Princeps fury, p.43
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       Princeps' Fury, p.43

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Tavi frowned. "Then the pressure that had been put on the fortress for the past weeks--it was a ruse."

  Varg nodded. "Convincing Lararl of the strength of his defenses. Causing him to send away more troops than he would have were he not confident that those remaining could hold. They waited for him to weaken himself, then . . ." Varg smacked his paw-hands together.

  Tavi shook his head. It had cost the Vord untold numbers of their creatures to maintain the charade--but then, they had had bodies enough to spare. Mathematics had decided the war, probably months before the attack on Shuar began. "How bad?" Tavi asked.

  "Lararl sent out couriers to spread the warning and dug in to hold the Vord for as long as possible. But the last couriers to leave saw the Vord entering the city at the top of the cliffs. What warriors escaped are fighting to slow the enemy--but a queen commands them."

  Tavi nodded. "She'll drive for our only means of escape--Molvar. And she'll be gathering more and more troops to her as she heads this way."

  Varg flicked his ears in assent. "We must return to the ships at once. The Shuarans may already have seized them."

  "No," Tavi said. "We head for the hills west of Molvar."

  Sha glanced up sharply at Tavi at this blatant contradiction of Varg's words.

  "Tavar," Varg said quietly, "there is no winning a battle against the Vord on this ground. And there is not room on the ships for a tenth of those who will wish to flee Shuar. To do other than reach the ships and sail away is death."

  Tavi stared at Varg, smiling.

  Varg looked up from his saddle. "You meant it when you told Lararl you could get his people away?"

  "How many times have I lied to you?" Tavi asked.

  "I have never taken you prisoner," Varg replied, his tone pensive. "Lararl had. And some of your folk are truthful only in preparation for the day when they need one critical lie to be believed."

  "If that is the case," Tavi said, "then that day has not yet come." He nodded at the camp of miserable-looking makers. Maximus had risen from his near stupor on the ground and was standing with Anag over one of the worst-looking of the wounded, supervising moving the injured Cane into the stream for a watercrafting. "We're getting them away from here."

  Varg looked at Tavi, then at the makers. "Tavar, I sometimes think you are insane."

  "Are you coming with me?"

  Varg glanced at him, and Tavi swore he could see something offended in the big Cane's body language. "Of course."

  Tavi showed him his teeth again. "Glad I'm not the only one."

  By a few hours after midnight, they had reached the Aleran defenses.

  A rising moon, nearly full, and the mercurial nature of Canean weather had swept the sky clean of clouds and bathed the land in silver light. A line of hills west of Molvar had been transformed by several days of furious labor on the part of the Narashan Canim and both Legions, aided by Aleran furycraft. Where there had been only gently rolling land, the combined forces had erected an earthworks twenty feet high, faced by freshly cut stakes of pine, in front of a trench very nearly as deep as the wall was high. Only a few narrow passages had been left through the defenses, which arched in a line nearly five miles long around Molvar. Refugees from the invaded territory had flooded the area inside, and the interior of the hastily erected, enormous fortress was already filling with Canim.

  Even with all of Nasaug's troops and both Aleran Legions, the defenses around the town were spread thin, though it was clear that the Shuarans had thrown what forces they had into the same effort. More were arriving at every moment, as well--stragglers, Tavi supposed, who had been separated from their battlepacks, and what looked like the occasional wayward company who had been cut off from the larger portion of their command and had found themselves nearby. The wounded, too, were pouring in, as were the Shuaran taurg cavalry, whose riders came and went in constant activity.

  Max brought his mount up beside Tavi's as they approached the earthworks, and whistled. "There's a lot of work. That's what the Legion's been up to?"

  Tavi nodded. "We need a defensible position. It's going to take time to move this many Canim and all the supplies onto the transports."

  "Transports?" Max asked. "What transports?"

  Tavi shook his head.

  Max sighed wearily. "Tavi, I'm tired. We know there were only two queens on the whole continent. You and Varg diced one of them, and the other one is busy leading an army toward us. We don't need to worry about anyone's mind being picked over. So talk."

  "Max," Kitai said from behind Tavi on their shared taurg. "What we do not know is the location of those two queens' mother."

  "Oh." Max was quiet for a moment. Then he grunted, and said, "Good point. Shut up, Calderon."

  "Durias," Tavi called.

  Durias nudged his weary taurg forward. "Highness?"

  "Ride ahead and let the Legion know we're coming," Tavi said. "I'll need to speak to Marcus, Nasaug, and Magnus immediately. See if Crassus can be there as well. Oh, and Demos."

  Durias saluted and kicked his mount into a lumbering trot.

  "Did you see that, Maximus?" Kitai asked. "He just helped, without whining or indulging in foolish questions. Perhaps when you grow up, you will be more like Durias."

  Max glowered at Kitai, then saluted Tavi, and said, "I think I'll just go help him now." He nudged Steaks into a trot and caught up with Durias. Tavi heard him muttering darkly under his breath as he went.

  "That wasn't very nice," Tavi said quietly, once Max had gone.

  Kitai sighed. "You weren't looking at him when you spoke to Durias. He's so tired he was about to fall off his taurg. Now he's grumpy enough to get back to camp while awake--and more quickly."

  Tavi let himself lean back against Kitai, feeling the weight of his own fatigue. "Thank you."

  "I know how important he is to you," she said quietly. "And I love him, too, chala."

  Tavi nudged his own mount into a walk. "So you manipulated him into doing what you thought was in his best interests."

  "I did what was necessary to protect him. Yes."

  Tavi glanced over his shoulder and met her intent green eyes. "You deceived me."

  She didn't even blink. "You lied to me, Aleran. When you promised me we would be together. You knew you were about to go out on your own. That you could die."

  "This is about more than you and me. You shouldn't have decided to kill the queen without talking to me about it."

  "Only speed and surprise could enable us to succeed. If you had known--"

  "That isn't the point, and you know it."

  Her eyes narrowed. "The Vord are not to be reasoned with. They are to be killed."

  "You didn't know that for certain. We couldn't, until we made the attempt."

  She sighed and shook her head. "Aleran. You are a good man. But in some ways, you are a fool."

  "Swords and fire don't solve every problem."

  "And some can be solved no other way," she replied, her voice fierce. "The Vord all but destroyed my people in the past. They are gutting the corpse of what is left of the Canim now. Open your eyes."

  "I did," Tavi said, and suddenly he felt so weary that it was hardly worth speaking. He turned back to the front, and his head felt too heavy to hold up. "And I feel like I'm the only one who can see the truth."

  Kitai was quiet for a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was more gentle. "What do you mean?"

  "Chala," he said quietly. "Look at what the Vord have done to the Canim. If the only option we have is to fight . . . I don't think Alera could do any better. How am I supposed to lead people into a fight I know they can't win? Ask them to die in vain? Watch them d--"

  His vision blurred for a moment, and his throat felt tight.

  Kitai's arms tightened around him, and he suddenly became intensely aware of her love for him, her faith, her trust, wrapping around him as tangibly as her embrace. "Oh, chala," she said quietly.

  Several moments passed before he could
speak. "What do I do?"

  Her hand touched his face. "I know that you feel as if you need to find some clever alternative. Some way to overcome the Vord, to save lives, to avoid bloodshed. But this is not an enemy who might live with you in peace for a time. The Vord want nothing but to destroy. And they will destroy you if they can. They will use your desire for peace against you."

  She gently turned his head until he could meet her eyes again. "If you truly want peace, if you truly wish to save lives, you must fight them. Fight them with everything you have. Fight them with everything you are. Fight until there is not a breath left in your body." She lifted her chin. "And I will fight beside you."

  She was right, of course. He knew that. When the Vord finished with the Canim, they would come for Alera. The advantage of numbers they had was formidable, but it wasn't impossible. Not if all of Alera worked together.

  That was the problem. There were too many divisive elements in play at home. Oh, certainly, once Alerans at large realized the danger, they would respond together--but by the time they did, it might already be too late. His uncle had been trying in vain to warn Alera about the Vord for years. Many Alerans regarded the Canim as little more than animals with weapons. His countrymen would never believe that the Canim civilization had been so large, so developed, and consequently its destruction would lack credibility as a warning of the danger to come.

  Worse, he himself represented another enormous element of division. Many Citizens had tacitly refused to recognize his legitimacy as heir to the Crown. He had escorted Varg's people back to Canea precisely because his presence was such a potent disruption. Crows, he'd felt fortunate to avoid any encounters with assassins before he left.

  Gaius was wise and powerful, but he was also aging. Fighting a campaign of the scale of this one would be would be taxing even on a young man--and it was the kind of fight the old First Lord was not suited to in the first place. He was a master of politics, of manipulation, of the critical strike delivered at precisely the right instant with precisely the force needed. He was used to being thoroughly in control.

  But war wasn't like that. You never thought of all the possibilities. Something always happened to throw off your plans. Supplies could be delayed or lost. Soldiers could encounter sickness, bad terrain, parasites, faulty gear, hostile weather, and a million other factors that would prevent them from performing as expected. Meanwhile, the enemy was doing everything in his power to kill you. No one could control that kind of chaos. All you could hope to do was keep your eyes open, make sure everyone was working together, and stay a couple of steps ahead of disaster.

  A united Alera would have a chance. Probably not a good chance, but if led correctly, they could make a fight of it. Oh, certainly Gaius had the training, but the study of books and the stories of old generals and models on a sand table were a far cry from war's horrible reality. Could Tavi's aging grandfather change his thinking as quickly and drastically as this war would demand?

  The first step, Tavi supposed, was to believe. Believe that victory was possible. Believe that he could make it happen. Then bring that same belief to others. Because sure as crows on a corpse, anyone who fought believing they would lose had lost already. He had to trust in his grandfather, the single most formidable person Tavi had ever known, to guide the Realm through this storm. And if he was to trust and serve the First Lord, then he had to give the fight everything he had.

  There would be no surrender.

  "All right," he said quietly. He looked up at the earthworks and nodded. "Let's get inside. There's a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it in."

  Kitai's arms tightened hard on him, and he felt her fierce pride and exultation as if it were his own.

  Tavi rode toward the last defenses of a dying land to do everything in his power to take a host of deadly allies to the man who was Alera's only hope.

  CHAPTER 40

  For the first time in history, Alera Imperia braced herself for war beneath a canopy of wheeling crows.

  Ehren stood on a southward-facing balcony of the First Lord's citadel, where Gaius was the center of a swarm of activity while the Legions prepared to defend the city. From there, he could overlook all the prepared defensive positions, descending through the city's defensive rings.

  Alera Imperia had been built to withstand a siege--originally, at any rate. Her avenues ran in concentric, descending circles around the citadel, with cross streets laid out in straight lines from the city's heart, like the spokes of a wheel. Each avenue was approximately fifteen feet above the next level of the city, and the stone buildings lining each avenue had been reshaped by Legion engineers, so that their outer edges had become defensive walls. The streets had been sealed, except for a single avenue between each level, alternating on opposite sides of the city. Now, the only way to the citadel was a long corridor of streets faced with stone walls, so that even if the enemy took one gate, they would be faced with another and another before they reached the citadel itself.

  Against conventional tactics, Alera Imperia could theoretically hold against an attacker almost indefinitely.

  Against the Vord . . . Well. They would soon find out.

  ". . . and Third Rivan will also be on the first tier," Aquitainus Attis was saying, nodding to the city gates behind the actual, massive walls of battlecrafted stone, far below the citadel. "First and Third Aquitaine, Second and Third Placidan, and the Crown Legion are camped on the north side of the city, outside the walls."

  "I cannot agree with this measure," muttered a man Ehren recognized as the senior captain of the Rhodesian Legions. "We may not be able to open and close sally ports to get your men back inside when the Vord arrive."

  "It's the right move," Captain Miles said. "A mobile force can exploit any opening they leave us as they approach the city. They could inflict more damage than months of fighting from defensive positions."

  Lord Aquitaine gave the Rhodesian captain a very level stare.

  "Of course," the man said, averting his gaze.

  Aquitaine nodded once and continued speaking as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Further reinforcements from Forcia, Parcia, and Rhodes are unlikely at best, though they may be able to strike into the enemy's flanks in the Vale."

  Which, while it could prove important in the long run, would not help them now, Ehren thought.

  The First Lord cleared his throat and spoke in a quiet, clear tone. "What is the status of the civilian evacuation?"

  "The last of them are leaving now, sire," Ehren supplied. "All who were willing to leave, at any rate. The Senatorial party offered their personal armsmen as a security force."

  "I'm sure," Gaius murmured. "The southern refugees?"

  The people who had already fled so far from their homes had been heartbroken when they were told that the capital held no safety for them. Many of them were too sick, weary, hungry, or wounded to keep running. "We made sure those who were worst off were given space on wagons, sire," Ehren said. "We also gave them all the food they could carry."

  Gaius nodded. "And the food stores?"

  "We've enough to feed the Legions for sixteen weeks at normal rations," Miles responded. "Twenty-four if we immediately begin cutting them."

  No one responded to that, and Ehren was fairly sure he knew why: none of the men there felt confident that they had sixteen weeks remaining to them, least of all the First Lord.

  The voices of the circling crows were harsh.

  Ehren entered the First Lord's private chambers and found Gaius Caria at the liquor cabinet.

  "My lady," he said quietly, surprised. He paused to bow his head to her. "Please excuse me."

  Caria, Gaius's second wife, was tall and lovely and fifty years younger than the First Lord, though the natural appearance of a skilled watercrafter kept her looking even younger than that. She had long hair of dark chestnut, narrow, clean features, and wore a blue silk dress of impeccable style and cut. "I should say so," she said in a calm, cold voice. "What are
you doing here?"

  "The First Lord ran out of his tonic. For his cough," Ehren said, all but stammering. Whether or not he'd had legitimate business here, he wasn't comfortable with the concept of being alone with another man's wife in his own bedroom. "He sent me for another bottle."

  "Ah," Caria said. "And how is His Majesty?"

  "His physician is . . . concerned, my lady," Ehren said. "But of course, he is handling the matter of the defense of the Realm quite well."

  Her voice gained the faintest hint of a sharp edge. "Of course he is. Duty before all." She stepped aside from the cabinet, then turned to walk out of the First Lord's chambers.