Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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"Mrowr... You're looking quite well, today, Lady T'Zama!" R'Zin exclaimed, looking T'Zama over as she came out into the courtyard of her castle. He held the reins of his bird loosely in a paw, and smiled.

T'Zama T'Mrr suppressed a snarl of irritation, and smiled back instead. The armor her son had ordered made for her was quite beautiful - polished to the same mirror-surface as his own, the cuirass had ample allowance for her bosom, and an attractive, feminine appearance she liked. The helmet was ornate and quite beautiful, polished to the same mirror-surface, and decorated with an enormous red plume. Even the studded leather skirt was well-made. However, wearing a metal cuirass and helmet on a warm spring day was not comfortable at all. "Mrr... Thank you, Lord R'Zin. It is curious to me how you survive in this garb, however - I find it quite hot."

R'Zin chuckled. "Mrr... Take off your helmet, my lady, and just carry it under your arm until you're ready to ride," he replied, patting his own helmet with a paw, which was firmly tucked beneath his left arm. R'Zin's armor, of course, was far less ornate - merely dull-grey steel cuirass. Still, T'Zama had acknowledged her son's wisdom in getting her armor - a battlefield was a dangerous place, and even though she had no plans to be close to the fighting, she couldn't stay far enough away to be completely out of danger, or it would be obvious that R'Zin was the leader of all her warriors, not her.

T'Zama nodded, pulling off her helmet and tucking it under her arm, then panting for several moments before she spoke again. "What was our final count? How many warriors did we manage to get?"

"Mrr... Well, my lady, counting the mercenaries we hired, we have about ten thousand warriors. Granted, it's not much, but it should be more than enough - nearly all of R'Narr's forces and those of his allies are with him, after the Shazad," R'Zin replied, then smiled, looking behind T'Zama. "Mrowr... Here comes your son with your mount, my lady."

T'Zama turned, then nodded her tawny head. D'Main rode across the courtyard, leading the djuducu-bird she was to ride on this campaign behind him by the reins. He rode with an easy, practiced air honed by years of hunting from bird-back. In his gleaming, mirror-polished armor, he looked every inch a warrior, despite the truth that he knew as little about war as T'Zama did. T'Zama could only hope that her son was right, and Lord R'Zin was more than up to the challenge. "Purr... Thank you, Lord R'Zin. You go on ahead, and get our army moving. I need to chat with my son for a moment, then we'll be right with you."

R'Zin bowed. "Mrr... As you wish, Lady T'Zama," he replied with a smile, then swung into the saddle of his own bird easily, and rode out the gate.

D'Main smiled as he rode up next to his mother, then held out the reins to the second bird to her. "Miao... Here she is, mother. The gentlest hen in the stables. I picked her myself, so you should have no trouble riding her."

"Fsst! I hope not - you know I prefer to travel by palanquin."

D'Main grinned. "Mrr... Now, mother - you know that's not possible. Our troops will expect a brave and noble warrior-maiden leading them, not a soft she-cat who is carried in a palanquin. Appearances are everything - you taught me that, yourself."

"Miao... And I feel ridiculous wearing this silly sword you've given me. I haven't the foggiest notion how to use it!" she griped, batting at the sheathed rapier that rode at her hip from the ornate baldrick her son had given her.

D'Main chuckled. "Mrr... And I'm any better? Riding and hunting I can do - but I've never been trained to go to war. Father was always far more interested in D'Larin's education than mine." he replied, and smiled. "Mrr... Come, mother. Mount from the left - they're trained that way. Just stick your footpaw in the stirrup, there, grab hold of the saddle there, and pull yourself up."

"Fsst! I do know that much, son, I have ridden before," T'Zama snarled. It took her a moment, but eventually she managed it. D'Main was right - the hen was gentle. The rust-red, nine hundred pound bird simply stood quietly while T'Zama struggled to swing into the saddle, and once she'd managed it, the hen grackled quietly, but did nothing more.

T'Zama looked down at herself, then the bird, and finally sighed. "Mew... I feel ridiculous. I'm no brave warrior-maiden, my son. I'm forty-one, and all the battles I've ever fought have been with words, not swords."

"Mrr... Perhaps, mother - but you look like a warrior-maiden, and in this situation, that's all that matters. I know what you mean, however. But mother, you're perhaps the most skilled she-cat at the Art of Manipulation - and I ought to know, as you taught me the skill. And as for you being forty-one, please don't say that anymore. You hardly look a day over thirty, mother," D'Main replied, and grinned.

T'Zama smiled. "Mrr... Thank you, my son," she replied, then giggled. "Mrow! But that would make you about fifteen."

D'Main laughed, then slipped his gleaming helmet on. "Mrowr! Come, mother - we can do this! R'Zin is a good general, and he's up against easy prey. Most of R'Narr's forces are gone. We can easily take his castle, and hold it when he returns. The wealth we'll gain from looting it will also be enough to hire many, many mercenaries - perhaps enough to crush all of R'Narr's forces when he returns to retake his castle. And, we can slay his mate when we take the castle, as well. D'Larin will be avenged, mother. Yes, you and I are not warriors. But, we don't have to be. Our skills and contacts will come into play once R'Narr's castle is taken. Between your contacts and mine and funded with R'Narr's treasury, we can draw a horde of mercenaries to us, and bribe many clans away from him. With luck, we'll have R'Narr's head on a pike in a few months, and you will be the Overlord of the Eastern Hinterlands, not him. More, if the Shazad defeats his army, you will be seen by the Shazad in great favor, and magnify your influence at court enormously. And that is likely, I might add. Yes, D'Zhin lost at the Battle of Three Armies. Still, he was fighting against the mus, then. He'd never fought them before. This time, he'll be fighting R'Narr and his tactics, not the unfamiliar tactics of the mus - and D'Zhin is a very skilled strategist. He put down several small rebellions when he assumed the throne upon his father's death - this is just another rebellion, to him."

T'Zama nodded, smiling. D'Zhin could win, and was likely to. More, if he did, T'Zama could, indeed, gain an enormous influence in his eyes if her plan also succeeded. She'd dreamed of that possibility for months, now, since she and her son first conceived this Grand Manipulation. With luck, she would do more than merely avenge R'Narr's murder of her son, D'Larin, killed by R'Narr in a duel. No, far more was possible. With just a little luck, she would seize vast power and influence at the court of the Shazad. Though D'Main had no interest in she-cats and T'Zama could expect no heirs from him, T'Zama still had at least a decade of fertility remaining to her. She'd met the Shazad before, and he eyed her with the same gaze most toms still gave her, as she was still quite beautiful, even at forty-one. With care, she might arrange a small dalliance with D'Zhin, timed to coincide with one of her heats... And with a bit of luck, she would have a child to not merely carry on her line, but one who was of the bloodline of the Shazad, and heir to the throne. Yes, it was truly no mere manipulation, but a Grand Manipulation, perhaps the greatest work of her life. If she succeeded, the world could be hers...

D'Main looked at his mother's face as her smile slowly turned into a broad grin, and grinned in reply at his mother's renewed spirits. "Mrow... Come, mother. For now, we only have to look like we're leading the army - the real tactical decisions in battle will be made by R'Zin. He knows our situation, and he'll work with us, mother. His official role is as a general under my command, but he'll actually be giving the orders to the army. All we have to do is look the part, and let him take care of everything. He'll help us win, and he'll keep both of us safe. Not only is there an enormous amount of gold in the offing for him once we loot the castle, he's quite concerned for my safety, as you can imagine," D'Main replied, and winked to his mother.

T'Zama grinned again. "Mrr... I have taught you well, my son. You make me very proud," she purred, and slipped her own helmet on.

"Mrr... Thank you, mother." D'Main purred in reply, then turned his bird towards the gate.

Grinning, T'Zama turned her bird and followed D'Main out the gates of her castle, riding out to lead her army to their destiny.

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