THE GODS RETURN – snippet 7:



            Liane sat in the roof garden, her back to the west so that the sun fell over her shoulder onto the Books of Changes from which she was reading to Garric. She turned a page.

            "'Piety lies conquered,'" she continued. Her voice was like polished amber, smooth and soft and golden. "'Starry Justice leaves the bloody earth for the far reaches of the heavens.'"

            She paused and grinned at Garric. "If Pendill's to be believed," she said, "things were as bad by the end of the First Age as they are now. Perhaps we should feel encouraged that they haven't gotten even worse?"

            Garric laughed. He sat in the tiny grape arbor; Liane had moved a wicker bench for better light, but they were both out of the direct sight of everyone else in–well, in the whole world. That was unusual for anyone who lived in society, and almost unheard of for a prince and his consort in a palace full of servants, office-holders, and courtiers.

            "I think we've improved from that," he said, luxuriating in the fact that he wasn't for these few moments being ruler of a kingdom under threat. "Piety hasn't given up the fight yet, and as for Justice–I was a peasant, and a peasant'll choose the king's law any day over the local squire's justice. I think the kingdom's moving pretty well in the direction of having a rule of law, though I don't pretend to've convinced everybody."

            "If you're dealing with human beings," said King Carus, the ghost in Garric's mind, "you won't convince everybody that the sun rises in the east. And there's no few of 'em who'll try to brain you if you won't agree that it really rises in the west."

            Garric chuckled in unison with his ancient ancestor. Carus had been the last ruler of the Old Kingdom; he'd spent his reign battling usurpers as well the monsters which entered the waking world as wizardry rose to its thousand-year peak. In the end a wizard had destroyed both Carus and himself, had destroyed the Old Kingdom as well, and had very nearly destroyed mankind.

            "The thing is, lad…," Carus said. Garric saw the ancient king as a man of forty or so, leaning on the battlements of a half-glimpsed tower. He wore a bright blue tunic and red breeches more vivid than the roses clinging to the masonry. "I was as quick to knock heads as the next fellow. Quicker, I dare say, and certainly better at it. I'd have brought the kingdom down myself without any wizard's help. None of which I understood until I saw you ruling the right way, of course."

            Garric's lips pursed as he considered the matter. Liane knew about the ghost in his mind, but she wasn't party to their silent conversations. Therefore he said aloud, "You can't rule with a sword alone. But until the Golden Age returns, you can't rule without a sword either. I'm very fortunate in having an ancestor who was the greatest warrior of…."

            He paused again for thought. Carus grinned, and Garric's grin echoed the ghost's. "The greatest warrior ever, I think," he said aloud.

            "It does seem," said Liane, closing the book, "that there's more peace if everyone's convinced that Prince Garric and the royal army will destroy anybody who breaks that peace."

            She reached down for the portable desk in which she kept current files but straightened again without touching it; the details of government could wait for the time being. "That's particularly true of the Coerli. I'm frankly amazed that the integration of them into the kingdom has been so smooth."

            "The Coerli aren't comfortable unless they're in a hierarchy, but once they've got one they'll live with it even if they're not on top," Garric said, smiling faintly. "There's a lot of human beings the same way. Just about every professional soldier in this army, for example."

            Liane set Pendill down, though she didn't open the travelling desk to put the book away properly. "I'm still glad it worked this way," she said. "If it hadn't, we would've had to wipe the Coerli out."

            She stepped into the arbor and settled beside Garric. It was a muggy day, but her soft warmth was welcome.

            "You said something about a sea serpent in the south?" Garric said. It disturbed him to realize that he couldn't completely relax any more, not when there was still work to be done. There was always work for a prince to do….

            "In Telut," Liane said. She would've risen to get the report covering the matter from her desk; Garric tightened his arm slightly to keep her where she was; she relaxed against him again.

            Liane used her notebooks as props, but she normally didn't bother to open them while discussing the matters they contained. Though the archives of the kingdom's intelligence service were well indexed and staffed by skilled clerks, Liane really ran it out of her head.

            Her father had been, among other things, a successful merchant. She'd used his contacts and business training to weave a web of spies through the Isles. That was now as necessary as the royal army, but it worked only because Liane, demure and cultured and beautiful, sat like a spider at its center.

            "Refugees from the city of Ombis on Telut," she said slowly, wriggling against him. "Said an army, an armed rabble under a chief calling himself Captain Archas, summoned the city to surrender. They closed the gates."

            Garric gently rubbed the back of Liane's neck, massaging the sudden tension from it. Her voice softer again, she continued, "Two of the refugees swore they saw Archas call a huge serpent out of the sea. But Ombis hasn't been within ten miles of the coast since the Change."

            "What do your own agents say?" Garric said, more to show he'd been listening than because he didn't think Liane would get to that question on her own.

            "They haven't reported," she said. "A Serian who crossed the Seaway says that Ombis was completely destroyed, however."

            "We'll take care of it," Garric said calmly. He'd learned in childhood that keeping his tone calm was more important than what you said. That insight was even more valuable when dealing with humans than it had been with sheep. "I don't know how yet but we will, whether it's real or a hallucination. We have Tenoctris and the army and anything else it might take. We have the whole kingdom's resources. Evil won't win."

            "No, Garric," Liane whispered. "It won't."

            After a moment she said, "When we were studying Old Kingdom epics at Mistress Gudea's Academy, I thought they were terribly boring. I didn't want to read about adventure, I wanted to be off with my father visiting distant places and sailing even beyond the Isles themselves. Now… sometimes I think I'd like to be a scholar and never see anything wonderful except after it'd been written down in a book."

            "You wouldn't like it, dear," Garric said.

            "For a little while, I think I might like it," Liane said, smiling. "But it doesn't matter. I'm glad I can be useful to the kingdom, and to you."

            A discussion, low-voiced but heated, broke out on the third-story terrace. The outside staircase there was the only way up to the roof garden, and the platoon of Blood Eagles on guard was making certain that Prince Garric wasn't disturbed until he told them different.

            "That fellow arguing," King Carus said with the grin of a man who'd learned to find humor in places that civilians generally didn't, "is going to be lucky if he doesn't wind up back in the street without needing to take the stairs."

            "Starshine!" an unfamiliar voice shouted. "Starshine!"

            Liane jumped to her feet. "Garric, he's one of mine! I'm sorry, I have to see him!"

            It was good that she'd moved, because otherwise Garric would've flung her aside on his way to the parapet of plaster over wickerwork. A man wearing a light cloak struggled in the arms of two Blood Eagles. He'd lost his broad leather hat, and the disarranged cloak let the bloodstain on his dull blue tunic show.

            "Send him up!" Garric called to the guards. He was already belting on the sword that he'd leaned against a pot holding a forsythia. Liane had unlatched her travelling desk and was setting it up.

            "You got a good one there, lad," Carus said. "She'll have to change her emergency password now, though."