Princeps' Fury, Page 39Jim Butcher
"Come on!" Tavi called, heading for the exit, and the two Canim came behind him.
Outside the hive, Tavi found a low set of earthworks around the entrance, doubtless earthcrafted by Max and Durias to serve as a fortification. The two Alerans were behind it, bloodied weapons in hand. Max's sword was wreathed in flame, and dead Vord were piled over the top of the little rampart. Kitai stood between them, her own sword stained as well, while Anag, his axe in hand, his blue-and-black armor covered with ichor, stood behind them, where he must have used his greater height and longer reach to good advantage.
The eerie, green-lighted world of the Vord was in chaos. All manner of nightmarish creatures filled the fey twilight, racing about in what seemed like sheer, unreasoning madness. One Cane-form Vord was clawing and biting a nearby pine tree, while one of the toad-shaped Vord repeatedly bounded forward into the side of the hive, righted itself, and tried again. Wax spiders glided calmly, bounded in tremendous agitation, or fought madly with one another, a seemingly endless number of legs flailing.
"Come on!" Tavi cried. "We're leaving!"
"Aleran!" Kitai said sharply. "Your leg."
Tavi looked at her blankly for an instant before he understood what she was talking about and looked down. His leg, where the Vord queen had torn at him with her claws, was bleeding--not fatally, but if it wasn't stopped, that could change. He'd been drawing upon enough metalcrafting that he hadn't even noticed the pain of the injury, which seemed as much a part of the background as the howls and shrieks of the disoriented Vord.
"Got it," Maximus said. He slammed the tip of his sword into the earth, jerked a flask from his belt, and passed it to Kitai. "Pour this over my hands as I close it," he told her.
While the others warded off any Vord who approached, Tavi felt Max's hands clamp down on his leg. As Kitai slowly emptied the flask over the wound, the big Antillan's grip burned like fire for an instant, then two, then for a hideous little collection of seconds. Tavi ground his teeth and concentrated on keeping his sword in his hand, until Max released him.
"There," the Antillan said. "Good enough."
Kitai glanced to Tavi, a feral smile stretching her mouth, and gave him a hot, swift kiss. "Lead on."
Tavi oriented himself and set out at the mile-devouring trot of the Legions toward the ruined steadholt where they had left their taurga. The others followed in his wake.
"What was that?" Tavi demanded. "What the bloody crows did you think you were doing?"
He could hear Kitai's grin again. "Why, whatever do you mean, Aleran?"
"The attack!" Tavi snapped. "The disguises! That wasn't something you threw together at the last minute."
"Naturally not," Kitai agreed. "The Hunters in Canea have been using suits of Vord chitin since six months into the invasion. There were several available. We just had to fit them."
He turned to give her an exasperated look. "That's not what I mean and you know it! Why didn't you tell me?"
Behind Kitai, Max's mouth spread into a wide grin. "Couldn't be helped, Your Highness."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Operational security," Kitai said smugly.
Tavi blinked. "What?"
"There is no lying to a being who can read your thoughts, Aleran," Kitai said. "The only way we could be sure that she wouldn't expect the attack was to make sure that you could not expect an attack."
"You . . . You, it . . . How did . . . You can't just--"
"Why else would we have let you approach the hive by yourself without so much as a comment about what a foolish idea it was?"
Tavi stared at her helplessly, and nearly killed himself tripping over an outthrust root.
"Do not look so astonished, Aleran," Kitai said. "It was not difficult to anticipate what kind of strategy you would favor. You have something of a history of successfully negotiating with your enemies. Even making friends of them." Her green eyes sparkled. "In some cases, very close friends."
Tavi shook his head. "You used me."
"You used me," Tavi said.
Her smile widened. "And it worked. You are a marvelous stalking cow."
"Horse," Tavi corrected wearily. "Stalking horse."
Kitai tilted her head. "What idiot would so endanger a perfectly good horse?"
Max and Durias both burst out in laughter.
A Cane-form Vord exploded from a copse of small pines ten feet away, bounding forward to the attack. Varg met the attacker in midleap, the speed and power behind the blow astonishing, and the attacking Vord fell to the croach in two pieces.
"Tavar," Varg growled, still on guard, his eyes scanning the trees around them. "Now is not the time."
Tavi stared at the still-twitching Vord for a second, his heart racing with surprise at the sheer speed of the attack. He nodded at Varg and grunted his agreement. "But we're going to talk about this," he said, glowering at Kitai.
She smiled, unperturbed, and said nothing as they continued making their way out of the confusion and anarchy that covered the landscape every bit as thoroughly as the croach.
Amara returned to the Slaver Market that night, once dark had settled on the occupied city. Furylamps burned in the streets, but infrequently: The only Aleran lights remaining had been burning since they had last been put in place by Ceres' former residents. They wouldn't last more than a day or two more, at most. For the moment, though, they created broad swaths of shadow, which made it simple for Amara to move unseen.
The greenish light of the glowing croach within the city was bright enough, cast up on nearby buildings, that Amara had no trouble avoiding the various bits of wreckage on the ground in the alleyways leading up to the Slave Market. Twice, a Vord keeper prowled by, long legs scything in a rippling motion, the translucent shell of the spiderlike being glowing from within with the dim light of the glob of croach it carried inside whatever passed for its belly. Once she saw one of the creatures begin to vomit up blobs of croach, smoothing it over the sill of a window, where the waxy substance evidently began to take root and grow.
Ceres was still habitable by human beings, technically speaking. But the Vord clearly intended to change that.
Amara hurried her pace.
She came in from a different direction than Rook had shown her. The former chief of Kalarus's Bloodcrows had obviously worked out a way to strongly influence Brencis's focus--a young man, alone in an alien world, suddenly granted both physical gratification and emotional reassurance, in the form of someone he was familiar with, hardly had a chance against a manipulator of Rook's skills. All the same, Amara knew that Rook's hold on Brencis was made of whispers and cobwebs. If he ever realized they were there, it would be a simple matter to brush them away--and if he had done so in the intervening hours, Rook might already have been forced to betray Amara.
And if not . . . well, it never hurt to be cautious.
The Slave Market was lit by furylamps and a glowing mound of croach, bulging up like a cyst from the paving stones and covered with spiderlike keepers. A few more Vord were in evidence than had been there during the day. Were the creatures predominantly nocturnal? Or was there some other explanation for their increased presence.
The "recruiting" operation maintained the same pace she had seen before. Half a dozen dazed Alerans, newly collared, lay on the auction platform. A number of sleepy-eyed slaves were draped over them, whispering and . . . and other things, in the light of the dancing furylamps. Amara shivered and looked away.
Brencis sat at a small table beside the platform, drinking from a dark bottle. He set it carelessly aside and began wolfing down food. Rook sat on the bench beside him, her hair mussed, her clothes in attractive disarray. A fresh bruise decorated one cheek--a testament to Brencis's attentions, Amara wondered, or evidence of Rook's discovery and coerced treachery?
Amara saw the glittering eyes of a vordknight, crouched upon the roof she had used earlier that day to spy upon the courty
ard. A coincidence? Or had the collared Rook been forced to inform them of what she knew of Amara's presence and movements.
Amara grimaced. There was no help for it. She'd simply have to press on and hope for the best.
Veiled behind layers of windcrafting, blending with the weirdly lit night in her furycrafted cloak, Amara stalked silently forward.
Murdering a powerful furycrafter like Kalarus Brencis--and surviving the experience--was a dubious proposition at best. His innate gifts at watercrafting meant that only a sudden and massively traumatic injury had a real chance of killing him; a slash that opened anything less than a major artery would be rapidly repaired. She had to be swift. His skills at windcrafting would grant him deadly swift reaction speed to any attack, and the raw strength granted by his earthcrafting meant that if there was any sort of struggle, he would literally tear Amara limb from limb. Worse, if she struck, missed, and, sensibly, tried to flee, he would probably kill her before she had covered more than a few yards. His firecrafting would make that simple.
Most dangerous of all, his metalcrafting would warn him of any steel weapon as it approached him. It would not give him anything but an instant's warning, true, but that would be more than sufficient. In order to kill Kalarus Brencis Minoris and survive the exchange herself, Amara would have to open up his throat wide with the stone-bladed dagger she held in her hand. Or else sink it to the hilt in one of his eyes or ears. There was absolutely no room for error.
Brencis, on the other hand, could snap her neck with a thrust of his arm, burn her to bones with a flick of his fingers, or sweep her head clean of her neck with a single motion of his excellent-quality sword.
It seemed a trifle unfair.
But then, she'd never really expected a series of equitable situations when she'd joined the Cursors.
Crows take you, Gaius. Even when I walked away from your service, you managed to draw me back into it.
Moving silent and unseen had become second nature to her over the past days. She drifted past the guards standing about the courtyard, walking slowly, calmly, and carefully. She paused several times, to let one of the collared Alerans pass nearby, before she continued. Stealth had a great deal more to do with patience and the ability to remain calm when there was very little reason to do so than with any amount of personal agility.
It took her perhaps ten minutes to move from the shelter of the alley to the side of the platform opposite Brencis's table. It took another five to slide around the platform and stop beside the stairs leading from the floor of the courtyard up to the auction stage. When Brencis finished eating, he would go back up the stairs to collar the next victim, and Amara would drive her dagger into his brain. He would fall. She would take to the skies immediately, and be gone from the meager light of the furylamps before anyone could react. It couldn't be simpler.
In matters such as that, simplicity was a deadly weapon in its own right.
It took Brencis several more moments to finish dinner, before he pushed his plate away and rose.
Amara settled her grip on the handle of the stone knife and relaxed her muscles, preparing for the single, blindingly swift strike that was her only chance at success.
Brencis glanced at Rook, then down and said, "I hate this."
"Just remember," Rook told him. "You have what they want. You can't be replaced. They don't have the power. You do."
Amara felt herself freezing into place.
Brencis touched the collar at his own throat. "Maybe," he said.
"Don't show weakness," Rook cautioned. "You know what will happen."
Amara took a moment to admire Rook's delivery, as her words went home in as deadly a fashion as any sword thrust, planting discord and division among the enemy while remaining concealed as simple self-interest. Amara could think of any number of women and men who had urged their mates in a similar fashion, attaining position and prestige by proxy. Crows, but the woman had guts. Amara could not say if she would act with as much courage in the same circumstances.
Suddenly, half a dozen vordknights simultaneously leapt into the air from rooftops around the courtyard, their wings making a heavy, thrumming burr of the evening's silence.
"She's here," Brencis murmured in a numb tone.
The oppressive buzz of Vord wings faded--and then grew louder again, and louder, multiplying in volume, until it filled the stone-enclosed courtyard with thunder. An instant later, a veritable legion of vordknights descended from the night sky. They came down like locusts, all at once, landing upon buildings, cages, and cobblestones alike, covering everything in sight in a living carpet of gleaming black chitin. It was sheer luck, Amara knew, that one of them landed a bare couple of inches beyond where the tip of her outstretched fingers would reach, rather than upon her head, and it was only the practice and discipline of the endless days of stillness and silence that prevented her from flinching into a spasm of motion that would have concluded with her fleeing for safety and finding only disaster.
Instead, she held her place and waited.
From somewhere near the center of the courtyard, a Vord screamed, a high-pitched, chittering shriek that ripped at Amara's ears.
A second after it had faded, the cry was repeated from above them.
This time, the courtyard filled with the thunder of windstreams, as Knights Aeris in gleaming silver collars descended from above, in an armored-guard formation around a pair of figures Amara recognized at once:
The Vord queen.
And Lady Aquitaine.
Of course, the Knights Aeris can't fly among the vordknights, Amara thought, with clinical detachment. Their windstreams would make it too difficult for the Vord to use their wings.
It was the training she'd had as a Cursor. One never allowed emotions to control one's reactions. Whether those emotions were abject terror or bitter hatred so vile that it made her mouth twist at the taste, they couldn't be allowed to take the upper hand. When you felt it happening, you focused on details, the practical, connecting one fact to another, until the surge of fear and hate washed by and receded somewhat.
Only after she had done that did Amara look back at the would-be authors of Alera's destruction.
The Vord queen was shorter than Amara had expected her to be--not even as tall as Amara herself. She didn't know why she had thought it would be otherwise. Thinking back on it, the queen she'd fought and helped to kill in Calderon had not been particularly tall or imposing, physically. It had been a human-shaped creature, but there had been nothing human about it.
This queen was different.
Her cloak was finer, for one thing. The other queen had been dressed in cloth that could have come from a not-too-recent grave. This one wore a great cloak of black velvet so deep that it rippled with illusory colors in its folds. She stood in the courtyard with something else in her posture and bearing, too--something alert, almost electric. The other queen had never projected anything but cold and alien patience.
The Vord queen reached up with slender, pale hands, and drew back her hood, revealing a face that was youthful, beautiful, and shockingly familiar.
She looked almost precisely like the Princeps' lover, Kitai.
Amara stared in such shock that she almost forgot to maintain the veils around her. The queen in Calderon had looked human in form, but had been covered in gleaming, green-black chitin, much like the vordknights. This one, though, looked almost entirely human . . .
Except for the eyes.
The eyes were a swirl of black and gold and green, in hundreds of glittering facets. Without those eyes, the Vord queen could have walked down any street in Alera without raising eyebrows--beyond the fact that she was, except for the cloak, apparently naked.
The queen turned those alien eyes in a slow circuit of the courtyard, and with a collective sigh that approached a moan of adoration, or terror, the collared Alerans as one sank to prostrate themselves upon the ground before her.
The queen's mouth curved into a small, satisfied
smile. Then she moved her right hand in a liquid, precise gesture, and Lady Aquitaine stepped up to stand beside her.
The former High Lady stood well over a head taller than the queen. With her hair drawn back into a tight bun, and clad in the formfitting black chitin of the Vord, Lady Aquitaine looked more slender than the richly cloaked, smaller figure before her. From that close, Amara could see the creature crouched upon her breast. It looked almost like a wax spider, but smaller, and clad in a dark shell. Its many legs circled Lady Aquitaine's torso and, Amara realized with a start, had actually sunk their clawed tips into Lady Aquitaine's flesh. Worse, the creature's head, sporting what must have been mandibles as long as Amara's fingers, was sunk into the flesh of her torso, just over her heart. The thing shivered and pulsed oddly--and in the rhythm of a heartbeat.