Cursor's Fury

Chapter 26


"Wait," Max said. "Ehren? Our Ehren?"

Before he had finished the sentence, Tavi had already leapt down from the wagon and unhooked one of the horses from its harness a heartbeat later. As he did, Kitai freed the other horse in the team. Tavi grasped the mane of the first horse and leapt up to its bare back, pulling hard against the weight of his armor with his arms as he did. Kitai flicked the long reins of the second horse at Max, then took Tavi's outstretched hand and mounted behind him.

"Our Ehren," Max said, heavily. "Right." The big Antillan shook his head as he clambered down from the wagon, then hauled himself up onto the draft horse, who snorted and shook his head. "Stop complaining," Max told him, and nodded at Tavi.

Tavi grinned and kicked his mount into a heavy-footed run. He could feel one of Kitai's slender, fever-hot arms wrap around his waist. Tavi held on to the horse's mane carefully. He had learned a good deal of riding in the capital, but very little of it had been done bareback, and he knew his limits. "Which gate was he at?" he asked Kitai.

"North side of the river, west side of the city," Kitai called back.

Beside them, Max rode with the casual skill with which he did almost everything. Max, Tavi knew, had been riding since he could walk. "Did he know he was followed?"

"Ehren knew," Tavi said firmly.

"So I'm Ehren," Max said, "with an unknown number of unknowns following me. Where do I go?" Max frowned. "Wait. What the crows am I doing all the way out here in the first place? I thought Ehren got sent to Phrygia."

"Did you notice that he packed those peppermints he kept around?" Tavi asked.

"Yes. I thought he liked peppermints."

"No. He gets seasick."

Max frowned. "But Phrygia's thousands of miles from the sea and-oh."

Tavi nodded. "I assume he was under orders to keep it secret, but I suspect he was sent out to the islands."

Max grunted. "So, I'm Ehren, who is a sneaky little git like Tavi, in from the islands, followed by bad men who want to do bad things. Where do I go?"

"Somewhere that presents you more options," Tavi called back. "Where you can deal with them appropriately and as discreetly as possible." He paused for a moment, then he and Max said together, "The docks."

They pressed on, Tavi in the lead. Dry red lightning lit their way in flickers of dim fire that only made the shadows deeper and more treacherous. Tavi could navigate by the furylights in the town and upon the Elinarch, but he could barely see what was five feet in front of him. Haste was necessary, but they would do Ehren no good if they all brained themselves on low branches or broke the legs of their mounts in potholes in the trail, and Tavi began to slow the pace.

"No," Kitai said in his ear. The arm around his waist shifted, and she clasped the hand in which Tavi held the reins. She pulled his hand to the right, and the horse altered course, Max's mount following suit. Lightning flashed, and Tavi saw the black maw of a sharp-edged pothole flash by, narrowly avoided.

Kitai leaned forward, and he felt her cheek against his as she smiled. "I will be your eyes, blind Aleran."

Tavi felt his own mouth stretch into a grin to match hers, and he shouted to his mount, coaxing all the speed he could from the draft horse.

They entered the town through the eastern gate, shouting passwords to the legionares on duty there, thundering over the stone streets, the heavy steel-shod hooves of their horses striking sparks from the stone. The western gate of the town had been left unguarded and slightly ajar. As they approached, Max crafted a miniature cyclone that hammered it the rest of the way open, and they swept through, altering course to follow the city's wall down to the riverside.

The town of Elinarch had been founded as little more than a standard Legion camp anchoring either end of the bridge. In the century since, its rising population had spread beyond the original walls, building homes and business around the wall's outskirts and, especially, constructing extensive docking facilities for the river traffic that supported the town. The wooden wharves and piers had spread hundreds of yards upon either side of the original town's boundaries on both banks of the river.

Piers brought ships and boats, which brought a steady and large number of sailing men, which gave birth to an inevitable, if modest, industry of graft and vice. Wine clubs, gambling halls, and pleasure houses were built upon both the wharves and permanently anchored barges. There was a paucity of furylamps throughout the docks-partly because no one wanted even a tiny fire fury that close to so much aged wood, and partly because the darkness suited the clandestine nature of the businesses there.

Tavi swung down from the horse and flicked the reins around the nearest wooden post. "Knowing Ehren, where do we look?"

"Little guy liked to plan ahead," Max said. "Be early for lecture. Set aside time to study."

Tavi nodded. "He'd have prepared a spot in case he had to run or fight. A distraction, to keep people from noticing while he slipped away." Tavi nodded toward a number of large, roomy buildings built directly beneath the soaring stone Elinarch. "Warehouses."

The three of them started out at a hard pace, and though Tavi's leg ached from the effort, it supported his weight easily enough. The first warehouse was open and lit as Legion teamsters unloaded the wagons of foodstuffs the Subtribunes Logistica had scrounged-like the one they'd left back on the road. Haradae, the seniormost Subtribune Logistica, a watery-eyed young man from Rhodes, looked up from a ledger book and frowned at Tavi. "Scipio? Where is your wagon?"

"On the way," Tavi called back, slowing. "Have you seen any of Erasmus's eighth spear out tonight?"

"Just went by, not five minutes ago, chasing some thief," he said, hooking a thumb. "But I thought they were on gate duty, not night watch."

"Erasmus thought that, too," Tavi improvised. "No one's at the gate."

Haradae shook his head and checked his list. "Here. Bandages. I'll have some set out for Erasmus after he's done lashing them."

Max growled under his breath, "Think he has any coffins?"

"Come on," Tavi said, and picked up the pace again.

They found the body in the shadows beside the fifth warehouse in the row, and Tavi's heart leapt into his throat as he peered at the empty black shape in the darkness. "Is it...?"

"No," Kitai said. "A legionare. He is older than Ehren and has a beard." She bent and casually tugged at the corpse. Light gleamed on steel for a second. "Knife in the neck. Well thrown."

"Shhhh," Tavi said, and held up a hand. They were quiet for a moment. The lazy river whispered now and then beneath them. The wooden wharves creaked and groaned. Tavi heard a pair of men arguing in tight, tense voices meant not to carry. Then there was a heavy thud.

Tavi drew his sword as silently as he could and nodded to Max. The pair of them started down the walkway in a hurried prowl. They were able to slip up behind a group of seven legionares. One of them held a single, dim furylamp while two others spoke and the rest stood in a loose half circle around a weather-beaten wooden storage shed, perhaps five feet high and wide and ten deep. One of the men held a wounded arm in close to his body, a kerchief wrapped around his hand in a crude bandage.

Max narrowed his eyes and crouched, but Tavi lifted a hand, silently signaling him to halt. A second gesture told Max to follow his lead, and Tavi walked boldly into the dim light of the lamp.

"And just what the crows do you men think you're doing?" he demanded.

The legionares whirled to face him. The two men arguing froze, startled expressions of guilt on their faces. Tavi recognized them, though he did not know them by name-apart from the wounded man. It was Nonus, the legionare who had given Tavi trouble his first day in the camp. His companion Bortus stood uneasily beside him. Though no one had ever commented on it, Tavi suspected that a quiet word from Max had convinced Valiar Marcus to transfer them to Erasmus's century-a less-senior century within his cohort, which had doubtless resulted in a reduction in pay.

"Well?" Tavi demanded. "Who is the file leader of this sorry bunch?"

"Sir," mumbled one of two debaters. He wore his helmet sloppily unfastened, cheek flaps loose. His voice had a Kalaran accent. "I am, Subtribune Scipio."

Tavi tilted his head and kept his face fixed in a steadily darkening scowl. "Name, soldier?"

The man glanced about uneasily. "Yanar, sir."

"Yanar. You want to tell me why one of your men is dead in that alley and you've another wounded, instead of being at your crowbegotten post?"

"Sir, Creso was murdered, sir!"

"I assumed that from the way a knife was sticking out of his neck," Tavi said in a quietly acidic tone. "But that is hardly important. Why was he murdered there and not at his post?"

"We were pursuing a criminal, sir!" Yanar stammered. "He fled."

"Yes, file leader. I did manage to deduce that if you were pursuing him, he most probably had fled. But why are you here instead of at your post?"

"Yanar," growled one of the legionares. He was a man of medium size, slender in build, dark of hair and eye. Tavi did not know his name. "He's just one prating little subbie." He jerked his head at the storage shed. "Maybe he tries to help us. We tell him not to, but maybe he goes in first. Maybe our boy killed him and Creso both."

Yanar turned back to Tavi, a look of ugly speculation in his eyes.

"Careful, Yanar," Tavi said in a quiet voice. "You're getting near to treason."

"It's only treason," said the dark man, "if you get caught."

Yanar narrowed his eyes at Tavi and said, "K-"

Tavi presumed the man was going to say "kill him," but he decided not to waste a perfectly good second in listening. He took a bounding step forward and struck straight down with his gladius. The blow landed on the crown of Yanar's untied helmet, slamming it forward and down, breaking the legionare's nose and roughly gouging at one cheek. Tavi slammed his armored shoulder into Yanar s chest, knocking him down, ducked the swing of another sword, and kicked against the dark man's knee, crushing the joint, sending him to the wharf with a cry of pain.

Tavi parried another sword strike, and attacked, forcing the legionare to react with a textbook-perfect return stroke-one that would have been excellent in the press of battle. It wasn't a street-fighting move. Tavi disengaged his blade from his foe's, took a step forward to the diagonal, and slammed his armored fist into the man's nose with all of his own strength plus his opponent's momentum, stunning him for an instant. Tavi drove the pommel of his sword into the man's armored temple, sending him crashing to the ground. Max came rushing up to Tavi's side, but the legionares around him had fallen back in shock at the sudden, vicious assault.

"Not bad," Max observed.

Tavi shrugged.

"All right, gentlemen," Tavi snarled at the rest of them. "So far, you've only deserted your post, presumably at the orders of this idiot." Tavi pointed his sword at the unconscious Yanar. "The consequences for that aren't pleasant, but they aren t too terrible. Everyone who wishes to add insubordination, failure to obey an officer, and attempted murder to their list of offenses should keep your weapons in hand and give me an instant of trouble."

There was a short silence. Then Nonus swallowed, drew his sword, and dropped it to the wharf. Bortus followed, as did the other legionares.

"Return to your posts," Tavi said, voice cold. "Wait there to be relieved while I get your centurion out of his cot and send him to deal with you."

The men winced.

"Sir?" Nonus said. "What about the thief, sir? He killed a legionare. He's dangerous."

Tavi glared at them, then said, "You, in the shed. I'm placing you under arrest and binding you by Crown law. Come out now, unarmed, and I'll see to it that you are treated in accord with the Crown's justice."

A moment later, Ehren appeared in the doorway of the shed. He had more muscle than Tavi remembered, and his skin was dark brown from time in the sun that had washed most of the color from his hair. He was dressed in simple if somewhat ragged clothes, and had his hands held up, empty. His eyes widened when he saw Tavi and Max, and he drew in a sudden breath.

"Keep your crowbegotten mouth shut," Tavi told him bluntly. "Centurion. Take him into custody."

Max went to Ehren and casually twisted the smaller man's arm behind him in a common come-along hold, then marched him out of the alley. "You, you, you," Tavi said, pointing at legionares. "Carry these idiots on the ground." He walked around, picking up their surrendered weapons as they did, stacking them in the circle of one arm, like cordwood. "You," Tavi said, as Nonus picked up the dark man. "What is your name?"

The man narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.

"Suit yourself," Tavi said, and turned to lead the men from the alley.

A sudden sensation of panic hit him like a shock of cold water.

"Aleran!" Kitai's voice called.

Tavi dropped the swords and dived forward, over them, turning in place. The dark man had broken free from Nonus, and now held a curved, vicious-looking knife. He swept it hard at Tavi's throat. Tavi rolled in the direction of the strike. The knife missed him by a hair. Tavi managed to grab on to the man's arm as he missed, and a hard tug sent him stumbling, so that his crushed knee gave out on him.

He cried out and fell, but started to push himself up again, knife still in hand.

Kitai dropped from the roof of the warehouse and landed on his back, slamming him to the wharf. She seized the crown of his helm with one hand, the neck of his tunic with the other, and with a snarl slammed his head completely through the wooden flooring, shattering the wooden planks beneath his face, trapping his head there.

Then the Marat woman seized his shoulders and twisted.

The dark man's neck broke with an ugly crack.

"Crows," Tavi swore. He scrambled to the man's side and felt -for the pulse in his wrist. He was, however, quite dead. "I wanted him to talk," he told Kitai.

Her feline green eyes almost seemed to glow in the shadows. "He meant to kill you."

"Of course he did," Tavi said. "But now we can't find out who he was."

Kitai shrugged and bent to pick up the curved knife, now lying under the man's limp hand. She held it up, and said, "Bloodcrow."

Tavi peered at the knife, then nodded. "Looks like."

"Subtribune Scipio?" Max called.

"Coming," Tavi called back. He glanced at Nonus and the other legionares, who were staring openly at him.

"Who are you?" Nonus asked in a quiet voice.

"A smart soldier," Tavi replied quietly, "knows when to keep his mouth shut. You've screwed up enough for one day already."

Nonus swallowed and saluted.

"Move it, people," Tavi said, raising his voice. He recovered the swords as the legionares marched out and tucked the curved Kalaran knife through his belt.

"What now?" Kitai asked him quietly.

"Now we take everything to Cyril," Tavi said quietly. "Ehren, Yanar, all of it. The captain will know what to do." More red lightning played overhead, and Tavi shivered. "Come on. I've got a feeling we don't have any time to lose."


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