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Princeps' Fury, Page 10

Jim Butcher


  Isana drew in a sharp breath. "Doroga." She glanced at Aria, and said, "The foremost chieftain of the Marat. A friend."

  Gaius inclined his head. "I've been in regular correspondence with him ever since his daughter took up residence here. The Marat learned to write in less than six months. He's surprisingly astute, really. He is already on the way to the site of the meeting."

  "And you're sending me?" Isana said. "Why?"

  "Because I need to be here," Gaius replied. "Because by sending you, the most highly positioned woman of the House of Gaius, I am making a statement of trust. Because Doroga trusts you, and he most definitely does not trust me."

  "You did say he was astute," Isana said wryly.

  Lady Placida's eyes widened slightly, and she glanced at Isana, but Gaius only lifted one corner of his mouth in a small smile and took a sip of his spicewine. "Aria," he said, "I want someone with her who can protect her and Doroga in the event that things go awry--but who doesn't appear to be overtly threatening."

  "Sire," Lady Placida protested, "if the Vord take Ceres, Placida is next. My place is at home, protecting my people."

  The First Lord nodded calmly. "It's up to you, of course, Aria, to decide if your people will be better protected by yourself or by Antillus Raucus, all of his Citizenry, and sixty thousand Antillan veterans." He took another sip of wine. "To say nothing of the Phrygians."

  Lady Placida frowned and folded her hands in her lap, staring down at them.

  "Isana," Gaius said quietly. "Alera needs those Legions. I am issuing you full authority to make a binding treaty with the Icemen."

  Isana drew in a sharp breath. "Great furies."

  Gaius waved a hand in a deprecating gesture. "You'll get used to it. It isn't as enormous as it seems."

  Isana felt a small, hard smile stretch her lips. "And if Octavian's mother arrives unlooked for from the north with a critical force at her back, loyal to the Crown, in an hour of dire need, it just might steal quite a bit of the glory Lord Aquitaine is going to gain for himself in the field--winning support for Octavian by proxy, even if the Princeps himself can't be here."

  "I confess," Gaius murmured, "that had occurred to me in passing."

  Isana shook her head. "I can't stand these games."

  "I know," Gaius said.

  "But you ask me to save lives by helping to end a war that has gone on for centuries. I can't refuse, either."

  "I know that, too."

  Isana stared at Gaius for a moment. Then she said, "How can you live with yourself?"

  The First Lord stared at her for a moment, his eyes cold. Then he spoke in a very quiet, precise, measured voice. "I look out my window each day. I look out my window at people who live and breathe. At people who have not been devoured by civil war. At people who have not been ravaged by disease. At people who have not starved to death, who have not been hacked apart by enemies of humanity, at people who are free to lie and steal and plot and complain and accuse and behave in all manner of repugnant ways because the Realm stands. Because law and order stands. Because something other than simple violence shapes the course of their lives. And I look, wife of my son, mother of my heir, at a very few decent people who have had the luxury of living their lives without being called upon to make hideous decisions I would not wish upon my worst enemies, and who consequently find such matters morally appalling when they consider them--because they have not had to be the ones who dealt with them." He took a short, hard swallow of wine. "Feh. Aquitaine thinks me his enemy. The fool. If I truly hated him, I'd give him the Crown."

  A shocked silence followed the First Lord's words--because though Gaius's speech had been quiet and calm, the sheer rage and raw . . . passion . . . behind the words had shone through like a fire through glass. Isana realized that in his anger he had allowed her to see a portion of his true self--some part of him that was dedicated far beyond himself, very nearly beyond reason, to the preservation of the Realm, to its ongoing survival, and beyond that, to the welfare of its people, freeman and Citizen alike.

  Behind the bitterness, the cynicism, the weary suspicion, she had felt that passion before--in Septimus. And in Tavi.

  There had been something else, too. Isana glanced at Aria, but though Lady Placida seemed a little startled by the slip in Gaius's usual mask, there was nothing of the shock that she should have been feeling if she'd sensed what Isana had.

  Lady Placida met her eyes and misinterpreted what she saw there. She nodded at Isana, then turned to Gaius. "I will go, sire."

  "Thank you, Aria," Isana said quietly, and rose. "Everyone. If we could have a moment alone, please, I would appreciate it."

  "Of course," Lady Placida said, rising. She curtseyed to the First Lord again and withdrew. Sir Ehren, silent the whole while, also retreated, as did Araris, after frowning at Isana in concern. He shut the door behind him.

  Isana sat facing the First Lord, alone in the room.

  Gaius arched an eyebrow and, for a fleeting second, she sensed uncertainty in him. "Yes?" he asked her.

  "We're private here?" she asked.

  He nodded.

  "You're dying."

  He stared at her for a long moment.

  "There's . . . an awareness. When the mind and body know the time is near. I don't think many would know it. Or see you at such an . . . unguarded moment."

  He set the cup of wine down and bowed his head.

  Isana rose. She walked calmly around the desk and laid her hand on his shoulder. She felt the First Lord's frame tremble once. Then his hand rose and covered hers briefly. He squeezed once before withdrawing it again.

  "It's rather important," he said, after a moment, "that you not speak of it."

  "I understand," she said quietly. "How long?"

  "Months, perhaps," he said. He coughed again, and she saw him fighting to suppress it, his hands clenching into fists. She reached for the cup of spicewine and passed it to him.

  He swallowed a sparing measure and nodded his thanks to her.

  "Lungs," he said after a moment, recovering. "Went swimming in the late autumn when I was young. Took a fever. They always were weak. Then that business in Kalare . . ."

  "Sire," she said, "would you like me to take a look at them. Perhaps . . ."

  He shook his head. "Furycrafting can only go so far, Isana. I'm old. The damage is long done." He took a careful, steadying breath, and nodded. "I'll hang on until Octavian returns. I can do that much."

  "Do you know when he'll return?"

  Gaius shook his head. "He's beyond my sight," he replied. "Crows, but I wish I hadn't let him go. The First Aleran is probably the most seasoned Legion in Alera. I could use them in Ceres right now. To say nothing of him. Hate to say it, but growing up the way he did, no furies at all--it's given him a crowbegotten tricky mind. He sees things I wouldn't."

  "Yes," Isana agreed in a neutral tone.

  "How'd you do it?" Gaius asked. "Stifle his furycraft, I mean."

  "His bathwater. It was an accident, really. I was trying to slow his growth. So no one would think him old enough to be Septimus's son."

  Gaius shook his head. "He should be back by spring." He closed his eyes. "One more winter."

  Isana could think of nothing further to do or say. She moved quietly to the door.

  "Isana," Gaius said quietly.

  She paused.

  He looked up at her with weary, sunken eyes. "Get me those Legions. Or by the time he comes home, there might not be much of Alera left."

  CHAPTER 9

  After the first six days of the storm, Tavi more or less gave up trying to keep track of time. In the brief periods when he was not too sick to think coherently, he practiced his Canim--mostly the curse words. He'd learned to manage himself well enough to keep from constantly retching, at least, but it was still a miserable way to live, and Tavi did not bother hiding his jealousy at those around him who did not seem subject to the brutal pitching of the Slive under storm.

  The winter ga
le was violent and relentless. The Slive did not simply rock. It positively wallowed, rolling wildly as it pitched back and forth. At times, only the lines fastened across his bunk kept Tavi from being tumbled completely out of it. Between the clouds and the long winter nights, it was dark the vast majority of the time, and lights were only permitted where absolutely necessary and where they could be constantly monitored. A fire on the ship, during such a storm, while unlikely to destroy the vessel on its own, would almost certainly cripple it and leave it easy prey for wind and wave.

  Meanwhile, out on the deck, in the howling wind and driving rain and sleet, the sailors of the Slive shouted and labored continuously, constantly lashed by the bellowing voices of Demos and the ship's officers. Tavi would have joined them if he could, but Demos had flatly refused, on the grounds that serpents and worms had better sea legs, and that he wasn't going to explain to Gaius Sextus how the heir to the Realm had managed to trip over something while trying to tie a knot he didn't know very well and fallen to his death in the sea.

  So Tavi was left to sit there in the dark, most of the time, feeling vaguely guilty that he stayed in his bunk while others labored to bring the ship through the storm, and bored out of his skull--in addition to being sicker than anyone really ought to be.

  The entire business was enough to make him somewhat surly.

  Kitai was there with him the whole while, her presence steady, calming, reassuring, always passing him bland food that he could keep down, or urging him to drink water or gentle broth--at least until the seventh day, at which point she said, "Aleran, even I have limits," and left the cabin with her fists clenched, muttering under her breath in Canim.

  That part, at least, he spoke better than she did. But then, he'd been practicing.

  An interminable time later, Tavi awoke to an odd sensation. It took him several moments to realize that the ship was riding smoothly and that he did not feel horribly ill. He unfastened the line across his chest and sat up at once, hardly daring to believe it, but it was true--the Slive rode steady in the waves, no longer tossed and shaken by the storm. The insides of his nostrils were painfully dry, and when he sat up out of his bunk, he felt the cold at once. Grey sunlight trickled drearily through cabin windows rimed with frost.

  He got up and dressed in his warmest clothes, and found Kitai sleeping hard in the bunk beside his. Maximus was in the bunk across the room, the first time Tavi had seen him in days, in a similar state of exhaustion. Tavi added his blanket atop Kitai's. She murmured sleepily and curled a bit more closely beneath the additional warmth. Tavi kissed her hair, and went out onto the deck of the ship.

  The seas were strange.

  The waters, for one, were odd. Even at their smoothest, they had always rolled gently. These seas were as flat as a sheet of glass, hardly rippled by a mild, cold breeze from the north.

  Ice was everywhere.

  It coated the ship in a thin layer, glistening over the spars and masts. The deck, too, was covered in a thicker film of ice, though it had been pitted and scarred by some means, making it less treacherous than it might have been. Nonetheless, Tavi walked cautiously. Lines had been strung up in several places on the ship, obviously there to provide the crew with handholds where they could not reach a railing or other portion of the ship's superstructure to support themselves.

  He went to the railing and looked out over the sea.

  The fleet was spread out around them, raggedly, out into the distance. The nearest ship was too far away to make out any details, but even so, Tavi could see that its profile was wrong. It took him a moment of staring to realize that its mainmast was simply missing, snapped off in the storm. At least two more ships were close enough for him to identify similar damage, including one of the oversized Canim warships. Tavi could see no one moving on any of the ships, including his own, and it gave him the odd, uncomfortable sensation that he was the only person alive.

  A gull let out a lonely-sounding cry. Ice crackled, and an icicle fell from a line to shatter on the deck.

  "It's always like this after a long blow," came Demos's quiet voice from behind him.

  Tavi turned to find the ship's captain emerging from belowdecks, moving calmly over the icy planks to stand beside Tavi. He looked the same as he always did--neat, calm, and dressed in black. His eyes were undershadowed with weariness, and he had several days' growth of beard. But otherwise he showed no signs of his days-long battle with the elements.

  "The men have been working as hard as a man can, without proper food or sleep for days, sometimes," Demos continued. "Once the danger is passed, they just drop down and sleep. I practically had to beat them to get them to go to their racks first, this time. Some of them would have slept right on the ice."

  "Why aren't you sleeping, too?" Tavi asked.

  "I'm not as tired. I spent the time watching them work," Demos drawled. Tavi didn't believe him for a moment. "Someone has to keep his eyes open. I'll sleep when the bosun wakes up."

  "Is everyone all right?"

  "I lost three," Demos said, his voice never wavering. Tavi didn't mistake it for a lack of feeling. The man was simply too tired to become energetic about anything at all, be it joy or agony. "Sea took them."

  "I'm sorry," Tavi said.

  Demos nodded. "She's a cruel mistress. But we keep coming back to her. They knew what could happen."

  "The ship?"

  "My ship is fine," Demos said. Tavi didn't miss the very quiet note of pride in his voice. "Rest of them, I don't know."

  "Those two look damaged," Tavi said, nodding out to the sea.

  "Aye. Storms can take masts like a waterbuck cropping reeds." Demos shook his head. "The larger ships had it bad in this one. The fleet's witchmen were able to keep us from getting completely separated. Seas are calm enough, we might be able to send some flyers around, gather everyone in--once folks start waking up. Give it a couple of hours."

  Tavi ground his teeth. "There must be something I can do. If you like, get some rest, and I'll keep an eye on--"

  Demos shook his head. "Not on your life, my lord. Maybe you're a mad genius at war, but you sail like cows fly. You aren't commanding my ship. Not even in this pond."

  Tavi grimaced at Demos but knew better than to argue with the man. Demos had certain views about the order of the universe--simply put, that upon the deck of his ship he should be the foremost policy-making entity. Given that the Slive had survived the storm in fine condition when many of the other ships seemed to have been horribly mauled, Tavi supposed Demos's opinion was not entirely without foundation.

  "I've been lying around like a lazy dog for days," Tavi said.

  "Like a sick dog," Demos said. He gave Tavi a direct look. "You don't look good, my lord. The Marat woman was worried about you. Worked herself harder than any of us, trying not to."

  "She just got sick of my bellyaching," Tavi said.

  Demos smiled faintly. "I'll wager your work will begin shortly, my lord. Then none of us will want to be you."

  "That's shortly. I want to do something now," Tavi said. He squinted around the ship. "The men are going to wake up hungry."

  "Like baby leviathans, aye."

  Tavi nodded. "Then I'll be in the galley."

  Demos arched an eyebrow. "Set fire to my ship, and I'll see you roasted alive before she sinks. My lord."

  Tavi started for the galley and snorted. "I grew up in a steadholt, Captain. I've worked in a kitchen before."

  Demos folded his arms on the ship's railing. "If you don't mind me saying, Octavian--you really don't have any idea at all how to be a Princeps, do you?"

  Men began stirring sooner than Tavi would have thought. Partly, that was due to the day's growing swiftly colder, making sleep in still-damp shipboard clothing difficult. Partly, it was due to the minor injuries and strains associated with hard, dangerous labor. But it was due in large measure to their raw hunger, driving them from rest to fill their growling bellies.

  The ship's galley included a fr
ost cabinet large enough to require a pair of coldstones, and he was surprised to see how much meat it stored. By the time the men began to rouse themselves, he'd managed to prepare a large amount of mash and sliced and fried four entire hams, in addition to the stacks of ship's biscuit and gallons of hot, bitter tea. The mash wasn't much clumpier than the ship's cook normally made it, and the ham, while perhaps not of gourmet quality, was certainly in no danger of being undercooked. As Demos predicted, the crew dug in with abandon, while Tavi, just as the cook normally did, slapped food onto waiting plates as the men lined up.

  He spent the time talking with each of the sailors, asking them about the storm, and thanking them for a job well done. The sailors, all of whom had become familiar with Tavi on their journey the previous year, spoke with him in familiar, friendly terms that never quite edged all the way into open disrespect.