Princeps fury, p.2
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       Princeps' Fury, p.2

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Carlus's dulled eyes glittered for a minute. "You'd have won, I wager."

  "Don't be daft, boy," Raucus said, rising and giving the young Knight a squeeze on the shoulder. "Gaius Sextus is the First Lord. He would have handed me my head. And still would. Think about what happened to Kalarus Brencis, eh?"

  Carlus didn't look happy to hear that answer, but he said, "Yes, my lord."

  "Get some rest, soldier," Raucus said. "Well done."

  At last, Raucus turned to leave the tent. There. Duty done. At last he could get a few hours of rest. The increased pressure on the Shieldwall, of late, had left him wishing that he had demanded that Crassus serve his first Legion hitch at home. Great furies knew, the boy could make himself useful now. As could Maximus. The two of them, it seemed, had at least learned to coexist without attempting to murder one another.

  Raucus snorted at his own train of thought. He sounded, to himself, like an old man, tired and aching and wishing for younger shoulders to bear his burdens. Though he supposed he would rather grow old than not.

  Still. It would be nice to have the help.

  There were just so many of the crowbegotten savages. And he'd been fighting them for so bloody long.

  He walked toward the stairway leading down into the fortifications within the Shieldwall itself, where a heated chamber and a cot waited for him. He'd gone perhaps ten paces when a scream of wind, the windstream of an incoming Knight Aeris, howled in the distance.

  Raucus paused, and a moment later, a Knight Aeris soared in, escorted by one of the Third Aleran's Knights who had been flying patrol. Night had fallen, but the snow always made that a minor inconvenience, particularly when the moon was out. All the same, it wasn't until the man had landed that Raucus spotted the insignia of the First Antillan upon his breastplate.

  The man hurried to Raucus, panting, and slammed his fist to his heart in a hasty salute. "My lord," he gasped.

  Raucus returned the salute. "Report."

  "Message from Captain Tyreus, my lord," the Knight panted. "His position is under heavy attack, and he urgently requests reinforcements. We've never seen so many Icemen in one place, my lord."

  Raucus looked at the man for a moment and nodded. Then, without another word, he summoned his wind furies, took to the air, and headed west, toward the First Antillan's position, a hundred miles down the wall, at the best speed he could manage for the distance.

  His men needed him. Rest would have to wait.

  It was what one did.

  "And I don't care how hungover you are, Hagan!" said Captain Demos, in a perfectly conversational voice that nonetheless carried the length of the ship and up and down the dock. "You get those lines coiled properly, or I'll have you scraping barnacles all the way across the Run!"

  Gaius Octavian watched the surly, bleary-eyed sailor turn back to his work, this time performing more to the liking of the Slive's captain. The ships had begun leaving the harbor at Mastings on the morning tide, just after dawn. It was near to midmorning, and the harbor and the sea beyond looked like a forest of masts and billowing sails, rolling over the waves to the horizon. Hundreds of ships, the largest fleet Alera had ever seen, were now sailing for open sea.

  The only ship still in port, in fact, was the Slive. It looked stained, old, and worn. It wasn't. Its captain simply chose to forgo the usual painting and piping. Its sails were patched and dirty, its lines dark with smears of tar. The carved female figure on the prow, so often made to resemble benevolent female-form furies and revered ancestors on other ships, looked more like a young riverfront doxy than anything else.

  If one didn't know what to look for, the sheer amount of sail she could hang and the long, lean, dangerous lines of the Slive might go completely overlooked. She was too small to be matched squarely against a proper warship, but she was swift and nimble on the open sea, and her captain was a dangerously competent man.

  "Are you absolutely sure about this?" rumbled Antillar Maximus. The Tribune was of a height with Tavi, though more heavily muscled, and his armor and equipment were so scratched and dented by use that they would never have passed muster on a parade ground. Not that anyone in the First Aleran Legion gave a bloody crow's feather about that.

  "Whether I'm sure or not," Tavi replied quietly, "his ship is the only left in port."

  Maximus grimaced. "Point," he growled. "But he's a bloody pirate, Tavi. You have a title to think about now. A Princeps of Alera shouldn't have a vessel like that as his flagship. It's . . . dubious."

  "So's my title," Tavi replied. "Do you know of a more competent captain? Or a faster ship?"

  Max snorted out another breath and looked at the third person on the dock. "Practicality over all. This is your fault."

  The young woman spoke with perfect assurance. "Yes it is," she said calmly. Kitai still wore her long white hair in the fashion of the Horse clan of the Marat people, shaved to the scalp along the sides and left long in a swath over the center of her skull, like the mane of one of the Horse clan's totem mounts. She was dressed in leather riding breeches, a loose white tunic, and duelist's belt bearing two swords. If the cool of the mid-autumn morning disturbed her in her light dress, she showed no signs of it. Her green eyes, upturned at the corners, as were all of her people's, roamed over the ship alertly, like a cat's, distant and interested at the same time. "Alerans have a great many foolish ideas in their heads. Pound on their skulls often enough, and some of them are bound to fall out eventually."

  "Captain?" Tavi called, grinning. "Will your ship be fit to sail at any point today?"

  Demos came over to the ship's railing and leaned his forearms on it, staring down at them. "Oh, aye, Your Highness," he replied. "Whether or not you'll be on it when it does is another matter entirely."

  "What?" Max said. "Demos, you've been paid half the amount of your contract, up front. I gave it to you myself."

  "Yes," Demos replied. "I'll be glad to cross the sea with the fleet. I'll be glad to take you and the pretty barbarian girl." Demos pointed a finger at Tavi. "But His Royal Highness there doesn't set foot aboard my ship until he settles up with me."

  Max narrowed his eyes. "Your ship's going to look awful funny with a big hole burned straight through it."

  "I'll plug it with your fat head," Demos retorted with a wintry smile.

  "Max," Tavi said gently. "Captain, may I come aboard to settle accounts?"

  Max growled under his breath. "The Princeps of Alera should not have to ask permission to board a pirate ship."

  "On his own ship," Kitai murmured, "captain outranks Princeps."

  Tavi reached the top of the gangplank and spread his hands. "Well?" Demos, a lean man, slightly taller than average, dressed in a black tunic and breeches, turned to lean one elbow on the rail and study Tavi. His free hand, Tavi noted, just happened to fall within an inch or two of the hilt of his sword. "You destroyed some of my property."

  "That's right," Tavi said. "The chains in your hold you used to imprison slaves."

  "You're going to replace them."

  Tavi rolled one armored shoulder in a shrug. "What are they worth to you?"

  "I don't want money. It isn't about money," Demos said. "They were mine. You had no right to them."

  Tavi met the man's eyes steadily. "I think a few slaves might say the same thing regarding their lives and freedom, Demos."

  Demos blinked his eyes, slowly. Then he looked away. He was quiet for a moment, before murmuring, "I didn't make the sea. I just sail on it."

  "Here's the problem," Tavi said. "If I give you those chains, knowing what you're going to do with them, I become a part of whatever those chains are used for. I become a slaver. And I am no slaver, Demos. And never will be."

  Demos frowned. "It would seem that we are at an impasse."

  "And you're sure you won't change your mind?"

  Demos's eyes flicked back to Tavi and hardened. "Not if the sun fell out of the sky. Replace the chains, or get off my ship."

  "I can't d
o that. Do you understand why?"

  Demos nodded. "Understand it. Even respect it. But that doesn't change a crowbegotten thing. So where are we?"

  "In need of a solution."

  "There isn't one."

  "I think someone's told me that once or twice before," Tavi said, grinning. "I'll replace your chains if you'll make me a promise."

  Demos tilted his head, his eyes narrowing.

  "Promise that you'll never use any other set, any other restraints, but the ones I give you."

  "And you give me decrepit pieces of rust? No thank you, Your Highness."

  Tavi lifted a placating hand. "You'll get to inspect the chains first. Your promise will be contingent upon your acceptance."

  Demos pursed his lips. Then he nodded abruptly. "Done."

  Tavi unslung the heavy courier's bag from its strap over one shoulder and tossed it to Demos. The captain caught it, grunted under the weight, and gave Tavi a suspicious look as he opened the bag.

  Demos stared for a long, silent moment. Then, link by link, he drew a set of slaver's chains out of the bag.

  Every link was made of gold.

  Demos ran his fingertips over the chains for an astonished minute. It was the fortune of a mercenary's lifetime, and much, much more. Then he looked up at Tavi, his brow furrowed in a confused frown.

  "You don't have to accept them," Tavi said. "My Knights Aeris will fly me out to one of the other ships. You'll join the fleet. And you can take up slaving again at the end of your contract.

  "Or," he continued, "you can accept them. And never carry slaves again."

  Demos just shook his head slowly for a moment. "What have you done?"

  "I've just made it more profitable for you to stop slaving than to continue it," Tavi said.

  Demos smiled faintly down. "You give me chains fashioned to my own size, Your Highness. And ask me to wear them freely."

  "I'll need skilled captains, Demos. I'll need men whose word I can trust." Tavi grinned and put a hand on the man's shoulder. "And men who have the fortitude to bear up under extreme prosperity. What say you?"

  Demos dropped the chains back into the bag and slung it over one shoulder, then inclined his head more deeply than Tavi had seen him make the gesture before. "Welcome aboard the Slive, my lord."

  Demos immediately turned and began bawling orders to the crew, and Max and Kitai came up the ramp to stand next to Tavi.

  "That was well done, Aleran," Kitai murmured.

  Max shook his head. "There's something broken inside your skull, Calderon. You do all your thinking sideways."

  "It was Ehren's idea, actually," Tavi said.

  "Wish he was coming with us," Max rumbled.

  "That's the glamorous life of a Cursor," Tavi replied. "But with any luck, we won't be gone long. We sail Varg and his people back home, make some polite noises to keep diplomatic channels open, then come right back. Two months or so."

  Max grunted. "Gives Gaius time to gather support in the Senate, declare you his heir all legal and official."

  "And puts me somewhere that is both beyond the reach of potential assassins and of unquestionable importance to the Realm," Tavi said. "I am particularly fond of the former."

  The sailors began casting off mooring lines, and Kitai took Tavi's hand firmly. "Come," she said. "Before you splatter your breakfast all over your armor."

  As the ship pushed away from the dock and began to rock with the motion of the sea, Tavi felt his stomach slowly begin to roil, and he hurried to his cabin to relieve himself of his armor and make sure that he had plenty of water and an empty bucket or two available. He was a terrible sailor, and life on a ship was pure torment.

  Tavi felt another twinge in his belly and thought longingly of nice, solid ground, be it ever so littered with assassins.

  Two months at sea.

  He could scarcely imagine a greater nightmare.

  "This stinks," complained Tonnar, from five yards behind Kestus's mount. "This is like some kind of bad dream."

  Kestus glanced down at the field hatchet strapped to his horse's saddlebag. It would be hard to get much strength behind a throw while riding a horse, but Tonnar's head was so soft, it probably wouldn't matter. Of course, then there would be the matter of the moron's corpse and potential murder charges.

  True, Kestus had the entire deserted run of the wilderness southwest of the Waste to hide the body in, but there was the issue of the new man to complicate things. He glanced back at the third member of the patrol, the slender, wiry pip-squeak who called himself Ivarus and had enough sense to keep his mouth shut most of the time.

  Kestus was a strong believer in avoiding complications. So he did what he usually did when Tonnar flapped his lips. He ignored him.

  "Do you know what it's like closer to the Waste?" Tonnar continued. "Wild furies everywhere. Outlaws. Pestilence. Starvation." He shook his head mournfully. "And when old Gaius blew Kalare off the face of the earth, he sent about half the able-bodied men in the whole area away with it. Women are throwing themselves at men for a couple of copper rams or the heel of a loaf of bread. Or just to have someone around who they think will protect their brats."

  Kestus thought wistfully of murder.

  "I talked to this one guy from the northern march," Tonnar went on. "He plowed four women in one day." The loudmouth slashed the extra length of his reins savagely at the branches of a nearby tree, scattering autumn leaves and striking his mount's neck sharply by mistake. The horse twitched and jolted, and Tonnar barely kept from being thrown.

  The man cursed the horse savagely, kicking harder than necessary with his heels and jerking hard on the reins to bring it back under control.

  Kestus idly added theoretical torture to the theoretical murder, because done right, it might be funny.

  "And here we are," Tonnar snarled, waving his arm in a broad circle at the silent expanse of trees all around them. "Men are making fortunes and living like lords, and Julius leads us out into the middle of nowhere. Nothing to see. Nothing to loot. No women to bed."

  Ivarus, his face mostly hidden beneath the hood of his cloak, broke a branch about as thick as a man's thumb from a tree beside the trail. Then he nudged his horse up into a trot and drew up alongside Tonnar.

  "We could have them lining up to spread their legs for us for the price of a piece of bread," Tonnar was saying. "But no--"

  Ivarus quite calmly lifted the branch and broke it over Tonnar's head. Then, without a word, he turned and nudged his horse back into his original position.

  "Bloody crows!" Tonnar bellowed, reaching one hand up to clutch at his skull. "Crows and bloody furies, what is wrong with you, man?"

  Kestus didn't bother trying to hide his smile. "He thinks you're a bloody idiot. So do I."

  "What?" Tonnar protested. "Because I want to tumble a girl or two?"

  "Because you want to take advantage of people who are desperate and dying," Kestus said. "And because you haven't thought things through. People are starving. Disease is rampant. And soldiers get paid. How many legionares do you think have been murdered in their sleep for the clothes on their back, the coins in their purse? How many do you think have fallen sick and died, just like all those holders? And in case it slipped your notice, Tonnar, all those outlaws would have every reason to kill you. You'd probably be too busy trying to stay alive to spend any time humiliating women."

  Tonnar scowled.

  "Look," Kestus said. "Julius got us all the way through Kalare's rebellion in one piece. None of our company died. And out here, we're out of the worst of it. It might not pay as well, or have the . . . opportunities, as the patrols nearer the Waste. But we aren't dying of plague or getting our throats cut while we sleep, either."

  Tonnar sneered. "You're just afraid to take chances."

  "Yep," Kestus agreed. "So's Julius. Which is why we're all in one piece." So far.

  The loudmouth shook his head and turned to glare at Ivarus. "You touch me again, and I'm going to gut you li
ke a fish."

  "Good," Ivarus said. "Once we hide the body, Kestus and I can switch out our mounts with yours and pick up the pace." The hooded man glanced up at Kestus. "How much longer until we get back to camp?"

  "Couple of hours," Kestus replied laconically. He gave Tonnar a very direct glance. "Give or take."

  Tonnar muttered something under his breath and subsided. The rest of the trip passed in blessed, professional silence.

  Kestus liked the new man.

  As twilight settled over the land, they rode into the glade that Julius had chosen as their camp. It was a good site. A steep hillside had provided them a place to earthcraft something that almost resembled shelter from the weather. A small stream trickled nearby, and the horses whickered, their steps quickening as they recognized the place where they would receive some grain and rest.