He shook his head violently.
The Arendish Council will be meeting at the Great Fair again this summer – as it usually does – and I really think you should make plans to attend – for reasons of your health, if you take my meaning. Then, just to be sure that this distressing condition doesn’t recur, you’d probably better call all your spies, assassins, and assorted other troublemakers back here to Vo Astur. All this scheming and plotting is very hard on your stomach, and that delicate conscience of yours could cause all this to flare up again the moment you do anything the least bit dishonorable. It may take a bit of getting used to, Nerasin, but you might very well go down in history as the most honorable man to ever be born in the Duchy of Asturia. Doesn’t that make you proud?’
He gave me a sickly little smile. ‘Honor’ is a nice word, but the concept was totally alien to Duke Nerasin.
‘I think perhaps you should rest now,’ I told him, ‘but first, you’d better pass along orders that no one in Asturia should in any way interfere when my friend and I take little Kathandrion home to his parents. I know that the thought of the child’s happiness just fills your heart with joy, and you wouldn’t even think of hindering me, would you?
He shook his head so hard this time that it almost flew off.
Some scruffy-looking ruffians brought Alleran’s young son to Nerasin’s apartments shortly after dawn. ‘Aunt Pol!’ The little boy cried delightedly, running to me on his sturdy little legs. I swept him up into my arms and held him very close for a while.
Nerasin provided horses for Killane and me and a fairly sizeable escort to take us as far as the Wacite frontier.
‘Will th’ belly-ache be after goin’ away in time, melady?’ Killane asked as we rode out of the bleak granite pile known as Vo Astur.
‘It’ll seem to, Killane,’ I replied. ‘I’ll probably have to turn it on a few more times before Nerasin falls into line, though. He’ll try something sneaky in a few months, and I’ll set fire to his belly again. He’ll wait a little longer before he tries something else, and I’ll stir the fire again. Nerasin’s a thoroughgoing scoundrel, so I’ll probably have to remind him about “his condition” a half-dozen or so times before he finally decides to behave himself. In the end, Arendia should be fairly quiet – for a generation or so, anyway. After that, who knows?’
It was about noon when Killane and I returned little Kathandrion to Vo Wacune and his distraught parents. They fell all over themselves with gratitude and listened entranced to Killane’s somewhat exaggerated account of just how we’d obtained the boy’s release.
‘I think you can pull your archers out of Asturia now, your Grace,’ I told Alleran then. ‘The war’s over, so you can stop ambushing cows and pigs. Duke Nerasin’s seen the light and he’s going to behave himself from now on.’
‘You can’t trust that man, Aunt Pol!’ Alleran protested.
‘Beggin’ yer pardon, yer Grace,’ Killane said, ‘but th’ rascally Nerasin’ll do just exactly as Lady Polgara tells him t’ do – be it, “quit makin’ war” or “sit up an’ beg”. She’s got her fist wrapped around his tripes, don’t y’ know, an’ he squeals like a pig every time she squeezes.’
‘Do you really, Aunt Pol?’ Alleran asked me incredulously.
‘Killane’s language is a little colorful, Alleran, but you’ve known him long enough to realize that. The term “tripes” isn’t entirely accurate, but otherwise his description comes fairly close. From here on until the end of his life, Nerasin will fall down in a heap every time he does something that I don’t like. Oh, you’d better let Corrolin know that the war’s over as well, and then you two’d better start brushing up on your manners. Nerasin’s coming to the council meeting this summer.’
‘What?’ Alleran exploded. ‘After all the crimes he’s committed?’
‘Alleran, dear, that’s what those council meetings are for, remember? We settle disputes over the council table now instead of on the battlefield. Whether we like him or not, Nerasin rules Asturia, so he has to attend those meetings, and so do you and Corrolin.’
‘I’d be listening t’ her, yer Grace,’ Killane suggested warningly. ‘She knows exactly how t’ find a man’s tripes now, so I wouldn’t be after makin’ her cross, if I was you.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s yer own personal belly, though, so do as y’ see fit.’
What a treasure that man was!
Things were a bit stiff at the meeting of the Arendish Council that summer, but Nerasin,’ casting frequent nervous glances in my direction, was disgustingly obsequious. Alleran and Corrolin were curtly civil to him, but the pair of them obviously had something else up their sleeves. That made me a little nervous, so I watched them very closely. An Arend with a secret under his vest might be able to keep the secret itself in hiding, but concealing the fact that he’s got one is quite beyond his capabilities. Alleran and Corrolin were obviously ‘up to something’.
The actual business meeting didn’t last long, and it consisted mostly of the Dukes of Wacune and Mimbre dictating peace terms to Nerasin.
Then, when that was out of the way, Alleran rose to his feet. ‘My Lords,’ he announced quite formally, ‘methinks the time hath come for us to express our undying gratitude to she who guides us through the alien byways of peace.’ Then he looked directly at me. ‘We will brook no opposition in this, my Lady Polgara, for will ye, nil ye, this is our unalterable decision. There have ever been three duchies in Arendia, but from this day forward, that will no longer be true. Duke Corrolin rules Mimbre; Duke Nerasin leads Asturia; and I try as best I can to guide Wacune; but henceforth there will be a fourth duchy in our poor Arendia, and that duchy is thine. I bid thee welcome, your Grace.’ Then he looked around the pavilion. ‘All hail her Grace, the Lady Polgara, Duchess of Erat!’
‘Hail Polgara!’ everyone in the ornate tent responded, rising to their feet and then falling to their knees in an excessive genuflection.
Now that took me completely by surprise. I could immediately think of a dozen reasons why it wasn’t appropriate, but Alleran’s assertion that they were going to do this to me whether I liked it or not silenced my objections. Since they’d seen fit to tack that ‘your Grace’ on to me, I decided to be gracious. I curtsied my acceptance, and they all cheered wildly. ‘My Lords,’ I spoke then, ‘this honor quite o’erwhelms me, and I shall strive to mine utmost to be worthy of it.’ Then, since they were all obviously dying for a speech, I saddled up my vocabulary and galloped it at full tilt around, through, and over the top of them for an hour or so. Then, when their eyes had started to glaze over, I wound down to a stirring conclusion and received the customary standing ovation.