Princeps fury, p.35
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       Princeps' Fury, p.35

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  "This is the truth, soldier," Brencis said, wiping his bloodied thumb on the man's tunic. "You serve the Vord queen now, or her highest representative. Which means that for the moment, you serve me, and anyone I choose to place over you. Take any action you know is against your new loyalty's interests, and you'll hurt. Serve and obey, and you will be rewarded."

  By way of demonstration, Brencis idly shoved one of the half-naked girls across the soldier. She made a purring sound and nuzzled her mouth against his throat, sliding one of her thighs over his.

  "Listen to her," Brencis spat, contempt in his voice. "Everything she says is true."

  The girl pressed her mouth against the young man's ear and began whispering. Amara couldn't make out much of what she was saying, beyond the words "serve" and "obey." But it seemed simple enough to work out--the girl was emphasizing what Brencis had already told the soldier, reinforcing the commands while his mind was being bent out of shape by the collar and the drugs.

  "Bloody crows," Amara whispered, feeling sick. She'd known that the collars had been developed for the control of even the most violent criminals--and she'd heard it argued many times that the potential for abuse in the collars was far greater than most of the Realm realized, but she'd never seen it before. Whatever was going on down there, it must have its roots in the techniques High Lord Kalare had used to create his psychotic Immortals.

  And, Amara thought, it gave them control of previously free Alerans. It worked. Or at least it worked often enough to give the Vord queen an Aleran honor guard. Those who had never really been motivated by anything higher than self-interest, it seemed, were easily turned, if the men accompanying Rook were any kind of measure.

  "Brencis!" came a croaking cry from one of the cages. "Brencis, please!"

  Amara focused on the source of the voice--a young woman in the Citizens' cage, probably attractive, though it was difficult to tell through the mud.

  Brencis sorted through various collars in the chest.

  "Brencis! Can't you hear me?"

  "I hear you, Flora," Brencis said. "I just don't care."

  The young woman sobbed. "Please. Please, just let me go. We were betrothed , Brencis."

  "It's funny, life's little twists and turns," Brencis said conversationally. He glanced up at the cage. "You always did like to play with aphrodin, Flora. You and your sister." His mouth twisted into a bitter sneer. "A pity there are no Antillans around to complete the evening for you."

  The young woman started sobbing, a broken little sound. "But we were . . . we were . . ."

  "That was in a different world, Flora," Brencis said. "That's done now. In a few more weeks, there won't be anything but Vord. You should be glad. You get to be a part of the winning side." He paused to run an idly admiring hand over the flank of the whispering young woman lying atop the dazed soldier behind him. "Even if you wind up with too little mind to do anything but help soothe the new recruits. The process does that to some of them, which is just as well. So we clean them up into little aphrodin dream boys and girls and let them whisper."

  Flora wept harder.

  "Don't worry, Flora." He directed a venomous gaze at the cage. "I'll make sure you have a pretty boy to keep you company when it's your turn. You'll enjoy the process. Most of them do. Volunteer to go through it again, usually." He looked at a pair of the collared guards nearby, and said, "What are you two standing around for? Get the next one."

  Amara crept slowly back from the edge of the building and settled down next to Rook. Then she turned and descended to the relative safety of the building, which had been a prosperous tailor's residence, before the Vord came. Rook followed her.

  Amara sat for a moment, simply absorbing the horrific, machinelike pace of the way the captured Alerans' very humanity was being destroyed.

  "I know you aren't supposed to speak of it," Amara said quietly. "But I need you to try."

  Rook swallowed. She lifted her fingers to the collar at her throat, her face pale, and nodded.

  "How many have been taken?" Amara asked.

  "Several h--" Rook began. She sucked in a breath, squeezing her eyes shut, and her face beaded with sweat. "Seven or eight hundred at least. Maybe a hundred who didn't need to be . . ." Her face twisted into a grimace. ". . . coerced. Of the rest, only a little more than half of them come out of it . . . functional. The rest get used to help recruit more or are given to the Vord."

  "As slaves?" Amara asked.

  "As food, Countess."

  Amara shivered. "There were hundreds of people up there."

  Rook nodded, her breath coming in steady, consciously regulated timing. "Yes. Any strongly gifted crafter captured by the Vord is brought here now."

  "Where are the collars coming from?"

  Rook let out a bitter, pained laugh, and withdrew what must have been half a dozen slender silver collars from a pouch on her belt, tossing them aside like refuse. "Dead slaves, Countess. They litter the ground in this place."

  Amara bent over and picked up one of the collars and stared at it. It didn't feel like anything other than metal, slightly cool, and smooth underneath her fingertips. "How is it done?" she asked Rook. "The collars, the drug. It isn't enough to do that."

  "You'd be surprised, Countess," Rook said, shuddering. "But there's more to it, as well. Brencis does something to each collar as he attaches--" She jerked in pain, and blood suddenly ran from one of her nostrils. "As he attaches it," she gasped. "His father knew how and taught him. He won't t-tell anyone how. It p-protects his life, as long as the V-Vord want more crafters to s-serve them."

  She clenched her teeth over a scream and pressed one hand to her mouth to muffle the sound, the other to the center of her forehead, as she crumpled slowly to the floor.

  Amara had to look away from the woman. "Enough," she said gently. "Enough, Rook."

  Rook rocked back and forth on her knees, falling silent, her breath coming in gasps. She nodded once to Amara, and slurred, "Be 'llright. Minute."

  Amara touched her shoulder gently, then rose to stare out the window at the courtyard without through a window that had been broken, its jagged edges stained with drying blood. The cages were packed. Amara began to count the number of prisoners, and shook her head. Hundreds of Alerans waited there to be taken into the service of the Vord.

  Brencis had just put the collar around the throat of a woman in a fine, soaking-wet silk gown. She writhed on the platform while he stood over her, an expression of revulsion and hunger and something Amara could not put a name to on his beautiful face.

  "You'd better report in," she said quietly. "Do your best not to give anything away."

  Rook had recovered somewhat. She held a cloth to her face, cleaning the blood from her mouth and chin. "I'll die first, Countess," she whispered.

  "Go."

  Rook departed without a further word. Amara watched as she entered the courtyard a few moments later, walking briskly toward Brencis. Again, she beckoned, and Cirrus brought the sound to her.

  Brencis looked up at Rook as she approached.

  Rook's stance and bearing had changed completely. There was a liquid, sensual grace to her movements, her hips shifting with a noticeable, swaying rhythm as she walked.

  "Rook," Brencis spat, his voice irritated. "What took you so long?"

  "Incompetence," Rook replied in a throaty purr. She pressed her body full-length against Brencis's and kissed him.

  The young slaver returned the kiss with ardor, and Amara's stomach twisted in revulsion.

  "Where are the two I sent with you?" he growled.

  "When they realized I was going to tell you what they'd done, they thought they'd leave my body somewhere dark and quiet. After they'd raped me." She kissed his throat. "I objected. I'm afraid they're the worse for wear. Should I go recover their collars, my lord?"

  "Tell me?" Brencis said. The anger had faded from his voice, a different kind of heat replacing it. "Tell me what?"

  "The fools questioned the Curs
ors too hard," Rook said. "I told you we should have recruited them."

  "Couldn't take the chance that they'd . . . mmmm. That their minds would break down." He shook his head. "You're earthcrafting me, you little bitch. Mmmm. Stop it."

  Rook let out a wicked little laugh. Her ripped shirt chose that moment to slip, exposing naked skin. "You love it, my lord. And I can't help it. I took them with my bare hands. It was close. That always leaves me in a mood." She pressed against him in a slow undulation of her body. "You could take me here if you wished it. Who could stop you, my lord? Right here, before everyone. There are no rules any longer, no laws. Shall I fight you? Would that please you, to force me?"

  Brencis turned to Rook with a growl, seizing a handful of her hair in a painful grasp, jerking her head back as he kissed her with near-bruising violence.

  Amara turned away, sickened. She would return to the tunnels until nightfall.

  She had killed men before.

  But this was the first time she'd ever wanted to.

  CHAPTER 32

  Isana had been back in her chambers in the wall for perhaps two minutes before there was a diffident knock at the door, followed by the decidedly nondiffident entry of High Lady Aria Placida.

  "That will be all, Araris," she said over her shoulder, her tone neutral. She shut the door firmly and folded her arms as she stared at Isana.

  Isana arched an eyebrow at the other woman, then moved her hand in a rolling gesture, beckoning her to speak.

  Lady Placida's face quivered through several half-formed expressions that never quite congealed into any single emotion before she finally blurted, "Have you lost your mind?"

  To her own complete surprise, Isana burst into laughter. She couldn't help it. She laughed and laughed until she had to sit down on the edge of the small chamber's bed, her eyes watering, her sides aching.

  It took a few moments to get herself under control again, and when she did, Aria was staring at her with a distinctly uncomfortable expression on her face. "Isana . . . ?"

  "I was just thinking," Isana said, her words still quivering with the edges of the laughter. "Finally. I know how it must feel to be Tavi."

  Aria opened her mouth, closed it again, and let out an exasperated sigh. "From a watercrafter of your skill, that's a remarkably ironic statement."

  Isana waved her hand. "Oh, you know how teenagers are. There's so much emotion piled up in them that you can hardly sort out one from the next." She felt the smile fade a little wistfully. "That was the last time I spent more than a few weeks around him, you know. He was fifteen."

  Some of the rigidity went out of Aria's stance. "Yes. My own sons were off to the Academy at sixteen, then the Legions after that. It hardly seems fair, does it?"

  Isana met Aria's gaze. "My son doesn't live under my protection anymore. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't need it. That's why I challenged Raucus today."

  Aria tilted her head. "I'm not sure what you mean."

  "Without the northern Legions, the Vord could destroy us all," Isana said, her voice quiet and firm. "When my son comes home, Alera is still going to be here."

  "Isana, dear. I understand why you did it. What I don't see is how the bloody crows you think killing yourself is going to accomplish your goal."

  "Reasoning with him is useless," Isana said. "He's too wrapped up in the conflict here, in the loss. You saw him at the funeral."

  Aria folded her arms against her stomach. "He's not the only one who feels that way."

  "But he is the only one who commands the loyalty of Antillus's Legions." Isana frowned. "Well. I suppose Crassus or Maximus might be able to do so. Crassus has the legal right and Maximus has served multiple terms as an infantryman. I suspect that would give him a strong popularity with--"

  "Isana," Aria interrupted quietly, "you're babbling. My nieces do this to my sister when they're trying to avoid discussing something."

  "I am not babbling," Isana said.

  "Then at the risk of making you feel somewhat foolish, I should point out that neither Maximus nor Crassus is in Alera. Even if you succeed in your duel--which I regard as something as close to impossible as anything can be--then what will you have gained? Raucus will be dead, in which case the Legions will almost certainly not abandon their posts on the walls. Anyone that is appointed to stand as regent until Crassus returns will certainly not pursue a radical change in policy.

  "And," she added, "if you lose, you will be dead. Raucus will almost certainly do exactly as he has been doing."

  "I'm not going to lose," Isana said, "and he's not going to die."

  "In a duel to the death--one which you instigated." Aria shook her head. "I know you didn't go to the Academy, but . . . there is something called 'diplomacy, ' Isana."

  "There isn't time," Isana said quietly. "Just as there wasn't time earlier today, Aria." She felt her cheeks heat slightly. "When I hit you. For which I must now apologize."

  Aria opened her mouth, then pressed her lips into a line and shook her head. "No. In retrospect . . . it may have been for the best."

  "Necessary or not, I wronged you. I'm sorry."

  Some of the rigid tension eased slowly from Aria's stance, and the sense of angry restraint around her faded slightly. "I wasn't thinking very clearly," she said. "Afterward, I . . . I felt the way they were communicating with one another. I've never sensed anything like that before. And you felt it yesterday." She shrugged. "You were right about them. I didn't--" Aria's eyes widened, and she looked up at Isana with her mouth open. "Great furies, Isana. That's what this is. You're slapping Raucus across the face to get his attention."

  "If I'd thought a slap across the face would do the job," Isana said wryly, "I would have stopped before I dropped the challenge onto him." She shook her head. "I have to reach him. I have to get through his anger and his pride. And there's no time, Aria."

  Lady Placida stood silently for several long seconds. Then she said, "I've known Raucus since I was fourteen years old. We were . . . close, back then, at the Academy. And this is dangerous, Isana. Very dangerous." She glanced at the door and then back to her. "I'll go talk to him."

  "It isn't going to change his mind about the duel," Isana said.

  "No," Aria said calmly. She gave Isana a slight smile. "But perhaps there will be a miracle and his stiff neck will bend half an inch." She nodded. "At least I can lay a foundation you might be able to build upon."

  "Thank you," Isana said quietly.

  "Thank me if you survive," Aria replied, and slipped quietly out of the room.

  Several hours later, Isana had taken a private meal and sat reading dispatches from the south, sent by water fury and transcribed for her and for Lord Antillus.

  Matters had grown worse. Ceres was overrun, and the Vord were harrying the Aleran forces, who had been forced to fight a series of desperate actions to slow the advancing horde enough to allow desperate civilians to flee. Teams of engineers were dismantling causeways as they went, destruction that would take decades of effort to repair--if it ever was.

  Losses in the Legions were hideous--worse than anything seen in Kalarus's rebellion or in the battle with the Canim. Militias were mobilizing all throughout Alera, with priority given to those younger men who had most recently left the Legions--but virtually every male in the Realm had served at least a single two-year term in the Legions, and everyone was being called upon to take up arms again.

  The problem, of course, was in supplying those arms. Legionares were not allowed to keep their weaponry and armor upon leaving the Legion--they were left to be used by the recruits arriving to take their places. Most legionares retired to their steadholts, where the only weapons readily available, affordable, and necessary were bows and the occasional hunting spear.

  In the cities, of course, there were the civic legions--but they were peacekeepers and investigators, not soldiers. Lightly armored, generally more familiar with truncheons than swords, and used to operating in an entirely different manner tha
n armies in the field, they were of more use organizing refugees and preventing crimes among the displaced population than in actual combat with the enemy. In both cities and in the smaller towns, each lord and Count would generally maintain a small body of personal armsmen, but those rarely consisted of more than twenty or thirty men. There were similarly a limited number of professional soldiers, generally roving from job to job, plying the trade of violence out from under the rigid structure of the Legions. But all in all, there were fewer weapons available than hands to wield them, and peaceful steadholt smithies across the Realm were desperately forging steel for use in Alera's defense.