Princeps fury, p.31
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Princeps' Fury, p.31

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  "No. No, no, no, look," Falco babbled, his voice quick and shaking. "I never had a problem with you. Okay? I never tried to lay a hand on you. I never said a thing to you while you were . . . questioning the prisoners."

  The woman's voice took on a hard, contemptuous edge. "Those people died for Alera. The least you can do is say the words. Ranius and I weren't questioning them, Falco. We were torturing them to death. And you did nothing. Bloody crows, you're gutless."

  "I just want to live!"

  "Everyone dies, Falco. Scramble all you want, but in the end you wind up like Ranius, there, no matter what you do."

  "You shouldn't have killed them," Falco said. "You shouldn't have killed them. He's going to be furious."

  "They died hard," the woman said. "But it was a cleaner death than they would have had if we'd brought them back. Cleaner than we're going to get."

  "Why didn't you stop Ranius?!" Falco whined. "You could have stopped him. You know what's going to happen to us when we tell him what happened to the Cursors. You're smart. You knew . . ."

  Falco's voice trailed off into tense silence.

  "You've still got half an hour," the woman said in a level tone. "You want to be quiet now."

  "You did it on purpose," Falco blurted. "You wanted the Cursors dead. So they couldn't talk. You're betraying him." He drew in a breath and his voice turned horrified. "You're betraying them."

  There was a low sigh from up the tunnel. "Crows take it, Falco . . ."

  "You lied to him," Falco continued in a dazed voice. "How the bloody crows did you lie to him?"

  "Lying is easy," the woman replied quietly. "Getting people to believe what you want them to believe is considerably more difficult. It helps to be able to distract them with something."

  "Oh, crows," Falco moaned. "Do you know what's going to happen to us when he finds out?"

  The woman's voice was calm--almost compassionate--and Amara finally placed it. "He isn't going to find out."

  "The crows he won't!" Falco retorted. "They'll know. They always know. I'm not going to have my guts ripped out for those things to crawl in!"

  "No," she said. "You aren't."

  Falco's voice turned panicked again. "Get away from me!"

  There were running footsteps. Then a hissing sound--a knife's blade cutting the air as it was thrown, Amara judged. Falco let out a scream of agony and, from the sound of it, stumbled and fell. There was the sound of quick, light footsteps, then a gurgling sigh.

  Amara moved forward until she could see the woman clearly.

  She wasn't pretty, precisely, but she was fit, her features strong and appealing. She wasn't particularly tall, but her stance was confident, her motions brisk and sure, blending into a sense of competence that permeated her entire presence. She wore leather flying trousers and a dark blouse. The latter was silk, and it was torn, revealing a swath of smooth skin. Her eyes were the color of rich earth after a rain. Blood speckled her face.

  A large man's body lay on the tunnel floor, his head twisted at a grotesque angle, his tongue protruding from between motionless lips: Ranius. A second man lay prone at her feet. He wasn't dead yet, technically, though the blood pumping from his slit throat into a pool on the stone floor was beginning to slow. A small throwing knife protruded from the hollow of one of his knees, precisely centered, sunk to the hilt.

  The woman crouched down over him and smoothed the man's hair with her hand. "I'm sorry, Falco," she said quietly. "I can't let you give me away. I'm sorry you had to be afraid for so long. But your life ended weeks ago."

  The man on the floor let out a small moan that ended in a little rattle. There was a terrible finality to the sound.

  The woman bowed her head for a moment, then took her hand from the man's hair and spoke, her tone a quiet eulogy. "There are worse things to be than a coward. It was cleaner than anything they'd have given you."

  She then began cleaning the bloody knife in her hand on his clothing. Once that was done, she jerked the throwing knife from the corpse's leg and cleaned it as well. She rose, her motions still brisk--then froze.

  Amara hadn't made a sound or moved, but the woman shifted her grip on her knife and turned to face back down the tunnel, toward her, her body moving into a ready crouch, one hand held out in front of her, the little weapon lifted and ready to be thrown. Her eyes were narrowed, questing up and down the hall, her head tilted slightly, one ear a little forward, and her nostrils were wide as if questing for a scent.

  Amara felt a second of sharp amusement. In any tunnels other than those leading to slave pens, she supposed her odor, anything but charming after weeks in the field, might well have given her away.

  She put a hand on her husband's chest to warn him back, and took two steps forward, letting her feet strike the stone, slowly lowering the veil around her as she did.

  The woman froze for a moment, then her eyes widened in recognition. "Countess Amara?"

  "Hello, Rook," Amara said quietly. She stepped forward, lifting her empty hands, and faced the former head of the late High Lord Kalarus's Bloodcrows, the mistress of his personal assassins. Rook's defection and subsequent cooperation with the Crown had been responsible, as much as anything else, for Kalarus's downfall.

  But what is she doing here?

  After a moment, Amara asked, "Are you going to throw that knife?"

  Rook lowered the weapon at once, rising out of her crouch a bit more slowly, letting out a long, steady exhalation. Then she slipped the weapon away and averted her eyes. "Don't talk to me."

  "It's all right," Amara said slowly. "I'm a Cursor. I understand what you did. I know you aren't the enemy."

  Rook let out a low, bitter croaking sound that might have been intended as a laugh. Then she lifted her chin, still without looking at Amara, and tugged the collar of her torn blouse back from her throat.

  A simple steel band gleamed there, a familiar slaver's device.

  A discipline collar.

  "That's where you're wrong, Countess," Rook said quietly. "I am."

  CHAPTER 28

  Isana met the tribal chiefs of the Icemen two days later, at the same place she had spoken with Big Shoulders.

  "This is ridiculous," Lady Placida said, pacing back and forth in the new snow. She was huddled beneath layered cloaks and shivering. "Honestly, Isana. Over the centuries, don't you think someone would have noticed if the Icemen were watercrafters?"

  "Don't let the cold make you cross," Isana said, struggling to ignore it herself. There was a certain amount watercrafting could do to mitigate the cold, by keeping blood flowing steadily throughout her own limbs, and by convincing the snow and ice not to be quite as chilling to her flesh as it might be otherwise. Combined with a good cloak, it was enough to make her comfortable, but just barely. She doubted Aria had ever had need to practice the combination of techniques before, and despite the fact that her skills were almost certainly greater than Isana's own, the High Lady was the one being forced to pace back and forth.

  "It's a simple bit of f-f-fieldcraft," Aria replied, shivering. Several tendrils of red hair slipped from beneath the green of her hood and danced back and forth over her face in the chill northern wind. "So simple that every single legionare in the northern Legions can learn it. And it takes someone of your skill at watercraft to even notice it's being used from five feet away. Surely you aren't saying that not only are the Icemen capable of furycraft, but that they're as skilled as Aleran Citizens, to boot?"

  "I don't believe anyone using that firecrafting to stay warm is capable of thinking very clearly when the Icemen are nearby," Isana said calmly. "I believe there is some sort of unanticipated side effect occurring--one that caused you to be provoked quite easily at the first meeting."

  Aria shook her head. "I think you're exaggerating the fact that--"

  "That you nearly assaulted Doroga, an ally who was there to help us and who had offered us no harm?" Isana interrupted gently. "I was there, Aria. I felt it with you. It was not
at all in character for you."

  The High Lady pressed her lips together, frowning. "The Icemen hadn't yet arrived."

  "Yes, they had," Araris put in gently. "We just didn't know it yet."

  Aria lifted one hand in a gesture of concession. "Then why doesn't it happen constantly? Why only when the Icemen are near?"

  Isana shook her head. "I don't know. Perhaps there's some kind of resonance with their own emotions. They seem to be able to project them to one another in some fashion. Perhaps we're experiencing some of their reaction to us."

  "So now you're saying that they're firecrafters as well?" Aria asked--but her eyes were thoughtful.

  "All I'm saying is that I think we'd be wise not to assume that we know everything," Isana said evenly.

  Aria shook her head and glanced at Araris. "What do you think?"

  Araris shrugged. "From a strictly logical standpoint, it's possible. The Icemen follow the heaviest storms down from the north, so it's always coldest when they meet legionares. It stands to reason that nearly everyone would be using the warmth crafting."

  "And no one was looking for that kind of influence," Isana said. "Why would they think intense anger at one of Alera's enemies was strange?"

  Aria shook her head. "Centuries of conflict over some sort of hypothetical furycrafting side effect?"

  "Only needs to happen for a few minutes at the wrong time," Doroga interjected from several yards away.

  Everyone turned to regard the barbarian, who stood beside his huge gargant, leaning his shoulders against Walker's tree trunk of a leg.

  "First impressions are important," Doroga continued. "Icemen don't look like you. That makes you people nervous."

  Araris grunted. "A bad first meeting. Tempers flare. There's a fight. Then more encounters and more fights."

  "Happens long enough, you call that a war," Doroga said, nodding.

  Lady Placida was silent for a moment. Then she said, "It can't possibly be that simple."

  "Of course not," Isana said. "But a single pebble can start a rockslide."

  "Three hundred years," Doroga said, idly kicking at the snow. "Not over territory. Not over hunting grounds. No one gains anything. You're just killing each other."

  Aria considered that for a moment and shrugged. "It does seem a bit irrational, I suppose. But after so much killing, so much death . . . it takes on a momentum of its own."

  The Marat grunted. "Thought I heard someone say something about a rockslide less than a minute ago. But maybe I imagined that."

  Aria arched an imperiously exasperated eyebrow at the barbarian.

  Doroga smiled.

  Aria sighed and shook her head, folding her arms a little closer to her chest. "You don't think much of us, do you, Doroga?"

  The barbarian shrugged his heavy shoulders. "I like the ones I talk to. But taken as a whole, you can be pretty stupid."

  Aria smiled faintly at the barbarian. "For example?"

  The chieftain considered for a moment with pursed lips. "Be my guess that your folk never even considered that you might have it backward."

  "Backward?" Lady Placida asked.

  Doroga nodded. "Backward. Icemen don't follow the storms when they attack, Your Grace." He gave Aria a shrewd look as a particularly cold gust of wind threw up a brief, blinding curtain of snow. "The storms," he called, "follow them!"

  The snow kept Isana from seeing Aria's face, but she clearly felt the startled little flicker of surprise--and concern--that suddenly permeated the woman's emotions.

  The wind died away, and as suddenly as that, nine Icemen stood in a loose circle around them.

  Isana felt Araris and Aria immediately touch shoulders with her and with each other, forming an outward-facing triangle. Araris exuded nothing--no tension, no discomfort, no fear: She sensed nothing but the steady confidence and detachment of a master metalcrafter withdrawn into communion with his furies, ignoring all emotion and discomfort to stand ready against a threat. That presence bolstered Isana, granted her confidence she badly needed, and she studied the newly appeared Icemen closely.

  There were differences in them, Isana saw at once. Instead of bearing similar styles of weaponry and adornment, as the group with Big Shoulders had, each of the nine was perfectly distinctive.

  Big Shoulders was there again, fur and leathers and a handmade but obviously functional spear in his hands. But the Iceman beside him was at least a foot taller and far thinner, with a barely perceptible orange tint to his white fur. He carried a large club made out of what looked like the leg bone of some enormous animal, though Isana had no idea what could possibly grow femurs six and a half feet long. The fur around his head was threaded with seashells, a hole bored through each of them to make them into beads.

  The Iceman on the other side of Big Shoulders was shorter than Isana, and probably weighed three or four of her. He was clad in a mantle and breastplate of what looked like sharkskin, and carried in one hand a broad-headed, barbed harpoon carved from some kind of bone, and wore over his shoulder a quiver of what looked like smaller versions of the weapon.

  Walker let out a low, trumpeting huff that was equally a greeting and a warning, and Doroga nodded to Big Shoulders. "Morning."

  "Friend Doroga," Big Shoulders said. He gestured to the orange-tinted Iceman beside him, and said, "Sunset." He made a similar gesture to the harpoon-bearing Iceman on his other side, and said, "Red Water."

  Doroga nodded to each of them, then said, to Isana, "Sunset is the eldest of the peace-chiefs. Red Water is the eldest war-chief."

  Isana frowned. "They have different leaders, then?"

  "Divide areas of authority between tasks of peace and tasks of war," Doroga corrected her.

  The presence of both the head peace leader and senior war leader was a statement, then, Isana realized. The Icemen were equally disposed toward either outcome. It might mean that they did not want her to sense that they would be reluctant to fight--or they might genuinely want to sabotage any possible talk of truce in favor of ongoing hostilities. Then again, perhaps they were simply being sincere.

  Isana let out a slow breath, and lowered the defenses with which she habitually shielded herself from the overwhelming emotions of others. She wanted every scrap of insight she could get about the Icemen.

  Lady Aria's faint, tightly controlled anxiety became a painful rasp against Amara's senses, as did Doroga's low-key, abiding worry for his daughter. Behind her, very faintly, she could literally sense the presence of Alerans on the Shieldwall, cloaked in their gentle firecraftings against the cold. The wall hummed with a sensation of constant, quiet, long-term emotion that might or might not have stopped short of the line between anger and hatred.

  "The young one tells us you are here to seek peace," said Sunset quietly, in accented but intelligible Aleran.

  Isana arched an eyebrow and nodded to him. "We are."

  Though none of them moved or reacted, Isana felt a ripple of suspicion and uneasiness flicker around the circle of Icemen.

  Isana drew in a quick breath, touched Araris's wrist to tell him to stay where he was, and stepped forward, focusing on making her emotions as plain and obvious as they could be. She stepped forward toward Sunset and offered her hand.

  There was a flash of suspicious fury, and Red Waters was abruptly between them, the wickedly sharp tip of his harpoon dimpling the skin of Isana's cheek.

  Steel hissed as two swords leapt clear of their sheaths, and there was an abrupt surge of light and hot air at Isana's back.

  "Aria, no!" Isana snapped in a tone of sudden, iron authority. "You will not do this." She turned--a calm, deliberate motion that nonetheless dragged the tip of Red Waters's harpoon against her cheek in a tingling line.

  Aria and Araris stood side by side, weapons in their hands. Aria's left wrist was uplifted, and a small hunting falcon made of pure, white-hot fire perched there, wings already spread, ready to be launched skyward at a flick of her hand.

  "High. Lady. Placida." Is
ana spoke into the silence, putting a ringing emphasis onto each word, her voice rolling across the frozen landscape and rebounding from the distant Shieldwall. "You will put your weapon on the ground and dismiss your fury at once."

  Aria tilted her head at a dangerous angle, her eyes focused on one of the largest of the chieftains assembled there. "Isana--"

  Isana took two strides to Aria and slapped her smartly across one cheek.

  Lady Placida all but convulsed in surprise, overbalanced, and fell on her rump in the snow.

  "Look at me," Isana said in a hard, calm voice.

  Aria was already staring at her with rather wide eyes. It occurred to Isana that it was entirely possible that no one had spoken in such a tone to the High Lady since before her adolescence.