Princeps fury, p.47
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       Princeps' Fury, p.47

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  "H-h-he should have held still," Amara said. "I'd have been glad to kill him."

  Brencis smiled. "My father always appreciated defiance from his women. I never really had the same tastes--but I'm beginning to see the appeal." He crouched over Amara, the collar swaying in front of her eyes. "Rook was my first, you know. I think I was about thirteen. She was a couple of years older." He shook his head. "I thought she liked me. But I realized later that she must have been acting under orders." He bared his teeth, a hideous expression, completely disconnected from anything resembling a smile. "Just as she must have been doing tonight."

  Amara stared at him for a long, silent moment. Then she said, "It's not really your fault you were raised by a monster, Brencis. M-maybe you never really had a chance. And I can't bl-blame you for wanting to survive." She smiled back at him. "So I'm going to give you one last chance to do the right thing before I k-kill you."

  Brencis stared at her for a second, uncertainty flickering in his eyes. Then he let out a short bark of a laugh. "Kill me? Countess," he told her, "in a little while, I'm going to my bed. And you're going to be happy to go with me." He glanced idly around the courtyard. "Perhaps I'll bring one of my girls, so that she can bathe you. We'll see if we can broaden your horizons."

  "Use your head, fool," Amara said. "Do you think for one moment that you're going to survive the Vord?"

  "Life is short, Countess," he replied, bitterly. "I have to take what I can from it. And right now, I'm taking you."

  She hadn't noticed that he'd smeared his bloodied thumb to the collar, but it went around her neck like a band of ice.

  And ecstasy turned her world into a single, endless white blur.

  She felt her body arch against her bonds, and was helpless to stop it. The pleasure wasn't merely sexual--although it was that, too intensely so to believe. But atop that rapture were layers and layers of other sensations. The simple satisfaction of a hot drink on a cold morning. The heart-pounding excitement she felt when seeing Bernard for the first time in days or weeks. The joy of soaring up through dark, heavy clouds into the clear blue sky. The fierce pleasure of victory over intense competition in the Wind Trials, when she had been at the Academy. The bubbling laughter that followed after the third or fourth excellent joke she'd heard in an evening--and a thousand more, every single happiness, every single joy, every wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, every individual gratification of the body, mind, and heart, all blended into a single, sublime whole.

  Brencis, the courtyard, the Vord, the Realm, even her husband--none of it mattered.

  Nothing mattered but feeling this.

  She knew she'd be weeping if she'd had thought enough for such inanities.

  Someone was whispering to her. She didn't know who. She didn't care. The whispers didn't matter. All that mattered was drowning in the pleasure.

  She came back to herself, slowly, inside a warmly lit room. It looked like an inn room, a fairly lavish one. There were soft hangings on the walls, and an enormous bed. It was warm--blessedly warm, after the hideous cold of the courtyard. Her fingers and toes were tingling, so intensely that it would have hurt, if anything she felt could have been interpreted as anything but pure pleasure.

  She was standing in a tub, and one of the barely clothed girls was taking off her travel-stained blouse. Amara stood in blissful disinterest. The girl began bathing her face and neck and shoulders, and Amara reveled in the warmth, the feeling of the soft washcloth against her skin, the scent of soap in the air.

  She became aware of Brencis walking in a slow circle around the tub, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.

  Despite his faults, she thought, he really was quite beautiful. She watched him, though the effort of moving her head simply became too much to sustain. She let her eyes follow him, tracking his movements through her lashes when the simple pleasure of feeling herself being cleaned of weeks of grime became almost too delicious to endure.

  "Lovely, Countess," Brencis said. "You are lovely."

  She shivered in response to his voice, and her eyes closed completely.

  "Don't forget her hair," Brencis said.

  "Yes, my lord," murmured the girl. Warm water cascaded over her head, and a gentler, softer-scented soap was applied to her hair. Amara just reveled in it.

  "It's too bad, really," Brencis said. "I had hoped that you would put up more of a fight than this. But you were brittle, Countess. The ones who go this far under, this swiftly--they don't come back. Do they, little Lyssa?"

  Amara felt the girl standing close beside her shiver. "No, my lord. I don't want to come back."

  Brencis stopped in front of her, smiling slightly. "I'll bet she has pretty legs. Very long, very slender, very strong."

  "Yes, my lord," Lyssa agreed.

  Amara found herself sleepily returning Brencis's smile.

  "Take the trousers, off, Amara," he said, his voice holding a quiet, snarling promise in it.

  "Yes, my lord," Amara said drowsily. The soaking-wet leather was stubborn against her pleasure-numbed fingers. "I . . . it's too tight, my lord."

  "Then be still," Brencis said, his voice amused. "Very still."

  A dagger, its tip glittering with fascinating, wicked sharpness, appeared in his hand, and he knelt by her side. "Tell me, Countess," he murmured. "Were you here on Gaius's orders?"

  "Yes, my lord," Amara murmured. She watched as the knife's tip, doubtless enhanced by Brencis's furycraft, sliced effortlessly through the hem of the leather flying trousers over her ankle. He began cutting slowly upward, his knife opening the garment as readily as a boy might peel a fruit.

  "And your husband," Brencis said. "He isn't dead, is he?"

  "No, my lord," Amara said sleepily. The knife slid over her calf. She wondered if she would feel it if such a sharp blade opened her flesh. She wondered if, in her current state, it would feel good.

  "Where is he?" Brencis continued.

  "Nearby, my lord," Amara replied, as the knife moved past her knee. "I'm not sure where, exactly."

  "Very good," Brencis said, in approval, and placed a kiss on the naked flesh at the back of her knee.

  Amara shuddered in anticipation.

  "What are his intentions?" Brencis asked, returning to cutting his way up Amara's leg.

  "He's waiting for my signal," Amara said.

  Brencis smiled grimly as the knife opened the leather encasing Amara's thigh, slicing slowly up toward her hip. "To do what?"

  "Free the captives, my lord."

  Brencis laughed. "Ambitious of you. And what is to be the signal for him to begin? There doesn't seem to be much left of you, but when we take him, I can at least make sure that you are the one to whisper in his ears when he is captured and recruit--"

  Metal scraped on metal, and Brencis paused, frowning in puzzlement.

  Amara looked down, to see that his knife had parted the leather over the top of her thigh--where the discipline collar her husband had bound to her, hours before, nestled tight against pale flesh.

  Brencis's eyes widened in stunned realization.

  Amara called upon Cirrus, her hands lashing out. She caught Brencis by the wrist of the hand that held the knife, twisting toward his thumb, the motion taking him by surprise, so swiftly that he had no time to resist with his normal strength, much less with fury-enhanced power. The knife came free of his grasp, and Amara seized it with what seemed like lazy precision to her own accelerated senses before it could even begin to fall.

  Brencis had seized upon his own wind furies by then, his hands beginning to rise to defend himself--but he had not been quick enough. Amara slapped his hand aside with one hand--

  --and with a flick of her wrist, passed the fury-sharpened dagger through both of the arteries in his throat.

  Blood flowed out in a torrent, a cloud. It splashed over Amara's naked leg and torso, hot and hideous, as she stumbled, thrown off-balance by the speed of her own movements, and fell back out of the tub and out of the reach of Br
encis's hands.

  The young Aleran lord arched his back, his hands thrashing out wildly. One of his clenched fists struck the wooden frame of the tub and shattered it, sending soapy water, the bubbles stained with spraying blood, rushing out over the floor. He twisted, flailing toward Amara, and one of his thrashing shoulders struck a dazed Lyssa in the stomach, flinging her back like a doll.

  "The signal?" Amara hissed, her body singing, alight with rage and with the silver-white pleasure flowing from the metal collar bound about her thigh. "The signal is your corpse, traitor. You will never touch my husband."

  He tried to say something, perhaps, but no sound emerged--the dagger had parted his windpipe as well.

  It was nearly impossible to strike down a furycrafter of Brencis's power without employing comparable furycraft to accomplish it.

  But only nearly.

  The last scion of Kalarus crumpled to the floor of the inn, shrinking like a bladder being slowly emptied of water. His blood joined the perfumed water on the floor.

  There had barely been a sound to betray the murder.

  Amara stumbled back against the wall of the room, fighting the euphoria still being forced upon her by the collars. She wanted, very badly, to just sink to the floor and let the pleasure have its way with her once more--

  --but the collar on her leg ceased sending its pulses of ecstasy through her at the very thought. She had, at her own insistence, been instructed otherwise. If she ignored those instructions, it would shortly begin inflicting hideous pain instead of bestowing rapture, and Amara felt little bubbles of entirely involuntary panic rippling through her at the very thought.

  She forced herself to stagger to the room's wardrobe, conscious of Lyssa's wide eyes upon her as she moved. The collared girl had her mouth open in horror, and tears had flowed down her face, cutting streaks through the flecks of blood spattering her features. Amara opened it, and seized one of Brencis's tunics, quickly donning it, then tossed one of his capes over her shoulders. They fit her like sacks, but they would do. She took Brencis's sword from the belt at his hips a few seconds later, moving quickly, half-terrified that his stillness might be a ruse--but the dead man never stirred. Like the clothing, the sword was too large to fit her comfortably--but like the clothing, it would do.

  "I'm sorry," Lyssa sobbed. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

  Amara turned to look at the girl, and caught her own reflection in a mirror hung upon the wall. She wore a dark green tunic and cloak, and the color contrasted sharply with the almost-solid scarlet staining her face, her hair, her hands, and the bare skin of her leg. She bore a bloodied knife in one hand, a bright sword in the other, and her eyes were wild and dangerous. For an instant, Amara frightened herself.

  "Stay here," she told the girl, her voice hard and clear, "until you are instructed otherwise."

  "Ye-yes, my lady," Lyssa said, pressing herself abjectly to the floor. "Yes, yes, I will."

  She turned to the window, unlocked and opened it. The window overlooked the Slave Market courtyard, which looked much as it had when she had last seen it--full of prisoners, though with rather fewer guards than there had been. Only a few Vord were in sight--but the green glow of the croach was brighter, from other parts of Ceres, than it had been the night before.

  She couldn't be sure of any of the collared Alerans. Some of them could have been collaborators like the two with Rook when they'd bumped into one another. Some of them could have been more deeply conditioned by the modified collars than others. Some might be able to fight against the collars' control and help them--but Amara had no way to know one from another.

  So she had to regard each of them as the enemy.

  Amara stood in the window for a moment, fully aware that she could be seen in the candlelight of the room. Dimly outlined, feminine shapes appearing in that window would doubtless be a familiar sight to those below--and she had no way of knowing where Bernard was, to be able to give him a more specific signal. She would simply have to trust that he had been keeping track of where she had been taken and would be in position to watch the building to see her standing there like a practice target. She counted slowly to thirty, then closed the curtains again.

  She went out of the room on silent feet, wrapping herself in a windcrafted veil that should keep her unseen to anyone beyond the reach of her sword--a potent advantage if she decided to attack, but not an overwhelming one. A skilled enough metalcrafter would not need his eyes to know where her sword was, and the Vord didn't seem to have kept anyone alive who was not at least wielding the skill of a Legion Knight at his given talents.

  There were several collared Alerans in the main room of the inn, apparently off duty. Three were watching one of Brencis's whisper-girls dance to music no one but she could hear. Another trio played listlessly at cards, and a silent pair were deep in their cups, drinking with grim, methodical determination. Amara went through the room with every ounce of stealth she could muster, wary of her own balance under the befuddling aftereffects of both collars' euphoric bonding process. She managed to pass by them without attracting attention, and glided into the Slave Market.

  She headed straight for the stone box-cages that held the captured windcrafters.

  The cages didn't have locks, thank goodness, and were held closed by simple bolts. In her current condition, she wasn't sure how quickly she would have been able to open a more complex mechanism, even though she still had her tools in a pocket on the trouser leg that had survived. Snoring came from some of the cages.

  Brencis had to have been slipping them the drugs in their water. She would just have to hope that some of the Alerans inside had been aware and determined enough to refuse it, hoping for their chance at escape.

  Amara and Bernard were about to give it to them.

  Or at least, she desperately hoped Bernard was.

  "Can you hear me?" Amara hissed into one of the slots just under the top lip of the first cage.

  It took a moment for someone to answer, "Who is there?"

  "I'm a Cursor," Amara whispered. "And keep your crowbegotten voice down."

  Confused murmurs came from the cage, sleepy voices speaking in blurred words. They were immediately shushed by other voices, which probably made more noise than all of the confused murmurs together.

  "Quiet," Amara hissed, looking around, certain that someone was going to notice the muted commotion any second. "We're going to get you out of here, but we're going to get as many people out as we possibly can. Stay alert. Everyone who can fly in a straight line needs to be ready."

  "Open the cage!" someone rasped.

  "Be ready," Amara responded. "I'll be back." Then she slipped over to the next cage, and repeated the conversation. And the next. And the next.

  The Vord discovered her as she reached the fifth.

  She had just shushed the final stone cage filled with captives when one of the lizard-form Vord twenty yards away raised its head, whuffling in through its nose, and let out a shriek that vibrated from the stones of the courtyard.

  It must have smelled the blood still on me, she thought. Most animals would react strongly to the scent of bleeding prey. She should have taken a moment to clean herself better--but it was too late for that.

  Speed was everything now.

  Amara dropped the veil to call upon Cirrus for speed, and slammed open the bolts to the cage before hurling herself back down the line to the next cage and repeating the process.

  "Alerans!" she cried, the words oddly elongated to her altered perceptions. "Alerans, to arms!"

  She slammed open the bolts to the last cage as a chorus of Vord shrieks arose around them. The captive windcrafters began shoving their way out of the cages in their wake, screaming cries of their own.


  "Fight, you miserable bastards!"

  Only Amara's heightened senses allowed her to see the flicker in the air above her, where the Citizens were caged under multiple layers of counters to their furycraft. There was a small explo
sion of sparks, where steel had met steel--and another burst of sparks, where a second arrow had struck another of the hinges on the hanging cage with impossible force and precision, and a dozen Citizens were abruptly dropped fifteen feet to the wet stones of the courtyard floor.

  Sparks exploded from the second cage of hanging Citizens, and more cries went up.

  "To me!" Amara cried, leaping up onto the nearest cage. "Alerans, to me!"

  "Cursor, look out!" screamed someone in the darkness.

  Amara whirled, sword in hand, to find the Vord that had first raised the alarm bounding toward her. She waited until it was in the air to lean far to one side, striking with Brencis's sword, and felt the blade crunch through the Vord's chitinous armor. She had misjudged her balance, though, crows take those bloody collars, and she fell to the stones with the Vord, bleeding vile, dark fluid, scrambling to find her.