THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 24

Diora paused in the bedroom doorway and looked back at Sharina in her nightdress. "Your highness, are you really sure you wouldn't like me to stay tonight?" she said. "Hachon will understand."

The maid frowned, apparently thinking about what she'd just said. "Well, it doesn't matter what he thinks anyway, does it?" she said. "You being the princess and him just a captain. But he would."

"Thank you, Diora," said Sharina as she stepped forward to close the door herself if the maid didn't do it. "I prefer to be alone."

Well, of course what she'd really prefer was for Cashel to be with her, but that wasn't possible. The needs of the kingdom came first. Sharina was too . . . flat, she supposed. She wasn't physically tired, not unusually so at any rate, but after watching Cashel vanish she had no mental energy left to protest.

She'd be all right again soon. She always was.

Sharina walked to the window looking down on the courtyard. It wasn't a real garden, but four stubby palm trees stood in pots to punctuate benches which were empty at this hour. The quarter moon showed everything clearly, though without color.

She hadn't been with Cashel when he went off this time. Rasile had said that many passages would be opening. Those protected within her seven-pointed star could choose the path they wished to take, but others who stood too close would find themselves in some uncertain elsewhere.

There was a bird nest in the top of the palm nearest Sharina's window. A chick peeped and a muted cooing responded; it must be a dove.

Sharina had watched Rasile's incantation from the fire tower, two furlongs from the roof garden but tall enough to give a good view of what was happening. She'd been alone, though her escort of Blood Eagles had been below in the tower just as they stood outside the door of her suite now. Cashel and his companions hadn't moved, though the ruby wizardlight swelled and waned about them in response to the Corl's chant.

Sharina looked away from the window. The bed had curtains but it was far too warm to need them tonight. Diora had turned down the sheet before she left, but for a moment Sharina considered throwing an extra rug from the storage chest onto the floor and sleeping there.

Well, she could do that later. She got into the bed.

She'd expected a flood of wizardlight to blaze around her friends at the climax of the incantation. Instead, the heptagram had grown fainter and the three figures had slowly dissolved as though they'd fallen into a vat of acid. For an instant Sharina thought she could see Cashel's skeleton holding his hickory staff upright. She knew that was an illusion, but even so she had to step away from the parapet in fear that she'd topple over in a sudden wash of blackness.

Cashel will be coming back. I have to keep things going here so that there'll be comfort and safety when he returns.

Sharina was sure she wouldn't be able to sleep. She knew that if she tried to work, though, she'd just stare at tasks without doing anything useful.

She might've been able to accomplish something if Liane were with her. They worked well together, better than either did alone-and that was better than most people, she'd learned by going over documents prepared by others, even experienced clerks.

She missed Liane, but she missed Cashel more. She missed Cashel so much that her chest hurt with longing. She wouldn't be able to sleep-

And Sharina was asleep.

She floated above an enormous city. She recognized it from drawings by the architects Lord Tadai had engaged to plan Pandah's rebirth as capital of the kingdom. The old quarter remained, though the city walls had been razed to form boulevards and the tenements of the poor had been replaced by splendid public buildings.

The greatest was a soaring black temple; the dream-Sharina curved toward it. The colonnaded plaza was paved with the same polished granite as had been used for the structures. In the center of it stood a tall man in a hooded black robe.

"Your gods are dead, Sharina!" he called. His voice came from everywhere. Storm clouds began to pile up as suddenly as foam covers a mug of ale.

"Come to me and worship Lord Scorpion!" the man said. Sharina felt her dream-self drawn toward him like a straw in a millrace; she struggled.

"Worship the One Which rules this world and will rule it for eternity!" the man said, lifting his arms toward her. Her dream-self was so close now that she could see the scorpion on the shoulder of his velvet robe, perched there like a trained magpie.

"Worship Lord Scorpion!"

Sharina willed her arms to drag her away, but she had no form to fight the current dragging her. Nonetheless she felt the fabric of the dream tearing about her.

"Worship Lord Scorpion!"

The clouds were black as starless night, twisting and shaping into a monstrous scorpion.

"Worship!"

Sharina lurched out of her bed. The sky had begun to hint at false dawn.

The Pewle knife lay on the small bedside table. She gripped the sealskin sheath with her left hand and drew the long blade. There was no enemy to face with the weapon, but its presence settled her.

Her mind still echoed with, "Worship!"