Princeps fury, p.8
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       Princeps' Fury, p.8

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  As she watched, the entire coastline southwest of Mount Kalus began to turn a dirty brown-green, as if being coated with some sort of moldy sludge that began to spread steadily over the ground to the north and east, sliding inexorably forward, over the Waste that was all that remained of the city of Kalare, and continuing toward the Amaranth Vale beyond it. Amara recognized it after a moment--the croach, the strange, waxy substance that grew all around the Vord wherever they began to spread, choking out all other life.

  The croach continued to spread, sweeping into the Vale and halfway through it.

  "The enemy has come this far--a distance of nearly two hundred miles from the first point of contact--in less than a month. The substance you see represented on the map is known as the croach. It is some kind of mold or fungus that grows in the Vord's wake, killing all other plant and animal life."

  A befuddled-looking, portly old country Count, his gold-and-scarlet tunic patched and faded, sat on the bench beside Amara, shaking his head. "No," he murmured beneath his breath. "No, no, no. This is some kind of mistake."

  "Our aerial scouts have confirmed that the entire area represented here has been covered entirely," Gaius continued. "Nothing lives there now that is not Vord."

  "Oh come now," sputtered Lord Riva, rising, his jowls flushed and sweating. "You cannot expect us to believe that some kind of fungus is a threat to our Realm?"

  The First Lord glanced at the High Lord of Riva and narrowed his eyes. "My lord, you have not been recognized by the Speaker of the Senate. You are out of order. The floor will open for questions and debate as soon as it is practical, but for the moment, it is essential that--"

  "That you force these histrionics upon us?" Riva demanded, gathering momentum. "Come now, Gaius. Winter is all but upon us. The first freeze will destroy this . . . infestation, at which point competent military leadership should suffice to contain and destroy the invaders. I see no reason why these theatrics--"

  Gaius Sextus turned toward the High Lord of Riva.

  "Grantus," Gaius said in an even tone. "I do not have time for this. Every moment of delay puts more lives at risk." His expression hardened. "Perhaps even your own."

  Riva stared at Gaius for a startled moment, his eyes wide, then flushed dark red with anger. His hands opened and closed several times as he realized that the First Lord had all but openly threatened him with the juris macto.

  Lord Aquitaine's gaze snapped to Gaius like a falcon's and locked upon him.

  Amara tensed suddenly.

  The First Lord was taking a terrible risk. In his prime, Amara would have thought Gaius the match of any crafter in Alera--but she knew, better than almost anyone, how much of the First Lord's apparent strength was an act of bravado, a display of sheer will. Beneath the outer show of energy and drive, Gaius was a weary old man, and Riva, despite his less-than-legendary intellect, was, after all, a High Lord of Alera, and wielded tremendous power.

  The status of Octavian's legitimacy was far from set in stone. Should the First Lord die today, especially given the need for strong leadership, Aquitainus Attis might well attain the throne he'd been seeking for so long.

  Gaius had to know that. But if the thought troubled him, it did not show in his expression or bearing. He faced Riva with perfect aplomb, waiting.

  In the end, Riva's uncertainty proved a better defense than any furycraft. The portly High Lord harrumphed, and growled, "My apologies for speaking out of turn, Speaker, Senators, my fellow Citizens." He glowered at Gaius. "I will refrain from pointing out the obvious until the proper time."

  Aquitaine's mouth spread into a lazy grin. Amara couldn't be certain, but she thought she saw him incline his head, very slightly, to Gaius, a fencer's gesture of acknowledgment.

  Gaius went back to speaking as though nothing had happened. "The Vord have not limited their attacks to military forces. Civilian populations have been attacked and massacred without mercy. Given the nature of our defeats on the battlefield, a great many people never received word about their presence, or did not hear about them until it was too late for them to escape. The loss of life has been staggering."

  Gaius paused to sweep his gaze around the Senatorium. Again, when he spoke, he did so with detached precision. "More than one hundred thousand Aleran holders, freemen, and Citizens alike have been slain."

  Cries rang out amidst an ocean-surf swell of gasps that ran through the Senatorium.

  "Four days ago," Gaius said, "the Vord reached the southernmost holdings of High Lord Cereus. Lord Speaker, honored Senators, his daughter and heir, Veradis, is here to give testimony to the Senate and to speak on behalf of His Grace, her father."

  Gaius stepped back as the Speaker rose and leaned into the podium again for a moment. "Will the Lady Veradis please come before the Senate?"

  Amara watched as a slender, serious-faced young woman rose, her pale, wispy hair drifting like cobwebs as she moved. Bernard leaned close to her, and murmured, "Cereus has a son, does he not? I thought he was the heir to Ceres."

  "He was," Amara said. "Apparently."

  "Thank you," Veradis said, the building's furies projecting her words throughout the Senatorium. She had a voice to match her face--low, for a woman, and quite somber. "My father sends his regrets that he cannot be here himself, but he is in the field with our Legions, slowing the Vord in an effort to give our people a chance to flee. It is at his command that I have come here to beg the aid of the First Lord and of his brother High Lords in Ceres' most desperate hour." She paused for a moment, frozen, then cleared her throat. The first several words of her next sentence were tight, constricted. "Already, my brother Vereus has fallen to the invaders, along with half of the Legion under his command. Thousands of our holders have been slaughtered. Nearly half of the lands in my lord father's care have been consumed by the Vord. Please, my lords. After what Kalarus's rebellion did to our lands . . ." She lifted her chin, and though her expression was perfectly composed, Amara could see the tears glistening on her cheeks. "We need your help."

  With perfect poise, Veradis descended from the podium and returned to her seat in her House's box, and Amara abruptly felt certain that the young woman was unaware of her own tears, or she would have contained them, using her watercrafting if necessary.

  Pausing to elicit a nod from the Speaker, Gaius resumed the podium. "Our current estimates place the enemy numbers at somewhere between one hundred and two hundred thousand--but frankly, this tells us relatively little. We have limited knowledge of their capabilities as individuals, but know almost nothing of their potential working in mass coordination."

  "You know one thing," interjected a quiet voice, enhanced despite the fact that the speaker was not standing at the podium. Lord Aquitaine regarded Gaius steadily. "You know that they are extremely dangerous. In all probability, more so, pound for pound, than an Aleran Legion."

  The uproar raised by that statement was instant and vociferous. Everyone knew that the Legions were invincible. For a thousand years, they had been the wall of steel and muscle and discipline that had held against every attacker--and while a legionare might not leave a battle with victory in his grasp, it would only be because it had been pried tooth and nail from his fingers.

  And yet . . .

  It had been a very long time since the Legions as a whole had faced any real threat. The Icemen had been largely neutralized by the Shieldwall, centuries before. Conflicts with the Canim had rarely involved more than a few hundred of the wolf-warriors--at least until Kalare had conspired with one of their traitors to bring a literal horde to Aleran shores three years ago. The Marat had won battles against the Legions here and there, but they had never been lasting victories and had only served to make Aleran counterattacks all the more intense and punitive.

  The Children of the Sun were long since dead, their Realm rotted back into the Feverthorn Jungle. The Malorandim had been driven to extinction eight centuries ago. The Avar, the Yrani, the Dekh--all gone, nothing left of them but names
that Amara dimly remembered from her history lessons. Once they had all been rivals and tyrants to a younger, smaller, weaker Alera.

  But the Legions had changed all of that. In conflict after conflict, battle after battle, season after season, century after century, the Legions had laid the foundations for the present-day Realm.

  It was boldly done--but boldness had rarely been at a premium in the Legions since Alera had become more settled. High Lords had placed more value upon stable, conservative captains, who would have a care for the pocketbook as well as their legionares.

  Could it be that the legendary might of the Legions had passed into legend? Suppose they were not the invincible bulwark against Alera and her foes? Amara folded her arms. She found the idea uncomfortable. To others it would simply be unacceptable--as the occupants of the Senatorium had proven by their reaction to Aquitaine's statement.

  Amara called upon Cirrus with a murmur, bringing Gaius's expression into clearer view, and saw the steady gaze he exchanged with Aquitaine. Though she was no watercrafter, she could clearly sense the understanding the two men exchanged in that gaze and felt a leaden sense of fear sink into her bones.

  Gaius had no trouble accepting the statement.

  The First Lord already believed it.

  "Order!" called the First Lord, his voice thundering over the roar of the assembled crowd. "Citizens! We will have order in the Senatorium!"

  It took a moment more for the crowd to settle down again, but they did. The air of the Senatorium seethed with anger and tension and, though Amara doubted most of the folk there would have admitted it, with raw fear.

  "Over the past several years, representatives from every Legion have been briefed on what we know of the Vord," the First Lord said. "They represent a unique threat--one that can expand very rapidly. We must respond rapidly and with overwhelming force if we are to repel them. To that end, I am ordering every High Lord, saving Phrygia and Antillus, to dispatch two Legions immediately for detached operations against the Vord."

  "Outrageous!" bellowed Riva, his round face flushing scarlet as he rose from his chair. "You go too far, Sextus! No First Lord in five hundred years has acted with such arrogance!"

  Once again, Gaius turned to face High Lord Riva--but this time, he remained silent.

  "Yes, the founding laws of the original Primus give you that authority," Riva seethed, "but it is well understood that we have grown beyond such ancient measures! This fearmongering is nothing but a pathetic and transparent attempt to continue grasping at power--exactly like the announcement of the sudden appearance of your so-called legitimate grandson.

  "You are not a tyrant, Gaius Sextus! You are a first among equals! Among equals, the crows take your egotistical eyes, and I will go to the crows before I will submit to your--"

  Calmly, in no apparent rush, High Lord Aquitainus Attis rose from his seat in his box, turned to the railing dividing it from Lord Riva's, and drew his sword in a blur of silver. There was a hissing sound, a chime of steel, and the heavy wooden railing fell into two pieces, their ends smoking and glowing orange.

  Lord Aquitaine pointed his sword at Riva, and fire abruptly licked its way down the length of the weapon, fluttering up out of the steel, which began to glow with a sullen orange heat. "Grantus," Aquitaine said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Close your cowardly lips over that void in your head where your brains went missing and keep them there. Then put your lazy, shapeless ass back into your chair and do it swiftly. Or face me in the juris macto."

  Riva's eyes grew so round that Amara could clearly see the whites all the way up where they sat, even without Cirrus's help. His mouth opened and closed several times, then he abruptly sat down.

  Aquitaine nodded sharply and turned a slow circle, burning sword's point sweeping around the boxed seats of the High Lords. He spoke in a quiet, hard tone, carried all the way through the Senatorium by his own furies, Amara had no doubt. "Does anyone else have an objection to obeying the lawful commands of the First Lord?"

  Evidently, no one did.

  Aquitaine lowered his blade, the flames upon it dying down. He turned toward Gaius, descended from his seating, and crossed the Senate floor to the podium. There he bowed to the First Lord and offered him the hilt of his sword over one arm. "My Legions are yours to command, sire. I will dispatch them at once. Further, I offer you my personal services in the field."

  Gaius nodded gravely and took the sword, then offered it hilt first back to Aquitaine. "Thank you, Your Grace. Your support is most welcome. It was my hope that you would be willing to serve as captain for this campaign."

  Aquitaine sheathed his sword, struck his fist to his heart in a legionare's salute, and moved to stand at Gaius's right hand. "Who will stand with us?" he demanded, eyes sweeping sternly around the room.

  Lady Placida rose. "My lord husband is already on the march to support our friend and neighbor Lord Cereus," she said. "Veradis, dear, he should be arriving at Ceres within a day."

  "Atticus?" Aquitaine said. "Parcia?"

  Both lords rose and began to pledge their support, and estimate how long it would take for their troops to arrive.

  "Huh," Bernard grunted, folding his arms. "There's something I didn't expect."

  "What's that?" Amara said.

  "Aquitaine turning into a supporter for Gaius."

  Amara arched an eyebrow. "Is that what you think he's doing?"

  "It does look something like that, love."

  Amara shook her head. "Look at what he's done. He's uniting the Realm. Serving as its protector. Leading everyone against the deadliest threat Alera has ever known--all while the Princeps is entirely absent." She smiled grimly. "Some might even say, conspicuously absent."

  Bernard blinked. "That's absurd."

  "Of course. But not everyone will know that. Tavi is an unknown quantity. A great many people would prefer a known, proven veteran of Aleran politics to be the next First Lord. Should Aquitaine lead this war and win, he will be a hero as well. At that point . . ." Amara shrugged. "Gaius will not live forever."

  Bernard stared down at the Senate floor, a sickened expression on his face. "And Gaius just . . . just let him do it?"

  "Wanted him to do it, I should think," Amara said.

  "Great furies, why?"

  "Because whatever else Aquitaine is, he is very capable in the field," Amara said quietly. "Because if we are to survive, we will need him." She rose. "They won't be much longer here. Let's go before we get caught in the crowd."

  "Where to?"

  "The Citadel," Amara said. "Unless I miss my guess, Gaius is going to have a favor to ask of us." She glanced down at the far side of the Senatorium. "And of your sister."

  CHAPTER 7

  Amara and Bernard were standing outside the First Lord's study when a pair of Crown Guardsmen arrived. The two men nodded to them, confirming Amara's suspicion that Gaius wished to speak to them privately, and one of them went into the study and emerged again. A moment later, the First Lord himself appeared, flanked by four more Guardsmen.

  "Gentlemen," Gaius said, nodding to the Guardsmen. "Your Excellencies, if you would join me, please."

  One of the guards opened the door, and Gaius went inside. Amara stared after him for a moment, her lips compressed into a hard line. A quietly violent tide of emotion surged through her at the sight of the First Lord, there before her, at the sound of his voice, at his blithely competent, peremptory manner. He had unleashed the great fury Kalus upon the people of Kalare with the same kind of immediate, decisive calm, killing tens of thousands of innocent Alerans, civilians, along with the forces of the rebellious High Lord Kalarus.

  And she had stood upon a mountaintop overlooking the city with him and watched those people die.

  Amara hated him for making her see that.

  Bernard put his large, warm hand on her shoulder. "Love," he said quietly. "Shall we?"

  Amara gave her husband as much of a smile as she could manage, then straightened her back an
d followed Gaius into his study.

  Like all the rest of the Citadel, the chamber was lavishly, exquisitely appointed without being overdone. There was a broad writing desk made of green-black hardwood from a Rhodesian tree found near the Feverthorn Jungle, surrounded by matching shelves that groaned with books of every description. Amara had seen many such studies in which the books had been nothing more than decoration. She had no doubt that in that room, every book had been both read and considered.

  Gaius crossed to a sideboard with brisk strides, opened it, and drew out a bottle of wine and a cup, every motion precise and focused--until Bernard shut the door behind him.