23 Storis, 1138
I’d forgotten my scheduled tenday leave. Generals don’t get them, but Advocates must rest their Ingeniae. The border had been busier than expected, and given the choice of staring at my walls or taking the time, I wanted away.
If I rode hard, I’d make Celestan in two days. I’d have to stop overnight, but Watable lay in the path. I should talk to the Teregenitor while the Prava’s in autumn recess anyway. He’ll be home. I sent flash messages to him and Rien, then spent the afternoon ordering my files.
The heliograph officer on duty told me the Celestan station was out; they were getting a storm, but he had a reply from Watable. Rien won’t mind a surprise. Watable’s reply read, Best possible time. Women gone. Lethian Retreat. Thank the gods. See you tomorrow.
That shocked me. Watable wasn’t Lethian. His son, one of my year-mates, had been days from taking his Cresarian vows when his elder brother’s death forced him to take over their langreve, marry and produce children. I wanted to trust Watable, but Lethians in the family made him a risk.
I rode into Watable paele late the next afternoon, just ahead of rain, but Bellacosa was still light and jumpy despite the tough ride. Of my mounts, she has the best endurance save Bravura, but that temperamental nag had bruised her shin during a tantrum, so I couldn’t spare the poor grooms. I had another bit of misfortune, or luck — no equerry. Ryten was about to make the jump to captain, but that promotion requires a number of tests and, in his case, an official security rating. He’s had a higher than captain’s rating for years because he works for me, but he still had to sit the examinations. I don’t mind Ryten — I appreciate his organization even when it irritates me, and I know he’s reliable. I’d probably like him better if he wasn’t assigned to me as a servant, with all of the formality and obeisance. I’ve long envied Rien and Avah’s partnership, but that’s not the Army’s way. Not having him at my elbow would make questioning Watable easier, though. Ryten has clearances, but not for Prava business.
Watable paele was usual for the wine district — a three story, half-timbered building about a century old, the wattle white-washed against blackened wood. It would have to be pulled down within a decade or so, but it looked sturdy enough under its shingles. Some fifty people were in the fields, hauling grapes for pressing. At the oil house, wagons full of olia berries waited to be pressed for their fragrant, tangy oil. More trees in the orchard still bore nets, so the harvest wasn’t done, but those would be for fuel oil and could stand a wetting.
Three men in simple, sturdy clothing stood between the hedges around the pleasure garden and the press house, passing a bottle of something dark. Surprising to see anybody slacking during the grape harvest, until I realized I saw Jeren Watable, Jonnas Watable and a small giant, who seemed both friend and cohort.
I hadn’t seen Jeren since I left Cimenarum, and hadn’t met Jonnas since… Rien’s Elevation? How in hells do I miss seeing someone for that long in country of a half-million? Normally, we live in each other’s pockets. Being on the border helps.
Jeren caught sight of me and raised the bottle. “The women are gone!” he called. “You just missed them.”
I brought Bellacosa to a halt and joined them on the ground, her reins over my arm, but a stabler appeared, asking if she needed special care. “Nyuh,” I said. “She’s sweet, but warm, so let her walk a bit.” I turned back to the three men. “Lacking women as cause for celebration. Remind me to tell my men.”
Jonnas rolled his eyes. “Those two, certainly. Another day and I’d toss ’em on the Last Autumn’s Night bonfire. Da, would sending them to the Spangians be a war crime? You look well, Ragin. The Army suits you.”
It was like we’d never been apart. Jonnas was thinner, bearded now, but his eyes were still as quick and observant as ever and he seemed content on his land.
The third, who topped me by a half a foot and probably outweighed me by half, offered me the bottle. “Either I don’t rate an introduction or these two are deeper in their cups than three swallows warrant, but Your Valor, I’m honored.”
“Not here.” I took the bottle. “Ragin Revinsel. If you call me General, I get to beat you.”
He grinned. “Not my vice.” He offered his hand. “Jednik Fennist. I’m the Patrona here.”
“Jed’s the brains of the place,” Jonnas said.
“That’s Jon. I’m just the muscle.”
“Don’t be deceived,” Jeren said. “They share a mind. A devious, twisted one.”
“Best kind,” I said and sipped extraordinary black brandy, sweet and thick. The alcohol tingled my nose as it evaporated in my mouth. Be damned careful with this, or you’ll be slumped over a hay bale.
“Da,” a small person called, running up, trailed by a slightly smaller one. “We made oil.” I couldn’t tell gender for either — their dark curls were cut into short mops and both wore simple brown breeches and tunics over unbleached linen shirts, their sleeves rolled to their elbows. The taller one couldn’t be more than five, the shorter three or four.
Jon picked them both up. “You did. Did you turn the crank?”
“I did,” the small person said. “It’s hard.”
“Ayuh,” Jed said and took the taller one. “You’ll need to grow big and strong. Or convince me to do it.” The child ruffled his hair and kissed him.
“We’ve the children,” Jeren said, looking at them fondly. “Emma, this is — ” he eyed me with mischief.
“I wouldn’t,” I warned.
“We’re related somehow,” Jon said. “This is your Uncle Ragin. Emma and Julen Watable.”
The girl, who despite her coloring reminded me of Rien at that age, held out her hand. “Whose brother are you? Uncles are brothers and aunts are sisters. That’s what Da says. Are you Mumma’s brother? Da doesn’t have brothers except for Uncle Jed who’s a heart brother and that’s more important cuz they picked.”
“It’s a long time back, sweetling,” I said.
“Last tenday?” she asked.
“Something like that. May I see your oil?”
“Jule wanted to carry it,” she said witheringly.
The boy hid his face in Jon’s shoulder, the bottle clutched in his arms. “He’s not quite three,” Jon said. “He does this with strangers.”
He was tall for three, or Emma was small. “How old are you, Lady Emma?” I asked.
“I’ll be six very soon,” she said. “Six days before Archilia’s Day. It’s always hot on my birthday and we swim in the river.”
Since Archilia’s Day was not long past, I wondered at Emma’s sense of time, but I’d never known small children. She enchanted me. She had Watable’s dark eyes and hair, but her mother must be fair. Emma was pretty now, but she’d be beautiful one day, with her heart-shaped face and rosebud mouth. She wiggled and Jed let her down. She ran off, shouting, “I want to pick grapes!” Julen followed.
I watched them run, and the people in the fields — who included a number of other small children, trying to help — welcomed the addition of the Pronemia and Pronemor without ceremony. The other men watched too, with similar expressions on their faces. Love.
So that’s what fatherhood’s like. Not just a duty, but a joy, if done well.
“All right,” Jon said. “I’m going back to the press house.”
“And I’m off to the vineyard,” Jed agreed.
“You said no ceremony, Ragin, and we’re busy, but you’re welcome with any of us,” Jeren said. “I’m headed out to the cheria orchard to mark what we’re pruning out.”
I probably needed to talk most to Jeren, and I’d be equally useless in all three places. I know nothing about farming nor wine nor oil.
We weren’t twenty yards from the paele when Jeren said, “You have a plan yet?”
“Part of one,” I said. “Unless you can poison — “
“You overestimate me,” he said. “I recall what we went through with Jon for Her Ascendency’s Elevation — tendays of questions and examinations and I thought Vohan was… well, not to speak ill — “
“Uncle kept Rien wrapped in wool,” I said.
“That’s nothing compared to getting near Savrin.” He took a ball of red twine from a pocket and cut several lengths, then started tying them around specific branches. I took the twine and knife. “You’ve been absent since the debacle.”
A good name for it. I shook my head.
“They’re careful,” Jeren said. “Not moving too fast or far with each step, but I think Mathes is setting himself like the Porsirian Emperors. He wants power.”
“He’s corrupt enough.”
Jeren tied cords in silence for a while. “He did more than beat you, didn’t he?”
I knew what Jeren meant. That story was a state secret, but it was mine, and I’d decided after working with Els that the secrecy surrounding it was part of my problem. I want to trust Watable, and his reaction to this would be a good gauge. “Yes.”
“You mind or your body?”
“To a six year old, they’re the same,” I said. “He caught me and a couple of schoolmates being small boys — Kurzon, I think, and… Sam Calarin? Too many years. Show me yours, I show you mine. They went home, he said no son of his would be a bloody turnabout and he’d make sure I’d never touch another man. It lasted a couple years.”
“Yet you are,” he said.
I avoided his gaze. That wasn’t secret, but not well known. Half the Army is at least half, but we don’t take it back to the civilian world.
He shook his head. “No gossip. I’m mostly Acquae, but I’ve a touch of Valenas and a little Inspica. Not a real Intuitive, but I sometimes make small leaps. The way you are with Cazerien… it’s odd for siblings.”
“Half-turnabout,” I admitted. “Both sides have their attractions. Your granddaughter would catch my eye in twenty years…. but I’ll be too old for her or dead by then.”
“She’s a charmer,” he agreed, “unless she needs a nap.” He tied a few more knots. “You better marry damn soon.”
“Ayuh,” I said. “Speaking of spouses, yours are Lethian now?”
He rolled his eyes. “If ever there’s a fashion for leaping off bridges, I assure you, my wife and marriage-daughter will be found in the center of the pool of splattered brains. And good riddance. As Cazerien predicted, shows of piety and ostentatious asceticism is this season’s violet hair. For a mere thousand teanders, one hundred select ladies of excellent character shall spend this tenday in exclusive contemplation and virtuous vicissitude.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding. “The operative words there being exclusive and select? So the Lethians do milk the flocks like everyone else. Are they really getting fashionable ladies to drop a manga a day?”
“Hundreds of ladies,” he said with irritation. “I have to admire the audacity of the con. Most of the attendees are wealthy freeborn and subsequent pronatiae and pronemiae with their mamas, all being groomed for the Razin’s consort. The Lethians preach at them, barely feed them, give them pallets on the floor, and put them to heavy work in the fields. And reap a million teanders from bored, vain, wealthy hands. The women will tire of it once Savrin picks a consort. Next year, Ellanie and Naeka will discover collage or chalk drawing. It happens every year.”
“You’re not worried — ” I started. That sounded much like Savrin’s introduction to Lethism.
“Not much,” he said. “I’ve watched these annual obsessions for thirty years. Nothing that requires real dedication and skill lasts. Every temple holds similar retreats. The participants feel virtuous and enjoy the comfort of pleasing the Pantheon, accomplish a little work, and get to see new faces for a few days.” He shrugged. “The Lethians are just more obvious in their avarice.” He turned back to marking the tree, but kept speaking. “Ellanie and Naeka aren’t precisely stupid, just gullible to anyone who flatters them, and anything that makes them feel like they’re part of the Curia catches their fancy. The fees are their money to spend. This too shall pass.” He stilled for a moment. “Whatever you do, don’t let any of us arrange a match for you. If you want introductions, I’ll arrange them, but you make the decision, and marry a grown woman with a mind of her own. Today’s teander’s worth of free advice.”
“I suppose,” I said. “If you don’t mind culling a few sensible ones from the giggle of girls and sending them to Rear Garrison…”
“Or you could come in for Midwinter. Your mourning will end, then. What’s keeping you on the border? I don’t mind holding your proxies, but we need you.”
I couldn’t tell him that I’d murder Savrin on sight. “I can’t say.”
He accepted my evasion. “What’s Cazerien doing?”
“Being a lawyer. Setting up her own net of people.” I shouldn’t have said own there. Being skittish and duty-bound into idiocy.
“Oi, that’s what you’re doing,” he said, smiling. “I wondered. Some recent reports seemed a little dire for the time of year. Good work otherwise. Enough dissent in the ranks. It doesn’t look coordinated.”
“Tell me about the Prava. What are the numbers?”
“The Reformists are down one.” Jeren grinned. “Old Rassath’s about to kick his traces and his son’s taking long walks in the Financial district. Near my circle. We’ve a plan.”
“And the Progressives?”
“Gods, I wish I knew. I’d rather herd cats than these imbeciles wandering the mushy middle. I’d have a chance of success. Three joined the Royalists, that helps, and I vote with the Royalists, but I talk around a half dozen, move on to the next group, then I have to go back to the first.”
“I don’t recall this much dithering in the past.”
“Vohan was a better leader. Mathes is captivating, but Vohan had charm and ability. Savrin… “
“He can be charming,” I allowed.
“Sometimes,” he agreed, “but he’s erratic. One day, he’s centered on his temple and the next he’s focused on the Prava. Maybe he just hasn’t settled in, but Vohan only did that for a half-year or so. Savrin’s been Razin for most of a year now and still vacillates.”
“You should see what Rien writes about him. I didn’t know she knew some of those words.”
“He writes to her?”
“Ayuh, and she writes to him when he does something stupid.”
“Make her stop,” he said urgently. “There’s something odd, but I can’t find the source. She shouldn’t prick anyone now. Savrin and Mathes aren’t on best terms.”
“Really?” I said. “Aunt Bella would be cheering. Not that she ever would, bless her icy heart.”
“It’s not good,” he said. “When they work at cross purposes, it’s harder to fight them. To bring the Prava around, I need them cooperating so we have a target to fire against.”
“I can’t help,” I said. “Savrin and I barely speak and my parent and I not at all.”
“What would it take to get Cazerien back to Cimenarum?”
I considered it. “Her legitimacy restored, returned to Prima Ascendara, a seat on Savrin’s Privy Council. Plus her langreves and votes on the Prava. I think that’s the minimum.” Savrin’s head on a pike wouldn’t go amiss.
“She doesn’t strike me as avaricious,” he said.
“She’s not,” I said. “She’s only safe now because she looks insignificant. In Cimenarum, she’d need money for guards, the public presence and her rights to keep breathing. Somebody keeps trying to kill her.”
Jeren shook his head. “I might get one of those through… and it would be a hard fight.”
I could have told him that.
I left the next morning in rain. I was sure of Watable now, and of Jon and Jednik. They’d be good allies. I gathered that their marriages were, at best, distantly amiable political matches, but Lethians in the family gave Jeren some cover.
Rien must return to Cimenarum. I’ll shove sense into her if I must beat her bloody. I recoiled from that. I couldn’t erase the memory of her bruises — and the other.
She denied Sarvin raped her, but I knew better. We keep civilians off the border because Spagna uses rape as an instrument of war. Afterwards, those who survive and escape are skittish — and I don’t blame them. I’ve endured that wary hell, always watchful, avoiding every reminder of what happened. Rien’s hiding as an Advocate so she won’t have to confront Savrin. We’d erred when she decided to protect me instead of going after Savrin. I’d have to help her fix that.