THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 30

"Bravo!" cried Sharina as the trained rat spun end over end between the jugglers’ wooden batons as they crossed. "Oh, marvelous!"

Lord Tadai, clapping with his usual polite languor, leaned closer and said, "Yes, they are good, aren’t they? Though I suppose it’s impolite of me to say so about the entertainers I hired."

The pair juggling were a youth of seventeen and a girl – his sister judging from her features – a year or two younger. At the open end of the U of tables, their parents played lutes while a ten-year-old boy piped on a treble recorder.

The family wore matching blue pantaloons and tight-fitting white jerkins – as did the rat. That a rat would wear a costume instead of ripping it off instantly was even more amazing than the way it danced and tumbled with the human performers.

"Everyone else agrees with you," Sharina said, looking around the cheering enthusiasm of the other guests. "And I certainly agree!"

Attending a banquet given by the city prefect was one of the duties expected of the regent, but Sharina was having a good time as well. She was probably as relaxed as she could be at any affair that required her to wear formal robes. Not only was Tadai a cultured, intelligent man, he had what he claimed was the finest kitchen staff in the kingdom.

The dishes seemed overly exotic to Sharina, but they tasted marvelous. She particularly liked the pike that’d been skinned, boned, and then molded back into its skin with a filling of rabbit sausage.

The jugglers bowed and somersaulted to where the musicians played. The rat pranced off with them, turning high cartwheels while holding its tail out straight behind it. How in goodness could you train a rat to do that?

This hall was perhaps the largest single room in Pandah, and its coffered ceiling was thirty feet high. One might’ve expected it to be part of the royal residence, though it wasn’t unreasonable that it should be given to the city prefect who needed a courtroom at least as much as the prince needed a hall of audience.

Besides, Tadai cared – which neither Garric nor Sharina did. And Tadai gave much better banquets than anybody raised in Barca’s Hamlet could’ve imagined.

The older woman began dancing, balancing a bottle on her head with a lighted candle stuck in the neck of it. Her feet darted a quick rhythm as she rotated, facing each of the three long tables in turn, while the flame remained remarkably steady.

Her husband accompanied her on his lute. Beside him, the rat played a miniature xylophone with six bars, syncopating the plucked strings in a plangent descant.

"There’s a new religion appearing in the city, your highness," Tadai said, his voice covered by the music and his attention ostensibly on the dancer. "I didn’t think it was worth mentioning to you at first, but it seems to be growing."

"People are worshiping the Gods of Palomir?" Sharina said, jerking her eyes onto the prefect. She wasn’t nearly as good at dissembling as Tadai. He was not only older, he’d been a financier before becoming a member of Garric’s council. Bankers had more occasion to lie than peasants did, except perhaps peasants who made much of their income in buying and selling cattle.

"No, your highness, or I would’ve said something immediately," Tadai said in a tone of mild reproof. "That would be high treason. This was something so absurd that I thought it must be a joke. It appears to be real, though."

"Go on," Sharina said, turning her eyes toward the dancer again. She already felt uneasy, but perhaps her fear wouldn’t come true if she didn’t say it out loud.

Thinking logically about her superstition made her grin at how silly she was being. That didn’t make the fear itself false, of course.

"There are gatherings at night all over the city," Tadai said. "We’ve had reports of nearly a score of different locations. Well, seventeen. Some of them may be the same congregation moving to avoid patrols, but regardless it’s a widespread business."

The dancer trotted out of the performance area, still balancing the bottle. The guests, council members with their spouses and so many more of the Great and Good as there were places available, stamped their feet and cheered in applause.

"Is it confined to Pandah?" Sharina asked. "Master Dysart hasn’t said anything about it to me."

"I haven’t discussed the matter yet with him," Tadai said, "because I couldn’t bring myself to believe that it was real. I will of course, now that I’ve spoken to you."

He coughed slightly and added, "I regret that Lady Liane is absent, though I’m sure she’s left her duties in capable hands."

"Yes," said Sharina. And I regret that Cashel is absent, for better reasons yet.

The mother and daughter entertainers picked up lutes; the older boy sat cross-legged holding a drum between his insteps. He beat a quick rhythm with his fingertips as his father did a series of back-flips that brought him into the center of the hall. The tumbler flipped again, stood on his right hand alone, then his left, and finally bounced to his feet as his ten-year-old son back-flipped out to join him.

"At least one of the leaders of the new cult is a priest of the Shepherd," Tadai said. "Very likely several are. I’m making inquiries, but discreetly of course. It’s no proper business of the kingdom to tell people how to worship."

He coughed again. "Within reason."

The young entertainer gripped his father’s outstretched hands. Acting in concert, they front-flipped him onto the older man’s shoulders, facing the opposite direction. The audience shouted and stamped its delight.

Sharina touched her dry lips with her tongue. "You haven’t said what they were worshipping," she said.

"That’s the absurd thing," said Tadai. His mouth scrunched as though the words he was preparing were sour. "It’s a scorpion. They claim their god is a scorpion!"

Sharina’s mind was cold, as cold as the Ice Capes. She’d known what he was going to say. She’d known as soon as he mentioned a new religion.

The rat bounded out to join the human tumblers. It jumped to the father’s right shoulder, then to the son’s left. With a final delicate hop it reached the boy’s head and perched there, standing on its hind legs.

"To be honest," Tadai said, "I was hoping that all this was a joke. It seems utterly insane."

"Men of Pandah, honor calls us!" the rat piped, throwing its little right foreleg out as though it were an orator declaiming. "No proud foe can e’er appall us!"

"By the Lady!" Tadai blurted. "Why, the rat’s singing. They didn’t tell me he could do that. Why, this is marvelous!"

"On we march, whate’er befall us," the rat sang. "Never shall we fly!"

"Bravo! Bravo!" bellowed Lord Quernan, who commanded the city garrison. He lurched to his feet. Foot, rather, because he’d lost his right leg at mid-thigh during the capture of Donelle a year earlier. The whole audience began to stand in irregular waves.

Lord Tadai started to rise, but he subsided when he saw Sharina remained frozen in her seat. "I must admit that I find this new cult disturbing," he said. "How could anyone worship something as disgusting as a scorpion?"

"How indeed?" Sharina whispered. The dream of the night before filled her mind with blackness and horror.