Cursors fury, p.13
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       Cursor's Fury, p.13

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  “I was only stationed there for a week or so before the battle, Your Grace. After that, I was based at a town named Marsford, about twenty miles south of Riva.”

  “You are not Tavi of Calderon?” she asked.

  Tavi shrugged his shoulders at her and smiled. “Sorry.”

  She answered his smile with her own, wide enough to show her sharply pointed canines. “Well. That’s cleared up. Now be a dear for me, Subtribune, and light this campfire?”

  Tavi felt his smile falter for a second. “Beg pardon?”

  “The campfire,” Lady Antillus said, as though speaking to the village idiot. “I think an herbal tea would be nice for all of us to enjoy if Maximus is up and about. You’ve had your basic furycrafting. I’ve seen your record. So, Subtribune Scipio. Light the campfire.”

  “Mother, I’ll get it for—” Crassus began.

  She flicked her hand in a slicing gesture, and her smile grew wider. “No, darling. After all, we are Legion, are we not? I have given dear Scipio a lawful order. Now, he must follow it. Just like all the rest of us.”

  “Light the fire?” Tavi asked.

  “Just a little firecrafting,” she said, nodding. “Go ahead, Subtribune.”

  Tavi squinted at her, then up at the sun and chewed on his lip. “I’ll be honest with you, Your Grace. Fire isn’t my best subject. I haven’t practiced it since my tests.”

  “Oh, don’t sell yourself so short, Scipio,” Lady Antillus said. “It isn’t as though you’re some kind of freak with no crafting at all.”

  Tavi made himself smile as naturally as he knew how. “Of course not. But it might take me a moment.”

  “Oh,” she said, gathering her skirts and stepping away from the campfire, laid but not lit, before the infirmary tent. “I’ll give you a bit of room, then.”

  “Thank you,” Tavi said. He went over to the fire, squatted, and drew his knife. He took one of the more slender sticks lying in an upright tent-shaped stack, and struck a small mound of shavings from it in rapid order.

  Tavi glanced up to find Lady Antillus watching from ten feet away. “Don’t let me distract you,” she said.

  Tavi smiled at her. Then he rubbed his hands on his thighs and stretched them out over the tinder, narrowing his eyes.

  Behind him, Max emerged from the tent and walked toward them, his steps growing louder. “Oh,” he drawled, his voice still a bit weak. “Hullo, stepmother. What are you doing?”

  “Watching your friend Scipio demonstrate his firecrafting skills, Maximus,” she said, smiling. “Don’t spoil it by helping. He’ll miss the chance to prove himself.”

  Max’s steps faltered for a second, but he kept walking. “You can’t take his basic fieldcraft on faith?”

  Lady Antillus sounded like she was almost laughing. “I’m sorry, darling. Sometimes I just need to have my trust in others vindicated.”

  “Scipio . . .” Max said, lowering his voice.

  “Leave off, Max,” Tavi growled. “Can’t you see I’m concentrating, here?”

  There was a brief silence in which Tavi’s imagination provided him with an image of Max staring openmouthed at his back. Then he set his shoulders, let out a quiet grunt of effort, and a wisp of smoke curled up from the tinder.

  Tavi leaned over and blew gently on the spark, feeding it more shavings, then small pieces, then larger ones, until the fire was going strong and set to the prepared sticks of the campfire. They took in short order, and Tavi brushed off his pants, rising.

  Lady Antillus stared at him, with her smug smile frozen stiffly upon her lips.

  Tavi smiled at her again and bowed. “I’ll fetch water for the tea, Your Grace.”

  “No,” she said, her voice a little too clear and sharp and polite. “That’s all right. I’ve just remembered another obligation. And Crassus must return to his cohort.”

  “But—” Crassus began.

  “Now,” Lady Antillus said. She dismissed Max with a glance and shot Tavi a spiteful glare.

  Tavi dropped the false smile he’d been wearing. Suddenly, he found the memory of Max’s pale face, the water pink with his blood, growing in his mind. In the space of a breath, it became painfully sharp and clear. A breath later, Tavi recalled with sickening clarity the cruel, vivid scars that crisscrossed his friend’s back—the marks of a many-tongued lash barbed with bits of metal or glass. To leave such vicious scars, the injuries had to have been inflicted on him before Max had come into the power of his furies, when he was twelve years old. Or younger.

  And Lady Antillus—and her son—had been responsible for it.

  Tavi found himself planning quite calmly. The High Lady had enormous power of furycrafting, and so would have to be the first target. If she did not die all but instantly, she might be able to prevent an injury from killing her, or to strike out with power enough to slay Tavi as she died. Where she stood, the lunge would be a little long, but so long as she did not absolutely expect a physical attack, he should be able to drive his slender poniard up through the hollow of her throat and into her brain. A twist, a ragged extraction to tear the wound wider, and he would be left with only Crassus.

  The young Knight had little experience, and it was the only thing that would have let him react in time to save his life. A sharp blow to the throat, a gouge to the eyes and the young lord would be in too much pain to defend himself effectively. Tavi could take a length of wood from the newly lit fire, a rather symbolic statement, he thought, and finish Crassus off with a sharp blow to his unarmored temple.

  And suddenly Tavi froze.

  The rage he felt fled, and instead he felt, sickened, as if the cold dinner he’d eaten last might come flying back out of his mouth. He realized that he was standing in the bright afternoon sun, staring at two people he hardly knew, planning to murder them as coolly and calmly as a grass lion would might stalk a doe and her fawn.

  Tavi frowned down at his hands. They had started shaking a little, and he wrestled with the bloodthirsty thoughts that had risen up in him, pushing them away. He had actually done violence to other people, classmates at the Academy who had been bullying him at the worst possible time. Tavi had hurt them, and badly, because he’d had little choice in the matter. He had felt sick afterward. Though he had seen the ugly aftermath of that kind of violence, he was nonetheless capable of planning such a brutal attack. It was frightening.

  More frightening still, he was all but certain he could actually do it.

  But whether or not Max’s injuries were their doing, regardless how burning hot the rage Tavi felt in his belly, murdering Lady Antillus and her son would not wipe Max’s wounds away—to say nothing of the consequences that would fall on Tavi, and upon the First Lord, by reflection.

  She was not the kind of foe one could simply assault and do away with. She would have to be overcome by other means—and if what Magnus said was true, Lady Antillus was a dangerous opponent.

  Tavi smiled faintly to himself. He could be dangerous as well. There were more weapons in the world than furies and blades, and no foe was invincible. After all, he had just turned her trap back upon her rather neatly. And if he had outwitted her once, he could do it again.

  Lady Antillus watched his face as the thoughts flowed through his head, and seemed hardly to know how to react to Tavi’s changing expression. A flash of unease went through her eyes. Perhaps, in his anger, he had let too much of his emotions slip free of his control. It was possible she had sensed his desire to do her harm.

  She took her son’s arm and turned without a further word, walking away with regal poise. She didn’t look over her shoulder.

  Max rubbed a hand through his short hair, then said, “All right. What the crows was that all about?”

  Tavi frowned at the retreating High Lady, then at Max. “Oh. She thought I was someone you knew at the Academy.”

  Max grunted. Then he flicked his hand, and Tavi felt a tightness against his ears. “There,” Max rumbled. “She can’t possibly overhear us.”
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  Tavi nodded.

  “You lied to her,” Max said. “Right to her face. How the hell did you manage that?”

  “Practice,” Tavi said. “My aunt Isana is a strong watercrafter, so I was motivated to figure it out as a child.”

  “There aren’t many who can do something like that, Calderon.” Max gestured at the fire. “How the crows did you do that? You been holding out on me?”

  Tavi smiled. Then he reached down to his trousers and drew out a rounded lens of glass from his pants pocket and turned his palm enough to show it to Max. “Nice, sunny day. Old Romanic trick.”

  Max looked down at the glass and made a small choking sound. Then he shook his head. “Crows.” Max’s face turned pink, and his shoulders shook with restrained mirth. “She was listening for your fury. And she never heard it. But you got the fire anyway. She’ll never think of . . .” This time he did burst out into the rolling laughter Tavi was familiar with.

  “Come on, Scipio,” Max said. “Let’s find something to eat before I fall down.”

  Tavi put the glass away and grunted. “Last meal for me. Gracchus is going to have me knee deep in latrines as soon as he finds out I’m not sitting up with you anymore.”

  “That’s the glamorous officer life for you,” Max said. He turned to swagger toward the mess, but his balance swayed.

  Tavi was beside his friend in an instant, providing support without actually reaching out for him. “Whoah. Easy there, Max. You had a close call.”

  “I’ll be all right.” Max panted. Then he shook his head, regained his balance, and resumed walking. “I’ll be fine.”

  “You will be,” Tavi said, nodding. After a moment, he added more quietly, “She isn’t smarter than everyone, Max. She can be beaten.”

  Max glanced aside at Tavi, head tilted, studying him.

  “Well, crows,” he said at last. “If you can do it, how hard can it be?”

  “I’ve got to stop encouraging you.” Tavi sighed. “But I’ll watch your back. We’ll figure something out.”

  They walked a few more paces before Max said, quietly, “Or maybe she’ll just kill both of us.”

  Tavi snorted. “I’ll handle her by myself if you aren’t up to it.”

  Max’s eyebrows shot up. Then he shook his head, and his fists slammed gently down on the pauldrons of Tavi’s armor, making the steel ring out a gentle tone. “You’d never let me live that down,” he said.

  “Bloody right I wouldn’t,” Tavi said. “Come on. Let’s eat.” He walked steadily beside his friend, ready if Max’s balance should waver again.

  Tavi shivered, and in the corner of his eye caught Lady Antillus watching them cross the camp, never quite openly staring at them. It was the steady, calm, cautious stare of a hungry cat—but he could feel that this time, rather than tracking Maximus, her dark, calculating eyes were all for him.

  Chapter 10

  “And it is with great pleasure and pride,” Lady Aquitaine addressed the assembled Dianic League, “that I introduce to some of you, and reintroduce to many of you, the first female Steadholder in Aleran history. Please welcome Isana of Calderon.”

  The public amphitheater of Ceres was filled to its capacity of four thousand, though perhaps only half of them were actual members of the Dianic League, the organization consisting of the leading ladies of the Citizenry. Few of the women in attendance bore a title lower than Countess. Perhaps two hundred had been freemen who won their Citizenship through the formal duel of the juris macto, or who had served in the Legions, mostly in service as Knights, though half a dozen had served as rank-and-file legionares, disguising their sex until after they had proven themselves in battle.

  Of them all, only Isana had attained her rank through rightful, legal appointment, free of any sort of violence or military service. In all of Aleran history, she was the only woman to do so.

  The rest of those present were mostly men, and by and large members of the abolitionist movement. They included a dozen Senators among their number, their supporters and contacts in the Citizenry, and members of the Libertus Vigilantes, a quasi-secret organization of militant abolitionists within the city of Ceres. The Vigilantes had spent years persecuting slave traders and slave owners within the city. It was not unusual to find an insufficiently paranoid slaver hung from the top of a slave pen by his own manacles, strangled by one of his own chains. The elderly High Lord Cereus Ventis, though the legal master of the city, did not command the respect of the Vigilantes or their supporters, nor possess the resolve to come down on them with all the power at his disposal, and had consequently failed to quell the violence.

  Any remaining folk there were either spies who would report back to the Slavers Consortium or simply curious onlookers. The amphitheater was a public forum, open to any Citizen of the Realm.

  The crowd applauded, and their emotions flowed over Isana like the first incoming wave of an ocean tide. Isana closed her eyes against it for a moment, fortifying herself against its impact, then rose from her seat, smiled, and stepped to the front of the stage, to the podium beside Lady Aquitaine.

  “Thank you,” she said. Her voice rang clearly throughout the amphitheater. “Ladies, gentlemen. A man I once knew told me that giving a speech is like amputating a limb. It’s best to finish it as quickly and painlessly as possible.” There was polite laughter. She waited for it to fade, then said, “The institution of slavery is a blight upon our entire society. Its abuses have become intolerable, its legal safety mechanisms nonfunctional. Everyone here knows that to be true.”

  She took a deep breath. “But not everyone here has been taken captive by a slaver, illegally and against her will. I have.” She glanced aside at Lady Aquitaine for a moment. “It’s a terrible thing to feel so helpless. To see . . .” She swallowed. “To see what happens to women in such a situation. I hardly believed the rumors of such things—until they happened to me. Until I saw them with my own eyes.”

  She turned back to the audience. “The stories may sound like nightmares. But they are true. Through the course of this summit, you have heard testimony from freed slaves, men and women alike, of atrocities that have no place in any society living under the rule of law.”

  “We find ourselves in a unique position to destroy this cancer, to cleanse this festering wound, to make a change in our Realm for the better. We have a responsibility to our fellow Alerans, to ourselves, and to our progeny to do so. Senators, Citizens, I ask that you all support the Lady Aquitaine’s emancipation proposal. Together, we can make our lands and people whole once more.”

  She took a step back from the podium and nodded. The crowd rose to their feet in enthusiastic applause. Their approval flooded over her in another wave of emotion, and she could hardly keep her feet beneath it. She had no illusions about the skill of her oratory: Of course the Abolitionists would support Lady Aquitaine’s emancipation legislation. The speech and the crowd’s public approval, at the conclusion of the weeks-long summit, was little more than a formality.

  She took her seat again while Senator Parmos rose to the podium, to expound upon the Abolitionist movement’s enthusiastic support. Parmos, a talented speaker, a master of the subtle firecrafting of the inspiration and manipulation of emotion, would in all likelihood hold the crowd spellbound for an hour or more with the power of his words.

  “Very good,” Lady Aquitaine murmured as Isana sat down beside her. “You have a natural talent.”

  Isana shook her head. “I could have cawed like a crow, and they would have reacted the same way.”

  “You underestimate yourself,” Lady Aquitaine replied. “You possess a quality of . . . integrity, I think describes it best. It sounds sincere. It gives your words additional weight.”

  “It doesn’t sound sincere. It is sincere,” Isana replied. “And I have no integrity anymore. I sold it three years ago.”

  Lady Aquitaine gave her a wintry little smile. “Such sincerity.”

  Isana inclined her head in a slight nod a
nd did not look at the woman beside her. “Does this appearance conclude my obligation for today?”

  Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”

  “I’m meeting my brother for dinner at Vorello’s.”

  “A very nice dining house,” Lady Aquitaine said. “You’ll like it. We’re almost done with this trip. I’ll have one or two more meetings before I can return to Aquitaine. If I require your presence, I shall send for you.”

  “Very well, my lady,” Isana said, then pretended to listen to Senator Parmos speak. Eventually, his voice rose to a thundering crescendo of a conclusion that brought the entire amphitheater enthusiastically to its feet. The tide of their emotion, fanned to fiery heat by the Senator’s speech and firecraft, disoriented Isana, and left her with a giddy, whirling miasma of a sensation that managed to be exhilarating and uncomfortable at the same time.

  Isana had to leave the amphitheater. When Lady Aquitaine rose and began to thank and dismiss the gathering, Isana slipped off the stage and out a side exit of the sunken bowl of the amphitheater. The dizzying pressure of the crowd’s emotions waned as she walked away from the theater. She paused beside a small public garden, trees and flowers centered around an elegant fountain of black marble. The spring sun was hot, but the mist rising from the fountain, together with the trees’ shade, kept the whole of the little garden cool and comfortable. She sat down on a carved-stone bench and pressed her fingertips against her temples for a moment, forcing herself to relax and slow her breathing.

  “I know just how you feel,” said a rather dry, feminine voice from nearby. Isana looked up to see a tall, willowy woman with rich red hair and a deep green gown seated upon the bench beside hers. “It’s Parmos,” the woman continued. “He’s not happy until the audience is a few seconds short of becoming a riot. And I don’t like his speechmaking voice. It’s too syrupy.”

  Isana smiled and inclined her head. “High Lady Placida. Good afternoon.”

  “Steadholder,” Lady Placida, said with exaggerated formality. “An’ it please thee, I would fane speak with thee a while.”