of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"My lord, is something the matter?"
Xaa looked up at Lady Vhross' soft voice, and smiled briefly. "No, C'dera. It's nothing. Don't worry about it," he replied, sketching a brief bow of greeting in return to her more formal one.
C'dera watched as Xaa turned back to the window, and heard his quiet sigh. She stepped up behind him, and gazed out the window into the courtyard below, trying to see what he was looking at.
Below them, Merle was happily explaining her discovery to yet another group of mus scholars, come from the coastal kingdoms to the east. There, in a low tub of water, Merle floated a model boat made of hammer-forged iron plates to prove her point. It floated, of course - her theory showed that any object would float if it displaced an amount of water whose weight was greater than the weight of the object. This new group of scholars were just as impressed as the previous ones had been, and most likely as all the others to follow would be over the next few weeks. Merle went on to show her new ship models - models with taller sides that sloped inwards, longer keels to ride the ocean waves, and smooth, rounded bottoms. They would be kept upright by using lead bars instead of sand for ballast, centered along the keel.
Xaa watched quietly as Merle chittered and pointed and gestured, explaining it all. He'd seen the display several times, himself. He knew what would eventually follow. Once she had explained all her discoveries about boats and just as the scholars thought she was done, Merle would launch into an explanation of how her discovery applied to airships. The hot air expanded, and was less dense. Because it was less dense, she explained, it displaced the more dense, cooler air - this was why it rose. By trapping the air in the airbag, this lifted the ship into the sky. The scholars would be impressed, just as the last three groups had been. The knowledge was of little practical use, of course. Experiment had shown that there was an upper limit to the size an air-bag could be (beyond which the air simply cooled faster than it could be heated), and a mean size at which it was most efficiently heated by their current burner technology. Still, the mus Merle was speaking to were servant-caste mus whose lives were devoted to knowledge and learning, not practicality. To them, this was a wondrous and marvelous discovery Merle had made - the sky was like a vast ocean of air, and an airship flew in the sky for the same reason a boat floated in the water.
"She seems very busy, and very happy, my lord," C'dera commented, smiling as she gazed down at the little mustie in the courtyard, happily chatting with the scholars from the eastern kingdoms.
"Yes. Quite busy. Between this, her teaching Johm'rouh, instructing warriors in how to fly the airships and all the other things she does..." Xaa replied, and fell silent for a moment. Slowly, he shook his head. "Ah, well," he rumbled, then turned to face C'dera. "Tell me - how did your meeting with her go the other week?"
C'dera blinked. "She didn't tell you, my lord?"
"No. She's been... Busy. We haven't really spoken at all in over a week, since the moment she first made this discovery," he replied, and turned to look back out the window again.
"Oh," C'dera replied, understanding now why his expression had been so glum when she first saw him standing by the window. "Well, we sat and talked, my lord. She said that she now understood what had passed between us, and that she was no longer upset. In fact, she said she was looking forward to the Ceremony of Approval in two years, as she still thinks of me as a close friend," C'dera replied, then smiled. "We then spent an hour just chatting about you, singing together, and renewing our friendship, my lord," she said, and placed her paw on Xaa's arm. "She loves you very dearly, my lord. As do I."
"I know," he replied, then smiled at her briefly. "And I love her as well. And you." He then turned his gaze back to the window, and fell silent.
C'dera gazed at Xaa quietly, her paw still on his arm. Gently, she squeezed his forearm. "She reminds me of T'lixca, sometimes. Her laugh, her way of looking at life..."
Xaa started, staring at C'dera. "I... I have noticed the same," he replied after a moment. "She is much like T'lixca was, when we were first married. She is even the same age."
C'dera nodded. "In many ways, it is like having my childhood friend back from the Void, my lord. And yet, not."
"And yet, not," Xaa agreed quietly, turning back to look down into the courtyard.
C'dera watched him quietly, then spoke again. "There is something else that is bothering you, my lord. Tell me... What is it?"
Xaa didn't reply for many moments. He simply gazed quietly down at Merle, who was still happily answering the scholar's questions and discussing their thoughts. Finally, he spoke, his voice soft. "The cats are on the move."
"Where, my lord?"
"Hrnaga Forest, as I predicted. They are attacking in large numbers - my guess is perhaps three quarters of the troops they have, around fifty thousand infantry and twenty-five thousand riders, all under R'Nalas' banner. Lord Naash's castle is already under siege - it will almost certainly fall. It appears the cats only waited this long because they were still re-provisioning some of their troops from the low levels of supplies they had following that hard winter which cut their supply lines last year."
C'dera frowned. "This is terrible news, my lord. What is our plan? What will Lord W'mefa do?"
"We don't know yet. We only received the news today. But really... There's nothing he can do, C'dera. We of the south simply do not have the troop strength to assist them. The Lords and Ladies of the northlands have sent messages, saying they will sign treaties of alliance with W'mefa, if only we will send some kind of help - any kind of help. Some have even addressed him as 'emperor'. But, W'mefa and his allies simply lack the troops to do anything without seriously weakening their defenses here," Xaa said, then turned to look at C'dera. "W'mefa has asked me what to do, C'dera. He knows I'm the best strategist in the southlands. Unfortunately, even after two hours of thought, I can only think of one thing to do - ride north, take command of the armies of the northlands personally, and try to drive the cats back."
"But... But, my lord! They outnumber us by ten to one, perhaps more!" C'dera replied, her eyes widening.
"Closer to three to one, in the northlands. They have more warriors," Xaa replied calmly.
"And once they knew you had taken the field against them, they would make every effort to kill you!"
Xaa shrugged. "Possibly. I still think R'Nalas will withdraw rather than take the field against me - but I could be wrong. Even if he does, the other two generals may not. They're from the western half of the cat's empire - I don't even know their names. They, however, probably know mine, and may only see me as a chance to build their own reputation in the eyes of their emperor - particularly if R'Nalas withdraws. With luck, I will have all the warriors of the northlands at my back, and R'Nalas will withdraw - that will make the odds even. There remains, however, the possibility that R'Nalas will not withdraw, and much of the armies of the northlands will be scattered by the time I get there. In that case, I may only be able to gather a few thousand warriors - and I would lose."
C'dera calmed herself with an effort, her eyes closed. When she opened them again, she looked into his eyes. "When will you be leaving?"
"Probably within three days. Messages will have to be sent on ahead, telling the Lords and Ladies of the northlands what we intend so they can attempt to gather their forces to meet me near Djasto-city. Meanwhile, I'll have to gather a small troop of riders to accompany me, so I don't simply get ambushed and slain along the way. My own vassals and a pawful of W'mefa's will give me about twenty riders - that should be enough to make it there."
C'dera looked at Xaa, taking his callused paw in her smaller, softer one. "I may never see you again."
Xaa simply nodded.
"The future does not exist, and the past is but a dream. Only the here and now is real," C'dera said quietly, quoting an old Zen saying.
They were silent after that, gazing at each other. There was so much C'dera wanted to say, yet, she knew that nothing she said would make any difference. There was more than just an old friend before her, someone who she had shared good times and bad with. Before her stood perhaps the most experienced and skilled leader among the mus. Before her stood a king without a kingdom. Before her stood the one she loved. And she could not deny him his destiny.
"You should tell Lady Merle," C'dera said at last.
"I don't know if I can. Aside from the fact that she has simply been too busy to speak to me for even a moment this last week..." he replied, then shook his head. "Her discovery is important. It must be shared, that the eastern kingdoms will be able to build stronger boats. This will place them in debt to W'mefa, and smooth the way for an alliance. If I tell her, she will become upset, and be unable to make the same kind of presentation she is making now," he said, pointing down into the courtyard as Merle launched into her explanation of the sky being an ocean of air. The scholars around her nodded and smiled, and Xaa turned back to C'dera. "Perhaps she will even be too upset to make any kind of explanation at all - and that would be a disaster. No, C'dera. I cannot tell her, even if she did have a moment to speak to me before I left, which I doubt."
"You underestimate her, my lord. She is not a child, you know," C'dera replied, eyeing him carefully.
"I know. But that is my decision. Now, if you will excuse me, I have preparations to make," Xaa replied, and bowed formally.
C'dera bowed in return, then
watched him as he walked away. The proud warrior, the veteran of
a hundred battles or more. 'So proud, my lord and love,' she
thought at his broad back. 'Too proud to admit the truth,
even to yourself. Yes, you cannot tell her - but it is not for
the reason you gave.' C'dera watched until he had turned a
corner in the hallway and disappeared. Finally, she nodded. 'Perhaps
you cannot tell her, but I can,' she thought, then turned to
head towards the stairs.
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