‘Oh, dear,’ I laughed. ‘You are an innocent, aren’t you, Ontrose? That’s what young girls do, didn’t you know that? We wear our prettiest dresses and ribbons, put on our most winsome expressions, and then go forth to do war. Our enemies are all the other pretty girls in the vicinity, and our battleground is the collective hearts of all the young men within reach.’ I gave him an arch look. ‘Be very careful around me, dear boy,’ I warned him. ‘I could break your heart with a single flutter of my eyelashes.’
‘Why wouldst thou wish to shatter that which is already wholly thine, dear Lady?’ he asked, and I sensed a certain subterfuge in his carefully phrased question. Ontrose was obviously not quite as innocent as he seemed to be. This was moving along even better than I’d hoped. Ontrose obviously no longer looked at me as an institution. We were definitely making progress now.
‘Be warned, my champion,’ I bantered. ‘Methinks I shall unlimber mine entire arsenal upon thine unprotected heart. Defend thyself as best thou canst.’
I think my lapse into formality startled him just a bit. ‘Thou wouldst take so unfair an advantage of me, Lady Polgara?’ he chided lightly. ‘Fie! For shame! Must I now defend thy realm ‘gainst the Asturians and mine own heart ‘gainst thine unspeakable charm simultaneous? I have no fears concerning the Asturians. Mine heart’s fortress, however, doth already crumble before thine onslaughts, and I do fear me that I must inevitably capitulate and submit to this gentle enslavement which thou dost propose.’
I laid my hand on his arm. ‘Well put, my Lord,’ I complimented him. ‘Very well put indeed. We shall talk about this more anon.’ And then he took my hand and gently kissed it.
It was a bit flowery, but it was a start. The ladies who read this will understand, of course, but I don’t think the men will. That’s all right, though – as long as somebody understands.
The peace I’d imposed on Arendia had been based on the brutal fact that as soon as one of the duchies began to show signs of restiveness, the other three would lock into an alliance to counter its waywardness. The core of the problem this time was the senility of Duke Moratham of Mimbre. By now, he’d been placed in the care of a nurse who babied him like the child he’d become. The governance of the duchy was in the hands of a cluster of nobles who were far more interested in out-maneuvering each other than they were in the good of Arendia as a whole. I made several attempts to explain the realities of Arendish politics and the benefits to all of the ongoing peace to them, but they were too short-sighted and too caught up in their own chicanery to understand. I think that if their capital had been located in central Mimbre, they might have come around, but, since Vo Mimbre stands on the extreme southern border of Arendia, events in the three northern duchies might as well have been happening on the far side of the moon. Despite my best efforts, Mimbre distanced itself from the rest of us and took up a stance of strict neutrality.
I had some suspicions about the source of this Mimbrate policy. Over the centuries, many in the kingdoms of the west have viewed my family’s conviction that the Angaraks were behind most of the disruptions on our side of the Eastern Escarpment as an obsession. Perhaps we are a bit too quick to lay blame at Angarak doors, but when we’re talking about Arendia, our suspicions are fully justified. Arendia has always been the key to the Angarak design to disrupt the west. Ctuchik was absolutely convinced that if he set fire to Arendia, the entire west would soon go up in flames. Unfortunately, Arendia’s always been a tinder-box that’ll take fire if you so much as look at it.
Ontrose went north into my realm to oversee the mobilization of my people. Though I certainly realized the necessity for that, I sorely missed him. I dreamt about him every night and thought about him just about every moment while I was awake. I made frequent trips to my duchy – more than were necessary, actually – but I was the Duchess of Erat, after all. Wasn’t it my duty to keep an eye on things?
The armies of Wacune and Erat were not really separate, since the two duchies were so closely linked. Baron Lathan commanded Andrion’s forces, and Ontrose commanded mine, but all our major strategic decisions grew out of extended conferences in either Andrion’s palace or my manor house on Lake Erat. We were all very close anyway, so we moved as a unit.
By the summer of 2942, everything was in place. Our combined armies significantly outnumbered anything Garteon III could muster, and if he so much as stepped across either of our borders, we could easily crush him like an irritating bug.
‘All is now in readiness,’ Ontrose reported to Andrion and me when he made one of his all too infrequent journeys to Vo Wacune in the late summer of that year. The army of Erat doth stand poised on the north bank of the River Camaar within striking distance of Vo Astur itself. Should Garteon move his forces across the Wacite border, I will surely smash his capital. Barring the unforeseen, events have reached a stalemate. Methinks we and the Asturians will glare at each other across the various borders for some several seasons, and then we may confidently expect peace overtures from Vo Astur. The Oriman family is not wellliked by the other noble houses of Asturia, and I should not be at all surprised should Garteon III e’en as his grandfather, find his way to some high window in his palace and take flight from that vantage-point to the courtyard beneath.’
‘Nicely put, my Lord Ontrose,’ Andrion complimented him.
‘I am a poet after all, your Grace,’ Ontrose replied modestly. ‘Facility with language hath ever been a part of my nature.’
Following our conference with Andrion, my champion and I returned to my town house. At supper we discussed some rather obscure and difficult points of philosophy, and I was once again struck by the depth of this remarkable man’s understanding. I’d have very much liked to have introduced him to uncle Beldin and then sat back to watch the sparks fly. I knew that if my plans worked out, that day would eventually come, and the prospect of introducing this paragon to my family was pleasing. My father and my uncles all lack a certain polish, and Ontrose, poet, philosopher, courtly gentleman, and the mightiest knight alive, was so polished that he almost glowed in the dark. Of all our Master’s original disciples, only Belmakor could have matched his urbane civility – or so my father tells me.
After supper, we adjourned to my rose-garden as twilight descended over the glowing city of Vo Wacune. Ontrose played his lute and sang to me, and the cares of the day seemed to slip away. It was one of those perfect evenings that come all too infrequently. We talked of roses and only intermittently of the mobilization as the gentle evening slowly grew darker and the stars came out.