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Cursor's Fury, Page 29

Jim Butcher

  “On the way,” Tavi called back, slowing. “Have you seen any of Erasmus’s eighth spear out tonight?”

  “Just went by, not five minutes ago, chasing some thief,” he said, hooking a thumb. “But I thought they were on gate duty, not night watch.”

  “Erasmus thought that, too,” Tavi improvised. “No one’s at the gate.”

  Haradae shook his head and checked his list. “Here. Bandages. I’ll have some set out for Erasmus after he’s done lashing them.”

  Max growled under his breath, “Think he has any coffins?”

  “Come on,” Tavi said, and picked up the pace again.

  They found the body in the shadows beside the fifth warehouse in the row, and Tavi’s heart leapt into his throat as he peered at the empty black shape in the darkness. “Is it . . . ?”

  “No,” Kitai said. “A legionare. He is older than Ehren and has a beard.” She bent and casually tugged at the corpse. Light gleamed on steel for a second. “Knife in the neck. Well thrown.”

  “Shhhh,” Tavi said, and held up a hand. They were quiet for a moment. The lazy river whispered now and then beneath them. The wooden wharves creaked and groaned. Tavi heard a pair of men arguing in tight, tense voices meant not to carry. Then there was a heavy thud.

  Tavi drew his sword as silently as he could and nodded to Max. The pair of them started down the walkway in a hurried prowl. They were able to slip up behind a group of seven legionares. One of them held a single, dim furylamp while two others spoke and the rest stood in a loose half circle around a weather-beaten wooden storage shed, perhaps five feet high and wide and ten deep. One of the men held a wounded arm in close to his body, a kerchief wrapped around his hand in a crude bandage.

  Max narrowed his eyes and crouched, but Tavi lifted a hand, silently signaling him to halt. A second gesture told Max to follow his lead, and Tavi walked boldly into the dim light of the lamp.

  “And just what the crows do you men think you’re doing?” he demanded.

  The legionares whirled to face him. The two men arguing froze, startled expressions of guilt on their faces. Tavi recognized them, though he did not know them by name—apart from the wounded man. It was Nonus, the legionare who had given Tavi trouble his first day in the camp. His companion Bortus stood uneasily beside him. Though no one had ever commented on it, Tavi suspected that a quiet word from Max had convinced Valiar Marcus to transfer them to Erasmus’s century—a less-senior century within his cohort, which had doubtless resulted in a reduction in pay.

  “Well?” Tavi demanded. “Who is the file leader of this sorry bunch?”

  “Sir,” mumbled one of two debaters. He wore his helmet sloppily unfastened, cheek flaps loose. His voice had a Kalaran accent. “I am, Subtribune Scipio.”

  Tavi tilted his head and kept his face fixed in a steadily darkening scowl. “Name, soldier?”

  The man glanced about uneasily. “Yanar, sir.”

  “Yanar. You want to tell me why one of your men is dead in that alley and you’ve another wounded, instead of being at your crowbegotten post?”

  “Sir, Creso was murdered, sir!”

  “I assumed that from the way a knife was sticking out of his neck,” Tavi said in a quietly acidic tone. “But that is hardly important. Why was he murdered there and not at his post?”

  “We were pursuing a criminal, sir!” Yanar stammered. “He fled.”

  “Yes, file leader. I did manage to deduce that if you were pursuing him, he most probably had fled. But why are you here instead of at your post?”

  “Yanar,” growled one of the legionares. He was a man of medium size, slender in build, dark of hair and eye. Tavi did not know his name. “He’s just one prating little subbie.” He jerked his head at the storage shed. “Maybe he tries to help us. We tell him not to, but maybe he goes in first. Maybe our boy killed him and Creso both.”

  Yanar turned back to Tavi, a look of ugly speculation in his eyes.

  “Careful, Yanar,” Tavi said in a quiet voice. “You’re getting near to treason.”

  “It’s only treason,” said the dark man, “if you get caught.”

  Yanar narrowed his eyes at Tavi and said, “K—”

  Tavi presumed the man was going to say “kill him,” but he decided not to waste a perfectly good second in listening. He took a bounding step forward and struck straight down with his gladius. The blow landed on the crown of Yanar’s untied helmet, slamming it forward and down, breaking the legionare’s nose and roughly gouging at one cheek. Tavi slammed his armored shoulder into Yanar’s chest, knocking him down, ducked the swing of another sword, and kicked against the dark man’s knee, crushing the joint, sending him to the wharf with a cry of pain.

  Tavi parried another sword strike, and attacked, forcing the legionare to react with a textbook-perfect return stroke—one that would have been excellent in the press of battle. It wasn’t a street-fighting move. Tavi disengaged his blade from his foe’s, took a step forward to the diagonal, and slammed his armored fist into the man’s nose with all of his own strength plus his opponent’s momentum, stunning him for an instant. Tavi drove the pommel of his sword into the man’s armored temple, sending him crashing to the ground. Max came rushing up to Tavi’s side, but the legionares around him had fallen back in shock at the sudden, vicious assault.

  “Not bad,” Max observed.

  Tavi shrugged.

  “All right, gentlemen,” Tavi snarled at the rest of them. “So far, you’ve only deserted your post, presumably at the orders of this idiot.” Tavi pointed his sword at the unconscious Yanar. “The consequences for that aren’t pleasant, but they aren’t too terrible. Everyone who wishes to add insubordination, failure to obey an officer, and attempted murder to their list of offenses should keep your weapons in hand and give me an instant of trouble.”

  There was a short silence. Then Nonus swallowed, drew his sword, and dropped it to the wharf. Bortus followed, as did the other legionares.

  “Return to your posts,” Tavi said, voice cold. “Wait there to be relieved while I get your centurion out of his cot and send him to deal with you.”

  The men winced.

  “Sir?” Nonus said. “What about the thief, sir? He killed a legionare. He’s dangerous.”

  Tavi glared at them, then said, “You, in the shed. I’m placing you under arrest and binding you by Crown law. Come out now, unarmed, and I’ll see to it that you are treated in accord with the Crown’s justice.”

  A moment later, Ehren appeared in the doorway of the shed. He had more muscle than Tavi remembered, and his skin was dark brown from time in the sun that had washed most of the color from his hair. He was dressed in simple if somewhat ragged clothes, and had his hands held up, empty. His eyes widened when he saw Tavi and Max, and he drew in a sudden breath.

  “Keep your crowbegotten mouth shut,” Tavi told him bluntly. “Centurion. Take him into custody.”

  Max went to Ehren and casually twisted the smaller man’s arm behind him in a common come-along hold, then marched him out of the alley. “You, you, you,” Tavi said, pointing at legionares. “Carry these idiots on the ground.” He walked around, picking up their surrendered weapons as they did, stacking them in the circle of one arm, like cordwood. “You,” Tavi said, as Nonus picked up the dark man. “What is your name?”

  The man narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.

  “Suit yourself,” Tavi said, and turned to lead the men from the alley.

  A sudden sensation of panic hit him like a shock of cold water.

  “Aleran!” Kitai’s voice called.

  Tavi dropped the swords and dived forward, over them, turning in place. The dark man had broken free from Nonus, and now held a curved, vicious-looking knife. He swept it hard at Tavi’s throat. Tavi rolled in the direction of the strike. The knife missed him by a hair. Tavi managed to grab on to the man’s arm as he missed, and a hard tug sent him stumbling, so that his crushed knee gave out on him.

  He cried out and fe
ll, but started to push himself up again, knife still in hand.

  Kitai dropped from the roof of the warehouse and landed on his back, slamming him to the wharf. She seized the crown of his helm with one hand, the neck of his tunic with the other, and with a snarl slammed his head completely through the wooden flooring, shattering the wooden planks beneath his face, trapping his head there.

  Then the Marat woman seized his shoulders and twisted.

  The dark man’s neck broke with an ugly crack.

  “Crows,” Tavi swore. He scrambled to the man’s side and felt for the pulse in his wrist. He was, however, quite dead. “I wanted him to talk,” he told Kitai.

  Her feline green eyes almost seemed to glow in the shadows. “He meant to kill you.”

  “Of course he did,” Tavi said. “But now we can’t find out who he was.”

  Kitai shrugged and bent to pick up the curved knife, now lying under the man’s limp hand. She held it up, and said, “Bloodcrow.”

  Tavi peered at the knife, then nodded. “Looks like.”

  “Subtribune Scipio?” Max called.

  “Coming,” Tavi called back. He glanced at Nonus and the other legionares, who were staring openly at him.

  “Who are you?” Nonus asked in a quiet voice.

  “A smart soldier,” Tavi replied quietly, “knows when to keep his mouth shut. You’ve screwed up enough for one day already.”

  Nonus swallowed and saluted.

  “Move it, people,” Tavi said, raising his voice. He recovered the swords as the legionares marched out and tucked the curved Kalaran knife through his belt.

  “What now?” Kitai asked him quietly.

  “Now we take everything to Cyril,” Tavi said quietly. “Ehren, Yanar, all of it. The captain will know what to do.” More red lightning played overhead, and Tavi shivered. “Come on. I’ve got a feeling we don’t have any time to lose.”

  Chapter 27

  “Isana,” Giraldi rumbled. “Steadholder, I’m sorry, but there’s no more time. You need to wake.”

  Isana tried for a moment to remain in the blissful darkness of sleep, but then forced herself to open her eyes and sit up. She felt thoroughly wretched, exhausted, and wanted nothing more than lie down once more.

  But that was not an option.

  Isana blinked whatever exhaustion she could from her eyes. ‘ ”Thank you, centurion.”

  “Ma’am,” Giraldi said, with a nod, and stepped back from the bed.

  Veradis looked up from where she sat beside Fade and the healing tub, holding the unconscious slave’s hand. “Apologies, Steadholder,” the healer murmured with a weak smile. “I have no more than an hour to give today.”

  “It’s all right, Veradis,” Isana replied. “If you hadn’t given me a chance to get some sleep, I’d never have lasted this far. May I have a moment to . . .”

  Veradis nodded with another faint smile. “Of course.”

  Isana availed herself of the facilities and returned to kneel beside Veradis, slipping her own hand between hers and Fade’s, and reassuming control of the steady effort of furycraft required to fight the man’s infection. The first time she had handed the crafting off to Veradis, it had been a difficult, delicate maneuver—one only possible because of an unusual degree of similarity in their styles of furycraft, in fact. Repetition had made the extraordinary feat commonplace over the past twenty days.

  Or was it twenty-one, Isana thought wearily. Or nineteen. The days began blurring together once the low, heavy storm clouds above the city had rolled in. Even now, they roiled restlessly above them, flickering with sullen thunder and crimson light but withholding the rain that should have come with it. The storm cast the world into continual twilight and darkness, and she had no way to measure the passing of time.

  Even so, Isana had managed, barely, to hang on to the furycrafting that was Fade’s only hope. Without Veradis giving her the odd hour or two to sleep, now and then, Fade would long since have died.

  “How is he?” Isana asked. She settled down in the seat Veradis rose from.

  The young healer once more bound Isana’s hand to Fade’s with soft rope. “The rot has lost some ground,” Veradis said quietly. “But he’s been in the tub too long, and he hasn’t kept enough food down. His skin is developing a number of sores, which . . .” She shook her head, took a breath and began again. “You know what happens then.”

  Isana nodded. “Other sicknesses are pressing in.”

  “He’s getting weaker, Steadholder,” Veradis said. “If he doesn’t rally soon—”

  They were interrupted as the room’s door banged opened. “Lady Veradis,” said an armed legionare in a strained, urgent voice. “You must hurry. He’s dying.”

  Veradis grimaced, her eyes sunken and weary. Then she rose, and said to Isana, “I don’t know if I shall be able to return again,” she said quietly.

  Isana nodded once. Veradis turned and walked from the room, her steps swift, calm, and certain. “Describe the injury,” she said. The legionare’s description of the blow of a heavy mallet faded as the pair walked down the hall.

  Giraldi watched them go, then rumbled, “Steadholder? You should eat. I’ll bring you some broth.”

  “Thank you, Giraldi,” Isana said quietly. The old soldier left the room, and she turned her attention to the crafting within Fade.

  The pain of exposing herself to the substances within Fade had not lessened in the least. It had, however, become something familiar, something she knew and could account for—and as she had grown more weary, day by day, as she grew less able to distinguish it as a separate entity from her body’s exhaustion, it had become increasingly unimportant.

  She settled herself comfortably in the seat, her eyes open but unfocused. The infection now existed as a solid image in her mind that represented its presence within Fade. She pictured it as a mound of rounded stones, each solid and heavy, but also eminently moveable. She waited for a moment, until the beating of her heart and the slow cadences of her breath matched those of the wounded man. Then, in her mind’s eye, she picked up the nearest stone and lifted it, carrying it aside and tossing it into a featureless imaginary stream. Then she repeated the action, deliberate, resolute, one stone after another.

  She did not know how much time passed as she focused on helping Fade’s body fight the contagion, but she suddenly felt a presence beside her at the imagined mound of rock.

  Fade stood there, frowning up at the mound of rocks. He did not look as he did in the healing tub, worn and wan and wasted. Instead, he appeared to her as a young man—thin with youth and a body not yet done filling out. His hair was cut Legion style, his face bore no scar of a coward’s brand, and he wore the simple breeches and tunic of an off-duty soldier. “Hello,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

  “You’re sick, “ Isana told the image. “You need to rest, Fade, and let me help you.”

  At the mention of his name, the image figure frowned. His features changed for a moment, aged, the scar of the coward’s brand emerging from his skin. He reached up to touch his face, frowning. “Fade . . .” he murmured. Then his eyes widened. He looked up at Isana, and his features abruptly aged, hair growing longer, scars reappearing. “Isana?”

  “Yes,” she murmured.

  “I was wounded,” he said. He blinked his eyes as if trying to focus. “Aren’t we in Ceres?”

  “Yes,” she said. “You’re unconscious. I’m attempting to craft you well.”

  Fade shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s happening. Is this a dream?”

  An interesting thought. Isana paused to consider him. “It might be. I’m in a state of mind somewhere close to sleep. You’ve had a fever for days, and I’ve been in close contact with you, through Rill, almost the whole time. I’ve felt the edges of some of your dreams—but you’ve been in a fever the whole while. It was mostly just confusion.”

  Fade smiled a little. “This must be your dream, then.”

  “In a manner o
f speaking,” she said.

  “Days . . .” He frowned. “Isana, isn’t that sort of crafting very dangerous?”

  “Not as dangerous as doing nothing, I’m afraid,” she said.

  Fade shook his head. “I meant for you.”

  “I’m prepared for it,” Isana said.

  “No,” Fade said, abruptly. “No, Isana. You aren’t to take this kind of risk for me. Someone else must.”

  “There is no one else,” Isana said quietly.

  “Then you must stop,” Fade said. “You cannot come to harm on my account.”

  Back in the physical world, Isana dimly felt Fade begin to move, the first such motion in days. He tried, weakly, to pull his hand from hers.

  “No,” Isana said firmly. She went to fetch the next stone and resume her steady labor. “Stop this, Fade. You must rest.”

  “I can’t,” Fade said. “I can’t be responsible for more harm to you. Bloody crows, Isana.” His voice became thick with anguished grief. “I’ve failed him more than enough already.”

  “No. No you haven’t.”

  “I swore to protect him,” Fade said. “And when he needed me most, I left him to die.”

  “No,” Isana said quietly. “He ordered you to see us clear of the Valley. To keep us safe.”

  “I shouldn’t have followed the order,” Fade said, his voice suddenly vicious with self-hatred. “My duty was to protect him. Preserve him. He had already lost two of his singulares because of me. I’m the one who lamed Miles. Who drove Aldrick from his service.” His hands clenched into fists. “I should never have left him. No matter what he said.”

  “Fade,” Isana said quietly. “Whatever killed Septimus must have been too much for anyone to stop. He was the son of the First Lord, and every bit as powerful as his father. Perhaps more so. Do you really think you could have made a difference?”

  “I might have,” Fade said. “Whatever killed Septimus, I might have been able to stop it. Or at least slow it down enough to allow him to handle it. Even if I only managed to preserve him a single second, and even if I’d died doing it, it might have been all he needed.”