He was still working on it, though.

Oddly, Veltan and Zelana were accompanying them to the dining-room. Since they didn’t need—or want—food, they obviously had something else on their minds.

The conversation at the dinner table was fairly general, but after they’d all eaten—more than they really needed, of course—Zelana and Veltan took Sorgan and Commander Narasan aside and spoke with them at some length.

Red-Beard nudged his friend Longbow after supper. “I could be wrong about this, I suppose, but I think Zelana and Veltan might have come up with a way to make peace in their family, and it’s probably going to involve Sorgan and Narasan.”

“What a peculiar sort of idea,” Longbow murmured.

“You saw it too, didn’t you?”

“It was just a bit obvious, friend Red-Beard. I think it might disappoint Holy Aracia a little, though.”

“What a shame,” Red-Beard said with a broad grin.

“That’s a nasty sort of thing to say.”

“So beat me.”

When they returned to the map-room, Sorgan Hook-Beak cleared his throat as a sort of indication that he was about to make a speech. “Narasan and I talked this over, and I think we might have come up with a way to deal with the problem that’s been nagging at us here lately,” he announced. “Since we can’t be certain exactly where the bug-people will strike next, we’ll have to cover both possibilities. Since Lord Dahlaine’s territory is farther away than his sister’s is, Narasan and I pretty much agreed that I should cover that part of the Land of Dhrall—not because my men are better warriors, but because our ships move faster than Narasan’s can. Of course, that’s why we built them that way. Chasing down Trogite ships and robbing them is the main business in the Land of Maag, but we can talk about that some other time. Since my people will cover the north, Narasan’s will cover the east.” He gestured down toward Veltan’s “lumpy map.” “If that map’s anywhere at all close to being accurate, it’ll only take Narasan’s fleet a few days to reach Lady Aracia’s territory, and he can protect that region. That means that we’ll have people in place to hold the bug-people back in either the east or the north, and our employers can zip from here to there in no time at all. If the attack strikes the east, I’ll sail on down around the south end and join up with Narasan in just a couple of weeks. But, if the bug-people come north, my people will be able to hold them back until Narasan arrives to help me. When we add the horse soldiers in the north and the women warriors in the east, we’ll have enough people to bring any bug invasion to a stop. Then, when the rest of our friends arrive, we’ll be able to stomp all over the invaders and win the third war here in the Land of Dhrall.”

“It’ll be something on the order of the way we handled things before the war in Lady Zelana’s Domain,” Narasan added. “There’ll be enough of our people in either region to hold off the invasion until our friends can join us. Then we’ll move directly on to stomp-stomp.”

“What a clever way to put it, Narasan,” Sorgan observed.

“I’ve always had this way with words,” Narasan replied modestly.

“I don’t want to intrude here,” the scar-faced Ekial said, “but how are we going to get my people—and their horses—up to Lord Dahlaine’s territory? Horses can run fast, but probably not quite fast enough to gallop across the top of the sea.”

“I think I know how we can do that,” Narasan said. “Gunda’s got that little fishing yawl that almost knows how to fly. He can take you on down to Castano and hire ships. Then the two of you can sail on over to Malavi and pick up your men and horses. Then you’ll go north to Lord Dahlaine’s territory.”

“I think that maybe I should go with them, Commander,” Veltan added. “When you hire Trogite ships, you need gold, and I know of a few ways to keep that much gold from sinking Gunda’s yawl.”

“I think we’ve pretty much solved all the problems now,” Narasan said, looking around at the others. “When do you think we should start?”

“Have you got anything on the fire for tomorrow?” Sorgan asked him.

“Not that I can think of,” Narasan replied.

“Tomorrow it is, then,” Sorgan announced.

Red-Beard had been watching Zelana’s sister rather closely as Sorgan and Narasan smoothly cut the ground out from under her. It was quite clear that she wanted to protest, but the two clever outlanders hadn’t left her much to complain about. She obviously still wanted all of the outlanders to go east to protect her Domain, but Sorgan and Narasan—at Zelana’s and Veltan’s suggestion, evidently—had dismissed any protest she could raise.

“I don’t know if you’ve been watching, friend Red-Beard,” Longbow said quietly, “but doesn’t it seem to you that the warrior queen called Trenicia is staying very close to Commander Narasan, and she appears to be very impressed by him.”

“Do you think it’s possible that she’s having those kind of thoughts about dear old Narasan?” Red-Beard asked.

“I couldn’t say for sure,” Longbow replied, “but that would be a very interesting sort of thing to crop up along about now, wouldn’t you say?”

“Not as long as my head was on straight, I wouldn’t.”

2

At first light the following morning, the farmers of Veltan’s Domain began carrying large amounts of food down to the beach to stock the ships of the two fleets. There was a steely quality about that early-morning light that always made Red-Beard’s instincts seem more intense. “This might be a good day for hunting,” he said to Longbow as they watched the farmers come down the hill.

“I don’t think Veltan would like it much if you started shooting arrows at his farmers,” Longbow replied.

“Funny, Longbow, very funny,” Red-Beard said. “There’s something about this first light before the sun comes up that always makes me feel that this might be one of those perfect days—you know, a day when nothing can go wrong.”

Longbow looked up at the still colorless sky. “You might be right, friend Red-Beard,” he agreed, “and if you’re very lucky, things won’t start to fall apart until midmorning.” He looked out at the ships of the Trogites and Maags. “It’s likely to take them most of the morning to load all that food on their ships,” he said. “Let’s go talk with Zelana and find out if there’s something she wants us to do before we leave Veltan’s territory.”

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