Fire lit the cavern with a sphere of blue-violet, weaving patterns in the air with each lick of heat. It drew runes with smoke as it dissipated up through the small cracks in stone that substituted for windows The sphere hovered just a few feet off the floor, a whole wingspan wide, metal shimmering white-hot in its center. The fire was the only real light visible in the cavern, everything else having dimmed.
Prince Anthony of Aži-Táriyat paced just beyond its edge, pushing here, pulling there, palms manipulating the ball as if it were clay. The three false claws on his left hand carved out runes on the surface. They sparked and filled in with silver before being absorbed into the ball. For this, he'd stripped down to a loose set of pants and nothing else. Scorch marks had already ruined them, searing holes in the linen whenever he brushed too close to the fire. On his bare chest, the symbol of the royal line glowed blue, a flared set of dragon wings centered over the circle of the sun. "Come on, come on," he hissed in Ažiliasán as a bulge appeared in the sphere, requiring smoothing over. Power fluttered like a caged bird, not happy with being kept under so much pressure. "Just a little longer, almost there..."
The sphere gave a heave and then finally compressed, squeezing tight into a ball half the size. With a whoop, Tony set it to spin, pushing his hands across the bottom to mold it into a funnel. Its metal heart pulsed, glimmering like captured sunlight between the occasional burst of flames and finally flowing like liquid. When the funnel came to a point, it squeezed down, pouring into a mold, magic crackling over the surface of the already cooling metal. He kept the pressure up until the last drop had fallen, then dismissed the flame with a barked command. It released like a puff of dandelion flowers on the breeze.
Shadow took over the workshop, leaving only the faintly glowing mold. Tony blinked and squinted, rubbing his eyes irritably until they started to accommodate the darkness. He used the runes that layered the floor as a test, staring at them until they started to come into focus properly, and then tilting his head back to stare at the high, natural rock of the ceiling, then around him. Tables and other projects that had been bundled up and pushed out of the way slowly came into focus as his eyes adjusted. Proper night vision was beyond him, but he refused to bumble around in the dark.
When he could see again, Tony knelt down and ran a clawed finger through the molten metal, watching the way the silver parted in its wake. Heat that would have destroyed another man's hand was only a faint tickle on his skin. It would be the start of a dragon breastplate, when he was done, strong enough to catch the weight of a boulder but light enough to fly in. It was his third attempt at making the alloy, and he was almost sure he had it this time.
Assuming the alloy worked out, it would be a welcome home gift. If Rhodey wore a breastplate to fight, and it worked, even Howard would be hard-pressed to refuse to let Tony make more. Other dragons might even be willing to try them. A small victory, but Tony had learned to claw them out where he could. It was better than making jewelry and toys to pass the time while others were off fighting the real battles. Anything would be better than sitting around to see who came back and who didn't.
Waiting was the worst of everything Tony had put up with in his twenty five years. He hated it more than the pitying glances from the castle staff, more than the long silences from his mother or the gloating ones from his cousin. He'd never been allowed to go to the war-front, didn't have the right temper to be a healing mage and was too vulnerable without being able to change into a proper dragon form. There was something dirty about sitting around being useless while his friends were on wing.
As the mold cooled, the giant set of doors on the east wall nudged open with a groan of tired metal. Cold air rushed in as a copper dragon poked her head in. "Your highness?"
"Right here, Pepper."
Scales scratched against stone as Pepper let herself in, slithering up the wall of the cliff that was directly beyond his workshop. She settled around one of the tables that hadn't been moved entirely against the wall, her great head nearly as big as it was. "Will that be for your armor?" The question was a whisper, but spoken using a voice made for roaring. "It looks... big."
"It's a gift for someone," Tony smiled and pulled his fingers out, flicking them to be rid of the metal. Some still gleamed under his fingernails, but when he rubbed them against his leather breeches they left a scorch mark without coming loose. "Is something happening? You know I don't like being disturbed."
Green eyes blinked at him, glowing like jade. Pepper's inner lids slid down in worry. "Your mother asked me to get you," she finally said, tucking her chin so she didn't have to look at him. Fine scales rustled as she shuffled her forelegs, the thin membrane that formed her wings hissing. "Watchers spotted the flight coming through. Her Majesty says—she says Rhodey and Lady Janet are with them."
Tony's heart nearly stopped. The injured and the ill, always the first to leave the summer battlefield, before winter winds made it tricky to fly in the mountains. If Rhodey and Janet were with them...
Without a word, Tony scrambled for the small pile of metal pieces that was his armor. He shoved them on without a care for the scrapes and bruises it gave him. Practice helped him snap it together in only a few minutes. Pepper protested with a hiss, but didn't try to block him as he ran past her and threw himself over the cliff's edge.
Rock rushed by, the occasional slap of a branch or a root trying to catch him, but Tony had long ago cleared the worst of those out. It was one of the few straight falls off the edge of the mountain, one that he used to its fullest. Wind buffeted him, yanking at limbs that he'd locked safely inside a case of iron and magic. He snapped the medallion that powered it into the center of the breastplate. Runes crawled along the outside of the armor, glowing gold on the painted red surface, sparkling uncertainly. Then they flared, bursts of magic pouring from palms and heels, and his fall turned into a swoop that carried him up as neatly as if he'd had wings.
Low-lying clouds parted as Tony dove between them, twisting his way through the ice-blue sky and around the edge of his peak. There, on the southern horizon, wings blotted out the sky.
The formation was moving slowly enough that Tony beat them to the marker at the edge of the citadel's direct territory. To someone who didn't know what to look for they might have been a fearsome sight, but he saw the way they broke formation, noted how slowly the wings of even the smallest beat.
As always, his father flew point, and Tony felt some of the tension melt from his shoulders. Every year when Howard went out, there was the chance that some human would get lucky. All it needed was one, and the only barrier Tony had between himself and certain death on the challenge field would be gone.
After making sure he was secure for another year, Tony picked out the large, dull blue bulk of Rhodey near the back. His wingarm was patched white with gauze and bandages, curled as if he would keep it pressed against him if he didn't need it for flight. Runes glowed on the flight membrane, marching up the veins and circling the bandages—painlessness and weightlessness, probably the only thing keeping him aloft. The small gold and white noble dragon darting around him had to be Janet. No one else was that fast in the air. Her wings seemed fine, but her forelegs—that second set of limbs that was unique to noble dragons—were tucked up against her chest. Something about the way she held it suggested it was for more than convenience.
Tony circled slowly to stay out of the way and keep from fouling anyone's wings. Dragons craned their heads around when he passed, nodded, and then turned their attention back to the rigors of flying wounded. It didn't look like they'd taken heavy injuries, but the lower level were pallbearers—four large fliers at each corner, their hind legs clutching heavy poles that connected to the nets.
Three bodies this time, two pale flashes of hide that were probably ice dragons, and a deep red that could have been nearly anyone. A fortune in losses for species that was practically immortal.
Breath came short, even though the magic of his armor kept the wind from stealing it. There was no telling who was in the nets until they were set down. Hank, Happy and Bruce were all missing from the flight, but it could have been that they were staying on the front lines until the winter was truly started. It didn't have to be the death of a friend this time.
Circuit complete, Tony kicked in a last burst of power and flew to the front, where his father led. Black on black, with only a few bandages and the glowing blue crest marring the clean lines of his chest scales, the king was everything his son wasn't. Horns pressing back against his skull in annoyance, Howard rolled one dark eye at Tony and snorted a shower of sparks. Tony saluted in the human fashion—the best he could do without wings—and took his place below and to the back.
With the injured, a trip that had taken Tony only a few minutes took nearly an hour of labored flight. No one spoke, not even to whisper into the wind. They passed over the shreds of farmland, poor scrub crops that were all that grew in the mountains. Farms quickly turned to dark granite rock, spotted with isolated valleys of green and blue brilliance where shepherds nursed their flocks. As the flight passed, the shepherds turned their heads up and fanned their wings in silent respect.
The citadel naturally took up the most striking outcropping, curling around not the highest peak, but the best for stability in architecture. Smooth lines and domes of magic-carved stone had been cut into the very heart of the mountain. Immediately below it spread a valley all hemmed in by deep walls and sudden drops. Everywhere there was space the walls crawled with spell work etched on in gold and silver. The healthiest veered off to clear the skies, taking up temporary perches on quartz-studded domes and walls.
Queen Maria waited quietly in the back of the landing courtyard, her pale blue gown nearly the same color as the sky, wrapped with a toga of deep purple protecting her silvering hair from the wind. It whipped and flared in the breeze, layers and layers of delicate silk. She was mage enough that time wound around her, but it had started to leave its touch nonetheless. Pepper, Naia, Sunset and his mother's other ladies waited behind her, tiny and wingless for the moment, dressed in the more common long tunic and leggings. Morgan, still his proper size and shape as always, toadied up to the ladies in the back, one wing stretched out to shade them as he chatted to Rumiko.
Howard tucked his wings and dove, landing with precise grace in the center of the courtyard. Almost before he finished touching down, his shape shimmered, slipping easily into a two-legged skin. A human-shaped servant rushed forward to offer him a thick fur robe against the cold, though his rich crimson tunic and dark leggings had stayed with him through the change.
Tony waited until his father had finished changing before following him down, armor landing heavily by comparison to his father's graceful fall.
Protection. Safety. Peace.
He felt it as he touched down on the snowy granite, a shiver as the familiar magic of home wrapped around him. None of them reached his workshop, to keep the ancient spells from interfering with his projects, and he never missed them until they wrapped back around him. A child's spell, but necessary for so many dragons sharing a den. Tempers flared on even the best of days, and a fight between dragons was never clean.
The air beat with the thunder of wings as the flight landed in ranks after him, the most heavily injured landing first. Those who could went off to their own quarters, while the rest were quickly shuffled off to the healer's halls for treatment. The pall bearers hovered overhead, wings straining until the king waved them on to the rising spires of the temple sanctuary, where they'd lay their charges down for the final time.
The king and queen stayed near the back together, standing out in the cold until the last set of wings had folded. Howard hooked his arm in Maria's, looking more old and tired than Tony had ever seen him. Snowflakes caught in his eyelashes and hair, giving them the appearance of gray, though dragon immortality guaranteed he'd never look older than a human of thirty. Tony lifted his face plate and waited impatiently for the last of the wounded to come down, eyes locked on the sky.
Rhodey and Jan were two of the last to land, transforming into two legs almost immediately. Long gashes stood out on Rhodey's ribs and arm, bright red staining through his long-sleeved green tunic. Jan was in her usual black and gold dress, but it was tattered at the hem and her left arm hung at a bad angle. When they tried to come over, Tony shook his head and pointed them inside—he could talk to them after they were treated. Battlefield mages were good for stopgap measures, but not enough. Jan pressed her lips together, but nodded, hooking a hand in Rhodey's belt to tug him along.
As soon as the last person had gone inside, Tony rounded on his father. "Who did we lose?" he demanded sharply, not caring a fig for the curious eyes of his mother's ladies or his cousin. "There were three. Who were they?"
"Three too many," his mother sighed. The fine lines at the corners of her mouth pulled into a soft frown as she tucked her forehead into Howard's shoulder. Snowflakes gathered in her toga, leaving little dark spots where her body heat melted them.
"None of your friends," Howard added flatly. "And the last for a while. The Seven Hills have agreed to a respite for the winter, as usual, and maybe longer this time. Their army is as tired as ours."
Not them, thank the wing mother. Relief swamped Tony in a wave. He was never sure which was worse—staying behind each spring while his friends flew out, useless for his size and lack of wings, or waiting to see who came home.
Immediately in the wake of relief came frustration. "Yes, give them a couple of decades to rebuild their army. Again." They'd done it before: rested, let hostilities fade to an ugly murmur, and then the Lady of the Hills just found another excuse to declare war on Aži-Táriyat as soon as their population had recovered. Last time it had been the marriage of his parents. The time before, a river that changed course, and before that some sort of a social disagreement. Meanwhile, maybe a double handful of dragons were born in a decade, barely enough to feed the machine of war without ever gaining ground. "That won't bite us on the tail at all."
Dark eyes flickered from human to faintly serpentine as the king stared at him, pupils narrow and sharp. "What would you know of tails?" Maria hissed an objection under her breath, but Howard ignored it as he turned and led her away, trailed by the Queen's ladies. "Morgan, I have a job for a man with wings. Get a traveling pack."
Morgan smirked at Tony and followed, chest puffed and chin high. His wings rustled and flexed proudly as he trotted along, through the arched and rune inscribed entry to the great hall. "Immediately, my king."
Tilting back his head, Tony looked skyward. The sun was already edging north, and the early snow didn't bode well for the coming weather. But the Seven Hills would be nearly as trapped as they, the border land nearly impassable in the worst of winter.
Four months. Maybe five, if the winter was long.
Five months before his friends were back in danger, and he was back on the sidelines, making toys while his friends were off risking death.
Tony closed his eyes, and pretended that his eyes didn't sting.
Soldiers hustled, those with work to do getting on with it and those without trying to look like they did, so none would be assigned. It was a practiced chaos, organizing the sick rooms of wounded and getting them loaded into wagons. They would have a long journey ahead, but the truce meant it was safe to ship them back en masse. No dragons would be breathing ice and fire down on the road, no ambushes would wait just out of sight of the army.
Steve kept a weather eye on his soldiers from just outside his own quarters, along with his captains. The winter truce always brought around a new burst of energy in the legion, a breath of relief as the danger was gone for at least a little while. But in men and women who had been on edge for months, tense for attacks from above that could come at any second, excess energy could turn explosive. He hadn't become the youngest male legati in history by not being able to judge his troops and intervene before it was necessary.
Fortunately, spirits were high enough that intervention didn't look to be a need. It had been a good season, as far as war could ever be a good season. They'd managed to down three of the dragons with only minimal losses of their own, and even the dragon king had taken a few injuries. No one was in a mood to fight with that sort of success at their back.
Once he was sure things were going smoothly, he Steve turned back to his captains. All of them were bright-eyed and ready for his orders, but one of them stood straight and alert with the attitude of a man out to make it to the top. Steve had tried to help, but it penetrated as well as oil through rock.
He thanked all seven gods every day that he didn't have to rely on Clint. They might as well have surrendered to the dragons outright. "We've all done this before, so you all know what to do." Steve looked around, settling on a bright-eyed woman near the front. "Mary Jane, you're on patrols and standard watches. I don't want a single thing to change until most of the dragons are back at their nest. Don't let your guard down just because they've never given us trouble before."
Mary Jane, one of his newer captains, grinned a little too brightly and knocked her fist into her armor with a quick salute. "Yes, sir."
The impertinence was just the allowable side of acceptable, but Steve eyed her anyway before moving on. "Carol, since you're staying I want you to find out who's interested in staying the winter term. Have them separate into units and give me a list. We need at least a cohort. If you can't find enough, draft them, but try to avoid that. You'll be on your own if there's trouble, and volunteers are easier to manage."
Carol, who had done the winter watch at least twice that Steve knew of, gave him another salute. Steve nodded at her and looked to her left.
"Jessica, Monica." The last two women stood up a little straighter. "See about traveling needs. Scout the roads, make sure provisions are ready for the trip. I trust you two to take steps if something's out of line, but bring anything vital to me. And finally..." Last in line, Steve's only male captain was nearly vibrating with eagerness. "Clint, go talk to quartermaster and look over the stores. Make sure that they've got everything in order for shipping out. Take inventory. Check everything."
Clint's shoulders sagged slightly. "But—"
One sharp look shut him up. "If anyone needs me, I'll be making sure the enemy actually leaves as promised. You have your orders. Move it."
All five of them saluted, the women immediately turning to get started on their duties. Predictably, Clint lingered. "Legati, inventory?"
Scroll and Rose, give me patience. Steve clasped Clint's shoulder, steering him along toward the warehouse sections of the garrison. "I know. It sounds dull, but it's all dull in winter, and inventory is absolutely necessary."
"Don't argue. Just do it."
Steve watched as Clint trudged off. It wasn't that Clint was a bad soldier; he'd just been coddled as a child, allowed to play war games with the girls and had his head filled with heroics. Skill with the bow had gotten him his rank, but it wasn't going to move him up higher. Once he matured, Steve was sure he'd be a reasonably useful captain, but being surrounded by a team of competent women with well-known mothers and good careers under their belt weren't helping Clint at all.
Maybe Clint would find a nice woman to take him on over the winter, and decide to leave war to those better suited for it.
Glancing around to make sure everything was under control, Steve headed for the eastern gate at a trot. Along the way he nodded to the Maria's Eyes as she was about to enter the garrison's temple. She met his nod with one of her own, sharp green eyes taking in everything. As, he supposed, was her duty. Though Steve didn't know why Lady Natalia that had been chosen for the task, she hadn't caused problems yet. He could only hope it kept up that way.
The soldiers on watch at the gate saluted as he passed; Steve took time to check in them before moving on to his goal. There was a handy outcropping of rock there that rose just high enough to keep an eye on the gathering of dragons that was going on to the north. He scrambled up it, using speed where foot- and handholds weren't up to the job, until he could perch at the top and see everything.
He was just in time. The dragons milled in what seemed like a useless mass. Then, one by one, they slowly rose into the air. Scales every color the gods gave glittered in the late autumn sunlight, circling and swooping as, one by one, the dragons took to the sky. Taking off his helm and setting his shield to the side, Steve settled in to watch what the dragon king had called the first flight.
Even knowing it was a legion of wounded didn't make it less an impressive sight. Beasts of all sizes and colors layered in formations that were barely understandable to the human mind, three dimensions seeming strange and unwieldy to people used to planning their tactics in two. Graceful wings stretched wider than three houses side by side, long backs arched to catch the wind as scalded hides glimmered like jewels.
Footsteps padded behind him, deliberately knocking into rocks so Steve would know someone was there. It was all that kept him from jumping as Bucky settled down by his shoulder, soft leather armor too light for the coming cold.
"They're something, aren't they?" the younger man asked, voice flat and incurious,. He knew the score as well as Steve did. Maybe better. Steve was just a legati, running a legion—Bucky was the one who got sent in when armies would be too little, but a single sharp knife in the dark might be enough to handle a human traitor. "Any stragglers?"
Steve glanced over, meeting Bucky's smile with one of his own. "None yet, but we'd better keep watch, hadn't we?"
Bucky's shoulder bumped Steve's. "You probably scared them off, Dragon Killer."
Groaning, Steve covered his eyes at the new name for him that was making the rounds. "Don't call me that. It's not like scaring a dragon is hard." Dragons were, in his experience, cowards, but little taste for risking themselves, and centuries of patience to wait. Twenty five years of war was nothing to a dragon.
"Says the Dragon Killer," Bucky nudged him again. All Steve could do was roll his eyes and keep his mouth shut.
It was a farce, to sit and watch a nearly immortal enemy retreat, so everyone could recover and start again in better weather. Good lives were wasted, when humans could never hold the mountains and dragons couldn't hold the plains. His soldiers needed rest, more than a few months' worth between battles, but the gods knew there wouldn't be any back in Vítahil. First would be the funerals for the honorable dead, then the winter festivals to keep the darkness out and chivvy the death of the world along for another year. After that would inevitably come the feasting and ceremonies for the honorable living, a round of celebrations that would last right up until spring bloomed and they were back at war.
Stupid, Steve thought, watching as the dragons grew farther away on the northern horizon, slowly vanishing into the main range of mountains. Stupid and wasteful.
When Steve failed to rise to his teasing, Bucky let the conversation stay dead. The two of them stayed together as the sun began to set and the first moon rose, wind picking up a biting chill that smelled of coming frost. The flight had long vanished and the second moon touched the horizon before Steve finally sighed and rolled his shoulders. They cracked from hours of being still. "We should make sure the garrison is settled," he said into the evening quiet.
"You should," Bucky shot back. He leaned forward, arms wrapping around his knees. "I'm watching the stars."
Steve chuckled and patted Bucky's shoulder, then took his shield and helm and left him to the stars and the silence, climbing down into the shadow of the boulders and making for the lights of the garrison. His blue scale tunic jingled as he walked, well-made but too heavy for easy silence. Warm and sturdy as it was, stealth it could never do. Which was, in its own way, a benefit. Unlike Bucky, he seldom had to worry about startling a soldier who had been on duty for too long.
Guards saluted at him as he passed by the check points, fists crashing into their segmented armor noisily. He nodded tiredly and followed the worn dirt path between barracks. Two decades of feet had given it an undeniable dip, a ridge that was easy to pick out even in the uncertain shadows of twin moons and wide-spaced lamp posts. By general agreement, open outdoor fires were limited to the outside of the grounds and the kitchen yards, making the inside a haven for oil lanterns and candle light.
Maybe we should put down paving stones next year for punishment detail, Steve thought, somewhat cynically as he toed the rutted dirt. Ten more years of this and we'll have to bring in dirt by the wagon load just to keep it from flooding in heavy rain.
The garrison was never quiet, but there was a special relaxation to it that night—the ease of soldiers who knew their work was over, at least for a little while. For once, there were no groans and cries of the injured to break the night open—like the dragons, they had already sent theirs back home. Dragons were still a threat, the fires of their watch visible in the distance, but there wouldn't be any fighting. Snow would come, and whoever stayed as a skeleton regiment would tuck in to survive until spring.
He made a slow round of the encampment, keeping his helmet at his hip and his shield slung across his shoulders. Early in the evening or not, most lamps had already been put out and soldiers bunked up. Without a victory to celebrate, there wasn't even a reason to stay up drinking. Of what was left, the evening seemed to be spent more in pairs and trios than around a table with a cask. If the men and women set to watch weren't as sharp as they should have been, or if occasionally a barrack had more shadows than was strictly allowed while they were still technically on the war front, Steve let it pass unmentioned. One night wouldn't hurt, and it would do a world of good for those who stayed behind.
By necessity, his own accommodations were set apart, away from trees and other buildings where there were precious few shadows to hide even a child-spy. Someone had already lit the lantern by the entrance. When he saw it, his steps lengthened, stride picking up, breezing past the guards and through the simple undecorated door. The warm smell of roasted meat, spices and bread greeted him, along with an exasperated smile.
"About damned time," Sam grumbled good-naturedly from the table in the middle of the main room, waving him in. He was in a white tunic, cut close to the body until it flared out to highlight his hips and fit legs. Gold embroidery in the symbols of the goddess of Justice glinted at the hem and collar and along the edge of his black toga. "I thought I was going to have to come find you before your food got cold."
The decor was simple for Steve's position, holding only a plain bed, the table and scattered stools. A patched together rug he'd purchased from one of the local villages kept the chill of the floor from his feet, and a few cushions were scattered here and there in a space that would normally be lush with couches and silks, or even a concubine to idle away the evenings with. It suited him, though. Steve had no need for a palace. Keeping up with his legion left him little enough time to idle away, and what he did have was comfortably spent with his art and friends.
Two trenchers of dark brown bread rested on the table by Sam's elbow, heaped with slices of meat and vegetables, one showing signs of having already been started on. A shallow dish of spiced olive oil seemed to prove that, the ring of spices on its edge much higher than the level of the oil. An amphora of wine, still sealed with wax, waited in the corner.
Steve eyed the wine as he sat down and helped himself to the untouched trencher. "Thank you, but I'm used to eating cold meals," he offered, breaking off a piece of bread to dip. The spices were sharp on his tongue, a taste of home that made his heart ache. "You didn't have to."
Sam waved it off, the gold bangle around his wrist glittering in the lantern light. "You've had a long day of arguing with that bastard of a dragon. I've had a boring one of watching you argue with the same. It's nothing."
A few days before, Sam had been sent down from Vítahil to watch the ceasing of hostilities as an escort for the Maria's Eyes. Steve had been glad to see his old friend, but wondered what it meant. Sam was one of the Maria's most trusted advisers, usually reserved for only the most delicate of situations. Nothing about dealing with dragons was ever delicate.
It made him wonder if something more might not be happening under his nose. Politics were no game for a soldier, but he hadn't become a legati by turning his back when the wind carried him its secrets.
"You're planning on leaving in ten days, aren't you?" Sam asked in the idle tone of one who was only making conversation, or who wanted to be seen that way. "The usual?"
Steve eyed him, but nodded. Packing and returning south for winter wasn't new, or a secret. "A week should be enough. There's no reason to stay here, and it was a hard autumn. The legion's more than due for a rest."
"I expect you're looking forward to returning home?" Sam didn't meet his eyes as he stabbed a piece of meat with his fork, twisting it about aimlessly. "Better weather, familiar faces. Maybe think about picking up a partner while you're there."
Well, that wasn't subtle. Steve set down his trencher and leaned forward, arms crossed on the table. "What's going on?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Annoyance tickled, a slow burn of anger that made the hairs on the back of Steve's neck stand up and the taste of hot ash touch the back of his throat. He pushed it down and away, familiarity giving him control. "Samuel. Don't play games."
Sam made a face, but pushed his food aside. "I knew you were going to be like this," he sighed, reaching for the amphora and a set of plain wooden cups. "You're going to want a drink."
Steve let his friend pour him a cup, obediently downing it when Sam waved him on, and then the second when one wasn't deemed enough. When Sam reached for his cup the third time, Steve held on, holding it to his chest protectively. "Explanation first, more drink as needed."
"You drive a hard bargain." Before going on, Sam, poured himself a drink and swilled it, letting the freshly emptied cup drop back to the table with a clatter. "You're getting a lot of attention. Historians are saying you're the youngest man to be a legati ever, and you killed that dragon by yourself."
Soft heat from the wine curled softly in Steve's stomach, but its relaxing influence wasn't enough to keep him from squirming. "I'm just a soldier," he protested, inwardly cringing at the little lie. "I got in a few lucky hits, and I managed to make the right connections. That's not the stuff heroes are made of."
"Anyone can be a tactician, huh?" Sam snorted and shook his head. "Keep telling yourself that. But it doesn't matter what you think. What matters is that the Lady of the Hills is starting to think that you might be too good for war anymore. She has an eye on you."
Steve's brows drew together. He grabbed the amphora from Sam's loose grip and poured himself another cup, swallowing it harshly to try and be rid of the taste of ashes. "What else is there for a soldier than war?"
A ghost of the wine caught in Steve's throat as he choked on nothing at all. "What?"
At the very least, Sam had enough dignity to look sheepish, which was twice the amount Steve could even begin to think of scraping together. "I'm not saying it's definite that you're going to be sent out to stud like some old warhorse. You're too useful out here for that. But you have good blood, a good story, and it shows. There's a lot of ladies talking about how they'd like you to take their name, and from the way they sound I think they'd be happy for something less formal. Gentlemen, too. You could have your pick, and I think the Maria would like to see your blood spread around a bit before sending you back out here."
Glancing down into the depths of his cup, Steve swirled the dregs of wine before tipping it back. It wasn't completely unexpected. Lots of decorated soldiers retired while they still had some life in them and spent a few years around the court as advisers of one sort of another, until they either married or retired fully into some sort of useful position. It wasn't unusual for a particularly well-known man to pick up commissions from ladies who wanted a pedigreed sire for their heir without the baggage of a husband, or for an untitled woman to winnow her way through noblemen and take the pick of the litter.
Steve had even toyed around with the idea, back when he'd first joined the army—a comfortable retirement waited for him just based on his savings, but he knew himself too well to think he could just go start a farm and be content. Entertaining a pretty nobleman or woman wasn't an unhappy prospect, even if marriage never came out of it. The difference between that and this was that he'd planned to be at least forty before he even thought about taking a dip in court.
But Sam wouldn't warn him if he were just looking at fending off interested suitors for a winter. "What else is there?"
"Just tell me."
Sam heaved a sight. "The Maria's been asking about you personally. Had someone look through your records, and I think Lady Natalia was told specifically to get a good eyeful of you."
For a moment, Steve could only stare.
Of course, the Maria could have anyone she wanted, but what she usually wanted was 'advisers'. Soldiers. Men who were more than just pretty faces. Everyone knew that she kept the famous General Fury as her favorite, though he was only seen rarely. No one was sure if it were an honor for his brilliance or punishment for fifteen years of military rule before the Maria had retaken control of the Hills. Her concubines were wealthy, well-kept and their skills were premier in keeping the Seven Hills from falling to the dragons.
They were also entirely hemmed in by the politics that surrounded the Maria day and night. Every movement was turned into gossip. Every stitch of clothing pondered for next year's styles. Steve might have considered retiring to a life of comfort, but that was one trade he wasn't willing to make.
"Hey." Sam reached across the table to clasp Steve's shoulder firmly, fingers slipping under the edge of his shoulder guard to touch skin. "Don't worry about it. It's not like the dragons are going to up and give us the border. The Maria's just been strange lately. She doesn't like a locked-in, tactically stale war."
"No one likes it, but they're not the ones thinking about 'retiring' me."
"Nothing will happen," Sam promised in a low, intent tone. "You're too good a legati for her not to send you back to the front. You'll get a few offers, spend a busy winter tumbling around beds making some nobles happy, and that'll be that. Maybe she'll take you for a tumble and send you on your way. It won't be that bad."
"Yeah." Steve forced himself to smile, though the expression felt stiff and unnatural. "Yeah, you're right. It'll be fine."