Jonnah had been on the road for nine weeks. Nine weeks of sweaty horses and sweaty soldiers. Nine weeks of the same faces, the same voices, the same stale jokes and questions and arguments. Nine weeks of field discipline and focus. Jonnah had felt every minute of it.
Only the fact that by the end of today he’d be home gave him the strength to smile when the Kardenel soldier informed him the prince wanted Jonnah to keep him company on the road.
Jonnah gave one last tug on Diamond’s cinch, then squinted up at the green-and-gold-clad soldier who had, by accident or design, placed herself directly between Jonnah and the blazing morning sun. He considered declining the request. He could claim his work required focus, and how would Bastyen know the difference? But home was close and home was full of people to whom this treaty mattered a great deal. So Jonnah dredged a sense of duty from the depths of his exhaustion and answered that he would love nothing better than to spend the day alongside Bastyen.
She snapped a salute—a gesture of respect that would have been shocking weeks ago. “Thank you, Captain. I’ll inform his highness.”
“You do that,” Jonnah muttered at her back as she rode back to the Kardenel side of the encampment.
Black-clad Aravene soldiers waved or called out to her as she crossed underbrush trampled flat by the escort column. Near two hundred people and their horses, plus dozens of floats full of baggage and generators—they left their mark on the landscape.
The soldiers were all in good spirits. They called through the camp, smiled and joked with each other. Eager horses danced and fidgeted, full of restless energy. The sight buoyed him. This was Jonnah’s doing, work to be proud of.
Work he didn’t get to neglect just because he was babysitting the crown prince of Kardenel. Jonnah ran his hand one last time over the straps and ties of Diamond’s saddle, making sure nothing was loose or out of place. He stroked her neck—“Almost home, beautiful”—then reached into the leather case secured just behind the cantle and pulled out the circlet that had defined his life all these weeks on the road.
In his hand, it didn’t look like much—a ring of silvery metal with neither etching nor ornament, broken only by an expandable clasp in the back so he could adjust it to settle snug on his head. Nine weeks of sweat and road grime hadn’t dulled the polish, and although the metal felt near weightless dangling from his fingers, it had proved resistant to abuse in the countless centuries it had been in service. Jonnah couldn’t begin to comprehend the engineering that had created either this circlet or the larger, more powerful boosters back at the palace, but he could admire its simple, elegant beauty.
Even more, he could appreciate the function it served when worn by someone with Jonnah’s gifts.
Jonnah looped the circlet over his arm and swung up into the saddle. The Aravene soldiers had started to cluster, but he had a few minutes before anyone was called to formation, and probably quite a bit more time after that. The Kardenel delegation had twice as many people as the Aravene escort, and a third of those were civilians, which led to disorganized mornings and delay after delay. The Kardenel folk were entirely to blame for the fact the trip back home from the border had taken a week longer than the trip out.
Even discounting the civilians, the Kardenel soldiers didn’t impress with their discipline. When the Aravene and Kardenel soldiers had met up at the border five weeks ago, officers on both sides had their hands full keeping things civil, but more often than not it had been Kardenel provoking altercations. Time together on the road had worn away a lot of the tension, which sent Kardenel discipline slipping even further, and Bastyen seemed neither to notice nor care.
A deep hum resonated through Jonnah’s bones and as the floats pulled into formation and shields came online. That was the signal for the Aravene line to form in front of the generators. The Kardenel soldiers moved about their own floats, hitching them to horses at a relaxed pace.
The Aravene soldiers didn’t dare relax, for one very good reason. The reason that was, just this minute, riding towards Jonnah.
Jonnah straightened to attention as General Anison pulled up in front of him. Nine weeks on the road had done nothing to soften The General. True, his uniform was road-worn, and his silver hair was as dulled with dust and sweat as anyone’s, but his posture was as back-stiffeningly perfect as when they’d first ridden out from the palace and his expression just as hard.
At the moment, his frowning attention was focused on the Kardenel camp. “Late. Again.”
“At least they’re consistent.”
“This is what passes for a royal escort in Kardenel.” Anison waved a hand at the milling, green-clad soldiers. “Fifty to guard Bastyen, and not a one of them has both their sword and their boots on five minutes before we’re supposed to be on the road.”
None of them looked in a hurry, either. Jonnah imagined it was driving Anison to new heights of frustration. Jonnah spotted the girl who’d delivered Bastyen’s invite as she laughed with another pair of guards. The gold embroidery of their uniforms glinted in the sun. “At least they’re pretty.”
“Oh yes. Very pretty. Every single one.” Anison shook his head. “The King of Kardenel has his priorities, I suppose.”
“Look which child he picked to be crown prince,” Jonnah said in a low voice.
Anison said nothing to that, only continued to watch the camp. Ignored, his mare took an unbidden step forward and reached her nose towards Diamond, who snorted back. Anison looked down, surprised, and tugged lightly at his reins to get her attention. “You’re doing a fair job, keeping them energized enough to be social.”
“I’m doing an excellent job,” Jonnah corrected, “although it isn’t leaving me particularly social.”
Anison looked back towards the Kardenel camp where tents were just starting to collapse. “Yes, I heard Bastyen wants you to ride with him today.”
“And you thought you’d come over and make sure I gave the right response to his invitation?” Jonnah tried to make it a joke, but either he was too tired or the question was too honest and it came out flat.
Years of experience allowed Jonnah to read a hidden smile in the tiny crinkles that formed in the weathered skin around Anison’s mouth. In Jonnah’s mind, he heard the words Anison sent—words that Anison would never voice in public. Like I give a damn the answer you give that preening puff. Out loud, he only said, “You do what you need to.”
Jonnah tried to send back a snarky response, but Anison’s mind was shielded tight—as disciplined within as he was without.
“Go get in line,” Anison said. “I won’t accept chaos on our side just because Bastyen can’t keep his people in order.”
Jonnah joined the column, facing into the sun, his black uniform already uncomfortably hot. One last day on the road, and it wasn’t looking to oblige him by passing any faster than the rest.