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Princeps' Fury, Page 4

Jim Butcher

  Magnus was spry for a man of his years, though Tavi always thought that the close-cropped Legion haircut looked odd on him. He had grown used to Magnus's shock of fine white hair while the two of them had explored the ancient Romanic ruins of Appia. The old man had wiry, strong hands, a comfortable potbelly, and watery eyes that had gone nearsighted after years of straining to read faded inscriptions in poorly lit chambers and caves. A scholar of no mean learning, Magnus was also a Cursor Callidus, one of the most senior of the elite agents of the Crown, and had become Tavi's de facto master of intelligence.

  "Kitai has alerted Demos to what Gradash said," Magnus began, without preamble. "And the good captain will keep a weather eye out."

  Tavi shook his head. "Not good enough," he said. "Kitai, ask Demos if he would indulge me. Prepare for a blow, and signal the rest of our ships to do the same. As I understand it, we've had unusually gentle weather so far, sailing this late in the year. Gradash didn't survive to old age by being a fool. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise."

  "He'll do it," Kitai said with perfect confidence.

  "Just be polite, please," Tavi said.

  Kitai rolled her eyes as she left and sighed. "Yes, Aleran."

  Magnus waited until Kitai had left before he nodded to Tavi, and said, "Thank you."

  "You really can say whatever you like in front of her, Magnus."

  Tavi's old mentor gave him a strained look. "Your Highness, please. The Ambassador is, after all, a representative of a foreign power. My professionalism feels strained enough."

  Tavi's weariness kept the laugh from gaining too much momentum, but it felt good in any case. "Crows, Magnus. You can't keep beating yourself up for not realizing I was Gaius Octavian. No one realized I was Gaius Octavian. I didn't realize I was Gaius Octavian." Tavi shrugged. "Which was the point, I suppose."

  Magnus sighed. "Yes, well. Just between the two of us, I'm afraid that I have to tell you, it's a waste. You'd have been a real terror as a historian. Dealt those pigheaded snobs at the Academy fits for generations, with what you'd have turned up at Appia."

  "I'll just have to try to make amends in whatever small way I can," Tavi said, smiling faintly. The smile faded. Magnus was right about one thing--Tavi was never going to go back to the simple life he'd had, working under Magnus at his dig site, exploring the ancient ruin. A little pang of loss went through him. "Appia was very nice, wasn't it?"

  "Mmm," Magnus agreed. "Peaceful. Always interesting. I still have a trunkful of rubbings to transcribe and translate, too."

  "I'd ask you to send some of them over, but . . ."

  "Duty," Magnus said, nodding. "Speaking of which."

  Tavi nodded and sat up with a grunt of effort as Magnus passed over several sheets of paper. Tavi frowned down at them and found himself studying several unfamiliar maps. "What am I looking at?"

  "Canea," Magnus replied. "There, at the far right . . ." The old Cursor indicated a few speckles at the middle of the right edge of the map. "The Sunset Isles, and Westmiston."

  Tavi blinked at the map for a moment, looking between the isles and the mainland. "But . . . I thought it was about three weeks' sailing from those islands."

  "It is," Magnus said.

  "But that would make this coastline . . ." Tavi traced a fingertip down its length. "Crows. If it's to scale, it would be three or four times as long as the western coast of Alera." He looked up sharply at Magnus. "Where did you come by this map?"

  Magnus coughed delicately. "Some of our language teachers managed to make copies of charts on the Canim ships."

  "Crows, Magnus!" Tavi snarled, rising. "Crows and bloody furies, I told you that we were not going to play any games like that on this trip!"

  Magnus blinked at him several times. "And . . . Your Highness expected me to listen?"

  "Of course I did!"

  Magnus lifted both eyebrows. "Your Highness, perhaps I should explain. My duty is to the Crown. And my orders, from the Crown, are to take every action within my power to support you, protect you, and secure every possible advantage to ensure your safety and success." He added, without a trace of apology, "Including, if in my best judgment I deem it necessary, ignoring orders containing more idealism than practicality."

  Tavi stared at him for a moment. Then he said, quietly, "Magnus, I'm not feeling well. But I'm sure that if I ask nicely, when Kitai gets back, she will be happy to throw you off this ship for me."

  Magnus inclined his head, unruffled. "That is, of course, up to you, Your Highness. But I would ask you to look over the map first."

  Tavi growled under his breath and turned his attention back to the map. The deed was done. There was no sense in pretending it hadn't been. "How accurate is this copy?"

  Magnus passed over several other pieces of paper, which were virtually identical to the first.

  "Mmmm," Tavi asked. "And these are to scale?"

  "That remains unclear," Magnus replied. "There could be differences in the way that the Canim understand and read their maps."

  "Not that much difference," Tavi replied. "I've seen the charts they drew of the Vale." Tavi traced a finger down one of the maps that had various-sized triangles marking the locations of a number of cities. Names had been sketched next to half of them. "These cities . . . I'm sure that . . ." He gave Magnus a sharp glance. "The population of each of these cities is enormous. As large as any of the High Lords' cities in Alera."

  "Yes, Your Highness," Magnus said calmly.

  "And there are dozens of them," Tavi said. "In this section of coastline alone."

  "Just so, Your Highness."

  "But that would mean . . ." Tavi shook his head slowly. "Magnus. That would mean that the Canim civilization is dozens of times larger than our own--hundreds of times larger."

  "Yes, Your Highness," Magnus said.

  Tavi stared down at the map, shaking his head slowly. "And we never knew?"

  "The Canim have guarded their coastline quite jealously over the centuries," Magnus said. "Fewer than a dozen Aleran ships have ever visited their shores--and those have only been allowed to dock at a single port, a place by the name of Marshag. No Aleran has ever been permitted off the docks--and returned to tell about it, at any rate."

  Tavi shook his head. "What about furycrafting? Have we never sent Knights Aeris to overfly it?"

  "The range of any flyer is limited. A Knight Aeris could fly perhaps two or three hundred miles and back, but he could hardly expect to do so unobserved--and as we saw subsequent to the Night of the Red Stars, the Canim do possess the ability to counter our flyers." Magnus shrugged, and smiled faintly. "Then, too, it has been speculated that our furycrafting abilities would be significantly reduced, so far from Alera, and our furies' points of origin. It is possible that a Knight Aeris would not be able to fly at all."

  "But no one's ever thought to test it?" Tavi asked.

  "The ships that have sailed there have all been couriers and merchantmen." Magnus flashed Tavi a swift smile. "Besides, can you imagine the Citizen who would want to rush off to the domain of the Canim amidst a crowd of rude sailors, only to find out that he is just as powerless as they?"

  Tavi shook his head slowly. "I suppose not." He tapped a finger on the maps. "Could this be a lie? Deliberately planted for us to find?"

  "Possible," Magnus said, approval in his tone, "though I would consider it a very low order of probability."

  Tavi grunted. "Well," he said. "This is rather valuable information."

  "I thought it so," Magnus said.

  Tavi sighed. "I suppose I won't have you thrown off the ship just yet."

  "I appreciate that, Your Highness," Magnus said gravely.

  Tavi traced his finger over several heavy lines, many of which ran ruler-straight. "These lines. Canals of some sort?"

  "No, Your Highness," Magnus said. "Those are boundary lines between territories."

  Tavi looked up blankly at Magnus. "I don't understand."

  "Apparently," Magnu
s said, "the Canim do not exist as a single governmental body. They are divided into several separate, distinct organizations."

  Tavi frowned. "Like the Marat tribes?"

  "Not exactly. Each territory is entirely independent. There is no overriding unity, no centralized leadership. Each is governed completely separately from all the others."

  Tavi blinked. "That's . . ." He frowned. "I was going to say that it was insane."

  "Mmmm," Magnus said. "Because Carna is a savage world, packed with far too many different peoples, most of them in constant conflict with one another. For us Alerans, only a united stand against our foes has allowed us to survive and prosper."

  Tavi gestured at the map. "Whereas the Canim have numbers enough that they can afford to be divided."

  Magnus nodded. "All things considered, it makes me rather glad that our new Princeps found an honorable, peaceful, and respectful solution to the situation in the Vale."

  "Can't hurt to make a good first impression," Tavi agreed. He shook his head slowly. "Can you imagine, Magnus, what would have happened if those hotheaded idiots in the Senate had gotten their way and funded a full-scale retaliation upon the Canim homeland?"

  Magnus shook his head in silence.

  "With numbers like this," Tavi continued, "they could have wiped us out. Furycrafting or no, they could have destroyed us at will."

  Magnus's face turned grim. "So it would seem."

  Tavi looked up at him. "So why didn't they?"

  The old Cursor shook his head again. "I don't know."

  Tavi studied the map for a time, examining the various territories. "Then Varg, I take it, is a member of only one of these territories?"

  "Yes," Magnus said. "Narash. It's the only territory that has actually made contact with Alera."

  The territory of Narash, Tavi noted, was also home to the port of Marshag. "Then I suppose the next question we need to ask ourselves is--"

  Outside the cabin, the ship's bell began to ring frantically. Demos began bellowing orders. A few moments later, the captain himself knocked, then opened the cabin door.

  "Magnus," he said, nodding to the old Cursor. "My lord," he said, nodding to Tavi. "The old sea dog was right. There's a storm coming up on us from the south."

  Tavi winced, but nodded. "How can we help you, Captain?"

  "Tie down anything that isn't bolted to the floor," Demos said, "including yourselves. It's going to be a bad one."


  Valiar Marcus debated the proper way to inform the proud young Canim officer that there was, in fact, a considerable distinction between telling an Aleran that he had a poor sense of smell and informing him that he smelled bad.

  The young Cane, Marcus knew, was anxious to make a good showing in his language lessons in front of no less personages than both Varg, the undisputed commander of the Canim fleet, and his son and second-in-command, Nasaug. If Marcus made the young officer look foolish, it would be an insult that the Cane would carry stubbornly to his grave--and given the enormous life span of the wolf-folk, it meant that Marcus's actions could cause repercussions, good or ill, for generations yet unborn.

  "While your statement is doubtless accurate," Marcus replied, in careful, slow, clearly pronounced Aleran, "you may find that many of my countrymen will respond awkwardly to such remarks. Our own sense of smell is, as you note, a great deal less developed than your own, and as such the use of language that bears upon it will carry a different degree of significance than it might amongst your own folk."

  Varg growled under his breath, and muttered, "Few, Aleran or Canim, care to be informed that their odor is unwelcome."

  Marcus turned his head to the grizzled old leader of the Canim and inclined his head, in the Aleran fashion. "As you say, sir."

  He had only a split second's warning as the embarrassed young officer let out a snarl and lunged at Marcus, his jaws snapping.

  Marcus had recognized the signs of brittle pride, which, it seemed, were as common and easily noted amongst ambitious young Canim as they were amongst their Aleran counterparts. Marcus was nearing sixty years of age, and would never have been fast enough to have met the Cane, had he been relying upon his senses alone to warn him--but foresight had always proven a far-more-effective defense than speed alone. Marcus had been anticipating the flash of temper and instant violence.

  The Cane was eight feet of coiled steely muscle, fangs and hard bone, and weighed two or three of Marcus--but as his jaws darted forward, he was unable to twist away when Marcus seized his ear in one callused fist and hauled to one side.

  The Cane twisted and rolled with the motion, letting out a snarl that rose to a high-pitched yelp of agony as he instinctively moved toward the source of the pull against his sensitive ear, to reduce the pressure on it. Marcus took advantage of the motion, breaking the Cane's balance, building momentum, and dropped his entire weight as well as the young Cane's full onto his furry chin, slamming him to the deck with a skull-jarring crack of impact.

  The young Cane lay there stunned for a moment, his eyes glazed, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, bleeding from a small cut.

  Marcus rose and straightened his tunic. "An inferior sense of smell," Marcus said, as if absolutely nothing of significance had happened, "is distinct from being told that one smells unpleasant. It's possible that someone sensitive might think you intended an insult. I personally am only an old centurion, too slow to be dangerous in a fight anymore, and find nothing insulting in either statement. I am not at all angry, and could do nothing about it even if I were upset. But I would hate for someone less tolerant and more capable to do you harm when, clearly, you are only trying to be friendly. Do you understand me?"

  The young officer stared at Marcus with glazed eyes. He blinked a few times. Then his ears twitched in a vague little motion of acknowledgment and assent.

  "Good," Marcus said, in his rough but functional Canish, smiling with only the slightest baring of his teeth. "I am glad that you make adequate progress in your efforts to understand Alerans."

  "A good lesson," Varg growled in agreement. "Dismissed."

  The young Cane picked himself up, bared his throat respectfully to Varg and Nasaug, then walked rather unsteadily from the ship's cabin.

  Marcus turned to face Varg. The Cane was a giant of his race, nearly nine feet tall when standing, and the Trueblood had been built to fit him. The cabin, which, to the Cane, was as cramped as any shipboard space, was cavernous to Marcus. The Cane, a great black-furred creature, his coat marred with the white streaks of many scars, crouched on his haunches, the at-rest posture of his kind, negligently holding a thick, heavy scroll in his pawlike hands, open to the middle, where he had been reading during the language lesson.

  "Marcus," murmured Varg, his basso growl as threatening and familiar as it always was. "I expect you want an explanation for the attack."

  "You have a young officer who would be promising if he wasn't an insufferably arrogant fool, convinced of the invincibility of your kind and, by extension, his own."

  Varg's ears flicked back and forth in amusement. His eyes went to Nasaug--a Cane who was a shorter, brawnier version of his sire. Nasaug's mouth dropped open, white fangs bared and tongue lolling in the Canim version of a smile.

  "Told you," Varg said, in Canish. "Huntmasters are huntmasters."

  "Sir?" Marcus asked. He understood the separate meanings of the words, but not their combined context.

  "Senior warriors," Nasaug clarified, to Marcus. "They are given command of groups of novices. Long ago, they would form hunting packs, and teach the young to hunt. The teacher was called the huntmaster."

  "These days," Varg growled, "the word means one who trains groups of young soldiers and prepares them for their place in the order of battle. Your Legions have something like them as well."

  "Centurions," Marcus said, nodding. "I see."

  "The pup would not have killed you," Nasaug said.

  Marcus faced the younger Cane squarely and
calmly. "No, sir," he replied, his voice steady. "He would not have. And out of respect for the Princeps' desire for a peaceful journey, I did not kill him."

  "Why would you have done so, huntmaster?" growled Varg, his voice quietly dangerous.

  Marcus turned back to face him without flinching. "Because I would far rather leave a dead fool behind me than a live enemy who has gained a measure of wisdom. In the future, I would take it as a courtesy if I was not used as an object lesson beyond those I have already been commanded to give."