THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 22

When Liane said she needed to meet with him and Rasile, Cashel asked her to do it sitting on the walls of Pandah. He was about as comfortable here as he would've been in any city: he could look out and see green. It wasn't the right pale green of the sheep-cropped meadows south of Barca's Hamlet, but it was close enough he could pretend.

There hadn't been a lot of building here on the west side because the ground was so boggy. There were tussocks of grass and sometimes willows, but the road to the North River had to be the next thing to a bridge for most of its length. Crews had laid tree boles for stringers and pinned cross-logs to them with treenails. Putting up houses would've taken pilings, or maybe boats.

"Dariada is the largest city state in Charax," Liane said. She'd opened her little portable desk and had three unopened books and a scroll laid out on it. "It's not the capital, though-the island, the region it is now, doesn't have a capital. There're seventeen states, and for the most part they don't get along well. Usually some of them are at war with one another."

Pandah was growing so fast that if the army – there was a city watch, but they weren't up to the job yet and the army was here – hadn't kept the battlements clear, there'd have been folks camping on them and in the streets below, for that matter. Lord Tadai wasn't going to have that, which Cashel was glad of for as long as he had to be in the city. For right now, a squad of troops blocked the staircase to the tower Liane had picked.

Cashel smiled at a thought. Given half a chance, folks'd pack in as tight as sheep in a byre. Since sheep ate grass instead of meat, sheep manure didn't make near the problem human manure did. It was a good thing it rained a lot in Pandah, but that was another reason not to build in the bogs which storms washed the streets into.

"That is . . . ," Liane said, angry because she hadn't been as clear as she thought she ought to be, "that was true of Charax during the first three hundred years of the previous millennium. What we in our day call the Old Kingdom, though the cities of Charax were independent at the time. That's the situation since the Change, too."

Rasile watched Liane intently, which bothered Cashel a little to see: it reminded him of the way a vixen tenses toward a tuft of grass that she'd just seen move. As for Cashel himself, well, he was listening. He'd learned long since that not much of what folks as smart as Liane said made a lot of difference to him, though.

People didn't expect Cashel to talk politics or philosophy. The sorts of things they did take up with him, well, those weren't a problem. He knew how to deal with them, good or bad.

"Dariada is the most important city of the region, though, because the Tree is there," Liane said. "It's sacred to all Charax, but it's still in Dariada."

"Ma'am?" said Cashel, because trees were something he understood. "What kind of a tree, if you please?"

Liane scrunched her face up over an unhappy thought. "I don't know," she said. "The ancient descriptions -"

She lifted the scroll from the table and waggled it.

"- aren't clear, and my agents haven't been permitted within the separate enclosure within the city walls. From the accounts, the Tree Oracle is a pod with the face of a man, and it gives responses to questions. The priests choose who can address the Tree, but the petitioner him or herself puts the question."

Cashel frowned. "Rasile?" he said. "Do we need to talk to the oracle, or are we just going to the city to start out with? Because I don't guess they've seen a lot of your folk on Charax, Coerli I mean. And it seems like they may get, well, perturbed."

One thing Cashel learned the first time he came into a city is that people in cities talked a lot; really a lot. Also stuff took a long while, especially if there was a lot of people needing to agree before things happened. What with one thing and another, it seemed like the pirates might be up to the city walls before a shepherd and a Corl wizard got anybody to listen.

"I must speak to the oracle, Warrior Cashel," Rasile said. "I did not understand why I saw a tree on the path till you told me that."

Her smile didn't disturb Cashel now that he'd gotten used to it, but he hoped she wouldn't try it on suspicious strangers in Charax. They were going to have problems enough as it was.

"Cashel," Liane said, setting down the scroll she'd picked up as an illustration. "Wizard Rasile. I will be accompanying you on your journey. Neither of you -"

"Ma'am?" Cashel blurted. He blushed when he realized he'd broken in on a woman talking – and her a lady besides – but he'd just had to! "You shouldn't be doing that. It's not right."

"It's not only right, it's necessary," Liane said. She didn't snap the way Ilna would've done if somebody talked to her like Cashel just had, but he didn't hear any more give in Liane's voice than there'd have been from his sister. "To begin with, neither of you can read. It's more than probable that you'll need to read in the course of this business."

"Ma'am, I know you're right," Cashel said. "But a clerk could do that."

He wouldn't like it even if she wasn't Garric's girl, because she was nice and this wasn't going to be a nice business. He'd seen what happened to women in Ombis when the pirates got through the hole in the walls, and what the male pirates were doing wasn't the worst of it. "Or an officer, I didn't want soldiers but maybe that'd be a good idea."

Liane was Garric's girl. Cashel wasn't going to take her along!

"And as you've already understood, Cashel," Liane continued, her voice smooth as polished diamond and just as hard, "we'll have to negotiate with the Priests of the Tree. Neither of you are suitable for that task. I am the best person for it in the government, with the possible exception of Prince Garric. Even Garric would have a great deal to learn in a short time, though, and I'm already familiar with the business."

"Ma'am . . . ," Cashel said. He felt awful, his guts twisting themself tighter every time he breathed in. He couldn't think of anything to say that would change her mind. Nothing he said: Lady Liane said she was coming, so she would come.

He sighed. "Yes, ma'am," he said.

"Female Liane," Rasile said. She'd never stopped looking at Liane, and Cashel hadn't seen the old wizard's expression change from beginning to end. "I will take Warrior Cashel and myself to Dariada by a shorter route than walking through the waking world. If you come with us, you will take the same route."

Liane looked at her coldly. "Thank you, mistress," she said, clipping the words in a way Cashel hadn't heard her do before. "I am familiar with wizardry. My late father was a wizard himself. I'm not concerned with the means by which you accomplish the task in which I assist you."

"Tomorrow morning," Rasile said quietly. She looked at Cashel. "I would like a wooded grove for my incantation. Can you lead us to such a grove, warrior?"

"There aren't real groves anywhere near the city," Cashel said, mulling the question in his mind. "There's been too much building going on, you see."

"The palace has a roof garden," said Liane. "Will that be adequate?"

"It will," said Rasile, wagging her tongue in agreement.

Liane rose to her feet. "I have more business to attend," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow morning at the palace."

Cashel offered Rasile a hand, mostly for courtesy. She was spry enough she didn't really need it. They didn't speak as they watched Liane disappearing down the stairs into the guard room below.

It was true that Liane knew about wizardry: her father had trussed her for a sacrifice. If she was willing to go where and however Rasile led, then she was even braver than Cashel had already thought.