Cursors fury, p.51
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       Cursor's Fury, p.51

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Lady Aquitaine glanced at Amara and tilted her head, her expression daring Amara to respond.

  “There’s a flaw in your reasoning, Your Grace,” Amara said quietly. “Even if your pet mercenaries kill them both, you will still be dead.”

  Lady Aquitaine’s smile grew even more smug. “Actually, there’s something you haven’t accounted for, Countess.”

  “And that is?”

  Lady Aquitaine threw back her head and laughed, her body rippling through changes, her face contorting into different features—and by the time she lowered her head again, Odiana stood where Lady Aquitaine had been. “I’m not Lady Aquitaine.”

  Lady Aquitaines voice said, from behind Amara, “Really, Countess. I’m somewhat disappointed in you. I gave you even odds of seeing through the switch.”

  Amara looked over her shoulder to find Lady Aquitaine, not Odiana, holding the watercrafting that held Rook and Masha in its grasp.

  “Can you grasp the situation now, Cursor?” Lady Aquitaine continued. “This game is over. You lost.”

  “Perhaps.” Amara felt her mouth curl up into a slow smile, and she nodded at Rook. “Perhaps not.”

  Rook’s mouth curled into a hard, unpleasant smile—and then there was a flash of light, a sudden cloud of steam, and the burning shape of a falcon, Lady Placida’s fire fury. It shattered the water-bonds and streaked at Lady Aquitaine like a miniature comet.

  At the same instant, Lady Placida’s unconscious figure swept Aldrick’s good leg out from under him, and the wounded one buckled, pitching him to the ground. Before he could recover, Lady Placida was on his back with a knee between his shoulder blades and a heavy strangling cord around his neck.

  Lady Aquitaine threw her hands up to ward off the charging fire fury. She stumbled and slipped down the bank and into the stream.

  Rook rose—then she, too, changed, growing taller, more slender, until Placidus Aria stood in her place, the bewildered child held on one hip. She lifted her other hand and the fire fury streaked back to her wrist, perching there, while she faced Lady Aquitaine.

  At the same time, the figure atop Aldrick blurred as well, until it was Rook that held him down.

  “I confess,” Amara drawled to Lady Aquitaine, “I’m somewhat disappointed in you. I gave you even odds of seeing through the switch.” She showed Lady Aquitaine her teeth. “You didn’t really think I was unaware of your listening in on my conversations with Bernard, did you?”

  Lady Aquitaines face began to flush an angry red.

  “Did you believe it when I said I had no idea what you might do, no idea what I could do to prepare, no idea whether or not you’d turn on us?” Amara shook her head. “I never prevented you from listening in because I wanted you to hear it, Your Grace. I wanted you to think you would be dealing with a helpless little lamb. But to be honest, didn’t think you’d be quite so egocentrically stupid as to fall for it.”

  Lady Aquitaine bared her teeth, furious, and began to rise from the stream.

  “Invidia,” warned Lady Placida, gesturing slightly with the wrist where the fire fury perched. “I’ve had a bad week.”

  “Can you grasp the situation now?” Amara said, her tone hard. “This game is over. You lost.”

  Lady Aquitaine inhaled slowly, making a visible effort to rein in her temper. “Very well,” she said in a quiet, dangerous voice. “What are your terms?”

  Amara said, “Nonnegotiable.”

  “May I ask you a question?” Bernard asked.

  “Certainly,” Amara said.

  “How did you know that those two were going to be trading faces during the rescue?”

  “Because Odiana was there,” Amara said. “Honestly, why else would she be? Lady Aquitaine certainly didn’t need to bring an extra healer, and I can’t imagine that she would let a madwoman like her come along on an operation like this just to keep Aldrick company. She didn’t need any of that. She needed someone who could look like her and serve as her double, her stalking horse. It seemed reasonable that Lady Aquitaine would want to hide her true identity during the rescue attempt. That way, if things went sour, or if in the long run Kalarus wound up with the throne, she’d be in a position to deny any involvement.”

  Bernard shook his head. “I can’t think in circles that twisty. And you got Lady Placida and Rook to do the same thing? Switch identities?”

  “Yes. So that in the confrontation, Lady Aquitaine would take action against the wrong targets and give us a chance to get the drop on her entirely.”

  “Some people,” Bernard said quietly, “might argue that we should have killed them.”

  Amara shrugged. “Lady Aquitaine and her retainers could quite possibly have taken several of us with them, had they been sure that they were to die. Terms let us all walk away in one piece. And given Lady Aquitaine’s contacts and influence, arresting her for trial would be a pointless exercise.”

  “Some people might not be happy with that answer,” Bernard rumbled. “They’ll say you could have killed them with impunity once they’d surrendered.”

  “People like Gaius?” Amara suggested.

  “He’s one,” Bernard said, nodding.

  Amara turned to her husband and met his eyes steadily. “I swore to uphold and defend the Crown, my lord. And that means that I am bound by the law. One does not arrest, judge, sentence, and execute prisoners without due course of law.” She lifted her chin. “Neither does an agent of the Crown betray her word, once given. Besides, the First Lord still needs Aquitaine’s support, until Kalare’s Legions are put down. Murdering his wife might reduce the enthusiasm of his support.”

  Bernard studied her face, his features unreadable. “Those people are dangerous, Amara. To me, to my family, to you. We’re in the wilderness, amidst the chaos of a war. Who would know?”

  Amara met his gaze calmly. “I would. Decent people don’t murder their fellow human beings if it is not necessary. And Invidia did, after all, do a great service to the realm.”

  “Right up until it went a little sour at the end,” Bernard growled.

  Amara put her hands on either side of his face. “Let her have her world. It’s cold there, and empty. For us, it isn’t enough to win, my lord. It isn’t enough to simply survive. I will not live in a realm where calculations of power supersede justice and law—regardless of how inconvenient that may be to the Crown.”

  Bernard’s teeth showed in another white, fierce smile. He kissed her gently. “You, ‘ he said, “are more than that old man deserves.”

  She smiled at him, warmly. “Be careful, my lord husband. If you say too much, I may have to report your seditious remarks to the First Lord.”

  “Do that. How long do you think it will take them to get out of there?”

  They sat beside one another in the coach. Rook, reunited with her daughter, had fallen asleep while holding her, her cheek resting on Masha’s curls. The little girl’s cheeks were pink with the warmth of a young child’s deep sleep. Lady Placida and Elania were likewise drowsing.

  “Ten minutes, perhaps,” Amara said. “Once Lady Aquitaine’s had a little rest, she’ll snap those ropes and free the others. But without transportation for her retainers, she’d have to pursue us on her own. She wouldn’t do that, even if Lady Placida wasn’t in a position to destroy her public image and her support in the Dianic League with damning testimony about conspiracy to commit murder.”

  Bernard nodded. “I see,” he said. “And what’s stopping the bearers from just dumping us out on the ground and going back for her?”

  “They’re mercenaries, my love. We offered them money. Lots and lots of money.”

  “Right,” Bernard said. “We’re good for it. Though I feel I must ask . . . why did we leave them naked? To slow them down?”

  “No,” Amara sniffed. “Because the poisonous bitch deserved it.”

  Bernard’s eyes wrinkled at the corners, and he turned to place a slow, gentle kiss upon her mouth, and one upon each eyelid. Amara foun
d that once closed, her eyes simply refused to open, and she leaned into Bernard’s delicious warmth and was asleep before she’d finished letting out a contented sigh.

  Chapter 51

  Tavi shivered in the rain, struggling to hide it from the men around him, and wanted nothing in the world so much as to be warm and asleep.

  The Alerans had made ready to meet the next assault in less than an hour. Torches and furylamps beat back the darkness far more effectively than they had under the first withering assault, and the legionares themselves were more organized, more determined.

  At least Tavi hoped they were.

  Tavi stood atop the last adobe wall with Valiar Marcus. The First Spear moved with a noticeable limp thanks to the Canim javelin. His leg was tied off with a bloodstained bandage, the wound closed with needle and thread, evidence that Foss’s healers were badly overworked. Under most circumstances, a wound like Marcus’s would have been closed, treated, and the First Spear returned to action virtually whole. The healers had been treating so many light injuries—and closing off far worse ones in order to keep more badly wounded men alive until they could be seen to later—that the First Spear had, by all reports, asked a wounded veteran to withdraw the javelin, then cleaned and stitched the wound himself, covered it with a bandage, and stumped back to his post.

  Rain continued to fall, cold and steady. The occasional flashes of scarlet lightning showed little more than sheeting rain. Tavi had been able to make out occasional movement in the darkness, but the Aleran-built defensive wall across the bridge prevented him from making out any details.

  However, the simple fact that Tavi could stand on the wall and observe told him one thing: the Canim bolt throwers had ceased their deadly thrumming.

  “I thought you were listed as out of action, First Spear,” Tavi said.

  Marcus glanced at the nearest legionare and lowered his voice until the man would not overhear. “I never held much with reading, sir.”

  “You able?” Tavi asked.

  “Yes, sir,” Marcus said. “I won’t be running any races, but I can stand on a wall.”

  “Good,” Tavi said quietly. “We’ll need you.”

  “Sir,” Marcus said. “There’s no way to know if their warriors have pulled back.”

  “No. But it makes sense,” Tavi replied. “The warriors are their nutcracker. Then the raiders come in and mop up. It saves casualties among their most effective troops and gives their raiders experience.”

  “It doesn’t make sense,” Marcus growled. “Another hard push, and they’d have finished us.”

  “I know that,” Tavi said. “You know that. Assume that Sari and the ritualists know it as well. I don’t think they want Battlemaster Nasaug to have the glory of a victory that looks too much like his own. Sari has to be the one to finish us to stay in the good opinion of the maker caste. It gives him the glory and lets him share it out to the makers. The makers have first call on the loot if they’re the first ones to overrun us. Nasaug gets upstaged. Sari gets to stay popular with the makers.”

  “If you’re right,” Marcus said.

  “If I’m wrong,” Tavi said, “well probably catch some of those steel bolts before much longer.”

  The First Spear grunted. “At least it’ll be quick.” There was uncharacteristic bitterness in his voice.

  Tavi looked at Marcus’s stocky, lumpy profile for a moment. Then he said, “I’m sorry. About the prime cohort. The men of your century.”

  “Should have been there with them,” Marcus said.

  “You were wounded,” Tavi said.

  “I know.”

  “And I stood with them for you,” Tavi said.

  Marcus’s rigid stance eased a bit, and he looked at Tavi. “I heard. After you carried me out like a lamed sheep.”

  Tavi snorted. “The sheep I worked with were twice your size. Rams were even bigger.”

  Marcus grunted. “You were a holder?”

  Tavi clenched his jaw. He’d forgotten his role, again. He could blame it on his weariness, but all the same, Rufus Scipio had never been near a steadholt. “Worked with them for a while. My folks told me it was a learning experience.”

  “Worse trades you could learn if you mean to lead men, sir.”

  Tavi laughed. “I didn’t plan it to happen like this.”

  “Wars and plans can’t coexist, sir. One of them kills the other.”

  “I believe you,” Tavi said. He stared up the long, empty stretch of bridge, rising toward its center, two hundred yards of sloping stone thirty feet across, littered with fallen Alerans and Canim alike. “We’ve got to last until daylight, Marcus.”

  “You want to push them at first light?”

  “No,” Tavi said. “Noon.”

  Marcus grunted in surprise. “We aren’t going to get any stronger. The longer this fight goes on, the less likely it is that we’ll be able to push them back.”

  “Noon,” Tavi said. “You’ll have to trust me on this one.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m not sure that we don’t have more spies in the camp. Need to know only, First Spear.”

  Marcus stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, sir.”

  “Thank you,” Tavi said quietly. “When we push through to the center of the bridge, I’m going to drive forward with one cohort, while the engineers work.”

  “One cohort?” Marcus asked.

  Tavi nodded. “If the plan works, one cohort will be enough. If it doesn’t, we should be able to hold the Canim off long enough for the engineers to finish.”

  Marcus took a slow breath. The First Spear understood the implications.

  “I’m going to ask for volunteers,” Tavi said quietly.

  “You’ll get them,” Marcus said. “But I don’t see why we shouldn’t hit them at first light, cut the bridge, and call it a day.”

  “If we lose the bridge, they’ll be able to secure their entire northern front with just a few of their troops, and the rest of them will be free to kill Alerans elsewhere. As long as the bridge is up, we’ll be able to put Legions into the territory south of the bridge, and they won’t dare divide their forces.” Tavi narrowed his eyes. “This is our job, Marcus. It isn’t a pretty one, but I can’t just hand it to someone else.”

  There was a quality of frustration to Marcus’s grunt of acknowledgment.

  “I’ll hold the volunteers back to rest until we push. The rest of First Aleran is at your disposal, as are our Knights Flora.”

  “All six of them.” Marcus sighed.

  “Tell them to keep their heads down. If those marksmen start up again, they’re going to be your only chance to counter them.”

  “Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, sir,” Marcus muttered.

  Tavi snorted and turned to the First Spear. “You’ve got to hold them, Marcus. At any cost.”

  Marcus let out a slow breath. “Yes, sir.” He stared at the night for a moment before he said, “Offer you a suggestion, sir?”

  “Go ahead,” Tavi said.

  “Don’t split up a cohort when you get your volunteers. These men know each other. Trained together. It makes a difference.”

  Tavi frowned. “I won’t take anyone with me who doesn’t want to go.”

  “Then make sure men who are willing to die for you have every chance to survive. You owe them that.”

  Tavi arched an eyebrow. “Three hundred and twenty men, all volunteering together? How likely is that?”

  Marcus gave him a sidelong look, and said, “Sir. It’s the infantry.”

  Three cohorts volunteered to spearhead the attack.

  Tavi had them draw lots. By the time the Canim renewed their assault, he stood at the north end of the Elinarch with the winners. Or, he thought, the losers. Depending on whether or not his idea worked.

  His heart skipped a few beats, but he sternly ordered it back to work.

  “Sir,” Schultz said, “when Antillar Maximus was our centurion, he was senior centurion i
n this cohort, and his century was first century. But I’m only an acting centurion, sir. I don’t have the seniority to command first century, much less the cohort.”

  Tavi glanced at the fish. “I’ve spoken to the other centurions. They agree that you know what you’re doing, Schultz, and that your century is still the best disciplined. So you’re senior centurion until I tell you you’re not. Do you hear me, soldier?”

  “Yes, sir,” Schultz responded at once.

  “Good,” Tavi said.

  A roar went up from the legionares on the last wall, and every man in the spearhead cohort looked suddenly tense. Canim horns blared, and heavy drums rolled, and the screaming roar of combat came down to the town as the rest of the Legion battled the Canim on the bridge.

  Tavi listened for two minutes before seeing the signal on the wall, a blue banner lifted beside the Legion’s standard.

  “Good call, Captain,” Max observed, his voice amused. He walked forward from the rear of the cohort, buckling on the much-longer sword preferred by duelists and mounted legionares. “They did what you thought they would. They’re hitting us with their raiders.”

  Tavi exhaled very slowly, and nodded. “You ready?”

  “Born ready, ‘ Max replied cheerfully, drawing a round of quiet chuckles from the waiting Legion. The only three Knights Terra in the Legion came with him, their armor clanking, their vicious, oversized weapons weighing heavy on their shoulders.

  Tavi nodded to the Knights and raised his voice. “Tribune Antillus?”

  “Ready when you give the word, sir,” called Crassus from the rear of the cohort, where he waited with his Knights Aeris—and the Legions’ engineers, including their new recruits, the dancers from the Pavilion, now dressed in the armor of slain or incapacitated legionares.

  “All right, then,” Tavi said. “Keep the men in this courtyard, but let them get some food and rest. Once we start pushing, there won’t be time for anything else.”