The air in the throne-room positively reeked of animosity, and I realized that this ill-advised conference hovered right on the edge of an absolute disaster, so I stepped in and threw my rank into their faces again. ‘This will cease immediately!’ I commanded Aldorigen and Eldallan. ‘I cannot believe mine ears! I had thought that ye were serious men, but now I perceive mine error. Can it truly be that the rulers of Asturia and Mimbre have grown so childish? Are ye both so foolish as to cuddle animosity to your br**sts as ye would some cherished toy from earliest childhood? The world about us is on fire, my Lords. Ye must set aside this petty bickering and join with the Alorns and Tolnedrans in quenching it. This absurd exchange of threat and insult doth weary me, and presently shall I be obliged to demonstrate the full extent of mine irritation. Thou, Eldallan, shall join thine archers with the Sendars and Rivans and move against the Angarak rear. And thou, Aldorigen, shalt defend thy walls but make no move ‘gainst thy besiegers until the third day of the battle, and shalt emerge only at the pre-arranged signal. Since it doth appear that ye have played at war for two eons and more and still have no better grasp of the art than the newest recruit in a Tolnedran legion, I must here assert mine authority. These are mine instructions, and ye shall obey, lest ye bring down my wrath upon your heads.’ I sighed then, a bit theatrically, I’ll admit. ‘Clearly I was in error in the third millennium when I had hoped that my beloved child, Arendia, might someday reach maturity. That was obviously a vain hope. Arends might grow old and grey, but they will never mature. Mine alternative in those by-gone years was clear, but my love for Arendia had made it most repugnant. Now I see that I should have set that repugnance aside and performed my duty. Since all Arends are incapable of adulthood, I see now that I should have annexed both Mimbre and Asturia and ruled them by imperial decree. I am sure that it would not have overtaxed my abilities to teach ye how to kneel in the presence of thine empress and to obey her commands utterly.’
That jerked them both up short. I pretended to consider the idea further, looking them both up and down like sides of beef. ‘Perchance it is not yet too late for that to come to pass. I shall consider it. Thou, Aldorigen, and thou, Eldallan, are presentable, and could be – with firm instruction – suitably well-spoken, so ye would make adequate vassals to mine imperial throne. I will think on it and advise ye of my decision anon. But first, we must deal with Kal Torak.’
Well, of course I didn’t have imperial ambitions! Where are your brains? Still, ‘Empress Polgara of Arendia’ does sort of have a nice ring to it, wouldn’t you say?
I think it was the notion of change of government that made Aldorigen and Eldallan suddenly very polite to each other, and Eldallan’s suggestion that after the battle they might have a friendly little get-together – with swords – to discuss their differences at greater length sealed the whole bargain.
Aldorigen provided father and me with suitable quarters, and after we settled in, the Old Wolf stopped by. ‘You weren’t really serious about the “empress” business, were you, Pol?’ he asked a bit nervously.
‘Don’t be absurd, father.’
‘I wouldn’t be too quick to throw away a good idea, though,’ he mused. ‘It’d be one way to put an end to this silly civil war.’
‘Feel free to annex the notion, father. You’d make a splendid emperor.’
‘Are you out of your mind?’
‘I was just going to ask you the same question. Have you heard from uncle Beldin?’
‘He and General Cerran are riding south to start the legions marching toward the coast. Eldrig’s war-boats are already on their way down there to pick them up.’
‘It’s going to take time for them to get here, father,’ I reminded him. ‘Have you come up with a way to delay Torak as yet?’
‘I’m still working on it.’
‘Work a little faster. I’ve got some very personal reasons to want a lot of soldiers around me when Torak arrives.’
‘We can talk about it later. Get to work, father.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I thought’I might spend an hour or so in my bathtub.’
‘You’re going to melt if you don’t stop spending so much time bathing, Pol.’
‘I rather doubt that, father. Run along now.’
He slammed the door behind him as he went out.
Father’s strategy for delaying the Angarak army verged on genius, though I hate to admit that. Not only did it slow Torak’s advance to a crawl, but it also locked a pair of Arends who’d previously hated each other into a lifelong friendship that boded well for the future of poor Arendia. The only fault I could find with it lay in the fact that I was the one who was to have the dubious pleasure of herding a group of Asturians around. I wasn’t really very fond of Asturians for reasons that should be obvious.
Father’s plan was not particularly complex. The River Arend had numerous tributaries, all running bank-full after a quarter century of steady rainfall. Those tributaries were all spanned by bridges. Father thought it might be useful to take a thousand Mimbrate knights to the foot of the Ulgo mountains and start tearing down those bridges. I was assigned the chore of taking a thousand Asturian bowmen to the same vicinity to hinder the Angarak attempts to rebuild those bridges.
The knight who led the Mimbrate bridge-wreckers was Baron Mandor, a descendant of Mandorin and Asrana and an ancestor of our own Mandorallen. The leader of the Asturian bowmen was the happy-go-lucky Baron Wildantor, an irrepressible red-head from whom Lelldorin was descended. Necessity was tampering again, obviously.
Despite my long-standing prejudice against Asturians, I found Wildantor almost impossible to dislike. His bright red hair was like a flame, and his sense of humor infectious. I think the only time he wasn’t laughing, chuckling, or giggling was when he was drawing his bow. Then, of course, he was all business. Baron Mandor wasn’t really equipped to deal with someone like Wildantor. Mandor was a very serious man with virtually no sense of humor at all, and once it finally dawned on him that almost everything Wildantor said was intended to be funny, he gradually began to discover just how much fun it could be to laugh. The joke that ultimately sealed their unnatural friendship, however, came from Mandor’s lips, and I’m sure it was unintended. When Wildantor tossed off the suggestion, ‘Why don’t we agree not to kill each other when this is over?’ Mandor pondered the implications of it for several moments and then gravely replied, ‘Doth that not violate the precepts of our religion?’ Wildantor collapsed, laughing uncontrollably. What really made it funny was the fact that Mandor was absolutely serious. He flushed slightly at the Asturian’s laughter, and then, slowly realizing that his sincere question lay at the very center of the ongoing tragedy that was Arendia, he too began to laugh. It was rueful laughter at first, but then it grew more joyous. The two of them had finally realized that Arendia was really nothing more than a very bad joke.