Cursors fury, p.28
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       Cursor's Fury, p.28

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Max shrugged and tore a bit of cloth from a knotted-closed sack in the wagon. He rubbed the cloth between his fingers a few times, and a low flame licked its way to life. Seemingly impervious to the heat, he lowered the burning cloth and held it a few feet over the ground.

  Tavi bent over, squinting, and saw a reflection of the improvised candle’s light shine off of a smooth surface. He picked up a small stone, about the size of a child’s smallest fingernail, and held it closer to the light. Though it was not faceted, the stone was translucent, like a gem, and was such a brilliant color of red that it almost seemed to be wet. It reminded Tavi of a large, fresh-shed droplet of blood.

  “Ruby?” Max asked, peering, bringing the flame closer.

  “No,” Tavi said, frowning.

  “Incarnadine?”

  “No, Max,” Tavi said, frowning at the stone. “Your shirt is on fire,” he said absently.

  Max blinked, then scowled at the fire, which had spread from the strip of sackcloth to his shirt. He flicked his wrist in irritation, and the flame abruptly died. Tavi could smell the curls of smoke coming up from the cloth in the sudden darkness.

  “Have you ever seen a gem like that, Max? Maybe your stepmother crafts them.”

  “Not that I know of,” Max said. “That’s new to me.”

  “I’ve got the feeling I’ve seen this before,” Tavi murmured. “But crows take me if I can remember where.”

  “Maybe it’s worth something,” Max said.

  “Maybe,” Tavi agreed. He slipped the scarlet stone back into the silk purse and tied it firmly shut. “Let’s go.”

  Max clambered up onto the wagon, took the reins, and brought the team into motion. Tavi swung up beside him, and the slow-moving cart began its ten-mile trek back to the First Aleran’s camp at Elinarch.

  The march had taken them seven long, strenuous days from the training camp to the bridge over the vast, slow-moving Tiber River. Foss, once honestly bribed, had kept Tavi “under observation” while his leg healed. Lady Antillus clearly hadn’t liked the idea, but since she’d dumped the responsibility into his hands, she could hardly take it away again without displaying her animosity for Tavi in an unacceptably flagrant lack of the impartiality expected in a Legion officer.

  Even so, Foss had kept Tavi busy. Bardis, the wounded Knight who had been saved by Lady Antillus, required constant attention and care. Twice, during the march, Bardis had simply stopped breathing. Foss had saved the young Knight, but only because Tavi had noticed what was happening. The young Knight hadn’t regained more than vague consciousness during the march, and had to be fed, cleaned, and watered like a baby.

  As he first sat beside the wounded Bardis, Tavi was struck by how young the Knight looked. Surely, an Aleran Knight should have been taller, thicker in the shoulders and chest and neck, with a heavier growth of beard and more muscle than the wounded Knight possessed. Bardis looked like . . . an injured, not yet fully grown child. And it inspired an immediate and unexpected surge of protectiveness in the young Cursor. To his own surprise, he set about the task of tending Bardis without complaint or regret.

  Later, he realized that Bardis wasn’t too young to be a Knight. Tavi was simply five years older. He knew far more of the world than the boy, had seen a great deal more of life’s horrors, and had gained inches and pounds of physical size that he had, for most of his life, lacked. All of that made the wounded Knight seem much smaller and far younger. It was a matter of perspective.

  Tavi realized, bemused, that he was no longer the child, unconsciously expecting those stronger and older than he to assist and protect him. Now he was the stronger, the elder, and so it fell to him to accept and discharge his responsibilities rather than to seek ways to avoid or circumvent them.

  He did not know when this shift in perspective had happened, and though it might have seemed small in some ways, it was far deeper and more significant than he had at first realized. It meant that he could never again be that child, the one deserving of protection and comfort. It was time for him to provide it for others, as it had been provided for him.

  So he cared for poor Bardis and spent much of that march in reflection.

  “You’ve been moody,” Max said, breaking the silence as the wagon bumped steadily down the trail—a path worn by use, not furycraft. “This whole march, you’ve been quiet.”

  “Thinking,” Tavi said, “and avoiding attention.”

  “How’s the fish?”

  “Bardis,” Tavi corrected him. “Foss says he’ll be all right, now that we’ve stopped and he can be cared for more properly.” He shook his head. “But he might not ever walk again. And I don’t know if he’ll be able to use his right arm. He’s given his body in service to the Realm, Max. Don’t call him a fish.”

  Sullen red fire played within the bone-dry storm clouds overhead, and one of the horses danced nervously. Tavi saw Max nod. “True enough,” he agreed, a quiet gravity in his own voice. After a moment, Max said, “Magnus says Kalarus is making his move. That he came up with at least four extra Legions somewhere. That if they take Ceres, they’ll roll right over Alera Imperia. Which doesn’t make much sense to me. Placidus’s Legions are going to pin them against the city walls and cut them to pieces.”

  “Placidus isn’t moving,” Tavi said.

  “The crows he isn’t. I know the man. He doesn’t care much about getting involved with the rest of the Realm, but he doesn’t care for treason, either. He’ll fight.”

  “He isn’t,” Tavi said. “At least, according to the last—the only—dispatch that got through from the First Lord, though it didn’t say why.”

  “That was a week ago,” Max said.

  Tavi nodded up at the sky. “Wherever this storm came from, it’s pretty well prevented the use of Knights Aeris as messengers. The First Lord and the High Lords can communicate through the rivers, but they know there’s nothing to stop others from listening to everything they send that way.”

  “Or worse,” Max said. “Altering the message en route.”

  “They can do that?” Tavi asked.

  “It can be done,” Max said. “I can’t manage it yet. It’s too delicate. But my lord father could. So could my stepmother.”

  Tavi stored the fact in memory for future reference. “Do you think Ceres will hold?”

  Max was quiet for a moment before admitting, “No. Cereus is no soldier, he’s getting long in the tooth, and he doesn’t have a male heir to help with any of the fighting.” His voice took on the note of a scowl. “His daughter Veradis has got talent, but it’s mostly in healing. And she’s a real cold fish.”

  Tavi found himself smiling. “She pretty?”

  “Very.”

  “Turned you down, huh?”

  “About a hundred times.” Max’s tone turned somber again. “Kalarus is a powerhouse. Even my lord father thinks so. And that twisty little bastard Brencis had me fooled about how strong he was, too. Cereus can’t beat them. And if the First Lord takes them on, he’ll be turning his back on Aquitainus. He’s pinned down.”

  Silence fell. Tavi watched the lightning play through the clouds. “I suppose I should be used to this.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Feeling very small,” Tavi said.

  Max snorted out a laugh. “Small? Crows, Tavi. You’ve foiled coups orchestrated by the two most powerful High Lords in the realm. Twice. I don’t know anyone less small than you.”

  “Luck,” Tavi said. “Mostly luck.”

  “Some of it,” Max allowed. “But not all. Hell, man, if you had furies of your own . . .”

  Max’s teeth suddenly clicked together as he choked the sentence to a halt, but Tavi still felt the familiar old stabs of frustration and longing.

  “Sorry,” Max said a moment later.

  “Forget it.”

  “Yeah.”

  “I just wish we could do something,” Tavi said. “Something. We’re stuck out here in the back end of nowhere while the Realm is fighting
for its life.” He waved a hand. “I understand that this Legion isn’t ready to fight yet. That no one is sure it could be trusted, with troops from all sides in the ranks and officers. But I wish we could do something other than sit out here and drill and”—he tilted his head at the back at the wagon—“shop for groceries.”

  “Me, too,” Max said. “But I can’t say we’d be enjoying the fight if we were there. This Legion wouldn’t last long. Garrison duty on the bridge is dull, but at least it won’t get us killed.”

  Tavi grunted and fell quiet again. The furylights of the town of Elinarch, as well as the vast, lit span of the bridge itself, came into sight at last. A few hundred yards later, the hairs on the back of Tavi’s neck tried to crawl up into his eyebrows.

  Max wasn’t a terribly skilled watercrafter, but he had raw talent, Tavi knew, and would have felt Tavi’s sudden surge of unease. He sensed Max tensing beside him.

  “What?” Max whispered.

  “Not sure,” Tavi said. “Thought I heard something.”

  “I do not see how, Aleran,” said a voice from not a yard behind Tavi’s head. “Stones and fish hear better than you.”

  Tavi spun, drawing the dagger from his belt. Max reacted even more swiftly, turning at the waist and sweeping an arm back in a blow of fury-born power.

  Red lightning bathed the landscape for a pair of breaths, and Tavi saw Kitai smile as Max’s flailing arm missed her by perhaps half of an inch. She sat crouched atop the sacks of grain, the pale skin of her face all but glowing within her cloak’s hood. She wore the same ragged clothes Tavi had seen her in before, though her blindfold had been pulled down to hang loosely around her throat. Mercifully, she did not also wear the same odor.

  “Blood and crows,” Max spat. The horses danced nervously, making the cart lurch, and he had to bring them under control. “Ambassador?”

  “Kitai,” Tavi said, now understanding the odd, instinctive reaction he’d felt. “What are you doing here?”

  “Looking for you,” she said, arching a brow. “Obviously.”

  Tavi gave her a level look. Kitai smiled, leaned forward, and gave him a firm and deliberate kiss on the mouth. Tavi’s heart abruptly raced, and he felt short of breath. He didn’t really intend to reach up and grip the front of her cloak to pull her momentarily closer, but Kitai let out a pleased sound a moment later and slowly drew away. Tavi stared into her exotic, gorgeous eyes and tried to ignore the sudden flames of need that raged through his flesh.

  “No justice in the world,” Max sighed. “Middle of the night, middle of crowbegotten nowhere, and you’re the one with a woman.” He drew the horses to a halt. “I’ll walk in from here. See you in the morning.”

  Kitai let out a quiet, wicked laugh. “Your friend is wise.” Then her smile vanished. “But I have not come here for us to pleasure one another, Aleran.”

  Tavi struggled to ignore the hunger that rose in the wake of the kiss and drew his thoughts into order. Kitai might be able to switch her thoughts gracefully from one trail to another, but Tavi didn’t share that talent—and though he could see the obvious concern in her expression, it took him a heartbeat or three to ask, “What’s happened?”

  “Someone came to the camp,” Kitai told him. “He claimed to have a message for your Captain Cyril, but the guards on watch sent him away, to return in the morning. He told them it was important, to wake the captain, but they did not believe him and—”

  “So?” Max interrupted. He looked at Tavi. “Happens all the time. Practically every messenger anyone sends thinks the world will end if he isn’t seen at once. A Legion captain needs to sleep, too. No one wants to be the one that gets him out of bed.”

  Tavi frowned. “In peacetime,” he said quietly. “There’s a war on, Max. Captains need all the information they can get, and we’re practically blind out here. Cyril’s left standing orders for any messengers to be taken to him immediately.” Tavi frowned at Max. “So the question is, why wouldn’t they obey those orders?”

  “There is more,” Kitai said. “When the messenger left, the guards set out after him, and—”

  “What?” Tavi demanded, thoughts racing. “Max. Who is on duty at the gate tonight?”

  “Erasmus’s century. Eighth spear, I think.”

  “Bloody crows,” Tavi said, his voice grim. “They’re Kalarans. They’re going to kill him and intercept the message.”

  Kitai snarled in frustration and clamped a pale, slender, strong hand over Tavi’s mouth and another over Max’s. “By the One, Aleran, will you shut your mouth for a single instant and let me finish?” She leaned forward, eyes almost glowing with intensity. “The messenger. It was Ehren.”

  Chapter 26

  “Wait,” Max said. “Ehren? Our Ehren?”

  Before he had finished the sentence, Tavi had already leapt down from the wagon and unhooked one of the horses from its harness a heartbeat later. As he did, Kitai freed the other horse in the team. Tavi grasped the mane of the first horse and leapt up to its bare back, pulling hard against the weight of his armor with his arms as he did. Kitai flicked the long reins of the second horse at Max, then took Tavi’s outstretched hand and mounted behind him.

  “Our Ehren,” Max said, heavily. “Right.” The big Antillan shook his head as he clambered down from the wagon, then hauled himself up onto the draft horse, who snorted and shook his head. “Stop complaining,” Max told him, and nodded at Tavi.

  Tavi grinned and kicked his mount into a heavy-footed run. He could feel one of Kitai’s slender, fever-hot arms wrap around his waist. Tavi held on to the horse’s mane carefully. He had learned a good deal of riding in the capital, but very little of it had been done bareback, and he knew his limits. “Which gate was he at?” he asked Kitai.

  “North side of the river, west side of the city,” Kitai called back.

  Beside them, Max rode with the casual skill with which he did almost everything. Max, Tavi knew, had been riding since he could walk. “Did he know he was followed?”

  “Ehren knew,” Tavi said firmly.

  “So I’m Ehren,” Max said, “with an unknown number of unknowns following me. Where do I go?” Max frowned. “Wait. What the crows am I doing all the way out here in the first place? I thought Ehren got sent to Phrygia.”

  “Did you notice that he packed those peppermints he kept around?” Tavi asked.

  “Yes. I thought he liked peppermints.”

  “No. He gets seasick.”

  Max frowned. “But Phrygia’s thousands of miles from the sea and—oh.”

  Tavi nodded. “I assume he was under orders to keep it secret, but I suspect he was sent out to the islands.”

  Max grunted. “So, I’m Ehren, who is a sneaky little git like Tavi, in from the islands, followed by bad men who want to do bad things. Where do I go?”

  “Somewhere that presents you more options,” Tavi called back. “Where you can deal with them appropriately and as discreetly as possible.” He paused for a moment, then he and Max said together, “The docks.”

  They pressed on, Tavi in the lead. Dry red lightning lit their way in flickers of dim fire that only made the shadows deeper and more treacherous. Tavi could navigate by the furylights in the town and upon the Elinarch, but he could barely see what was five feet in front of him. Haste was necessary, but they would do Ehren no good if they all brained themselves on low branches or broke the legs of their mounts in potholes in the trail, and Tavi began to slow the pace.

  “No,” Kitai said in his ear. The arm around his waist shifted, and she clasped the hand in which Tavi held the reins. She pulled his hand to the right, and the horse altered course, Max’s mount following suit. Lightning flashed, and Tavi saw the black maw of a sharp-edged pothole flash by, narrowly avoided.

  Kitai leaned forward, and he felt her cheek against his as she smiled. “I will be your eyes, blind Aleran.”

  Tavi felt his own mouth stretch into a grin to match hers, and he shouted to his mount, coaxing all the speed
he could from the draft horse.

  They entered the town through the eastern gate, shouting passwords to the legionares on duty there, thundering over the stone streets, the heavy steel-shod hooves of their horses striking sparks from the stone. The western gate of the town had been left unguarded and slightly ajar. As they approached, Max crafted a miniature cyclone that hammered it the rest of the way open, and they swept through, altering course to follow the city’s wall down to the riverside.

  The town of Elinarch had been founded as little more than a standard Legion camp anchoring either end of the bridge. In the century since, its rising population had spread beyond the original walls, building homes and business around the wall’s outskirts and, especially, constructing extensive docking facilities for the river traffic that supported the town. The wooden wharves and piers had spread hundreds of yards upon either side of the original town’s boundaries on both banks of the river.

  Piers brought ships and boats, which brought a steady and large number of sailing men, which gave birth to an inevitable, if modest, industry of graft and vice. Wine clubs, gambling halls, and pleasure houses were built upon both the wharves and permanently anchored barges. There was a paucity of furylamps throughout the docks—partly because no one wanted even a tiny fire fury that close to so much aged wood, and partly because the darkness suited the clandestine nature of the businesses there.

  Tavi swung down from the horse and flicked the reins around the nearest wooden post. “Knowing Ehren, where do we look?”

  “Little guy liked to plan ahead,” Max said. “Be early for lecture. Set aside time to study.”

  Tavi nodded. “He’d have prepared a spot in case he had to run or fight. A distraction, to keep people from noticing while he slipped away.” Tavi nodded toward a number of large, roomy buildings built directly beneath the soaring stone Elinarch. “Warehouses.”

  The three of them started out at a hard pace, and though Tavi’s leg ached from the effort, it supported his weight easily enough. The first warehouse was open and lit as Legion teamsters unloaded the wagons of foodstuffs the Subtribunes Logistica had scrounged—like the one they’d left back on the road. Haradae, the seniormost Subtribune Logistica, a watery-eyed young man from Rhodes, looked up from a ledger book and frowned at Tavi. “Scipio? Where is your wagon?”