THE GODS RETURN – snippet 13:



            Ingens licked his lips; fear dries them worse than a desert wind, and he'd had good reason to be afraid. Ilna was impressed by the way Ingens had deflected Lord Zettin's anger; but though she was sure that he hadn't made away with Hervir, she was also sure that he wasn't telling the whole truth. She decided not to pursue the matter, at least now. Zettin's temper was still balanced on a knife-edge.

            Ilna's lips quirked in a humorless smile. She'd once woven a pattern which caused everyone who saw it to tell the truth. She'd done it as punishment for the house it hung in, and even she had been shocked by how effective it had been.

            "I woke up in the night," the secretary said. "I thought I'd heard the gong again. I looked in Master Hervir's room and found him gone with the money. I went to the grove but he wasn't there, either. Then I roused the guards and we made a full search, but we still didn't find anything."

            "Did you ring the gong?" Ilna said. "That would seem to be the obvious next step."

            "Ah…," said Ingens, turning his face sideways and looking at the ground again. "I did, yes, mistress, for several days. It didn't seem to me…. That is, it seemed to me that my first duty was to bring word back to Lady Zussa and Mistress Raciana as soon as possible. But of course I intend to pursue all avenues to a solution when I'm back in Caraman."

            Ilna's face remained blank while her mind tried to unknot the truth of the secretary's tale. It'd be simple enough to assume that Ingens was a coward who'd run rather than endanger himself, but that wouldn't explain why he was going back to find his master of his own will.

            "What do you expect to accomplish that you couldn't have done when you were in Caraman the first time?" Zettin said, putting his finger on the same point. His eyes were narrowed, but his hand hadn't returned to his sword.

            "I'll hire a full troop of Blaise armsmen when I get to Piscine, twenty at least," Ingens said promptly. "I have a draft on our agent there for the money. The guards we had with us were fine as a normal escort, but I'll want real soldiers to back me if I expect trouble. The whole village may be in league with Princess Perrine, you know."

            The explanation was perfectly reasonable. Another person might've proceeded in a different fashion, but Ilna couldn't fault the fellow's logic.

            He was lying, though. She was as sure of that as she was of sunset.

            "I really believe I'll be able to do a better job without…," Ingens said earnestly. "That is, by myself."

            "Don't be a fool, man," Zettin said irritably. He turned to Ilna and said, "Mistress, how long will it take you to prepare for the journey?"

            Ilna shrugged. "I'll pack a spare tunic and I suppose a cloak," she said. "And I'll tell Mistress Winora that I'll be travelling. She really runs the Society; I'm just a boogieman. I can serve that purpose from Blaise or wherever, so long as they're afraid that I might come back."

            "Mistress?" said Zettin.

            Isn't it obvious? Ilna snarled in her mind; but it hadn't been obvious to Zettin or he wouldn't have asked the question. Calmly she said, "The staff, and I include Winora in this, will sort out their own differences quickly and quietly in order to keep me from hearing about trouble."

            "Ah!" said Zettin. "Because they respect you and don't want to disturb you."

            "No, Master Zettin," Ilna said. "Because they're terrified of what I might do if I became angry. Since that concerns me also, I'll be just as glad to be away from Pandah while things are still being organized."

            She looked at Ingens. From his expression, he'd understood what she was saying–better than Zettin had, at any rate. She'd frightened him badly by what she'd learned by touching his tunic.

            That meant the secretary had something to hide, but almost everyone had things to hide. Ilna herself didn't. Ilna didn't have anything at all.

            "I'll…," Ingens said. "We'll leave at midmorning, from Krumlin's wharf on the river, then. The boat I've engaged is the Bird of the River. If that's all right with you, mistress."

            "Yes," said Ilna, turning away. "Certainly."

            A commotion approached from the direction of the compound's gate. One of Lady Liane's attendants–Ilna didn't recall his face, but the collar of his outer tunic was embroidered with a pattern she'd seen only on Third Atara–was striding toward them, followed by a squawking bevy of clerks. The watchman hobbled along behind, cupping his groin with both hands.

            "Lord Zettin," the courier said, "I'm sorry for the bother–"

            He glanced over his shoulder. The clerks chirped in fear. The watchman glared, but he stopped also.

            "–but it isn't for sweepers and the like to tell Prince Garric's messenger to wait."

            Ilna eyed the man. He was younger than most of Liane's people, sure of himself–with reason–but not experienced enough to know that there were other people who were also rightly confident. He'd learn, probably sooner rather than later judging from his attitude. If he survived, he'd be better at his work in the future.

            If he survived.

            The courier bowed. "His highness," he said, "requests your presence and that of Mistress Ilna–"

            He dipped his head in further acknowledgment.

            "–at an immediate council meeting in his suite."

            "Yes, all right," Zettin said. His face blanked. Turning to Ilna, he said, "That is, I'll come at once–"

            "Yes," said Ilna, "and so will I. Good day, Master Ingens. I'll expect to see you in the morning."

            She and Zettin strode back through the compound side by side, as they'd come. The courier was already gone on ahead; neither of them needed a guide to the council room in the palace.

            Zettin cleared his throat. "I wonder, mistress?" he said. "Perhaps rather than being enrolled in the Scout Corps, you'd like your hunters to accompany you Caraman? Quite apart from what you might find there, I'll admit that I don't entirely trust this Ingens. Though Zussa says he's been perfectly satisfactory during his employment."

            Ilna sniffed. "I don't trust Ingens at all," she said. "I'd still rather that Asion and Karpos join you."

            "They'll be very welcome, mistress," Zettin said diplomatically. They'd reached the gate; it was standing open. "I thought you might want familiar companions on a long journey, is all."

            That was the problem, of course: Asion and Karpos were familiar companions, men who'd willingly risked their lives for her and whom she'd come to like. Their deaths in her service wouldn't be as terrible a loss as that of Chalcus and Merota, but she didn't have much margin for further loss. And the hunters would certainly die, sooner or later, if they continued to travel with Ilna os-Kenset.

            Life had been easier when Ilna didn't have any feelings beyond occasional flashes of anger, back when her emotions were shut down. Life without feeling was pointless, of course; but then, life was probably pointless in any case.

            Ilna would go on until something stopped her, though. If it was this Princess Perrine who stopped her, then so be it.

            But the princess would feel she had something to boast about.