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gave Bailli, it was plain he did not like the idea of marching for several
days.
The donkey squealed again, a sound that tore at Scaurus' nerves. He said, "Why
not heal it, Styppes?"
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The Videssian priest purpled under his coat of mud. He shouted, "The ice take
you, too, ignorant heathen! My talent lies in serving men, not brute beasts.
Do you want me to prostitute myself? I have no idea how the worthless creature
is made inside and no interest in learning, either."
"I was but looking to help," the tribune began, but Styppes, insulted and
petulant, was in full spate and trampled the interruption. He railed at Marcus
for every remembered slight since the day they met, dredging up things the
Roman had long forgotten.
The entire party came to a halt to listen to his tirade, or try not to. A
couple of legionaries knelt in the mud to tighten the ankle-straps on their
caligae; Helvis, as she often did, urged her donkey forward so she could talk
to her brother and the other islanders. The Romans paid no attention to her,
understanding why she had come with them. Turgot reached out to touch Dosti's
fair hair. He shook his head in pain as he remembered his lost Mavia.
Scaurus bent and put the donkey out of its pain. It kicked once or twice and
was still. Styppes railed on.
"Be quiet, you bloated, bilious fool," Drax said at last. "Are you a
four-year-old bawling over your broken toy?" He did not raise his voice, but
the flash of cold contempt in his eyes brought Styppes up short, mouth opening
and closing like a fresh-caught fish.
Drax bowed slightly to Marcus. "Shall we get on with it?" he said, as
courteously as if they were on their way to a feast or celebration. The
tribune nodded, admiring his style. He called out an order. The company
lurched forward.
"By the gods, sir, there were times I thought we'd never make it," Junius
Blaesus said to Scaurus as the dirty gray of the afternoon's rainy sky
darkened toward night, "but it's getting close now, isn't it?"
"So it is," the tribune said, brushing back a loose lock of hair that crawled
like a wet worm down his cheek. "A day and a half, maybe, to the
Cattle-Crossing. In decent weather it'd be half a day."
A six-man mounted party splashed west past them, kicking up muck and earning
curses from the legionaries. Here among the suburbs of the capital, there was
a good deal of local traffic. It made the roads worse, something Marcus had
not thought possible. He had his prisoners resume their black veils full-time;
in the less crowded country further west he had only made them clap on the
veiling once or twice a day when someone approached. This was safely imperial
territory and the charade was probably unneeded, but where Drax was concerned
he took few chances.
More splashing from up ahead, and another rider loomed out of the rain Nevrat.
Her head turned as she searched for Scaurus in the gloom. She smiled when she
saw him, teeth flashing against her dark skin. "I've found us a campsite," she
said, "a farm with a good stone horse barn to keep our, ah, guests warm and
safe. I looked it over. It has little slit windows " She held her hands a
palm's breadth apart to show him. " and a door that bars from the outside."
"Perfect," Marcus exclaimed. "The great count won't break out of that." He had
made Junius Blaesus virtually ring the prisoners' tent with sentries each
night. Behind stone and wood, though, they'd be safe enough. A single sentry
each watch should do, giving his troopers a much-needed rest.
The farmer on whose land the barn stood was a toplofty little man whose
prosperity was made plain enough by the very fact that he owned several
horses. He tried to bluster when the tribune asked to use the barn, naming two
or three minor court officials who, he declared, "will not be pleased to hear
of my being mistreated in this way!"
Annoyed, Marcus dug out Thorisin Gavras' letter and wordlessly handed it to
the man, who went red and then white as he saw the imperial signature.
"Anything you desire, of course," he said rapidly, and shouted for his
farmhands. "Vardas! Ioustos! Come quick, you lazy wretches, and drive the
horses into the field!"
The two men emerged from a little cottage set to one side of the main
farmhouse, one of them still chewing at a mouthful of supper. Having won his
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