THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 20

Sharina had five minutes to dress by the waterclock in the courtyard, and getting into her formal robes had never taken fewer than ten to her knowledge. There was no real reason to change, but there was no real reason for Princess Sharina to be meeting the delegation of merchants from Valles. If she was going to meet them – and for political reasons she should – then she had to wear court robes. To do otherwise would be to insult the delegates, making the situation even worse.

"Raise your arms," said her maid Diora. Sharina obeyed promptly; the maid grunted and settled the plain inner robe over them.

Master Helcote, the chamberlain, would've been horrified to hear Diora speak to the princess in a tone of brusque practicality, but he was already horrified that the princess had dismissed the establishment of twenty servants who should in his opinion be waiting on her.

Sharina had been a servant. She didn't expect any more privacy in a palace than she'd had in her father's inn, but neither did want to have twenty tongues gossiping about what the princess did or about what made a better story than what she really did.

Diora was willing to dress Sharina, fix her hair, and tidy the suite to Sharina's satisfaction by herself. In exchange, the maid was paid double what she'd otherwise have earned, and she had leave to spend most nights with her fiancé, a Blood Eagle captain. They both thought they did well out of the arrangement.

Someone knocked on the suite's outer door. Sharina grimaced and said through the smothering folds of the robe, "Who is it?"

Could they even hear her? And why were the guards outside letting somebody bother her now in the first place?

"Her highness says to wait," said Diora in her harsh Erdin accent. She was the daughter of a small shopkeeper, and could if she chose to strip plaster off the walls with her tongue. Not in front of Princess Sharina, of course.

"If you please, Sharina?" Liane called, pitching her voice to penetrate the door panel and the robe now sliding over Sharina's shoulders. "I won't take a moment and you can continue dressing."

"I'm so sorry, Liane!" Sharina called. Diora had let go of the robe and opened the door without being told to. "Come in!"

"I'm sorry to disturb you when you're so busy," Liane said, closing the door herself. "I have many things to take care of also, and there's not much time."

"Busy!" Sharina said and snorted. "I'm meeting Valles merchants who want Prince Garric – want the kingdom – to redirect the River Beltis to drain into the Southern Seaway instead of into the marshes between Charax and Bight as it has since the Change. Otherwise Valles will cease to be a major port."

"Yes, it will," said Liane. "And the sun will continue to rise also, but I don't blame someone who's to be executed at dawn from regretting that. The delegates deserve to be given the death sentence of their city with dignity."

She picked up one arm of the outer robe. "Here," she said to Diora. "I'll help you."

"When I've got these pleats tied, milady," said the maid, tugging at the laces running up the middle of the back. Every time Sharina was dressed in a court robe, she reminded herself to have Diora show her exactly how the arrangement of ribbons and plackets worked as soon as she next took it off. And every time she took it off, she forgot everything in the pleasure of getting out of such hot, heavy, confining garments.

Liane was from Sandrakkan; her father was a nobleman with an estate west of Erdin. Even so she'd spoken with real compassion for the residents of Valles, the capital city whose existence had twice in living memory brought Sandrakkan to rebellion. My brother's very lucky to have found someone as able as Liane, and as compassionate.

"Sharina," Liane said, "during my absence I'm leaving my special duties – "

The intelligence service.

"- in the hands of my deputy, Master Dysart. He's both organized and careful. I don't believe you'll notice any difference in the quality of the information that you receive."

Sharina kept from frowning only by an effort of will. After only an instant's reflection, she realized that Liane wasn't talking in front of Diora in the arrogant assumption that a servant wasn't a person and therefore couldn't hear. Liane knew Diora as a person-and trusted her, as Sharina herself trusted the maid.

"I don't question your personnel judgments, Liane," Sharina said. "I don't think anyone who knows you would do that."

She was still surprised to learn that Liane was accompanying Garric on campaign, but that was none of anybody else's business. The kingdom depended on Garric's decisions. If Liane's presence helped him perform better, then that was more important than anything Liane could do in Pandah where her duties were in the hands of a trustworthy replacement.

"The only problem you might have with Dysart," Liane said, "is that his family had a small importing business in Erdin; he's not a noble."

"Pardon?" said Sharina. She was sure she'd misheard. "Liane, I'm not a noble. Nor, well, is my brother."

"Oh!" said Liane. She paused, holding her hands palm-out. "I didn't mean that the way it sounds. I didn't mean -"

"I'm ready for the outer robe now," said Diora. "If you're really willing to help."

"Thank you," said Liane, gratefully seizing the chance Diora had given her to organize her thoughts. "Yes, of course."

Liane and the maid lifted the outer robe between them and settled it over Sharina as she held herself very still. The garment was heavy brocade with embroidery and appliqués in metal thread. Uncomfortable didn't begin to describe it, but Liane was right: the delegates deserved courtesy when they were told that their city, the capital of the Isles for centuries, was doomed.

Sharina's head emerged from the heavy garment. She breathed deeply; she'd been holding her breath without being conscious of it while her head was covered in thick silk. As Liane stepped out of the maid's way, she and Sharina exchanged rueful smiles.

"I didn't mean noblemen had a monopoly on intelligence or honor," Liane said, no longer grasping for words. "You don't have to read much history to know that. But Dysart doesn't think like a noble. You do, and Garric does. You weren't raised to think that your village or your business is all the world."

"But Dysart runs day-to-day operations now?" Sharina said in puzzlement. "Which is the whole kingdom and beyond."

"Yes, and he runs them very well," Liane said. "But he thinks in terms of agents and facts and incidents. He'll know everything that can be known, but there may be things he doesn't understand."

She smiled ruefully. "There've been times I thought that Dysart doesn't understand anything," she said. "Which isn't fair. But please, when he gives you summaries, which he'll do every morning, remember that there may be a forest which Dysart isn't seeing for the trees."

"I see what you mean," Sharina said. She grinned, because she suddenly felt warm at the realization that she was a part of a family. They were all working for the common good, passing duties back and forth when the need arose, but all working. "It's bad enough to be my brother when he's gone. I guess being you as well means I won't sleep."

"I'm sorry," Liane said. Her lips were trembling. "But I . . . ."

"A moment, Diora," Sharina said to the maid who was tying the myriad tucks and bows that were part of the outfit. She stepped forward and embraced her friend.

"Be safe, dear," she said. "Garric and the kingdom are very lucky to have you. And so am I."

Oh, Lady, I'm crying too!

In the background, Sharina heard Diora murmur, "I'll send Lancombe to tell the Valles merchants that you'll be a little late."