of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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C'dera'ap'Vhross knelt quietly, waiting. Everything, years of hoping and waiting, had now come to this single, quiet moment.
She had loved him for years - and yet, never spoke of it. They had been friends, and comforted each other's sorrows at the loss of loved ones, yet nothing more had ever transpired between them. C'dera could see that her love, Lord Xaa, had been consumed by his hatred of the cats, and there was no room for love in his warrior's heart back then. No, such a thing would have distracted him from his true destiny - which was not merely to exact a terrible vengeance upon the cats, but also to serve as a rallying figure for all the mus in what was their darkest hour. And yet, just when she had resigned herself to the impossibility of it, just when she had resigned herself to the knowledge that eventually he would fall in battle and she would never have the chance to speak of her true feelings...
The little mustelid, Merle, appeared.
Merle, that strange, magical little creature, was to C'dera's eyes more than just a living person - she was, in many ways, more like a magical forest-spirit. She moved almost silently, and had almost no smell at all. Her laughing, playful exterior concealed depths beyond one's first glance, and a powerful and wise mind far greater than her scant eighteen years of age might otherwise indicate. More, she was a dangerous little warrior in her own right, as were all her people.
And Lord Xaa had fallen in love with her.
C'dera knew that she had missed her chance, and let Lord Xaa slip from her fingers - and yet, in the end, she still thought her decision wise. Had she not done so, Lady Merle might never have come into the lands of the mus, and all the marvelous and wonderful inventions she had created might still be unknown - as well as those inventions she helped the mus obtain from the Little One, Tinker, and the vast secrets of the Library of the Mice that would become available to Lord Xaa in just eight more years. Lord Xaa had, over four years ago, left on a desperate quest beyond the southern mountains to try to save his people - and brought back Lady Merle, who did just that. Yes, Lady Merle was, by all accounts, a fitting mate for Lord Xaa. The wise, inventive little mustie was now, perhaps, one of the most famous living people in all the lands of the mus, second only perhaps to Lord Xaa himself.
And who was C'dera, by comparison? A minor noble, widow of a minor noble in Lord W'mefa's service. She had no family left, anymore - the long war with the cats had taken her sons, her husband, and all the other living members of her family on to the Void. No, she was nothing, really - merely another unfortunate warrior-caste female, alone in the world because of the war.
And her one love was to be the mate of another.
As difficult as it was to confess her feelings to Xaa and ask him the question that burned in her heart, it was even more difficult for C'dera to ask Merle the same question - if she might become Lord Xaa's courtesan, Merle's partner in her relationship with him. Though such was common in the traditions of the mus, C'dera had learned that to the musties, this was something unknown. C'dera had greatly feared that the strange, almost ethereal little being would simply smile and say "No, thank you." Merle was responsible for everything good that had happened, really. Without her, Lord Xaa might have simply died out in the wilderness - his arm broken, his mount and supplies gone, unable to hunt for himself, he would have eventually starved. But, he did not - Merle found him instead. More, C'dera knew that Merle's intervention had led to a chain of events far greater than could ever have been imagined. The end of the war with the cats, the development of new and marvelous technologies, and much, much more. She had, with her small, quiet actions, literally changed the course of history.
And who was C'dera to ask such a thing of someone so great, so grand, so important?
Yet, she had asked.
And, to her great relief and joy, Merle had agreed.
Now, the wedding ceremony was complete, and the traditional month of waiting had passed between the wedding ceremony and the ceremony that would take place today. C'dera knelt quietly in the small tea-house of Castle Xaa, waiting for Merle to enter, her heart pounding in her chest. She was very nervous, as Merle could, in the end, still say 'no, thank you.'
Oh, it was unlikely, to be sure. In the years that Merle and C'dera had known each other, now, they had become very close. More than mere acquaintances, but dear friends and close confidants. They both loved the same male - and both knew and respected the other's love greatly. In Merle's culture, such a story might end sadly, with one female being happy, and the other sad. Yet, in C'dera's culture, this didn't necessarily have to be the way their story ended. Merle and C'dera had spent many, many weeks working out their feelings, and understanding each other in the last two years since C'dera had asked - and in that time, their friendship had grown even stronger. Yes, it was unlikely she would say 'no' - but C'dera knew Merle still retained that right, and despite everything, she feared that the strange and magical little mustelid who was so dear to her now might, in the end, do just that.
Quietly, the low door to the tea-house opened, and Merle bowed as she entered. The door was intentionally made quite low, to force all who entered to bow - of course, Merle could enter standing straight. Yet, Merle had learned the ways and traditions of the mus, and bowed as she entered anyway. Merle looked resplendent in her finest green kimono, and moved with the quiet grace of her people to sit before C'dera. A strange scent came to C'dera's nose... Musky, yet not unpleasant, simply neutral to her nose. It was a moment before she realized that the scent was coming from Merle, and what it meant. It was summer - the first of the semi-annual mating seasons of both the mus and the musties, and the little scent-gland at the base of Merle's tail, which Merle had described before, was active.
C'dera bowed low, pressing her forehead to the soft mats of the tea-house. "My lady, I humbly and formally request your permission to become the courtesan of your mate, your partner in your relationship to him," she rumbled in the language of the mus, her voice soft.
Merle smiled. "I would be pleased and happy to have you, C'dera, and to allow you to share with me my mate," she replied formally.
C'dera sat up slowly, her face beaming. Merle simply grinned back at her.
There was nothing more to be said, in truth. All that they needed to say to each other had already been said long before this moment, as was proper. There should be no misunderstandings between mate and courtesan as to where each stood in the relationship, and what each expected of the other. C'dera simply reached to her side to the teacups, and set one before each of them. Afterwards, she reached to the small brazier and lifted the pot from it, to pour each of them some tea.
The two sat together in silence thereafter, gazing quietly at each other for a long moment, and sipping their tea. It was a proper, formal mus tea-ceremony, and Merle, of course, performed quite well. In the weeks since the wedding (and the wedding night), Merle had seemed to gain even more confidence than she ever had possessed previously, and it showed in her words, and in the way she carried herself. It was often whispered by mothers to the younger, warrior-caste females of Castle Xaa, "Watch Lady Merle, and learn." She may have come from an open, primitive society, but she had so thoroughly adapted to the ways and traditions of the mus that her outward behavior was, in the end, impeccable.
Eventually, the tea was done, and
Merle rose to her feet, stepping over to the door, and bowing as
she exited. C'dera, after a moment to put the tea-set away and
douse the coals of the brazier, followed. Together, the two
friends walked out of the little ceremonial garden and into the
rest of the castle - and, in truth, into the rest of their lives
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