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Princeps' Fury, Page 17

Jim Butcher


  Isana lifted her chin slightly and took a slow breath. "What do you mean?"

  "They're animals," Antillus spat. "You don't bargain with animals. You kill them, or you leave them alone. You can talk all you want, First Lady. But the sooner you realize the truth of that, the sooner you can help me and Phrygia do what is necessary to get some real help down to the south."

  "Your Grace," Isana said cautiously. "That isn't what the First Lord--"

  "The First Lord," Antillus said, scorn seething from every syllable. "He has no idea what life is like up here. He has no idea how many legionares I've buried--most of them sixteen- and seventeen-year-old children. He has no idea what the Icemen are, or what they are capable of. He's never seen it. Never had to wash the blood off him. I have. Every day."

  "But--"

  "Don't you dare think you can walk in here for half of one hour and tell me about my own domain, Your Highness," Antillus snarled. "I will not be bullied around by Gaius's pet--"

  "Raucus," Aria snapped. Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but it shook the air between the three of them with its intensity.

  The High Lord closed his mouth and glared at Lady Placida. Then he looked away from her and shook his head.

  "Perhaps you could use some rest," Aria suggested.

  Raucus grunted. A moment later, he said, to Isana, "Your savage is here. Camped out with my savages. You're to meet in the morning. Garius will show you to your chambers."

  He spun, his scarlet cloak flaring out, and stalked away, out of the torchlight.

  Isana shivered again and rubbed her arms with her hands.

  "Ladies," Garius said, "if you'll follow me, please, I will show you to your rooms."

  The art of compromise?

  How in the world was she supposed to find a compromise when one side of the conflict, at least, simply did not want to find a peaceful resolution?

  CHAPTER 15

  Marcus paused outside the Princeps' cabin at the sound of raised voices within.

  "What is it you think we're supposed to do, Magnus?" Maximus demanded in a blunt tone. "The Princeps--and every Cane in the range of Shuar, apparently--believes that it is necessary."

  "It is an unacceptable risk," answered the Legion's valet, his voice crackling with precisely restrained anger. "The Princeps of Alera simply does not wander the land of a foreign power alone, vulnerable and unsecured."

  "It's not as though he's a helpless babe," pointed out Antillus Crassus's calmer, more measured voice. "Perhaps my brother has a point, Magnus."

  Marcus smiled faintly. He knew Crassus well enough by then to know that the young man had a better head on his shoulders than to agree with Maximus about sending the Princeps into the heart of a Canim nation alone. But siding with his brother would neatly undermine Maximus's objection when Crassus capitulated.

  "Octavian's life is irreplaceable," Magnus stated. "If every single life in this expedition had to be sacrificed to see him safely back to Alera again, it would be our duty to do everything in our power to make sure that it happened as rapidly and efficiently as possible. We are expendable, gentlemen. He is not."

  "I am neither a gentleman nor expendable," the young Marat woman interjected. "Nor do I see how the deaths of all of your people could possibly get my Aleran safely home again. You've seen him on the open water. Do you honestly think he could manage a ship on his own?"

  There was a beat of startled silence, then Magnus said, his tone sour, "I was speaking in hypothetical terms, Ambassador."

  "Ah," Kitai said, her tone wry. "Explain again to me the difference between hypothesis and make-believe."

  "All right," said Octavian in his resonant baritone. Already, Marcus thought he could hear the gravity of greater authority settling into the young man's voice. "I think we've beaten this particular gargant to death."

  "Your Highness--" Magnus began.

  "Magnus," Octavian said, "I am, for all practical purposes, a prisoner--as is our fleet. The Shuarans control the harbor. If I do not go to see Warmaster Lararl after claiming the protection of his respect, there's nothing to stop them from turning those stone throwers on us and sending us all to the bottom of their harbor--including me. That isn't the way to get me safely back to Alera."

  "We could win free," Magnus said stiffly.

  "Perhaps. If we broke the truce and our word, betrayed the trust they've extended, and attacked them first." Octavian's voice hardened slightly. "That isn't going to happen, Magnus. It could prove every bit as dangerous in the long term."

  "Your Highness--"

  Octavian didn't raise his voice with his anger. In fact, it grew quieter, if sharper and more clearly pronounced. "Enough."

  Marcus lifted his hand, knocked once on the door, and opened it without waiting for a response, as he usually did. His entrance surprised everyone within. They all turned to blink at him.

  Marcus saluted. "Your Highness. I overheard your discussion as I approached. If it isn't too forward of me, sir, may I offer a suggestion?"

  Octavian's eyebrows climbed nearly to his hairline. "Please."

  "Sir, when Varg was at the capital, didn't he have a bunch of his own honor guards with him? Tokens of his station or some such?"

  "Certainly."

  "Seems to me you could claim the same."

  Maximus scowled and shook his head. "The Canim told him that he had to travel alone."

  "An honor guard is appropriate to a man of his station," Marcus replied. "What are they going to do? Back down because they're afraid of a few men he takes with him?"

  Octavian smiled faintly and pointed a finger at Marcus. "Point. If it was phrased that way, they'd have little choice but to accept it or look like cowards. A few men couldn't be a threat to the Shuarans."

  Magnus shook his head. "That's precisely the problem. I'd much rather the Princeps' bodyguard could annihilate a thousand attackers at least."

  Octavian sat forward in his seat. "I don't need to annihilate thousands, Magnus. But a few men could fly me out of trouble and back to the ships if they happened to be Knights Aeris. Or hide us and let us travel back hidden behind a veil if they were woodcrafters. I'd say I would need to take as much guile as power. Would you agree, Marcus?"

  "In essence," Marcus said. "Yes, sir. Even if the entire force was with you, sir, we couldn't fight a country full of Canim and win--but we do have strength enough to take and hold this port for a time, if we must. What you need is a group small enough to avoid alarming the Canim--but with enough muscle to get out of a tight spot and enough finesse and skill to get back here through a hostile countryside if need be."

  Octavian nodded sharply. "That sounds quite reasonable."

  "By what madman's standard? Reasonable relative to what?" asked Magnus. His voice was dry, but the bitter undertones had gone out of it.

  "Suggestions?" Octavian asked, giving Magnus an amused and tolerant glance.

  "Me," Maximus said at once.

  "Concur," Marcus agreed. The big Antillan was an engine of destruction in a fight of any scale.

  "Me," Crassus said a second later.

  "Yes," Magnus said. "You said you'd need finesse as well."

  "I am going," Kitai stated.

  "Lady Ambassador," Magnus began, "it might be better if--"

  "I am going," Kitai repeated, in exactly the same tone of voice, as she rose and walked over to the cabin's door. "The Aleran will explain it to you."

  Marcus stepped aside as the Marat woman left the cabin and shut the door behind her.

  Octavian shook his head and sighed. "That's three. Who else, do you think? Radeus? A fast flier might be handy."

  "Durias, sir," Marcus said, without hesitation.

  Octavian arched an eyebrow at the suggestion.

  Crassus frowned. "He's . . . Isn't he the First Spear of the Free Aleran Legion?"

  Marcus nodded.

  "Ridiculous," Magnus said. "We know almost nothing about the man. He owes nothing to the Realm and has no intere
st in keeping the Princeps safe. In point of fact, he's a traitor."

  "Let's not wave that brush around too wildly, Magnus," Octavian said. "You never know whom it will stain."

  Marcus found himself smiling faintly, and Octavian answered the expression with one of his own. The young man would think Marcus was smiling about the young Princeps' actions of the year before, when he had infiltrated the Grey Tower in Alera Imperia and kidnapped Ambassador Varg out from under the noses of the Grey Guard. Let him. Octavian had enough on his mind without burdening him with another bit of unpleasant knowledge.

  "Why Durias, First Spear?" Octavian asked.

  "He knows the Canim, sir," Marcus replied. "He worked closely with them, marched beside them, trained with one. He'll know them better than any of us--even better than you, sir. Know their capabilities in comparison to ours, know their methods, know the way they think. He'll be better able than almost anyone in the expedition to tell you what the Canim do and do not know about Aleran capabilities, and unless I miss my guess, he's no slouch with his own earthcrafting or knowledge of fieldcraft."

  The old Cursor stared quietly at Marcus for a long moment before he finally spoke. "The question is," Magnus said, "whether or not he'll be willing to share that knowledge with you, my lord. Durias has no love for Alera or her Citizens."

  "Nor would I, had I lived as he did," Octavian replied. "Alerans enslaved him. Varg's people freed him from bondage and taught him to fight so that he could protect that freedom. I'd be more than half-willing to let Alera hang, if I'd grown up in the same circumstances."

  "Then I advise you to choose someone else," Magnus said.

  Octavian shook his head. "The First Spear is right, Magnus. Max and Crassus, between them, have all the furycraft anyone could need. Kitai is one of the better scouts and trackers in the Legion. I'd trust her to be able to find her way back to the ship if the Canim blindfolded her and tossed her in a sack for the journey to visit their Warmaster." He thumped a finger against the side of his head. "What's more valuable to us now than any number of swords or furies is knowledge--all we can get. Durias has it. We need it. So we need him."

  "And what makes you think he'll cooperate?" Magnus said.

  Octavian smiled. "I did him a good turn once."

  Maximus snorted. "Aye. His nose never did heal up straight from your good turn, either."

  "Leave Durias to me," the Princeps said, his tone confident. "Magnus, would you see to it that he gets a message. Invite him to come see me at his earliest convenience, please."

  "Of course, my lord."

  "Good. Gentlemen, if you would excuse me, I would speak with the First Spear for a moment."

  The others took their leave and departed the cabin, leaving Marcus alone with the Princeps.

  "Sir?" Marcus said, once they were alone.

  "Sit down, please," Octavian said, gesturing at the other chair in the cabin.

  Marcus pulled up the chair and did so, frowning. "You about to demote me or something, sir?"

  Octavian's mouth turned up into a quick grin. "Something like that. Magnus tells me that you did some excellent work gathering intelligence during the voyage. That you managed to get a look at several of their charts--and that you were the one the Hunters contacted when they wanted to pass information along to us."

  Marcus shrugged. "The Trueblood is their largest vessel, and their flagship. It's got the most people coming and going, the most traffic, the most activity. I imagine anyone could have done what I did."

  "Nevertheless, you were the one who did it," Octavian said. "You went beyond anything you could reasonably have been expected to do, Marcus." He folded his hands and frowned. "And I'm about to ask you to go even further."

  Marcus frowned and waited.

  "I'm leaving you in command of the Legions," Octavian said.

  Marcus lifted his eyebrows. "Sir? You can't do that."

  "The crows I can't. I'm the Princeps of bloody Alera and the commander of this expedition. I can establish whatever chain of command I think appropriate."

  Marcus shook his head. "Sir, there are a number of Tribunes in the First who outrank me--and I'm not at all sure that the Captain of the Free Aleran is going to like the idea of a centurion in the First Aleran giving him orders."

  "You've got more field experience than any two Tribunes in either Legion," the Princeps replied. "And there aren't many men alive who are members of the Crown's House of the Valiant. Even in the Free Aleran, the name of Valiar Marcus carries respect."

  Marcus frowned and looked down at the scarred knuckles of his hands.

  "It's more or less an open secret by now," Octavian continued. "Magnus isn't really a mere valet."

  "Cursor?" Marcus asked, purely for form. Valiar Marcus would need to confirm a suspicion, after all. He wouldn't be one hundred percent certain.

  The Princeps nodded. "My grandfather appointed him my advisor in political matters. I intend his decisions to guide the expedition in diplomatic matters while I am gone. You have authority over security or military decisions. In the end, though, Marcus, I expect you to keep everything together until I get back."

  Marcus exhaled slowly. "Understood, sir."

  "I'll be meeting with the Tribunes shortly, to let them know how I expect things to run in my absence--and with the officers of the Free Aleran, after that. All things considered, I think they'll be nervous enough at being surrounded by hostile Canim to be willing to be cooperative, provided they're treated with respect."

  "I'll break enough heads to get that point across, sir," Marcus promised.

  "Good," Octavian said, rising, and Marcus mirrored the gesture.

  "Sir?" Marcus asked. "May I ask you a question?"

  "Of course."

  "Do you really expect to come back from this meeting with the Shuaran Warmaster alive?"

  The young Princeps' face became an expressionless mask. "You don't think he's going to meet with me in good faith?"

  "Your Highness," Marcus said, "from what I've heard, there is a bloody idiot in charge of the warrior caste here."

  "Yes," the Princeps said. "That's true."

  Marcus grimaced. "Then they're hiding something, sir."

  "Why do you say that, First Spear?"

  "Think about it. If you had one bloody fortified port on your entire shoreline, would you leave an incompetent in charge of it? Or would you put the best commander you could find in that position."

  Octavian frowned, his brow furrowing.

  "Doesn't make any sense," Marcus said. "There's got to be some kind of pressure forcing that kind of appointment. Which says to me that this Warmaster doesn't have the kind of control he would like to have. If I were you, sir, I'd want to know why not. Might be important."

  "You're right," Octavian said quietly. "I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms, but you're right. Thank you."

  Marcus nodded. "Sir."

  "I'll be departing within two hours," Octavian said. "In that time, I want you to make me a list of anything you think you'll need my approval to get done. Draw them up as separate items, and I'll sign off on them before I go."

  "Yes, sir," Marcus said. "Best of luck on your journey, sir."

  "To both of us, Marcus. Though I'd rather neither of us needed it."

  CHAPTER 16

  The journey from Molvar to Shuar took four days, all of them along a stretch of hilly, windy country that supported little but yellowed grass, peeking up through early snows, and rounded black stone. By the end of the third day, the taurg Tavi was riding had only tried to kill him twice--since lunchtime. By the standards of Canim cavalry, the beast was behaving admirably.

  The taurg most closely resembled a bull, Tavi had decided. It was a bit bigger, and considerably humpier about the shoulders. Its rear quarters were much more heavily muscled, as well, and its legs were longer, springier, more in proportion to a hare's than to anything so large as it was. The beast was covered with thick, curly fur that ranged from deep grey on its blun
t muzzle to blue-black on its shoulders and haunches. Its neck was thick, its head was rather tiny, and its brow was half-encircled by a massive, bony ridge that was capable, so the Canim claimed, of smashing through stone walls. Its eyes were tiny and pink and hostile, its wide nostrils drooled a constant stream of slobbery mucus, and its cloven hooves struck at a speed that rivaled that of any warhorse in Alera--and hit with several times the power.

  Anag raised a hand and signaled for the group to halt near a circle of standing stones beside the road--the campsite for the night. Forty taurga drew off the road at their long-legged, swaybacked walk, in a maneuver as familiar to them as making camp was to any legionare, and began filing into a circle within the standing stones, three beasts to each. Three blued-steel rings had been set into each stone, each to tether a single taurg.