Many thanks to Jennifer and Anne, for their ongoing perseverance in dealing with me; to the Beta Foo Asylum, though by this point, I don't think any of you people are going to recover; to the fine folk at NERO Central, without whom no one would pound on me with boffer weapons; and to my dog, without whom I would not be reminded daily that I am essentially little more than a ridiculous human being who has somehow swindled somebody into paying me to write down conversations with my imaginary friends.
Amara soared down in a slow, gradual descent through cold, heavy rain as she neared the camp of the Crown Legion. Cirrus, her wind fury, held her aloft on the shoulders of a miniature gale, and though she wore the leather clothing any flier found necessary, she almost fancied she could feel her skin chafing through it, and she was definitely sick of shivering with the cold.
A trio of armored figures took flight and swept toward her upon their own furies' gales, and Amara slowed, hovering in place to meet them. It was the third and last perimeter around the camp, and one of the knights flashed a challenge in broad hand signals to her while the other two took position above her, ready to dive upon her if necessary.
Amara recognized the men by sight, just as they would recognize her, but in these troubling times, a familiar face was not necessarily any assurance of a friendly party. She gave them the countersign, and only then did the three Knights Aeris take their hands from their weapons and form up around her in a friendly escort as she wearily flew the last mile or so to the camp.
Amara did not land at the standard location, just outside the camp's palisade. She'd covered more than three thousand miles in the past three days, and the very thought of walking through the camp was nearly enough to knock her unconscious. She came down just outside the commander's tent, despite the regulations against it and the debris Cirrus's approach would scatter all over the area. Her legs quivered, all rubbery with fatigue, as she settled her weight on them and ceased maintaining the effort to direct Cirrus.
"Countess," murmured a small, slender man, his few remaining grey hairs shorn close to his scalp, Legion style. He was rather dapper in his fine tunic, but Amara knew that Enos, a former Cursor himself, was one of the deadlier knife hands in Alera. Mild disapproval in his voice did nothing to dampen his smile. "Soaring in here as bold as you please, I see."
"I'm sorry to make extra work for you, Enos," Amara replied, as they stepped underneath a nearby pavilion, out of the rain.
"Nonsense. I'll get one of our Subtribunes Logistica to tidy up. We valets are far too important for such things, you know." He offered her a warm towel, and after she had used it to wipe her face and hands, he pressed a steaming cup into her fingers.
Amara sipped at the thick broth and let out a groan of pleasure. Long flights always left her enormously hungry, and there'd been far more flying than eating over the past few days. "Bless you, Enos."
"Not at all, Countess," he replied. "The least I can do for someone who just beat the previous flight speed record from here to the capital by a full day."
"The First Lord doesn't pay me to lark about," Amara said, and flashed him a smile. "How much did you win?"
"Fourteen silver bulls," Enos said, his tone unrepentantly smug. "Lord Aquitaine's head valet just can't seem to help himself when it comes to gambling."
Amara finished the broth, and Enos immediately filled her hand with another mug of tea. She sipped it. Delicious. Perhaps she'd manage to walk all the way to a warm bunk before she collapsed, after all. "Is he available?"
"The captain is in conference with Lord Aquitaine," Enos said. "But he insisted that I take you to him as soon as you arrived."
"Aquitaine," Amara murmured. "Very well. Thank you, Enos."
Enos bowed his head to her with another smile, and Amara strode over to the commander's tent. Winters here in the south weren't nearly so frigid as in Alera's more northerly reaches, but they were generally cold, rainy, and miserable. The tent was doubled, one slightly larger one outside another, creating a small pocket of warmer air between the interior and the outdoors. Amara opened one flap after another, and strode