THE GODS RETURN – snippet 16:



            Cashel stood, his staff planted. He looked around the hall, not so much because there was anything in particular he wanted to see, but because it was reflex in him. Sheep wandered all different ways, and as soon as you let one out of your sight for a minute or two, you could be sure it was getting into trouble.

            Rasile raised a tumbler of water. It was a pretty thing with a design in gold between two layers of clear glass, or mostly clear. A servant had fetched it from the sideboard next door in the private room where Garric could go off with one or two people to talk about things the whole council needn't hear.

            Cashel had ordered it brought because the servant ignored Rasile asking. A lot of people didn't like the catmen, which wasn't hard to understand. It was just as well for the fellow that he hadn't said the wrong thing when Cashel stepped in, though.

            "The one who controls the Worm," Rasile said, "is moving toward a particular place. I do not know where it is, but perhaps one of you will recognize it."

            "What place is that?" asked a long-faced man who had something to do with transport. "I don't see–"

            Rasile upended the tumbler. As the contents poured out, she said something that sounded more like a hinge binding than it did words.

            Scarlet wizardlight flickered around the stream the way a potter's thumbs mold clay. Instead of splashing down, the water spread into a round temple with a domed roof; an instant later the roof vanished and the columns that'd held it up crumbled into a ring of stubs, some taller than others. Fallen barrels lay scattered roundabout.

            The illusion ended; the water splashed onto the tapestry. Some of it sank in, but the cloth was tightly enough woven that beads and little rivulets quivered nervously in the surface.

            "Why, I've seen that!" said Lord Attaper, leaning forward with a puzzled expression as though her were trying to make sense of the way the spilled water now lay. "That's the Temple of the Tree, they call it. In Dariada on Charax."

            "There must be a hundred ruined temples like that, every one as likely as the next!" Lord Waldron protested. "Maybe more, since the Change."

            The guard commander and army commander acted like two rams in a flock, though it never got out of hand. Cashel figured–and they figured–that Garric would end the trouble quick if that happened.

            "I know that," Attaper said, grimacing. "And it was twenty years ago I was on Charax, I know that too. But I tell you, I saw what Rasile showed, and I was sure it was the Temple of the Tree."

            "Yes," said Rasile, grinning with her tongue out. "The image I formed is not wholly to be seen with the eyes, Warrior Waldron."

            Tenoctris turned to Rasile, standing beside her. The Corl was short even for her own species, so their heads were nearly on a level.

            "Can you face the Worm?" Tenoctris said. "You were drawn to it, after all."

            "You know what the Worm is?" Rasile said. "Of course you do; you are Tenoctris. So yes, I can face it."

            Rasile grinned again. People around the table were straining to hear. Cashel didn't have a problem because he was standing right behind them, but it must be just a buzz to anybody more than arm's length away.

            "But I do not see how I can possibly defeat it," the Corl said, "even if I have the help of your friend, the warrior Cashel."

            "We're even, then," said Tenoctris. Her own smile, though human, made her look a bit like a dog getting ready for a fight. "Because I assure you, I have no idea how I'm going to deal with entities who–"

            She shrugged expressively.

            "–emotionally I can't even make myself believe in."

            Garric was holding the room quiet by glaring at anybody who started to chatter while the wizards were talking. "Your highness," Tenoctris said, "Rasile will go to Dariada with the aid of Master Cashel, if he…?"

            Tenoctris looked up at Cashel.

            "Yes, ma'am," he said. He'd go wherever somebody who understood things told him to go. "That is, if…?"

            Sharina was already looking over at him; she nodded. She didn't look happy about it and Cashel wasn't happy himself, but it was good to be doing something useful.

            He frowned and said, "But Garric? I don't mind fighting a pirate or even a couple pirates, but there was a herd of them at Ombis. There'll be more pretty quick, because tramps and no-goods will join in for the loot. I guess there's going to be a lot of ordinary fellows too, only they'd rather drink wine than sweat plowing somebody else's field."

            "Right," said Waldron. "I'll send a regiment. Ah–one of the units from the Valles garrison would probably be sufficient, if we don't want to weaken the field army."

            "Your highness?" Liane said.

            "Lady Liane, please move your stool forward and join the council," Garric said. "And state your opinion of Lord Waldron's proposal."

            He'd been sharper than he usually was, and sharper for sure than he usually was with Liane. Cashel felt sorry for his friend with so many different things to keep track of all at once, but it was sure a wonder how well he did.

            "Charax since the Change is a loose federation of cities, each with control of the region around it," Liane said. She held a gilt-edged scroll, but she didn't bother to open it. "They insist on their independence, and they won't allow foreign troops on their territories. That's particularly true of Dariada, because the Tree Oracle is located there."

            "They've been turning away the envoys I've sent regarding tax assessments," Chancellor Royhas said in a growl. "I suggest we use enough troops that at the same time we deal with these pirates, we can convince the Dariadans and their fellows that they're parts of the kingdom, now."

            Cashel could see Liane stiffen. A flash of anger touched her face–and vanished just as quickly.

            "No, milord, we will not do that," said Garric. He didn't seem to have glanced to the other side to see Liane's expression, so the edge in his voice must mean that he felt the same way anyhow. "Cashel–and Lord Waldron? Bands of pirates have very rarely been a danger to walled cities. This gang would be no exception were it not for the Worm, and troops wouldn't help with that problem. Take whatever escort you want for the journey, but we won't upset the folk of Charax by marching into what they consider their independent territory."

            "We will not be walking, Warrior Garric," Rasile said politely. "We will not need the escort you offer."

            Cashel didn't say anything. He was happier than not that they wouldn't have soldiers around, though, even if he didn't have to command them. It wasn't exactly that he didn't like soldiers, but he didn't have anything in common with them.

            "I don't know anything about a Tree Oracle," said Lord Tadai. "Though since the Charax I did know of before the Change was an island of fishing villages and goat farmers, I shouldn't be surprised."

            Cashel liked Tadai because he didn't bluster even a little bit, though he was tough as they came in his own way. A lot of people with power liked to show off, including big fellows with a mug or two of ale in them. Cashel wasn't like that himself, and it was good to know other folk who were the same way as him.

            Liane cleared her throat; Garric nodded to her. "The whole island of Charax," she said, "appears to be as it was in the past millennium, before the Isles were unified under the Old Kingdom. The Tree Oracle is just that, a tree which responds to petitioners through human priests. A very old tree. The oracle is administered by a federation of the whole island, though the states fight one another regularly."

            "The historians of the Old Kingdom treat the struggle against the Confederation of Charax as a major step in the predestined rise to greatness of the Kings of the Isles," Garric said with an odd smile "It didn't occur to me when I read the accounts that I'd some day be dealing with people who wouldn't view the sack and burning of Dariada as a splendid triumph."

            "I suppose the oracle's a fraud," Waldron said. He snorted. "A way to make priests rich and keep everybody else in line."

            "I wouldn't know, milord," Liane said, leaning forward to look past Garric at Waldron. "I don't have enough information."

            Cashel couldn't help smiling. He knew Lord Waldron had been insulted, but he wasn't sure Waldron did. There were other smiles around the table, though. Waldron was curtly sure of himself, and it didn't help his popularity that he was generally right.

            "It would appear that the pirates do not consider the oracle a fraud, Warrior Waldron," Rasile said. "I would not usually hope to learn wisdom from folk who have been cast out of their bands, but these outcasts have bent a Worm to their will. I could not do that, and I think that even Tenoctris would find the task difficult."

            "I," said Tenoctris forcefully, "wouldn't dare to try. The Worm destroyed its own world. Should it get loose in ours, it would destroy a second."

            Garric looked around the room again. Everybody kept their mouth shut. They'd learned not to waste Garric's time babbling when there was work to do, and there was plenty of work now.

            But instead of the dismissal Cashel expected, Garric said, "Mistress Ilna? Do you have something to add before I close the meeting?"

            Ilna stood on the west side of the room, knotting one of her designs. Lord Zettin was standing beside her, which surprised Cashel more than most things would. The soldier–who'd been a sailor not long back–had a seat at the table, but he was leaving it vacant.

            Ilna caught Cashel's eye and smiled; not much but as much as she ever did. Then she said, "I don't have anything to say, no. I'll be going off shortly to deal with a problem that Master Zettin showed me."