Princeps fury, p.12
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       Princeps' Fury, p.12

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  "Taurga," Gradash supplied. "They are unsuited to sea voyages and have not come to Alera."

  A shadow stirred on the deck, and Tavi glanced up to see Kitai lounging in the rigging on the nearest spar, apparently balanced like a cat and asleep. But a flash of green through her silver-white eyelashes told him that she was awake, and the faintest curve of her mouth betrayed her satisfaction. Already, they had learned something else of interest by continuing on.

  Tavi mouthed the words, "I know. You told us so," toward her.

  Her mouth opened in a silent laugh, and her eyes closed again, perhaps into genuine sleep.

  "How far is it to the port from here, elder brother?"

  "At our pace? Two hours, perhaps."

  "How long will it take Varg to get an answer from the Shuarans, do you think?"

  "As long as it takes," Gradash said. He glanced back down at his tail. "It would be better if it was soon, though. We have less than a day before the next storm is upon us."

  "If they have dry ground to land upon, some of my people can probably do something about the storm," Tavi said.

  Gradash gave Tavi an oblique look. "Truly? Why did they not do so during the previous storm?"

  "A windcrafter needs to be up there within the storm to affect it. The wind they use to fly would kick up a lot of spray from the ocean whenever they were near the ship," Tavi replied. "Seawater carries a great deal of salt, which damages and inhibits their wind furies. In rough weather, it makes takeoffs dangerous and landings all but suicidal."

  Gradash let out a coughing grunt. "That is why your fliers will bear messages in calm seas, then, but you use boats when there is any swell."

  Tavi nodded. "They can land safely on the deck, or if there is a chance bit of spray, they can fall into the sea and be taken up by the crews of the ships with minimal risk. I won't take chances with them, otherwise."

  "Your people can stop the storm?"

  Tavi shrugged. "Until they've seen it and can judge its size and strength, I have no way of knowing. They should, at the least, be able to slow and weaken it."

  Gradash's ears flipped back and forward in acknowledgment. "Then I would suggest that they begin their work. It may be of use to your people as well as mine."

  Tavi mused over that statement for a moment, and came to the conclusion that Gradash was speaking of negotiations. The Shuar would hold a much stronger bargaining position for making demands of the Narashan Canim and the Alerans if the storm was breathing down their necks.

  "That might not be a bad idea," Tavi agreed.

  "This is a terrible idea," Antillar Maximus growled. "I'd even go so far as to call it insane--even by your standards, Calderon."

  Tavi finished lacing up his armor, squinting a little in the dimness. The sun had not yet set, but for the first time in several weeks, the mass of the land to the west meant an actual twilight rather than the sudden darkness of a nautical sunset, and the shadows were thick inside his cabin.

  He leaned down to peer out one of the small, round windows. The enormous, dark granite walls of the fjord rose above the ships on either side, and what looked a great deal like the old Romanic stone-throwing engines he and Magnus had experimented with back in the ruins of Appia lined the top cliffs on either side at regular intervals. The approach to the port of Molvar was a deadly gauntlet should their hosts decide to take umbrage with any visitors.

  Only the Slive and the Trueblood had been permitted to enter the fjord itself. The rest of the fleet still waited in the open sea beyond the fjord--vulnerable to the weather threatened by the darkening skies.

  "The Shuarans haven't left us with many options, Max. They won't even discuss landing rights until they've spoken to the leaders of both contingents of the fleet, alone. We've got too many ships out there that aren't going to make it if we don't find a safe harbor."

  Max muttered the cabin's sole furylamp to life and folded his arms, frowning. "You're walking into a city full of Canim by yourself. Just because it's necessary doesn't make it any less insane. Tavi . . ."

  Tavi buckled his belt and began fastening the heavy steel bracers to his forearms. He gave his friend a lopsided smile. "Max. I'll be all right."

  "You don't know that."

  "The Canim are good about one thing--they don't make any bones about it when they want to kill you. They're quite direct. If they wanted me dead, they'd have started dropping rocks on the ship by now."

  Max grimaced. "You shouldn't have sent the Knights Aeris out. We'll wish we had them if those stone throwers start up on us."

  "Speaking of which," Tavi said. "Has your brother reported back yet?"

  "No. And the wind is rising. We're going to lose men to the sea when they come back if they don't have solid ground to land on."

  "All the more reason for me to go now," Tavi said quietly. "At least we know that they're slowing the storm. Crassus wouldn't keep them up there if they weren't doing any good."

  "No," Max admitted. "He wouldn't."

  "How long can they stay aloft?"

  "Been there since noon," Max said. "Another three or four hours at most."

  "Then I'd better hurry."

  "Tavi," Max said, slowly. "What happens if they come back and we haven't worked something out with the Shuarans?"

  Tavi took a deep breath. "Tell them to land onshore within sight of the fleet. Take some earthcrafters, create a way to the top, and get them back aboard."

  "You want them to land on a hostile shore, while we craft a dock and an assault stairway in what is obviously intended to be an impregnable defense." Max shook his head. "The Shuaran Canim might call that an act of war."

  "We'll be as polite about it as we can, but if they do, they do. I'm not letting our people drown over protocol." He finished buckling on both bracers and rose to slip the baldric to his gladius over one shoulder. Then, after a moment's consideration, he picked up the strap to Kitai's gladius and hung its baldric the opposite way, so that the additional weapon lay against his other hip.

  Max looked pointedly at the second weapon and arched an eyebrow.

  "One for the Shuarans," Tavi said. "And one for Varg."

  Tavi and Max were the only ones to climb into the longboat.

  "Are you sure about this, Aleran?" asked Kitai, her eyes worried.

  Tavi looked across the short distance to the Trueblood, where a larger longboat was being lowered to the water. He could recognize Varg's enormous figure in the prow. "As sure as I can be," he said. "Making a good first impression might do more to head off trouble than anything else we could do." He met Kitai's gaze. "Besides, chala, the ships are going to be back at sea. If it comes to a fight, having more men with the longboat wouldn't change anything."

  "It's simpler if I'm working alone, Kitai," Max assured her. "That way if there's trouble, I don't have to play gentle. If the Shuarans start treating us the way Sarl did, I can just level everything that isn't His Royal Highness."

  "His Royal Highness appreciates that," Tavi said. "Where's Magnus?"

  "Still furious that you would not allow Maximus to take your place," Kitai said.

  Tavi shook his head. "Even if he crafted himself into my twin, Varg would have known the second he got close enough to smell him."

  "I know. Magnus knows. He is angry because it is true." Kitai leaned over the side of the longboat and kissed Tavi hard on the mouth, her fingers tight in his hair for a moment. Then she broke it off abruptly, met his eyes, and said, "Survive."

  He winked at her. "I'll be fine."

  "Of course he will," Maximus said. "If there's a lick of trouble, Tavi will set something on fire--it's easy to set something on fire, believe me--and I'll see the smoke, knock down all the buildings between him and the dock, come get him, and we'll leave. Nothing simpler."

  Kitai gave Maximus a steady look. Then she shook her head, and said, "And the truly incredible part is . . . you actually believe it."

  "Ambassador," Max said, "in the course of my life, I have mor
e than once been too ignorant to know that something was impossible before I did it anyway. I see no reason to jeopardize that success."

  "It certainly explains your study habits at the Academy," Tavi noted. "We're ready, Captain."

  Demos, who had been directing the affairs of the ship from nearby, called out an order to the crew, and the sailors of the Slive lowered the boat to the chill waters of the fjord.

  Tavi flung his scarlet cloak about his shoulders and hooked it to the clasps on his armor, while Max sat down at the rear of the boat. The big Antillan thrust one hand into the water for a moment, murmured something, and a second later the longboat surged silently forward, propelled by a burbling current that pressed against its stern.

  Tavi rose to stand in the prow, and the wind threw his cloak back as the longboat glided silently for the shore.

  "First impressions, eh?" Max muttered.

  "Right," Tavi said. "When they get close enough to get a look at you, try to look like someone who isn't impressed."

  "Got it," said Max.

  The longboat altered course to run parallel to the boat coming from Varg's vessel. Varg's boat was crewed by seven warrior-caste Canim, six of them pulling oars while a seventh held the longboat's tiller. Varg, like Tavi, stood in the prow of his boat. He wore no cloak, but the fading light of day managed, somehow, to glitter upon the bloodred gem hanging from a gold ring in one ear, here and there upon his black-and-crimson armor, and upon the hilt of the curved sword hanging at his side.

  "Carrying a lot of bloodstone on him," Max noted.

  "I get the impression that Varg hasn't made a lot of friends among the ritualists," Tavi said. "If I were he, I'd carry a lot of bloodstone, too."

  "Beats being annihilated by red lightning or melted into sludge by a cloud of acid, all right. You brought your stone, right?"

  "Got it in my pocket. You?"

  "Crassus loaned me his," Max confirmed. "Do you really think that showing up with only two of us will impress the Shuarans?"

  "It might," Tavi said. "Mostly, I feel better knowing that I'm not leaving anyone helpless to Canim sorcery standing around on the dock behind me to be taken prisoner or wounded and used to slow me down."

  Max snorted. "You didn't say anything about that aboard the ship."

  "Well. No."

  "Just did it to impress the girl, eh, Your Highness?"

  Tavi threw a sly glance over his shoulder. "It was a pretty good kiss."

  Max snorted, then they fell silent until they reached the sea-gate of Molvar.

  Huge bars of black iron rose from the cold sea, supported on either side by walls made from hand-hewn granite blocks. Even without the use of furycraft, the Canim had been able, somehow, to raise the seabed into something solid enough to support massive walls, built out from the sides of the fjord. Tavi could not imagine how much sheer, brute effort, how much raw sweat and muscle power had gone into their construction, or what techniques must have been used, even with the incredible strength of the Canim laborers, to maneuver the enormous blocks of stone. They made the ruins in Appia look like children's projects by comparison.

  As the two boats approached, the sea-gates groaned and began to move, slowly parting. Phosphorescence flickered up and down the metal bars, and eerie, fluttering waves of light danced over the surface of the water. Metal rattled on metal, an eerie, regular thump-thump-thump as the gates opened, swirling water in their wake.

  The boats passed through, and Tavi spotted several Canim on the walls above them, in dark armor and strange, long, slippery-looking cloaks, all but hidden within their garments. Each of them bore one of the steel bolt throwers in his hands, the deadly balests that had claimed the lives of so many Knights and legionares in the wars in the Amaranth Vale, and Tavi's shoulder blades developed a distinct itch as the boat passed them. A bolt hurled by one of the deadly weapons could slam through his armor's backplates, his body, and his breastplate in an instant, and still carry enough momentum to kill a second armored man on the other side of him.

  Tavi did not allow himself to turn his head or alter his straight-backed, confident stance. Posture and gesture were of enormous significance among the Canim. Someone who looked as if he expected to be attacked quite possibly would be, simply as an outgrowth of unspoken, unintended, but very real statements being made by his body.

  A cold trickle of sweat slid along Tavi's spine. It was no time for bungled communications to spoil an otherwise reasonably fine day. After all--he was about to get off the bloody water for the first time in weeks.

  He let out a little breath of laughter at the thought and calmed himself as his boat, along with Varg's, crossed the harbor of Molvar.

  It was huge--half a mile across at the least, large enough to house the whole of his fleet and the Canim's, too. Indeed, in the failing light he counted at least thirty Canim ships of war, whose designs differed subtly from those designed and built by Varg's shipwrights. Granite bluffs framed the harbor, except for a long stretch of stone piers, as large as any Tavi had seen in Alera, where warships and other vessels, built more along the lines of merchants, were docked.

  One pier was set apart from the others. Torches had been lit at its end and burned scarlet with more intensity than any normal fire. It was crowded with Canim, also in their odd, wet-looking cloaks, but Tavi caught glimpses of midnight blue steel armor beneath their cloaks and similarly tinted weaponry in their hands.

  Varg's longboat headed for that pier, and without being told, Max altered his heading slightly to do the same. The two longboats pulled up on opposite sides of the pier in almost-total silence. The only sound was the rattle of wood and metal fittings as the rowers in Varg's craft shipped their oars.

  From there, Tavi thought, looking up at the pier, it certainly looked like a great many more Canim were present than had been there a moment before. They also looked quite a bit taller. And their weapons looked a great deal sharper. Doubtless, he thought, it was all just a trick of the light.

  "No fear," he muttered to himself. Then he took a long step up to the pier and stepped out of the longboat and onto the Shuaran stone.

  Opposite him, Varg was doing the same, albeit having less difficulty with the scale of the construction. He tilted his head slightly toward Tavi, who returned the gesture at precisely the same depth and timing. They turned simultaneously to face the warriors gathered on the pier.

  Silence ruled.

  Tension mounted.

  No one stirred.

  Tavi debated saying something to break the ice. His time in the Academy, both in academic studies and in training as a Cursor, had included considerable exposure to diplomacy and protocol. Both fields of knowledge offered several potential courses of fruitful action he might pursue. He mused over it for a moment, then discarded them entirely in favor of a lesson his uncle Bernard had taught him on the steadholt: that hardly a man ever made a fool of himself by keeping his bloody mouth shut.

  Tavi held his tongue and waited.

  A moment later, footsteps sounded, and a runner approached. He was a young adult Cane, lean and swift, running very nearly as fast as a horse might, his odd cloak flying behind him. His fur was a strange color that Tavi had never seen in the wolf-warriors, a kind of pale golden brown fading to white at the tips of his ears and tail. He loped up to the end of the pier, bared his throat deeply to one of the warriors, and growled, "It is done as agreed," in Canish.

  The warrior in question flicked his ears in acknowledgment and stepped forward. He faced Varg, stopping a few inches outside the range of what Tavi judged would be the reach of Varg's sword, should he draw it.

  "Varg," growled the strange Cane. "You are not welcome here. Go."

  Varg's eyes narrowed, and his nostrils flared for a few seconds. "Tarsh," he snarled, pure contempt in his voice. "Did Lararl lose his wits in the snow, that you are pack leader here?"

  Tarsh reached up a paw-hand to rip back the hood of his cloak, revealing another golden-furred Cane. This one's muz
zle was heavily scarred, including an odd-looking ridge of scar tissue across the black skin of his nose. He was missing one ear halfway up, and Tavi noted that instead of a sword, he bore at his hip an axe with a long, vicious spike protruding from the back.

  "Have a care, Varg," he spat, harshly. "A word from me will spill your blood into the sea."

  "Only if someone listens," Varg replied. "I do not bargain with scavenging muzzle-lickers like you, Tarsh. You will order your men to prepare to receive my people. I will give you my pledge of peace. We will debark here and camp outside the walls of your city, so that you will feel safe. You will provide me with a priority courier, that I may send word to Lararl of our presence and our need for the presence of someone with the stature to treat with me."