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The Gods Return: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 19:09 EDT



    Sharina's escort waited outside the council chamber with other guards and the lower-ranking aides of the bureau chiefs seated at the long table. The room had been a banquet hall: one of the pirate captains who'd infested Pandah before the army arrived had eaten here with the fifty-man crew of his galley. It was none too large for the royal council in its present form, though.

    An usher whisked Sharina through the murmur of aides standing behind their principals, holding document cases or preparing to take notes on tablets of waxed boards. Princess Sharina's place was directly across from Garric; he smiled to see her, but there was a shadow of frowning concern on his forehead.

    Half of the original dining tables had been removed. The remainder had been covered with what was originally a wall hanging–a crudely woven hunting scene of stags and horsemen in a mountain landscape. It was here simply because it was the right size to hide the names and smutty drawings a generation of pirates had carved in the tabletop.

    Courtiers filled the rest of the room. None of them spoke loudly, but even whispers and the shuffle of feet–hobnailed in the case of the soldiers–created a din that echoed from the beams of the high ceiling.

    The walls had been freshly plastered; the smell of lime was sharp enough to make Sharina's nose wrinkle. She supposed it'd been necessary to cover the graffiti–the drawings were even more explicit than what brutes could engrave with the points of their daggers–but the chamberlain was turning necessity into a virtue: an artist had already started drawing cartoons for a mural showing humans and Coerli together battling monsters.

    She leaned across the table; Garric got up so he could lean even farther, bringing their heads close together. It probably wouldn't meet the standards of court etiquette, but they'd been brother and sister for a long time before they became prince and princess.

    "Tenoctris will be delayed," she said. "She wants to get information on the problem before she discusses it."

    Garric nodded and smiled, then settled back on his chair. Its high back–higher than the other chairs around the table–was carved in a clumsy imitation of a grape arbor. Sharina suspected it was even more uncomfortable to sit on than hers, but presumably it met what the palace servants considered to be the requirements of royal dignity.

    "We'll get started now," Garric said, speaking loudly enough that the room quieted instantly around him. "I've just been informed that the Empire of Palomir is allied with a race of rats the size of men. Presumably they're intelligent as well, since they use swords and armor. We're working to get a better understanding of the numbers involved–"

    He winked across the table at Sharina.

    "–but we know that the rulers of Palomir claim that they'll be able to conquer the kingdom. Conquer the world, in fact."

    There was a dull explosion of sound–no individual part of it loud but in combination overwhelming. People whispered to their neighbors, sorted through documents and shuffled their feet. Garric let it go on for a moment.

    The present council was a larger body than Sharina had become used to. In the past there'd been a council in Valles, the capital. Garric took a smaller group of advisors with him when he led the fleet and army around the Isles, reminding the rulers of individual islands that they were part of the kingdom rather than independent principalities.

    In the past few weeks, Chancellor Royhas had moved his entire establishment to Pandah. His great rival, Lord Tadai, had travelled with Garric and gained real power even if he lacked the title of chancellor. When Royhas saw Garric delaying at Pandah instead of returning to Valles, he'd acted and the other bureaus had followed him.

    Lord Hauk, the Minister of Supply, had moved even earlier: he was a former commoner who took a very pragmatic view of things. In the Change the Isles had become a single continent, and Pandah was in the center of it. That made it the best location from which to communicate with all parts of the kingdom, and transport was the core of Hauk's duties.

    "I'll direct the regional governors to begin raising reinforcements," said Lord Waldron. "If Palomir thinks it's strong enough to conquer the Isles, then we may need more troops than we have on hand at present."

    Waldron, a stiff-backed former cavalryman, commanded the royal army. He'd never fully approved of Garric who wasn't a noble from Northern Ornifal like himself, but he couldn't have been tortured into breaking his oath. He'd repeatedly shown that at least one cavalryman knew more about war than how to lead a headlong charge.

    Waldron would lead the charge also, of course. Much as Sharina disliked many of the assumptions of men of Waldron's class, she respected their bravery. Physical courage was as natural to them as breathing.

    "I believe there's nothing but broken buildings left of Palomir," Lord Tadai said, tenting his hands in what was for him a familiar gesture. He was well fed, well groomed, and very intelligent. His formal title now was City Prefect; Pandah's explosive growth and the likelihood that Garric would make it the official capital provided both need for Tadai's skills and scope for his ambitions. "There aren't enough people to be a military threat–"

    "They think they're a threat!" Waldron snapped. The two men were both Ornifal nobles, but Waldron was a northern landowner while Tadai's wealth came from trade carried on in Valles. They had as much in common with Garric, raised as a peasant on Haft, as they did with one another. "I'd be very pleased to learn that they're wrong, but I do not choose to ignore dangers."

    "Nor do I, milord," Tadai said. His softness was entirely physical; he was just as focused and ruthless as Waldron, though they used different weapons. "I rather suggest that the danger is likely to be one whose solution needs a wizard more than it does a soldier. Since Lady Tenoctris isn't present–"
            Sharina opened her mouth to speak. Before she could, her brother said, "Lady Tenoctris is looking into the matter already. She'll report to me when there's something to report."

    "What about the cat, then?" said Waldron, nodding toward Rasile. "Lady Rasile, I mean."

    Some of those present had been upset that a Corl was allowed to attend council meetings. Waldron, somewhat to Sharina's surprise, was perfectly willing to accept the Coerli as peers. The catmen were brave warriors, after all, which to him gave them higher status than city merchants like Tadai and Royhas.

    All eyes turned to the Corl wizard. A chair, sturdier than most, had been set for Cashel at the end on Sharina's side of the table. Seating protocol at council meetings was a nightmare for the chamberlain and her staff. Fortunately everyone knew that the Prince and Princess didn't care, and that they'd tear a strip off anybody who made trouble about the business. Cashel was on the end because it was a great deal easier for so broad a man to sit down and get up than it would be beside Sharina in the middle.

    Today Cashel had entered with the Corl wizard in the crook of his right arm and his quarterstaff upright in his left hand. He placed her in the chair–she crouched on the seat–and stood behind it like a servant.

    In a sense Cashel was right: they were all servants, of mankind and of good in the struggle against evil. To the people who really knew him, however, he was the equal of anyone else in the hall.

    "Just Rasile, Warrior Waldron," Rasile said. "I have been concerned with the Worm which infests Telut, Warrior Cashel informs me."

    Liane uncapped her silver pen; it had an ink reservoir in the barrel so that it didn't have to be dipped after each few strokes. She began jotting notes in a notebook made from thin sheets of elm wood, her eyes on the Corl wizard.

    Rasile turned and tilted her long face up toward Cashel. He nodded solemnly and said, "She means the thing that attacked Ombis on Telut. It ate through the walls and then the pirates with it took the city."

    "Yes," said Rasile. "But I know nothing about Palomir. If the wizard Tenoctris is giving that her attention, I would be a fool to interfere."

    Liane, sitting to Garric's right but slightly behind him, leaned forward and whispered. He nodded twice, his eyes unfocused, then said to the gathering, "It appears that it will be necessary to march with the army shortly, since I don't intend to wait here for our enemy or enemies to attack us at their leisure."

    Lord Waldron snorted.

    "Such being the case," Garric continued, "and given that I expect to be leading the army myself–"

    He looked at Waldron. Waldron nodded crisply, "Of course, your highness," he said.

    "–I propose to leave Princess Sharina as regent as I've done in the past. Does anyone care to comment on my decision?"

    "I don't think anybody in this room is such a fool," Lord Waldron said. He glanced to his right, toward Chancellor Royhas on Garric's other side, and added, "No soldier is, anyway.

    "I've had the pleasure of working under the direction of Princess Sharina in the past, your highness," Royhas said mildly. "I couldn't imagine a better deputy in your absence."

    He smiled. Though Royhas wasn't a morose man, Sharina had found him generally too reserved to smile in public. His expression seemed chosen as a polite counterpunch to Waldron's verbal sneer.

    "Very good," said Garric. "Then all I have in addition is to direct that all bureaus and districts–"

    He nodded toward the eastern gallery where stood the representatives of the kingdom's new districts. Most of them were based on the islands which existed before the Change. The representatives didn't have seats at the table, but they were present so that their reports would help outlying regions feel they were parts of the kingdom rather than merely sources of taxes.

    "–to be prepared for possible invasion from the south."

    Garric quirked a tired smile toward Rasile and Cashel. "And apparently from the east as well. I'll keep you informed as we get additional information, and I'll expect you all to pass on the information you and your subordinates come across."

    The door latch rasped; Sharina turned to look over her shoulder. A Blood Eagle shoved the door open and sidled in. He and his partner were holding the ends of a spear between them, providing a makeshift sedan chair for Tenoctris. The wizard's face was drawn; she was so weary that she seemed barely able grip the soldiers' forearms to balance herself on the shaft.

    Sharina started to get up, but Cashel was already moving. Several aides who'd been in his way bounced to one side or the other with startled squawks. He scooped Tenoctris into the crook of his arm with a practiced motion.

    Sharina thought of how alert and healthy Tenoctris had been an hour before. The spell she'd worked after Sharina left her must've been of enormous weight to have drained her so thoroughly.

    Rasile hopped down from the chair. Cashel set Tenoctris on it with the delicacy of a cat with her kitten.

    "Lady Tenoctris," Garric said. "Do you have information for us?"

    "Yes," said the wizard. She was trying to sound bright, but exhaustion made her voice wobble. "I'm afraid that I do, your highness."



    "I'm out of my depth here," Tenoctris said, but despite the words her familiar rueful smile lifted Garric's spirits. She always deprecated her abilities, but they'd always proven adequate to the kingdom's needs.

    "I'm a wizard," she continued, "but while there's wizardry involved, there's theology also."

    People whispered, one of them a junior officer leaning close to Lord Attaper's right ear. "Silence!" Garric said, pointing his left index finger at the two Blood Eagles. He knew he was taking out his nervous anger on people whose mildly improper actions didn't deserve that level of response, but that was better than Carus' urge to use the flat of his sword to quiet the room.

    Carus grinned in his mind. Garric grinned back in response, feeling his mood lighten.

    "The problem with lopping somebody's head off if they screw up," Carus said, still grinning, "is that the victim isn't much good to you afterwards. As I learned the hard way a time or two."

    In the silence that followed Garric's shout, a slender man with the white robe and black stole of a senior priest, said, "We of the Temple of the Lady of the Grove would be honored to assist you, Lady Tenoctris."

    "I didn't say I needed priestcraft," Tenoctris snapped. She was regaining her animation and apparently her strength, as she was now sitting upright at the edge of the chair.

    She cleared her throat against the back of her hand and resumed, "I've discussed my religious beliefs only in private, and even then rarely. To be brief, I had no religious beliefs. I'd never seen the Great Gods and I saw no reason to believe they existed."

    The babble greeting the wizard's words was momentarily overwhelming. Even to Garric, the statement was disturbing. His family hadn't been particularly religious, but before each meal there'd always been a crumb and a drop for the little shrine on the wall of the dining room.

    "Oh, I say!" cried Lord Hauk, shocked out of his normal deference toward born aristocrats. "Being a wizard doesn't justify blasphemy!"

    Cashel banged the iron cap of his staff on the terrazzo floor. "That's all right!" he said. It wasn't like him to break in, especially not in a council meeting, but he obviously felt responsible for Tenoctris. "I figure she's wrong, but you leave her alone unless you want to discuss it with me, all right?"

    "Continue, Lady Tenoctris," Garric said mildly. Because of the sudden silence, he didn't have to raise his voice. That was good, because shouting both sounded angry and made him feel angry when he did it.

    "My friend Cashel is quite correct," Tenoctris said, cheerful and apparently herself again. "I was wrong about the Great Gods: They did exist, and there was sufficient evidence to have proved the fact to me if I'd been willing to consider it. Sharing my mind with a demon has–"

    There was another chorus of gasps, though it stilled instantly of its own. The crack! of Cashel's ferrule on stone wasn't really necessary.

    "I never learned to watch what I said around civilians either," said Carus wryly. "At least she doesn't wear a sword."

    "–forced me to become more realistic," Tenoctris said. "Which is something of an embarrassment to someone who thought she was a realist."

    Tenoctris looked around the table, touching everyone seated with her smile. Garric didn't understand where she was going with the discussion, and he was very doubtful that anyone else did either. He wanted to take Liane's hand, but that wasn't proper behavior for a council meeting.

    "The problem, you see…," Tenoctris said. Her voice became minutely thinner; the brightness remained, but it'd become a false gloss over her concern. "Is that the Great Gods of the Isles do not exist in this world which the Change brought. The Gods of Palomir-that-was are trying to climb the empty plinth, and they have power of a sort that I don't completely understand."

    She shook her head, smiling. "In fact I don't understand it at all," she said. "It's working through principles that are nothing like those I do understand. But I can help deal with it. And Wizard Rasile can help, and everyone in the kingdom will help according to their skills. There will be enough work for men with swords to satisfy even a warrior like your ancient ancestor, Prince Garric."

    The ghost in Garric's mind clapped his hands in glee. "By the Lady!" Carus said. "If I was still in the flesh, I'd manage to forget that she's a wizard, I swear I would!"

    "Obviously we need to deal with whatever upstarts challenge the rule of Prince Garric," said Tadai. "But–"

    He pursed his lips, his fingers extended before him. He was apparently studying his perfect manicure.

    "–need we really be concerned about which statue is up in which temple?"

    "What?" cried the priest of the Lady. "This is quite improper! I protest!"

    "Lord Tilsit," Liane whispered.

    "Lord Tilsit, be silent!" said Garric. He glared at the west where those outside the royal bureaucracy, then the east gallery for low-ranking palace personnel. "I remind you that those who aren't seated at the council table speak only when requested to."

    The priest raised his hands and genuflected. His face had gone blank.

    "Lady Tenoctris?" Garric continued mildly, grinning in his mind. "Does that suggestion ease our problems?"

    He'd been using that tone since he was a tall thirteen-year-old and men in the common room started bothering the inn's pretty waitress–Sharina. Nowadays Garric didn't have to knock people down himself if they didn't take the hint, but there were times he wouldn't mind the chance.

    "Lady Tenoctris the atheist," Tenoctris said, adding a self-deprecating laugh, "would be perfectly happy with no Gods or Gods she could ignore as she's done all her life till now. Unfortunately, while the Great Gods of your–our, I apologize–former world watched, the Gods of Palomir would rule. Their rule in former times was the rule of men over beasts."

    "'Boys throw stones at frogs in sport,'" whispered Liane, quoting the ancient poet Bion, "'but the frogs die not in sport but in earnest.'"

    Garric squeezed her hand. Propriety could hang for the moment.

    "Franca the All Father, Fallin of the Waves," Tenoctris said, "and Hili, Queen of the Underworld. They're immanent now. If Palomir's rat armies succeed, widespread belief will make Them all powerful and perhaps eternal."

    "The solution appears to be to defeat the rats and anything else that allies with Palomir, then," said Garric. King Carus had come to that conclusion long since. While marching instantly with an army wasn't always the best choice–

    "It got me and my army killed in the end, lad," the ghost agreed.

    –acting fast was almost always a better choice than dithering.

    "Lord Waldron," Garric continued, "prepare the army to move as soon as possible. We'll determine which troops to take based on the supply situation, which you'll coordinate with the proper bureaus."

    "Done," said Waldron and nodded. The young officer standing behind him started for the door at as fast a walk as the crowd permitted. Hauk, Tadai, and Royhas were muttering to aides also.

    "Your highness?" Liane said. She spoke in a polite undertone to indicate she wanted to address the council instead of informing Garric in a private whisper.

    "Go ahead, Lady Liane," Garric said, silencing the room again without really shouting. Well, not shouting as he'd have thought of it in the borough, calling to his friend Cashel on the crest of the next hill.

    "Your highness," Liane said, "we know that our enemies have been capturing humans on Cordin. They probably believed that because of Palomir's location, it would be some time before we in Pandah learned about the raids. On the other hand, they must know that their grace period will be over shortly."

    Garric kept from frowning by conscious effort. Liane had remarkable skills, but she was too much a lady to project her voice to be heard beyond the ends of the table. He supposed he could repeat anything that had to be known more generally.

    "Before you commit the army," Liane said, "it might be well to be sure that there isn't a large body of rats already marching toward Sandrakkan to strike fresh victims while they still have surprise. Or toward Haft."

    Garric's body tensed as though he'd been dropped into ice water. Toward home, he thought.

    "Yes," he said, marvelling that his voice remained calm and businesslike. "Lord Zettin, I want you to put your companies across all the routes to the west and northwest of Palomir. If they meet small raiding parties, they're to attack after sending a courier back. If they find a larger body, they're to shadow it while waiting for reinforcements. And send messengers to the district that the enemy is threatening."

    Duzi, may a rat army not already be attacking Barca's Hamlet.

    Instead of simply acknowledging the order, Lord Zettin said, "Your highness? Might I suggest that I send at least one troop to Telut to see what these pirates and their creature are doing?"

    That's a good

    Cashel's quarterstaff rapped the stone floor again. "If you please?" he said. "Rasile has something to say about that."



    Cashel stood, his staff planted. He looked around the hall, not so much because there was anything in particular he wanted to see, but because it was reflex in him. Sheep wandered all different ways, and as soon as you let one out of your sight for a minute or two, you could be sure it was getting into trouble.

    Rasile raised a tumbler of water. It was a pretty thing with a design in gold between two layers of clear glass, or mostly clear. A servant had fetched it from the sideboard next door in the private room where Garric could go off with one or two people to talk about things the whole council needn't hear.

    Cashel had ordered it brought because the servant ignored Rasile asking. A lot of people didn't like the catmen, which wasn't hard to understand. It was just as well for the fellow that he hadn't said the wrong thing when Cashel stepped in, though.

    "The one who controls the Worm," Rasile said, "is moving toward a particular place. I do not know where it is, but perhaps one of you will recognize it."

    "What place is that?" asked a long-faced man who had something to do with transport. "I don't see–"

    Rasile upended the tumbler. As the contents poured out, she said something that sounded more like a hinge binding than it did words.

    Scarlet wizardlight flickered around the stream the way a potter's thumbs mold clay. Instead of splashing down, the water spread into a round temple with a domed roof; an instant later the roof vanished and the columns that'd held it up crumbled into a ring of stubs, some taller than others. Fallen barrels lay scattered roundabout.

    The illusion ended; the water splashed onto the tapestry. Some of it sank in, but the cloth was tightly enough woven that beads and little rivulets quivered nervously in the surface.

    "Why, I've seen that!" said Lord Attaper, leaning forward with a puzzled expression as though her were trying to make sense of the way the spilled water now lay. "That's the Temple of the Tree, they call it. In Dariada on Charax."

    "There must be a hundred ruined temples like that, every one as likely as the next!" Lord Waldron protested. "Maybe more, since the Change."

    The guard commander and army commander acted like two rams in a flock, though it never got out of hand. Cashel figured–and they figured–that Garric would end the trouble quick if that happened.

    "I know that," Attaper said, grimacing. "And it was twenty years ago I was on Charax, I know that too. But I tell you, I saw what Rasile showed, and I was sure it was the Temple of the Tree."

    "Yes," said Rasile, grinning with her tongue out. "The image I formed is not wholly to be seen with the eyes, Warrior Waldron."

    Tenoctris turned to Rasile, standing beside her. The Corl was short even for her own species, so their heads were nearly on a level.

    "Can you face the Worm?" Tenoctris said. "You were drawn to it, after all."

    "You know what the Worm is?" Rasile said. "Of course you do; you are Tenoctris. So yes, I can face it."

    Rasile grinned again. People around the table were straining to hear. Cashel didn't have a problem because he was standing right behind them, but it must be just a buzz to anybody more than arm's length away.

    "But I do not see how I can possibly defeat it," the Corl said, "even if I have the help of your friend, the warrior Cashel."

    "We're even, then," said Tenoctris. Her own smile, though human, made her look a bit like a dog getting ready for a fight. "Because I assure you, I have no idea how I'm going to deal with entities who–"

    She shrugged expressively.

    "–emotionally I can't even make myself believe in."

    Garric was holding the room quiet by glaring at anybody who started to chatter while the wizards were talking. "Your highness," Tenoctris said, "Rasile will go to Dariada with the aid of Master Cashel, if he…?"

    Tenoctris looked up at Cashel.

    "Yes, ma'am," he said. He'd go wherever somebody who understood things told him to go. "That is, if…?"

    Sharina was already looking over at him; she nodded. She didn't look happy about it and Cashel wasn't happy himself, but it was good to be doing something useful.

    He frowned and said, "But Garric? I don't mind fighting a pirate or even a couple pirates, but there was a herd of them at Ombis. There'll be more pretty quick, because tramps and no-goods will join in for the loot. I guess there's going to be a lot of ordinary fellows too, only they'd rather drink wine than sweat plowing somebody else's field."

    "Right," said Waldron. "I'll send a regiment. Ah–one of the units from the Valles garrison would probably be sufficient, if we don't want to weaken the field army."

    "Your highness?" Liane said.

    "Lady Liane, please move your stool forward and join the council," Garric said. "And state your opinion of Lord Waldron's proposal."

    He'd been sharper than he usually was, and sharper for sure than he usually was with Liane. Cashel felt sorry for his friend with so many different things to keep track of all at once, but it was sure a wonder how well he did.

    "Charax since the Change is a loose federation of cities, each with control of the region around it," Liane said. She held a gilt-edged scroll, but she didn't bother to open it. "They insist on their independence, and they won't allow foreign troops on their territories. That's particularly true of Dariada, because the Tree Oracle is located there."

    "They've been turning away the envoys I've sent regarding tax assessments," Chancellor Royhas said in a growl. "I suggest we use enough troops that at the same time we deal with these pirates, we can convince the Dariadans and their fellows that they're parts of the kingdom, now."

    Cashel could see Liane stiffen. A flash of anger touched her face–and vanished just as quickly.

    "No, milord, we will not do that," said Garric. He didn't seem to have glanced to the other side to see Liane's expression, so the edge in his voice must mean that he felt the same way anyhow. "Cashel–and Lord Waldron? Bands of pirates have very rarely been a danger to walled cities. This gang would be no exception were it not for the Worm, and troops wouldn't help with that problem. Take whatever escort you want for the journey, but we won't upset the folk of Charax by marching into what they consider their independent territory."

    "We will not be walking, Warrior Garric," Rasile said politely. "We will not need the escort you offer."

    Cashel didn't say anything. He was happier than not that they wouldn't have soldiers around, though, even if he didn't have to command them. It wasn't exactly that he didn't like soldiers, but he didn't have anything in common with them.

    "I don't know anything about a Tree Oracle," said Lord Tadai. "Though since the Charax I did know of before the Change was an island of fishing villages and goat farmers, I shouldn't be surprised."

    Cashel liked Tadai because he didn't bluster even a little bit, though he was tough as they came in his own way. A lot of people with power liked to show off, including big fellows with a mug or two of ale in them. Cashel wasn't like that himself, and it was good to know other folk who were the same way as him.

    Liane cleared her throat; Garric nodded to her. "The whole island of Charax," she said, "appears to be as it was in the past millennium, before the Isles were unified under the Old Kingdom. The Tree Oracle is just that, a tree which responds to petitioners through human priests. A very old tree. The oracle is administered by a federation of the whole island, though the states fight one another regularly."

    "The historians of the Old Kingdom treat the struggle against the Confederation of Charax as a major step in the predestined rise to greatness of the Kings of the Isles," Garric said with an odd smile "It didn't occur to me when I read the accounts that I'd some day be dealing with people who wouldn't view the sack and burning of Dariada as a splendid triumph."

    "I suppose the oracle's a fraud," Waldron said. He snorted. "A way to make priests rich and keep everybody else in line."

    "I wouldn't know, milord," Liane said, leaning forward to look past Garric at Waldron. "I don't have enough information."

    Cashel couldn't help smiling. He knew Lord Waldron had been insulted, but he wasn't sure Waldron did. There were other smiles around the table, though. Waldron was curtly sure of himself, and it didn't help his popularity that he was generally right.

    "It would appear that the pirates do not consider the oracle a fraud, Warrior Waldron," Rasile said. "I would not usually hope to learn wisdom from folk who have been cast out of their bands, but these outcasts have bent a Worm to their will. I could not do that, and I think that even Tenoctris would find the task difficult."

    "I," said Tenoctris forcefully, "wouldn't dare to try. The Worm destroyed its own world. Should it get loose in ours, it would destroy a second."

    Garric looked around the room again. Everybody kept their mouth shut. They'd learned not to waste Garric's time babbling when there was work to do, and there was plenty of work now.

    But instead of the dismissal Cashel expected, Garric said, "Mistress Ilna? Do you have something to add before I close the meeting?"

    Ilna stood on the west side of the room, knotting one of her designs. Lord Zettin was standing beside her, which surprised Cashel more than most things would. The soldier–who'd been a sailor not long back–had a seat at the table, but he was leaving it vacant.

    Ilna caught Cashel's eye and smiled; not much but as much as she ever did. Then she said, "I don't have anything to say, no. I'll be going off shortly to deal with a problem that Master Zettin showed me."



    Ilna heard what was going on in the council meeting, but her attention was on the pathways opening as her fingers knotted lengths of yarn. The design was like a track through a forest, forking again and again. She saw nothing beyond the path itself, but she had a sense of the direction.

    Aides jostled and whispered around her. Ilna knew she could've had a chair at the table. She didn't feel she had any business being at the council meeting in the first place, so she hadn't asked for that, today or ever in the past.

    She wasn't sure why she'd even bothered to come. Common courtesy, she supposed: her friend Garric had asked her to attend, so here she was. She'd been surprised that Lord Zettin, who did belong and had a chair placed for him, had chosen to stand beside her. She hadn't asked him what he thought he was doing because that was none of her business. She'd certainly wondered, though.

    Garric's direct question had taken Ilna by surprise, but she'd given the same answer as she'd have done with a week to prepare. That was one advantage to always telling the flat truth.

    Not that she did it because it was advantageous.

    "Say!" piped the young courtier standing behind Lord Waldron. His tunics were of the best quality and he wore them well. "What does she mean saying Master? He's a peer!"

    Ilna dropped the pattern into her sleeve and reached for more yarn. The action was reflex: there wasn't a real threat, and hostility toward her was no new thing.

    "Lord Halle!" Zettin said. "If you persist in discussing matters which touch my honor, I'll send you home to your father with your ears cropped!"

    "Quite right, Halle!" Lord Waldron said. "Gentlemen don't need a pup like you to tell them their business."

    Waldron turned. "I wonder, though, your highness," he continued with his eyes on Lord Zettin rather than Garric. "If Mistress Ilna should be bothering about private matters while the kingdom's got the enemies it does?"

    Ilna wondered if the army commander really had any notion of what she'd done or could do. Perhaps he did, since she knew Waldron wasn't a stupid man.

    She was quite sure that his comment had nothing to do with her and little at best with the kingdom, however. Zettin was Attaper's disciple and Attaper was Waldron's rival, so Waldron jabbed at Zettin. Children did the same thing–but animals didn't, not any animals that Ilna had seen during life in a peasant hamlet.

    She'd done worse things herself, of course. That didn't make her like human beings better.

    Aloud she said, "I've never met a kingdom, Master Waldron, but I've got a good notion of what I myself ought to be doing. If you don't agree, you're welcome to your opinion."

    Waldron glared fiercely, but not so much at her as in her direction. Until Ilna'd spoken, he hadn't really been thinking about her as a person; she'd been a stick to beat Zettin with.

    Ilna smiled as broadly as she ever did. Sometimes what you thought was a stick turned out to be a snake.

    "All right, I take your point," Waldron said. "I shouldn't have said anything. No offense meant."

    "Ilna?" said Tenoctris unexpectedly twisting around in her chair to meet Ilna's eyes. "It might be useful for you to describe to the council how you came to your decision. There's obviously–"

    Her glance spiked Waldron; he scowled even tighter.

    "–a great deal of ignorance about the business."

    Ilna shrugged. Discussing this sort of thing made her uncomfortable, but discomfort was so ordinary a part of her life that she felt foolish complaining about it–even to herself.

    "I wove a pattern," she said, gesturing with the yarn in her hand, as yet unknotted. "Patterns, I suppose, more than one. They–"

    How to describe it? It wasn't seeing or even feeling, it was knowing a thing, a direction.

    "–indicated to me that I should–"

    No, that's not the word!

    "–that it would be right for me to go look into Hervir disappearing up in Blaise. And don't ask me what I mean by right–"

    She was angry and it came out in her voice, but she was angry at herself. She didn't have the words to explain to educated people what she meant!

    "–because I don't know. Looking for Hervir will take me in direction that someone, something, thinks it's right for me to go, and that's all I know."

    Perhaps she'd find death on Blaise. But she'd learned not to expect anything that she might want.

    "I work in certain ways," Tenoctris said, addressing the whole council. "With an incantation I could display a future. Some of you have seen me do that, have you not?"

    There were nods and murmurs around the room. One of the soldiers, an older man who'd gone bald to the middle of his scalp, forced his clenched fists together and muttered a prayer.

    "But I couldn't show you the future, or the best future," Tenoctris said, "because I don't know what those things mean. They're results. They depend on the choices I make when I choose the words of power that I chant. Someone like–"

    Pausing suddenly, Tenoctris got up from her chair and walked around it to where Ilna stood. She put her arm on Ilna's shoulder; her touch was as light as a hopping wren's.

    "There isn't a 'like Ilna,'" she said. "Mistress Ilna, alone of all those I've met or heard of. Ilna can determine the best course for herself, which means the best course for mankind and for the good. I would no more argue Ilna's decision than I would tell King Carus how to fight a battle."

    Garric chuckled, though Ilna wasn't sure that it was really her childhood friend laughing. "All right," he said. "The matter was decided when Ilna stated her preference, but now you all know why that's the case. The council is dismissed."

    Feet shuffled and chairs scraped the floor of chipped stone in concrete; attendants threw open the double door. Cashel stood, waiting for the bustle to clear so that he could go to Sharina without knocking people out of the way.

    Ilna stood; her fingers were knotting a pattern. She thought of the path she'd taken, the one whose varied turnings that led to the deaths of Chalcus and Merota. If that was the right choice, then where would the other choices have led?

    Ilna's fingers moved, and her mind bubbled with anger at the person she was.

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