Princeps fury, p.23
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       Princeps' Fury, p.23

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  She did not dare delay. The Vord would be overhead soon, and it would be madness to lower their veils for long--but she could not get a clear look from that distance, even with Cirrus's help, without lowering the concealing furycraftings.

  She touched Bernard's wrist, and he nodded once. An instant later, the faint blurring of shadow and shape that was his woodcrafted veil was gone. She lowered her own veil as well, then held up her hands, and willed Cirrus to bring the green sphere into closer view.

  The night sky blurred, then her eyes almost seemed to rush forward as her wind fury bent the light to let her see more clearly. The green sphere leapt up into crystalline clarity, and Amara focused upon High Lord Rhodes's killer.

  Her breath caught in her throat, and for an instant it seemed her heart forgot to keep beating.

  At the center of the sphere was a cloaked figure, skin smooth and dark, black cloth billowing about her, green-white eyes gleaming from within the depths of a heavy hood--the Vord queen.

  She was the only Vord there.

  Around her was a score of heavily armored Knights Aeris--Alerans, every one of them. All of them wore armor that looked like some kind of bizarre imitation of Legion lorica, made from the black chitin of the Vord, and they bore weapons of the same material. To a man, they were young--no, Amara corrected herself. They were young-looking.

  Citizens.

  The Vord queen was attended by Citizens of her own.

  As Amara stared, horrified, she saw several of the Vord shaped like Knights Aeris streak by in the background. Each of them bore the limp form of a fallen Knight Aeris or Citizen. Though some were clearly wounded, none was obviously dead, and Amara realized with a sick heart that they were being captured.

  The Vord would add them to their arsenal, just as they had the Citizens surrounding the queen.

  One more person rode a windstream within the Vord queen's sphere.

  At first Amara thought she was naked. Then she realized that the beautiful woman was covered with the dark chitin-armor as well, as close-fitting as a second skin. Her dark hair was long, flying out wildly in a cloud as she hovered there, a slender sword of Aleran steel in her hands. Her skin was pale, her expression cold and confident. Upon her chest, between the woman's breasts, rested . . . something, a gleaming lump the size of Amara's doubled fists. Amara stared for several seconds before she realized that the object was alive, like some kind of burrowing insect or tick, its head thrust beneath the surface of the woman's flesh.

  Invidia Aquitaine flicked her sword to one side, clearing the blood of the late High Lord of Rhodes from its blade.

  The light of the green sphere faded, leaving Amara and Bernard in darkness.

  CHAPTER 20

  Ehren stood atop the highest tower of the citadel of Ceres, watching as the High Lord of Rhodes fell, and the battle turned against the Aleran forces. Horns frantically sounded retreat, and Knights Aeris and Citizens came racing back toward the city upon roaring gales of wind.

  "Your opinion, Cursor?" the First Lord murmured.

  Ehren swallowed. "Frankly, sire, I believe I'm entirely too terrified to offer you a useful opinion for the time being."

  "I see," Gaius said, mild disapproval in his tone. "When you've regained control of yourself, I should appreciate it if you would please let me know."

  "Very good, sire."

  The First Lord clasped his hands behind his back and paced back and forth along the battlements atop the tower, his steps measured, his expression thoughtful. Thirty feet away, only ten or twelve yards overhead, a pair of Knights Aeris flew past, carrying a wounded companion between them. The young man was screaming in sheer agony, his breastplate pocked in several places by dents around horizontal slits, puncture marks that leaked scarlet. Gaius glanced up at the passing trio, then back out to the battle--though it was less a battle than a full-fledged rout, Ehren thought--without pausing his steps.

  "Cursor," Gaius said. "Give me the roof, please."

  "Sire?"

  Gaius stopped in his tracks and gave Ehren a steady look, one eyebrow quirked in displeasure.

  "As you wish, sire," Ehren said hurriedly, and padded to the stairs from the tower's roof. He went down them and took a moment to steady his breathing, then began the familiar, comforting ritual of checking each of his knives. It helped him begin to push aside the images of the battle and sort through his thoughts.

  Foremost among them was that there really were a great many vordknights coming toward the city. Ehren imagined that they would be no less deadly and terrifying while hacking their way through the halls of Ceres than they had been in the skies above it. He had no desire whatsoever to discover whether or not his estimation was an accurate one.

  It was not so much that Ehren was afraid to fight, as such. Oh, the thought and act alike of genuine mortal combat terrified him. It should terrify anyone who wasn't an idiot or a lunatic. And though he knew he was well trained and far more capable than most would guess by looking at him, he was also well aware of his limitations and, being neither a moron nor a madman, he much preferred the idea of avoiding a fight altogether.

  That being the case, it seemed wise to leave the city. The vordknights, it was thought, could not match Aleran fliers in terms of sheer speed, except in short bursts of effort. Surely, the First Lord would summon his coach, and they would fall back to the next fortified position before much more time had passed. He couldn't remember the name of the position at the moment--a large town about fifty miles to the northeast on the causeway leading toward Alera Imperia.

  They all lead to Alera Imperia, genius, Ehren said to himself. He put the last of his knives away, shook his head, and suddenly realized what they needed, at the moment, more than anything else. It was obvious, and the First Lord would likely have realized it already, but at least Ehren's brain was in motion again. He turned to go back up the stairs, and paused at the sound of voices on the roof of the tower.

  ". . . beside the point," Gaius's mellow baritone murmured. "It must be done."

  A woman's voice, one Ehren had never heard before, answered him. "There will be lasting repercussions."

  "Worse than the instability already unleashed, and what is likely to be added to it if you do not do as I ask?"

  "That depends upon one's point of view, child," replied the woman's voice, amused.

  Ehren blinked. Child? Child? Who could speak to the First Lord like that?

  Gaius replied with wry amusement in his own voice. "Behold my own."

  "Mmmm," she murmured, a pensive sound. "Some of your folk are among them."

  "Nonetheless."

  "I have no preference," she said. "Not of my own accord. Though I admit that I have grown . . . accustomed to you and yours, child."

  "I ask for no exemptions," Gaius responded. "Only prevailing conditions."

  She laughed, a gently mocking sound. "You, child? Seeking to prevail? Surely not."

  "Time presses," Gaius said, his tone polite, but thick with an underlying urgency.

  "With you and yours, it seldom does otherwise." She paused for a moment, then said, "It is entirely possible that we may never speak again."

  "I have made my wishes known."

  "Your father would be . . . what is the phrase?"

  "Rolling in his grave," Gaius supplied.

  "Yes. Were such a thing possible."

  "But you will honor them?"

  Ehren blinked again, not so much at the words the First Lord had used as at the intonation.

  It had been a question. Not a command.

  To whom would the First Lord speak like that?

  "It has never before been done this way. But I believe so."

  The First Lord's voice dropped to a lower register, relief evident in it. "Thank you."

  "Gratitude?" the woman asked, her tone quietly merry. "What is the world coming to?"

  Ehren, burning with curiosity, eased up the last few stairs and opened the door as silently as he possibly could, peering arou
nd it.

  Gaius stood where he had before. A woman stood beside him, facing him, his equal in height. Her skin was a deep bronze, her hair silver, threaded with rare strands of scarlet and gold, though her face was younger than Ehren's own, strong and beautiful in a way he had never seen before. She wore a simple gown and shawl of what Ehren first thought was homespun, but at a startled second glance he realized that the clothing was made purely of what looked like opaque grey mist, as thick and swirling as any storm cloud, but holding its solid shape as if it were cloth.

  The woman turned her head abruptly to one side, her eyes flicking toward him. They were brilliant gold. As Ehren watched, they flickered to silver--metallic silver, not simply grey--and a heartbeat later became sky blue, then green and faceted, like a masterfully cut emerald, then dark and glossy as obsidian.

  Gaius turned as well, and the woman was abruptly gone. There was no flicker of a veil coming up, no blur of motion as of a windcrafter's drawing upon a fury for additional speed, nothing. One instant she was standing, regarding Ehren calmly, and the next she was simply . . . not.

  Which was clearly impossible.

  "Cursor," Gaius said, nodding calmly. "Something to report?"

  "Sire?" Ehren blinked and recovered himself. "Ah. Yes, sire. Pardon me, I did not mean to interrupt."

  Gaius lifted both eyebrows and asked, a hard little edge on his words, "Interrupt?"

  "Your conversation . . ."

  Gaius narrowed his eyes. "Conversation?"

  Ehren coughed. "I was thinking, sire, that the vordknights depend upon wings for flight. Like birds. Birds depend upon using the air. They won't fly in a storm."

  "I'd been thinking the same thing," Gaius replied with an approving nod. "What else?"

  "I would also advise cutting the causeway behind us periodically as we retreat. Every mile or so should be sufficient to ensure that the enemy can't use it."

  Gaius winced, but blew out a sigh. "Yes. I suppose that would be for the best."

  A cold wind suddenly washed across the tower from the north, a chill blast that felt as if it must have begun at the Shieldwall and come to Ceres without crossing the intervening space between. The First Lord turned into the wind and closed his eyes for a moment, stretching out his hand with his fingers spread. Ehren saw him murmur something under his breath, then nod once. Ehren went to the tower's edge beside the First Lord, and saw the wind as it crossed the city below, and spread out into the fields beyond. Almost at once, it seemed, fog began to rise from streams and ponds.

  In the air above the fields, Ehren saw that the disastrous rout had somehow been arrested, and it did not take long to see why. A second bright star of light, the glowing blade of a High Lord, had risen into the skies, and around that brilliant core of light, the battered Aleran forces had rallied. The bright scarlet of the star identified the High Lord of Aquitaine, and he had gathered what fliers remained into a cohesive force that had moved together in close formation, the sheer power of its combined windstreams sending vordknights scattering wildly through the air--a Legion shieldwall, taken to the skies.

  Scarlet lightning flashed through the night, raking Vord from the air and slowing the advance of the oncoming tide. The fleeing cavalry began to emerge from beneath the shadow of the Vord, running for their lives, and only the courage and power of the few men who remained aloft and fighting the Vord sheltered them from being destroyed en masse.

  The First Lord lifted his face to the evening sky and closed his eyes. He did not speak or move, but his expression became strained.

  The vordknights began to reach the walls of the city, mostly the strays who had been blown that way by the disrupting gale of the Aleran aerial rear guard. The Legions defending Ceres had moved back into position after the first massive salvo of furycraft had taken them from the walls. Knights Flora and Ignus began hammering the Vord from the air with fire and arrow.

  One vordknight streaked toward the tower where Ehren and the First Lord stood, only to be struck by half a dozen arrows loosed from the bows of the Knights Flora of the Crown Guard positioned on the neighboring towers. It dropped instantly, smashing into the battlements with a brittle, crackling sound, one of its wings still buzzing uselessly as it fell toward the courtyard fifty feet below.

  The cold wind from the north grew colder yet, and Ehren shivered, his cloak suddenly inadequate against it. He turned to look over his shoulder, to the north, and saw the stars change from sharp, clear pinpoints of light to murky, blurry spots of silver in the night sky.

  Gaius nodded once, and said, "Let's begin, then, shall we?" He turned his palms to the sky and lifted them in a single, sharp gesture.

  The low-lying fog that had formed on the ground, somehow untouched by the wind, suddenly leapt skyward. It boiled up over the walls of Ceres and swallowed the tower in a sudden rush of warmer air. The fog passed them, and Ehren saw it lifting away into the sky like some enormous blanket.

  Gaius sighed and lowered his arms, his shoulders slumping wearily. "Let's see if this works."

  Ehren swallowed. "Sire? You don't think it's going to work?"

  "The theory is sound. But we've no way of being sure, have we?"

  "Ah," the young Cursor said. "What will we do if it doesn't?"

  Gaius arched an eyebrow and said, calmly, "I expect we will die, Sir Ehren. Don't you?"

  Thunder rumbled through the greyness overhead.

  Ehren shivered, but before he had time to respond, he felt the first ice-cold raindrops begin to fall. They came one by one at first, then began to fall more and more thickly. He walked over to stand beside Gaius, who stared out at a battlefield that had been almost entirely occluded by rain. The burning sword of High Lord Aquitaine was leaving a plume of steam behind it, even as the Aleran fliers began to turn back toward the city, losing altitude as they came.

  "You knew Rhodes was going to be killed when you sent him out there," Ehren said quietly.

  "Did I?" Gaius asked.

  "And when this is over, Aquitaine is going to look like the man who created an orderly retreat out of a rout."

  "Not to quibble," Gaius murmured, "but Lord Aquitaine is the man who created an orderly retreat out of a rout." He shook his head. "I'll give Attis this; he always understood that the strength of a High Lord--or a First Lord, for that matter--is in the hearts and minds of those who support him."

  "The sword," Ehren said. "He's using it to hold a firecrafting together. He's giving them courage."

  "Mmmm," Gaius agreed. "Rhodes was powerful, in a personal sense, but he never saw any further than the ends of his own fingertips. No different than Lord Kalarus, really, except that Rhodes was more intelligent and had more dangerous neighbors."

  "Far more dangerous," Ehren said. "So much so that Rhodes's life was the price of said neighbor's allegiance."

  The First Lord smiled, a wintry expression that meant nothing. "The Citizenry has been blind to the threat the Vord represent, certain they would be easily overcome. That arrogance was as dangerous to us as the Vord. After tonight, it will no longer be an issue." He glanced up at the rumbling sky, where the rain continued to fall more and more thickly, and added, his tone wryly amused, "One way or another."

  Then he staggered and fell to one knee.

  "Sire!" Ehren said, starting forward.

  The First Lord coughed, the sound horrible and hollow, over and over, each one wracking his entire body with clenching motion.

  Ehren knelt beside the old man, supporting his weight when Gaius's balance failed again.

  After a moment, the fit of coughing passed. The First Lord shuddered and leaned wearily against the young Cursor, his head bowed. His lips looked blue, to Ehren, his face pallid and grey.

  "Sire?" Ehren asked quietly.

  Gaius shook his head and spoke in a rasp. "Help me up. They mustn't see."

  Ehren blinked at the First Lord for a heartbeat, then slipped one of Gaius's arms over his shoulders and rose, helping the older man to his feet.
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  Gaius leaned against the battlements for a moment, his hands spread across the cold, wet stone. Then he drew in a deep breath and straightened, his features composed, as the Aleran forces returned to Ceres.

  Aquitaine's sword burned more and more clearly, until he and the men he had gathered around him, some two hundred or so Citizens and Knights Aeris, sailed over the walls of the city and down into the streets beyond, heading for the rally points where the Legions had already planned to gather before withdrawing. The cavalry was not far behind them, their exhausted horses running hard as they streamed back toward the city.

  Aquitaine himself, instead of accompanying his men, soared up to the tower, cutting his windstream with masterful timing, landing like a man who had decided to hop over the last step in a stairway. He nodded once to Ehren, transferred his sword to his left hand, and saluted Gaius, putting his fist to his heart.