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The Gods Return: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, November 7, 2008 20:04 EST




    Sharina drifted toward the dream temple like a leaf nearing a mill flume. She didn’t move swiftly, but she was locked into a certain course no matter what she wanted.

    She was locked into certain doom.

    "Sharina!" called the figure waiting for her on the black granite plaza. "It is time for you to bow to Lord Scorpion. Come and worship the greatest of gods, the only God!"

    She tried to shout, "I will not!" but only a whisper came out.

    "Worship!" the figure demanded. "Bow to Lord Scorpion willingly; but willing or not, you will bow. Worship!"

    The force that gripped Sharina spun her lower, closer to the waiting figure. The Scorpion didn’t lower from the clouds this time, but Its presence permeated the world; it was immanent in all things.

    "You have no power over me!" she said. Her voice was a whine of desperation.

    The figure laughed triumphantly. "Lord Scorpion has power over all things, princess," it said. "Worship Lord Scorpion and rule this world at my side!"

    "Who are you!" she shouted. She tried to reach the Pewle knife, but her arms didn’t move. Perhaps she wasn’t even wearing weapon; this was a dream.

    But she knew it wasn’t only a dream.

    "You may call me Black," the laughing figure said. When she’d completed another full circle, he would be able to raise a hand and touch her. "You will be my consort. Together we will rule this world in the name of Lord Scorpion, Who rules all!"

    Sharina remembered tearing the dream apart to escape the night before, but her fingers wouldn’t close now. "Cashel," she said, but the name was so faint a whisper that even she couldn’t be sure that she’d spoken.

    "Cashel is dead!" said Black. "Cashel will never return, he can never return!"

    "Lady, protect Thy servant!" Sharina prayed with frozen lips.

    "The Lady is dead!" said Black. "Lord Scorpion rules all. Worship Lord Scorpion!"

    He was reaching toward her. He would grasp her wrist and pull her to him. She felt the grip of long fingers, tugging her from this world into -

    Sharina jerked bolt upright in her own bed. The moon shone through the slats of the jalousies. By its light she saw a rat wearing pantaloons and a white vest, sitting upright on her pillow.

    "Ordinarily I would have waited for you to awaken normally," the rat said in a conversational voice. "From the way you were thrashing about, though, I didn’t think you’d mind. My name is Burne, princess."



    Gaur had cobblestone streets, which Ilna disliked intensely. The alleys to either side were so narrow that the three-story stone buildings overhung most of the pavement. Even here on the High Street, Ilna felt like she was walking up a canyon toward the gray limestone bluff lowering above the town.

    She smiled slightly. She had walked up canyons, and into caves, when necessary. She didn’t like stone, true, but there was very little she did like. She’d deal with Gaur the way she dealt with everything else.

    "Lady Brincisa," said an ironmonger standing in his doorway. He extended his little bow to Ilna as well.

    The shopkeepers they’d met were deferential, though they also seemed rather cautious. People going the other way in the street mostly bowed to Brincisa, but a few turned their heads toward the wall till she was past.

    "How do the people here support themselves?" asked Ingens, walking a pace behind the two women. "Gaur seems prosperous."

    Did it? The townsfolk were well enough dressed, so Ilna supposed that was true. She shouldn’t let her dislike of a place color the facts.

    "Rice farming and trade on the river," Brincisa said, apparently unconcerned by the question. "There was a special tax to pay for digging a canal after the river shifted its course during the Change."

    She smiled with a kind of humor. "The town elders didn’t assess us," she went on, "but my husband and I chose to make a payment without being asked. The money was of no significance, and we prefer to be on good terms with our neighbors - so long as they remain respectful."

    "Is your husband expecting our arrival?" Ilna said. She was knotting patterns as she walked, but out of courtesy she didn’t look at them. She too preferred to be on good - well, neutral, in her case - terms with those she had to deal with.

    "My husband Hutton died three days ago, mistress," Brincisa said with a smile of cool amusement. "That’s part of why I need your help. But our discussion can wait till we’re at leisure in my workroom."

    She paused and gestured to the house on her right. A servant in the familiar dark livery held open one panel of an ornate double door. It occurred to Ilna that she’d never heard Brincisa’s servants speak, though they were perfectly ordinary to look at. Perhaps they were just well trained.

    She entered and started up the stairs of dark wood. The staircase beside this one led down from the door’s other panel toward a basement. Behind her Ingens said, "Mistress Brincisa? This house - how were you able to build it?"

    Ilna looked over her shoulder. Brincisa, also looking back, was following Ilna up the stairs, but Ingens was still in the street staring at the building’s front.

    "All the other houses are stone," he said, shifting his eyes to Brincisa on the staircase. "But yours is brick."

    "My husband and I preferred brick," Brincisa said. "And not that it’s any of your business, we didn’t have it built here: we moved it from another place."

    She paused. If her voice had been cool before, it was as stark as a winter storm when she continued, "Now - you may either come in or stay where you are, Master Ingens. What you may not do is trouble me again with your questions. Do you understand?"

    "Mistress," Ingens murmured, lowering his head and keeping it down as he entered the house.

    Brincisa turned to meet Ilna’s gaze. In the same cold tone she said, "Do you have anything to add, mistress?"

    Ilna smiled faintly. "I prefer brick also," she said. "Not that that’s anyone else’s business."

    Brincisa waited for a heartbeat, then chuckled. "Yes, mistress," she said. "We can help one another. My workroom is on the top level, so go on there if you will."

    Ilna counted the floors absently with quick knots in her fabric, one and one and one and finally one more; the fingers of one hand, four. Not only was Brincisa’s house made of different material from the rest of Gaur, it was taller. The molded plaques set into the brickwork over windows were too ornate for Ilna’s taste, but she had to admit that they were tasteful.

    Each floor had a central hall with doors set around it. There was only one door on the uppermost hallway, closed like the others. Ilna stopped beside it and waited for the others to join her. Brincisa touched the panel; an unseen latch clicked and the door swung open.

    "Enter, mistress," she said. "And you may enter as well, Master Ingens; but remember your place."

    The secretary nodded. His face was tight, but he successfully hid whichever emotions were affecting him.

    Save for the hall and staircase, the upper floor was a single high room lighted through a ceiling covered with slats of mica; it cast a faintly bluish shimmer over everything. The walls were frescoed with a base color of fresh cream. Roundels of green and gold framed the doorway and alcoves - there were no windows - and sea creatures swam in the upper registers.

    Ilna stopped just inside the door when she felt sand scrunch under the soles of her bare feet. She looked down. What she’d thought was a gray pavement was instead a thin layer of ground pumice, brushed over tightly fitting slabs of pale marble. She looked at Brincisa.

    "For my art, mistress," Brincisa said. "So that the incantations don’t leave residues to interfere with later work. Don’t worry - the grit won’t follow you out of the room."

    Ilna sniffed. "You’re wrong that they don’t leave traces," she said. "But it’s no matter to me."

    Ingens followed the women inside; the door closed behind him, though it hadn’t been touched by anything Ilna saw. The secretary clasped his hands before him; he turned his head slowly to look around, but his body was as stiff and straight as if he’d been tied to a stake.

    Brincisa’s earlier spells did leave signs despite the care with which the sand had been raked, but the fact Ilna could see a pattern remaining didn’t mean it was of significance even to the powers on which the universe turned. She’d really been slapping back at Brincisa for her assumption that Ilna was afraid to get her feet dirty. Brincisa obviously insulated herself from the realities of life even in this considerable town; she couldn’t possibly imagine the muck of a farming hamlet.

    Which raised another question . . . .

    "Mistress?" Ilna said. "You came here from another place, did you not?"

    "I will not discuss the place we came from!" Brincisa said. She was noticeably angry, but Ilna thought she also heard fear. "That has nothing to do with anyone but me and Hutton, and now with me alone!"

    "Yes," said Ilna, silently pleased to have gotten through the other woman’s reserve. "But the reason you came here concerns me, since I’m here as well. And -"

    She smiled faintly to keep the next words from being a direct accusation.

    "- I came here in a way that concerns me a great deal."

    Brincisa made a sour face and nodded in apology. "Yes, of course," she said. "As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Ortran is a nexus of great power now, but the island of fisherman that existed in your former universe was just the reverse. It repelled the use of the arts. At the Change that, that vacuum so to speak, drew Gaur and its immediate surroundings into this present."

    Ilna thought over what she’d just been told. She hadn’t noticed any difficulty in seeing off the troublesome fishermen, but she hadn’t knotted a very complicated pattern either. Regardless, Brincisa had answered her question in a direct, perfectly believable fashion.

    "All right," she said. "What is it that you want from me?"

    For the first time since she’d entered the room, Ilna took the time to look at its furnishings. A stuffed sea wolf hung from the ceiling, a young female no longer than an outstretched arm. Some of the beasts stretched as much as three double-paces from jaws filled with conical teeth to the tip of the flat, oar-like tail.

    Not far from the lizard was a series of silver rings around a common center, each with a gold bead somewhere on the circle. Ilna must’ve frowned in question, for Brincisa said, "An orrery. You can adjust it to show the relative positions of all the bodies in the firmament."

    Ilna didn’t know what "the firmament" was, let alone what "the bodies" were. She supposed it didn’t matter.

    Brick pillars projecting into the room to support the roof. On the lower floors the alcoves were probably pierced for windows, but in this workroom the walls were solid; the spaces were filled with bookshelves and racks for scrolls.

    On one end of the long room was an earthenware sarcophagus molded in the shape of a plump woman who smiled in painted idiocy. On the other was a skeleton upright in a wooden cabinet - Ilna couldn’t tell how it was fastened; it seemed to be standing normally - and a soapstone tub holding a corpse whose flesh lay brown and waxy over the bones.

    The items were more impressive examples of the trappings of the charlatans who came through the borough periodically, their paraphernalia carried on the backs of wasted mules. Brincisa, whatever else she might be, was not a charlatan.

    "My husband Hutton and I came to Gaur seventeen years ago," Brincisa said. "The town was very suitable for our researches, as you might expect. There’s a peculiarity in the laws of the community, however, which has created a difficulty for me."

    As she spoke, she toyed with a silver athame. The reflections on the flats of its blade didn’t seem to show the room in which Ilna stood. "As I told you, my husband died three days ago."

    Ilna nodded curtly. She expected there would be a point, and she’d learned that they wouldn’t reach that point any more quickly if she said, "Why do you imagine I care about the death of someone I’d never met?" or even some more polite form of words to the same effect.

    "In expectation of his death, Hutton placed his most valuable tool of art in a casket which he bound to his breast with a single hair," Brincisa said. "He then walked out of the house and died in front of the municipal assembly building. Even I couldn’t prevent him from being buried with his casket."

    She flung the athame at the stone floor. It rang musically away, its point bent. Ingens whimpered faintly.

    "That was his," Brincisa said mildly.

    She continued to smile, but the fury in her eyes was obvious to anyone. "My fellow townspeople fear me, as they should," she said. "But they are more afraid of violating their burial ordinances . . . and in that too they are wise. Nothing I could do or say would change their minds."

    Ingens opened his mouth, then closed it again with a shocked expression. Ilna glanced at him, looked at Brincisa, and said, "Master Ingens, did you have a comment?"

    Ingens licked his dry lips. His eyes shuttled quickly between the two women. He didn’t speak.

    "Master Ingens," Ilna snapped, "your place is whatever I say it is! If you have something to say, say it!"

    She glared at Brincisa. Brincisa bowed politely.

    "If Master Hutton knew he was going to die," Ingens said in a perfectly normal voice, "why did he choose to do it in a public place, Mistress Brincisa?"

    "To spite me, of course," Brincisa said with an undertone of fury. "All those who die in Gaur are immediately interred in the clothes they die in, in the cave on Blue Hill. That’s the bluff that you may have noticed at the head of High Street."

    "Immediately?" Ilna said.

    Brincisa shrugged. "Within four hours," she said. "Though I doubt that I could have untied the casket’s bindings regardless of how much time I had."

    Her gaze focused on Ilna. "You can untie them, mistress," she said. "And in exchange, I’ll see to it that you and your companion -"

    She nodded to Ingens.

    "- reach your intended destination more quickly than you would’ve done had your vessel not been damaged in an earthquake."

    "You want me to rob a grave for you," Ilna said.

    Brincisa shrugged. "Yes," she said. "I’ll help - the entrance to the cave is always guarded, but I’ll put the whole town to sleep so that you aren’t inconvenienced. But you’ll go into the cave alone to remove the casket. After all -"

    She smiled coldly.

    "- you never met the man, so why should you care about him now that he’s dead? I assure you, mistress, you would not have liked him in life."

    Ingens gestured with one finger to call silent attention to himself. Ilna nodded to him.

    "I’m sure Mistress Ilna can untie this hair," the secretary said, "but I’m perfectly willing to go into this tomb and cut the casket free without worrying about the knot. Wouldn’t that be simpler?"

    "Cutting this particular hair would not be simple, no, Master Ingens," Brincisa said with amusement. "Not though you used a sword of diamond. Untying the knot will not be simple either, but I think Mistress Ilna will find it possible."

    Ilna shrugged. "It seems straightforward enough," she said. She felt her lips curl up in a kind of smile. "If it’s a bit of a test, well, I don’t mind a test."

    "Then we’ll go to the tomb tonight," Brincisa said with satisfaction. "For now, I had dinner prepared against your arrival. You’ll have plenty of time to eat and prepare."

    Ilna thought, but she said only, "Yes, I could use something to eat."

    It wasn’t a surprise that Brincisa had known to prepare for Ilna’s arrival; but as the wizard had said, she and Ingens would reach Caraman more quickly this way. Ilna supposed it didn’t matter.



    Before the Change, the Kolla River had flowed from Haft into the Inner Sea no more than thirty miles south of Barca’s Hamlet, where Garric had lived for his first eighteen years. This was the first time he’d seen the Kolla, now a tributary of the North River. In the normal course of Garric’s life as an innkeeper, he might never have gone thirty miles from Barca’s Hamlet in any direction.

    A similar thought must have occurred to Reise, standing beside him on the bank as they watched boatmen poling the grain barges downriver to the army. He gave Garric a twisted smile and said, "Everything has changed."

    Reise plucked the sleeve of his silken inner tunic. "I’ve changed. But nothing has changed more than you have."

    He cleared his throat; an ordinary man, not particularly impressive even now that he’d lost the stoop with which he’d stood all the years Garric was growing up. He said, "I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to say this, but I’m very proud of you, son."

    Garric put his arm around his father’s shoulders, hugged him quickly, and stepped aside again. "I don’t know how I came to be . . . ," Garric said. "To be what I am now. But your teaching is the reason I’ve been able to handle it as well as I have."

    "I didn’t teach you how to be king, Garric," Reise said, his smile even more lopsided than before. He was now Lord Reise, advisor to the Vicar of Haft - a hereditary nobleman whose only sign of ability lay in his willingness to do what his humbly born advisor said.

    "And I certainly didn’t teach you how to be a good king," said the ghost of King Carus with a familiar chuckle. "Though I suppose you could have used me as a bad example."

    "Let’s say that I have a number of advisors," Garric said. "One of the things I got from my father was the ability to tell good advice from bad."

    A herd of sheep was being driven eastward along the opposite bank of the river. Garric estimated the size with quick professionalism, flashing tens with his fingers and counting them out loud: "Yain, tain, eddero . . . ."

    He’d reached, " . . . eddero-dix, peddero-dix," before he completed the count: seven score sheep, and from two separate flocks. There were two rams, and the boys badgering the animals - rations on the hoof for the army - had their work cut out because of it.

    Garric grimaced. "Duzi!" he said. "They’d have done better to leave one of the rams back in its district - or butcher it there, either one. If they had to combine the two herds to drive them, which I don’t see that they did."

    "I’ll make inquiries, your highness," said Reise, jotting a memorandum to himself on a four-leaf notebook of waxed birchwood.

    The company of Blood Eagles who’d escorted Garric were divided into sections standing ten double-paces to east and west. Troopers of the cavalry squadron that had swept ahead were watering from the river by troop. Tenoctris sat on a rock nearby. She seemed to be observing the sky, though Garric found the high, streaky clouds unremarkable.

    Lord Reise’s camp was a village on a rise a quarter mile back from the river. The knoll had been wooded before the accompanying regiment had stockaded the encampment.

    Reise followed Garric’s glance and said, "I brought a senior clerk from each department and from the twenty borough offices. I wanted to be ready to provide whatever information you need."

    "Borough offices?" Garric said. He smiled and shook his head in amazement. "I didn’t know there were borough offices on Haft."

    "There weren’t, your highness," said Reise. "But there are now. If you were wondering, Barca’s Hamlet lies in Coutzee’s Borough according to the last notation in the records in Carcosa. Your Vicar, Lord Worberg, has seen fit to change the name to Brick Inn Borough."

    Garric laughed. "I wonder how Lord Worberg came up with that name?" he asked ironically.

    The oldest building in Barca’s Hamlet was the mill, built like the seawall of hard sandstone at the height of the Old Kingdom. The inn that Reise had bought and renovated when he moved from Carcosa to Barca’s Hamlet was slightly more recent, dating from the years just before the Old Kingdom collapsed in blood and ruin. Uniquely for the east coast of Haft, the contractor had used brick. He’d fired them on the site, using workmen he brought in from Sandrakkan.

    "I believe one of his advisors suggested it," Reise said with a deadpan expression. "I can look into the matter if you’d like, your highness."

    Shifting to a quietly serious tone he added, "Lara has been managing the inn for the past year and a half. I’m told that she was very pleased when she heard the pronouncement."

    "Ah," said Garric with a nod. So that he didn’t have to meet his father’s eyes, he turned toward the men whom regular soldiers were marshalling on the bank just upriver of where he stood. He said, "Those are the Haft militia?"

    "The first influx of militia, yes," said Reise. "The call-up was very successful, my military officials tell me. All Haft is proud that for the first time in a thousand years, one of their own sons is on the throne of the Isles."

    He coughed slightly into his hand and added, "Pardon, your highness. I of course meant the vicar’s military officials."

    Carus observed the recruits through Garric’s eyes, though by now Garric himself had seen enough soldiers to come to the same conclusions. There were about three hundred all told, but they stood in many separate groups.

    "They’re all volunteers, you know," Reise said.

    "Yes," said Garric with a cold smile. "That’s fine so long as they don’t think they’ll be going home again till I release them."

    A few men carried swords and had at least a helmet; often there was a bronze cuirass besides. Those were prominent farmers, men with several hundred acres who owned their own plows and draft animals instead of sharing them with neighbors or renting them as required. Each had a retinue of up to a half dozen of their farm workers. The retainers had either a spear or a bow, but only one wore a metal cap. A scattering of others had plaques of horn sewn onto a leather backing.

    The remainder, at least two-thirds of the total, were smallholders, tenants, and herdsmen carrying whatever they thought might be a weapon. Garric saw flails, scythes, quarterstaffs, and wooden sickles with flints set on the inner edge to cut grain. More useful were the bows, though few of the archers had a full quiver of arrows, the slings, and the men who had proper spears.

    "Duzi!" Garric muttered, more in horror than disgust. To Reise he said, "I’d originally planned to assign the militia to Lord Zettin, since they’re used to hard work and sleeping rough. I changed my mind, though, because they wouldn’t like working with the Coerli as they’d have to in the scout companies. But now that I see them . . . ."

    "We can find javelins for a couple thousand, lad," Carus said. "Our farriers can knock points together from spare horseshoes if we need to, and there’s plenty of willow to make shafts. It’s not much, but needs must when the Sister drives."

    "We still can’t trust them anywhere that matters," Garric said. He muttered, a better choice than having his father wonder why he was glaring at the militia in angry silence. "If they break, they’ll take real troops with them."

    "Put them to guard the camp," Carus said, "and to carry the wounded back out of the line."

    The ghost smiled broadly. "Lad, what did you expect?" he said. "They’re better than I expected, I’ll tell you that."

    One of the recruits saw Garric watching. He took off his broad leather hat and waved it. "Halloo!" he called. "Prince Garric! Halloo!"

    Two of the men standing closest grabbed the one calling by the arms, twisting him away and bending him over at the waist. A regular non-com rushed over and banged the fellow twice on the back, breaking the shaft of the javelin he’d used for the impromptu correction.

    "That was Eyven!" Garric said in surprise. "From Northhill Farm. And Cobsen and Hiffer, aren’t they?"

    "At least half the men in the borough enlisted as soon as the call went out," said Reise. Though muted, his tone was proud. Garric couldn’t be sure whether the pride was for the borough’s response or because his son had aroused that response. "No few of the girls as well. Though the girls seemed largely to be hoping that Prince Garric would be swept away by the charm of an unspoiled village girl after tiring of the haughty falseness of noblewomen."

    Reise smiled. "They wouldn’t have put it in those words, of course," he added.

    Garric looked at the volunteers again and shook his head in dismay. "Well," he said, "our supply lines are short enough that we won’t have a problem feeding them. And I guess at worst they can blunt the ratmen’s swords and make the real soldiers’ jobs that much easier."

    "Son?" blurted Reise in amazement. His face sobered instantly. He murmured, "Your pardon please, your highness."

    "I’m sorry, father," Garric said. He would’ve hugged him again, but Reise stepped back to forestall the gesture. "I . . . look, I’m used to . . . . I mean, these are the boys I grew up with. I don’t mean to sound as though I don’t care about them."

    "You have duties, your highness," Reise said softly. "You have the whole kingdom to consider. If you didn’t think in terms of needs and resources, Barca’s Hamlet and everything else would’ve been destroyed long since."

    "Yes, but I shouldn’t talk that way in front of you!" Garric said.

    "The prince was talking in a perfectly appropriate fashion to Lord Reise, an official from the Haft bureaucracy," Reise said. "His highness isn’t the one who should apologize."

    Garric reached out again. This time the older, smaller man stepped into his embrace.

    "Are you going to see your mother?" Reise said as they eased apart again.

    Garric felt his face harden. The grain barges were passing in a slow, constant rhythm. The Kolla was shallow here and the crews were poling to speed the slow current, walking bow to stern down the trackways on the sides of their vessels.

    "Lara isn’t my mother though, is she?" he said. The harshness in his voice surprised him. "I’m the son of the Countess of Haft."

    "By blood, yes," said Reise, also looking toward the barges. "Lara was the only mother you had growing up, though. And she remains my wife, though we live apart."

    He cleared his throat. "I’m not a soldier," he said. "But Barca’s Hamlet seems to me to be well located to act as a base while you wait for Palomir to approach. While you wait for the rats."

    "I’ll think about it," Garric said. In his mind he was a child again, hearing Lara hector him in shrill anger. She’d thought Sharina was of royal blood and that Garric was her own offspring - and therefore negligible.

    "I’ll think about it, father."



    Cashel set his feet reflexively - the soil was hard with a lot of sand in it; it’d anchor him well in a fight - and glanced quickly about his surroundings. Rasile and Liane waited just ahead, the girl with her hand on the Corl’s shoulder in case they had to duck away from a spinning quarterstaff.

    They wouldn’t, of course; Cashel was far too careful to let that happen. But it made him feel better than he wasn’t alone in thinking about how things might break in a fight.

    Nobody else stood closer than the city gate half a furlong away, guards and loungers. They didn’t look dangerous, just bored. One of the guards nudged the man next to him, who started to pick up the helmet on the ground at his feet. He changed his mind and straightened again without it.

    "We can go on now, I guess," Cashel said, slanting the quarterstaff back over his left shoulder. It looked as harmless there as eight feet of iron-shod hickory could.

    He glanced behind. They’d appeared off the road, so there was just sumac and lesser shrubs growing here on the slope. There was no sign of the sandy place they’d come from or of the empusae. He didn’t expect there would be, but it seemed a good idea to check.

    "Won’t there be problems about us, well, just stepping out of the air?" Liane said quietly. She was in the middle, with Rasile on her right side and Cashel on the left. She’d put the little knife away, though Cashel didn’t doubt she could have it in her hand quick enough if she had to.

    "No ma’am," he said. Liane knew a lot of things, but she hadn’t travelled with wizards as much as he had. "They didn’t see it happen, they just saw us walking toward the gate. And if they had been looking right at us, they still wouldn’t have seen it happen. They think we just came over the hill."

    As they walked through the scrub toward the gateway, Cashel spread a big smile across his face like he was a bumpkin who didn’t have a lick of sense and wasn’t any kind of danger. He was a bumpkin, all right, but he had more sense than to make trouble with a group of soldiers unless he had to. If he really had to, well, they’d see how much danger he could be.

    The guards were all looking at Rasile. They picked up the spears that’d been leaning against the wall and started cinching up breastplates of linen stiffened with glue. The fellow who’d decided not to put his helmet on now changed his mind again.

    Cashel waved his right hand, grinning like a fool. This wasn’t much different from his usual expression. The thought struck him as funny, so he grinned even wider.

    "Not everybody thinks we’re a threat," Liane said, not whispering but not speaking any louder than for her companions to hear. "The moneychangers look glad to see us."

    She sniffed. "They’ll be disappointed."

    Some of the folk Cashel had taken for loungers had little tables in front of them. They whisked coverings of baize cloth off stacks of money and small scales.

    "Best rates here!" one called.

    "Best rates on all Charax coinage!" said another in a voice like a cracked trumpet. "All islands accepted and bullion by weight!"

    The city wall was pretty impressive, though by now Cashel had seen better ones a number of times in the past. The stones in the courses were pretty small and seemed to have been reused from older buildings.

    The gate itself was flat-topped, but it was set in a pointed archway rising a good three times Cashel’s height. The top of the wall was that much again. Instead of simple square battlements for archers to shelter behind while they shot through the gaps, these went up in curvy steps like ornaments. Cashel guessed they’d still work, though.

    There weren’t guards on the wall, though people there were looking down at him and his friends. Looking at Rasile mostly, he didn’t doubt. It was a hot day, and the walls were probably as good a place to catch a breeze as you’d find in Dariada.

    "Where have you come from?" said the guard whose fancy bronze breastplate and sword made him the commander. From what Cashel had learned about soldiers since he left Barca’s Hamlet, the other men did this for a living but the commander, middle-aged and not only well-groomed but soft, was a citizen. Probably one of the richer ones, too.

    "I’m Lady Liane bos-Benliman," Liane said, putting on the voice that told anybody hearing it that they were so many crickets that she could step on if she felt like it. "Prince Garric has sent me from Pandah to view the Tree Oracle."

    She nodded toward Cashel, then Rasile, as she took a ribbon-tied sheet of parchment from her scrip. "These are my assistants," she said, handing the parchment to the officer. "And here is my authorization from Prince Garric. Now sir, what is your name?"

    He took the sheet doubtfully. "Ah," he said, "I’m Bessus or-Amud. Ah, Captain Bessus. But you can’t enter the city, milady. Dariada is independent. We’ve sent envoys to Prince Garric to explain that to him."

    Liane glared at the regular soldiers. "Master Bessus," she said, her voice even snootier than it’d been before, "will you please tell your men to stop pointing spears at Mistress Rasile? An old woman is scarcely a threat to Dariada."

    "She’s not a woman at all!" said one of the guards, his knuckles mottled on the shaft of his spear. Liane had said there weren’t many catmen on Charax, but from the way this fellow sounded he might never have seen one before.

    "As old as I am, you’re probably right," Rasile said. The Coerli laughed by wagging their tongues out the side of their mouths; fortunately, she didn’t do it this time. It didn’t look like laughing to human beings the first time they saw it. "I was never a warrior, though, and I don’t think you need worry about me tearing down walls like these."

    She curled the back of her forepaw up to her mouth and puffed across it like she was trying to blow the walls down. One of the guards jumped away; another laughed at him. They tilted up their spears, though they didn’t lean them against the wall.

    "I’m not here to discuss Dariada’s independence," Liane said with a dismissive flick of her hand. "And I very much doubt whether your City Assembly -"

    Trust Liane to know just what to call the people who ran things in a place she’d never been before!

    "- placed you here at the gate to precipitate the crisis which your envoys in Pandah are trying to avoid. Now, unless you really want to be responsible for bringing a royal army down on Dariada, please conduct me and my assistants to the Priests of the Tree. I have business to discuss with them."

    Bessus held the parchment gingerly between the fingertips of both hands. "I don’t . . . ," he said and stopped. He probably didn’t know where to go from there.

    The regular soldiers were moving a bit away from him. They’d straightened and brought their spears upright, too. Folks who heard Liane using that voice didn’t want her to turn it on them.

    "Oh, all right," Bessus snapped. "You’re scarcely an invading army, are you?"

    To one of the spearmen he said, "Obert, I’m leaving you in charge while I take Lady Liane to the Priests’ Office. I’ll be back promptly."

    He bowed to Liane. "Milady, if you’ll come with me, I’ll take you to the Enclosure. I believe only Amineus, the high priest, will be there at the moment, but he can make such further arrangements as are required."

    "Yes sir, we’ll handle things," said the soldier, obviously relieved that the problem was going away.

    Bessus strode down the street, with Liane beside him. He was talking to her. Cashel would’ve liked to be close enough to hear - he wouldn’t have said anything, of course - but he figured it was best he follow at the back behind Rasile.

    The streets of Dariada were mostly narrow and always crooked as a sheep track. In lots of places, the street vendors and people walking the other way couldn’t have kept clear if they’d wanted to.

    Some of the men seemed to think they ought to grab Liane as she walked past them. Cashel held his staff by one end and kept the length of it stretched out alongside Liane like a railing. If somebody didn’t take the hint, they learned that Cashel was strong enough to slam them back against the wall despite the awkward way he had to hold the staff.

    Rasile made everybody stop and stare - that, or sometimes run the other way. Nobody did anything really hostile, though, not even spit. Maybe they just didn’t have time to react. Because of the way the old wizard walked with two people in front and Cashel behind, people generally didn’t see her until they were right alongside.

    Bessus led them out into a plaza, sort of, though it straggled along a curving wall more than being square or any real shape. In Carcosa it wouldn’t be much more than a wide street, but there hadn’t been anything close to it in Dariada. It was the town market, with people selling ordinary goods and produce to either side. In the middle where Bessus took them, folks hawked souvenirs made of everything from pottery and embroidered cloth to silver and gold.

    Dariada’s houses had mostly three floors - stone on the bottom course, concrete mixed with broken chunks of brick to make it lighter as you went up. The walls were painted, but patches had flaked bare lots of places. Occasionally there was a top floor of plastered canes too. There were so few windows that Cashel thought they must have courtyards or most rooms wouldn’t have any light at all.

    The building Bessus was heading toward across the plaza was round and covered with a tall copper dome; it didn’t look anything like others in the town. The tile-roofed porch on all sides was held up by pillars; the web between them at the tops curved and stepped like the battlements of the city wall.

    It wasn’t the building that really caught Cashel’s attention, though. It was set in a old brick wall just a trifle too high for a man to reach with his arm stretched up and standing on tiptoes. That wasn’t new to him either: it was a lot like the wall around the royal palace in Valles, only that one was half again as high.

    The tree spreading over the wall in all directions, though, that was nothing Cashel had seen before. At first he thought it was a whole grove of trees, but occasionally the branches - and some of them were as thick as his waist - joined a different bole from the one they sprouted from.

    Tiny little leaves sprouted from long tendrils that dangled over the plaza in a ragged curtain. Some branches - never ones with leaves - had what looked like pea pods hanging from them instead. A few pods were as long and thick as Cashel’s forearm; those were beginning to turn from green to brown.

    Broad as the tree was - and if it filled the enclosure the way it seemed to, it was at least a furlong across - it wasn’t especially tall. Cashel eyed it critically, the way he’d have judged if he’d been hired to fell it and needed to know what it would cover when he laid it down. None of the tree’s joined trunks would run to half the height of a big white oak.

    Bessus pushed his way through the hucksters and their customers, a wide assortment of folk with the dress and manners of every part of the Isles and beyond. A servant - he wasn’t a guard; he wore a bleached tunic and a red vest with gold embroidery, but he didn’t have a weapon - stood in the doorway of the round building. "Yes?" he called.

    "Go fetch your master," Bessus ordered, skipping up the three steps of the temple’s base. Liane and Rasile followed just below him, but Cashel stayed down on the ground for now. He turned sideways so that he could keep the building’s doorway in the corner of his eye but still watch what was going on in the plaza. "Is Amineus on duty today? Fetch - ah, there you are, Master Amineus!"

    A very large man - he was certainly fat, but he was so tall that he seemed more massive than plump - stepped onto the porch. He’d probably have cleared the transom, but he ducked as he passed under it nonetheless. He was holding a cylindrical loaf of bread in his right hand and a serrated knife in his right.

    "What is it, Bessus?" he said. "And couldn’t it wait till I’ve had my lunch?"

    With Cashel in front of the round building was a slab of granite about as tall as he was. It was gray, though flecks of white sprinkled the darker crystals. The surface was as uniformly rough as that of a weathered boulder despite obviously being a worked stone.

    "Amineus, I’ve brought you Lady Liane bos-Benliman, the envoy of Prince Garric," Bessus said, showing that he’d been paying more attention than Cashel’d thought when Liane introduced them. "She says her business is with you, so I’ll leave her in your capable hands. I’m getting back to my duties, now."

    The slab’s edges on the side toward Cashel had been rounded over, but on the back they were sharp: it must’ve stood in a sandy place once, where the wind had worn off whatever’d been on the side toward it. He thought about the desert they’d crossed to get here. Had Dariada been there before the Change - or maybe been there much, much longer ago than that?

    "Say there, what is this?" boomed the big priest. His voice had the rumble of a bull calling a challenge. "Bessus, if she’s an envoy, then she needs to go before the assembly, not come to me!"

    People in the plaza were listening to the argument, but that wasn’t any danger. The same folk would gawk and laugh if an old woman slipped in sheep droppings. They wouldn’t mean any harm by it. Cashel moved around to the sheltered side of the slab to see what was there.

    "Master Amineus, my business is with you and your colleagues as priests of the Tree," Liane said crisply. "I believe we can take care of it without difficulty. However I strongly suggest that we go into your dwelling -"

    She nodded to the doorway.

    "- and discuss it there."

    The other side of the slab showed a giant with a walled city between his spread legs. He was holding a snake by the neck with both hands; strangling it, like enough. The snake’s coils writhed over the stone’s curved upper edge. Around the bottom of the picture were the little spikes that stonecutters used to mean waves. Cashel wondered if the city was supposed to be Dariada, back before the Change when it was a port.

    Amineus looked from his bread to the knife, then scrunched his face up in frustration. "All right, come in, milady," he said.

    "I’ll leave you to it," Bessus said, turning and striding back through the crowd.

    "Bessus, you come back here!" the priest said, but he didn’t sound like he thought the guard captain was going to pay any attention. He was right about that.

    Amineus shook his head in disgust. "Come in to the Priests’ House, milady," he repeated. "You’d best bring your servant and the animal with you or there might be trouble."

    The priest gestured them to go ahead of him. Rasile dipped her head politely as she stepped into the building after Liane. Cashel had thought of saying something about how the fellow ought to talk to respectable old folk like Rasile, but that wasn’t what they were here for.

    He thought, I wonder if Rasile could turn him into a pig? And because that was a funny image, he was chuckling as he entered.



    Sharina realized she was holding the Pewle knife bare in her hand. She slid it back in its sealskin sheath.

    "Thank you," said the rat. "I thought that it was a little excessive. Though flattering, I suppose, to be considered so dangerous."

    "It wasn’t for you," Sharina muttered in embarrassment. "I was having a bad dream. Though -"

    She grinned at the rat. He seemed quite ordinary, save for the little vest and pantaloons.

    "- I don’t suppose it was going to help much with a dream either. Ah - thank you for waking me up, Master Burne."

    "Don’t mention it, Princess," the rat said. "Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ll take off this absurd clothing. Nothing against clothing of course, but for human beings. And -"

    He pulled off the vest and dangled it critically from the, well, toes of his left forepaw.

    "Well, I must say, I can’t imagine wearing something like that even when I was human. Could you?"

    Sharina swung her legs over the side of the bed and tucked her feet into the sandals waiting there. She didn’t stand because she was already looking down at the rat - at Burne. "You haven’t always been a rat, then?" she said.

    "No, no," said the rat, tossing the pantaloons on top of the vest and then beginning to groom himself. Between licks he said, "This was my mother’s idea, I’m afraid. She thought it was time I took a wife. I wasn’t interested in any wife, and as for the woman mother had picked, well, I absolutely would not have anything to do with her. So mother lost her temper and cursed me."

    Sharina wondered if she was dreaming. The knife she still held had real weight, and out in the street she heard cartwheels clattering on the stone. The royal palace in Valles constructed of many small buildings within a walled compound; it was well insulated from the great city beyond. The houses of the pirate lords of Pandah, though certainly luxurious, were built around courtyards with their outer walls on the public streets.

    "Ah," she said. "Your mother is a wizard, then?"

    "Oh, something like that," said Burne. He eyed his tail critically, straightening it and then curling it closely around him again. "Anyway, being a rat isn’t such a bad life. Certainly it’s better than being married to the very strong-willed lady mother picked for me. A harridan in training, I called her."

    He looked up at Sharina and chuckled. His eyes twinkled in the moonlight streaming through the jalousies.

    "I’m afraid I have something of a temper too, you know," he said. "Maybe if I’d been a little more diplomatic, mother wouldn’t have become quite as angry. Still, what’s done is done. And as I said, it isn’t so bad. I quite like my fur, don’t you?"

    "It’s, ah, very smooth," Sharina said. She wondered if she ought to pet him - and recoiled at the thought. Not because he was a rat, but because he wasn’t a rat.

    "I joined that family of mountebanks as a more comfortable environment than living with rats," Burne said. "Not that I couldn’t have done so, but quite frankly the norms of rat society aren’t much to my liking. And then there’s the matter of the females. I’d have been the leading male, I assure you, but that entails duties which I would have found quite unpleasant. Even more unpleasant than my mother’s blond termagant."

    He wiped his whiskers in front of his muzzle and licked them also, right half and then left. "No," he said, "I preferred a cage and rather better food than the mountebanks themselves were eating. They valued me, you see. They’ll be quite distraught to learn that I’ve escaped, as they’ll view it."

    "Ah," said Sharina. She seemed to be saying that a lot tonight. "You’re leaving them? Leaving the show?"

    "Now don’t you go thinking that I’m treating them unfairly!" Burne squeaked sharply, sitting up straight on the pillow. "They didn’t capture me, of course, and the fact they believe they did is an amazing insult. Surely it would be obvious to the meanest intellect that no lock a human could open would be beyond my -"

    He raised a forepaw and spread the toes with their tiny claws.

    "- delicacy and intelligence to open also."

    "I think . . . ," said Sharina, answering the implied question instead of treating it as a rhetorical device. It settled her mind to deal with the business on an intellectual level. "That they weren’t able to think of you as other than an animal. Even when you spoke and practiced the tumbling routines with them. They didn’t let themselves believe what they really knew."

    She pursed her lips. "I guess you practiced, I mean."

    "Of course we practiced," Burne said waspishly. "No matter how skilled one might be - and I’ll admit that the Serulli family was skilled; it wasn’t by chance I picked them for my purposes, you know. But despite that, the timing can only come from practice."

    He settled himself onto his belly, his limbs drawn up under him. "They treated me well - except for the lack of intellectual companionship, of course. But they more than got value from my association with them. I owe them nothing, Princess, so you needn’t feel that you’ve harmed them because I’ve decided to associate with you instead."

    "I beg your pardon?" Sharina said sharply. She got up, rocking the bed on its rope suspension.

    Burne waited till the bed had stilled before sitting up on his haunches. "Yes, I’m joining you now," he said. "I won’t pretend that I don’t have my own reasons for doing so, just as I preferred the mountebanks to living with rats. Other rats. There’s a difficult time coming for this world, and I suspect that there’ll be more safety with you than there will be anywhere else."

    He groomed his right whiskers again and added, "In the long run, of course. The immediate future is likely to become unpleasantly exciting."

    On a silver tray by the bedside was an earthenware jar with a tumbler up-ended over its neck. Though the tumbler was glazed, the jar itself was not; water wept through the sides, cooling the remaining contents. Sharina filled the tumbler and drank.

    "I’m rather thirsty myself," the rat said pointedly.

    Sharina paused. If I were home in Barca’s Hamlet and found a rat in my bedroom, I’d have -

    But Barca’s Hamlet wasn’t home any more, and even when Sharina was an inn-servant she’d probably have hesitated before trying to crush a talking rat. She grinned. I hope I’d have had that much sense, she thought.

    She poured a little water into the tray. It wasn’t perfectly flat, so a shallow pool formed along one raised edge. "All right," she said.

    Burne hopped from the pillow to the table. He bent, his tongue lapping quickly but his bright black eyes still focused on Sharina.

    "You’ll find me good company," he said, raising his head again, "as well as being useful. For example -"

    Burne shot up from the bedside table, rattling the tray with the suddenness of his leap. Sharina jerked back instinctively, but the rat struck the wall more than arm’s length from her and dropped to the floor. Gripped in its forepaws was a finger-long scorpion.

    The chisel teeth made a quick snap, shearing off the sting. His paws shifted their grip; the teeth clicked twice more, nipping the scorpion’s pincers.

    "One this size isn’t really dangerous," Burne said conversationally, "but it can send information to places we’d prefer should remain ignorant."

    He began eating the scorpion, starting at the head; bits of black chitin sprinkled the marble floor around him. He paused, cleaning his muzzle with his long tongue. "Useful, as I told you," he said.

    Sharina giggled. She supposed it was reaction. She sheathed the big knife for the second time tonight.

    "All right, Master Burne," she said. "Though I will make a payment to your former, well, associates. A considerable payment."

    She giggled again. The scorpion’s tail fell from the rat’s jaws. It was still twitching.

    "I can see," Sharina said, "that you’re not going to be expensive to feed."

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