The steadholt was located several miles south of the ruined wasteland that had once been Alera Imperia, and it was an old one. Windmanes had not been sighted there in more than six centuries. Furystorms had been absent for even longer than that. The land, for miles about, had been a patchwork of farmlands, steadholts, villages, and roads for hundreds of years. Wild furies had been so few and so feeble that they were all but extinct.
As a result, the little steadholt had not been built with stone walls surrounding it, or with a heavy stone central hall for shelter from fury-inspired weather. It was instead a collection of cottages and small houses, where each family had lived in its own home, separate from the others.
But all that had been before the vord came.
Invidia Aquitaine stood at the outskirts of the little steadholt, hidden in the shadows.
Shadows were abundant these days, she reflected.
The newborn volcano that stood as a gravestone for Gaius Sextus, the final First Lord of Alera, had continued to spew forth clouds of dark smoke and ash in the days and weeks after its creation. Even now, the sky was covered with low clouds that would release spring rain in fitful sputters or maniacal bursts.
Sometimes the rain was yellow, or red, and sometimes green. The clouds themselves were dimly lit, even at night, by an angry scarlet light from the fire-mountain to the north—and in every other direction by the steady, haunting green glow of the croach, the waxy growth that covered the ground, the trees, the buildings, and every other feature of the land the vord had claimed for their own.
Here, the vord had driven their presence the deepest. Here, at the heart of what had once been Alera, they had taken the most. The croach, the living presence of the vord, covered everything for a hundred miles in every direction, choking all other life from the land.
The little steadholt was green. Its kitchen gardens were well under way despite the fact that summer had not quite arrived. Its modest-sized field already promised a fine crop of grain. Wind sighed in the leaves of its enormous old trees. Its animals grazed upon the grass of a rich pasture. In the darkness, if one ignored the eerily lit sky, the green glow of croach stretching to the horizon in every direction, and the occasional alien shriek of one of the vord, it looked like a normal, prosperous Aleran steadholt.
The parasite on her torso reacted to the motion with an uncomfortable ripple of its own. Since its dozen awl-tipped legs were wrapped around her, their sharp tips sunk inches into her flesh, it caused pain. It was nothing compared to the agony she suffered as its head twisted, its eyeless face and branching mandibles sunken into the flesh between two of her ribs, burrowed invasively into her innards.
Invidia loathed the creature–but it was all that kept her alive. The poison upon the balest bolt that had nearly taken her life had spread all through her body. It had festered there, growing, devouring her from within, so swiftly and perniciously that even her own ability to restore her body via furycraft had been overwhelmed. She had fought it for days as she stumbled away from civilization, certain that she was being pursued, barely conscious as the struggle in her body raged. And when she had realized that the struggle could end in only one way, she found herself lying upon a wooded hillside and knew that she was going to die.
But the vord Queen had come to her. The image of that creature, staring down at her without an ounce of pity or empathy, had been burned into her nightmares.
Invidia had been desperate. Terrified. Delirious with poison and fever. Her body had been so knotted with shivering against the fever-cold that she literally had not been able to feel her arms and legs. But she could feel the vord Queen, the creature’s alien presence inside her thoughts, sifting through them one by one as they tumbled and spun in the delirium.
The Queen had offered to save Invidia’s life, to sustain her, in exchange for her service. There had been no other option but death.
Though they sent a wave of agony washing through her body, she ignored the parasite’s torturous movements. Like shadows, there was, of late, also an abundance of pain.
And a small voice that whispered to her from some dark, quiet corner of her heart told her that she deserved it.
“You keep coming back here,” said a young woman at her elbow.
Invidia felt herself twitch in surprise, felt her heart suddenly race, and the parasite rippled, inflicting further torment. She closed her eyes and focused on the pain, let it fill her senses, until there was no semblance of fear remaining in her mind.
One never showed fear to the vord Queen.
Invidia turned to face the young woman and inclined her head politely. The young Queen looked almost like an Aleran. She was quite exotically lovely, with an aquiline nose and a wide mouth. She wore a simple, tattered gown of green silk that left her shoulders bare, displaying smooth muscle and smoother skin. Her hair was long, fine, and white, falling in a gently waving sheet to the backs of her thighs.
Only small details betrayed her true origins. Her long fingernails were green-black talons, made of the same steel-hard vord chitin that armored her warriors. Her skin had an odd, rigid appearance, and almost seemed to reflect the distant ambient light of the croach, showing the faint green tracings of veins beneath its surface.
Her eyes were what frightened Invidia, even after months in her presence. Her eyes were canted up slightly at the corners, like those of the Marat barbarians to the northeast, and they were completely black. They shone with thousands of faceted lenses, insectlike, and watched the world with calm, unblinking indifference.
“Yes, I suppose I do,” Invidia replied to her. “I told you that this place represents a risk. You seem unwilling to listen to my advice. So I have taken it upon myself to monitor it and ensure that it is not being used as a base or hiding place for infiltrators.”
The Queen shrugged a shoulder, unconcerned. The movement was smooth but somehow awkward–it was a mannerism she had copied but clearly did not understand. “This place is guarded ceaselessly. They could not enter it undetected.”
“Others have said as much and been mistaken,” Invidia warned her. “Consider what Countess Amara and Count Bernard did to us last winter.”
“That area had not been consolidated,” the Queen replied calmly. “This one has.” She turned her eyes to the little houses and tilted her head. “They gather together for food at the same time every night.”
“Yes,” Invidia said. The Aleran holders who dwelt in the little steadholt in cobbled-together households had been working the fields and going about the business of a steadholt as if they were not the only ones of their kind living within a month’s hard march.
They had no choice but to work the fields. The vord Queen had told them that if they did not, they would die.
Invidia sighed. “Yes, at the same time. It’s called dinner or supper.”
“Which?” the Queen asked.
“In practice, the words are generally interchangeable.”
The vord Queen frowned. “Why?”
She shook her head. “I do not know. Partly because our ancestors spoke a number of different tongues and–”
The vord Queen turned her eyes to Invidia. “No,” she said. “Why do they eat together?” She turned her eyes back to the little houses. “There exists the possibility that the larger and stronger would take the food of the weaker creatures. Logic dictates that they should eat alone. And yet they do not.”
“There is more to it than simple sustenance.”
The Queen considered the cottage. “Alerans waste time altering their food through various processes. I suppose eating together reduces the inefficiency of that practice.”
“It does make cooking simpler, and it is partly why it is a practice,” Invidia said. “But only in part.”
The Queen frowned more deeply. “Why else eat in such a fashion?”
“To be with one another,” Invidia said. “To spend time together. It’s part of what builds a family.”
Great furies knew that was true. She could count on her fingers the number of meals she had taken with her father and brothers.
“Emotional bonding,” the vord Queen said.
“Yes,” Invidia said. “And… it is pleasant.”
Empty black eyes looked at her. “Why?”
She shrugged. “It gives one a sense of stability,” she said. “A daily ritual. It is reassuring to have that part of the day, to know that it will happen every day.”
“But it will not,” the Queen said. “Even in their natural habitat, it is not a stable circumstance. Children grow and leave homes. Routines are disrupted by events beyond their control. The elderly die. The sick die. They all die.”
“They know that,” Invidia said. She closed her eyes and for an instant thought of her mother, and the too-brief time she had been allowed to share her table, her company, and her love with her only daughter. Then she opened her eyes again and forced herself to look at the nightmare world around her. “But it does not seem that way, when the food is warm and your loved ones are gathered with you.”
The vord Queen looked at her sharply. “Love. Again.”
“I told you. It is the primary emotion that motivates us. Love for others or for oneself.”
“Did you take meals like this?”
“When I was very young,” Invidia said, “and only with my mother. She died of disease.”
“And it was pleasant to have dinner?”
“Did you love her?”
“As only children can,” Invidia said.
“Did she love you?”
The vord Queen turned to face Invidia fully. She was silent for two full minutes, and when she finally spoke, the words were spread apart carefully for emphasis–it gave the question a surprisingly hesitant, almost childlike, quality. “What did it feel like?”
Invidia didn’t look at the young woman, the young monster that had already destroyed most of the world. She stared through the nearest set of windows at the dinner being set down at the table.
About half of the people inside were Placidans, taken when the vord had completed their occupation of Ceres and moved forward over the rolling plains of that city’s lands. They included an old man and woman who were actually a couple. There was a young mother there, with two children of her own and three more that the vord had deposited in her care. There was a man of early middle age who sat beside her, an Imperian farmer who had not been wise enough or swift enough to avoid capture when the vord came for Alera Imperia and the lands around her. Adults and children alike were tired from a day at work on the steadholt. They were hungry, thirsty, and glad of the simple meal prepared for them. They would spend some time together in the hearth room after the meal, take a few hours of time to themselves with full stomachs and pleasantly weary bodies, then they would sleep.
Invidia stared at the little family, thrown together like a mass of driftwood by the fortunes of invasion and war and clinging to one another all the more strongly because of it. Even now, here, at the end of all things, they reached out to one another, offering what comfort and warmth they could, especially to the children. She nodded toward the candlelit table, where the adults actually shared a few gentle smiles with one another, and the children sometimes smiled and even laughed.
“Like that,” she said quietly. “It felt like that.”
The young Queen stared at the cottage. Then she said, “Come.” She strode forward, graceful and pitiless as a hungry spider.
Invidia ground her teeth and remained where she stood. She did not want to see more death.
The parasite writhed in agonizing reproof.
She followed the vord Queen.
The Queen slammed the door open, disdaining the doorknob to shatter its entire frame. Though she had displayed it on rare occasions before, her raw physical might was unbelievable from such a slender figure–even to Invidia, who was well used to seeing earthcrafters perform feats of superhuman strength. The Queen strode over the splinters and into the kitchen, where the little family took their dinner at a table.
They all froze. The youngest of the children, a beautiful male child perhaps a year old, let out a short wail, which the young mother silenced by seizing the child and placing her hand over his mouth.
The Queen focused on the mother and child. “You,” she said, pointing a deadly, clawed fingertip at the young woman. “The child is your blood?”
The young holder stared at the vord Queen with wide, panicked eyes. She nodded once.
The vord Queen stepped forward, and said, “Give him to me.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears. Her eyes flicked around the room, haunted, seeking the gaze of someone else–anyone else–who might do something. None of the other holders could meet her gaze. The young mother looked up at Invidia pleadingly, and she began to sob. “Lady,” she whispered. “My lady, please.”
Her stomach twisted and rebelled, but Invidia had learned long ago that retching sent the parasite into convulsions that could all but kill her. She ate seldom, of late. “You have another child,” she told the young mother in a calm, hard voice. “Save her.”
The man sitting beside the young mother moved. He gently took the boy from her arms, leaned forward to kiss his hair, and held him out to the vord Queen. The child wailed in protest and tried to go back to his mother.
The vord Queen took the child and held him in front of her. She let him kick and wail for a moment, watching him with her alien eyes. Then, quite calmly, she held the boy close to her body with one arm and twisted his head sharply to one side. His wails ceased.
Invidia found herself about to lose control of her stomach, but then she saw that the child still lived. His neck was twisted to the breaking point, his breaths coming in small, labored gasps–but he lived.
The vord Queen stared at the sobbing mother for a moment. Then she said, “She feels pain. I have not harmed her, yet she feels pain.”
“The child is hers,” Invidia said. “She loves him.”
The Queen tilted her head. “And he loves her in return?”
“Because it is the nature of love to be answered in kind. Especially by children.”
The Queen tilted her head to the other side. Then she stared down at the child. Then at the young mother. Then at the man seated beside her. She leaned down and touched her lips to the child’s hair and paused for a moment, as if considering the sensation.
Then, moving slowly and carefully, she released the child from her hold and passed him back to the weeping mother. The young woman broke down into shuddering sobs, holding the child close.
The vord Queen turned and left the cottage. Invidia followed.
The young Queen walked up a nearby hillside and, once they had crested the hill and moved into sight of a vord landscape stretching out before them, stood with her back to the little steadholt for a time. “Love is not always returned among your kind.”
“No,” Invidia said simply.
“When it is not,” she said, “it is a kind of pain to the one who has loved.”
“It is irrational,” the vord Queen said–and to Invidia’s shock, there was a quiet heat to the words. An anger. The vord Queen was angry.
Invidia felt her mouth go dry.
“Irrational,” the Queen said. Her fingers flexed, the nails lengthening and contracting. “Wasteful. Inefficient.”
Invidia said nothing.
The vord Queen spun abruptly, the motion so swift that Invidia could barely track it. She stared at Invidia with unreadable, alien eyes. Invidia could see a thousand tiny reflections of herself in them, a pale, half-starved woman with dark hair, clad only in a suit of vord chitin-carapace that fit her as closely as her own skin.
“Tomorrow,” the vord Queen said, smoldering anger filling the normally empty tones of her voice, “you and I will have dinner. Together.”
Then she turned and vanished in a blur of green silk into the endless rolling waves of croach.
Invidia fought the sense of terror spreading through her stomach. She stared back down at the collection of cottages. From her place on the hillside, the steadholt looked lovely, furylamps glowing in its little town square and inside the cottages. A horse nickered in a nearby pasture. A dog barked several times. The trees, the houses, they all looked so perfect. Like dollhouses.
Invidia found herself suppressing a laugh that rose up through the madness of the past several months, for fear that she would never be able to stop.
After all, the vord Queen was not quite nine years old. Perhaps that was exactly what they were.
Varg, Warmaster of the fallen land of Narash, heard the familiar tread of his pup’s footsteps upon the deck of the Trueblood, flagship of the Narashan fleet. He peeled his lips back from his teeth in macabre amusement. Could it be the flagship of a Narashan fleet when Narash itself was no more? According to the codes, it was the last piece of sovereign Narashan territory upon the face of Carna.
But could the code of law of Narash be truly considered its law without a territory for it to govern? If not, then the Trueblood was nothing more than wood and rope and sailcloth, belonging to no nation, empty of meaning as anything but a means of conveyance.
Just as Varg himself would be empty of meaning–a Warmaster with no range to protect.
Bitter fury burned inside him in a fire-flash instant, and the white clouds and blue sea he could view through the cabin’s windows abruptly turned red. The vord. The accursed vord. They had destroyed his home and murdered his people. Of millions of Narashans, fewer than a hundred thousand had survived–and the vord would answer to him for their actions.
He got hold of his temper before it could goad him into a blood-rage, breathing deeply until the normal colors of daylight returned. The vord would pay. There would be a time and a place to exact vengeance, but it was neither here nor now.
He touched a claw tip to the page of the book and carefully turned it to the next. It was a delicate creation, this Aleran tome, a gift from Tavar. Like the young Aleran demon, it was tiny, fragile–and contained a great deal more than its exterior suggested. If only the print wasn’t of such a diminutive size. It was a constant strain on Varg’s eyesight. One had to read the thing by daylight. With a proper, dim red lamp, he couldn’t make it out at all.
There was a polite scratch at the door.
“Enter,” Varg rumbled, and his pup, Nasaug, entered the cabin. The younger Cane bared his throat in respect, and Varg returned the gesture with slightly less emphasis.
Pup, Varg thought, as he looked fondly upon his get. He’s four centuries old, and by every reasonable standard should be a Warmaster in his own right. He fought the accursed Aleran demons on their own ground for two years and made good his escape despite all of their power. But I suppose a sire never forgets how small his pups were once.
“Report,” he rumbled.
“Master Khral has come aboard,” Nasaug rumbled. “He requests an audience.”
Varg bared his teeth. He carefully placed a thin bit of colored cloth into the pages of the book and gently closed it. “Again.”
“Shall I throw him back into his boat?” Nasaug asked. There was a somewhat wistful note to his voice.
“I find myself tempted,” Varg said. “But no. It is his right under the codes to seek redress for grievances. Bring him.”
Nasaug bared his throat again and departed the cabin. A moment later, the door opened again, and Master Khral entered. He was nearly as tall as Varg, closer to nine feet than eight when fully upright, but unlike the warrior Cane, he was as thin as whipcord. His fur was a mottled red-brown, marked with streaks of white hairs born from scars inflicted by ritual and not by honest battle. He wore a demonskin mantle and hood, despite Varg’s repeated requests that he not parade about the fleet in a garment made from the skins of the creatures who were presently responsible for keeping them all alive. He wore a pair of pouches on cross-body belts, each containing a bladder of blood, which the ritualists needed to perform their sorcery. He smelled like unclean fur and rotten blood, and reeked of a confidence that he was too foolish to see had no basis in reality.
The senior ritualist stared calmly at Varg for several seconds before finally baring his throat just enough to give Varg no excuse to rip it out. Varg did not return the gesture at all. “Master Khral. What now?”
“As every day, Warmaster,” Khral replied. “I am here to beg you, on behalf of the people of Narash and Shuar, to turn aside from this dangerous path of binding our people to the demons.”
“I am told,” Varg rumbled, “the people of Narash and Shuar like to eat.”
Khral sneered. “We are Canim,” he spat. “We need no one to help us attain our destiny. Especially not the demons.”
Varg grunted. “True. We will take our destiny on our own. But obtaining food is another matter.”
“They will turn on us,” Khral said. “The moment they have finished using us, they will turn and destroy us. You know this is true.”
“It is true,” Varg said. “It is also tomorrow. I am in command of today.”
Khral’s tail lashed in irritation. “Once we have separated from the ice ships, we can pick up the pace and make landfall within a week.”
“We can make ourselves into meals for the leviathans, you mean,” Varg replied. “There are no range charts of the sea this far north. We would have no way to know when we entered a leviathan’s territory.”
“We are the masters of the world. We are not afraid.”
Varg growled low in his chest. “I find it remarkable how often amateurs confuse courage with idiocy.”
The ritualist’s eyes narrowed. “We might lose a vessel here and there,” Khral acknowledged. “But we would not owe our lives to the charity of the demons. A week, then we can begin to rebuild on our own.”
“Leave the ice ships,” Varg said. “The same ships that are carrying more than half of our surviving people.”
“Sacrifices must be made if we are to remain true to ourselves,” Khral declared, “if our spirits, our pride, and our strength are to remain pure.”
“I have noticed that those who speak as you do are rarely willing to include themselves among those sacrificed.”
A furious snarl burst out of Khral’s throat, and one paw-hand flashed toward the hip bag at his side.
Varg did not so much as rise from his crouch. His arms moved, shoulders twisting with sinewy power as he flung the Aleran book at Khral. It sailed through the air in a blur of spinning motion, and its hard spine struck the master ritualist in the throat. The impact knocked Khral’s shoulders back against the door to the cabin, and he rebounded from it to fall to the cabin’s deck, making gagging sounds.
Varg got up and walked over to the book. Its leaves had opened, and some of the delicate pages had been harshly folded. Varg picked it up carefully, smoothed the pages, and considered the Aleran creation again.
Like Tavar, he mused, it was apparently more dangerous than it appeared.
Varg stood by for a moment, as Khral’s gagging gradually transformed to labored breathing. He hadn’t quite crushed the ritualist’s windpipe, which was disappointing. Now he’d have to suffer the fool again tomorrow. After surviving today’s conflict, Khral would be unlikely to allow Varg another such opportunity to remove him.
So be it. Some ambitious underling might turn a dead Khral into a martyr. It was entirely possible the ritualist would be more dangerous dead than alive.
“Nasaug,” Varg called.
The pup opened the door and considered the prostrate form on the floor. “Warmaster?”
“Master Khral is ready to return to his boat.”
Nasaug bared his throat, not quite hiding his amusement. “Immediately, Warmaster.” He leaned down, seized Khral by his ankle, and simply dragged him out of the cabin.
Varg gave Nasaug a few minutes to get Khral back into his boat, then strode out onto the Trueblood‘s deck.
The ship was painted black, as most Narashan vessels were. It offered a stealth advantage when moving at night, and during the day it collected enough heat to enable the adhesive sealing the hull to remain flexible and watertight. It also lent them an air of menace, particularly to the Aleran demons. They were nearly blind at night and painted their own ships white so that they could see a little more clearly during darkness. The very idea of a black ship was alien to them, and darkness was a primal fear for the species. While their blindness and fear might not stop them from attacking, especially with their sorcery at hand, it did prevent any independent individual or small group from attempting to board a Narashan vessel for whatever mad reason it might concoct.
The Alerans were many things, but not stupid. None of them liked the idea of stumbling around in the darkness while the night-wise Canim came for them.
Varg went to the ship’s prow and stared out over the sea. They were in waters hundreds of leagues north of any he had sailed before, and the sea was choppy. The weather had remained clear, either as the result of fortune or Aleran sorcery, and the fleet had made the long, slow trek from Canea without serious incident–something Varg would have considered the next best thing to impossible only months before.
The voyage from Canea to Alera was a month’s worth of sailing with a moderately favorable wind. It had taken them over three months to get this far, and there were still three weeks’ worth of ocean in front of them at their current pace. Varg turned his eyes to the south and studied the reason for their crawl.
Three almost unbelievably enormous ships rode squarely in the center of the fleet, rising like mountains from the sea and dwarfing even the Trueblood into insignificance–but their size was not the most remarkable thing about them.
The ships had been built from ice.
The Alerans had used their sorcery to reshape icebergs calving from a glacier into seaworthy forms, with multiple decks and a vast capacity for their precious cargo–all that remained of once-proud Canea. Makers, females, and pups filled the three ships, and the Narashan captains of the vessels escorting her had orders to spill their crews’ blood like seawater if that was what it required to protect the civilians.
The ships had enormous, flat decks, and no mast could stretch high or broad enough to hang enough sail to move the vessel, but the Alerans had managed to overcome the problem with their typical ingenuity. Hundreds of poles with crossbars had been placed on the topmost deck of the ship, and they billowed with every form of cloth one could imagine. They alone would not propel the ice mountains, but Tavar was, correctly, of the opinion that even a small contribution would prove significant over time. Then, too, the wind demons with the Aleran fleet had been tasked with bringing up enough of a breeze to lighten the load on the water demons who truly drove the vast ships.
Propelled primarily by Aleran sorcery, the ice ships had proved to be steady in the water. If the quarters for his people were a bit cold–albeit less so than one would have imagined–their discomfort was a small price to pay for survival. Some of the sick and elderly had been transferred to Varg’s transports to get out of the cold, but for the most part matters had proceeded with relative simplicity.
Varg looked up and down the length of his ship, watching his sailors tending to their work. His warriors and sailors were painfully lean, though not cadaverous. Gathering rations had been a hurried affair during the escape, and there were thousands of mouths to feed. Priority for food went to the Aleran wind and water demons, then sailors, with civilians close behind. The demon Legions followed, thanks to the necessity of maintaining their fragile forms, and last came Varg’s warriors. The order might have been reversed during lean times in a land campaign, but here, on the open water, those most vital to the fleet’s progress and purpose had priority.
Varg watched as a hunting ship sailed into the fleet from outside the formation. It moved sluggishly, even under full sail, but its speed was adequate to catch the ice ships. A massive form floated in the water behind the hunting ship–the corpse of a medium-sized leviathan.
The demons’ work, again. Leviathans were fiercely territorial, but they hated the cold of the chilled sea surrounding the ice ships. Hunting vessels would sail out of the bitterly cold water and draw the attention of a leviathan. Then air and water demons would work together to slay it, somehow drowning the creatures on air even while they were in the water.
It was a dangerous business. Two out of ten hunting ships never returned–but those that did brought enough food with them, in the form of the leviathans, to feed the entire fleet for two days. The taste of leviathan meat and blubber was indescribably foul, but it kept a body alive.
Nasaug came to his side and watched the hunting ship with Varg. “Warmaster.”
“The good Master is gone?”
“Yes,” Nasaug said. “And surly.”
Varg bared his teeth in a grin.
“Father,” Nasaug said. He paused to choose words carefully. Varg turned to face him and waited. When Nasaug did that, what he had to say was generally unpleasant–and worth listening to.
“In three weeks we will reach Alera,” Nasaug said.
“And fight the vord beside the demons.”
Nasaug was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “Khral is a scheming fool. But he has a point. There is no reason for the Alerans to keep us alive once we have won the war.”
Varg’s ears twitched in amusement. “First we must win the war,” he rumbled. “Many things can happen in the passing of time. Patience.”
Nasaug flicked his ears in agreement. “Khral is building a following. Speaking to gatherings on the ice ships. Our people are afraid. He is using that fear.”
“It is what bloodspeakers do,” Varg said.
“He could be dangerous.”
“Fools often are.”
Nasaug did not gainsay him, but then he rarely did. The younger Cane straightened his shoulders in resignation and looked out to sea.
Varg put a hand on his pup’s shoulder. “I know Khral. I know his like. How they think. How they move. I have dealt with them before, as have you when you fed Sarl to the tavar.”
Nasaug showed his fangs in a grin of remembrance.
Varg nodded. “If necessary, we will deal with them again.”
“This problem might be better removed now than later.”
Varg growled. “He has not yet stepped outside the code. I will not kill him improperly.”
Nasaug was quiet for a moment more. Then he looked back behind them at the tiny, cramped cabin built just behind the forecastle, the smelliest and most uncomfortable quarters on the ship.
It was where Varg’s Hunters lived.
“Hunters do not exist to circumvent the code,” Varg growled, “but to preserve its spirit against its letter. Of course they could do the job. But it would only give Khral’s ambitious underlings additional fire–and a genuine grievance to rally their followers behind. We may need the ritualists before all is done.” He leaned his paw-hands on the rail and turned his nose into the wind, tasting the sky and the sea. “Master Marok is the brother of one of my finest enemies, and seniormost of the followers of the Old Path. I have his support within the ritualist camp.”
Nasaug flicked his ears in acquiescence and seemed to relax a bit. He stood with his sire for a moment, then bared his throat and departed back to his duties.
Varg spent an hour or so on deck, inspecting, offering encouragement, snarling at imperfection. All was quiet, otherwise, which he mistrusted. There hadn’t been nearly enough adversity during this crossing. Ill fortune must be holding its balest bolt until it could be sure it was lethal.
Varg returned to his book, an ancient Aleran writing apparently handed down since their people’s prehistory. Tavar had said that they were not sure how much of the material was original and how much had been added in over the centuries–but if half of it was truth, then the Aleran warmaster described in its pages had been competent, if a shade arrogant. It was easy to see how his memoirs had influenced the strategies and tactics of the Aleran Legions.
Though, Varg mused, he was not at all convinced that this Julius person, whoever he was, would have had a very great deal to teach Tavar.
. . . . .
Sir Ehren ex Cursori walked toward the tent at the heart of the vast Legion camp outside the ancient city of Riva. He looked up the hill toward the walled city and felt uncomfortable for what must have been the hundredth time in a few days. The walls of Riva were high and thick–and offered him a conspicuous lack of comfort, considering that he and the surviving Legions under the command of First Lord Aquitaine were on the outside of them. Traditionally, when attacking a city, that was the where the enemy tended to congregate.
Oh, certainly, the palisade walls around each Legion were a perfectly defensible barrier, he knew. But the modest earthworks and wooden walls were not enough to stop the vord.
Then again, the walls of Alera Imperia herself hadn’t stopped them, either.
Ehren shook his head and brushed off the heavy thoughts with a sigh. There was no good in dwelling over what even the true First Lord of Alera, Gaius Sextus, had been powerless to stop. But at least in dying, Gaius had given the people of Alera a fighting chance to survive. The fire-mountain that had arisen as the vord closed their jaws on the heart of Alera had all but wiped out their horde, and the Legions brought down against all hope from the far northern cities by Gaius Isana had savaged the survivors.
Against any other foe the Alerans had faced, that would have been quite sufficient, Ehren reflected. It seemed quite unfair that such an enormous act of wanton destruction should prove to be nothing more than a moderate setback, regardless of who the enemy might be.
A quiet and rational part of his mind, the part that did all of his mathematics when he was faced with columns of figures, told him that the vord would be Alera’s last foe. There was no way, none at all, to defeat them with the forces Alera had remaining. They were simply breeding too swiftly. Most wars, in the end, came down to the numbers. The vord had them.
It was as simple as that.
Ehren firmly told that part of his mind to go to the crows. It was his duty to serve and protect the Realm to the best of his ability, and he would not better attend to that duty by listening to such demoralizing naysaying, regardless of how correct it might be in a historical–and literal–sense.
After all, even driven to her knees, Alera was still a force to be reckoned with. The greatest gathering of Legions in a thousand years had congregated on the open plain around the city of Riva–the vast majority of them made up of veterans from the continually warring cities of Antillus and Phrygia. Oh, true, some of the troops were militia–but the militia of the sister cities of the north were quite literally as formidable as any of the active Legions of the south, and smithies were turning out weapons and armor for the Legions more rapidly than at any time in Aleran history. In fact, if they could have produced even more equipment, the Realm had volunteers enough for a dozen more Legions to add to the thirty already encamped.
Ehren shook his head. Thirty Legions. Just over two hundred thousand steel-clad legionares, each one part of a Legion, a living, breathing engine of war. The lower ranks of the Citizenry had been distributed among the Legions, so many that every Legion there had a double-sized cohort of Knights ready to do battle. And, beyond that, a full bloody Legion Aeris, its ranks consisting solely of those with the skills of Knights Aeris, led by the upper ranks of the Citizenry, had been harassing the foe for months.
And standing by beyond even that force was the First Lord and the High Lords of the Realm, each a furycrafter of almost unbelievable power. There was strength enough in that camp to rip the earth to its very bones, to set the sky on fire, to draw down the hungry sea from the north, to raise the winds to a killing scythe that would destroy any caught before it, all protected by a seething sea of steel and discipline.
And yet refugees, fleeing the destruction spreading from the heart of the Realm, continued to flood in. There was a desperate edge to the voices of centurions driving their troops to drill. Couriers, riding the winds, went roaring into the skies on thunderous columns of fury-guided air, so many that the Princeps had been forced to establish a policy for lanes of approach to prevent the fliers from collisions. Smithies burned their forges day and night, creating, preparing, repairing, and would continue doing so until the vord overran them.
And Ehren knew what was driving all of it.
Fear. Unmitigated terror.
Though the gathered might of all Alera spread for miles around Riva, the fear was a scent on the air, a shadow hovering at the edges of vision. The vord were coming, and calm, quiet voices whispered in every mind with the capacity for thought that even the power gathered there would not be enough. Though Gaius Sextus had died like a rogue gargant brought to bay, crushing his foes as he fell, the fact remained that he had fallen. There was an unspoken thought lurking behind everyone’s eyes–if Gaius Sextus could not survive the vord, what chance did anyone else possess?
Ehren nodded to the commander of the score of guards surrounding the command tent, spoke the current passphrase, and was admitted to the tent without needing to so much as slow his steps. Nothing much really slowed Ehren’s steps, these days, he reflected. Gaius Sextus’s letter to then.High Lord Aquitaine had apparently seen to that–among other things
“Five months,” snarled a rumbling voice, as Ehren entered the tent. “Five months we’ve been sitting here. We should have been moving south against the vord weeks ago!”
“You’re a brilliant tactician, Raucus,” replied a deeper, quieter voice. “But long-term thinking was never your strongest suit. We can’t know what surprises the vord have in store for us on ground they’ve had time to prepare.”
“There’s never been evidence of any defenses,” Antillus Raucus, High Lord Antillus retorted, as Ehren brushed aside the second tent flap and entered the tent proper. Raucus faced the Princeps across a double-sized sand table in the center of the tent that bore a map of all Alera upon it. He was a big, brawny man with a craggy face long used to winter winds, and he wore the scars of a soldier upon his face and hands, the reminders of nicks and cuts that had been so numerous and frequent that not even his considerable skills at furycraft could smooth them away. “In all of our history, this is the most powerful force ever assembled. We should take this army, ram it right down their throats, and kill that bitch of a Queen. Now. Today.”
The First Lord was a leonine man, tall and lean, with dark golden hair and black, opaque eyes beneath the, simple, undecorated steel band of his coronet, the traditional crown of a First Lord at war. Dressed in his own colors of scarlet and black, still, Aquitainus Attis–Gaius Aquitainus Attis, Ehren supposed, since Sextus had legally adopted the man in his last letter–faced Raucus’s insistent statement with total calm. In that, at least, he actually was like Sextus, Ehren thought.
The First Lord shook his head. “The vord are obviously alien to us, but just as obviously intelligent. We have prepared defenses because it is an intelligent measure that even fools realize increases our ability to defend and control our land. We would be fools ourselves to assume that the vord cannot reach the same conclusion.”
“When Gaius led our forces against the vord, you advised him to attack,” Raucus pointed out. “Not retreat. It was the correct course of action.”
“Given how many vord came to the final assault on Alera Imperia, apparently not,” the First Lord replied. “We had no idea how many of them were out there. If he’d taken my counsel, our assault would have been enveloped and destroyed–and the vord were expecting us to do so.”
“We know their numbers now,” Raucus said.
“We think we do,” Aquitaine shot back, heat touching his voice for the first time. “This is our last chance, Raucus. If these Legions fall, there is nothing left to stop the vord. I will not waste the blood of a single legionare if I cannot be sure to make the enemy pay a premium for it.” He folded his hands behind his back, took a breath, and released it again, reassuming his air of complete calm. “They will come to us, and soon, and their Queen will be compelled to accompany them and coordinate the attack.”
Raucus scowled, his shaggy brows lowering. “You think you can mousetrap her.”
“A defensive battle,” Aquitaine replied, nodding. “Draw them to us, endure the assault, wait for our moment, and counterattack with everything we have.”
Raucus grunted. “She’s operating with furycraft now. And on a scale equal to anyone alive. And she’s still got a guard of the Alerans she took before Count and Countess Calderon ruined that part of her operation.”
Not even Antillus Raucus, Ehren noted, was willing to point out openly to the new Princeps that his wife was among those who had been compelled to take up arms with the vord.
“That’s unfortunate,” Aquitaine said, his voice hard. “But we’ll have to go through them.”
Raucus studied him for a few seconds. “You figure on taking her yourself, Attis?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Aquitaine said. “I’m a Princeps. It’s going to be me, and you, and Lord and Lady Placida and every other High Lord and Lord and Count who can raise a weapon and the entire Legion Aeris and every other Legion I can arrange to be there besides.”
Raucus lifted his eyebrows. “For one vord.”
“For the vord,” Aquitaine replied. “Kill her, and the rest of them are little more than animals.”
“Bloody dangerous animals.”
“Then I’m sure hunting fashions will become all the rage,” Aquitaine replied. He turned around and nodded. “Sir Ehren. Have the reports come in?”
“Yes, sire,” Ehren replied.
Aquitaine turned to the sand tables and swept a hand in invitation. “Show me.”
Ehren calmly walked to the tables and took up a bucket of green sand. Raucus winced when he did. The green sand marked the spread of the croach across Alera. They’d run through several buckets already.
Ehren dipped a hand into the bucket and carefully poured green sand over the model of a walled city on the sand table that represented Parcia. It vanished into a mound of emerald grains. It seemed, to Ehren, an inadequate way to represent the ending of hundreds of thousands of Parcian lives, both the city’s population and the vast number of refugees who had sought safety there. But there could be no doubt. The Cursors and aerial spies were certain: Parcia had fallen to the vord.
The tent was silent.
“When?” Aquitaine asked quietly.
“Two days ago,” Ehren said. “The Parcian fleet was continuing the evacuation right up until the very end. If they stayed near the coastlines, they could have employed much smaller vessels as well and loaded all of the ships very heavily. They may have taken as many as seventy or even eighty thousand people around the cape to Rhodes.”
Aquitaine nodded. “Did Parcia unleash the great furies beneath the city on the enemy?”
“Bloody crows, Attis,” Raucus said quietly, reproof in his voice. “Half the refugees in the entire south were at Parcia.”
The First Lord faced him squarely. “No amount of grieving will change what has happened. But prompt action based upon rational thought could save lives in the near future. I need to know how badly the enemy was hurt by the attack.”
Raucus scowled and folded his heavy arms, muttering beneath his breath.
Aquitaine put a hand on the other man’s shoulder for a moment, then turned to face Ehren. “Sir Ehren?”
Ehren shook his head. “There was nothing to indicate that he did so, Your Highness. From what we have heard from the survivors, High Lord Parcius was assassinated. The vord didn’t assault and breach the walls until after he had fallen.” He shrugged. “The reports indicate widespread incidents with wild furies in the aftermath, but that was to be expected given the number of deaths.”
“Yes,” Aquitaine said. He folded his arms and studied the map in silence.
Ehren let his eyes drift over it as well.
Alera was a land of vast stretches of sparsely settled or uninhabited wilderness between the enormous cities of the High Lords. Furycrafted roads between the great cities, and a great many waterways, provided lifelines of trade and created a natural support structure for smaller cities, towns, and villages that spread out into the countryside around them. Steadholts, farming hamlets, were scattered into the areas between the towns and cities, each supporting between thirty and three hundred or so people.
All that had changed.
The green sand covered the core of Alera, sweeping most thickly up from the uninhabited wasteland that had once been the city of Kalare, through the rich, productive lands of the Amaranth Vale, over the gutted corpse of the city of Ceres, and up to the smoldering slopes of the volcano that now loomed over what had once been Alera Imperia. Strands, like the branches of some alien tree, spread out from that vast central trunk, swelling into larger areas that surrounded several of the other great cities–cities that had settled in to fight until the bitter end and were stubbornly withstanding months of siege. Forcia, Attica, Rhodes, and Aquitaine had all been besieged and currently fought the invaders at their gates. The rolling plains around Placida had fared better, and the croach had not managed to close within twenty miles or so of the city’s walls–but even so, the stubborn Placidans had lost ground slowly and inexorably, and would be in the same position as the others in a matter of weeks.
Antillus and Phrygia, in the far north, had been spared attack thus far–but columns of the croach had swollen and sprouted, growing steadily and mindlessly toward them, just as it did toward the northeastern city of Riva–and, by extension, toward Ehren ex Cursori. Though he admitted it was possible that he was taking it a little personally.
“The refugees from Parcia are going to put more strain upon Rhodes’s food supply,” Aquitaine murmured, finally. “Raucus, send out a call for volunteers. We’ll send Rhodes every earthcrafter willing to go in and help produce more food.”
“We can’t keep that up, Attis,” Raucus said. “Oh, the earthcrafters can bring in a season’s crop once a month, if they need to, maybe faster. But there just isn’t enough soil inside the city’s walls. They’re depleting it of what the crops need to grow far more quickly than it can restore itself.”
“Yes,” Aquitaine said. “They can only maintain that kind of production for a year. Eighteen months at the outside. But even with every rooftop and avenue in Rhodes converted to grow crops, it will be a strain to fill another eighty thousand bellies. Once starvation sets in, disease will follow, and with the city so crowded, they will never recover.” He shrugged elegantly. “This will all be decided in well under eighteen months, after which we will break the sieges. We will keep as many as possible alive until then. Send the earthcrafters.”
Raucus put his fist to his heart in a Legion salute and sighed. “I just don’t get it. These fields where they’re growing new vord. The Legion Aeris is burning them to ash before they can get more than a crop or two of their own out. How can there be so crowbegotten many of the bastards?”
“Actually,” Ehren said, “I think I know the answer to that, my lords.”
Aquitaine looked up and arched an eyebrow at Ehren.
“I’ve gotten a report from an old business acquaintance of mine outside of Forcia. He’s an aphrodin smuggler who used to use furycraft to grow crops of hollybells in caverns beneath the ground.” Hollybells, the lovely, blue flower from which the drug aphrodin was made, could thrive without sunlight in certain conditions. The smugglers who manufactured the drug for recreational use, despite laws against such activity, had taken advantage of the fact. “He says that the areas where the vord seem to be most populous coincide almost exactly with parts of the land that have a large number of such suitable caverns.”
Aquitaine smiled thinly. “The fields on the surface were a ruse,” he murmured. “Something to keep our attention, to make us feel as if we were succeeding–and to prevent us from searching for the true source of the enemy’s numbers until it was too late to do any good.” He shook his head. “That’s Invidia’s influence. It’s the way she thinks.”
Ehren coughed into an awkward silence.
“Attis,” Raucus said, evidently choosing his words carefully, “she’s helping the vord Queen. Maybe of her own will. I know that she is your wife, but…”
“She is a traitor to the Realm,” Aquitaine said, his voice calm and hard. “Whether or not she has turned against Alera of her own will is irrelevant. She is an enemy asset that must be removed.” He slashed a hand gently at the air. “We’re wasting time, gentlemen. Sir Ehren, what else have you to report?”
Ehren focused his thoughts and kept his report concise. Other than Parcia’s loss, little had changed. “The other cities are holding. None report a sighting of a vord Queen.”
“Are there any signs that the croach has invaded the Feverthorn Jungle?” the First Lord asked.
“None as yet, sire.”
Aquitaine sighed and shook his head. “I suppose whatever the Children of the Sun left behind has kept us out for five hundred years. Why should the vord be any different?” He glanced over at Raucus. “If we had more time, we could use that against them, somehow. I’m sure of it.”
“If wishes were horses,” Raucus rumbled back.
“Being a trite cliché makes it no less true,” Aquitaine said. “Please continue, Sir Ehren.”
Ehren took a deep breath. This was the moment he’d dreaded all morning. “Sire,” he said, “I think I know how to slow their advance toward Riva.”
Raucus let out a startled huff of a laugh. “Really, boy? And you just now thought of mentioning it?”
Aquitaine frowned and folded his arms. “Speak your mind, Cursor.”
Ehren nodded. “I’ve been running calculations of the rate of the vord advance in various stages of their campaign, and I’ve isolated where they moved slowest and most rapidly.” He cleared his throat. “I can show you the figures if–”
“If I didn’t trust your competence, you wouldn’t be here,” Aquitaine responded. “Continue.”
Ehren nodded. “The vord moved most quickly during their advance through the Amaranth Vale, sire. And their slowest advance came when they crossed the Waste of Kalare–and again when they advanced through the region around Alera Imperia.” He took a deep breath. “Sire, as you know, the vord use the croach as a sort of food. It’s mostly a gelatinous liquid, underneath a very tough, leathery shell.”
Aquitaine nodded. “And they can somehow control the flow of nutrients through it. It’s something like an aqueduct; only instead of water, it conveys their food supply.”
“Yes, sire. It is my belief that, in order to grow, the croach needs to consume other forms of life–animals, insects, grass, trees, other plants, and so on. Think of them as the casing around a seed. Without that initial source of nutrients, the seed can’t grow, can’t extend roots, and can’t begin its life.”
“I follow you,” Aquitaine said quietly.
“The Waste of Kalare was virtually lifeless. When the croach reached it, its rate of advance dropped precipitously. It did so again when it was crossing the region that had been blasted by the forces Gaius Sextus unleashed–another area that had been virtually emptied of life.”
“Whereas in the Vale, the richness of the soil and land fed the croach very well, enabling it to spread more quickly,” Aquitaine murmured. “Interesting.”
“Frankly, sire,” Ehren said, “the croach is an enemy just as dangerous as any of the creatures the vord Queen creates. It chokes off life, feeds the enemy, serves as a sentinel to them–and who knows, it may do even more that we aren’t yet aware of–and we know that the main body of their troops does not advance without the croach to supply them. The only time they’ve done so–”
“Was in the presence of the vord Queen,” Aquitaine said, his eyes glinting.
Ehren nodded and exhaled slowly. The First Lord understood.
“How much time might this give us?”
“Assuming my calculations are correct and that the rate of progress is slowed to a comparable degree, four to five weeks.”
“Giving us time enough to equip at least four more Legions, and a high probability of forcing the vord Queen to appear to lead the horde over the open ground.” Aquitaine nodded, his expression pleased. “Excellent.”
Raucus looked between the pair of them, frowning. “So… if we can keep the croach from coming up, the vord Queen has to attend to fighting us in person?”
“Essentially, yes,” Aquitaine said. “The extra time to prepare will hardly hurt, either.” He glanced over at Ehren and nodded. “You have the full authority of the Crown to recruit the necessary firecrafters, evacuate anyone left in that corridor of approach, and deny its resources to the enemy. See to it.”
“See to what?” Raucus said.
“In order to slow the croach and compel the Queen to reveal herself,” Ehren said quietly, “we’ll need to starve it. Burn out anything that grows. Salt the fields. Poison the wells. Make sure that it has nothing to help it set down roots between the current line of advance and Riva.”
Raucus’s eyes widened. “But that means… bloody crows. That’s nearly three hundred miles of settled, arable land. Some of the last such in Alera that’s still free. You’re talking about burning down the best of the croplands we have left. Destroying thousands of our own people’s steadholts, cities, homes. Creating tens of thousands of additional refugees.”
“Yes,” Aquitaine said simply. “And it will be a great deal of work. Best get started at once, Sir Ehren.”
Ehren’s stomach twisted in revulsion. After all that he had been through since the vord had come, he had seen more than enough of destruction and loss inflicted by the enemy. How much worse would it be to see more of Alera destroyed–this time at the hands of her own defenders?
Especially when, deep down in his guts, he knew that it wouldn’t make any difference. Whatever they did, this war could end in only one way.
But they had to try. And it wasn’t as though the vord would destroy those lands any less thoroughly, when they came.
Ehren put his fist to his heart in a salute and bowed to the First Lord. Then he turned and left the tent, to arrange the greatest act of premeditated destruction ever perpetrated by Aleran forces. He only hoped that he wasn’t doing it for nothing–that in the end, the desolation he was about to create would serve some sort of purpose.
As such things went, Ehren thought, it was a rather small and anemic hope, but the slender little Cursor decided to nurture it anyway.
It was the only one he had left.
Gaius Isana, the theoretical First Lady of Alera, wrapped her thick traveling cloak about her a little more securely and stared out the window of the enclosed wind coach. They must be very close to her home now–the Calderon Valley, once considered the farthest, most primitive frontier in all of Alera. She looked down at the landscape rolling slowly by, far beneath them, and felt somewhat frustrated. She had only infrequently seen Calderon from the air, and the countryside beneath her stretched out for miles and miles and miles all around. It all looked the same–either wild forest, with rolling mountains that looked like wrinkles in a tablecloth, or settled land, marked by broad, flat swaths of winter fields being prepared for spring, its roads running like ruler lines between steadholts and towns.
For all that she knew, she could be looking at her home at that precise moment. She had no reference point with which to recognize it from this high.
“. . . which has had the effect of reducing the spread of sickness through the refugee camp,” said a calm young woman’s voice.
Isana blinked and looked at her companion, a slender, serious-looking young woman with wispy, white-blond hair that fell in a silken sheet to her elbows. Isana could feel the girl’s patience and gentle amusement, tainted with an equally gentle sadness, radiating out from her like heat from a kitchen oven. Isana knew that Veradis had doubtlessly sensed her own bemusement as Isana’s thoughts wandered.
Veradis looked up from a sheaf of notes and arched a faint, pale eyebrow. The barest hint of a smile haunted her mouth, but she maintained the fiction. “My lady?”
“I’m sorry,” Isana said, shaking her head. “I was thinking of home. It can be distracting.”
“True enough,” Veradis said, inclining her head. “Which is why I try not to think of mine.”
A spear of bitter grief flashed from the young woman, its base fashioned from guilt, its tip from rage. As quickly as it appeared, the feeling vanished. Veradis applied her furycraft to conceal her emotions from Isana’s acute watercrafting senses. Isana was grateful for the gesture. Without a talent for metalcrafting to balance the empathic sensitivity native to any watercrafter of Isana’s skill, strong emotions could be as startling and painful as a sudden blow to the face.
Not that Isana could blame the young woman for feeling it. Veradis’s father was the High Lord of Ceres. She had seen what happened to her home when the vord came for it.
Nothing human dwelt there now.
“I’m sorry,” Isana said quietly. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Honestly, my lady,” Veradis said, her voice calm and slightly detached, a telltale sign of the use of metalcrafting to stabilize and conceal emotion. “You’ve got to get over that. If you try to avoid every subject that might remind me of Cer… of my former home, you’ll never speak another word to me. It’s natural for me to be feeling pain right now. You did nothing to cause it.”
Isana reached out to touch Veradis’s hand lightly for a moment, and nodded. “But all the same, child.”
Veradis gave her another small smile. She glanced down at her papers, then back to Isana. The First Lady straightened her spine and shoulders and nodded. “Excuse me. You were saying? Something about rats?”
“We had no idea that they might be carrying the disease,” the young woman said. “But once the security measures were put in place to guard three camps against the vord takers, the rat populations in them were severely reduced. A month later, those same camps had become almost completely free of the sickness.”
Isana nodded. “Then we’ll use the remaining security budget from the Dianic League to begin implementing the same measures in the other camps. Priority will be given to those who are hardest hit by the disease.”
Veradis nodded and withdrew a second paper from her sheaf. She passed it to Isana, along with a quill.
Isana scanned the document and smiled. “If you already knew how I was going to respond in any case, why not proceed without me?”
“Because I am not the First Lady,” Veradis said. “I have no authority to dispense the League’s funds.”
Something in the young woman’s tone of voice or perhaps in her posture raised an alarm in Isana’s mind. She’d felt a similar instinctive suspicion when Tavi had been withholding the truth from her, as a child. A very small child. As Tavi grew, he’d become increasingly capable of avoiding such discoveries. Veradis’s skills of evasion simply did not compare.
Isana cleared her throat and gave the young woman an arch look.
Veradis’s eyes sparkled, and though her cheeks didn’t become pink, Isana suspected it was only because the younger woman was using her furycraft to prevent it. “Though, my lady, since lives were at stake, I did issue letters of credit to the appropriate contractors, so that they could go ahead and begin their work, beginning at the worst camps.”
Isana signed the bottom of the document and smiled. “Isn’t that the same thing as doing it without me?”
Veradis took the document back, blew gently on the ink to dry it, and said, in a satisfied tone, “Not anymore.”
Isana’s ears suddenly pained her, and she frowned, looking back out the window. They were descending. Within a minute, there was a polite tap at Isana’s window, and a young man in gleaming, newly made steel armor waved a hand at her from outside. She rolled down the window, letting in a howl of cold air and the roar of the columns of wind that kept the coach aloft.
“Your Highness,” the young officer called, touching his fist to his heart politely. “We’ll be there in a moment.”
“Thank you, Terius,” Isana called back. “Would you see to it that a messenger is sent for my brother as soon as we land, please?”
Terius saluted again. “Of course, my lady. Be sure to fasten your safety straps.”
Isana smiled at him and closed the coach’s window, and the young officer banked up and away, to move back to his place at the head of the formation. The sudden lack of roaring sound made the inside of the coach seem too still.
After a silent moment spent rearranging her wind-tossed hair, Veradis said, “It is possible that he knows, you know.”
Isana arched an eyebrow at her. “Hmmm?”
“Aquitaine,” Veradis said. “He might know about the fortifications your brother has been building. He might know why you came here today.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I saw one of Terius’s men entering Senator Valerius’s tent this morning.”
Valerius, Isana thought. A repulsive man. I’m really rather glad Bernard found it necessary to break his nose and two of his teeth.
“Really?” Isana asked aloud. She mused for a moment, then shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if he knows, really. He can say what he wishes and wear anything on his head that he likes–but he isn’t the First Lord, and he never will be.”
Veradis shook her head. “I… my lady…” She spread her hands. “Someone must lead.”
“And someone will,” Isana said. “The rightful First Lord, Gaius Octavian.”
Veradis looked down. “If,” she said, very quietly, “he is alive.”
Isana folded her hands in her lap and looked out the window as the valley below began to grow larger, the colors brighter. “He is alive, Veradis.”
“How can you know that?”
Isana stared out the window and frowned, faintly. “I… I’m not sure,” she said, finally. “But I feel certain of it. It feels to me as if… as if it is nearly suppertime, and he is about to come in from tending the flock.” She shook her head. “Not literally, of course, but the sense of it, the emotion, is the same.”
Veradis watched Isana with calm, serious eyes, and said nothing.
“He’s coming home,” she said quietly. “Octavian is coming home.”
There was silence. Isana watched the walls of Garrison, the fortress-town her brother commanded, grow larger and more distinct. They changed from lines to sharp-edged ridges to constructions of seamless, furycrafted stone. The flag of the First Lord, a scarlet eagle on a blue field, fluttered in the breeze, and beside it flew her brother’s banner–a brown bear on a field of green.
The town had grown again, even though Isana had been there only two weeks before. The shantytown originally erected just outside of Garrison’s walls had been replaced with solid buildings of furycrafted stone, and a new wall had been raised to protect them. Then a second shantytown had gone up at the base of that wall, and Isana had been there the day Bernard’s engineers had brought up the third one, another layer of concentric half circles that enfolded the growing town.
The shanties were gone, replaced by more buildings of stone–rather square, blocky buildings with very little to distinguish one from the next, but Isana was sure that they were perfectly functional and practical.
And outside the third wall, still another shantytown was growing, like moss on the northern side of a stone.
Veradis’s eyes widened as she saw the place. “My. This is rather a large town for a Count to have in his keeping.”
“There are many people without homes, these days,” Isana said. “My brother will probably give you some perfectly logical explanation as to why they are here, if you should ask. But the truth is that he’s never turned anyone away from his door. Anyone who made it this far…” She shook her head. “He’d do whatever he could for them. And he would make sure they were taken care of. Even if all he could do was give them the cloak off his own back. My brother finishes what he begins.”
Veradis nodded thoughtfully. “He raised Octavian, did he not?”
Isana nodded. “Especially the last several years. They were close.”
“And that is why you feel that Octavian will return. Because he finishes what he begins.”
“Yes,” Isana said. “He’s coming home.”
Veradis was quiet for a moment more as the coach soared over the outer walls of Garrison. Then she bowed her head, and said, “As you say, my lady.”
Isana pushed away the ugly worry that had been ripping its way into her thoughts since her son had left with the Canim armada.
Tavi was coming home.
Her son was coming home.
. . . . .
Gaius Octavian, son of Gaius Septimus, son of Gaius Sextus, and the uncrowned First Lord of Alera, lay quietly on his back, staring up at the stars.
Given that he was lying on the floor of a cavern, it probably wasn’t a good sign.
He searched his alleged memory for an explanation as to why he might be doing such a thing, and why the stars were so brilliant and swirling around so quickly, but he seemed to have misplaced that fact. Perhaps the bump he felt swelling on his skull had dislodged his memory. He made a mental note to ask Kitai if she’d seen it lying around on the floor somewhere.
“A reasonably educational attempt, child,” murmured a woman’s voice. “Do you see now why it is important not only to maintain a windstream beneath you but a windshield in front of you?”
Ah, that was right. Lessons. He was taking lessons. Cramming for an examination, really, with a particularly astute tutor. He struggled to remember which subject they’d been working on. If he was pushing things this hard, final examinations must be soon, and the Academy had very little sympathy for its students during the grueling chaos of final exams.
“We’re doing history?” he mumbled. “Or mathematics?”
“I know that you find it counterintuitive to project wind both ahead of you and behind,” his tutor continued in a calm tone. “But your body was not designed for high-speed flight. If you do not take measures to protect yourself, especially your eyes, even relatively minor amounts of particulate matter in the air could blind you or otherwise bring your flight to a… terminally instructive conclusion. Adept fliers accomplish it so naturally that they have no need to consciously think about creating the shield.”
The stars had begun to wink out. Perhaps there was weather moving in. He’d have been concerned about rain if he wasn’t already in a cave–which again brought up the question about where the bloody stars had come from.
“Ow,” Tavi said. His head throbbed as the stars faded, and he suddenly remembered where he was and what he was doing. “Ow.”
“I doubt that you will die, child,” Alera said calmly. “Let us repeat the exercise.”
Tavi’s head pounded. He sat up, and the throbbing pressure eased somewhat. He’d clipped his head on a hanging icicle nearly three feet around at its base, and the thing had been harder than stone. He looked blearily around the cavern, which was lit by a dim glow emanating from the thirty-foot circular pool in its center, the water coming up to just below the level of the floor. Light and shadow danced and rippled around the ice cave, separated into bands of various colors by the water.
Ice groaned and crackled all around them. The floor of the cave swayed and rolled in a steady motion, though the size of the ice ship above and around them meant that it moved far more gently than the deck of any vessel.
“Maybe we shouldn’t call it a cave,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s really more of a cargo hold.”
“It is my understanding,” Alera said, “that the occupants of a vessel are generally aware of the presence of a cargo hold. This space is secret to everyone but me, you, and Kitai.”
Tavi tried to shake some of the ringing out of his ears and looked up at his tutor. Alera appeared to be a tall young woman. Despite the cold of the cavern, she wore only a light dress of what at first seemed to be gray silk. A closer look would show that the dress was made from cloudy mist as dark as a thunderhead. Her eyes constantly swirled with bands of color, endlessly cycling through every imaginable hue. Her hair was the color of ripe wheat and long, her feet were bare, and she was inhumanly beautiful.
Which was appropriate, Tavi supposed, since Alera wasn’t human at all. She was the embodiment of a fury, perhaps the greatest fury upon the face of Carna. Tavi didn’t know how old she was, but she spoke of the original Gaius Primus, the half-legendary founder of the Realm, as though she had been having a conversation with him just the other day. She had never displayed what sort of power she might have–but under the circumstances, Tavi had decided that treating her with courtesy and polite respect was probably a wiser action than trying to elicit some sort of display from her.
Alera arched an eyebrow at him. “Shall we repeat the exercise?”
Tavi stood up with a groan and brushed fine, soft snow from his clothing. There was better than a foot of powder on the ground. Alera said she had put it there in order to increase his chances of surviving his training.
“Give me a second,” Tavi said. “Flying is hard.”
“On the contrary, flight is quite simple,” Alera said. Her mouth had curved into an amused smile. “Surviving the landing is less so.”
Tavi stopped himself from glaring at her after a second or so. Then he sighed, closed his eyes, and focused on his windcrafting.
Though the air of the cavern did not contain any discrete, manifest furies, such as windmanes or Countess Calderon’s fury, Cirrus, it was full to bursting with furies nonetheless. Each individual was a tiny thing, a mite, with scarcely any power whatsoever; but when gathered together by the will and power of a windcrafter, their combined strength was enormous–a mountain made from grains of sand.
Gathering the numbers of ambient furies necessary for flight was a tedious process. Tavi began to picture the furies in his mind, visualizing them as motes of light that swirled through the air like a cloud of fireflies. Then he began to picture each individual mote being guided toward him by a featherlight breath of wind, one by one at first, then two at a time, then three, and so on, until every single one of them had gathered in the air around him. The first time he had successfully called the wind furies to him, it had taken him half an hour to accomplish the feat. Since then, he’d cut that time down to about three minutes, and was getting faster, but he still had a considerable way to go.
He knew when he was ready. The very air around him crawled eerily against his skin, pressing and caressing. Then he opened his eyes, called to the furies in his thoughts, and gathered them into a windstream that swirled and spun, then lifted him gently from the cavern’s snowy floor. He guided the furies into lifting him until the soles of his boots were about three feet from the floor, and hovered there, frowning in concentration.
“Good,” Alera said calmly. “Now redirect–and do not forget the windshield this time.”
Tavi nodded and twisted the angle of the windstream, so that it pressed against him from behind and below, and he began to move slowly across the cavern. The required concentration was enormous, but he made the attempt to split that focus into a separate partition in his thoughts, maintaining the windstream while he focused on forming a shield of solidified air in front of him.
For a second, he thought it was going to work, and he began to press ahead with more force, to move into speedier flight. But seconds later, his concentration faltered, the wind furies flew apart like so much dandelion fluff, and he plunged down–directly into the center of the thirty-foot pool.
The shock of the cold of near-freezing water sucked the breath out of his lungs, and he flailed wildly for a second, until he forced himself to use his mind rather than his limbs. He reached out to the furies in the water, gathering them to him in less than a quarter of a minute–he was more adept with watercrafting–and willed them into lifting him from the water and depositing him on the snowy floor of the ice cavern. It did not particularly lessen the bitter, biting pain of the cold, and he lay there shuddering.
“You continue to improve,” Alera said, looking down at him. She considered his half-frozen state calmly. “Technically.”
“Y-y-you are n-n-not b-b-being h-h-helpful,” Tavi stammered through his wracking shivers.
“Indeed not,” Alera said. She adjusted her dress as if it were any other cloth and knelt beside him. “That is something you must understand about me, young Gaius. I may appear in a form similar to yours, but I am not a being of flesh and blood. I do not feel as you do, about any number of things.”
Tavi tried to focus on a firecrafting that would begin to build up the heat in his body, but there was so little left that it would be a lengthy process, assuming he could manage it at all. He needed an open source of flame to make it simple, but there wasn’t one. “W-what d-do y-you m-mean?”
“Your potential death, for example,” she said. “You could freeze to death on this floor, right now. It wouldn’t particularly upset me.”
Tavi thought it a fine thing to keep focusing on his firecrafting. “Wh-why not?”
She smiled at him and brushed a strand of hair back from his forehead. It crackled, and a few bits of ice fell down over his eyelashes. “All things die, young Gaius,” she said. Her eyes went distant for a moment, and she sighed. “All things. And I am old–far, far older than you could comprehend.”
“You have no frame of reference that is useful,” she said. “Your mind is exceptionally capable, but even you could scarcely imagine a quantity of one million objects, much less the activity of a million years. I have seen thousands of millions of years, Octavian. In a time such as that, oceans swell and die away. Deserts become green farmlands. Mountains are ground to dust and valleys, and new mountains are born in fire. The earth itself flows like water, great ranges of land spinning and colliding, and the stars themselves spin and reel into new shapes.” She smiled. “It is the great dance, Aleran, and the lifetime of your race is but a beat within a measure.”
Tavi shivered even harder. That was a good sign, he knew. It meant that more blood was getting to his muscles. They were slowly getting warmer. He kept up the firecrafting.
“In that time,” she said, “I have seen the deaths of many things. Entire species come and go, like the sparks rising from a campfire. Understand, young Gaius. I bear you no ill will. But any given single life is a matter of such insignificance that, honestly, I have trouble telling one of you from the next.”
“I-if that’s true,” Tavi said, “th-then wh-why a-are you h-here with me?”
She gave him a rueful smile. “Perhaps I am indulging a whim.”
“P-perhaps you aren’t t-telling the whole tr-truth.”
She laughed, a warm sound, and Tavi abruptly felt his heartbeat surge, and his muscles slowly began to unlock. “Clever. It is one of the things that make your kind appealing.” She paused, frowning thoughtfully. “In all my time,” she said at last, “no one had ever spoken to me. Until your kind came.” She smiled. “I suppose I enjoy the company.”
Tavi felt the warmth beginning to gather in his belly as the firecrafting finally gained momentum. Now he’d just have to be careful not to let it build too much. He might be tired of the cold, but he didn’t think that setting his intestines on fire would be any more pleasant in the long term. “But i-if I died, would you have anyone to talk to?”
“It would be bothersome, but I suppose I could find and keep track of some other bloodline.”
The shuddering finally–finally!–abated. Tavi sat up slowly, and reached up to rake his wet hair back. His fingers felt stiff and partially numb. Bits of ice fell from his hair. He kept the firecrafting going. “Like Aquitainus Attis?” Tavi suggested.
“Likely,” she said, nodding. “He’s a great deal more like your predecessor than you are, after all. Though I understand his name is Gaius Aquitainus Attis, now. I’m not sure I understand why a legal process would alter his self-identity.”
Tavi grimaced. “It doesn’t. It’s meant to alter how everyone else thinks of him.”
Alera shook her head. “Baffling creatures. It is difficult enough for you to control your own thoughts, much less one another’s.”
Tavi smiled, his lips pressed tightly over his teeth. “How much longer before we’ll be able to send them a message and let them know that we’re coming?”
Alera’s eyes went distant for a moment before she spoke. “The vord seem to have realized how waterways are used for communications. They are damming many streams and have placed sentry furies to intercept messenger furies within all the major rivers and tributaries. They have almost entirely enveloped the coastlines of the western and southern shores of the continent. As a result, it seems unlikely that it will be possible to form a connection via the waterways until you have advanced several dozen miles inland from the coast, at the very least.”
Tavi grimaced. “We’ll have to send aerial messengers as soon as we’re close enough. I assume that the vord know we are coming.”
“That remains unclear,” Alera said. “But it seems a wise assumption to make. Where will you make landfall?”
“On the northwest coast, near Antillus,” Tavi replied. “If the vord are there, we will assist the city’s defenders and leave our civilians there before we march inland.”
“I am sure High Lord Antillus will be filled with pleasure at the notion of tens of thousands of Canim camping on his doorstep,” Alera murmured.
“I’m the First Lord,” Tavi said. “Or will be. He’ll get over it.”
“Not if the Canim devour his resources–his food stores, his livestock, his holders…”
Tavi grunted. “We’ll leave several crews of leviathan hunters behind us. I’m sure he won’t mind if a few dozen miles of his coastline are cleared of the beasts.”
“And how will you feed your army on the march inland?” Alera asked.
“I’m working on it,” Tavi said. He frowned. “If the vord aren’t stopped, all of my species is likely to be destroyed.”
Alera turned her glittering, shifting gemstone eyes to him. “Yes.”
“If that happens, who would you talk to?” Tavi asked.
The expression on her beautiful face was unreadable. “It isn’t an eventuality that concerns me.” She shook her head. “The vord are, in their way, almost as interesting as your own kind–if far more limited in flexibility of thought. And variety is nonexistent among them, in most senses of the word. They would likely grow quickly tiresome. But…” She shrugged. “What will be, will be.”
“And yet you’re helping us,” Tavi said. “The training. The information you can provide us. They are invaluable.”
She bowed her head to him. “It is a far cry from taking action against them. I am helping you, young Gaius. I am not harming them.”
“A very fine distinction.”
She shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“You tell me that you acted directly at the battle of Ceres.”
“When Gaius Sextus invoked my aid, he asked for prevailing conditions that would affect everything present with equal intensity.”
“But those conditions were more beneficial to the Alerans than the vord,” Tavi said.
“Yes. And they were within the limits I set forth to the House of Gaius a thousand years ago.” She shrugged. “So I did as he requested–just as I have moderated the weather for the fleet for the duration of this voyage, as you requested.” She tilted her head slightly. “It appears that you have survived your previous lesson. Shall we try again?”
Tavi pushed himself wearily to his feet.
The next attempt at flight lasted all of half a minute longer than the first, and he managed to come down in nice, soft snow instead of the icy water.
“Broken bones,” Alera said. “Excellent. An opportunity to practice watercrafting.”
Tavi looked up from his grotesquely twisted left leg. He ground his teeth and tried to push himself up, but his left arm gave out on him. The pain was unbelievable. He sank back into the snow and fumbled at his belt until his hand found the hilt of his dagger. A moment’s concentration, transferring his focus and his thought into the orderly crystalline matrix of high-grade steel, and the pain receded into the calm, detached lack of feeling that came with metalcrafting.
“I’m tired,” he said. His own voice felt unfastened, somehow, separate from the rest of him. “Bonesetting is taxing work.”
Alera smiled and began to answer, when the pool of water exploded into a cloud of flying droplets and angry spray.
Tavi shielded his face against the sudden, icy deluge, and blinked at the pool as Kitai rose out of the water on a furycrafted column of liquid and dropped neatly to the cavern’s floor. She was a tall young woman of exotic beauty and extraordinary grace. Like that of most of the Marat, her hair was a soft, pure white. She had shaved it close to her skull on the sides while leaving a long, single mane running down the center of her head, after the fashion of the Horse tribe of the Marat. She was dressed in close-fitting blue and grey flying leathers. The clothes quite admirably displayed a slim physique, significantly more well muscled than an average Aleran girl’s. Her canted eyes were a brilliant green identical to Tavi’s own, and they were bright and hard.
“Aleran!” she snapped, her voice ringing back from the frozen walls. Her anger was a palpable thing, a fire that Tavi could feel inside his own belly.
Kitai stalked over to him and placed her fists upon her hips. “I have been speaking to Tribune Cymnea. She informs me that you have been treating me like a whore.”
Tavi blinked. Several times. “Um. What?”
“Don’t you dare play innocent with me, Aleran,” she spat. “If anyone is in a position to know, it is Cymnea.”
Tavi struggled to make sense of Kitai’s statements. Cymnea was the Tribune Logistica of the First Aleran Legion–but before circumstance and emergency had forced her into becoming Tribune Cymnea, she had been Mistress Cymnea, proprietor of the Pavilion, the finest house of ill repute in the camp following the Legion.
“Kitai,” Tavi said, “I don’t understand.”
“Augh!” she said, and flung her hands in the air. “How can such a brilliant commander be such an idiot?” She turned to Alera, pointed an accusing finger at Tavi, and said, “Explain it to him.”
“I feel I am hardly qualified,” Alera replied calmly.
Kitai turned back to Tavi. “Cymnea tells me that it is custom, among your people, that those who wish to be wed to one another do not lie together before they make their vows. This is a ridiculous custom–but it is the way of the Citizenry.”
Tavi glanced at Alera and felt his cheeks warm a little. “Um. Yes, well, that’s the proper way to go about it, but it isn’t what everyone always does…”
“She informs me,” Kitai continued, “that those of your rank commonly take courtesans to your bed for simple pleasure–and set such baubles aside once you have found a proper wife.”
“I… some young Citizens do that, yes, but–”
“We have been together for years,” Kitai said. “We have shared a bed and pleasured one another on a daily basis. For years. And you are finally becoming competent.”
Tavi thought his cheeks might actually burst into flame. “Kitai!”
“I am informed that the fact that we have been together for so long will be the source of much mockery and outrage among the Citizens of Alera. That they universally regard me as the Princeps’ whore.” She scowled. “And for some baffling reason, that is considered to be a very bad thing.”
“Kitai, you aren’t–”
“I will not be treated that way,” she snarled. “You idiot. You face problems enough in assuming the Crown without giving your enemies in the Citizenry such an obvious weakness to exploit. How dare you allow me to be a means by which you are brought to harm?”
Tavi just stared at her helplessly.
The anger faded from her expression. “Of course,” she said, her voice very quiet, “this all assumes that you intend me to be your wife.”
“Honestly, Kitai, I hadn’t… I hadn’t even thought about it.”
Her eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open in an expression of something almost like horror. “You… you hadn’t?” She swallowed. “You plan to take another?”
Tavi felt his own eyes widen. “No. No, crows, no, Kitai. I hadn’t considered it because I never thought it would end any other way. I mean, it wasn’t even a question to me, chala.”
For an instant, her uncertainty was replaced with relief. And then that expression gave way to another in turn: Kitai narrowed her eyes dangerously. “You just assumed I would do it.”
Tavi winced. Again.
“You assumed I would have no other option. That I would be so desperate that I would be forced to become your wife.”
Clearly, anything he said would only make things worse. He kept his mouth shut.
Kitai stalked over to him and seized him by the front of his tunic, lifting him several inches, despite the difference in their sizes. The young Marat woman was far stronger than an Aleran her size, even without employing furycraft. “This is what is going to happen, Aleran. You will no longer lie with me. You will treat me in exactly the fashion that you would any proper young lady of the Citizenry. You will court me, and do it well, or so help me I will strangle the life from you.”
“Um,” Tavi said.
“And,” she said, a massively threatening quality in her tone, “you will court me properly after the ways of my people. You will do so with legendary skill and taste. And only when that is done will we share a bed once more.”
She spun on a heel and stalked back toward the pool.
Tavi stammered for a second, then blurted, “Kitai. It might help if you told me what the customs of your people involved.”
“It might have helped had you done me the same courtesy,” she replied tartly, without turning around. “Find out for yourself, as I did!” She stalked out onto the surface of the pool as if it had been solid ground, spun, and gave him one last indignant look, her green eyes flashing, and vanished into the water.
Tavi stared after her numbly for a few seconds.
“Well,” Alera said. “I’m hardly a good judge of the intricacies of love. But it seems to me that you have done the young woman a grave disservice.”
“I didn’t mean to!” Tavi protested. “When we got involved with one another, I had no idea who my father was. I was a nobody. I mean, I never even considered that a proper courtship might be necessary.” He waved a hand at the water. “And it wasn’t as if she wasn’t willing, bloody crows! She was more eager than I was! She barely gave me a choice in the matter!”
Alera frowned thoughtfully. “In what way is that relevant?”
Tavi scowled. “You’re taking her side because she’s a girl.”
“Yes,” Alera said, smiling. “I may be no expert, but I have learned enough of your ways to know which side of this debate I am obliged to support.”
Tavi sighed. “The vord are on the verge of destroying the Realm and the world. She could have picked a better time for it.”
“It is entirely possible that there might not be another time,” Alera said.
Tavi fell quiet at that, staring at the rippling waters of the pool. “I’d better figure something out soon, then,” he said, finally. “I’m fairly sure she won’t accept the end of the world as a valid excuse.”
Alera let out another laugh. “Let us continue,” she said, mirth coloring her tone. “We will begin with proper bonesetting, after which we will resume flying lessons.”
Tavi groaned. “How much longer do we keep at this?”
“Another half dozen flights or so,” Alera said calmly. “For tonight, at any rate.”
Half a dozen?
Tavi suddenly felt very tired. His imagination provided him with a sudden image–himself, lying in the snow like a sea jelly, every bone in his body smashed to powder, while a furious Kitai squishily strangled him.
Alera looked at him with a serene smile. “Shall we continue?”