Veltan smiled. “I have a way to take care of that, Prince Ekial. Any Trogite who doesn’t own a ship won’t have the gold block I gave him when we sail away from Castano.”
“It might take quite a while to track all those cheaters down, you know.”
“I won’t have to do that. You may have noticed that the gold blocks appear when I want them to.”
“WeIl, as a matter of fact I have, and I can’t for the life of me see how you do that.”
“The gold blocks come when I call them, Prince Ekial. All I’ll have to do is call the ones I gave to the cheaters, and they’ll come right back to me.”
“What if the cheater’s got his block inside one of those iron boxes?”
“It won’t really make any difference, my friend. They will come back when I call them.”
It was two days later when Ekial’s stick had seventy-eight notches cut into it. “We’ll probably finish up tomorrow, Veltan,” Ekial said. “You might want to let the ones you’ve already hired know that we’ll be leaving here on the day after tomorrow.” Then he remembered something. “We will need ships for the horses as well, you know.”
“I’ve already come up with a way to take care of that, Prince Ekial,” Veltan replied.
“Oh? How’s that?”
“Have you ever heard the expression ‘You don’t really want to know’?”
“You’re going to cheat, I take it.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘cheating,’ Prince Ekial. Let’s just say ‘adjusting’ instead.”
Just then, Gunda came into their room in the inn, and he was grinning broadly.
“You look all bright and bubbly today, Gunda,” Veltan noted.
“The Amarite Church seems to be getting purified, Veltan,” Gunda replied, still grinning.
“That might take quite a bit of doing, Gunda.”
“It appears that the new Naos—that’s the title of the head man in the Church—has a real bad case of decency, and he’s spreading it around. He’s been confiscating the palaces of the assorted high-ranking Church-men and turning them into homes for the very poor, and the former owners of those palaces are now required to live in those tiny little cells in the basements of the churches where they serve.”
“I’d imagine that’s caused quite a bit of screaming,” Veltan said.
“Not anymore,” Gunda said. “The high-ranking Church-men who make too much noise are investigated by a new breed of ‘Regulators’—if that’s the right word. Anyway, there probably aren’t more than three or four of those Adnaris who’ve been even moderately honest. Most of them are guilty of assorted high—and low—crimes, and they’re dragged before a church court, with the Naos, Udar IV, passing judgment. There’s no death penalty for churchies, but holy Udar has come up with something even worse.”
“What can be worse than the death penalty, Gunda?” Veltan asked.
“He sells them as slaves. They probably aren’t very good slaves, but he doesn’t charge very much for them, so the slaveowner probably gets his money’s worth.”
Veltan stared at Gunda for a moment, and then he burst out laughing.
It was two days later, not long after dawn, when the Albatross, followed by a fleet of the huge, lumbering Trogite merchant ships, set sail from the port of Castano, sailing toward the west. Ekial still had a few doubts about this, but Veltan seemed to be fairly certain that everything would turn out as they’d planned.
Ekial wasn’t entirely certain just how far off to the north Dahlaine’s part of the Land of Dhrall lay, or how long it would take the slow-moving Trogite ships to make the journey, but Veltan kept telling him not to worry.
Ekial found that to be quite irritating, for some reason. He had every right to worry just as much as he wanted to.
THE VOYAGE TO THE EAST
The faint light above the eastern horizon announced the approach of dawn in the harbor near the house of Veltan, and Sub-Commander Andar was standing near the bow of the Victory enjoying the silence that always seemed to settle over the sea as she awaited the arrival of a new day. Andar found an enormous beauty on the face of the sea during those silent moments. It sometimes seemed to him that the sea almost held her breath as she awaited the coming of the sun.
As he looked out across the hushed water of the harbor, he saw the pirate, Sorgan Hook-Beak, rowing a scruffy-looking little skiff toward the anchored Victory.
“Would you go advise Commander Narasan that there’s a Maag coming to see him?” Andar quietly asked a passing sailor.
“Yes, sir!” the sailor replied, snapping to attention and saluting smartly.
“That’s not really necessary, young man,” Andar said quietly. “It’s too early in the morning for all that formality.”
“The cap’n told us all that we’re supposed to act respectful, sir,” the sailor replied apologetically. “Of course, the cap’n ain’t out of bed yet, so we can do this any way you want us to.”
“I appreciate that, young man,” Andar replied, still looking out at the approaching pirate. There was a bulky quality about Sorgan, quite probably because, like all Maag seafarers, he’d spent much of his youth pulling on an oar when the wind wasn’t feeling frisky. Just the thought of spending day after day rowing made Andar shudder. Life at sea didn’t really appeal to him very much. The sea was beautiful, of course, but she extracted a great deal of hard labor from those who chose to follow her.
“Now what does he want?” Commander Narasan murmured as he joined Andar at the rail.
“He hasn’t gotten around to telling me yet, sir,” Andar replied. “I’m sure he’ll get to it—eventually.”
“Ho! Narasan!” Sorgan bellowed as his skiff neared the Victory.
“You’re up early, Sorgan,” Commander Narasan called back. “Is something wrong?”
“Not yet,” Sorgan replied. “Of course, it’s early. There’s still plenty of time for things to get wormy. We’ll be going off in different directions before long, so I thought we might want to kick a few things around before we haul out of this harbor.”
“Come on board, Sorgan,” Narasan said, pushing a rolled-up rope ladder over the rail.
The pirate tied the bow of his skiff to the ladder and climbed on up. Then he looked around. “Is Lady Zelana’s sister anywhere nearby?” he whispered.