Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Gods Return: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, September 8, 2008 19:00 EDT



    Cashel carried Rasile in the crook of his arm up the last few tens of steps to the top of the fire tower, the highest point in Pandah. The old wizard's people, the Coerli–the catmen–held the physically weak and aged in contempt even if they happened to be wizards.

    Since the Change, Rasile had been helping the humans who'd conquered the Coerli; her life and health had improved a great deal. Still, the fire tower was a hollow pillar with many tens of tens of steps shaped like wedges of pie on the inside. Lots of younger people, catmen and humans both, would've had trouble climbing it.

    Cashel didn't mind. Rasile scarcely weighed anything to begin with, and besides, it made him feel useful.

    Cashel's friends were all smart and educated. Nobody'd thought that Garric would get to be king while he and Cashel were growing up together in Barca's Hamlet, but he'd gotten as good an education from his father, Reise the Innkeeper, as any nobleman's son in Valles got. Likewise Garric's sister Sharina.

    Cashel smiled at the thought of Sharina. She was so smart and so lovely. If there was wizardry in the world–and there was; Cashel had seen it often–then the greatest proof of it was the fact that Sharina loved him, as he'd loved her from childhood.

    Cashel's sister Ilna couldn't read or write any better than he could, and like Cashel she used pebbles or beans as tellers if she needed to count above the number of her fingers. But there was more to being smart than book learning, and nobody had ever doubted that Ilna was smart. She'd been the best weaver in Barca's Hamlet since she'd grown tall enough to work a loom, and the things she'd learned on her travels had made her better than any other soul.

    None of that had made her happy. Her travels had been to far places, some of them very bad places. She'd come back maybe missing parts that would've let her be happy. Still, Ilna was much of the reason that the kingdom had survived these past years; why the kingdom survived and, in surviving, had allowed mankind to survive.

    Cashel, well, he was just Cashel. He'd been a good shepherd, but nobody needed him to tend sheep any more. He was strong, though; stronger than any man he'd met this far. If he could use that strength to help people like Rasile who the kingdom depended on, then he was glad to have something to do.

    "I'm setting you down," he said, just as he'd have done if he'd been carrying a bogged sheep up to drier ground. The sheep couldn't understand him and the Corl wizard didn't need to be told. Still, a few calm words and a little explanation never hurt. "It's supposed to be the highest place in Pandah and–"

    He looked around. The top of the tower flared a little, but it was still only two double-paces in diameter.

    "–I guess the folks who said that were right."

    Rasile stepped to the railing. From a distance the catmen didn't look much different from humans, but close up you saw that their hands and feet didn't use the same bones. As for their faces, well, they were cats. Rasile was covered with light gray fur which had a nice sheen since she'd started eating properly again.

    Cashel grinned. If Rasile was a ewe, he'd have said she was healthy. Of course back in the borough she'd have been butchered years ago; there was only fodder enough to get the best and strongest through the winter before the spring crops came in.

    "I'll never get used to the cities you beast-men live in," Rasile said. She flicked the back of her right hand with the left, a gesture Cashel had learned was the same as a human being shaking her head. "All those houses together, and so many of them stone. None of the True People ever built with stone."

    "Well, you don't use fire, so you can't smelt metal," Cashel pointed out. "That makes it hard to cut stone."

    He didn't add, "And you catmen aren't much interested in hard work, either," though it'd have been true enough. The Coerli were predators. All you had to do was own a housecat to know that most of the time it'll be sleeping; and when it isn't, it's likely eating or licking itself.

    "Anyway…," Cashel continued diplomatically. Rasile didn't mean anything by "beast-men" and "True People;" it was just the way the Coerli language worked. "I don't guess I'll ever get used to cities either. I was eighteen before I left Barca's Hamlet, and it wasn't but three or four tens of houses."

    Pandah had been a good sized place when the royal army captured it back in the summer, but that was nothing to what it'd become now. All around the stone-built citadel, houses were going up the way mushrooms pop out of the ground after the spring rains. There were wood-sheathed buildings, wattle and daub huts, and on the outskirts any number of tents made of canvas or leather.

    Before the Change, travel for any distance meant travel by ship. The Isles were now the Land, a continent instead of a ring of islands about the Inner Sea, and Pandah was pretty nearly the center. It'd gotten to be an important place instead of a sleepy little island where ships put in to buy fruit and fill their water casks.

    The Corl wizard cleared her throat with a growl that had sounded threatening before Cashel got used to it. She paced slowly sideways around the tower, seeming to look out over Pandah.

    Cashel had spent his life watching animals and figuring out what was going on in their minds before they went and did something stupid. He knew Rasile hadn't asked to come up here just to view a city she disliked even more than he did. That was why he'd asked Lord Waldron, the commander of the royal army, to put a couple soldiers down at the base of the stairs to keep idlers out of the tower while Cashel and the wizard were in it.

    "Warrior Cashel," Rasile said with careful formality, though she still didn't meet his eyes. "You are a friend of Chief Garric. As you know, the wizard Tenoctris summoned me to help your spouse Sharina while Tenoctris herself was occupied with other business."

    "Yes, ma'am," Cashel said. "I know that."

    "There is no wizard as powerful as Tenoctris," Rasile said, this time speaking forcefully.

    Cashel smiled. It was a good feeling to remember a success.

    "Ma'am, I believe that's so," he said. He could've added that it hadn't been true before Tenoctris took an ancient demon into her while Cashel watched. Risky as that was, it'd worked; and because it'd worked, the kingdom had a defender like no wizard before her. "Even she says that, and Tenoctris isn't one to brag."

    "And now she has accomplished her other tasks," Rasile continued, turning at last to look at Cashel. "It may be that with a wizard of his own race present–and so powerful a wizard besides–Chief Garric may no longer wish to keep me in his council. Do you believe that is so, Warrior Cashel?"

    Cashel chuckled, glad to know what was bothering the old wizard. "No ma'am, it's not so," he said, making sure he really sounded like he meant it. He did mean it, of course, but with people–and sheep–lots of times it wasn't the words they heard but the way you said them. "Look, Garric's job is fighting against, well, evil. Right? The sort of evil that'll wipe out everybody, your folk and mine both. And the fight isn't over."

    The sound Rasile made in her throat this time really was a growl, though it wasn't a threat to him. "No, Warrior Cashel," she said, "the fight is not over."

    She gestured toward the eastern horizon. "A very great fight is coming, I believe. But–you have Tenoctris again."

    "Ma'am," Cashel said, hearing his voice drop lower because of the subject, "what with one thing and another, I've been in a lot of fights. I've never been in one where I wouldn't have welcomed help, though. I figure Garric feels the same way."

    Rasile gave a throaty laugh. "I am relieved to hear that," she said. "During the time I accompanied your spouse Sharina, Warrior Cashel, I became accustomed to not being relegated to filth and garbage. While I could return to my former life with the True People, I don't feel the need to reinforce my sense of humility to that degree. Wholesome though no doubt it would be to do so."

    The laughed together. Cashel looked down at the city, holding his quarterstaff in his left hand. There were all sorts of people below, walking and working and just idling along. They made him think of summer days in the south pasture, sitting beneath the ilex tree on the hilltop and watching his sheep go about their business.

    In the past couple years Cashel had gone a lot of places and done a lot of things, but he was still a shepherd at heart. He'd learned there were worse things than sea wolves twisting out of the surf to snatch ewes–but he'd learned also that his hickory staff would put paid to a wizard as quickly as it would to the sort of threats his sheep had faced.

    He tapped the staff lightly, clicking its iron butt-cap on the tower's stone floor. To his surprise, a sizzle of blue wizardlight spat away from the contact.

    Rasile noticed the spark also. Her grin bared a jawful of teeth that were noticeably sharper than those of a human being.

    "I told you the fight was not over, Warrior Cashel," she said. "I felt but I did not say that Chief Garric would be wise to keep me by him. I cannot do as much as his Tenoctris does, but I can do some things; and he will need many things done if he and his kingdom, our kingdom, are to survive the coming struggle."

    Cashel nodded without speaking. From this vantage he could see birds fishing the pools that now dotted the plains where the Inner Sea had rippled before the Change. Most were the white or gray of seagulls, but there were darker shapes which flashed blue when they caught the sun right: kingfishers, he was sure.

    "Would you mind staying here a little longer, Warrior Cashel?" the Corl wizard said. "I would like to work a small spell. Both our height above the ground and your presence will aid me, I believe."

    "Whatever you want, ma'am," Cashel said. "And I'd appreciate you just call me Cashel. I'm not a warrior, you know. I'm just a shepherd."

    Rasile snorted mild laughter as she squatted on her haunches. She took a handful of yarrow stalks out of a bag woven from willow withies, so fine and dense that Cashel thought it would shed water. The catmen were good at weaving; even Ilna said so.

    "You see what you see, shepherd," Rasile said. "But I see what the world sees. If you do not want me to say 'Warrior,' I will not say the word. But the truth does not change, Cashel."

    She tossed the yarrow stalks into a pattern on the stone, then began mumbling words of power. Cashel didn't pay much attention to her. He kept watching the sky and the land beneath, the directions that danger might come from.

    He was a shepherd, after all.



    Sharina looked around the apartment in which Tenoctris lived and worked. She hoped her shocked dismay didn't show in her expression. The small room had been let into the outer wall of the citadel. The walls wept condensate, and the only window was the small one in the iron-braced door. In all, the place would've been suitable for a prison cell–and had probably been used as one in the past.

    Besides being a friend of Prince Garric and Princess Sharina, Tenoctris was the wizard who through advice and skill had done as much to preserve the mankind as had any other single person. Though Pandah's population was increasing by the day, she could have any quarters she wanted.

    "Oh, dear," Tenoctris said in obvious dismay. She looked like a woman of twenty-two or three, pert and pretty without being beautiful. Apparently Sharina hadn't kept her face blank. "I'm sorry, dear. I chose this room because it's what I'm used to. I didn't mean to suggest that you wouldn't give me better or, well, anything. You have to remember that for most of my life–"

    She shrugged. Tenoctris had been a woman of seventy when she'd washed up on the shore of Barca's Hamlet, flotsam flung a thousand years forward in time by the cataclysm which ended the Old Kingdom. She now appeared to be the woman she'd been in her youth, but that was true only physically. She'd gained both knowledge and wisdom over a long life. She retained those virtues and had now added power that few wizards ever could have claimed.

    "–I was considered rightly to be a wizard of very little power. I prided myself on my scholarship, again I think rightly, but–"

    Tenoctris grinned. Her cheerfully wry expression would've been enough by itself for Sharina to identify her, no matter what features she was wearing.

    "–scholars aren't lodged or fed as well as wizards who can split mountains with an incantation and a gesture."

    "Well, speaking as an innkeeper's daughter rather than as Princess Sharina," Sharina said, keeping her tone light, "I'd rather a friend of mine had better lodging. But I understand the attraction of the familiar. I wish I had the same freedom in what I wear."

    She tweaked her silk robe. It was a relatively simple garment compared with full court dress weighing as much as a cavalryman's armor, but contrasted with the tunic she'd ordinarily worn in Barca's Hamlet–both an inner and an outer tunic for unusually formal occasions–it was heavy, hot and confining.

    A squad of soldiers talked in low voices as they waited outside in the passage. They were Bood Eagles, members of the royal bodyguard. Sharina had come to accept that, because she was a princess and regent in her brother's absence, she would always have guards.

    She grimaced. It wasn't that she wanted to be alone–nobody in a peasant village expected privacy, especially in the winter when even a wealthy household heated only one room. She wasn't used to people actually caring what she did, however, day in and day out. Well, there was no help for it; and the dangers were real enough.

    Sharina smiled faintly. Though she doubted men with swords would be any help against the wizardry which had been the worst danger to the kingdom these past two years.

    "What's your opinion of Rasile, Sharina?" Tenoctris asked abruptly. She fluttered her hands, also familiar–though it seemed odd to see a young woman making the gesture an old woman used to make. "I know she's a powerful wizard; that I can judge. What sort of person was she to work with?"

    Sharina took time to frame her reply. The room's low-backed chair was stacked with codices. The bed likewise, though there was room enough for a slim person to sleep along the outer edge. And the three wicker baskets of scrolls, though of a height to be sat on, struck Sharina as too flimsy for that to be a safe option.

    There was room to squat, however. She squatted, just as she would've done back home while popping open peapods for dinner.

    "Rasile doesn't waste words," she said. She grinned. "Or mince them. Which I actually appreciate. She's brave, calm, and good company."

    Sharina met the gaze of the old/young wizard who'd seated herself on the edge of the low bed, putting their eyes on a level. "She wasn't you, Tenoctris," she said. "But you couldn't have left me with a better helper."

    "No, she isn't me," Tenoctris said with a quirk of her lips, a smile that wasn't quite humorous. "She's a great deal more powerful than I ever was. And equally precise, which is why she hasn't precipitated a cataclysm the way so many powerful wizards have done in the past. Also, I don't think she cares much about her power."

    "She isn't as powerful as you are now, though?" Sharina said carefully. She wasn't trying to be flattering, but she needed to understand the tools that preserved the kingdom. Tenoctris and Rasile were among those tools, just as surely as she and her brother and all those who took the side of Good were.

    She was Princess Sharina. She had to think that way if she was to do the best possible work in the struggle with evil, and there was no margin for anything but the best possible work.

    "Cashel is accompanying Rasile at this moment," Tenoctris said, looking squarely at Sharina. "I thought that might be a good pairing for the future, if the kingdom's safety required a wizard with suitable protection to act at a distance from the palace and army."

    Sharina didn't mean to turn away, but she found her eyes were resting on the top codex of the pile on the chair. It'd been bound with the pebbled skin of a lizard. There was no legend on the cover, but on the edge of the pages was written Hybro in vermillion ink. The word didn't mean anything to her.

    She pursed her lips. "You mean the sort of thing you and Cashel did just now, while I led the army against Pandah," she said without emphasis. She looked at the wizard again. The young, pretty, very powerful wizard. "That went very well, I believe."

    "Yes," said Tenoctris flatly, "it did."

    She paused. "I always found Cashel impressive," she said. "I find him even more so now that I have–"

    She twisted a lock of hair to call attention to her gleaming, sandy-red curls.

    "–more capacity for appreciation."

    This time it was Tenoctris who looked away. She cleared her throat and continued, "Sharina, I have powers that I wouldn't have, couldn't have, dreamed of in the past."

    She smiled wryly. "In a very long past life. I hope that this power hasn't caused me to lose my judgment, however. Specifically, it hasn't caused me to miss what Cashel is: a rock which will stand though the heavens fall."

    "I never doubted you, Tenoctris," Sharina said. She didn't know if that was true. Her lips were dry.

    "If you're wise," Tenoctris said, smiling again, "then you never doubted Cashel. You never should doubt Cashel, Sharina. Though the heavens fall."

    Sharina rose, feeling a trifle dizzy. That was common after squatting, after all. "I'm sure Rasile will find him a good companion and protector," she said. "If there's need, of course."

    There would be need. Sharina was as sure of that as she was that there would be a thunderstorm. She didn't know when or how violent it would be–

    But she knew that the storm was coming.



    Ilna's fingers knotted short lengths of cord as she looked at the four people across the desk from her. She was angry, but that–like the fact the sun rises in the east–wasn't unusual enough to be worth comment.

    Directly before her were a pair of plump young women, Carisa and Bovea, foster nurses employed by the Lady Merota bos-Roriman Society for Orphans; they were crying. A man of thirty named Heismat, originally from Cordin, sat to their left. He'd wanted to stand, but he'd obeyed when Ilna ordered him onto the third low stool. Despite his bluster and the angry red of his face, Heismat's eyes were cold with fear.

    Ilna smiled, though nobody could've mistaken the expression for humor. Heismat knew he was in trouble, though as yet he didn't understand how serious the trouble was. It was hard to convince some people that they shouldn't knock children around, and even more people thought a Corl kit was an animal rather than a child.

    Mistress Winora, the manager of the Merota Society, stood beside the door with her hands crossed at her waist; her face was expressionless. Winora was fifty, the widow of a merchant from Erdin who'd been killed in the chaos that followed the Change. She'd kept the books and managed the Erdin end of the business while her husband traveled, so she–unlike Ilna–had the skills required to run the day to day operations of the Society.

    Carisa and Bovea were among the many other women who'd lost their spouses recently. There were even more orphans than there were widows, so it'd seemed perfectly obvious to Ilna to put the two together to the advantage of both, paying each pair of nurses a competence sufficient to care for a handful of children. She'd done so in the name of Merota, who'd been an orphan also until Ilna and Chalcus took charge of her.

    Ilna's fingers knotted, forming a very complex pattern. It calmed her to knot and weave, but she had a specific purpose this time. She was very angry.

    Merota and Chalcus had died during the Change. If you believed in souls, then Ilna's soul had died with them–with her family. Ilna didn't believe in souls or gods or anything, really, except craftsmanship. And she believed in the death that would come to all things, though perhaps not as soon as she would like.

    "Look, I'm sorry," Heismat snarled. He glared at his knotted hands. He'd been a laborer before the Change and had come to Pandah to work in the building trade. "I said I was sorry, didn't I? I didn't mean to do it!"

    "Mistress," blubbered Carisa. Heismat was her boyfriend. "It was only because he was drinking, you know. He's a good man, a good man, really."

    "Mistress Winora, how is the kit?" Ilna asked. Her voice was thin and as cold as the wind from the Ice Capes.

    "She'll live," Winora said. Her face was bleak, her tone emotionless. Winora regarded this as failure on her part. "She'll probably limp for the rest of her life, but we may be lucky."

    Ilna nodded. "Worse things happen in this world," she said.

    It wasn't Winora's fault. It was the fault of Ilna os-Kenset, who'd created a situation which allowed a child to be injured instead of being protected as was supposed to have happened.

    Worse things happened, as she'd said. She'd done far worse things herself. But this particular thing wouldn't happen again.

    "There were other instances of Master Heismat hitting the kit," Winora said. "They weren't as serious, and I didn't learn about them until after this event. I'm sorry, mistress. I wasn't watching as closely as I should have done."

    "People make mistakes," Ilna said quietly, her eyes on Heismat; he fidgeted under the cold appraisal. She thought, At least you're aware of that it was a mistake. If Winora had said the wrong thing–and it wouldn't have had to be very wrong, because Ilna was extremely angry–she'd have been next in line as soon as Ilna was done with Heismat.

    "Mistress, please," Carisa said, mumbling into her kerchief wadded in both hands. "Heismat's a good man, only the cats killed his whole family. Please, mistress."

    The rhythmic ching! ching! of iron on stone sounded from the courtyard. A mason was carving letters and embellishments for the lintel with strokes of a narrow-bladed adze. Ilna had been angry to learn that money was being spent on what she considered needless ornamentation when a painted sign would do.

    She'd checked her facts before she acted, though; someone who got as angry as Ilna did learned to check the facts before acting. Lady Liane bos-Benliman, the fiancée of Prince Garric and, less publicly, the kingdom's spymaster, had ordered the carving. Liane was paying for the job from her own funds.

    Ilna still thought the carving was an unnecessary expense, but she'd learned a long time ago that what she thought and what the world thought were likely to be very different. And Ilna also knew that she made mistakes.

    Sometimes it felt like she made only mistakes, though of course that wasn't true anyplace but in Ilna's heart. She'd thanked Liane for her generosity.

    "Mistress," said Heismat, glaring at his hands. "I didn't mean it, only I come home and there the beast–"

    "Cloohe, mistress!" said Bovea. "Little Cloohe, and it's my fault, I'd shut her up when we saw it was getting on and Heismat wasn't home yet, but she must've slipped out while I was dozing."

    "I seen the, the cat, and I thunk of my own three that the cats kilt and I couldn't stop myself, mistress," Heismat said brokenly toward his knotted fists. "I'd drunk a bit much. I knowed I shoulda kept away, but I wanted to see Carisa and, and I didn't think. I seed the, the kit, and I just flew hot."

    "Mistress, it was the drink," Carisa said. "It's my own fault not to keep Cloohe locked up better when it got so late and Heismat not back."

    "I've already split the women up and put them with stronger partners, mistress," Winora said in the same dry tone as before. "They're among the best caretakers we have. Though of course I've warned them that you may choose to dismiss or otherwise punish them."

    Ilna shrugged. "I'm concerned with preventing a recurrence," she said, "not vengeance. I tried vengeance long enough to determine that it wasn't a satisfactory answer."

    How many of the Coerli did I kill after they'd slaughtered Chalcus and Merota? Many, certainly. More than even Merota, who counted any number you pleased without using tellers, could've kept track of.

    Ilna smiled. Bovea, who happened to be looking at her, stifled a scream with her knuckles.

    "Mistress, I'm sorry," Heismat said, stumbling over the words in his fear. "I swear by the Lady it'll never happen again. Never!"

    "It were just the drink, mistress," Carisa pleaded. "He's a good man."

    Ilna looked at the girl; without expression, she'd have said, but from the way Carisa cringed back there must've been something after all. "As men go," Ilna said quietly, "as human beings go, I suppose you're right. Though I'm angry enough as it is, so I don't see what you think to gain by emphasizing the fact."

    Carisa blinked. Her hand was over her mouth. "Mistress, I don't understand?" she mumbled.

    Ilna grimaced. There were sheep with more intelligence than this girl–who was Ilna's age or older in actual years.

    Still, Carisa was a good mother to orphans, which is more than Ilna herself could say. While Ilna was caring for Merota, a catman with a stone mace had dashed the child's brains out.

    "Master Heismat, look at me," Ilna said.

    Heismat's face twitched into a rictus. His eyes slanted to Ilna's left, then above her; he knuckled his balled fists.

    "Master Heismat," Ilna said. She didn't raise her voice, but her anger sang like a good sword vibrating. "I'm offering you an alternative to being hanged and your body dumped in a rubbish tip, but I assure you that I will go the other way if you don't cooperate."

    "Mistress, I'm sorry," the laborer said. Tears were dribbling into his sandy beard and the rank stain darkening his gray pantaloons showed that he'd lost control of his bladder, but he was looking directly at Ilna as she'd demanded. "It'll never happen again, I swear!"

    Ilna raised the pattern she'd knotted. It was quite a subtle piece of work, though no one else in the world would've understood that. Her patterns generally affected everyone who looked at them. That was true here as well, but only Heismat had the background to be affected. His memories were the nether millstone against which Ilna's fabric would grind out misery and horror.

    She smiled because she was very angry, then folded the pattern into itself and placed it in her left sleeve. She'd pick the knots out shortly.

    "All right," Ilna said, rising. "Mistress Winora, you'll have business to go over with the nurses."

    She looked at Heismat, who was blinking in surprise. "Master Heismat," she said, "you're free to go also."

    She considered adding, "And I hope I never see you again," but that would've been pointless and Ilna tried to avoid pointless behavior. Given that all existence struck her as fairly pointless, the whole business was probably an exercise in self-delusion, another thing that she'd have said she tried to avoid. The train of thought made her smile.

    "But what happened?" Bovea said. Heismat and Carisa were keeping silent, probably stunned by what they thought was their good luck. "Nothing happened, did it?"

    "Bovea, be silent!" Winora snapped as she stepped aside from the door. "You're in trouble enough already, girl."

    Ilna stopped and looked back. "Nothing happened unless Master Heismat takes a drink," she said, "which he's promised not to do. If he goes back on his word, he'll experience the slaughter of his family through the eyes of one of the Corl hunters involved. Every time he takes a drink."

    "But…," said Carisa. Heismat simply sat with his mouth open. "A drink? You don't mean he can't have a mug of ale? Mistress, the water's not safe in Pandah with all the people coming in and the wells so shallow!"

    "I mean any drink," Ilna said. "Anything with alcohol in it. As for the water in Pandah, I quite agree. Your friend can find a place where the water's safer, I suppose."

    She smiled.

    "Or he can die," she added, eyeing the laborer critically. He stared back at her as blankly as a landed fish. "We all die eventually, and there's nothing in Master Heismat's behavior that makes me wish he was an exception."

    Carisa lifted her apron and began sobbing into it. Ilna touched the latch lever to open the door; Winora put out her hand.

    "Mistress?" Ilna said sharply. She didn't mean the anger; not exactly, at any rate. She very much wanted to be shut of this affair, and Winora was prolonging it.

    "Mistress, do you wish me to continue in my position?" the older woman said. She met Ilna's eyes, but she was obviously frightened. She's terrified!

    "Yes," said Ilna. Am I as terrible as that? "You caught the business as quickly as reasonably could be done."

    She felt her lips lift in a cold smile again. Ilna was that terrible, of course; but not to this woman whose only mistake was that she hadn't been perfect, that she hadn't foreseen all the things that could go wrong. A Corl kit had been crippled; worse had happened to a child named Merota because of Ilna's own mistakes.

    "And you told me at once instead of trying to hide it," she added. "That was wise."

    "Thank you, mistress," Winora said, shuddering in relief. She glanced over her shoulder, drawing Ilna's attention also. Heismat had his arms around Carisa and was trying to murmur reassurance to the blubbering girl. He probably was a good man, as humans judged such things.

    "It would have been a mercy to have killed him instead," Winora said without emphasis.

    "Yes," said Ilna. "But this way he's a better example to others."



    She opened the door. Gilla, Mistress Winora's chief assistant, was standing in the hall with her back to the panel. When it opened she jumped aside and said, rattling the words out all together, "Mistress-Ilna-this-gentleman's-come-to-see-you! I told him you'd said not to be disturbed and you wouldn't be, not while I had life and breath!"

    "Thank you, Gilla," Ilna said. From the way the plump woman was wheezing, she had very little breath left. Ilna felt a touch of real amusement that didn't reach her lips. Still, it lightened her mood. "Lord Zettin? As a matter of fact, I was hoping to see you today. Can we speak for a moment further after you've finished your business?"

    "Mistress," said Zettin, "it's your business that brings me here. I was furious when I learned that my staff had turned you away! Is there some place we can get privacy?"

    He looked around. Faces ranging from infants to that of the aged charwoman ducked away from his angry glance. The building served not only as the foundation's office but as a temporary barracks for orphans who hadn't yet been assigned to a pair of nurses in the community. A high nobleman like Lord Zettin would've been an object of wonder even if he hadn't been wearing a dazzling parcel-gilt cuirass.

    "My business doesn't require secrecy," Ilna said, feeling her lips pinch over the words. It offended her that anybody might even think she was trying to hide something. "But we can sit in the garden, and I'm sure–"

    She looked at–glared at, she supposed–Gilla.

    "–that Mistress Gilla will see that we're not disturbed."

    "Yes, mistress!" Gilla said. "Whatever mistress says! Ah, would mistress and her guest like some refreshment while you confer?"

    "That won't be necessary," Ilna said firmly, leading her visitor through a reception hall in which six female clerks now worked on the foundation's accounts. In truth her mouth was dry from anger at Heismat, but she didn't want servants interrupting her with carafes and tumblers. This wouldn't take long.

    She didn't bother asking what Zettin wanted. If he was thirsty, he could wait the length of a brief discussion also.

    Lord Zettin was thirty-one or two, quite young for someone in so senior a position. Before the Change, he'd commanded the fleet and the phalanx of pikemen which the oarsmen formed after their ships were drawn up on the beach. He'd gotten the job not only because he was keen and clever–which he was–but because Ornifal's wealthy nobility considered the position a lowly one.

    It had been lowly when Dukes of Ornifal claimed to be Kings of the Isles but had little control beyond the shores of their island. When Garric became Prince Garric and the real ruler, the fleet and phalanx became important–and Admiral Zettin showed himself to be skilled as well as clever.

    The Inner Sea became a continent at the Change and grounded the fleet. Zettin now commanded the kingdom's new scouting forces, another job that established officers didn't want. The scouts were a mixture of hunters, shepherds, and catmen; they moved fast in small units which didn't bother with the baggage train of the regular army. From the scraps of conversation Ilna had heard from Garric, Liane and Sharina, Zettin was again doing very well.

    The house Ilna had taken for her foundation came with a courtyard garden. It had been not only ill-tended but awash in garbage–its most recent occupants had been renegade Coerli, and their immediate predecessors were bands of human pirates.

    So far as Ilna was concerned the courtyard could've stayed a wasteland, though of course the garbage had to go. Members of the new staff had made it a priority, though, and the orphans seemed to have thrown themselves into the work. In less than a month the apple trees and the cypress had been pruned, and the planting beds were bright with zinnias, tiny blue asters, and even a late-blooming cardoon. The flowers must've been transplanted; they certainly couldn't have grown so fast from seeds.

    Ilna sat on one of the two stone benches framing a small round table. She deliberately chose the seat in the sunlight rather than that shaded by the cypress. Her fingers were picking out and reforming the pattern they'd knotted for Heismat. She didn't need to be able to strike Zettin with despair or paralyzing fear, but she could. So long as she was in the sunlight, he was certain to see whatever she lifted before his eyes.

    "I apologize for my staff, Mistress Ilna," Zettin said, sitting straight up on the opposite bench. A good thing he isn't in the sun; that breastplate would be blinding. "They didn't realize who you were and mistakenly thought that they shouldn't interrupt the morning briefing."

    Ilna opened her mouth. Before she could get a word out, he continued, "Mistress, I know I've seemed to be arrogant and not to, well, show the courtesy I should. But please believe me, I've always had the kingdom's interests at heart. If I push hard and don't always listen as well as I might, that's the cause. Believe me, I never would've allowed you to be turned away!"

    Ilna frowned, not at what the nobleman was saying but because he was saying it to her. He thinks he's offended me. That was reasonable; he must by now be used to his pushiness offending people. What wasn't reasonable was Zettin bothering to apologize, as though she was powerful enough to hurt him.

    "I stopped by on my way here," Ilna said. "I asked for you personally because you're the only person I know in the scouts. I have a favor to ask–"

    "Anything, mistress!" Zettin said. "Anything in my power. Just ask!"

    "I was trying to," Ilna said, glaring at Zettin. He was a slim, good looking man who was careful of his appearance; his dark-blond hair and moustache were neatly trimmed, and there were no smudges on his armor.

    Zettin's mouth worked on a sour thought. He brushed his left hand over his face and said, "Mistress, my apologies. Again."

    She paused, suddenly struck by a vision of the Ilna os-Kenset which this nobleman saw. She was powerful. A word to her childhood friends Garric or Sharina would send Lord Zettin off to command a garrison regiment or as envoy to a distant, minor court.

    Ilna wouldn't do that, of course; she hadn't been angry, and politics disgusted her anyway. If she had felt a need to punish the man, she'd have done it directly as she'd done to others in the past. Quite a few others, now that she considered the matter.

    "Yes," Ilna said. "During my travels immediately after the Change, a pair of former hunters named Asion and Karpos helped me. They're here in Pandah, but they're uncomfortable in cities."

    She smiled wryly at herself.

    "They're even more uncomfortable than I am," she said. "They'll take reasonable orders. They wouldn't make good soldiers–"

    That was a mild a way of putting it; Ilna grimaced. In fact it was mild enough to be a lie if you looked at it closely, and Ilna hated lies.

    "–but I think they'd be useful as scouts for you. They…."

    She paused again and swallowed. She suddenly found herself choking on emotion, an unexpected circumstance and a very uncommon one besides.

    "Asion and Karpos," she resumed forcefully, "earned my respect and gratitude. I suppose you take courage for granted, but they also showed cool heads and great skill many times. I'd like them to be in a good situation."

    Zettin nodded crisply. "Yes, of course," he said. His eyes drifted toward bees buzzing about the calendula, then met hers again. In a sharper tone he went on, "Can they work with Coerli?"

    "Yes, that won't be a problem," Ilna said. "I'll tell them to dispose of the cat-scalp capes they made while they were with me."

    Zettin barked a laugh, then looked shocked. He muttered, "Sorry, mistress, I didn't mean to laugh…."

    He stopped.

    "I intended it as a joke," Ilna said tartly. "It's true, of course, but Asion and Karpos have too much judgment for me to need to tell them that."

    "It would've been all right," Zettin said, the cool professional again. "The Scouting Corps has all-human units–and all-Coerli units too, for that matter. But the mixed units get better results, and it's one less thing to worry about when assigning billets."

    He cleared his throat. "Ah, mistress?" he went on. "You won't be needing the men's services again yourself? Because I can see to it that they're stationed near Pandah if you'd like."

    Ilna shook her head. "I don't know how long I'll be here," she said. "I've already stayed much longer than I cared to."

    She heard the bitterness in her voice and scowled; she was showing weakness.

    "I don't know what I'll be doing in the future," she said, keeping her tone neutral. "Dying, I suppose, but before then…."

    She spread her hands, palms up.

    "Well, no doubt something will appear."

    Zettin appeared for a moment to be glaring at the cardoon's purple face. He drummed the fingers of his left hand on the bench beside him, then turned to Ilna with a look of resolution.

    "Mistress," he said firmly. "I'm about to bring up a personal problem, nothing whatever to do with the business of the kingdom. The only reason I dare to mention it is that you implied that you want to get out of Pandah?"

    "Go on," Ilna said. Her fingers were taking apart the pattern they'd knotted; when she'd reduced it to loose yarn, she'd again recast it. Weaving gave her something to do while she listened….

    "My sister Zussa has married into a wealthy family, but they're in trade," Zettin said. "I want to be very clear about that."

    Ilna sniffed. "I suppose my family was in trade also," she said, "before my father, mine and Cashel's, drank up his share of the family mill. Please get to the point, Master Zettin."

    She would not call him or any man "Lord."

    "When her father-in-law died last year," Zettin said, smiling faintly, "her husband Hervir took over the family's spice importing business. The firm was based in Valles, but after the Change Hervir put in motion plans to move it to Pandah. He's, ah, quite a forward-looking young man."

    Also, he's smart enough to take advice from a well connected brother-in-law, Ilna thought.

    Zettin had noticed the deliberate slight of "Master," and had been amused by it. Before this conversation she would've said she didn't care for Zettin particularly, putting him in the same category as all but a handful of the people she knew. To Ilna's surprise, the fellow was edging toward that select handful.

    "Hervir heard that a source of saffron had appeared on the north coast of Blaise since the Change," Zettin said. "As you probably know, in the past saffron came only from two or three valleys in the mountains of Seres. Saffron from Blaise could come up the New River almost directly to Pandah."

    "Go on," Ilna said. It was simpler to be politely non-committal than to snarl that of course a peasant from Barca's Hamlet knew nothing about a spice so expensive that it was weighed out with carob seeds, just like jewels.

    "Hervir had been planning to set up the new headquarters in Pandah himself, but when he heard about this opportunity, well…," Zettin shrugged. "Hervir and I haven't always seen eye to eye."

    He flashed Ilna a wan smile that made him look unexpectedly human. Zettin usually had points sticking out in all directions; everything he said or did seemed to be a way of getting advantage. For the first time in the two years since Ilna met him, that wasn't the case.

    "Or perhaps," he said, "we do see eye to eye–we're too much alike to be friends. Regardless, I respect Hervir whether or not I like him. He sent Zussa here to prepare the new headquarters and set off himself to Blaise with his secretary, six guards, and a belt of money. He planned to buy a riverboat on Blaise and sail down to Pandah with the saffron."

    Zettin paused, looking across the table. Because something was obviously expected of her, Ilna said, "Go on," again.

    This time the pattern her fingers were knotting wasn't a weapon. The lines in yarn were a reflection of the universe, though Ilna herself was never conscious of their meaning until she concentrated on what her fingers had woven without her conscious mind's control.

    "Two days ago the secretary and guards arrived in Pandah," Zettin said. "Hervir wasn't with them, nor the money either. The secretary–his name's Ingens and he's been seven years with the house, a perfectly reliable man Zussa says–Ingens says that Hervir went off alone at night with the chest. He was meeting a man with the saffron, supposedly. He never came back."

    Zettin spread his hands with a grimace. "Now," he said, "I don't want you to think that I believe in fortunetellers, but Madame Raciana, Hervir's mother, does. She went to a fellow, a charlatan I'm sure, who swears that Hervir was spirited off by wizardry. She's prodding Zussa to get one of my wizard friends in the court–"

    He grimaced apologetically. "I'm sorry," he said, "but that's what they think. One of my wizard friends to rescue her son. And Zussa, I'm sorry to say, is making my life a misery until I act. Mistress, I know you're not a wizard, but, well, you have that reputation."

    He paused with a cautious look on his face. To see how I'm taking that, Ilna realized. The statement was true, so she certainly wasn't going to snarl at Zettin for what he'd said. And it was possible that the belief that Ilna os-Kenset was a wizard also was true. Not the way Tenoctris was, or the catwoman Rasile; but there were things Ilna did that only wizards could do, and she did some things that even wizards could not.

    "Go on," she said aloud.

    "If you could come with me and tell Raciana that there's no wizard's work involved, that Hervir was knocked on the head and robbed," Zettin said earnestly, "then she'll let me take care of the business the way it should be. I'll send a troop of my scouts under a good officer up to where Hervir disappeared. They'll get to the bottom of the trouble, I'll warrant."

    "I'll certainly go with you," Ilna said, rising. She began to reduce the oracle to short lengths of twine again. "I'd like to talk to this secretary."

    She smiled coldly at the nobleman as he rose with her. She could see her reflection in the breastplate, distorted across the gilded images of sea gods cavorting.

    "But I won't tell Madame Raciana that her fortuneteller is wrong," Ilna said, "because to my surprise that doesn't seem to be true. Master Hervir really was taken by wizardry… and I think I may have found a sufficient reason to leave Pandah."



    Liane sat in the roof garden, her back to the west so that the sun fell over her shoulder onto the Books of Changes from which she was reading to Garric. She turned a page.

    "'Piety lies conquered,'" she continued. Her voice was like polished amber, smooth and soft and golden. "'Starry Justice leaves the bloody earth for the far reaches of the heavens.'"

    She paused and grinned at Garric. "If Pendill's to be believed," she said, "things were as bad by the end of the First Age as they are now. Perhaps we should feel encouraged that they haven't gotten even worse?"

    Garric laughed. He sat in the tiny grape arbor; Liane had moved a wicker bench for better light, but they were both out of the direct sight of everyone else in–well, in the whole world. That was unusual for anyone who lived in society, and almost unheard of for a prince and his consort in a palace full of servants, office-holders, and courtiers.

    "I think we've improved from that," he said, luxuriating in the fact that he wasn't for these few moments being ruler of a kingdom under threat. "Piety hasn't given up the fight yet, and as for Justice–I was a peasant, and a peasant'll choose the king's law any day over the local squire's justice. I think the kingdom's moving pretty well in the direction of having a rule of law, though I don't pretend to've convinced everybody."

    "If you're dealing with human beings," said King Carus, the ghost in Garric's mind, "you won't convince everybody that the sun rises in the east. And there's no few of 'em who'll try to brain you if you won't agree that it really rises in the west."

    Garric chuckled in unison with his ancient ancestor. Carus had been the last ruler of the Old Kingdom; he'd spent his reign battling usurpers as well the monsters which entered the waking world as wizardry rose to its thousand-year peak. In the end a wizard had destroyed both Carus and himself, had destroyed the Old Kingdom as well, and had very nearly destroyed mankind.

    "The thing is, lad…," Carus said. Garric saw the ancient king as a man of forty or so, leaning on the battlements of a half-glimpsed tower. He wore a bright blue tunic and red breeches more vivid than the roses clinging to the masonry. "I was as quick to knock heads as the next fellow. Quicker, I dare say, and certainly better at it. I'd have brought the kingdom down myself without any wizard's help. None of which I understood until I saw you ruling the right way, of course."

    Garric's lips pursed as he considered the matter. Liane knew about the ghost in his mind, but she wasn't party to their silent conversations. Therefore he said aloud, "You can't rule with a sword alone. But until the Golden Age returns, you can't rule without a sword either. I'm very fortunate in having an ancestor who was the greatest warrior of…."

    He paused again for thought. Carus grinned, and Garric's grin echoed the ghost's. "The greatest warrior ever, I think," he said aloud.

    "It does seem," said Liane, closing the book, "that there's more peace if everyone's convinced that Prince Garric and the royal army will destroy anybody who breaks that peace."

    She reached down for the portable desk in which she kept current files but straightened again without touching it; the details of government could wait for the time being. "That's particularly true of the Coerli. I'm frankly amazed that the integration of them into the kingdom has been so smooth."

    "The Coerli aren't comfortable unless they're in a hierarchy, but once they've got one they'll live with it even if they're not on top," Garric said, smiling faintly. "There's a lot of human beings the same way. Just about every professional soldier in this army, for example."

    Liane set Pendill down, though she didn't open the travelling desk to put the book away properly. "I'm still glad it worked this way," she said. "If it hadn't, we would've had to wipe the Coerli out."

    She stepped into the arbor and settled beside Garric. It was a muggy day, but her soft warmth was welcome.

    "You said something about a sea serpent in the south?" Garric said. It disturbed him to realize that he couldn't completely relax any more, not when there was still work to be done. There was always work for a prince to do….

    "In Telut," Liane said. She would've risen to get the report covering the matter from her desk; Garric tightened his arm slightly to keep her where she was; she relaxed against him again.

    Liane used her notebooks as props, but she normally didn't bother to open them while discussing the matters they contained. Though the archives of the kingdom's intelligence service were well indexed and staffed by skilled clerks, Liane really ran it out of her head.

    Her father had been, among other things, a successful merchant. She'd used his contacts and business training to weave a web of spies through the Isles. That was now as necessary as the royal army, but it worked only because Liane, demure and cultured and beautiful, sat like a spider at its center.

    "Refugees from the city of Ombis on Telut," she said slowly, wriggling against him. "Said an army, an armed rabble under a chief calling himself Captain Archas, summoned the city to surrender. They closed the gates."

    Garric gently rubbed the back of Liane's neck, massaging the sudden tension from it. Her voice softer again, she continued, "Two of the refugees swore they saw Archas call a huge serpent out of the sea. But Ombis hasn't been within ten miles of the coast since the Change."

    "What do your own agents say?" Garric said, more to show he'd been listening than because he didn't think Liane would get to that question on her own.

    "They haven't reported," she said. "A Serian who crossed the Seaway says that Ombis was completely destroyed, however."

    "We'll take care of it," Garric said calmly. He'd learned in childhood that keeping his tone calm was more important than what you said. That insight was even more valuable when dealing with humans than it had been with sheep. "I don't know how yet but we will, whether it's real or a hallucination. We have Tenoctris and the army and anything else it might take. We have the whole kingdom's resources. Evil won't win."

    "No, Garric," Liane whispered. "It won't."

    After a moment she said, "When we were studying Old Kingdom epics at Mistress Gudea's Academy, I thought they were terribly boring. I didn't want to read about adventure, I wanted to be off with my father visiting distant places and sailing even beyond the Isles themselves. Now… sometimes I think I'd like to be a scholar and never see anything wonderful except after it'd been written down in a book."

    "You wouldn't like it, dear," Garric said.

    "For a little while, I think I might like it," Liane said, smiling. "But it doesn't matter. I'm glad I can be useful to the kingdom, and to you."

    A discussion, low-voiced but heated, broke out on the third-story terrace. The outside staircase there was the only way up to the roof garden, and the platoon of Blood Eagles on guard was making certain that Prince Garric wasn't disturbed until he told them different.

    "That fellow arguing," King Carus said with the grin of a man who'd learned to find humor in places that civilians generally didn't, "is going to be lucky if he doesn't wind up back in the street without needing to take the stairs."

    "Starshine!" an unfamiliar voice shouted. "Starshine!"

    Liane jumped to her feet. "Garric, he's one of mine! I'm sorry, I have to see him!"

    It was good that she'd moved, because otherwise Garric would've flung her aside on his way to the parapet of plaster over wickerwork. A man wearing a light cloak struggled in the arms of two Blood Eagles. He'd lost his broad leather hat, and the disarranged cloak let the bloodstain on his dull blue tunic show.

    "Send him up!" Garric called to the guards. He was already belting on the sword that he'd leaned against a pot holding a forsythia. Liane had unlatched her travelling desk and was setting it up.

    "You got a good one there, lad," Carus said. "She'll have to change her emergency password now, though."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image