Princeps’ Fury Chapter 1

 

On his previous voyages, it had taken Tavi several days to recover from his seasickness—but those voyages had never taken him out into the ocean deeps. There was, he learned, a vast difference between staying within a long day’s sail of land, and daring the deep blue sea. He could not believe how high the waves could roll, out in the empty ocean. It often seemed that the Slive was sailing up the side of a great blue mountain, only to sled down its far side once it had reached the summit. The wind and the expertise of Demos’ crew of scoundrels kept the sails constantly taut, and the Slive rapidly took the lead position in the fleet.

By Tavi’s order, Demos kept his ship even with the Trueblood, the flagship of the Canim leader, Varg. Demos’s crew chafed under the order, Tavi knew. Though the Trueblood was almost unbelievably graceful for a vessel her size, compared to the nimble Slive she moved like a river barge. Demos’ men longed to show the Canim what their ship could do, and show the vast, black ship their stern.

Tavi was tempted to allow it. Anything to end the voyage a little sooner.

The greatly increased motion of the waves had increased his motion sickness proportionately, and though it had, mercifully, abated somewhat since those first few horrible days, it hadn’t ever gone away completely, and eating food remained a dubious proposition, at best. He could keep down a little bread, and weak broth, but not much more. He had a constant headache, now, which grew more irritating by the day.

“Little brother,” growled the grizzled old Cane. “You Alerans are a short-lived race. Have you grown old and feeble enough to need naps in mid-lesson?”

From her position in the hammock slung from the rafters of the little cabin, Kitai let out a little silver peal of laughter.

Tavi shook himself out of his reverie and glanced at Gradash. The Cane was something almost unheard of among the warrior caste—elderly. Tavi knew that Gradash was over nine centuries old, as Alerans counted them, and age had shrunken the Cane to the paltry size of barely seven and a half feet. His strength was a frail shadow of what it had been as a warrior in his prime. Tavi judged that he probably was no more than three or four times as strong as a human being. His fur was almost completely silver, with only bits of the solid, night-dark fur that marked him as a member of Varg’s extended bloodline as surely as the distinctive pattern of notches cut into his ears, or the decorations upon the hilt of his sword.

“Your pardon, elder brother,” Tavi replied, speaking as Gradash had, in Canish. “My mind wandered. I have no excuse.”

“He is so sick he can barely get out of his bunk,” Kitai said, her Canish accent better than Tavi’s, “but he has no excuse.”

“Survival makes no allowances for illness,” Gradash growled, his voice stern. Then he added, in thickly accented Aleran, “I admit, however, that he should no longer embarrass himself while attempting to speak our tongue. The idea of a language exchange was a sound one.”

For Gradash, the comment was high praise. “It made sense,” Tavi replied. “At least for my people. Legionares with nothing to do for two months can become distressingly bored. And should your people and mine find ourselves at odds again, I would have it be for the proper reasons, and not because we did not speak one another’s tongues.”

Gradash showed his teeth for a moment. Several were chipped, but they were still white and sharp. “All knowledge of a foe is useful.”

Tavi responded to the gesture in kind. “That, too. Have the lessons gone well on the other ships?”

“Aye,” Gradash said. “And without serious incident.”

Tavi frowned faintly. Aleran standards on that subject differed rather sharply from Canim ones. To the Canim, without serious incident merely meant that no one had been killed. It was not, however, a point worth pursuing. “Good.”

The Cane nodded and rose. “Then with your consent, I will return to my pack leader’s ship.”

Tavi arched an eyebrow. That was unusual. “Will you not take dinner with us before you go?”

Gradash flicked his ears in the negative—then a second later remembered to follow it with the Aleran gesture, a negative shake of the head. “I would return before the storm arrives, little brother.”

Tavi glanced at Kitai. “What storm?”

Kitai shook her head. “Demos has said nothing.”

Gradash let out a rumbling snarl, the Canim equivalent of a chuckle. “Know when one’s coming. Feel it in my tail.”

“Until our next lesson, then,” Tavi said. He titled his head slightly to one side, in the Canim fashion, and Gradash returned the gesture. Then the old Cane padded out, ducking to squeeze out of the relatively tiny cabin.

Tavi glanced at Kitai, but the Marat woman was already swinging down from the hammock. She trailed her fingertips through his hair as she passed his bunk, gave him a quick smile, and left the cabin as well. She returned a moment later, trailing the legion’s senior valet, Magnus.

Magnus was spry for a man of his years, though Tavi always thought that the close-cropped legion haircut looked odd on him. He had grown used to Magnus’ shock of fine white hair. The old man had wiry, strong hands, a comfortable pot belly, and watery eyes that had gone nearsighted after years of straining to read faded inscriptions in poorly lit chambers and caves. A scholar of no mean learning, Magnus was also a Cursor Callidus, one of the most senior of the elite agents of the Crown, and had become Tavi’s de facto master of intelligence.

“Well, Kitai has alerted Demos to what Gradash said,” Magnus began, without preamble. “And the good captain will keep a weather eye out.”

Tavi shook his head. “Not good enough,” he said. “Kitai, ask Demos if he would indulge me. Prepare for a blow, and to signal the rest of our ships to do the same. As I understand it, we’ve had unusually gentle weather so far, sailing this late in the year. Gradash didn’t survive to old age by being a fool. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise.”

“He’ll do it,” Kitai said with perfect confidence.

“Just be polite, please,” Tavi said.

Kitai rolled her eyes as she left and sighed, “Yes, Aleran.”

Magnus waited until Kitai had left before he nodded to Tavi and said, “Thank you.”

“You really can say whatever you like in front of her, Magnus.”

Tavi’s old mentor gave him a strained look. “Your Highness, please. The Ambassador is, after all, a representative of a foreign power. My professionalism feels strained enough.”

Tavi’s weariness kept the laugh from gaining too much momentum, but it felt good in any case. “Crows, Magnus. You can’t keep beating yourself up for not realizing I was Gaius Octavian. No one realized I was Gaius Octavian. I didn’t realize I was Gaius Octavian.” Tavi shrugged. “Which was the point, I suppose.”

Magnus sighed. “Yes, well. Just between the two of us, I’m afraid that I have to tell you, it’s a waste. You’d have been a real terror as a historian. Dealt those pig-headed snobs at the Academy fits for generations, with what you’d have turned up at Appia.”

“I’ll just have to try to make amends in whatever small way I can,” Tavi said, smiling faintly. The smile faded. Magnus was right about one thing—Tavi was never going to go back to the simple life he’d had, working under Magnus at his dig site, exploring the ancient ruin. A little pang of loss went through him. “Appia was very nice, wasn’t it?”

“Mmm,” Magnus agreed. “Peaceful. Always interesting. I still have a trunk full of rubbings to transcribe and translate, too.”

“I’d ask you to send some of them over, but . . . ”

“Duty,” Magnus said, nodding. “Speaking of which.”

Tavi nodded and sat up with a grunt of effort, as Magnus passed over several sheets of paper. Tavi frowned down at them, and found himself studying several unfamiliar maps. “What am I looking at?”

“The Canim mainland,” Magnus replied. “There, at the far right . . .” The old Cursor indicated a few speckles in the midst of the map, just at the edge of the paper. “The Sunset Isles, and Westmiston.”

Tavi blinked at the map for a moment, looking between the isles and the mainland. “But . . . I thought it was about three week’s sailing from those islands.”

“It is,” Magnus said.

“But that would make this coastline . . .” Tavi traced a fingertip down its length. “Crows. If it’s to scale, it would be three or four times as long as the western coast of Alera.” He looked up sharply at Magnus. “Where did you come by this map?”

Magnus coughed delicately. “Some of our language teachers managed to make copies of charts on the Canim ships.”

“Crows, Magnus!” Tavi snarled, rising. “Crows and bloody furies, I told you that we were not going to play any games like that on this trip!”

Magnus blinked at him several times. “And . . . your Highness expected me to listen?”

“Of course I did!”

Magnus lifted both eyebrows. “Your Highness, perhaps I should explain. My duty is to the Crown. And my orders, from the Crown, are to take every action within my power to support you, protect you, and secure every possible advantage to ensure your safety and success.” He added, without a trace of apology, “Including, if in my best judgment I deem it necessary, ignoring orders containing more idealism than practicality.”

Tavi stared at him for a moment. Then he said, quietly, “Magnus. I’m not feeling well. But I’m sure that if I ask nicely, when Kitai gets back, she will be happy to throw you off of this ship for me.”

Magnus inclined his head, unruffled. “That is, of course, up to you, your Highness. But I would ask you to look it over, first.”

Tavi growled under his breath and turned his attention back to the map. The deed was done. There was no sense in pretending it hadn’t been. “How accurate is this copy?”

Magnus passed over several other pieces of paper, which were virtually identical to the first.

“Mmmm,” Tavi asked. “And these are to scale?”

“That remains unclear,” Magnus replied. “There could be differences in the way that the Canim understand and read their maps.”

“Not that much difference,” Tavi replied. “I’ve seen the charts they drew of the Vale.” Tavi traced a finger down one of the maps that had variously-sized triangles marking the locations of a number of cities. Names had been sketched next to half of them. “These cities . . . I’m sure that . . .” He gave Magnus a sharp glance. “The populations of each of these cities are enormous. As large as any of the High Lords’ cities in Alera.”

“Yes, your Highness,” Magnus said calmly.

“And there are dozens of them,” Tavi said. “In this section of coastline alone.”

“Just so, your Highness.”

“But that would mean . . .” Tavi shook his head slowly. “Magnus. That would mean that the Canim civilization is dozens of times larger than our own–hundreds of times larger.”

“Yes, your Highness,” Magnus said.

Tavi stared down at the map, shaking his head slowly. “And we never knew?”

“The Canim have guarded their coastline quite jealously over the centuries,” Magnus said. “Fewer than a dozen Aleran ships have ever visited their shores—and those have only been allowed to dock at a single port, a place by the name of Marshag. No Aleran has ever been permitted off of the docks—and returned to tell about it, at any rate.”

Tavi shook his head. “What about furycrafting? Have we never sent Knights Aeris to overfly it?”

“The range of any flyer is limited. A Knight Aeris could fly perhaps two or three hundred miles and back, but they could hardly expect to do so unobserved—and as we saw subsequent to the Night of the Red Stars, the Canim do possess the ability to counter our flyers.” Magnus shrugged, and smiled faintly. “Then, too, it has been speculated that our furycrafting abilities would be significantly reduced, so far from Alera, and our furies’ points of origin. It is possible that a Knight Aeris would not be able to fly at all.”

“But no one’s ever thought to test it?” Tavi asked.

“The ships that have sailed there have all been couriers and merchantment.” Magnus flashed Tavi a swift smile. “Besides. Can you imagine the Citizen who would want to rush off to the domain of the Canim amidst a crowd of rude sailors, only to find out that he is just as powerless as they?”

Tavi shook his head slowly. “I suppose not.” He tapped a finger on the maps. “Could this be a lie? Deliberately planted for us to find?”

“Possible,” Magnus said, approval in his tone, “though I would consider it a very low-order of probability.”

Tavi grunted. “Well,” he said. “This is rather valuable information.”

“I thought it so,” Magnus said.

Tavi sighed. “I suppose I won’t have you thrown off the ship just yet.”

“I appreciate that, your Highness,” Magnus said gravely.

Tavi traced his finger over several heavy lines, many of which ran ruler-straight. “These lines. Canals of some sort?”

“No, your Highness,” Magnus said. “Those are boundary lines between territories.”

Tavi looked up blankly at Magnus. “I don’t understand.”

“Apparently,” Magnus said, “the Canim do not exist as a single governmental body. They are divided into several separate, distinct organizations.”

Tavi frowned. “Like the Marat tribes?”

“Not exactly. Each territory is entirely independent. There is no overriding unity, no centralized leadership. Each is governed completely separately from all the others.”

Tavi blinked. “That’s . . .” He frowned. “I was going to say that it was insane.”

“Mmmm,” Magnus said. “Because Carna is a savage world, packed with far too many different peoples, most of them in constant conflict with one another. For we Alerans, only a united stand against our foes has allowed us to survive and prosper.”

Tavi gestured at the map. “Whereas the Canim have numbers enough that they can afford to be divided.”

Magnus nodded. “All things considered, it makes me rather glad that our new Princeps found an honorable, peaceful, and respectful solution to the situation in the Vale.”

“Can’t hurt to make a good first impression,” Tavi agreed. He shook his head slowly. “Can you imagine, Magnus, what would have happened if those hotheaded idiots in the Senate had gotten their way and funded a full-scale retaliation upon the Canim homeland?”

Magnus shook his head in silence.

“With numbers like this,” Tavi continued, “they could have wiped us out. Furycrafting or no, they could have destroyed us at will.”

Magnus’ face turned grim. “So it would seem.”

Tavi looked up at him. “So why didn’t they?”

The old Cursor shook his head again. “I don’t know.”

Tavi studied the map for a time, examining the various territories. “Then Varg, I take it, is a member of only one of these territories?”

“Yes,” Magnus said. “Narash. It’s the only territory which has actually made contact with Alera.”

The territory of Narash, Tavi noted, was also home to the port of Marshag. “Then I suppose the next question we need to ask ourselves is—”

Outside the cabin, the ship’s bell began to ring frantically. Demos began bellowing orders. A few moments later, the captain himself knocked and then opened the cabin door.

“Magnus,” he said, nodding to the old Cursor. “My lord,” he said, nodding to Tavi. “The old sea dog was right. There’s a storm coming up on us from the south.”

Tavi winced, but nodded. “How can we help you, Captain?”

“Tie down anything that isn’t bolted to the floor,” Demos said, “including yourselves. It’s going to be a bad one.”

 Posted by at 9:47 pm