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Princeps' Fury, Page 32

Jim Butcher

  "We are here on a mission of peace, High Lady. You will immediately desist from your efforts to turn my introduction to the principals of a foreign nation into a bloodbath." She lifted her chin, and said, "Dismiss. Your. Fury."

  The little fire falcon vanished in a hiccup of smoke.

  "Thank you," Isana said. "Now put your sword on the ground."

  Aria gave the assembled chiefs a quick glance, then flushed and did so. "Of course, my Lady."

  "Thank you. Araris?"

  Isana turned to find that Araris, his sword already thrust point first into the snow, was standing with a folded handkerchief at the ready. He calmly pressed it to her cheek as he said, "You're bleeding."

  The tingling on Isana's cheek turned to pain as the cloth touched it. She winced. She'd had no idea that the weapon had been that sharp. "Ah," she said, taking the cloth and holding it against the cut. "Thank you."

  Araris nodded once and turned to offer his hand to Lady Placida, helping her up from the snow.

  Isana turned back to the Icemen and walked over to face Sunset again. She calmly lowered the bloodied cloth, and felt a slow warmth spread down her cheek. She very deliberately allowed her discomfort and annoyance to show on her face and in her bearing and stared at Sunset.

  The older chieftain turned his gaze on Red Waters, and Isana felt a sudden, uncomfortably sharp spike of disapproval. Red Waters evidently felt it even more intensely than Isana had. He swayed slightly under the force of it and took a step back to stand beside Big Shoulders again, radiating a mild sense of chagrin. Amusement flowed around the circle of Icemen.

  The Icemen, Isana realized, had just had their own version of the scene that had played out between her and Aria. Sunset had slapped Red Waters down--and the entire time, they never spoke. They hardly moved.

  On an impulse, Isana opened her cloak and spread her hands, demonstrating that she was obviously carrying no weapons.

  Sunset studied her for a moment, then nodded and passed his bone club over to Big Shoulders. Then he offered her his enormous, shaggy, claw-tipped hand.

  Isana laid her own into it without hesitation, exactly as she would to convey her sincerity to another watercrafter. Whatever empathic sense the Icemen used, however it was done, it was obviously just as formidable as her own abilities, even though different. She wasn't afraid that Sunset would harm her. The level of emotional control he had exhibited in conveying his displeasure to Red Waters was humbling.

  His enormous hand enfolded hers gently, the claws never touching her skin. The Iceman watched her, expressionlessly.

  "I have come here to seek peace between our peoples," Isana said, allowing her feelings to flow down her hand and into Sunset's grasp. She felt a brief urge to giggle. It was entirely possible that the Aleran arrogance that Doroga had warned her about was in play again. What made her suppose that she would be able to hide her emotions from the Iceman?

  Sunset took a deep breath and bowed his head. A brief tide of emotion washed over Isana, every bit of it as real to her as if it was her own; grief, mainly, a sense of loss and regret that had grown to maturity over slow years. But mixed with it was fierce exaltation, weary relief--and tiny, painfully intense sparkles of hope.

  "At last," Sunset said aloud. "Your people send a peace-chief."

  Isana felt tears washing down her face, stinging painfully as they entered the cut on her cheek. She nodded mutely.

  "This will not be easy," Sunset told her. "Too much . . ." A surge of anger hit her, Sunset's own, though it was under his control. The gentle grasp of his hand never wavered. "Too much . . ." He flashed another emotion at her: suspicion, and more than that--the expectation of betrayal.

  "Yes," Isana said quietly. "But it is necessary."

  "Because of the enemy attacking you," Sunset said calmly. "We know."

  Isana stared at him for a moment. "You . . . you do?"

  He nodded. "For three years, we have pressed you here, hoping that the enemy would weaken your people in the south. Force you to send your Wall-guardians there to defend your food lands and that your folk would follow and leave us in peace."

  And suddenly, Isana understood the attacks of the Icemen of recent years--why the winter storms and howling hordes had always arrived at precisely the correct time to pin the Legions of the north in place. Many folk, she knew, had feared collusion between the Icemen and the Canim--but it had been neither a mindless assault nor a sinister plot. It had been part of a considered campaign.

  "That enemy has changed," Isana said. "You do not know this."

  "One enemy or another." Sunset shrugged. "It is of little matter to us."

  Doroga spoke for the first time. "It should be. Listen to her."

  "The foe that comes against us now is not a nation. It does not seek land or control. It is here only to destroy utterly anything that is not itself. It has attacked us without warning, hesitation, or mercy. It will not speak with us of peace. It slaughters innocents and warriors alike--and it will do so to any other than itself whom it meets."

  Sunset regarded her for a moment. Then he said, "Until today, I would have said that your people are little different. Many still would."

  "This enemy is called the Vord. And when it finishes us, it will come here for you and your people."

  Sunset looked at Doroga.

  The Marat nodded. "And for mine. The Alerans caused your tribes to set aside your differences. They were a greater enemy. Now comes another enemy--one who will destroy us all if we do not lay our differences aside." Doroga leaned on his cudgel and spoke intently. "You must permit them to withdraw in peace. To let the Wall-guardians travel south and battle our mutual foe. And to leave their people here in peace."

  Sunset stared at Doroga for a time. "What have your folk decided?"

  "To let the Alerans fight," Doroga said. "My people cannot defeat the Vord--not now. They are too many, too strong. You know that my people have no love for the Alerans. But we will not attack them while the Vord are abroad."

  Red Waters spat, "So we should let their warriors leave, but not drive their peoples from these lands? So that when the battle is done, their warriors return and take up their arms again?"

  Sunset sighed. He looked from Red Waters to Isana. "He has a point."

  Isana frowned and looked at Red Waters, searching for the right words.

  Araris stepped up beside her and bowed slightly to Sunset, then to Red Waters. "My people have a saying," he said. "Better the enemy you know than the enemy you don't."

  Red Waters stared hard at Araris for a moment. Then Big Shoulders let out a bark of laughter that was startling in how human it sounded. It spread around the circle of Icemen until even Red Waters shook his head, his rigid demeanor relaxing somewhat.

  "Our warriors have that saying as well," Red Waters admitted. He nodded at the blood, now freezing into scarlet crystals, on the tip of his harpoon. "But what peace-chiefs say is not always what war-chiefs do. Let us see your warriors depart. Then we will speak again of peace."

  "Antillus and Phrygia will never agree to that," Lady Placida murmured. "Never."

  "You come to us asking us for peace," Red Waters said. "But you offer us nothing."

  Isana met Red Waters's eyes. "It seems to me that peace is not a gift one can give away. It can only be exchanged in kind."

  A sharp pulse of approval came from Sunset.

  Red Waters answered him with a surge of sadness and caution.

  Sunset sighed and nodded. He turned back to Isana, and murmured, "As I said. It will not be easy."

  "Too much anger," Isana said. "Too much blood."

  "On both sides," Sunset agreed.

  He was right, Isana thought. Certainly, Lord Antillus had been less than willing to accept the possibility of peace. The most he'd been willing to believe possible was that he could shake the Icemen up, disrupt them enough to send a single Legion south--

  The steady, buzzing hostility of the Shieldwall hummed against Isana's senses.
  She had a sudden, horrible suspicion and every Iceman in the circle around her suddenly became more alert.

  "Lady Placida," she said quietly. "Can you tell me if there are any Knights Aeris aloft?"

  Aria arched a pale copper eyebrow. Then she nodded, closed her eyes, and lifted her face to the snowy skies. A moment later, she drew in a sharp breath. "Furies. More than a hundred. Every Knight Aeris under Antillus's command. But why . . ." She opened her eyes wide, suddenly, staring around at the assembled chieftains of the Icemen.

  "Sunset," Isana said, "you must leave. You and your people are in danger."


  "Because what peace-chiefs say is not always what war-chiefs do."

  Thunder rumbled suddenly overhead.

  Red Waters snarled and made a swift, sharp gesture. The chieftains gathered around him and Sunset. Big Shoulders wordlessly handed Sunset's bone club back to him. Sunset glanced at Isana and sent out a surge of regret. Then he grasped the weapon in his hands and turned to begin shambling away through the snow, the other chieftains gathering around him as the wind began to rise again.

  "Too late," Aria hissed.

  Thunder rolled louder and the clouds whirled in a wide circle and parted, revealing a wheel of Knights Aeris aloft, tiny black shapes against the grey clouds with a circle of blue sky far above. Lightning danced from cloud to cloud and gathered into a wide circle, dancing between the Knights like the spokes of an enormous wagon wheel. Isana could feel the power gathering as the lightning prepared to fall on the retreating chieftains.

  Aria cursed under her breath and threw herself aloft, wind rising in a roar to lift her into the skies--but even as she did, lightning burned a searing streak across Isana's vision and struck the ground several yards behind the Iceman chieftains. The wheel of Knights above shifted, and the lightning burned its way toward the Icemen, digging an enormous furrow in the earth as it went.

  Isana watched in horror, helpless and furious, searching desperately in her thoughts for some solution. But there was nothing there for the Icemen. Words and good intentions meant less than nothing in this harsh land of stone walls and steel men, covered in ice and . . .


  Isana tore off her glove and thrust her hand into the snow, calling upon Rill as she did. The snow was, after all, water. And she had learned, during the desperate battle at sea the previous year, that she was capable of far more than she had ever believed. There had never been, upon her steadholt, a cause to push her abilities to their limits, except in healing--and she had never failed. When she had needed a flood to save Tavi's life, she had managed one, though at the time she had believed it merely the result of her familiarity with the local furies.

  But in the ocean, she had learned differently. The limits she had known before had never been imposed upon her by Alera. They had been assumptions within her own mind. Everyone knew that holders were never truly powerful, even in the wilds of a place like Calderon, and she had let that unconscious assumption shape her self-perception. There, immersed in the limitless immensity of the sea, she had found that she was capable of far more than she'd ever believed.

  Snow was water. Why not command it as she would any other wave?

  She was the First Lady of Alera, by the Great Furies, and she would not allow this to happen.

  Isana cried out, and the vast snowfield around the Icemen surged like a living sea, responding to her determination and will. She lifted her arm, feeling a phantom strain around her shoulders as the snow surged around the Icemen and piled up into a vast mound behind them. The lightning surged into that sea of snow, throwing out enormous billows of steam, its heat drowning before it could do harm.

  Isana felt it when the sky above them suddenly changed, lightning flowing in from everywhere, surging from over the horizon in every direction to center itself in the whirling eye of the vortex above, its color shifting, changing from blue-white to bright gold-green. The burning shaft thickened and intensified, and Isana felt the surge in power behind it as some other enormous will added its power to the strike.

  "Antillus," she heard herself gasp.

  The weight settling on her pressed on her chest and drove her to one knee--but she did not yield. She cried out again, lifting her hand, and the snow and steam and ice that continued to shield the retreating Icemen washed and flowed into shape to mirror her fingers, her hand lifted in a gesture of defiant denial. The endless cold of the north clashed with the fire of the southern skies, and steam began to spread from the clash, blanketing the countryside.

  "Isana!" she heard Araris call. "Isana!"

  He shook her shoulders, and she looked around dazedly at him. She wasn't sure how long she had upheld the defense against Antillus Raucus's strike, but she couldn't see the Knights Aeris. Araris's voice sounded oddly distant.

  "Isana!" Araris called. "It's all right. The Icemen are gone! They're safe!"

  She lowered her hand, and heard an enormous whuffing rumble behind her. She turned to see fine powdery snow rising in a huge cloud, through the steam, as though settling after a sudden avalanche.

  Doroga regarded the steam and settling snow for a long and silent moment. Then he looked at Isana appraisingly.

  "I ever invade Calderon again," he said, "it will be in the summer."

  Isana stared wearily at him, and said, "I'd see to it that you never got those sweetbread cakes you like. Ever again."

  Doroga gave her a wounded look, sniffed, and said to Walker, "Alerans don't ever fight fair."

  "Help me up," Isana said to Araris. "He'll be coming."

  Araris did so at once. "Who?"

  "Just stay by me," she said. She caught his eyes. "And trust me."

  Araris lifted his eyebrows as he helped her up. Then instead of answering, he leaned forward and kissed her. After a moment, he drew back from her, and said, "With my life. Always."

  She found his hand with hers and squeezed it very hard.

  Seconds later, wind roared, and two forms plummeted through the mist and powder. Antillus Raucus landed hard, sending up a cloud of powdery snow. Lady Placida came down beside him, and immediately put one hand on his arm in a gesture of restraint.

  "Raucus," Aria said. "Crows take it, Raucus, wait!"

  The heavily armored High Lord shook off her arm and stalked straight toward Isana. "You little idiot!" he snarled. "That was our chance to throw them back, force them to reorganize enough to send some relief to the south! What do you think you were doing, you high-handed--"

  When he reached her, Isana drew back and smacked him coldly across the face. Hard.

  Raucus's head rocked to one side, and when he looked back at her, his lower lip had been cut against one of his teeth and was bleeding slightly. The surprise in his eyes began to be replaced by more anger.

  "Antillus Raucus," Isana said, in the instant of unbalance. "I accuse you of cowardice and treachery against the authority of the First Lord and the honor of the Realm. And here, in front of these witnesses, I formally challenge you to the juris macto." She drew in a deep breath. "And may the crows feast on the unjust."


  Ehren didn't have the full military experience of a true Legion officer, but he knew enough to know that the retreat from Ceres had not gone well. The battered Legions had barely been able to stay ahead of the pursuing Vord, despite the advantage of the furycrafted causeways. The Vord simply outnumbered them too badly. A man could march for hours or for days when he had to, but sooner or later, he had to sleep--while the Vord simply kept coming.

  Though the Legions did everything they could to keep the civilians moving out ahead of them, they couldn't help everyone. The Vord had spread through the countryside, and Ehren did not like to think of what would happen to the poor folk who were left behind each time the road was cut, ending any possibility of escape for the poor holders who had been fleeing toward the hope of safety the road had offered.

  Ehren paced in the hall outside the First Lord's room, a suit
e in an inn in the town of . . . Ehren wasn't sure. Uvarton had fallen after the Legions had taken barely a night's rest. The vordknights had caught up to them and begun dropping takers behind the town's walls. Ehren was still having nightmares about the fourteen-year-old girl, taken by the Vord, whom he'd seen rip the heavy wooden tongue from a wagon and beat half a dozen legionares to death with it before being cut down herself. That was only after she'd set half a dozen buildings on fire with a simple candle. Others had seen much worse, and the chaos wreaked by the takers had been severe enough to force the Legions to abandon the city before the Vord reached them.

  After Uvarton had come . . . Marsford, he thought, where the Vord had poisoned the wells, then Beros, where the Vord had brought up enough wind that, combined with the cold, the Legions had lost one in thirty men to frostbite, then Vadronus, where . . .