Princeps' FuryJim Butcher
The last people in line for food were Maximus, Kitai, and Magnus. The latter had a decidedly disapproving glare on his face.
"Not a word," Tavi said quietly as Magnus approached. "Not a crowbegotten word, Magnus. I had to lay there like a bloody infant for more than a week. I'm in no mood to be scolded."
"Your Highness," Magnus said, rather stiffly and just as quietly. "I would not dream of doing so in public. For fear that it would lessen the respect due your office."
Max stepped in front of Magnus without hesitation, seized a plate, and plunked it down on the counter next to Tavi. "Hey, cooky," he said, yawning. "Give me a piece of ham that isn't burned black. If you made such a thing."
"The rats knocked these three onto the floor before they were finished cooking," Tavi replied, loading Max's plate. "But then the crowbegotten little things refused to eat them for some reason."
"Rats are wise and clever," Kitai said, putting her own plate down as Max collected his. "Which makes the meat suitable for you, Maximus." She collected the plate and smiled at Tavi. "Thank you, Aleran."
Tavi winked at her and returned her smile, then turned to Magnus.
The old Cursor lifted his eyes skyward, sighed, and picked up a plate. "Extra mash, please, Your Highness."
"All right," Max sighed, shutting the cabin door behind him. The big Antillan held up a small sheaf of paper and tossed it onto the small writing table in front of Magnus. "The Knights Aeris found another two dozen that had wandered astray, and they've changed course to rendezvous with us. Crassus says he thinks we've found every ship that came through the storm."
Tavi exhaled slowly. "How many did we lose?"
"Eleven," Magnus said quietly. "Eight of the Free Aleran, three belonging to the Legion."
Eleven ships. With crews and passengers, more than two thousand souls, in all, lost to the fury of the storm.
"The Canim?" Tavi asked quietly.
"At current count, eighty-four," Magnus said quietly. "Most of them transports carrying noncombatants."
No one said anything for a moment. Outside, the mourning songs of the Canim, wild and lonely howls, drifted over the icy, placid sea from the dark ships.
"What condition are we in?" Tavi asked.
"The Legion transport ships have sustained considerable damage," Max replied. "Shattered masts, splintered hulls, you name it."
"Most of those tubs are still in danger of going under," Demos said. "We'll be lucky to make half our normal sailing speed. If the next storm catches us in the open sea, our losses will be a great deal worse."
"According to Varg's letter," Tavi said, gesturing with another piece of paper, "the Canim ships aren't much better off than we are. Also according to Varg, the storm has taken us several hundred miles out of our way, north along the Canean coast--hence the calm seas, the cold, and all the ice that we've seen in the water. He says that there is a port we might be able to reach nearby. He did not, however, specify our exact location."
"Give the overcast a few days to clear, and we can read the stars," Demos said quietly.
"I don't think fortune-telling is the answer here," Max said. "No offense, Captain."
Demos gave Max a level look, then glanced at Tavi.
"He isn't talking about fortune-telling, Tribune," Tavi said. "Sailors over deep water can guide their course by taking a measurement of the positions of the stars."
"Oh," Maximus said, chagrined. "Well. One of our Knights Aeris could take someone up above the cloud cover. It lifts a couple of thousand feet up."
"There isn't a windcrafter alive that could hold steady enough for an accurate measurement, Tribune," Demos said, without rancor. "Besides, we use points of reference on the ship to accomplish it. So unless they can take the Slive with them . . ."
"Oh," Max said. "Probably not."
"In any case, we can't afford to wait, my lord," Demos said. "This time of year, another storm is only a matter of time. We might have a few days. We might have hours."
Magnus cleared his throat. "If I may, Your Highness. While we are not sure of our precise position, our general location is much more easily determined." He offered a folded piece of paper to Tavi.
Tavi took it and unfolded it to reveal a map of what was labeled as the coastline of Canea. A cursory scan of the drawing showed him what Magnus was driving at. "We know we were bound for Narash, Varg's home," Tavi said. He traced his finger north along the coast. "And the only Canim realm along the coast to the north of Narash is this one. Shuar."
"Pronounced with a single syllable," Magnus corrected him absently. "It's another of those words one has to growl from between clenched teeth to speak properly."
"Does it really make a difference?" Max asked.
"Since it seems we will be making landfall there," Kitai said tartly, "perhaps we should make it a point to pronounce the name of our hosts' home properly, as opposed to offering them an insult every time we speak it."
Max's spine stiffened, and the muscles along his jawline tightened.
"Chala," Tavi said quietly.
Kitai's nostrils flared as she gazed steadily at Max. But she glanced aside at Tavi, nodded to the Antillan in a vaguely conciliatory gesture, and settled farther back into the shadows beneath the lower bunk.
Another worry. The storm and the length of the trip, plus the condition of the ships, the distance from home, and the pure uncertainty of the situation would be putting tremendous pressure upon his people--and if it was showing that overtly between Kitai and Maximus, who had been friends for years and who lived in the comparatively roomy conditions of the Slive, it would be a far-more-intense problem on the more crowded ships of the fleet. He wasn't sure it would be a problem he could do anything about, either. It was only natural, after all, for men to worry when they were far from home, in strange circumstances, and uncertain if they would return.
After all--some of them wouldn't.
"The point is," Tavi said, "that if we're to land within a clear-weather window of hours or days, with a fleet that can barely make half its usual pace, then we'll be landing somewhere in Shuar." He made the effort to speak the word properly. "Do we know anything about this . . . realm? Is it a realm, Magnus?"
"The word the Canim use for their states translates more accurately to 'range,' " Magnus replied. "The range of Shuar. The range of Narash."
"Realm, range," Tavi said. "What do we know about it?"
"That it occupies an enormous and highly defensible mountain highland," Magnus said. "It is one of the three largest ranges in terms of pure area, along with Narash and Maraul--and it has only a single port city, which is called Molvar."
"Then it would appear that we're bound for Molvar," Tavi said. He smiled. "I wonder if we're going to have to take the city to be able to land."
"Ugh," Max said. "Do you think it will come to that?"
"I don't think it's impossible," Tavi said. "If the ranges really are hostile to one another, Varg might have to take the port to be able to land there. Even if they aren't openly hostile, I can't imagine that they'll be overjoyed to see a force of this size come over the horizon."
"If that's the case, maybe we should land elsewhere. It isn't as though we need a shipyard to make repairs," Max said. "Once the ship is together, we should be able to craft hulls back together again--we just need some time and quiet for our crafters to work in. Right, Demos?"
Demos frowned pensively for a moment and nodded. "Yes, for the most part. Masts are more difficult, but they can be remounted even without a yard."
Magnus frowned. "Marcus sent me a very interesting report. He was approached by a group of Hunters, who evidently delivered a covert message on behalf of Varg."
Tavi pursed his lips. "Go on."
"The Hunters indicated to Marcus that while you had Varg's respect, he might not be able to protect you from other Canim once we reached Canea. He suggested that you might consider turning back rather than continuing the rest of the way."
"A warning," Kitai murmured. "But one he could not deliver personally."
"Possibly," Tavi said.
"Then let's take him up on it," Max said. "No offense, Tavi, but there's a big difference in fighting an expedition of Canim on our home ground and taking them all on in their house. Especially if there are as many of them as it looks like there are."
Tavi scratched absently at his chin. "Exactly. Exactly." He shook his head. "I don't think it's a warning."
Kitai tilted her head. "What else would it be?"
"A test," Tavi said. "To see if I was serious about dealing with them in good faith."
"What?" Magnus spluttered. "You have amply demonstrated that already. We built them a fleet of ships, for goodness' sake."
"If you'll remember, they were well on the way to building the fleet all on their own," Tavi said. "And while the Legions most likely would have destroyed them before they could have completed the task, you and I would have not have been alive to see it, Magnus. Nasaug had the First Aleran and the Guard at his mercy, and we all know it."
"Regardless, you settled with them peaceably and abided by your word," Magnus said.
"Which means nothing," Kitai said. "It was simply the swiftest, most certain, and least costly way to be rid of the enemy."
"If I turn back now," Tavi said, "then the trust that the Canim extended to us goes unanswered. It sends them the message that while we may be good to our word, we are uninterested in building faith."
"Or," Max said, "you could avoid being eaten. And all of us being eaten with you."
Tavi took a deep breath. "Yes. There is that." He pointed a finger at Max. "But as you pointed out, Max, there would appear to be a lot more Canim than we ever imagined. Perhaps more than we could fight, should they ever decide that we need to be destroyed. What do the rest of you think?"
"What else do we not know about them?" Kitai asked.
"We don't know what the insides of their bellies look like," Max said. "We could go home, and we'd never know, and I think I'd never lose a moment's sleep over it."
Tavi grinned at him. "Magnus?"
"I think this would be an excellent opportunity for someone else to pursue, Your Highness," Magnus said. "If you proceed, I urge you to do so with extreme caution."
The captain shook his head. "Don't ask me about politics, my lord. I can tell you this much--our ships won't make it back across the open sea, and even if we found all the materials needed to repair them, it would be dangerous to cross before spring. I also think we don't have time to sit around chatting about it. The weather won't wait."
Tavi nodded once. "Get word to our captains. We make for Molvar with Varg. Any port in a storm."
Gradash stood beside Tavi at the Slive's prow and watched with him. The lookout in the crow's nest had spotted land several moments before, so they waited for it to come into sight from their position on the deck. Tavi finally spotted the dark, solid shadow on the horizon.
Gradash squinted forward, but it was another minute or more before the greying old Cane grunted and flicked his ears in satisfaction. "Ah."
"Glad to be home?" Tavi asked him. "Or at least, back in the general area."
Gradash grunted. "We are not there yet. You will see."
Tavi arched a brow at the old Cane, but Gradash did not elaborate. It was almost an hour later before Tavi understood. The Slive drew even with the "land" the lookout had spotted--and it proved to be an unthinkably large slab of what looked like muddy ice. The fleet had to change formation to maneuver around it. The thing was the size of a mountain, fully as big as the city of Alera Imperia.
"Glacier spawn," Gradash said, nodding toward the ice mountain. "Come winter, more ice starts forming, and there are a couple of spots that push those mountains of ice into the sea."
"That must be a sight," Tavi murmured.
The Cane gave him a brief, speculative glance. "Oh, aye. Not one to be seen from up close, though." He waved a paw at the ice. "They're dangerous. Sometimes they spread out, beneath the surface. Sail too close, and it will rip out the belly of your ship like it was made from lambskin."
"Are they common, then?"
"In these waters," Gradash said, flicking an ear in agreement. "Leviathans don't care for them, so any Cane who has sailed in the northern regions for any time at all has spent some time sailing close to one to get away from a rogue or to cross a beast's range."
"I've always wondered," Tavi said, "how your folk deal with the leviathans. I mean, crossing the first time, I'm given to understand that the storm that pushed you moved you very quickly, kept them from gathering on you, and that there were so many of you that you only lost a few ships. But you could hardly provide all those conditions on a regular basis in your home waters."
Gradash's battle-scarred, stumped tail swished once in mild amusement. "No great secret to it, Aleran. We chart their ranges throughout the waters near our homes. And then we respect them."
Tavi lifted his eyebrows. "And that's all?"
"Range is important," Gradash said seriously. "The territory one claims and defends is important. We understand that. The leviathans understand it. So we respect their claim."
"It must make for some complex sailing routes."
Gradash shrugged. "Respect is elder to convenience."
"And besides," Tavi said drily, "if you didn't respect them, they'd eat you."
"Survival is also elder to convenience," Gradash agreed.
The lookout shouted from high above again, a second cry of, "Land!"
The Cane grunted, and the pair of them returned to gazing ahead.
"There," Gradash growled. "That is Canea."
It was a bleak, black land--or so it seemed from Tavi's viewpoint aboard the ship. The shoreline was an unbroken wall of dark stone that rose from the sea like the ramparts of some vast fortress. Above the bluffs of dark granite rose the shadowy forms of cloud-veiled mountains, covered to the hips in snow, and higher than any Tavi had ever seen. He let out a low whistle.
"Shuar," growled Gradash. "Their whole bloody crowbegotten range is one frozen rock." The grizzled Cane had learned his Aleran curses from Maximus, and used them fluently. "Makes them all bloody insane, you know. They spend both days of summer getting ready for winter, and then all bloody winter chasing things around frozen mountains so that their hunters can fall to pointless deaths in some crevasse. When they get the meat home, their females prepare it in spices that would set these ships on fire, and tell the surly bastards it's for their own good."
Tavi found himself grinning, though he kept himself from inadvertently showing his teeth. The gesture carried different connotations with the Canim than it did with Alerans. "You don't care for them, then?"
Gradash scratched under his chin with the dark claws of one paw-hand. "Well. I will say this much for the snow-addled, crow-eating slives in Shuar--at least they aren't the Maraul."
"You don't care for the Maraul, then?" Tavi asked.
"Mud-loving, swamp-crawling, tree-hopping fungus-eaters," Gradash said. "Not one of them has been born that doesn't deserve to go screaming to his death in the jaws of a mad leviathan. But I will say this for the Maraul--at least they are not Alerans."
Tavi barked out a sharp laugh, and this time he did show Gradash his teeth. The Cane had, he thought, just made an obscure joke. Or perhaps he had paid the Alerans a backhanded compliment, by comparing them to enemies whom Gradash obviously respected, to spend such time and attention on his insults.
Likely, he had been doing both at the same time. Among the Canim, a respected enemy was as valued as a friend--perhaps more so. To the Canim way of thinking, while a friend might one day disappoint you, an enemy could be relied upon to behave as an enemy without fail. To be insulted in company with already-respected foes was no insult at all, from the Canim perspective.
Tavi scanned the tops of the bluffs as the fleet turned to follow them southward, perha
ps half of a mile off the coast. "We're being watched," he noted.
"Always," Gradash agreed. "The borders between ranges are always watched, as are coastlines and rivers."
Tavi frowned, peering at the cliff tops, and wished yet again that his limited mastery of furycraft had included the ability to craft wind furies into a farseeing. "Those are . . . riders. I didn't realize your people employed cavalry."