THE GODS RETURN – snippet 8:





            When they realized how bad the agent's condition was, Garric went down to the terrace and sent a Blood Eagle off to fetch a surgeon. By the time he returned to the roof, Liane had settled the man on the bench with his head and torso lifted. She was bathing the wound with wine from the carafe set to cool in a water pot, dark with evaporation through the coarse earthenware.

            "His name's Aberus," she said quietly. "He's from District Three, the south."

            "Palomir," Aberus muttered. His eyes were closed. When Garric looked closely he could see the fellow was in his mid-20s, but he seemed thirty years older from any distance.

            "That's the pain," Carus said with the dispassionate precision of a man who'd been in pain many times and who'd learned to function no matter how bad it was. "He'll lose the arm, I shouldn't wonder."

            "The Empire of Palomir, they call it," Aberus said, his voice stronger though he kept his eyes closed. "But Palomir's a ruin. There's acres and acres of crystal buildings, but they're falling to pieces and there aren't many people left. A few hundred. There's tenements in Erdin with more people than the whole city has."

            The carafe had been wrapped in  napkins. Liane had used one to mop the wound; now she pulled the other out of the throat of the carafe and squeezed wine from the cloth into the corner of the agent's upturned mouth. He slurped greedily.

            "Bless you, milady," he said. "Oh, may the Lady bless you."

            His breath caught. "Those bloody rats," he squealed. "Oh, by the Lady. But I got away. I got away, didn't I?"

            "You're safe in Pandah, Aberus," Liane said. "Tell us about Palomir. Tell us what happened to you."

            "They were praying in the main temple every night, all the citizens of Palomir," Aberus said. He spoke in a light, quick patter like a moth's wings beating against the inside of a lamp chimney. "And I thought, nothing surprising, lots of people praying since the Change, you know. And they didn't let strangers into the ceremonies, but I never spent a farthing on incense for the gods anyhow, what do I care about what they do in the temple? And I was coming back to report, only… only…."

            He paused, breathing deeply. His face had gone pale under the tan; the resulting color was dirty yellow like that of a cheese rind. Liane sponged more wine between his lips. His throat worked spasmodically, then managed to swallow.

            "I was coming back," Aberus said, "but I thought instead of coming straight back to Pandah, I'd see if the road was open to Cordin. I used to know a girl in Ragos and she'd married, you know, but that was before. A lot could've happened, and anyway…. So I went out the west road, and I went out at night while they were all at the temple because they said there were monsters in the jungle west of the city and they wouldn't let anybody go that way for their own safety."

            Feet banged up the wooden steps from the terrace. A Blood Eagle peeked over the parapet and said with a worried expression, "Your highness, there's a doctor here. Do you want…?"

            "Yes, by the Shepherd, send him up!" Garric said. Everybody was afraid of offending Prince Garric by doing the wrong thing. They constantly asked for his approval instead of simply doing what he'd said to do in the first place.

            He couldn't remember a single epic in which the king or city-founding hero had that problem. Maybe I should retire and write an epic of my own in seclusion….

            The thought was so close to what Liane had said a moment ago that Garric barked a laugh. Neither of them were going to retire while the kingdom needed them, though; or anyway, needed somebody to do the jobs they were doing well at present.

            "I kept off the main road for the first half mile or so," Aberus said. He hadn't opened his eyes since he collapsed on the bench. "I cut through the orchards mostly. I thought there might be guard posts, but there wasn't any so I got back on the road. Funny not to have guards if they were really worried about monsters in the jungle, but I hadn't believed about the monsters anyway."

            Daciano, the staff surgeon of the Blood Eagles, entered the garden with his pair of young female assistants. "Are you all right, your highness?" he asked.

            "This is the man you were called for," said Garric peevishly. He gestured toward Aberus, though the surgeon should've been able to see the fellow's condition already.

            "And I'll get to him," Daciano said, smiling pleasantly at Garric as he stepped into the arbor, "now that I know your highness is all right."

            The ghost of Carus chuckled. "He's gotten more from serving with the Blood Eagles than just experience stitching up holes in people," he said.

            That was quite true. Lord Attaper commanded the bodyguard regiment. He'd made it clear to his troops that if they kept safe the people they were guarding, he'd stand between them and anybody who complained about the way they went about their job–most certainly including Prince Garric himself.

            The Blood Eagles' rigid priorities frequently exasperated Garric, but he'd finally decided that a real craftsman was always going to put his task first. He couldn't very well object to that when he was pretty much the same way himself.

            "I wasn't far along the road before I heard a lot of people coming the other way," Aberus said. Daciano had eased Liane aside, but he knelt to look at the agent before touching him. "I thought people, anyhow. Only some of them were, but I didn't know that. So I got off the road again and watched."

            Daciano murmured to his assistants. One began to dab the wound with a sponge soaked in sour wine, while the other handed the surgeon a pair of tweezers. They were bronze with silver inlays, and the knob at the end was a finely modeled sheep's head. Despite the tweezers' decoration, they were a fully functional instrument with which Daciano began to clear threads, vegetable debris, and clots of dried blood.

            Aberus whimpered deep in his throat, but then he resumed, "They came by, about a hundred of them. They didn't carry lanterns but there was a half-moon. Where trees didn't shade the road, I could see them clear. Mostly they were prisoners, neck-roped to poles by tens. They were all ages, grouped just by how tall they were because of the poles. Two coffles were kids but with a short woman in front to set the pace. Which was a shuffle, that's all it could be."

            Garric could see bone now that the cut was clear. Aberus was a brave man beyond question, but even so it seemed remarkable he hadn't screamed and fainted; perhaps there was more than vinegar in the assistant's sponge.

            "The guards were rats," Aberus said. "I couldn't mistake it, I was so close. I could smell them. I don't know why they didn't smell me; I could see their noses twitching, twitch twitch twitch all the time. Maybe because of the prisoners. There were plenty humans around. They were rats, only they were as tall as men. Tall as women anyway, and they had swords."

            Daciano began trimming the edges of the wound with a pair of shears. Like the tweezers, they were bronze instead of steel. The assistant with the satchel of tools held another pair ready, and a third was laid out with a range of scalpels and probes on the leather pad at her side.

            "Alongside there was a man who wasn't tied," Aberus said. "He was riding, but he was on an ox instead of a horse or mule. Slow as the prisoners could go, it didn't matter; an ox was fast enough to keep up. A sheep could've kept–oh!"

            The surgeon growled at the woman with the sponge; she immediately reversed it and squeezed so that fluid dripped along the blade of the shears. When Daciano resumed his careful cutting, the assistant traded the sponge she'd been using for another of those soaking in a shallow bowl.

            "I knew the fellow, I'd talked to him when I arrived," Aberus said. His voice was thin; he wasn't whispering, but he didn't have enough breath to give power to the words. "He was a junior priest named Salmson. The high priest was Nivers, but him I only saw on a balcony of his palace. It was all falling to pieces and he didn't seem in much better shape. And Salmson was talking to the prisoners. He had a skin of wine with him, and I think he'd drunk a lot from it already."

            Daciano set down his shears and took the needle his assistant held out in her left hand. It was strung with a glistening strand of gut. The wound looked horrible, worse than it would've done when it was curtained by a wash of blood.

            "Salmson was shouting, 'The gods have returned,'" Aberus said. "I told you, he sounded drunk. He said, 'You are honored to be among the first subjects of Franca and his siblings Fallin and Hili. You will help prepare the way for them to rule the whole world. Praise Franca whom your blood serves!'"

            The surgeon began sewing, starting deep in the muscle instead of at the lips. The assistant continued to dab with her sponge, but now she held a linen cord ready to place where it could drain the wound.

            "The prisoners didn't seem to be listening," Aberus said. "They were walking dead; I don't know how far they'd come already. They're really dead now, I suppose. Well, everybody dies, don't we, Lady?"

            Garric wasn't sure whether the agent was praying or speaking to Liane. Of course he might be delirious and think that Liane was the Lady. It didn't prevent him from reporting, however.

            "One of them saw me," Aberus said. "Or scented me, maybe it was that finally. It squealed just like a rat and jumped. I wasn't expecting it but I was ready, I'm always ready. I put my dagger through its throat and ran, but others came after me. I don't know how many, but there were two more I killed; maybe the rest turned back. They cut me, I couldn't help that, but I kept on going. All the way here, I kept going. All the way."

            Daciano was on the upper layer of stitches now, closing the wound. Aberus' forehead was beaded with sweat, but he didn't flinch from the needle. The surgeon was impassive, but his assistants' faces were warm with compassion.

            "Franca and His siblings will rule the world!" the agent shouted. Was he quoting or had he come to believe that himself?

            "I'm calling an immediate council meeting," Garric said to Liane. "I'll need you."

            "Of course," she said. To Daciano she added, "Do whatever's possible for him, regardless of cost. I'll pay for it."

            "No," said Garric. He took the handle of the travelling desk in his left hand rather than leave it for Liane to carry. "The kingdom will pay."

            "The Gods of Palomir rule all!" Aberus cried.

            "Not while I live!" muttered Garric, stepping onto the staircase.

            Which of course didn't, he knew, mean that it wouldn't happen.