THE GODS RETURN – snippet 11:



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

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

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

            Sharina felt the wizard beside her now in the doorway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            "Is this Palomir?" Sharina asked.

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

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

            Tenoctris gestured toward the cameo and its scene of ruin.

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

            She smiled with humor of a sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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