THE GODS RETURN – snippet 12:



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            "How–" said Ingens, and stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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