Princeps fury, p.5
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       Princeps' Fury, p.5

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Varg bared his fangs in another Canim smile. "It is good to see that we understand one another. My boat is prepared to take you back to your ship, if you are ready, Valiar Marcus."

  "I am."

  Varg bowed his head and neck, Aleran-style. "Then go your way, and find good hunting."

  "And you, sir."

  Marcus had just turned to the door when it opened, and a lean Cane, reddish-furred and small for his kind, entered the cabin. Without preamble he bared his throat slightly to Varg and said, "A severe storm approaches, my lord. We have half of an hour or less."

  Varg took that in with a growl and dismissed the sailor with a jerk of his head. He glanced at Marcus. "No time to send you back and recover our boat," he said. "It looks as though you're staying for a time."

  "Sire," growled Nasaug. There was a note of warning in his tone, Marcus thought. It was not difficult to guess at its source. Marcus had come to the immediate conclusion that he did not relish the notion of being effectively trapped within the hectic conditions of a ship under a storm with the angry young officer still smarting from his learning experience.

  "The foremost cabin," Varg said.

  Nasaug's tail lashed in a gesture that Marcus had come to recognize as one of surprise. The younger Cane quickly controlled himself and rose. "Centurion," he rumbled, "if you would come with me. It would be best to have you out of the way so that the sailors may do their work. We will do our best to keep you comfortable."

  Marcus thought, with a dry amusement, that in this case comfortable was synonymous with breathing. But one learned rather quickly that the Canim had a viewpoint distinct from that of Alerans.

  He followed Nasaug onto the Trueblood's deck. Its timbers had all been painted black--something that would never have happened to an Aleran vessel. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ships were generally whitewashed. That made it easier for the crew to see what they were doing at night, particularly during bad weather, when few reliable light sources were to be had. All the black wood around them gave the ship a grim, funereal appearance, which was certainly imposing, particularly when combined with the black sails. A Cane's night vision, though, was far superior to an Aleran's. They likely had no trouble operating at night, whatever color the ship was tinted.

  Nasaug led him to the foremost cabin on the ship--the one generally considered to be the least desirable, Marcus knew. On a sailing vessel, the wind generally blew in from the stern, and whoever was farthest downwind received the benefit of every unpleasant odor on board--and there were generally plenty to be had. The door to the cabin was low, barely Marcus's own height, but rather than simply entering, Nasaug paused and knocked first--then waited for the door to be opened.

  When it did, the cabin beyond was completely unlit, windowless and dark. A quiet voice asked, "May we serve, son of Varg?"

  "This Aleran huntmaster is under Varg's protection," Nasaug said. "My sire bids you to safeguard him until he can be returned to his people after the storm."

  "It will be done," the voice said. "He may enter, son of Varg."

  Marcus arched an eyebrow at that and glanced at Nasaug.

  The Cane gestured toward the doorway with his snout. "Your quarters, centurion."

  Marcus glanced at the dark doorway, then at Nasaug. "I'll be comfortable here, will I?"

  Nasaug's ears flicked in amusement. "More so than anywhere else on the ship."

  One of the critical things the Alerans had learned about dealing with the Canim, largely thanks to the Princeps himself, was that they placed a far higher priority on body language than humanity did. Words could be empty, and statements of motion and posture were considered to be a great deal more reliable and genuine indicators of intention. As a result, one did not display physical signs of fear before the predatory wolf-warriors, if one wanted to avoid being, for example, eaten.

  So Marcus firmly clubbed down the instinctive apprehension the unseen speaker had awakened in him, nodded calmly to Nasaug, and stepped into the cabin, shutting the door behind him. In the darkened cabin, he became acutely aware of how thin his tunic and trousers were, and for the first time since the ships had left port, more than a month ago, he missed the constant burden of his armor. He did not put his hand to his sword--the gesture was too obvious. The knives he had concealed on his person would doubtless be of more use in any fight in such blackness, in any case. It would all happen in terrible proximity.

  "You are no huntmaster," said the unseen Cane after a moment. It let out a chuckling snarl. "No, no warrior."

  "I am a centurion of the First Aleran Legion," he responded. "My name is Valiar Marcus."

  "Unlikely," replied the voice. "It is more likely that you are called Valiar Marcus, I should judge."

  Marcus felt the tension sliding into his shoulders.

  "We have been watching your spies, you know. They are largely untrained. But we had no idea that you were one of them until only yesterday--and even that was the result of an accident. The wind parted a curtain, and you were seen reading one of Varg's scrolls when he was out of the cabin."

  A second voice, this one to the right and higher up, spoke. "Only chance revealed you."

  A third voice, low and to his left, added, "The mark of an adept of the craft."

  Marcus narrowed his eyes in thought. "Varg didn't bring in that pigheaded brat to use me to teach him a lesson," he said. "He did it to delay my departure until the storm stranded me here."

  "At our request," confirmed the first speaker.

  Marcus grunted. But Varg had played the entire situation out as if it had been his usual planning intersecting with chance, all the way through. It meant that for whatever reason, Varg wanted to keep this conversation concealed, even from his own people. It implied dissension in the ranks--always useful information.

  It also meant that his current hosts could only be one thing. "You're Hunters," he said quietly. "Like the ones who tried to assassinate the Princeps."

  There was the sound of soft motion in the dark, and then one of the Canim drew a heavy cloth away from a bowl filled with a liquid that cast off a glowing red light. Marcus could see the three Canim, lean, grey-furred members of the breed, with somewhat larger, more foxlike ears than most of the warriors he had seen. They were dressed in the loose robes patterned in grey and black that they had been described as wearing whenever they had been seen back in the Amaranth Vale.

  The cabin was small, containing two bunk beds. One Cane crouched on the floor over the bowl. Another sprawled across the top bunk at one side of the room, while a third sat in an odd-looking crouch on the bottom bunk opposite. The three Canim were all but identical, down to the shade and patterning of their fur, marking them as family, probably brothers.

  "Hunters," said the first Cane. "So your folk have named us. I am called Sha."

  "Nef," growled the second.

  "Koh," said the third.

  The wind had begun to rise, deepening the roll of the ship. Thunder grumbled across the vast, open sea.

  "Why have you brought me here?" Marcus said.

  "To give you warning," Sha replied. "You need not fear attack at the hands of the Narash. But the other territories have given you no pledge of safety. They regard your kind as vermin, to be exterminated on sight. Varg can only protect you to a certain point. If you continue to Canea, you will do so at your own peril. Varg suggests that your Princeps may wish to consider turning back now rather than continuing on."

  "The Princeps," Marcus said, "is remarkably unlikely to be swayed by the possibility of danger."

  "Be that as it may," Sha said.

  "Why tell me here?" Marcus asked. "Why not send a messenger to the ship?"

  All three Hunters stared at Marcus with unreadable expressions. "Because you are the enemy, Valiar Marcus. Varg is of the warrior caste. His honor will no more permit him to give aid and warning to the enemy than to grow fresh fangs."

  Marcus frowned. "Ah, I think I see. Varg cannot do it, but you can."

 
Sha flicked his ears in affirmation. "Our honor lies in obedience and success, regardless of methods and means. We serve. We obey."

  "We serve," murmured Nef and Koh. "We obey."

  Thunder roared again, this time from terribly nearby, and the wind rose to a howl. Far beneath the scream of the storm, another sound rolled--deeper than thunder, longer, rising in a ponderous, gargantuan ululation Marcus had heard only once before, and that many, many years ago.

  It was the territorial bellow of a leviathan, one of the titans of the seas who could smash ships--even ships the size of the Trueblood--to kindling. Storms generally roused them, and the turbulent waters made it a great deal more difficult for each ship's water witches to conceal their vessel from the monsters.

  Men and Canim were going to die in the storm.

  Marcus swallowed his fear and sat down with his back to the wall, closing his eyes. If the Hunters meant him harm, they would have caused it already. So all he had to worry about was the very real possibility of an angry leviathan smashing the Trueblood into a cloud of driftwood and leaving everyone aboard her to the mercy of the stormy sea.

  Marcus found that idea to be only moderately troublesome. He supposed it was all relative. Such a death, while horrific, would at least be impersonal. There were far worse ways to die.

  For example, the Princeps could discover what the Hunters had realized--that Valiar Marcus was not a simple, if veteran, centurion in an Aleran legion. That he was, in fact, exactly what they had assessed him to be, namely a spy operating incognito. That he had been placed there by the Princeps' mortal enemies back in Alera was not something that the Hunters could be expected to realize, but should one of the Princeps' personnel or, great furies forbid, Octavian himself realize that Valiar Marcus was only a cover identity for Fidelias ex Cursori, servant to the Aquitaines and traitor to the Crown, there would be the crows to pay.

  Fidelias had left the employ of the Aquitaines. Indeed, he regarded his letter of resignation as one of the more decisively eloquent messages he had ever sent--flawed only in the fact that it had not deprived the High Lady Aquitainus Invidia of her cold-blooded life. Yet that would not matter. Once he was discovered, his life was forfeit. Fidelias knew that. He accepted it. Nothing he did would ever change the fact that he had betrayed his oath to the Crown and cast his lot with the traitors who would have usurped Gaius's rule.

  One day, he would be crucified for his crimes.

  But until that day, he knew who he was and what he would do.

  Valiar Marcus closed his eyes and, with the skill of most seasoned soldiers, dropped almost immediately to sleep.

  CHAPTER 3

  Amara, Countess Calderon, wiped the sweat from her brow and regarded the thinning cloud cover with a certain amount of satisfaction. Once again, the local wind furies had attempted to marshal their strength for an assault upon the folk of the Calderon Valley, one of the dangerous furystorms that so often sent its holders running for the shelter of its stone buildings. And once again, she had been able to intervene before the storm could properly take shape.

  It wasn't a monumental effort, really, to unravel such an affair, provided she could reach it early enough. A great many things had to happen before a storm could build enough power to be a danger to the people under her husband's care, and if she could break it up at its earliest stages, it was a fairly simple matter to ensure that the storm never took place. It had surprised her, really.

  Perhaps it shouldn't have. It was always easier to demolish something than to create it. Look at her sense of dedication to the First Lord, for example. Or her trust and love for her mentor, Fidelias.

  The bitter thoughts brought quiet pain and sadness that were at direct odds with the cheery sunbeams that began to break through the disrupted storm clouds, bathing Amara with the wan, feeble warmth of early-winter sunlight. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking in whatever warmth she could get. It was always cold, once one flew more than a mile or so above the ground, as she was--particularly if one wore a dress instead of flying leathers, as she was now. She hadn't felt that she would need the heavier gear, given that she would only be up for half an hour or so--a brief errand, up to moderate heights, then back to her duties at Garrison, where the Countess Calderon had a great many very minor, undeniably useful, and extremely satisfying tasks that required her attention.

  Amara shook her head, dismissing the thoughts as much as she could, and called out to Cirrus, her wind fury. At one time, she would have sped as recklessly as she possibly could have toward Garrison--but the thunder and racket of such speeds could prove an annoyance to the holders, and it seemed unthinkably impolite to her now. And it would leave the hem of her dress in tatters and her hair in a hideous mess, besides. At one time, that wouldn't have bothered her in the least--but appearances mattered to many of the people she currently had to deal with on a daily basis, and it made things easier if she looked like the Countess they expected.

  And besides, while he'd never actually said as much--he never would--her husband's eyes had spoken volumes about his approval of her more . . . polished, she supposed, appearance of late.

  Amara smirked. As had his hands. Et cetera.

  She glided back to Garrison at a swift but practical pace, passing over the much-expanded town to land in the original fortress that straddled the narrow mountain pass at the eastern end of the Calderon Valley, now itself serving as a citadel in a township nearly the size of a lord's holding, rather than a simple county. What had begun as an open-air market run by a score of ambitious peddlers hawking their wares to a few hundred of the nomadic Marat passing through the area had become a regional trading post involving dozens of merchant interests and attracting thousands of visitors interested in trade, including both the pale-skinned barbarians and ambitious Aleran businessmen.

  The growing town had demanded increasingly large supplies of food, and the farmers of the Valley's steadholts had expanded their households and their fields, growing more prosperous with each passing season. Alerans from other parts of the Realm, attracted to the opportunity in the Calderon Valley, had begun to arrive and settle in, and Bernard had already approved the founding of four new steadholts.

  Amara frowned as she cruised in for a landing. Technically, she supposed, only two of them were actually new. The others had been rebuilt atop the ruins of the steadholts destroyed by the Vord infestation some years before.

  Amara shuddered at that memory.

  The Vord.

  With the help of the Marat, they had been destroyed--for the moment. But they were still out there. She and Bernard had done everything they could to warn their fellow Alerans of the threat they represented, but few had been willing to listen with open minds. They didn't understand exactly how dangerous the creatures could be. If and when the Vord returned, the fools might not have time to realize their mistake, much less to correct it.

  Amara had despaired of ever making enough people understand. But her husband, in his usual fashion, had simply turned his hand to another course of action. If Bernard had done all that he could to strengthen the Realm as a whole, then he had done all that he could. Instead, he returned to Calderon and began to fortify the valley, doing everything within his power to prepare to defend his home and his people against the Vord or any other threat that might come against them. And, given the revenue from the taxation of the booming business in his holding, those preparations were formidable indeed.

  She exchanged greetings with the sentries on the walls and descended to the courtyard before crossing to the commander's quarters. She nodded to the legionare on duty outside, and went in, to find Bernard poring over a set of plans with his secretary and a pair of Legion engineers. He stood a head taller than the rest of them, and was broader across the shoulders and chest. If his dark hair was frosted with more silver at the temples than it had been in the past, it did not detract from his appearance--far from it. He still wore the short beard he always favored though it was rather more heavily salt
ed with grey. Dressed in a forester's green tunic and leather breeches, he wouldn't have looked like a Citizen at all, but for the excellent quality of material and manufacture of his clothing. His eyes were serious and intelligent, though the faint lines of a scowl had appeared between his brows.

  "I don't care if it's never been done before," Bernard told the older of the two engineers. "Once you do it, no one will be able to say that again, now will they?"

  The engineer ground his teeth. "Your Excellency, you must understand--" Bernard's eyes narrowed. "I understand that if you speak one more word to me in that condescending tone of voice, I'm going to roll up these plans and shove them so far up your--"

  "Assuming that you aren't too busy," Amara interjected smoothly, "I wonder if I might have a quiet moment with you, my lord husband."

  Bernard glared at the engineer, then took a deep breath, composed himself, and faced Amara. "Of course. Gentlemen, shall we continue this after lunch?"