The Codex Alera belongs to Jim Butcher. This story is licensed under the Creative Commons as derivative, non-commercial fiction. No copyright infringement or insult intended.
"Loose Ends" takes place two days after the end of Captain's Fury.
Valiar Marcus strode through the camp of the First Aleran Legion, avoiding mud puddles left behind by the swift summer thunderstorm just ended. Of course it hadn't stopped until the end of his shift on the walls, so his cloak and tunic were soaking wet. He'd wiped down his armor already, but he hoped he'd have time to dry it more thoroughly before it started to rust. It was more productive than hoping that the self-imposed mission he was on wouldn't be his last.
It had been a bit less than a week since the captain's duel, Senator Arnos' murder, and the Canim army's surrender, and Marcus had been thinking hard about his options, trying to find a way around his own near certain death.
Lady Aquitaine was not a forgiving woman.
At one time, Marcus had convinced himself that she and her husband were the best chance of a bad lot for the future of the realm he loved. That was before he met the captain, and came to understand - as the two Legions-worth of men and camp followers around him had seen just days ago; as the rest of Alera was just beginning to see - just how much greater a hope for the future they might have.
The High Lady he had given his allegiance to would not have agreed. He had protected his captain from her machinations to the best of his ability, and his faith in the young man had been proven sound again when he returned from disgrace with a chance for the beleaguered Legions; not only for life but an unhoped for victory against their overwhelming, canny, and deadly foe. Lady Aquitaine had once more stood in the way, her ambition blinding her to the more immediate costs of her stubbornness, and Marcus had seen a golden opportunity to remove her. Or so he thought at first.
When the body of Lady Aquitaine's persona, "Davia" the domestic, went missing from the healers' tents, Marcus was the only one who worried. But then he was the only one who understood the situation. Well, he and whoever had moved her. As he saw it, there were three possible explanations, only one of which left open any hope for his own continued health.
The poisoned balest bolt that had transfixed the woman along with her henchman, the Senator, should by all rights have killed them both. The vicious combination of heartfire and rancid garic oil he had used should have spelled doom for anyone struck with it. Marcus had difficulty imagining any watercrafter powerful enough to save someone so afflicted at all, even with immediate attention. The idea that the victim herself might not only do so, but simultaneously trick the attending healers into believing her dead was almost certainly laughable. Unfortunately, Marcus had learned never to underestimate the tremendous skill and vast reserves of power that the most elite furycrafters of Alera held at their command. He was no skilled watercrafter himself, so he couldn't be sure, but the niggling fear remained that the High Lady might have been capable of doing just that.
The next possibility was both the most likely on the surface and the most hopeful from Marcus' perspective: The High Lady died, just as it seemed, and her body had been recovered by a third party, presumably another retainer of hers. If that person were unaware of her orders to Marcus regarding the balest, then he stood a shadow of a chance of surviving his actions. If they knew about it, and him, they would either act to avenge her on their own, which hadn't happened yet, or report back to Lord Aquitaine for further instructions, in which case Marcus would be just as messily and thoroughly dead as if the High Lady had survived.
The final scenario was perhaps the most chilling: "Davia" might not have been Lady Aquitaine at all. The High Lady had used doubles in dangerous situations before, and between her open break with the Senator the night of the duel and Marcus' own slips in tradecraft in dealing with her in recent months, however minor, there was quite possibly enough reason for her to have become wary of the whole situation. The only thing that gave Marcus hope that this might be too suspicious a theory was his own continued survival. It was possible that an entirely healthy Lady Aquitaine might choose to bide her time, rather than taking immediate retribution for his betrayal, but it didn't seem much like her.
So the dilemma stood: was his part in Davia's death known? Did a Damocletian sword hang over his head even now, or was he still subject only to the everyday dangers of his twin lives as soldier and spy? More importantly, and the aspect of the problem that had finally moved him to take action today: what were the High Lady's plans, or those of her retainers? How much danger was the captain in from that quarter, and how immediate? The young man was certainly aware of the likely reactions of ambitious High Lords like Aquitaine to the news of his existence, but Marcus had finally, reluctantly, concluded that he had to be made aware of Lady Aquitaine's recent presence, and the danger that she might act against him far sooner than he would otherwise expect. Even another day might be too much delay, but he had not been able to see a way to make the captain aware of her actions without revealing his own involvement.
And along with it, his true identity.
At which point, he might very well have no more reason to fear Lady Aquitaine's wrath.
In the final analysis though, Marcus had chosen the captain's life over his own when he pulled the balest's trigger, and doing less than his best to go on defending him would be a cowardly waste of the sacrifice he might have already made. He just had to hope he could get the young man to listen long enough to hear the warning.
A quicker-than-usual movement in the corner of his eye drew Marcus' attention away from his rutted ruminations. The young Cursor, Sir Ehren, was hurrying across the camp toward the healer's tents, trailing one of Foss's errand runners. There was an expression of mischievous anticipation on his face, and Marcus recognized the tent he ducked into as the one in which Antillar Maximus was laid out, still recovering from his terrible burns and the extensive craftings that had saved his life.
Ah ha. Perhaps the young Tribune was finally up and around.
Marcus resisted the urge to slow his steps as he approached and passed the healers' tents, but he was not quite out of earshot when the outraged bellow rang out from behind him.
Marcus suppressed a small grin. Indeed. He must be feeling better.
Sir Ehren had bribed, cajoled and threatened just about everyone in camp not to mention 'Captain Scipio's' new status to the injured Tribune until he could do it himself.
Marcus spared a moment to hope the Cursor was satisfied with the result as he hurried on to the command building.
The door was slightly ajar and the captain's singulare was missing from his usual post just outside. Marcus frowned. They had returned from their afternoon ride just a few minutes ago, so he should be here. He slowed his pace as he crossed the last few yards to the door, stepping softly without overtly skulking.
He heard the captain's rich, amused voice from within just before he reached the door. "I'm thinking of naming him Primus. What do you say, Araris?"
"Your ancestors would roll over in their graves, milord," came the low, soft voice of Alera's most famous swordsman.
There was a pause, and Marcus heard the thud of hurrying booted feet approaching. He glanced over his shoulder. Antillar Maximus was not running flat out, but his pace was far faster and less dignified than a stride, and the image he projected was not improved by his state of dress. Marcus pushed the door open and stepped inside, wanting neither to be caught eavesdropping nor bowled over by the larger Tribune when he arrived in a few moments.
The room was empty but for the two of them: Araris standing, wary and relaxed, the captain draped across his chair in a deceptively lazy sprawl. The younger man's considerable frame made the standard issue chair look almost child-sized. "You could be right," the captain said thoughtfully. "Maybe just Prim, that fits as well." He held one hand raised to the level of his eyes, and there, upon his arched forefinger, sat a tiny red-gold bird. A sparrow.
Made of fire.
Marcus felt his heart thud heavily in his chest, torn between leaping up in exaltation and stopping in sheer terror. The captain had finally acquired his first fury. But, great bloody furies, why did it have to be fire? And why did it have to be today?
Every firecrafter Marcus had ever met had, at best, been short-tempered, and at the worst downright explosive. It was in the nature of the element. The fire fury's natural association with fear and anger brought out a matching fiery nature in its master. In crafters with several different sorts of fury, that tendency could be tempered with the sensitivity of water, or the stoicism of earth or metal, but the captain had no such breadth as yet, and no prior experience of the powerful effect a fury could have on his emotions. The young man had a formidable self-control, but he might very well find it overwhelmed for a time.
All Marcus's cautious plans for the upcoming conversation turned to ashes in the back of his throat.
The captain looked up, a bemused smile lingering on his face, and said, "Oh, hello Marcus."
Marcus snapped to attention and saluted the captain. "Good afternoon, your Highness."
The young man nodded in return, and his smile widened. "You know, Marcus, I don't think I've mentioned how much I appreciate your ability to use that honorific and yet make it sound exactly like 'Captain'."
Marcus stiffened, his eyebrows rising fractionally. Crows, he really was losing his touch. "I'm sorry, my lord. I meant no disrespect."
"No, no." The captain shook his head, sitting up slightly. "Really. I appreciate it." He sighed, and his voice took on the faintest shading of regret. "I don't suppose there's any way you could teach the trick to the rest of the Legion?"
Marcus blinked, beginning to understand. "I'm sorry, sir. I wouldn't know where to begin. I suppose I just still think of you as our captain."
The captain's boyish grin returned full force for an instant. "Thank you, First Spear. I can't imagine a higher-"
The door slammed against the stone wall and Antillar Maximus strode in, less than resplendent in dripping wet hair, Legion issue boots, and a towel hastily wrapped around his middle.
"Crows, Calderon!" he boomed. "What's this nonsense about you being..." He trailed off into silence, staring at the tiny red bird on the Princeps' finger with even more perfectly stunned shock than Marcus had felt. "Furies," he muttered. He drew in a huge breath, heavily muscled chest expanding, and visibly reasserted his outrage. "And you have furies now? Any other earthshaking news you've been hiding from me?"
The captain raised his brows, but smothered most of his grin and calmly said, "The war is over. We won." He raised the hand holding the fiery sparrow. "And it's just him so far, Max. Surely you wouldn't begrudge me one little fury?" As though perfectly unaware of the attention focused on it, the diminutive bird ducked its head and whetted its thick, triangular beak against the tip of the captain's finger, then calmly began to preen under one wing.
Maximus stepped toward the captain, attention riveted to the tiny fire fury. "And when exactly did this happen?" he asked, reaching out to poke at it with a finger, as though to test its reality. Just before he touched it the little bird turned its head, swifter than thought, and nipped at his finger. "Ow!" Maximus yanked his hand back, staring incredulously at the neat, diamond shaped burn at the end of the digit.
"I don't think he likes that, Max," said the captain, apparently unperturbed.
Marcus wasn't inclined to be quite so calm. A thick-headed carouser he might be, but bastard or no, Antillar Maximus was a High Lord's son. He certainly had more than enough firecrafting skill to defend himself from minor burns. Perhaps his recent injuries had over-sensitized him to fire?
"As to how long," The captain mused. "What would you say, Araris, about an hour?"
"Maybe half that."
"Lightning struck a tree near us on the way back into camp. Set it on fire. We went over to look at it and I saw this little fellow in the flames. He came to me the first time I called. It was easy." He frowned at his singulare. "It doesn't make any sense, Araris. You have no idea how hard I've tried to manifest something, anything, ever since I started crafting. I don't know what's changed." The captain glanced over at Maximus, one brow arching, seeming to anticipate the affronted mouth just opening to question. "Two years ago." He pointed at Antillar with the finger upon which the bird still perched, causing it to rock back and forth, mantling its wings to catch its balance. "Don't say it! I didn't tell anyone."
"True," murmured Araris. "Of course, those of us with eyes figured it out anyway."
"Well, that's just fine," Maximus said. "And I'm happy for you, Calderon. It's past time you got a cute little playmate of your own," He shifted his grip on the towel, rubbing surreptitiously at his fingertip. "But this other thing. This Princeps thing, Captain. It's insane. Don't ask me if I've got a better idea, I can't even conceive of a reason for you to pull something like this, but you've got to give it up, now!"
"Stop being ridiculous, Max," Sir Ehren said impatiently. Antillar whipped around to face the young man who had just slipped silently into the room. Marcus thought he might have been the only one to notice the young Cursor arrive. Not bad.
The underdressed Tribune paced forward to lean over the small sandy-haired Cursor like a cliff face about to fall. "And you! How could you go along with this, Ehren?" His voice dropped to a belligerent mutter. "We both know Tavi's a crowbegotten good liar, but this one will get him killed!"
"Here." Ehren shoved the armful of clothing he was carrying toward Maximus, then folded his arms and scowled up at the taller man, unintimidated. "Running around camp half naked is beneath the dignity of your station, Tribune, if not your own. And it's not a ploy, Max. Or a trick, or a lie. It's true."
"Balls," Maximus said, shifting around his towel again to grapple with the new burden. "It's impossible!"
"Princeps Octavian's parentage is a fact, Antillar," Araris put in quietly. "I should know."
Maximus rounded on the singulare, still steaming. "And what the crows is that supposed to mean?"
Araris gave him a very direct look. "And here I spent all those years at the Academy thinking that you were just pretending to be a fool. Put the pieces together Maximus. I know you can."
The large young man's expression shifted from belligerent to uncertain, and his eyes flicked around the room, taking in all the calm, unsmiling faces, startling slightly as he seemed to notice Marcus for the first time. His gaze finally returned to the singulare, seeming to shy away from the captain. "You mean it," he said slowly.
"You know my name, Maximus," Araris continued in a low, steady voice. "What you may not know is that Princeps Septimus was not only my lord, but my dearest friend. I would have given my life for him, but instead he sent me away to watch over his wife and unborn son." His chin rose in an unconscious gesture of defiance. "And I have."
Antillar turned back to the captain, as if seeing him for the first time. "Crows, Tavi," he said quietly. "How could you keep this from me? I thought I was your closest friend."
The captain stood, absently shooing Prim into the air, where the fury immediately faded out of sight. He stepped forward to brace Maximus directly, and there was a tight, hard look on his face. "Could it be because you're a crowbegotten idiot, Max? Perhaps because if I'd told you, you'd have gone running through the streets shouting at the top of your lungs and given it all away in a minute?" Maximus flushed, and a flash of hurt shone in his eyes. The captain grimaced, and turned half away, shaking his head. He took one long breath and said, more softly, "You know better, Max. I only found out myself a couple of months ago. And for most of that time I've been afraid to tell anyone."
The two tall young men stared at each other in silence for a long moment, both tense, balanced on the edge of anger.
Then Maximus snorted. "And yet somehow three entire Legions ended up hearing about it before me!" Some of the Tribune's usual bantering tone had returned to his voice, and some of the tension eased from the air of the room.
"It's not my fault you went and got yourself mostly killed again as soon as my back was turned."
"Yes it is." Maximus nodded sagely. "I'm beginning to think everything in the world is your fault, Calderon."
The captain shook his head and gave a long-suffering sigh, but there was a smile in his eyes. "Put some clothes on, Tribune. You're an embarrassment to your brother's Legion."
Maximus glanced down at himself and twitched as though only now noticing his own near-nakedness. He rifled through the clothing Ehren had brought, dragged out his trousers and began to wrestle them on, dropping his towel in the process. The captain turned politely away, refocusing his attention on Marcus.
"First Spear, I imagine you came in for some reason other than front row seats to this comedy?" he queried.
"Hmm. Yes, sir," Marcus muttered, frantically trying to reorder his thoughts. "Congratulations, by the way. It's a very hopeful sign, I'm sure."
The half-wondering little smile returned to the captain's mouth, "Thank you, Marcus. I believe so." He paused then, looking surprised. "You knew?"
"Well, sir, I had heard of Tavi of Calderon and his... condition. So yes."
"Hmm. A good point. Too many people have." The captain frowned thoughtfully, then raised his hand, calling the fire sparrow back. "It's an obvious vulnerability, and there are plenty of folk out there who will be interested in exploiting it now." He glanced around at the four of them, face setting in a serious mask. "Gentlemen, I must ask you not to spread this news. Prim will be much more useful if he remains a secret for now." He scratched the bird gently behind the head, then reluctantly released it again, watching as the fury flickered away in a tiny puff of smoke.
Antillar's eyes also tracked the bird's flight, narrowing. He turned back to the Princeps, blowing out an exasperated breath. "You and your damned secrets, Tavi," growled the half-dressed Tribune. "Are you ever going to let up?"
Araris cleared his throat, suggestively. Maximus pulled on his tunic, vigorously shoving the tail through his sword belt, and gave the singulare a moment's blank stare. "It might be best to begin practicing the appropriate forms of address, Antillar," he said.
Max's eyebrows rose. "Oh, no," he growled. "Not a crow's chance! His head's going to get too swelled as it is." The big Tribune stepped up to brace the Princeps face to face again and snapped, "I'll not be a party to feeding your overgrown ego, you hear me, Tavi?"
The Princeps gave his friend a mild frown. "You never had a problem with calling me captain, Max."
"Yeah, well, that was different. You earned that."
"Not at first. You were the first person to call me that, before I'd done anything to deserve it. How is this different?"
Maximus' mouth opened, then closed, and he glowered silently at the Princeps for a long moment. "Wait a minute," he said abruptly, frowning in sudden confusion. "If you got your first fury today, what have you been doing behind my back for two years?"
"Just internalized crafting," Tavi said.
"What, you figured out how to light a furylamp?" Maximus sneered thoughtfully. "That's something, I guess."
"More than that, Max. I've got all the internal basics down. Earth, metal, air, water."
"But that's impossible," Max protested. "Internalized crafting is still based on your connection with your fury. If you don't have an earth fury, you can't use earthcrafting to strengthen yourself. That's so basic everybody knows it."
The Princeps' jaw hardened, and Marcus felt his stomach clench in sudden tension as the air inside the command building grew warmer. Without warning the young man's hand whipped out, faster than the eye could follow, and ripped Maximus' gladius from its sheath. He held the sword up between them, and grasped the naked blade with his other hand. Eyes never leaving Antillar's he said, voice gone cold and flat with fury, "I believe I am growing tired of you telling me what is and is not possible, Tribune." And he unceremoniously bent the short, stout blade in half, folding the steel into a tight U. The metal at the curve glowed an incongruously cheerful cherry red.
Antillar's eyes widened in shock, and he took an unconscious step back from the Princeps and the sullenly glowing blade. "Furies, Calderon," he muttered. "I knew you had no use for the Realm's laws, but now you go ignoring the laws of nature too?" He shook his head. "Huh. Once a freak, always a freak, I guess."
"What did you call me?" the Princeps shrieked. The bent sword clattered to the floor as he raised clenched fists toward his friend, flames springing up from between the whitened knuckles. Sweat broke out on Marcus's brow as the heat of Octavian's anger rolled across him, and he edged farther from the confrontation, mourning the lack of a clear path to the building's only door.
Inexplicably, a tiny smile played across the young Tribune's face for a moment. Slowly, he raised his own hands, resting them gently over the Princeps', letting the flames lick over his fingers as well. "I'm sorry," he said, in a perfectly calm, almost teasing tone. "Did I say freak? I meant brand new firecrafter who has no idea what he's playing with."
The rage vanished from the Princeps' face, replaced with sudden sick shock. He opened his hands, staring down at the dying flames that licked against his palms. Even from across the room, Marcus could see their sudden trembling. "I... I'm sorry, Max. I don't know what I was thinking."
Maximus' smile grew wider. "You weren't. Fire furies take more than a little getting used to, Calderon. I should know. The first time I lost my temper after I found mine, I blew apart my bedroom. Nothing left but ash down to the stone. Lucky it wasn't a wooden building." He folded his arms and contemplated the Princeps with a smug smirk. "You really want to keep your little friend a secret, you're going to have to do some serious work on controlling him, fast."
"Huh. And you just had to pick the dumbest, most dangerous possible way to demonstrate it, didn't you?" But Tavi spoke without heat, and there was a glimmer of helpless admiration in his eyes. "I've never doubted you had balls, Max. Too bad you've got no brains to go with them."
"Is that any way to speak to your furycrafting teacher?"
"Who said I was going to let you teach me anything?"
"Who else would you get to do it around here, Jens?" Maximus said.
"I could always ask your brother. He seems like a sensible sort."
Maximus snorted. "Not a chance. He'll be so in awe of your Highness-ness he'll be no help at all."
"You may have a point." Tavi glared at his friend for a long moment. "I guess you'll do. Just don't break anything trying to teach me a lesson this time, all right?"
"I make no promises," Maximus stated, lifting his chin. "You can be a very slow learner sometimes, Tavi."
"You're going to have to get used to the titles eventually, you know."
The Princeps sighed. "In public, at least."
"Well, yeah. In public." Maximus bent down to pick up his ex-gladius, examining the cooling steel with an unreadable expression. "We should probably get straight to it if you really want to keep this under your hat."
The Princeps spared a harried glance for the command building's worktables, half adrift in paperwork, and grimaced briefly. "I'm afraid you're right." He glanced up, meeting Marcus's gaze for a moment. "Was it urgent, First Spear?"
Fidelias took a slow breath. "No, my Lord," he lied. "It had best wait."