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Cursor's Fury, Page 30

Jim Butcher

  “Or it might not,” Isana said quietly. “You might have died senselessly with him. You know he wouldn’t have wanted that.”

  Fade clenched his teeth, the tightened muscles of his jaw distorting the lines of his face. “I should have died with them. I wish I had.” He shook his head. “Part of me died that day, Isana. Araris Valerian. Araris the brave. I ran from the fight. I left the side of the man I swore to protect.”

  Isana stopped and touched the brand upon his face. “This was only a disguise, Araris. A costume. A mask. They had to think you were dead if you were to be able to protect Tavi.”

  “It was a disguise,” Araris said, bitter. “It was also the truth.”

  Isana sighed. “No, Fade. You are the most courageous man I’ve ever known.”

  “I left him,” he said. “I left him.”

  “Because he wished you to protect us.”

  “And I failed him in that, as well. I let your sister die.”

  Isana felt a dart of remembered pain strike her chest. “There was nothing you could have done. That was not your fault.”

  “It was. I should have seen that Marat. Should have stopped him b-before—” Fade held his hands up to his ears and shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t see him, see you, be there anymore, my lady please, just leave me, let me go to him, to my lord, left him, coward mark, coward heart . .

  He trailed off into incoherent babbling, and when his body thrashed weakly in the healing tub, trying to take his hand from hers, the image-Fade vanished again, leaving Isana alone with the mound of imaginary stones.

  She went back to work.

  Later, she blinked her eyes, forcing her thoughts back to the chamber in Cereus’s citadel for a moment, looking around the room. Fade lay in the tub, muscles quivering in random little twitches. She reached across him to touch his forehead with her free hand, and confirmed what she already knew.

  Fade had given up the fight. He did not want to recover.

  His fever had grown worse.

  He was dying.

  The door opened and Giraldi paced quietly into the room, a mug of broth in his hand. “Steadholder?”

  She gave him a faint smile as he passed her the mug. It was difficult for her to eat and keep food down, given the constant pain the crafting required, but it was vital that she do so. “Thank you, centurion.”

  “Course.” He stumped over to the window and stared out. “Crows, Steadholder. I always hated getting into a battle. But I think standing around like this is worse.” The fingers of his sword hand opened and closed rhythmically upon his cane.

  Isana took a slow sip of broth. “How fares the battle?”

  “Kalare’s taken the upper hand,” Giraldi responded. “He worked out how to draw out Cereus’s Knights so that he could eliminate them.”

  Isana closed her eyes and shook her head. “What happened?”

  “He ordered his Knights to attack a residential district,” Giraldi replied. “Including the city’s largest orphanage and a number of streets where retired legionares were living out their pensions.”

  Isana grimaced. “Great furies. The man is a monster.” Giraldi grunted. “Worked, though.” His voice became something distant, impersonal. “There’s only so many times you can see an elder getting cut down. Only so many times you can hear a child screaming. Then you have to do something. Even if it’s stupid.”

  “How bad were the losses?”

  “Kalare and his son were personally involved in the attack. Cereus lost half his knights. Mostly Knights Aeris. If Captain Miles and the Crown Legion’s Knights hadn’t intervened, they’d have died to a man. Cereus himself was injured, getting them out of the trap. He and Captain Miles went up against Kalarus and his son in the front hall of the orphanage. From what I’ve heard, it was an amazing battle.”

  “In my experience, rumors rarely bother to get the details correct,” said a gentle voice at the door.

  Isana turned to find Captain Miles standing in the doorway, still in full battle armor, his helmet under his left arm. The armor and helm were both dented and scratched in too many places to count. The right arm of his tunic was soaked in blood to the elbow, and his hand rested on the hilt of his gladius. His hair was Legion-cropped, greying, and he smelled of sweat and rust and blood. He was not a particularly large man, and he had plain features that gave Isana an immediate sense of fidelity and loyalty. He moved with a detectable limp as he stepped into the room, but though he spoke to Isana and Giraldi, his eyes were on the man in the healing tub.

  “Cereus played the wounded bird and lured them in. They came in to take him down, and I was hiding in the rafters. I hit the boy from behind and wounded him badly enough to make Kalarus panic and pull him out.”

  “Captain,” Giraldi said with a nod. “I heard Kalarus tried to roast you for it, sir.”

  Miles shrugged. “I wasn’t in the mood for roast. I ran away.” He nodded to Isana. “Steadholder. Do you know who I am?”

  Isana glanced at Fade and back to Miles. They were brothers, though Miles, like the rest of Alera, had thought Araris dead for nearly twenty years. “I know you,” she said quietly.

  “I would ask a favor of you.” He glanced at Giraldi, including him in the sentiment. “A few private moments of your time, Steadholder?”

  “She’s working,” Giraldi said, and though his tone was not disrespectful, neither was it prepared to compromise. “She doesn’t need any distractions.”

  Miles hovered for a moment, as though uncertain of which way to move. Then he said, “I spoke to Lady Veradis. She said that there might not be much more time.”

  Isana glanced away. Despair washed through her for a moment, her weariness lending it tremendous potency. She pushed the tide of it away, then said, “It’s all right Giraldi.”

  The centurion grunted. Then he nodded to Isana and limped to the door on his cane. “A moment,” he said to Miles. “I’ll hold you to it, sir.”

  Miles nodded, and waited for Giraldi to depart the room. Then he went to Fade’s side, knelt, and laid a hand on the unconscious slave’s head. “He’s on fire,” Miles said quietly.

  “I know,” Isana replied. “I’m doing all that I can.”

  “I should have come sooner,” Miles said, his voice bitter. “Should have been here every day.”

  From outside, there came the loud, hollow cough of thunder that accompanied a firecrafter’s assault, when fire would suddenly blossom from nothing into a white-hot sphere. The fire-thunder was answered, seconds later, by an almost-continuous rumbling from the glowering storm.

  “You’ve been somewhat busy,” Isana said, tired amusement in her voice.

  Miles shook his head. “It wasn’t that. It was . . .” He frowned. “My big brother. He always won. He’s been in fights that should have killed him time and time again. And even when he did die, he managed to come back. It may have taken him twenty years, but he did it.” Miles shook his head. “Invincible. Maybe part of me didn’t want to admit that he might not be. That I might . .

  Lose him, Isana thought, finishing his thought.

  “Can he hear me?” Miles asked.

  Isana shook her head. “I don’t know. He’s been in and out of consciousness, but he’s grown more incoherent each day.”

  Miles bit his lip and nodded, and Isana felt the depth of his grief, pain, and regret. He looked up at her, his eyes frightened, almost like a child’s. “Is what Veradis said true?” he asked. “Is he going to die?”

  Isana knew what Miles wanted to hear. His emotions and his eyes were begging her for hope.

  She met Miles’s eyes, and said quietly, “Probably. But I’m not going to give up on him.”

  Miles blinked his eyes several times and moved his right hand as though brushing sweat from his forehead. It left his face smeared with thin streaks of the blood on his sleeve. “All right,” he said quietly. Then he leaned down closer to Fade. “Rari. It’s Miles. I’m . . .” He bowed his head, at a loss f
or words. “I’m here, Rari. I’m here.”

  He looked up at Isana. “Is there anything I can do help you?”

  Isana shook her head. “He’s . . . he’s very tired. And very sick. And he isn’t fighting it. He isn’t trying to recover.”

  Miles frowned. “That doesn’t sound like him. Why not?”

  Isana let out a sigh. “I don’t know. He’s only been lucid enough to speak for a few moments. And even then, he wasn’t making much sense. Guilt, perhaps. Or perhaps he’s just too tired.”

  Miles stared down at Fade for a moment. He was about to speak when boots thumped up to the door.

  “Captain!” called a young man’s warbling voice. One of the citadel’s pages, then. “My lord requests your immediate presence.”

  Miles looked up at Isana, and called, “On my way.” Then he bent down and leaned his forehead against Fade’s for a second. Then he rose. “Should he come around again before . . . Please tell him I came to see him.”

  “Of course,” Isana said.

  “Thank you,” Miles said.

  Miles left the room. Giraldi stuck his head back in, glanced around once, then went back out. He shut the door and leaned his back against it to prevent any more disturbances, Isana supposed.

  Miles had been right. Fade was not the sort of man simply to surrender. He had lived with the guilt of Septimus’s death for twenty years, yet never attempted to end his life, never given in to despair.

  It had to be something else. Something more.

  Bloody crows, Isana thought. If only he could speak to her. Even if just for a moment. She ground her teeth in frustration.

  Outside, fire-thunder boomed and cracked. Trumpets blared. Drums rattled. Beneath them, the roar of angry armies. The sullen sky flickered with spiteful thunder.

  Isana finished the broth, forced all such distractions from her mind, and went back to work.

  Chapter 28

  Captain Cyril stared at Ehren for a long moment. Then his mouth turned down into a thoughtful frown. He studied the almost-too-bright silver of one of Gaius’s personal coins, given to the Cursors as tokens of their authority. A full minute passed before he asked, “Are you sure?”

  “Yes, sir,” Ehren said, his tone grim and calm.

  They stood inside the captain’s command tent, flaps down, lit by a pair of soft yellow furylamps. When they arrived, Cyril had been awake, armored, and waiting for them without a trace of sleep lingering in his eyes. His bedroll was neatly stored atop the standard trunk in the corner. The soldier who led by example.

  A brief silence followed Ehren’s reply, and Magnus used the time to refresh the captain’s cup of tea. Max waggled his own empty cup at Magnus. Magnus arched an eyebrow at him, then passed him the carafe. Max smiled and poured his own, then refilled Tavi’s as well.

  “Marcus?” Max asked.

  Valiar Marcus shook his head, declining. The ugly old centurion stood beside the captain, scratching at his head. “Sir, I have to wonder if this isn’t a hoax of some kind. The Canim have never come to Alera’s shores in such numbers.”

  Ehren looked ragged and tired, but he bristled at the First Spear’s words. “Are you calling me a liar, centurion?”

  “No,” the First Spear said, meeting Ehren’s eyes. “But a man may speak the truth and still be incorrect.”

  Ehren clenched his hands into fists, but Cyril stopped him with a hard look. “The First Spear is right to be cautious, sir Cursor,” he said to Ehren.

  “Why?” Ehren demanded.

  “Because of the timing,” Cyril said. “Kalarus’s Legions have marched upon the forces of the First Lord.”

  Ehren stared at him for a moment. “What?”

  Cyril nodded. “Ceres is under siege. Kalarus’s forces have cut off the eastern High Lords for the time being. Placida and Attica stand neutral. If Kalarus could manage to create a false threat from the Canim and force Aleran Legions to respond, it could spread Gaius’s supporters out more thinly, rob them of the advantage of numbers.”

  Ehren shook his head. “I saw them, Captain, with my own eyes. Hundreds of ships, driven before the storm that has made it all but impossible for us to fly, to carry word swiftly, to outmaneuver them. This is no mere raid.”

  The First Spear grunted. “How come this didn’t come through official channels of intelligence?”

  “Because I made landfall at the harbor in Redstone to find that my contact in the Cursors had been murdered the previous week. I didn’t dare reveal myself for fear that his murderers would be watching for other Cursors.”

  “A plausible explanation,” Cyril said. “But one that does not readily lend itself to confirmation. My orders are to hold the bridge, Sir Ehren, not to mount expeditions against an incursion. I am willing to send out a party to verify—”

  “Captain,” Ehren said, voice rising in alarm. “There’s no time for that. My ship outran the Canim armada, but not by much. If they kept their pace, they’ll make landfall in the harbor at Founderport in the next few hours. There aren’t many harbors along this coast. It’s obvious that they must control the Elinarch or risk being attacked from several directions.” He pointed to the south. “They’re coming here, Captain. By this time tomorrow, you’ll have the largest Canim battlepack in the history of Alera coming over that hill.”

  Cyril frowned at Ehren for a moment, then looked at the First Spear.

  “Crows,” Marcus muttered, running a finger down the lumpy bridge of his often-broken nose. “Why?” he asked. “Why here? Why now?”

  It came to Tavi in a flash. “Wrong question, centurion.” Tavi looked at Cyril and said, “Not ‘why,’ sir. Who.”

  “Who?” Cyril asked.

  “Who are they working with,” Tavi said quietly.

  Silence fell.

  “No,” Max said after a moment. “No Aleran Citizen would have traffic with the Canim. Not even Kalarus. It’s . . . no, it’s unthinkable.”

  “And,” Tavi said, “it is the most likely explanation. This storm has blinded us and severely harms our ability to coordinate.”

  “It does the same to Kalarus,” the First Spear pointed out.

  “But he knew when it was coming. Where his targets were. Where he would strike. His forces were already coordinated and in motion.” Tavi glanced at Cyril. “That storm does far more to harm Gaius than Kalarus. The only problem is how the Canim told Kalarus that it was about to begin.” Tavi chewed his lip. “They’d need a signal of some kind.”

  “Like red stars?” the First Spear snarled in disgust. He spat a vile oath, hand coming to rest on his sword. “Kalarus’s attack began the night of the red stars. So did the Canim’s.”

  “Bloody crows,” Max said. He shook his head in disbelief. “Bloody crows.”

  Cyril looked at the First Spear, and said, “If they take the Elinarch, they’ll run right through Placida’s heartlands on the north side, and with the river protecting their flank, they’ll be able to lay waste to Ceres’ lands on the south.”

  “There’s not another full Legion within eight or nine hundred miles, sir,” the First Spear said. “And we can’t send any requests for reinforcement by air. No one could reach us in time to make any difference.” He set his jaw in a grim line, and said, “We’re alone out here.”

  “No,” Cyril corrected quietly. “We are a Legion. If we do not fight, the holders in the towns and steadholts the Canim will attack will be alone.”

  “The fish aren’t ready, sir,” Valiar Marcus warned. “Neither are the defenses of the town.”

  “Be that as it may. They are what we have. And by the great furies, they are Aleran legionares.” Cyril nodded once. “We fight.”

  The First Spear’s eyes glittered, and his teeth showed in a wolfish smile. “Yes, sir.”

  “Centurion, summon my officers here at once. All of them. Go.”

  “Sir,” Marcus said. He saluted and strode from the tent.

  “Antillar, you are to carry word to the cavalry and auxiliari
es to prepare for immediate deployment. I’m sending Fantus and Cadius Hadrian over the bridge tonight, to slow any advance elements of the enemy forces, gather what intelligence they can, and to give our holders a chance to run, if need be.”

  “Sir,” Max said. He saluted, nodded at Tavi, and strode out.

  “Magnus. Go into town and contact Councilman Vogel. Give him my compliments and ask him to send any boats that can manage it up the river to spread the word of a Canim incursion. Then ask him to open the town’s armory. I want as many militiamen as we can equip armed and ready to fight.”

  Maestro Magnus saluted the captain, nodded to Tavi, and slipped out.

  “And you, Scipio,” Cyril said, fixing a speculative stare on Tavi. “You seem to have a talent for finding trouble.”

  “I’d prefer to think that it finds me, sir.”

  The captain gave him a humorless smile. “Do you understand the wider implications of a relationship between Kalarus and the Canim, and the attempt to prevent Sir Ehren, here, from reaching us?”

  “Yes, sir,” Tavi said. “It means that Kalarus probably has further intelligence assets within the Legion, and that they may well take other actions to leave us more vulnerable to the Canim.”

  “A distinct possibility,” Cyril said, nodding. “Keep your eyes open. Carry word to Mistress Cymnea that the followers should ready to retreat to the town’s walls, should battle be joined.”

  “Sir,” Tavi said, saluting. “Shall I return here for the officers’ meeting?”

  “Yes. We’ll begin in twenty minutes.” Cyril paused and glanced from Tavi to Ehren. “Good work, you two.”

  “Thank you, sir,” Tavi said, inclining his head to Cyril in acknowledgment of the captain’s deduction. Then he traded a nod with Ehren and ducked out of the tent. He hurried through the lightning-strobed darkness as the camp began to waken from its late-night torpor to the sounds of shouted orders, nervous horses, and clanking armor.