Furies of Calderon, Page 47Jim Butcher
Fidelias sank into the warm bath in aching relief, his eyes closing. Nearby, Lady Aquitaine, dressed only in a robe of pale silk, placed Aquitaine's signet dagger into a coffer on her dresser, and shut and locked it.
"And my men?" Fidelias asked.
"All being cared for," she assured him. "I repaired your watercrafter's hearing, and she and her man went to their suite. " She half smiled. "They deserve the time, I think. "
"I failed," Fidelias said.
"Not entirely," murmured Lady Aquitaine. She tested the temperature of the water, and then lay her fingers on Fidelias's temples. "Without the dagger, Gaius has nothing but suspicions. "
"But he knows," Fidelias said. He felt briefly dizzy as a slow wave of warmth pulsed over him. His aches began to vanish into a molten cloud of blessed relief. "He knows. Aquitaine isn't working in secret any longer. "
Lady Aquitaine smiled. Then she stepped around the tub and let the silk robe slip from her shoulders. She slid into the water with Fidelias and wrapped her arms around the man's shoulders. "You worry too much. "
Fidelias shifted uncomfortably. "Lady. Perhaps I should go. Your husband-"
"Is busy," Lady Aquitaine purred. She gestured, and in the water shapes rose, solid outlines as though dolls upon a tiny stage. There were two figures there, on a great bed in a well-appointed chamber, writhing together in sensual completion, then kissing, slow, heavy kisses.
"There, sweet lady," Aquitaine's voice, tinny and distant murmured. "Are you feeling better?"
"Attis," a young woman's voice whispered, lazily contented. "So strong. " She shivered and began to sit up. "I should go. "
"Nonsense," Lord Aquitaine said. "He'll be handing out rewards for hours yet. You and I have time for more. "
"No," she murmured, "I shouldn't. " But Fidelias could hear the excitement in her voice.
"You should," Aquitaine murmured. "There. That's better. "
"Such a lover," the woman sighed. "And soon, we can be together like this whenever you desire. "
"That's right," Aquitaine said.
"And Lady Aquitaine?" the woman asked.
Lady Aquitaine's lips split in a cool little smile.
"She won't be a problem," Lord Aquitaine said. "No more talking. "
Fidelias watched as Gaius Caria, First Lady of Alera, wrapped her arms around Lord Aquitaine and drew him closer to her.
"You see," Lady Aquitaine purred, letting the images slide away into the water again. "We have more than one knife at his back. " She turned to Fidelias, her lips at his ear, and he felt himself begin to respond with slow, ardent hunger. "The story is not yet done. "
Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, descended to the Calderon Valley upon a winged steed of pure fire. Around him flew a full Legion of Knights Aeris, five thousand strong, and the Royal Guard in their scarlet capes, Knights Ferro and Ignus, Knights Aqua and Terra and Knights Fauna, all of them of ancient high blood. Trumpets announced their arrival, and despite the vast numbers of men aloft, the air hardly seemed to stir. The First Lord descended on Bernardholt with a full Legion in his train, and the people of the Calderon Valley turned out to meet him.
Amara stood foremost before the crowds, and Gaius dismounted, the stallion of flame vanishing to a wisp of smoke as he did. Amara knelt as he approached her, but he took her hand and raised her to her feet, embracing her with gentle arms. He wore the scarlet and azure of Alera, a blade at his side, and carried himself with pride and strength, though there seemed to be more lines of care worn into the corners of his eyes.
He stood up and looked down at her eyes, smiling. "Amara. Well done. "
Amara felt the tears touch her eyes, and she straightened with pride. "Thank you, sire. "
The Legion settled behind them like hundreds of gleaming, deadly dragonflies, and Amara stood a little straighter in her borrowed gown. "Sire, I'll present them to you in the order I discussed in my report?"
Gaius nodded. "Yes. Do. I'm eager to meet them. "
Amara called out, "Let Frederic of Bernardholt approach the Crown. "
There was a startled gulp from the crowd, and someone pushed the tall, brawny youth up out of the crowd to the general laughter of the holders. Frederic looked around, folding his hands nervously, then sighed and walked forward to Amara and the First Lord. He began to bow, then knelt, then changed his mind and stood up to bow again.
Gaius laughed and took the young man's hand and shook it firmly. "I am given to understand, young man, that you bested not one but two of the mercenary Knights in single combat, armed with only a shovel. "
"Spade, sir," Frederic corrected him. Then flushed. "That is, uh. I hit them, yes sire. "
"And I am told that in the battle, you defended a door of a building in the east courtyard, protecting the children inside from harm at the hands of the Marat. "
"Yes. With my spade, sir. Sire. Sorry. "
"Kneel, young man. "
Frederic swallowed and did. Gaius drew his sword, and it gleamed in the sun. "For courage, loyalty, and resourcefulness in the face of enemies of the Realm, Frederic of Bernardholt, I do hearby dub thee a Knight of the Realm, with all the responsibility and privileges therein. You are, from this day, a Citizen of the Realm, and let no man dispute your devotion. Rise, Sir Frederic. "
Frederic stood up, stunned. "But. . . but all I know is herding gargants, sir. I don't know about that fighting and whatnot. Sire, sorry. "
"Sir Frederic," Gaius intoned, "I wish all of my Knights knew a skill so useful. " He smiled and said, "We will discuss, in time, your duties here. "
Frederic bowed, clumsily. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Sire. Sir. "
Gaius gestured, and Frederic took a few dazed steps to one side.
Amara called, "Let Bernard of Bernardholt come forth. "
Bernard, dressed in rich fabrics of brown and woodland green, stepped forward from the crowd and dropped to one knee before Gaius, bowing his head.
Gaius took Bernard's hand and raised him. "I understand you helped take over matters when Gram was injured. "
"I only helped, sire," Bernard said. "I did what anyone would have. "
"You did what anyone should have," Gaius said. "There is a difference.
A broad difference. Steadholder, your courage in the face of such overwhelming danger is not overlooked. "
Once again, Gaius tapped his sword to either shoulder. "By the authority of the Crown, I do hereby dub thee Bernard, Count of Calderon. "
Bernard's head snapped up, and he blinked.
Gaius smiled. "With all the responsibility and privileges therein, and so on. Rise, good Count. "
Bernard stood up, staring at Gaius. "But Gram is the Count here. "
"Gram is now a Lord, I'm afraid, your Excellency. " Gaius lowered his voice with a glance around. "He has a comfortable assignment in the Amaranth Vale now, while he recovers from his injuries. I need someone who the local people respect and who I can trust to take over for him. Also someone who the Marat will respect. You're it. "
Bernard's face slowly spread into a smile. "Thank you, sire. I'll. . . do my best not to disappoint you. "
"You won't," Gaius said. "We'll need to keep in close touch at first. " The First Lord glanced aside at Amara and said, "I will have to appoint a special courier to be our go-between. I'll see if I can find someone willing to come all the way out here. "
Bernard flushed, and Amara felt her own face heating at the same time.
"Thank you, sire," Bernard said, more quietly.
Gaius winked. He gestured, and Count Bernard stepped to his left side, to stand with Sir Frederic.
Amara smiled and said, "Doroga, of the Gargant Clan of the Marat. Step forward. "
The crowd parted for the giant of a man, and Doroga strode over to Gaius, decked in gewgaws and rich clothing, which holders and legionares had given to him. He put his fists on his hips and looked Gaius up and down,
then declared, "You aren't old enough to be a headman. "
Gaius laughed, the sound rich and rolling. "I look young for my age. "
Doroga nodded wisely. "Ah. Perhaps that is it. "
"I am here to thank you, Headman Doroga, for what you did for my Realm. "
"I didn't do it for your Realm," Doroga said. "I did it for the young warrior. And would do it again. " Doroga lifted a finger and poked it lightly at Gaius's chest. "You be good to him. Or you and I will have words. "
Amara stared at the barbarian, appalled, but Gaius only tilted his head to one side, his lips quivering with the effort to restrain laughter. Then he took a step back and bowed to Doroga, to a sudden murmur from the Legion and the holders. "I will do so. Name me a boon, and if it is within my power, I will grant it to you. "
"I owe favors to enough people already," Doroga sighed. "We done?"
"I think so, yes. "
"Good. " Doroga turned and let out a piercing whistle, and from around the hill came a sullen young Marat girl on an enormous black bull gargant. Doroga walked over to her, swung up onto the great beast's back, and nodded to Gaius before turning to ride away.
"Colorful," Gaius commented.
"I'm sorry, sire. I didn't know that he would-"
"Oh, no, Cursor. It's perfectly all right. Who is next?"
They ran through a number of legionares and holders who had performed bravely during the incident, including a stammering Pluvus Pentius, who had saved a handful of children from a wounded herdbane by clubbing it to death with his accounts ledger.
"Isana of Bernardholt," Amara called, finally. "Please step forward. "
Isana came forward in a gown of dark grey, her dark hair pulled back into a severe braid, her chin lifted. She walked forward and stopped before Gaius for a long moment before performing a deep and graceful curtsy to him, without lowering her eyes. Amara saw something cold there, something defiant, and she blinked at the hold woman.
Gaius remained silent for a long moment, studying Isana. Finally he said, in a very quiet voice, "I understand that your courage and bravery saved a great many lives. "
"There was only one I was truly concerned with, sire. "
Gaius drew in a slow breath and nodded. "The boy. Your-"
"Nephew, sire. "
"Nephew. Of course. " Gaius glanced aside, at Amara. "And I am told you have ownership of a slave who likewise performed above and beyond anything expected of him. "
Isana inclined her head again.
"I will purchase this slave from you. "
Isana looked up at Gaius, her expression strained. "I'm sure he isn't what you think, sire. "
"Let me be the judge of that. In the meanwhile, Isana, please kneel. "
Isana did, her expression puzzled. Gaius once more drew his blade. "I dub thee Steadholder Isana, with all the responsibilities and privileges therein. "
There was a second's silence, and then a shocked murmur from the crowd of holders and from the legions behind Gaius.
Gaius murmured, "The first appointed female Steadholder. Isanaholt. It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
Isana flushed. "It does, sire. "
"And your brother is going to be busy with his new duties. Someone needs to assume control. I see no reason anyone could object to you. Rise, Steadholder. "
Amara smiled, as Isana stepped aside. "Tavi of Bernardholt, please step forward. "
There was an eager murmur from the crowd.
But no one stepped forward.
Amara frowned. "Tavi of Bernardholt. Please step forward. "
Still, no one did. Gaius arched an eyebrow, and Amara shot a helpless look at Isana. Isana closed her eyes and sighed. "That boy. "
Gaius said, "Are you sure he wanted this reward, Cursor?"
"Yes, sire," Amara said. "He told me he was trying to return some sheep, so that he could use them to help him save some money for a semester at the Academy. That's why he stumbled onto things to begin with. "
"I'm not offering him a semester. I'm offering him patronage. He should be here. "
Isana blinked at Gaius. "Patronage? To the Academy? My Tavi?"
"The finest center of learning in all of Carna," Gaius said. "He can study there. Grow. Learn all that he needs to lead a successful life. "
Isana said, "He doesn't need the Academy for that. "
"Yet that is his wish, Steadholder Isana. And that is his reward. He will be Tavi Patronus Gaius and be trained at the Academy. "
Isana nodded and said, "Yes, sire," but her expression was worried.
Bernard frowned, looking around for a moment. Then pointed and said, "Sire. There he is. "
Everyone turned to look to the north of Bernardholt.
After a moment's silence, Gaius asked, "That is this Fade, with him?"
Amara nodded. "Yes, sire. "
Gaius frowned. "I see. Cursor, why wasn't the boy here?"
"He, um. He seems to be rather independently minded, sire. " "I see. And why is he doing that, instead of accepting his reward. " Amara fought to keep a smile off of her lips. "Sire. He's a shepherd's apprentice. I suppose he's doing that because it's what he set out to do. "
And so the First Lord of Alera, surrounded by subjects, Citizens, and Knights of the Realm watched in silence while Tavi drove home Dodger's little flock of ewes and lambs, the shaggy-haired Fade loping along behind him.