THE GODS RETURN – snippet 17:



            Ilna heard what was going on in the council meeting, but her attention was on the pathways opening as her fingers knotted lengths of yarn. The design was like a track through a forest, forking again and again. She saw nothing beyond the path itself, but she had a sense of the direction.

            Aides jostled and whispered around her. Ilna knew she could've had a chair at the table. She didn't feel she had any business being at the council meeting in the first place, so she hadn't asked for that, today or ever in the past.

            She wasn't sure why she'd even bothered to come. Common courtesy, she supposed: her friend Garric had asked her to attend, so here she was. She'd been surprised that Lord Zettin, who did belong and had a chair placed for him, had chosen to stand beside her. She hadn't asked him what he thought he was doing because that was none of her business. She'd certainly wondered, though.

            Garric's direct question had taken Ilna by surprise, but she'd given the same answer as she'd have done with a week to prepare. That was one advantage to always telling the flat truth.

            Not that she did it because it was advantageous.

            "Say!" piped the young courtier standing behind Lord Waldron. His tunics were of the best quality and he wore them well. "What does she mean saying Master? He's a peer!"

            Ilna dropped the pattern into her sleeve and reached for more yarn. The action was reflex: there wasn't a real threat, and hostility toward her was no new thing.

            "Lord Halle!" Zettin said. "If you persist in discussing matters which touch my honor, I'll send you home to your father with your ears cropped!"

            "Quite right, Halle!" Lord Waldron said. "Gentlemen don't need a pup like you to tell them their business."

            Waldron turned. "I wonder, though, your highness," he continued with his eyes on Lord Zettin rather than Garric. "If Mistress Ilna should be bothering about private matters while the kingdom's got the enemies it does?"

            Ilna wondered if the army commander really had any notion of what she'd done or could do. Perhaps he did, since she knew Waldron wasn't a stupid man.

            She was quite sure that his comment had nothing to do with her and little at best with the kingdom, however. Zettin was Attaper's disciple and Attaper was Waldron's rival, so Waldron jabbed at Zettin. Children did the same thing–but animals didn't, not any animals that Ilna had seen during life in a peasant hamlet.

            She'd done worse things herself, of course. That didn't make her like human beings better.

            Aloud she said, "I've never met a kingdom, Master Waldron, but I've got a good notion of what I myself ought to be doing. If you don't agree, you're welcome to your opinion."

            Waldron glared fiercely, but not so much at her as in her direction. Until Ilna'd spoken, he hadn't really been thinking about her as a person; she'd been a stick to beat Zettin with.

            Ilna smiled as broadly as she ever did. Sometimes what you thought was a stick turned out to be a snake.

            "All right, I take your point," Waldron said. "I shouldn't have said anything. No offense meant."

            "Ilna?" said Tenoctris unexpectedly twisting around in her chair to meet Ilna's eyes. "It might be useful for you to describe to the council how you came to your decision. There's obviously–"

            Her glance spiked Waldron; he scowled even tighter.

            "–a great deal of ignorance about the business."

            Ilna shrugged. Discussing this sort of thing made her uncomfortable, but discomfort was so ordinary a part of her life that she felt foolish complaining about it–even to herself.

            "I wove a pattern," she said, gesturing with the yarn in her hand, as yet unknotted. "Patterns, I suppose, more than one. They–"

            How to describe it? It wasn't seeing or even feeling, it was knowing a thing, a direction.

            "–indicated to me that I should–"

            No, that's not the word!

            "–that it would be right for me to go look into Hervir disappearing up in Blaise. And don't ask me what I mean by right–"

            She was angry and it came out in her voice, but she was angry at herself. She didn't have the words to explain to educated people what she meant!

            "–because I don't know. Looking for Hervir will take me in direction that someone, something, thinks it's right for me to go, and that's all I know."

            Perhaps she'd find death on Blaise. But she'd learned not to expect anything that she might want.

            "I work in certain ways," Tenoctris said, addressing the whole council. "With an incantation I could display a future. Some of you have seen me do that, have you not?"

            There were nods and murmurs around the room. One of the soldiers, an older man who'd gone bald to the middle of his scalp, forced his clenched fists together and muttered a prayer.

            "But I couldn't show you the future, or the best future," Tenoctris said, "because I don't know what those things mean. They're results. They depend on the choices I make when I choose the words of power that I chant. Someone like–"

            Pausing suddenly, Tenoctris got up from her chair and walked around it to where Ilna stood. She put her arm on Ilna's shoulder; her touch was as light as a hopping wren's.

            "There isn't a 'like Ilna,'" she said. "Mistress Ilna, alone of all those I've met or heard of. Ilna can determine the best course for herself, which means the best course for mankind and for the good. I would no more argue Ilna's decision than I would tell King Carus how to fight a battle."

            Garric chuckled, though Ilna wasn't sure that it was really her childhood friend laughing. "All right," he said. "The matter was decided when Ilna stated her preference, but now you all know why that's the case. The council is dismissed."

            Feet shuffled and chairs scraped the floor of chipped stone in concrete; attendants threw open the double door. Cashel stood, waiting for the bustle to clear so that he could go to Sharina without knocking people out of the way.

            Ilna stood; her fingers were knotting a pattern. She thought of the path she'd taken, the one whose varied turnings that led to the deaths of Chalcus and Merota. If that was the right choice, then where would the other choices have led?

            Ilna's fingers moved, and her mind bubbled with anger at the person she was.