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Princeps' Fury, Page 20

Jim Butcher

A red-coal fire burned in a pit in the center of the room. Beside it, a circular table no more than two feet high but nearly ten feet across sat, supporting the weight of a scale model of the fortress's defenses, complete with markers of blue stone for Canim troops, black stones for Vord, and colored green sand that, Tavi realized, represented the presence of the croach.

  Several Shuarans, with their distinctive golden fur, were crouching on their haunches around the table, rumbling and growling at one another--except for one. That one, a rather small but burly specimen of his breed, his fur showing streaks of silver to mix with tawny gold, sat in silence, staring down at the pieces on the table, following the conversation around him with attentive twitches of his narrow ears.

  Anag approached the table and inclined his head deeply to one side. "Warmaster."

  The burly Cane lifted his eyes--odd, for a Cane's, since they were bright blue against the bloodred background--to the young officer and inclined his head slightly in response. The other Canim at the table immediately fell silent. "Pack second," rumbled the Warmaster. His voice was extremely deep, even for a Cane. "Where is your pack leader?"

  "At Molvar, my lord," Anag replied, his tone neutral and polite. "Wounded."

  "Unto death, one supposes?"

  "I am uncertain, my lord," Anag responded. "Though if I may volunteer: I am no healer, my lord, but I have yet to hear of a warrior expiring from a clean, properly attended injury to the foot."

  "For that to happen," the Warmaster replied, "he would need to be a warrior. Not the spawn of a forced mating of some jackal of a ritualist to a female barely more than a pup."

  "As you say, my lord."

  "Bring me better news next time, Anag."

  "I will do my best, my lord."

  The Cane rose to his feet and prowled over to them. He moved with a slight limp, though Tavi judged that only a fool would think him crippled, slow, or incapable. His armor, like Varg's, was ornate, battered, and heavily decorated with bloodred gemstones. Also like Varg's, most of the dark steel had been enameled in color, though in his case it was deep blue instead of Varg's crimson.

  He inclined his head slightly--very slightly--to Varg, who matched the gesture with precise timing.

  "Varg," the Warmaster rumbled.

  "Lararl," Varg replied.

  Lararl turned his attention to the others, eyes probing, his nose quivering. "We thought you long dead."

  "Not before I kill you."

  Lararl's eyes went back to Varg, and he bared his fangs in a slow, almost-leering smile. "I am pleased to see that the demons across the sea have not deprived me of the pleasure of showing your guts to the sky."

  "Not yet," Tavi said. "But who knows? The night is young."

  Lararl's ears quivered back and forth in a gesture of brief surprise, and his gaze shifted to Tavi. "You speak our tongue, little demon?"

  "I speak it adequately. I understand it fairly well."

  Lararl narrowed his eyes. "Interesting."

  "Lararl, of Shuar," Varg growled. "Tavar of Alera. He is gadara to me, Lararl."

  "As Varg is to me," Tavi added, guessing that it was the proper thing to say.

  Lararl's ears quivered again, and he shook his head. "Tavar, is it? A demon gadara." He glanced back at the table and the model there. "Sometimes I think that the world is changing. That I am too old to change with it." He shook his head. "Varg, your word of peace for this night?"

  "You have it."

  Lararl nodded. "And you mine. Will you vouch for Tavar and his pack?" Varg looked at Tavi. "Will you give your word that you and your people will abide peacefully here tonight, so long as no harm is offered to you?"

  "Of course," Tavi said. "Provided we receive the same word in return."

  "He will," Varg told Lararl.

  The golden-furred Warmaster nodded. "And will you vouch for my word to him?"

  Varg looked at Tavi. "I will. Lararl keeps his word."

  Tavi nodded. "Done, then."

  Lararl nodded to the other Canim in the room. "Leave us."

  His officers filed out rapidly and quietly. Anag was the last out the door, and he shut it behind him.

  Lararl crossed to the coal fire and crouched beside it, holding out his hands. "Sit, sit."

  They did so. Tavi was grateful for the fire's warmth. The interior of Lararl's command tower was quite literally as cold as a cavern.

  "There is much work for me to do," Lararl said. "What would you have of me?"

  "First, your protection," Varg said. "I am here with nearly one hundred thousand of my people."

  Lararl froze for a second, blue eyes locked on Varg. "Where?"

  "Molvar," Varg replied. "We arrived five days ago."

  Lararl sat in silence for several seconds. "And what protection do you ask of me?"

  "My intention when I came here was to ask only for room enough to debark until our ships could be repaired to a condition suitable to return to Narash. Now . . ."

  Lararl nodded. "No longer. Narash is no more. None of them are anymore, Varg. It's all . . ." His hand lashed out behind him and struck at the table, cracking its surface and scattering green sand. "All that hideous offal. And those things. Those Vord."

  "You're sure?" Varg asked.


  "How did it happen?" Tavi asked quietly.

  "It started in Narash," Lararl replied. "The ritualists and their sects among the makers rose up against the Warmasters, with these Vord as their allies. But soon it became clear that ritualists from the other ranges were eagerly smuggling more Vord into their lands to help with their own uprisings. Soon, Warmasters in every range were putting down one rebellion after another."

  Tavi could see where this was leading. "And once the Vord had a solid foothold everywhere, they turned on the ritualists."

  Lararl nodded. "The stupid taurga. Now, they are all but extinct. Within days, every range was in flames. Battlepacks roamed over every portion of the countryside. There was no communication, no order. Some fought longer than others, held on longer than others--your own line, Varg, longer than any, even though the poison began in their own range. But in the end, it didn't matter. They fell. One by one, they all fell."

  Tavi shivered and held his hands closer to the coals.

  After a silent minute, Varg said, "Then I must ask you for sanctuary for the makers under my charge. And pledge my warriors to aid in your defense."

  Lararl grunted. His eyes flicked to Tavi. "And you, Tavar?"

  "I would like to ask your permission to spend a few days here, resupplying my ships and repairing damage. Then I intend to sail back to my home and, with any luck, never bother you again."

  Lararl grunted, stood, and walked to the door. They all watched him.

  He paused at the door.

  "Varg. There is not enough food in my range to feed my own people, much less yours."

  Varg's lips peeled away from his fangs.

  "There may not be many ritualists left," Lararl continued. "But they are mine, now. Your people are going to die, Varg. At least I can make their deaths have meaning. At least I can give their blood to the ritualists to use to defend Shuar."

  "Lararl," Varg snarled, rising. "Do not do this."

  "My people are dying," Lararl spat. "My duty is to them. Not to you. Were our positions reversed, you would do the same, and you know it."

  Tavi rose. "And what of us? What of my people?"

  Lararl turned and gave Tavi a look that was pure, cold, bloodthirsty hate.

  "Demon," he snarled. "Do you think we are so foolish that we do not know that the Vord came to Canea upon one of your ships? Do you think us so stupid that we have not puzzled out that it is you who unleashed this terror upon us, to destroy our people?"

  "That is not true!" Tavi snarled.

  "Aleran demon," Lararl spat, "you have no honor. Every word from your lips is a lie. I have a range to defend, and no time to waste on your deceit. But your people's blood will serve as well as Varg's people's."
He slammed open the doors. "Guards!"

  A great many warrior Canim appeared in the doorway.

  Lararl turned to face them. "You will go with these guards, or you will die, here and now. Choose."


  The Shuaran guards offered them no violence or disrespect. They simply escorted Varg and the Alerans to the roof of Lararl's dark granite tower, closed the heavy metal door, and locked it, sliding home large bolts that would make it impossible to open.

  Then they left them there, on the flat, open expanse of the cubic building's roof. It was nearly the size of a cohort's training field, and overlooked every other structure in the fortified city. Tavi did not need to look to know that there would be no way to climb down, no other building close enough to leap onto. There was no need for bars, locks, or guards. One would need to be able to fly to escape this prison cell.

  Max stared at the closed door for a moment, then said, "They can't possibly be serious."

  Crassus nodded. "It does seem a tad ingenuous. A trap?"

  "They're trapping us into taking advantage of an opening that will give us a chance to warn our people and possibly escape?" Tavi asked. "That's clever of them." He shook his head and looked at Varg. "They don't know what Alerans are capable of doing, do they?"

  Varg twitched one shoulder in a shrug. "Shuarans are stubborn, proud, narrow-minded. As they must be to survive this range. They have never been to your shores. They regard our reports of Aleran demons as tall tales. They do not believe you are capable of anything beyond what our ritualists can do. Our ritualists cannot fly. Therefore, you cannot either."

  "I think it is nice that Alerans are not the only arrogant fools on Carna," Kitai said.

  Tavi gave her an arch look. "It's a small piece of fortune that isn't going to last," he said. "Anag and some of the other Shuarans saw our Knights Aeris come back in from holding off that storm. He'll tell Lararl sooner or later. They'll realize that this is a mistake and take steps." Tavi turned to Crassus. "How long will it take you to get there and back?"

  Crassus squinted up through the chilling rain at the overcast sky, evidently thinking out loud. "Depends on the weather. I can't see in this soup. I'll have to follow the road to find my way back. That means flying low. That's hard work, and slower. Also means I'll have to veil or risk getting a balest bolt shot through me." He nodded. "I can be back to Molvar by midmorning, and have our Knights Aeris back here by sundown tomorrow. Faster, if the weather clears."

  "If one of our people is missing, Lararl might take it badly," Kitai pointed out.

  "I took being imprisoned and sentenced to death badly," Tavi said. "It's going around."

  Kitai flashed a swift, fierce grin at him.

  Tavi winked at her, and turned to Crassus. "Whatever happens, we've got to open up some options. Tamper with the weather if you need to--but do not begin action against the Shuarans unless you absolutely must. Tell Magnus and the First Spear that as well."

  "Understood, Your Highness."

  Tavi turned to Varg. "Warmaster," he said formally, in Canish, "is there any word you wish passed on to your people?"

  Varg showed a flash of teeth for a bare instant, then looked away, saying nothing.

  "You anticipated this contingency," Tavi concluded aloud. He looked at Crassus. "Go now."

  Crassus nodded, saluted sharply, clapped a hand against his brother's shoulder, and frowned in concentration. He vanished from sight behind a windcrafted veil, and a moment later a miniature gale rose, whipping droplets of falling rain into a painful, stinging mist. Then the winds faded as the young heir of Antillus took to the skies.

  Max stood silently looking up into the rain for a long moment after his brother had departed, his expression blank. Perhaps it was the rain. Tavi's ability to sense others' emotions was nowhere near as reliable as he would like it to be, but he could clearly feel the conflicting welter of worry and affection and sadness and pride and seething jealousy that poured off his friend.

  Max looked down to find Tavi watching him. He averted his eyes, and Tavi felt Max close down on his emotions, walling them away from observation.

  "Wish I could do that," Max said.

  Tavi nodded. "Me too." He put a hand on Max's shoulder. "Max, I need your help here. The rain's getting heavier and the night's getting colder. If we don't get some shelter, we could freeze to death."

  Max closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded. "Right. I'm on it."

  "Durias," Tavi said. "Would you assist him, please?"

  The burly centurion nodded. "Yes sir, Captain."

  Kitai walked over to Tavi. "You. Armor. Off."

  Tavi had been wearing the Legion lorica for so long that he had virtually forgotten it was there, but Kitai was right. The temperature was dropping fast. Once it was cold enough, any flesh that touched the armor would freeze to it--and besides, wearing it under those weather conditions was rather like putting on a coat made of icicles.

  Tavi felt distinctly vulnerable as he shed the steel casing, and he doubted that Max and Durias liked it any better. The two men knelt at the center of the tower, bare hands flat to the dark stone, their eyes closed. Within a moment, there was a trembling vibration in the soles of Tavi's boots, then a smooth, round half dome of stone, like a partial bubble made of solid granite, rose out of the top of the tower.

  Max and Durias sat back on their heels once it was done. Then Durias rose, considered the eight-foot dome for a moment, and with casual precision drove his fist through an inch of solid rock. He ran his fingertips horizontally over the surface and did it again. Then he moved down the dome and went through the same process, until he had broken out a rough doorway leading to the dome's interior.

  Max bowed and rolled his hand in an elegant flourish. "Your summer palace awaits."

  They gathered their things and hurried out of the rain. It was not nearly the improvement Tavi had hoped for. They were out of the wet, but the inside of what was in essence a small cave was not precisely warm. At least, not until Max frowned ferociously in concentration, the tip of his tongue between his lips, and laid his fingertips on one wall of the dome. His hands shimmered with heat--not the savage white flame of a battlecrafted fire, but something infinitely more gentle, hardly visible, and within a moment or two the dome was as warm as a baker's kitchen.

  Kitai let out a purring sound and stretched out full length upon the floor. "I like you."

  Max smiled wearily at her and slumped down. "Should keep us for a while. If we can hang a cloak over the doorway, longer."

  "I'll see to it," Durias said, taking off his own plain green cloak. "We should get some sleep."

  "Kitai," Tavi said.

  "No," she said. "I'll do it."

  Max looked back and forth between them. "Do what?"

  "Stand first watch," Kitai said.

  Durias glanced back at them. "Do you think we need to do that? I know we're prisoners, but Lararl did give us his word that he wouldn't harm us tonight. When the Canim give their word, they mean it."

  "It seems to me that Varg has Hunters that he sometimes employs when he needs to get around portions of his codes of behavior and honor that somehow conflict with his interests," Tavi said. "So far, Varg seems to have used them in order to protect the spirit of those codes, if not their letter. But it occurs to me that it would be a very small step for a Warmaster to employ his Hunters to get around the spirit while preserving the letter, if you see what I mean."

  Durias frowned. "You don't think it's possible that you're judging Lararl wrongly?"

  "Of course it's possible," Tavi said. "But it isn't probable. He gave us his oath of peace tonight, then stuck us on a roof in these conditions and left us here without shelter, food, or water. He's keeping the letter of his word. But not the spirit of it. So we're standing watch."

  "I am standing watch," Kitai said. "Your lips are still blue."

  Tavi frowned and glanced at Max's dim form. "Are they?"

  "Can't tell," Max
said. "Too dark in here."

  "There, you see?" Kitai said. "I am the only one qualified to judge."

  She pushed Durias's cloak aside and slipped out of the shelter.

  The rest of them had been Legion long enough to know what to do next.

  They were asleep in seconds.

  Tavi woke later. The rock of the tower was hard and uncomfortable under his back, but not painfully so--he hadn't been sleeping longer than two or three hours. The stone was cool, but true to Max's word, the air inside the little shelter was still toasty warm. Tavi had passed worse nights in the field with the Legion.