Princeps fury, p.41
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       Princeps' Fury, p.41

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  "Enough of her survived to settle accounts, Countess," Invidia said in a quiet voice. "More than enough to deal with you. And your husband."

  Amara felt a little chill of fear go through her.

  Invidia smiled. "Ah. I thought as much. Where is dear Count Calderon? I can't imagine him to be the sort to let you accept a mission such as this alone."

  "He's dead," Amara said, keeping her tone as flat as she could.

  "Liar," replied Invidia, without an instant's hesitation. "Oh, you could deceive me about many things, child. But not about him. He's too close to your heart." She rose slowly, eyes again on the creature upon her breast. This time, it didn't stir as she moved. "This needn't be any more unpleasant than it already has been, Countess."

  "Meaning it will go easier for me, if I cooperate with you, I presume," Amara said.

  "Precisely."

  "Go to the crows. And take your friends with you."

  Invidia's smile widened. "Where is your husband, Countess?"

  Amara faced her in silence, except for the rattling of her belt buckle against the stones of the courtyard as she shivered in the cold.

  "I told you," Invidia said, her smile widening.

  "Some of your people adequately understand the situation," the Vord queen said, stepping forward to stare down at Amara. "But so many of the others refuse us. Even given the chance to survive, they ignore their own best interests in favor of . . . intangibles. There is no gain in it, no sense, no reason."

  Amara had felt the touch of a Vord queen's mind before, though she had not known it at the time. It was a subtle thing, a fluttering of thought and emotion as tenuous and delicate as a strand of spiderweb stretched across a wooded path.

  "Where is Bernard?" Invidia prompted in a gentle voice.

  Amara ground her teeth and focused upon her surroundings, upon how cold she was, separating herself from her thoughts and emotions--just as she would when attempting to deceive a skilled watercrafter. And then she drew up every memory of Bernard that she could summon--his steady silence in the field, his gentle humor telling a story of his day over dinner, the granite strength of his body as it pressed against hers in their bed, his laughter, his eyes, the scratch of his short beard against her throat when he kissed her neck--and a hundred memories more, running through every one of them, everything he was.

  The Vord queen exhaled slowly, and said, "Her mind is disciplined. She hides him from me." The pale, strange-eyed being turned away, and Amara felt the touch of its thoughts vanish. "Interesting."

  "Give me an hour," Invidia said. "She'll be less able to concentrate once we've spent some time with her."

  "We have work to do, and no time to waste on such pursuits," the queen replied. She looked over her shoulder and stared at Amara, dark eyes glittering. "Come."

  Invidia rose, but looked at Amara with narrowed eyes. "That could cost us her mind, along with its contents."

  The Vord queen hadn't slowed down. "The order of probability that she will know anything more useful than that we have already gained is very low. The risk is acceptable."

  "I understand," Invidia said. She stared at Amara for another moment, then shook her head. "Farewell, Countess. When next we meet, I suppose it will be on friendlier terms."

  Amara's heart pounded harder as the fear grew. "What do you mean?"

  The shriek of the Vord queen echoed across the courtyard, and seconds later the air was filled with the thunder of Vord taking to the night sky on green-black wings.

  "Brencis did an excellent job on my ribs, my lung, and my stomach," Invidia said. "So don't fear, Countess. I leave you in capable hands."

  Brencis stood over Rook's motionless corpse, his face empty of anything but an odd, fey heat. He looked from the corpse to Amara, very slowly, his eyes unfocused.

  "Brencis," Invidia said, as the collared Alerans began to gather around her before she took to the sky. "Collar her."

  Amara's scream of protest and horror was lost in the howl of a dozen windstreams lifting Invidia and her escort away from fallen Ceres.

  CHAPTER 38

  Isana could count on her fingers the number of times she had worn trousers. It wasn't because it would have been terribly outrageous. Plenty of women could and did wear them on steadholts, especially those involved in gathering herbs in the forest, working around animals, or laboring in the fields. She'd simply preferred her gowns and dresses.

  The flying leathers felt decidedly odd, especially the trousers, but they were quite warm. That was a necessity, Araris had cautioned her, when wearing metal armor in such cold weather. The metal itself would be cold enough to freeze to her skin if it had the help of a droplet of sweat or spittle. Or tears.

  Or blood.

  She shivered and adjusted the sword belt that held her long, armored coat closed. She checked the weapon again, sliding the gladius a bit out of the sheath and back in. The cold could freeze the weapon into its sheath if one wasn't careful.

  Aria, standing beside her, said, "There they are. Finally."

  Isana glanced up at the dark grey sky. "He was hoping for the weather to worsen," she said. "A blizzard would make a public duel problematic."

  Aria sighed. "Probably."

  Isana didn't turn around to face the Shieldwall. Once again, they stood on the meeting ground where they had spoken with the Icemen. The snow all around it was stirred into odd hummocks and bare spots, where the massive watercrafting she had wrought had disrupted the usual pattern of smooth drifts.

  "Aria," Isana said. "If I should . . . If today should not end well for me . . ."

  "Ahhh," Aria said. "That's why you chose me to be your second instead of Araris."

  "I don't think he'd be able to help himself. He'd tear into Antillus immediately."

  "And what makes you think I won't?" Lady Placida asked, her tone completely calm.

  Isana glanced aside at the High Lady and noted that Aria wore her slender sword at her side.

  "Oh, not you, too," Isana sighed.

  Lady Placida gave Isana a smile that was startlingly wolflike. "Never fear. I'll leave his hide intact. But I'll flay his conscience from his bones."

  Isana nodded. "If nothing else . . . I think it will give you a genuine chance to talk him into doing the right thing." A motion toward the edge of the trees drew her eye. A massive shape loomed there in the shadows of early dawn--Walker, the gargant. Doroga appeared from the shadows and leaned on his long-handled cudgel, a hundred yards away. He gave her a slow, respectful nod, which Isana returned.

  Aria sighed. "I can't believe it's come to this. I can't believe the young man I knew would . . . do this. But Raucus changed, after he married Kalarus Dorotea. They could barely stand one another, but their fathers had arranged it all. It was supposed to unite the northern cities with the south, you know." She shook her head, and said, "Here they are."

  Isana turned slowly, gravely, to face Lord Antillus.

  She honestly wasn't ready for the sight that greeted her.

  Every member of the Legion and every single person who was part of the Legion's support structure, or so it seemed, had come to the top of the Wall to watch the duel. A river of humanity stretched for a mile, perhaps more, along the dark, massive structure. When Isana had walked out in the dark before dawn, she hadn't really been paying too much attention to what was going on around her, she supposed, and it hadn't been light enough to see very far.

  Her potentially useful death, it seemed, would have an enormous audience.

  Something about that irritated her. It was one thing to give one's life for one's Realm--but it was quite another to be forced to do so with every soul for twenty-five miles looking on, evaluating her, and making individual judgments. She was not there to put on a crowbegotten spectacle.

  Not for them, at any rate.

  Antillus Raucus walked to them through the snow, stopping a few yards away. Beside him walked Aria's son, Garius, his face grim, his armor and uniform immaculate. Isana understood Raucu
s's choice of seconds at once. It was the second's duty to intercede should anyone of the other duelist's party attempt to interfere in the duel. Not only would Garius doubtlessly be a formidable furycrafter himself, but her own second, Aria, would be immediately disinclined to attack Raucus if it would mean that she found herself faced with her own son.

  Isana tried to be charitable. The choice might have been as much diplomatic as tactical. Since Garius would be just as unwilling to initiate hostilities against his mother as she was against him, his presence might have been meant as a reassurance--even as an overture, from a certain point of view. Raucus clearly did not want this fight.

  She met the gaze of the man who might be killing her in a few moments and lifted her chin slightly. He had not worn his usual heavy Legion lorica, opting instead for a coat that she thought was probably armored like her own. His boots were heavy, lined with fur against the snow and the cold. He wore a gladius at his side, rather than the longer sword she'd seen him with before.

  He's matched his weapon and armor to mine, Isana thought. So that at least he'll be able to think to himself that he killed me fairly.

  Doroga strode forward, then, cudgel swinging over his shoulder.

  "I am the Master of Arms," the barbarian said. He tapped a round case hanging by a thong from his belt. "I read up on your trial by combat law. It means I come over here and tell you all the rules, even though everyone here knows them better than I do."

  Antillus spared an irritated glance for Doroga. Isana had to suppress her smile.

  "Lord Antillus, there, is the challenged. He gets to choose how the duel will be fought. He's chosen steel and fury. Which basically means anything goes, which is how fighting ought to be done in any case."

  The young man beside Lord Antillus said, "I'm not sure it's the prerogative of the Master of Arms to give editorial comment on the juris macto."

  "Garius," Aria chided. The tone was exactly like that Isana had heard in her own voice, time after time, when cautioning Tavi to restrain his words. Garius subsided.

  "Isana is the challenger," Doroga continued, as if no one had said anything. "Which means she gets to choose the time and place of the duel. She has chosen here and now. Obviously. Or none of us would be standing out here in the wind."

  Antillus Raucus sighed.

  "Lord Antillus," Doroga said. "As the challenged, you have the right to let a champion stand in your place. In case you don't want to get hurt, I guess." Doroga's tone was completely neutral and polite, but somehow the barbarian managed to infuse it with contempt, nonetheless. "Do you wish a champion to stand for you?"

  Antillus gritted his teeth. "I do not."

  Doroga grunted. "There's that much at least." He looked back and forth between them. "Now I am supposed to ask you to tell me why you're fighting. Isana."

  "The Realm is in need," Isana said quietly, never taking her eyes from Raucus's. "The First Lord has called the Shield Legions to battle the Vord. Lord Antillus not only refuses to heed his rightful lord's command, but he actively tried to destroy the truce I might have wrought with the Icemen that could potentially have given him no further excuse to do continue defying the First Lord's will. If he would avoid this duel, he must immediately mobilize his Legions and militia and march them south to defend the Realm."

  Doroga grunted. He nodded to Antillus. "Your turn."

  "My first commitment is to my people, not to Gaius Sextus or the crown he wears," Antillus rumbled. "I have no desire to pursue this duel. But I will not abandon my responsibilities." He gestured with one hand at the wall behind him and the people on it. "You want to know why I'm fighting? I'm fighting for them."

  "You're both fighting for them, Raucus," Aria said in a quiet, saddened voice. "You're just too stiff-necked to see it."

  Doroga shook his head. "Isana. You willing to back off?"

  "I am not," Isana said. She kept her voice from shaking, just barely.

  "How about you, Antillus?"

  "No," Raucus said.

  Doroga opened the case and consulted a rolled piece of paper, before nodding once and saying, "You both sure?"

  They both replied in the affirmative.

  Doroga read the paper carefully, his lips moving, and nodded. "Right. Both of you turn and take ten paces when I count."

  "I'm sorry," Raucus said. He turned his back on Isana.

  Isana turned around without replying. Her legs were shaking as she took one step forward, and Doroga counted off the paces out loud. Then she turned to face Raucus again.

  The Marat chieftain lifted his club overhead. "When I lower the club," he said, "my part in this ritual is over. Then you two fight."

  With a deliberate, practiced motion, graceful and implacable, Antillus Raucus, the most personally dangerous man in Alera, put his hand to his sword.

  Isana swallowed and mimicked him, though her own motion was jerky by comparison, and her hand shook and felt weak.

  Doroga dropped his club to the ice-bound ground--

  --and Antillus Raucus blurred into motion so swift that it barely seemed that his limbs moved at all. There was simply a streak of dark leather and bright steel coming toward Isana before she could draw half the length of her little sword from its sheath.

  He wants it over quickly, mercifully, she thought. By then Raucus was barely a long stride away, his sword gleaming in the rising sun, and she had lifted her hand and cried out to Rill.

  The snow and ice beneath Raucus's feet shifted and rose into a long rise--an icy ramp, to be more precise. Isana let her trembling legs give out completely, and dropped to the ground, as the slippery incline turned Raucus's own blinding speed against him. The High Lord went sailing over her head, his arms windmilling.

  Isana completed drawing her sword and came back to her feet, her eyes tracking Raucus's flight--which turned into literally that before he actually returned to earth, a windstream rising to carry him clear of the ground. He banked in a broad circle, gestured with his left hand, and a sudden sphere of fire blossomed less than a foot in front of her face.

  Isana reacted without thought, gathering more snow from the ground to surge up and swamp the white-hot firecrafting. She crouched away and down, keeping the surge of snow flowing up over the fireball like a lumpy white river. Steam billowed out and would have enveloped her, in any case, had she not kept more snow flowing upward, dousing the fire, refreezing the steam, carrying it all up and away from her.

  She didn't see Raucus coming until he plunged through the column of steam and snow in a howl of wind, shards of frost and ice flying in every direction.

  Hours and hours of instruction and practice with Araris had taught her reflexes a great deal more than she had realized. Her sword came up in a parry meant to deflect the tremendous force of the blow rather than opposing it outright, sure that she would not be able to match the power of the charging High Lord. The swords met. A shower of bright blue sparks flew up, and Raucus's sword peeled a long strip of metal from one blade of her gladius as easily as a man might slice the skin from an apple. Then he was past her and gone, recovering his own balance in the air.

  Isana stared at the mauled sword for a split second, the edge of the sliced area glowing red with shed heat, and knew that she had been more than merely fortunate. Raucus hadn't been able to see her as he charged, just as she hadn't been able to see him coming. His blow had been badly aimed--which was to say, slightly less than perfect. Her defense had happened to meet it well, but doing it once was no guarantee that she could do it again.

  And it was terrifyingly clear that she could not meet him sword to sword for long. He would slice her weapon apart like a stick of chilled butter. For that matter, she doubted that her armor would stand up to his blade any better. If she allowed Raucus to keep diving upon her, he would carve her to bits one pass at a time. She had to ground him.

  With another lifted hand, the snow around her began to whirl in another vortex, rising in a blinding, stinging curtain to veil her from his sigh
t, to make swift charges through the curtain of snow an unattractive option.

  Instead, she maintained the watercrafting that kept the snow stirring around her and cooled her still-hot sword in the snow at her feet while she waited.

  A moment later, a shadow broke the whirling snow, a dark shape, and Antillus Raucus appeared, frost clinging to his beard, his hair, and to the leather of his armored coat. His sword was in his hand.

  On an impulse, Isana maintained the snow curtain, and waited.

  "Bloody crows, Isana," Raucus said. His voice was not loud, and was more tired than angry. "An excellent choice of a dueling ground."