Princeps fury, p.51
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       Princeps' Fury, p.51

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

  The Vord that had seized his leg had not let go. Tavi felt an enormous hand clutch him around the waist. Something clamped onto his arm at the elbow, fangs sinking into the skin above the steel bracer on his forearm, tearing into his biceps and shook him savagely.

  Tavi had to fight not to scream. His long sword would have been useless at such close quarters, so he drew his dagger and thrust it awkwardly at the Vord, feeling the badly aimed tip slip and turn aside from the Vord's armored skin. Surrounded completely by water, he tried in vain to summon strength from the earth, the only thing that might allow him to escape the Vord's grip, but it was useless. He distinctly felt the bone in his arm break as the Vord ripped at him with hideous strength in the dark--and continued pulling, beginning to rip his arm from his body, the pain mounting, bubbles of priceless breath escaping his lips and sliding along his face.

  And then his feet struck the icy silt at the bottom of the harbor.

  Fury-born strength surged through him and he transferred the dagger to his mouth, gripping the blade in his teeth, so that he could twist around with his undamaged arm. The motion tore his shoulder from its socket, but he drew the steel of his dagger into his mind and the pain became a piece of background datum, like the temperature of the water or the fact that he was hungry. He secured a grip on the Vord's armored limb and twisted his hips, scissoring his legs up, feeling his back strike the mud as the Vord struggled. He locked his legs around what he thought was the Vord's body, closed his good hand in the tightest grip he could imagine and arched his body, crushing his legs together with all his strength.

  For seconds they strained in stasis--and then something broke with a horrible crack, and the Vord's grip went loose. Tavi kept ripping and straining until the Vord tore, then shoved the still-twitching pieces away from him, into the water.

  His fingers flew to the fastenings on his armor. He'd done and undone them thousands of times by now, and it was an operation he could perform when practically asleep--when he was using both hands. And when the leather fastenings weren't soaked and swollen. And when his fingers weren't numb from the freezing water. And when he wasn't more than half-panicked, his lungs burning, with brightly colored stars dancing across his vision.

  He kept struggling with the lacings, and finally managed to slide free of his armor. Only his continued focus on his metalcrafting as his broken arm and shoulder came free kept the pain from curling him into a ball of agony and sealing his fate. He ripped at the buckles of his heavy greaves until they came free, kicked off the bottom with whatever feeble strength he had left, and swam in the direction he thought was toward the surface. The pressure on his lungs and ears was awful, and he needed to breathe, and his lungs were collapsing, readying to draw in another breath whether he was clear of the water or not, and the dagger had fallen from his mouth and the fire from his shoulder and arm was simply too agonizing to be real--

  Something slapped against his head, then seized him by the collar, and he was rising through the water, choking on the first half-breath of water--as his head emerged into the air.

  Kitai jerked his head and shoulders out of the water with unexpected strength, and her panic and fury pounded against his senses. "Aleran!" she cried. "Chala!"

  He retched out water and choked in a wet, heavy breath, hardly able to move his limbs together.

  Something cut through the water nearby them, something dark and large and swift. A shark--or another Vord.

  "Go!" Tavi gasped. "Go, go!"

  Kitai began swimming, hauling him along by his tunic, and Tavi struggled just to keep his head above the water. They were fifty feet from the Slive, and just as far from the pier--which was haunted with Vord. Tavi had just begun to make sense of things again, through the pain in his shoulder and chest and arm, when he looked up to see the bulk of the Slive, already drifting back from the pier, moving above him.

  Men were shouting, and a line fell into the water. Kitai seized it with one hand, wrapped it several times around her forearm and screamed something. Then she was rising and pulling Tavi up out of the water by the tunic--and his weight all seemed to concentrate itself in his ravaged shoulder.

  Tavi screamed at the agony and bucked in entirely involuntary reaction, accompanied by the sound of ripping cloth and a short fall into the water.

  He fought his way to the air again as something rushed by beneath the surface, brushing against his legs. He saw the ship gliding backward from the pier and away from him, Kitai and the line already out of reach. Her hand was tangled in the rope and she fought frantically to free herself, but she was already yards away. Tavi looked up to see Demos looking over the rail at the side of the ship, the captain's eyes wide, and then there was only the old carved figurehead of the Slive, the beautiful woman staring sightlessly ahead with a slight smile on her lovely lips.

  Tavi's legs began to fail, and the water reached up for him. He began to sink, the figurehead holding his attention, until it almost seemed to swell in size, growing larger, turning toward him.

  He realized with a shock that the carven woman on the Slive's prow was moving, and that it was not some trick of his frozen, agonized mind. She bent to him with a grace and splendor belied by the peeling paint of her features, smiling, and extended a strong and slender hand.

  Tavi summoned the last of his failing strength and took it, feeling her grip his hand with flexible, inexorable strength. She was drawing him from the water, lifting him through the air, as another frog-Vord struck at his heels in vain. He had a brief and dizzying view of the foredeck of the ship, then he was lying on wooden planks, too tired to lift his head.

  "Gotcha," said Demos in satisfaction. "My lord."

  "Chala!" Kitai shouted. She was there beside him, her own wet tunic clinging to her slender form as she ripped a cloak from a passing sailor and tossed it over him. "Maximus! He's bleeding!"

  "Healer!" bellowed Marcus's smoke-roughened voice. "Bring out a tub!"

  "Captain," Tavi croaked. "Get us the crows away from here."

  "Aye," Demos said, as several willing hands lifted him toward a tub that had been hurriedly brought up from the hold of the ship. "Aye, my lord. Let's go home."


  All things pass in time.

  We are far less significant than we imagine ourselves to be. All that we are, all that we have wrought, is but a shadow, no matter how durable it may seem. One day, when the last man has breathed his last breath, the sun will shine, the mountains will stand, the rain will fall, the streams will whisper--and they will not miss him.


  The air around the former capital was too hot and too laden with fumes to overfly, Amara thought numbly. She would have to lead their party of rescued Knights and Citizens around it.

  She turned course to circle the flaming wasteland, following its eastern edge as they proceeded north. Alera Imperia, the shining white city upon a hill, was only a gaping hole in the ground. Smoke and flame seethed in that cauldron, far below them. The river Gaul poured into it, and steam obscured the land below from time to time in its own layer of thick white mist that lay over the ground like a filmy funerary shroud.

  Amara glided in close to the lead wind coach, opened the door, and slipped inside. She sat quietly for a moment, her head bowed.

  "Bloody crows," Gram breathed, looking down. "Did the Vord do that?"

  "No," Bernard said. Amara felt him take her hand in his and squeeze gently. "No. I've seen something like this before. At Kalare."

  "Gaius," Gram whispered. He shook his head, then bowed it. "That arrogant old . . ." His voice cracked, and he broke off his sentence.

  "Do you think the horde was there?" Amara asked her husband.

  "Absolutely. They weren't shy about leaving a trail. You could see it from up here."

  "Then Gaius defeated them," Gram said.

  Amara shook her head. "No. I don't think so." She lifted her head and looked out the window at
the destruction. "He would never do . . . this, unless the city was all but taken in any case."

  "The Vord won," Bernard rumbled nodding. "But he made them pay for it."

  "Where would survivors of the battle go, Bernard?" she asked.

  "Survive? That?" Gram asked.

  Amara gave him a steady look and turned back to Bernard.

  Her husband took a deep breath, thinking. "They'd take the causeway north, into the Redhill Heights, until they reached the crossroads. From there, they could turn east toward Aquitaine or northeast to Riva."

  The crossroads, then, would be the natural rendezvous point for anyone in the region who was fleeing the Vord-ridden south.

  She nodded to her husband and stepped out of the coach, once again willing Cirrus to bear up her weight. Then she signaled to the other fliers in their group to follow her, and took the point position again, to lead her own band of survivors north.

  Within half an hour, a hundred Knights Aeris plunged down upon them in a swirling mass of cold air, from such an altitude that their armor was coated with frost. The lead Knight--no, Amara corrected herself, the Placidan Lord who was obviously in command of the unit, flashed her an angry signal, to which she knew no countersign. Shouting at one another amidst so many roaring windstreams would have been an exercise in futility, so instead she simply lifted her head to bare her uncollared throat and lifted her hands into the air. The Placidan scowled at her, but flashed a standard signal at her to land, then signaled a hover, and spun his finger to encompass the rest of her group. She nodded, signaling her own folk to remain in place, and descended toward the ground with the Placidan Lord.

  They landed on the causeway, and the lord never took his eyes off her the whole way down. He stopped ten feet from her and faced her silently, one hand on his sword.

  "No," Amara told him tiredly. "I haven't been taken."

  The man seemed to relax, at least by a fraction. "You understand, of course, that security is a priority."

  "Of course," Amara said. "I'm sorry, sir. I recognize that you are of the Placidan Citizenry, but I can't remember your name."

  The lord, who looked about Amara's age, but who could have been twenty years older, if he had watercrafting enough, gave her a tired smile. He needed a shave. "Crows, lady. I can barely remember it myself. Marius Quintias, at your service."

  "Quintias," Amara said, bowing slightly. "I am Countess Calderonus Amara. The people with me are the Knights and Citizens my husband and I rescued from the Vord. They're tired, cold, and hungry. Is there a haven for them nearby?"

  "Aye," he said, nodding as he swept his gaze around. There was a faint, but undeniable note of pride in his voice. "For the moment, at least."

  For the first time, Amara looked at her surroundings.

  A battle had been fought there, on the causeway beneath the Redhill Heights. The earth was torn with furycraft and the tread of thousands of feet. Black patches marked where firecrafting had scorched the ground. Broken weapons lay strewn about the ground, here and there, along with spent arrows, broken shields, and cloven helms.

  And there were dead Vord.

  There were thousands upon thousands of dead Vord. They carpeted the earth for hundreds of yards behind her.

  "I wouldn't go walking this countryside alone for the time being, Countess," Quintias said. "But if you'll come to the camp, you can sleep safe, at least, once your people have cleared inspection."

  "Inspection?" Amara asked.

  "No one comes into the camp unless we're sure that they aren't taken or working with the Vord, lady," Quintias said without rancor. "We've had taken trying to slip in and cause trouble since about an hour after the battle."

  "I see," she said quietly. "It's imperative, sir, that I speak to the First Lord at once. I have information he will need."

  Quintias nodded sharply. "Then let's get moving."

  They took to the air again, and Quintias and a dozen of his Knights escorted them ahead, flying low and slow, the effort laborious. They would be exhausted when they landed--which was, she suspected, the point. If they had been intent on causing mischief, their fliers, at least would be in no condition to do so.

  It took them little time to reach the camp--a camp set up behind the interlocked palisades of no fewer than nine Aleran Legions. Half a dozen of them were flying the blue-and-white banners of Antillus, which was, Amara would have sworn, an obvious impossibility.

  Beyond the neat white tents of the Legion camps was a small sea of humanity numbering in the tens of thousands if not the hundreds. Armored legionares of one of the Placidan Legions were waiting, and Legion healers were coming forward to help (and presumably to verify the humanity of) the most recent arrivals.

  Quintias beckoned Amara, and she followed him through the Placidan camp, to a single Legion camp standing behind the front line. The red-and-blue banners of the First Lord flew over it, and she found herself hurrying her steps as she passed through the Crown Legion's camp, toward its commander's tent. It was awash in activity, with couriers and officers alike coming and going.

  "I'll tell the First Lord you're here," Quintias said, and entered the tent. He came out only a few moments later, and beckoned Amara. She followed him inside.

  A crowd of officers stood around a sand table in the center of the room, their quiet discussion buzzing. "Very well then, gentlemen," said a quiet, cultured baritone. "We know what needs to be done. Let's be about it."

  The officers saluted with the kind of precision and discipline Amara knew never would have been seen during peacetime, a rattle of fists striking armor, and then began to disperse.

  "He wanted to hear from you first thing," Quintias told her. "Go ahead."

  Amara nodded her thanks to the man and walked forward to speak to the First Lord--and stopped in her tracks in shock.

  Aquitainus Attis turned to her, his expression calm and confident beneath the shining steel circlet of the First Lord that he wore upon his brow, and nodded. "Countess Amara, welcome. We have much to discuss."

  Isana walked into the command tent at the temporary camp and was unsurprised to find it empty except for Lord Aquitaine. The tall, leonine lord stood over the sand table, staring down at it as if reading a poem he could not quite comprehend.

  "Your brother's wife is quite resourceful," he said quietly. "Not only did she arrange the escape of more than three hundred Knights and Citizens who would have been enslaved by Vord, and destroy their capability of adding any more to their tally, on the way here she also managed to compile a surprisingly complete estimate of the spread of the croach from the reports of the various hostages and her own observations."

  "The only part of that which surprises me is hearing that she shared it with you," Isana replied in a level tone.

  Aquitaine smiled without looking up from the map sculpted into the sand on the table in front of him. "Honestly, Isana. The time for our petty squabbles is past."

  "Petty," Isana said quietly. "My pardon, Lord Aquitaine. I labored under the misconception that the death of hundreds of my friends and neighbors in Calderon was not a petty matter."

  Aquitaine looked up at Isana and regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, the steel coronet at his brow gleaming in the light of the tent's furylamps. Then he said, "Let us suppose for a moment that what happened at Calderon had gone differently--that the Marat had wiped out the population of the valley, just as they did in Septimus's day. That I had positioned myself to stop the horde and won the favor of the Senate and various other parties."

  "And if it had happened that way?" Isana asked.

  "It might have saved millions of lives," Aquitaine said, his voice quiet and hard, and it gained in intensity as he spoke. "A stronger First Lord might have prevented Kalare's rebellion, or been able to end it with something other than a cataclysm that left a quarter of the Realm in chaos and anarchy that became an ideal breeding ground for the crowbegotten Vord."

  "And you believed that you were the proper person to choose
who would live and who would die."

  "You saw where Gaius's constant games and manipulations took us. You can see it in the smoking ruin where Alera Imperia used to stand. You can see it in Kalare and the Amaranth Vale. You saw it the night they murdered Septimus." Aquitaine folded his hands behind his back. "Why not someone else? And if it is to be someone else, why not me?"

  "Because you are not the heir to the throne," Isana replied. "My son is."

  Aquitaine gave her a brittle smile. "The Realm is on its knees, Isana. Your son is not here to lead. I am."

  "He will return," Isana said.

  "Perhaps," Aquitaine said. "But until he does, he is a theoretical leader--and we are facing days of deathly practicality."

  "When he comes back," Isana said, "will you honor his claim? His birthright? He is Septimus's son, Lord Aquitaine."

  Aquitaine's expression flickered and he glanced down at the table again for a moment, frowning.

  "If he comes back," he said, with quiet emphasis on the first word, "then . . . we will see. Until that day, I will do as I think best for the Realm." His eyes flicked back up to her, and became hard and cold as agates. "And I will expect your support."

  Isana lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes.

  "Division in the Realm has all but killed us," Aquitaine continued in a deadly quiet voice. "I will not permit it to happen again."

  "Why tell me this now?" Isana asked him.

  "Because I would rather we were forthright with one another. It will save time later." He spread his hands. "I have a certain amount of respect for you. I would rather have your support over the next few months. But make no mistake, I cannot tolerate your antagonism. I'll kill you first. Even if I must cross Raucus to do it."