Princeps fury, p.9
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       Princeps' Fury, p.9

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Then the First Lord bowed his head for a moment, shoulders sagging. He took a couple of slow breaths, and Amara could hear them rasp in his lungs. Then he opened a bottle of what smelled like particularly pungent spicewine, fighting down a cough as he did, and drank a glass in several quick gulps.

  Amara traded frowns with her husband.

  The First Lord, it seemed, was not nearly as strong and fit as he would have the Citizenry believe. Granted, Amara had no doubt that he had permitted them to see his true condition deliberately, and for reasons of his own. Or perhaps he hadn't. After all, Amara and Bernard had seen Gaius in far worse condition, during their trek through the swamps of Kalare. There would be no harm in letting his mask slip in front of them now.

  Gaius half filled his cup again and walked quietly over to his desk, settling carefully down behind it, wincing a bit as several joints creaked and popped. "First, Amara, allow me to apologize to you for the . . . rather uncompromising nature of the orders given to the Knights sent to bring you here. Given the situation, sensitivity had to be sacrificed to haste."

  "Of course, sire," she said stiffly. "I have never known you to employ a means which you did not feel justified by its ends."

  He sipped from his cup, eyes studying her, and when he lowered it a faint, bitter smile was on his lips. "No. I suppose not." He looked from her to Bernard, and said, "Count Calderon, I was impressed with your crafting, your skills, and most importantly, your judgment during our enterprise last year. I have need of your services again--and of yours, Countess, if you are willing."

  Bernard inclined his head, his expression guarded and neutral. "How may I serve the Realm?"

  How may I serve the Realm? Not, Amara noted, How may I serve the Crown?

  If Gaius took note of the phrasing, no gesture or expression revealed it. He reached into a drawer of his desk and unrolled a heavy parchment--a wide map of the Realm. Upon it, detailed much as the map shown in the Senatorium, was an illustration of the spread of the Vord invasion.

  "What I did not tell our Citizens," Gaius said quietly, "is that the Vord have somehow developed the ability to use furycraft."

  "That's not new," Bernard rumbled. "They did so in Calderon."

  Gaius shook his head. "They were able to use the taken bodies of the local holders to respond to furies a living Aleran had caused to manifest. It is a subtle but important distinction. At that time the Vord could only make any use of furycraft if Alerans engaged in its use first." Gaius sighed. "It seems that this is no longer the case."

  Bernard drew in a short, sharp breath. "The Vord are manifesting furies independently?"

  Gaius nodded, swirling his cup in a slow circle. "Multiple reports confirm it. Sir Ehren saw it with his own eyes."

  "Why?" Amara demanded, surprising herself with how harsh and rough her voice sounded. "Why aren't you telling them?"

  Gaius's eyes narrowed. He was silent for several long seconds before answering. "Because news of such a thing would frighten the Citizens of Alera into a unity of purpose they could otherwise never achieve."

  Bernard cleared his throat. "I know I'm not a politician or a Tribune or a captain, sire. But . . . I don't quite see how that's a bad thing."

  "Two reasons," Gaius replied. "First is that when the High Lords are well and truly frightened, their initial instincts will be to protect their homes. It would almost certainly cause them to reduce the quality and quantity of troops they would be willing to commit to the campaign--which could prove fatally disastrous for the entire Realm. If the Vord are not stopped in the next few weeks, they could become so widespread and numerous that we might never overcome them.

  "Second," he continued, "because of this, Count. The Vord can't be sure that we know about their newfound abilities--and if I do not disseminate such an obviously critical fact, it is my hope that they will assume that we remain ignorant as to what they can do."

  Amara nodded, following the line of thought. "They'll want to save their secret weapon for use at a critical moment, when shock and surprise will decide the course of a battle. They'll have the crafting at hand, but they won't dare use it, at least at first, for fear that they'll be squandering their element of surprise."

  Gaius nodded. "Precisely."

  "But what does that accomplish, sire?" Bernard asked.

  "It buys time."

  Bernard nodded. "To do what?"

  "Find the answer to an important question."

  "What question?"

  "The one I should have been asking from the start," Amara said quietly. "Why? Why are the Vord now able to utilize furycraft when they could not before?"

  Gaius nodded again. "Your Excellencies, your skill in the field and your dedication to the Realm are beyond question. But I cannot make an order of this. Instead, I make this request." He paused for another sip of spicewine. "I wish you to pass into Vord-occupied Alera, discover the source of their furycraft, and, if possible, determine a way to end it."

  Amara stared incredulously at the First Lord for a heartbeat. Then she shook her head, and said, "Unbelievable."

  Bernard slashed his hand in a horizontal motion, and said, "Absolutely not. I will not take my wife with me into something that dangerous."

  Amara jerked her head around to stare at her husband.

  He folded his arms, set his jaw, and met her glare with his own.

  Gaius never looked up from the contents of his cup, but a small smile graced his mouth. "Bernard. Amara. The fact of the matter is that I am asking you to take on a mission which will in all probability result in your deaths--if you are fortunate. Just as I have asked several other small teams to attempt the same. But it is my belief that if anyone is to succeed, it will be the two of you." He looked up at Amara. "Regardless of what may have passed between us before today, the fact of the matter is this: Our Realm stands on the brink of ruin, and most of the people in it do not even realize that this is so. Alera needs you."

  Amara bowed her head for a moment and sighed. "Crows take you, Gaius Sextus. Even when you make a request, you leave me no choices."

  "They do seem to have grown a bit sparse, these past few years," he agreed quietly.

  Bernard frowned quietly, and stepped up to study the map. "Sire," he said, after a moment, "that's a lot ground to cover. You could send a full cohort of scouts into that area and not find what we're looking for."

  "You won't have to cover all of it," Gaius said. "As the Legions arrive, we will be massing them at Ceres."

  Bernard grunted. "Ceres is all open land. Bad place to fight a force that outnumbers you so badly."

  "It's an extremely bad place, in fact. We would have very little chance of holding it if the Vord outnumber us as thoroughly as I fear that they do. It's a guaranteed victory for the enemy--who won't be able to resist it. The Vord will concentrate their heaviest numbers there--including their crafters. It is my hope that there will be enough confusion to allow you to infiltrate their territory and slip away again when your mission is completed."

  "When in fact," Amara said, "you have no intention of holding the city."

  Gaius finished off the rest of his wine and set the glass down with a weary gesture. "I will draw them and hold them in place for as long as I can. Perhaps three days. That should be time enough to impress upon the High Lords exactly how much danger the Vord represent. You may draw upon my personal treasury for any expenses or equipment you feel you may need. If you wish any additional mounts, et cetera--they are yours for the asking. Speak with Sir Ehren, and he will arrange them for you."

  It was clearly a dismissal, but Amara paused at the doorway.

  "You're keeping a lot of people in ignorance, Gaius. A lot of them are going to die because of it."

  The First Lord moved his head in a gesture that might have been a nod of acquiescence, or just a weary sag of the muscles in his neck. "Amara, a lot of people are going to die. Regardless of what I do. Nothing can change that. All I can say for certain is that if we cannot find a way t
o prevent the Vord from using furycraft against us, we are already lost."

  CHAPTER 8

  As Ehren led them to the First Lord's study, Isana crossed the path of her brother in the hall outside.

  "Bernard!" she said.

  "'Sana," he rumbled in his deep, gentle voice. They embraced, and she felt him actually lift her a few inches from the floor--utterly improper treatment, for a First Lady, but she hardly cared. After the first rush of happiness and affection, she began to sense his deep worry, and when she drew away from him, her own face was drawn with concern.

  "What are you doing here?" she asked him, as he exchanged grips with Araris. Then she looked past him, toward Gaius's study. Amara, her own features strained, waited a few steps back from her husband. She gave Isana a deep nod but did not even attempt to smile.

  "Gaius," Isana said, understanding. "Gaius has some insane errand for you."

  "We got here late, and the sane ones were already taken," Bernard said, forcing a smile to his mouth. It faded after a moment, and he said, "It must be done, 'Sana."

  Isana closed her eyes for a moment, her stomach twisting with fear for her brother's safety. "Oh, bloody crows."

  Bernard burst out in a laugh. "Now we know how serious the situation is, if even you are driven to such coarse speech."

  "It's the company she's been keeping," Aria said smoothly, stepping forward and extending her hand. "Count Calderon."

  Bernard took her hand and bowed politely over it. "High Lady Placida." He glanced over his shoulder at Amara, then smiled at the High Lady. "I hear good things about you."

  She smiled at him. "I can say as much about you. Which shows how much we know." She inclined her head to Amara. "Countess. That's a lovely dress."

  Spots of color appeared on Amara's cheeks, but she inclined her head a shade more deeply in respect. "Thank you, Your Grace."

  "Dress!" Bernard blurted, looking at Amara.

  She tilted her head slightly, then said, "Oh. Those things cost a bloody fortune."

  "But not our bloody fortune," Bernard said in a reasonable tone of voice.

  "Oh," Amara said. "Yes, then, I like that."

  Aria looked back and forth between the two of them, and said, to Isana, "Have you any idea what they're talking about?"

  "They're saying that they chose well when they married," Isana said, smiling faintly at Bernard. "I take it you need to keep the details to yourself?"

  "I'm afraid so," Bernard said. "And--"

  Isana held up a hand. "I can guess. Time is an issue."

  Ehren, who had been standing aside respectfully, silently, cleared his throat. "Well said, milady."

  Isana leaned up and kissed her brother on the cheek, then held his face in her hands. "Be careful."

  Bernard traced his thumb gently over her chin. "I've got too much work waiting for me back home to let anything happen now."

  "Good," she said, and hugged him. He hugged her back, and they parted, without looking at one another again. She had felt him start to tear up as he'd held her, and she knew he wouldn't want her to see the tears in his eyes. He'd know that she knew, of course--but after a lifetime near one another, certain fictions were simply understood. She smiled at Amara as they passed one another, and clasped both hands briefly. Isana didn't think the two of them would ever really be close--but the former Cursor had made her brother happy. That was no small thing.

  She heard Araris and Bernard trade a few quiet words, then Ehren was leading her into Gaius's study, the one that was supposed to impress everyone with how restrained, erudite, and learned he was.

  Oh, certainly, Gaius Sextus was likely one of the more erudite and learned Citizens in the Realm, but all the same. Isana had never understood men who made it a point to put trophies of their hunts on the walls, either. Gaius's study, its walls lined with the carcasses of books he had torn open and devoured, reminded her of nothing so much as old Aldo's hunting lodge, back in the Calderon Valley, and she thought it only marginally less boastful.

  Isana considered all the books thoughtfully, as Araris and Lady Placida entered behind her, along with Sir Ehren. She'd read a tiny fraction of the books there--even in winter, there had generally been more work than quiet, free time on the steadholt. Books were expensive, as well. But she'd read enough of them to know that they were only as valuable as the contents of their writers' minds--and to her it seemed that a great many writers, had they been merchants, would have precious little inventory.

  Still, she supposed it said something in the First Lord's favor that he considered intellectual achievement something to be boasted over at all. Not all men thought as he did upon the subject.

  "Isana," Gaius said, rising from his seat and smiling.

  "Sextus," she responded, nodding to him. So. They were not standing on formality it seemed.

  "Your Grace," Gaius continued. He put his hand to his chest and bowed slightly toward Lady Placida.

  "Sire," Aria replied, managing an elegant curtsey.

  "Ladies, please." He gestured toward a pair of seats before his desk, and Isana and Aria settled into them. He poured himself half a cup of what smelled like spicewine from a bottle on a sideboard and sat down behind the desk.

  "How much trouble are we in, Gaius?" Aria asked bluntly.

  He lifted an eyebrow at her, and took a sip of wine. "A very great deal," he said quietly. "The Vord have already overwhelmed multiple legions in the field, so thoroughly as to leave no survivors."

  "But . . . surely now, with the rest of the Legions taking the field . . ." Isana said.

  Gaius shrugged a shoulder. "Perhaps. The reputation of the Legions is thousands of years old, Isana, with the strength of centuries of tradition--and with the shortcomings of centuries of rigid thought. We are used to thinking of our Legions as invincible bulwarks. Yet they were bloodied and beaten by the Canim during Kalare's rebellion last year, just as they were overwhelmed by the Marat a generation ago."

  The First Lord's face flickered with some harsh, bitter emotion, and Isana felt the faintest flicker of it through her link with Rill, more than she usually ever felt from Gaius. She could hardly blame him. It was one of the few points upon which they shared similar emotions. The Marat incursion, more than twenty years gone, had wiped out the Crown Legion and killed the Princeps, Septimus, her husband and Tavi's father.

  "Earlier in Alera's history," Gaius continued, gesturing at the walls of books, "our Legions fought practically every year against a veritable host of enemies--enemies who are no more." He shook his head. "For several centuries, Alera has been the entire continent. We have held the Marat at the Calderon Valley, the Canim at the shore. Our Legions have fought comparatively rarely and only in certain places."

  Aria lifted her chin. "You're saying that they aren't up to the task."

  "I'm saying that most of our legionares have never lifted a blade in anger," Gaius replied. "Particularly in the southern cities, which are those now threatened by the Vord. The only Legions who had any recent experience at combat were Kalarus's forces and the Senatorial Guard--both of which were destroyed. The Crown Legion and the First Ceresian are the only other two veteran Legions in the area. The rest are . . . frankly, to all purposes, well trained but untested."

  "The First Placidan should probably be considered very nearly a veteran Legion as well, sire," Aria said, her spine stiff. "My lord husband recruits heavily from veterans of the Antillan Legions, and you know that our officers all rotate through terms of service on the Shieldwall."

  "Quite," the First Lord agreed. "Antillus and Phrygia represent the only two cities to maintain anything like true traditional Aleran Legions. Every legionare there has seen action. Every man of those cities has served his term in the Legions, seen real combat, so that even their militias are arguably better prepared for actual battle than the first-rank Legions of Attica, Forcia, Parcia, and Ceres--and, frankly Your Grace, your own Second and Third."

  Isana lifted a hand. "Gaius, please. I am not a Tr
ibune or a legionare. What does this have to do with me?"

  "If I am to defend Alera, I need the Legions of the Shieldwall," Gaius said, gazing steadily at Isana. "Legions, militia, every Knight, every sword and spear of the north."

  "Antillus Raucus will never leave his people to the Icemen," Lady Placida said. "Neither will Phrygius Guntus. And both of them have seen heavier fighting than ever, the past two years."

  Isana met the First Lord's gaze and abruptly understood. "But if the war with the Icemen can be ended, those Legions will be freed to fight."

  Lady Placida's coppery brows rose nearly to her hairline. "Ended? Peace talks with the Icemen have never been successful."

  "Neither have they ever had a moderator," Gaius said. "A neutral third party with respect among the Icemen, willing to mediate a negotiation."