“Gentlemen, Warmaster,” Tavi said. “Thank you for coming.” He looked around his cabin at the gathering of what he’d come to think of as his campaign council. “In the next few hours, your troops will be learning what I’m about to tell you. You’ll need to know it first.”
He paused to take a steadying breath and to make sure that his expression and body language were calm. It wouldn’t do to let them see him nervous, given the gravity of what he was about to explain. And it wouldn’t do to let the Canim see him nervous under any circumstances.
“The Vord have already attacked Alera,” Tavi said. “The first assault was beaten back, but not broken. Ceres has fallen. As has Alera Imperia. In the time we’ve been sailing home, other cities may have fallen as well.”
Dead silence settled on the ship’s cabin.
Nasaug turned his dark-furred head to Varg. The Canim Warmaster twitched an ear and kept his blood-colored eyes on Tavi.
“What’s more,” Tavi continued, “the First Lord, my grandfather, Gaius Sextus, was slain while fighting a holding action to give the folk of the capital a chance to escape.”
No one spoke, but an almost-silent chorus of moans of shocked disbelief went up from the Alerans present. Tavi didn’t want to keep his tone brisk and businesslike. He wanted to scream his outrage and grief that the Vord had taken his grandfather from him before he’d had a chance to get to know Sextus better. But his anger, no matter how hot it burned, wouldn’t change anything.
Tavi forged ahead into the silence. “The Amaranth Vale is completely lost. The Vord have somehow suborned Alerans into their service, and now furycraft meets furycraft in battle. In addition, most of the causeways have been cut, to prevent the Vord from making use of them, so they cannot be factored into our planning.” He turned to a map of Alera that was tacked up on the back of the cabin door. The spread of the croach was marked in pips of green ink. “As you can see, the Vord have filled the valley and stretched out their croach along the causeways–even if rendered inert of furycraft, they still are, after all, passable roads. They hold most of the coastline of the continent, and they have laid siege to most of the cities of the Realm.
“But their hold is far from complete. These stretches of countryside between the lines of the causeways and the cities are as yet unoccupied, probably because the Vord deem them lower-priority areas. Our people, though, are cut off. Anyone isolated behind the lines of the croach is trapped. Our best estimates say that they have, at the most, another eight or ten months before the croach fills in the empty areas.”
He turned to them with a cold little smile. “So. We have that long to destroy the Vord threat.”
“Bloody crows,” Max breathed. “As long as it isn’t too difficult a chore or anything.”
“Our work is cut out for us,” Tavi acknowledged.
Crassus raised a hand. Max’s younger half brother bore a resemblance to Max, but everywhere Max was rough, the more slender young man was refined. Crassus was an inch shorter and thirty pounds of muscle lighter than his brother, and he had the noble profile of a Citizen of the blood that could have leapt straight from any number of old statues, paintings, or coins. “If the First Lo–if Sextus perished during a holding action, that implies that there was still organized resistance, and that it might still be there. What do we know of the Legions and their strength?”
“That Aquitainus Attis, who had been serving as Gaius’s battle captain, at the First Lord’s request, has been legally adopted into the House of Gaius–as my younger brother.”
Max let out a snort. “He’s thirty years older than you.”
Tavi smiled slightly. “Not according to Gaius Sextus. It seems that he knew that his death was coming for him. He didn’t know if I would be returning, and someone had to lead the Realm in my absence. He selected the man most fit for the duty.” Tavi put the tips of his first and second fingers on Riva and Aquitaine, separately. “Depending on the state of our troops during his withdrawal, he will have retreated either to Aquitaine or Riva with the Legions, and will presumably be gathering more to him.” He moved his finger two thousand miles to the west and rested it on Antillus. “As you can see, Antillus is free of the croach for now. Our mission will be to land here, make contact with Aquitaine, if possible, then join him.”
Valiar Marcus, the grizzled First Spear of the First Aleran Legion, rubbed at his jaw with one hand. The blocky old centurion squinted at the map. “Two thousand miles. On no supplies but some dried leviathan meat. And no causeways to use. That could take us all spring and half the summer.”
“I think we can arrange something somewhat more timely than that,” Tavi said. “In fact, unless I miss my guess, we’ll need to.”
Varg growled. “The Vord queen.”
Tavi nodded. “Exactly. She’ll almost certainly be overseeing the next conflict between the Vord and the Aleran main body. She is our primary target, gentlemen.”
Valiar Marcus shook his head. “One bug. In all that.”
Tavi showed his teeth. “If it were easy, we wouldn’t need Legions to get things done. If possible, we’re going to slide in behind the Vord and catch them between our forces and Aquitaine’s. We’ll make sure that the queen doesn’t go scampering out the back door.”
“Bold and stupid aren’t the same thing,” Marcus said. “But sometimes they’re pretty close, sir.” Marcus frowned. “Sorry. Sire.”
Tavi waved his hand. “I haven’t been recognized by the Senate and the Citizenry yet. Until we’ve solved our problems, let’s just keep on the way we have been.”
“Tavar,” Varg growled, “your huntmaster makes a good point. Two thousand miles is a fair walk. If it is to be done at speed, there must be food. Armies can’t move like that when they’re hungry.”
Durias, the First Spear of the Free Aleran Legion, lifted his head and met Tavi’s eyes. The quiet young man didn’t speak until Tavi acknowledged him; though the brawny former slave was as solid as stone in the face of danger, he still wasn’t comfortable associating with Citizenry. “We’ll need more than merely food,” he said in a deep, soft voice. “We’ve worn through all kinds of equipment. Can Antillus supply us?”
Tavi swung his gaze to Crassus.
The young Antillan frowned before saying, cautiously, “To some degree. But if the Vord are getting ready to lay siege to the place, they won’t be eager to part with supplies.”
Varg growled, “Take them.”
Crassus turned to blink at Varg.
“We have numbers and your crafters. I could take the city with what forces I have here. So could you demons. Make sure they know we can take them. Don’t dither around with Aleran customs. Make it clear that they are obligated to cooperate.”
Tavi raised a hand. “We’ll solve that problem when we come to it. We still don’t know much about the internal situation at Antillus. Crassus?”
“My father’s banner isn’t flying there,” Crassus replied, his expression still showing his disturbance at Varg’s proposed diplomacy. “His seneschal, Lord Vanorius, is probably running the city. I think it would be wise for me to arrive ahead of the fleet, Your Highness, and let him know what’s happening.”
Tavi grimaced. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said. “I’ll send you up as the fleet begins to debark, but a city full of frightened people might not react reasonably. I want to be on land with the Legions and the Canim warriors in good order by the time they’re able to respond.”
Crassus exhaled through his nose and nodded stiffly. “As you wish.”
Tavi turned back to the map. “Let’s see,” he said. “Vord are winning. Two-thousand-mile march. No supplies. Ten months to go before the survivors are wiped out.” He turned back to them. “I think that’s about it. Any questions?”
The last member of the campaign council wore the blue-and-red tunic of a Legion valet. His wispy white hair drifted around his mostly bald pate, his eyes were watery, and his hands, though covered with liver spots, were steady. “Ah. Your Highness?”
“Yes, Maestro Magnus?”
“As your de facto commander of intelligence, I…” He shrugged diffidently. “Believe that it’s just possible that I should be aware of the source of your information.”
He spoke the last several words through clenched teeth.
Tavi nodded soberly. “I can see why you’d feel that way.” He looked around at the rest of them. “Crassus and his Knights Aeris have found us a decent patch of ground to land upon. We’ll move in with the Legions and warriors first and debark the civilians as time allows.” Tavi turned to Varg, and said, “We’ll have to move quickly. I’ll do everything I can to make sure that your folk have whatever shelter is available.”
“So that the Vord overrun them in a few days?” Nasaug asked.
Varg turned slightly toward his get with a faint, low growl of reproof. He faced Tavi without blinking. “His point is valid.”
Tavi inhaled deeply and nodded. “You’re right, of course. They’ll need the protection of the city’s walls.”
Max shook his head gravely. “Old Vanorius is not going to like this.”
“He doesn’t need to like it,” Tavi said bluntly. “He just needs to do it.” He paused and softened his tone. “Besides. I can’t imagine he’ll be too upset about gaining several thousand Canim militia to help him defend the walls.”
Varg let out an interrogative growl, his head tilting slightly.
Tavi regarded him steadily. “Did you think I’d expect you to leave your civilians here alone and unguarded?”
“And if you get us to do some of the fighting for you,” Varg said, “so much the better for your folk.”
“You aren’t the Vord,” Tavi said, simply. “We can work out our problems later.”
Varg stared at him for a moment, then tilted his head slightly to one side. “Tavar,” he rumbled, rising. “I will see to the preparations as you suggest.”
Tavi returned the Canim-style bow, careful to use exactly the same degree and duration as Varg. “It is appreciated, Warmaster. Good day. And to you, Nasaug.”
“Tavar,” the younger Cane growled. The pair of them left the cabin, almost seeming to fold in on themselves to fit through the door. The others took that as their cue to be about their own duties and also filed out.
“Magnus,” Tavi said quietly. “A moment.”
The old Cursor paused and looked back at Tavi.
“The door,” Tavi said.
Magnus shut the door and turned to face him. “Your Highness?”
“I’m sorry I cut you off earlier. I hope I didn’t entirely sever both legs.”
“Your Highness.” Magnus sighed. “This is no time for levity.”
“I know,” Tavi said quietly. “And I do need your help. My intelligence is… incomplete. I’ll need you to speak to whoever Lord Vanorius has bringing in information and sort out exactly where Aquitaine is and how we might contact him.”
“I can’t tell you, Magnus,” Tavi said in a calm, quiet voice. “I’m quite certain my grandfather never revealed all of his sources to you.”
Magnus regarded Tavi thoughtfully for a few moments. Then he bowed his head, and said, “Very well, Your Highness.”
“Thank you,” Tavi said. “Now. You’ve been giving Marcus odd looks for weeks. I want to know why.”
Magnus shook his head. After a moment, he said, “I’m not sure I trust him.”
Tavi frowned. “Crows, man. Valiar Marcus? Why not?”
“He…” Magnus sighed. “It’s nothing I can quantify. And I’ve been trying for weeks. There’s just… something off.”
Tavi grunted. “Are you sure?”
“Of course not,” Magnus replied, automatically. “Nothing’s sure.”
Tavi nodded. “But you haven’t let go of it, either.”
“It’s my gut,” Magnus said. “I know it. I just can’t figure out how I know it.” He lifted a hand and pushed white hair back from his eyes. “It’s possible I’m going senile, I suppose.” He peered at Tavi suddenly. “How long have you known about Sextus?”
“Since a few days after we escaped Canea,” Tavi said quietly.
“And you said nothing.”
Tavi shrugged. “What would it have changed except to frighten everyone and make us appear more vulnerable to the Canim?” He shook his head. “Everyone sitting on slow ships with nothing to do but chew on bad thoughts–we’d have had blood on the decks in a week. This way, by the time word gets around, we’ll be in the middle of operations. Everyone will have work to turn his hand to.”
Magnus sighed. “Yes. I suppose it was necessary to keep it quiet.” He shook his head, his eyes gleaming faintly for a moment. “But please, Your Highness. Don’t make a habit of such things. My heart can only take so much.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Tavi said. He nodded to Magnus and turned back toward his desk. “Oh, Maestro.”
Tavi looked up from a weary slump on his chair. “Valiar Marcus has saved my life. And I, his. I can’t imagine that he would ever turn against the Legion. Or against me.”
Magnus was silent for a moment. Then he said, quietly, “That’s what everyone always thinks about traitors, lad. It’s why we hate them so.”
The old man left the cabin.
Aquitainus Attis, the man who had been striving to take the Crown of Alera for most of his lifetime, was now only a heartbeat away from taking it incontestably. Could there be one more knife lurking, awaiting the right moment to strike?
Tavi closed his eyes. He felt fragile. He felt frightened.
Then he rose abruptly, stalked across the room, and began donning his armor, a suit taken from a legionare who had perished of his wounds after the evacuation to replace the one he’d lost in the harbor city of Molvar. The familiar weight of Aleran lorica settled upon him, cold and solid. He slung his sword at his hip and felt the cold power of the steel singing quietly down the length of the blade.
There was work to be done.
Best be about it.