“Captain,” Valiar Marcus said. “They’re ready for you.”
Tavi rose, and straightened the hem of his rich crimson tunic, beneath the armor, and made sure that his formal half-cape draped properly. He’d never actually had occasion to wear his dress uniform before, and after two years of regular use, his battered armor looked rather shabby when framed by the splendid crimson fabric.
“Sword, sir,” Marcus said. The old centurion’s weathered face was sober, but Tavi thought he saw amusement in his eyes.
Tavi glanced down and sighed. Regulations called for a sword to hang straight along the seam of the trousers, but he’d taken his cue from Marcus and several other veterans, and belted his scabbard on at a slight angle. The change made a small difference in the ease of drawing a blade, and a smart soldier sought every advantage he could. Regulations, however, were regulations, and Tavi took a moment to re-secure the weapon properly. Then he nodded to the First Spear, and strode into the conference room.
The conference room had been built in the heavy stone command building back when the First Aleran had repulsed the initial Canim onslaught. The room, with its large stone sand table, and its classroom-style slate boards on the walls, had been intended to host the command staff of a pair of legions—twice what had ever actually put the room to use. Now, though, the place was stuffy and close, and crowded with two score of the most powerful men and women in Alera.
Tavi recognized only a few of them by sight, though he could deduce most of the others from their colors and reputations. Gaius, of course, sat at the front of the room, on a small platform raised a few inches over the floor. He was flanked by a pair of Crown Guardsmen, and Sir Cyril, as the nominal host of the proceedings, sat beside him, his metalcrafted replacement leg gleaming in the light of the furylamps.
Around the room were several other notables of the realm: High Lord and High Lady Placida were front and center on the first row, seated beside the elderly High Lord Cereus. Sir Miles, captain of the Crown Legion, sat beside him, though Tavi had no idea why Miles’ mouth was hanging open like that. After all, surely someone had told Miles about Tavi’s role as Rufus Scipio. Toward the back of the room, leaning indolently against the wall, like a bored schoolboy, was a man that could only be High Lord Aquitaine. Several men whose body language declared them cronies of Aquitaine stood nearby him. On the other side of the room from Aquitaine was Countess Amara, standing in precisely the same posture, probably as a subtle mockery of the second most powerful man in the realm—and certainly in a position where she would be able to watch everything the High Lord and his associates were doing. Senator Arnos, head of the War Committee, and a dozen aides and associates occupied the entire second row, and Tavi could feel the man’s cold, calculating eyes lock onto him as he entered.
“Ah,” Gaius said, his deep, mellow voice filling the room when he spoke. “Welcome, Captain Scipio. Thank you for coming.”
Tavi bowed deeply to the First Lord. “Of course, sire. How may I serve?”
“We’ve been briefing everyone on the recent developments in the course of the rebellion,” Gaius replied. “Sir Cyril assures me that you are the best man to give us a concise recounting of events here. ” Gaius gestured at the front of the room. “If you please.”
Tavi bowed his head again and strode to the front of the room. He bowed to the assembled nobles and legion captains, took a deep breath, ordered his thoughts, and began. “As you all know, the First Aleran has been holding the Tiber against the Canim incursion since it originally landed on the Night of the Red Stars, two years ago.
“Since that time we have fought a number of sizeable engagements against the Canim, and have seen many smaller actions. It has not been easy—”
“It can’t have been too difficult,” Senator Arnos said. The Senator was a small man, his fashionably long hair slicked back and held in a tail. “After all, a novice commander held off an invasion force that outnumbered his own half-trained legion ten to one or better—assuming your force estimates are accurate.”
Tavi felt a flash of worry and anxiety at the hard, annoyed tone in the Senator’s voice—and felt it quickly transform into a surge of anger at what his words were implying. Tavi reminded himself that if anyone intended to discredit him, baiting him into an emotional reaction would be an idea way to go about it, and he reined in his emotions. “A number of factors played to our favor,” Tavi responded, his voice calm and even. “Most important of which was a schism in the Canim leadership, between the leader of the warrior caste, Nasaug, and the leader of the ritualist caste, Sarg. We were able to play them off one another and foil their initial attack. Their numbers are not in question, Senator. They have been verified from multiple sources in the time since.”
“Yes, yes,” Arnos said impatiently. “The question I’m sure everyone’s eager to have answered, Captain, is why you haven’t swept the dogs into the crowbegotten sea by now. Numbers advantage or not, your Knights trump anything the Canim have.”
Tavi just looked a the man for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Centurion.”
Marcus entered, carrying a T-shaped metal contraption the size of a cart-horse’s yolk. He took up position beside Tavi, and held the object up for everyone to see.
“This,” Tavi said, “is a Canim weapon. It’s an innovation on a standard bow, and we call it a balest. It’s capable of throwing a solid steel projectile nearly two thirds of a mile, if the wind is favorable, and it hits with enough force to punch cleanly through a breastplate, the man beneath, and out the other side.”
Arnos rolled his eyes and made a faint sound of derision.
“I’ve had more Knights killed by this weapon, Senator, than any other in the Canim arsenal,” Tavi said. “They’re used by highly trained specialists, and almost always at night. If our Knights Aeris try to approach, every crowd of Canim seems to have one of their marksmen hidden in it, and they go out of their way to protect them. This weapon is the only one we’ve managed to capture over the course of two years—and the Cane who used it managed to escape.”
“Captain,” drawled High Lord Placidus in his easy, mellow voice, “could you give us an idea of just how effective these marksmen of theirs are?”
“They don’t have the precision of a skilled Knight Flora, your Grace,” Tavi replied. “But they’re very close. And the raw power of these weapons more than compensates. Given that they apparently have orders to wait for Knights to make their appearance before firing, they have proved to be an effective tactical countermeasure.”
“Even assuming this . . . toy . . . gave a Cane the same combat effectiveness as a Knight Flora,” Arnos said, and his tone suggested that he clearly did not believe that it might, “you need only take similar tactical measures to prevent them from employing it effectively.”
“Except that Nasaug has a great many Canim he can train to use a balest,” Tavi said. “We have a sharply limited number of Knights, and we cannot afford to lose or replace them. ” Tavi turned to the rest of the room. “This weapon hasn’t determined the course of the conflict on its own, of course. I simply use it to illustrate that the Canim have proven to be a more devious, resourceful, capable, and well-equipped foe than we had previously believed.”
Arnos made a disgusted sound. “Are we to believe that in centuries of conflict against these animals, we have simply been too blind to see what was in front of our eyes?”
Tavi shook his head. “The Canim Alera fought previously were never this well organized, or this numerous. Furthermore, prior to this incursion we had never seen the appearance of their warrior caste in numbers.”
“I just don’t understand this situation at all,” High Lord Cereus said. He passed a long-fingered, liver-spotted, but steady hand back over his balding scalp. “The behavior of these creatures just isn’t at all what I would have expected. My own nobles and soldiers report to me that these Canim have been allowing Alerans simply to leave the occupied territory, unmolested, provided they go peaceably.”
“Clearly an indicator of their lack of control of the situation,” Senator Arnos said, rising, “as well as a telling point in regards to their strategic ineptitude. No real commander would allow such a potentially valuable resource to be lost at all, much less allow it to be given to the enemy. “He turned to the room. “In fact, the ineptitude of command in this entire region has—”
“Excuse me, Senator,” Tavi said, keeping his tone polite. “I’m happy to field whatever questions you or the other Citizens may have. ” He faced Arnos without smiling. “But I believe protocol dictates that I have the floor.”
Arnos turned to face Tavi, color flushing his cheeks.
“Quite right, Captain,” Gaius murmured from his seat. Though his phrasing remained polite, his voice calm, there were hard inflections on his words that left no doubt as to the First Lord’s lack of amusement. “Senator, I ask your patience in this matter. Everyone will have an opportunity to be heard, I assure you. Captain, please continue with your thoughts on the Canim war leader’s unexpected generosity in releasing Alerans from the occupied territory.”
Tavi bowed his head. “Nothing generous about it, Sire. It’s genius.”
Gaius nodded, his eyes on Arnos. “Explain.”
“It gives him nothing but advantage,” Tavi replied. “The largest problem facing the entire region of the rebellion has been the supply of food. The fighting has resulted in many fields being destroyed, others damaged, and it has degraded the ability of the entire region to bring in a steady harvest. Add more than a hundred thousand hungry Canim to the equation, and as a result, everyone’s forces have been trying to secure all the food they can.”
Lady Placidus raised her hand. “Excuse me, Captain. A hundred thousand?I had understood that our estimates placed the number at somewhere near half that.”
“A hundred thousand is a conservative estimate, your Grace,” Tavi said, bowing his head politely to the High Lady. “The Canim who came here did not come as simply an invading military. They brought their dependents with them. Females and young. I say one hundred thousand, but I don’t know the real number. No one does. They’re going to great lengths to protect them.”
A low mutter went through the room.
Tavi cleared his throat, and raised the volume of his voice slightly. “By releasing Alerans in the occupied territory, Nasaug solves several of his own problems and hands us several new ones. The local Alerans are most familiar with local furies, and will have the most ability to take action against his troops. By getting rid of them, he simultaneously robs any resistance within the territory of most of its strength, conserves his food supply by reducing the number of hungry mouths that would consume it, and burdens us with the refugees. Now, we are forced to find some way to feed them, as well as to keep our limited number of forces deployed in such a fashion as to shield them from potential enemy aggression, hampering our ability to operate aggressively against them.
“It’s a smart move. It’s typical of his thinking. And it’s working. We haven’t had any deaths from starvation, yet—but lack of sufficient food was probably responsible for a number of fatal illnesses last winter. The relief column organized by Steadholder Isana of Calderon might—might—hold us through until harvest, but the refugee camp here is only one of a dozen, spread around the outskirts of Cane-occupied territory.”
There was a moment of pensive, even worried, silence.
“Captain,” Gaius asked, his rich, calm voice bringing the fearful pause to an end. “I assume you have attempted to apply standard legion doctrine in your battles against the Canim.”
“Yes, sir,” Tavi said.
“And how would you characterize its effectiveness?”
“It has been of limited value, sire.”
Gaius glanced around the room. “Why?”
“The Canim don’t play by the rules, sire,” Tavi said.
On the front row, Captain Miles had apparently recovered enough to snort out a rough breath of a laugh.
The creases at the corners of Gaius’ mouth deepened slightly. “Explain.”
“They don’t rely on furycrafting, sire,” Tavi clarified. “They can’t use it, and have no need for it. As a result, they don’t think in the same terms, strategically. For example, they have no particular need for the use of causeways, the way an Aleran legion does, if it wants to move rapidly. They avoid causeways whenever they can, forcing the legion to march overland, which gives them a significant advantage in the field. They march faster than we do.
“We’ve compensated for this to some degree, by introducing training for overland marches, the addition of auxiliary units of cavalry—”
Aquitaine murmured something at the back of the room. Tavi only caught the phrase “naked barbarians” but the men standing with him let out low, growling laughs.
“—as well,” Tavi continued steadily, “as the addition of a cohort of mounted infantry.”
“Mounted infantry?” asked High Lord Cereus.
“They ride to the fight, then dismount, your Grace,” Tavi clarified. “It lets us field a solid block of legionares to support our cavalry and our Knights, and provides us with greater tactical flexibility in the field.”
Arnos let out a derisive snort. “This is all beside the point, Gaius, and we all know it. Captain Rufus Scipio’s tactics and Sir Cyril’s strategies have, I admit, managed to hold on to the region and contain the Canim threat. It’s quite possible that, given how badly outnumbered they have been, they were even appropriate to the task at hand. But that situation is now at an end.”
The Senator rose and addressed the room at large. “I have two outsized legions of the Senatorial Guard, fresh and made up purely of veteran legionares, now camped outside. Between them and the remnants of the First Aleran, we will sweep the beasts back into the sea and end this humiliating charade. ” He turned to Lord Aquitaine, specifically. “I anticipate that we will bring the war in this theater to a conclusion by midsummer, at which point we can increase the pressure on Kalare’s remaining forces and restore order to the realm.”
Tavi stared at Arnos blankly for a moment. Was the man insane?True, the two legions of the Senatorial Guard contained nearly ten thousand men each—but unless the mathematics instructors at the Academy had done Tavi a grave disservice, it still meant that the Canim’s forces outnumbered the Alerans by well more than two to one. Those were not impossible odds by any stretch of the imagination, but they were daunting—and they did not take into account any former-slave forces the Canim might have raised.
“Such an undertaking would be . . . premature, Senator,” Tavi said. “Until we have learned more about the additional forces being raised by the Canim.”
That drew every eye in the room.
“What?” Sir Miles sputtered.
“The Canim have armed at least one legion of former slaves,” Tavi said. “We presume that they’re offering freedom in exchange for—”
“Does this matter?” Arnos demanded, scorn open now, in his tone.
“They’re our fellow Alerans,” Tavi spat. “Many of the people who stayed probably did so because they had nowhere else to—”
“Immaterial,” Arnos said, arching an eyebrow. “As you yourself have pointed out, every loyal Aleran has already left the occupied territory.”
“That isn’t what I said—” Tavi began.
Arnos’s well-cultured baritone overrode him effortlessly. “Those who remain behind—whether they are taking up arms against the realm or simply supporting the Canim for their own personal profit—are traitors. ” His smile was sharp and hard. “They deserve nothing but a traitor’s death.”
A number of men raised their voices at that point. Tavi began to join them, but there was a sudden presence at his side, and Tavi turned to find the First Lord standing beside him.
“Be silent,” Gaius said quietly.
“But sire,” Tavi began.
“Be silent,” the First Lord hissed. His eyes turned to Tavi and gave him a single, hard look, so full of authority that the young Cursor never so much as considered doing or saying anything else.
Gaius nodded once, as the impatiently raised voices grew louder. “I need you exactly where you are—in command of the First Aleran. Don’t give him an excuse to remove you.”
Tavi blinked and could only stare blankly at Gaius.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for you here, lad,” the First Lord continued. “My support doesn’t mean what it once did, I’m afraid. Today, I’m little more than the chair of a meeting.”
“I didn’t even get to tell them about what Ehren’s contacts have learned or the theories we’ve drawn from it.”
Gaius’ lips compressed for a moment. “He doesn’t want to hear it. Arnos and his friends have plans for what happens next in the region, and their plans do not necessarily leave room for such minor inconveniences as fact.”
Tavi ground his teeth. “He’s a fool.”
“He’s a fool with the backing of the Senate,” Gaius corrected him. “And he is the lawful commander of the Guard—and the First Aleran, I might add. He’ll be assuming command in the region, with Sir Cyril as his senior advisor.”
Tavi took a deep breath. “What would you have me do?”
“Your best,” the First Lord said. “Work with Sir Cyril. Mitigate the Senator’s idiocy. Save as many lives as you can.”
“If Arnos does what he says, Nasaug is going to hurt us, Sire. Badly.”
“Three months,” Gaius said. “Keep things together here for three months.”
“What?” Tavi asked quietly, confused. “Why three months?”
“Because by then, the war with Kalarus will be finished, his rebellion over, and we’ll have regular legion commanders to spare. Once the Senate’s ‘state of emergency’ is over, Arnos can go back to pushing soldiers around a sand table where he belongs.”
Tavi blinked at him. “How is that going to happen, sire?”
The First Lord arched a graying eyebrow at him. Tavi noted, for the first time, that their eyes were now on a level with one another.
Gaius’ eyes glittered with dark humor for an instant. “That would be telling. ” He cast a glance at the tumult Arnos’ comments had raised. “The task I’m handing you is unenviable. Can you do it?”
Tavi looked up at the discord swirling around the Senator, and narrowed his eyes. He knew all too well the kind of price the legionares were forced to pay when their leaders made even relatively small and honest mistakes. What Arnos was proposing was barely this side of insanity, and the suffering that his actions could inflict on noncombatants in the occupied territory was a thing out of the young captain’s nightmares.
Something had to be done.
“Yes, sire,” Tavi said quietly. “I can.”