Princeps fury, p.52
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       Princeps' Fury, p.52

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Isana wondered if Aquitaine expected her to cringe in fear. "Do you honestly think you could handle him?" she asked.

  "In a duel, one of us would die," Aquitaine replied, "and the other would not win. Neither would the Realm."

  "Why?" Isana asked. "Why would you say this to me? I have no Legions to offer you, no cities, no wealth. Why do you need my support?"

  "Because Raucus has made it clear to me that he came south for your sake. And Phrygia follows him. Lord and Lady Placida have made it clear that if I am wise, I will treat you with all deference. The heir presumptive to Ceres seems to think you can do no wrong. And, of course, the people love you--one of their own, risen up to wed the Princeps and provide the Realm its desperately needed heir. You have far more power than you realize."

  He leaned forward slightly. "But a third of the Realm is dead, Isana. What's left is going to die, too, unless we stop stabbing one another's backs and work together."

  "If you say so," Isana said stiffly. "You are more an authority than I in matters of treachery."

  He sighed, and settled down on a camp stool. He spread his hands, and asked, wearily, "What do you think Septimus would have wished you to do?"

  Isana regarded him in silence for a long moment. Then she said, "You aren't the same as your wife, Lord Aquitaine."

  He gave her a wintry smile. "We shared a goal, an occasional bed, and a name. Little else."

  "You shared a conviction that any methods were acceptable, provided their ends were worthy of them," Isana said.

  Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. "It's easy to argue against morality by the numbers--as long as the numbers are small. Millions of people--people we Citizens of the Realm were expected to protect--are dead, Isana. The time for difficult decisions is here. And making no decision at all may prove just as disastrous."

  Isana turned her face away, absorbing that for a moment. A bitter taste filled her mouth.

  What would Septimus have wished her to do, indeed.

  "The Realm needs its leaders to stand together," she said quietly. "I will work with you--until my son returns. I will promise you nothing more than that."

  Aquitaine studied her profile for a moment, then nodded once. "We understand one another. That is a reasonable beginning." He frowned for a moment, then said, "May I ask you something?"

  "Of course," Isana said.

  "Do you honestly think he will return?"

  "I do."

  Aquitaine tilted his head for a moment, his eyes distant. "I confess . . . there is a part of me that wishes he would."

  "To free you of responsibility?"

  Aquitaine waved a hand in a vague gesture of negation. "Because he reminds me of Septimus. And what the Realm needs at the moment is Septimus."

  Isana tilted her head. "Why do you say that?"

  He gestured at the sand table. Isana came over to it and saw a map of the entire Realm laid out in the sand.

  A quarter of it, perhaps more, was colored in croach green.

  "The Vord have been beaten down," Aquitaine said. "But they reproduce so swiftly that they'll be back again. Entire forests, within the croach, have been filled with trees that bear young Vord like fruit. All the queen need do is wait for a fresh crop, then she will come at us again, as strong as before."

  "Can we not . . . burn their crops, so to speak?" Isana asked, frowning down at the sand.

  "Possibly. If the causeways to the south hadn't been cut behind us as we withdrew." He shook his head. "And we don't have hands enough to cover all the ground we'd need to cover in the time we have before the Vord's counterstroke. I'll send teams down, certainly, but that will only mitigate the enemy's numbers.

  He gestured at the northern part of the map, where a handful of markers indicating Legions stood. "Meanwhile, we're becoming more reliant upon militia for our fighting men, we've lost our trade nexus for the moving of supplies and funds, and the Vord are slowly killing off the most powerful of our crafters."

  "What are you saying, Lord Aquitaine?" Isana asked.

  He gestured to the north. "I can gather our forces. I can marshal what resources remain to us. I can plan the battles, and I can hurt the Vord. I can feed them to the crows in mountains." He shook his head. "But unless we can get into the southlands and strike at them there, where they breed, it won't matter how many of them we kill. They'll send more. Sooner or later, this war ends in only one way.

  "I can give the people of Alera a strong leader, Isana. I can give them time." He bowed his head, and spoke very quietly. "But I cannot give them hope."

  Gaius Octavian, Princeps of the Realm of Alera, had gotten over his seasickness nearly an entire day sooner than he had the last time he'd been aboard ship, which meant almost nothing in terms of relative suffering. But he would take improvements wherever he could get them.

  Tavi stood on the deck of the Slive in the dead of night. They were moored to one of the great ice ships, which had been dubbed the Alecto, and even the officer of the watch was drowsing. Tavi had lain on the deck for a while as his head cleared, then made his way to the prow of the ship. He stared up at the great vessel for a time, and out over the gentle sea, where hundreds of other ships rode slowly toward Alera, at barely a third the pace they could have managed had they been alone instead of bracketed by the ice ships. Still, late was much better than never--and a return voyage without the ice ships would encompass far too many nevers for Tavi's taste.

  He nibbled on ship's biscuit, stared out at the sea, and waited for his stomach to settle so that he could finally get some sleep. He was entirely unprepared when a voice said, from directly behind him, "What do you find so interesting?"

  Tavi all but jumped out of his clothes at the words, and he spun to find a young woman standing behind him.

  Or at least, that was his first impression of her.

  He took a second, longer look and noticed the way that mist and fog seemed to cling to her in the shape of a common gown. He noticed the way her eyes kept shifting from the hue of one metal or gem to the next. And, most of all, he noticed the depths of her eyes; eyes that belonged to no young woman--to no human being at all.

  "What do you find so interesting?" the woman repeated, smiling.

  "Not interesting, exactly," Tavi replied. "It just . . . seems easier to consider the future when I'm looking out over the sea. What might happen. What I might do in response. How I might shape it."

  The woman's smile didn't widen so much as deepen. "You are all the same," she murmured.

  "I don't understand," Tavi said quietly. "Who are you?"

  She regarded him with steady, bright eyes, and he noticed that neither her hair nor the mist of her dress stirred with the evening wind. "Your grandfather," she said, "called me Alera."

 


 

  Jim Butcher, Princeps' Fury

  (Series: Codex Alera # 5)

 

 


 

 
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