‘Oh, I don’t know – six or eight years, maybe. Possibly ten.’
‘Maybe I’ll learn how to shoot a bow and arrow instead.’
‘That might be more interesting. Look after your mother, Gelane. I’ll come by from time to time to see how you’re coming along with your archery.’
‘I’ll practice a lot, Aunt Pol,’ he promised.
I hope you took notes there. The secret word in dealing with little boys is ‘diversion’. Don’t forbid things. Make them sound unpleasant instead. Boyish enthusiasm diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of sweat involved.
Trust me. I’ve been doing this for a long time.
Father and I left the Stronghold at first light the next morning and flew west to Camaar. We spent the night in our usual inn and flew on to Riva to gather up the Alorn kings. Then we sailed south in a small fleet of Cherek war-boats.
Ran Borune himself met us on the wharves, and that was most unusual. The politics of the situation here were very murky, though, so Ran Borune went out of his way to avoid offending the sometimes prickly Alorn kings. I liked Ran Borune. He was a small man, like all members of the Borune family. Father’s introduction of the Dryad strain into the Borune line had done some rather peculiar things. A pure Dryad for example, would never give birth to a male child, but their tiny size carried over into the men of the family, and you’ll seldom see a male Borune who tops five feet.
To avoid offending Tolnedran sensibilities, father and I had hinted around the edges of an outright lie, leading our southern allies to believe that the names ‘Belgarath’ and ‘Polgara’ were in the nature of hereditary titles passed down through generations in order to impress gullible Alorn monarchs. I’m told that a whole sub-division of the history department at the University of Tol Honeth has devoted years to the study of us, and they’ve even gone so far as to devise a genealogy of this mysterious family that wields so much power in the kingdoms of the north. The Duchess of Erat, for example, was ‘Polgara VII’, and during the Angarak invasion, I was ‘Polgara LXXXIII’.
I’m not certain if that sub-department’s still functioning, but if they are I’m probably currently referred to as ‘Polgara CXVII’.
Isn’t that impressive?
The emperor was accompanied by his Chief of Staff, General Cerran. Cerran was an Anadile, a member of a southern Tolnedran family that’s always been closely allied with the Borunes. We were lucky to have Cerran, since the man was a tactical genius. He was a blocky, no-nonsense sort of fellow with heavy shoulders and no sign of the paunch that almost all men develop in their fifties.
The Alorn kings had arrived in Tol Honeth some weeks ago, and they joined us and we all trooped up the hill to the imperial compound, and Ran Borune advised us that the Imperial War College was at our disposal for our strategy sessions. It was a pleasant building, but its most significant feature was the fact that all the maps were there. A nation that’s spent well over a thousand years building roads is going to have a lot of maps, and I’d imagine that if someone were really curious, he could find a map somewhere in the War College that’d show the precise location of his own house.
Although we worked at the Imperial War College, we lived in the various Alorn embassies. It’s not that we wanted to keep secrets, it was just that guests in the imperial palace seem to attract followers. I won’t use the word ‘spies’, but I think you get my point.
Father’s ploy of hinting that the Drasnian Intelligence Service, even as dislocated as it had been by the Angarak invasion, was providing the information we were actually getting from other sources gave the Tolnedrans a graceful way to avoid accepting things they weren’t prepared to look straight in the face. A Tolnedran will go to absurd lengths to maintain his staunch belief that there’s no such thing as magic. It’s a little awkward sometimes, but we’ve always managed to work our way around it. Deep down, we all know that it’s pure subterfuge, but as long as we all behave as if we believe it, relations with the Tolnedrans can go smoothly.
Thus, when uncle Beldin arrived in Tol Honeth to report what he’d seen in southern Cthol Murgos, we passed him off as a Drasnian spy. Beldin’s had a lot of experience at spying anyway, so he was able to pull it off rather well. General Cerran found uncle’s report of the friction between Ctuchik and Urvon particularly interesting. ‘Evidently, Angarak society’s not as monolithic as it seems,’ he mused.
‘Monolithic?’ Beldin snorted. ‘Far from it, general. If Torak didn’t have his fist wrapped firmly around the heart of every one of his worshipers, they’d all be gleefully butchering each other – which is more or less what’s happening in southern Cthol Murgos right now.’
‘Maybe if we’re lucky, both sides will win,’ Cho-Ram suggested.
‘In the light of this Murgo distaste for Malloreans, how long would you say that it’s going to take Urvon to march his army across southern Cthol Murgos, Master Beldin?’ Cerran asked.
‘Half a year at least,’ Beldin said with a shrug. ‘I think we can count on the Murgos to make the march interesting.’
‘That answers one question anyway.’
‘I didn’t follow that, general.’
‘Your friend here – and his lovely daughter of course – have told us that this fellow who calls himself “Kal Torak” feels a powerful religious obligation to be in Arendia on a certain specific date.’
‘It’s a little more complicated than that, but let that slide – unless you’d like to hear an extended theological dissertation on the peculiarities of the Angarak religion.’
‘Ah – no thanks, Master Beldin,’ Cerran replied with a faint smile. ‘We don’t know exactly what that date is, but we can make a pretty good guess.’
‘Kal Torak’s going to want Urvon in place near the southern border of Nyissa when that date gets closer. He’ll want to give himself plenty of time because a two-pronged attack doesn’t work very well if one of the prongs isn’t in place yet. That means that Urvon’s going to have to get an early start. Let’s ignore that, though, and use your six-month figure. The battle’s going to begin when Urvon marches out of Rak Hagga. We’ll want to start moving into place then. We’ll get confirmation when Torak abandons the siege of the Stronghold to come west. That’ll be forty-five days before the fighting starts. As you suggested, there are bound to be delays, but let’s use Kal Torak’s calendar just to be on the safe side. We’ll move when Urvon moves. We might get there early, but it’s better to be early than late.’