Cursors fury, p.14
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       Cursor's Fury, p.14

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Isana blinked at her. “Your Grace?”

  She held up a hand. “I’m teasing, Steadholder. This certainly is anything but a formal setting. How would it suit you if I called you Isana and you called me Aria?”

  “I’d like that.”

  Lady Placida nodded sharply. “Good. Many Citizens assign far too much importance to the privileges of rank without placing complementary weight upon their duties. I’m glad to see that you aren’t one of them, Isana.”

  Uncertain of how to respond politely, Isana nodded.

  “It grieved me to hear about the attack upon you at Sir Nedus’s manor on the night we met.”

  Isana felt a twinge of pain, low on her abdomen, near her hip. The arrow wound had healed cleanly, but there was a very faint scar, hardly more than a discoloration upon her skin. “Nedus was a good man. And Serai was more of a friend than I had at first believed.” She shook her head. “I wish things had happened differently.”

  Lady Placida smiled, though there was sadness at the edges of it. “That’s the way of things. It’s easy to see what choices one should have made after it is too late to go back. I shall miss Serai. We were not close, but I respected her. And I enjoyed her talent for puncturing pompous windbags.”

  Isana smiled. “Yes. I wish I had known her longer.”

  Silence fell for a moment before Lady Placida said, “I met your nephew, back during that Wintersend excitement.”

  “Did you?” Isana asked.

  “Yes. A most promising youth, I thought.”

  Isana lifted an eyebrow and studied Lady Placida for a moment, and asked, cautiously, “Why would you say that?”

  Lady Placida spread her hand in a languid, seed-scattering gesture. “He impressed me with his intelligence. Cleverness. Determination. He is a most well spoken young man. I share a similar respect for several of the young people who are his friends. You can tell a great deal about a person by looking at the people who share his life.”

  Isana did not miss the implication of Lady Placida’s statement, and she nodded in thanks of the compliment. “Tavi’s always been very bright,” Isana said, smiling despite herself. “Too much so for his own good, I think. He’s never let anything hold him back.”

  “His . . . condition,” Lady Placida said with deliberately delicate phrasing. “I have never heard of anything quite like it.”

  “It’s always been a mystery,” Isana agreed.

  “Then I assume his situation has not changed?”

  Isana shook her head. “Though goodness knows, there are plenty of people with many crafting skills who never do anything constructive with them.”

  “Very true,” Lady Placida agreed. “Will you be in Ceres for long?”

  Isana shook her head. “A few more days at most. I’ve been away from my steadholt too long as it is.”

  Lady Placida nodded. “I’ll have a mountain of work waiting for me as well. And I miss my lord husband.” She shook her head and smiled. “Which is somewhat girlish and silly of me. But there it is.”

  “Not silly,” Isana said. “There’s nothing wrong with missing loved ones. I hadn’t seen my brother in nearly a year. It was nice to visit him here.”

  Lady Placida smiled. “That must have been a relief from what Invidia has you doing.”

  Isana felt her back stiffen a little. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

  Lady Placida gave her an arch look. “Isana, please. It’s clear she’s managed to attach some strings, and equally clear that you don’t care for the situation.”

  Strictly speaking, Isana should have denied it. Part of her agreement with Lady Aquitaine had been to support her publicly. But this was hardly a public forum, was it? So instead, she remained silent.

  Lady Placida smiled and nodded. “Isana, I know how difficult this kind of situation can be. Should you need to talk to anyone about it, or if it progresses to something you are not willing to tolerate, I would like to offer you my support. I don’t know the particulars, so I cannot know how I might be of help to you—but if nothing else, I could at least listen to what you chose to share and offer advice.”

  Isana nodded, and said, carefully, “That’s . . . very kind.”

  “Or a most manipulative way to suborn information from you, hm?”

  Isana blinked, then felt herself smile a little. “Well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but, yes.”

  “I sometimes grow bored with tactful evasions,” Lady Placida explained.

  Isana nodded, then said, “Assuming that you are sincere: Why would you offer such help to me?”

  Lady Placida tilted her head to one side and blinked. Then she took Isana’s hand, met her eyes, and spoke. “Because you may need it, Isana. Because you seem to me to be a decent person in unenviable circumstances. Because I can judge from the child you raised that you are a person worthy of my respect.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Not terribly aloof and aristocratic of me, I know, but there. The truth.”

  Isana watched Lady Placida steadily and in growing surprise. Through the touch of her hand, Isana could sense the clear, chiming tone of absolute truth in her voice. Lady Placida met her eyes and nodded before withdrawing her hand.

  “I . . . Thank you,” Isana said. “Thank you, Aria.”

  “Sometimes, just knowing that the help is there, if you need it, is help enough in itself,” she murmured. Then Aria closed her eyes, inclined her head in a little bow, and departed the little garden, gliding away into the streets of Ceres.

  Isana sat for a moment more, enjoying the murmur of the fountain, the cool shadows beneath the trees. She had grown weary of fulfilling her obligations to Lady Aquitaine over the past three years. There had been many distasteful things about it, but the most distressing facet of the matter was the helplessness of it. There were few people in all Alera as powerful and influential as Lady Aquitaine.

  The First Lord, of course, would never be a source of support or comfort. His actions had made that quite clear. Other than Gaius, there were fewer than a score of people whose power approached that of the Aquitaines, many of them already allies. There was no more than a handful of folk who had both the power and the inclination to defy Aquitaine Invidia.

  The High Lady Placidus was one of them.

  Aria’s presence, and her offer, had provided a sense of comfort and confidence that felt like a cold drink in the middle of a hot, endless day. Isana felt surprised at her reaction. Aria had done nothing more than speak idle words during a casual meeting, and nothing about them would bind her to them. Yet Isana had felt the truth in the woman’s voice and manner. She sensed Aria’s genuine compassion and respect.

  Isana had once shared a similar contact with Lady Aquitaine. Isana had indeed felt the truth in her voice, but the sense of the woman had also been utterly different. Both women were the sort to keep their word—but what was primarily integrity in Aria was, in Lady Aquitaine, simple calculation, a kind of enlightened self-interest. Lady Aquitaine was an expert at negotiations, and to negotiate one needed a reputation of keeping one’s end of the bargain, for good or ill. She had a steely resolve to make sure that she paid what she owed—and more to the point, to be paid what was owed her. Her honesty had more to do with calculating debt and value than it did with right and wrong.

  It was one of the things that made Lady Aquitaine particularly dangerous, and Isana suddenly realized that she feared her patron—and not merely for what Lady Aquitaine might do that would touch upon Isana’s loved ones. Isana feared her, personally, sickeningly.

  She’d never realized that. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she’d never allowed herself to realize it before now. Aria’s simple offer of support had created another possibility for the future. Perhaps it was the relief Isana had needed to allow herself to face the fear she had kept hidden away. Isana had found hope again.

  She shivered and put her face in her hands. Silent tears came, and she did not try to stop them. She sat in the peace of the little garden and le
t some of her bitter fear wash out with her tears, and in time, when the tears had passed, she felt better. Not buoyant, not ecstatic—but better. The future was not set in stone, no longer unremittingly dark.

  Isana murmured to Rill to cleanse the tears from her eyes and restore the reddened skin of her face to its natural color, and left the garden to face the world.

  Chapter 11

  Max regarded Tavi, grinning. “They say if you breathe through your mouth instead of your nose, it will help you keep your breakfast down.”

  Tavi sighed. He looked down at himself. His trousers were soaked to above midthigh and stained with the most vile effluvia imaginable. More of it had splattered onto his tunic, arms, neck, and he felt sure there was some in his hair and on his face. “And slog around in that with my mouth open? Smelling it is bad enough. I don’t want to taste it, too.”

  Max lounged on a camp stool next to the practice grounds, watching Schultz and his spearmates drilling with live steel and their shining new armor. Schultz was running the drill, while Max watched over the recruits. “Schultz!” Max called. “Relax a little. You hold your shoulders that tight, it’s going to slow down your thrust.”

  Tavi grunted. “He still thinks you’re going to kill him?”

  “It was fun at first,” Max said. “Useful, too. But it’s been almost a month. I think he’s getting it figured out now.”

  Tavi grunted and grabbed a ladle in a nearby bucket of water.

  “Hey,” Max protested. “Downwind.”

  Tavi idly flicked the ladle of water at Max, then drank one of his own, being careful to swallow in small, controlled motions. He had learned to his own dismay that gulping down liquid on a stench-soured stomach could produce unpleasant results.

  “What’s he got you doing now?” Max asked.

  “Inspections.” Tavi sighed. “I have to take measurements of each latrine, make sure it’s got the right dimensions. Then estimate volume and compare the rate that they’re all filling up. Then I have to supervise the digging of new ones and filling in the old ones.”

  “That stomach bug clear up?” Max asked.

  Tavi grimaced. “Finally. Took four days. And the captain’s asked Foss to brew me up some kind of tea to help me fight off other sicknesses.”

  “How’s that working out?”

  “I’d almost rather get the diseases. You should smell that stuff Foss makes.”

  Max grinned. “And if you think it smells bad . . .”

  “Thank you. I needed a little more humiliation,” Tavi said.

  “In that case, you should know what the legionares are calling you.”

  Tavi sighed. “What?”

  “Scipio Latrinus. Is that enough humiliation for you?”

  Tavi suppressed a flash of irritation. “Yes. That’s perfect, thank you.”

  Max glanced casually around, and Tavi could feel the air around him tightening as Max ensured privacy. “At least it’s given you a good excuse to go to the Pavilion every night. And I’ve noted that you aren’t whining about Kitai anymore.”

  “I’m not?” Tavi asked. He frowned and thought about it. That hollow, unpleasant sensation in his stomach, the empty pang, had been absent for some time, and his frown deepened. “I’m not,” he mused.

  “Told you you’d get over her,” Max said. “I should have bought you a girl for the evening weeks ago. Glad you did it on your own.”

  Tavi felt his face heat up. “But I didn’t.”

  Max’s eyebrows lifted straight up. “Ah,” he said. He squinted at his recruits and said, “You didn’t buy a boy, did you.”

  Tavi snorted. “No,” he said. “Max, I’m not there to enjoy myself. I go there for the job.”

  “The job,” Max said.

  “The job.”

  “You go to the Pavilion because it’s a duty.”

  “Yes,” Tavi said, half-exasperated.

  “Even though there’s all those dancers and such?”

  “Yes.”

  “Crows, Calderon. Why?” Max shook his head. “Life is too short to pass some things by.”

  “Because it’s my job,” Tavi said.

  “Easy to argue that you have to maintain your cover,” Max pointed out. “A little wine. A girl or two. Or three, if you can afford it. What’s the harm?”

  Tavi frowned and thought about it. Max was quite correct when he said that the girls at the Pavilion could be quite enticing, and Tavi had avoided watching them dance. It was a given that any dancer with earthcrafting would use it to hone the appetites of the men watching. Often, several danced at once, and such an environment was geared to fleece the pockets of the legionares who succumbed to their urges. Since the legionares by and large went there with exactly that purpose in mind, it tended to work out.

  Tavi had been propositioned by several of the doxies there, but had declined to purchase anyone’s charms for a night or to sample the wine and other intoxicants available. He had no intention of clouding his judgment—his wits were what had kept him alive.

  “You should enjoy yourself,” Max said. “No one would begrudge you that.”

  “I would,” Tavi said. “I need to keep my wits about me.”

  Max grunted. “True, I suppose. As long as you aren’t constantly mooning over Kitai, I guess it’s all right if you don’t tumble a doxy now and then.”

  Tavi snorted. “Glad you approve.”

  Three cohorts of recruits, nearly a thousand legionares, pounded by on the practice road, now moving in a solid block and in full armor. Their footsteps thundered in uniform rhythm, even through the muting effect of Max’s screen. After they passed, and the racket faded away, Max asked, “Turn up anything?”

  Tavi nodded. “Found two more legionares reporting to that contact from the Trade Consortium.”

  “Do we know who he’s reporting to yet?”

  “He thinks he’s reporting to a Parcian merchant’s factor.”

  “Heh,” Max said. “Who is the factor working for?”

  Tavi shrugged a shoulder. “I crossed a few palms. I might get something tonight.” He gave Max an oblique look. “I heard about an unlicensed slaver operating nearby. Apparently grabbed a couple of camp followers. But someone beat him unconscious, tied him to a tree, sneaked past his guards, and released his slaves.”

  Max lowered his windcrafted screen long enough to stand up and shout, “Crows take it, Karder, get that shield up or I’ll give you a few lumps on top of your fool head to remind you! If Valiar Marcus’s spear humiliates my best, you’ll all be running circles for a week!”

  Recruits gave Max sidelong, dark looks until Schultz bellowed them back into formation.

  “Yeah?” Max said to Tavi, sitting down again. “I heard the same thing. Good for whoever did that. Never liked slavers.”

  Tavi frowned. “It wasn’t you?”

  Max frowned back. “It wasn’t you?”

  “No,” Tavi said.

  Max pursed his lips, then shrugged. “Wasn’t me. There are a lot of Phrygians hereabouts. They hate slavers. Crows, plenty of folk do. I hear that Ceres has a whole big gang of men in masks who roam around at night and hang any slaver they can get their hands on. They have to employ a whole army of personal guards to stay safe. Gotta love a town like Ceres.”

  Tavi frowned and glanced eastward.

  “Oh, right, “ Max muttered. “Sorry. Your family reunion.”

  Tavi shrugged a shoulder. “We were only planning on being there for a month or so. They’ve probably left already.”

  Max watched the recruits at their drill, but his expression turned a bit bleak. “What’s it like?”

  “What is what like?”

  “Having a family.”

  Tavi drank another ladle of water. “Sometimes it felt like they were strangling me. I knew it was because they cared, but it still drove me mad. They were worried about me because of my crafting problem. I liked knowing that they were there. I always knew that if I had a problem, they’d help me. Somet
imes at night, I would have a bad dream or lie awake feeling sorry for myself. I’d go and look in their rooms and see they were there. Then I could go back to sleep.”

  Max’s expression never changed.

  Tavi asked, “What was your family like?”

  Max was quiet for a second, then said, “I don’t think I’m drunk enough to answer that question.”

  But Max had been the one to bring up the subject. Maybe he wanted to talk and just needed some encouragement. “Try,” Tavi said.

  There was a longer silence.

  “Notable for their absence,” Max said, finally. “My mother died when I was five years old. She was a slave from Rhodes, you know.”

  “I knew.”

  Max nodded. “I don’t remember much about her. My lord father all but lives at the Shieldwall. He only comes back to Antillus during the summer, then he’s got a whole year’s worth of work to make up for. He’d sleep maybe three or four hours a night, and he hated being interrupted. I’d maybe have dinner with him once, and a furycrafting lesson or two. Sometimes I’d ride with him to review the new recruits. But neither of us talked much.” His voice grew very quiet. “I spent most of my time with Crassus and my stepmother.”

  Tavi nodded. “Wasn’t fun.”

  “Crassus wasn’t so bad. I was older and bigger than him, so there wasn’t much he could do. He followed me around a lot, and if he saw something of mine that he liked, he’d take it. She’d give it to him. If I said anything, she’d have me whipped.” He bared his teeth in a rictus of a smile. “Course, if I did anything, she’d have me whipped.”

  Tavi thought of his friend’s scars and clenched his jaw.

  “At least, until I came into my furies.” His eyes narrowed. “When I figured out how strong I was, I blew the door to her private chambers to cinders, walked in, and told her that if she tried to have me whipped again, I’d kill her.”

  “That’s when the accidents started,” Tavi guessed.

  “Yeah.”

  “What happened?”

  “First one was at flying lessons,” Max said. “I was hovering a couple of feet outside the city walls, maybe thirty feet up. Ajar of rock salt fell out of a window of a tower, hit the wall, and pieces flew through my windcrafting. Disrupted it. I fell.”