of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Mmmmm... Thank you, Lameh. It's perfect," Merle sighed, lowering herself into the bath water. After living with the mus for nearly two years, Merle had thoroughly become accustomed to hot baths instead of chill river-water, and she now enjoyed it very much.
"You're welcome, my lady. Would you like your little boats, now?" Lameh asked, smiling and pointing to the little box Merle had brought in with her when she first arrived.
"Yes, please," Merle replied, grinning. Lameh, the bath attendant and one of Merle's mus-friends here at Castle W'mefa, smiled and lifted from the floor the little box Merle had brought with her into the bath house. The tub itself was taller than Merle's head, and she had to sit on the side reserved for mus-children, where there was a bench half-way down from the surface to the bottom of the tub. She couldn't sit on the 'adult' side, as the water would have been over her head - and that annoyed her at times. The tub was also so tall, she couldn't possibly climb in by herself - Lameh had to pick her up and lift her to the edge, as though she were a child. And, of course, that also meant Lameh had to pass her the model boats rather than Merle simply doing as an adult mus would do, leaning over the edge of the tub and just picking up the box themselves. Yes, it was sometimes quite frustrating to be a small person in a large world.
'Ah, but then there's my village,' Merle thought as Lameh carefully took each of the little boats Merle had made from the box and passed them to her. Merle smiled, remembering. Everything had been just her size in Byarl's house, and very comfortable. After a moment, Merle sighed. She and Xaa couldn't live in the mustie-village. He was, in essence, like W'mefa - a minor king of a fairly large area. Though he had few vassals now, he once had hundreds. And, as time passed, he would one day have hundreds of vassals again. He would have to live in the castle to rule his lands. And that meant Merle would be living there, with him.
Yet, there was another problem. Byarl had already told her that he intended for Merle to replace him as chief when the time came. To effectively rule her tribe as chief, she would have to live in the mustie village. And yet, she already had to live in the castle, with her intended mate, Xaa. Merle sighed briefly. There didn't seem to be any solution for the problem that came immediately to mind.
Finally, Merle forced a smile to her face, and put aside her worries for the moment. It wasn't the mustie way to dwell on problems that had no solution, and wouldn't even become a problem for many years yet. Byarl was Xaa's age - he could easily live another forty or fifty years, now that bears were no longer a problem the musties worried about. Perhaps, when the time came, a solution would have presented itself - or, perhaps a better candidate than herself would be born and grow up in the village. 'Why, a thousand and twenty-four things could happen by then,' Merle thought, and smiled as she turned her attention back to her boats.
Merle considered her latest models. Each had a little string attached to the keel, and she played with tugging on the string underwater while Lameh quietly scrubbed her back. If she pulled hard enough, she could pull the little boat down to where the water washed over the edges and ploop! It sank. Yet, because they were made of wood, they tended to stay near the surface of the water anyway, bobbing but water-logged. Merle had discovered that if she put weight into the boat, simulating the weight of sailors and cargo, it would sink to the bottom. Still, the why of this eluded her.
The mus believed the key was simply keeping the water out of the boat - but they didn't know the why of what made the boat float, either. They only knew that if you put too much weight in it, it would sink, and if the water was too rough and washed over the side, it would sink. Merle knew that tugging on the string on the bottom was the same as adding more weight - the effect was the same. She could also feel that the tendency of the boat to bob up when she tugged on it felt exactly the same as when one of her model airships was trying to rise into the sky while tethered to a string in her paw. Yet, what made the airship rise was different - hot air. Hot air went up, trying to rise to the sky - though why that was so she also didn't know. Meanwhile, there was no hot air with the boats. In fact, the air above the water was cooler than the bath water itself.
Merle pondered the situation, but an answer wasn't forthcoming. She knew, just as the mus did, that a stone and a block of wood that weighed the same behaved differently in water - the stone sank, the wood floated. The why of this also eluded her. Somehow, she knew that the difference between stone and wood lay at the heart of the matter, however. If she could only put her finger on what it was...
There was a knock at the door to the bath house, and Lameh went to answer it. Merle grinned when she saw that it was Xaa. When Merle and Xaa had finally returned to the castle, they discovered that there were people waiting for Xaa. Two more landless mus warrior-caste mus and nearly a dozen servant-caste had arrived at Castle W'mefa, seeking him out to enter his service. Xaa had simply sent Merle on ahead while he went to the castle courtyard, to accept the vow of fealty of each with the proper formality. Merle hadn't expected him here, as there were other bath houses in the castle, but she was still glad to see him. "Hoyo, Xaa! What are you doing here?" she called in her own language.
"Given a choice between Lameh or any of the other bath attendants here in the castle, I believe I prefer her. She has a marvelous touch at massage, and I've grown fond of those magic fingers of hers," Xaa replied, smiling.
Lameh bowed deeply. "Thank you, Lord Xaa. I think that Nrash'e, the Chief Bath Attendant, is far more skilled than I, however."
Xaa shook his head, smiling. "Lord W'mefa might agree with you, but I do not. I think that your touch at massage is far superior to hers. When my own castle is finished, I will place a formal request with W'mefa to have you in my service - if that's permissible with you, of course."
"Thank you, my lord," Lameh said, smiling and bowing again. "I and my family would be most pleased to enter your service, and I'm sure Lord W'mefa will not object."
"You would be Chief Bath Attendant, of course."
"I am guessing I would also be the only bath attendant, my lord, but thank you again," Lameh replied, and she and Xaa shared a chuckle.
"May I join you, Merle?" Xaa asked, turning to her.
Merle wanted to yelp "Sure!" but managed to control her reaction. As Nona had once explained, seeming too eager to be with a potential mate was not a good idea. And, as Merle had learned, the mus were really quite reserved people, and politeness, reservedness and humility were highly prized virtues in their society. Merle simply smiled demurely. "Certainly."
Merle kept her eyes on her boats, trying to look calm and indifferent. She thought she did quite well, and her eyes only stole over twice to glance at Xaa once while he was undressing and lowering himself into the bath. To the mus, communal bathing was nothing - there were few baths, and many mus. Preparing the water and keeping it clean took an enormous amount of effort, it wasn't just the simple matter it was for the musties of bathing in a nearby river. Thus, for them, this was a commonplace thing - though usually unmarried members of the opposite sex were chaperoned by the bath attendant, of course. For Merle, on the other paw, the whole custom was completely alien. Musties usually bathed with the sexes segregated, and peeking on the opposite sex was socially frowned on. Of course, it happened, as it was also quite interesting and exciting for a young mustie to do, and a test of their hunting skills at stealth and concealment. Thus, while Xaa had no real reaction to seeing Merle in the bath, she, on the other paw, was quite fascinated with seeing him.
'Oooo...' Merle thought to herself, stealing another glance as Xaa turned to climb into the tub.
"Still working with your model boats, I see," Xaa rumbled, lowering himself into the water with a chuckle.
Merle struggled to bring her mind back to the conversation, and grinned. "Yes, I've been trying to discover what makes them float or sink, but I..." Merle began, then stopped. As Xaa lowered himself in, the water rose, then sloshed over the top slightly.
Xaa glanced down at the floor, where the water had spilled. Some of it had fallen upon his little woven shoes he wore to keep his toe-claws from catching the carpets here in the castle. He frowned slightly, glancing at Lameh. Lameh blushed deeply, her pink ears turning bright red. "I beg your pardon most humbly, my lord. I overfilled the tub."
"It's alright. You weren't expecting me," Xaa rumbled after a moment, then turned back to look at Merle. He saw the expression on her face, and raised an eyebrow. "Merle? What is it?"
"Oooo!" Merle replied. It was all she could say.
"My lady? Is something wrong?" Lameh asked, concerned.
"Oooooooo!" Merle chittered again, her eyes widening.
"What is it, Merle? What's the matter?" Xaa asked, looking her over. "If it's the water, don't worry about it. I realize it's not Lameh's fault."
"No!" Merle yelped, and grinned. "I just figured out what makes boats float! And what really makes an airship fly! And maybe even how to change the design of your boats so they don't sink in rough seas! And maybe more!"
Xaa looked at Merle in curiosity. "Oh? How?"
"From watching the water spill! Lameh, you helped me more than you know!" Merle yelped, grinning at Lameh.
Lameh blushed deeply again. "So sorry, my lady, but I fail to see how an error on my part helped you in any way. If you say it did, I am pleased, but..."
Xaa chuckled. "No, Merle, I meant 'how does all that happen'? What does an airship flying in the air have to do with a boat in the water? Or with the spilled water here?"
"Density!" Merle chittered in her own language, scrambling out of the tub. "Oooo! And more! Stone sinks, but wood floats... Oooo! Water to steam... Steam power... Density! Higher sides on the boats, maybe curving in more... And... And... Why, the sky is like an ocean of air! Oooo!" she babbled, pulling her kimono on over her soaking-wet fur.
"My lady, wait - let me dry you!" Lameh called, but it was too late - Merle dashed out of the bath house dripping wet, squealing "Oooo! Oooooooo!"
Xaa burst out laughing, and Lameh giggled, shaking her head. "My lord, where do you think she is going?"
"I've no idea - probably to her room to get her tools, or to write down her thoughts. Apparently, she's had an epiphany," Xaa replied, then chuckled. "Nearly all her discoveries are like that. She thinks about something for awhile, then suddenly comes to a conclusion, without having to travel the intervening steps in between. Then, she spends time filling in what she's skipped over to make sure she's right."
Lameh smiled. "She must be very, very smart, my lord. And you must be very proud that she has selected you to be her mate."
"Yes," Xaa replied, his smile dimming slightly, and leaned back in the tub to relax.
Lameh took a moment to dry the water than had spilled on the floor with a towel, and to recover Merle's little boats and put them back in her box. Then, she turned back to Xaa, stepping behind him and gently working on the hard muscles of his neck and shoulders with her fingers. After a few minutes, Xaa began to rumble with pleasure. Lameh smiled again. "Tell me, my lord... There seems to be something on your mind. Is there something the matter between you two? Perhaps... You are unsure about being her mate?"
"No, no..." Xaa rumbled, and closed his eyes.
There was silence between the two of them for a long moment.
Finally, Xaa sighed. "It's just..."
"Yes, my lord?"
"It's just that I worry... She may only be infatuated. This is another reason I think it is good to wait another two years. Yes, she feels her love strongly now, but... Well, things may change. She may find a male of her village whom she finds more attractive - or at least one with fewer scars than I have on my pelt. She may simply realize that our people and culture are too alien for her. Or, I could be killed in this war. Yes, a million things could happen between then and now."
Lameh shook her head, smiling. "So sorry, my lord, but..."
"With respect, I think that you are being very silly."
Xaa turned to look up at Lameh, an eyebrow raised. "Oh?"
Lameh smiled. "Yes, my lord. So sorry, but her love for you is true, and will not change. She is not merely infatuated with you, my lord," Lameh replied, and ran a soft finger over one of the many scars beneath his fur. "You notice these scars, and think they detract from your beauty. In truth, she doesn't notice them at all. You think she feels our culture is alien. Perhaps she does, but the more she learns of our people, the more she feels comfortable with us. No, my lord. She is not merely infatuated with you, and her love for you will not change."
"And how do you know? Did she tell you this?"
Lameh smiled again, lifting her paws from Xaa's muscular shoulders to wriggle her fingers before his eyes. "These fingers know all, my lord. I could feel it. It is in every breath she takes. It is in the tremble of each muscle beneath her fur. No, my lord. She will not change her mind, and you are being silly, so sorry."
Xaa stared at Lameh for a moment, and her smile became nervous. Finally, he spoke. "You really think so?"
"Yes, my lord."
Xaa turned forward again, thinking, and slowly, Lameh resumed her massage of his shoulders. Finally, he chuckled. "Perhaps you are right, Lameh. I simply cannot tell, myself. The hearts of females have always been a mystery to me, as distant and unfathomable as the stars."
Lameh giggled. "My lord, we are not as mysterious as all that. We are really quite simple to understand - it is you males which are confusing."
Xaa chuckled again. "So you say. I think we're actually quite simple to understand," Xaa replied, and they shared a laugh for a moment. "Still, two years was the agreement, and it shall be kept."
"Certainly, my lord - that is only proper. Still, don't be surprised to find she has not changed her mind by then. She will not have. These fingers can tell," Lameh replied, then smiled. "Just as they can tell that you see in her the same strength, wit and wisdom you saw in T'lixca, when she was her age."
Xaa started for a moment, then relaxed and chuckled beneath Lameh's tender massage. "Perhaps your fingers truly are magic, Lameh. You literally read my thoughts just then," he replied, then sighed briefly. "Yes... There is much of T'lixca in her, Lameh. Sometimes I see it in her eyes, or hear it in her voice... There are differences, of course. Where T'lixca's skill was at art and music, hers seems to be in science and invention. Still, they share more in common than they have differences. At first, I tried to tell myself it was merely my own heart, yearning for the love of my youth, playing tricks on my mind. But, the more and more I see of her, the more and more I see this. I think..."
"Yes, my lord?"
"I think perhaps they were sisters of the soul," Xaa finished quietly.
"That could be, my lord. Her people and ours in many ways seem to fit, somehow, like right and left paws. Her people may be as tiny as the Little Ones, but they have the hearts of mus."
"That they do,
Lameh," Xaa replied, nodding. "That they
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