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The Gods Return: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, September 22, 2008 22:13 EDT



    When they realized how bad the agent's condition was, Garric went down to the terrace and sent a Blood Eagle off to fetch a surgeon. By the time he returned to the roof, Liane had settled the man on the bench with his head and torso lifted. She was bathing the wound with wine from the carafe set to cool in a water pot, dark with evaporation through the coarse earthenware.

    "His name's Aberus," she said quietly. "He's from District Three, the south."

    "Palomir," Aberus muttered. His eyes were closed. When Garric looked closely he could see the fellow was in his mid-20s, but he seemed thirty years older from any distance.

    "That's the pain," Carus said with the dispassionate precision of a man who'd been in pain many times and who'd learned to function no matter how bad it was. "He'll lose the arm, I shouldn't wonder."

    "The Empire of Palomir, they call it," Aberus said, his voice stronger though he kept his eyes closed. "But Palomir's a ruin. There's acres and acres of crystal buildings, but they're falling to pieces and there aren't many people left. A few hundred. There's tenements in Erdin with more people than the whole city has."

    The carafe had been wrapped in  napkins. Liane had used one to mop the wound; now she pulled the other out of the throat of the carafe and squeezed wine from the cloth into the corner of the agent's upturned mouth. He slurped greedily.

    "Bless you, milady," he said. "Oh, may the Lady bless you."

    His breath caught. "Those bloody rats," he squealed. "Oh, by the Lady. But I got away. I got away, didn't I?"

    "You're safe in Pandah, Aberus," Liane said. "Tell us about Palomir. Tell us what happened to you."

    "They were praying in the main temple every night, all the citizens of Palomir," Aberus said. He spoke in a light, quick patter like a moth's wings beating against the inside of a lamp chimney. "And I thought, nothing surprising, lots of people praying since the Change, you know. And they didn't let strangers into the ceremonies, but I never spent a farthing on incense for the gods anyhow, what do I care about what they do in the temple? And I was coming back to report, only… only…."

    He paused, breathing deeply. His face had gone pale under the tan; the resulting color was dirty yellow like that of a cheese rind. Liane sponged more wine between his lips. His throat worked spasmodically, then managed to swallow.

    "I was coming back," Aberus said, "but I thought instead of coming straight back to Pandah, I'd see if the road was open to Cordin. I used to know a girl in Ragos and she'd married, you know, but that was before. A lot could've happened, and anyway…. So I went out the west road, and I went out at night while they were all at the temple because they said there were monsters in the jungle west of the city and they wouldn't let anybody go that way for their own safety."

    Feet banged up the wooden steps from the terrace. A Blood Eagle peeked over the parapet and said with a worried expression, "Your highness, there's a doctor here. Do you want…?"

    "Yes, by the Shepherd, send him up!" Garric said. Everybody was afraid of offending Prince Garric by doing the wrong thing. They constantly asked for his approval instead of simply doing what he'd said to do in the first place.

    He couldn't remember a single epic in which the king or city-founding hero had that problem. Maybe I should retire and write an epic of my own in seclusion….

    The thought was so close to what Liane had said a moment ago that Garric barked a laugh. Neither of them were going to retire while the kingdom needed them, though; or anyway, needed somebody to do the jobs they were doing well at present.

    "I kept off the main road for the first half mile or so," Aberus said. He hadn't opened his eyes since he collapsed on the bench. "I cut through the orchards mostly. I thought there might be guard posts, but there wasn't any so I got back on the road. Funny not to have guards if they were really worried about monsters in the jungle, but I hadn't believed about the monsters anyway."

    Daciano, the staff surgeon of the Blood Eagles, entered the garden with his pair of young female assistants. "Are you all right, your highness?" he asked.

    "This is the man you were called for," said Garric peevishly. He gestured toward Aberus, though the surgeon should've been able to see the fellow's condition already.

    "And I'll get to him," Daciano said, smiling pleasantly at Garric as he stepped into the arbor, "now that I know your highness is all right."

    The ghost of Carus chuckled. "He's gotten more from serving with the Blood Eagles than just experience stitching up holes in people," he said.

    That was quite true. Lord Attaper commanded the bodyguard regiment. He'd made it clear to his troops that if they kept safe the people they were guarding, he'd stand between them and anybody who complained about the way they went about their job–most certainly including Prince Garric himself.

    The Blood Eagles' rigid priorities frequently exasperated Garric, but he'd finally decided that a real craftsman was always going to put his task first. He couldn't very well object to that when he was pretty much the same way himself.

    "I wasn't far along the road before I heard a lot of people coming the other way," Aberus said. Daciano had eased Liane aside, but he knelt to look at the agent before touching him. "I thought people, anyhow. Only some of them were, but I didn't know that. So I got off the road again and watched."

    Daciano murmured to his assistants. One began to dab the wound with a sponge soaked in sour wine, while the other handed the surgeon a pair of tweezers. They were bronze with silver inlays, and the knob at the end was a finely modeled sheep's head. Despite the tweezers' decoration, they were a fully functional instrument with which Daciano began to clear threads, vegetable debris, and clots of dried blood.

    Aberus whimpered deep in his throat, but then he resumed, "They came by, about a hundred of them. They didn't carry lanterns but there was a half-moon. Where trees didn't shade the road, I could see them clear. Mostly they were prisoners, neck-roped to poles by tens. They were all ages, grouped just by how tall they were because of the poles. Two coffles were kids but with a short woman in front to set the pace. Which was a shuffle, that's all it could be."

    Garric could see bone now that the cut was clear. Aberus was a brave man beyond question, but even so it seemed remarkable he hadn't screamed and fainted; perhaps there was more than vinegar in the assistant's sponge.

    "The guards were rats," Aberus said. "I couldn't mistake it, I was so close. I could smell them. I don't know why they didn't smell me; I could see their noses twitching, twitch twitch twitch all the time. Maybe because of the prisoners. There were plenty humans around. They were rats, only they were as tall as men. Tall as women anyway, and they had swords."

    Daciano began trimming the edges of the wound with a pair of shears. Like the tweezers, they were bronze instead of steel. The assistant with the satchel of tools held another pair ready, and a third was laid out with a range of scalpels and probes on the leather pad at her side.

    "Alongside there was a man who wasn't tied," Aberus said. "He was riding, but he was on an ox instead of a horse or mule. Slow as the prisoners could go, it didn't matter; an ox was fast enough to keep up. A sheep could've kept–oh!"

    The surgeon growled at the woman with the sponge; she immediately reversed it and squeezed so that fluid dripped along the blade of the shears. When Daciano resumed his careful cutting, the assistant traded the sponge she'd been using for another of those soaking in a shallow bowl.

    "I knew the fellow, I'd talked to him when I arrived," Aberus said. His voice was thin; he wasn't whispering, but he didn't have enough breath to give power to the words. "He was a junior priest named Salmson. The high priest was Nivers, but him I only saw on a balcony of his palace. It was all falling to pieces and he didn't seem in much better shape. And Salmson was talking to the prisoners. He had a skin of wine with him, and I think he'd drunk a lot from it already."

    Daciano set down his shears and took the needle his assistant held out in her left hand. It was strung with a glistening strand of gut. The wound looked horrible, worse than it would've done when it was curtained by a wash of blood.

    "Salmson was shouting, 'The gods have returned,'" Aberus said. "I told you, he sounded drunk. He said, 'You are honored to be among the first subjects of Franca and his siblings Fallin and Hili. You will help prepare the way for them to rule the whole world. Praise Franca whom your blood serves!'"

    The surgeon began sewing, starting deep in the muscle instead of at the lips. The assistant continued to dab with her sponge, but now she held a linen cord ready to place where it could drain the wound.

    "The prisoners didn't seem to be listening," Aberus said. "They were walking dead; I don't know how far they'd come already. They're really dead now, I suppose. Well, everybody dies, don't we, Lady?"

    Garric wasn't sure whether the agent was praying or speaking to Liane. Of course he might be delirious and think that Liane was the Lady. It didn't prevent him from reporting, however.

    "One of them saw me," Aberus said. "Or scented me, maybe it was that finally. It squealed just like a rat and jumped. I wasn't expecting it but I was ready, I'm always ready. I put my dagger through its throat and ran, but others came after me. I don't know how many, but there were two more I killed; maybe the rest turned back. They cut me, I couldn't help that, but I kept on going. All the way here, I kept going. All the way."

    Daciano was on the upper layer of stitches now, closing the wound. Aberus' forehead was beaded with sweat, but he didn't flinch from the needle. The surgeon was impassive, but his assistants' faces were warm with compassion.

    "Franca and His siblings will rule the world!" the agent shouted. Was he quoting or had he come to believe that himself?

    "I'm calling an immediate council meeting," Garric said to Liane. "I'll need you."

    "Of course," she said. To Daciano she added, "Do whatever's possible for him, regardless of cost. I'll pay for it."

    "No," said Garric. He took the handle of the travelling desk in his left hand rather than leave it for Liane to carry. "The kingdom will pay."

    "The Gods of Palomir rule all!" Aberus cried.

    "Not while I live!" muttered Garric, stepping onto the staircase.

    Which of course didn't, he knew, mean that it wouldn't happen.



    Cashel had noticed long since that the actual words a wizard chanted didn't seem to matter. It was the rhythms they got into that told you what they were doing.

    Rasile had laid a pattern of yarrow stalks around the floor of the tower. She sat in the center of it, making sounds that were nothing like the words of power Tenoctris used. They weren't anything like the catmen's ordinary speech, either. Even so, Cashel would've known what was going on even if he hadn't been able to watch her.

    The air flickered. It looked a bit like heat lightning, but the only clouds today were horsetails in the high heavens. It must've been the sky itself, twisted by Rasile's power so that sunlight didn't slip through it the way it ought to.

    A deafening crackle spread outward from the star pattern. Cashel wasn't sure it was really a sound. It wasn't his ears or even the soles of his feet that noticed; it was more something that prickled inside his head. The whole world's breaking apart around us! Spreading his legs a little wider on the tower's floor and gripping his staff midway to either side of the balance, he waited to deal with whatever happened next.

    Cashel's feet didn't move. The air cleared. He hadn't known that he and the wizard were in a smoky gleam until it was gone again. They were right where they had been, but the tower was gone and the city was gone. He and Rasile were in the midst of armed civilians and a few soldiers, looking from stone battlements toward a ragtag army on the plains below.

    "Begone, you thieves and vagabonds!" cried a man not far from Cashel. He was using a megaphone. The three fellows next to him were older, fatter, and wore gold chains for ornament, so the herald was probably speaking their words. "If you're not gone in three minutes by the sand glass, we'll shoot you all down like the dogs you are!"

    They were on top of a gatehouse. There was a socket where a catapult was probably meant to pivot, but there wasn't one in place now. Several soldiers had bows, though, and the folks below were only a furlong away. That was in range of a good bowman.

    Rasile was getting to her feet. Cashel put out his arm for her to grab. A man wearing a molded breastplate meant for somebody much thinner strode through them on his way to the group around the herald. Cashel didn't feel the contact, and it didn't seem like the local fellow had either.

    "I think we're seeing something that occurred recently," Rasile said. Her tongue clucked against the side of her long jaw in a Corl equivalent of a grin. "Or perhaps something that will occur shortly. I do not know where it is, however."

    Cashel thought about the way the people around couldn't see or touch him and Rasile, but there wasn't any point in talking about something that the wizard knew a lot better than he did. He said, "We're on Ombis on Telut, I think. I've never been here, but the colors the servants of the envoys from there wore in Valles are the same as–"

    He pointed to the cloth hanging down from the herald's megaphone. It was orange around the edges and slashed green on black inside the border.

    "–that is."

    Cashel noticed shapes and patterns without having to think about them. Sheep might all look alike to city folk, but a shepherd knows each of his flock by name even if he can't count above ten without a tally stick. Heraldry was nothing at all to somebody tuned to little differences in the brown/black/gray/white markings of Haft sheep.

    "The fellow in the green robe there," he said as the tallest of the three men in fancy dress turned so Cashel could see his face, "he's the one who was the envoy himself last spring."

    There were folks on the wall as far around as Cashel could see from the gate tower. The city wall was only twice his height–the tower was half that again–but that was still a huge advantage.

    The defenders weren't well armed. Besides the soldiers, some of the better-dressed civilians had swords and maybe even metal armor, but the rest carried spears of a simple pattern that'd probably come from the city armory. They were in leather caps and breastplates.

    That was probably good enough, though, because the attackers outside the walls were just what the herald had called them: vagabonds and thieves. Some were armed with swords as good as those of Ornifal nobles. The gold inlays and ivory hilts didn't mean much in a fight, but Cashel knew that fancy touches like those were often put on the best steel by the best craftsmen.

    But there weren't many with swords, and even those few didn't go in much for armor. Some carried boat pikes, long-shafted weapons with a hook below the point to catch rigging or the rail of a ship trying to keep clear. Cashel guessed they were pirates. Even without better weapons, it would've looked hard for the city if the whole army had  been that sort.

    But all beyond a couple double handsful of pirates were escaped slaves, farm laborers, and the sort of thing you'd find if you emptied out prisons. Some had been branded or were missing hands. They had clubs, pitchforks, and poles with a knife tied to the end.

    And there were women. Cashel knew women could fight: he'd seen Sharina joint enemies with her Pewle knife, and even Garric's delicate Lady Liane carried a blade that could–and had–cut deep enough to open the big blood vessels. Some of the slatterns below would be dangerous in an alley or a crowded taproom.

    But they weren't going to batter through stone walls. There were plenty of women on the walls too, ready to throw cobblestones and pour down boiling water. Ombis shouldn't have had anything to fear from its attackers–

    But Cashel knew that Rasile wouldn't here unless there was more going on than they'd seen thus far. His hands polished his quarterstaff. He guessed that if the city folk passed through him without touching, so would a pirate sword; but just in case.

    "That's funny," Cashel said to Rasile. He pointed. "Those people down there don't have any more ranks than a flock of sheep would, but they're making sure to leave a big space back from the chief."

    The leader of the pirates was a tall man who'd braided scraps of cloth-of-gold into his blond beard. He was husky too, though not as big as Cashel; there weren't many people who were as big as Cashel. He two long swords and many daggers dangling from his cross-belts, but they were all in their scabbards while he lifted something small and shiny in his left hand.

    A city elder turned to a soldier with a bow. When he moved, his gold chains clanked. "Shoot him!" he ordered imperiously.

    "I'd waste an arrow from here," the soldier said. He was frowning toward the pirates instead of meeting the eyes of the elder.

    "I'm ordering you to shoot, Sister take you!" the elder shouted. "I want him to stop what he's doing!"

    "I got twelve arrows," the soldier said. "I'm going to keep them for better targets than that. It's our asses too, remember."

    Another soldier turned and said loudly, "If you want to cashier us now because we don't jump through silly hoops for you, Master Comian, you do that and we'll be out the back gate before you finish the words. Otherwise, pipe down and let us get on with the business of keeping these pirates on the other side of the walls."

    The pirate chief was talking, or anyway his lips were moving. He wasn't shouting to the city, though. It didn't seem to Cashel that the fellow was talking loud enough that anybody at all could hear him. His men gave him a wide berth; maybe they had more confidence in the defenders' archery than the soldiers themselves did.

    "There!" said Rasile. Disconcertingly, she balanced on her right foot and scratched herself in the middle of the back with her left; she'd become a great deal more limber than she'd been when Sharina first brought her to her first council meeting. "That must be why I was drawn here."

    "That" was the shimmer of light beside the pirate chief. It reminded Cashel of the way the sun glanced off the face of an iceberg, bright and cold and as thin as the surface of a mirror.

    A curved hugeness the color of layered shale squirmed out of the air. "A Worm," Rasile said. Her nose wrinkled. "Perhaps the Worm which devoured all its siblings after they had scoured clean their world."

    Sometimes Cashel could see beyond the creature to a waste of shingle and sluggish gray water. Violet cracklings in that background suggested momentary shapes, but they were the shapes of nightmare. The Worm shifted forward.



    Cashel pursed his lips. He had trouble at first figuring how big the creature was; it was out of scale with everything. Its gray body was banded the way an earthworm is, but the mouth was nothing like. It didn't squirm like a snake. The front of the body stretched forward, stopped, and then the back hitched up to join it.

    The creature loomed higher in the air than Cashel could've reached with his staff from where he stood on top of the gatehouse. He couldn't guess how long it was; the second time it hunched forward brought its head to spitting distance of the wall, but the body still trailed back to the window in the air beside where the pirate chief was standing.

    Cashel stepped in front of the wizard by reflex: there was danger, so he put himself between it and who he was looking out for. Normally he'd have started his quarterstaff spinning but there was too many people around, he didn't have space. He said, "Rasile, ought we to–"

    Rasile squalled something, a word rather than a full incantation. It was enough to shift her and Cashel up to the height of a tall tree in a dazzle of scarlet wizardlight. Most of the civilians were scattering from the walls and the gatehouse in front of the creature, but the soldiers didn't run and the city elders didn't either.

    The fellow in the too-small breastplate drew a sword from which rust had recently been polished. He screamed, "Shoot it! Shoot it!" to the soldiers. That wasn't very useful, Cashel guessed, but neither would anything else have been.

    The archers were already shooting as fast as they could. The arrows were too small to do real harm to something the size of the Worm, and they sparkled off the sides anyway. The creature might've been a gray granite tower sliding toward Ombis on its side.

    Was it really alive? It moved, but so would a flow of lava.

    The Worm's mouth opened in a circle rimmed with teeth all around. The man in the undersized breastplate slashed toward it, though the tip of his sword passed through empty air. Cashel wondered if the fellow had his eyes closed.

    Black smoke belched from the Worm's throat, coating men and stones alike. The elder's flesh shriveled and he dropped his sword. The silvered quillons had turned black and the blade glowed cherry red.

    The Worm extended a long, ivory tusk and shoved forward the way water fills a millrace. The gatehouse burst inward. The jaws folded closed, swallowing masonry and the doors of iron-bound oak alike. Powdered rock puffed skyward.

    The citizens of Ombis ran in shrieking terror, all but a few who stood transfixed on the battlements. The Worm hunched again, but this time its foreparts lifted high enough that Cashel brought his staff into a posture of defense again. The creature twisted and slammed down, flattening a section of the wall.

    The Worm writhed sideways, grinding a swath of buildings into dust and splinters. Cashel thought he heard screams, but his mind might've been inventing them. People had run into those doorways when the Worm lurched toward the walls, some of them women clutching infants, but he doubted he could really hear their despair over the crashing ruin of the houses where they'd tried to shelter.

    The Worm gathered itself to drive deeper into the city. Ombis had no citadel; it had trusted to the strength of its outer walls. Because the city was built up to three and four stories rather than sprawling, the circuit was modest in comparison with the population available to defend it. All order and discipline had vanished when the Worm engulfed the gateway, and with them was gone any hope of defense.

    The pirate chief lowered the object in his hand; he shouted something also. Cashel couldn't hear sound, let alone the word itself, over the ripping destruction.

    The creature's massive curves froze. Purple radiance gathered over its body, covering it the way fungus might cocoon a dead caterpillar. The Worm twitched once more and, twitching, vanished.

    Only rubble remained of half a furlong of the walls, and not much of that. The creature's weight and iron-hard hide had crushed to powder ashlars which would've resisted battering rams for a week.

    Shrieking in savage triumph, the pirates swept toward the breach in the walls. The Worm's progress had plowed a trench in the soil. Looking down, Cashel saw that the city walls had extended some distance beneath the surface, but the massive foundation courses had gone down the creature's maw as surely as the lighter masonry of the visible portion.

    A soldier lay in the street where the Worm's impact had flung him. He'd been killed by the black smoke; his clothes were rotting and his upturned face had been eaten away to the bone.

    Female pirates were entering with the men. A bare-breasted redhead knelt to lift the hand of a citizen whose lower legs had been trapped by the collapse of a building. For a moment Cashel thought she was helping the fellow; then light flashed on her knife as she cut off his fingers to get the rings.

    Instead of rushing into the city immediately, the pirate chief stood with his head bowed, then put his talisman away in a silk neck pouch. Finally he drew his swords and went through the breach. Even now he was sauntering instead of running.

    Cashel looked at Rasile. He didn't say anything. The wizard yowled a phrase and swept her right hand like she was wiping something out of the air. She and Cashel were back in brilliant sunlight on top of the watchtower in Pandah.

    The yarrow stalks were scattered where Rasile's gesture had flung them. The catwoman sprawled on the flagstones. She'd been keenly alert while they stood where she'd transported them, but now her body demanded to be paid for that effort.

    Cashel didn't have a pillow or a rolled cloak to put down, so he cradled her head with his left hand. She shuddered, then opened her eyes and looked at him. She didn't try to get up yet.

    "I've seen that sort of thing happen to cities before," Cashel said. "I'll watch it again if I have to, but only if I have to. And I figured we'd pretty much seen all we needed to see this time."

    "Yes, we've seen enough," Rasile said, rubbing her ear against Cashel's palm. "We've seen things I never imagined to see, though he seems to have the Worm under control. He's not a wizard, you know, but he has a wizard aiding him. A wizard or worse."

    "Master Cashel?" called an unfamiliar voice from the stairwell. Cashel hadn't barred the trap door giving onto the parapet, but the person speaking from the stairs didn't presume to lift the panel. "Prince Garric sends you his compliments and hopes you and Lady Rasile can join him for a council meeting at your earliest convenience."

    Rasile gathered her limbs under her with a smooth motion, but she didn't try to stand. Cashel glanced at her, then shifted to open the door with the left hand which the wizard no longer needed. The quarterstaff was in his right, and he wasn't in any mood to put it down after the scene he'd just watched.

    "We'll come as quick as we can," he said to the messenger.

    "Cashel, I will not be able to walk for a time, I'm afraid," Rasile said; she gave a little growl of frustration deep in her throat. She still hadn't tried to get up.

    "Shall I call for a carriage, master?" the messenger said. He was one of the fellows Liane kept around her, not exactly palace staff.

    "It wouldn't do any good, but thanks," Cashel said. "Horses don't, ah, like the smell of catmen. I'll carry her myself when she's ready to go."

    Rasile started to rise. Cashel had been squatting. He set his left arm under her thighs and scooped her up instead of simply helping her.

    "Can you do that, master?" the messenger said. "It's a mile to the palace, you know."

    "It's no trouble," said Cashel, grinning in a mixture of confidence and quiet pride.

    It wouldn't be hard at all. The Coerli were lighter built than people, and Rasile was frail even of her own kind.

    Besides, it made him feel good. Cashel or-Kenset didn't have any proper place in the council of smart, educated people, but he could look out for things. Since there weren't any sheep around, he'd look out for a Corl wizard.



    Sharina heard a clash of hobnails. The guards lounging outside the door to Tenoctris' burrow were bringing themselves upright to receive visitors. She was already turning when Captain Ascor called, "All right, Colemno, what's your hurry this time? The princess or Lady Tenoctris?"

    Blood Eagle officers were generally recruited from the minor nobility, so they were capable of ceremonial formality when they thought it was necessary. On the other hand, even the officers–the enlisted men entered the regiment solely because of proven skill and courage in battle. They were not going to use proper forms of address–were likely to be informal on most occasions. Ascor obviously knew the courier.

    "Both, Ascor," Colemno said. Sharina, stepping out the door, recognized the fellow as a member of Liane's staff. Seeing her, he bowed and continued, "Your highness, Prince Garric has requested that you and Lady Tenoctris–"

    Sharina felt the wizard beside her now in the doorway.

    "–join him in his suite for an emergency council meeting."

    "What's the emergency, Master Colemno?" Tenoctris said. She wasn't unpleasant about it, but she didn't sugar-coat the demand with flourishes like "if you please" or "if I may ask."

    The courier glanced at Ascor and his squad, but that was reflex. Like the Blood Eagles, Liane's entourage took official rules as things you obeyed if they didn't get in the way of doing your job.

    "Milady," Colemno said, "all I know is there's something happening in Palomir, the Empire of Palomir. One of the outside men named Aberus came in cut up pretty bad. I don't know what he said, but the prince heard it and didn't waste any time sending us to find you all."

    "We're close to the palace here," Tenoctris said, to Sharina but without trying to prevent Colemno and the guards from overhearing. "Let me take a moment to learn more now. I think that'll be more useful than waiting for others to arrive from the ends of the city."

    "Yes," Sharina said. She nodded to Colemno and the guards, saying, "We'll be with you shortly," before following Tenoctris into her room.

    Sharina shut the door out of courtesy rather than because she was concerned about what the men might see. Wizardry made most people uncomfortable, even men as brave as those in the corridor. It was easier for them to ignore what was going on if a door panel stood between them and the incantations.

    A slab of rock leaned against the room's back wall. Until Tenoctris stepped to it, Sharina had assumed it was the back wall. She looked carefully, shifting to the side to see the edge, and found that it was patterned chalcedony. The individual layers were hair-fine, and the whole assemblage was no more than an inch thick.

    It'd make a very delicate cameo, Sharina thought, though what it's doing here

    "Torial boichua knophi!" Tenoctris said and snapped the fingers of her left hand. Her now-youthful face wore a broad smile. Greater power hadn't made Tenoctris boastful or a show-off, but she took obvious delight in now being able to do things which most wizards could not.

    Given that greater power hadn't cost Tenoctris the understanding and subtlety of touch that had set her above other wizards in the past, Sharina was delighted as well. The forces of good needed the most powerful allies they could get.

    At the pop of the wizard's fingers, the brown outer layer of chalcedony eroded as though it were being carved by demons. What had been undifferentiated rock was suddenly a relief map on which threads of rivers twisted in all directions toward the surrounding sea.

    Before Sharina could take it in, Tenoctris called "Zonchar!" with another snap of her fingers; the map of a continent became the chart of a city's streets. The city shown was huge, but its ragged edges seemed to be dissolving in the mass of encroaching vegetation.

    "Ouk merioth!"  Tenoctris said. Blue wizardlight, as brilliant as lightning in the darkened room, sizzled across the cameo like a stage curtain. When it passed, Sharina was looking down at a city from the angle of the sun an hour before setting. Crystal towers, halls, and bridges leaping from structure to structure, gleamed in orange light.

    Sharina's breath caught. It was splendid, but it was a splendid ruin. Jagged streaks traced their way to the ground from lightning-shattered pinnacles, roofs and walls were reduced to a carpet of jeweled dust where wind had toppled a tree toward the buildings, and saplings sprouted from cracks in the crystal streets.

    "Is this Palomir?" Sharina asked.

    "It's Palomir as it was three months ago," Tenoctris said. Her tone was distracted and she didn't take her eyes from the cameo for several silent moments.

    She turned. "Sharina?" she said. "I, well, I want to try some other techniques to get a better grasp of the situation. This–"

    Tenoctris gestured toward the cameo and its scene of ruin.

    "–should be sufficient. I've prepared the sheet of quartz to create a very powerful tool, but it appears–"

    She smiled with humor of a sort.

    "–that it isn't a powerful enough tool. I have others, but they'll take a little time to bring to bear. If you wouldn't mind making my excuses to your brother, I'd like to remain here until I have something useful to offer to the council."

    "Of course," Sharina said. "You've saved the kingdom repeatedly by demonstrating good judgment. It's still your judgment that we depend on, even if you're able to–"

    She grinned to make it a joke, though it wasn't.

    "–turn demons inside out with a snap of your fingers. I'll tell Garric that you're doing the things you ought to be doing, as you always have."

    Moved by sudden impulse, Sharina hugged the other woman before throwing open the door. Tenoctris was small, but her youthful body was a solid surprise to someone who'd known her in the past. As a woman in her seventies, she'd been as delicate as a sparrow in the palm of your hand.

    "Ascor, leave two men to accompany Lady Tenoctris when she's ready to come," Sharina said to the waiting eyes of the soldiers on guard. "I'll leave for the palace now."

    As the Blood Eagles fell in ahead and behind her, Sharina reached through a slit in the side of her outer tunic and touched the horn hilt of the knife she wore out of sight between the layers of her costume. Generally the Pewle knife was just a good-luck charm, a reminder of the hermit who'd protected Sharina as long as he lived–and protected her now, she was convinced.

    "Lady, aid us in carrying out Your will," she prayed under her breath.
            Sometimes even a princess and a worshipper of the Lady of Peace could use a sharp blade. If that were the case again–

    Well, then the Pewle knife was more than a charm.



    Lord Zettin was an extremely neat man, so it surprised Ilna that the premises of Halgran Mercantile on the northern edge of the expanding city were a jumble of tents and tarpaulins within a fence of palings. Of course it was wrong to assume that Zettin's in-laws had the same priorities as he did.

    "I apologize for this disorder," Zettin said with a look of disgust. "We just moved to Pandah, as I said, and proper quarters weren't to be had. We decided it was best to build a compound of sufficient size rather than buy a structure in the Old City that can't be expanded without knocking down walls like a siege."

    "I'd forgotten that you'd–the company had–moved," Ilna said, an apology at least in her mind. "Regardless, I'm not concerned with the spice trade."

    A group of Coerli were weaving withies into mats of wattle between heavy posts, the start of more permanent structures. She nodded approvingly. The catmen worked quickly, and they did a better job than most humans would have.

    Ilna's lip quirked: the catmen did a better job that she would have, at least until her fingers adapted to the stiff material. Mistress Zussa was clever to have thought of going outside her own species to find workmen. Very likely the catmen were cheaper as well, especially in Pandah where so many buildings were being constructed at the same time. Human workmen, even bad workmen as most of them were, commanded high wages.

    "No, of course not," Zettin said, but his lips were grimly tight as he stepped between piles of spice boxes. The heavy crates were probably weatherproof, but each stack was also covered with canvas pegged on the sides.

    Laborers and clerks, two of them women, looked at Zettin and Ilna but lowered their eyes quickly when she glanced in their direction. The watchman had passed them through the gate with no more comment than a low bow. Whether or not Lord Zettin had a formal part in the business, the staff certainly treated him with deference.

    "You there!" he said, gesturing to a clerk taking inventory of a stack of boxes. "Gradus, isn't it? Where's Ingens?"

    The clerk turned, lowering the brush with which he'd been writing figures on the pale inner surface of an earthenware potsherd. "He's quartered in Tent Five, milord," he said, lowering his eyes in a show of humility. "He's been living in the compound since he returned from Blaise, I believe."

    Zettin nodded curt acknowledgement and strode toward the rank of tents across the back of the deep property. His high-laced boots splashed; human traffic had turned a boggy plain into a sea of mud, as was true everywhere beyond the original shore of the Island of Pandah. Ilna had known what to expect, so she'd slung her wood-soled clogs over her arm as soon as they left the cobblestone street. She was barefoot, just as she'd have been at home in Barca's Hamlet.

    "We're cutting a canal to the North River," Zettin said, again suggesting that he was more than just an observer of Halgran Mercantile's activities. "Zussa looked at a waterfront tract, but I don't trust the river to keep its banks when the fall storms come. The canal's a moderate expense compared to having the river swallow the whole compound when it changes its course."

    They'd reached the line of tents. There were more than Ilna could count on both hands. Some of them were being used as offices; the sides were rolled up and clerks glanced briefly toward Zettin. Ilna doubted any of them noticed her, nor was there any reason they should have.

    "Master Ingens!" said Zettin, who apparently didn't have any better idea which tent was number five than Ilna did. "Show yourself!"

    The flap of a tent to the right flew open. The man holding it back was stocky and fit-looking, though Ilna noticed immediately that his hands weren't calloused like those of a peasant or soldier.

    "Milord?" he said. He wasn't many years older than Ilna's twenty, but the frown that seemed to be his normal expression made him look older. "I've made all the arrangements and expect to leave tomorrow morning. That is, if you were concerned that I might dawdle in returning to search for Master Hervir."

    "Not at all, Ingens," said Zettin, who seemed to have been taken aback by the secretary's defensiveness. "Indeed, I hadn't expected you'd be ready to leave for several days."

    He cleared his throat. "I'm glad I caught you, then," he said. "This is Mistress Ilna os-Kenset, the wizard who'll be accompanying you."

    "What?" said Ingens, throwing his arms up as though Zettin had suddenly drawn his sword. "That's unnecessary, milord, quite unnecessary! I assure you, having a wizard along will just complicate matters. No, no. I'll take care of the business myself."

    "Master Ingens," said Zettin, his face hardening into coldly aristocratic lines, "you appear to think that I asked your opinion. I am not interested in the opinion of such folk as yourself. Do you understand me?"

    Instead of backing away as he started to, Ingens knelt in the muck; the tent flap fell closed behind him. "Milord, your will shall be done, of course, of course," he said with his eyes downcast. "I only meant that because there's no wizardry involved in Master Hervir's disappearance, a wizard's presence will only make the ordinary folk I'll be questioning nervous. As well as the difficulties caused by a woman on a riverboat crewed by the rougher sort of men."

    Ilna stepped over to him. Ingens made a quick decision and rose to his feet, watching her warily.

    She took a handful of his tunic front, rubbing her fingers into the wool. Ingens yelped, but Ilna was barely conscious of the present world.

    The fabric filled her mind with a welter of images. They settled suddenly on a tall man in his thirties, standing beside gong of jade or verdigrised bronze. His tunics were plain but of very good workmanship.

    "Does Master Hervir have black hair that's very thin on top?" Ilna asked.

    Ingens twitched but didn't make a real effort to break her grip. Zettin said, "Why, yes he does."

    He chuckled; there wasn't much love lost between brothers-in-law, Ilna could see. "Though he wouldn't thank you for that description, mistress."

    Ilna took her hand away from the tunic. "And who is the woman, the girl with him, Master Ingens?" she said.

    "How–" said Ingens, and stopped.

    "What?" said Zettin. He probably didn't mean to raise his voice, but he was speaking louder than he had when he shouted to bring the secretary out of his tent. "Did you lie to us, you dog? You didn't say anything about a woman!"

    "Milord, I didn't–" Ingens said. He gave Ilna a furious glare, but it melted to despair in the brief instant of safety he had before she reacted. "Milord, I wanted to avoid embarrassing Master Hervir. He met a young woman, Princess Perrine she called herself, when we were on Blaise. It seemed likely he'd gone off with her. With the money."

    The secretary paused, breathing hard. He risked a sidelong look at Ilna.

    "Mistress?" said Lord Zettin. His face was as hard as Ilna had ever seen it; his right hand was on the hilt of his sword. Like most Ornifal nobles, Zettin carried a long horseman's blade rather than the shorter weapon of an infantryman.

    "He isn't responsible for whatever happened to your brother-in-law," Ilna said. She shrugged. "If you want to punish him for not being completely forthcoming, that's your business, of course. But it seems to me that it'll leave you with an awful lot of people to punish."

    Zettin relaxed slightly. The activities of the compound, construction and ordinary business alike, had stilled in a widening arc around him and Ingens. The staff of Halgran Mercantile was taking a break from work to be entertained by what might turn into a blood sport.

    "Go on, Ingens," Zettin said. "But this time tell me everything that happened."

    "Yes," Ingens said and swallowed. "Yes, milord."

    He closed his eyes, then opened them and resumed, "We reached the village of Caraman which was supposed to be the source of the saffron. It turned out it was brought to Caraman from farther away."

    "Farther how?" said Zettin, frowning. "From across the Outer Sea, you mean?"

    "Milord, I truly don't know where they came from," Ingens said. "I didn't see a ship. The local people said to ring the gong in the grove on the east road out of Caraman. That's away from the sea and up on a hill besides. So we rang it, and a woman came out of the trees. That was Princess Perrine."

    "And she had the spice with her?" Zettin said. He took his right hand away from the sword hilt, instead hooking the thumb under his belt.

    "Just a sample, milord," the secretary said. "She talked with Hervir privately. He directed me and the guards to stay where we were while he walked with the young lady in the grove. She was quite attractive and richly dressed."

    "How long had the gong been there?" Ilna said.

    The men had forgotten her; their heads turned with expressions of surprise. "Mistress," said Ingens, "the villagers said it was just since the Change. A prince came from the grove with six apes who wore clothing and carried saffron in stoneware jars. He sold it and said there was more for anyone who called him with the gong."

    "Sold for how much?" Ilna said. "In Barca's Hamlet the only people who had any amount of silver were merchants who came during the Sheep Fair. But this spice of yours sells for gold, doesn't it?"

    "Yes, mistress," Ingens said with a look of respect. He'd shown fear when Ilna read his history in the cloth of his tunic, but this was something else again. "The prince took copper and silver, the villagers swore. If that's true, then he can't have gotten but a tenth of the saffron's real value. That's why Hervir was so excited at the prospect."

    "Did Hervir make a deal with this princess?" Zettin asked. "You know, I can't understand why you concealed all this previously, Ingens. You needn't think that your behavior is going to be ignored, you know."

    "Milord, you'll do what you do," Ingens muttered toward the ground. "I've been a loyal servant of Halgran Mercantile for seven years. I was simply trying to save… awkwardness for Master Hervir and for your noble sister."

    "Well, I see your point, my man," Zettin said with a touch of embarrassment. "You should certainly have come to me privately, but I don't suppose anything would be gained by rubbing my sister's nose in a business that would be distasteful to her."

    He cleared his throat. "Go on, then," he said. "Did Hervir continue to see this so-called princess?"

    "I don't know that for certain, milord," Ingens said, "but that's what I believe, yes. Hervir had rented the chief's house for a few bronze pieces. He and I slept there, while the guards–we had six of them–slept in a drying shed for fish. There was little enough to choose between the lodgings, I must say."



    Ingens licked his lips; fear dries them worse than a desert wind, and he'd had good reason to be afraid. Ilna was impressed by the way Ingens had deflected Lord Zettin's anger; but though she was sure that he hadn't made away with Hervir, she was also sure that he wasn't telling the whole truth. She decided not to pursue the matter, at least now. Zettin's temper was still balanced on a knife-edge.

    Ilna's lips quirked in a humorless smile. She'd once woven a pattern which caused everyone who saw it to tell the truth. She'd done it as punishment for the house it hung in, and even she had been shocked by how effective it had been.

    "I woke up in the night," the secretary said. "I thought I'd heard the gong again. I looked in Master Hervir's room and found him gone with the money. I went to the grove but he wasn't there, either. Then I roused the guards and we made a full search, but we still didn't find anything."

    "Did you ring the gong?" Ilna said. "That would seem to be the obvious next step."

    "Ah…," said Ingens, turning his face sideways and looking at the ground again. "I did, yes, mistress, for several days. It didn't seem to me…. That is, it seemed to me that my first duty was to bring word back to Lady Zussa and Mistress Raciana as soon as possible. But of course I intend to pursue all avenues to a solution when I'm back in Caraman."

    Ilna's face remained blank while her mind tried to unknot the truth of the secretary's tale. It'd be simple enough to assume that Ingens was a coward who'd run rather than endanger himself, but that wouldn't explain why he was going back to find his master of his own will.

    "What do you expect to accomplish that you couldn't have done when you were in Caraman the first time?" Zettin said, putting his finger on the same point. His eyes were narrowed, but his hand hadn't returned to his sword.

    "I'll hire a full troop of Blaise armsmen when I get to Piscine, twenty at least," Ingens said promptly. "I have a draft on our agent there for the money. The guards we had with us were fine as a normal escort, but I'll want real soldiers to back me if I expect trouble. The whole village may be in league with Princess Perrine, you know."

    The explanation was perfectly reasonable. Another person might've proceeded in a different fashion, but Ilna couldn't fault the fellow's logic.

    He was lying, though. She was as sure of that as she was of sunset.

    "I really believe I'll be able to do a better job without…," Ingens said earnestly. "That is, by myself."

    "Don't be a fool, man," Zettin said irritably. He turned to Ilna and said, "Mistress, how long will it take you to prepare for the journey?"

    Ilna shrugged. "I'll pack a spare tunic and I suppose a cloak," she said. "And I'll tell Mistress Winora that I'll be travelling. She really runs the Society; I'm just a boogieman. I can serve that purpose from Blaise or wherever, so long as they're afraid that I might come back."

    "Mistress?" said Zettin.

    Isn't it obvious? Ilna snarled in her mind; but it hadn't been obvious to Zettin or he wouldn't have asked the question. Calmly she said, "The staff, and I include Winora in this, will sort out their own differences quickly and quietly in order to keep me from hearing about trouble."

    "Ah!" said Zettin. "Because they respect you and don't want to disturb you."

    "No, Master Zettin," Ilna said. "Because they're terrified of what I might do if I became angry. Since that concerns me also, I'll be just as glad to be away from Pandah while things are still being organized."

    She looked at Ingens. From his expression, he'd understood what she was saying–better than Zettin had, at any rate. She'd frightened him badly by what she'd learned by touching his tunic.

    That meant the secretary had something to hide, but almost everyone had things to hide. Ilna herself didn't. Ilna didn't have anything at all.

    "I'll…," Ingens said. "We'll leave at midmorning, from Krumlin's wharf on the river, then. The boat I've engaged is the Bird of the River. If that's all right with you, mistress."

    "Yes," said Ilna, turning away. "Certainly."

    A commotion approached from the direction of the compound's gate. One of Lady Liane's attendants–Ilna didn't recall his face, but the collar of his outer tunic was embroidered with a pattern she'd seen only on Third Atara–was striding toward them, followed by a squawking bevy of clerks. The watchman hobbled along behind, cupping his groin with both hands.

    "Lord Zettin," the courier said, "I'm sorry for the bother–"

    He glanced over his shoulder. The clerks chirped in fear. The watchman glared, but he stopped also.

    "–but it isn't for sweepers and the like to tell Prince Garric's messenger to wait."

    Ilna eyed the man. He was younger than most of Liane's people, sure of himself–with reason–but not experienced enough to know that there were other people who were also rightly confident. He'd learn, probably sooner rather than later judging from his attitude. If he survived, he'd be better at his work in the future.

    If he survived.

    The courier bowed. "His highness," he said, "requests your presence and that of Mistress Ilna–"

    He dipped his head in further acknowledgment.

    "–at an immediate council meeting in his suite."

    "Yes, all right," Zettin said. His face blanked. Turning to Ilna, he said, "That is, I'll come at once–"

    "Yes," said Ilna, "and so will I. Good day, Master Ingens. I'll expect to see you in the morning."

    She and Zettin strode back through the compound side by side, as they'd come. The courier was already gone on ahead; neither of them needed a guide to the council room in the palace.

    Zettin cleared his throat. "I wonder, mistress?" he said. "Perhaps rather than being enrolled in the Scout Corps, you'd like your hunters to accompany you Caraman? Quite apart from what you might find there, I'll admit that I don't entirely trust this Ingens. Though Zussa says he's been perfectly satisfactory during his employment."

    Ilna sniffed. "I don't trust Ingens at all," she said. "I'd still rather that Asion and Karpos join you."

    "They'll be very welcome, mistress," Zettin said diplomatically. They'd reached the gate; it was standing open. "I thought you might want familiar companions on a long journey, is all."

    That was the problem, of course: Asion and Karpos were familiar companions, men who'd willingly risked their lives for her and whom she'd come to like. Their deaths in her service wouldn't be as terrible a loss as that of Chalcus and Merota, but she didn't have much margin for further loss. And the hunters would certainly die, sooner or later, if they continued to travel with Ilna os-Kenset.

    Life had been easier when Ilna didn't have any feelings beyond occasional flashes of anger, back when her emotions were shut down. Life without feeling was pointless, of course; but then, life was probably pointless in any case.

    Ilna would go on until something stopped her, though. If it was this Princess Perrine who stopped her, then so be it.

    But the princess would feel she had something to boast about.

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