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Princeps' Fury, Page 42

Jim Butcher

  "Thank you, Your Grace," Isana said quietly.

  He shook his head. "All you're doing is drawing things out. You're determined, and you think quickly. But this is only going to end one way."

  "I can't help but wonder," Isana said quietly, "why you are so obstinate about refusing to cooperate with me."

  "I think we've just about talked this to death," he said bleakly, and started forward.

  Isana lifted her sword. "I'm not so sure, Raucus. Is this because of me? Or because of Gaius. I think you owe me that much of an answer."

  "Owe you? Owe you?" Raucus said, and with a flick of his hand sent a gout of flame rushing toward her.

  She raised a shimmering shield of ice halfway between them, and the flame vanished into a cloud of steam.

  "As you point out, I can't really do more than draw this duel out, Your Grace. I'm well aware of that. It seems a small thing to ask of you in exchange for my life."

  Raucus gave her a hard, bitter smile, hovering just outside what Araris had taught her would be the striking range of his weapon. "Gaius would be reason enough. That treacherous snake doesn't deserve the loyalty of the worms that will feast on his corpse."

  "As much as I would like to," Isana replied, her tone frank, her sword at a low guard position, one that would be easiest on her arms to maintain, "I cannot say that I disagree with you, sir."

  Raucus frowned. His stance shifted subtly, as he lifted his sword to a high guard, both hands on the weapon's handle, the blade almost directly in line with his body.

  It was something of a ludicrous ready stance for such a short weapon, but all the same, it dictated that Isana had to adjust to the new potential threat. She lifted her blade to a similar stance, overhead, but with her arms slightly to one side, holding the weapon's length across her body.

  "Eastern style," Raucus noted in a calm, professional tone. "Araris always loved bringing out that Rhodesian tripe in his high defense."

  He took a step forward, closing into range, and swept a blow down at her. Isana managed to divert it, at the cost of another long sliver of steel from her blade, but then Raucus's shoulder and hip slammed into her as he continued forward, his entire mass impacting simultaneously along the center of her balance. Isana was flung violently back to the snow, and desperately wrought a working, flattening it to smooth ice, so that she slid several yards backward.

  Raucus had taken quick steps forward to follow up the attack, but as his feet touched the slick ice, he was forced to slow. Another effort of will, and the snow gathered beneath her, lifting her to her feet again. She brought her sword up, her back against the wall of whirling snow that still enfolded them, and faced him, ready.

  Raucus lifted his weapon to her in a smooth salute. "The Rhodesian school never allowed enough for brawling techniques, in my opinion." He began to pace around the icy patch, stalking her. "What do you have against Gaius?"

  "He murdered my husband," Isana said, with far more heat than she'd intended. "Or stood by and allowed it to happen. It's the same to me."

  Raucus froze in place for an instant, before he continued his stalk. "Then why are you here toadying for him?"

  "I'm not," Isana replied. "I'm here for my son." She decided to test a theory, and took a quick step forward, lashing out in a conservative slash at the fingers gripping his sword.

  Raucus parried her with the automatic ease of ridiculously disparate skill, nearly taking the sword from her hands--but he waited for her to step back out of range, rather than immediately counterattacking.

  He wants to talk. Just keep him talking.

  "Your son," Raucus said. "You and Septimus."

  "Yes," Isana said.

  Raucus's eyes flashed in anger, and his arm blurred. Three inches of steel simply vanished from the tip of her sword and went spinning away to land hissing on a patch of ice. Isana hadn't even felt the impact, it was so focused and powerful.

  "The Princeps now," Antillus spat. "Proper and proud."

  And it suddenly struck her, like blinding light on snow.

  She knew the source of Antillus's obstinate rage.

  She retreated from the next attack. "It isn't about Gaius at all," she breathed aloud. "It's about me. And it's about Maximus."

  Raucus flung another burst of flame at her, hot but badly aimed. She was able to defend against it with more snow raised about her.

  "You don't know what you're talking about," he snarled.

  "Yes, I do," she said. "At first I thought you must have hated Tavi--but he's your friend's son, Raucus. You and Septimus knew and trusted one another. And I don't think that even after all those years, you're the kind of man to forget a friend."

  "You've got no idea what you're talking about!" Raucus snarled. His sword whipped out twice more, biting away another inch of her blade each time.

  Isana's voice shook with fear, and she smoothed the ground between them to ice, trying to create more space between them. "I do. Septimus did something you did. He fell in love with a freeman--with me. But he did something else you didn't dare to do. He married her."

  "You think it's that simple?" Raucus demanded. He gestured once at the ground and--

  --and fire blossomed within the earth itself. Isana felt the sudden rush of ice and snow melting, sublimating at once to mist as the ground warmed to the heat of a southern summer in the space of an instant.

  "Crows take you," Raucus hissed, and came forward, sword raised to kill.

  She couldn't fight the heat in the earth, to send ice through it to cool it again--not in time to save her life. But she could use that warmth. She reached out to all that mist and vapor and forced it down, into the warm earth--transforming it almost instantly to soupy mud that swallowed Raucus to midthigh.

  And leaving her suddenly, viciously weary. She'd performed too many craftings, done swiftly and powerfully rather than with grace and efficiency, and it was taking the inevitable toll.

  The High Lord let out a roar of frustration and simply flung his sword at her.

  Isana's sword--what was left of it--snapped in an immediate, basic parry, one of the first Araris had taught her, and one of six that that he'd said he had time to drill into her muscle memory.

  It simply wasn't fast enough.

  She felt her mangled gladius brush the oncoming weapon, then a tremendous impact in her belly, and she was lying on her back in the snow.

  She turned on her side, dazedly, and felt something horribly wrong. It wasn't pain, precisely. It was more like a quivering, trembling, silvery sensation that shot up and down her spine and throughout her limbs.

  She looked down and saw that the High Lord's sword had sunk to its hilt in her abdomen.

  Her curtain of snow had fallen. Silence had swallowed the land. From the walls, there was not a single sound, not a cry, not a single human voice.

  Scarlet was spreading onto the snow around her.

  She lifted her head to see Raucus just staring at her. His face had gone pale. His right hand was still lifted from his throw, fingers loosely curled.

  "I don't think it was simple," Isana gasped. The words hurt to speak. "I think you were young. I think you fell in love with a freeman, Max's mother. And I think your father, your mother, whoever might have been in your life was horrified. There was a war to be fought along the Shieldwall--always a war. W-w-what would happen if the heir of Antillus didn't have the furycrafting talent he needed to fight it?"

  The cold was getting through her coat. Or following her blood back up to her veins. Or she was simply bleeding to death. Regardless, Isana had little time to reach the man.

  "Y-you had n-no way of knowing if M-maximus would be strongly talented. I th-think you had to set his mother aside to marry. F-for strong bl-bloodline. For alliances with Kalare and its watergrain fields."

  Raucus began slogging his way out of the mud, moving toward her.

  "Y-your f-father was k-killed on the Wall that year. Wh-when Crassus was born. You must have been gone most of the time after
that. F-fighting." She nodded to herself. Of course he would have had to be gone. Learning how to command, proving himself to his troops. It would have taken enormous effort and dedication to do so.

  "You w-were in the field when Septimus died. And when Max's mother died."

  "Isana, stop," Raucus said. He pulled himself from the mud.

  The cold grew deeper, but somehow less unpleasant. Isana laid her head on one outflung arm and tried to keep her eyes open. "And you knew Max suffered at Dorotea's hands. But there was nothing you could do. You couldn't acknowledge him over Crassus. You couldn't cut yourself off from Dorotea to wed his mother. You must have t-tried and been denied by Gaius." She smiled faintly. "He'd never have let you v-violate the traditional laws of legitimacy. Kalare would have raised a crowstorm over it in the Senate. And you were young. And Septimus's friend. Easier to ignore you."

  "Stop talking," Raucus said.

  Isana let out a small laugh. "No wonder you challenged him over Valiar Marcus. He'd not dare to deny you that acknowledgment, one that was within your rights to grant. And you'd have been too happy for an excuse to fight him if he did."

  Raucus grasped the hilt of his sword.

  Isana put her hand on his wrist, gripping it as hard as she could. "And then, after denying you, he acknowledges Septimus's son by a freeman. A son without furycraft to his name. And after he's already manipulated Maximus into being friends with him, to boot. You must have been so angry."

  She leaned up, seeking his eyes desperately. The grey sky had begun to turn black. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that happened to you. That the Realm made your life this way. That you lost the woman you loved and were forced to keep one you hated. It's unjust, Raucus. Septimus would never have allowed it to go on.

  "But he's gone. And if there's going to be a future, for your friend's son, for your sons, for the Realm, you have to set that a-anger aside."

  She couldn't see anything at all by then.

  "Please, Raucus," she said. She knew her voice wasn't coming out in more than a whisper. "I'm asking you to take a horrible chance. But without it, there won't be anything for any of us. Please. Help us."

  There was a wrenching burst of fire in her belly. She didn't move, though. It was easier not to. She could hear footsteps somewhere.

  "Aria!" Raucus screamed, his voice anguished.

  Cold. And blackness.


  Shuar was dying.

  As they rode toward the ships, Tavi realized that the roads of the last free nation of Canea had become charnel houses. Though the majority of the Vord emerging from the tunnels had flowed toward the north and west, to assault the fortifications from their unprotected rear, thousands more had spread out to haunt the roads of the land. There, they had found easy pickings in fleeing Canim families as panic descended upon the countryside. Corpses of the Canim makers--their farmers and artisans--lay exposed to the weather, untended. Their cattle had been slaughtered beside them.

  The Canim had not died easily. Corpses of Vord attackers were heavily mingled with the fallen wolf-people, and in places it seemed that larger groups had managed to fend off their attackers. In others, what had probably been mounted patrols from the fortification had attacked the Vord, pursuing them off the roads, leaving trails of crushed chitinous forms into the rolling landscape. All the same, the previous few days had been a nightmare of blood and death for the Shuarans.

  Without the steady reinforcements from the Vord's tunnel or the coldly logical will of the Vord queen to guide them to where they were needed, the roads had become less deadly. The Vord still lurked across the countryside, but they were fewer in number, their movements random and unfocused--if no less deadly for anyone caught outnumbered in the open or by surprise. Of course, if the second Vord queen commanding the enemy forces at the Shuaran fortifications changed position, the Vord's lack of coordination could change in an instant. Tavi's group raced along the roads, pressing the taurgs to their best pace.

  Twice, they were attacked by small groups of wandering Vord, but Max's firecrafting and Varg's and Anag's balests shattered the armor and wills of the Vord before they could close to combat, and once they had traveled far enough from the site of the Vord emergence, encounters with the enemy and their handiwork declined abruptly.

  They rode for the night and the rest of the day, stopping only occasionally to water the taurga. An hour or so before sundown, they came across a small stream where perhaps two hundred Canim had stopped to rest and drink. None of them wore armor, though many carried the sickle-swords that were, for them, simple harvest tools. Several of the makers were wounded, some badly so. Though Canim were never a particularly noisy people, the silence that fell on the group as they came riding up was tangible. Tavi could acutely feel the weight of their stares.

  He wondered, for an amused moment, if they found the Alerans as strange and intimidating as he had found Varg and the guards of the Canim embassy in the Citadel, the first time he had encountered them.

  "Let me speak to them," Anag said. The golden-furred Cane slipped off his taurg, and it spoke of the weariness of the beast that it didn't make even a desultory effort to bite or gore him as he dismounted. Anag strode over to the refugees, heading for a tall, grey-and-golden furred Cane who seemed to be their leader.

  Tavi got his taurg down to the water and led Max's beast as well. The big Antillan, weary from the intensive crafting and fighting he'd done at the hive, simply flung himself down on the ground and slept.

  Tavi found himself alone at the side of the stream, except for several taurga too tired and thirsty to cause trouble, and the lone Hunter who had survived the attack on the Vord queen.

  "Thank you," Tavi told him quietly. "You and your people saved my life."

  The Hunter looked up at him, ears quivering in surprise that he quickly suppressed. He bowed his head, Aleran-style.

  "What were their names?" Tavi asked.

  "Nef," growled the Hunter. "And Koh."

  "And yours?"


  "Sha," Tavi said. "I am sorry for their loss."

  The Hunter became very still for a long moment, staring down at the stream.

  "It is the way of your people to sing over the fallen," Tavi said quietly. "I've heard it before. Is there anyone to sing for Nef and Koh?"

  Sha moved one paw-hand in a negative gesture. "Their kin sang their blood song long ago. When they became Hunters."

  Tavi frowned and tilted his head.

  "We are as the dead," Sha said. "Our purpose is to dedicate our lives to the service of our lord. And, when it is necessary, to surrender those lives. When we become what we are, we lose our lives--our names, our family, our homes, and our honor. All that remains is our lord."

  "But their sacrifice may have saved thousands," Tavi said. "Is it the way of your kind to let such courage go unmourned?"

  Sha studied him in silence for a long moment.

  Tavi thought about the Cane's words, then nodded slowly, understanding. "They served well, and they died well and with meaning," he said. "What is there to mourn?"

  Sha bowed his head again, more deeply this time. "You understand." The Cane's eyes gleamed as he looked at Tavi. "You were ready to die in that place as well, Tavar. We Hunters know what it looks like."

  "I hadn't intended it to work out that way," Tavi said. "But I knew it was a possibility. Yes."


  Tavi blinked at him. "What?"

  "Why lay down your life?" Sha said. He gestured at the makers. "Varg is not your lord. These are not your people. They will not serve as soldiers if your plan to use our warriors against the Vord comes to pass."

  Tavi thought about his answer for a moment before giving it. "It is my purpose to defend those who cannot defend themselves," he said finally.

  "Even if they are your enemy."

  Tavi smiled at Sha, showing his teeth. The Hunter had used the Aleran word, not one of the many Canim variants on the term. "Perhaps I wish your peop
le to be gadara to mine. Perhaps I wished to tell you so in such a way that would leave no doubts as to my sincerity."

  Sha's ears quivered with surprise again, and he stared hard at Tavi, his head tilted to one side. "That is . . . not a thought I have heard given voice before."

  "His mind is strange," came Varg's rumbling voice, "but capable." The dark-furred Canim Warmaster had approached in silence. He checked the straps on his mount's saddle. "There is news on the roads. Couriers have passed by."

  Tavi straightened. "And?"

  "The fortifications have fallen," Varg said. "When Lararl sent a portion of his strength back to attack the Vord in the interior, the heaviest assault he had yet seen fell on the fortress."