitting again. He let out an almost-inaudible sigh of relief as he took the weight off of his leg. "I've gotten several letters mentioning that you'd favorably impressed many of the Realm's Citizenry, during your abolition campaign. "

  "As of yet, no laws have been passed," she said, her voice dry. "It's been two years. I can hardly call that impressive. "

  "Big change takes time," Cyril replied, his tone a polite disagreement. "And the war has certainly been"-he glanced at his leg and flashed a quick, wry grin at Isana-"a distraction. "

  "Certainly that," she agreed.

  "Even leaving such matters aside, this relief column you organized is a rare thing," he continued. "It's already saving lives. "

  She shook her head. "Any number of people could have done what I have. "

  "But they didn't," Cyril said. "You did. "

  "Someone had to. "

  He tilted his head and studied her for a moment, then shrugged, and said, "Someone should have. It isn't the same thing. "

  Isana waved a hand. "Sir Cyril, I hope you don't think I'm rude for saying this. But I can't imagine why you sent for me. "

  He gave her a steady look, and his speculative gaze was intense enough that she could almost feel it on her skin. "Can't you?" he asked.

  Isana sighed. "Honestly, I can't. I was packing to leave, in fact. So, Sir Cyril, I ask you again. Why am I here?"

  Cyril's eyebrows went up. "This is somewhat disappointing. " He offered her a whimsical smile. "I was hoping you would tell me. " He raised his voice, and called, "Galen! Send him in, please!"

  The door opened a moment later, and a tall man in a fine Legion-issue dress tunic entered the-

  Tavi entered the room, she corrected herself. His green eyes fell on her, and his step slowed in hesitation for just a moment. She felt a surge of emotion from him, so mixed and confused that she hardly knew what to make of it, other than to sense a good deal of anger mixed through it all, unless it was humiliation or-

  Great furies.

  Araris had told him.

  Isana stared at Tavi for a second, meeting his gaze. He nodded to her, and said, "Excuse me. " As he did, the fountain of emotion began to dwindle, until there was nothing more coming from him. He had been able to hide his feelings from her since he'd been eleven years old. It had always made her a little proud of him-as well as exasperated. He'd been entirely too. . . creatively energetic, at that age. She'd needed every advantage she could get to stay a step ahead of his mischief and-

  And they were not alone, she reminded herself. She glanced aside at Cyril, then rose, politely, offering another curtsey to Tavi, precisely as she had to Cyril. "Good morning, Captain. "

avi smiled at her and inclined his head. "Steadholder. Thank you for coming. And thank you for seeing me, Sir Cyril. "

  Isana tilted her head. "Why aren't you with your Legion, Captain?"

  "Mmmm," Cyril said. "I was wondering the same thing myself. Nalus's letter was painfully vague. "

  "I've been arrested and charged with treason, Steadholder," Tavi replied cheerfully. "They sent me back here in irons, though Sir Cyril was kind enough to accept my parole and have them stricken. " He held up his wrists, each of them ringed with bruises and small cuts.

  Isana blinked for a moment and fought to keep herself from gasping, or letting out a cry of distress. Not in front of Sir Cyril.

  "Treason," Cyril said, sighing. "What happened out there?"

  "Long story," Tavi said. He put a hand on the chair Isana had been sitting in, holding it for her. "Steadholder. Shall we sit?"

  Isana frowned gently at him, trying to understand what was behind his expression-but he was closed to her.

  Yes. She'd known him that well, at least. He'd reacted just as she feared he would.

  Crows take Araris, she thought quietly, sadly. But not until after they've taken me. And the stives who made it necessary to take every measure in reach to protect him-including lying to him.

  Araris had been right, of course. Tavi had deserved to know. But she had wanted to put it off for just one more day, and now. . .

  Sometimes it felt like everything she turned her hand to withered and died. It was ridiculous, of course. Not everything had. Her steadholt was prospering, after all. The relief column had been a success. Perhaps it was only when her heart was involved that she had such ruinous bad fortune.

  Or, she thought, ruinously had judgment. Credit where credit is due.

  They all sat down. Cyril settled in to listen to Tavi, one elbow on the desk, his fist supporting his chin. "This should be interesting. "

  Tavi leaned back in his chair and somehow managed to look lazily confident even while in a relaxed slouch, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. Then he started talking.

  It didn't take Isana long to realize that Tavi was saying more than he probably should have about the motivations and twisted loyalties behind the events of the past several days-which is to say that he was being completely open and honest.

  "Let me get this straight," Cyril said, when Tavi paused for breath. "After Amos lost many of his own Knights Aeris, precisely as we warned him he would, you then bailed his men out of the trouble he'd bought them. "

  "You should have heard what was going around the Guard camps before I left," Tavi said, with another grin. Isana had never seen the expression on Tavi's face, but it had been common enough on his father's. Septimus had grinned at frustration and pain, too. "According to the Guard, I waited overly long to help, so that I could play the hero and rub their noses in their inexperience. "

  Cyril snorted. "Arnos has always known how to play a crowd. After you did that, he ordered you to execute the prisoners. You refused the order, and he had you arrested. "

  "Not exactly," Tavi said. "I was still stalling carrying the order out. I, ah, had the opportunity for a rendezvous with a representative from the Canim. Arnos caught me after and leveled the treason charges. He refused to rescind the execution order, by the way. "

  "Executing civilians? Families?" Isana heard herself say. "What kind of madness is that?"

  "An increasingly common one, unfortunately," Cyril said soberly. "All this ambition being brewed with self-interest under increasing amounts of pressure. " He shook his head and turned back to Tavi. "I assume he was holding them against your good behavior. "

  Tavi's smile turned sharper. "Yes. Though I found a way to make sure he'd leave them alone. "

  Cyril tilted his head. "How?"

  "I left Crassus in command of the Legion," Tavi said, smirking.

  Cyril arched both eyebrows, then leaned his head back to laugh, a short, genuine sound. "That would do it. "

  "Excuse me," Isana said quietly. "Do what?"

  "Crassus's father is High Lord Antillus Raucus," Tavi said, still grinning. "His mother is High Lord Kalarus's youngest sister. Once the fighting is done, Crassus may well be declared Kalarus's heir. He already is Antillus's heir. If Arnos ordered him to execute the prisoners, and he refused-"

  "Which he would," Cyril said.

  Tavi nodded. "-Arnos would have little choice but to press charges against Crassus, if he wanted to maintain the integrity of his charges against me. "

  "Ah," Isana said, nodding. "And given Crassus's family connections and what will probably be a very influential future, it would be stupid for Arnos to make an enemy of him now. "

  "Oh, he's stupid enough to do it," Tavi said, "but there's also the fact that if Arnos played that game on the son and heir of Antillus Raucus, the patronage of the Aquitaines wouldn't stop Lord Antillus for a second. He would call Arnos out to the juris macto and scatter the leftover pieces all over Alera. "

  "Only if the old man beat Maximus to it," Cyril noted.

  Tavi grinned. "Crows, yes. Max would love an excuse to call Arnos out. Defending the honor of his family and father would be undeniable. "

  "I'm surprised Arnos let you talk to your officers," Cyril said. "It's not the kind of mistake I'd expect of him. "

  "He didn't," Tavi said. "Max and about seven hundred veterans were in a position to dispute the legitimacy of my arrest. "

  "What?" Cyril just stared at Tavi for a second, his face going white. Isana sensed the horror boiling up out of him like some kind of greasy black vapor. Then he shook his head slowly. "Seven hundred. . . " He blew out a slow breath. "That was exactly the kind of situation the Crown wished us to avoid. "

  Tavi grimaced. "I know. I talked Arnos into letting Nalus handle my arrest in exchange for ordering them to stand down. "

  Cyril mopped a hand over his face. "Nalus," he said, distantly. "No wonder his letter was so awkward. Decent man. Not terribly intelligent, but I've always thought well of him. "

  "He asked me to give him my word that I wasn't going to order my men to get me out or refuse to support the campaign. I gave it, and he let me meet with them. "

  Cyril frowned hard at Tavi, and Isana could feel the anger in it, mixed with a certain admiration. "And your orders to them?"

  Tavi blinked, lifting his eyebrows in faint surprise. "To support the campaign, of course. To do everything they could to preserve the lives of Alerans and secure the Realm against the invaders. "

  Cyril let out a slow breath, sagging a little at the table, and his relief flooded through the room. "Thank the great furies. There's that much, at least. "

  Tavi grimaced. "Arnos is planning a campaign of numbers. He's tallied every life to be sacrificed. "

  Cyril grimaced. "Yes. I suspected as much. Can he win?"

  Tavi shrugged. "I think Nasaug does his math a bit differently. Othos was a bloody mess, and at a bargain for the Canim. " Tavi's voice lowered, and his smile vanished. "I've got to stop him, Cyril. "

  Cyril looked from Tavi to Isana, frowning. The room was quiet for several seconds.

  "Someone needs to," Cyril agreed. "But there are two problems. First, you aren't going to stop him from doing much of anything from inside the stockade. Second, I don't see any feasible way of doing so, even if you weren't. "

  Tavi took a deep breath. "I think I might know a way," he said.

  Cyril nodded. "This meeting you had with a representative, I expect. What does Nasaug want?"

  "Can't tell you," Tavi said. "Safer for both of us. "

  Cyril leaned back in his chair and put both hands flat on his desk. "You want me to release you. "

  "Yes. "

  "I can't do that. "

  "Yes, you can," Tavi said. "Cyril, if this works, it has the potential to end the fighting entirely. I think those three Legions would do a lot more good flanking Kalarus than running around in circ
les in the Vale. "

  "It's a treason charge," Cyril said quietly. "If I release you before you've faced a tribunal, it's a death sentence for me as well: to say nothing of the fact that any irregularity would practically guarantee your conviction. "

  Tavi made a clicking sound with his teeth. "There's always-"

  Cyril cut him off with a wave of his hand and exhaled through his nose. "All right," he said quietly. "This has gone badly, but it could have been worse. The next thing to focus on is making sure the Legions' supply lines are kept secure. Then we'll turn some attention to your trial defense. "

  Tavi shook his head. "We don't have time. There's too much at stake. "

  "Yes," Cyril responded, rather sharply. "But you've been outmaneuvered. You're of no use to the Crown, now. "

  "I could be," Tavi said quietly. "Let me arrange something. None of the blame will come to you. "

  Cyril began shaking his head. "Scipio-I am a soldier, and a servant of the Crown. I always have been. And at this moment, the Crown's law says that you are to remain in custody until a tribunal can be assembled. We've worked well together, the past two years. We know one another. We've each earned a certain amount of the other's trust. " He gave Isana a quite pointed glance and looked back at Tavi. "But by now you ought to know where I draw the line. "

  Tavi grimaced. Disappointment and a nauseating sense of dread began to spill through even his formidable discipline. "I do," he said quietly.

  "Then you ought to know that I'm not going to play along with some kind of escape fiction. " He grimaced. "I can't fight anymore, but I'm tired of everyone making light of the laws of the Realm. Abusing them, like Arnos did. I can't make them stop, but it doesn't mean I'm going to participate in it. I'll be glad to help you-by every legal means at my disposal. "

  "If you had an order from the Crown," Tavi said quietly, "you could do it. "

  "But I don't," Cyril said.

  Isana's heart suddenly pounded very hard in her chest.

  Tavi met Cyril's eyes, and said, quietly, "You do now. "

  Stars flared across Isana's vision, and she gripped the arms of her chair as hard as she could.

  Cyril frowned at Tavi, and said, "What?"

  Tavi gave Cyril half of a smile. "Come now, Cyril. You've known since the day you met me that my name wasn't Rufus Scipio. "

  Cyril's frown deepened. "Yes. I surmised that you were one of the Crown's Cursors, given the way the Battle of Elinarch turned out. And what you've done since. "

  "And I am," Tavi said quietly. "But there's more. You've heard rumors about me by now. You've heard rumors about my singulare. Araris. " Tavi paused for a moment. "The Araris. Araris Valerian. "

  Cyril stared at Tavi. His lips parted slightly.

  "That's why I asked her to be here today," Tavi said, gesturing toward Isana. "Why I've spoken so openly in front of her. "

  Tavi turned to her, and Isana could feel his fear and frustration and anger and something else, something deep and powerful and terrifying for which there was no word. It was a kind of wonder, she thought dazedly, a kind of elation-and at the same time, it was a horror and dread.

  Isana had felt it before, long ago. Tears blinded her as more memories came back to sudden, vivid life. Oh, Septimus. I miss you so much. And in this moment, you would he so proud.

  She turned her face to Sir Cyril, blinking until the tears fell. The older man simply gaped at Tavi, his mouth still open, his eyes wide. Disbelief blended wildly with comprehension, well-aged anxiety with sudden hope. His hands closed into fists, and his voice shook as he spoke. "What," he whispered, "is your name?"

  Tavi rose, slowly, lifting his chin. "My name," he said quietly, "is Gaius Oc-tavian. " He stepped forward and dropped to one knee, meeting Cyril eye to eye. "Sir Cyril, I trust you. That's why I've just put my life"-he nodded to Isana- "and my mother's into your hands. "

  Cyril stared at Tavi, his face bloodless. His mouth worked a couple of times, then he turned to Isana. "Your. . . your mother?"

  Isana swallowed. Now she understood why Tavi had asked her here-to support him. She was, after all, very nearly the only one alive who could.

  A panicked voice within told her to deny it. Without her corroboration, Tavi's story would sound like a wild, desperate, and implausible lie. She had to hide him. She had to protect him. She had to-

  Isana pressed against that panicked voice, against her own terror.

  It was time to stop lying. To stop hiding.

  Without a word, she reached for the slender chain she'd worn around her neck ever since she had left the Calderon Valley for Alera Imperia, years before. She unfastened the clasp, and drew it from where it lay hidden beneath her gown. The elegant silver ring, complete with its gem of scarlet and azure, seamlessly joined down its center, caught the light and glittered brightly, throwing flickers of colored fire upon the top of Cyril's desk.

  Isana set it there gently, and folded her hands in her lap. "Given me by my husband, Princeps Gaius Septimus," Isana said quietly, "upon our wedding, some ten months before his death. " She rose to stand behind Tavi, facing Cyril, and lifted her own chin. "This is our son, Octavian. He was born the night of the First Battle of Calderon. The same night his father died. "

  Cyril stared at her. Then at the ring. He reached out to pick it up, his hands shaking visibly.

  "The mark of his signet dagger is carved on the inside, beneath the stones," Isana said quietly. "He left me the dagger as well. It's in a trunk in my room. "

  The ring tumbled from Sir Cyril's fingertips, back to the top of the desk.

  Cyril shook his head, stammering. "H-how can this be?"

  Tavi, still on his knee, turned back to look up at Isana. For a second, she saw him again, the boy she had watched over, fed, cared for, loved. And lied to. Great furies help her, had there been more she could have done to hide him, she would have.

  Araris had been right. He deserved the truth.

  She met her son's eyes. "What very few know," Isana said, careful to keep her voice steady, her words clear, "is that Septimus had twice been attacked by assassins, in the two years prior to his death. His efforts to discover their employer were unsuccessful. When he took the Crown Legion to put down the rebellion at the Battle of Seven Hills, another assassin wounded him so badly, the night after the battle, that even with his own skills at healing, Septimus barely survived. That was why the First Lord sent the Crown Legion off to the farthest reaches of the Realm-to the Calderon Valley. Officially, it was to rest and recover from the losses sustained at Seven Hills. Only his singulares and Sextus knew it was to give Septimus a chance to recover in relative privacy. " She grimaced. "Septimus wanted to return to Alera Imperia and dare them to come after him again-to catch whoever was behind it. But Sextus ordered him to Calderon.

  "Septimus obeyed, but he wasn't content simply to rest and recover. He began sending out men he trusted to search for answers of his own. And. . . "

  And how could she possibly speak of a thousand memories, of the words between them, of how Septimus had become her entire world? How could she convey what it had meant to touch his hand, to listen to his voice, to feel his heart beating against her as he slept? How could she make them know what it had felt like for an awkward holder girl to fall in love with a man so strong and gentle and kind?

  "We met there," she said in a whisper. "We fell in love. We married. "

  Tavi stared up at her, and his expression was no longer a careful mask. He looked up at her the way any hungry child had ever looked up to his mother. He had been starving. For his whole life, he had been starving for the truth, and only now was he about to be sated.

  "Septimus learned of a plot against him," she continued. "Several of the other young men of his generation-he wasn't sure who-had formed a cabal, swearing to remove him and displace the House of Gaius from the throne. " She swallowed. "I think he suspected that the Marat invasion was engineered by this group
of men. And it is my belief that they struck at him there, during the battle. " Isana's tears blurred the room once more. "They killed him. "

  She swallowed and forced herself to continue. "Septimus had sent me from the camp, accompanied by my young sister, Alia, with Araris as my singulare, just before the Marat arrived. But I was heavy with child, and I began delivery before we could go more than a few miles. We hid in a cave. It was a difficult birthing. Alia helped me, but died of an arrow wound she'd gotten. That's where Octavian was born. In a cave. While his father fought invaders and traitors, and died so that others would have a chance to live. "

  Tavi's eyes suddenly shone. His expression didn't change, though the tears began to fall freely.

  "I was alone," Isana said quietly. "But for Araris. And he could not protect Octavian from those who had murdered his father. Neither could Sextus. He hadn't protected his own son, and I would not chance mine upon his remorse. " She felt her back straighten. "So I hid Octavian away. Araris marked his own face with the coward's brand, knowing no one would ever look for Araris Valerian beneath it, and sold himself into slavery. I purchased him, and he helped me watch over Tavi in my brother's steadholt. " She reached out and touched his hair with one hand. "We told no one. Not even Octavian. There was no other way to keep him safe. "

  She met her son's eyes, and felt his bitterness, his lifelong ache and his newly born fear. She felt his rage. And, beneath all of it, threaded and braided with every emotion, was his love. Simple, strong-tarnished, perhaps, but not broken.

  Her son still loved her.

  He was angry, and afraid of the future, and broken with sadness about the loss of a father he'd never known, even if he did not himself realize it yet.

  Though his heart was wounded, the wounds could heal. They would pass, in time.

  His love would not.

  Isana crouched, bowed her head, and laid her forehead gently against Tavi's. He leaned into her, and his hands suddenly found hers, squeezing tight. They shared tears for a moment-tears of loss and regret and repentance.

  Isana whispered, too quietly for Cyril to hear, "I'm so sorry. Your father would have been so proud of you, my Tavi. "

  Her son's shoulders twitched, and his breath caught in his throat for a second, before he bowed his head and leaned more against her. She put her arms around him in a sudden, fiercely tight embrace. He wept silently, his body jerking several times. Isana held him and closed her eyes.

  She opened them again when she felt Cyril's pain. He stood from the desk, wincing as the weight went onto his maimed leg, and limped steadily around it. Wordlessly, he offered the ring and its chain back to Isana.

  "Thank you," she whispered.

  "You should hide it, my lady," he murmured back. "Until the time is right. " Then he shifted position and dropped painfully to one knee.

  Isana touched Tavi's shoulder.

  He looked up to meet Sir Cyril's gaze.

  Cyril bowed his head, deeply. "Your Highness," he murmured. "How may I serve the Crown?"