THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 6:
The band nearest Sharina's entourage was comprised of three slim, mustached men with recorders of different lengths and an ancient woman who played the marimba with demonic enthusiasm. The age-darkened bamboo wands with which she struck the tubes were no harder or more knotted than the fingers which held them.
Two women danced to the penetrating music, striking stylized poses with their arms raised high. One carried a buckler whose convex surface was highly polished, throwing back the lantern gleams and the distorted features of those watching; the other swung a wooden sword.
Though the sword wasn't a real weapon, Sharina's bodyguards–a squad of black-armored Blood Eagles–kept an eye on the dancer. They were men whose philosophy had no room for any gods save Duty and Suspicion.
"It's just that things are so different," said Kane. He nodded to the south. "Even the stars."
"Yes," said Sharina, "but men of good will can thrive despite the changes. We just have to stick together. Men and women and Coerli."
She grinned. The constellations were generally the same as what she was used to, but a bright white star stayed just above the southern horizon. It was disconcerting, particularly because it blazed in an otherwise family sky.
"We hear things," Kane said apologetically. "From travelers, you know. They say, well, that there's a lot of trouble. That it isn't safe. And there're monsters all about, catmen who're cannibals."
"There're catmen, Coerli," Sharina agreed. "We've brought a number of their keeps, their communities, into the kingdom already. It wasn't hard after they heard how easily we'd wiped out any band which tried to resist."
She didn't bother explaining to the burgess that a cannibal was an animal that ate its own kind. The Coerli were merely meat-eaters, much like men themselves; and since the Coerli weren't men, they made no distinction between men and mutton.
"And King Garric's reducing the catmen's only large city even as we speak," she added with another broad smile. "That's why he's not here."
Sharina knew she was shading the truth considerably; she'd have been here in place of her brother regardless. Princess Sharina's high rank impressed the citizens of West Sesile–or the Grain-Millers Guild, or the Respectful Delegation of the Parishioners of Lanzedac on Cordin. Princess Sharina met and listened to them, then handed them over to the regular officials who'd get to the meat of their business.
In this case and many others, there was no meat. People wanted to be told that they were important and that their sacrifices were appreciated by those who demanded those sacrifices. Sharina could do that very well while Garric directed the government.
Both jobs were absolutely necessary if the kingdom was to survive. There were rulers who treated citizens as machines which paid taxes, but they did so only at their peril.
"Praise the Lady to have brought us such a great king as your brother, Princess!" said the man with the staff of office. Even when he spoke with obvious enthusiasm, he managed to make the statement sound like a dirge.
"Praise the Lady," Sharina repeated, dipping slightly in a curtsey to honor the Queen of Heaven. She wasn't just mouthing the form of the words. Sharina hadn't been especially religious as a child, but when fate had catapulted her to her present eminence she'd immediately realized that the task was beyond human capabilities, hers or anybody else's. She could only hope–only pray–that the Great Gods did exist and that They were willing to help the kingdom and its defenders.
The dancer in the bear costume in the center of the square began to rotate slowly as he high-stepped through a figure-8; the crowd gave him room. How long had it been since there were bears on Ornifal? Much longer than the thousand years in Sharina's past when West Sesile had flourished, certainly.
"Your highness?" said one of the women who'd been standing behind the burgesses. She stepped forward, offering a pottery mug with hinged metal lid. "Won't you have some of our ale? I brewed it myself, this."
Kane turned with a look of anguished horror and cried, "Deza, you stupid cow! They drink wine in Valles, don't you know? Now the princess'll think we're rubes with no culture!"
"I drink beer, Master Kane," said Sharina, taking the mug from the stricken woman. It wasn't her place to interfere with the way couples behaved between themselves, but her tone was significantly cooler than it might've been if the Chief Burgess hadn't called his wife a cow. "I hope that doesn't make me an uncultured rube in your eyes?"
Sharina sipped as Kane's face slipped into a duplicate of what his wife's had been a moment before. Sharina'd been harsher than she'd intended; but she was tired too, and cow wasn't a word the burgess should've used.
"Very good, Mistress Deza," she said, though in truth the ale wasn't greatly to her taste. They didn't grow hops on Haft; Reise'd brewed bitters for his tap room with germander his wife Lora raised in her kitchen garden.
Sharina glanced at the sky again; the half moon was well risen, so she'd spent sufficient time here. She made a tiny gesture to Masmon.
As arranged, the aide took out a notebook with four leaves of thin-sliced elm wood. She tilted it to catch the light of the nearest lantern and said, "Your highness? I fear that we'll be late for your meeting with Chancellor Royhas if we don't start back shortly."
"Oh, goodness, your highness!" said Mistress Deza. "You mean you have work yet to do tonight?"
"I'm afraid I do, yes," Sharina said. She smiled, but the sudden rush of fatigue turned the expression into something unexpectedly sad. "Since my brother's with the army, things are… busy for those of us who're dealing with the civil side of government."
A third costumed figure had danced far enough into the square for Sharina to get a clear view of it. It was a long-faced, green-skinned giant whose arms would've dragged on the cobblestones if the stilt-walking man inside had let them hang. Instead he was moving the clawed hands with rods so that the creature seemed to snatch at revelers. Even presuming an element of caricature in the costume, Sharina wasn't sure what it was intended to be.
"Master Kane?" she said, gesturing. "Is that dancer a demon?"
"Not exactly, your highness," Kane said, clearly glad to answer a question that didn't involve ale. "It's an ogre, though some say ogres are the spawn of women who've lain with demons. The hero Sesir slew an ogre and a bear and a sea wolf to save the colony he led from Kanbesa. According to the Epic of the Foundings, that is. Have you read the epic, your highness?"
"Parts of it," Sharina said truthfully. But very small parts, because in her day the Epic of the Foundings was known only from fragments. None of the surviving portions had mentioned Sesir–or the island of Kanbesa, for that matter.
She handed the mug back to Deza; she'd emptied it. She'd been thirsty, and after the initial unfamiliarity the ale had gone down very smoothly.
"We really have to drive back to the palace now," Sharina said. She smiled at the Chief Burgess, then swept her gaze left and right to include all the officials and their wives. "It's been a pleasure to meet you and to convey the kingdom's appreciation."
As Sharina turned away to walk back to her coach, flanked by the Blood Eagles, a dancer raised her shield again in a wild sweep. For an instant Sharina thought she glimpsed a pale, languid man in its polished surface.
It must be a distorted reflection, of course.