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Princeps' Fury, Page 33

Jim Butcher

  Where the Vord had driven them back again. And again. He'd slept in spare moments, half an hour, here and there, for the past . . . some number of days. He wasn't sure. The First Lord had taken even less than that--which was why he had collapsed.

  The door to Gaius's room opened, and Sireos the healer emerged. As the personal physician to the First Lord, the thin, silver-templed Sireos was a familiar sight near the capital--which was less than a day's hard ride on the causeway from there. Sireos exchanged nods with the guardsmen at the door and turned toward Ehren.

  "Sir Ehren," Sireos said. He had a long, mournful face and a very deep, very resonant voice. "Could I speak to you privately, please?"

  He accompanied the physician to the end of the hallway and spoke in a quiet voice. "How is he?"

  "Dying," Sireos said in a level tone. "I was able to stabilize him, but he's got to get regular food and regular rest, or he won't last the week."

  "And if he does?" Ehren said.

  "Weeks," Sireos said. "Months, if he's lucky. He's using furycraft to ignore the pain and strengthen himself, or he would know exactly how bad his condition is."

  "Isn't there anything you can do?" Ehren asked.

  Sireos gave him a steady look, then sighed. "I've been working on him for years--and never mind what he's been able to do for himself. He's every bit as skilled as I am at watercraft, even though his education as a physician is incomplete. His organs are simply breaking down. His lungs are the most obvious among the symptoms--he had pneumonia several years ago, and they've never been right since then. His spleen, his liver, his pancreas, one of his kidneys--they're all breaking down as well."

  Ehren bowed his head.

  "I'm sorry," Sireos said. "He's a remarkable man."

  Ehren nodded. "You've told him all of this?"

  "Of course. He insists that he has a duty. Even if it kills him."

  "Have you seen what's out there, sir?" Ehren asked.

  Sireos's face turned even more mournful. "I'm under the impression that I will."

  Ehren nodded. "It would seem so."

  "The world can be a hard place. We all have to face it as best we can, son." He put a hand on Ehren's shoulder. "Good luck, Sir Ehren. I'll be nearby."

  "Thank you," Ehren said quietly.

  He turned away to look out the inn's window as the physician retreated.

  Retreat seemed to be in fashion.

  A muffled voice came from the First Lord's room, and the guard opened the door. Gaius strode out, clean from his time in the healing tub, dressed in fresh clothing. He moved with brisk purpose, but Ehren fancied that he could see the frailty underneath the calm surface.

  "Sire," Ehren said, as Gaius walked over to him. "You should be in bed."

  Gaius regarded him steadily for a moment. "I would be better off. Alera would not."

  Ehren bowed his head again. "Yes, sire. At least you should eat something."

  "There's no time for that, Cursor. I want you to collect the latest intelligence reports and--"

  "No," Ehren said in a firm voice. "Sire."

  The two guardsmen glanced at each other.

  Gaius arched his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

  "No, sire," Ehren repeated. He planted his feet and looked up at the First Lord. "Not until you've eaten something."

  Boots treaded on the stairs, and Captain Miles of the Crown Legion appeared. He was a stocky man of medium height and build, his plain steel lorica dented and nicked with use, and he wore a similarly unadorned, functional, and well-used sword at his side. He sized up the situation in the hallway as he came to a halt, and saluted sharply to Gaius.

  "Sire," Miles said, "the defenses are prepared, and the Crown Legion stands ready to serve you."

  "Good to see you, Captain," Gaius said, his eyes never leaving Ehren's. He smiled, very slightly, to the young Cursor and inclined his head to such a slight degree that Ehren thought he might have imagined it.

  Gaius turned to Miles. "I was just about to take some . . . breakfast?" He glanced at Ehren.

  "It's more like lunchtime, sire," Ehren supplied.

  "Lunch," Gaius said firmly, nodding. "Join me, and we'll discuss the defenses."

  "Yes, sire," Miles said firmly.

  Ehren bowed slightly to Gaius as the First Lord returned to his quarters with Captain Miles. Then he went to see to it that food was brought up to the room before Gaius changed his mind.

  It was only after he was several steps down the stairs that he realized the import of Gaius's words, and realized what was happening. Ever since Ceres, Gaius had been retreating from the Vord--and for the last several days, Aleran forces had barely put up any resistance at all. But the Crown Legion was Gaius's single most trusted and capable force, and would certainly be present in any decisive confrontation with the enemy. If the First Lord had sent the Crown Legion ahead to prepare Alera Imperia, it meant that Gaius never intended to prevent the Vord from reaching the Realm's capital.

  Gaius wasn't being driven back by the Vord.

  He was luring them forward.

  If the retreat had been such a terrible strain on Alera and her Legions, it had to be pushing the Vord's resources, too. Savage and deadly as they might be, the Vord still had to eat, and they apparently needed their croach as food. By forcing them to stay on the move and in pursuit of the Aleran forces, Gaius was also keeping them ahead of their supply lines, advancing far faster than the croach could grow.

  Meanwhile, the Crown Legion was preparing Alera Imperia herself for battle.

  Gaius was drawing the Vord into the most vulnerable position he could arrange for them, tiring them with the campaign--only to prepare to turn upon them at the high point of his power, the heart of the Realm, Alera Imperia.

  It was the gamble of a desperate man, Ehren thought. If Gaius won, he would crush the Vord strength in the Realm. If he lost, the center of Aleran commerce, travel, and government would fall with him.

  Ehren hurried forward, to get the First Lord a solid meal.


  The taurga rolled east at their lumbering trot, crushing the miles beneath their cloven hooves.

  "I still don't understand," Kitai murmured, close to Tavi's ear. She rode behind him on his taurg, her arms around his waist. Even carrying the two of them, their taurg was less burdened than any of those bearing one of the Canim, and led the group in fine spirits--which was to say, it tried to toss them off every mile or so. "Why do we keep traveling east when we know the queen we must destroy is to the south?"

  Tavi grinned and called back to her, "The best part about this plan is that I don't have to explain anything to anybody."

  She slipped a hand under his armor and pinched him hard on the flank. "Don't make me hurt you, Aleran."

  Tavi laughed. "All right, all right." He glanced back down the line of taurga. "The Shuaran warriors are engaging the Vord to the south of us. We're going to ride around the main area of engagement, come in from the side."

  "And encounter less resistance from the Vord," Kitai said.

  "Or interference from the Shuarans," Tavi said. "It isn't as though we can expect every officer in the field to know that a group of Narashan Canim and Alerans--"

  "And a Marat," Kitai said.

  "And a Marat," Tavi conceded, "are traveling on a special, secret mission with Lararl's approval, even with Anag here to explain things. Simpler and faster if we avoid them."

  She frowned. "Tell me something."


  "Has it ever struck you as strange that the Vord never seem to notice you and me when we are near them? How they simply accept our presence unless we directly oppose them?"

  "When we fought them in the tunnels beneath the capital, you mean," Tavi said. "I thought it very strange, yes."

  "Did you ever wonder why they did so?"

  "Oftener and oftener, the past few days," he said.

  "I think it is because we were responsible for waking them," Kitai said. There was gravity in her voice.

  "When we went down after the Blessing of Night, you mean," Tavi said, his own tone growing more sober. "We had no way of knowing what was going to happen."

  "No," Kitai said. "But it does not change the fact that the first queen stirred after we stole the Blessing from the center of the Wax Forest. That it emerged and tried to kill us that very night."

  "Until your father threw a big rock at it."

  Kitai let out a low laugh. "I remember."

  "In any case, it isn't as though they all ignore us. The queen I fought under the Citadel certainly saw me, and was more than willing to fight." Tavi chewed on his lip. "Though the lower-intelligence Vord, the wax spiders and takers and so on, haven't ever attacked me unless I attacked them first. It's almost as though they think we're other Vord, somehow, until we start getting rowdy."

  "An advantage we could use."

  "Possibly," Tavi said, nodding.

  She rode in silence for a time, then said, the words rushed together, "I'm frightened, chala."

  Tavi blinked and stared over his shoulder.

  She shrugged. "What fool would not be? What if I lose you? What if you lose me?" She swallowed. "Death is real. It could take either of us, or both. I cannot think of living without you. Or of you without me."

  Tavi sighed and leaned back slightly against her. He felt her arms tighten around his waist.

  "That isn't going to happen," he told her. "It's going to be all right"

  "Fool," Kitai scoffed gently. "You do not know that."

  "Sometimes you don't know the most important things," Tavi said. "You believe them."

  "That is completely irrational."

  "Yes," Tavi agreed. "And true."

  She shifted her position, and he felt her lay her head against his back. Her hair tickled the back of his neck. "My mad Aleran. Making promises he cannot keep."

  Tavi sighed. "Whatever happens," he told her, "we'll be together. That much I can promise."

  Her arms tightened again, enough to make him strain a little to draw in his next breath. "I will hold you to that, Aleran."

  Tavi turned to her, awkward on the broad saddle, but enough to kiss her. She returned the kiss fiercely.

  Until the taurg bellowed, bucked, and threw them both twenty feet through the air and into an enormous puddle of shockingly cold sludge almost two feet deep. Then the enormous riding beast bellowed in victory and went charging off the road, tossing its horns and bucking all the way.

  The shock of the water was so cold that Tavi had trouble catching his breath as he struggled up out of it and onto his feet. He turned to find Kitai still in the muck, her green eyes narrowed as she regarded him.

  "I am stuck," she informed him. "I blame you."

  The other riders caught up to them, their taurga thundering to a halt, bellowing protests along the way. Max and Durias, each on his own beast, stopped closest to them. Durias's expression was dutifully neutral, but his eyes shone. Max was grinning.

  "My lord," he said, sweeping a particularly florid bow from his saddle, flourishing one hand as he did. "Are we to take our leisure here for a time, then?"

  Tavi gave Maximus a steady glare. Then he turned, slogged through the mud to Kitai, put his hands under her arms, and hauled strongly to pull her free of the mud. She popped out abruptly, his feet slipped out from under him, and they both fell back into the freezing mud, Kitai atop him.

  "We could put up curtains for privacy if you like, my lord," Durias said soberly.

  The Canim, atop their own mounts, remained a few yards off and none of them were looking in Tavi's direction--but they all sat with their mouths open, teeth showing, their grins requiring no translation.

  Tavi sighed. "Just throw us a line, Max. And catch that bloody taurg before he runs into the ocean."

  "You hear that, Steaks?" Max said to his own taurg. "It wasn't the Princeps' fault. Your bloody friend way over there was rebellious. Just you watch and see what happens when royal displeasure falls on uppity insurrectionists."

  "Maximus," Kitai said. "I am cold. Speak another word, and I will strangle you with your own tongue."

  Max laughed, and produced a coil of rope from his saddlebags.

  The country that the Vord had emerged into from the tunnel they'd used to bypass the Shuaran defenses was composed of rolling, rocky hills sparsely covered in pine trees. Varg's three Hunters had determined what Tavi was doing before half the day was gone, and had proceeded ahead of them, fanning out widely as outriders for their group. Though they wore their shapeless grey cloaks, they fairly bristled with weaponry, and each of the silent Canim wore a large, lumpy pack on his back filled with who knew what other instruments of mayhem.

  Once they had taken the lead, Tavi simply followed the Hunters, who were sure to know the country better than he did. They turned off the main road and began traveling cross-country by midafternoon, leaving the plain and entering the first of the lightly forested hills Lararl's maps had shown at the interior of the Shuaran plateau.

  By sundown they found the Vord.

  The Hunters had led them to the vague Canim equivalent of a steadholt. Like the buildings of the Narash fortifications, it looked like a solid block of stone, a rectangle perhaps three stories high--or perhaps two, given the greater height of Canim ceilings. They rode the taurga into it through a relatively narrow doorway, and found that the lower floor of the Canim steadholt was one enormous, cavernous hall, evidently used in the same way Alerans would a barn, if the scattered droppings were any indicator. No livestock were in sight, though their scent was still strong on the air.

  One of the Hunters leapt down after tying his mount to a ring on the wall, and picked up an oddly lumpy pole nearly eight feet long. He began working with it, and Tavi realized that he was unrolling a net or mesh made of wire, which was wrapped around the pole. The Hunter unrolled the pole completely, and sank one end of it into a socket on the floor, and Tavi noticed that there were many such poles and wire fences around the hall.

  "Clever," he said.

  Beside him, Max grunted. "What's that?"

  Tavi gestured at the Hunter, who was erecting a second wall around the tired taurg. "It lets them use this space to pen livestock when they need to, but when they don't, they can clear it out for other uses. They can change the size of the pens, or set it up so that you can cut some animals out and leave the rest penned up. That's handy."

  Durias just blinked at Tavi.

  Max snorted. "Don't tell anyone," he told the centurion, "but our Princeps was brought up on a steadholt. Herding sheep, if you can believe that."

  Durias looked skeptical, but his tone was polite when he asked, "What breed?"

  "Rivan Mountain Whites," Tavi replied.

  Durias's eyebrows shot up. "Those monsters? Hard work."

  Tavi grinned at the former slave. "There were days."

  "Tavar," Varg growled. He and Anag stood by a steep stone staircase at the far end of the building. "Best see what can be seen."

  Tavi nodded and kicked the taurg lightly in the back of the head. The beast tossed its head and bellowed, and while it was distracted, Tavi passed the reins back to Kitai, who quickly took up the slack again before the animal could realize that it was no longer being held under tight control. Tavi slid off the taurg's back and to the ground, then went up the stairs with Varg and Anag.

  They passed the second floor, evidently quarters for whoever had lived there. They were as silent and as empty as the lower floor had been. The stairs continued on up to the building's roof.

  Even that space was practical. Long stone troughs were filled with rich, dark earth. A great many vegetables could be planted there during what was sure to be a short summer, to take maximum advantage of the sunshine. A winch-and-pulley rig beside a large bucket at the roof's edge indicated that irrigating the rooftop gardens would be taxing, but not impossible.

  It wasn't the same as an Aleran steadholt, but the practical, conservative thought behind its design was no differen
t. Tavi felt oddly comfortable there.

  Anag and Varg walked to the western edge of the roof and stood staring out for a time. Tavi followed, hopping up onto one of the stone planting troughs to put his head on a level with theirs.

  Perhaps two miles to the west, as the ground rose gently, the green glow of growing croach was visible through the sparse trees.