Amara was waiting when the Knights Aeris sent by the Crown swept down from the dark grey clouds overhead. Spring this far north of the capital could be unpleasantly cold and damp, but the rain promised by occasional rumbles of thunder had not yet arrived. Amara recognized the man leading the contingent and briefly considered trying to provoke the water-laden clouds into emptying themselves a bit earlier. Onto his bloated head.
Sir Horatio flew in front of the enclosed litter, his ornamented armor doing its best to gleam on the cloudy day, his red velvet cloak spread behind him. A Knight in a travel harness flew at each corner of the litter, supporting its weight, and four more flew in a loose escort around it. The contingent descended more swiftly than was necessary, and their furies stirred up a miniature cyclone of wild wind that threw Amara's hair around her head and sent a herd of sheep in a nearby pen crowding to its far side for shelter. The holders rushing around preparing supplies and sundries for Bernard's cohort had to shield their eyes against flying straw and dust.
"Idiot," Amara said, sighing, willing Cirrus between herself and the flying debris. Horatio touched down lightly. As a subtribune and Knight of the Crown Legion, he was permitted the gold-and-silver filigree on his armor and the glittering gems on both his helmet and the hilt of his sword, but the gold embroidery on his velvet cloak was a bit much. Horatio had made a fortune winning the Wind Trials, the yearly race of aircrafters during Wintersend, and he liked everyone to know it.
Of course, he was less eager for them to know that he had lost the lion's share of his riches the first year Amara had entered the event. He would never let her forget that, though she supposed she might not feel inclined to be particularly polite to a person who had cost her that much money, either. She waited until the Knights had settled in the steadholt's courtyard, then approached.
"Good day, sir!" boomed Horatio in a brassy baritone. "Oh, wait. Not sir, at all. That's you, Countess Amara. Forgive me, but from there you looked like a young man."
A few years before, the insult to her physique would have stung her sorely. But that was before she'd become a Cursor. And before Bernard. "That's perfectly all right, Sir Horatio. We all expect men of your age to begin experiencing certain deficiencies." She bowed to him with courtly grace, and did not miss a low round of chuckles from the other Knights.
Horatio returned her bow with a brittle smile and glared at the men behind him. All eight Knights found other places to direct their gazes and assumed professionally bored expressions. "Of course. I assume our passenger is ready to leave?"
"Shortly," Amara said. "I'm sure the kitchen will have something hot for your men to eat while you wait."
"That isn't necessary, Countess," Horatio said. "Please inform Holder Isana that we await her arrival so that we may depart."
"You await Steadholder Isana's convenience," she said, deliberately letting her voice carry through the courtyard. "And as you are a guest at her steadholt, subtribune, I expect you to behave with the courtesy expected of a Knight and soldier of the Crown Legion to a Citizen of the Realm."
Horatio's eyes narrowed, hot with anger, but he gave her the smallest of bows in acknowledgment.
"Furthermore," she continued, "I strongly advise you to let your men rest and eat while they have the opportunity. If the weather worsens, they will need their strength."
"I do not take orders from you regarding the disposition of my command, Countess," Horatio snapped.
"Goodness," said a woman's voice from within the litter. "Perhaps we should hand you each a bone, and you can simply bludgeon one another to death. I can't think of a faster way to end this unseemly display. Rolf, please?"
One of the Knights immediately stepped to the side of the litter, opened the door, and offered a polite hand to assist as a tiny woman emerged into the grey light. She might have been almost five feet tall, but even at that height, she looked frail and delicate, as light-boned as a Parcian swallow. She had skin the color of dark honey, and fine, shining hair darker than wet coal. Her gown was made of rich silk, though in subtle shades of brown and grey, and its neckline plunged far more deeply than would be considered proper to any woman of any station whatsoever. Her features were hauntingly lovely, with dark eyes almost too large for her face, and twin ropes of the sunset-colored pearls from the seas near her home province wound through her hair and were matched by a second pair of strands around her throat.
The pearls of the necklace were priceless and lovely-but they did not conceal the fact that they were mounted to an elegant slave's collar.
"Amara," the woman said, her mouth parting in a wide smile. "Only a few years out of the civilized south, and you've turned savage." She extended her hands. "You've probably forgotten all about me."
Amara felt a laugh ripple from her mouth as she replied. "Serai," she said, stepping forward to take her hands. As always, standing before Serai's exquisite beauty made her feel tall and awkward, and, as always, she did not at all mind. "What are you doing here?"
Serai's eyes sparkled with silent laughter, and she swayed a little on her feet. "Oh, darling, I am simply perishing of fatigue. I thought I would be fine, but I've been so frail of late." She leaned on Amara's arm, and turned a gaze on Horatio that would have melted the heart of an Amaranth merchant. "Subtribune, I apologize for my weakness. But would it be all right with you if I sat down for a bit and perhaps had some refreshment before we depart?"
Horatio looked frustrated for a moment, glowered at Amara, then said, "Of course, Lady Serai."
Serai smiled wanly at him. "I thank you, milord. I hate to see you and your men suffer on my account. Will you not join me at the table?"
Horatio rolled his eyes and sighed. "I suppose a gentleman could do little else."
"Of course not," Serai said, patting his arm with a tiny hand, then lightly tracing the pearls at her throat. "The obligations of station enslave us all at times." She turned to Amara, and said, "Is there somewhere I could freshen up, darling?"
"Of course," Amara said. "This way, Lady Serai."
"Bless you," Serai said. "Subtribune, I will join you and your men in the dining hall presently." She walked out, a hand still on Amara's arm, and gave a winsome smile to the Knights Aeris as she passed them. The men returned smiles and speculative looks as the slave passed.
"You're an evil woman," Amara murmured, once they were out of earshot. "Horatio will never forgive you for manipulating him like that in public."
"Horatio only has his continued command because of talented subordinates," Serai responded, laughter dancing in her words. A wicked glint touched her eyes. "In Rolf's case, very talented."
Amara felt her cheeks redden. "Serai."
"Well, darling, what do you expect? One can hardly be a courtesan without indulging in certain improprieties." She touched her lips with her tongue. "In Rolf's case, quite a bit of indulgence. Suffice to say that Horatio is no threat to me, and how well he knows it." Serai's smile faded. "I almost wish Horatio would try something. It would be a pleasant diversion."
"What do you mean?"
Serai glanced up at her, her eyes opaque, and said, "Not outdoors, darling."
Amara frowned, then fell silent and led Serai into the steadholt, and to the guest quarters above the main hall. She gave Serai a few moments inside, then slipped in behind her, and asked Cirrus to seal off the room from potential listeners. Once the air had tightened around them, Serai sank down onto a stool, and said, "It's good to see you again, Amara."
"And you," Amara answered. She knelt on the floor beside Serai, so that their eyes were on a level. "What are you doing here? I expected the Cursor Legate to send Mira or Cassandra."
"Mira was murdered near Kalare three days ago," Serai responded. She folded her hands, but not before Amara saw how the courtesan's fingers shook. "Cassandra has been missing from Parcia for several days. She is presumed dead or compromised."
Amara felt as though someone had punched her in the belly. "Great furies," she breathed. "What has happened?"
"War," Serai responded. "A quiet war fought in alleyways and service corridors. We Cursors are being hunted and killed."
"But who?" Amara breathed.
Serai moved a shoulder in a slow shrug. "Who? Our best guess is Kalare," she said.
"But how did he know where to hit us?"
"Treachery, of course. Our people have been killed in their beds, their baths. Whoever these people are, someone who knows us is telling them where to strike."
"Fidelias," Amara said. The word tasted bitter.
"Potentially," Serai said. "But we must assume that there may be someone else within the Cursors-and that means that we cannot trust anyone, Cursor or otherwise."
"Great furies," Amara breathed. "What about the First Lord?"
"Communications have been severely disrupted throughout the southern cities. Our channels to the First Lord have gone silent."
"I know," Serai said. The tiny woman shivered. "My initial orders from the Cursor Legate were to dispatch an agent to your command to escort Steadholder Isana to Festival. But once this began happening it became clear that attempting to make contact with other Cursors would be dangerous. I had to speak to someone I trusted. So I came here."
Amara took Serai's hands in her own and squeezed tightly. "Thank you."
Serai answered with a wan smile. "We must assume that word has not reached the First Lord about the situation."
"You intend to use Isana to approach him in person," Amara said.
"Precisely. I can't think of a safer way to go about it."
"It might not be so safe," Amara said. "An assassin attempted to kill Steadholder Isana yesterday morning. He was using a Kalaran knife."
Serai's eyes widened. "Great furies."
Amara nodded with a grimace. "And she's lived her entire live in the provinces. She can't enter the capital unguided. You'll need to show her around the political circles." She exhaled. "And you must be very careful, Serai. They'll try to remove her before the presentation ceremony."
Serai chewed on her lip. "I'm no coward, Amara, but I'm not a bodyguard, either. There's no way I can protect her from trained assassins. If that is the situation, I need you to come with us."
Amara shook her head. "I can't. Matters have developed locally." She explained what Doroga had told them about the vord. "We can't afford to let them spread and multiply. The local garrison will need every crafter they can get to make sure these creatures do not escape again."
Serai arched an eyebrow. "Darling, are you sure about this? I mean, I know you've had some contact with these barbarians, but don't you think that they might be exaggerating the truth?"
"No," Amara said quietly. "In my experience, they don't know how to exaggerate. Doroga arrived here yesterday with fewer than two hundred survivors from a force of two thousand."
"Oh come now," Serai said. "That must be an outright lie. Even a Legion's morale would break well before that."
"The Marat are not legionares," Amara said. "They aren't like us. But consider this-they fight, men and women and children together, beside their family and friends. They will not desert them, even if it means dying beside them. They consider the vord to be the same sort of threat-not just to their territory, but to their families and lives."
"Even so," Serai said. "You aren't a battlecrafter, Amara. You're a Cursor. Let those whose duties call them to a soldier's work do their part. But you must serve your calling. Come with me to the capital."
"No," Amara said. She paced to the window and stared out of it for a moment. Bernard and Frederic were lifting a pair of vast hogsheads of preserved foodstuffs onto racks on either side of a gargant's pack harness. The bull yawned, scarcely noticing what must have been half a ton of burden the two earthcrafters had casually lifted into place. "The garrison here lost most of its Knights Aeris at Second Calderon, and it has been difficult to replace them. Bernard may need me to help him by carrying messages or flying reconnaissance."
Serai let out a small gasp.
Amara turned, frowning, to find the tiny courtesan staring at her with her mouth open.
"Amara," Serai accused. "You're his lover."
"What?" Amara said. "That isn't what-"
"Don't bother trying to deny it," Serai said. "You were looking at him out there, weren't you?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Amara asked.
"I saw your eyes," Serai said. "When you called him Bernard. He was out there doing something manly, wasn't he?"
Amara felt her face heat up again. "How did you-"
"I know these things, darling," she said airily. "It's what I do." The little woman crossed the room to stare out the window at the courtyard, and arched an eyebrow. "Which is he?"
"Green tunic," Amara supplied, stepping back from the window. "Loading the gargant. Dark hair, beard, a little grey in them."
"My," said Serai. "But hardly old. Went silver early, I'd say. That's always attractive in a man. It means he has both power enough to have responsibilities and conscience enough to worry over them. And-" She paused and blinked. "He's rather strong, isn't he?"
"He is," Amara said. "And his archery is amazing."
Serai gave her an oblique look. "I know it's petty and typical, but there is an undeniable, primal attraction in a man of strength. Wouldn't you agree?"
Amara's face burned. "Well. Yes. It suits him." She took a breath. "And he can be so gentle."
Serai gave her a dismayed look. "Oh, my. It's worse than I feared. You're not his lover. You're in love."
"I'm not," Amara said. "I mean. I see him fairly often. I've been Gaius's courier to the region since Second Calderon and…" Her voice trailed off. "I don't know. I don't think I've ever been in love."
Serai turned her back to the window. Over her shoulder, Amara could see Bernard giving directions to a pair of men hitching up heavy work horses to a wagon of supplies, then checking the beast's hooves. "Do you see him often enough?" Serai asked.
"I… I wouldn't mind being near him more."
"Mmmhmm," she said. "What do you like best about him?"
"His hands," Amara said at once. The answer came out before she'd had time to think it through. She felt herself blush again. "They're strong. The skin a little rough. But warm and gentle."
"Ah," said Serai.
"Or his mouth," Amara blurted. "I mean, his eyes are a lovely color, but his mouth is… I mean, he can…"
"He knows how to kiss," Serai said.
Amara stammered to a silence and simply nodded.
"Well," Serai said, "at this point, I think it's safe to say that you know what love feels like."
Amara bit her lip. "You really think that?"
The courtesan smiled, something wistful in it. "Of course, darling."
Amara watched the courtyard as a pair of boys, no more than six or seven years of age, leapt from hiding places in the wagon to Bernard's back. The big man roared in feigned outrage, and went spinning around for a few moments as though trying to reach them, until the boys lost their grips and fell to the ground, lurching dizzily and laughing. Bernard grinned at them, ruffled their hair, and sent them on the way with a wave of his hand. Amara found herself smiling.
Serai's voice became lower and very gentle. "You must leave him, of course."
Amara felt her spine stiffen. She stared past the other woman, out the window.
"You are a Cursor," Serai said. "One with the trust of the First Lord himself. And you have sworn your life to his service."
"I know that," Amara said. "But-"
Serai shook her head. "Amara, you can't do that to him if you truly love him. Bernard is a peer of the Realm, now. He has duties, responsibilities. One of them will be to take a wife. A wife whose first loyalty will be to him."
Amara stared at Bernard and the two children. Her vision suddenly blurred with hot tears.
"He has duties," Serai said, her voice compassionate, but resolute. "And among them is the duty to sire children so that the furycraft in his blood will strengthen the Realm."
"And I was blighted," Amara whispered. She pressed her hand against her lower belly, and could almost feel the nearly invisible scars from the pockmarks the disease had left. She tasted bitter bile on her tongue. "I can't give him children."
Serai shook her head and turned to stare out the window down at the courtyard. Frederic herded a second pair of enormous gargants into the yard and began hitching up their cargo harnesses with Bernard, while other holders came and went in a constant stream, placing sacks and boxes on the ground to be loaded on the beasts once they were ready. Then Serai stood on tiptoe, and gently drew down the shade.
"I'm sorry, darling."
"I never thought it through," Amara said. More tears fell. "I mean. I was just so happy, and I never…"
"Love is a fire, Amara. Draw it too close and be burned." Serai stepped over to Amara and touched her cheek with the back of her hand. "You know what you must do."
"Then best to make it quick. Clean." Serai sighed. "I know what I'm talking about. I'm so sorry, darling."
Amara closed her eyes and leaned her head miserably against Serai's touch. She couldn't stop the tears. She didn't try.
"So much is happening, and all at once," Serai said after a moment. "It can't be a coincidence. Can it?"
Amara shook her head. "I don't think it can."
"Furies," Serai breathed. Her expressive eyes looked haunted.
"Serai," Amara said quietly, "I believe there is a real threat to the Realm here. I'm going to stay."
Serai blinked up at her. "Darling, of course you're going to stay. I don't need a bodyguard who is pining over a man like this-you're useless to me."
Amara choked on a small roll of laughter that came up through her at Serai's words, and she folded her arms around the courtesan in a tight hug. "Will you be all right?"
"Of course, darling," Serai said. But though her voice was warm, amused, Amara felt the little courtesan trembling. Serai probably felt Amara's shivering in return.
Amara drew back, her hands on Serai's shoulders, and met her gaze. "Duty. The vord may be inside the capital. More killers are probably looking for the Steadholder even now. Cursors are being murdered. And if the Crown doesn't send reinforcements to the local garrison, more holders and legionares are going to die. Likely me with them."
Serai's eyes closed for a moment, and she bobbed her head in a brief nod. "I know. But… Amara, I'm afraid… afraid I am not suited for this kind of situation. I work in grand halls and bedchambers with wine and perfume. Not in dark alleyways with cloaks and knives. I don't like knives. I don't even own a knife. And my cloaks are far too expensive to risk bloodying."
Amara gently squeezed her shoulders, smiling. "Well. Perhaps it will not come to that."
Serai gave Amara a shaky smile. "I should hope not. It would be most awkward." She shook her head and smoothed the anxiety from her expression. "Look at you, Amara. So tall and strong now. Nothing like the farm girl I saw flying over the sea."
"It seems so long ago," Amara said.
Serai nodded, and touched a stray hair back from her cheek. Her expression became businesslike. "Shall we?"
Amara lifted her hand and the pressure of Cirrus's warding vanished. "Isana should be ready to leave shortly. Be cautious and swift, Serai. We are running out of time."
It took Tavi three hours to find Max, who was indeed at a young widow's house. He spent another hour finding a way into the house, and half an hour more to get his friend conscious, dressed, and staggering back up through the furylit streets of the capital to the Citadel. By the time the lights of the Academy loomed up above them, it was the most silent hour of the night, in the hollow, cold time just before dawn began to color the sky.
They entered through one of a sprinkling of unseen entrances provided for the use of the Cursors-in-Training at the Academy. Tavi dragged his friend down to the baths straightaway, and without ceremony shoved him into a large pool of cold water.
Max, of course, had the phenomenal recuperative abilities of anyone with his raw furycrafting power, but he had developed a correspondingly formidable array of carousing talents by way of compensation. It wasn't the first time Tavi had administered an emergency sobering after one of Max's nights on the town. The shock of the water had the large young man screaming and thrashing in a heartbeat, but when he lurched to the stairs up out of the water, Tavi met him, turned Max around, and pushed him back into the pool.
After a dozen more plunges into the freezing pool, Max pressed his hands against the sides of his head with a moan. "Great furies, Calderon, I'm awake. Would you let me out of the blighted, crows-begotten ice water?"
"Not until you open your eyes," Tavi said firmly.
"Fine, fine," Max growled. He turned a bloodshot glare upon Tavi. "Happy now?"
"Joyous," Tavi replied.
Max grunted, lumbered from the icy pool, and fumbled his clothes off, then shambled into the warm, sun gold furylit waters of one of the heated oaths. As always, Tavi's eyes were drawn to the crosshatched network of scars on his friend's back-the marks of a whip or a ninecat that could only nave been formed before Max came into his furycrafting power. Tavi winced in sympathy. No matter how many times he saw his friend's scars, they remained something startling and hideous.
He glanced around the baths. The room was enormous, with several different bathing pools trickling falls of water filling up a vast room with white marble walls, floor, pillars, and ceiling. Batches of plants, even trees, softened the severe, cold marble surroundings, and lounges were laid out in a dozen different areas, where bathers might idle in one another's company while awaiting their turn at a pool. Soft furylamps of blue, green, and gold painted each pool, giving an indication of its temperature. The sound of falling water bounded back and forth from the indifferent stone, filling the air with sound enough to mask voices more than a few steps away. It was one of the only places in the capital where one could be reasonably certain of a private conversation.
The baths were yet empty-the slaves who attended bathers would not arrive for more than an hour. Tavi and Max were alone.
Tavi stripped, though much more self-consciously than his friend. Back at the steadholt, bathing was a matter of privacy and practicality. It had been an adjustment to engage in the more metropolitan practice of bathing followed in most of the cities, and Tavi had never managed to lose entirely the twinge of discomfort he felt when disrobing.
"Oh for crying out loud, bumpkin," Max said, without opening his eyes. "It's the men's baths. There's no one else here, and my eyes aren't even open." He gave Tavi another glare, though it was less intense than the first. "If you'd left me where you found me, you could have had the baths to yourself."
Tavi slid into the pool beside Max and pitched his voice low, barely audible over the obscuring sounds of water. "There's trouble, Max."
Max's glower vanished, and his reddened eyes glittered with sudden interest. "What kind of trouble?"
Tavi told him.
"Bloody crows!" Max roared. "Are you trying to get me killed?"
"Yes. To tell you the truth, I never had much use for you, Max," Tavi watched his friend blink at him for a second, then scowl.
"Hah-hah," said Max. "You're hilarious."
"You should know better than that," Tavi replied. "If there was anyone else I thought could do this, I wouldn't have gotten you involved."
"You wouldn't?" Max asked, his tone suddenly offended. "Why not?"
"Because you've known what's going on for ten seconds, and you're already complaining."
"I like complaining. It's every soldier's sacred right," Max growled.
Tavi felt a smile tug at his lips. "You're not a legionare anymore, Max. You're a Cursor. Or a Cursor-in-Training, anyway."
"I'm still offended," Max declared. After a moment, he added, "Tavi, you're my friend. If you need help, just expect me to be there whether you want me there or not."
Tavi chewed at his lip, regarding Max. "Really?"
"It'll be simpler that way," Max drawled. "So. I'm to double for Gaius, eh?"
"Can you?" Tavi asked.
Max stretched out in the hot water with a confident smile in answer. "No idea."
Tavi snorted, went to the waterfall, took up a scrubber, and began raking it over his skin, cleaning the sweat and toil of the day from him before taking up a soaped comb and raking it quickly through his hair. He rose to rinse in a cooler pool and emerged shivering to towel himself dry. Max emerged from the pools a few moments later, similarly scrubbed, and the pair of them changed into the clean clothes they'd last left with the bath attendants, leaving their soiled garments behind on their respective shelves.
"What do I do?" Max asked.
"Go to the Citadel, down the south gallery and to the west hall to the staircase down."
"Guard station there," Max noted.
"Yes. Stop at the first station, and ask for Sir Miles. He's expecting to hear from you. Kalian will probably be there, too."
Max raised his eyebrows. "Miles wanted to bring in the Cursors? I'd have thought he wouldn't hold with too much of that."
"I don't think Miles knows that Killian is still on active duty," Tavi said. "Much less that he's the current Legate."
Max slapped an annoyed hand at his head, sprinkling water out of his close-cropped hair. "I am going to lose my mind, trying to keep track of who is allowed to know what."
You're the one who agreed to Cursor training," Tavi said. Stop walking on my sacred right, Calderon."
Tavi grinned. "Just do what I do. Don't tell anyone anything."
Max nodded. "That's a solid plan."
"Let's move. I'm supposed to bring someone else down. I'll meet you there."
Max rose to leave, but paused. "Tavi," he said. "Just because I'm not complaining doesn't mean this won't be dangerous. Very dangerous."
"Just wanted to make sure you did," Max said. "If you get in trouble… I mean, if you need my help. Don't let your pride keep you from asking for it. I mean, it's possible that some serious battlecrafting could start happening. If it does, I'll cover you."
"Thank you," Tavi said, without much emotion. "But if it comes to that, we've probably failed so badly that my own personal legion wouldn't help."
Max gave a rueful laugh of agreement, squared his shoulders, and stalked out of the baths without looking behind him. "Watch your back."
Tavi waited a moment until Max had left the baths, then hurried out of them and toward the servants' quarters. By the time he'd arrived, a swath of light blue on the eastern horizon of the night sky had arrived to herald the coming dawn, and the staff of the Academy was beginning to stir. Tavi wound his way cautiously down service corridors and cramped staircases, careful to avoid being seen. He moved in silence through the darkened corridors, bearing no lamp of his own, relying upon infrequent, feeble hallway lights. Tavi stalked down a final cramped corridor, and to a half-sized door that opened into a crawl space in the walls-Fade's chamber.
Tavi listened intently for any approach, and once he was sure he was not being idly observed, he opened the door and slipped inside.
The slave's room was musty, cold, and dank. It was nothing more than an inefficiency of design, bounded on two walls with stone of the Academy and on the others with rough plaster. The ceiling was barely five feet high and contained nothing more than a battered old trunk with no lid and an occupied sleeping palette.
Tavi moved in silence to the palette, and reached down to shake its occupant.
He realized half a breath later that the form under the blankets was simply a bundle of bedding, piled into place as a distraction. Tavi turned, crouched, his hand moving to his dagger, but there was swift and silent motion in the darkness, and someone smoothly took the weapon from his belt, slammed Tavi hard with a shoulder, and sent him off-balance to the ground. His attacker followed closely, and in another breath, Tavi found himself pinned by a knee on his chest, and the cold edge of his own weapon was pressed to his throat.
"Light," said a quiet voice, and an ancient, dim furylamp on the wall shone scarlet.
The man crouched over Tavi was of unremarkable height and build. His hair fell in ragged strands to his shoulders and over most of his face, brown streaked through with much grey, and Tavi could barely see the gleam of dark eyes behind it. What Tavi could see of the man's visage was hideously marred with the brand the Legions used upon those judged guilty of cowardice. His forearms were as lean and sinewy as the ancient leather slave-braid on his throat, and they were covered in white scars. Some were the tiny, recognizable pockmarks of burns gained at a smith's forge, but others were straight and fine, like those Tavi had seen only upon the arms of old Giraldi back at Garrison and on Sir Miles.
"Fade," Tavi said, his chest tight with the panic caused by the swift attack. His heart pounded hard and fast. "Fade. It's me."
Fade lifted his chin for a moment, staring down at him, then his body eased, moving away from the young man. "Tavi," Fade said, his voice thick and heavy with recent sleep. "Hurt you?"
"I'm fine," Tavi assured him.
"Sneaking," Fade said, scowling. "Sneaking into my room."
Tavi sat up. "Yes. I'm sorry if I startled you."
Fade reversed his grip, taking the dagger by its blade, and offered the hilt across his wrist to Tavi. The young man reclaimed his knife and slipped it back into its sheath. "Sleeping," Fade said, and yawned, adding a soft, slurring hooting sound to the end of it.
"Fade," Tavi said. "I remember the battlements at Calderon. I know this is an act. I know you aren't a brain-addled idiot."
Fade gave Tavi a wide and witless smile. "Fade," he stated in a vacantly cheerful tone.
Tavi glared at him. "Don't," Tavi said. "Keep your secrets if you want. But don't insult me with the charade. I need your help."
Fade became completely still for a long moment. Then he tilted his head to one side and spoke, his voice now low and soft. "Why?"
Tavi shook his head. "Not here. Come with me. I'll explain."
Fade let out his breath in a long exhalation. "Gaius."
The slave closed his eyes for a moment. Then he went to the trunk, and removed a handful of objects and a spare blanket. He pushed hard on the bottom of the trunk and there was a hollow-sounding crack. He withdrew a scabbard from the trunk, and drew a short, straight blade, the gladius of a legionare. Fade examined the weapon in the dim light, then sheathed it again, donned a voluminous old robe of worn sackcloth, and slipped the weapon beneath it. "Ready."
Tavi led Fade out into the corridors of the Academy, made his way toward the nearest of the secluded routes that led down into the uppermost layers of the Deeps, and emerged near the Citadel. The entrance to the Deeps wasn't precisely a secret door, but it lay within the deep shadows of a particularly cramped and crooked hallway, and if one didn't know where to look, the low, narrow opening to the stairwell was all but invisible.
Tavi led Fade down a series of little-traveled hallways, thick with moisture and chill air. His route led them briefly into the shallowest levels of the Deeps, then crossed beneath the Citadel's walls. They came to the stairway leading down to the First Lord's meditation chamber, and descended, challenged by alert legionares at each station. Tavi's legs throbbed with a brutal ache on every beat of his heart, but he forced himself to ignore the complaints of his tired body and kept moving.
Fade, Tavi noticed, studied the ground without looking up. His hair fell around his face and blended with the rough fabric of his robe. His gait was that of an older man's-stiff with apparent arthritis, halting and cautious. Or at least it was passing through each guard station. Once out of sight on the curving stairs, he moved with feline silence.
At the bottom of the stairs, the door to the First Lord's chamber was firmly closed. Tavi drew his knife and struck the hilt against the dark steel door in a set, staccato rhythm. After a moment, it opened, and Miles stood glowering in the door. "Where the crows have you been, boy?" he demanded.
"Um. Getting the man I told you about, Sir Miles. This is Fade."
"Took you long enough," Miles growled. He swept a cool gaze over the slave. "In four hours, Gaius must appear in his box at the preliminaries for the Wind Trials. Antillar isn't having much luck with his mimicry, but Killian can't stop to help him learn until he is sure the First Lord is attended. You should have brought the slave first."
"Yes, sir," Tavi said. "Next time this happens I'll be sure to remember."
Miles's expression turned sour. "Get in then," he said. "Fade, is it? I've had some bedding and a cot brought down. You'll need to assemble it and help me get Gaius into it."
Fade froze, and Tavi saw his eyes bright with shock behind his hair. "Gaius?"
"It looks as though he was trying to do too much furycrafting," Tavi said. "He may have broken his health on it. He collapsed several hours ago."
"Alive?" Fade asked.
"So far," Tavi said.
"But not if we don't get him into a proper bed and have him taken care of," Miles growled. "Tavi, you've got some messages to carry. Business as usual. Make everyone believe it. All right?"
There went the possibility of actually getting any sleep, Tavi thought. And at the rate things were going, he might well end up missing the test altogether. He sighed.
Fade shuffled into the chamber and went over to the bedding Miles had mentioned. The cot was a simple framework, standard Legion issue, and it didn't take Fade long to assemble it.
Miles went to Gaius's bureau against one wall and picked up a small stack of envelopes. He returned and gave them to Tavi without comment. Tavi was about to ask him which should be delivered first when Miles's eyes narrowed, and a frown wrinkled his brow.
"You," he said. "Fade. Turn around here."
Tavi saw Fade lick his lips and rise, turning to face Miles with his head down.
The Captain strode over to Fade. "Show me your face."
Fade made a quiet sound of distress, bowing in a panicked fashion.
Miles reached out a hand and flicked the hair from one side of Fade's race. It revealed the hideous scars of the coward's brand, and Miles frowned severely at it.
"Sir Miles?" Tavi asked. "Are you all right?"
Miles raked his fingers through his short-cropped hair. "Tired," he said. "Maybe I'm seeing things. He looks familiar, somehow."
"Perhaps you've seen him working, Captain," Tavi said, careful to keep his tone neutral.
That's probably it," Miles said. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "There's still a new Legion to run. I'm off for morning drills." Business as usual," Tavi said.
"Precisely. Killian will handle things until I can return. Obey him without question. Do you understand?"
Miles turned and left without waiting for an answer.
Tavi sighed and crossed the tiles to help Fade finish assembling the cot and bedding. On the other side of the room, Gaius lay on his back, his skin grey and pale. Killian knelt over him, his tea brazier alight, and some noxious-smelling steam drifted up from the coals.
"Tavi," Fade said, his voice low. "I can't do this, I can't be near Miles. He'll recognize me."
"That would be bad?" Tavi whispered back.
"I'd have to fight him." The words were simple, gentle, unadorned with anything but a faint tone of sadness or regret. "I must leave."
"We need your help, Fade," Tavi said. "Gaius needs your help. You can't abandon him."
Fade shook his head, then asked, "What does Miles know about me?"
"Your name. That I trust you. That Gaius sent you here to the Academy with me."
"Blighted furies." Fade sighed. "Tavi, I want you to do something for me. Please."
"Name it," Tavi said at once.
"Tell Miles nothing more about me. Even if he asks. Lie, make excuses, whatever you need to do. We can't afford for him to fly into a rage now."
"What?" Tavi asked. "Why would he do that?"
"Because," Fade said, "he's my brother."