THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 19:



            Sharina returned her brother's wry smile as she walked back to her chair. One of the problems with being the ruler was that you had to remain calm and sensible while people around you ran in circles and shouted that the sky was falling.


            The sky might very well be falling this time, but it might not–and regardless, running in circles wasn't going to improve the situation. You learned that when your family owned an inn, or owned a farm, or for that matter owned nothing at all like Cashel and Ilna. The only people who could afford not to learn it were those who knew somebody else would take care of them and their problems.


            "Somebody else" in this case was Prince Garric, helped by the circle of those closest to him. Given that the threat to the kingdom was unquestionably real, Sharina was glad to be one of those helpers instead of another frightened twitterer.


            "If you'll all be quiet for a moment, please!" said Garric as Sharina sat down again. He'd learned to call from one hilltop to another while pasturing sheep. In an enclosed room, even a big room like this, he could rattle the roof tiles when he was on his mettle. The present shout wasn't quite that loud, but it got everyone's attention. They rustled to silence.


            "Cashel?" Garric went on, now in a normal tone of voice, "you've helped Tenoctris many times. How's she doing now?"


            There were stone benches built into the sidewalls. None of the aides had been sitting on them, of course, not in the presence of the prince and princess, but one made a fine bed for Tenoctris while she was recovering. They'd laid a mattress of military cloaks, with Sharina's own half-cape rolled as a pillow. Sharina didn't know how the soldiers felt about it, but in so full a room she was more comfortable without the additional weight of heavy brocade on her shoulders.


            "She'll be fine," Cashel said, planted like a pillar in front of the sleeping wizard. His staff was crossways in front of him, not threatening anybody but making sure nobody accidentally backed close enough to disturb his elderly friend. "All she needs is a bit of time, you know. To get over her tired."


            "All right, we'll hope that Lady Tenoctris recovers quickly," Garric said. He gave the room a lopsided smile. His fingers were interwoven on the table. From where she sat directly across from her brother, Sharina saw them mottle briefly with strain.


            "What we won't do," Garric continued with a hint of grimness, "is to press her beyond her capacity. We need her. Indeed, the kingdom needs Tenoctris more than it needs all the rest of us in this room. Does everyone understand that?"


            There were a few mutters, but for the most part people let their silence stand for agreement. Nobody was going to badger Tenoctris when Cashel kept watch, but there was always a chance that somebody with more zeal than judgment would push into her quarters or lie in wait for her when she left them. Tenoctris had better get a full-time detachment of Blood Eagles, a practice that Attaper'd dropped when the regiment's numbers had become straitened and the need for guards had if anything increased.


            Sharina smiled, but she didn't let the expression reach her lips. Not long ago she'd have feared Lord Zettin might have a scheme that he'd advance to Tenoctris beyond what others would've considered the bounds of courtesy and protocol. After this morning's rebuke, danger from his quarter had receded considerably.


            "Now," Garric went on, "did anybody recognize the place Tenoctris showed us? Is it Shengy?"


            Liane bent and whispered in his ear. With a rare flash of irritation, Garric said, "Duzi, Lady Liane! Say it to the group, if you please."


            "There are volcanoes along the highlands of Shengy," Liane said, her voice cool and firm. She'd opened a book whose narrow pages were slats of bamboo, though she didn't look at it as she spoke. "Before the Change the whole island was covered with heavy jungle, however."


            "Your highness, if that scene was Shengy, then there's nothing we can do anyway, is there?" said Lord Hauk, born a commoner but ennobled by Garric for his ability. "Even if we could find enough horses and oxen to transport an army travelling by land, the draft animals would consume all the fodder they could carry before they'd gone a fraction of the distance."


            "Well, the troops can forage for themselves in an emergency like this, surely," said Chancellor Royhas. "I don't mean looting. The treasury can supply silver or if necessary issue scrip for the troops to buy food with."


            "Can they, milord?" said Lord Tadai in a bland voice. "We don't have any idea what the terrain between here and Shengy is like. It may well be jungle–or desert."


            Tadai and Royhas were rivals if not precisely enemies. Royhas had gained the initial advantage and forced Tadai out of the administration over a year ago, but as a result Tadai had been available to join the army as Garric's chief civilian administrator. He'd spent quite a lot of time in close company with the prince, and it was obvious that he hoped to parlay that association into an advantage over the Chancellor.


            "We have reports for the region a hundred miles south of Valles," said Master Baumo, a senior clerk in the tax office. "Preliminary reports that is, and I must admit that these were surveys at three or four points only, not real coverage of the area."


            He licked his lips and scowled at the blotched parchment in his hands. It was a palimpsest, a sheet being reused after the original writing had been scraped off with a pumice stone. Apparently it hadn't been erased as well as Baumo now wished.


            "Still, the reports suggest small-holdings, scattered villages, and quite a good supply of timber for shipbuilding," he finally continued.


            "What bloody use is shipbuilding to us now!" Lord Zettin shouted. "By the Lady, man, use your–"


            He caught himself and closed his mouth. Sharina glanced sidelong at the former admiral; his face was pale and his eyes were fixed on the far wall. He must've been aware that she–as well as everybody else in the room–was watching him, but only the jump of a muscle below his right eye proved that he wasn't a statue.


            "If what we just saw was a real scene and not a, an allegory…," Garric said quietly. "Which we won't know until Tenoctris is able to discuss the matter, of course. But if it was real and the Last are present in the numbers we saw, then they badly outnumber the whole royal army. Even if we could take the army to where the Last are appearing, in Shengy or wherever."


            "Well, they can't get to us either then, can they?" said Lord Holhann, the commander of the Valles garrison, in a harsh voice. He'd been frightened by the wizardry and he was letting out that fear in the form of anger. "Let'em have Shengy! It was never part of the kingdom except maybe in name. If we can't reach them, then they can't reach us either."


            Sharina glanced back to see if Cashel would speak. Seated as she was, she couldn't see him for the lesser functionaries standing in the way; and anyway, she knew Cashel wasn't the person to volunteer that sort of information to a group of educated people.


            "What Lady Tenoctris said last night…," Sharina said. There was no point in explaining that Tenoctris had spoken to Cashel and he'd passed the information on to her. "Is that the Last don't need food in the sense we do. They won't be stopped by the lack of supplies along the route from Shengy to the north and western isles, what's now the settled rim of the continent. Though the sheer distance will delay them, of course."


            Half a dozen people began speaking, none to any point Sharina could make out. The door at the end of the room opened. Nobody seemed to notice except Sharina, who caught movement at the right corner of her eye and turned to focus on it.


            A figure the height of an adolescent boy stepped between the pair of Blood Eagles in the doorway. Sharina blinked. The guards were shoulder to shoulder; there wasn't space to walk or even to slide a napkin between them.


            At first glimpse the figure seemed to be wearing a shirt and breeches of goatskin, but that was his own hide: he was a brown-furred aegipan, with hooves instead of feet and two tiny black horn buds peaking up from the tousled hair on his head. He carried a sheathed sword.


            "Hey!" shouted Lord Attaper, shoving himself between Garric and the creature. "Keep him away from his highness!"


            "I am Shin," said the aegipan in a musical tenor. "I am the emissary of the Yellow King."


            One of the Blood Eagles tried to grab Shin from behind. The aegipan moved slightly, and the guard's hands closed on air. The other man drew his sword and cocked it back for a slash that would cut Shin in half.


            Sharina had sprung to her feet. Even before her chair could topple to the floor, she seized the guard's sword arm.


            "Wait!" she cried. "Didn't you hear? He said he's from the Yellow King!"




            "The Yellow King's a children's story, a myth!" Attaper protested, his sword bare.


            Sharina let go of the man she'd grabbed, but she continued to face the guards with her hands on her hips. They'd sooner have charged a phalanx of pikes than defied her.


            "Gently, milord," Garric said, touching the back of Attaper's right hand to prevent an accident which the commander would deeply regret afterward. "So are aegipans, you know, but that doesn't prevent this one from seeming to be real."


            He stepped past, which Attaper probably wouldn't have allowed if he hadn't been so taken aback by what was happening. There were guards outside the door who should've prevented any intrusion, let alone an intruder carrying a sword into the presence of Prince Garric….


            "Panchant's History of All Nature claims that aegipans inhabit the mountains of the Western Continent," Liane said primly. She was close to Garric, moving so perfectly in step with him that he'd been aware of her only as a blur since his vision was tightly focused on the aegipan. "Of course, there's no reputable evidence of a Western Continent and many geographers deny that one exists."


            The aegipan–Shin–was grinning. Seen face-on he looked almost human, but when he turned to dart glances around the hall, his long-jawed profile was that of a beast.


            "The Yellow King has awakened," he said. His voice seemed very full to come from so small a chest; but then, a bullfrog was louder still and a great deal smaller. "He's sent me with an offer to save the men of this day–if you have a true champion among you."


            "Your highness," Attaper said, "please don't stand so close to the creature, not while he's got the sword." Harshly he added to Shin, "You then, give me the sword. No one but the prince's bodyguards go armed in his presence!"


            "Take it and welcome, Lord Attaper," Shin replied, holding the sword hilt-first toward him. His tongue lolled out. Garric couldn't judge from the aegipan's unfamiliar face as to whether there was as much mockery in his expression as there would've been in a man doing the same thing. "I have no business with arms. I'm only a messenger."


            Attaper snatched the sword away. A belt of heavy black leather was wrapped around the scabbard, but there wasn't a dagger or other equipment to balance the blade's weight on the wearer's right side. Though the grip was as rough as shagreen, to Garric's glance it seemed to be of the same dark gray metal as the cross guard and ball hilt.


            "What sort of champion?" Sharina asked. Garric was amused at the way his sister's clear tones cut through the babble. It's as bad as the inn's common room during the Sheep Fair, though the accents here are more cultured. "Do you mean a soldier?"


            The Yellow King whom Rigal and other poets of the Old Kingdom described was certainly a myth. During the Yellow King's blessed reign, men and women ate fruits that sprang from the soil without planting. There was no winter or blistering summer, only balmy days that mixed spring with early fall; all was peaceful and golden.


            At the end of ten thousand years the Yellow King had departed, promising to return when mankind needed his help again. Before he left, he taught agriculture and writing that men might continue to exist and to record the Yellow King's great deeds. From then till this day, the lot of mankind has been ever harsher, ever more miserable, and men would not be saved from that decline until the Yellow King returned.


            So much was myth; Garric knew that as clearly as Attaper did. But there had been a government of men before the first recorded government. There were legends about the Yellow King on every island of the archipelago, even among the Serians and the swarthy folk of Shengy whose languages were nothing like those of the remainder of the Isles.


            Perhaps those who'd ruled in the days before the climate changed had all called themselves the Yellow King; the confusion of title might've concealed the details  of their succession. The geographer Stane had thought so. As for Garric personally, it seemed to him that Stane or others with other guesses might be right. Certainly some truth underlay a universal pattern of belief.


            Besides, Garric wanted to believe; and if every word of Rigal's myth was true and the Yellow King would return to save mankind in its greatest crisis–so much the better. He'd listen to Shin and hope.