THE GODS RETURN – snippet 14:





            Sharina's escort waited outside the council chamber with other guards and the lower-ranking aides of the bureau chiefs seated at the long table. The room had been a banquet hall: one of the pirate captains who'd infested Pandah before the army arrived had eaten here with the fifty-man crew of his galley. It was none too large for the royal council in its present form, though.

            An usher whisked Sharina through the murmur of aides standing behind their principals, holding document cases or preparing to take notes on tablets of waxed boards. Princess Sharina's place was directly across from Garric; he smiled to see her, but there was a shadow of frowning concern on his forehead.

            Half of the original dining tables had been removed. The remainder had been covered with what was originally a wall hanging–a crudely woven hunting scene of stags and horsemen in a mountain landscape. It was here simply because it was the right size to hide the names and smutty drawings a generation of pirates had carved in the tabletop.

            Courtiers filled the rest of the room. None of them spoke loudly, but even whispers and the shuffle of feet–hobnailed in the case of the soldiers–created a din that echoed from the beams of the high ceiling.

            The walls had been freshly plastered; the smell of lime was sharp enough to make Sharina's nose wrinkle. She supposed it'd been necessary to cover the graffiti–the drawings were even more explicit than what brutes could engrave with the points of their daggers–but the chamberlain was turning necessity into a virtue: an artist had already started drawing cartoons for a mural showing humans and Coerli together battling monsters.

            She leaned across the table; Garric got up so he could lean even farther, bringing their heads close together. It probably wouldn't meet the standards of court etiquette, but they'd been brother and sister for a long time before they became prince and princess.

            "Tenoctris will be delayed," she said. "She wants to get information on the problem before she discusses it."

            Garric nodded and smiled, then settled back on his chair. Its high back–higher than the other chairs around the table–was carved in a clumsy imitation of a grape arbor. Sharina suspected it was even more uncomfortable to sit on than hers, but presumably it met what the palace servants considered to be the requirements of royal dignity.

            "We'll get started now," Garric said, speaking loudly enough that the room quieted instantly around him. "I've just been informed that the Empire of Palomir is allied with a race of rats the size of men. Presumably they're intelligent as well, since they use swords and armor. We're working to get a better understanding of the numbers involved–"

            He winked across the table at Sharina.

            "–but we know that the rulers of Palomir claim that they'll be able to conquer the kingdom. Conquer the world, in fact."

            There was a dull explosion of sound–no individual part of it loud but in combination overwhelming. People whispered to their neighbors, sorted through documents and shuffled their feet. Garric let it go on for a moment.

            The present council was a larger body than Sharina had become used to. In the past there'd been a council in Valles, the capital. Garric took a smaller group of advisors with him when he led the fleet and army around the Isles, reminding the rulers of individual islands that they were part of the kingdom rather than independent principalities.

            In the past few weeks, Chancellor Royhas had moved his entire establishment to Pandah. His great rival, Lord Tadai, had travelled with Garric and gained real power even if he lacked the title of chancellor. When Royhas saw Garric delaying at Pandah instead of returning to Valles, he'd acted and the other bureaus had followed him.

            Lord Hauk, the Minister of Supply, had moved even earlier: he was a former commoner who took a very pragmatic view of things. In the Change the Isles had become a single continent, and Pandah was in the center of it. That made it the best location from which to communicate with all parts of the kingdom, and transport was the core of Hauk's duties.

            "I'll direct the regional governors to begin raising reinforcements," said Lord Waldron. "If Palomir thinks it's strong enough to conquer the Isles, then we may need more troops than we have on hand at present."

            Waldron, a stiff-backed former cavalryman, commanded the royal army. He'd never fully approved of Garric who wasn't a noble from Northern Ornifal like himself, but he couldn't have been tortured into breaking his oath. He'd repeatedly shown that at least one cavalryman knew more about war than how to lead a headlong charge.

            Waldron would lead the charge also, of course. Much as Sharina disliked many of the assumptions of men of Waldron's class, she respected their bravery. Physical courage was as natural to them as breathing.

            "I believe there's nothing but broken buildings left of Palomir," Lord Tadai said, tenting his hands in what was for him a familiar gesture. He was well fed, well groomed, and very intelligent. His formal title now was City Prefect; Pandah's explosive growth and the likelihood that Garric would make it the official capital provided both need for Tadai's skills and scope for his ambitions. "There aren't enough people to be a military threat–"

            "They think they're a threat!" Waldron snapped. The two men were both Ornifal nobles, but Waldron was a northern landowner while Tadai's wealth came from trade carried on in Valles. They had as much in common with Garric, raised as a peasant on Haft, as they did with one another. "I'd be very pleased to learn that they're wrong, but I do not choose to ignore dangers."

            "Nor do I, milord," Tadai said. His softness was entirely physical; he was just as focused and ruthless as Waldron, though they used different weapons. "I rather suggest that the danger is likely to be one whose solution needs a wizard more than it does a soldier. Since Lady Tenoctris isn't present–"
            Sharina opened her mouth to speak. Before she could, her brother said, "Lady Tenoctris is looking into the matter already. She'll report to me when there's something to report."

            "What about the cat, then?" said Waldron, nodding toward Rasile. "Lady Rasile, I mean."

            Some of those present had been upset that a Corl was allowed to attend council meetings. Waldron, somewhat to Sharina's surprise, was perfectly willing to accept the Coerli as peers. The catmen were brave warriors, after all, which to him gave them higher status than city merchants like Tadai and Royhas.

            All eyes turned to the Corl wizard. A chair, sturdier than most, had been set for Cashel at the end on Sharina's side of the table. Seating protocol at council meetings was a nightmare for the chamberlain and her staff. Fortunately everyone knew that the Prince and Princess didn't care, and that they'd tear a strip off anybody who made trouble about the business. Cashel was on the end because it was a great deal easier for so broad a man to sit down and get up than it would be beside Sharina in the middle.

            Today Cashel had entered with the Corl wizard in the crook of his right arm and his quarterstaff upright in his left hand. He placed her in the chair–she crouched on the seat–and stood behind it like a servant.

            In a sense Cashel was right: they were all servants, of mankind and of good in the struggle against evil. To the people who really knew him, however, he was the equal of anyone else in the hall.

            "Just Rasile, Warrior Waldron," Rasile said. "I have been concerned with the Worm which infests Telut, Warrior Cashel informs me."

            Liane uncapped her silver pen; it had an ink reservoir in the barrel so that it didn't have to be dipped after each few strokes. She began jotting notes in a notebook made from thin sheets of elm wood, her eyes on the Corl wizard.

            Rasile turned and tilted her long face up toward Cashel. He nodded solemnly and said, "She means the thing that attacked Ombis on Telut. It ate through the walls and then the pirates with it took the city."

            "Yes," said Rasile. "But I know nothing about Palomir. If the wizard Tenoctris is giving that her attention, I would be a fool to interfere."

            Liane, sitting to Garric's right but slightly behind him, leaned forward and whispered. He nodded twice, his eyes unfocused, then said to the gathering, "It appears that it will be necessary to march with the army shortly, since I don't intend to wait here for our enemy or enemies to attack us at their leisure."

            Lord Waldron snorted.

            "Such being the case," Garric continued, "and given that I expect to be leading the army myself–"

            He looked at Waldron. Waldron nodded crisply, "Of course, your highness," he said.

            "–I propose to leave Princess Sharina as regent as I've done in the past. Does anyone care to comment on my decision?"

            "I don't think anybody in this room is such a fool," Lord Waldron said. He glanced to his right, toward Chancellor Royhas on Garric's other side, and added, "No soldier is, anyway.

            "I've had the pleasure of working under the direction of Princess Sharina in the past, your highness," Royhas said mildly. "I couldn't imagine a better deputy in your absence."

            He smiled. Though Royhas wasn't a morose man, Sharina had found him generally too reserved to smile in public. His expression seemed chosen as a polite counterpunch to Waldron's verbal sneer.

            "Very good," said Garric. "Then all I have in addition is to direct that all bureaus and districts–"

            He nodded toward the eastern gallery where stood the representatives of the kingdom's new districts. Most of them were based on the islands which existed before the Change. The representatives didn't have seats at the table, but they were present so that their reports would help outlying regions feel they were parts of the kingdom rather than merely sources of taxes.

            "–to be prepared for possible invasion from the south."

            Garric quirked a tired smile toward Rasile and Cashel. "And apparently from the east as well. I'll keep you informed as we get additional information, and I'll expect you all to pass on the information you and your subordinates come across."

            The door latch rasped; Sharina turned to look over her shoulder. A Blood Eagle shoved the door open and sidled in. He and his partner were holding the ends of a spear between them, providing a makeshift sedan chair for Tenoctris. The wizard's face was drawn; she was so weary that she seemed barely able grip the soldiers' forearms to balance herself on the shaft.

            Sharina started to get up, but Cashel was already moving. Several aides who'd been in his way bounced to one side or the other with startled squawks. He scooped Tenoctris into the crook of his arm with a practiced motion.

            Sharina thought of how alert and healthy Tenoctris had been an hour before. The spell she'd worked after Sharina left her must've been of enormous weight to have drained her so thoroughly.

            Rasile hopped down from the chair. Cashel set Tenoctris on it with the delicacy of a cat with her kitten.

            "Lady Tenoctris," Garric said. "Do you have information for us?"

            "Yes," said the wizard. She was trying to sound bright, but exhaustion made her voice wobble. "I'm afraid that I do, your highness."