THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 19

Chapter 4

"Here's the relief petition from southern Atara," Liane said, sliding a document across the table to Garric beside her. It was on vellum, and each of the twelve petitioners had pressed their signet into a blob of wax beside their name. From the look of the signatures, though, half of them had no more experience of writing than Cashel did. "The Priest Regnant – the island's ruler is the high priest of the main temple of the Shepherd – is ordering that taxes continue to be paid in kind at the temple, which is on what was the north coast."

Garric frowned. He looked at the petition by reflex, but he'd learned by now that reading official documents was a waste of time. Liane or her clerks would've précised the attempts of a rural scribe to sound high-toned because he was writing to the prince.

"This is what they did in the past?" he asked, looking at Liane.

"Yes," said Liane, "but before the Change they could ship the grain – they grow wheat on Atara – by sea. Now they'd have to transport it by wagon and treble the cost to themselves."

She smiled faintly. "The petition says twelve times the cost, but an assayer of Lord Tadai's who knows the region says three. They want to have the tax paid locally -"

"That sounds reasonable," said Garric. This sort of business wearied him more than a day in the sun wearing armor.

"- but I suggest that commuting the in-kind payment to money at the local values will give the treasury a considerable benefit," Liane continued calmly. "With the landowners behind us we can push the measure through, despite the temple's objection to losing the amount they were skimming during collection. Mind, the landowners would've fought us even harder than the priests if we'd tried to do it last year."

There was a quick clink/clink! on the door's latch plate. Liane met Garric's eyes; the office was the innermost of the three in her suite. When he nodded, she called, "Enter!"

Instead of Liane's doorman in civilian dress, the captain of the Blood Eagles guarding Garric opened the door; he'd knocked with one of the bronze finials of his double-tongued swordbelt. "Lord Zettin's here to see you, your highness," he said to Garric. "He says it's important."

The ghost of King Carus grunted sourly. He didn't like Zettin, thinking him too clever by half. "But he's not really a bad sort," he muttered in half-apology. "And you need the clever ones too."

Zettin waited for the captain to nod him through before he strode into the office. Garric smiled. Brash with everyone else, Zettin was always very punctilious regarding the Blood Eagles. He'd been an officer of the regiment himself before Attaper's support – and his own abilities – had gotten him promoted out of it.

Now he closed the door behind him and said, "Palomir's marching on Haft, your highness. And it's not a raiding party, it's an army of thousands of rats – all rats. Four of my troops are in contact with them, but they have to keep out farther than they would with humans because the rats move so quickly."

Nodding with excitement, Zettin resumed, "Headman Clarey's one of my best officers. He says he very nearly lost his whole troop because the rats sent out a flanking company that got behind him. The main body rushed him, and they had to fight their way through the blocking company."

"We've gotten used to fighting wizards who don't have any better notion of ordering an army than I have of flying," Garric said, echoing his ancestor's thought. "It looks like there may be a general on the other side this time. That could be worse than another thousand rats."

"I regret I can't tell you how many we are facing, your highness," Zettin said. "Headman Clarey's troop got closest. He's the only one who could more than say, 'Many,' and he says ten thousand men. Though they aren't men, of course."

Garric shrugged. "Then we're in for a fight," he said, "but I'm not concerned about winning it."

"The day our troops can't handle half their number of animals, even if they're clever animals with swords," Carus said, "then you'd best be off to a monastery. And I'll be right there with you praying, because I won't be good for anything else."

"The problem with that estimate is that Chief Edril, who commands the Coerli in Clarey's troop . . . ," Zettin said. He was standing at parade rest, entirely a soldier rather than an official reporting. "Insists that there're many more rats than there are soldiers in the royal army. Clarey disagrees, but he says that Edril's never been wrong to his knowledge."

Garric frowned. "With all respect to Chief Edril," he said, "counting above twenty is higher mathematics to the Coerli. Their hunting parties weren't any bigger than that, so they never needed to think in greater numbers until they ran into us after the Change."

"Your highness, I agree completely," Zettin said, his face working uncomfortably because he wasn't agreeing with his prince. "I only point out that Edril was giving a relative measure rather than an absolute one; and, well, as you said, the Coerli think in terms of hunting parties. A hunting party doesn't have supply wagons or servants or, ah, if I may say so, hired companions and other entertainment for the soldiers. A hunting party is made up solely of warriors . . . which appears to be the case with this army of ratmen as well."

"He is a clever fellow," Carus said. "Didn't I say that you need that sort too?"

"Liane," Garric said, turning to the woman at his side. She was writing on the last of three tablets with quick, firm strokes of her stylus. "I need to inform Lord Waldron immediately. Now we've got a target to strike at."

"Yes," said Liane, closing the tablet and holding it seam upward with the other two. "And I thought Lords Royhas out of courtesy and Hauk for immediate planning."

With her free hand she lifted the tray of wax from the frame that held it over an oil lamp, then splashed blobs across the tablets. The red wax was still tacky when she pressed the royal signet in the third time. She rose with the grace of a flower opening and walked past Zettin to the door.

"Yes, I agree," Garric said, smiling wryly. The ring she'd sealed the notices with was in theory Prince Garric's; he didn't recall ever having used it. That was what he had Liane for, he supposed. One of the things.

"From a supply standpoint," he said to Zettin in a conversational tone, "we're much better off with Palomir attacking Haft. Supplying Pandah is a problem even without refugees flooding in ahead of an army of ratmen; the villages of Grass People in the district around here don't have a great deal of surplus."

"Why do you suppose Palomir attacked us instead of one of the southern islands where the royal army couldn't intervene, your highness?" Zettin asked.

He glanced over his shoulder, then jerked his head around in embarrassment for his instinctive curiosity. Liane was giving crisp orders to attendants in the hallway, directing them to deliver the three notices at once.

Garric shrugged. "For all we know, there's other armies marching on Shengy or elsewhere, milord," he said. "Though I doubt it. Shengy at least is mountainous terrain and never seems to've had much of a population. It's pretty clear Palomir's out to capture people to rebuild the city."

"We can't march on Palomir if their army's behind us," Carus said. The ghost's expression was one of cheerful enthusiasm. "By the Lady, if they did go haring off to Shengy or Seres, there wouldn't be anything left when they wanted to come home!"

I don't think the Lady's the right one to invoke for destroying cities, Garric replied silently. Though blasphemy was pretty minor as the sins of soldiers went.

"If She's any kind of gardener," Carus said, "then she kills the slugs on her vegetables. And Palomir's a nest of slugs if there ever was one!"

Liane returned to the table. "I sent a messenger to Tenoctris also," she said. "Asking her to join us as soon as possible."

"Right," said Garric. "I should've thought of that."

He cleared his throat. "Lord Zettin," he said as he rose to his feet, "will you excuse us for a moment? I'll want you present again when the others arrive."

"Your highness," Zettin said with an apologetic nod. He was out the door and closing it behind him in a single flowing motion.

"He moves like a swordsman," Carus noted approvingly. "And clever."

Garric put his arms around Liane, drawing her close. "I'll be commanding the army," he said quietly into her hair. "We'll be moving fast, just the troops themselves and the supply column."

He cleared his throat. "The men won't be permitted to bring companions along. And therefore neither will I."

"Yes," said Liane. "Of course."

She didn't pull away from Garric, but she leaned back so that she could look him in the face. She said, "Dear, we both have jobs to do. We'll do them, and if we're successful we'll be together again afterwards."

Garric bent to kiss her.

Liane was very smart, and beneath the surface she was as ruthless as an executioner. Garric had seen how she ran her spy network, directing – and doing – things that made him queasy to watch.

She wasn't arguing with his assessment of what was proper and therefore necessary to the good order of the kingdom. But he knew Liane bos-Benliman too well to think she was going to sit quietly in Pandah and wait for his return.