‘Oh, dear,’ I sighed.
‘We’ve both been very, very good, my Lady,’ Khanar agreed eagerly, ‘and since we both behaved ourselves so well, don’t we deserve some kind of little treat?’
‘Why am I always surrounded by children?’ I demanded, casting my eyes toward heaven.
‘Probably because you bring out the little boy lurking in every one of us, Polgara.’ Ran Horb was grinning openly now.
‘All right,’ I sighed, ‘but only one. I’m not going to wear myself out just to entertain a pair of naughty little boys who managed to stay out of mischief for half an hour.’
Then I went owl – in part because it was easier – and in part because no carnival charlatan could ever hope to duplicate the feat.
I flew around the room on soft white wings for a few moments, then settled on to my chair and resumed my own form. ‘Satisfied?’ I asked them.
‘How ever did you manage to do that?’ Ran Horb demanded.
‘It’s fairly simple, your Majesty,’ I replied. ‘All you have to do is think very hard about the form you want and then command your being to take that form. Would you like to see something different? How about a cobra?’
‘Ah – no, thank you. Lady Polgara,’ he answered very quickly. ‘That won’t really be necessary. I’m completely convinced – aren’t you, Khanar?’
‘Oh, absolutely, your Imperial Majesty,’ Khanar replied fervently. ‘I wouldn’t think of asking you to turn yourself into a cobra, Lady Polgara.’
‘I rather thought you might both feel that way about it,’ I murmured.
It may have been that conversation in the early autumn of 3817 that had moved Ran Horb to put an end to the civil war in Arendia. In 3821 he concluded a secret treaty with the Mimbrates, and in 3822, the Mimbrates sacked and burned Vo Astur and chased the surviving Asturians into the forest. I know it’s not really very nice, but I did take a great deal of satisfaction in the destruction of Vo Astur, since it repaid them for destroying Vo Wacune.
No, I don’t think I’ll pursue that. Gloating isn’t really attractive, so it should be done in private.
Then, in 3827, Ran Horb II set up the election that ultimately produced the first Sendarian King. He made one mistake when he laid down the rules, however. He said that the new king had to receive a majority of the votes. That turned the whole business into a six-year holiday in Sendaria. There were seven hundred and forty-three candidates on the first ballot, and the winnowing-out process took a long time. Soon, Sendarians were dividing their time almost equally – mornings devoted to tending the fields and afternoons devoted to electioneering. They had so much fun that they ignored the fact that the rest of the world was laughing at them.
I love those people! When they’re having fun, they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks.
The ultimate winner, Fundor the Magnificent, had long since forgotten that he was still a candidate, and his elevation to the throne came as a complete surprise to him – and quite an inconvenience as well. Fundor was an agricultural experimenter who hated the taste of turnips and had been trying for years to replace that vegetable as a staple in the Sendarian diet with the rutabaga. Since nobody in his right mind willingly eats rutabagas, Fundor’s obsession had virtually bankrupted him.
During the course of the six-year-long election, the Sendars had decided to establish the capital of their incipient kingdom at the city of Sendar. Their decision was based on the price of land in that part of Sendaria, and it raised screams of protest from the largely Tolnedran land-speculators in and around Darine, Camaar, and Muros.
Following Fundor’s elevation to the throne, all manner of fortune-hunters flocked to the city of Sendar in the hopes of wheedling noble titles out of their new king. Fundor put them to work instead, holding back titles until he saw how well they performed various tasks. The alien concept of actually working to earn – and keep – a title offended most of the opportunists drawn to his court, but it ultimately produced a noble class with that most rare of aristocratic characteristics, a sense of responsibility.
I drifted around the new kingdom for several years, more or less unobserved, and as time passed I grew more and more certain that our experiment was working out quite well. Sendaria prospered, and the peasants were fairly content. I felt that I’d performed my final duty as the Duchess of Erat satisfactorily and had thus fulfilled my pledge to Ontrose.
Since that was out of the way now, I returned to mother’s cottage and to my studies.
Ran Horb’s system of highways – particularly in Sendaria – mightily offended the Chereks, of course, since it rendered their unique ability to navigate the hazards of the Cherek Bore largely irrelevant. There were rumblings of discontent coming out of Val Alorn, but since you can’t really sink a highway, there wasn’t very much the Chereks could do about the new state of affairs.
The Tolnedran highway system extended far beyond Sendaria, however, and its real impact was felt more in the southern kingdoms. The first contacts between various Tolnedran entrepreneurs and the Murgos were tentative and very wary, but before long the goods of the Angarak kingdoms began to appear in the market-places of Tol Honeth, Tol Borune, Tol Horb, and Tol Vordue. Murgo hostility began to soften, and the trade between east and west changed from a trickle to a flood.
Now nothing happens in Cthol Murgos without Ctuchik’s open consent, so it was obvious to my family that Torak’s disciple, crouched atop that gloomy peak in the middle of the Wasteland of Murgos, was ‘up to something’. In all probability, Ctuchik wasn’t really ‘up to’ anything more serious than spying and subverting a few Tolnedrans, but as my father and uncle Beldin were to discover after the war with Nyissa, their former brother, Zedar the apostate, had been more creative. His offer of immortality had enlisted the aid of the aging Queen Salmissra in Sthiss Tor, and that significantly altered history.
But that came a bit later. Following the establishment of the Kingdom of Sendaria, I devoted myself almost exclusively to the study of that pair of prophecies, the Mrin and the Darine, and I began to catch brief, tantalizing glimpses of ‘the Godslayer’. Clearly, I was going to be intimately involved with this titan, but as time went on and I probed more deeply, I began to get the strong impression that he wasn’t going to come riding out of nowhere garbed in shining armor, trailing clouds of glory, and announced by earthquakes and thunderclaps.