of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Fsst! Ten thousand head of cattle! And a thousand trained djuducu! Where in the nine hells am I going to get that by spring?! And all in exchange for a hundred barrels of powder and two hundred barrels of arrows?! Damn that rat!"
L'Sala looked up from the table, where she had been studying the balance sheets provided by R'Narr's exchequer. "Miao... My lord, while the Slayer's demands were rather extreme, given his position and our history, they were wise. A peace-offering so large will be quite difficult to obtain - particularly given the state of your treasury, as I see it before me. What he has offered in exchange, while hardly of equal value, is enough to allow you to at least begin to move against the Shazad, come the spring. However, more importantly, by obtaining the birds and cattle he has demanded, not only will he be convinced that you are serious about peace, but he will be able to convince his ally, Lord W'Mefa, that you mean peace."
"Fsst! I know! But how will I afford that?!"
L'Sala gazed at R'Narr quietly, her expression calm and impassive. "Miao... Well, my lord, for a start, I suggest you have your current exchequer drawn and quartered. He's been robbing you blind since before I was born."
"Mrow?! What?!" R'Narr's pacing of the carpeted floor stopped, and he turned suddenly to L'Sala, blinking in surprise. Since the day they had finally returned to his castle, she had set herself to the task of examining all R'Narr's assets, so that she could best advise him how to not only fulfill his agreement with the mus, but also to gather the warriors and supplies needed to make a stab for the throne. Now, in his private chambers, she had the books and records of forty years before her. It had taken her a week to examine it all - just checking the records of his current treasury and tax income had taken two days. R'Narr looked her over for a moment. She looked radiant in a pale blue dress of his late mate's, even though it didn't quite fit her perfectly, and the style was decades out of fashion. R'Narr planned on getting L'Sala her own clothes, later, but she said that this was a meaningless frivolity that could wait. A Mentalt was a Mentalt, dressed regally or stark naked.
"Miao... My lord, these records simply do not add up. By my calculation, your exchequer has stolen fifty thousand, nine hundred and twelve gold talents from your treasury over the last twenty-eight years. The greatest was two years ago, when you were cheated of three thousand six hundred and four gold talents. This year alone, one thousand and eight gold talents have been diverted to his personal funds so far. I recommend you seize him immediately, before he realizes I am aware of this situation and attempts to flee with the bulk of your treasury."
R'Narr sputtered for a moment, then turned to the chamber door. "Fsst! GUARDS!" he roared, furious.
An hour later, R'Narr's exchequer knelt at his feet, bound paw and foot. "Mrow... You were right, my lord," Captain D'Viall said, pointing to the chest two other guards were bringing in. "Mrowrrr... We found that beneath a floorboard in his personal chambers. Shall I have his family taken into custody, as well?"
"Mrr... No, I wager they are innocent, anyway. Cast them out of the castle, and have them driven them from my lands. And put that chest on the table, there," R'Narr replied, jerking a thumb at the table L'Sala sat by, then looked down to his exchequer. "Fsst! As for you, you little thief, I'm having your head put on a pike at the main gate!"
"Mrowr! But my lord! I am innocent! It is all a misunderstanding! The female simply does not know how to interpret proper bookkeeping! All that within the chest is my own, my lord!"
"Fsst! Do you take me for a fool?! That is no ordinary female who sits there, that is a Mentalt!" R'Narr snarled, then looked to Captain D'Viall. "Fsst! D'Viall, I want this one's head on a pike by the main gate in ten minutes!"
Captain D'Viall paused. "Miao... My lord, I recommend you not do that. Your seneschal is his cousin, and-"
"Mrr... You've served me well this last half a year, D'Viall. Of all those in my service, I find you the most worthy. I know you and your family emigrated here to the eastern hinterlands, hoping you might somehow earn lands you could not inherit in the west. Well, you're the new seneschal, now, and R'Zith and his family are banished from my lands! If R'Zith doesn't like that, then duel him! If you can't beat him, you don't deserve to be my seneschal, anyway!" R'Narr snarled, then grinned fiercely at D'Viall.
Captain D'Viall grinned back. In a single stroke, all his hopes and dreams had come true. He knew R'Zith well - the fat old seneschal would be no match for him in a duel. All D'Viall's ambitions now lay within his claw, and the future of his sons was assured - once the seneschal was out of the way. "Mrowr... It shall be as you command, my lord!"
As D'Viall and the other guards dragged away the howling former exchequer, R'Narr turned back to the table, and opened the chest. He swore with both surprise and anger - the chest was full to the brim with gold talents. "Fsst! And this was beneath the floorboards in his chambers?! By the nine hells, there must be at least a thousand talents here!"
L'Sala rose, and slowly pushed her paw into the chest, feeling around and bringing coins from the bottom to the top. All were gold, and each about as wide as the littlest finger of her paw. "Miao... I would estimate closer to three thousand, my lord. I can weigh them and give you an accurate accounting, if you wish."
"Mrr... Later. For now, the question of where we will come up with a thousand riding birds and ten thousand cattle is, at least, answered. I could easily afford that on what's here in this chest."
"Miao... And with an honest exchequer, my lord, you could afford to pay for an army by next spring to rival anything the Shazad may field against you. If the mus do not attack, you could commit all the troops of yourself and your allies against D'Zhin, leaving only a token force behind. If the mus agree to actually fight by our side, your victory is guaranteed - but even if they choose to simply not attack us, this may be enough to allow you to win."
R'Narr grinned. "Mrowr! By the gods, with you at my side giving me advice, L'Sala, I could rule the world!" he said, then chuckled. "Mrr... Well, so long as we keep you away from horses."
"Miao... You should stay away from them, as well, my lord," L'Sala replied, her face smooth.
"Mrow? Why? They're harmless."
"Miao... My lord, I apologize that I did not explain sooner, as I promised, but we have been rather busy, of late. You once said that there should be no lies, no secrets between us. Well, now I shall tell you, my lord - I was never afraid of the horse. I was filling my mind with thoughts of rage and anger, trying to keep it from reading my thoughts. I did not want it to learn that I intended to do whatever was necessary to get you to rid yourself of the Little Ones and their library - even if I had to slaughter the Little Ones myself and tear their library to shreds with my claws."
R'Narr blinked in surprise. "Fsst! What?! You wanted me to lose their library?! Why?!" he snarled.
"Miao... Forgive me, my lord, but I already told you why when we first agreed to speak nothing but the truth to each other. The technology of the Little Ones is not like a sword that can be simply sheathed when one is done fighting. Once drawn, it must be used. Yes, our people might have crushed the mus with the technology of the Little Ones. Yet, had we done so, we would have none left to fight save ourselves. What would follow would be decades, perhaps centuries of internecine warfare. We would stop advancing in anything resembling culture or science - we would only be interested in war. And, perhaps, in the end, we would destroy ourselves, just as the legends say the Ancient Ones did to themselves," she replied, then shook her head. "Miao... I am sorry, my lord, but these are things we must develop on our own, slowly, and learn to tame at our own speed. Would you give a burning candle to a child, my lord? If you did, you'd soon have your entire castle in flames."
"Fsst! But we are not children!"
"Mrr... I must respectfully disagree, my lord. Compared to the Little Ones, we are children. I have read parts of their histories, my lord, while we had possession of their library. They are immeasurably ancient, my lord, and compared to us, immeasurably wise. We had barely mastered bronze when we enslaved them, nearly two millennia ago - and we were indescribably barbaric, then, treating them as a source of slaves and food. Our earliest written histories are barely six centuries old, and all that exists before that is fragments of parchment and long oral traditions, knowledge passed down muzzle-to-muzzle for centuries. They, on the other paw, have written histories that go back three thousand years, and legends that are, perhaps, thousands of years older than that. Even the mus are but children compared to them, my lord. Yes, they are peaceful and weak, easily conquered. But this is because they learned to sheath the sword of their technology, my lord. Consider - if D'Zihn had their mighty ornithopters and the other products of their minds, do you really think he would hesitate to use it to drop flame and death from the skies on his enemies, and not stop until all the land was charred and black?"
"Mrowrrr... Well, no, he wouldn't - but he wouldn't have this, I would!"
"Mrr... Yes, my lord, but you will not live forever. Those that follow you may be as noble and well-intentioned as yourself, or may be self-serving and darkly-minded, as D'Zhin," L'Sala replied, then bowed her head. "Mew... Forgive me, my lord, but I act for the future of our people. We must develop these things ourselves, in our own time, and learn to control them in our own time, as a child learns to use fire, and not burn himself or his home."
R'narr paused, and slowly nodded. He again found he had to agree with her. "Mrr... Alright. But what is this other thing you mentioned?! Reading your mind?"
"Miao... Yes, my lord. We do not even have a word for this in our language, but the horses are, in the language of the Little Ones, 'telepaths.' They can read the thoughts of others. Yet another example of their wisdom, my lord - the Little One's language, even the ancient, archaic version of it that I know, contains concepts that ours simply does not."
"Fsst! Impossible! We've held them in bondage for six hundred years! We'd have learned of this before - or they'd have used this to escape!"
L'Sala shook her head. "Miao... No, my lord. They cannot escape without violence, and their kind cannot commit violence. They feel any pain they inflict, and if they kill, the shock of death sometimes kills them, as well."
"Fsst! How is it we never learned of this before?!"
"Miao... My lord, it is an easy thing to hide. It is not like they grow another limb or fly. It is a subtle thing, a thing of the mind."
R'Narr paused again, then nodded. "Mrr... Alright - but how do you know of this, if they have hidden it from everyone for six centuries?"
"Mrr... My lord, three centuries ago, the Reverend Mother L'Mirith fell from her mount while riding between T'Masa keep and Castle D'Van. She lay in a ditch for three days, her hip broken, unable to move. It rained, and she caught chill. By the second day, she could no longer even cry for help - her voice was stilled by laryngitis. On the third day, she neared death. Then, she saw a horse-slave walking by, on an errand for his master. She called to him, knowing he probably would not hear her hoarse whisper. Yet, somehow, he did. He recovered her from the ditch, carried her back to T'Masa Keep. L'Mirith noticed the name of his master on his collar, and sent a letter, offering to buy the slave from him for a goodly amount of gold. His master wrote back that he would be happy to sell the slave for a fraction of that amount, as even though he was a branded slave and served willingly and to the best of his ability, he was, unfortunately, a terrible nuisance at times. While he could hear and respond to a voice, he seemed totally deaf to any other sound, and constantly allowed the tea to boil overlong because he could not hear the pot whistle."
R'Narr blinked in surprise, and L'Sala simply nodded. "Miao... Yes, my lord. It is true. Upon experiment, L'Mirith realized that the horse-slave could hear her thoughts. In fact, he could hear everyone's thoughts. He was, otherwise, stone deaf, and apparently had been since birth."
"Fsst! Why, if that is true, then they can know everything, just by standing near one of us! No one could possibly keep a secret with them around!"
L'Sala nodded. "Miao... Indeed, my lord - and as the old saying goes, 'A cat without a secret is like a cat without a tail.' It was because of this that all the horse slaves that were in T'Masa at that time were slaughtered, and no horse has been allowed within ten leagues of T'Masa since that day. The only one that was spared was the one that had saved the Reverend Mother's life, for he was a sweet and obedient little gelding, and the Reverend Mother had grown fond of him - yet he was never allowed to leave the grounds of the keep for the remainder of his days, so that our knowledge of their secret would remain unknown to them. For the same reason, we Mentalts only rarely ever leave T'Masa keep, that we might stay away from the prying minds of the horses. It is not surprising that you, a cat of the eastern hinterlands, were unaware of this, but to those from the western parts of the empire, it is common knowledge that we Mentalts will not permit a horse to come anywhere near us - though none know why. We Mentalts guard our secrets carefully - even this one," she said, and R'Narr nodded as she continued.
"Today, the horse-slaves remain mute, and they have yet to master our written language despite centuries of being our slaves. It is our mentation that their minds do not work as ours - they do not think in words, but in concepts, in ideas... So our written language is the meaningless scratchings of a djuducu-bird, to them. Still, we do not know. We only know they cannot communicate with us, only with each other."
R'Narr shuddered. "Fsst! And this we have harbored among us for six centuries?! It is... Truly chilling. To know that they can read your mind... That you have no secrets from them..."
L'Sala nodded. "Mrr... Indeed, my lord. We of T'Masa keep have hoped for three centuries that we cats might someday develop the same ability, but it seems impossible. Yes, I can guess what you are thinking from your expression, your posture, your stance, the shift of your eyes, the twitch of a whisker, the tone of your voice... But it is not the same, my lord. Blindfold me, and I am helpless to know what you are thinking. Blindfolding them has no effect. They know. They can hear our thoughts."
"Mrr... We must rid ourselves of them, then. My agreement with the Slayer was that we would free all our slaves - and we shall. Particularly the horses. The thought that they have been peeping into our innermost thoughts for centuries... Fah! It curdles the blood! I'll post an edict that says any horse-slave that escapes form the west into the hinterlands will be sheltered, and sent to the lands of the mus. All horse slaves already in our lands, if any, will be sent to the lands of the mus immediately - as well as any mus slaves we may have. When I am Shazad, I will simply cast them all out," he said, then smiled. "Mrr... That will both satisfy the mus and rid us of these disgusting creatures - and have the added benefit of weakening the western clans substantially, so they will not be able to afford to rise up against me."
L'Sala nodded. "Miao... I concur on all points, my lord. More, those western clans that follow you will need slaves or their economies will collapse. You might allow them to enslave the clans that follow the Shazad, once you defeat them. However, my lord... Please, do not post the secret I have just told you in your edict, my lord. It is likely all the horse-slaves would die, were the truth known, and that would show the mus we cannot live up to an agreement we made with them."
R'Narr nodded. He gazed at L'Sala quietly for a moment, then grinned. "Mrr... Stay by my side, L'Sala, as my mate. Do not return to T'Masa... Stay with me. Be my mate. Bear my children. I could rule the world on your advice... And yet, as I stand next to you, I once again think I would be happy if we only lived in a small shack in the middle of nowhere, lost to history, with none to ever speak my name again," he said, then sat beside her, and took her small paw in his large, callused one. "Purr... Stay with me, L'Sala. Be my mate."
To R'Narr's joy, L'Sala grinned broadly. Her smile was dazzling, devastating. He knew in his heart that he would dare any danger, risk everything, even his life, just to see that smile as often as possible.
"Purr... Gladly, my lord," she replied, and nuzzled him lovingly, rubbing the scent-glands below her eyes into his cheeks.
"Purr... I love you, L'Sala T'Masa..."
"Purr... And I love you, R'Narr V'Nass," L'Sala replied, and nuzzled him again. She then leaned back, and looked to the table, tapping an open page in the book before her with a claw. "Mrr... Now: We have to discuss your tax rate in your western provinces. Your former exchequer had raised them without telling you, and skimmed off the top. You really need to lower them again, particularly since you're trying to maximize your favor in the eyes of your allies and vassals. Look here, at these figures."
R'Narr blinked, then began to chuckle. "Mrr... I can see being mated to a Mentalt will be an interesting experience."
L'Sala smiled back. "Miao... I will do my best to make it so, my lord," she replied, tilting her head coyly.
R'Narr burst out laughing, and it
was several moments before L'Sala could drag his attention back
to the economics of rulership again.
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