One day after Septimus' death, the singulare, the principessa, and the young heir to the realm were ushered through the gates of Riva and directed to the refugee camp without ceremony. No one asked their names.
Araris Valerian kept one hand on the hilt of his gladius and the other on Isana's shoulder. He could feel her shivering beneath her cloak, something he doubted had anything to do with the chill weather that descended on the land as the sun edged towards the horizon. Her whole upper body was curled around the child in her arms, as if trying to keep her slight frame between her son and any potential dangers. Her eyes darted around nervously below drooping eyelids, scoping out every deepening pool of shadow and evaluating every passing stranger despite her mounting exhaustion.
The young woman's fear only added to his disgrace. It was an affront to the years he'd spent training in swordsmanship and other forms of combat, and worse, it wasn't unfounded. He'd failed to protect her little sister--what guarantee did she have that he could protect her son?
He tightened his grip on the weapon, and the metal dulled his rioting emotions to a blurry grayscale. He couldn't let himself feel the weight of his failure or the agonizing ache of Septimus' death, not when he needed all his wits about him. Not with so powerful a watercrafter so near, already staggering under the burden of her own grief.
"Not far now," he said, then compulsively wrinkled his nose and quirked each side of his mouth in turn. The odd tension in his facial muscles was a constant irritation.
Isana sighed. "It will wear off faster if you keep that up," she reminded him, her voice low and exhausted. Araris once again schooled his expression into one of neutral stoicism. Isana had endured more than enough in the past day--he wouldn't let himself be responsible for giving her more work.
After crafting whole the worst of the physical trauma of childbirth, Isana had mustered the strength to shift his features somewhat. It was a task far more challenging and rare than performing a similar crafting on oneself, and he found himself once again in awe of the young woman's skill and fortitude. The crafting would have to be reapplied often, and the similarity to his natural face was still strong, but he was unlikely to be stopped in the street. The resemblance was more familial than uncanny. Besides, no one would be looking for Araris Valerian, the greatest swordsman in Alera, shepherding a new mother to the safety of the great city's walls. Especially since he was supposed to be dead.
On the far side of the city, past the outer walls, the refugee camp loomed in sight. Isana's breath caught in her throat.
"It's like we never left," she whispered, dismayed.
The camp was an orderly array of white tents, identical to those the legions used in the field. In fact, the camp was laid out in an imitation of legion fashion, down to the layout of the mess area and privies. It took conscious effort not to gravitate toward the equivalent of the Captain's tent. No matter what the muscle memory of nearly a year in the Calderon Valley signaled, no Princeps lodged there.
They found a tent for themselves on the periphery, butting up against a crumbling stone wall that must've once served as an additional fortification for the city. It was an awkward space for two adults, but it offered a haven from the cold north wind and some degree of privacy from the rest of the camp, and they were in no position to be choosy. There was some refuse strewn about, but it wouldn't take much effort to clean. Octavian, woken from his nap by the sounds of the city, began to cry, and Isana sat down to nurse him as Araris made their tent more inhabitable.
In some ways, he mused, the presence of an infant could be an advantage for a pair of travelers seeking occasional moments of privacy. True, they were likely to be inundated with visits from well-wishing women during the day, but they would be able to speak openly at night without fear of being overheard. No person who valued his rest would set up his bedroll anywhere near a newborn.
Unsurprisingly, the first of their visitors was a young camp woman, only a few years older than Isana. Seeing that the baby was garbed only in Araris' cloak, she scurried off to find extra blankets and swaddling clothes for the infant. It would be a far cry from the regal red and blue silks Sep had described decorating his own nursery, which he had merrily incinerated at five years of age upon manifesting his first fury, but it would do. Araris remembered Sep laughing about the excessive pampering his mother had inflicted upon him--he'd never had much use for material possessions--but seeing the way he'd doted on Isana, witnessing the reverent way he'd regarded the growing presence in his wife's belly, Araris knew he had been prepared to lavish his son with his own brand of doting insanity, every bit as dramatic as that he had been subjected to as a child.
The woman soon returned with the promised blankets and a subtribune from the Third Rivan. He took down their names (Araris used an old alias), and gave them a rundown of the basic amenities and regulations of the camp. It was nothing new. Araris had given similar speeches himself, when the Crown Legion was sent to Forcia to lend support after a particularly violent typhoon.
Afterwards, the subtribune showed Araris and Isana to the mess tent, which had been set up to feed the influx of refugees. It was populated almost entirely by women, children, and the elderly. There were precious few men of fighting age, and fewer still in fighting condition. One of them was seated alone, quite an accomplishment in such a crowded environment, though the reason why became apparent to Araris when the man turned his head. A livid red scar stood out from the flesh of his cheek, three lines the breadth of his little finger forming the shape of a capital "I". Ignavus -- coward. He winced with every chew, as the action of his jaw pulled at the healing skin.
Araris wrinkled his nose in disgust. Beside him, Isana inhaled sharply.
"That poor man," Isana breathed.
"He deserted his men. What greater crime is there?" said Araris, eyes fixed on the brand.
"It's the law. The actions of one man can steal victory from defeat. This man was a legionare. Legionares don't abandon their shield-brothers in times of need. They stand and fight, even if it means their lives. Excuse me, my lady."
Araris pushed past a trio of gossiping women and fetched two bowls of stew.
* * * * *
Like the journey to the city, the meal passed in relative silence. There was nothing to say that didn't sound frivolous, next to the intimidating scale of the subject they could only discuss in private. When they finally emerged from the tent, the last hints of color had left the sky, leaving the surrounding landscape blanketed in darkness. The city's furylamps blazed blue-white against the black, a beacon for the clumps of refugees who were still trickling in every hour or so from the causeway and the dense pine barrens that surrounded it. The light glinting off the city's own forest of majestic, slender towers was visible for miles in all directions.
Araris expected Isana to return to their tent afterwards--she'd nearly nodded off in her stew more than once--but she headed south instead, away from the furylamps' welcoming glow. He followed her to the banks of the nearby river Mars, which coursed down its route from the hills dividing Riva and Phrygia to the sea well south of the isthmus of Calderon. There was an open space that must've been well-trafficked during the day among washerwomen and the like, and it offered a clear vantage point, where one could see the refugees approaching the city.
Isana passed Octavian to Araris long enough to take off her boots and socks, then took him back as she sat and slipped her feet into the gently rushing river and seated herself on a large stone. He regarded her as she watched the edge of the forest for new arrivals. She seemed prepared to keep her vigil all night.
"He isn't coming, Isana," Araris said.
She trembled at that, but her face remained impassive. "I know."
"If he'd lived, he would've contacted us by now. These are refugees, not legionares. He won't be among them."
"I know," she said again, louder, her voice thick.
"Why are you torturing yourself, then? You need to sleep. I've seen master metalcrafters crack under less strain."
She turned to glance up at him, then returned to her initial position. "I need to see them, Araris. I need to see the men and women and children my husband died protecting from the invasion. I want to see the moment they see the city and realize they're safe." She drew her wedding ring from its chain around her neck, where it gleamed in the distant light of the city's furylamps and the stars above. Octavian reached for the ring, grasping at it with short, stubby fingers, and Isana withdrew it from his grasp.
She met her son's unfocused gaze for a long moment, his green eyes luminous. "We need to hide him," she said. "We'll call him by another name. We'll raise him like any other boy, far from the reach of the high lords. Far from anyone who might seek to do him harm."
Araris gaped at her, thunderstruck. "You can't mean that. We need to take him to the capital, to Gaius and Lady Irena. They can help us protect him--"
"Like they protected their son?" she seethed, her voice suffused with rage and pain. "I want nothing to do with that… that crowbegotten old slive!"
"He's the First Lord…"
She wheeled on him. "He's a man who was so preoccupied with politics he let his son die. A man who was too busy snubbing and sneering at the high lords and Senate alike, he courted the wrath of those who would seek to unseat him. He is arrogant. His power base won't hold out much longer. His days as the First Lord are numbered."
Araris scrambled down next to her, making a hushing gesture. "Watch your words," he cautioned. "That borders on treason."
"It's not treason; it's the truth," she scoffed. "I don't wish his downfall--far from it. Weakness in Gaius translates to weakness in the realm, and when leaders fail to lead, the innocent and vulnerable are always the first to suffer. But if Gaius' power wanes, his ability to protect my son will diminish, as well. And in exchange, he will be made the target of every cutter in Alera."
"Then assure that Gaius' power does not weaken. Restore the heir he lost."
She shook her head, disgust written plainly in her features. "I have no stomach for politics. I would have endured them for him." A sudden clenching of her jaw failed to disguise the trembling in her lower lip. "Without him… I will not become a plaything for Gaius. I will not put the lives of myself and my son at the mercy of one man's whim."
Araris was at a loss. "At least speak with Lady Irena. A mother would sympathize, and women have a way of bending their man's ear. Men can make strange and extraordinary changes for the women they love."
"No," Isana said simply, her tone tight with conviction. "I will not put my trust in politicians."
He marveled at her a long moment, searching for a chink in her resolve. Finally, he bowed his head in surrender. "As you wish, my lady," he grated.
They were both silent for a time.
"So we keep Octavian's identity a secret," Araris said. "We claim him to be the bastard son of some unremarkable legionare. We tell no one the truth, not even family. Not your brother, not… Miles."
Isana nodded numbly, but then her face grew hard once more. "Octavian. We can never use that name again. We cannot even think it." She looked straight at him then, her green eyes daring him to question her. "Tavi," she said, her jaw tight. "His name is Tavi." No one will know differently. And…" Her face went slack. "Oh. Oh, furies, no," she moaned. Her whole body sagged, and she held the boy tighter to her chest.
"He can't be my son," she said in a whisper, her voice agonized. "We can't have been the only survivors of the Valley who knew Septimus had a woman. There might be someone who could recognize me as the Princeps' lover. Someone who could see Tavi and guess his age and draw the right conclusion. We can't… We can't… Oh, Septimus! Oh, my son!"
Her tears fell then. Her breath hitched in deep, heaving sobs that made Araris' metal-numbed heart ache in sympathy. He let the crafting slip slightly, allowing himself to feel some of the emotion he'd until now suppressed, and his whole being was at once ablaze with the despair of loss, the bitter tang of impotent frustration, and the mad desire to do anything within his power that might ease the agony that so tormented this extraordinary woman.
"He'll be your son," Araris promised, steel in his words. "You will feed him, bathe him, clothe him. You will teach him the ways of the world and love him as any mother loves her child. We'll tell the world he's your nephew, Alia's boy. But you'll know the truth. And deep down, so will he."
"Alia," she whispered, gasping as she tried to master herself again. "Her eyes were brown, like father's. "Bernard and I got our mother's eyes. So did Oc--Tavi."
Araris quirked a sad smile. "Stranger things have happened."
Isana nodded, still shivering. She ran a finger down the sleeping boy's cheek, feeling the impossibly soft skin, and wiped a distinctly un-regal dribble of drool from his chin.
"Am I doing the right thing, Araris?" Isana finally asked. "Am I making the right decision?
No, Araris wanted to say. Find someone stronger to be his champion. Someone who won't abandon his lord to die.
"What does your heart tell you?" he said instead.
She inhaled deeply. "That a son's place is with his mother. Not in being used as some political bargaining chip."
"Then with his mother he will stay." He put a hand on Octavian's head. "I promised Sep I'd take care of you both, and I intend to keep it."
She nodded mutely. The passion and despair that had granted her power left her deflated and brittle in the wake of her tears. "I'm so afraid," she confessed. "I don't know how to stop what's happening."
"Try thinking in smaller terms. Think about what you can do to keep Octavian safe. Think about what's within your power to change, and we'll go from there."
Isana choked out a desperate little laugh. "Within my power? We're up against a cadre of high lords and ladies, the most powerful furycrafters in the realm, determined to unseat Gaius from the throne. They killed Septimus. They killed him, Araris. We can hide, but we can't defeat them. What chance have we against such a foe?"
"There's more to power than furies," he began, but she shook her head, turning away. He touched her jaw, gently turning her face to meet his gaze. "Listen to me. Septimus didn't love you for your watercrafting talents, Isana. He loved you for your strength, your courage, your loyalty, your compassion." Her eyes drifted shut, but no more tears escaped from them. She covered his hand with hers, and his breath caught in his throat for an instant. He swallowed and continued on. " Our enemies don't know the child exists, or we would have been hunted down already. You have power, Isana. Knowledge is your power. Love is your power."
She inhaled deeply, her breath ragged. "My love couldn't save my husband, Araris. Or my sister."
"No," he agreed, "but their love saved you and your son."
She looked up at him, eyes shining wetly. Her voice was small, but steady. "I always thought they'd be with me. That we'd always be there to support one another, to make ourselves more than we thought we could be alone. Septimus was going to do such great things for the realm. I looked to the future, and it was him. He filled every corner of my world. I was going to be beside him every step of the way, pushing him to greater victories and consoling him in defeat. And Alia had such talent, such warmth, such passion." Her voice broke. "I was so curious to see what she would become."
Araris was silent for a time. How did one console a woman who had lost so much? There were no words of comfort or hope that didn't sound hollow to his ears. There were some wounds only time could heal. There were some wounds that never healed at all.
"Sleep," he said, finally. "You're exhausted. Things will look more hopeful in the morning. We can endure this together."
She nodded, though it was easy to see she didn't believe his words. She was simply too tired to dispute them. "You'll watch over Tavi?"
"Always," he said, taking the infant.
He supported her exhausted body as they made the walk back to the camp. Once at the tent, he watched her take off her shoes and fold a pair of blankets into a makeshift bedroll. She got in still fully clothed. She would need a nightgown and several changes of clothes, he noted, plus a heavier coat, if they were to endure the heavy Rivan winter. The winds from the northwest gusted fast and bitter over the Sea of Ice, and the gales that blew south from beyond the Shieldwall could freeze a man to the bones.
He stepped out of the tent into the chill autumn air and adjusted Tavi's blankets, so he would be better insulated from the cold. He held the boy, bouncing him gently, as he took in the world to come. It was a quiet night, for the most part. In the distance, he could hear the faint murmur of conversation elsewhere in camp, the clinks and thumps of men at work, and the muffled hubbub of a living, thriving city just beyond the walls. It all rightly belonged to the child in his arms, from the ocean to the west and south to the Shieldwall to the north to the edges of the Marat continent to the east, just a hundred miles distant.
A thousand miles to the west stood Alera Imperia, seat of the realm's power. Here in Riva, they could scarcely be further from its influence. He wondered if the news had reached Gaius yet. He wondered if the First Lord knew somehow without being told.
He wondered once more if he were doing the right thing. Isana was thoroughly convinced of her mission, but Araris was still far from certain. He was willingly participating in a deception that could alter the very power structure in Alera.
If it came down to it, circumventing her resolve would be easy.
He could steal away while Isana slept, get word to Gaius, and end this charade with a retinue of Knights Aeris to convey them all from this sorry backwater to the heart of Alera Imperia, forcibly if need be. Lady Irena would welcome the mother of her grandchild with open arms. Gaius might not like it, but the choice between a legal heir and a future power vacuum was a simple one.
Yes, it would be easy. Easy as seeing affection and trust turn to hate in the eyes of the woman he loved.
Isana trusted him not to betray her. Septimus trusted him to keep her and the child safe. How was he supposed to reconcile the two? Was he allowing his wretched love for her to color his decision? In bowing to a grief-stricken woman's will, was he betraying the realm?
Septimus chose me because he knew I love her, not in spite of the fact. He knew her happiness and security would be my greatest concerns, and that neither can exist when she has lost the ability to trust those around her. Sep chose the man who would do just as I have done so far: challenge her decision, but ultimately honor it. His jaw set. Of course, he also chose the man who threw his own brother under a wagon to stop him from getting himself killed in a duel.
His heart thudded painfully in his chest at the thought of Miles. He thought of the rage and pain in his brother's face, the agony greater in Miles' heart than in his body. He still lived, but he was lost to Araris forever.
Could he do it again? Could he hurt her to save her? If the situation were as clean-cut as Miles', yes. If he were convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that going to Gaius was the only answer, he would do it, and crows take his treacherous heart. But he wasn't. And without that surety… No.
Miles was gone. Sep was gone. Aldrick and Eolus and Flavian and the rest of his sword-brothers were gone. Isana was all he had left. He couldn't lose her, too. A hard, bitter certainty solidified in Araris' gut. Gaius Sextus could go to the crows. He lost the right to a controlling interest in the child's future when he failed to protect his son.
Araris looked down at the child in his arms. Tavi, then. Not Octavian. It was such a small name. A tiny name for a tiny person. His eyes were closed again in easy slumber, but the vision of the boy's eyes at his birth was a fresh memory. Sep's extraordinary green eyes had shone up at him for a moment, as if commending him to his next assignment as singulare. But he couldn't be a singulare, could he? If Tavi would not be Octavian, Araris Valerian could not watch over him without drawing attention.
A chill stole over him, and he held the child closer, though there hadn't been any wind.
He and Isana hadn't discussed it. She was so fixated on the short-term goals, he doubted if it had even occurred to her. Leave it, then. She had enough difficult decisions weighing on her heart--let this one be his alone.
Tavi was to be an ordinary child, raised in ordinary circumstances. No enemy would look twice at him. If Araris was to serve his lord effectively, he would need a similar disguise. The day's worth of experimenting with an imposed watercrafting demonstrated that anything prolonged was out of the question--but he nevertheless needed to become someone unworthy of a second glance. He needed to kill or conceal every part of himself that might draw the wrong sort of attention. He needed to throw up a veil so opaque no one could look past it. He needed to hide so thoroughly not even his brother could see through the disguise. He'd offered up his body, his strength, his intellect in service to his lord. Now he would give up everything that defined him as a man.
The distorted, wincing face of the disgraced legionare in the mess tent burned in his memory as brightly as a brand. And the harder he tried to push the image from his mind, the more it dominated his thoughts. He thought of the shame and ignominy spreading to himself, smothering the record of all he'd fought for in life, and he shuddered.
He thought of Miles, the night before the fateful duel was to be fought. Araris had begged him to step aside, but his little brother would hear none of it. "I challenged him, Rari. I can't back down from that," he'd said. "I'm a crowbegotten singulare to the Princeps of Alera, man! Everything we do reflects on him, and Sep's already lost one of us to disgrace. I won't heap further shame on him by forfeiting a duel while the whole of the Realm is watching."
"And you think getting yourself killed is the proper alternative?" he'd spat.
Miles had glared at his brother. He was still an inch shorter than Araris, and Araris had made certain he knew it. "There's no way out, Rari. I've seen how people treat cowards. Crows, I've seen how you look at them. People stop seeing you as a man. You become a thing, an embodiment of everything they once counted on, but which failed them. You're the reason their father, their brother, their husband, their son, their friend didn't come home. You are worse than an enemy--an enemy you can rely on to work against you. A coward abandons his shield-brothers when they need him most." He shook his head. "I'm no coward, Rari. And if you're so afraid of Aldrick you'd rather disgrace the House of Gaius than see me stand for my honor and beliefs, maybe you should ask yourself if you are."
Araris shuddered at the memory. Perhaps the disguise would have a seed of truth, after all.
Part of him wanted it, cried out for it, even. He wanted the world to see his failure and to spurn him for it. He'd lamed his brother and participated in the dismissal of one of the greatest swordsmen in the realm--all told, he was responsible for three of Septimus' bodyguards being absent the night he was slain. That failure would become a mantle so thick no one could see the man who carried it.
He would live to see himself die. He would learn what history remembered and forgot, what truths and lies would grow in the telling, and what parts of him would simply fade away. He already knew of one simple lie that had been made true: Araris Valerian died with his lord.
Something like peace settled over him. There was still so much work to be done, but he had a mission now. He ducked back into the tent to put Tavi to bed, and perhaps to catch an hour or two or rest himself. He started when he saw Isana seated in the tent, waiting for him, boots at the ready. When she saw him, her shoulders sagged with relief.
She must have sensed my reluctance. She needed to know where my loyalties lay.
"Did I pass?" he asked.
"I had to be certain," she said, though her tone was almost apologetic this time. She took Tavi as he began to remove his gear, and tucked the infant in a nest of blankets beside her, between their two bedrolls. In the minute or so he took to finish, she'd already fallen asleep.
He lay down on the second bedroll, so near her, but separated by a gulf that could not be measured in inches or feet. He extended a hand to touch one perfect, chubby little arm, which had worked itself free from the blanket. He smiled as five tiny fingers wrapped around one of his.
"Hail Tavi of Riva," he murmured, and his eyes drifted shut.