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The Gods Return: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, October 13, 2008 01:22 EDT



    "Here's the relief petition from southern Atara," Liane said, sliding a document across the table to Garric beside her. It was on vellum, and each of the twelve petitioners had pressed their signet into a blob of wax beside their name. From the look of the signatures, though, half of them had no more experience of writing than Cashel did. "The Priest Regnant–the island's ruler is the high priest of the main temple of the Shepherd–is ordering that taxes continue to be paid in kind at the temple, which is on what was the north coast."

    Garric frowned. He looked at the petition by reflex, but he'd learned by now that reading official documents was a waste of time. Liane or her clerks would've précised the attempts of a rural scribe to sound high-toned because he was writing to the prince.

    "This is what they did in the past?" he asked, looking at Liane.

    "Yes," said Liane, "but before the Change they could ship the grain–they grow wheat on Atara–by sea. Now they'd have to transport it by wagon and treble the cost to themselves."

    She smiled faintly. "The petition says twelve times the cost, but an assayer of Lord Tadai's who knows the region says three. They want to have the tax paid locally–"

    "That sounds reasonable," said Garric. This sort of business wearied him more than a day in the sun wearing armor.

    "–but I suggest that commuting the in-kind payment to money at the local values will give the treasury a considerable benefit," Liane continued calmly. "With the landowners behind us we can push the measure through, despite the temple's objection to losing the amount they were skimming during collection. Mind, the landowners would've fought us even harder than the priests if we'd tried to do it last year."

    There was a quick clink/clink! on the door's latch plate. Liane met Garric's eyes; the office was the innermost of the three in her suite. When he nodded, she called, "Enter!"

    Instead of Liane's doorman in civilian dress, the captain of the Blood Eagles guarding Garric opened the door; he'd knocked with one of the bronze finials of his double-tongued swordbelt. "Lord Zettin's here to see you, your highness," he said to Garric. "He says it's important."

    The ghost of King Carus grunted sourly. He didn't like Zettin, thinking him too clever by half. "But he's not really a bad sort," he muttered in half-apology. "And you need the clever ones too."

    Zettin waited for the captain to nod him through before he strode into the office. Garric smiled. Brash with everyone else, Zettin was always very punctilious regarding the Blood Eagles. He'd been an officer of the regiment himself before Attaper's support–and his own abilities–had gotten him promoted out of it.

    Now he closed the door behind him and said, "Palomir's marching on Haft, your highness. And it's not a raiding party, it's an army of thousands of rats–all rats. Four of my troops are in contact with them, but they have to keep out farther than they would with humans because the rats move so quickly."

    Nodding with excitement, Zettin resumed, "Headman Clarey's one of my best officers. He says he very nearly lost his whole troop because the rats sent out a flanking company that got behind him. The main body rushed him, and they had to fight their way through the blocking company."

    "We've gotten used to fighting wizards who don't have any better notion of ordering an army than I have of flying," Garric said, echoing his ancestor's thought. "It looks like there may be a general on the other side this time. That could be worse than another thousand rats."

    "I regret I can't tell you how many we are facing, your highness," Zettin said. "Headman Clarey's troop got closest. He's the only one who could more than say, 'Many,' and he says ten thousand men. Though they aren't men, of course."

    Garric shrugged. "Then we're in for a fight," he said, "but I'm not concerned about winning it."

    "The day our troops can't handle half their number of animals, even if they're clever animals with swords," Carus said, "then you'd best be off to a monastery. And I'll be right there with you praying, because I won't be good for anything else."

    "The problem with that estimate is that Chief Edril, who commands the Coerli in Clarey's troop…," Zettin said. He was standing at parade rest, entirely a soldier rather than an official reporting. "Insists that there're many more rats than there are soldiers in the royal army. Clarey disagrees, but he says that Edril's never been wrong to his knowledge."

    Garric frowned. "With all respect to Chief Edril," he said, "counting above twenty is higher mathematics to the Coerli. Their hunting parties weren't any bigger than that, so they never needed to think in greater numbers until they ran into us after the Change."

    "Your highness, I agree completely," Zettin said, his face working uncomfortably because he wasn't agreeing with his prince. "I only point out that Edril was giving a relative measure rather than an absolute one; and, well, as you said, the Coerli think in terms of hunting parties. A hunting party doesn't have supply wagons or servants or, ah, if I may say so, hired companions and other entertainment for the soldiers. A hunting party is made up solely of warriors… which appears to be the case with this army of ratmen as well."

    "He is a clever fellow," Carus said. "Didn't I say that you need that sort too?"

    "Liane," Garric said, turning to the woman at his side. She was writing on the last of three tablets with quick, firm strokes of her stylus. "I need to inform Lord Waldron immediately. Now we've got a target to strike at."

    "Yes," said Liane, closing the tablet and holding it seam upward with the other two. "And I thought Lords Royhas out of courtesy and Hauk for immediate planning."

    With her free hand she lifted the tray of wax from the frame that held it over an oil lamp, then splashed blobs across the tablets. The red wax was still tacky when she pressed the royal signet in the third time. She rose with the grace of a flower opening and walked past Zettin to the door.

    "Yes, I agree," Garric said, smiling wryly. The ring she'd sealed the notices with was in theory Prince Garric's; he didn't recall ever having used it. That was what he had Liane for, he supposed. One of the things.

    "From a supply standpoint," he said to Zettin in a conversational tone, "we're much better off with Palomir attacking Haft. Supplying Pandah is a problem even without refugees flooding in ahead of an army of ratmen; the villages of Grass People in the district around here don't have a great deal of surplus."

    "Why do you suppose Palomir attacked us instead of one of the southern islands where the royal army couldn't intervene, your highness?" Zettin asked.

    He glanced over his shoulder, then jerked his head around in embarrassment for his instinctive curiosity. Liane was giving crisp orders to attendants in the hallway, directing them to deliver the three notices at once.

    Garric shrugged. "For all we know, there's other armies marching on Shengy or elsewhere, milord," he said. "Though I doubt it. Shengy at least is mountainous terrain and never seems to've had much of a population. It's pretty clear Palomir's out to capture people to rebuild the city."

    "We can't march on Palomir if their army's behind us," Carus said. The ghost's expression was one of cheerful enthusiasm. "By the Lady, if they did go haring off to Shengy or Seres, there wouldn't be anything left when they wanted to come home!"

    I don't think the Lady's the right one to invoke for destroying cities, Garric replied silently. Though blasphemy was pretty minor as the sins of soldiers went.

    "If She's any kind of gardener," Carus said, "then she kills the slugs on her vegetables. And Palomir's a nest of slugs if there ever was one!"

    Liane returned to the table. "I sent a messenger to Tenoctris also," she said. "Asking her to join us as soon as possible."

    "Right," said Garric. "I should've thought of that."

    He cleared his throat. "Lord Zettin," he said as he rose to his feet, "will you excuse us for a moment? I'll want you present again when the others arrive."

    "Your highness," Zettin said with an apologetic nod. He was out the door and closing it behind him in a single flowing motion.

    "He moves like a swordsman," Carus noted approvingly. "And clever."

    Garric put his arms around Liane, drawing her close. "I'll be commanding the army," he said quietly into her hair. "We'll be moving fast, just the troops themselves and the supply column."

    He cleared his throat. "The men won't be permitted to bring companions along. And therefore neither will I."

    "Yes," said Liane. "Of course."

    She didn't pull away from Garric, but she leaned back so that she could look him in the face. She said, "Dear, we both have jobs to do. We'll do them, and if we're successful we'll be together again afterwards."

    Garric bent to kiss her.

    Liane was very smart, and beneath the surface she was as ruthless as an executioner. Garric had seen how she ran her spy network, directing–and doing–things that made him queasy to watch.

    She wasn't arguing with his assessment of what was proper and therefore necessary to the good order of the kingdom. But he knew Liane bos-Benliman too well to think she was going to sit quietly in Pandah and wait for his return.



    Sharina had five minutes to dress by the waterclock in the courtyard, and getting into her formal robes had never taken fewer than ten to her knowledge. There was no real reason to change, but there was no real reason for Princess Sharina to be meeting the delegation of merchants from Valles. If she was going to meet them - and for political reasons she should - then she had to wear court robes. To do otherwise would be to insult the delegates, making the situation even worse.

    "Raise your arms," said her maid Diora. Sharina obeyed promptly; the maid grunted and settled the plain inner robe over them.

    Master Helcote, the chamberlain, would've been horrified to hear Diora speak to the princess in a tone of brusque practicality, but he was already horrified that the princess had dismissed the establishment of twenty servants who should in his opinion be waiting on her.

    Sharina had been a servant. She didn't expect any more privacy in a palace than she'd had in her father's inn, but neither did want to have twenty tongues gossiping about what the princess did or about what made a better story than what she really did.

    Diora was willing to dress Sharina, fix her hair, and tidy the suite to Sharina's satisfaction by herself. In exchange, the maid was paid double what she'd otherwise have earned, and she had leave to spend most nights with her fiancé, a Blood Eagle captain. They both thought they did well out of the arrangement.

    Someone knocked on the suite's outer door. Sharina grimaced and said through the smothering folds of the robe, "Who is it?"

    Could they even hear her? And why were the guards outside letting somebody bother her now in the first place?

    "Her highness says to wait," said Diora in her harsh Erdin accent. She was the daughter of a small shopkeeper, and could if she chose to strip plaster off the walls with her tongue. Not in front of Princess Sharina, of course.

    "If you please, Sharina?" Liane called, pitching her voice to penetrate the door panel and the robe now sliding over Sharina's shoulders. "I won't take a moment and you can continue dressing."

    "I'm so sorry, Liane!" Sharina called. Diora had let go of the robe and opened the door without being told to. "Come in!"

    "I'm sorry to disturb you when you're so busy," Liane said, closing the door herself. "I have many things to take care of also, and there's not much time."

    "Busy!" Sharina said and snorted. "I'm meeting Valles merchants who want Prince Garric - want the kingdom - to redirect the River Beltis to drain into the Southern Seaway instead of into the marshes between Charax and Bight as it has since the Change. Otherwise Valles will cease to be a major port."

    "Yes, it will," said Liane. "And the sun will continue to rise also, but I don't blame someone who's to be executed at dawn from regretting that. The delegates deserve to be given the death sentence of their city with dignity."

    She picked up one arm of the outer robe. "Here," she said to Diora. "I'll help you."

    "When I've got these pleats tied, milady," said the maid, tugging at the laces running up the middle of the back. Every time Sharina was dressed in a court robe, she reminded herself to have Diora show her exactly how the arrangement of ribbons and plackets worked as soon as she next took it off. And every time she took it off, she forgot everything in the pleasure of getting out of such hot, heavy, confining garments.

    Liane was from Sandrakkan; her father was a nobleman with an estate west of Erdin. Even so she'd spoken with real compassion for the residents of Valles, the capital city whose existence had twice in living memory brought Sandrakkan to rebellion. My brother's very lucky to have found someone as able as Liane, and as compassionate.

    "Sharina," Liane said, "during my absence I'm leaving my special duties - "

    The intelligence service.

    "- in the hands of my deputy, Master Dysart. He's both organized and careful. I don't believe you'll notice any difference in the quality of the information that you receive."

    Sharina kept from frowning only by an effort of will. After only an instant's reflection, she realized that Liane wasn't talking in front of Diora in the arrogant assumption that a servant wasn't a person and therefore couldn't hear. Liane knew Diora as a person-and trusted her, as Sharina herself trusted the maid.

    "I don't question your personnel judgments, Liane," Sharina said. "I don't think anyone who knows you would do that."

    She was still surprised to learn that Liane was accompanying Garric on campaign, but that was none of anybody else's business. The kingdom depended on Garric's decisions. If Liane's presence helped him perform better, then that was more important than anything Liane could do in Pandah where her duties were in the hands of a trustworthy replacement.

    "The only problem you might have with Dysart," Liane said, "is that his family had a small importing business in Erdin; he's not a noble."

    "Pardon?" said Sharina. She was sure she'd misheard. "Liane, I'm not a noble. Nor, well, is my brother."

    "Oh!" said Liane. She paused, holding her hands palm-out. "I didn't mean that the way it sounds. I didn't mean -"

    "I'm ready for the outer robe now," said Diora. "If you're really willing to help."

    "Thank you," said Liane, gratefully seizing the chance Diora had given her to organize her thoughts. "Yes, of course."

    Liane and the maid lifted the outer robe between them and settled it over Sharina as she held herself very still. The garment was heavy brocade with embroidery and appliqués in metal thread. Uncomfortable didn't begin to describe it, but Liane was right: the delegates deserved courtesy when they were told that their city, the capital of the Isles for centuries, was doomed.

    Sharina's head emerged from the heavy garment. She breathed deeply; she'd been holding her breath without being conscious of it while her head was covered in thick silk. As Liane stepped out of the maid's way, she and Sharina exchanged rueful smiles.

    "I didn't mean noblemen had a monopoly on intelligence or honor," Liane said, no longer grasping for words. "You don't have to read much history to know that. But Dysart doesn't think like a noble. You do, and Garric does. You weren't raised to think that your village or your business is all the world."

    "But Dysart runs day-to-day operations now?" Sharina said in puzzlement. "Which is the whole kingdom and beyond."

    "Yes, and he runs them very well," Liane said. "But he thinks in terms of agents and facts and incidents. He'll know everything that can be known, but there may be things he doesn't understand."

    She smiled ruefully. "There've been times I thought that Dysart doesn't understand anything," she said. "Which isn't fair. But please, when he gives you summaries, which he'll do every morning, remember that there may be a forest which Dysart isn't seeing for the trees."

    "I see what you mean," Sharina said. She grinned, because she suddenly felt warm at the realization that she was a part of a family. They were all working for the common good, passing duties back and forth when the need arose, but all working. "It's bad enough to be my brother when he's gone. I guess being you as well means I won't sleep."

    "I'm sorry," Liane said. Her lips were trembling. "But I . . . ."

    "A moment, Diora," Sharina said to the maid who was tying the myriad tucks and bows that were part of the outfit. She stepped forward and embraced her friend.

    "Be safe, dear," she said. "Garric and the kingdom are very lucky to have you. And so am I."

    Oh, Lady, I'm crying too!

    In the background, Sharina heard Diora murmur, "I'll send Lancombe to tell the Valles merchants that you'll be a little late."



    Ilna had never cared much about the landscape. That didn't mean she was unaware of it, though, and the North River waterfront was ugly by any standard. The landings were rickety straggles standing over an expanse of sedges, reeds, and mud.

    Especially mud. The riverbank was low, and storms upstream regularly spread water half a furlong back from the normal channel. Anything like organized business required a wharf, though Ilna watched small traders wading to and from their boats.

    The river was lined with willows and alders when Ilna first saw it. For as far as she now could see through the haze, the trees had been cut down for building material.

    Krumlin's Wharf was more solid than most: it stood on piles, not a lattice of withies, and the floor was sawn lumber rather than a corduroy of thin poles. Ilna smiled minusculely. This was better than splashing through muck to mid-thigh, though she'd have done that too if it had been necessary. It might well be necessary when they landed down-river.

    She started down the wharf, checking the vessels moored to either side. Those near the bank were aground, though they didn't seem the worse for it. Each sat in a glistening wreath of water, waiting for another freshet to lift them free.

    Master Ingens popped his head up from a berth near the far end, just before Ilna reached that point. "Oh," he said. "You came after all."

    "I came, of course," Ilna said. She considered whether to go on; then she said, "Master Ingens, we're going to be together for some time. This will be less unpleasant for both of us if you learn that I mean what I say. Do you understand?"

    "It was getting late," the secretary said. He backed down the ladder to the boat below. "Still, you're here. It doesn't matter."

    "We'll also do better if you stop telling lies when you make a fool of yourself," Ilna said, swinging her bindle - a few necessities wrapped in a middle-weight cloak, itself the bulkiest item - around to her back to follow him. "The sun's an hour short of mid-morning, which is the time you set."

    "Whatever you say," Ingens muttered.

    The boat reminded Ilna of the dories that men in Barca's Hamlet had used to fish the Inner Sea, though it had a flatter, shallower bottom. It was about as wide as Garric was tall and as long as five men that height. The mast was unstepped. It and the yard with the sail furled around it were lashed to yokes, keeping the belly of the vessel free for cargo. Since they carried only supplies for the journey, the "passengers' quarters" were as spacious as Ilna ever remembered on shipboard.

    The crew of four Dalopans eyed her in flat-faced silence. They wore swatches of bark cloth around their waists and bone pins thrust through parts of their bodies. Mostly that meant nose and ears, but one of the squat, dark men had a triangle woven into each cheek. It'd been done long enough ago that knots of scar tissue swelled over the bone splinters.

    The captain wasn't any more prepossessing, though he was from a northern island. The black zigzags slanting across his tunic were a Blaise style. The garment was of good quality, but worn and a little too small for it this man to have bought it new.

    "Well, girlie," he said, leering at Ilna. "I guess I don't mind having a woman aboard for the trip after all."

    Ilna thought for a moment, then adjusted the pattern in her hands slightly. The fellow was necessary, she supposed.

    "This is Captain Sairg," Ingens said. "His boat and crew brought me -"

    Ilna stepped so that her back was to Ingens and the Dalopans were on the other side of Sairg; the boat shifted nervously. The captain apparently thought she was offering herself to him; he grinned broadly and reached for her. Several of his teeth were missing and the survivors were black.

    Ilna spread the pattern. Sairg screamed and staggered backward, throwing his hands over his eyes. He'd have gone over the side if a crewman hadn't grabbed him.

    "Captain Sairg," Ilna said. "You are a hireling and I am your employer. If you ever again forget that, you will spend eternity in the place you glimpsed a moment ago. Do you understand?"

    "You bloody fool!" Ingens snarled at the captain. "I told you she was a wizard, didn't I?"

    Sairg rose to a squat, looking out past the edges of his splayed fingers. Despite his terror, the boat didn't wobble when he moved. He was somewhat lower in Ilna's estimation than the carp browsing Pandah's sewage on the river bottom, but he remained a sailor.

    "Sairg, now that Mistress Ilna's aboard, we should get under way," Ingens said, reverting to a brusquely businesslike tone. "There's nothing to gain by hanging around on this mudbank longer than we have to."

    Sairg grimaced, spat over the side, and moved to the stern. He kept as far as he could from Ilna. When he'd taken the steering oar in hand, he squealed and clicked to the crew in a language Ilna didn't recognize. They were already lifting the sweeps into rowlocks made from dear antlers.

    "The crew speaks only Dalopan," Ingens said. "He's telling them to push off."

    Sairg cast off the stern line; the bow line was already coiled. Ilna looked at the secretary and said, "Do you speak Dalopan, Master Ingens?"

    He looked at her, apparently surprised that she had noticed. "A little, yes," he said. "Master Hervir generally took me with him on his travels. But Sairg hired the crew; I don't interfere."

    The two Dalopans on the left shoved against the pilings, sending the boat sideways into the channel. They leaned so far over that Ilna was sure they'd fall in. When they were almost parallel to the water, they twisted back aboard with motions Ilna couldn't have described even though she'd watched them do it. Their toes must grip like a skink's. The men settled onto their benches and began dragging the long sweeps, swinging the bow outward against the controlled strokes of their fellows on the right side.

    Ilna chose a place and leaned her shoulders against the furled sail. She began knotting a pattern, an occupation rather than an end in itself. At one time in the past she'd have brought a small loom with her, but a hank of yarn would do her as much good as the frame and be much easier to carry. There was plenty of space now, but she had no way of knowing what she'd be getting into later on the journey.

    "You've travelled a great deal, have you not, mistress?" said Ingens. He was seated on the bench between the fore and aft pairs of oarsmen, looking toward her with polite interest.

    Ilna thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose you could say that," she said. For a peasant who'd never expected - or wished - to leave the hamlet in which she'd grown up, she'd travelled very widely indeed.

    In a slightly harder tone - she supposed her tone was never what you'd call gentle - she went on, "But why do you say that, Master Ingens?"

    The secretary held a scroll in his left hand, his thumb marking his place. He used it to gesture mildly and said, "I guessed you'd travelled because you didn't come with a wagon train of luggage. And I spoke because, as you pointed out, we'll be together for some time. If you prefer, we can try to keep silent save for necessary business, but that isn't my preference."

    Ilna considered, then smiled faintly. "Nor mine, I suppose," she said. "I gather you and Hervir travelled widely also?"

    "Yes," Ingens said. "Hervir took over the prospecting, I suppose you could call it, six years ago when his father moved into the office. When he became head of the family at Halgran's death, he left the office work to his wife and mother and continued to handle contacts with suppliers all over the Isles. He kept me with him on all his journeys. He said my notebooks -"

    The secretary gestured again with the scroll.

    "- were invaluable. He was always very appreciative of my efforts for the company, in fact."

    Ilna kept her face blank as she digested what she'd just heard. The words alone could've been bragging - very possibly truthful, but bragging nonetheless. Ingens' tone, however, was either bitter or sarcastic. Or both, she supposed; there was no reason it couldn't have been both.

    She looked to her left - the boat's right; starboard to a sailor, she knew, but she wasn't a sailor. They were well into the channel, so she could see the far bank despite the blur of mist which the sun even now hadn't completely burned off. The trees and brush were gray-green, indistinguishable save by shades of color that she perhaps alone would note.

    "You were a friend of Hervir?" Ilna asked. Her fingers started to knot a pattern that would give her the answer, but she paused to let the secretary speak. She supposed she was being polite.

    "Master Hervir was my employer," Ingens said. "He was a considerate employer who paid me a fair wage and who was both in public and in private appreciative of my efforts for the company. As I said."

    He considered Ilna for a moment, either choosing his words or choosing the words he was willing to speak to her. "We were not friends, no," he said. "The relationship was not a personal one."

    "You didn't sail to Caraman with Sairg in the first place?" Ilna said.

    "I hired Captain Sairg on Blaise when I reached the river," Ingens said. "He'd made the trip up the river twice already before. We sailed to Pandah on the prevailing wind; downstream we'll use the current. The sweeps are mostly for steering."

    The river was a muddy brown picked out by patches of scum and flotsam. The debris was mostly vegetable, including a large tree whose roots, washed clean by a flood, wriggled in the air like an ammonite's tentacles. Ilna saw the corpse of a dog, though, and a sheep so bloated that it looked like fleece mattress.

    "We went overland from Valles," Ingens said. "Hervir's plan all along was to find a suitable ship for our return via the river. I simply followed his intentions. Though without the saffron, of course."

    And without Hervir, which is all that concerns me, Ilna thought. She wondered if it concerned Ingens. There was nothing in his words or expression to suggest that it did, but on the other hand he had started back to find his employer immediately after delivering word of his disappearance.

    "The channel is constantly changing, Sairg says," Ingens said. He pointed with his whole arm toward the near shore. "Even I can tell that. See that stand of cypress?"

    "Yes," said Ilna, when she was sure that she did.

    "There's only three trees left," the secretary explained. "I remember counting seven when we were coming upriver. Four were undercut and fell into the river. I don't think the others will survive much longer. The whole world is still in flux."

    Ilna sniffed. "Trees have always fallen into rivers," she said. "Things have always died."

    "Yes, but everything is new now," Ingens said. "This whole river is as new as the lands it drains."

    He paused, then added, "Hervir was adamant about that. He said there was no end of what a bold man could achieve in this new world. Hervir was a very ambitious man. Marrying the sister of an Ornifal nobleman was barely the start of it."

    "Are you a bold man looking to better yourself, Master Ingens?" Ilna said, watching the secretary's face. How he chose to respond to the question would tell her more than the mere words he used.

    He snorted. "Me?" he said. "Boldness isn't enough, mistress, if you don't have money to back it up with. I have my salary; which is adequate to my needs, but not the sort of stake I'd need to set up as a spice merchant on my own."

    "Did you think of asking Hervir for a loan?" Ilna said. "You say that he valued you and respected your abilities."

    "Hervir valued me as an employee," Ingens said. He didn't try to hide the bitterness, perhaps realizing that he wouldn't succeed anyway. "He saw no benefit to himself or to Halgran Trading in having me as a rival. He laughed, in fact. 'I haven't spent six years training you, Ingens my boy, in order to have you undercutting me with my suppliers.'"

    The secretary's face worked; another man would've spit into the brown water. "Him training me," he said.

    "I see," said Ilna.

    She might've said more, but at that moment Sairg chittered an order to the crew. "He's telling them to move us farther out into the channel," Ingens translated. "We're over a flooded forest here, and brushing a treetop the wrong way could tip the boat over."

    The oarsmen quickened their stroke. One started what was obviously a chantey even though Ilna didn't understand the words. Her mind flashed bright with an image of Chalcus bending over the stroke oar, his tenor voice floating, "To me, way, haul away -"

    And Merota's clear soprano answering, "We'll haul and hang together!"

    Ilna wasn't crying, she didn't cry; but she closed her eyes and rubbed her face in the sleeve of her tunic until the moment was past.



    When Liane said she needed to meet with him and Rasile, Cashel asked her to do it sitting on the walls of Pandah. He was about as comfortable here as he would've been in any city: he could look out and see green. It wasn't the right pale green of the sheep-cropped meadows south of Barca's Hamlet, but it was close enough he could pretend.

    There hadn't been a lot of building here on the west side because the ground was so boggy. There were tussocks of grass and sometimes willows, but the road to the North River had to be the next thing to a bridge for most of its length. Crews had laid tree boles for stringers and pinned cross-logs to them with treenails. Putting up houses would've taken pilings, or maybe boats.

    "Dariada is the largest city state in Charax," Liane said. She'd opened her little portable desk and had three unopened books and a scroll laid out on it. "It's not the capital, though-the island, the region it is now, doesn't have a capital. There're seventeen states, and for the most part they don't get along well. Usually some of them are at war with one another."

    Pandah was growing so fast that if the army - there was a city watch, but they weren't up to the job yet and the army was here - hadn't kept the battlements clear, there'd have been folks camping on them and in the streets below, for that matter. Lord Tadai wasn't going to have that, which Cashel was glad of for as long as he had to be in the city. For right now, a squad of troops blocked the staircase to the tower Liane had picked.

    Cashel smiled at a thought. Given half a chance, folks'd pack in as tight as sheep in a byre. Since sheep ate grass instead of meat, sheep manure didn't make near the problem human manure did. It was a good thing it rained a lot in Pandah, but that was another reason not to build in the bogs which storms washed the streets into.

    "That is . . . ," Liane said, angry because she hadn't been as clear as she thought she ought to be, "that was true of Charax during the first three hundred years of the previous millennium. What we in our day call the Old Kingdom, though the cities of Charax were independent at the time. That's the situation since the Change, too."

    Rasile watched Liane intently, which bothered Cashel a little to see: it reminded him of the way a vixen tenses toward a tuft of grass that she'd just seen move. As for Cashel himself, well, he was listening. He'd learned long since that not much of what folks as smart as Liane said made a lot of difference to him, though.

    People didn't expect Cashel to talk politics or philosophy. The sorts of things they did take up with him, well, those weren't a problem. He knew how to deal with them, good or bad.

    "Dariada is the most important city of the region, though, because the Tree is there," Liane said. "It's sacred to all Charax, but it's still in Dariada."

    "Ma'am?" said Cashel, because trees were something he understood. "What kind of a tree, if you please?"

    Liane scrunched her face up over an unhappy thought. "I don't know," she said. "The ancient descriptions -"

    She lifted the scroll from the table and waggled it.

    "- aren't clear, and my agents haven't been permitted within the separate enclosure within the city walls. From the accounts, the Tree Oracle is a pod with the face of a man, and it gives responses to questions. The priests choose who can address the Tree, but the petitioner him or herself puts the question."

    Cashel frowned. "Rasile?" he said. "Do we need to talk to the oracle, or are we just going to the city to start out with? Because I don't guess they've seen a lot of your folk on Charax, Coerli I mean. And it seems like they may get, well, perturbed."

    One thing Cashel learned the first time he came into a city is that people in cities talked a lot; really a lot. Also stuff took a long while, especially if there was a lot of people needing to agree before things happened. What with one thing and another, it seemed like the pirates might be up to the city walls before a shepherd and a Corl wizard got anybody to listen.

    "I must speak to the oracle, Warrior Cashel," Rasile said. "I did not understand why I saw a tree on the path till you told me that."

    Her smile didn't disturb Cashel now that he'd gotten used to it, but he hoped she wouldn't try it on suspicious strangers in Charax. They were going to have problems enough as it was.

    "Cashel," Liane said, setting down the scroll she'd picked up as an illustration. "Wizard Rasile. I will be accompanying you on your journey. Neither of you -"

    "Ma'am?" Cashel blurted. He blushed when he realized he'd broken in on a woman talking - and her a lady besides - but he'd just had to! "You shouldn't be doing that. It's not right."

    "It's not only right, it's necessary," Liane said. She didn't snap the way Ilna would've done if somebody talked to her like Cashel just had, but he didn't hear any more give in Liane's voice than there'd have been from his sister. "To begin with, neither of you can read. It's more than probable that you'll need to read in the course of this business."

    "Ma'am, I know you're right," Cashel said. "But a clerk could do that."

    He wouldn't like it even if she wasn't Garric's girl, because she was nice and this wasn't going to be a nice business. He'd seen what happened to women in Ombis when the pirates got through the hole in the walls, and what the male pirates were doing wasn't the worst of it. "Or an officer, I didn't want soldiers but maybe that'd be a good idea."

    Liane was Garric's girl. Cashel wasn't going to take her along!

    "And as you've already understood, Cashel," Liane continued, her voice smooth as polished diamond and just as hard, "we'll have to negotiate with the Priests of the Tree. Neither of you are suitable for that task. I am the best person for it in the government, with the possible exception of Prince Garric. Even Garric would have a great deal to learn in a short time, though, and I'm already familiar with the business."

    "Ma'am . . . ," Cashel said. He felt awful, his guts twisting themself tighter every time he breathed in. He couldn't think of anything to say that would change her mind. Nothing he said: Lady Liane said she was coming, so she would come.

    He sighed. "Yes, ma'am," he said.

    "Female Liane," Rasile said. She'd never stopped looking at Liane, and Cashel hadn't seen the old wizard's expression change from beginning to end. "I will take Warrior Cashel and myself to Dariada by a shorter route than walking through the waking world. If you come with us, you will take the same route."

    Liane looked at her coldly. "Thank you, mistress," she said, clipping the words in a way Cashel hadn't heard her do before. "I am familiar with wizardry. My late father was a wizard himself. I'm not concerned with the means by which you accomplish the task in which I assist you."

"Tomorrow morning," Rasile said quietly. She looked at Cashel. "I would like a wooded grove for my incantation. Can you lead us to such a grove, warrior?"

    "There aren't real groves anywhere near the city," Cashel said, mulling the question in his mind. "There's been too much building going on, you see."

    "The palace has a roof garden," said Liane. "Will that be adequate?"

"It will," said Rasile, wagging her tongue in agreement.

    Liane rose to her feet. "I have more business to attend," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow morning at the palace."

    Cashel offered Rasile a hand, mostly for courtesy. She was spry enough she didn't really need it. They didn't speak as they watched Liane disappearing down the stairs into the guard room below.

    It was true that Liane knew about wizardry: her father had trussed her for a sacrifice. If she was willing to go where and however Rasile led, then she was even braver than Cashel had already thought.

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