Valiar Marcus debated the proper way to inform the proud young Canim officer that there was, in fact, a considerable distinction between telling an Aleran that he had a poor sense of smell and informing him that he smelled bad.
The young Cane, Marcus knew, was anxious to make a good showing in his language lessons in front of no less personages than both Varg, the undisputed commander of the Canim fleet, and his son and second in command, Nasaug. If Marcus made the young officer look foolish, it would be an insult that the Cane would carry stubbornly to his grave—and given the enormous lifespan of the wolf-folk, it meant that Marcus’ actions could cause repercussions, good or ill, for generations yet unborn.
“While your statement is doubtless accurate,” Marcus replied, in careful, slow, clearly pronounced Aleran, “you may find that many of my countrymen will respond awkwardly to such remarks. Our own sense of smell is, as you note, a great deal less developed than your own, and as such the use of language that bears upon it will carry a different degree of significance than it might among your own folk.”
Varg growled under his breath and muttered, “Few, Aleran or Cane, care to be informed that their odor is unwelcome.”
Marcus turned his head to the grizzled old leader of the Canim and inclined his head, in the Alearn fashion. “As you say, sir.”
He had only a split-second’s warning as the embarrassed young officer let out a snarl and lunged at Marcus, his jaws snapping.
Marcus had recognized the signs of brittle pride, which, it seemed, were as common and easily noted among ambitious young Canim as it was among their Aleran counterparts. Marcus was nearing sixty years of age, and would never have been fast enough to have met the Cane, had he been relying upon his senses alone to warn him—but foresight had always proved to be a far more effective defense than speed alone. Marcus had been anticipating the flash of temper and instant violence.
The Cane was eight feet of coiled, steely muscle, fangs and hard bone, and weighed two or three of Marcus—but as its jaws darted forward, it was unable to twist away when Marcus seized its ear in one calloused fist and hauled to one side.
The Cane twisted and rolled with the motion, letting out a snarl that rose to a high-pitched yelp of agony as it instinctively moved toward the source of the pull against his sensitive ear, to reduce the pressure on it. Marcus took advantage of the motion, breaking the Cane’s balance, building momentum, and dropped his entire weight as well as the young Cane’s full onto his furry chin, slamming it to the deck with a skull-jarring crack of impact.
The young Cane lay there stunned for a moment, his eyes glazed, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, bleeding from a small cut.
Marcus rose and straightened his tunic. “An inferior sense of smell,” Marcus said, as if absolutely nothing of significance had happened, “is distinct from being told that one smells unpleasant. It’s possible that someone sensitive might think you intended an insult. I personally am only an old centurion, too old to be dangerous in a fight any more, and find nothing insulting in either statement. I am not at all angry, and could do nothing about it even if I was upset. But I would hate for someone less tolerant and more capable to do you harm when, clearly, you are only trying to be friendly. Do you understand me?”
The young officer stared at Marcus with glazed eyes. He blinked a few times. Then his ears twitched in a vague little motion of acknowledgment and assent.
“Good,” Marcus said, in his rough but functional Canish, smiling with only the slightest baring of his teeth. “I am glad that you make adequate progress in your efforts to understand Alerans.”
“A good lesson,” Varg growled in agreement. “Dismissed.”
The young Cane picked himself up, bared his throat respectfully to Varg and Nasaug, and then walked rather unsteadily from the ship’s cabin.
Marcus turned to face Varg. The Cane was a giant of his race, nearly nine feet tall when standing, and the Trueblood had been built to fit him. The cabin, which was as cramped as any shipboard space, to the Cane, was cavernous to Marcus. The Cane, a great black-furred creature, his coat marred with the white streaks of many scars, crouched on his haunches, the at-rest posture of his kind, negligently holding a thick, heavy scroll in his paw-like hands, open to the middle, where he had been reading during the language lesson.
“Marcus,” murmured Varg, his basso growl as threatening and familiar as it always was. “I expect you want an explanation for the attack.”
“You have a young officer who would be promising if he wasn’t an insufferably arrogant fool, convinced of the invincibility of your kind and, by extension, his own.”
Varg’s ears flicked back and forth in amusement. His eyes went to Nasaug—a Cane who was a shorter, brawnier version of his sire. Nasaug’s mouth dropped open, white fangs bared and tongue lolling in the Canim version of a smile.
“Told you,” Varg said, in Canish. “Huntmasters are huntmasters.”
“Sir?” Marcus asked. He understood the separate meanings of the words, but not their combined context.
“Senior warriors,” Nasaug clarified, to Marcus. “They are given command of groups of novices. Long ago, they would form hunting packs, and teach the young to hunt. The teacher was called the huntmaster.”
“These days,” Varg growled, “the word means one who trains groups of young soldiers, and prepares them for their place in the order of battle. Your legions have something like them as well.”
“Centurions,” Marcus said, nodding. “I see.”
“The pup would not have killed you,” Nasaug said.
Marcus faced the younger Cane squarely and calmly. “No, sir,” he replied, his voice steady. “He would not have. And out of respect for the Princeps’ desire for a peaceful journey, I did not kill him.”
“Why would you have done so, huntmaster?” growled Varg, his voice quietly dangerous.
Marcus turned back to face him without flinching. “Because I would far rather leave a dead fool behind me than a live enemy who has gained a measure of wisdom. In the future, I would take it as a courtesy if I was not used as an object lesson beyond those which I have already been commanded to give.”
Varg bared his fangs in another Canim smile. “It is good to see that we understand one another. My boat is prepared to take you back to your ship, if you are ready, Valiar Marcus.”
Varg bowed his head and neck, Aleran-style. “Then go your way, and find good hunting.”
“And you, sir.”
Marcus had just turned to the door when it opened, and a lean Cane, reddish-furred and small for his kind, entered the cabin. Without preamble he bared his throat slightly to Varg and said, “A severe storm approaches, my lord. We have half of an hour or less.”
Varg took that in with a growl and dismissed the sailor with a jerk of his head. He glanced at Marcus. “No time to send you back and recover our boat,” he said. “It looks as though you’re staying for a time.”
“Sire,” growled Nasaug. There was a note of warning in his tone, Marcus thought. It was not difficult to guess at its source. Marcus had come to the immediate conclusion that he did not relish the notion of being effectively trapped within the hectic conditions of a ship under a storm with the angry young officer still smarting from his learning experience.
“The foremost cabin,” Varg said.
Nasaug’s tail lashed in a gesture that Marcus had come to recognize as one of surprise. The younger Cane quickly controlled himself and rose. “Centurion,” he rumbled, “if you would come with me. It would be best to have you out of the way so that the sailors may do their work. We will do our best to keep you comfortable.”
Marcus thought, with a dry amusement, that in this case comfortable was synonymous with breathing. But one learned rather quickly that the Canim had a viewpoint distinct from that of Alerans.
He followed Nasaug onto the Trueblood’s deck. Its timbers had all been painted black—which would never have happened to an Aleran vessel. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ships were generally whitewashed. They made it easier for the crew to see what they were doing at night, particularly during bad weather, when few reliable light sources were to be had. All the black wood around them gave the ship a grim, funeral appearance, which was certainly imposing, particularly when combined with the black sails. A Cane’s night vision, though, was far superior to an Aleran’s. They likely had no trouble operating at night, whatever color the ship was tinted.
Nasaug led him to the foremost cabin on the ship—the one generally considered to be the least desirable, Marcus knew. On a sailing vessel, the wind generally blew in from the stern, and whoever was furthest downwind received the benefit of every unpleasant odor on board—and there were generally plenty to be had. The door to the cabin was low, barely Marcus’ own height, but rather than simply entering, Nasaug paused and knocked first—then waited for the door to be opened.
When it did, the cabin beyond was completely unlit, windowless and dark. A quiet voice asked, “May we serve, son of Varg?”
“This Aleran huntmaster is under Varg’s protection,” Nasaug said. “My sire bids you to safeguard him until he can be returned to his people after the storm.”
“It will be done,” the voice said. “He may enter, son of Varg.”
Marcus arched an eyebrow at that, and glanced at Nasaug.
The Cane gestured toward the doorway with his snout. “Your quarters, Centurion.”
Marcus glanced at the dark doorway and then at Nasaug. “I’ll be comfortable here, will I?”
Nasaug’s ears flicked in amusement. “More so than anywhere else on the ship.”
One of the critical things the Alerans had learned about dealing with the Canim, largely in thanks to the Princeps himself, was that they placed a far higher priority on body language than humanity did. Words could be empty, and statements of motion and posture were considered to be a great deal more reliable and genuine indicators of intention. As a result, one did not display physical signs of fear before the predatory wolf-warriors, if one wanted to avoid being, for example, eaten.
So Marcus firmly clubbed down the instinctive apprehension the unseen speaker had awakened in him, nodded calmly to Nasaug and stepped into the darkened cabin, shutting the door behind him. In the darkened cabin, he became acutely aware of how thin his tunic and trousers were, and for the first time since the ships had left port, more than a month ago, he missed the constant burden of his armor. He did not put his hand to his sword—the gesture was too obvious. The knives he had concealed on his person would doubtless be of more use in any fight in this blackness, in any case. It would all happen in terrible proximity.
“You are no huntmaster,” said the unseen Cane after a moment. It let out a chuckling snarl. “No, no warrior.”
“I am a centurion of the First Aleran Legion,” he responded. “My name is Valiar Marcus.”
“Unlikely,” replied the voice. “It is more likely that you are called Valiar Marcus, I should judge.”
Marcus felt the tension sliding into his shoulders.
“We have been watching your spies, you know. They are largely untrained. But we had no idea that you were one of them until only yesterday—and even that was the result of an accident. The wind parted a curtain and you were seen reading one of Varg’s scrolls when he was out of the cabin.”
A second voice, this one to the right and higher up, spoke. “Only chance revealed you.”
A third voice, this one low and to his left added, “The mark of an adept of the craft.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes in thought. “Varg didn’t bring in that pig-headed brat to use me to teach him a lesson,” he said. “He did it to delay my departure until the storm stranded me here.”
“At our request,” confirmed the first speaker.
Marcus grunted. But Varg had played the entire situation out as if it had been his usual planning intersecting with chance, all the way through. It meant that for whatever reason, he wanted to keep this conversation concealed, even from his own people. It implied dissension in the ranks—always useful information.
It also meant that his current hosts could only be one thing. “You’re Hunters,” he said quietly. “Like the ones who tried to assassinate the Princeps.”
There the sound of soft motion in the dark, and then one of the Canim drew a heavy cloth away from a bowl filled with a liquid that cast off a glowing red light. Marcus could see the three Canim, lean, grey-furred members of the breed, with somewhat larger, more fox-like ears than most of the warriors he had seen. They were dressed in the loose robes patterned in grey and black that had been described upon the Hunters every time they had been seen back in the Amaranth Vale.
The cabin was small, containing two bunk beds. One Cane crouched on the floor over the bowl. Another sprawled across the top bunk at one side of the room, while a third sat in an odd-looking crouch on the bottom bunk opposite. The three Canim were all but identical, down to the shade and patterning of their fur, marking them as family, probably brothers.
“Hunters,” said the first Cane. “So your folk have named us. I am called Sha.”
“Nef,” growled the second.
“Koh,” said the third.
The wind had begun to rise, deepening the roll of the ship. Thunder rolled across the vast, open sea.
“Why have you brought me here?” Marcus said.
“To give you warning,” Sha replied. “You need not fear attack at the hands of the Narash. But the other territories have given your kind no pledge of safety. They regard your kind as vermin, to be exterminated on sight. Varg can only protect you to a certain point. If you continue to Canea, you will do so at your own peril. Varg suggests that your Princeps may wish to consider turning back now, rather than continuing on.”
“The Princeps,” Marcus said, “is remarkably unlikely to be motivated by the possibility of danger.”
“Be that as it may,” Sha said.
“Why tell me here?” Marcus asked. “Why not send a messenger to the ship?”
All three Hunters stared at Marcus with unreadable expressions. “Because you are the enemy, Valiar Marcus. Varg is of the warrior caste. His honor will no more permit him to give aid and warning to the enemy than to grow fresh fangs.”
Marcus frowned. “Ah, I think I see. Varg cannot do it, but you can.”
Sha flicked his ears in affirmation. “Our honor lies in obedience and success, regardless of methods and means. We serve. We obey.”
“We serve,” murmured Nef and Koh. “We obey.”
Thunder roared again, this time from terribly nearby, and the wind rose to a howl. Far beneath the scream of the storm, another sound rolled—deeper than thunder, longer, rising in a ponderous, gargantuan ululation Marcus had heard only once before, and that many, many years ago.
It was the territorial bellow of a leviathan, one of the titans of the seas who could smash ships—even ships the size of the Trueblood—to kindling. Storms generally roused them, and the turbulent waters made it a great deal more difficult for each ship’s water witches to conceal their vessel from the monsters.
Men and Canim were going to die in this storm.
Marcus swallowed his fear and sat down with his back to the wall, closing his eyes. If the Hunters meant him harm, they would have done it already. Now all he had to worry about was the very real possibility of an angry leviathan smashing the Trueblood into a cloud of driftwood and leaving everyone aboard her to the mercy of the stormy sea.
Marcus found that idea to be only moderately troublesome. He supposed it was all relative. Such a death, while horrific, would at least be impersonal. There were far worse ways to die.
For example, the Princeps could discover what the Hunters had realized—that Valiar Marcus was not a simple, if veteran centurion in an Aleran legion. That he was, in fact, exactly what they had assessed him to be, namely a spy operating incognito. That he had been placed there by the Princeps’ mortal enemies back in Alera was not something that the Hunters could be expected to realize, but should one of the Princeps’ personnel or, great furies forbid, Octavian himself realize that Valiar Marcus was only a cover identity for Fidelias ex Cursori, servant to the Aquitaines and traitor to the Crown, there would be the crows to pay.
Fidelias had left the employ of the Aquitaines. Indeed, he regarded his letter of resignation as one of the more decisively eloquent messages he had ever sent—flawed only in the fact that it had not deprived the High Lady Aquitainus Invidia of her cold-blooded life. Yet that would not matter. Once he was discovered, his life was forfeit. Fidelias knew this. He accepted it. Nothing he did would ever change the fact that he had betrayed his oath to the Crown and cast his lot with the traitors who would have usurped Gaius’ rule.
One day, he would be crucified for his crimes.
But until that day, he knew who he was and what he would do.
Valiar Marcus closed his eyes and, with the skill of most seasoned soldiers, dropped almost immediately to sleep.