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Princeps' Fury, Page 27

Jim Butcher

  "There's no need to panic yet," Tavi said calmly. "There might have been a delay on the other end, something that required his help. Or he might be out there, waiting for nightfall before making the run in."

  "He'd have found a spot in line of sight, and windcrafted his voice to you," Max disagreed.

  Privately, Tavi had begun to think along the same lines, but there was no point in deepening Maximus's concern for his brother by agreeing with him. Besides which, it was not as though they had a great many options, short of attempting to smash their way clear of Shuar. That wouldn't go well, at least not for long. It was a simple question of numbers.

  "Be patient, Max," Tavi said. "I know it's difficult for you when there's nothing around to smash or flirt with, but I'd take it as a favor."

  Max grunted and set one of his boots lightly against the back of Tavi's armor and mimed a faint push. "Would you care for a flying lesson, Your Highness? Though in all fairness, I should warn you that it might give the lie to your honorific."

  Tavi looked back over his shoulder and grinned at his friend. Max settled down on the edge of the roof with him and watched the fight.

  "They can't win this," Max said quietly.

  "I know that," Tavi said. "They know it, too. A lot of them won't admit it to themselves, but they know."

  "The Vord aren't going to stop here," Max said. "Are they?"

  "No," Tavi said. "Alera was fortunate and decisive enough to smash them when they were weakest. We established ourselves as the primary threat to them. So they came here to where they would have more opportunity to spread and reproduce. They won't make the same mistake twice."

  "Bloody crows," Max sighed. "I thought you would say something like that." He jerked his chin at the vast force of nightmarish Vord. "We couldn't stop that. Not with all the Legions in Alera, and every crafter to boot."

  "Not with standard tactics, no," Tavi said.

  Max grunted. "You have something in mind?"

  Tavi smiled slightly. It was a better answer than "I have no idea how we'll survive this," without actually crossing the line into speaking a falsehood to his friend.

  Max eyed him for a moment, then nodded, his big frame relaxing visibly. "Fine," he said. "Be that way."

  "Thank you," Tavi replied. "I will."

  Max was quiet for a moment more, watching the battle. "Seems a shame. Great furies, the Canim have guts."

  "That wasn't exactly unexpected. Not after what the Narashans did to us."

  Max waved a hand. "Even so."

  Tavi nodded. "I know what you mean."

  "Is there anything that can be done for them?"

  Tavi shook his head. "I don't think so. Not given their attitude toward us. Lararl is determined to hold out, and enough of his people believe it's possible to enable him to keep his position of authority."

  "I suppose," Max answered. "I'm not sure our people would act any differently. Most of the High Lords would die fighting rather than be driven from their lands."

  "We'll see. And before too long."

  The words had a sobering effect upon Tavi's friend. He was quiet for several more moments.

  "What do we do about Crassus?" Max asked.

  "We wait," Tavi replied. "For now. If he hasn't made contact by this evening, we'll consider our alternatives."

  "He's all right," Max said. "He's faster than a hungry crow, and bloody near impossible to see while he's flying. He's fine."

  Of course, if that was true, where was Crassus? Again, Tavi refrained from speaking his mind. "I haven't seen anything here that could present a real threat to him."

  Max nodded, then sighed. "Maybe old Magnus is up to something. Holding him back for some reason."


  Max growled and rose to his feet, pacing restlessly. "I just can't stomach waiting around and doing nothing."

  Tavi reached into one of the leather pouches on his belt and produced a stick of charcoal and several folded pieces of parchment. "Here," he said. "Take these and draw a map of the city. Every building you can see from up here. It might come in handy if we need to walk out for some reason."

  Max took the paper and charcoal. "You aren't going to last long as First Lord if you go around handing your singulares compulsory homework, my lord."

  "I know. But if I'm forced to spend my time listening to all their complaining, I'll knife myself and save the assassins the bother."

  Max snorted and ambled away, surveying the Canim city and beginning to draw on the topmost sheet of paper.

  Kitai emerged from the shelter and settled down beside Tavi, watching the battle with mild disinterest. "That was kind of you."


  "Giving Max something to occupy his mind."

  "Oh, that," Tavi said. "He's quite a bit brighter than he lets on. He kept passing marks at the Academy for two years, despite the fact that he debauched himself practically every night. If I didn't give him something to do, he'd drive us all insane."

  "A pity there is not more privacy," Kitai murmured. "I could certainly use something to occupy my . . . mind." She smiled and found Tavi's hand with hers. "Walk with me?"

  Tavi gave her a bemused smile. "That won't take long."

  Kitai jerked her chin toward the carnage at the fortifications. "I'm tired of looking at that. You should be, too."

  Tavi gave the battle one last glance and shook his head. "Perhaps you're right, but . . ." They rose and began pacing the edge of the roof. When they were the farthest they could get from the others on the roof, Tavi asked, "What's on your mind?"

  "We should have heard from Crassus by now," she said.


  "And so you do nothing?"

  "I am waiting."

  Kitai absorbed that for a moment, her expression serious. "Since I have known you, I have learned the single greatest activity at which you have little skill--sitting patiently." Her green eyes searched his. "Especially not in the face of so massive a threat, chala."

  Tavi gave her half of a smile. "You're worried that I've given in to despair."

  She opened her hand, palm up, and shrugged. "It is one possibility. But I am mostly worried because you are not acting like yourself. I expected you to have formulated half a dozen overly complicated escape plans by now."

  Tavi shook his head. "No."

  Kitai nodded. "Why not?"

  "Because we need to wait," Tavi said. He turned his gaze to the city below. "The air's full of it. Nothing we do will accomplish anything--yet. We need to wait."

  "For what?"

  Tavi shrugged. "Honestly? I'm not sure. It's just . . ." He searched for words and found none. He shrugged at her again.

  "Instinct," Kitai said.

  "Yes," he said.

  "You've had them before."


  Kitai studied his eyes, then nodded, and said, "Reason enough."

  Horns suddenly brayed in the streets below the tower.

  Tavi had to take several steps to be able to see their source, on the street at the tower's base. Half a dozen taurga came down the street at full speed, lungs heaving loudly, bellowing their complaints. Canim of the city scattered before them, and one of the mounted Canim sent up another warning blast on his horn. The party of blue-armored warriors thundered to a halt at the base of the tower, and the leader of the column dismounted without bothering to secure his beast, and hurried inside.

  The Canim left outside to care for the mounts looked exhausted. Their armor was battered, and minor wounds were in evidence on most of them. They'd obviously seen combat recently.

  Tavi frowned. All the fighting was at the western edge of the city. These riders had entered from the east. Which raised the singular question: Whom had that patrol been fighting?

  The Shuarans wouldn't be fighting one another--not in the face of a threat like the Vord. Only three other parties could possibly be responsible. There was no way the taurga could have outrun Aleran Knights Aeris, and after two years of fighting Nasaug
back in the Amaranth Vale, Tavi knew well how difficult it was to get the drop on the Canim commander. If Nasaug had gone on the offensive, Tavi thought it unlikely that so many riders would have escaped an attack.

  Which left only one likely suspect . . .

  Tavi felt his heartbeat begin to quicken and a trembling sensation low in his belly.

  "There," he told Kitai. "That's it."

  Anag and a contingent of guards came to take them to Lararl within the hour.

  "No," Tavi told them calmly. "We're not going anywhere. Tell Lararl that we've come to see him once already. If he wants to speak to us again, he can come up here."

  Anag stared at him for a moment. Then he said, "This is Lararl's tower. Here, you do what he says."

  Tavi showed Anag his teeth as he folded his arms. "Apparently not."

  Anag growled and put his paw-hand to his sword.

  Tavi sensed it when Maximus and Kitai, standing close behind him, tensed up. He did not move himself. He simply stared steadily at Anag.

  Varg stepped forward in the precise instant that Anag's anger began to waver. He stopped beside Tavi, and said, "Lararl has shamed himself enough without you adding to it, Anag."

  The younger Cane hesitated, his eyes flicking from Tavi to Varg.

  Varg didn't reach for his weapon. He strode forward to stand within range of Anag's as-yet-undrawn blade without a flicker of apprehension. "You will go to Lararl," Varg said. "You will tell him that we await him here." Varg moved his arm then, slowly putting his hand to his weapon in a display made quietly deadly by the utter stillness in the rest of his body. "You will tell him that I am disinclined to be moved anywhere by any will but my own."

  Anag was still for a few seconds more, then leaned his head to one side in acknowledgment and vanished from the rooftop, taking the other guards with him.

  Max let out an explosive breath. "Bloody crows, Tavi."

  Varg turned his head slightly to stare at Tavi. He had not, Tavi noted, taken his hand from his weapon. His voice came out in a deep, threatening basso growl. "Why?"

  Tavi met Varg's gaze as he answered. "Because circumstances have changed. Lararl needs us, or he would have left us to rot up here."

  Varg let out a rumbling growl, and Tavi found himself centering his balance, in case he needed to avoid a sudden strike--but the sound proved to be more pensive than angered, and Varg lowered his paw-hand from his sword's hilt.

  "Besides," Tavi said, "Lararl abused your people's sense of honor and obligation. I find myself unconcerned with protecting his pride."

  Varg made another thoughtful rumbling sound. "Have a care, Tavar. Lararl is not swift to forgive. And he never forgets."

  "I am not one of his subordinates," Tavi replied.

  Varg flicked his ears in acknowledgment. "No. You have declared your intention to replace him as a leader."

  "In a manner of speaking," Tavi said, showing Varg his teeth in another smile, "that is precisely what I intend to do."

  Lararl came to the rooftop alone.

  Anag and several other apprehensive-looking Canim stood by while Lararl shut the door in their faces and turned to Varg. "My guards may be going deaf," the golden-furred Warmaster snarled. "Because only a fool or a madman would have spoken the words they brought to me."

  Varg faced Lararl without any kind of movement.

  Lararl stepped forward to stand directly in front of Varg, and the two Canim put their hands to their swords in precisely the same instant.

  Silence reigned on the rooftop for a full minute, the sounds of the battle below rising and falling with the breeze, like some enormous, gruesome surf pounding upon a seashore.

  "Give me one reason," Lararl snarled, "not to kill you here and now."

  "I will give you three," Varg answered, and inclined the tip of his nose slightly toward the stone shelter the Alerans had crafted.

  There was a vague sense of movement in the darkness within, then a slender-looking Cane clad in soft grey-and-black cloth glided silently out of the darkness. Immediately after, two more similarly clad, younger Canim flowed out behind the first, taking up a silent, passive stance on either side of the first.

  Behind Tavi, Max hissed in a breath of surprise, and he did not need to look to see that Max's hand had gone to the hilt of his sword. "Bloody crows. Hunters."

  Tavi suppressed his own startled reaction. He recognized the gear of the three Canim. The trio that had nearly gutted him during the war against Nasaug had been dressed identically.

  Beside him, Kitai narrowed her eyes in suspicion, and Tavi felt the surge of surprise and . . . annoyance, he thought, as she spoke. "When did they slip in there?" She paused, and something faintly impressed entered her whisper. "How did they get up here at all?"

  "They can't have been in there more than half an hour," Tavi murmured. "That was the last time one of us went inside to warm up."

  "I saw and heard nothing." Kitai's eyes glittered, and her teeth showed in a quick smile. "That was well done."

  Lararl eyed the three Hunters for a moment, then turned his attention back to Varg.

  "Since the battle with your enemy seems to have clouded your vision," Varg said, "I will explain matters to you. It is possible for you to kill me. But you cannot be sure of stopping my Hunters from carrying word of such an act to Nasaug. Even if you do, Nasaug is my wisest student. He will very likely assume that you have killed me and react accordingly.

  "If you can count, you will see that the Alerans are missing a member of their party. Doubtless, he has already returned to their Legions to report what you have done so far. It is my belief that they remain imprisoned largely as a matter of respect--which they have given, even when it has not been given to them." Varg showed his teeth. "Finally, it is possible that I kill you, in which case your people are left without a Warmaster.

  "Nothing you do with that weapon," Varg concluded, "will help your people. It will leave them without a Warmaster--or it will create more enemies. Is that what you want for them, Lararl?"

  The other Cane shivered, and Tavi could all but see the rage rolling off him.

  Then Lararl let out an explosive snarl and turned to stalk several paces away.

  Varg released the hilt of his weapon and glanced at Tavi.

  Tavi raised his voice. "Your defenses are the most impressive I have ever seen, Warmaster," he said to Lararl.

  The Canim glanced back at Tavi, his eyes angry, wary.

  "But impressive or not, they are still fortifications. You can't move them, adjust them--and they are all positioned to prevent an enemy from entering your range at all. The highest wall in the world is useless if the enemy can march around it." Tavi took a slow breath. If he'd guessed correctly, his next words would show it. If he hadn't . . . well. At least he was armed. "How did the Vord bypass your defenses?"

  Lararl's eyes narrowed still farther. "I did not say the Vord had done so."

  "Those soldiers who arrived earlier were wounded by something," Tavi said. "If they'd been fighting my people, they never would have escaped on taurga. If they'd been fighting Varg's warriors, you would have sent someone to execute him or just let him rot on this rooftop. Instead, you sent Anag, whom we have reason to trust and respect. It was not a gesture of anger or retaliation." Tavi nodded out toward the battle. "The enemy are many. Once behind your defenses, it would take only a fraction of the forces out there to devastate your range."

  Lararl said nothing. Tavi's mouth felt dry.

  "Warmaster," Tavi said, "it seems clear to me that if you wish to protect your people, you need our help to do it."

  Lararl bared his fangs. They were impressive. Tavi forced himself to keep his expression steady and blank. Then the golden Cane looked away. His ears twitched, almost imperceptibly, in assent.

  Tavi let out a slow breath. It was harder to keep the relief from his face than it had been to disguise his apprehension.

  After a stilted pause, Lararl spoke, biting off the words savagely. "My forces
are stationed at the entry points to the range. The Vord tunneled under them. A large force is now among the estates and markets of the makers. Killing."

  Varg rumbled, a sound of unmistakable hatred.

  "More of them pour in by the hour," Lararl continued. "It will not be long before we are outnumbered in the rear areas as well as at the fortifications. Then . . ." He spread his hands and closed them together, as if squeezing the juice from a fruit.