of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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W'mefa'ap'Hrasht, Lord and Emperor of the Mus, stifled a yawn. The ceremony had dragged on for an hour, now, yet it could not be avoided. No, indeed, it was necessary - both to insure peace within three clans of the northwest provinces, and to re-affirm his position as Emperor.
The mus had not had an emperor over them for several centuries - the last emperor died, leaving the empire to a worthless son who proved so dishonorable that he not only sparked an enormous civil war, but his name was no longer spoken among W'mefa's people. Since that time, the various clans had settled into the system they had before the election of W'mefa. The thirty-six High Clans, who owed allegiance to none, ruled each of their kingdoms and dealt with the others as individual kingdoms, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Of course, there once were forty-three High Clans - but that was before the War with the Cats.
The war had dragged on for years, and the mus were, slowly, losing. The could not duplicate the firearms of the cats, as they did not know how to make gunpowder. They could not resist the strange poisons of the cats, as they knew not the ancient knowledges once possessed by the Little Ones. So, slowly, inexorably, the western clans were annihilated, one by one.
Yet, now all that had changed. Lord Xaa's discovery of a small village of the Little Ones led to his bringing back Lady Merle - and from her fertile mind and the mind of the late Tinker Smithsson, the weapons and knowledges the mus needed to win had sprung. W'mefa suppressed a smile as he thought of Lady Merle - it was difficult, at times, to remind oneself that she was not a mus, but a mustelid. Indeed, many who had never met her before but had only heard of her deeds and her marriage to Lord Xaa, the most famous strategist and war-leader in the entire history of the mus save for Dash'du'Ragh, were often startled to discover she was a tiny, adorable little creature, the size of a mus-child.
It was the arrival of Lady Merle's people, however, that had truly placed W'mefa where he was today - in more ways than one. Byarl, the chief of the musties, had used the great wisdom of those mysterious and magical people of the woods, and helped select a new emperor of the mus from the lords and ladies of the thirty-six High Clans. And now, that emperor, W'mefa himself, was dispensing with the last of the business of the War with the Cats - the legal status of the former lands of Lord Naash, and the designation of a proper heir.
It was no minor decision, of course. Lord Naash was the lord of one of the High Clans, and answerable to none. Yet, when he died, killed in combat with the cats in one of the last invasions before the Battle of Three Armies put an end to the war, he had no heir. This meant that his relatives, once vassals of his, could (and quite possibly would) go to war to determine who owned the lands, and who had the right to call themselves Lord of the Province - all in accordance with the Old Ways, which had developed since the death of the Nameless Emperor and the end of the First Empire.
Thus, it had fallen to W'mefa, the newly-elected Emperor of the Mus, to determine the proper and legal heir. The decision took W'mefa only an hour to make - the proper heir was obvious, to him. Lady J'taash, widely known as a proper and honorable mus and possessed of thousands of loyal vassals and servants, had been the first to suggest to all those involved that war be their last resort. Yet, as was prudent, she was also the first to mobilize her army, and prepare her lands and her people to defend themselves. It was also she who first suggested the question should, properly, be put to the emperor to be answered, and the first to publicly acknowledge that whatever W'mefa's decision, she would abide by it.
In all, J'taash had a reputation as a properly educated, polite, humble, honorable and noble member of the warrior-caste, whose lands were well-administered and whose servants and vassals were very happy with her. More, of the leading candidates, J'taash displayed a foresight and wisdom her other cousins did not. Her decision to leave the final choice of Clan Leader in the hands of the elected emperor was, in W'mefa's opinion, a sign that she was wise enough to accept the new order of things, and follow a path that would lead to peace not merely for her clan, but for all the mus. Yes, J'taash was the correct choice - a true and proper candidate for leadership of a High Clan. Yet, W'mefa could not simply exercise his power as Emperor and issue a flat proclamation that J'taash was the heir - such were not the ways of the mus.
Thus, weeks of searching through the written laws and traditions of the mus had been done. Dozens of scraps of modern legal code and precedent, and any hint in the ancient laws from the First Empire that pre-dated the Old Ways and supported the decision, were all included in the proclamation. Even the Book of Traditions written by the Little One, Smith Forgersson, was called upon to provide precedent for the decision - and the words of wisdom passed down by Lord Xaa's servant, Tlahn, proved quite useful, in the end. And now, W'mefa's representative at this ceremony read the carefully-worded legal document to the assembled members of each of the families in question, J'taash included. The mus were, in the end, a people of laws and traditions, not swordplay and blood, and if the honor and sensibilities of all involved could be satisfied, then the transfer of the lands and the power to J'taash would proceed without bloodshed.
And all the proper ceremony had, indeed, been carefully observed. Just waiting for the priests to properly bless the meeting ground, the courtyard of the former Castle Naash, and burn the proper amount of incense to appease the spirits of the departed Naash and all the others who died within the walls of the castle, had taken half an hour. Building the large wooden pavilion to shade them all and protect the pillows from the flagstones of the courtyard had been done days before, of course - a necessary preparation, as the remainder of Castle Naash was gutted and burned, and lay in ruin. And, of course, W'mefa had already accepted Lady J'taash's vow of fealty this morning. Still, the proper seating of all parties involved, accomplished with quiet dignity befitting the ranks of each of the parties involved, had taken several more minutes before the reading of the long scroll could begin.
Finally, Lord Hrasha, W'mefa's vassal, finished reading the document, and bowed. "My lords and ladies, such is the decision of our emperor, W'mefa'ap'Hrasht, and such is the precedents of our laws and traditions. Our emperor has nothing but the deepest and most abiding respect for all parties involved, and holds each of you in a place of honor in his heart. It is his hope that each of you will support this decision, in accordance with our laws and traditions, and give your fealty to your new liege, Lady J'taash."
W'mefa's exterior showed nothing but regal calm, yet his body was tense. With an effort of will honed over years of diplomacy, he forced himself to relax, and simply gaze cooly at the assembled nobility. This, indeed, was the moment of truth. Each either agreed now, or declared that they would not. If they chose the latter, then it would be Lady J'taash's duty to crush them with her army - and, more, W'mefa would have to support her, as would all the other lords and ladies of the High Clans. The decision, however, was not a choice between survival or annihilation. No, the choice was to follow the command of the New Emperor of the Mus, or to reject him and follow the Old Ways, where internecine warfare settled such issues. Rejection, of course, would mean that the Lord or Lady who refused saw the choice of acquiescence to be less than honorable - and that was, in fact, the reason W'mefa had taken such great pains to preserve the honor of everyone involved.
To a warrior-caste mus, life and death were the same, and the destruction of one's clan to preserve the honor of that clan was an acceptable sacrifice, if honor was truly at stake. More importantly, however, resistance would also mean that W'mefa's position as Emperor of the Mus was not quite as secure as he thought, and his rule would not quite be the peaceful one he had hoped.
A long, pregnant silence ensued.
Just when W'mefa's hopes were dimmest, Lady J'taash opened her muzzle to reply, then paused, blinking in what appeared to be surprise, perhaps astonishment. W'mefa gazed about in confusion, as he realized that all those in the courtyard had the same strange expression on their faces as they gazed back at him - one of astonishment and surprise. It was a long moment before W'mefa realized that they were not looking at him, but beyond him. W'mefa turned, looking over his shoulder, and his expression suddenly matched those of the other mus in the courtyard.
Behind W'mefa, coming through the smashed and burned gate of Castle Naash, was Lord Zhebo, one of W'mefa's vassals. He was, of course, in full armor, his bow in his paw. With his other paw, he led what at first looked like a child - but W'mefa instantly realized this was no child. It was, astoundingly, one of the Little Ones - and a very strange looking creature, she was. W'mefa was quite familiar with how a Little One ordinarily looked - he had seen the late Tinker Smithhson many times before he died, and since then he had seen the Little Ones of Smith's Village on Lord Xaa's lands, and had seen them again at the wedding ceremony of Lord Xaa and Lady Merle a month ago. Small, gray of fur, black of eye and much like mus-children, the Little Ones of Lord Xaa's lands all looked very much alike (unlike the mus, who had wider variations in the colors of eye and fur). Yet, they were nothing like the creature Zhebo lead to his emperor and lord, now.
It was female, of that, there was little doubt. Though she wore a hooded, robe-like garment that covered her body from head to toe, the pale, thin silk of her garment concealed nothing in the bright light of day. Her whiskers were amazingly long - perhaps twice what one might expect - and her tail was quite long, as well. Her fur was snow white, and over her pink eyes she wore a thin silk blindfold. Her ears were quite large, and the delicate spider's web of pink vessels could be easily seen. She was also incredibly slight of frame - so slender and tiny, it seemed that an errant breeze might cause her to flit away, like a leaf. To a mus, particularly with the length of her pale pink tail, she was an object of indescribable, nigh-ethereal beauty and sensuality - in truth, she hardly even seemed real. She was totally unlike the mice of Lord Xaa's lands, whose bodies were rounder, stockier, and proportioned more like children, or congenital dwarves. No, the little albino female was totally unlike any Little One W'mefa had ever seen before - they were positively dumpy in comparison.
W'mefa sputtered for a moment, then stopped and composed himself. He was Emperor - it would not do to appear that he was not in control at all times. With great dignity, he turned himself on his pillow to face Lord Zhebo, and spoke. "What is the meaning of this, Zhebo?"
Zhebo bowed deeply, and W'mefa observed that the Little One imitated him immediately. "With respect, my liege, this Little One wandered up to our camp outside the castle, and begged audience with our leader. As you are Lord and Emperor of all the Mus, it seemed to me that she meant you. She seemed so strange, and her manner of speech so unusual, it was my thought that you would want to see the creature immediately. I beg your forgiveness, my lord, if I erred in this decision."
W'mefa waved a paw dismissively. "No, you did not," he rumbled in reply, then looked at the Little One again. "You said she speaks? She can understand our language?"
"After a fashion, my lord, though her accent is strange, and what little I can understand of her words is quite archaic," Zhebo replied, straightening up.
W'mefa nodded, then looked to the ethereal creature who clutched at Lord Zhebo's paw. "What is your name, Little One? Why are you here?"
The Little One released Zhebo's paw, and bowed again. She then began to squeak in a rough imitation of mus-speech - and W'mefa found he could barely understand her at all. "Ic grete že, nobl' hlaford... Freondlice," she chittered, and smiled. "Wes šu hal. Ic gret ealle šu freondlice," she continued, smiling at all the other lords and ladies present. "Min nama ist Jendara, and ic cuman ascian šu for helpan. Ic cnawan, and mi peple cnawan, gear agan ure peple partaon. Thaes Niht off thae Lang Knifs ist welle remebrech, ac min peple hopian šu kan findan in eower heorte forgifan, and helpan us," she explained, then sighed. "Wa la wa! Thęs docga! Sumding moste donna!" she squeaked, then fell silent.
"Hrm..." W'mefa rumbled, gazing at the Little One. "From what I can gather, her name is Jendara. Beyond that, I cannot truly understand her."
Lady J'taash spoke up. "My liege, parts of her speech rang familiar to my ear, but I do not understand her either. Judging by the faces of my kinsmen, I think none of us here understand her."
W'mefa nodded. "Well, we've other things to deal with, at the moment. Zhebo, take her to our camp, and see that she's fed. Watch over her until we're finished, here. We'll take her back with us when we return homeward, then send a message to Lord Xaa. Perhaps the Little Ones who serve him will be able to understand her speech."
"Yes, my lord," Zhebo replied, bowing.
W'mefa frowned slightly. "And see if you can't find a cloak or something for her to wear over that..." W'mefa waved a paw. "That... Thing she's wearing."
"Yes, my lord," Zhebo replied again, and reached down to take the Jendara's tiny paw again. He then tugged the Little One's paw to indicate she was to follow.
Jendara's eyes widened and she squeaked loudly. "Ac... Ac thęs docga! Eala! Sumding moste donna!" W'mefa frowned slightly at her outburst, and Jendara bowed her head. "Mic parda. Ic že žancas do," she squeaked meekly, and followed Zhebo without further comment.
W'mefa took a moment to gather his thoughts, turning with great dignity on his pillow to face the Lords and Ladies of what would be Clan J'taash, should the rest of today go well. The strange, albino Little One's arrival had interrupted the proceedings - it was imperative that her arrival not be allowed to destroy the atmosphere he'd worked so hard to create, and cause this agreement to fail. Lady J'taash must be declared Liege of Clan J'taash, and all her relatives here must swear fealty to her before the hour was out, or the specter of war loomed on the horizon. After a moment, W'mefa smiled. "My lords, my ladies... I think, perhaps, the arrival of this strange Little One was an omen - and a good omen. Today, we call upon our oldest laws and traditions to avoid war, and insure a peaceful transition of a fief. These traditions date from our time of separation from the Little Ones - and I think, perhaps, in some way, she symbolized an affirmation by the Gods that our choice here, today, was the right one," W'mefa rumbled, then waved a paw dismissively. "Whatever it is she was trying to tell us, I'll find out eventually. Pay it no mind - let us, rather, finish with today's ceremonies, and then work towards the rebuilding of this castle, and these lands. Let us not allow her arrival, however omened, to distract us from our true purpose - insuring the peace and prosperity of these lands, and your clan."
W'mefa's smile broadened at the nods of agreement, and Lady J'taash spoke again. "My liege, I believe you are correct, and the Little One's arrival was a good omen. I do ask, if you will, however... Please, my liege, let us know when or if you do find out what it was she wanted. I find I am quite curious - and I'm sure that many of us here are, as well."
"Of course, Lady J'taash," W'mefa replied, and smiled.
After a long moment, Lord Kahgah, a young ebon-furred warrior-caste mus and quite the truculent one, nodded. With dignity, Kahgah rose from his pillow to his feet, turned to J'taash, and bowed deeply. "I would be honored, revered cousin, to swear fealty to you and prevent war among our clan, in accordance with the laws and traditions stated in Emperor W'mefa's proclamation," he rumbled, then cast his golden-hued eyes over the rest of his relatives gathered here, as though silently daring any one of them to question his decision.
J'taash bowed in return from where she sat. "I am honored, revered cousin, that you find me worthy of being your liege."
W'mefa suppressed a smile and maintained his aloof gaze, despite the growing grin in his heart. Slowly, each of the remaining lords and ladies involved acquiesced, and publicly agreed to swear fealty to their new liege lord. It was quite a relief - though W'mefa's face remained utterly calm and properly regal, as befitted his rank. The only outward sign he made of his true feelings was when the fingers of his right paw silently stole to the small spoon tucked in his sash - the very spoon that had elected him emperor, handed to him by Great Chief Byarl of the Musties. That small, impromptu vote, conceived in the mind of Byarl, had literally changed the course of history - and, W'mefa hoped, for the better.
As the last lord agreed, a small smile lit the corner of W'mefa's muzzle. It was as he had hoped - the spoon was an omen of peace. With luck, it would also turn out to be an omen of prosperity for his people, as well. W'mefa politely cleared his throat as the last lord sat again. "With your permission, Lady J'taash, I have brought my own cook and several other servants, who are assembled outside the castle. I can, if you desire, summon them to the courtyard, and each of your kin can swear fealty to you with all the proper dignity the ceremony requires."
"Thank you, my liege," Lady J'taash replied, smiling.
Lord Kagah suddenly spoke, inclining his head politely. "If it is possible, Lord and Emperor... If there are any more of her people and you do learn how to speak with them, could you possibly let them know that we of Clan J'taash would welcome them warmly into our service? The skills and knowledges of the Little Ones would be a great boon to us, of course."
W'mefa maintained his smile. 'Of course they would - your clan would become as powerful and influential as that of my ally, Lord Xaa,' he thought quietly to himself. Kagah's expression did not betray his motives, though they were obvious to W'mefa. Lord Xaa's possession of the Little Ones as his servants was widely known - and, apparently, widely envied. Though they did little more than work to re-build their ancient library now, it was well known that in a decade or so, they would be finished, and the products of their bright and inventive minds would be available to the mus - through Clan Xaa, of course. This, in the end, gave Lord Xaa enormous power in the future, and quite possibly would lead to enormous wealth, as well. W'mefa cleared his throat. "I will, of course, present your request to the Little One as soon as we have determined how to speak with her. I'm certain that once she understands the situation, she will give your request all the proper consideration," W'mefa rumbled politely.
"Thank you, Lord and Emperor," Lord Kagah replied, a brief gleam to his eye confirming W'mefa's thoughts. Kagah bowed deeply, and W'mefa returned the bow with a regal nod.
'Yes, and I'll also keep her under strict guard until I return to my castle,' W'mefa thought silently, still smiling, 'for I can see by your face that if I don't, she may never reach my castle at all.'
W'mefa sat quietly thereafter as
the servants were brought in to assist with the vows of fealty,
his mind still on the strange Little One, Jendara. His practiced
eye, honed by years of successful diplomacy, could see the
half-hidden expression on Lord Kahgah's furry face. 'Yes,
Kahgah - you are young, and do not conceal your thoughts well
from your face. I know what you're thinking, boy. It's obvious. A
small accident... Perhaps she simply wanders away one night, and
is never seen again. Then, mysteriously, your clan begins to
produce the weapons and other technologies of the fabled Little
Ones, and rival the power and influence my ally.' W'mefa
smiled at Lord Kahgah as the ceremony finally got underway, and
Kahgah bowed politely from where he knelt on his pillow. 'Yes...
I was wise to choose J'taash over you, Kahgah. You may be a brave
and honorable warrior and an adequate ruler, but you are hardly
the proper choice to lead a High Clan. It was obvious to me weeks
ago that you had dreams of leading this clan - dreams that I have
had to shatter, as you simply lack the foresight and humility of
your cousin, J'taash. Now, we shall see if I am wise enough to
insure your dreams for that Little One are unsuccessful, as
well,' W'mefa thought, his smile never dimming.
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