of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Merle would hardly wait, she was so excited. The riders approaching the castle had been Xaa's party, though by the time she and Johm'rouh got down to the gate, he had already greeted Lord W'mefa and Lord O'dmemet, and entered the castle to take a well-deserved bath. She looked herself over in the mirror again as Johm'rouh walked into her room. "Oh, Johm'rouh! How do I look?" she asked nervously. She was wearing her finest kimono - five different shades of green silk, the lightest on the inside and the darkest in the outside, with a bright yellow innermost layer. She'd had it specially made while Xaa was away, and hoped to surprise him with it.
Johm'rouh giggled. "Very cute," she replied.
"Nooooo!" Merle wailed, suddenly on the verge of tears. "I don't want to look cute, I want to look beautiful, like you!"
"Oh!" Johm'rouh yelped, quickly stepping over to Merle and pulling a kerchief from her sleeve. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it to upset you, it's just that you musties all look terribly cute and adorable to a mus," she replied, dabbing gently at her little friend's eyes. "Especially in that kimono."
"Noooooo!" Merle wailed again. "I had this specially made to fit me perfectly! What's wrong with it?!"
"So sorry, but yellow?"
"But it's one of my favorite colors! We musties couldn't even make this color before we met your people!"
Johm'rouh nodded. "Still, Merle... Yellow?"
"Argh! Alright, what color should it be?"
Johm'rouh leaned back, a snow-white paw to her chin, thinking. Merle looked at her, and suddenly felt very jealous. Johm'rouh was, by the standards of the mus, very beautiful. Her fur was snow white, and her eyes were a pale, sky blue. She was very slender and lightly-built, even for a female mus, and this lent her a delicate, almost fragile beauty - though, of course, much of her slimness was due to being inactive for four years while her mind was paralyzed by the poisons of the cats. Johm'rouh almost invariably wore cream-colored kimonos, and as her coordination improved with her exercise, she began to display the same graceful walk as her mother (or so many of the older mus who had known Johm'rouh's mother had commented). As beautiful as Johm'rouh was to the mus, however, to the eyes of a mustie, she was a tall, snow-white goddess. Merle felt very plain and unappealing next to her friend, and was not happy at all.
"White, I think," Johm'rouh replied at last.
"You would," Merle shot back, sticking out her tongue.
"No, seriously! It would compliment the layers better. They start darkest on the outside, then get lighter towards the inside - a white innermost layer would look best."
Merle sighed. "I don't have a white inner layer to wear. I don't wear white - when my fur sheds on it, it looks icky."
"Oh. Well, don't worry - you look very cute for now, and later on we can work on something else. For now, we have to meet my daddy for dinner."
Merle burst into tears. "But it's him I want to look beautiful for!"
Johm'rouh stared in surprise. "Ummm... So sorry, but... Why?"
Merle looked at her friend, and bit her lip. 'Can I tell her? Will she understand?' she wondered. Finally, she decided she'd best just say it. "Because I love him, and I want to be his mate."
Johm'rouh's eyes widened, and she placed a delicate paw over her bosom in surprise. "You do?"
"Yes, I do. Very much," Merle replied, pulling out her own kerchief and dabbing at her tears.
"You... So sorry, you want to be my momma?"
Merle blinked, taking that in. "Ooooh... I hadn't really thought about it that way," she replied, looking her friend over. Johm'rouh and Merle stared at each other for awhile, each re-appraising the other in a totally new light. Finally, Merle spoke. "Well... I guess I do. If I could ever have a daughter, I would want her to be like you. Beautiful and smart."
"Me? Smart?" Johm'rouh replied, and laughed.
"Yes, you! You're very smart! You were four years behind in your studies, but you are catching up very fast!"
Johm'rouh grinned, then bowed her head. "Thank you," she replied, then looked Merle over again. Johm'rouh stroked her whiskers for a moment, then looked Merle in the eye. "Well... On one condition:"
"What?" Merle asked, nervous.
Merle burst into giggles, and Johm'rouh joined her. "Okay, okay! No spanking! But you will get a very stern look and a severe talking to when you're bad, okay?" Merle said with a grin, waggling a finger at her friend.
"Okay - just as long as it's not The Look!" Johm'rouh replied, still giggling.
"The Look?" Merle asked, curious.
"Oh, yes! Daddy gets it when I'm naughty - it's even worse than the way Tlahn looks at us when we do something we shouldn't! It makes you feel all small and silly and stupid and icky."
Merle hopped up on top of the stool, bringing her head even with Johm'rouh's, then grinned. "Okay - I'll give you the look Byarl gives the musties in our tribe when they don't do what they should," she said, and raised one eyebrow while lowering the other, glowering at Johm'rouh.
Johm'rouh snorted, then burst out laughing. "Does he really look like that when he's mad?" she asked.
"Well, a little, anyway," Merle replied with a grin.
"Okay, okay - when do I get to start calling you 'momma', anyway?" Johm'rouh asked with a grin.
"Ummm... Well, when I turn eighteen, I guess. Xaa promised that when I turned eighteen, if I still wanted to be his mate, then he would take me as his mate."
Johm'rouh rolled her eyes. "Eighteen? That's two years from now! That's like... Forever!"
"I know," Merle replied with a sigh. "Still, it's only two years away."
"Trust my daddy to make you wait so long. He is so stuffy and proper, sometimes. You're an adult in the eyes of the musties, aren't you? Isn't your Age of Majority fourteen?"
"Yes," Merle replied, sticking out her tongue. "In my tribe, I'm old enough to be mated, old enough to have pups of my own, old enough to fight the bears that used to threaten us, and old enough to die doing it."
"Well, our Age of Majority is sixteen. I'm sixteen, and I'm going to marry O'dmemet this summer - he's going to be twenty-seven. You're sixteen, too - and by our laws and traditions, old enough to marry. I don't see what daddy's problem is."
"I don't, either."
Johm'rouh suddenly blinked. "Eee! We've talked so much, we're going to be late for dinner! We'll have to run! Come on!" she yelped, leaping to her feet. Merle hopped down from the chair, and together the two girls ran though the wooden-floored corridors of the castle. Before they reached the main dining room, Johm'rouh stopped, grabbing Merle's paw. "Wait," she gasped.
"What? Is something wrong?" Merle asked.
"No, we just have to catch our breath before we go in. It wouldn't be proper form for us to just run in there, panting and all our of breath."
Merle grinned. "Well, actually, only you're out of breath. We really need to increase your exercise."
Johm'rouh stopped panting only long enough to stick her tongue out at Merle.
A bit later, Merle and Johm'rouh walked through the door, paw-in-paw, smiling. Lord W'mefa, O'dmemet, and a dozen male and one female mus Merle didn't recognize were already seated on pillows at the u-shaped table, waiting for them to arrive. "Ah, there they are at last," Xaa said with a smile.
"We were about to start a search party," Lord W'mefa added with a grin.
"So sorry, Lord W'mefa, but it is all my fault. I am still a bit weak, and it sometimes takes me a moment to dress. Lady Merle had to assist me," Johm'rouh replied, bowing low.
"Think nothing of it, my dear," Lord W'mefa replied, his face showing concern.
Merle bowed with Johm'rouh, and hissed into her ear "It wasn't your fault at all, it was mine."
"Yes, but this works out so much better. Now, daddy won't say anything," Johm'rouh hissed back with a barely-suppressed giggle.
"Come, my dear," O'dmemet called, patting the pillow in the empty space between him and Xaa. Merle noticed that there was an empty spot to Xaa's right, presumably for her. Johm'rouh took her seat next to O'dmemet demurely, and Merle tried to do the same as she sat by Xaa - even though what she really wanted to do was bounce up and down and hug him tight and tell him she was so happy he was back safe, she followed Johm'rouh's example and simply sat quietly, smiling demurely at him.
A few moments later, the servants began to lay out the food - Merle realized with a guilty blush that everyone had been waiting because of her, and she was supremely glad that her ears were furry, and her blushes didn't show (unless you were a mustie and knew what to look for). Lord W'mefa, as usual, was served last - and once he had been, he bowed from where he sat to the servants. After they had returned the bow, smiling, he picked up his utensils. Merle had learned this was the signal in polite mus society that it was now permitted for everyone to eat.
"So, daddy, what happened while you were out in the lands of the cats?" Johm'rouh asked, smiling.
Xaa chewed the little sliver of cooked meat in his mouth for a moment, swallowed, then replied. "Well, my little one, you've asked the very question that is on the lips of everyone here, I'm sure," Xaa replied, and grinned. "Lady Ara was, I believe, about to ask that very question when you arrived," Xaa replied, nodding to the female mus that sat to W'mefa's left.
Lady Ara, whom Merle remembered was Lord W'mefa's ally and also the owner of the castle and lands to the east, smiled and inclined her head in return. "Yes, Lord Xaa. Lord Jharak and I were just discussing what you might find the other day - we are all very interested, as you can well imagine. We know they've gotten reinforcements, but how many and from where we've no idea."
Xaa nodded. "The cats definitely have reinforcements, now. I'd estimate their numbers have roughly tripled since I last probed their lands, about two months ago. My guess is they've pulled troops from their western frontier and from the capital to reinforce their eastern front, and hopefully hold us back until winter."
"That doesn't bode well for our campaign against the T'Mrr. They can afford to spend their warriors fast and free. We cannot," W'mefa growled.
O'dmemet nodded. "Aye, father. With triple their numbers, they could launch a major assault, and perhaps inflict serious losses to us - enough so that we wouldn't be able to continue the fight."
"What should we do?" Lady Ara asked, her eyes on Lord W'mefa. Since the introduction of the airships and the new rifled guns, the other clan-leaders had begun to look to W'mefa for answers - and he was providing them.
W'mefa nodded. "Would you say they are positioned for an attack, Lord Xaa?" he asked, gazing at his most trusted ally.
Xaa shook his head. "Very unlikely. We intercepted a rider carrying a weekly dispatch from the T'Mrr to the cat's eastern headquarters. It wasn't addressed to General R'Narr, but to his son, R'Nalas. That means R'Nalas is in charge of their forces, for some reason. R'Nalas isn't bold enough to make a strike into our lands, even with that many troops at his back. I would imagine his father has been called back to the capital to make a report on their progress against us - or lack of it. The emperor may even kill him for his failure, though it's certainly no fault of his own," Xaa finished, and shrugged. "Cats are like that."
"So sorry, my lord, but are you certain that R'Nalas will not attack? He is the son of R'Narr, of Clan V'Nass - a fierce and canny warrior," Lady Ara asked.
Xaa nodded. "I fought against him at the battle of Three Creeks. Given what I know of him, and given what happened there, it seems unlikely he'll make a push through to my lands, or those of W'mefa. If he does anything, it will be farther north - perhaps near Djasto-city, or Hrnaga Forest. None of us here will be affected. I would say our best bet is to limit ourselves to simple feints and light forays, and let them concentrate their forces on the stronger kingdoms to the north."
W'mefa nodded. "I agree. I'll send warning north, of course."
"With respect, Lord Xaa, how do you know he won't make a push here in the south? What exactly happened at that battle?" Lady Ara persisted.
Xaa smiled. "He was in the rear, directing his troops, when the tide of battle shifted and our front came within bowshot of his pavilion. I tied a brief message onto the shaft of my last arrow, and shot it at his pavilion. I had no idea where he was, of course, I don't know him by sight. Hell, I don't even know if I hit his pavilion - the cats poured in warriors to reinforce their center, and we had to fall back. Still, I imagine it landed somewhere quite close to him, because the cats withdrew shortly thereafter."
"Oh? What was the message?" Lady Ara asked, her face showing fascination. The other lords stared at Xaa with interest, obviously wondering the same thing.
Xaa shrugged. "Nothing much. Just my name, a phonetic rendering of his name, and a five-character message that said "The next goes in your heart," Xaa replied, and grinned wickedly.
Lady Ara burst out laughing, and the other lords chuckled. "Oh, my lord, that is rich! I shall have to tell my son that one when I return home. He loves hearing tales of your exploits, my lord."
Xaa bowed from where he sat, smiling. "Thank you, my lady - but it was nothing, really. A brazen and obvious bluff. It only worked, I think, because R'Nalas is hardly the warrior his father is," Xaa replied, and chuckled. "R'Narr would have snatched the nearest bow from the paws of the nearest warrior and shot a message back that immediately challenged me to a duel to settle the matter of the battle, once and for all," Xaa replied, and gestured with the little eating-knife in his right paw. "Now, if R'Narr was in command of this many troops, I'd say all of us here had a problem. I have perhaps a dozen warriors as my vassals, all of whom are busy guarding my castle while it is being rebuilt. I appear to be attracting more as time goes on, but only those landless few who have survived the cat's attacks over the years. Lord W'mefa has perhaps five hundred, where you, Lady Ara have another seven hundred or so. All told, we have perhaps five thousand warriors available for battle under the banners of those here in this room - and that wouldn't be enough to stop them. R'Narr could easily commit half the forces that are currently under his son's banner, and crush us all with a force of fifty thousand," Xaa said, then shrugged. "We in the south are weak, numerically. We need more troops."
W'mefa nodded. "And that is exactly what I and the others in this room are working on at the moment, Lord Xaa," he replied, gesturing to the other noble mus. "We are currently negotiating treaties with some of the coastal lords and ladies, trying to get them to commit to unifying beneath a single banner. Geographically, we all form a single, contiguous land stretching from the borders of your lands all the way to the Great Eastern Sea, while economically we have traded with each other for centuries. The northern lords have more troops, and aren't quite ready to commit themselves to such an arrangement - but they will be, eventually."
"And then all of the clan-lords here in the southlands will call you 'emperor', Lord W'mefa," Lady Ara commented, eyeing W'mefa with quiet gaze.
To Merle's surprise, a sudden hush fell over the room. All eyes were on Lady Ara, and Lord W'Mefa. It seemed as though every ear was pricked, listening for W'mefa's response.
W'mefa slowly shook his head. "I am not emperor, nor do I seek to be emperor. I simply wish to see the cats driven from our lands forever. We have not had an emperor in over two hundred years - and before the cats came, we had no need of one. Each of us is, effectively, king or queen of their own small kingdom, and this arrangement has worked satisfactorily since time immemorial. I see no need to call myself emperor, and I am not so vain to think that even if we needed one, that one might be me."
"Forgive me, Lord W'mefa - I meant no offense," Lady Ara replied, bowing her head. "I was intending a compliment, and spoke poorly. After all, it is your smiths who have taught ours to make the new rifled guns, and your ally, Lady Merle, who teaches our warriors to pilot the airships. We did not do these things ourselves. Even now I imagine Lady Merle's fertile mind is coming up with a hundred new ideas that I cannot even imagine. Such an ally speaks highly of you, my lord, and your wisdom in sharing her knowledge with us."
Merle glanced about, and realized the atmosphere had become very tense. 'I don't understand this,' Merle thought to herself, looking at everyone's faces. 'I thought becoming emperor would be a good thing.' She tried to think about what she knew of mus culture, and after a moment, it came to her - humility. The mus prized humility very highly. It would be ideal for W'mefa to be proclaimed emperor by universal acclaim of all the hundreds of lords and ladies ruling the hundreds of scattered kingdoms of the mus, but it would be an act of blatant effrontery for him to declare himself emperor. Merle took a stab in the dark, hoping to defuse the situation. "Well, actually, I've recently been looking into something that would help you get the coastal kingdoms to join you. I know that you mus have had trouble building ships that can withstand storms - I've been playing with a few ship models, trying to discover a new design that might be able to sail farther out to sea," Merle said brightly. 'And I do mean playing,' she thought to herself. Merle's experiments to date were limited to the bathtub, where she toyed with various scale models of ships, trying to find out what made them sink or float while Lameh scrubbed her back. The effect of the ship's tendency to stay on the surface until it was swamped with water reminded her of the tendency of the warm air in the air-bag of a balloon to rise into the sky, though what the relationship was, she wasn't certain. One thing was certain, however - the boats the mus made were remarkably easy to sink as little models in the bathtub.
"Why, that would be marvelous, Lady Merle!" W'mefa interjected, smiling.
"Indeed. We all wish you the best of luck in your research," Lady Ara added, smiling.
Merle looked at all the mus in the room, and realized their eyes were all on her. Suddenly, she felt very, very small. She was just a little mustie with a head full of ideas, playing with little models and having fun. Yet, the fate of an entire race of people rested on her. She'd seen the experiments of the scholars of the mus, all carefully calculated and written down. Her work was nothing like that. She happily toyed with one idea or another, until she discovered something useful. For a moment, Merle felt totally and completely overwhelmed with the awesome responsibility - people depended on her. And she was just playing. 'Now I know how Byarl feels. Or maybe how Tinker felt,' she thought to herself.
Still, she knew it wasn't the same. Byarl wasn't in the same situation she was, and Tinker had an enormous amount of training and skills he had learned starting from when he was very small, all as a part of his heritage. Merle had nothing - no special training, no skills passed down from generation to generation, just her own fertile little imagination and sharp mind. And she suddenly felt that this wasn't going to be enough, and she'd simply end up disappointing these people, perhaps even making them angry. And if they became angry at her, they might become angry at her people in general. 'Spirits! Everything depends on me!' she thought to herself, trying to smile back at the mus gathered around her. 'And more... If I don't perform, if I disgrace myself here... Maybe Xaa won't want me anymore,' she thought. 'No, wait... He promised... He promised! He swore on his tail! He wouldn't back out of that... Would he?'
Merle looked up at Xaa smiling
down at her, and tried to tell herself that he wouldn't.
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