“There you have it, Lady Aracia,” Narasan told their distraught employer. “If all goes well—and I’m sure it will—Sorgan’s Maags would just be redundant. We won’t really need them when we get right down to the point.”

“Well—maybe,” Aracia reluctantly agreed. “Let Dahlaine keep those pirates. They aren’t real soldiers anyway, and that grubby country off to the north is all they’re really fit to defend. My Domain is the very heart of the Land of Dhrall, so it’s vital that we protect it from the incursions of the servants of the Vlagh.”

“We’ll have it well covered, My Lady,” Andar assured her.

“You gentlemen are busy,” Aracia said then. “If you encounter any problems, let me know about them. I’m sure I’ll be able to deal with them for you.” And then she left the cabin.

“I think I’m in your debt, Andar,” Narasan said after Aracia had left. “That woman’s starting to irritate me with all that screaming, and you seem to have a gift for quieting her down.”

Andar shrugged. “I have an older sister who’s at least as excitable as Aracia is,” he explained. “I learned ways to calm her early in life. As I recall, my father was most grateful.”

“You people have very complicated societies,” Queen Trenicia of Akalla observed. “Things are much simpler on our island.”

“Complications make life more interesting, Queen Trenicia,” Commander Narasan replied with a faint smile.

“I much prefer simple, Lord Narasan,” the warrior queen replied with a broad smile.

“Has Veltan’s older sister always been like this, Queen Trenicia?” Narasan asked.

“I haven’t known her ‘always,’ Lord Narasan. She came to the Isle of Akalla last spring with bars of that yellow lead she calls ‘gold’ that everybody seems to think is valuable. I refused, of course, but then she offered diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. I’ll work for jewels, but not for yellow lead.”

“I don’t want to offend you, Queen Trenicia,” Narasan said then, “but a society where women are the leaders—and the warriors—is most unusual. How did it happen to come about?”

The warrior queen shrugged. “From our way of looking at things, societies dominated by men are the unusual ones. The men of the Isle of Akalla are useless—except as breeding stock. They spend hours sitting in front of mirrors trying to make themselves look pretty by painting their faces.”

“You’re not serious!” Narasan exclaimed.

“Oh, yes,” Trenicia replied. “In a certain way, looking pretty is their only way to stay alive. Ugly men don’t live very long on the Isle of Akalla.” Then she laughed. “I had a predecessor who ruled the isle several years ago who didn’t really care much for men. She mated with quite a few of them, but when she grew tired of one of them, she’d cut off his nose and push him out of her house. She had quite a collection of noses by the time she was killed in a war with the women from another part of the Isle.”

Commander Narasan looked at her in horror.

“Don’t worry, Narasan,” she said with a wicked little smile. “Your nose looks fine right where it is.”

Andar swallowed hard. This was a very, very strange woman, and she seemed to spend a lot of her time looking at Commander Narasan. “Better him than me, I guess,” he muttered to himself.

2

As the Victory sailed along the east coast of the Land of Dhrall, Andar spent more and more of his time looking at the trees.

“Are you having some thoughts about going into the lumber business, Andar?” his lean, dark-haired friend, Brigadier Danal, asked on their fourth day out from the harbor near Veltan’s house.

“Not really,” Andar replied in his deep, rumbling voice. “What I’m really looking for is color. Autumn isn’t too far off, and the leaves of certain trees change color when autumn rolls around. Red leaves mean winter uniforms, wouldn’t you say?”

“I hate those winter uniforms,” Danal replied. “That wool makes me itch all over.”

“Itching’s better than freezing, isn’t it?”

The boundary between Veltan’s Domain and Aracia’s wasn’t really clear, but after three or four days at sea, Andar was fairly certain that they were now in Aracia’s part of the Land of Dhrall.

Aracia and her little girl, Lillabeth, came out on deck a few times, but they spent most of their time in the cabin near the bow of the Victory. Andar didn’t really miss Veltan’s older sister that much. Her superior attitude and shrill voice didn’t sit very well with him, so he tried to avoid her as much as possible.

As the Victory and the rest of the fleet continued sailing in a generally northeasterly direction, Andar saw several farming villages and even a few small cities along the coast. The cities seemed sort of unfinished to Andar, largely because they didn’t have walls like cities should. Of course, the Land of Dhrall was generally peaceful, so walls weren’t really necessary, but still, that unfinished look made them appear incomplete, for some reason.

The wheat fields appeared to have no boundaries, and that was something else that seemed most unusual. Property owners back in the Trogite Empire always marked the edges of their land with fences, but so far as Andar was able to determine, “mine” and “yours” didn’t really mean all that much to the people here. It seemed most unnatural to Andar, but it might just be that “ours” was the guiding principle here.

It was approaching autumn now, and the endless wheat fields lay golden under the late-summer sun. The soil here must be quite a bit richer than the soil back in the empire, Andar concluded, since the wheat stalks stood almost twice as high as was normal back home. “It looks to me like they won’t run out of food around here,” he murmured.

“That’s ridiculous, Narasan,” Padan protested when they were all gathered in Narasan’s cabin for their daily meeting a few days later. “The city has to have a name.”

“I don’t think she sees it as a city, Padan,” Narasan disagreed. “She refers to it as ‘the temple.’ There are some shops there, I understand, but we’re still talking about a land without money, so what we might call a ‘business’ wouldn’t be exactly the same here. Anyway, Aracia’s temple is the only significant part of the town as far as she’s concerned. Maybe a few of you should nose around in the city outside the temple walls a bit after we get there. The word ‘temple’ suggests a priesthood, and sometimes priests haven’t got a very firm grip on reality. Let’s find out what the real people think. We’ll also need to know if there’s anything at all resembling an army in this part of the Land of Dhrall. Omago built a fair military in Veltan’s Domain, and Longbow’s archers did their share of the work in Zelana’s. There might just be some sort of defensive force here, but I don’t think Aracia would even be aware of it. She’s too busy being important to pay very much attention to what’s going on around her.”

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