of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Will you be alright now?" C'dera asked, wiping the tears from Merle's furry cheeks with her kerchief.
"Yes, I..." Merle began with a sniffle, then remembered to speak in the language of the mus, for Lady Vhross did not understand the speech of the Little People of the Wild Wood. "Yes, I'll be alright." Merle reached into her sleeve, pulling out her own kerchief, and wiped her nose.
With a graceful motion, C'dera lifted her mus-lute from beside her, and set it in her lap. Quietly, she began to strum a soft melody, the small claws on her fingertips idly plucking the strings. The gentle notes of music echoed in the quiet of Merle's small room in Castle W'mefa, and for a long moment, the only other sound heard was Merle's quiet sigh.
"He has survived over a hundred battles, my lady. He may yet still survive this one."
"I know... It's just..." Merle said, then shook her head. "Why didn't he tell me himself?"
C'dera smiled slightly. "Do you wish to hear the truth, or that which he told me, instead?"
"The truth," Merle replied quietly.
"There is great risk, my lady. By the time he gets there, the armies of the northlands may be scattered. They will agree to his leadership, almost certainly. He is a legend in his own time, and already songs are being sung of him. But, there is a price. He cannot simply turn back if only a pawful of troops remain to follow his banner - it would be a great loss of face."
"Even if it's only a octet or two?"
C'dera nodded. "Especially if it's only a few. If only a small number remain, it will be obvious to everyone that they cannot attack the cats and live. They will not be expecting to live. Those few that remain will be looking to him and expecting him to lead them to vengeance, and glory."
"And death," Merle said, and sniffled again.
"Life and Death are the same, my lady. This is a part of Zen, and a part of what it is to be warrior-caste. And I suspect it is the same for your people, as well."
"No, it's not," Merle replied sourly.
"Isn't it?" C'dera replied, still strumming her lute. "If a bear came to your village, intent on eating a child, would you not draw your knife and throw yourself upon it, even though you know you would die?"
"Well, yes... But that's not the same thing."
"Isn't it? If he dies in battle, a glorious death, this will rally the mus and bring them together, where the strength of the cats' army may have scattered them. If they mutilate his body after death as they sometimes do, hacking our dead to pieces, this will dishonor him, and as such will fuel the fires of revenge in our people's hearts. If everything goes well, he will have the full armies of the northlands at his back, and will drive the cats out. But if everything goes poorly, his name will still serve as a rallying-cry for all the mus for generations to come - and in the end, he may still yet save us because of that, even in death."
Merle sniffled again. "But-but how can he do this to Johm'rouh? Doesn't he care that she'll cry when she finds out about this? How can he do this to you, and me?!"
C'dera smiled slightly. "Johm'rouh already knows. He told her this morning, when the news came."
Merle blinked. "She does?! But she didn't say a word to me!"
"He asked her not to, my lady. I, however, he did not ask to remain silent. So, I have chosen to speak. I felt it was my duty to let you know of this."
"Your duty?" Merle asked, but after a moment, she nodded. "Oh - you mean because you're my friend. Thank you," Merle replied, and managed a small smile.
"No, my lady. I am your friend, yes, but that is not what I meant. I meant that if I am to be his courtesan, I felt it was my duty to tell you. You are, after all, to be his mate." Seeing Merle's expression, C'dera smiled again. "I can see you do not really understand."
"Well... No, not really. I accept it, because I know that at heart Xaa is a good mouse and he is acting in accordance with what is considered proper in your culture... But no, I don't really understand it well, even after you explained it the other day."
"Well, let me try explaining it differently..." C'dera said, and strummed her lute quietly for a moment as she thought about it. "By your agreement with him, you are to be his mate - his partner, his companion, the one who has the right and the privilege of sharing his bed. In that, our two cultures are alike," C'dera replied, and Merle nodded. "Well, I am to be his courtesan - your partner in your relationship with him."
"My partner?" Merle asked, her eyebrows rising.
"Yes. I can only become his courtesan if you approve. He allowed me to ask you, because he and I have been friends for many years. The relationship between us would be one of me helping you in your relationship with him," C'dera replied, and smiled. "Imagine, for a moment, that you and he were married now."
Merle grinned. "That's easy - I already imagine that a lot," she replied, and giggled.
C'dera giggled, and strummed a laughing chord on her lute. "I do, as well. Now, imagine also that you are busy one day - perhaps showing your latest discovery to a new group of scholars, as you did today. Now, imagine that he returns to the castle, tired, and in need of company. What do you do? Do you stop what you are doing to go to him?"
Merle nodded. "Yes, I would."
C'dera shook her head, smiling. "He would not be happy with that. He considers your work to be very important, far more important than himself. He would be pleased to see you, of course, but would not be happy with the thought that his arrival has meant that something as important as new knowledge to our people will have to wait for someone as unimportant as himself."
"But he's not unimportant, he's very important, and..." Merle began, then stopped. "Oh... Humility."
"Yes, my lady. You are learning well. The first of the Two Great Virtues - Humility. The other is Politeness."
Merle nodded. "That's like the Mice of the Wild Wood. Humility is very important to them, as is politeness. They have a saying... 'A proper mouse should always be humble.' It's one of their most important sayings about themselves."
"And we have a saying about ourselves that is very important, too. 'We are, in the end, merely mice.' Yes, the Last God granted us our size and our ability to work steel and stone and to strive and slay, but, in the end, we are, one and all, merely mice," C'dera replied, and smiled.
Merle giggled, listening to both C'dera's voice and the soft melody she idly played on her lute. "Well, okay. Really big mice that eat meat, but yes - mice."
"Yes. And Xaa is a proper mus, and would be embarrassed to think that his mere presence disturbed something so important. Thus, I would tell you of his arrival, then go to him and keep him company until you were free again."
Merle nodded. "Well, if that ever happened, I think I would still cut things short and go to see him as soon as possible. I want him to know just exactly how important he is to me."
"Such are your ways - and he will have to adapt to them," C'dera replied, and put a look of mock-tragedy on her face. "Yes, he will have to suffer with the daily knowledge that to you, he is the most important thing in the world," C'dera replied, and winked, playing another laughing chord on her lute.
Merle giggled for a moment, then looked at C'dera again. "But what about you? Don't you feel the same way?"
C'dera nodded. "Very much so, my lady. I love him with all my heart. And that is why I shall be eternally grateful to you for allowing me to share him with you." C'dera paused in playing her lute, bowing from where she sat. Merle returned the bow, as was polite in mus culture, and then C'dera resumed both speaking and softly playing her lute. "It has always been our tradition that a male could have both wife and courtesan, if the wife approved. In the old days, before the war, it was somewhat rare, however. It was mainly used only in three instances... First, when the female is the ruler of a large area, and has many vassals of her own. Her duties to her vassals and her servants are very important, and a courtesan would help ease her burden."
"But wouldn't the male get the lands upon becoming her mate?" Merle asked curiously.
"No, of course not. That would be silly," C'dera replied, smiling.
"Oh. When the Mice of the Wild Wood take a mate, the female gives everything to the male. We don't, though. We share everything instead."
"And with us, the female keeps all that is hers. Her children might inherit her property, and for a warrior-caste that would mean they would inherit her lands and her vassals would almost certainly swear fealty to her children, but never would her mate receive that which is not his merely because he married her. Ever."
"Oh. Sorry to interrupt, please go on," Merle said politely.
C'dera smiled again. "Well, the second circumstance this was done in the old days before the war was when the wife could not fulfill all her duties to her mate. A fall that left her paralyzed... Or simply finding out that she is barren, and cannot bear him any children. By our laws, all offspring the male may have are legally the children of all three - the male, his mate, and his courtesan, if he has one."
"Oh... You don't adopt?"
C'dera giggled. "Yes, of course we do - but an adopted child is not a child of the blood, and there are many complications. Warrior-caste cannot adopt servant-caste, and servant cannot adopt warrior, and many of the sub-castes of servants cannot adopt from other sub-castes, due to various complications of our laws and traditions that would take hours and hours to explain," C'dera replied, and smiled. "Also, if the orphan is warrior-caste, that means they are still heir to their parent's lands, and it was very rare for a child whose parents have died to have no other living relatives to take custody of them and possession of their lands. It's more common today, of course, because of the war... But then, it was not. Sometimes different elements of the families would argue, or even go to war over possession of the child and the lands. And for a stranger to adopt? Oh!" C'dera said, rolled her eyes. "The complications are very great."
Merle nodded, then a thought suddenly struck her. "Oh... It's..."
C'dera paused in strumming her lute. "Yes, my lady?"
"It's the same with me. I can't ever have his babies, ever. He's a mouse, and I'm a mustelid. We're not... We're not the same species," Merle said, her voice soft.
C'dera reached out, squeezing Merle's tiny paw gently with her own, larger one. "But I can have them for you," she replied quietly.
For a long moment, they simply sat there, gazing at each other. Then Merle reached up and hugged C'dera. C'dera smiled, and hugged her back.
Finally, Merle sat back, and simply held C'dera's paw for a long moment in silence, seeing her large friend in a new light.
"Thank you," Merle said at last, her voice soft.
"You are welcome, my lady," C'dera replied, and after Merle had finally released her paw, she resumed strumming her lute quietly. "The third time a courtesan was taken in the old days was when there was a sister or a cousin who was otherwise unmarried - particularly a warrior-caste female who had no lands, and otherwise would be alone in the world. This secured her a mate, and would allow her to bear children. Today, among the servant-caste males, this is the only real time they take a courtesan - when a sister or cousin of their mate is unmarried and alone in the world, and in need of shelter and succor. Of course, they have a complication that we do not."
"They are servant-caste, and thus their liege-lord or lady is the ultimate source of all shelter and succor. Thus, they must also approve, and accept their oath of service. That means the courtesan must obtain the males's approval, his mate's approval, and their liege-lord's approval."
"Is that hard?"
"Oh, no. It is rare for the liege-lord to disapprove, and when they do, it is only because they think that the female seeking to become the male's courtesan has an ulterior motive, or has a reputation for being a poor servant."
"I see," Merle replied, nodding in understanding.
"Well... That was then, and this is now," C'dera said, and Merle noticed that C'dera had unconsciously switched to a quiet, sad melody. "Today, we have been fighting the cats for years - and we were losing, until you and the Little One arrived to help us. Here in the southlands, many of the warrior-caste males are dead. There are many, many females who have no mate, only their children. And there are many, like myself, who do not even have that. We are alone in the world. So, the custom has become more common, today, so that we may at least have a chance to share a mate, since fate has not deemed us worthy enough to have one of our own. But even this is... Limited."
C'dera nodded. "There are many customs and traditions governing this. Lord W'mefa's wife, Lady Khani, died birthing Lord O'dmemet. He already had a courtesan, Lady Pah. He may not take another. A male is allowed one mate and one courtesan, and no more. Lord W'mefa may not make Lady Pah his mate, he may not marry again until she dies, he may not tell her to leave because that is the wife's privilege, not his, and he may not take a second courtesan."
"Oh! Lady Pah is his courtesan? I thought she was his wife. I've seen them together - it's obvious he loves her."
"Yes, but you have never seen her at the formal dinner table, my lady. That would be disrespectful to the memory of Lady Khani."
Merle blinked. "It would?"
"Yes, my lady. That is the nature of the relationship between wife and courtesan. Xaa will be your mate, my lady, not mine. You have the right at any time to tell me to leave and never return, even if he wishes me to stay. You have the right to sit at his side, not I. I may not even..." she said, her voice trailing off, her fingers slowing to silence on her lute.
"What is it?" Merle asked, concerned.
"I... I may not even lie with him when I am in heat if you do not approve, my lady," she replied, bowing her head, and Merle blinked in surprise as C'dera continued. "Yes. It's true. I asked him if I may be permitted to ask you to be his courtesan. By doing so... By doing so, I acknowledge that he is your mate, not mine, and never shall be. I ask to share him with you, and hope that you may allow this. This tradition is not an invention of our males, my lady. It is something we invented, to allow us to share with each other the love, strength and comfort of a good male. I only pray that you will allow me to share him, even if only once. I love him so much, and I..." she said, and stopped, unable to finish.
Merle reached out and took C'dera's paw again, gripping it tightly in both of her own. "You're my friend, C'dera, and now that you've explained it to me, I think I really do understand. I think you've been lonely a long time, haven't you?" she asked, and C'dera simply nodded, her head still bowed. "Well, I was lonely, too, after my parents died. I know what that feels like. Then Xaa came into my life, and filled the hole in my heart. He is everything to me... But yes, C'dera, I will share him with you. And more than just once," she said, and smiled. "You said that this relationship was like you were my partner. Well, I have been your friend for two years, now, and I find that I want to be your friend forever. We will be partners, C'dera... And close friends forever, I hope. I..." Merle said, and paused. C'dera raised her head, looking at Merle, and Merle finally decided it was just best to say it.
"I don't feel comfortable with the idea that you are sitting there thinking that if you don't make me happy I will get rid of you. It's not like that. I could never do that to you, C'dera, ever. You're my friend. I don't like the idea that your traditions say you can't even sit with us at formal dinner. I'm sure there's a lot of other customs like that I'm not going to like - but I will live with it. But when we can, we will share him, C'dera," Merle said, then in a sudden spark of mustie humor, she grinned. "After all, he's big enough for us to share with another four or five females, if we wanted to, and still have plenty left over for breakfast. Maybe even a smidge for lunch, if we cook him right."
C'dera burst into giggles, and Merle joined her. For many moments, they held each other's paws, and gazed at each other silently, smiling, a new understanding having been born between them. Finally, Merle sighed. C'dera saw her expression, and hugged her. "It will happen, my lady. He will be alright. As I said, he has survived over a hundred battles. He will survive this, as well."
"I'll pray to the spirits of the forest to guard him," Merle replied quietly, hugging her back.
"And I will burn incense and ask that the spirits of my ancestors protect him."
"And I'll go with him, to guard him and protect him myself."
C'dera leaned back in surprise. "What?!"
"That is my duty, given to me by Chief Byarl, himself. I will guard him. He is my life."
C'dera shook her head. "He will not allow you to go along with him, my lady. It would be terribly dangerous, and you are so small... No, he will not allow you to go with him."
Merle replied quietly, gazing into her eyes.
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