The doom of the leader is to lead. -The Journey of Gèsu, chapter 4, verse 10.
Eliana? Eliana!" Giovanni stared down at me, flushed in the late summer heat. I squinted up at him and he sat back, looking relieved. "That was one hell of a fall."
I groaned and lay still for a moment. Two months of leading an army-two more successful battles, even-and I still couldn't stay on my horse and reload a crossbow at the same time. I pushed myself up with my elbows. "Nothing hurts," I said. That was blatantly false, but nothing especially hurt. "I must have just had the wind knocked out of me." I turned to glare at Forza, my horse. She had skidded to a stop shortly after throwing me, and was staring at me with wary sheepishness from farther down the hill.
"It's getting late, anyway," he said. "Let's just make a quick circuit around the hill and head in."
"Where'd the bow land?"
"Got it," Giovanni said. I stood up and Giovanni handed it back to me. "Let's go." He whistled for Stivali, the horse he'd claimed from the Ravenessi stables, and we remounted, turning to head back to the army encampment.
"Hold on," I said, reining in Forza. "Who the hell is that?"
Giovanni turned to look north and squinted at the figure walking toward us. "I don't know." He unslung his own crossbow and cocked it. "But whoever it is, he's alone."
The man headed straight toward us. He seemed to be carrying weapons, but they weren't drawn. I loaded my crossbow-easy enough now that Forza was standing still-and checked behind us, in case the man was supposed to be a distraction. I saw nobody, but stayed on my guard. We had an outer ring of sentries, but this man, at least, had gotten past them unchallenged.
"Hello there!" the man said, saluting us as he approached. "I come in peace, to meet with your leaders. I assume you are soldiers of the Lupi?"
Giovanni's eyes narrowed and he squinted down the sights of his crossbow. "Maybe."
I decided to let Giovanni go ahead and intimidate the stranger. He wouldn't fire without cause, and I found the stranger's breezy manner irritating. "What do you want with the Lupi?" I demanded.
The stranger bowed low, showing off a freshly sunburned neck. "My name is Felice. I have come from Cuore as the delegate of the reformers."
Giovanni lowered his crossbow just a hair. "Fire falls from the sky," he said challengingly.
"And the land weeps," Felice said.
Giovanni lowered his bow completely. "I guess you are who you say you are. We're-"
"-pleased to make your acquaintance," I said, cutting Giovanni off. "We'll take you back to the camp." I swung down from my horse and confiscated Felice's visible weapons-a decorative sword and an ornately carved crossbow. I was not so impressed by a two-year-old password that I was going to tell this man that he'd just met both generali of the Lupi army, alone. For all we knew, he was a spy on a suicide mission to kill us both. "You can ride double with me."
Felice mounted Forza effortlessly and I climbed up awkwardly behind him. I regretted not making him ride with Giovanni, but said nothing, not wanting to look foolish. We rode back toward camp.
Felice even smelled like an aristocrat: clean, despite his long walk, with a very faint whiff of perfume. His tunic was made out of a delicate fabric that caught the light oddly, covered with a well-tooled padded leather vest. His hands carried the light calluses of a gentleman-fencer, like Giovanni-except Giovanni did some real work these days.
Back in camp, I dismounted and passed the horses off to Vitale, the youngest of the Lupi. He'd joined us when we'd liberated that first slave camp after Ravenna. I'd tried to send him off to Doratura or one of the other resettled towns, but he'd stubbornly followed us across the wasteland until I shrugged and said that anyone so determined was clearly old enough to make himself useful. "Take Forza and Stivali," I said to Vitale. "And tell Michel we need him right away."
Vitale vanished into the camp, and Giovanni and I stood awkwardly, facing Felice. I wanted a private moment with Giovanni, to ask him the significance of the password and how secret it really was, but I needed Michel to take custody of Felice first. Fortunately, Michel arrived almost immediately, still tying his sash. He was rumpled, and I suspected he'd been napping. "Michel," I said. "This is Felice, allegedly one of the reformers from Cuore. Take him to the generale's tent; they'll be with him shortly."
Michel picked up his cue, and saluted without addressing either of us as "Generale." "Please follow me," he said, and led Felice off toward my tent.
I turned to Giovanni. "What was it he said to you?"
"It's a password-"
"I guessed that. How secure is it? Couldn't he have found it out some other way?"
"We can trust him," Giovanni said confidently. "He's been sent by Beneto's commanders. I'm just surprised it took them this long. We ought to have a contact with the main Reform organization."
"Really." I stared off past Giovanni's shoulder. An argument was brewing between two of my men over whose turn it was to dig latrine trenches. "Hey!" I shouted, and they both jumped to give me a guilty stare. "It's both your turns. Fight over it and you'll be filling them in, too." I turned back to Giovanni. "Well, let's go see what he wants, then." I caught Vitale as he passed by. "Send Lucia to my tent when you get a chance. I don't want Isabella, not yet. Try to get Lucia alone."
Giovanni beamed as we entered the tent. My tent was larger than Rafi's tent in Ravenna had been, but not a whole lot higher; we didn't have much in the way of real tent poles. Felice sat cross-legged on a cushion, looking around dubiously at the rough accommodations.
"Welcome to the Lupi encampment," Giovanni said. "I am Generale Giovanni, and this is Generale Eliana."
I nodded to Felice, returning his aghast look with a predatory smile. "Charmed," I said.
Felice closed his mouth with a snap, but his eyes were still wide. "Really? I'd pictured you-" he studied me, his lips parted-"differently."
"Were you expecting me to be taller?" I asked. I glanced toward the tent flap, wondering how long it would take Lucia to arrive. "Male?"
"No, no, no. Of course we knew your, ah, basic description. Older, I'd say. I guess I'd assumed you'd be older."
"Hmm." I decided to let him stop flailing. "I suppose you're expecting us to bring you up to date."
"That would be helpful, yes."
Lucia came in and sat next to me. "This is Felice," I said. "He claims to be a reformer from Cuore."
"Do you know him, Giovanni?" Lucia asked.
"No," Giovanni said.
"I joined the Cause after you departed for Ravenna," Felice said. "I am originally from Parma."
Lucia gave Felice a long, careful stare. I looked at her; she shrugged.
"Well," I said. "You probably know that we led the uprising at Ravenna." Felice nodded. "That was about a month and a half ago. We've liberated three more slave labor camps since our escape, adding former slaves to our army when possible." Our army had doubled in size from the original group, but then the other camps had been smaller than Ravenna.
"At the last camp, reinforcements had been sent down," Giovanni said. "Fortunately, they had not been well integrated. The new troops and the old did not trust each other, and fought together poorly. Still, we can't count on that being true everywhere."
"What sorts of training have you done with your men?" Felice asked.
"Tactics," I said. "Some sword training, and bow."
"Three victories," Felice said. "That's quite something."
"Minimal losses," I said. "That's something we hope to keep up."
"Any problems?" Felice asked.
"Well, you know, we're fighting a war," I said. "People get injured sometimes, or die. That's a problem."
"But other than that?" Felice asked.
There were the constant petty squabbles, the rivalries between the original Lupi and the mutineer soldiers from Ravenna, the constant shortage of supplies, and the fact that half of the people I'd impulsively made leaders couldn't lead their way out of a stable if you drew them a map, but I wasn't about to share those problems with Felice. "That's pretty much it."
"Well," Felice said, his face lighting up. "Sounds like you're in good shape, then." I nodded. "So anyway, I'm here to take over."
I froze, not entirely sure I'd heard quite right. Lucia's jaw dropped, then she closed her mouth and sat back quietly, her eyes flickering from me to Giovanni and back. The slight quirk of her lips made it clear she was waiting for the show.
"You're here to what?" Giovanni demanded, just barely restraining himself from attacking Felice. "I am doing just fine myself, thank you very much."
"Oh, er, yes, of course," Felice said, glancing from Giovanni's face to mine. "Of course you're doing fine. We really appreciate what an excellent job you've done since Beneto's execution. The reformer leaders in Cuore have voted to give both of you a commendation, in fact. But you have to understand, a position like this requires someone with experience-"