THE GODS RETURN – snippet 4:



            Sharina looked around the apartment in which Tenoctris lived and worked. She hoped her shocked dismay didn't show in her expression. The small room had been let into the outer wall of the citadel. The walls wept condensate, and the only window was the small one in the iron-braced door. In all, the place would've been suitable for a prison cell–and had probably been used as one in the past.

            Besides being a friend of Prince Garric and Princess Sharina, Tenoctris was the wizard who through advice and skill had done as much to preserve the mankind as had any other single person. Though Pandah's population was increasing by the day, she could have any quarters she wanted.

            "Oh, dear," Tenoctris said in obvious dismay. She looked like a woman of twenty-two or three, pert and pretty without being beautiful. Apparently Sharina hadn't kept her face blank. "I'm sorry, dear. I chose this room because it's what I'm used to. I didn't mean to suggest that you wouldn't give me better or, well, anything. You have to remember that for most of my life–"

            She shrugged. Tenoctris had been a woman of seventy when she'd washed up on the shore of Barca's Hamlet, flotsam flung a thousand years forward in time by the cataclysm which ended the Old Kingdom. She now appeared to be the woman she'd been in her youth, but that was true only physically. She'd gained both knowledge and wisdom over a long life. She retained those virtues and had now added power that few wizards ever could have claimed.

            "–I was considered rightly to be a wizard of very little power. I prided myself on my scholarship, again I think rightly, but–"

            Tenoctris grinned. Her cheerfully wry expression would've been enough by itself for Sharina to identify her, no matter what features she was wearing.

            "–scholars aren't lodged or fed as well as wizards who can split mountains with an incantation and a gesture."

            "Well, speaking as an innkeeper's daughter rather than as Princess Sharina," Sharina said, keeping her tone light, "I'd rather a friend of mine had better lodging. But I understand the attraction of the familiar. I wish I had the same freedom in what I wear."

            She tweaked her silk robe. It was a relatively simple garment compared with full court dress weighing as much as a cavalryman's armor, but contrasted with the tunic she'd ordinarily worn in Barca's Hamlet–both an inner and an outer tunic for unusually formal occasions–it was heavy, hot and confining.

            A squad of soldiers talked in low voices as they waited outside in the passage. They were Bood Eagles, members of the royal bodyguard. Sharina had come to accept that, because she was a princess and regent in her brother's absence, she would always have guards.

            She grimaced. It wasn't that she wanted to be alone–nobody in a peasant village expected privacy, especially in the winter when even a wealthy household heated only one room. She wasn't used to people actually caring what she did, however, day in and day out. Well, there was no help for it; and the dangers were real enough.

            Sharina smiled faintly. Though she doubted men with swords would be any help against the wizardry which had been the worst danger to the kingdom these past two years.

            "What's your opinion of Rasile, Sharina?" Tenoctris asked abruptly. She fluttered her hands, also familiar–though it seemed odd to see a young woman making the gesture an old woman used to make. "I know she's a powerful wizard; that I can judge. What sort of person was she to work with?"

            Sharina took time to frame her reply. The room's low-backed chair was stacked with codices. The bed likewise, though there was room enough for a slim person to sleep along the outer edge. And the three wicker baskets of scrolls, though of a height to be sat on, struck Sharina as too flimsy for that to be a safe option.

            There was room to squat, however. She squatted, just as she would've done back home while popping open peapods for dinner.

            "Rasile doesn't waste words," she said. She grinned. "Or mince them. Which I actually appreciate. She's brave, calm, and good company."

            Sharina met the gaze of the old/young wizard who'd seated herself on the edge of the low bed, putting their eyes on a level. "She wasn't you, Tenoctris," she said. "But you couldn't have left me with a better helper."

            "No, she isn't me," Tenoctris said with a quirk of her lips, a smile that wasn't quite humorous. "She's a great deal more powerful than I ever was. And equally precise, which is why she hasn't precipitated a cataclysm the way so many powerful wizards have done in the past. Also, I don't think she cares much about her power."

            "She isn't as powerful as you are now, though?" Sharina said carefully. She wasn't trying to be flattering, but she needed to understand the tools that preserved the kingdom. Tenoctris and Rasile were among those tools, just as surely as she and her brother and all those who took the side of Good were.

            She was Princess Sharina. She had to think that way if she was to do the best possible work in the struggle with evil, and there was no margin for anything but the best possible work.

            "Cashel is accompanying Rasile at this moment," Tenoctris said, looking squarely at Sharina. "I thought that might be a good pairing for the future, if the kingdom's safety required a wizard with suitable protection to act at a distance from the palace and army."

            Sharina didn't mean to turn away, but she found her eyes were resting on the top codex of the pile on the chair. It'd been bound with the pebbled skin of a lizard. There was no legend on the cover, but on the edge of the pages was written Hybro in vermillion ink. The word didn't mean anything to her.

            She pursed her lips. "You mean the sort of thing you and Cashel did just now, while I led the army against Pandah," she said without emphasis. She looked at the wizard again. The young, pretty, very powerful wizard. "That went very well, I believe."

            "Yes," said Tenoctris flatly, "it did."

            She paused. "I always found Cashel impressive," she said. "I find him even more so now that I have–"

            She twisted a lock of hair to call attention to her gleaming, sandy-red curls.

            "–more capacity for appreciation."

            This time it was Tenoctris who looked away. She cleared her throat and continued, "Sharina, I have powers that I wouldn't have, couldn't have, dreamed of in the past."

            She smiled wryly. "In a very long past life. I hope that this power hasn't caused me to lose my judgment, however. Specifically, it hasn't caused me to miss what Cashel is: a rock which will stand though the heavens fall."

            "I never doubted you, Tenoctris," Sharina said. She didn't know if that was true. Her lips were dry.

            "If you're wise," Tenoctris said, smiling again, "then you never doubted Cashel. You never should doubt Cashel, Sharina. Though the heavens fall."

            Sharina rose, feeling a trifle dizzy. That was common after squatting, after all. "I'm sure Rasile will find him a good companion and protector," she said. "If there's need, of course."

            There would be need. Sharina was as sure of that as she was that there would be a thunderstorm. She didn't know when or how violent it would be–

            But she knew that the storm was coming.