THE GODS RETURN — snippet 31



THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 31



Chapter 7




Sharina drifted toward the dream temple like a leaf nearing a mill flume. She didn’t move swiftly, but she was locked into a certain course no matter what she wanted.


She was locked into certain doom.


"Sharina!" called the figure waiting for her on the black granite plaza. "It is time for you to bow to Lord Scorpion. Come and worship the greatest of gods, the only God!"


She tried to shout, "I will not!" but only a whisper came out.


"Worship!" the figure demanded. "Bow to Lord Scorpion willingly; but willing or not, you will bow. Worship!"


The force that gripped Sharina spun her lower, closer to the waiting figure. The Scorpion didn’t lower from the clouds this time, but Its presence permeated the world; it was immanent in all things.


"You have no power over me!" she said. Her voice was a whine of desperation.


The figure laughed triumphantly. "Lord Scorpion has power over all things, princess," it said. "Worship Lord Scorpion and rule this world at my side!"


"Who are you!" she shouted. She tried to reach the Pewle knife, but her arms didn’t move. Perhaps she wasn’t even wearing weapon; this was a dream.


But she knew it wasn’t only a dream.


"You may call me Black," the laughing figure said. When she’d completed another full circle, he would be able to raise a hand and touch her. "You will be my consort. Together we will rule this world in the name of Lord Scorpion, Who rules all!"


Sharina remembered tearing the dream apart to escape the night before, but her fingers wouldn’t close now. "Cashel," she said, but the name was so faint a whisper that even she couldn’t be sure that she’d spoken.


"Cashel is dead!" said Black. "Cashel will never return, he can never return!"


"Lady, protect Thy servant!" Sharina prayed with frozen lips.


"The Lady is dead!" said Black. "Lord Scorpion rules all. Worship Lord Scorpion!"


He was reaching toward her. He would grasp her wrist and pull her to him. She felt the grip of long fingers, tugging her from this world into –


Sharina jerked bolt upright in her own bed. The moon shone through the slats of the jalousies. By its light she saw a rat wearing pantaloons and a white vest, sitting upright on her pillow.


"Ordinarily I would have waited for you to awaken normally," the rat said in a conversational voice. "From the way you were thrashing about, though, I didn’t think you’d mind. My name is Burne, princess."


* * *


Gaur had cobblestone streets, which Ilna disliked intensely. The alleys to either side were so narrow that the three-story stone buildings overhung most of the pavement. Even here on the High Street, Ilna felt like she was walking up a canyon toward the gray limestone bluff lowering above the town.


She smiled slightly. She had walked up canyons, and into caves, when necessary. She didn’t like stone, true, but there was very little she did like. She’d deal with Gaur the way she dealt with everything else.


"Lady Brincisa," said an ironmonger standing in his doorway. He extended his little bow to Ilna as well.


The shopkeepers they’d met were deferential, though they also seemed rather cautious. People going the other way in the street mostly bowed to Brincisa, but a few turned their heads toward the wall till she was past.


"How do the people here support themselves?" asked Ingens, walking a pace behind the two women. "Gaur seems prosperous."


Did it? The townsfolk were well enough dressed, so Ilna supposed that was true. She shouldn’t let her dislike of a place color the facts.


"Rice farming and trade on the river," Brincisa said, apparently unconcerned by the question. "There was a special tax to pay for digging a canal after the river shifted its course during the Change."


She smiled with a kind of humor. "The town elders didn’t assess us," she went on, "but my husband and I chose to make a payment without being asked. The money was of no significance, and we prefer to be on good terms with our neighbors – so long as they remain respectful."


"Is your husband expecting our arrival?" Ilna said. She was knotting patterns as she walked, but out of courtesy she didn’t look at them. She too preferred to be on good – well, neutral, in her case – terms with those she had to deal with.


"My husband Hutton died three days ago, mistress," Brincisa said with a smile of cool amusement. "That’s part of why I need your help. But our discussion can wait till we’re at leisure in my workroom."


She paused and gestured to the house on her right. A servant in the familiar dark livery held open one panel of an ornate double door. It occurred to Ilna that she’d never heard Brincisa’s servants speak, though they were perfectly ordinary to look at. Perhaps they were just well trained.


She entered and started up the stairs of dark wood. The staircase beside this one led down from the door’s other panel toward a basement. Behind her Ingens said, "Mistress Brincisa? This house – how were you able to build it?"


Ilna looked over her shoulder. Brincisa, also looking back, was following Ilna up the stairs, but Ingens was still in the street staring at the building’s front.


"All the other houses are stone," he said, shifting his eyes to Brincisa on the staircase. "But yours is brick."


"My husband and I preferred brick," Brincisa said. "And not that it’s any of your business, we didn’t have it built here: we moved it from another place."


She paused. If her voice had been cool before, it was as stark as a winter storm when she continued, "Now – you may either come in or stay where you are, Master Ingens. What you may not do is trouble me again with your questions. Do you understand?"


"Mistress," Ingens murmured, lowering his head and keeping it down as he entered the house.


Brincisa turned to meet Ilna’s gaze. In the same cold tone she said, "Do you have anything to add, mistress?"


Ilna smiled faintly. "I prefer brick also," she said. "Not that that’s anyone else’s business."


Brincisa waited for a heartbeat, then chuckled. "Yes, mistress," she said. "We can help one another. My workroom is on the top level, so go on there if you will."


Ilna counted the floors absently with quick knots in her fabric, one and one and one and finally one more; the fingers of one hand, four. Not only was Brincisa’s house made of different material from the rest of Gaur, it was taller. The molded plaques set into the brickwork over windows were too ornate for Ilna’s taste, but she had to admit that they were tasteful.


Each floor had a central hall with doors set around it. There was only one door on the uppermost hallway, closed like the others. Ilna stopped beside it and waited for the others to join her. Brincisa touched the panel; an unseen latch clicked and the door swung open.


"Enter, mistress," she said. "And you may enter as well, Master Ingens; but remember your place."


The secretary nodded. His face was tight, but he successfully hid whichever emotions were affecting him.


Save for the hall and staircase, the upper floor was a single high room lighted through a ceiling covered with slats of mica; it cast a faintly bluish shimmer over everything. The walls were frescoed with a base color of fresh cream. Roundels of green and gold framed the doorway and alcoves – there were no windows – and sea creatures swam in the upper registers.


Ilna stopped just inside the door when she felt sand scrunch under the soles of her bare feet. She looked down. What she’d thought was a gray pavement was instead a thin layer of ground pumice, brushed over tightly fitting slabs of pale marble. She looked at Brincisa.


"For my art, mistress," Brincisa said. "So that the incantations don’t leave residues to interfere with later work. Don’t worry – the grit won’t follow you out of the room."


Ilna sniffed. "You’re wrong that they don’t leave traces," she said. "But it’s no matter to me."


Ingens followed the women inside; the door closed behind him, though it hadn’t been touched by anything Ilna saw. The secretary clasped his hands before him; he turned his head slowly to look around, but his body was as stiff and straight as if he’d been tied to a stake.


Brincisa’s earlier spells did leave signs despite the care with which the sand had been raked, but the fact Ilna could see a pattern remaining didn’t mean it was of significance even to the powers on which the universe turned. She’d really been slapping back at Brincisa for her assumption that Ilna was afraid to get her feet dirty. Brincisa obviously insulated herself from the realities of life even in this considerable town; she couldn’t possibly imagine the muck of a farming hamlet.


Which raised another question . . . .


"Mistress?" Ilna said. "You came here from another place, did you not?"


"I will not discuss the place we came from!" Brincisa said. She was noticeably angry, but Ilna thought she also heard fear. "That has nothing to do with anyone but me and Hutton, and now with me alone!"


"Yes," said Ilna, silently pleased to have gotten through the other woman’s reserve. "But the reason you came here concerns me, since I’m here as well. And -"


She smiled faintly to keep the next words from being a direct accusation.


"- I came here in a way that concerns me a great deal."


Brincisa made a sour face and nodded in apology. "Yes, of course," she said. "As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Ortran is a nexus of great power now, but the island of fisherman that existed in your former universe was just the reverse. It repelled the use of the arts. At the Change that, that vacuum so to speak, drew Gaur and its immediate surroundings into this present."


Ilna thought over what she’d just been told. She hadn’t noticed any difficulty in seeing off the troublesome fishermen, but she hadn’t knotted a very complicated pattern either. Regardless, Brincisa had answered her question in a direct, perfectly believable fashion.


"All right," she said. "What is it that you want from me?"


For the first time since she’d entered the room, Ilna took the time to look at its furnishings. A stuffed sea wolf hung from the ceiling, a young female no longer than an outstretched arm. Some of the beasts stretched as much as three double-paces from jaws filled with conical teeth to the tip of the flat, oar-like tail.


Not far from the lizard was a series of silver rings around a common center, each with a gold bead somewhere on the circle. Ilna must’ve frowned in question, for Brincisa said, "An orrery. You can adjust it to show the relative positions of all the bodies in the firmament."


Ilna didn’t know what "the firmament" was, let alone what "the bodies" were. She supposed it didn’t matter.


Brick pillars projecting into the room to support the roof. On the lower floors the alcoves were probably pierced for windows, but in this workroom the walls were solid; the spaces were filled with bookshelves and racks for scrolls.


On one end of the long room was an earthenware sarcophagus molded in the shape of a plump woman who smiled in painted idiocy. On the other was a skeleton upright in a wooden cabinet – Ilna couldn’t tell how it was fastened; it seemed to be standing normally – and a soapstone tub holding a corpse whose flesh lay brown and waxy over the bones.


The items were more impressive examples of the trappings of the charlatans who came through the borough periodically, their paraphernalia carried on the backs of wasted mules. Brincisa, whatever else she might be, was not a charlatan.


"My husband Hutton and I came to Gaur seventeen years ago," Brincisa said. "The town was very suitable for our researches, as you might expect. There’s a peculiarity in the laws of the community, however, which has created a difficulty for me."


As she spoke, she toyed with a silver athame. The reflections on the flats of its blade didn’t seem to show the room in which Ilna stood. "As I told you, my husband died three days ago."


Ilna nodded curtly. She expected there would be a point, and she’d learned that they wouldn’t reach that point any more quickly if she said, "Why do you imagine I care about the death of someone I’d never met?" or even some more polite form of words to the same effect.


"In expectation of his death, Hutton placed his most valuable tool of art in a casket which he bound to his breast with a single hair," Brincisa said. "He then walked out of the house and died in front of the municipal assembly building. Even I couldn’t prevent him from being buried with his casket."


She flung the athame at the stone floor. It rang musically away, its point bent. Ingens whimpered faintly.


"That was his," Brincisa said mildly.


She continued to smile, but the fury in her eyes was obvious to anyone. "My fellow townspeople fear me, as they should," she said. "But they are more afraid of violating their burial ordinances . . . and in that too they are wise. Nothing I could do or say would change their minds."


Ingens opened his mouth, then closed it again with a shocked expression. Ilna glanced at him, looked at Brincisa, and said, "Master Ingens, did you have a comment?"


Ingens licked his dry lips. His eyes shuttled quickly between the two women. He didn’t speak.


"Master Ingens," Ilna snapped, "your place is whatever I say it is! If you have something to say, say it!"


She glared at Brincisa. Brincisa bowed politely.


"If Master Hutton knew he was going to die," Ingens said in a perfectly normal voice, "why did he choose to do it in a public place, Mistress Brincisa?"


"To spite me, of course," Brincisa said with an undertone of fury. "All those who die in Gaur are immediately interred in the clothes they die in, in the cave on Blue Hill. That’s the bluff that you may have noticed at the head of High Street."


"Immediately?" Ilna said.


Brincisa shrugged. "Within four hours," she said. "Though I doubt that I could have untied the casket’s bindings regardless of how much time I had."


Her gaze focused on Ilna. "You can untie them, mistress," she said. "And in exchange, I’ll see to it that you and your companion -"


She nodded to Ingens.


"- reach your intended destination more quickly than you would’ve done had your vessel not been damaged in an earthquake."


"You want me to rob a grave for you," Ilna said.


Brincisa shrugged. "Yes," she said. "I’ll help – the entrance to the cave is always guarded, but I’ll put the whole town to sleep so that you aren’t inconvenienced. But you’ll go into the cave alone to remove the casket. After all -"


She smiled coldly.


"- you never met the man, so why should you care about him now that he’s dead? I assure you, mistress, you would not have liked him in life."


Ingens gestured with one finger to call silent attention to himself. Ilna nodded to him.


"I’m sure Mistress Ilna can untie this hair," the secretary said, "but I’m perfectly willing to go into this tomb and cut the casket free without worrying about the knot. Wouldn’t that be simpler?"


"Cutting this particular hair would not be simple, no, Master Ingens," Brincisa said with amusement. "Not though you used a sword of diamond. Untying the knot will not be simple either, but I think Mistress Ilna will find it possible."


Ilna shrugged. "It seems straightforward enough," she said. She felt her lips curl up in a kind of smile. "If it’s a bit of a test, well, I don’t mind a test."


"Then we’ll go to the tomb tonight," Brincisa said with satisfaction. "For now, I had dinner prepared against your arrival. You’ll have plenty of time to eat and prepare."


Ilna thought, but she said only, "Yes, I could use something to eat."


It wasn’t a surprise that Brincisa had known to prepare for Ilna’s arrival; but as the wizard had said, she and Ingens would reach Caraman more quickly this way. Ilna supposed it didn’t matter.




THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 32



Before the Change, the Kolla River had flowed from Haft into the Inner Sea no more than thirty miles south of Barca’s Hamlet, where Garric had lived for his first eighteen years. This was the first time he’d seen the Kolla, now a tributary of the North River. In the normal course of Garric’s life as an innkeeper, he might never have gone thirty miles from Barca’s Hamlet in any direction.


A similar thought must have occurred to Reise, standing beside him on the bank as they watched boatmen poling the grain barges downriver to the army. He gave Garric a twisted smile and said, "Everything has changed."


Reise plucked the sleeve of his silken inner tunic. "I’ve changed. But nothing has changed more than you have."


He cleared his throat; an ordinary man, not particularly impressive even now that he’d lost the stoop with which he’d stood all the years Garric was growing up. He said, "I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to say this, but I’m very proud of you, son."


Garric put his arm around his father’s shoulders, hugged him quickly, and stepped aside again. "I don’t know how I came to be . . . ," Garric said. "To be what I am now. But your teaching is the reason I’ve been able to handle it as well as I have."


"I didn’t teach you how to be king, Garric," Reise said, his smile even more lopsided than before. He was now Lord Reise, advisor to the Vicar of Haft – a hereditary nobleman whose only sign of ability lay in his willingness to do what his humbly born advisor said.


"And I certainly didn’t teach you how to be a good king," said the ghost of King Carus with a familiar chuckle. "Though I suppose you could have used me as a bad example."


"Let’s say that I have a number of advisors," Garric said. "One of the things I got from my father was the ability to tell good advice from bad."


A herd of sheep was being driven eastward along the opposite bank of the river. Garric estimated the size with quick professionalism, flashing tens with his fingers and counting them out loud: "Yain, tain, eddero . . . ."


He’d reached, " . . . eddero-dix, peddero-dix," before he completed the count: seven score sheep, and from two separate flocks. There were two rams, and the boys badgering the animals – rations on the hoof for the army – had their work cut out because of it.


Garric grimaced. "Duzi!" he said. "They’d have done better to leave one of the rams back in its district – or butcher it there, either one. If they had to combine the two herds to drive them, which I don’t see that they did."


"I’ll make inquiries, your highness," said Reise, jotting a memorandum to himself on a four-leaf notebook of waxed birchwood.


The company of Blood Eagles who’d escorted Garric were divided into sections standing ten double-paces to east and west. Troopers of the cavalry squadron that had swept ahead were watering from the river by troop. Tenoctris sat on a rock nearby. She seemed to be observing the sky, though Garric found the high, streaky clouds unremarkable.


Lord Reise’s camp was a village on a rise a quarter mile back from the river. The knoll had been wooded before the accompanying regiment had stockaded the encampment.


Reise followed Garric’s glance and said, "I brought a senior clerk from each department and from the twenty borough offices. I wanted to be ready to provide whatever information you need."


"Borough offices?" Garric said. He smiled and shook his head in amazement. "I didn’t know there were borough offices on Haft."


"There weren’t, your highness," said Reise. "But there are now. If you were wondering, Barca’s Hamlet lies in Coutzee’s Borough according to the last notation in the records in Carcosa. Your Vicar, Lord Worberg, has seen fit to change the name to Brick Inn Borough."


Garric laughed. "I wonder how Lord Worberg came up with that name?" he asked ironically.


The oldest building in Barca’s Hamlet was the mill, built like the seawall of hard sandstone at the height of the Old Kingdom. The inn that Reise had bought and renovated when he moved from Carcosa to Barca’s Hamlet was slightly more recent, dating from the years just before the Old Kingdom collapsed in blood and ruin. Uniquely for the east coast of Haft, the contractor had used brick. He’d fired them on the site, using workmen he brought in from Sandrakkan.


"I believe one of his advisors suggested it," Reise said with a deadpan expression. "I can look into the matter if you’d like, your highness."


Shifting to a quietly serious tone he added, "Lara has been managing the inn for the past year and a half. I’m told that she was very pleased when she heard the pronouncement."


"Ah," said Garric with a nod. So that he didn’t have to meet his father’s eyes, he turned toward the men whom regular soldiers were marshalling on the bank just upriver of where he stood. He said, "Those are the Haft militia?"


"The first influx of militia, yes," said Reise. "The call-up was very successful, my military officials tell me. All Haft is proud that for the first time in a thousand years, one of their own sons is on the throne of the Isles."


He coughed slightly into his hand and added, "Pardon, your highness. I of course meant the vicar’s military officials."


Carus observed the recruits through Garric’s eyes, though by now Garric himself had seen enough soldiers to come to the same conclusions. There were about three hundred all told, but they stood in many separate groups.


"They’re all volunteers, you know," Reise said.


"Yes," said Garric with a cold smile. "That’s fine so long as they don’t think they’ll be going home again till I release them."


A few men carried swords and had at least a helmet; often there was a bronze cuirass besides. Those were prominent farmers, men with several hundred acres who owned their own plows and draft animals instead of sharing them with neighbors or renting them as required. Each had a retinue of up to a half dozen of their farm workers. The retainers had either a spear or a bow, but only one wore a metal cap. A scattering of others had plaques of horn sewn onto a leather backing.


The remainder, at least two-thirds of the total, were smallholders, tenants, and herdsmen carrying whatever they thought might be a weapon. Garric saw flails, scythes, quarterstaffs, and wooden sickles with flints set on the inner edge to cut grain. More useful were the bows, though few of the archers had a full quiver of arrows, the slings, and the men who had proper spears.


"Duzi!" Garric muttered, more in horror than disgust. To Reise he said, "I’d originally planned to assign the militia to Lord Zettin, since they’re used to hard work and sleeping rough. I changed my mind, though, because they wouldn’t like working with the Coerli as they’d have to in the scout companies. But now that I see them . . . ."


"We can find javelins for a couple thousand, lad," Carus said. "Our farriers can knock points together from spare horseshoes if we need to, and there’s plenty of willow to make shafts. It’s not much, but needs must when the Sister drives."


"We still can’t trust them anywhere that matters," Garric said. He muttered, a better choice than having his father wonder why he was glaring at the militia in angry silence. "If they break, they’ll take real troops with them."


"Put them to guard the camp," Carus said, "and to carry the wounded back out of the line."


The ghost smiled broadly. "Lad, what did you expect?" he said. "They’re better than I expected, I’ll tell you that."


One of the recruits saw Garric watching. He took off his broad leather hat and waved it. "Halloo!" he called. "Prince Garric! Halloo!"


Two of the men standing closest grabbed the one calling by the arms, twisting him away and bending him over at the waist. A regular non-com rushed over and banged the fellow twice on the back, breaking the shaft of the javelin he’d used for the impromptu correction.


"That was Eyven!" Garric said in surprise. "From Northhill Farm. And Cobsen and Hiffer, aren’t they?"


"At least half the men in the borough enlisted as soon as the call went out," said Reise. Though muted, his tone was proud. Garric couldn’t be sure whether the pride was for the borough’s response or because his son had aroused that response. "No few of the girls as well. Though the girls seemed largely to be hoping that Prince Garric would be swept away by the charm of an unspoiled village girl after tiring of the haughty falseness of noblewomen."


Reise smiled. "They wouldn’t have put it in those words, of course," he added.


Garric looked at the volunteers again and shook his head in dismay. "Well," he said, "our supply lines are short enough that we won’t have a problem feeding them. And I guess at worst they can blunt the ratmen’s swords and make the real soldiers’ jobs that much easier."


"Son?" blurted Reise in amazement. His face sobered instantly. He murmured, "Your pardon please, your highness."


"I’m sorry, father," Garric said. He would’ve hugged him again, but Reise stepped back to forestall the gesture. "I . . . look, I’m used to . . . . I mean, these are the boys I grew up with. I don’t mean to sound as though I don’t care about them."


"You have duties, your highness," Reise said softly. "You have the whole kingdom to consider. If you didn’t think in terms of needs and resources, Barca’s Hamlet and everything else would’ve been destroyed long since."


"Yes, but I shouldn’t talk that way in front of you!" Garric said.
"The prince was talking in a perfectly appropriate fashion to Lord Reise, an official from the Haft bureaucracy," Reise said. "His highness isn’t the one who should apologize."


Garric reached out again. This time the older, smaller man stepped into his embrace.


"Are you going to see your mother?" Reise said as they eased apart again.


Garric felt his face harden. The grain barges were passing in a slow, constant rhythm. The Kolla was shallow here and the crews were poling to speed the slow current, walking bow to stern down the trackways on the sides of their vessels.


"Lara isn’t my mother though, is she?" he said. The harshness in his voice surprised him. "I’m the son of the Countess of Haft."


"By blood, yes," said Reise, also looking toward the barges. "Lara was the only mother you had growing up, though. And she remains my wife, though we live apart."


He cleared his throat. "I’m not a soldier," he said. "But Barca’s Hamlet seems to me to be well located to act as a base while you wait for Palomir to approach. While you wait for the rats."


"I’ll think about it," Garric said. In his mind he was a child again, hearing Lara hector him in shrill anger. She’d thought Sharina was of royal blood and that Garric was her own offspring – and therefore negligible.


"I’ll think about it, father."






About Eric Flint

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One Response to THE GODS RETURN — snippet 31

  1. lkan says:

    THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 32

    -does that mean the next one is 33?

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