of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"I'm very pleased you could join me this evening, Lord Xaa," Lady Vhross said, smiling as she bowed. She tried not to stare, but instead to simply be demure and formal. Xaa was wearing a black hakama, over which he wore a black kamishimo with widely-flared shoulders, his swords tucked into his sash. The kamishimo bore his family crest on the back, two crossed swords, sheathed. Vhross felt her heart flutter - he was very handsome, and the black silk of his kamishimo and hakama complimented his dark gray fur perfectly.
"I am honored you would invite me," Xaa replied, bowing in return. He looked her over, and smiled. Her kimono was perfect - a pale lavender, with delicate embroidery, the innermost layer was a pale white. Her chocolate-brown fur was perfectly brushed, and she smelled faintly of cherry blossoms. "It has been a long time since anyone asked me to share the tea-ceremony with them," he rumbled, then smiled wryly. "I'm afraid I may be a bit rusty."
"I am sure you will be perfect," she replied, smiling, then turning to the archway which led from the castle to the tea-garden. Xaa followed quietly, his yellow-gold eyes glancing about. Vhross had already carefully washed the round, flat river-stones of the path leading through the tea-garden with careful ladles of bucketed water, and Xaa could feel the cool dampness of the stones beneath his clawed toes. Lady Vhross paused before the low door to the teahouse, then bowed, opening it. Xaa looked the teahouse over for a moment before he entered. A low building made of woven rattan, its design was specified by centuries of mus tradition. The door only came up to just below his chest, which would, of course, force him to bow extremely low as he entered. Finally, Xaa bowed, stepping through the door to enter the little teahouse.
A few moments later, Xaa and Vhross sat on the floor, facing each other, the low tea-table between them. To Lady Vhross' left, the teapot sat, warming over a low brazier of coals. With careful, deliberate moves, Lady Vhross laid out two cups, then lifted the pot from the brazier gracefully, and filled each. Not a drop slipped from the spout of the teapot as she gracefully returned it to the brazier - she didn't even need the small cloth which sat by her right paw to catch the drips. 'She is very skilled...' Xaa thought, returning Vhross' bow with a polite, warrior's nod.
Xaa extended his left paw, covering and lifting the cup (which was as broad as his palm) and placing it into the open palm of his right paw. He turned it slowly twice, each turn a quarter-turn, watching as Vhross did the same with hers. He then lifted the cup to his muzzle, and sipped quietly. 'What is she up to, I wonder...?' he thought to himself. Her dark eyes revealed nothing, but her smile seemed genuine. Xaa banished the doubts from his mind, and tried to simply relax and enjoy peace and tranquility of the moment.
Xaa hadn't lied to Vhross - it truly had been a long time since anyone had asked him to share the tea-ceremony. In fact, it had been over four years. The last time he had been asked to share in the Zen-tranquility of the ceremony was by his wife, T'lixca. Four months later, she had died frothing, screaming, biting and twitching to the poisons of the cats. Xaa couldn't help but think of T'lixca as he gazed across at Lady Vhross. They looked nothing alike, of course. Vhross had dark eyes, and her fur was chocolate brown, save for in the front of her throat and the underside of her muzzle, which were white. Xaa supposed idly that the white patch probably ran down the whole of the front of her body. T'lixca, on the other paw, had fur the same snow-white hue of her daughter, and eyes of pale, pale gray, like fine steel. Still, the moment Xaa had shared with T'lixca, so long ago, was in many ways like the moment he shared now with Vhross - quiet, tranquil, perfect.
Again the gentle scent of cherry blossoms wafted to his nose, mixing with the soft smell of Vhross' fur. Xaa gazed upon her quietly as they sat, sharing the tea in silence. He could see it in her eyes - there was something she wanted to ask him. She was simply waiting for him to allow the moment, to permit the question. Xaa waited until the first cup was empty, and they both simply were sitting, gazing at each other in silence. Slowly, he nodded. "Ask, my lady."
Lady Vhross didn't immediately reply, but instead refilled the cups quietly, gracefully, then sat still for a moment. Finally, she spoke, her voice soft. "I have known you for several years now, my lord. As you know, my father is dead, my brothers are dead, husband is dead, my sons are dead, my bloodline is utterly extinguished, and I am all alone in the world. Yet, as I buried each of them, burying a part of my heart with each urn until there was nothing left of me in the world, there was always one who was there to comfort me... Each time, his strong shoulder was there for me to weep upon, his gentle voice there to ease my sorrow... You, my lord."
Xaa nodded, but said nothing.
"Now... Helping your daughter... It has been so fulfilling... It has filled a hole in my heart that I cannot even begin to express. Yet... I knew that once she had learned all she could from me..." Vhross said, then bowed her head. "So I asked to be your vassal, my lord. I could not ask more. My heart wished to ask for more, yes. Even now, my heart implores me to ask you... Yet, I cannot."
Xaa was silent for many heartbeats, his yellow-gold eyes regarding Vhross. Finally, he spoke, his voice soft and quiet. "My Lady C'dera'ap'Vhross... I remember the first day we met. T'lixca introduced you to me as her closest friend from childhood... Yes, I remember that day well. T'Lixca told me later that she was pondering whether or not to accept my offer of marriage, and you and she were discussing the matter in your room here in Castle W'mefa when I, unfortunately, intruded. Oh, you were the polite hostess, but I could see in your eyes that day that you wanted me to leave," Xaa replied, and smiled. "I did not know at the time what the matter was - I thought perhaps I had offended somehow."
"You did, my lord?" Vhross replied, blinking in surprise.
"Indeed. For many months thereafter, even long after T'lixca and I were married, I made every effort to make up for my imagined offense. I could not have the best friend of my wife thinking I was some kind of boor, you see. I thought it would not bode well for my marriage if my wife's childhood friend thought me despicable. I could imagine all sorts of whispered conversations occurring behind my back, small errors I made being magnified to enormous sins... Oh, yes - I knew I was in trouble," Xaa explained, smiling. Lady Vhross grinned, struggling to suppress a giggle as Xaa continued. "Ah, but you were the devious one. No matter how sweet I was to you, you still simply smiled and were polite to me. For months I fawned over you, treating you as more than just a friend but more like a beloved sister of my wife, and yet I despaired because there still was no sign that you had forgiven me for my error. No, as far as I knew, you still found me despicable."
Lady Vhross finally couldn't hold it in any longer - she burst into giggles. "Oh, Lord Xaa, I did not find you despicable! Not hardly," she replied, grinning.
"So I discovered," Xaa rumbled, grinning back. "After a year of marriage, I was at my wit's end. I finally went to my wife and begged for her help in finding a way to get you to forgive me for my error," Xaa said, then paused. "She laughed so long and so hard when I finally explained what I meant, she was completely out of breath - I thought she would faint."
Lady Vhross covered her muzzle with a paw, struggling to contain the screaming laughter that threatened to burst fourth. She snorted, and her eyes watered, tears of laughter rolling down her face as giggles escaped between her fingers. Xaa simply grinned at her, and continued his story.
"Well, the next day I went to you to tell you the story, and to tell you that T'lixca had told me how you really felt about me - but I decided not to. I suddenly realized that I had spent a year thinking I was fawning over a cold-hearted female who simply smiled politely, all in the vain hope that she might forgive me, but in the end, I had made friends with the same kind, gentle person my wife had called friend since she was eight. So, I kept this story to myself, and simply have been your friend ever since," Xaa said, then paused, waiting until Lady Vhross had finally calmed down again. When she had, he smiled again. "My Lady C'dera'ap'Vhross of Clan Vhross, I have been your friend since that day my wife laughed and said 'You silly, thick-headed worry-wart, C'dera doesn't despise you, she thinks you're wonderful and she likes you very much!'"
"She told you that?" Lady Vhross asked, the tips of her ears blushing.
"Indeed she did," Xaa replied, smiling. "Now, the years have passed. We have each buried loved ones, and we have each comforted the other's sorrows with each other's friendship. And now, you have a question within you. Please... Ask."
* * *
"They're in there," Johm'rouh whispered into Merle's furry ear, pointing at the tea-house as she bent over.
"What is that? It looks like a tiny little house!" Merle whispered, staring.
"It's a ceremonial place. In this garden, inside that little house, is where the warrior-caste of this castle usually perform the tea-ceremony," Johm'rouh whispered back, kneeling so she wouldn't have to bend over to whisper into Merle's ear.
Johm'rouh started to explain, then held up her paws. "It's difficult to explain. It's a part of Zen. Do you understand Zen yet?"
"Not really. It's very confusing. 'Is the cup half-empty or half full?' 'If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?' 'What is the color of thunder?'"
Johm'rough giggled quietly. "Ask my daddy. Or maybe ask Lord Yarro - he's a Zen-master," Johm'rouh replied, referring to the old, blind mus-warrior who served Lord W'mefa as a translator.
Merle made a face. "I have been asking Lord Yarro. Most of what I know about the mus, I learned from him - but Zen, I still don't understand yet. Maybe I should ask Xaa, instead," Merle replied, then looked at the tea-house again. "So what do you think they're doing in there?"
"Well, daddy said that Lady Vhross had invited him, so maybe she just wants to thank him formally for accepting her as his vassal. Or maybe she has something important she wants to say, and wants the tranquil heart the tea-ceremony gives to say it with."
"Well, maybe-" Merle began, then darted back to hide behind the wall, pulling on her friend's paw to get her back away from the opening. "Quick! Hide! They're coming out!"
Johm'rouh giggled and pretended to hide, peering out from behind the wall through the opening just like Merle was. "Oh, Merle! You're being so silly today," she giggled, then pressed herself up against the wall with just one eye past the edge. "Wooooo! Look, I am being sneaky! Soon I'll be as stealthy as a mustie! You think Byarl will let me into the tribe?"
"Shhh!" Merle hissed.
"Sorry," Johm'rouh giggled.
Xaa had come out of the tea-house first, and stood by the entrance while Lady Vhross came out. Merle watched closely, her heart catching in her chest. She could see it - there was something that had happened between them, something more than a simple sip of tea and a quiet chat. Once Lady Vhross was out, she bowed to Xaa, and he bowed in return. Then, something happened that sent a chill down Merle's spine.
With a warm smile, Xaa nuzzled Lady Vhross, and she nuzzled him back with a quiet giggle.
"Merle?! Merle! Where are you going?" Johm'rouh called as Merle sprinted away. Johm'rouh started to run after her, but stopped as she heard her father's voice calling her. She turned back to the entrance to the tea-garden, and her father stood there, a confused expression on his face.
"What is happening, my little one?"
"I don't know, daddy! Merle wondered where you were because she wanted to ask you something - I think it had to do with boats, but she was also interested in Zen a minute ago. Anyway, I told her you were here having the tea-ceremony with Lady Vhross, then you came out and Merle was hiding and it was funny and I laughed and looked down to her for just a moment and then suddenly she ran away!"
Lady Vhross blushed deeply, her pink ears turning bright red, and bowed her head. "I think she saw us nuzzle, my lord."
"You nuzzled? In public?" Johm'rouh exclaimed, a delicate paw to her bosom.
Lady Vhross only blushed deeper, but Xaa managed to find his voice. "Well, it wasn't quite in public, little one."
"Well, yes, but still, daddy! Merle loves you, and she expects to be your mate in two years! Why would you do such a thing?!"
Xaa sighed. "It's a long story - C'dera asked me a question, we had a discussion, and came to an agreement. Look, love - C'dera can explain it all to you, but for now, I've got to catch Merle. Which way did she go?"
"She went that way, daddy, towards her room."
Xaa nodded, sketching a brief bow to his daughter and Lady Vhross, then trotting off after Merle. Johm'rouh turned to Lady Vhross, and gave her the 'stern look' Merle had shown her once, glowering at Lady Vhross with one eyebrow raised and the other lowered. "Nuzzling in public and 'C'dera', now? Just what is going on, my lady?"
Lady Vhross did a double-take at Johm'rouh's expression, and burst into giggles. "Oh, my dear, it's not quite as bad as all that. Come - let's go to your room, and I'll explain along the way," she replied, holding out a paw.
Johm'rouh pouted for a moment - she had hoped her glower would be more impressive - but then finally smiled and took Lady Vhross' paw. "Alright."
As the two walked and talked, heading deeper into the castle, Xaa trotted out into the courtyard just in time to see Merle head out the main gate. She was riding Brownie, the bird Tinker had trained, and had changed into her little green-dyed leather mustie-dress. She was also wearing her 'traveling pack'. Xaa took a deep breath and let out a deafening mus-roar. "MERLE, WAIT!" Merle only slapped her feet into the sides of her bird, spurring it to a flat run.
"Ho, Lord Xaa! Is something amiss?!" Lord O'dmemet roared from atop the battlements, where he was inspecting the guards.
"Merely my own
stupidity!" Xaa roared back, then scowled. He couldn't
just chase her down on foot, and if she changed and took her kit
with her, it meant she was probably intending to ride back to her
village, near his castle. With a snarl of irritation, his tail
lashing, Xaa trotted back into the castle to get his own kit,
armor and weapons. There was still a war on - he might need them
if any enemy scouts were in the area. He could only hope Merle
wouldn't encounter anything before he caught up to her.
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