THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 16:



Sharina'd managed to sleep in the carriage during much of her return from West Sesile, but she jerked awake when the iron tires began hammering on the bricks of the Main North Road running along the front of the palace compound. She rubbed her eyes. She hadn't slept well, but any sleep at all was a luxury nowadays.


            She smiled. She didn't think she'd had what she'd call a good night's sleep since the Change. There was simply too much for Princess Sharina to do.


            And not just Princess Sharina. Mistress Masmon in the opposite corner looked up when she saw Sharina awaken. Masmon had been annotating a parchment codex by the light of a candle sconce in the side of the compartment. She was using a small brass pen which she refilled by dipping into the ink horn dangling from the stud of her travelling cloak.


            Sometimes when the pressure of work seemed unbearable, it helped Sharina to remember that others were feeling the same pressure and nonetheless continuing to do their jobs. All the people who really understood that the struggle was between Good and Evil and that Good must win if mankind were to survive–all of them were working as hard as humans could, and maybe a little harder yet.


            Sharina smiled at Masmon in sudden sympathy. The clerk blinked in surprise, then managed a wan smile in reply. She closed her pen, capped and removed the ink horn, and was placing them and the book in a carrying case when the carriage pulled up at the palace gates.


            The barred gates squealed open, but a discussion between the guards on the carriage and people in the roadway continued. Sharina couldn't catch the words–partly because she was still logy with sleep and lack of sleep both–so she opened the window shutter and stuck her head out to see what was happening.


            Admiral Zettin stood in the gateway, his left hand gripping the headstall of the lead horse while he argued with the under-captain in command of carriage guards. When Zettin saw Sharina, he let go of the horse and strode back to the box, calling, "Your highness? May I ride to your quarters with you? There's a problem that I really need to discuss–"


            "Yes, yes, of course," Sharina said, her heart sinking into a pit of shadows. She was so tired. The only thing on her mind had been having her maid help her undress–you simply couldn't get into or out of court robes by yourself–and getting into bed to sleep. Lord Zettin had been waiting at the palace entrance because he knew she'd have to pass here eventually and he didn't want to leave his problem for the morning.


            Zettin opened the carriage door. He lifted himself onto the mounting step but paused with a frown when he saw Mistress Masmon.


            "That's all right," said the clerk, snuffing the candle between her thumb and forefinger. "I'm getting out."


            Sharina started to protest, then realized that she didn't know where Mistress Masmon's precise destination within the compound wall was; it might well be one of the buildings near the entrance. Regardless, the clerk would feel uncomfortable if the princess forced her to remain: and since Zettin obviously wouldn't discuss his business in front of an underling, the result of the whole exercise would be to keep Sharina awake that much longer.


            Sharina leaned out the door by which the clerk had just left. "One of you men help Mistress Masmon with her case!" she called to the guards. "Yes, I mean you! The gate can do with one fewer man for the time it takes."


            She sat down again. Zettin settled onto the opposite crossbench as the driver clucked the horses on. Leaning toward her, he said, "It's Pandah, your highness. There's a serious problem there, one that I think has to take precedence over integrating the Coerli into the kingdom."


            Sharina looked at Zettin in puzzlement. Moonlight through the slatted shutters flicked across his face as the carriage rolled forward, hiding more than it revealed.


            "I've stayed on Pandah," she said, trying to make sense of Zettin's words. "Pandah isn't a danger."


            It's a sleepy island smelling faintly of spices, and even the breeze is mild.


            Pandah was the only major island in the middle of the Inner Sea. Besides providing water and locally-raised provisions for vessels crossing the sea, it was a place where regional cargoes could be sorted for shipping to their final destinations by local traders. The people there, from the king on down, were wealthy and focused on living well rather than getting involved in military adventures.


            "Yes, your highness," Zettin said, probably more harshly than he'd intended. They were all tired and becoming snappish. "That was indeed the case before the Change, but it no longer is. In the years immediately following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, Pandah was a nest of pirates. That seems to be the case now, but the situation is rather worse because the human outlaws are making common cause with catmen who refuse to become part of the kingdom."


            Sharina frowned. "How are they doing that?" she asked. "Can they talk to the Coerli? I don't see…."


            Zettin shrugged. "They manage somehow, I gather," he said with a black scowl. "The catmen're mostly young males, warriors that is, from keeps which surrendered to the army. They and the pirates they're joining aren't very different in attitude."


            He turned his head away, though inside the slowly rumbling carriage he couldn't have been able to see Sharina's face any more clearly than she could see his. "From what those who've fled the area tell us," Zettin said with a careful lack of emotion, "they've taken up eating men. The humans have, that is. If you want to call them human."


            Lord Zettin had been an officer of the Blood Eagles and a protégé of Lord Attaper. When Garric had restored the fleet as the only means of enforcing royal authority over the Kingdom of the Isles, Zettin had become its commander–in part because traditional army officers led by Lord Waldron had considered the fleet command beneath them. Now that the fleet had little value to a continental kingdom, Garric had appointed the former Admiral as chief military aide to Sharina who ran the civil administration while he was absent with the army.


            "Ah," Sharina said, realizing now why Zettin had been so insistent on bringing the business to her immediately instead of waiting for the morning. "That's something we'll need to deal with promptly, yes. But milord, I'm afraid my brother will make the decision as to precisely how that will happen. This is a strictly military matter, and I keep out of those except in an immediate crisis."


            "But your highness–"


            "Milord!" Sharina said. "Garric–Prince Garric–should return the day after tomorrow at the latest. I'll send the information to him at once, but I will not take the decision out of his hands."


            "Yes, of course, your highness," Zettin said tiredly. "I see that this is… a proper way to proceed. But…."


            He let his voice trail away as the carriage halted. Sharina peered through the slats, then opened her door before one of the guards acting as footmen hopped down to get it. They'd drawn up in front of the bungalow which Sharina used as her private quarters, one of scores of separate structures within the palace compound.


            When Garric became regent and the first strong leader the kingdom'd had for over a generation, half the buildings within the walls had been empty and dilapidated. Valles was again the administrative capital of a thriving kingdom, so reconstruction of the palace had necessarily kept pace with the need for office space. What would happen now that Valles was far inland–well, that was a problem for another day if not a distant day.


            "Milord…," Sharina said. Zettin's door jerked open, and a Blood Eagle took hers as well. "The situation you describe at Pandah is not only evil but disgusting. Nevertheless it may not be in my brother's opinion the most serious threat the kingdom faces at this moment, nor the best use of the army. You and I and my brother will all put our personal feelings aside and work for the kingdom's greatest good–as we've been doing."


            She got down from the carriage. She hadn't told Zettin anything he didn't already known. He was a smart man, very possibly the cleverest of the high officers in the royal army, but he'd chosen to waste her time in this fashion because he was angry and appalled on a personal basis. There wasn't any time for personal feelings!


            Zettin walked around the back of the vehicle–to take his leave formally, she hoped, because the interview was closed. The door of her bungalow opened. Sharina looked from the officer to what she assumed would be the maid, her only servant, who'd stayed awake for her–


            "Cashel!" she said. He stood solid as an oak in the light of the porch lantern, smiling a greeting. She'd been wrong about there not being time for personal feelings.


            Sharina trotted forward as quickly as the robes permitted; they weren't tight, but they were so long and heavy that they were likely to wrap around her ankles and trip her if she weren't careful. Cashel strode down the steps to gather her in. He lifted her soul as well in a sudden flood of safety and contentment.


            "Tenoctris is lying down inside," Cashel said. "She had to do some hard things. And there's a thing you need to see."


            Raising his head slightly, he said to Zettin, "Sir? You'd better come look at it too. Whatever it is, it's something for soldiers to know about."


            "Yes," said Sharina, squeezing Cashel once more before releasing him. She didn't know what the problem was yet, but she knew that neither Cashel nor Tenoctris overstated dangers. Over her shoulder as she mounted the steps she said, "Lord Zettin? Will you call a courier from the duty room in the next building? It sounds like we'll need to summon Prince Garric."


            "I've already done that, Sharina," said Tenoctris, standing to the side in the doorway. "The officer in charge there thought Garric should be able to get back by mid-morning if all goes well."


            "Fine," said Sharina, embracing the older woman lightly as they passed. It's good to have friends who'll make the right decisions before you need to. "Then we'll call a council meeting for the tenth hour. Now, let's see what you've got."


            It was good to be a person who made the right decisions herself, too. Even when she was really tired.