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Princeps' Fury, Page 29

Jim Butcher

  "But the Vord in Maraul did not move in unison," Lararl said.

  "Exactly. They're moving by some form of relayed command, not by the guidance of dozens of queens working together over distances." Tavi tapped the centermost stone with his finger. "Word had to be taken to each successive element along the lines. The queen had to trigger the attack."

  Varg growled in interest. "Theories are air and wasted effort until proven. What other evidence supports this theory?"

  "Maraul's major counterattack targeted the northernmost element of the enemy lines," Lararl replied. He paced over to the table and crouched at Tavi's side, openly interested. "Look at the region. It makes no sense to focus a major attack there. There is nothing of strategic value anywhere nearby, and no way to defend it efficiently had it ever been taken." He glanced up at Tavi. "The queen?"

  Tavi nodded. "I think that someone in Maraul deduced the queen's existence. I think they waited for her northernmost element to advance again, and hit her with everything they had." Tavi moved several white stones into the northern edge of the Vord lines. He swept up the black stone and dropped it back out at the edge of the range. "They crushed the elements in the north of the Vord line, taking heavy losses. But after that, they spent almost three weeks pushing the rest of the Vord back--the only time it's been done, as far as your records show, Warmaster."

  Tavi took up the other black stones, and a pair of the whites, until they were in their original positions again, the forces of Maraul reduced, but in control of the map.

  "Three weeks later, the Vord advanced again, with heavier forces." He gestured at the sand table. "They repeated the same pattern, the same battle, over the next year--periods of fierce fighting at the enemy's origination point, followed by rapid assaults from Maraul's warriors that drove the Vord back."

  Lararl growled quietly. "Until the Vord ground them away."

  Tavi nodded.

  "Warmaster," Tavi said, turning to Lararl, "according to your scouts' reports, the Vord fought in undisciplined wave assaults when they attacked Maraul--and yet the horde at the fortifications moves in an extremely ordered fashion."

  "True," Lararl said, tilting his head slightly to one side.

  "My theory," Tavi said slowly, "is that, for whatever reason, they were short of queens. I think maybe they only had the original and the two daughter-queens she produced."

  "Sterile?" Lararl growled.

  Tavi shrugged. "They're operating at a disadvantage for no reason, otherwise."

  Varg flicked his ears in assent. "The attack on the fortifications is disciplined. Therefore, a queen must be present."

  "There must also be one with the flanking force in our rear," Lararl said. He looked at Tavi. "Could a single queen control the entire horde before my walls?"

  Tavi spread his hands. "Evidence suggests that she could--but that her ability to control it does indeed have a limited range--somewhere under twenty miles, perhaps even less."

  Lararl nodded. "Then we must kill these queens."

  "And do what?" Tavi asked him, in a calm voice. "Kill millions more of the Vord in less than three weeks? Because that's how long it would take the original queen to produce a new daughter, if the battles in Maraul were any indication."

  Lararl drummed his claws on the stone edge of the sand table. It was a peculiar sound, an almost insectile series of clicks, and Tavi suppressed a shiver.

  "What would you have us do, then?" Lararl asked.

  "Run," Tavi said simply. "Get as many of your people away from the Vord as you can."

  "And go where? All of Canea is overrun."

  "To Alera," Tavi said calmly.

  Lararl let out a barking cough, a bitter sound. "You would have my folk abandon their home to become slaves in the demon lands?"

  "I've got enough problems relating to slavery already," Tavi replied drily. "No." He took a deep breath. "I would have your people and Varg's stand with us against the Vord."

  The room became deadly silent.

  "They aren't going to stop with Canea," Tavi said. The quiet words fell like lead weights, simple and heavy. "We must stand together--or die separately."

  The silence stretched.

  Lararl turned his head to Varg.

  The black-furred Cane stared at the sand table for a moment. Then he looked up at Lararl. "It would be an interesting fight, would it not?"

  The golden-furred Cane turned his gaze to Tavi, his eyes narrowed. "He is truly gadara to you?"

  Varg flicked his ears in assent. "We have shed blood together and exchanged blades."

  Lararl's ears quivered upright in startled surprise.

  "His word is good," Varg said.

  "And you must understand that we're going to have to trust one another," Tavi said. "Information has to be limited. If I'm wrong about the queens, or if there are other Vord who can see into minds, they could counter us easily. We've got to have the initiative, or none of us are going to live out the week."

  Varg and Lararl digested that for a quiet moment. Then Varg twitched his ears in consent.

  "You have many ships," Lararl said slowly. "But not enough for all of Shuar."

  "Let me worry about that."

  Lararl glanced at Varg, who flattened his ears in a gesture that was roughly the equivalent of an Aleran shrug. "Aleran sorcery is far more useful than that of the ritualists, in my experience. They do more than kill with it."

  Lararl grunted, then gestured at the sand map of Shuar. "If I divert enough warriors to crush the queen in our interior and safeguard my people, the Vord at the fortifications will surely overwhelm the defenses."

  "We aren't going to send your warriors against the queen," Tavi said.

  Varg growled. "Your Legions and my forces do not have sufficient supplies to carry out such a campaign, Tavar."

  "We aren't going to send them out to kill the queen, either," Tavi said. "We're going to do it ourselves."

  "Oh," Kitai said abruptly, her eyes glittering with sudden understanding. "Interesting."

  "Ourselves?" Varg asked.

  Tavi nodded. "My people here, and yours, together with any Hunters you can find, are going to hunt and kill the queen. Once that is done, and the Vord lose cohesion, all the civilians in Shuar"--Tavi turned to stare hard at Lararl--"every one of them," he said with emphasis, "should have a fighting chance to reach the coast."

  Lararl returned Tavi's stare. Then he tilted his head fractionally to one side. "Yes. All of them."

  Varg looked back and forth between the other two, and growled thoughtfully. "The queen is in the midst of her horde, Tavar. She will be difficult to reach."

  "Let me worry about that, too," Tavi said.

  Lararl let out a brief, exasperated growl. "If only you know the details of the operation, how can we cooperate effectively?"

  Varg gestured with one paw-hand. "Agreed. Your plan would limit us just as it does the Vord."

  Tavi bared his teeth in a smile. "Ah. But we have something the Vord do not have."

  Varg tilted his head to one side. "What is that?"



  The First Spear strode into the command tent and found Magnus glaring silently at Sir Carleus, the youngest, gangliest, largest-eared of the Knights Aeris in service to the First Aleran. Marcus nodded to the elderly Cursor and returned the young Knight's immediate salute.

  "Magnus," the First Spear said, "what's going on?"

  "Wait a moment," Magnus said, his clenched jaws making the word tight with tension. "I don't want to have to explain it twice."


  Magnus grimaced. "Bloody crows, I don't want to have to explain it at all, but . . ."

  Just then the tent flap opened and admitted a tall, gangly man; Perennius, the senior Tribune and acting captain of the Free Legion. He saluted the room generally. "Marcus, sir Knight, Maestro. I came as quickly as I could." He paused, then added, mildly, "Why?"

  "Please, Captain," Magnus said. "If you will be p
atient for a moment more, I will explain."

  Perennius glanced at the First Spear, who shrugged.

  A moment later, there was something of an anticommotion outside; the sudden absence of the camp's usual background noises. Marcus went to the tent flap and peered out, only to see a dozen heavily armored warrior Canim striding through the First Aleran's camp, their paw-hands resting upon their weapons. Legionares stood out of the path of the group of Canim, but every one of them kept a hand on his own weapon, as well.

  From the markings on their armor--though Marcus was hardly an expert on the intricate customs that infused the Canim practice--it would appear that the soldiers were among the best in the horde that had returned from Alera, their black armor heavily decorated in bands and whorls of scarlet.

  Leading them was Nasaug, his own armor nearly solid red across its entire surface. Beside him walked Gradash, the grizzled Cane that Marcus had come to think of as his opposite number among the Canim.

  With no discernible signal whatsoever, the escort of Canim warriors came to a halt on the same stride, perhaps thirty feet from the command tent. Nasaug and Gradash continued on, Nasaug tipping an Aleran-style nod to Marcus.

  Marcus returned it with the Canim motion, dipping his head slightly to one side, and said, "Good afternoon. Please come in."

  "First Spear," Nasaug said. "Word has come from my sire?"

  Marcus made a growling sound in his chest. "That isn't entirely clear yet."

  Gradash's muzzle wrinkled in distaste. "Secrets. Pah. Hunter-games, is it?"

  "Smells like it," Marcus confirmed, and went back inside with the two Canim.

  Perennius threw Nasaug a smart salute as he entered, and Nasaug returned the gesture with a slight tilt of his head. "Ah!" the Free Legion's captain said. "Now I see. Word from the expedition inland."

  "Gentlemen, please," the old Maestro said. "Wait for the Knight to secure the conversation, if you would."

  Sir Carleus sighed, frowned in concentration, then lifted his hand. Marcus recognized the signs of a man strained almost beyond his crafting limits. The young Knight was exhausted--but the windcrafting that snapped up around them and put a brief pressure on his ears was solid enough, and should serve to completely silence the conversation to the world outside the tent.

  "Thank you," Magnus told the Knight. He turned to the others and held up a letter, written on the overlarge pages of Canim vellum. "This letter bears the signature and seal of both the Princeps and of Warmaster Varg. According to its text, I was to summon the current company to the tent, ward it from observation, and turn the briefing over to Sir Carleus. Tribune Foss has already worked a truthfinding on Sir Carleus, and found no reason to doubt his claim. Can we agree that the signatures and seals are genuine?"

  He passed the letter over, and Marcus scanned over them, finding what he knew the Cursor had already learned. The letter was in Octavian's handwriting, and both seal and signature looked genuine. Granted, the average soldier wouldn't have known the signs of a forgery, so Marcus--perhaps he hadn't completely forgotten intrigue craft, after all--replied, "It seems to be the Princeps' hand to me."

  Nasaug took the letter. His ears quivered as he read the Canim script aloud to Gradash. "The tavar is clever. Heed him. Varg."

  Magnus winced at the words and muttered something less than gracious beneath his breath. ". . . begotten jackass, thinks that, of course, anyone who disagrees with him must be a drooling old moron--"

  The First Spear cleared his throat pointedly.

  Magnus flipped his hand at him in an irritated wave, and said, "Sir Knight, your report, please."

  Carleus bobbed his head toward the group in general in a brief bow. "My lo . . . uh, sirs. The Princeps wishes you to know that the province of Shuar is the last Canim range that has not been overrun by the Vord. He further advises you that it cannot remain standing for much longer. He and the Shuaran command estimate that the Vord will have engulfed the range entirely within the next three weeks."

  The tent was deathly silent. Marcus glanced at the two Canim but could read nothing in their body language.

  "His Highness warns you that Vord queens are operating in the area. Their operating patterns and their success thus far suggest that they may be gathering intelligence directly from the minds of their opponents."

  Perennius let out a low whistle. "They can do that?"

  "Yes, yes," Magnus said, waving a hand at the Free Legion's acting captain in a suppressing gesture. "It was in the documents sent to you at the beginning of the trip."

  "Ah," Perennius said, smiling at Magnus rather wolfishly. "Must have missed that detail. I did find something useful to do with the paper, though."

  "Perennius," Nasaug rumbled, the faintest hint of a rebuke in his tone.

  Carleus coughed quietly. "In an effort to conceal his intentions from the enemy, the Princeps has issued written orders for each of you. The orders are sealed closed, and it is his command that you open them one at a time, in sequence. Instructions for opening the second order will be found within the first, and so on."

  Marcus pursed his lips and mused on that. Clever. A spy that can lift information directly from the enemy's thoughts was a dream or a nightmare come true, depending upon whom the spy was working for: But a man could not give away information he did not possess in the first place, no matter how talented the spy might be. It was a simple, clever counter to the Vord's abilities.

  In theory, at any rate. Conditions in the field were never static. Whoever was following Octavian's orders would effectively be blindfolded, bound to the chain of orders, and unable to operate upon his own initiative. That was a recipe for disaster. Octavian had a natural talent for that kind of thing, but not even a scion of the House of Gaius could see the future with the necessary accuracy. Every passing hour would make it more likely that his planning and his orders would become hopelessly irrelevant.

  "As the Princeps is well aware," Magnus said, "the environment of a military theater is neither static nor entirely foreseeable."

  "Yes, sir," Carleus said, nodding. He unslung a heavy courier's pouch from the strap over his shoulder and dropped it on a table with a weighty-sounding thud. "He has done his best to outline the most probable courses of events." Carleus flushed slightly. "It means he's built a number of options into each set of orders, and into each of those options and so on, including the possibility that you might need to act outside his outline. It was quite a bit of writing."

  Marcus grunted. "That's something, at any rate," he said. He glanced over at Nasaug. "And you? Are you willing to follow these orders?"

  "For now," Nasaug said. "I trust my sire's judgment."

  The old Cursor shook his head. "He's going to clever us all into a bloody grave." He extended his hand to Carleus. "If it's going to happen, I'd rather not wait around for it. My orders, please."

  The young Knight passed a packet of folded, sealed orders to each of them. Marcus examined his own stack of papers. Each individual order was clearly, simply numbered, and written on an individual, overlarge page of Canim parchment. He found one labeled "Order Number One," and opened it.

  Hello, Marcus.

  I need you to take every legionare along with Nasaug's troops and the Free Legion, and march directly west at the earliest possible moment. Do not attempt to conceal your movements. Coordinate with Nasaug and Perennius.

  Leave your engineers and the entire contingent of Knights behind, along with those of the Free Legion. Maestro Magnus will set them to their tasks.

  Take whatever supplies you can. Open the next set of orders when you have marched at least twenty miles.


  Marcus read it again, just to be sure, then shook his head. "Well. That's cryptic." He glanced up at the old Cursor. "Yours?"

  Maestro Magnus glowered at his orders, his face twisted up as if he'd been sipping vinegar. "They are brief and irrational," he said.

  Nasaug snorted and refolded his own orders. "The Princeps ha
s flaws that can be exploited," the Cane said. "Predictability is not one of them. Nor is stupidity."

  Perennius said nothing, but his eyes were narrowed, the set of his jaw stubborn. For a long moment, no one spoke.

  "The question," Marcus said, "is now before us. What will we do?"

  He could all but feel the weight of their intent gazes upon his face. He looked slowly around the tent. Nasaug nodded once at him. Perennius followed the Cane's lead. Magnus sighed, and nodded to the First Spear as well.