THE GODS RETURN – snippet 6:



            She opened the door. Gilla, Mistress Winora's chief assistant, was standing in the hall with her back to the panel. When it opened she jumped aside and said, rattling the words out all together, "Mistress-Ilna-this-gentleman's-come-to-see-you! I told him you'd said not to be disturbed and you wouldn't be, not while I had life and breath!"

            "Thank you, Gilla," Ilna said. From the way the plump woman was wheezing, she had very little breath left. Ilna felt a touch of real amusement that didn't reach her lips. Still, it lightened her mood. "Lord Zettin? As a matter of fact, I was hoping to see you today. Can we speak for a moment further after you've finished your business?"

            "Mistress," said Zettin, "it's your business that brings me here. I was furious when I learned that my staff had turned you away! Is there some place we can get privacy?"

            He looked around. Faces ranging from infants to that of the aged charwoman ducked away from his angry glance. The building served not only as the foundation's office but as a temporary barracks for orphans who hadn't yet been assigned to a pair of nurses in the community. A high nobleman like Lord Zettin would've been an object of wonder even if he hadn't been wearing a dazzling parcel-gilt cuirass.

            "My business doesn't require secrecy," Ilna said, feeling her lips pinch over the words. It offended her that anybody might even think she was trying to hide something. "But we can sit in the garden, and I'm sure–"

            She looked at–glared at, she supposed–Gilla.

            "–that Mistress Gilla will see that we're not disturbed."

            "Yes, mistress!" Gilla said. "Whatever mistress says! Ah, would mistress and her guest like some refreshment while you confer?"

            "That won't be necessary," Ilna said firmly, leading her visitor through a reception hall in which six female clerks now worked on the foundation's accounts. In truth her mouth was dry from anger at Heismat, but she didn't want servants interrupting her with carafes and tumblers. This wouldn't take long.

            She didn't bother asking what Zettin wanted. If he was thirsty, he could wait the length of a brief discussion also.

            Lord Zettin was thirty-one or two, quite young for someone in so senior a position. Before the Change, he'd commanded the fleet and the phalanx of pikemen which the oarsmen formed after their ships were drawn up on the beach. He'd gotten the job not only because he was keen and clever–which he was–but because Ornifal's wealthy nobility considered the position a lowly one.

            It had been lowly when Dukes of Ornifal claimed to be Kings of the Isles but had little control beyond the shores of their island. When Garric became Prince Garric and the real ruler, the fleet and phalanx became important–and Admiral Zettin showed himself to be skilled as well as clever.

            The Inner Sea became a continent at the Change and grounded the fleet. Zettin now commanded the kingdom's new scouting forces, another job that established officers didn't want. The scouts were a mixture of hunters, shepherds, and catmen; they moved fast in small units which didn't bother with the baggage train of the regular army. From the scraps of conversation Ilna had heard from Garric, Liane and Sharina, Zettin was again doing very well.

            The house Ilna had taken for her foundation came with a courtyard garden. It had been not only ill-tended but awash in garbage–its most recent occupants had been renegade Coerli, and their immediate predecessors were bands of human pirates.

            So far as Ilna was concerned the courtyard could've stayed a wasteland, though of course the garbage had to go. Members of the new staff had made it a priority, though, and the orphans seemed to have thrown themselves into the work. In less than a month the apple trees and the cypress had been pruned, and the planting beds were bright with zinnias, tiny blue asters, and even a late-blooming cardoon. The flowers must've been transplanted; they certainly couldn't have grown so fast from seeds.

            Ilna sat on one of the two stone benches framing a small round table. She deliberately chose the seat in the sunlight rather than that shaded by the cypress. Her fingers were picking out and reforming the pattern they'd knotted for Heismat. She didn't need to be able to strike Zettin with despair or paralyzing fear, but she could. So long as she was in the sunlight, he was certain to see whatever she lifted before his eyes.

            "I apologize for my staff, Mistress Ilna," Zettin said, sitting straight up on the opposite bench. A good thing he isn't in the sun; that breastplate would be blinding. "They didn't realize who you were and mistakenly thought that they shouldn't interrupt the morning briefing."

            Ilna opened her mouth. Before she could get a word out, he continued, "Mistress, I know I've seemed to be arrogant and not to, well, show the courtesy I should. But please believe me, I've always had the kingdom's interests at heart. If I push hard and don't always listen as well as I might, that's the cause. Believe me, I never would've allowed you to be turned away!"

            Ilna frowned, not at what the nobleman was saying but because he was saying it to her. He thinks he's offended me. That was reasonable; he must by now be used to his pushiness offending people. What wasn't reasonable was Zettin bothering to apologize, as though she was powerful enough to hurt him.

            "I stopped by on my way here," Ilna said. "I asked for you personally because you're the only person I know in the scouts. I have a favor to ask–"

            "Anything, mistress!" Zettin said. "Anything in my power. Just ask!"

            "I was trying to," Ilna said, glaring at Zettin. He was a slim, good looking man who was careful of his appearance; his dark-blond hair and moustache were neatly trimmed, and there were no smudges on his armor.

            Zettin's mouth worked on a sour thought. He brushed his left hand over his face and said, "Mistress, my apologies. Again."

            She paused, suddenly struck by a vision of the Ilna os-Kenset which this nobleman saw. She was powerful. A word to her childhood friends Garric or Sharina would send Lord Zettin off to command a garrison regiment or as envoy to a distant, minor court.

            Ilna wouldn't do that, of course; she hadn't been angry, and politics disgusted her anyway. If she had felt a need to punish the man, she'd have done it directly as she'd done to others in the past. Quite a few others, now that she considered the matter.

            "Yes," Ilna said. "During my travels immediately after the Change, a pair of former hunters named Asion and Karpos helped me. They're here in Pandah, but they're uncomfortable in cities."

            She smiled wryly at herself.

            "They're even more uncomfortable than I am," she said. "They'll take reasonable orders. They wouldn't make good soldiers–"

            That was a mild a way of putting it; Ilna grimaced. In fact it was mild enough to be a lie if you looked at it closely, and Ilna hated lies.

            "–but I think they'd be useful as scouts for you. They…."

            She paused again and swallowed. She suddenly found herself choking on emotion, an unexpected circumstance and a very uncommon one besides.

            "Asion and Karpos," she resumed forcefully, "earned my respect and gratitude. I suppose you take courage for granted, but they also showed cool heads and great skill many times. I'd like them to be in a good situation."

            Zettin nodded crisply. "Yes, of course," he said. His eyes drifted toward bees buzzing about the calendula, then met hers again. In a sharper tone he went on, "Can they work with Coerli?"

            "Yes, that won't be a problem," Ilna said. "I'll tell them to dispose of the cat-scalp capes they made while they were with me."

            Zettin barked a laugh, then looked shocked. He muttered, "Sorry, mistress, I didn't mean to laugh…."

            He stopped.

            "I intended it as a joke," Ilna said tartly. "It's true, of course, but Asion and Karpos have too much judgment for me to need to tell them that."

            "It would've been all right," Zettin said, the cool professional again. "The Scouting Corps has all-human units–and all-Coerli units too, for that matter. But the mixed units get better results, and it's one less thing to worry about when assigning billets."

            He cleared his throat. "Ah, mistress?" he went on. "You won't be needing the men's services again yourself? Because I can see to it that they're stationed near Pandah if you'd like."

            Ilna shook her head. "I don't know how long I'll be here," she said. "I've already stayed much longer than I cared to."

            She heard the bitterness in her voice and scowled; she was showing weakness.

            "I don't know what I'll be doing in the future," she said, keeping her tone neutral. "Dying, I suppose, but before then…."

            She spread her hands, palms up.

            "Well, no doubt something will appear."

            Zettin appeared for a moment to be glaring at the cardoon's purple face. He drummed the fingers of his left hand on the bench beside him, then turned to Ilna with a look of resolution.

            "Mistress," he said firmly. "I'm about to bring up a personal problem, nothing whatever to do with the business of the kingdom. The only reason I dare to mention it is that you implied that you want to get out of Pandah?"

            "Go on," Ilna said. Her fingers were taking apart the pattern they'd knotted; when she'd reduced it to loose yarn, she'd again recast it. Weaving gave her something to do while she listened….

            "My sister Zussa has married into a wealthy family, but they're in trade," Zettin said. "I want to be very clear about that."

            Ilna sniffed. "I suppose my family was in trade also," she said, "before my father, mine and Cashel's, drank up his share of the family mill. Please get to the point, Master Zettin."

            She would not call him or any man "Lord."

            "When her father-in-law died last year," Zettin said, smiling faintly, "her husband Hervir took over the family's spice importing business. The firm was based in Valles, but after the Change Hervir put in motion plans to move it to Pandah. He's, ah, quite a forward-looking young man."

            Also, he's smart enough to take advice from a well connected brother-in-law, Ilna thought.

            Zettin had noticed the deliberate slight of "Master," and had been amused by it. Before this conversation she would've said she didn't care for Zettin particularly, putting him in the same category as all but a handful of the people she knew. To Ilna's surprise, the fellow was edging toward that select handful.

            "Hervir heard that a source of saffron had appeared on the north coast of Blaise since the Change," Zettin said. "As you probably know, in the past saffron came only from two or three valleys in the mountains of Seres. Saffron from Blaise could come up the New River almost directly to Pandah."

            "Go on," Ilna said. It was simpler to be politely non-committal than to snarl that of course a peasant from Barca's Hamlet knew nothing about a spice so expensive that it was weighed out with carob seeds, just like jewels.

            "Hervir had been planning to set up the new headquarters in Pandah himself, but when he heard about this opportunity, well…," Zettin shrugged. "Hervir and I haven't always seen eye to eye."

            He flashed Ilna a wan smile that made him look unexpectedly human. Zettin usually had points sticking out in all directions; everything he said or did seemed to be a way of getting advantage. For the first time in the two years since Ilna met him, that wasn't the case.

            "Or perhaps," he said, "we do see eye to eye–we're too much alike to be friends. Regardless, I respect Hervir whether or not I like him. He sent Zussa here to prepare the new headquarters and set off himself to Blaise with his secretary, six guards, and a belt of money. He planned to buy a riverboat on Blaise and sail down to Pandah with the saffron."

            Zettin paused, looking across the table. Because something was obviously expected of her, Ilna said, "Go on," again.

            This time the pattern her fingers were knotting wasn't a weapon. The lines in yarn were a reflection of the universe, though Ilna herself was never conscious of their meaning until she concentrated on what her fingers had woven without her conscious mind's control.

            "Two days ago the secretary and guards arrived in Pandah," Zettin said. "Hervir wasn't with them, nor the money either. The secretary–his name's Ingens and he's been seven years with the house, a perfectly reliable man Zussa says–Ingens says that Hervir went off alone at night with the chest. He was meeting a man with the saffron, supposedly. He never came back."

            Zettin spread his hands with a grimace. "Now," he said, "I don't want you to think that I believe in fortunetellers, but Madame Raciana, Hervir's mother, does. She went to a fellow, a charlatan I'm sure, who swears that Hervir was spirited off by wizardry. She's prodding Zussa to get one of my wizard friends in the court–"

            He grimaced apologetically. "I'm sorry," he said, "but that's what they think. One of my wizard friends to rescue her son. And Zussa, I'm sorry to say, is making my life a misery until I act. Mistress, I know you're not a wizard, but, well, you have that reputation."

            He paused with a cautious look on his face. To see how I'm taking that, Ilna realized. The statement was true, so she certainly wasn't going to snarl at Zettin for what he'd said. And it was possible that the belief that Ilna os-Kenset was a wizard also was true. Not the way Tenoctris was, or the catwoman Rasile; but there were things Ilna did that only wizards could do, and she did some things that even wizards could not.

            "Go on," she said aloud.

            "If you could come with me and tell Raciana that there's no wizard's work involved, that Hervir was knocked on the head and robbed," Zettin said earnestly, "then she'll let me take care of the business the way it should be. I'll send a troop of my scouts under a good officer up to where Hervir disappeared. They'll get to the bottom of the trouble, I'll warrant."

            "I'll certainly go with you," Ilna said, rising. She began to reduce the oracle to short lengths of twine again. "I'd like to talk to this secretary."

            She smiled coldly at the nobleman as he rose with her. She could see her reflection in the breastplate, distorted across the gilded images of sea gods cavorting.

            "But I won't tell Madame Raciana that her fortuneteller is wrong," Ilna said, "because to my surprise that doesn't seem to be true. Master Hervir really was taken by wizardry… and I think I may have found a sufficient reason to leave Pandah."