Though she had been unconscious for much of the day, by the time Isana had packed and settled into the covered litter, she was exhausted.
She had never flown in a litter before, either open to the elements or closed, and the experience felt far too familiar to be so terrifying. It looked little different than any covered coach, at least from the inside, which made it ail the more disconcerting to see, out the coach's windows, the occasional soaring bird of prey or feathery tendril of cloud tinted dark gold by the deepening evening. She stared out at the gathering night and the land far below for a time, her heart beating too quickly in her chest.
"It's been getting dark for so long," Isana murmured, only half-aware that she'd said it out loud.
Serai looked up from the embroidery in her lap and glanced out the window. The light colored the pearls on her collar in shades of rose and gold. "We're flying into the sunset, Steadholder, high and quickly at that. The sun will outpace us in time. I've always loved evenings, though. I rather enjoy spending more time in them."
Isana turned her attention to the woman, studying her profile. Serai's emotional presence was barely there-something feather-light and nebulous. When the slave spoke, there was very little of the depth of emotional inflection Isana was used to feeling from those around her. Isana could count the people who had successfully concealed their emotions from her on the fingers of one hand.
Isana lifted her fingers to the front of her dress, touching them thoughtfully to the hidden ring on its chain. Serai was obviously more formidable than she appeared. "Do you fly often?" Isana asked her.
"From time to time," Serai replied. "The journey may take until this time tomorrow, possibly longer. We'll not stop until Rolf's men need to change places in the harness, Steadholder, and that may be long after dark. You should rest."
"Do I look ill?" Isana asked.
"Amara told me of your encounter this morning," Serai replied. Her expression never changed, and the flicker of her needle did not slow, but Isana felt a faint current of trepidation in the courtesan's bearing. "It would be enough to exhaust anyone. You're safe now."
Isana regarded Serai quietly for a moment, and asked, "Am I?"
As safe here as in your own home," Serai assured her, a dry edge lurking beneath the lightly given words. "I'll watch, and wake you if anything happens."
Serai's voice, presence, and manner rang with the subtle tone of truth, something few honest folk could ever hide successfully, and Isana felt herself relax, at least for a moment. The woman meant to protect her-of that much, at least, she felt certain. And Serai was right. The shock and startled fear on the face of the young man Isana had killed still tainted her every thought. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
She didn't expect to be able to sleep, but when she opened her eyes again, there was pale light flowing into the litter from the opposite windows, and her neck and shoulders felt stiff and uncomfortable. She had to blink her eyes for several moments to clear the unexpected sleep from them.
"Ah," Serai said. "Good morning, Steadholder."
"Morning?" Isana said. She fought back a yawn and sat up. There was a rolled cloak behind her head and a heavy, soft blanket covering her. "Did I sleep?"
"Most deeply," Serai confirmed. "You wouldn't stir when we stopped last night, and Rolf was a dear and loaned you his cloak when we got moving again."
"I'm sorry," Isana said. "Surely you rested as well?"
"Not just yet," the courtesan said. "I've been here, as I said I would-but for a few necessary moments, and Rolf sat here with you until I returned."
"I'm sorry," Isana repeated, embarrassed. She offered the cloak to Serai. "Here, please. You should rest."
"And leave you without conversation?" Serai said. "What kind of traveling companion would I be if I did such a thing." She gave Isana a small smile. "I've a touch of metalcrafting in my family's blood. I can go for a few days without."
"That doesn't mean it's good for you," Isana said.
"I must confess that as a rule, things which may not be good for me seem to hold an unwholesome attraction," she said. "And in any case, we should be arriving in the capital within the hour."
"But I thought you said it would take at least a full day."
Serai frowned, staring out the window. The blue-white light of dawn, pure and clear, made her skin glow, and her dark eyes seemed all the deeper. "It should have. Rolf said that we were fortunate to be flying with an unusually swift wind at our backs. I've never experienced such a thing before, between any of the cities, much less flying from the far provinces."
Isana collected her thoughts for a moment. This development changed things. She had less than an hour to prepare herself for the capital, and it might be the only chance she had to speak with Serai in relative privacy. There was little time to discover whatever she could from the woman through conversation-which meant that there was little point to subtlety.
Isana took a breath and addressed the courtesan. "Do you travel this way often?"
"Several times each season. My master finds all sorts of reasons to send me to visit other cities."
"Master. You mean Gaius," Isana said.
Serai's lips pursed thoughtfully. "I am a loyal subject of the Crown, of course," she said. "But my owner is the Lord Forcius Rufus. He is the cousin to the High Lord of Forcia, and holds estates at the northern end of the Vale."
"You live in the Amaranth Vale itself?" Isana asked.
"At the moment, yes," Serai replied. "I'll be missing the orchards in bloom, which is a pity. It makes the whole Vale smell like paradise. Have you seen it?"
Isana shook her head. "Is it as beautiful as everyone says?"
Serai nodded and sighed. "If not more so. As much as I love to travel, I find that I miss my home there. Still, I suppose that I am glad to travel and even more glad to return. Perhaps I am doubly fortunate."
"It sounds like a lovely place." Isana folded her hands in her lap. "And an even lovelier conversational diversion."
Serai looked back to Isana, smiling. "Does it?"
"You are one of the Cursors, then?"
"Darling, I'm merely a glorified pleasure slave, doing Gaius a favor on behalf of her master. And even if I was free, I don't think I'd have the temperament for the profession. All the heroism and duty and so on. Exhausting."
Isana arched an eyebrow. "I suppose a spy for the Crown would be largely useless if she walked around announcing the fact."
Serai smiled. "That seems a reasonable statement, darling."
Isana nodded, her crafting senses once more all but blind to Serai's presence. It was an acutely frustrating sensation. Her companion was one or the First Lord's followers-of that much she was certain. Why else would the Cursors have chosen her to accompany Isana? That meant that she couldn't afford to let down her guard. Serai's duty would be to protect Gaius's interests, and not Isana's.
But at the same time, Isana wasn't so foolish as to think that she did not need an escort in Alera Imperia, capital of all the Realm. She had never been to one of the great cities that formed the heart of Aleran society. She knew that Wintersend in the capital was a time rife with the plotting of various political and economic factions. She had heard tales of such groups indulging in blackmail, extortion, murder, and worse, and her life in the countryside had not prepared her to deal with such matters.
Isana was fully aware that by coming to the capital, she was certain to face deadly peril. Gaius's enemies would strike at her not because of anything she had done, but because of what she represented. Isana was a symbol for the support for the First Lord. Gaius's enemies had already tried to destroy that symbol once. They would certainly do so again.
A sickly, wrenching sensation rippled through Isana's stomach.
Because Tavi was a symbol, too.
Isana would need an escort to navigate the treacherous waters of the capital, and Serai was her only guide and most vital ally. If she was to succeed in protecting Tavi from whatever deadly plots were afoot, Isana needed to secure the courtesan's support and cooperation in any way that she could. Flashes of sincerity were not enough.
"Serai," Isana said. "Do you have family?"
The little courtesan's face and bearing became abruptly opaque. "No, darling."
Isana felt nothing from Rill, but her eyes widened with sudden intuition. "You mean, not anymore."
Serai arched a brow, her expression surprised, but lifted her chin without looking away. "Not anymore."
"What happened?" Isana asked gently.
Serai was silent for a time, then said, "Our steadholt was blighted one year. Blighted badly. The blight took the lives of my husband and my daughter. She'd been born only three weeks before. My brother and my parents died as well. And the other holders. Of them all, I survived, but there will be no more family for me."
Serai looked away and out the window. She moved one hand to rest low on her belly, and her sudden pang of raw anguish struck Isana like a wave of scalding water.
"I'm sorry," she said to the courtesan. She shook her head. "I would never have thought you a holder."
Serai smiled without looking back at Isana, her eyes clear. "I entered into bondage after I recovered. To pay for decent arrangements for them. It was there that I became a"-she left a slight but deliberate pause-"courtesan. Many are found, just as I was."
"I'm so sorry," Isana said. "To make you remember the pain."
"You needn't be, darling. It was long ago."
"You don't look it."
"My family had-has a touch of watercraft in it as well," Serai said, her voice brightening with cheer that Isana knew must be forced. "Nowhere near as strong as you, Steadholder, but I can manage the occasional wrinkle."
The litter lurched, and Isana felt her head spin a little. She looked desperately out the window, but saw only thick, white fog. One of her feet lifted slightly from the floor, and fear froze her breath in her throat.
"It's all right," Serai said, and put a hand on Isana's knee. "We're descending. We're almost there. We'll land in moments."
Isana covered Serai's hand with her own. The courtesan's fingers felt fever-warm. Isana's hand must have been like ice. "There's not much time."
"What do you mean?"
Isana forced her eyes from the dizzying view out the window and to the other woman's. "Serai," she said, her voice shaking, "if you could have them back, would you?"
Serai's eyes widened in shock that quickly became a cool, agate-hard anger. "What sort of question is that, darling?" she replied, her tone unchanged. "Of course I would."
Isana covered Serai's hand with both of hers, and leaned forward, staring directly into her eyes. "That's why I'm coming to Festival. My family is in danger. I don't care about Gaius. I don't care about what man sits on the throne. I don't care about politics or plots or power. I only care that the child I raised is in danger, my brother may die if I cannot send him aid. They are all that I have in the world."
Serai tilted her head to one side in a silent question.
Isana felt her voice waver as she spoke. "Help me."
Serai straightened slowly, comprehension dawning in her eyes.
Isana squeezed her hand. "Help me."
Serai's presence became acutely pained, but her face and her eyes remained calm. "Help you. At the expense of my duty to my master?"
"If need be," Isana said. "I'll do anything necessary to help them. But I don't know if I can do it alone. Please, Serai. They are my family."
"I am sorry, Steadholder, that your kin are in danger. But the servants of the Crown are the only family I know. I will do my duty."
"How can you say that?" Isana asked. "How can you be that indifferent?"
"I am not indifferent," Serai said. "I know what is at stake-better than anyone. Were it up to me, I would ignore the greater concerns of the Realm to save the lives of your family."
Silvery truth resounded in that whisper, but so did resolution. Another agonized stab of fear for her kin wrenched at Isana's chest. She bowed her head and closed her eyes, trying to sort through the courtesan's complex but shrouded tangle of emotion. "I don't understand."
"If it was up to me, I would help you. But it is not up to me," Serai replied. Her voice was both compassionate and unyielding. "I have sworn myself to the service of the Realm. The world of Carna is a cold, cruel place, lady. It is filled with danger and enemies to our people. The Realm is what keeps them safe."
Sudden and bitter scorn filled her throat with flame. Isana let out a breath, not quite a derisive laugh. "The irony. That someone the Realm failed to keep safe would be willing to sacrifice other families in service to it."
Serai withdrew her hands from Isana's, cold, controlled anger now in her voice and presence. "Without the Realm to protect them, there will be no families."
"Without families," Isana spat, "there is nothing for the Realm to protect. How can you say that when you may have the power to help them?"
Serai's bearing and tone remained aloof and unreadable. "As a woman using her own power to dredge up the most painful moment of my life in an attempt to manipulate me to her will, Isana, I hardly think you are in a position to criticize."
Isana clenched her hands in frustration. "I only ask you to help me protect my family."
"At the expense of my loyalty," Serai said, voice steady. "It isn't because I don't want to help you, Steadholder. Or your kin. But there are many women in the Realm with families. And if I could save ten thousand of them by sacrificing yours, I would do so. It wouldn't be right. But it would be necessary. And it is my duty. I have taken an oath as a servant to the Realm, and I will not be foresworn."
Isana looked out the window. "Enough. I understand." After a moment, she added, "And you're right. I apologize to you, lady. I shouldn't have tried to use the pain of your loss against you."
"Perhaps," Serai said, her tone matter-of-fact. "Or perhaps not. I have buried a family, Steadholder. It hurts more than I could ever have imagined. I might not be particular, either, were I trying to protect them."
"I'm terrified. What if I can't do it alone?"
Serai suddenly smiled. "That won't be an issue, darling. Hear me." She leaned forward, eyes intent. "I will do my duty to my master. But I will die myself before I allow you or yours to be harmed. That is my oath to you."
Sincerity rang in the words, a clear and silver tone of truth that not even Serai's composure could wholly contain.
"You do not have to make such an oath," Isana said.
"No," Serai said. "I do not. But it would make no difference in any case. I could not live with myself if I allowed it to happen to another family. Nor would I wish to." She shook her head. "I know it isn't what you wanted to hear, but I can do nothing more. Please believe that I will do nothing less."
"I believe you," Isana said quietly. "Thank you."
Serai nodded, her expression serene, her presence once more quiet and contained.
"Ladies," called a voice from outside the litter. One of their escorting Knights appeared at the window, a young man with sharp features and dark, intense eyes. He was unshaven, and looked beaten with weariness. "The currents can be unpredictable as we descend. There are a pair of restraining belts you should use."
Serai looked up with a sudden smile. "Yes, Rolf. I seem to remember having this conversation before. Where is the subtribune?"
The Knight grinned and bowed his head. Then he leaned closer, and whispered, "Sleeping on the roof. He got tired in the night. All but fell out of the sky."
"How humiliating to the great racing champion should he arrive in such a condition. Didn't he tell you to wake him before you fly into the capital?" Serai asked.
"It's odd," Rolf said. "I can't remember. I'm just that tired." He flicked a contemptuous glance up at the roof of the litter, then said, "If you please, ladies, strap in. Just a moment more."
Serai showed Isana how to secure herself with a pair of heavy woven belts that laced together, and a moment later the litter began to jostle, sway, and shake. It was a terrible sensation, but Isana closed her eyes and held on to the belts with both hands. There was a sudden, bone-rattling thud, and Isana realized that they were safely on the ground.
Serai let out a happy sigh and folded her sewing into a small cloth bag. They unfastened the belts and emerged from the litter into blinding golden sunlight.
Isana stared around her at Alera Imperia, heart of all the Realm.
They stood upon a platform of white marble, larger than the whole walled enclosure of Isanaholt. The wind was almost violent, and Isana had to shield her eyes against it. All around her, other litters were descending, the largest of them borne by a dozen windcrafters. The Knights Aeris were clad in the brilliant livery of the High Lords of each city, and men and women dressed in fantastically rich clothing, sparkling with jewels and embroidered with gold and silver emerged from them, their hair and garments untouched by the whirling winds.
Several men in brown tunics rushed around the litters as they touched down, where they immediately began picking up the litters with furycrafted strength and carrying them to a broad staircase leading down from the platform, so that others could land. Other men in brown tunics arrived, bearing food and drink for the newly arrived Knights, many of whom, including Rolf and the other Knights who had borne Isana and Serai, were sitting on the platform in sheer exhaustion.
"Isana," Serai called through the heavy winds. She stood on tiptoe to speak to the bent ear of another man in a brown tunic, who nodded and accepted a few gleaming coins from the courtesan with a polite bow. Serai beckoned. "Isana, come with me. It's this way."
"But my bag," Isana called back.
Serai approached and leaned up to half shout, "It will be delivered to the house. We need to get off the platform before someone lands on-Isana."
Serai suddenly drove herself hard against Isana's side. Utterly surprised, Isana fell-and so saw a short, heavy dagger as it swept past where her head had been an instant before.
There was a cracking sound, loud even over the wind's constant roar. Heads whipped around toward them. The tumbling dagger's hilt had struck one side of the litter with such force that it shattered the lacquered wood, shooting it through with splits and cracks.
Serai looked around wildly and pointed at the back of another man in a brown tunic, disappearing down the stairs. "Rolf!"
The Knight looked up from where he sat, exhausted, startled for a second, then rose unsteadily to his feet.
"Crows and bloody furies!" thundered a furious voice from atop the litter. Horatio sat up atop it, slipped, and fell from the litter's roof to the ground, screaming oaths at the top of his lungs.
Rolf hurried to the top of the stairs, breathing hard after only a few steps, and stared down them for a moment. He looked back at Serai and shook his head, his expression frustrated.
"I'll have your rank for this!" Horatio bellowed, struggling to his feet. All around them, Citizens of the Realm were pointing at the sleep-muddled subtribune, smiling and laughing. Few, if any, had realized that someone had just attempted bloody murder.
Serai's face was pale, and Isana could both see and feel the terror in her. She rose to her feet, offering Isana her hand. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Isana said. She stumbled and lost her balance in the gale winds, nearly knocking down a tall woman in a red dress and black cloak. "Excuse me, lady. Serai, who was that?"
"I don't know," Serai said. Her hands were shaking, her dark eyes wide. "I saw stains on his tunic. I didn't realize until the last moment that they were blood."
"I'll explain it later. Stay close."
"What do we do?"
The courtesan's eyes narrowed, fear replaced by hard defiance. "We hurry, Steadholder," Serai said. "Keep your eyes open and come with me."
"Very well," snapped Maestro Gallus in his querulous tenor. "Time is up."
Tavi's head snapped up from the surface of the table, and he blinked blearily around the lecture chamber. Nearly two hundred other academs sat in crowded rows at low tables, seated on the floor and writing furiously on long sheets of paper.
"Time," Gallus called again, an edge of anger in his voice. "Stop writing. If you haven't finished your proofs by now, another breath's worth of scribbling won't help you. Papers to the left."
Tavi rubbed at his mouth, blotting the drool from his lip with the sleeve of his grey tunic. The last few inches of his page remained conspicuously blank. He waited for the stack of papers to reach him, added his to it, and passed it to Ehren. "How long was I out?" he muttered.
"The last two," Ehren replied, straightening the pile with a brisk motion of his skinny arms before passing it on.
"You think I passed?" Tavi asked. His mouth felt gummy, and he ached with weariness.
"I think you should have slept last night," Ehren said primly. "You idiot. Did you want to fail?"
"Wasn't my idea," Tavi mumbled. He and Ehren stood and began shuffling out of the stuffy lecture chamber along with all the other students. "Believe me. Do you think I passed?"
Ehren sighed, and rubbed at his eyes. "Probably. No one but me and maybe you would have gotten the last two anyway."
"Good," Tavi said. "I guess."
"Calculations study is important," Ehren said. "In the greater sense, it's essential to the survival of the Realm. There are all sorts of things that make it absolutely necessary."
Tavi let irony creep into his tone. "Maybe I'm just tired. But calculating the duration of a merchant ship's voyage or tracking the taxation payments of outlying provinces seems sort of trivial to me at the moment."
Ehren stared at him for a moment, his expression shocked, as if Tavi had just suggested that they should bake babies into pies for lunch. Then said, "You're joking. You are joking, aren't you Tavi?"
Outside the classroom, students burst into conversation, complaints, laughter, and the occasional song, and filed down the nearest walkway toward the main courtyard in a living river of grey robes and weary minds. Tavi stretched out the moment he got into the open air. "It gets too hot in there after a long test," he told Ehren. "The air gets all squishy."
"It's called humidity, Tavi," Ehren said.
"I haven't slept in almost two days. It's squishy."
Gaelle was waiting at the archway to the courtyard, standing up on tiptoe in a useless effort to peer over the crowd until she spotted Tavi and Ehren. The plain girl's face lit up when she saw them, and she came rushing over, muttering a string of apologies as she swam against the grey tide. "Ehren, Tavi. How bad was it?"
Tavi made a sound halfway between a grunt and a groan.
Ehren rolled his eyes and told Gaelle, "About what I thought it would be. You should be fine." He frowned and looked around. "Where's Max?"
"I don't know," Gaelle said, her eyes looking around with concern. "I haven't seen him. Tavi, have you?"
Tavi hesitated for a moment. He didn't want to lie to his friends, but there was too much at stake. Not only did he have to lie, but he had to do it well.
"What?" he asked blearily, to cover the pause.
"Have you seen Max?" Gaelle repeated, her voice growing exasperated.
"Oh. Last night he said something about a young widow," Tavi said, waving a hand vaguely.
"The night before an exam?" Ehren sputtered. "That's just… it's so wrong that… I think maybe I should lie down for a moment."
"You should too, Tavi," Gaelle said. "You look like you're about to fall asleep on your feet."
"He did during the test," Ehren confirmed.
"Tavi," Gaelle said. "Go to bed."
Tavi rubbed at an eye. "I wish I could. But I couldn't finish all the letter-running before the test started. One more, then I can get some sleep."
"Up all night, then taking a test, and he's still got you running letters?" Gaelle demanded. "That's cruel."
"What's cruel?" Ehren asked.
Tavi started to answer, then walked straight into another student's back. Tavi stumbled backward, jolted from the impact. The other student fell, shoved himself up with a curse, and rounded on Tavi.
It was Brencis. The arrogant young lord's dark hair was mussed and stringy after the long exam. The hulking Renzo hovered behind him and a little bit to one side, and Varien stood to Brencis's left, eyes glittering with anticipation and malice.
"The freak," Brencis said in a flat voice. "The little scribe. Oh, and their sow. I should leave you all neck deep in a cesspool."
Varien said, "I should be pleased to help you with that, my lord."
Tavi tensed himself. Brencis wouldn't forget how Max had humiliated him the previous morning. And since there was little he could do to take vengeance on Max, he would have to find another target for his outrage. Like Tavi.
Brencis leaned down close to Tavi and sneered. "Count yourself lucky, freak, that I have more important matters today."
He turned around and swept away without looking back. Varien blinked for a moment, then followed. Renzo did the same, though his placid expression never changed.
"Huh," Tavi said.
"Interesting," Gaelle mused.
"Well. I wasn't expecting that," Ehren said. "What do you suppose is wrong with Brencis?"
"Perhaps he's finally growing up," Gaelle said.
Tavi exchanged a skeptical look with Ehren.
Gaelle sighed. "Yes, well. It could happen, you know. Someday."
"While we're all holding our breath," Tavi said, "I'm going to get this last letter delivered and get some sleep."
"Good," Gaelle said. "Who are you taking it to?"
"Uh." Tavi rummaged in his pockets until he found the envelope and glanced at the name on it. "Oh, bloody crows," he swore with a sigh. "I'll catch up to you later." He waved at his friends as he broke into a weary jog and headed for Ambassador Varg's quarters.
It wasn't a long way up to the Citadel, but Tavi's tired legs ached, and it seemed to take forever to reach the Black Hall-a long corridor of dark, rough-quarried stone very different from the rest of the First Lord's marble stronghold. The entrance to the hall had an actual gate upon it, bars of dark steel as thick and hard as the portcullis to any stronghold. Outside the gate stood a pair of soldiers from the Royal Guard in red and blue-younger members, Tavi noted, in full arms and armor as usual. They stood facing the gate.
On the other side of the gate, a single candle cast just enough light to show Tavi a pair of Canim crouched on their haunches. Half-covered in their round capes, Tavi could see little of them beyond the sharper angles of their armor at the shoulders and elbows, the gleam of metal upon the hilts of their swords and on the tips of their spears. The shape of their heads was half-hidden in their hoods, but their wolfish muzzles showed, and their teeth, and the faint red-fire gleam of their inhuman eyes. Though they squatted on the floor, their stance was somehow every bit as rigid, alert, and prepared as the Aleran guards facing them.
Tavi approached the gate. The scent of the Canim embassy surrounded him as he did-musky, subtle, and thick, somehow reminding him of both the smithy at his old steadholt and the den of a direwolf.
"Guard," Tavi said. "I bear a letter for His Excellency, Ambassador Varg."
One of the Alerans glanced over his shoulder and waved him past. Tavi approached the gate. On the other side, a leather basket sat in its usual place on the rough floor, an arm's length away from the bars, and Tavi leaned through to drop the letter into the basket. In his mind, he had already completed his task and was looking forward, finally, to sleeping.
He barely saw the Cane nearest him move.
The inhuman guard slid forward with a sudden, sinuous grace, and a long arm flashed out to snare Tavi's wrist. His heart lurched with a sudden apprehension too vague and exhausted to be proper panic. He could have swept his arm in a circle toward the Cane's thumb, to break the grip and draw back, but doing so would surely have caused him to lash open his own arm on the Cane's claws. There was no chance he could have pulled away from the guard by main force.
All of that flashed through his mind in the space of a heartbeat. Behind him, he heard the sharp intake of breath from the two Aleran guards and the sound of steel hissing against leather as they drew swords.
Tavi left his arm where it was in the Cane's grip, and raised his free hand to the guards. "Wait," he said, voice quiet. Then he looked up-a great deal up-to fix the Cane guard with a flat stare. "What do you want, Guard?" Tavi demanded, his tone impatient, peremptory.
The Cane regarded him with unreadable, feral eyes and released his wrist in a slow, deliberate motion that trailed the tips of the Cane's claws harmlessly against Tavi's skin. "His Excellency," the Cane growled, "requests the messenger to deliver the letter directly to his hands."
"Stand away from him, dog," snarled the Aleran guard.
The Cane looked up and bared its yellow fangs in a silent snarl. "Its all right, legionare," Tavi said quietly. "It's a perfectly reasonable request. It is the Ambassador's right to receive missives directly from the First Lord should he wish."
Both the Canim started letting out low, stuttering growls. The one who had seized Tavi's arm opened the gate. Tavi stared for a moment, at how easily the enormous Cane opened the massive steel portal. Then he swallowed, took up the single candle, clutched the envelope, and entered the Black Hall.
The Cane guard paced Tavi, slightly behind him. Tavi paused and slowed his steps until he could see the Cane in the corner of one eye. The guard prowled, each step sinuous and relaxed, regarding Tavi with what seemed to be open curiosity as they walked to the end of the Black Hall. They passed several open, irregular doorways on the way, but the shadows filling them were too thick to allow Tavi to see what lay beyond.
At the end of the hall was the only door Tavi had seen, made of some thick, heavy wood of some dark color that shone with deep red and heavy purple highlights in the light of Tavi's candle.
Tavi's guard strode past him in those too-long stalking steps of a grown Cane, and drew its claws slowly down the dark wood. Whatever it was, the wood was hard. The Cane's heavy claws scraped loudly, but no indentation or mark appeared on the wood.
There was a snarl from the room beyond, a sound that sent a quick chill racing down Tavi's spine. The guard replied with a similar sound, though higher in pitch. There was a brief silence, then a chuckling growl, and Varg's voice rumbled, "Send him in."
The guard opened the door and stalked away without giving Tavi a second glance. The boy swallowed, took a deep breath, and strode into the room.
As he crossed the threshold, a draft struck his candle and snuffed it out.
Tavi stood in utter darkness. There were a pair of low growls this time, one coming from either side of him, and Tavi became acutely aware of how entirely vulnerable he was, and how strongly the chamber smelled of musk and meat-the scent of predators.
It took his eyes a long moment to adjust, but he began to make out details of deep, scarlet light and black shadow. There was a bed of barely glowing coals in a shallow depression in the center of the floor, and some kind of heavy pads made from material he could not identify lay around the coals. The room was shaped like an overturned bowl, the walls curling up to a ceiling that was not much higher than Tavi could have reached with his hands. Several feet back in the shadows, there were what Tavi took to be two more guards, but upon second glance he recognized them as arming dummies-though taller and broader than the stands that typically bore the armor of off-duty legionares. One of the dummies bore the odd outline of a suit of Canish armor, but the other stood empty.
Against the back wall of the room, Tavi heard the trickle of water, and could barely see the shimmer of the dim red light against a pool, its surface broken by small and regular ripples.
On instinct, Tavi turned and faced almost directly behind him.
"Ambassador," he said in a respectful tone. "I've a message for you, sir."
Another low growl rippled through the room, oddly twisted by the shape of the walls, or by the composition of the stone, bouncing about as though from several sources at once. There was a gleam of red eyes two feet above Tavi's own, then Varg slid forward out of the darkness into the bloody light.
"Good," said the Cane, still dressed in cloak and armor. "The controlled use of instinct. Too often your kind are either ruled by them or pay them no mind."
Tavi had no idea how to respond to that, other than to offer Varg the envelope. "Thank you, Your Excellency."
Varg took the envelope and opened it with a single, negligent swipe of a claw that cut the paper with barely a whisper of sound. It flicked the missive inside open and scanned over it, growling again. "So. I am to be ignored."
Tavi regarded it with a blank expression. "I only carry the messages, sir."
"Do you," said Varg. "Let it be on your own heads, then."
"You see, my lord," hissed a higher-pitched growling voice from the doorway. "They have no respect for you or for our people. We should be rid of this place and return to the Blood Lands."
Tavi and Varg both turned to face the doorway, where a Cane Tavi didn't recognize crouched. It wore no armor, but was draped in long robes of deep scarlet. Its pawlike hands were far thinner and more spidery than Varg's, and its reddish fur looked thin and unhealthy. The muzzle, too, was narrow and pointed, and its tongue lolled out to one side, nickering nervously. "Sarl," Varg growled. "I did not send for you."
The second Cane drew its hood back from its head and tilted it to one side in an exaggerated gesture that Tavi suddenly understood. The Cane was baring its throat to Varg-a gesture of deference or respect, evidently.
"Apologies, mighty lord," Sarl said. "But I came to report to you that word has come, and that the change of guard would arrive in two days' time."
Tavi pursed his lips. He had never heard a Cane speak Aleran, except for Varg. He could not imagine that Sarl had addressed its superior in language Tavi could understand by mere chance.
"Very good, Sarl," Varg growled. "Out."
"As you wish, lord," Sarl replied, baring its throat again, hunching low. The Cane backed away, scraping, and hurried back into the corridor.
"My secretary," Varg said. Tavi could only guess, but he thought the Ambassador's growling tone was somewhere between pensive and amused. "He attends to matters he thinks beneath my notice."
"I am familiar with the concept," Tavi answered.
Varg's teeth showed as its muzzle lolled open. "Yes. You would be. That is all, cub."
Tavi began to bow, but then a thought struck him. The gesture might not be the same from the Cane's point of view. What was a motion of respect to Alerans might be something very different in a society whose members might fight to tear out one another's throats with their teeth, like wolves. A wolf who crouched and ducked its chin in closer to its body was preparing to fight. Certainly, Varg was aware of the difference in gestures, as it obviously didn't seem to regard bows as a challenge to combat, but it still seemed, to Tavi, to be impolite to make the gesture the Ambassador's instincts surely twinged at whenever it saw.
Instead, Tavi tilted his head a bit to one side, mimicking the gesture Varg himself had made earlier, and said, "Then I take my leave, Excellency."
He started to walk past Varg, but the Cane suddenly put out a heavy paw-hand and blocked Tavi's way.
Tavi swallowed and glanced up at the Cane. He met the Ambassador's eyes for a moment.
Varg regarded him, fangs gleaming, and said, "Light your candle at my fire before you go. Your night eyes are weak. I'll not have you stumbling in my corridor and bawling like a puppy."
Tavi exhaled slowly and tilted his head again. "Yes, sir."
Varg shifted its shoulders, an odd motion, and prowled back to the pool.
Tavi went to the coals and lit his candle against them, this time shielding the flame with his hand. He watched as the Cane crouched, as easy on all fours as upright, and drank directly from the pool. But he dared not simply stare, as fascinating as it might be. Tavi turned and hurried out.
Just before he crossed the threshold again, Varg growled, "Aleran."
"I have rats."
Tavi blinked. "Sir?"
"Rats," Varg growled. It turned its head to look over one armored shoulder. Tavi could see little more than the gleam of fangs and red eyes. "I hear them at night. There are rats in my walls."
Tavi frowned. "Oh."
"Out," said Varg.
Tavi hurried back into the hallway and started retreating back toward the Citadel proper. He walked slowly, mulling over the Ambassador's words. Clearly, it wasn't simply speaking about a rat problem. The rodents could be a nuisance, of course, but surely one the Cane could deal with. Even more puzzling was the reference to walls. The walls of the Canim enclosure in the Black Hall were made of stone. Rats were industrious tunnelers and gnawers, but they could not bore through solid rock.
Varg struck Tavi as the sort of being who did not spend his words idly. Tavi had already sized up the Ambassador as the kind of warrior who would fight with simple, deadly efficiency. It seemed reasonable to assume that given any choice in the matter, Varg would waste no more effort on words than on bloodshed.
Tavi's eyes fell to the flame on his candle. Then to the walls. He took a pair of quick steps to stand beside the wall nearest him and lowered his hand.
In the still air of the hallway, his candle flickered and leaned, very slightly.
His heart started pounding faster, and Tavi followed the direction of the flame, moving slowly down the wall. In only a moment, he found the source of the small draft-a tiny opening in the wall, one he had not seen before. He placed the heel of his hand against it and pushed.
A section of the stone wall slid open soundlessly, previously unseen seams splitting into visibility. Tavi held up the candle. Just beyond the hidden passageway, stairs led down into the stone.
The Canim had a passageway into the Deeps.
Tavi was still too far from the entrance to the Black Hall to see its guards clearly, and he could only hope that they could not see him clearly, either. Shielding the light of the candle in his hand once more, he slipped onto the stairs and went down them as silently as he possibly could.
Voices from ahead made him stop, listening.
The first speaker was Canim-Sarl, Tavi was sure of it. He recognized the cringing tone to its snarling voice. "And I tell you that all is in readiness. There is nothing to fear."
"Talk is cheap, Cane," said a human voice, so quiet that Tavi could hardly hear it. "Show me."
"That was not a part of our agreement," the Cane said. There was a shivering, flapping sound, like a dog shaking its chops. "You must believe my words."
"Suppose I don't?" asked the other.
"It is too late to change your mind now," said Sarl, a nasty slur to the words. "Let us not discuss what cannot-" The Cane's words cut off suddenly.
"What is it?" asked the second voice.
"A scent," Sarl said, a hungry little whine coloring his tone. "Someone near."
Tavi's heart raced, and he fled up the stairs as quietly as his weary legs could manage. Once in the hall, he all but sprinted down it, back toward the Citadel. As he approached, the Canim guards rose, growling, eyes intent upon him.
"His Excellency dismissed me," Tavi panted.
The guards traded a look, then one of them opened the gate. No sooner had Tavi fled out it and heard it shut behind him than the shadows stirred, and Sarl appeared in the Black Hall, hurrying along in a hunched shuffle. Its pointed ears went flat to its skull when he spied Tavi, and the Cane crouched a little, lips lifting away from the fangs on one side of its muzzle.
Tavi stared back at the Cane. He needed no intuition to understand the flash of raw, hungry hatred he saw in the Canim secretary's eyes.
Sarl spun and shuffled back into the shadows, motions purposeful. Tavi fled, fear making his legs tremble, to put as much distance as possible between himself and the residents of the Black Hall.