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Cursor's Fury, Page 23

Jim Butcher

  Isana sat bolt upright. “Fade. He’s here, in Ceres.”

  Bernard hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “In the hall, in fact. And armed. And I’ve never seen anyone fight like he did.” Bernard shook his head. “I always thought him just a disgraced legionare.”

  “Why is he here?” Isana demanded. “Why is he not with Tavi?”

  Bernard blinked mildly at her. “Tavi? I know Gaius took Fade to the capital to serve as a slave in the Academy . . .” His frown deepened. “ ‘Sana? You’re upset . . .”

  Isana forced herself to set aside the rising sense of panic, smoothing her expression back to calm. “I’m sorry . . . I’m just so . . . I’ll be all right, Bernard.”

  “You’re sure?” Bernard said. “ ‘Sana, I . . . well, when you told me to buy Fade, I did it. Never asked you why. I was sure you had your reasons, but . . .” A heavy silence fell, and Bernard asked, “Is there anything you should tell me?”

  Isana dared not meet her brother’s eyes. “Not yet.”

  Bernard frowned at the answer.

  Before he could ask another question, Isana nodded at Bernard’s working clothes, his woodland cloak. “Where are you going?”

  He hesitated for a moment and gave her a lopsided smile. “Can’t say,” Bernard said. “Not yet. Mission.”

  “What mission?” Isana asked. She tilted her head to one side and then said, “Ah, I see. Amara’s mission.”

  Bernard nodded, somewhat sheepishly. “Yes.”

  “She makes you happy, doesn’t she.”

  Her younger brother’s face spread into a little smile. “Yes.”

  As Isana had Septimus. A little pang went through her, but she covered it with a smile. “From the rumors I’ve heard,” Isana added drily, “very happy.”

  “Isana,” Bernard rumbled, his face flushed.

  Isana let her lips curl around a small silent chuckle. “Leaving soon, I take it?”

  “Before it gets light. I was about to go,” he said. “I was hoping you’d wake first.”

  “Will you . . .” She frowned. “Is it . . .”

  He smiled at her and touched her shoulder again. “I’ll be fine. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.”

  She could feel Bernard’s confidence and honesty, through his touch on her shoulder, but she also felt uncertainty and fear. Though her brother was not in fear of his life, or ruled by his trepidations, he knew full well that he was going into danger and that nothing in the future was certain.

  There was a knock at the door, and Giraldi opened it and stuck his head in. “Your Excellency,” he said. “Your skinny Countess just blew past on her way to the tower. Said you should catch up.”

  Bernard nodded sharply, then turned and gave his sister another, tighter hug. Isana knew that her ribs weren’t really about to collapse, as she had endured many such embraces from Bernard in the past, but she finally made a sound of complaint and pushed at him. It was, she sometimes thought, the only way he knew when to stop.

  “Giraldi will be with you,” he said. “Love you.”

  “And I you,” Isana said. “Good luck.”

  Bernard bent down and kissed her forehead, then rose, leaving. “Take good care of her, centurion.”

  “Go teach yer grandmother to suck eggs,” Giraldi muttered, winking at Isana.

  “What?” Bernard called over his shoulder.

  “Sir!” Giraldi answered. “Yes, sir.”

  “Terrible,” Isana murmured. “The lack of discipline in today’s Legions.”

  “Shocking,” the veteran concurred. “Steadholder, you in need of anything? Victuals, drink?”

  “Some privacy first,” Isana said. “Then something simple?”

  “I’ll find it,” Giraldi said.

  “Centurion. If you would, please send Fade to speak to me.”

  Giraldi paused by the door and grunted. “That scarred slave? The one-man Legion?”

  Isana stared at him for a moment, saying nothing.

  “Seems kind of odd, old Fade would be out there at your Steadholt all those years, and never saw him use so much as a knife. Figured all those scars on his arms were from working his smithy. Then tonight, he just went through those maniacs like they was made of cobwebs. Sort of makes a body wonder who he is.”

  Isana folded her arms, one finger tapping in slight impatience, and said nothing.

  “Hngh,” Giraldi grunted, limping out. “The plot thickens.”

  Fade entered a few moments later. He was still dressed in the simple, blood-sprinkled smock of a scullion, though he wore a Legion-issue sword belt and his old blade at his side. He had acquired a worn, old cloak of midnight blue, and wore the military boots of a legionare. A bloody rag was tied crudely around his left hand, but if the wound caused him pain, he showed no sign of it.

  Fade shut the door behind him and turned to face Isana.

  “Tavi?” she asked quietly.

  Fade took a steadying breath. “On assignment. Gaius has him in the field.”

  Isana felt the first flutterings of panic. “Gaius knows?”

  “I believe so,” Fade said quietly.

  “Tavi is alone?”

  Fade shook his head, letting his long hair fall forward over his face, as usual, hiding much of his expression. “Antillar Maximus is with him.”

  “Maximus. The boy whose life Tavi had to save? Twice?”

  Fade didn’t lift his face, but his voice hardened. “The young man who twice proved his loyalty to his friend and the Realm. Maximus laid down his life to protect Tavi against the son of a High Lord. You cannot ask more than that of anyone.”

  “I don’t deny his willingness to lay down his life,” Isana retorted. “It is his aptitude for it that concerns me. Great furies, Araris, Antillar has practice at it.”

  “Lower your voice, my lady,” Fade said, his tone warning and gentle at the same time.

  She never understood how he could do that. Isana shook her head tiredly. “Fade,” she corrected herself, “I’m not your lady.”

  “As milady wishes,” Fade said.

  She frowned at him, then dismissed the argument with an idle throwaway gesture of one hand. “Why didn’t you stay with him?”

  “My presence would have drawn attention to him,” Fade said. “Gaius has inserted him into the newly formed Aleran Legion.” He gestured at the horrible brand on his face, the coward’s mark of a soldier who had fled combat. “I could not have remained nearby him. If I had to fight, it is probable that someone would recognize me, and it would raise a great many questions about why one of Princeps Septimus’s singulares, supposedly dead for twenty years, was guarding the young man.”

  “Gaius didn’t have to send him there,” Isana insisted. “He wanted to isolate him. He wanted to make him vulnerable.”

  “He wanted,” Fade disagreed, “to keep him out of the public eye and in a safe location.”

  “By putting him into a Legion,” Isana said, her disbelief heavy in her tone. “At the eruption of a civil war.”

  Fade shook his head. “You aren’t thinking it through, my lady,” he said. “The First Aleran is the one Legion that will not see action in a civil war. Not with so many of its troops and officers owing loyalties to cities, lords, and family houses on both sides of the struggle. Further, it has been forming in the western reaches of the Amaranth Vale, far from any fighting, and it would not surprise me to learn that Gaius issued orders to send it even farther west, away from the theater of combat.”

  Isana frowned and folded her hands on her lap. “Are you sure he’s safe?”

  “Nowhere would be totally safe,” Fade said in a quiet tone. “But now he is hidden among a mass of thousands of men dressed precisely like him, who will not enter combat against any of the High Lords’ Legions, and who have been conditioned by training and tradition to protect their own. He’s accompanied by young Maximus, who is more dangerous with a blade than any other man his age I’ve seen—save my lord himself—and a crafter of for
midable power. Knowing Gaius, there are more agents nearby about whom I was told nothing.”

  Isana folded her arms in close to her body. “Why did you come here?”

  “The Crown had received intelligence that you had been personally targeted by Kalare.”

  “The Crown,” she said, “and everyone else who was at that Wintersend party, and the servants and anyone they might have spoken to, or who might have heard rumors.”

  “More specific,” Fade said. “He asked me to watch over you. I agreed.”

  She tilted her head, frowning. “He asked?”

  Fade shrugged. “My loyalty is not Gaius Sextus’s to command, and he knows it.”

  She felt herself smile at him a little. “I can’t trust him. I can’t trust any of them. Not with Tavi.”

  Fade’s expression never changed, but Isana felt a flash of something in the scarred slave she never had before—an instant of anger. “I know you only seek to protect him. But you do Tavi a grave disservice. He is more formidable and capable than you know.”

  Isana blinked her eyes. “Fade—”

  “I’ve seen it,” Fade continued. That same sense of anger in him kept on rising. “Seen him act under pressure. He’s more capable than most men, regardless of their skill with furies. And it’s more than that . . .”

  Isana wrenched her thoughts from her worries and really looked at the scarred man. His skin was too pale, blotchy with patches of red and glistening with a cold sweat. His eyes were dilated, and his pulse fluttered fast and hard in his throat and upon one temple.

  “He makes those around him be more than they are,” Fade snarled. “Makes them be better than they are. More than they thought they could be. Like his father. Bloody crows, like the father I left to die . .

  Fade suddenly lifted his wounded hand and stared at it. He was trembling violently and there were flecks of white on his lips. He blinked in utter bafflement at his quivering hand, opened his mouth as though to speak, then jerked in a convulsive spasm that threw him onto the floor in a violent seizure. Seconds went by as he kicked and thrashed, then he let out a soft groan and simply went limp.

  “Fade!” Isana breathed and pushed herself from the bed. The world pitched about, then left her on the floor. She did not have strength enough to stand, but she crawled on all fours to the fallen man’s side, reaching out to touch his throat, to feel his pulse.

  She could not find it.

  Chapter 20

  Isana thrust her hand down at Fade’s chest, calling out to Rill to let her perceive the fallen man’s body through a water-fury’s senses. In the wake of her collapse, the effort was simply too much. Isana’s head felt as if it would burst asunder in an explosion of pure agony, and her own heart labored in a sudden panic as she lost the strength to remain upright.

  She let out a weak cry of purest frustration, then gritted her teeth and focused. Giving vent to her emotions would not help the stricken man beside her.

  “Help! ‘ she called. It sounded pathetically quiet, and she was sure the sound would not carry past the closed wooden door. She struggled to draw a deep breath and tried again. “I need help in here! Healer!”

  At the second cry, the door slammed open, and Giraldi took one look around the room and spat a vile curse, limping badly as he rushed to Isana’s side. “Steadholder!”

  “Not me,” she told him, weak and frustrated. “Fade collapsed. Not breathing. Healer.”

  The old centurion nodded sharply and rose to rush from the room at a pace that was surely dangerous to his crippled leg. He called out down the hall, and footsteps came running. Guards appeared, first, and within a minute they had escorted a young woman in a simple white gown into the room.

  She was a pale creature, her skin so white that it almost seemed translucent, and her hair—quite short, for such a young woman—pale and fine as cobwebs. Isana felt certain that her youth was genuine and not the result of watercrafting talent, though why she felt so Isana could not say. The healer’s eyes seemed too large for her long, thin, somehow sad face, and were of a brown so dark that they looked black. The circles of weariness beneath her eyes stood out almost as vividly as violent bruises, and she carried herself with the brisk, sure manner of confidence Amara would only have expected in someone years older.

  The young woman went to Fade at once and knelt to place her fingertips on his temples, her manner competent, professional, if somewhat weary. “Steadholder,” she said, as she concentrated on her own furycraft, her eyes closed, “can you tell me what happened to him?”

  “He collapsed,” Isana said. Giraldi returned, and she was torn between a surge of gratitude and one of embarrassment as he simply hefted her back into her bed. “His conversation began rambling. He was shaking. Then he fell down into a fit. He stopped breathing, and I couldn’t find his pulse.”

  “How long ago?”

  “Not two minutes.”

  The young woman nodded. “There’s a chance, then.” She raised her voice until it carried like a trumpet, ringing off the walls with a volume worthy of a centurion on a battlefield. “Where is my tub?!”

  A trio of groaning young legionares came through the door bearing a heavy healing tub, sloshing water over its edges. They plunked it down even as the young healer divested Fade of his cloak, sword belt, and boots. At a nod from her, the guards in the room lifted his limp body into the tub.

  The healer knelt behind the tub and placed her hands on Fade’s head. “Step back,” she said, in a tone that suggested she said it often. The guards hastily withdrew from the tub and out of the room. At a nod from Isana, Giraldi went with them.

  The healer was silent for several seconds, her head bowed, and Isana had to restrain herself from shouting for the girl to hurry. Then the air in the room began to tighten, somehow, an odd sensation, like an unseen wind pressing against Isana’s skin. The healer’s fine hairs began to lift, one by one, away from her head, as if carried in a gentle updraft, though Isana could feel no air moving. She was still for a moment, then breathed out in a murmur, and what looked like tiny flickers of lightning played over the tub.

  Fade reacted violently, body suddenly arching up, drawn as tightly as one of Bernard’s hunting bows. He stayed that way for a moment, then subsided into the tub again and started coughing, a wet and fitful sound.

  Isana’s heart leapt up as the slave breathed again.

  The healer frowned more intently, and Isana saw the water begin to stir in the tub, as it did when she worked her own healing furycraft, though only for a moment. Then the healer grimaced and lifted her hands from Fade’s head. She moved around the tub and lifted his wounded hand. She unbound the kerchief wrapped around it and leaned down, sniffing. She drew her head away in a sharp little motion, turning her face away from the injury, then lowered his hand into the water.

  “What is it?” Isana asked.

  “Garic-oil poisoning,” the young woman said.

  “What’s that?” Isana asked.

  “Many weapon merchants in the southland preserve their weapons with an oil mixture that includes a tincture made from the oil in the hides of garim lizards.”

  “And it’s poisonous?” Isana asked.

  “Not always intentionally. But if the oil isn’t mixed correctly, or if it’s left out too long, the garic oil turns. Goes rotten. If it’s on a weapon that inflicts a wound, the rot gets into the blood.” She shook her head and rose. “I’m very sorry.”

  Isana blinked. “But . . . you healed him. He’s breathing.”

  “For now,” the healer said quietly. “Your friend is a metalcrafter, I take it?”


  “Wounded during the attacks?”

  “Defending me,” Isana said quietly. “An arrow. It struck his hand.”

  The healer shook her head. “He must have been suppressing the discomfort. If he’d gotten to a healer within the hour, perhaps . . .”

  Isana stared at her in disbelief. “What will happen?”

ver. Disorientation. Pain. Eventual loss of consciousness.” The young healer grimaced. “It isn’t quick. Days. But if he has family, you should send for them.” She looked up at Isana, her dark eyes steady and sad. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

  Isana shook her head slowly. “Is there nothing to be done?”

  “It has been healed, betimes. But it takes days, and most who try it die with the victim.”

  “You are not able to attempt it?” Isana asked.

  The healer was still for a moment, then said, “I will not.”

  “Great furies,” Isana breathed quietly. “Why not?”

  “Legions march on my father’s city, Steadholder. Battle will be joined. Men will be wounded and needed to return to the fight. If I’m attempting to heal him, it will mean the deaths of dozens or hundreds of my father’s legionares. “ She shook her head. “My duty is clear.”

  “You’re Cereus’s daughter?” Isana asked.

  The young healer smiled a little, though there was little joy or life in it, and dipped her head into a small bow. “Aye. Cereus Felia Veradis, Steadholder.”

  “Veradis,” Isana said. She looked at the wounded man. “Thank you for helping him.”

  “Don’t thank me,” Veradis said.

  “May I ask a favor of you?” Isana said.

  The young woman nodded her head once.

  “I would like a healing tub brought in here, please.”

  Veradis’s eyebrows rose. “Steadholder, I am told your healing skills are impressive, but you are in no condition to attempt such a crafting.”

  “I believe I am a better judge of such things than you,” Isana said quietly.

  “My experience suggests that you aren’t,” Veradis said in a practical tone. “He is important to you. You aren’t thinking clearly.”

  “That, too, is something only I can judge.” She returned Veradis’s gaze steadily. “Will you do me the favor, lady?”

  Veradis studied her for a long moment. Then she said, “I will.”