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First Lords Fury, Page 16

Jim Butcher
for all of that, he was as gentle with the child as a mother cat with her kittens. "One more time around the ring, like before," he said calmly. "Then we'll need to go get some lunch. "

  Masha gathered up the reins and bit her lower lip. "Can I go slow?"

  "That's fine," Bernard said.

  Masha clucked her tongue and began walking Ajax along the outside wall of the ring, her back practically bending backward in its efforts to stay straight. Her toes rested on the pony's ribs.

  "Well?" Amara asked quietly, once the child was several yards away.

  "Isana's coming. "

  "Again? She was here three days ago. "

  "Senator Valerius has managed to put together a quorum of the Senate," Bernard said. "He's planning on challenging the legitimacy of Septimus's marriage. "

  A bad taste went through Amara's mouth at the words, and she spat on the ground. "There are times when I wish you'd hit that egomaniac quite a bit harder. "

  "There was a lot of confusion during the rescue," Bernard said. "And Valerius wouldn't shut up. Interfered with my thinking. " He pursed his lips, and mused, "I'll do better next time we're in that situation. "

  Amara let out a small snort and shook her head, watching Masha ride. "Bloody crows," she growled a moment later through clenched teeth. "Even now, with everything at stake, these idiots are playing their games. They'll still be doing deals under the table when a bloody vordknight tears them to shreds - as if the vord are some kind of transitory inconvenience!"

  "They have to pretend that," Bernard said. "Otherwise, they'd be forced to admit that they were fools not to listen to the warnings we tried to give them five bloody years ago. "

  "And that would be terrible," Amara said. She thought about the situation for a moment. "If Valerius is successful, it gives Aquitaine every excuse he needs to keep the crown, even i. . . even when Octavian returns. "

  Bernard grunted agreement.

  "What are we going to do?"

  "Talk to my sister," Bernard said. "Figure out which Senators might be swayed to our side. " Masha and Ajax had nearly completed their slow circuit of the ring. "How is she?"

  "She was smiling earlier," Amara said. "Joking. Almost laughing. "

  Bernard let out a rumbling sigh. "Well. That's something good today, at least. If we could win that much every day, it would add up. "

  "It might," Amara said.

  He looked at her obliquely, then gently covered her hand with his. "How are you doing?"

  She tightened her fingers on his, feeling their gentle strength, the rough texture of his work-hardened skin. "A woman whose death warrant I practically signed has charged me with protecting and rearing her child. Less than a day after she did, I killed Masha's father. And every night, when she has nightmares, the little girl comes running to me to make her feel better. " Amara shook her head. "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about that, love. "

  Masha looked up at Amara as she came closer. She made sure her back was straight, and her smile was in equal measure chagrined and proud.

  Amara found herself smiling back. She couldn't help it.

  In the face of looming terror, the child's smile was a victory banner of its own.

  Bernard looked between the two of them and nodded, his eyes bright. "Why don't you fly her back to Garrison? I'll lead Ajax, and we'll meet 'Sana in my office. "

  Amara looked at her husband and gave him a slow and gentle kiss on the mouth. Then she started walking toward Masha, tugging on her leather flying gloves as she went. The little girl noticed, and cheered.

  Amara thought about her husband's words and pursed her lips thoughtfully.

  Maybe he's right. Maybe enough of the little victories really will add up.

  Chapter 4

  "Then you bloody well cut down trees enough for your section," Valiar Marcus bellowed. "The bloody amateur Legion has got two-thirds of its palisade up already, and you fools sit around here whining about how you had to leave your camp stakes back in Canea?" He strode down the line of laboring legionares, smacking his baton against armor plate and the occasional lazy skull. After the long and idle time spent on the ships, discipline was sadly lacking, the men unused to the weight of their armor. "If the Free Aleran has its camp up before we do, great furies help you miserable bastards, what I do to you will send you crying to the vord for shelter!"

  Marcus kept up the steady tirade as he marched up and down the First Aleran's chosen campsite ashore. They held two neighboring hilltops, rocky rounded old nubs of mountains covered in thorns and brush. The wide valley between was for the Canim, who had set to establishing their own camp with a will. The massive, inhuman troops were well supplied with hand tools, and while they lacked the Aleran skills of furycraft, they more than made up the difference in raw physical power - and numbers.

  Marcus paused to stare down at the valley below. Bloody crows, but there were a lot of Canim down there. Every one a fighter, too. Varg wasn't willing to risk bringing his noncombatants ashore until basic fortifications had been established. Marcus could hardly blame him. If he'd been landing in Canea with the last survivors of all Alera, he wouldn't have debarked them on open ground only five miles from the most warlike city on the continent, either.

  From the hilltop, Marcus could stare north at Antillus, rings of massive, grey-white stone that sat piled atop one another upon the bones of another ancient mountain. In the afternoon light, its stones almost shone blue, reflecting the colors of the sky and the cold sea. Whoever Antillus Raucus had left in charge of his home city, most likely one of his more conservative, trusty old cronies, was almost certainly chewing his own guts out in consternation just then.

  Marcus took a moment to consider the placement of the Canim camp. Any force traveling out from the city would have to pass one of the Aleran camps before it could engage the wolf-warriors. Not only that, but positioned as they were in the valley, the Canim camp could not be seen from the city walls. Oh, a small wing of Knights Aeris had overflown them within moments of their landing, but with the slightest amount of caution, the custodian of Antillus could keep quiet and prevent his civilian population from panicking until there was time to sort things out.

  Not only that, but - assuming the fools could get the hilltops secured in good order - the two Aleran Legions commanded a far-more-potent advantage of terrain than did the Canim. Assaulting an Aleran Legion in a prepared position was a game that could only be won by paying the bloodiest of prices. Yet the Canim's sheer advantage of numbers meant that an Aleran assault upon them would be an equally foolish proposition. And, by camping south of the city, the landing Legions and Canim horde alike had placed themselves squarely between Antillus and the oncoming vord. No matter how thick the commander at Antillus might be, he'd have to appreciate that little fact.

  Any number of things could have gone badly wrong - but the timing and relative positioning of the various troops had all fallen into place so smoothly that it seemed that fortune had smiled upon them all.

  Nothing could be less true, of course. The entire business had been planned, and shrewdly. But then, Marcus had come to expect nothing less of the captain. That was something Octavian's grandfather had never been. Sextus had been a grandmaster of political machinations - but he'd never led a Legion in the field, never stood and fought beside them, risked himself along with them and won his place in the eyes of the legionares. Sextus had commanded loyalty, even respect, from his subordinates. But he had never been their captain.

  Octavian was. The men of the First Aleran would die for him.

  Marcus continued along the circuit of the camp, bellowing imprecations and curses, snarling at every single flaw while giving perfection only stony silence. It was what the men expected of him. Rumors were flying wildly as word of the state of affairs in Alera spread among the troops, and the men were nervous. The curses and snarls of the blocky old First Spear and the other centurions were touchstones, a constant fact of l
ife whether the Legion was at rest or about to clash with the foe. They settled the men more surely than any amount of encouragement or reassurance.

  But even the tough, capable centurions gave Marcus speculative glances, as if seeking out his thoughts on their predicament. Marcus returned the glances with nothing but crisp salutes, letting them see the First Spear proceeding with business as usual.

  As evening wore on, Marcus stopped at the southernmost point of the defenses and stared out at the gathering darkness. According to Octavian, the body of vord slowly advancing on Antillus was still forty miles away. According to too many years spent in the field, Marcus knew that you never really knew where the enemy was until he was close enough to touch with a blade.

  It was, he realized, partly