THE GODS RETURN – snippet 15:



            "I'm out of my depth here," Tenoctris said, but despite the words her familiar rueful smile lifted Garric's spirits. She always deprecated her abilities, but they'd always proven adequate to the kingdom's needs.

            "I'm a wizard," she continued, "but while there's wizardry involved, there's theology also."

            People whispered, one of them a junior officer leaning close to Lord Attaper's right ear. "Silence!" Garric said, pointing his left index finger at the two Blood Eagles. He knew he was taking out his nervous anger on people whose mildly improper actions didn't deserve that level of response, but that was better than Carus' urge to use the flat of his sword to quiet the room.

            Carus grinned in his mind. Garric grinned back in response, feeling his mood lighten.

            "The problem with lopping somebody's head off if they screw up," Carus said, still grinning, "is that the victim isn't much good to you afterwards. As I learned the hard way a time or two."

            In the silence that followed Garric's shout, a slender man with the white robe and black stole of a senior priest, said, "We of the Temple of the Lady of the Grove would be honored to assist you, Lady Tenoctris."

            "I didn't say I needed priestcraft," Tenoctris snapped. She was regaining her animation and apparently her strength, as she was now sitting upright at the edge of the chair.

            She cleared her throat against the back of her hand and resumed, "I've discussed my religious beliefs only in private, and even then rarely. To be brief, I had no religious beliefs. I'd never seen the Great Gods and I saw no reason to believe they existed."

            The babble greeting the wizard's words was momentarily overwhelming. Even to Garric, the statement was disturbing. His family hadn't been particularly religious, but before each meal there'd always been a crumb and a drop for the little shrine on the wall of the dining room.

            "Oh, I say!" cried Lord Hauk, shocked out of his normal deference toward born aristocrats. "Being a wizard doesn't justify blasphemy!"

            Cashel banged the iron cap of his staff on the terrazzo floor. "That's all right!" he said. It wasn't like him to break in, especially not in a council meeting, but he obviously felt responsible for Tenoctris. "I figure she's wrong, but you leave her alone unless you want to discuss it with me, all right?"

            "Continue, Lady Tenoctris," Garric said mildly. Because of the sudden silence, he didn't have to raise his voice. That was good, because shouting both sounded angry and made him feel angry when he did it.

            "My friend Cashel is quite correct," Tenoctris said, cheerful and apparently herself again. "I was wrong about the Great Gods: They did exist, and there was sufficient evidence to have proved the fact to me if I'd been willing to consider it. Sharing my mind with a demon has–"

            There was another chorus of gasps, though it stilled instantly of its own. The crack! of Cashel's ferrule on stone wasn't really necessary.

            "I never learned to watch what I said around civilians either," said Carus wryly. "At least she doesn't wear a sword."

            "–forced me to become more realistic," Tenoctris said. "Which is something of an embarrassment to someone who thought she was a realist."

            Tenoctris looked around the table, touching everyone seated with her smile. Garric didn't understand where she was going with the discussion, and he was very doubtful that anyone else did either. He wanted to take Liane's hand, but that wasn't proper behavior for a council meeting.

            "The problem, you see…," Tenoctris said. Her voice became minutely thinner; the brightness remained, but it'd become a false gloss over her concern. "Is that the Great Gods of the Isles do not exist in this world which the Change brought. The Gods of Palomir-that-was are trying to climb the empty plinth, and they have power of a sort that I don't completely understand."

            She shook her head, smiling. "In fact I don't understand it at all," she said. "It's working through principles that are nothing like those I do understand. But I can help deal with it. And Wizard Rasile can help, and everyone in the kingdom will help according to their skills. There will be enough work for men with swords to satisfy even a warrior like your ancient ancestor, Prince Garric."

            The ghost in Garric's mind clapped his hands in glee. "By the Lady!" Carus said. "If I was still in the flesh, I'd manage to forget that she's a wizard, I swear I would!"

            "Obviously we need to deal with whatever upstarts challenge the rule of Prince Garric," said Tadai. "But–"

            He pursed his lips, his fingers extended before him. He was apparently studying his perfect manicure.

            "–need we really be concerned about which statue is up in which temple?"

            "What?" cried the priest of the Lady. "This is quite improper! I protest!"

            "Lord Tilsit," Liane whispered.

            "Lord Tilsit, be silent!" said Garric. He glared at the west where those outside the royal bureaucracy, then the east gallery for low-ranking palace personnel. "I remind you that those who aren't seated at the council table speak only when requested to."

            The priest raised his hands and genuflected. His face had gone blank.

            "Lady Tenoctris?" Garric continued mildly, grinning in his mind. "Does that suggestion ease our problems?"

            He'd been using that tone since he was a tall thirteen-year-old and men in the common room started bothering the inn's pretty waitress–Sharina. Nowadays Garric didn't have to knock people down himself if they didn't take the hint, but there were times he wouldn't mind the chance.

            "Lady Tenoctris the atheist," Tenoctris said, adding a self-deprecating laugh, "would be perfectly happy with no Gods or Gods she could ignore as she's done all her life till now. Unfortunately, while the Great Gods of your–our, I apologize–former world watched, the Gods of Palomir would rule. Their rule in former times was the rule of men over beasts."

            "'Boys throw stones at frogs in sport,'" whispered Liane, quoting the ancient poet Bion, "'but the frogs die not in sport but in earnest.'"

            Garric squeezed her hand. Propriety could hang for the moment.

            "Franca the All Father, Fallin of the Waves," Tenoctris said, "and Hili, Queen of the Underworld. They're immanent now. If Palomir's rat armies succeed, widespread belief will make Them all powerful and perhaps eternal."

            "The solution appears to be to defeat the rats and anything else that allies with Palomir, then," said Garric. King Carus had come to that conclusion long since. While marching instantly with an army wasn't always the best choice–

            "It got me and my army killed in the end, lad," the ghost agreed.

            –acting fast was almost always a better choice than dithering.

            "Lord Waldron," Garric continued, "prepare the army to move as soon as possible. We'll determine which troops to take based on the supply situation, which you'll coordinate with the proper bureaus."

            "Done," said Waldron and nodded. The young officer standing behind him started for the door at as fast a walk as the crowd permitted. Hauk, Tadai, and Royhas were muttering to aides also.

            "Your highness?" Liane said. She spoke in a polite undertone to indicate she wanted to address the council instead of informing Garric in a private whisper.

            "Go ahead, Lady Liane," Garric said, silencing the room again without really shouting. Well, not shouting as he'd have thought of it in the borough, calling to his friend Cashel on the crest of the next hill.

            "Your highness," Liane said, "we know that our enemies have been capturing humans on Cordin. They probably believed that because of Palomir's location, it would be some time before we in Pandah learned about the raids. On the other hand, they must know that their grace period will be over shortly."

            Garric kept from frowning by conscious effort. Liane had remarkable skills, but she was too much a lady to project her voice to be heard beyond the ends of the table. He supposed he could repeat anything that had to be known more generally.

            "Before you commit the army," Liane said, "it might be well to be sure that there isn't a large body of rats already marching toward Sandrakkan to strike fresh victims while they still have surprise. Or toward Haft."

            Garric's body tensed as though he'd been dropped into ice water. Toward home, he thought.

            "Yes," he said, marvelling that his voice remained calm and businesslike. "Lord Zettin, I want you to put your companies across all the routes to the west and northwest of Palomir. If they meet small raiding parties, they're to attack after sending a courier back. If they find a larger body, they're to shadow it while waiting for reinforcements. And send messengers to the district that the enemy is threatening."

            Duzi, may a rat army not already be attacking Barca's Hamlet.

            Instead of simply acknowledging the order, Lord Zettin said, "Your highness? Might I suggest that I send at least one troop to Telut to see what these pirates and their creature are doing?"

            That's a good

            Cashel's quarterstaff rapped the stone floor again. "If you please?" he said. "Rasile has something to say about that."