Cursors fury, p.56
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       Cursor's Fury, p.56

         Part #3 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  “But . . .”

  He turned to her and kissed her mouth very gently. “Hush. There’s nothing to forgive. And nothing has changed.”

  She sighed, closed her eyes, and rubbed her cheek against his warm skin. The various pains had eased, and she could feel drowsiness filling the void they left in her.

  A thought occurred to her, just at the border of dreams and consciousness, and she heard herself sleepily murmur, “Something’s missing.”

  “Hmmm?”

  “Lady Aquitaine. She took Aldrick and Odiana to assist her.”

  “You’re right. I was there.”

  “So why didn’t she take Fidelias? He’s her most experienced retainer, and he’s done this kind of rescue mission a dozen times.”

  “Mmmm,” Bernard said, his own voice thick with sleep. “Maybe she sent him somewhere else.”

  Maybe, Amara thought. But where?

  The hour was late, and Valiar Marcus stood alone at the center of the Elinarch, staring quietly out over the river.

  It had been ten days since the battle ended. The town’s southern walls had been built into a far-more-formidable defense in anticipation of a fresh Canim assault that never came. The work had gone swiftly, once they’d cleaned out the charred remains of the buildings that the captain had burned down, and the engineers were rebuilding that portion of the town from stone, designing the streets into a hardened defensive network that would make for a nightmarish defense, should the walls ever be breached again.

  The unnatural clouds had emptied themselves into several days of steady rain, and the river’s level had risen more than three feet. The waters below were still thick with sharks that had feasted on the remains of fallen Canim, dumped there over the course of more than a week.

  Few furylamps had survived the battle, and funeral pyres for fallen Alerans provided the only dim lights Marcus could see. The last of the pyres still burned in the burial yards north of the bridge—there had simply been too many bodies for proper, individual burials, the rain had complicated burials and pyres alike, and Marcus was glad that the most difficult work, laying the fallen to rest, was finally done. Dreams of faces dead and gone for days or decades haunted his sleep, but they didn’t disturb his rest as they might have three years ago.

  Marcus felt sorrow for them, regret for their sacrifice—but also drew strength from their memories. Those men might be dead, but they were still legionares, part of a tradition that stretched back and vanished into the mists of Aleran history. They had lived and died Legion, part of something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

  Just as Marcus was. Just as he always had been. Even if, for a time, he had forgotten.

  He sighed, looking up at the stars, enjoying the seclusion and privacy of the darkness at the peak of the bridge, where the evening breezes swept away the last stench of the battle. As difficult and dangerous as the action had been, Marcus had found himself deeply contented to be in uniform again.

  To be fighting a good fight, in a worthy cause.

  He shook his head and chuckled at himself. Ridiculous. Those were notions that rightfully belonged in far-younger, far-less-bitter hearts than his own. He knew that. It did not, however, lessen their power.

  He heard nothing but a faint rustle of sound behind him, cloth stirred by wind.

  “Good,” he said quietly. “I was wondering when you’d get here.”

  A tall man in a simple, grey traveling cloak and hood stepped up beside Marcus and also leaned his elbows on the stone siding of the bridge, staring down at the river. “Well?”

  “Pay up,” Marcus said quietly.

  Gaius glanced aside at him. “Really?”

  “I’ve always told you, Gaius. A good disguise isn’t about looking different. It’s about being someone else.” He shook his head. “Watercrafting is the beginning, but it isn’t enough.”

  The First Lord said, “Perhaps so.” He watched the river for a time, then said, “Well?”

  Marcus exhaled heavily. “Bloody crows, Sextus. When I saw him in uniform, giving orders on the wall, I thought for a moment I’d gone senile. He could have been Septimus. The same look, the same style of command, the same . . .”

  “Courage?” the First Lord suggested.

  “Integrity,” Marcus said. “Courage was just a part of it. And the way he played his cards—crows. He’s smarter than Septimus was. Wilier. More resourceful.” He glanced aside at the First Lord. “You could have just told me.”

  “No. You had to see it for yourself. You always do.”

  Marcus grunted out a short laugh. “I suppose you’re right.” He turned to face Gaius more fully. “Why haven’t you acknowledged him?”

  “You know why,” Gaius said, voice quiet and pained. “Without furycraft, I might as well cut his throat myself as make him a target to men and women against whom he couldn’t possibly defend himself.”

  Marcus considered that for a moment, then said, “Sextus. Don’t be stupid.”

  There was a shocked little silence, then the First Lord said, “Excuse me.”

  “Don’t be stupid,” Marcus repeated obligingly. “That young man just manipulated his enemies into disarray and cut down a ritualist with fifty thousand fanatic followers. He didn’t just defeat him, Sextus. He destroyed him. Personally. He stood to battle shoulder to shoulder with legionares, survived a Canim sorcery that killed ninety percent of the officers of this Legion—twice—and employed his Knights furycrafting with devastating effect.” Marcus turned and waved a hand toward the Legion camp on the south side of the bridge. “He earned the respect of the men, and you know how rare that is. If he told this Legion to get on their feet, right now, and start marching out to take on the Canim, they’d do it. They’d follow him.”

  Gaius was silent for a long moment.

  “It isn’t about furycraft, Gaius,” he said quietly. “It never has been. It’s about personal courage and will. He has it. It’s about the ability to lead. He can. It’s about inspiring loyalty. He does.”

  “Loyalty,” Gaius said, light irony in the word. “Even in you?”

  “He saved my life,” Marcus said. “Didn’t have to. Nearly got himself killed doing it. He cares.”

  “Are you saying you’ll be willing to work for him?”

  Marcus was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I’m saying that only a fool will discount him simply because he’s furyless. Crows, he’s already checked a Canim invasion, helped forge an alliance with the Marat, and personally prevented your assassination at Wintersend. How much more bloody qualified does he need to be?”

  Gaius absorbed that in silence for a moment. Then he said, “You like being Valiar Marcus.”

  Marcus snorted. “After I got done with him and he retired from the Shieldwall Legions . . . I forgot how much I’d liked being him.”

  “How long did it take you to do the face?”

  “Three weeks, give or take, several hours each day. I’ve never been particularly strong at watercraft.” They both fell quiet again. Then Marcus sighed. “Crows take it, Sextus. If only I’d known.”

  Gaius chuckled without much humor. “If only I’d known.”

  “But we can’t go back.”

  “No,” the First Lord agreed. “We can’t.” He turned to Marcus, and said, “But perhaps we can go forward.”

  Marcus frowned. “What?”

  “You recognized him, when you finally got a good look at him. Don’t you think anyone else who ever served with Septimus might do the same?” Gaius shook his head. “He’s grown into a man. He won’t go overlooked for much longer.”

  “No,” Marcus said. “What would you have me do?”

  Gaius looked at him and said, “Nothing. Marcus.”

  Valiar Marcus frowned. “She’ll find out soon enough, whether or not I say anything.”

  “Perhaps,” Gaius said. “But perhaps not. In either case, there’s no reason it couldn’t slip your notice as it has everyone else’s. And I hardly think she
d be displeased to have an agent as Octavian’s trusted right hand.”

  Marcus sighed. “True. And I suppose if I refuse, you’ll take the standard measures.”

  “Yes,” the First Lord said, gentle regret in his voice. “I don’t wish to. But you know how the game is played.”

  “Mmmm,” Marcus said. Both were quiet for perhaps ten minutes. Then Marcus said, “Do you know what the boy is?”

  “What?”

  Marcus heard the faint, quiet wonder in his own voice when he spoke. “Hope.”

  “Yes,” Gaius said. “Remarkable.” He reached out a hand and put several golden coins on the stone siding, next to Marcus’s hand. Then he took another one, an ancient silver bull, the coin worn with age, and placed it beside them.

  Marcus took up the gold. He stared at the silver coin for a long moment, the token of a Cursor’s authority. “You and I can never be made right again.”

  “No, “ Gaius said. “But perhaps you and Octavian can.”

  Marcus stared at the silver coin, the token of a Cursor’s allegiance to the Crown. Then he picked it up and put it in his pocket. “How old was Septimus when he started crafting?”

  Gaius shrugged. “About five, I think. He set the nursery on fire. Why?”

  “Five.” Marcus shook his head. “Just curious.”

  The man in the grey cloak turned to walk away.

  “You didn’t have to show me this,” Marcus said to his back.

  “No,” he answered.

  “Thank you, Sextus.”

  The First Lord turned and inclined his head to the other man. “You are welcome, Fidelias.”

  Marcus watched him go. Then he drew out the old silver coin and held it up to let the distant fires shine on its surface. “Five,” he mused.

  “How long have we known one another, Aleran?” Kitai asked. “Five years this autumn,” Tavi said. Kitai walked beside Tavi as he left the hospital—the first building Tavi had p. 437 ordered the Legion’s engineers to reconstruct. A clean, dry place to nurse the injured and sick had been badly needed, given the numbers of wounded and the exhaustion of Foss and his healers, particularly during the final hours of the battle, when the healers had barely been able to so much as stabilize the dying, much less return them to action.

  Tavi had spent his evening visiting the wounded. Whenever he’d been able to find a few moments, he would visit a few more of his men, asking about them, giving them whatever encouragement he could. It was exhausting, to see one mangled legionare after another, every one of them wounded while obeying orders he had given.

  He brought Kitai with him whenever he visited—in fact, he brought her nearly everywhere he went, including staff meetings. He introduced her as Ambassador Kitai, and offered no other explanation whatsoever for her presence, his entire manner suggesting that she belonged there and that anyone with questions or comments about her had best keep them to himself. He wanted the men to get used to seeing her, to speaking her, until they got the idea that she was not a threat. It was a method adapted from his uncle’s lessons in shepherding, Tavi had thought, amused. It was the same way he would train sheep to accept the presence of a new shepherd or dog.

  She had discarded her beggar’s outfit to wear one of Tavi’s uniform tunics, leather riding breeches, and high riding boots. She had shorn her long hair Legion style, and what remained was her natural color, silver-white.

  She nodded as they walked. “Five years. In that time,” she said, “have I ever attempted to deceive you?”

  Tavi put a finger on the fine, white scar he had on one cheek. “The first night I met you, you gave me that with one of those stone knives. And I thought you were a boy.”

  “You are slow and stupid. We both know this. But have I ever deceived you?”

  “No,” he said. “Never.”

  She nodded. “Then I have an idea you should present to the First Lord.”

  “Oh?”

  She nodded. “We will be facing Nasaug and his people for a time, yes?”

  Tavi nodded. “Until the First Lord can put down Kalarus’s forces, we’ll have to be here to contain them and harass them—hopefully to keep as many of them as possible pinned down here, not helping Kalarus, while avoiding another pitched battle.”

  “You will need many scouts, then. Forces for small group action.”

  Tavi grimaced and nodded. “Yes. Which isn’t going to be fun.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because of their speed, for one thing,” Tavi said. “It’s too easy for scouts to be seen or tracked, then run down—especially at night. But there just aren’t enough horses to mount them all. If I can’t find some way around it, we’re going to lose a lot of good people. ”

  Kitai tilted her head. “Are you to remain the captain, then?”

  “For now,” Tavi said, nodding. “Foss says that Cyril’s going to lose his left leg. Crown law forbids any Legion officer who cannot march and fight beside his men. But I’m almost certain he’s going to be added to the Legion as an attaché from the Crown or made into a regional Consul Strategica.”

  Kitai arched an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”

  “That he’ll give me orders and advice, in how and where to move. But I’ll be the one making the calls in action.”

  “Ah,” Kitai said. “A war-master and a camp-master, is what my people call it. One makes decisions outside of battle. The other inside.”

  “Sounds about right,” Tavi said.

  Kitai frowned, and said, “But are you not subject to the same law? You cannot march with the men. Not using the furycraft of your people’s roads.”

  “True,” Tavi said, smiling. “But they don’t know that.”

  Kitai’s eyebrows shot up in sudden surprise.

  “What?” Tavi asked her.

  “You . . . you aren’t . . . “ She frowned. “Bitter. Sad. Always, when you spoke of your own lack of sorcery, it caused you pain.”

  “I know,” Tavi said, and he was somewhat surprised to hear himself say it calmly, without the familiar little ache of frustration and sadness at the unfairness of it all. “I suppose now, it isn’t as important to me. I know what I can do now, even without furycrafting. I’ve spent my whole life waiting for it to happen. But if it never happens, so be it. I can’t sit around holding my breath. It’s time let it go. To get on with living.”

  Kitai looked at him steadily, then she leaned up on her toes and kissed his cheek.

  Tavi smiled. “What was that for?”

  “For forging your own wisdom,” she said, and smiled. “There may yet be hope for you, chala.”

  Tavi snorted as they approached the second stone building the engineers had constructed—a command center. They had built it out of the heaviest stone they could draw from the earth, and set most of the building so far into the ground that its lowest chambers, including its command room, were actually below the level of the river. Tavi hadn’t wanted that building to get priority, but Magnus and the rest of his officers had quietly ignored his authority and done it anyway. It would take more than one of the Canim’s vicious bolts of lightning to threaten the building, the engineers had assured him.

  Tavi had to admit, that it had been extremely helpful all around to have a solid location for organizing the Legion. The rest of the Legion had laid their tents around the command building and hospital in standard order, and though the fallen and injured were sorely missed, a sense of normality, of continuity had returned to the First Aleran. He solved problems as they arose, though most days he felt like some kind of madman beating out random brush fires with a blanket before sprinting for the next source of smoke.

  If he’d known that they were going to build an apartment, complete with private bath, into the command building, he’d have told them not to do it. But they’d simply walked him there at the end of the tour. He had a small sitting room, a bathing room, and a bedroom that would have been of distinctly modest size in any setting other than a Legion camp. As it was, he could
have fit a standard tent into it without trouble, and his bed was wide enough to sprawl carelessly on, a distinct difference from the standard Legion-issue folding cot and bedroll.

  Guards stood outside the command building, and saluted as Tavi came walking up with Kitai beside him. He nodded to the men, both of them Battle-crows. “Milias, Jonus. Carry on.”

  The young cohort had taken the duty for guarding the captain’s quarters upon themselves with quiet determination, and the men on duty were always careful that their uniforms were immaculate, and that the crow sigil the cohort had taken as their own was obvious upon their breastplates and, in more stylized detail, upon their helmets and shields. The burned standard had been duplicated many times, always with the black crow and not the Crown’s eagle, and one such standard hung on the door to the command building.

  He passed inside and headed for the rear area on the first floor—his apartment. It was plainly, sensibly furnished with sturdy, functional furniture. He had dropped off several things there earlier in the day, but this would be the first time he had stayed the night. “So what is this idea?”

  “To me,” Kitai said, “it seems that you have a problem. Your scouts are not swift enough to evade the foe if discovered. Nor can they see in the dark, while your foe can.”

  “I just said that.”

  “Then you need swift scouts who can see in the dark.”

  Tavi shrugged out of his cloak and tossed it onto a chair. “That would be nice, yes.”

  “It happens,” Kitai said, “that my mother’s sister is just such a person. In fact, I believe she knows some few others who share those qualities.”

  Tavi’s eyebrows shot up. Kitai’s aunt was Hashat, leader of the Horse Clan of Marat, and likely the second most influential of the Marat clan-heads.

  “Bring a Marat force here?” he asked.

  “Evidence suggests it may be possible for them to survive,” she said, her tone dry.

  Tavi snorted. “I thought Doroga needed Hashat to keep things in order at home.”