In the cool air of early spring, on the second Solayi in Maris, the man who wore the uniform of a Telaryn commander stood at the foot of the long stone pier that dominated the south end of the harbor at Kephria. Behind Quaeryt were only ashes and ruins, except for the old stone fort to the immediate south of the pier, and the rising trooper compound more than a mille to the north, situated at the corner of the old fortifications that had once marked the border between Antiago and Bovaria. He looked out onto the Gulf of Khellor, where patches of mist drifted above the dark surface.
Then his eyes dropped to the pier, once the pride of the port city that had been leveled by the late Autarch's cannon and imagers. Most of the stone pillars that supported the pier remained solid — but not all. The stone-paved surface of the long pier was pitted, and many of the gray paving stones were cracked. A few were shattered. Almost every stone showed signs of fire, either in the ashes in the mortared joins between the stones, or in blackened sections of stone. The wooden bollards were all charred — those that remained. One section of the pier, some two hundred yards out from the shore, sagged almost half a yard over a twenty-yard stretch.
The Zephyr — the large three-masted schooner that had brought Quaeryt, his imagers, and first company to Kephria — lay anchored a good half mille out from the pier in the now-quiet waters of the Gulf of Kephria.
Quaeryt took a slow deep breath, then concentrated on the section of the pier where it joined the harbor boulevard to the first charred bollards, roughly fifty yards away.
The briefest flash of light flared across the first section of the pier, and then the gray stone was shrouded in a white and cold fog that drifted seaward with the slightest hint of a land breeze. When the afterimage of the flash subsided, and the fog had dispersed enough for Quaeryt to see, he smiled. He hadn't even felt any strain, and the first fifty yards of the stone pier looked — and were — as strong and as new as when they had been first constructed, centuries before.
He waited a bit for the frost on the gray stone to melt away, then walked carefully to the end of the section he had rebuilt with his imaging. Once there, he concentrated once again, on the next section of the pier. After the second imaging, he did feel a slight twinge across his forehead. Rather than immediately press on, given the length of the pier requiring rebuilding, Quaeryt lifted the water bottle from his jacket pocket, uncorked it, and took a swallow of the watered lager before recorking the bottle and replacing it in his pocket.
"Take your time. You've got all day if you need it." He glanced toward the fort where Vaelora was — he hoped — taking her time in preparing for the day. He tried not to dwell on the events that had caused her to miscarry their daughter ... but he had seen the darkness behind Vaelora's eyes when she'd thought he wasn't looking.
Then he walked slowly to the end of the second rebuilt section, trying not to think about how much of the pier remained to be reconstructed, a good four hundred yards more extending out into the waters where the River Laar and the Gulf of Khellor met and mixed. He glanced to the west where he could barely make out through the morning mist the low smudge of land that had once held Ephra, before the Autarch's imagers and cannon had destroyed it.
Finally, he concentrated once more, and another section of the pier was renewed. Quaeryt took a slow deep breath. There had been another twinge as he'd imaged, but it hadn't felt any worse than the last one.
"You'll have to keep taking it slow and easy," he murmured as he took another small swallow of watered lager and waited for the mist and frost to clear.
Section by section, over the next three glasses, Quaeryt imaged and rebuilt fifty-yard lengths, although his skull ached slightly more with each effort, and he had to rest longer after each section was completed.
After he had finished the last section, and he walked to the seaward end of the pier, Quaeryt took a deep breath and massaged his forehead. His head definitely ached, and faint flashes of light flickered before his eyes, a sign that — unless he wanted to be laid up and unable to image for days — he was close to his limit for imaging. For now ... for now. But if you don't keep working to build up your strength, it won't be there when you need it. And he had no doubts he would need it on the return trip to Variana, and most likely even more after he reached the capital city of Bovaria, a land totally defeated, yet, almost paradoxically, far from conquered and certainly a land with more problems, the nastiest of which would likely fall to him — and Vaelora — to resolve.
Standing almost at the end of the pier, Quaeryt gestured, then called, image-projecting his voice toward the Zephyr so that Captain Sario could bring the ship back to the pier to tie up. The quick jab across his skull was a definite reminder that he needed to do no more imaging for some time.
He hoped he'd recover in a few glasses, but ... he'd have to see. Part of the reason he'd worked on the pier was to determine what he could do and how fast he would recover after all his injuries in the battle for Liantiago.
While he waited for the schooner to raise enough sail for headway into the pier, Quaeryt lifted the water bottle from his jacket pocket, uncorked it, and took another swallow of the watered lager before recorking the bottle and replacing it.
Almost half a glass later, the Zephyr came to rest at the most seaward position at the pier, with the crew making the schooner fast to the pier, and then doubling up the lines.
Sario looked from his position on the sterncastle to the pier, and then to Quaeryt. "Is it solid?"
"Come onto the pier and see for yourself."
After a moment the Antiagon merchant captain walked forward to midships, then made his way down the gangway that two seamen had extended. Sario stamped his boots on the stone.
"Solid enough, but it was before. It still could be an illusion." His words held the heavy accent of Antiagon Bovarian, almost a separate dialect, and one that Quaeryt still had to strain to understand.
Quaeryt almost said that he didn't do illusions, except that he had. "Run your fingers over the stone or the bollard there. There wasn't one here before. It had rotted out."
The dark-haired captain did so, then walked another few yards toward the foot of the pier and tried again. Finally, he straightened and walked back to Quaeryt, shaking his head. "Why do you not do more like this, instead of destroying men and ships?"
"Because there are few indeed of us, and our greatest value to a ruler is what creates and supports his power. Without the support of a ruler, imagers are killed one by one. That is because few have great power. You saw how my undercaptains collapsed after less than a glass of battle. So we support Lord Bhayar because he has supported us and has pledged to continue to do so. That is the only way in which imagers and their wives and children will ever survive in Lydar ... or anywhere on Terahnar." The reality was far more complex than that, but Quaeryt wasn't about to go into a long explanation. Instead, he smiled and gestured at the reconstructed pier. "So Kephria has a good pier for ships like the Zephyr. Your family might do well to open a small factorage here before others come to understand that Kephria will now serve as the port for both southern Bovaria and northern Antiago."
Sario laughed. "Commander, you have a way of making your point." His face sobered. "Yet ... I can see the possible truth in what you say. I will talk it over with the others when I return to Westisle."
"You'll have to make a stop in Liantiago to drop off several of my troopers with dispatches."
"I can do that."
"I'd appreciate it." Quaeryt nodded. "You should be able to leave by the end of the week. I've put out word to the towns inland that you have some space for cargo."
"That would be welcome."
"We do what we can, Captain."
"How's your lady, sir?"
"She's much better. Much better, but she needs a few more days before she'll be up to a long ride."
Sario offered a sympathetic smile.
Quaeryt wished he could offer comfort in return, knowing that the captain had lost his beloved wife some years earlier, and still missed her greatly. You were fortunate that you didn't lose Vaelora to the mistakes you made. But they had lost more than either had intended. "Until later, Captain."
Sario nodded as Quaeryt turned and walked back toward the foot of the pier ... and the fort. His head still throbbed, but the pain had been far worse many times before — and he had redone the pier without tariffing the other imagers, who had more than enough to do in dealing with rebuilding the trooper compound from the ruins.
"Now what?" asked Vaelora. She sat on the bed, wearing riding clothes, propped up with pillows, because there was little enough left of furnishings anywhere, let alone in the unruined section of the stone fort that remained the only structure in Kephria to have survived the Antiagon assault of both cannon and Antiagon Fire. In fact, all of the furnishings, except for the bed, had been imaged into being by two of Quaeryt's undercaptains, Khalis and Lhandor, except for one chair that Quaeryt had created.
The small amount of sunlight filtering into the fort on Solayi afternoon was enough for Quaeryt to see that Vaelora had color in her face and that the circles under her eyes were not so deep as they had been when he'd first seen her on Vendrei.
"Well?" prompted Vaelora when Quaeryt did not reply.
"You're feeling better," he replied in the court Bovarian they always used when alone ... and with a smile.
"I am. You haven't answered the question."
"I think we need to report back to the lord and master of Lydar. In person and with a certain deliberate haste."
"Khel hasn't acknowledged his rule," she pointed out.
"I'm hopeful that in the coming months the High Council will see that discretion in negotiation is better than courage without strength in battle."
"That's possible ... but you're still worried."
"Why should I be worried? Autarch Aliario has perished, and Antiago lies in the hands of Submarshal Skarpa. Presumably Submarshal Myskyl has used his forces to assure that northern Bovaria has accepted Bhayar's rule. With the fall of Antiago and the destruction of the wall around Kephria and the devastation of Ephra, the River Laar is now open to trade ... even if there are no warehouses for traders around the harbor or anywhere near." Quaeryt let a sardonic tone creep into his next words. "Of course, our lord and master knows of none of this, and as you pointed out, he will be less than pleased that the High Council of Khel did not crawl on their knees to accept his most magnanimous terms. Seeing as the last two months have been winter, also, I have my doubts about how assiduously the submarshal of the Northern Army has pursued a campaign of persuasion in the north ..."
In fact, Quaeryt had few doubts that Myskyl had already undertaken yet another effort to undermine and discredit Quaeryt, although Quaeryt had no idea in what form that effort might manifest itself.
Vaelora held up a hand in protest. "Dearest ... I think you've made your point. When should we leave?"
"Not until three days after you think you're ready."
"Then we'll leave on Jeudi."
Quaeryt shook his head. "No anticipation. You don't feel ready to leave today. We'll see how you feel tomorrow."
"You worry too much."
No ... I didn't worry enough about you, and I almost lost you ... and we did lose our daughter.
"Dearest ..." began Vaelora softly. "You did the best you could do. If you'd left another regiment or some imagers, you would have failed in Antiago, especially in Liantiago in facing Aliaro."
"I should have taken you with me, then."
"With all that riding, the same thing might well have happened. What might have happened in Liantiago? Where would I have been safe there?" Quaeryt had no answers to her questions.
"We both knew that seeking what we want and need would be dangerous, but unless Bhayar unites all of Lydar, that cannot be. If Bhayar fails to unite Lydar," Vaelora went on, her voice quiet but firm, "sooner or later all will turn against him for the costs of the wars. You are the only one who can assure that he is successful."
"No. You and I together are the only ones. Without your presence in Khel, there would be no chance that the High Council would even have considered his terms. Without your counsel, I would have made too many mistakes." Even more than I already did.
"Dearest ... I've made mistakes as well. Trusting Grellyana was a terrible mistake."
"I doubt that it made much difference in the end, not with the mistakes I made," he replied with a soft laugh.
They both smiled, and both smiles were rueful.
"What about Nineteenth Regiment?" asked Vaelora after several moments. "Will you summon Alazyn to join us?"
"I think not. Skarpa will need all the troopers he has in Liantiago. And it would take weeks for Alazyn to march here, and we don't have the ships to transport a full regiment and its mounts from Liantiago. Also, another regiment won't help us in returning to Variana." Or after we get there, since resolving any problems we face won't require large battles. "We still have Eleventh Regiment, and it is almost at full strength. First company is at three-quarters strength."
"Of a normal company."
Quaeryt nodded, acknowledging that first company had set out from Variana with five squads, rather than four, then went on. "I think Calkoran should accompany us, with his first company, so that he can brief Bhayar as well, but Major Zhael and Major Arion and their companies should hold Kephria and Geusyn ... what's left of them."
"They should encourage the locals to relocate to Kephria," suggested Vaelora. "That's where the traders will come now."
"I'll make certain that they spread the word." I'll also make certain that they don't allow people to build shanties or the like near the harbor. He paused. "I had thought we might find a way to use Rex Kharst's canal boat on the return, but the Antiagon imagers destroyed it when they fired all the wooden piers in Geusyn."
"Trying to use it would just have slowed us down." Vaelora shifted her weight in the bed, then swung her feet onto the floor. "I need to walk some more." She leaned forward gingerly and pulled on the low boots.
Quaeryt rose from the chair beside her bed, then extended his right hand. The end two fingers on his left still refused to move, except slightly, and then only when he tried to close the entire hand. It had been almost half a year since the battle of Variana, and he had come to the conclusion that he might never regain the use of those fingers.
Vaelora took his hand, but used it only to steady herself for a moment, before she walked toward the gun port that had been sealed for years. Quaeryt walked beside her. With each step, fine ash swirled around their boots, even though the area had been swept just glasses before.
"It's warm enough. Let's walk over to the pier and out to the Zephyr."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I won't get stronger doing nothing. I'm not bleeding, and my bruises are all healing. Sometimes this happens to women for no reason at all, and they survive. So will I."
Quaeryt wasn't about to argue.
Once they reached the pier, Quaeryt checked his imaging shields, making sure that they covered both Vaelora and himself. He could feel the effort, most likely because of what he had been doing earlier.
"Quaeryt ..." Vaelora's voice was cool.
"There are no burn marks left on the stone. There are no cracks or chips. The center section of the pier no longer sags."
"I had the pier repaired," he said blandly.
"That's why you look so tired. Just how much imaging did you do?"