THE GODS RETURN – snippet 5:



            Ilna's fingers knotted short lengths of cord as she looked at the four people across the desk from her. She was angry, but that–like the fact the sun rises in the east–wasn't unusual enough to be worth comment.

            Directly before her were a pair of plump young women, Carisa and Bovea, foster nurses employed by the Lady Merota bos-Roriman Society for Orphans; they were crying. A man of thirty named Heismat, originally from Cordin, sat to their left. He'd wanted to stand, but he'd obeyed when Ilna ordered him onto the third low stool. Despite his bluster and the angry red of his face, Heismat's eyes were cold with fear.

            Ilna smiled, though nobody could've mistaken the expression for humor. Heismat knew he was in trouble, though as yet he didn't understand how serious the trouble was. It was hard to convince some people that they shouldn't knock children around, and even more people thought a Corl kit was an animal rather than a child.

            Mistress Winora, the manager of the Merota Society, stood beside the door with her hands crossed at her waist; her face was expressionless. Winora was fifty, the widow of a merchant from Erdin who'd been killed in the chaos that followed the Change. She'd kept the books and managed the Erdin end of the business while her husband traveled, so she–unlike Ilna–had the skills required to run the day to day operations of the Society.

            Carisa and Bovea were among the many other women who'd lost their spouses recently. There were even more orphans than there were widows, so it'd seemed perfectly obvious to Ilna to put the two together to the advantage of both, paying each pair of nurses a competence sufficient to care for a handful of children. She'd done so in the name of Merota, who'd been an orphan also until Ilna and Chalcus took charge of her.

            Ilna's fingers knotted, forming a very complex pattern. It calmed her to knot and weave, but she had a specific purpose this time. She was very angry.

            Merota and Chalcus had died during the Change. If you believed in souls, then Ilna's soul had died with them–with her family. Ilna didn't believe in souls or gods or anything, really, except craftsmanship. And she believed in the death that would come to all things, though perhaps not as soon as she would like.

            "Look, I'm sorry," Heismat snarled. He glared at his knotted hands. He'd been a laborer before the Change and had come to Pandah to work in the building trade. "I said I was sorry, didn't I? I didn't mean to do it!"

            "Mistress," blubbered Carisa. Heismat was her boyfriend. "It was only because he was drinking, you know. He's a good man, a good man, really."

            "Mistress Winora, how is the kit?" Ilna asked. Her voice was thin and as cold as the wind from the Ice Capes.

            "She'll live," Winora said. Her face was bleak, her tone emotionless. Winora regarded this as failure on her part. "She'll probably limp for the rest of her life, but we may be lucky."

            Ilna nodded. "Worse things happen in this world," she said.

            It wasn't Winora's fault. It was the fault of Ilna os-Kenset, who'd created a situation which allowed a child to be injured instead of being protected as was supposed to have happened.

            Worse things happened, as she'd said. She'd done far worse things herself. But this particular thing wouldn't happen again.

            "There were other instances of Master Heismat hitting the kit," Winora said. "They weren't as serious, and I didn't learn about them until after this event. I'm sorry, mistress. I wasn't watching as closely as I should have done."

            "People make mistakes," Ilna said quietly, her eyes on Heismat; he fidgeted under the cold appraisal. She thought, At least you're aware of that it was a mistake. If Winora had said the wrong thing–and it wouldn't have had to be very wrong, because Ilna was extremely angry–she'd have been next in line as soon as Ilna was done with Heismat.

            "Mistress, please," Carisa said, mumbling into her kerchief wadded in both hands. "Heismat's a good man, only the cats killed his whole family. Please, mistress."

            The rhythmic ching! ching! of iron on stone sounded from the courtyard. A mason was carving letters and embellishments for the lintel with strokes of a narrow-bladed adze. Ilna had been angry to learn that money was being spent on what she considered needless ornamentation when a painted sign would do.

            She'd checked her facts before she acted, though; someone who got as angry as Ilna did learned to check the facts before acting. Lady Liane bos-Benliman, the fiancée of Prince Garric and, less publicly, the kingdom's spymaster, had ordered the carving. Liane was paying for the job from her own funds.

            Ilna still thought the carving was an unnecessary expense, but she'd learned a long time ago that what she thought and what the world thought were likely to be very different. And Ilna also knew that she made mistakes.

            Sometimes it felt like she made only mistakes, though of course that wasn't true anyplace but in Ilna's heart. She'd thanked Liane for her generosity.

            "Mistress," said Heismat, glaring at his hands. "I didn't mean it, only I come home and there the beast–"

            "Cloohe, mistress!" said Bovea. "Little Cloohe, and it's my fault, I'd shut her up when we saw it was getting on and Heismat wasn't home yet, but she must've slipped out while I was dozing."

            "I seen the, the cat, and I thunk of my own three that the cats kilt and I couldn't stop myself, mistress," Heismat said brokenly toward his knotted fists. "I'd drunk a bit much. I knowed I shoulda kept away, but I wanted to see Carisa and, and I didn't think. I seed the, the kit, and I just flew hot."

            "Mistress, it was the drink," Carisa said. "It's my own fault not to keep Cloohe locked up better when it got so late and Heismat not back."

            "I've already split the women up and put them with stronger partners, mistress," Winora said in the same dry tone as before. "They're among the best caretakers we have. Though of course I've warned them that you may choose to dismiss or otherwise punish them."

            Ilna shrugged. "I'm concerned with preventing a recurrence," she said, "not vengeance. I tried vengeance long enough to determine that it wasn't a satisfactory answer."

            How many of the Coerli did I kill after they'd slaughtered Chalcus and Merota? Many, certainly. More than even Merota, who counted any number you pleased without using tellers, could've kept track of.

            Ilna smiled. Bovea, who happened to be looking at her, stifled a scream with her knuckles.

            "Mistress, I'm sorry," Heismat said, stumbling over the words in his fear. "I swear by the Lady it'll never happen again. Never!"

            "It were just the drink, mistress," Carisa pleaded. "He's a good man."

            Ilna looked at the girl; without expression, she'd have said, but from the way Carisa cringed back there must've been something after all. "As men go," Ilna said quietly, "as human beings go, I suppose you're right. Though I'm angry enough as it is, so I don't see what you think to gain by emphasizing the fact."

            Carisa blinked. Her hand was over her mouth. "Mistress, I don't understand?" she mumbled.

            Ilna grimaced. There were sheep with more intelligence than this girl–who was Ilna's age or older in actual years.

            Still, Carisa was a good mother to orphans, which is more than Ilna herself could say. While Ilna was caring for Merota, a catman with a stone mace had dashed the child's brains out.

            "Master Heismat, look at me," Ilna said.

            Heismat's face twitched into a rictus. His eyes slanted to Ilna's left, then above her; he knuckled his balled fists.

            "Master Heismat," Ilna said. She didn't raise her voice, but her anger sang like a good sword vibrating. "I'm offering you an alternative to being hanged and your body dumped in a rubbish tip, but I assure you that I will go the other way if you don't cooperate."

            "Mistress, I'm sorry," the laborer said. Tears were dribbling into his sandy beard and the rank stain darkening his gray pantaloons showed that he'd lost control of his bladder, but he was looking directly at Ilna as she'd demanded. "It'll never happen again, I swear!"

            Ilna raised the pattern she'd knotted. It was quite a subtle piece of work, though no one else in the world would've understood that. Her patterns generally affected everyone who looked at them. That was true here as well, but only Heismat had the background to be affected. His memories were the nether millstone against which Ilna's fabric would grind out misery and horror.

            She smiled because she was very angry, then folded the pattern into itself and placed it in her left sleeve. She'd pick the knots out shortly.

            "All right," Ilna said, rising. "Mistress Winora, you'll have business to go over with the nurses."

            She looked at Heismat, who was blinking in surprise. "Master Heismat," she said, "you're free to go also."

            She considered adding, "And I hope I never see you again," but that would've been pointless and Ilna tried to avoid pointless behavior. Given that all existence struck her as fairly pointless, the whole business was probably an exercise in self-delusion, another thing that she'd have said she tried to avoid. The train of thought made her smile.

            "But what happened?" Bovea said. Heismat and Carisa were keeping silent, probably stunned by what they thought was their good luck. "Nothing happened, did it?"

            "Bovea, be silent!" Winora snapped as she stepped aside from the door. "You're in trouble enough already, girl."

            Ilna stopped and looked back. "Nothing happened unless Master Heismat takes a drink," she said, "which he's promised not to do. If he goes back on his word, he'll experience the slaughter of his family through the eyes of one of the Corl hunters involved. Every time he takes a drink."

            "But…," said Carisa. Heismat simply sat with his mouth open. "A drink? You don't mean he can't have a mug of ale? Mistress, the water's not safe in Pandah with all the people coming in and the wells so shallow!"

            "I mean any drink," Ilna said. "Anything with alcohol in it. As for the water in Pandah, I quite agree. Your friend can find a place where the water's safer, I suppose."

            She smiled.

            "Or he can die," she added, eyeing the laborer critically. He stared back at her as blankly as a landed fish. "We all die eventually, and there's nothing in Master Heismat's behavior that makes me wish he was an exception."

            Carisa lifted her apron and began sobbing into it. Ilna touched the latch lever to open the door; Winora put out her hand.

            "Mistress?" Ilna said sharply. She didn't mean the anger; not exactly, at any rate. She very much wanted to be shut of this affair, and Winora was prolonging it.

            "Mistress, do you wish me to continue in my position?" the older woman said. She met Ilna's eyes, but she was obviously frightened. She's terrified!

            "Yes," said Ilna. Am I as terrible as that? "You caught the business as quickly as reasonably could be done."

            She felt her lips lift in a cold smile again. Ilna was that terrible, of course; but not to this woman whose only mistake was that she hadn't been perfect, that she hadn't foreseen all the things that could go wrong. A Corl kit had been crippled; worse had happened to a child named Merota because of Ilna's own mistakes.

            "And you told me at once instead of trying to hide it," she added. "That was wise."

            "Thank you, mistress," Winora said, shuddering in relief. She glanced over her shoulder, drawing Ilna's attention also. Heismat had his arms around Carisa and was trying to murmur reassurance to the blubbering girl. He probably was a good man, as humans judged such things.

            "It would have been a mercy to have killed him instead," Winora said without emphasis.

            "Yes," said Ilna. "But this way he's a better example to others."