It is not until a week after the chaos of the final stand against the Vord that Antillus Raucus finds a chance to speak to his oldest child alone. There is queasy feeling in his stomach—it feels a bit like fear so he ruthlessly squashes it. Crows take it, he's spent his life battling Icemen who could pick a legionare up by the skull and throw the poor bastard fifty feet. You've fried thousands of those monsters, and fought close enough to spit in their eyes, he reminds himself. Have you, or have you not stones enough to talk to your boy?
Max is standing on the main wall around Garrison, his back straight, giving orders to a small crowd of aides and runners. He'd been like this in the handful of moments that Raucus has seen him—quick to smile and even quicker to joke, but brisk and authoritative.
And always at the elbow of Gaius Octavian, who looks so much like Septimus that Raucus had almost believed, for a mad moment, with his mind and body weakened with injury and blood-loss, when the princeps—no, First Lord—had returned to the tattered remains of the First Aleran, that Sep walked among them again. But Octavian is quieter than Septimus ever was, and there's a dangerous glitter to his eyes and a wolfish quality to his smile, and his face is leaner, more secretive, his manner cleanly efficient. If even half the stories told of him are true, he will be the greatest First Lord Alera has ever seen.
And he's got his claws in my boy, Raucus thinks. He steps next to Max on the wall next to a series of crumbling crenellations, and listens as his son barks orders. It is not for some minutes that Max is free to talk, and in typical Max fashion, he says, "Hello, father. It's been quite a while," and smiles cheekily.
Raucus grunts. "Heard you were out for a lot of the final push."
Max shrugs carelessly, and Raucus wonders, bleakly, what happened to the bright-eyed little boy who would follow him as he did rounds at Antillus, who would bite his little lower lip and knot his brows and puff his cheeks during those lessons in firecrafing all those years ago. Where had this opaque young man come from? A familiar vain of self-loathing curls low in his gut: a father should know these things. A father should know why his son saw fit to run for a legion not his father's when the time came for that boy to become a man on the edge of a gladius.
"Happens when the Queen herself hits you on the head with a healing tub," Max responds. He is smiling, but there's nothing like that in his eyes. "I've got your skull, though, Father, so it's quite all right." He inclines his head, and gesture is more mocking than respectful. "If that's all, I'll be getting to my duties." He turns to walk down the palisade.
Raucus shoots out a hand—his only hand, Raucus thinks in some corner of his mind—to hold his son's shoulder. "It's not all."
Max peers at him warily, and sliver of emotion leaks through his gratingly cheerful façade. "Have you looked in on Crassus yet?"
"Of course I have," Raucus snaps, and he thinks involuntarily of his other son, swathed in bandages and forever crippled, and of his wife, morphed into a creature so disparate from the one he remembers he is hard-pressed to believe it is the same person. They're not things he wants to think about now; now, after the blood-letting and gore and unremitting battle of the past few weeks, it is time to make amends with the ragged bits of his family that's left.
Max nods. "That's good."
And then there is silence. Max does not break it; instead, he simply arches an eyebrow—he's picked up that crowbegotten trick from Octavian—and Raucus gropes for words to break it, to make things right again. It is difficult, for he is a man of swift, decisive action, not for diplomacy. Crows take it, he thinks savagely, and goes about it in the only way he knows: ham-handedly and directly. "Will you be coming home?"
Max's eyes begin to simmer with anger. "Why would you want me home?"
"Plenty to do at Antillus. Clean up. Find out what's what with the Wall and those crowbegotten Icemen. Resettlement of refugees. Stabilizing the steadholts and exterminating leftover Vord." Come home, he wants to say instead, just come home, because those things don't matter, but the words are deceptive and elusive in their simplicity.
"Crassus can help with all that," Max's says sharply.
"Crassus has nothing to do with this," Raucus says. "The crows are you talking about? I want you home."
For a moment, Max seems to glow with rage and vibrate with power. Raucus is struck by the resemblance: it is like looking into a mirror, if a mirror could peel back the effects of age and regret and unrelenting war. And then, Max blows out air through his nose and makes a visible effort to calm himself. He closes his eyes, rubs the bridge of his nose, and when opens them again, he looks infinitely older.
"Father," he says slowly. "I'm not coming ho—to Antillus." Max's face is clouded with emotions his father cannot read. "I've—I've enough to do here, with Calder—with the First Lord. He has need of me, and Antillus has need of its rightful heir." Here he attempts a crooked smile. "Besides, I'd have no crowbegotten idea what to do with a city, anyway. All I know is how to swing my gladius straight and to follow orders."
You know more than that, Raucus wants to say. "Crassus may never walk again," he says instead, acknowledging the truth aloud for the first time, and the words pain him, like a freshly made cut would pain him, like a blow taken with no metalcraft from an Iceman's pike would pain him: angry and resolute and enough to make his knees buckle.
Max nods, and a flash of anger, impotent in its intensity, flashes across his face. Raucus remembers suddenly—in memory long-forgotten, that this was how his son's face would often look—chin set and eyes blazing and asking questions that Raucus had not seen fit to answer—and he supposes he is reaping the rewards now. "It was—it was an ugly thing, great furies take her," Max says bitterly. "If Calderon hadn't warned us—the damned Queen appeared from bloody nowhere, and we were all too busy pulling up our pants to do much more than try to keep our innards in our skins."
"I heard the First Lord sent her running."
Max barks out a harsh laugh. "Don't doubt it. Calderon has that effect on most people. He's tricky." There's fondness in his face and bearing that came with friendship, true and long, and in that, there are echoes of long evenings spent at taverns and clandestine adventures and the camaraderie born between men who had together faced death and spat in her eye; and Raucus knows now that the First Lord has his talons in Max surely and deeply. There is no extracting Max now, and it sets Raucus' teeth on edge.
"You're sure, then, about remaining in direct service to him?"
Max shrugs. "He's my best friend."
"You fool," Raucus snaps. "He's a First Lord. He has no friends, or did you not know Sextus at all, for all that you both lived in his beard?" He doesn't want to think of Septimus for there is no way of knowing how he would have borne the mantle of the First Lord; and there seems, in the brief flashes he's seen clearly, in Octavian's face more Sextus' wintry wisdom than Sep's open laughter.
Max blinks at him, once, twice, and then laughs, loud and long. "Oh, father," he gasps, "you have no idea how true that is."
Raucus looks on, bemused out of his anger, though it smolders. There is a story here, and he wonders if he will ever hear it.
"But you also have no idea," Max says, sobering, "just how tricky Calderon is. You might say—well, that he's a bit touched in the head, a bit insane, and a lot stupid. But know this: he is a friend who has risked everything for me, who has been angry on my behalf, angry enough to kill those who have harmed me. Tell me," and his smile grows sharp, "have you ever seen my back?"
"It's not broken, is it?" he snaps, and Crassus looms between them again.
"That's why I'm not coming home, you old f—" Max snaps his mouth shut, and begins again. "I'm not supplanting Crassus in his own home, crows take it all."
"That's not it, brat!" Raucus says. "That was never my purpose in asking you. You should come home because—" and here he stops, guilty, because there are things to be said between them, matters that have grown old and stiff with age. He might as well say them now. "I'd always wanted you to inherit. Have you wondered why I hated Sextus? Because those crow-begotten laws said that I must produce a son with furycraft enough to rule Antillus. I'd have married your mother, had he allowed it, and made you heir. I will not do it now, because if Crassus can't walk, he'll bloody well fly—but once, when you were young, had Septimus lived—"
Max looks away at this, and his throat works. It is a moment before either of them can speak.
"That's over now." Max's voice is rough and terribly final. "Old talk, and older stories. Calderon is First Lord now, and all that is done."
"What will you do?" Raucus knows now there is no persuading Max to come back to Antillus. His boy wants nothing to do with it. His stomach sinks, and he wonders—stupid with sentiment—Where does he get the power to hurt me so? Then: Of course. He is my son.
Max shrugs. "Whatever Calderon needs me to do. He's got a bloody Realm to rebuild, and I'll be there to help him do it, because Crassus can't—or won't. In any case, I owe him. He did"—and here, his tone turns wry—"after all, break me out of the Grey Tower."
Raucus starts. "He what?"
"I told you. You've no idea how slippery he really is. Mad, I think, but brilliant. He likes to set things on fire; it's almost a fetish for him at this point." Max pauses. "Though if the stories told of Alera Imperia and Kalare's last moments are true, it's also a family tradition."
Raucus's heart is still palpitating. Crows take it. The Grey Tower. Not even Sep would have been that mad, for all that he loved to disobey Sextus, and indeed, would do things sometimes simply to rile the old man. "There's a story behind that, I take it," he says, and doesn't choke, though it is a close thing.
Max laughs again. "There is. As to whether or not I'll tell you—I think not. I will tell you this though—he broke in a second time, and took another prisoner with him: a nine-foot-tall Canim warmaster."
"Crows take it! Is he mad?" There had been rumors, of course, but with Kalare gone and the remnants of a civil war and the end of an intense winter along the Wall, Raucus hadn't paid much mind. He thumps a crenellation with his remaining fist. Perhaps he should not be so surprised: Sep was Sep, after all, and Isana had already proven to him how recklessly clever she could be, and Sextus—Sextus, the old viper, had opened two volcanoes in his wake. And perhaps he should remember Bernard and his fire spheres and his mules as well, without whom none would have survived. Great furies. The entire family is mad.
"I told you, I think he is. It's a useful kind of madness though." And crows take it again—Max looks almost proud.
Raucus rolls his shoulders, hits the wall again, and tries not to think of Octavian's state of mind—and what a mind it had to be, to awaken two great furies with utter abandon—tries not to think of anything said, really. He will lick his wounds—as much as he is able—later, in private. It's bloody difficult. "Luck, then. Write, if you can." It is more than he said to Max the last time, which was precisely nothing. He almost wishes for a Vord horde, or a company of Icemen; perhaps, then, he could take refuge in smashing heads and not worry about losing his son to the First Lord's lunacy, and his silence on the matter would be excused by whatever is left of his conscience.
"I—will." Max's grin, so easy for a moment, is sharp again. "I'll write to him, because he'd better not spend the rest of his days crying, not after what I've seen himdo, these past years. Crassus and me, why, we're almost friends now."
Raucus makes a sound that in a man less stiff would have been a sigh. "You bloody well should be, after we all but faced the end of the world and lived to see the other side."
"It does put a rather different complexion on things, now that I think on it," Max says.
After a moment, Raucus says, "Your back—what did you mean when you asked if I'd not seen it?" There's an ugly truth there, and Raucus knows he must face it. If he's to be a father that is worth the title, then he has to face it. "What is on your back?"
"I shouldn't have said that," Max says quickly. "It''ll only sadden the moment, and I think we might even be getting along."
"Don't take that tone with me, boy," Raucus says. "You're half a century too young."
Max, who is not as stiff as his father, though just as stubborn, but perhaps more reckless, sighs. His eyes shutter further, and he says quietly, "Stepmother was never kind. I don't suppose anyone ever told you, but then, there never was reason to. I survived."
Raucus' chest is tight. "How unkind?"
Max does not meet his eyes, and there seeps into his voice bitterness and anger and a bit of a lost, lonely little boy. "There are marks. The whips she used had glass."
Raucus hears the unsaid accusations as though they are booming in his ears: You did not notice. You did not stop her. She left marks, you crowbegotten bastard, for she whipped me like a slave. You did not stop her. You did not care enough to stop her, or even to see.
There enters a note of fearful pride in Max's voice now. "Did you know, when Calderon guessed enough to understand, do you know what he thought, what he nearly did? He told me once, when we were in our cups, that he wanted to murder them both, Crassus and stepmother. Right where they stood. He only just stopped himself in time and he would have been successful, too, because no one I've seen is faster on his feet, or deadlier, than Calderon." He turns, and meets Raucus' eyes dead on, and they are blazing. "That is the sort of man I am willing to serve. He is more than my Lord; he is my friend. Know this: I will follow him to my death if he asks, and if he does, I will run towards it."
Shame is ringing in Raucus' ears. He does not answer. (His back, it is scarred, his back—and he is blinded, suddenly, by a vision of Max, only three years old, and already with an impish smile and a shock of brown hair and the brightest eyes; and how pink and smooth his cheeks had been, and how warm rosy with fire and sleep; and he realizes, suddenly, how little he had known that boy, and how little he had held him, how his hands had known sword and shield and the a hum of firecraft more than the fluttering heartbeats of his firstborn; and how desperately Max had clung, before he had stopped clinging at all, and instead recoiled.)
In some dim corner of his mind, he hears Max swear viciously, and he is sprawled, suddenly, with Max over him. "Stop that, old man," Max spits. "I didn't tell you so you'd pity me."
Raucus, who has been fighting things larger and faster than he all his life, retaliates without thinking, and they are, suddenly, a great clanging beast, breastplates banging and hands scrabbling for purchase; they wrestle, and as they do, Max keeps swearing in Aleran and in languages that Raucus does not know; and while his son is the stronger, he has more experience for all that he's missing an arm, and so they are more or less matched; and his eyes are wet as he feels his son surge and grapple and struggle. He is strong. That thought burns in his breast: his son is strong, and he does not deserve pity. He may be walking into a great fire fury's maw with the First Lord, but he is doing it with his eyes wide, wide open. However substandard, however foolish, however uncaring, however blind—so crowbegotten blind, may the great furies bury him and burn his eyes and turn his innards to ash and fling them to the wide winds—a father he is, his son is worth more than that.
They stop, eventually, as they tire, and afterwards, they sit, backs braced against the wall and their breath sharp in the air.
At length, Raucus says, "Very well; I will not pity you—"
"Good, because I don't need it. I don't want it. Save it for someone who does."
He smacks Max across the back of his head. "Shut up and let me finish. I will not pity you. But know this: Antillus will always welcome you. Its gates will be open to you. I hope you will remember that, always, even if you choose not to take advantage of the invitation."
"You hit hard, old man," Max says quietly.
"And you, crowling, may stop hitting like a girl if you practice for a few hundred more years."
Max smirks. "You haven't been hit by Kitai. Try it sometime. She cracks bones."
"I'm not sure I have enough bones left." Unbidden, a note of melancholy enters Raucus' voice. It's only natural. Nothing about this new world is the same as the old one—not his land, not his family, not his body, not even his bloody war.
"I'm sorry," Max says after a moment. "About your arm, I mean."
"I don't remember much of it," Raucus says. He glances down at the empty pinned sleeve, and thanks the great furies he's lost only his left arm. "And I'm sorry, Max."
Max shifts uncomfortably. "I told you—"
"I know what you told me," Raucus interrupts. "But I'm sorry." There are so many things he should apologize for; he wonders if it's even worth naming them all. "For everything. For whatever it's worth, I'm sorry."
Max exhales, long and slow. "You don't—you don't have to apologize. Crows. It's what I've been telling Crassus these past few years, and he doesn't understand it, either."
"Fine. I accept your apology." Max nudges Raucus' shoulder, the one with an arm still attached. "And it's worth quite a lot, mind."
Then they lapse into silence, and if it is not strictly companionable, it is not frosty and uncomfortable. Max lumbers to his feet first, and not to be outdone, Raucus follows suit. They grimace, for they've both bruises, old and fresh, and then Max dips his head, merely respectful this time.
"Maybe I will come up to Antillus some time," he says, and when he smiles, his eyes do, too. "Heal up, old man, and make Crassus do it as well. We'll spar, and I'll wipe the Wall with you both."
Raucus smiles back, and his shoulders feel lighter. They'll never truly be free of burden, but if he can win back Max's trust by increments, it's enough for now. "Keep dreaming those big dreams, boy. Perhaps one day they'll come true."
Max laughs. "Take care of yourself, Father," he says, then turns and walks down the palisade. At the far end, he meets with Octavian, whose expression is worried, but otherwise inscrutable. Octavian nods to Raucus, and they disappear down the stairs.
And Raucus stares after them for long moment. He has not knitted together the tatters of his family, but it is a start. He will go home, and heal his second son, and his wife—well, there would be something to do with her, though he would not like to be married, not any longer. He might have punished her, once, but he cannot now, and it will be a while before he will be able to bear looking upon her without anger, and anger now frightened her so. He is still blind, and stupid, and stubborn, but he will learn. He inhales sharply, and under the smell of death and decay and human life, there is fresh pine, and along with that, the start of slow healing.