Academ's Fury

Chapter 9

chapter
Chapter

Chapter 17

It was late afternoon by the time Fidelias returned from gathering information from his contacts in the rougher parts of Alera Imperia. He emerged from the labyrinthine passages in the Deeps into the wine cellar of Aquitaine's manor, and it was a relief to arrive in an area where prying eyes were most unlikely to single him out for attention. He moved directly up the servant's staircase to the top floor of the mansion, where the lavish master suite of High Lord and Lady Aquitaine lay sprawled in luxurious splendor.

Fidelias entered the sitting room of the suite, walked across to the cabinet where a selection of spirits was kept, and helped himself to the contents of an ancient bottle of blue glass. He poured the clear liquid within into a broad, shallow glass, and took it over to a thickly padded chair before broad windows.

He sat down and closed his eyes, sipping slowly at the liquid that felt ice-cold to his lips.

A door opened behind him. Light footsteps moved into the room. "Icewine," murmured Lady Aquitaine. "You never struck me as the type."

"I arranged signals with my contacts a long time ago-in this case, ordering a drink. Back then I was fool enough to drink five or six firewines in a night."

"I see," Lady Aquitaine said, and sat down in the chair facing his own. Her personal presence was magnetic. She had the kind of beauty that most women would not know to envy-not that of transient youth, though her skill at watercrafting certainly allowed her to appear as young as she would wish. But instead, Invidia Aquitaine's beauty was something that could only be emphasized by the passing of years. It was founded on a rock-solid strength that carried through the lines of her cheekbones and jaw, and continued in the dark granite of her eyes. Lady Invidia's entire bearing and mien was one of elegant power, and as she sat down in her scarlet silk dress and faced Fidelias, he sensed that strength and felt the coolly restrained edge of anger that touched her voice as lightly as autumn's first frost. "And what did you learn?"

Fidelias took another slow sip of the cold drink, refusing to be rushed. "Isana is here. She is in the company of Serai."

Lady Aquitaine frowned. "The courtesan?"

"The Cursor," Fidelias said. "Or so I suspect her to be."

"One of Gaius's secret hands?"

Fidelias nodded. "Highly probable, though like the Cursor Legate, their identities are never openly revealed. She is staying with Isana in the home of Sir Nedus, on Garden Lane."

Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. "Not in the Citadel?"

"No, my lady. And thus far I have not been able to discover why."

Interesting," she murmured. "What else?"

I'm certain that the assassin at the windport was one of Kalare's men." How can you be so sure?"

"He wasn't a local cutter," Fidelias answered. "My informants in the city would have known something-not necessarily who had done it, but something. They knew nothing. So it had to have come from out of town. Between that and the information gained from the assassin at Isanaholt, I'm convinced of it."

"I take it you have learned nothing that could be proven in court," Invidia said.

"I hadn't realized you were preparing a suit."

She gave him a smile as slim and fine as a dagger's edge.

"Kalare is still trying to remove Isana," Fidelias said. "I suspect that his operatives are using the Deeps to facilitate their movements."

Invidia frowned. "The caverns beneath the city?"

"Yes. Every source I spoke with reported men going missing in the Deeps. I presume that the bloodcrows are removing witnesses before they have a chance to spread word about them."

Invidia nodded. "Which would indicate multiple members of Kalarus's band."

"It would."

"But that hardly seems to make sense," Invidia said. "The attempt on Isana's life today was hurried-even sloppy. Why strike with one injured and wounded agent if others were available?"

Fidelias raised his eyebrows, impressed. "And I didn't even need to coach you to ask the right question."

"I'm not my husband, dear spy," she said, her mouth curving into a smile. "Well?"

He exhaled slowly. "You aren't going to like the answer, lady. But I do not know. There are other factors at work. These disappearances-I can't account for them. And…"

She leaned forward a little, arching an eyebrow. "And?"

"I can't be certain," Fidelias said. He took another drink of the burning cold liquid. "But I believe that there has been a disruption among the Cursors."

"What makes you think so?"

He shook his head. "Obviously, I couldn't speak to anyone directly connected to them. But those I spoke to should have known something about their recent movements, activities. But there was nothing. Not to mention that Serai is becoming very publicly involved in what is going on at great risk of revealing her allegiance."

"I don't understand," Invidia said.

"I'm not sure I do, either," Fidelias said. "There's a taste to the air." He fixed his gaze on Invidia's. "I think someone has declared war on the Cursors themselves."

Invidia arched an eyebrow. "That… would strike a crippling blow to Gaius."

"Yes."

"But who would have the knowledge to do such a thing?"

"Me," he said.

"That had crossed my mind," Invidia said. "Have you done it, then?"

Fidelias shook his head, glad that he had no need to veil his emotions in order to confound Invidia's ability at watercrafting. "No. I left the Cursors because I believe the Realm needs a strong leader-and that Gaius can no longer perform his duty as the First Lord. I bear no grudges or malice against the Cursors who serve him in good faith."

"Like the girl? What was her name?"

"Amara," Fidelias said.

"No grudge, my spy? No malice?"

"She's a fool," he said. "She's young. I have been both in my time."

"Mmmm," Invidia said. "How carefully you veil yourself from me when you speak of her."

Fidelias swirled the last bit of icewine around in his cup. "Did I?"

"Yes."

He shook his head and finished the drink. "I will learn whatever else I may. And I will move on Isana tonight."

"There are entirely too many mysteries here for my comfort," Lady Aquitaine said. "But keep in mind, my spy, that my primary concern is the Steadholder. I will not have the Realm know that Kalarus had her removed. I will be the one to weave her fate."

Fidelias nodded. "I have watchers around Sir Nedus's manor. When she steps outside, I'll know it, and be there."

"But why is she not in the Citadel?" Lady Aquitaine murmured. "Surely Gaius knows how vital she is to his continued authority."

"Surely, Your Grace."

"And with Serai." Invidia smiled faintly and shook her head. "I would never have guessed her to be Gaius's tool. I've spoken with her many times. I've never sensed any such thing about her."

"She's quite deadly at the arts of deception, my lady, and a valuable tool of the Crown. She has been sending messengers to the Citadel all during the day on behalf of the Steadholder."

Invidia frowned. "To Gaius?"

"To the boy at the Academy."

Invidia sniffed. "Family. Sentiment, I suppose."

"Word has it that he is one of Gaius's personal pages. Perhaps it is an attempt to reach the First Lord through him."

Lady Aquitaine pursed her lips. "If the palace guard is on heightened alert, and if, as you believe, the Cursors themselves are in disarray, then the channels of communication to Gaius may be entirely severed." A faint line appeared between her brows, then she smiled. "He's frightened. On the defensive."

Fidelias set his empty glass aside and nodded, rising. "It's possible."

"Excellent," she said, and rose with him. "Well. I have another dreary little gathering to prepare for, Fidelias-and at Kalarus's manor, no less. Perhaps I might glean some more information. I will leave you to see to the Steadholder."

Fidelias bowed to Lady Aquitaine and stepped back to withdraw.

"Fidelias," she said, just before he reached the door.

He paused, and looked over his shoulder.

"The Steadholder represents a significant political threat to our plans. You will deal with her tonight," she said. "Failure is unacceptable."

The last words held a frosted edge of steel.

"I understand, my lady," he told her, and paced back toward the shadowed entrance to the Deeps.

Chapter 18

Tavi slept like the dead and woke when someone gave his shoulder a brisk shake. He stirred slowly, his muscles tight with the discomfort of hours of motionless sleep, and wiped drool from his mouth.

"What?" he mumbled. The dormitory room he shared with Max was only dimly lit. From the quantity of light, it had to have been near dusk. He'd been asleep for hours.

"I said," replied a stern, rich voice, "that you should arise at once."

Tavi blinked and looked up at who had woken him.

Gaius fixed him with a stern glare. "I have no time to waste on apprentice shepherds who sleep too soundly to serve the First Lord of the Realm."

"Sire," Tavi blurted, and sat up. He shoved his hair from his eyes and tried to blink the sleep from them as well. "Forgive me."

"I expected better of you," Gaius said, his expression severe. "Behavior more like… like Antillus's bastard, for example. Fine figure of a young man, he is. An excellent reputation for loyalty. Honor. Duty. And handsome to boot."

Tavi rolled his eyes and slugged "Gaius" lightly in the stomach with one fist.

"Ooof," the false Gaius said, his voice sliding back into Max's usual pitch and cadence. The First Lord's features slid and changed, melting back into Max's own broken-nosed, rough good looks. The older boy's mouth was set in a wide grin. "Pretty good, eh? I had you going for a moment."

Tavi rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to work out a tight muscle. "Only for a moment."

"Ah," Max said. "But you know where he truly is, as well as his condition. No one else does-or that is the idea, anyway." He stretched out his legs and regarded his toes. "Besides, I've already attended the opening ceremonies to the Wind Trials and half a dozen smaller functions. All I have to do is look grumpy and keep my verbal exchanges to one or two syllables, and everyone goes leaping out of their way to keep from angering me." Max bobbed his eyebrows. "It is good to be the First Lord."

"Quiet," Tavi warned his friend, glancing around. "These quarters aren't safe for such discussion."

"They aren't exactly the first place spies are going to be looking, either," Max said, with a careless flip of one booted foot. "You got some rest?"

"So it would seem," Tavi said, wincing.

"Time to get back to work then," Max said. "Change your clothes and come with me."

Tavi rose at once. "What are we doing?"

"I'm continuing my brilliant performance," Max said. "After we two Pages attend the First Lord in his chambers, at any rate. You are advising me."

"Advising you?"

"Yes. You were the one who had the big thesis paper on furycrafting theory first year, and I'll be speaking to the… Board of someone or other."

"The Board of Speakers of the Crafting Society?" Tavi asked.

Max nodded. "Those guys. They're meeting with the First Lord to get approval for more studies of, uh…" Max squinted up his eyes. "Arthritic Beer, I keep thinking, but those aren't the right words."

Tavi blinked. "Anthropomorphic Theorem?"

Max nodded again, in exactly the same unconcerned way. "That's it. I've got to learn all about it by the time we walk up to the palace, and you're to teach it to me."

Tavi glared at his roommate and started ripping off his old clothes, changing into fresh ones. He hadn't even bothered to undress before he collapsed on his bed, after fleeing the Black Hall that morning. He started to awaken more thoroughly before he finished re-dressing and raked his comb through his hair. "I'm hurrying."

"Oh," Max said. He bent over and picked up an envelope on the floor. "Someone slid this under the door."

Tavi took the envelope and recognized the handwriting at once. "My aunt Isana."

Outside, the evening bells began to ring, signaling the coming of twilight.

"Crows," Max swore. He rose and started for the door. "Come on. I've got to be there in a quarter hour."

Tavi folded the envelope and thrust it into his belt pouch. "All right, all right." They left the room and started across the campus toward one of the hidden entries to the Deeps. "What do you need to know?"

"Well," Max said after a few steps. "Um. All of it."

Tavi stared at the larger boy in dismay. "Max, that class is required. Essentials of Furycrafting. You took that class."

"Well, yes."

"In fact, we had it together."

Max nodded, frowning.

"And you were there most of the time," Tavi said.

"Certainly," Max said. "It was in the afternoon. I have no objection to education as long as it doesn't interfere with my sleep."

"Did you listen?" Tavi asked.

"Um," Max said. "Keep in mind that Rivus Mara sat in the row in front of us. You remember her. The one with the red hair and the big…" He coughed. "Eyes. We spent some of those lectures seeing who could earthcraft the other the most."

Which explained both why Max had shown up nearly every day, and why he headed straight off for parts unknown after class, Tavi thought sourly. "How many is some?"

"All of them," Max said. "Except that day I was hungover."

"What? How did you manage to write a passing paper?"

"Well. You remember Igenia? That blonde from Placida? She was good enough to-"

"Oh, shut up, Max," Tavi growled. "That was a three-month course. How in the crows am I supposed to give you all of that in the next fifteen minutes?"

"Cheerfully and without complaint," Max replied, grinning. "Like a true and resourceful member of the Realm and servant of the Crown."

Tavi sighed as they made sure they weren't being observed, then slipped into an unlocked toolshed and down through the hidden trapdoor in its floor to the stairs that led into the Deeps. Max lit a furylamp and handed it to Tavi, then took one for himself.

"You ready to listen?" Tavi asked him.

"Sure, sure."

"Anthropomorphic Theorem," Tavi said. "Okay, you know that furies are the beings that inhabit the elements."

"Yes, Tavi," Max said drily. "Thanks to my extensive education, I did know that one."

Tavi ignored the remark. "There's been debate among furycrafters since the dawn of Aleran history as to the nature of those beings. That's what the various theories try to describe. There are a number of different ideas about how much of the furies are truly intrinsic to their nature, and how much is something that we cause them to become."

"Eh?" Max said.

Tavi shrugged. "We command furies with our thoughts." He went ahead using the inclusive plural. We. Though he was arguably the only Aleran alive who could have said you instead. "That's what Imposed Anthropomorphic Theory states. Maybe part of our thoughts also shape how our furies appear to us. Maybe a wind fury on its own doesn't look like anything much at all. But when a crafter meets it and uses it, maybe that crafter, somewhere in his head, believes that it should look like a horse, or an eagle or whatever. So when that fury manifests in a visible form, that's what it looks like."

"Oh, oh, right," Max said. "We might give them form without realizing, right?"

"Right," Tavi said. "And that's the predominant view in the cities and among most Citizens. But other scholars support the Natural Anthropomorphic Theory. They insist that since the furies are each associated with some specific portion of their element-a mountain, a stream, a forest, whatever-that each has its own unique identity, talents, and personality."

"Which is why a lot of folks in the country name their furies?" Max guessed.

"Right. And why the city folk tend to sneer at the idea, because they regard it as paganus superstition. But everyone in the Calderon Valley named their furies. They all looked different. Were good at different things. They're also apparently a lot stronger than most city furies. Certainly the Alerans living in the most primitive areas of the Realm tend to command much more powerful furies than in other areas."

"Then why would anyone think that the Imposed Theory was correct?"

Tavi shrugged. "They claim that because the crafter is imagining a separate creature with a form and personality and range of abilities, even if he won't admit to himself that he is, that he is capable of doing more because so much less of it relies totally upon his own thought."

"So the crafter with a named fury can do more because he's too stupid to know he can't?" Max asked.

"That's the view of those in favor of Imposed Anthropomorphic Theory."

"That's stupid," Max said.

"Maybe," Tavi said. "But they may be right, too."

"Well. How do the Natural theorists explain why so many people have furies without a specific identity?"

Tavi nodded at the question. It was a good one. Max might not have had an ounce of self-discipline, but there wasn't a thing wrong with his wits. "Natural theorists say that the furies of increasingly domesticated lands tend to break down. They lose their specific identities as they get passed down from generation to generation and as the natural landscape becomes more and more settled and tamed. They're still present, but instead of being there in their natural form, the furies have been broken down into countless tiny bits that a crafter calls together when he wants to get something done. They aren't as strong, but they don't have the quirks and foibles, either, so they're more reliable."

Max grunted. "Might make some sense," he said. "My old man had some things to say when I named one of my furies." Max's voice took on a hard, bitter edge that Tavi could only barely hear. "Insisted that it was childish nonsense. That he had to break me of the habit before it ruined me. It was harder to do things, his way, but he wouldn't hear of anything else."

Tavi saw the pain in his friend's eyes and thought of all the scars on his back. Maybe Max had his reasons not to pay attention in that particular class that had nothing to do with his carousing. Tavi had thought himself alone in his painful sense of isolation when listening to the basic theory and history of furycrafting. But perhaps it dredged up as many painful memories for Max as it had for him.

"So"-Max sighed after a moment-"which is it?"

"No clue," Tavi said. "No one knows for sure."

"Yeah, yeah," Max said impatiently. "But which one does Gaius think it is? The Board of Speakers is going to be having some kind of debate."

"They do that every year," Tavi said. "I was there last year. Gaius doesn't take sides. They all get together to try to convince him with whatever they think they've learned, and he always listens and nods and doesn't make anyone angry and doesn't take sides. I think that the Board of Speakers really just wants the excuse to drink the First Lord's best wine and to try to one-up their opponents and rivals in front of him."

Max grimaced. "Crows. I'm glad I'm not the First Lord. This stuff would drive me insane in about a day and a half." He shook his head. "What do I do if someone tries to pin me down for an answer?"

"Evade," Tavi suggested, enjoying the heartlessly vague answer.

"What if they start talking about some kind of theory I have no clue about?"

"Just do what you do when the Maestros ask you a question during lecture and you don't know the answer." Max blinked. "Belch?"

Tavi sighed. "No. No, Max. Divert the attention. Stall for time. Only try not to use any kind of bodily function to accomplish it."

Max sighed. "Diplomacy is more complicated than I thought it would be."

It's just a dinner party," Tavi said. "You'll do fine."

"I always do," Max said, but his voice lacked some of its usual arrogance.

"How is he?" Tavi said.

"He hasn't moved," Max replied. "Hasn't woken up. But Killian says his heartbeat is stronger."

"That's good," Tavi said. He chewed at his lip. "What happens if…"

"If he doesn't wake up," Max said grimly.

"Yeah."

Max inhaled slowly. "Legions fight for the crown. A lot of people die."

Tavi shook his head. "But there is law and precedent for the death of a lord without an heir. The Council of Lords and the Senate would put forward candidates and determine the most fit to take the lordship. Wouldn't they?"

"Officially, sure. But whatever they decided, it wouldn't stick. The High Lords who want the throne might play nice for a little while, but sooner or later one of them would lose the political game and take it to a military venue."

"Civil war."

"Yeah," Max said. He grimaced. "And while we waited for it all, the southern cities would just love to cut the Shield cities loose. And without that support…" Max shook his head. "I served two tours on the Shieldwall. We hold it against the Icemen, but we aren't as invincible as everyone down in the rest of the Realm seems to believe. I've seen more than one near breach of the Shieldwall with my own eyes. Without Crown support, it would fall within three years. Four, at the most."

They walked in silence through the tunnels for a few moments. Tavi tended to forget that Max's knowledge of the military disposition of the various High Lords and their Legions was a match for his own knowledge of Aleran society, politics, and history, or for Gaelle's knowledge of the trade crafts and the movement of money, or for Ehren's knowledge of calculations and statistics. Each of them had their strengths, in accordance with their inclinations. It was one reason why they had been chosen to train for the Cursors.

"Max," Tavi said quietly, "you can do this. I'll be there. I'll help if you get into trouble."

His friend inhaled deeply and looked down at him. His mouth quirked in a half smile. "It's just that a lot depends on this act, Tavi. If I get this wrong, a lot of people could die." He sighed. "I almost wish I'd been paying attention in class."

Tavi arched one eyebrow.

Max winked. "I said almost."

All in all, things could have gone worse.

"Gaius" received the Board of Speakers in his own private reception chambers-which were as large as one of the Academy's lecture halls. Between the Board of Speakers, their wives, assistants, and their wives, there were fifty or sixty people in attendance, plus a dozen members of the Royal Guard. Max played his role well, circulating among the guests and chatting pleasantly while Tavi watched and listened from an unobtrusive seat in a curtained alcove. Max faltered once, when one particularly intent young Speaker brought up some obscure technical point of furycrafting, but Tavi promptly interceded, hurrying to pass the false First Lord a folded piece of paper with a scribbled missive. Max opened the paper, looked at it, then smoothly excused himself from the conversation to draw Tavi aside and issue apparent instructions.

"Thanks," Max said. "What the hell does inverted proportional propensity mean, anyway?"

"No idea, really," Tavi said, nodding as though in acknowledgment to a command.

"At least now I don't feel quite so stupid. How am I doing?"

"Stop looking down Lady Erasmus's bodice," Tavi said.

Max arched an eyebrow and sniffed. "I didn't."

"Yes, you did. Stop it."

Max sighed. "Tavi, I'm a young man. Some things just aren't in my control."

"Get them there," Tavi said, and inclined his head deeply, taking two steps back, then withdrawing to the alcove.

Beyond that, things had gone fairly well, until the midnight bell rang, signaling the guests that it was time to depart. Guests, serving staff, then guards cleared out of the reception chamber, leaving a pleasant quiet and stillness behind them.

Max exhaled noisily, picked a bottle of wine from one of the tables, and promptly flopped into a chair. He took a long pull from the bottle, then winced and stretched his back a little.

Tavi emerged from the curtained alcove. "What are you doing?"

"Stretching," Max growled. The tone sounded decidedly odd coming from the First Lord's mouth. "Gaius is about my size but his shoulders are narrower. After a while it starts to hurt like hell." He guzzled some more wine. "Crows, but I want a good long soak."

"At least get back into your own clothes and such before you start acting like that. Someone could see."

Max made a rude noise with his lips and tongue. "These are the First Lord's private chambers, Tavi. No one is going to come wandering into them uninvited."

No sooner had the words left Max's mouth than Tavi heard footsteps and the soft click of a doorknob turning from an unobtrusive doorway on the far side of the room. He reacted without thinking, and ducked back into the curtained alcove, peeking through a small gap.

The door opened, and the First Lady walked calmly into the room.

Gaius Caria, the First Lord's wife, was a woman not ten years older than Tavi and Max. It was widely known that her marriage to Gaius had been a political matching rather than one of romance, and Gaius had used it to drive a wedge between the High Lords of Forcia and Kalare, shattering a political alliance that had threatened even the power of the crown.

Caria herself was a young woman of impeccable breeding, formidable skill at furycraft, and stark, elegant beauty. Her long, straight, fine hair hung in a heavy braid worn over one shoulder, a strand of gleaming firepearls woven through the black tresses. Her gown was of the finest silks, the pure, ivory cream of her dress accented with royal blue and scarlet, the colors of the House of Gaius. Jewels gleamed upon her left hand, both wrists, her throat, and her ears, sapphires and blood-colored rubies that matched the colors in the dress. Her skin was very pale, her eyes dark, and her mouth was set in a hard, dangerous line.

"My lord husband," she said, and gave the false Gaius a little curtsey. There was restrained fury vibrating from every fiber of her.

Tavi's heart stuck in his throat. Stupid, stupid. Of course the First Lord's wife would be admitted to his presence. Their private chambers were linked by a number of hallways and doors, which had been the practice of the House of Gaius for centuries.

And crows take it all, in all that had happened he had never stopped to consider that Max might have to deceive Gaius's own wife. They were about to be discovered. Tavi hovered on the brink of emerging, telling the First Lady everything, before she discovered it on her own.

But he hesitated. His instincts screamed warnings at him, and though he had no reason at all to do so, he found himself feeling almost certain that exposing the charade to the First Lady would be a disastrous idea.

So he waited behind the curtains and did not move. He barely breathed.

Max managed to rise to a more believable seated position on the chair before the First Lady had entered the room. His expression became reserved and sober and he rose with a polite little bow that duplicated Gaius's own dignity perfectly. "My lady wife," he replied.

Her eyes flicked from his face down to the bottle and back. "Have I displeased you in some way, my lord?"

"Gaius" frowned, then pursed his lips thoughtfully. "And why should you think that?"

"I awaited your summons to the reception, my lord. As we discussed weeks ago. It never came."

Max raised both eyebrows, though it was an expression with more weariness than genuine surprise in it. "Ah. That's right. I'd forgotten."

"You forgot," Caria said. Her voice rang with scorn. "You forgot."

"I'm the First Lord of Alera, my lady," Max told her. "Not an appointments calendar."

She smiled and inclined her head, though the expression was a bitter one. "Of course, my lord. I'm sure that everyone will understand why you have insulted your own wife in front of the whole of the Realm."

Tavi winced. Not once had anyone asked about the First Lady's absence. Indeed, if the First Lord had apparently forbidden her to appear at his side at such a comparatively unimportant function, word of it would rapidly spread.

"It was not my intention to humiliate you, Caria," Max said, and rose from his chair to walk over to her.

"You never do anything without a reason," she spat back. "If that was not your intention, then why did you do this to me?"

Max tilted his head to one side and regarded her appraisingly. "Perhaps I wanted to keep the sight of you to myself. That gown is lovely. The jewels exquisite. Though neither as much so as the woman wearing them."

Caria stood there for a moment in perfect silence, her lips parted in total surprise. "I… thank you, my lord."

Max smiled down at her, stepped close. He lifted a hand and put a forefinger under the tip of her chin. "Perhaps I wanted you to be here when I could have your attention to myself."

"My… my lord," she stammered. "I do not understand."

"If an enormous, boring crowd was standing around us right now," Max said, his eyes on hers, "I would hardly be able to do something like this."

Then he leaned down and kissed the First Lady of Alera, the wife of the most powerful man in the world squarely, heatedly, upon the lips.

Tavi just stared at Max. That idiot.

The kiss went on for an utterly untoward amount of time, while Max's hand slid to the back of Caria's head, holding her there in the kiss in an utterly proprietary fashion. When he withdrew his mouth from the First Lady's, her cheeks were flushed pink, and she was breathing very quickly.

Max met her eyes, and said, "I apologize. It was an honest mistake, my lady. Truly. I'll find some way to make it up to you." As he said it, his eyes trailed down the front of her silken gown and then back to Caria's, heavy and warm.

Caria licked her lips and seemed to fumble for words for a few moments. Then she said, "Very well, my lord."

"My page should arrive at any moment," he said. His thumb caressed her cheek. "I've some business to attend. With luck, I'll have some of the night left when it is finished." He arched a brow in a silent question.

Caria's cheeks colored even more. "If duty permits, my lord. That should please me."

Max smiled. "I had hoped you would say that." He lowered his hand, then bowed slightly to her. "My lady."

"My lord," she replied, with another curtsey, before withdrawing through the door by which she'd entered.

Tavi waited for several long breaths before he came out of the alcove, staring at Max. His friend half staggered to the nearest chair, sat down in it, lifted the wine bottle to his mouth in a shaking hand, and drank the rest of it in a single, long pull.

"You're insane," Tavi said quietly.

"I couldn't think what else to do," Max said, and as he spoke the tenor of his voice changed, sliding back toward his own speaking voice. "Bloody crows, Tavi. Did she believe it?"

Tavi frowned, glancing at the door. "You know. I think she might have. She was totally off-balance."

"She'd better have been," Max growled. He closed his eyes and frowned, and the shape of his face began to change, slowly enough to make it difficult to say precisely what dimensions were shifting. "I hit her with enough earthcraft to inspire a gelded gargant bull to mate."

Tavi shook his head weakly. "Crows, Max. His wife."

Max shook his head, and in a few seconds more looked like himself again. "What else could I have done?" he demanded. "If I'd argued with her, she would have started bringing up past conversations and subjects that I would have no idea how to respond to. It would have given me away within five minutes. My only choice was to seize the initiative."

"Is that what you seized?" Tavi asked, his voice dry.

Max shuddered and stalked over to the alcove, tearing off the First Lord's clothing as he went to don his own once more. "I had to. I had to make sure she wasn't doing too much thinking, or she would have noticed something." He stuck his head through the neck of his own tunic. "And by the furies, Tavi, if there's anything I can do like a high lord, it's kiss a pretty girl."

"I guess that's true," Tavi said. "But… you'd think she'd know her own husband's kiss."

Max snorted. "Yeah, sure."

Tavi frowned and arched an inquisitive brow at Max.

Max shrugged. "It's obvious, isn't it? They're all but strangers."

"Really? How do you know?"

"Men of power, men like Gaius, have two different kinds of women in their life. Their political mates, and the ones they actually want."

"Why do you say that?" Tavi asked.

Max's expression became remote and bleak. "Experience." He shook his head and raked his fingers through his hair. "Believe me. If there's one thing a political wife doesn't know, it's what her husband's desire feels like. It's entirely possible that Gaius hasn't kissed her since the wedding."

"Really?"

"Yes. And of course, there's no one in the Realm who would risk crossing Gaius by becoming lovers with her. In that kind of situation, it's going to cause the poor woman considerable, ah, frustration. So I exploited it."

Tavi shook his head. "That's… that's so wrong, somehow. I mean, I can understand the political pressures when it comes to marriages among the lords, but… I guess I always thought there would be some kind of love."

"Nobles don't marry for love, Tavi. That's a luxury of holders and freemen." His mouth twisted in bitterness. "Anyway. I didn't know what else to do. And it worked."

Tavi nodded at his friend. "It looks that way."

Max finished dressing and licked his lips. "Um. Tavi. We don't really need to mention this to anyone, do we?" He glanced up at him uncertainly. "Please?"

"Mention what?" Tavi said, with a guileless smile.

Max let out a sigh of relief and smiled. "You're all right, Calderon."

"For all you know, I'll just blackmail you with it later."

"Nah. You don't have it in you." They headed for the door that led to a small stair down to the nearest portion of the Deeps. "Oh, hey," Max said. "What did your aunt's letter say?"

Tavi snapped his fingers and scowled. "Knew I was forgetting something." He reached into his pouch and withdrew his aunt Isana's letter. He opened it and read it in the light of the lamp at the top of the stairs.

Tavi stared at the words, and felt his hands start shaking.

Max noticed, and his voice became alarmed. "What is it?"

"I have to go," Tavi said, his voice choked almost to a whisper. He swallowed. "Something's wrong. I have to go see her. Right now."


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