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Academs Fury, Page 12

Jim Butcher

Chapter 22~23

  Chapter 22

  Within half an hour, Serai had introduced Isana to more than a dozen nobles and prominent Citizens of the capital, charmed and complimented every one of them, and had somehow managed to leave each conversation with pleasant brevity. The courtesan was, Isana realized, a master fencer in the arts of wit and conversation. One friendly old Senator had threatened to drag the conversation out for hours, but Serai had deftly slipped in a joke that caused him to boom into a belly laugh in the middle of a sip of wine, requiring immediate steps to save the tunic he wore. A young Attican Lord had spoken to Serai in beautifully polite-and lengthy-phrases that were entirely out of sorts with his predatory eyes, but the Cursor had stood upon tiptoe to whisper something into his ear that made a slow smile curl one side of his mouth, and he had taken his leave "until later. "

  There were half a dozen other such incidents, and the courtesan reacted to each with precision, poise, wit, and blinding rapidity of thought. Isana was quite certain that with Serai's help, she had just set some kind of speed record for making a good first impression upon the cream of Alera's society. She'd done her best to smile, say polite things, and avoid tripping over either the nobles at the party or the hem of her silk gown.

  Serai asked a servant to tell her coachmen to pick them up in front of the house. She and Isana had just turned to leave the garden when a man in a granite grey tunic salted with beads of green semiprecious stones stepped into their path, smiling pleasantly. He was not as tall as Isana, nor was he built with any particularly significant amount of athleticism. He had a weak chin hidden under a neatly trimmed goatee, rings on every finger, and wore a steel circlet across his brow. "Ladies," he said, and bowed very slightly. "I must apologize to you both for being remiss in my duties as a host. I must have overlooked your names on the guest list, or I would have made the time to visit with you both. "

  "Your Grace," Serai murmured, and dropped into a deep curtsey. "It is good to see you again. "

  "And you, Serai. You are as lovely as ever. " The man's eyes were narrow and suspicious-not so much from active thought, Isana thought, as from ingrained habit. "I am surprised that my lady wife extended her invitations to you, I must admit. "

  Serai smiled winsomely up at him. "I suppose happy accidents can happen. High Lord Kalare, may I present Steadholder Isana of the Calderon Valley. "

  Kalare's narrowed eyes flicked to Isana and ran over her. There was no sense of emotion from him. He looked at Isana as other men might a column of numbers. "Ah. Well, this is a pleasant surprise. " He smiled. There was no more emotion to that than there had been to his gaze. "I've heard so many things about you," he said.

  "And I you, Your Grace," Isana murmured.

  "Have you now. Good things, I hope?"

  "Many things," Isana said.

  Kalare's false smile vanished.

  "My lord," Serai said, stepping into the silence before it could become more uncomfortable. "I fear that my recent travel has left me at somewhat less than perfect health. We were just leaving, before I fell down asleep and made a fool of myself. "

  "A fool of yourself," Kalare murmured. He stared at Serai for a moment, then said, "I have been considering purchasing you from your current master, Serai. "

  She smiled at him, somehow making it artless and vulnerable with fatigue. "You flatter me, my lord. "

  Kalare's voice was flat. "I do not offer it as a compliment, slave. "

  Serai lowered her eyes and curtseyed again. "Of course not, Your Grace. Please forgive my presumption. But I do not think my master has set a price for me. "

  "There's always a price, slave. Always. " His mouth twitched at one corner. "I do not like to be made the fool. And I do not forget my enemies. "

  "My lord?" Serai asked. She sounded bewildered.

  Kalare let out a harsh bray of bitter laughter. "You do your master good service, I think, Serai. But you will exchange his collar for another's, sooner or later. You should give careful thought to whom you might next serve. " His eyes flicked to Isana, and he murmured, "And you should give careful thought to the company you keep. The world is a dangerous place. "

  Serai never lifted her eyes. "I will do so, my lord. "

  Kalare looked up at Isana, and said, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Steadholder. Allow me to wish you a safe journey home. "

  Isana faced him without smiling. "Certainly, my lord. And believe me when I say that I wish your own road to be of a kind. "

  Kalare's eyes narrowed to slits, but before he could speak a servant in the grey and green of House Kalarus approached him, carrying an arming jacket and a wooden practice sword. "My lord," he murmured, bowing. "Your son stands ready to face you, with Lords Aquitaine, Rhodes, and Forcia to bear witness. "

  Kalare's eyes snapped to the servant. The man paled a little and bowed again.

  Serai licked her lips, looking from the servant to Kalare, and said, "My lord, is Brencis ready to challenge for Citizenship already? The last I saw of him, he wasn't so tall as me. "

  Kalare, without so much as glancing at Serai, struck her a blow to the cheek with his open hand. Isana knew that had he used fury-born strength to do so, the blow could have killed Serai-but it was merely a heavy, contemptuous slap that rocked the courtesan to stumble to one side.

  "Lying bitch. Do not presume to speak to me as if you were my peer," Kalare said. "You are in my house. Your master is not here to speak for you. Keep to your place, or I will have that gown whipped from your flesh. Do you understand?"

  Serai recovered herself. Her cheek had already began to flush red where the blow had landed, and her eyes looked a bit glassy, stunned.

  A startled silence settled over the garden, and Isana felt the sudden pressure of every gaze at the party being directed toward them.

  "Answer me, slave," Kalare said, his voice quiet, even. Then he stepped toward Serai and lifted his hand again.

  Isana's body was flooded with sudden, cold fury. She stepped forward between them, and raised one arm vertically, to intercept Kalare's swinging hand.

  Kalare bared his teeth. "Who do you think you are, woman?"

  Isana faced him, that same chill anger transforming her quiet speaking voice into a steely sword. "I think I am a Citizen of the Realm, my lord. I think that striking another Citizen is an offense in the eyes of the law of the Realm. I think that I am here at the invitation of my patron, Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera. " She locked eyes with Kalare and stepped forward again, facing him from a handbreadth. "And, my lord, I think that you are neither foolish nor arrogant enough to believe for a single moment that you could strike me in public without repercussions. "

  The only sound in the garden was the gentle splash of water in the fountains.

  Kalare shifted his weight uncomfortably, and his narrowed eyes relaxed, becoming more sleepy than suspicious. "I suppose so," he said. "But do not think I will forget this. "

  "That makes two of us, Your Grace," Isana said.

  Muscles tightened along Kalare's jaw, and he spoke through clenched teeth. "Get out of my house. "

  Isana tilted her head in the barest nod of acknowledgment. She stepped back from Kalare, touched Serai's arm, and left the garden with her.

  Instead of heading for the front door, Serai glanced around the hallway, took Isana's hand, and decisively led her into a side passage.

  "Where are we going?" Isana asked.

  "To the kitchen doors at the rear of the house," Serai said.

  "But you told Nedus and his men to meet us at the front. "

  "I told the servant that for the benefit of whoever might be eavesdropping, darling," Serai said. "The better to keep anyone from following us home. After all, it is Kalare's house, and his servants will certainly report your movements. Nedus will know to meet us in the back. "

  "I see," Isana said, and in a moment the courtesan led her through the busy kitchens and out the back door of the house,
to a dark, quiet street where Nedus and the coach waited. They hurried into the carriage without a word, and Nedus shut the door behind them. The driver clucked to the horses at once, and the carriage lurched forward into hurried motion.

  "Lady Aquitaine," Isana said quietly. "She was not what I expected. "

  "She's the sort to smile while she twists the knife, Steadholder. Don't be deceived. She is a dangerous woman. "

  "You think she might be behind the attacks. "

  Serai stared at the curtains over the coach's windows and shrugged, her expression remote. "She is certainly capable of it. And she knows things she shouldn't. "

  "That you are one of the Cursors," Isana said.

  Serai drew in a slow breath and nodded. "Yes. It would seem that I have been compromised. She knows, and from the way Kalare spoke, I would judge that he does as well. "

  "But how?"

  "Remember that someone has been killing Cursors left and right, darling. It's possible that the information was extracted from one of them. "

  Or, Isana thought, that one of them is a traitor.

  "What does it mean for you?" she asked Serai quietly. "Exposure. "

  "Any enemy of the Crown might take satisfaction in removing me," she said, her voice calm, matter-of-fact. "It will only be a matter of time. Secrecy was my greatest defense-and Gaius's enemies will face few, if any, consequences for murdering a slave. If nothing else, Kalare will do it simply to spite the First Lord. "

  "But wouldn't Gaius protect you?"

  "If he could," Serai said. She shook her head. "He's been slowly losing power among the High Lords, and he isn't getting any younger. He won't be First Lord forever, and once he isn't. . . " The courtesan shrugged.

  Isana felt sick at her stomach. "That's what that talk about the gown was all about. Lady Aquitaine was offering you a position with her, wasn't she. "

  "More than that. I should think she meant to offer me my freedom, a title, and most likely a position in whatever would pass for the Cursors under her husband's rule. "

  Isana was quiet for a moment. "That's quite an offer," she said.

  Serai nodded, silent.

  Isana folded her hands in her lap. "Why didn't you take it?"

  "Her price was too high. "

  Isana frowned. "Price? What price?"

  "Isn't it obvious, darling? She knew that I was your guardian. She offered me power in exchange for you. And made it known that the results might be unpleasant if I denied her. "

  Isana swallowed. "Do you think she wants me dead?"

  "Perhaps," Serai said, nodding. "Or perhaps only within her control. Which might be worse, depending on the next several years. From what she said, it seems obvious that her husband is very nearly ready to move against the Crown. "

  They rode in silence for a moment, then Isana said, "Or it might not have been a threat. "

  Serai arched a brow. "How so?"

  "Well," Isana said slowly, "if word of your true allegiance has gotten out, and you didn't know about it. . . could what she said have been a warning? To point it out to you?"

  Serai's eyebrows lifted delicately. "Yes. Yes, I suppose it could have been, at that. "

  "But why would she warn you?"

  Serai shook her head. "Difficult to say. Assuming it was a warning, and assuming that Kalare and Aquitaine are not working together to bring Gaius down, it would be most likely that she warned me in an effort to deny Kalare the chance to kill me. Or capture me to learn what secrets I keep. "

  "We're both in the same oven, then. Whoever is killing Cursors would not mind seeing the pair of us dead. "

  "Indeed," Serai said. She glanced at her hands. Isana did as well. They were trembling harder. Serai folded them and held them tight against her lap. "In any case, given how little we know about the current climate, it seemed best to me that we leave before something unpleasant happened. "

  She paused, then said, "I'm sorry we didn't manage to gain the First Lord's ear. "

  "But we must," Isana said quietly.

  "Yes. But remember, Steadholder, that my first duty is to protect you-not to try to manage affairs in the Calderon Valley. "

  "But there's no time. "

  "You can't gain the support of the First Lord from the grave, Steadholder," Serai said, her tone frank, serious. "You're of no use to your family dead. And just between you and me, if I die before I get a chance to wear a gown of those new silks from Aquitaine, I will never forgive you. "

  Isana tried to smile at her attempt at levity, but it was too strongly underscored by an emotional undertow of anxiety. "I suppose. But what is our next step?"

  "Get back to the house all in a piece," Serai said. "And from there, I think a nice glass of wine might soothe my nerves. And a hot bath. "

  Isana regarded her evenly. "And after that?"

  "After wine and a steaming bath? I should be surprised if I didn't sleep. "

  Isana pressed her lips into a line. "I don't need you to try to amuse me with clever evasions. I need to know how we're going to get to Gaius. "

  "Oh," Serai said. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Going out of Nedus's house is a risk, Steadholder. For both of us, now. What do you think our next move should be?"

  "My nephew," Isana said firmly. "In the morning, we'll go to the Academy and find him so that he can carry the message to the First Lord. "

  Serai frowned. "The streets aren't safe enough for you to-"

  "Crows take the streets," Isana said, the barest trace of an angry snarl in her voice.

  Serai sighed. "It's a risk. "

  "One we have to take," Isana said. "We don't have time for anything else. "

  Serai frowned and looked away.

  "And besides," Isana said, "I'm worried about Tavi. The message must have reached him by now-it was left in his own room, after all. But he hasn't come to see me. "

  "Unless he has," Serai pointed out. "He might well be waiting at Nedus's manor for us to return. "

  "Either way, I want to find him and make sure he's all right. "

  Serai sighed, and said, "Of course you do. " She lifted a hand to press her fingers lightly against her reddened cheek, her eyes closed. "I hope you'll excuse me, Steadholder. I'm. . . somewhat shaken. Not thinking as clearly as I should. " She looked up at Isana, and said, simply, "I'm afraid. "

  Isana met her eyes and said, in her gentlest voice, "That's all right. There's nothing wrong with being afraid. "

  Serai waved her hands in a frustrated little gesture. "I'm not used to it. What if I start chewing my nails? Can you imagine how horrid that would be? A nightmare. "

  Isana almost laughed. The courtesan might be afraid, but for all that she was playing in an unfamiliar field against lethally violent opponents, a mouse among hungry cats, she had the kind of spirit that refused to be kept down. The feigned vapid mannerisms and dialogue was her way of laughing at her fears. "I suppose we could always tie mittens onto your hands," Isana murmured. "If it is all that important to the security of the Realm to preserve your nails. "

  Serai nodded gravely. "Absolutely, darling. By any means necessary. "

  A moment later the coach came to a halt, and Isana heard the footman coming around to open the door. Nedus muttered something to the driver. The door opened, and Serai stepped out onto the folding stair. "It's a shame, really-all the politics. I hate it when I am forced to leave a party early. "

  The assassins came without sound or warning.

  Isana heard a sudden, harsh exhalation from the driver of the coach. Serai froze in place on the stair, and a frozen gale of sudden fear swept over Isana's senses. Nedus shouted, and she heard the steely rasp of a sword being drawn. There were shuffling footsteps, and the ring of steel on steel.

  "Stay back!" Serai cried. Isana saw a dark figure, a man with a sword, step up close to the coach. His blade thrust at Serai. The courtesan batted the blade aside with her left hand, and the flesh of her
forearm parted, sending blood sprinkling down. The courtesan's other hand flew to her hair, to what Isana had taken as the handle of a jeweled comb. Instead, Serai drew forth a slender, needle-sharp blade and thrust it into the assassin's eye. The man screamed and fell away.

  Serai leaned out to catch the handle of the coach's door and began to close it.

  There was a hissing sound, a thump of impact, and the bloodied, barbed steel head of an arrow burst from Serai's back. Blood flooded over the ripped silk of her amber gown.

  "Oh," Serai said, her voice breathless, startled.

  "Serai!" Isana screamed.

  The courtesan toppled slowly forward and out of the coach.

  Isana rushed out of the coach to go to the woman's aid. She seized Serai's arm and hauled on it, trying to draw the Cursor back into the coach. Isana slipped in Serai's blood and stumbled. A second arrow sped past her shoulder as she did, driving itself to the feathers in the heavy oak wall of the coach.

  She heard another scream to her right, and saw Nedus standing with his back to the wall of the coach, facing a pair of armed assassins, hard-looking men in drab clothing. A third attacker lay bleeding on the cobblestones, and even as Isana looked, the old metalcrafter's sword whipped up into a high parry and dealt back a slash that split open the throat of his attacker.

  But the blow had left the old Knight open, and the other assassin lunged forward, his short, heavy blade thrusting sharply into Nedus's vitals.

  Nedus whirled on the third man, showing no sign of pain, and seized his sword-arm wrist in one hand. Instead of pushing the man away, though, Nedus simply clamped down an iron grip, and with grim determination, rammed his sword into the assassin's mouth.

  Assassin and Knight both collapsed to the ground, their blood pouring out like water from a broken cup.

  Terrified, Isana pulled at Serai, struggling to get the Cursor back into the coach, before-

  Something bumped into her, and there was a nauseating flash of sensation in her belly. Isana looked down to see another heavy arrow. This one had struck her, in the curl of her waist above her hipbone. Isana stared at it in shock for a moment, and then looked to see six inches of bloodied shaft emerging from her lower back.

  Pain came next. Horrible pain. Her vision went red for a second, and her heart beat like thunder. She blinked down at Serai and reached for her again, unsure of what to do but doggedly determined to draw the fallen woman from beneath the hidden archer's shafts.

  Serai rolled limply to one side, her eyes open and staring. The arrow had taken her through the heart.

  Isana heard footsteps coming toward her. She looked up, agony making her vision almost seem to throb, and saw a man emerge from the darkness with a bow in his hand.

  She recognized him. Shorter than average, grizzled with age, balding, stocky, and confident. His features were regular, unremarkable, neither ugly nor appealing. She had seen him once before-on the walls during the horrible battle at Garrison. She had seen him slaughter men with arrows, throw Fade from the walls with a noose tight around his neck, and attempt to murder her nephew.

  Fidelias, a former Cursor Callidus, now a traitor to the Crown.

  The man's eyes flicked around him as he walked, careful, wary and alert. He drew another arrow from his quiver and slipped its nock over the bowstring. He regarded the corpses dispassionately. Then his unreadable, merciless eyes fell upon Isana.

  Pain took her.

  Chapter 23

  "Slow down," Max complained. "Furies, Calderon, what's all the crows-eaten rush?"

  Tavi glanced back over his shoulder as he paced swiftly down the street from the Citadel. Colorful Wintersend furylamps lit the way in soft hues of pink, yellow, and sky-blue, and despite the late hour the streets were busy. "I'm not sure. But I know something is very wrong. "

  Max sighed and broke into a lazy lope until he caught up with Tavi. "How do you know? What does that letter say?"

  Tavi shook his head. "Oh, the usual. How are you doing, little things that happened at home, that she's staying at the manor of someone named Nedus on Garden Lane. "

  "Oh," Max said. "No wonder you panicked. That's one horrifying letter. It certainly merits sneaking out on Killian and possibly endangering the security of the Crown. "

  Tavi glared at Max. "She wrote in details that weren't right. She called my uncle Bernhardt. His name is Bernard. She told me my little sister was doing well with her reading lessons. I don't have a sister. Something is wrong-but she didn't want to put it down on paper. "

  Max frowned. "Are you sure the letter is genuine? I can think of a few people who wouldn't mind catching up with you in a dark alley somewhere late at night. "

  "It's her handwriting," Tavi said. "I'm sure of it. "

  Max walked beside him in silence for a while. "You know what? I think you should go see her and find out what's going on. "

  "You think?"

  Max nodded gravely. "Yeah. Better take someone large and menacing with you, too, just to be careful. "

  "That's a good idea, too," Tavi said. The pair turned onto Garden Lane. "How do we know which one is Nedus's house?"

  "I've been there before," Max said.

  "Is there a young widow?" Tavi asked.

  Max snorted. "No. But Sir Nedus was the finest swordsman of his whole generation. He trained a lot of the greats. Princeps Septimus, Araris Valerian, Captain Miles of the Crown Legion, Aldrick ex Gladius, Lartos and Martos of Parcia, and dozens of others. "

  "You studied with him?" Tavi asked.

  Max nodded. "Yes, all through first year. Solid man. Still a fair sword arm, too, and he's got to be eighty years old. Best teacher I ever had, including my father. "

  "You studying with him now?"

  "No," Max said.

  "Why not?"

  Max shrugged. "He said that there wasn't anything else he could teach me on the training floor. That I'd have to learn the rest on my own in the field. "

  Tavi nodded, chewing on his lower lip thoughtfully. "Where does he stand with the Crown?"

  "He's a hard-line loyalist to the House of Gaius and the office of the First Lord. But if you ask me, I'd say that he detests Gaius, personally. "

  "Why would he do that?"

  Max shrugged, but he spoke with absolute confidence. "There's some history between them. I don't know any details. But he'd never involve himself with traitors to the Crown, either. He's solid. " Max nodded at a nearby house that was large and lovely but dwarfed by its neighbors. "Here it is. "

  But when they went to the door, they were informed that Lord Nedus and his guests were no longer there. Tavi showed the porter at the door the letter from his aunt, and the man nodded and returned with a second envelope, which he offered to Tavi.

  Tavi took it and read it as they walked back down the street. "She's. . . oh great furies, Max. She's at the garden party being given by Lord Kalare. "

  Max's eyebrows shot up. "Really'? From what you said of her, she never seemed like a socialite. "

  "She isn't," Tavi said, frowning.

  "I bet the Dianic League is going to swarm over her like a pack of Phrygian waterpike. " Max took the letter and read it, frowning. "She says she's hoping to get the chance to tour the palace with one of the High Lords. " Max squinted up his eyes, frowning. "But the only time the High Lords are actually in the palace during Wintersend is during their meetings with the First Lord. "

  "She's trying to get to Gaius," Tavi said quietly. "She can't just come out and say it for fear of interception. But that's why she's been trying to contact me. To get to Gaius. "

  "Well that isn't going to happen," Max said calmly.

  "I know," Tavi said quietly. "That's the problem. "

  "What?"

  "My aunt. . . well, I get the impression that she and Sir Nedus would agree when it comes to the First Lord. She never wanted to come within a mile of him. "

  "So why is she tryi
ng to get to him now?" Max asked.

  Tavi shrugged. "But she wouldn't do it if she wasn't desperate to get to Gaius. The coded messages. She's staying in the house of a Crown loyalist, instead of in the Citadel-and going out to noble functions. "

  "At Kalare's house, no less. That's dangerous. "

  Tavi frowned, thinking. "Kalare and Aquitaine are the strongest High Lords, and rivals. They both hate Gaius, too. And my aunt is in Gaius's favor. "

  "Yes," Max said. "She isn't going to get a warm welcome there. "

  "Surely she knows that. Why would she go there?" He took a deep breath. "I can't put my finger on it, but this really bothers me. I. . . it's like it was at Second Calderon. My instincts are screaming at me that this is serious stuff. "

  Max studied Tavi for a long minute, then nodded slowly. "Could be you're right. It was like this for me on the Wall a couple of times. Bad nights. But your aunt isn't going to get to Gaius, Tavi. Not even to me. Killian wouldn't hear of it. "

  "She doesn't have to," Tavi said. "Come on. "

  "Where to?" Max asked cheerfully.

  "Kalare's manor," Tavi said. "I'll speak to her. I can pass word on to the First Lord for her. We keep the security intact, Killian's happy, and if she's here with something serious, then. . . "

  "Then what?" Max asked pointedly. "You planning on issuing some royal commands to fix it?" Max met Tavi's eyes. "To tell you the truth, I'm scared as hell, Tavi. Whatever I do when I'm in costume, it's Gaius who will have to deal with the consequences. And I am not the First Lord. I don't have the authority to order Legions into action, or dispatch aid or Crown support. "

  Tavi frowned. "Killian would say that the Legions and the bursar legate don't know that. "

  Max snorted. "I know it. That's enough. "

  Tavi shook his head. "Do you think Gaius would prefer us to stand around doing nothing while his subjects and lands were jeopardized?"

  Max gave Tavi a sour look. "You did better than me in Rhetoric. I'm not going to get into this with you. And no matter what you say, I'm not going to start setting policies and issuing proclamations in Gaius's name. Disobeying Academy rules meant to protect students' families from embarrassment is one thing. Sending men into harm's way is another. "

  "Fine. We go talk to my aunt," Tavi said. "We find out what's wrong. If it's something serious, we take it to Killian and let him and Miles decide what to do. Okay?"

  Max nodded. "Okay. Though the furies help you if Brencis spots you at his father's party. "

  Tavi let out an irritated groan. "I'd forgotten about him. "

  "Don't," Max said. "Tavi, I've been meaning to talk to you about him. I don't think Brencis is quite right. You know?"

  Tavi frowned. "In the head?"

  "Yes," Max said. "He's dangerous. It's why I've always made it a point to smash him up a bit whenever I had the excuse. Establishing that he should be afraid of me and stay clear. He's fundamentally a coward, but he isn't afraid of you. Which means he probably enjoys thinking about hurting you-and you're going to be walking around in his family's home. "

  "I'm not afraid of him, Max. "

  "I know," Max said. "You idiot. "

  Tavi sighed. "If it makes you feel better, we'll get in and out fast. The sooner we get back to the Citadel, the less murderous Killian is going to be, in any case. "

  Max nodded. "Good thinking. This way he'll only murder us a little. "