“So what do we do now then?” Zacarias asked, and slowly, he scanned the room meeting and holding each of his son’s eyes, Sibeal’s, and Jaera’s. The stone room echoed coolly on the sound of a breath, the rustle of cloth as Breitt shifted.
“We put on a feast,” Jaera said quietly. She looked down as she spoke, then looked up to meet the questioning glances the others aimed her way. “All five brothers are back inside the walls… it’s worth celebrating.”
“A feast,” Callix repeated, gentle, questioning, and just for her.
She turned to him silently and raised her eyebrows. Whatever reply that made, only he could read it.
“I brought home two hundred refugees to a city full of refugees while Kings circle the walls, and you think we should be putting music and bonfires in the streets?” Tiernan asked. He tilted his head, letting the idea sit for a moment, then looked at her uncertainly. “I think we could find better things to do.”
“She’s right,” Breitt said gently.
Callix turned to him with more blatant doubt painted on his face.
“Explain it to the stupid among us then,” Tiernan said.
“There’s no need for you to share your concerns with the city,” Sibeal said. She looked to Breitt, then Jaera, making sure it was all right for her to cut in this way, then continued without pause. “They have all the concerns they need. Kings at the gates. Soldiers that can breach any day. No promise that the food in the pantries will last farther than next month. New mouths and hands and faces in their streets every day. They don’t need you to reacquaint them with thoughts that keep them company all the day long. They need your confidence.”
Smiling lightly, Jaera looked down again.
Zacarias nodded. “So that’s what we say about what happened in this room when we leave it. We were celebrating, and we’ll celebrate again tomorrow, and the day after. It has been entirely too long since all my sons could share the same table. But I think there’s more than should be done.”
“We don’t have anyone left to petition,” Breitt said. “Gaebrel and Vardeck have always stood against us. Madden has sided with Vardeck, Cadeyr wouldn’t even let us in his court last we asked, and if we force Rordan to take a side, it won’t be ours.”
“There are men beside kings,” Sibeal said.
“The ones with the reach to help us, either already owe us allegiance, or sided with Gaebrel a long time ago,” Callix told her. He leaned forward over his knees. “We can ask again, but there aren’t many men who age into rebellion.”
“And maybe we can ask those who would need to stretch their reach,” Sibeal said. “Since we seem to be stretching a bit ourselves to look Kings in the eye.”
Callix looked at Tiernan. Tiernan shrugged. They were not raising themselves to be Kings. They had been born Lords of Oruasta, and that was all they’d ever aspired to be. Still, they were growing longer arms of late, to hold for themselves what Gaebrel had always helped them grasp. They had gone farther away than she was suggesting in journeying to Madden’s court. It couldn’t hurt.
“And perhaps,” Jaera said. “It’s time to consider buying an army.”
Callix shook his head immediately, if not firmly. “That’s not what we do here.”
“So, you’ve said before,” she said. “When perhaps what you mean is that it hasn’t been done here.”
“Bought armies fight for conquerors,” Callix said. “They don’t defend home.”
Jaera gave him another silent look, and Tiernan only spent a moment trying to read it before Callix answered her with another shake of the head.
“How long will your refugees wait for us to send help back to the ones they left behind?” Samsin asked Tiernan.
Tiernan pushed himself straight in his chair and took a breath. “Now that they’re here, safe in our walls?” Tiernan shook his head a little. “From what I know of people in war, it will be hard to pry them back out. Still, it’s family they left behind. I can give a list of names right now that will be petitioning for motion as soon as they wake tomorrow. Some of them will see how we are here. Maybe they won’t press, and maybe they’ll just gather what’s theirs and go back without us. I wouldn’t expect them to wait more than two or three months unless we can show them good promise in staying.”
“Could you send a bought army to help them?” Samsin asked. He glanced around the room, immediately uncertain of what he’d said.
Jaera blinked at him, but almost smiled.
Samsin looked away from her, more unsure. “Is that close enough to conquering?”
“It’s theft,” Tiernan told him. He was surprised that he was smiling, too. “It would take a very special mercenary to knowingly ride in against Vardeck’s keimon, and rob Madden. But I can think of a sort of person who would be that reckless.”
“You?” Breitt asked wryly.
“For the right price,” Tiernan said.
Callix offered a sympathetic grin. For the right price – lives kept and children’s smiles and families whole – he would be that reckless too.
“If we strike at Madden and Vardeck, we start this war for real,” Jaera said. She looked to Zacarias. “We make war on all the Kings, and they’ll all hit back. A mercenary army could do this for us, but can we handle what would come next? Can we fortify this city in that time?”
“Or will we run?” Zacarias said flatly. He looked at her sideways at first, testing her reaction to his statement, then slowly faced her and waited for her to respond. Breitt looked down, taking a deep breath. Samsin suddenly crossed his arms. Neither Callix nor Tiernan moved, but Tiernan felt his blood suddenly hum in his veins.
“I know what this city means to you,” Jaera murmured. “I know what that chair you’re sitting in means to you. Your father sat on it, your grandfather, and your great-grandfather. You can trace generations back to the reckonings of time in the wear under your fingers. This is where your family has always been, and where you imagined it would always be. The permanence of the stone feels like the permanence of your own blood. I’ve heard your stories.” She paused to collect a breath and a thought. “I’m not asking you to abandon it, my lord.”
“Just to consider it,” Zacarias said.
“Father,” Callix murmured.
“I ran from my home,” Jaera said. “It didn’t destroy me.”
Zacarias’ hands tightened on the carvings at the end of his arm rests. The tips of his fingers whitened in pale skin. “You ran from a village into the arms of a Lord’s heir,” he murmured.
Jaera nodded. “I did,” she said. “And I’ll fight for my new home, my lord.”
Zacarias eased on a moment. He shut his eyes, and leaned toward her. There was no apology when he opened his eyes again, just as she didn’t offer him one, but they both looked a little sad.
“Callix,” Zacarias said. “I trust you’ll make a list of those who might widen their reach?”
“Of course,” Callix told him.
Tiernan looked to his father.
“You should start looking for your mercenaries. You don’t have much time.”