Princeps fury, p.28
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       Princeps' Fury, p.28

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  "You need our help," Tavi said quietly.

  "Help?" Lararl said. An almost-hysterical edge of frustration entered his voice. "Help? What could you do?" He drew his sword and jabbed it at the horde spreading over the plains below. "What could anyone do against that? We will fight. But there can be no victory. This is the end."

  "That depends upon your definition of victory, Warmaster," Tavi said quietly.

  "Shuar cannot be held," Lararl snarled.

  "Is Shuar the land?" Tavi asked. "Is it the hills and stones and trees? Is Shuar the rivers, the walls, the towers?"

  Lararl had turned to stare at Tavi intently.

  "Or is it the people?" Tavi said quietly. "Your people, Warmaster."

  Lararl's ears shivered in reaction, a portion of Canim body language Tavi had never seen.

  "What," Lararl growled, "do you mean?"

  "It's possible that your people could be saved, sir. Some of them, in any case."

  "How?"

  Tavi spread his hands. "I'm not yet sure," he said. "I need more information."

  "What information?"

  "Everything you have regarding the war with the Vord, in every range. All of it."

  Varg was also staring hard at Tavi. "What do you expect to learn?"

  "I cannot tell you that."

  "For what reason?" Varg demanded.

  "Because among the enemy is at least one queen. The Vord queens are able to sense the thoughts of others if they can get close enough. Your Hunters have proven that it is possible to approach closely to Lararl's command by means of stealth. It is entirely possible, even likely, that the queens have been gathering information directly from the thoughts of the Shuaran officers--possibly even from your own thoughts, Warmaster Lararl."

  Lararl growled in his throat, the sound pensive. "You know this enemy."

  "I would not presume to say that," Tavi said. "But I know them better than you. And, for now, whatever secrets your intelligence on them might reveal is best kept safe by being locked in one location." He tapped his temple with one finger. "I believe that it may be possible to help you and your people, Warmaster. If you will extend me a measure of trust."

  Lararl stared steadily at Tavi, but remained silent.

  "It is obvious that simple force of arms is insufficient. We must outthink them, outmaneuver them." Tavi glanced at Varg and inclined his head slightly to one side. "As I did to Sarl in Alera."

  Lararl's gaze moved to Varg. "Well?"

  Varg nodded slowly to Tavi, the Aleran gesture peculiar on the Cane. "Lararl. You have said yourself that you have no way to defeat the foe. Were this range mine and these people my own, I would listen to him." He looked over at his Shuaran counterpart. "Tavar took a force of barely more than seven thousand and fought Sarl and fifty thousand conscripts, plus Nasaug's ten thousand warriors, to a two-year stalemate. Give him what he wants."

  Lararl was silent for a moment more. Trumpets blew in the city, and a mounted force of several hundred Canim warriors rode their taurga toward the eastern gates of the city--an advance party for the larger infantry force that had to be preparing to march to the Shuaran interior.

  The golden Cane shuddered again. Then he flicked his ears in a sharp gesture of assent, spun to face Tavi fully, and beckoned him with a curt gesture of his hand as he strode toward the door leading back into the tower. "Demon--" He paused and growled deep in his chest, baring his fangs. "Tavar. Come with me."

  "Crows," Max breathed under his breath. The big Antillan took his hand from his sword. "How did you know about the Vord?"

  "I guessed."

  "You guessed?" Max hissed. He shook his head. "You take too many chances, Calderon."

  "It was necessary," Tavi said. "Besides, I was right."

  "One of these days, you're going to be wrong."

  "Not today," Tavi said. "Stay here so that Crassus can make contact."

  Max frowned at Tavi worriedly. Then he saluted. "Be careful."

  Tavi put a hand on his friend's shoulder. Then he turned and strode down into the darkness of the tower, following Lararl.

  CHAPTER 25

  Tavi wasn't sure how long he'd been working in Lararl's cavernous hall when the door opened and a guard, his eyes narrowed against the relative brightness of the torches Tavi had requested, admitted Kitai.

  Tavi looked up from his place among half a dozen Cane-sized sand tables. They were meant to be used by a Cane squatting in a comfortable crouch, but were an awkward height for an Aleran--too tall to sit beside them, too short to be practical while standing. His back hurt. He straightened, wincing, as Kitai shut the door behind her.

  "Crassus is here," Kitai said without preamble. "He was attacked by the Vord on his way back to the port. He had to circle wide of them on the way back. He's injured."

  Tavi chewed on his lower lip. "How bad is it?"

  "Maximus is seeing to him, but he's exhausted." Kitai walked closer and gave Tavi a calm kiss on the cheek. As she did, she whispered, "The rest of the Legion's Knights Aeris are at hand, unseen. Crassus says that the Shuarans have several thousand of Varg's people held prisoner in a camp not far from here."

  Tavi smiled and kissed her cheek in return. "Tell them to stand by," he breathed in reply. "And to say nothing to Varg."

  Kitai gave a slight nod and turned her eyes to the sand tables, examining each of them. Sheaves of paper lay stacked beside them, held down with simple weights made of polished black stone. "What is this?"

  Tavi turned to the tables and raked his fingers back through his hair. "The Canim ranges," he replied. He pointed at one of the stacks of paper with a toe. "And reports taken from each."

  Kitai frowned at the tables and pages. "You've read all of these?"

  Tavi waggled his hand in a so-so gesture. "I'm not as familiar with their script as I'd like to be."

  Kitai sniffed. "It's just as senseless as Aleran writing."

  "Yes," Tavi said, "but I've had years to practice Aleran."

  She smiled slightly. "What have you learned?"

  Tavi shook his head. "Plenty. I'm just not sure what to make of it all." He pointed at the first table, where a number of small black stones and white stones marked Vord and Canim forces, respectively. They were scattered everywhere over the table. "Narash. Varg's range. They were the first to be attacked. The reports from there are the most confused and conflicting."

  Kitai glanced up sharply at him. "It was intentional."

  Tavi nodded. "I think the Vord established several different nests, keeping as quiet as they could for as long as they could, then attacked simultaneously, causing as much havoc and confusion as possible. From what I can tell, most of the Narashan commanders initially thought they were being attacked by their neighbors. By the time they realized the truth, it was too late."

  He gestured at the next tables in succession. "Kadan, Rengal, Irgat . . . They all fell within the next year."

  He blew out a breath to keep from shuddering. Each Canim nation had been home to a populace nearly as great as Alera's, though settled into a much smaller geographical region. Despite their armies, the dark power of their ritualists, the savagely protective nature of the Canim with regard to their territories, each of them had fallen as steadily and surely as a field of wheat before a farmer's scythe.

  Tavi nodded to the next table. "Maraul. They held out for nearly a year. But by then they were cut off from Shuar, surrounded. Then . . ." Tavi shrugged. "Shuar was the only range left."

  "What are you looking for?" Kitai asked.

  Tavi shook his head. "I'm not sure yet. I've been looking for patterns. Trying to see how they think, how they operate."

  "The Vord?" Kitai asked. "Or the Canim?"

  Tavi shot her a quick smile. "Yes," he replied. The smile faded. "Though at the moment, I'd be thrilled at the prospect of having the Canim as a long-term worry."

  Kitai regarded him with calm, serious eyes. "Crassus says that there are as many as eighty or ninety thousand Vord already in
central Shuar."

  Tavi frowned at the news. Eighty or ninety thousand. Fighting that many Vord on open ground would be little more than suicide for the Aleran Legions. Their only chance would be to fight beside Nasaug's troops--and that was hardly a proposition that his men would enjoy. Two years of war had made for plenty of hard feelings on both sides.

  For just a moment, staring at the sand tables, at the enormous number of black stones, and the relatively few white ones opposing them, Tavi felt at a complete loss. Only a few years ago, he had been nothing but a shepherd. No, not even that. His uncle had been the shepherd. Tavi had been an apprentice shepherd.

  Oh, of course, now he had a title: His Royal Highness, Gaius Octavian, Princeps of the Realm, heir apparent to the Crown of Alera.

  With that and a sharp knife, he could slice bread.

  How was he supposed to deal with this situation? How was he supposed to make the choices before him--choices that would send Alerans and Canim alike to their deaths? Was he merely arrogant, to think that he was the best person to decide? Or was he quietly, calmly insane?

  Kitai's slim, warm hand slid over the back of his neck, and he looked up into her eyes.

  "I don't know if I can do this," he told her in a near whisper.

  Her stare grew intent. "You must," she said, just as quietly. "The Vord will not stop here."

  "I know," Tavi said. "But . . . I can't even manifest a fury, Kitai. How am I supposed to stop what we've seen out there?"

  "Aleran. When has the lack of a manifest fury stopped you before?"

  "This is different," Tavi said quietly. "It's bigger. It's more complex. If the Vord aren't stopped . . ." He shook his head. "It's the end. Of everything. The Canim. My people. Yours. Nothing will be left."

  He felt Kitai's hand touch his chin and lift his head, turning him quite firmly toward her. She leaned into him, pulling him down, and kissed his mouth. It was a long, slow, heavy kiss, and when she finally drew her mouth from his, her eyes were huge, their green darkened to mere rings of emerald.

  "Aleran," she said quietly. "True power has nothing to do with furies." She pressed her thumb firmly to the center of his forehead. "Strong, stupid enemies are easily defeated. Intelligent foes are always dangerous. You have grown in strength. Do not permit yourself to grow in stupidity." Her hand moved to caress his cheek. "You are one of the most dangerous men I know."

  Tavi studied her seriously. "Do you really think that?"

  She nodded once. "I am frightened, Aleran. The Vord frighten me. What they might do to my people terrifies me."

  He stared into her eyes. "What are you saying?"

  "Fear is an enemy. Respect it. But do not let it conquer you before the fight has begun."

  Tavi turned his eyes to the sand tables again. "I'm afraid," he said, after a moment. "Afraid that I'll fail to stop them. That people depending on me to protect them will die."

  She nodded slowly. "I understand it," Kitai said. "Before, there was always someone else, someone above you, who could intervene. Who could shield you. Your mother and your uncle. Maestro Killian. Gaius Sextus."

  "Here," Tavi said, "it's just me. There's no one else to rely on."

  "And no one else to blame," Kitai said.

  Tavi bowed his head for a moment. "I feel . . . too small for this, somehow."

  "You would be a fool to feel any other way," Kitai said. She twined her fingers in his. "There are many things at which I am skilled. I ride well. I climb well. I steal well. I fight and dance and love well. My instincts are second to none." She picked up one of the stacks of paper and glanced over it. "But this . . . no. Making sense of a hundred little pieces of information. It is not for me.

  "That is your gift, Aleran." She offered him the stack of papers. "Knowledge is your weapon." Her eyes glittered. "Kill them with it."

  Tavi took a deep breath and accepted the papers in silence.

  "Maraul," he blurted, three hours later.

  Kitai looked up from where she had sat down with several handfuls of white and black stones, after carrying word back to the roof. She had been playing some kind of game involving scratches marked on the stone with one of her knives, and where the stones sat upon intersections of the lines. She looked at him levelly for a moment, then rolled her eyes, and said, "Why didn't I think of that?"

  "Maraul," Tavi said again. "It was right in front of me. That's the point to focus on. Why did they hold out for a year against the Vord when their neighbors fell in three or four months? What was different?"

  Kitai tilted her head. "Their armies were more capable? They seem to have the respect of the Narashans."

  Tavi shook his head. "By the time they were attacked, the Vord had spread to three other ranges. Superior-quality troops can make up for a world of difference in numbers, but even the best troops get tired, wounded, disorganized. The Vord would have worn them down."

  "Better tactical positioning?" Kitai offered.

  Tavi shook his head and gestured at the appropriate sand table. "It's a swamp. There are few natural defensive points, and even those are fairly weak."

  "What was it, then?"

  "Exactly," Tavi said. "What?" He seized the stack of documents next to the model-Maraul table and began reading.

  It took him another two hours to turn up a reasonable theory--and even that had only been possible because of the report, precise in its detail, from one of Lararl's Hunters to the Warmaster. Shuaran Hunters, it seemed, had been tasked to observe the fighting in Maraul, to gather intelligence on both their neighbors and the invaders. Somehow that knowledge made Tavi feel a bit more comfortable than he had been before.

  The doors to the room swung open, and Lararl entered, with Anag trailing in his wake. The burly, golden-haired Cane strode directly over to Tavi. "Well?"

  "Did you post the extra guards?" Tavi asked.

  Lararl narrowed his eyes, but his ears flicked in assent. "Every doorway in the tower. No Vord skulker is going to get within a hundred feet of you."

  Tavi nodded. "I think I've got an idea of what we need to do."

  There was a moment of silence.

  "Perhaps," Lararl growled, "you would share your thoughts."

  "It is annoying when he does that," Kitai said, "is it not?"

  Anag's ears quivered in amusement, but the young Cane said nothing.

  "Before I explain," Tavi said, "perhaps Varg should be here, too."

  Lararl grunted, and glanced at Anag.

  Anag vanished, heading for the stairs to the tower's roof. He returned with Varg within moments. The big, black-furred Cane exchanged a Canim-style nod with Lararl, then Tavi, and walked over to stand over the sand table representing Maraul.

  Tavi began speaking without preamble. "Our experience with the Vord has taught us that their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness--centralized leadership."

  "These queens you spoke of," Lararl rumbled.

  Tavi nodded. "The queens command the Vord around them absolutely--they'll take actions that will result in death without hesitation if she commands it."

  Varg let out a low growl. "But they do not think on their own."

  "Not very well, at any rate," Tavi confirmed. "Without a queen to lead them, the Vord are little more than animals.

  "They operate in a specific manner. The queen who escaped Alera came here and established a colony, somewhere out of sight. She produced two more queens, who would then have departed in order to establish their own colonies, and so on."

  "Tripling the number of Vord and queens each time," Lararl said.

  "Maybe not," Tavi said. He began picking up the black and white stones from the map of Maraul. "Here is where concentrations of Vord massed for the attack," he said, laying them out again, in more or less separate lines opposing one another at the edge of the range. "According to your reports, Warmaster, the Vord attacked Maraul here, first." He moved one black stone at the northernmost end of the line forward. "Then here." He moved adjacent stones on either
side of the center. "Then here, twenty miles farther on each time." He moved the next two stones in succession. "And so on. Each time they advanced, they rippled forward in this same pattern."

  Varg narrowed his eyes and studied the map, his tail lashing. "Orders," he said. "That explains the delay. The queen's orders were being relayed up and down their lines."

  Tavi nodded calmly. "It took me a while to realize it. In Alera, orders are relayed by furycraft. Separate Legions can move in concord, almost simultaneously. Not as flawlessly as the Vord move, but much faster than word carried by a mounted rider."