‘Not just yet, Sally, dear,’ I said in my best frigid tone. ‘I want you to remember that image. Now then, has Chammy here been trying to foist his tired old promise off on you? You didn’t really believe that Torak was going to marry you, did you?’
‘He told me so!’ Salmissra said, pointing an accusing finger at the now shaken Grolim.
‘Oh, Chammy, Chammy, Chammy!’ I chided. ‘Whatever am I going to do with you? You know that was a he. You know perfectly well that Torak’s heart belongs to another.’ I was gambling there of course. I wasn’t entirely sure that Chamdar had been at Vo Mimbre.
‘Who is it that Torak loves?’ Salmissra demanded in a slightly stricken voice. In spite of everything, I guess she still harbored some hopes.
‘Who?’ I said. ‘Why me of course, Sally. I thought everybody knew that. He even proposed to me once, and it absolutely broke his heart when I turned him down. Actually, that’s why he lost the duel with Brand at Vo Mimbre. The poor dear only has one eye, you know, and it was so full of tears of disappointment that he didn’t even see Brand’s sword coming. Don’t you just love it when your admirers fight duels with each other to prove their love? It’s so romantic to see all that blood spurting. I just quivered all over to see Torak standing there with that sword stuck right through his head like that.’
I heard a broken sob, and I glanced quickly at Chamdar. The Murgo was actually weeping! Of course Torak was his God.
‘Now, then, Sally, I think you’d better ask the fellow called Salas what happened to the Salmissra who ordered the murder of the Rivan King. If you believe Chammy’s lies you’ll be walking down the same path. If the Alorns catch up with you, they’ll burn you at the stake. Think about that and then take another look in your mirror. It’s the stake or the snake, Sally, and that’s not really very much of a choice, is it?’ Then I leveled that well-known ‘steely gaze’ at the still red-eyed Chamdar. ‘Chammy, you naughty, naughty boy! Now you march right out of here and go back to Rak Cthol. Tell Ctuchik that he’d better come up with something new, because this one’s all worn out now. Oh, and give him my regards, will you? Tell him that I yearn for the day of our meeting.’
‘But – ’ he started to protest.
‘You heard her, Chamdar!’ Salmissra snapped. ‘Get out of my sight. And you’d better hurry. Your diplomatic immunity expires in about a half an hour, and after that, there’ll be a sizeable price on your head. Now get out!’
‘Nice touch, there,’ I complimented Salmissra.
‘Can I really do that, Pol?’ she asked.
‘It’s your kingdom, dear,’ I assured her. ‘You can do anything you want to do.’
‘Is it possible for you and me to be friends?’ she asked.
‘I think we already are,’ I said, smiling.
“Then would you please get that awful snake out of my mirror?’
I spent several months in Sthiss Tor gradually leeching the assorted narcotics out of Salmissra’s blood until she reached the point of being able to think coherently. She was no mental giant, but once she came out of that drug-induced fog, she began to function rationally. The eunuchs who actually ran the government were more than a little upset by my intervention, so one evening after Salmissra had drifted off to sleep, I sent for Rissus, who probably wielded more power than most of his cohorts – enough at any rate that he had to take the usual precautions to keep them from poisoning him. He seemed a bit apprehensive when he entered the garish sitting-room of the Serpent Queen’s private apartment. ‘You wanted to see me, Lady Polgara?’ he said in his eunuch’s contralto.
‘Yes, Rissus,’ I said. ‘I thought that you and I ought to have a little chat.’
‘Of course, Lady Polgara.’
‘I’m sure you’ve noticed the change that’s come over your queen.’
‘How could I miss it? You’ve got her completely under your control. How did you manage to pull that off so quickly?’
‘I offered her friendship, Rissus. She’s a very lonely person, you know.’
‘How could she possibly be lonely? She’s got a whole stable of pretty boys to entertain her.’
‘Salmissra needs friendship, Rissus, and there’s none of that involved in her frolics with her pretty boys. She’s not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s clever enough to rule here if you and Salas and some of the others advise her. Are you feeling up to statesmanship, Rissus? Could you set aside your petty scheming and the incidental poisonings of your rivals and concentrate on actually making the government work?’
‘What an unnatural thing to suggest,’ he murmured.
‘Shocking, isn’t it?’ I agreed. ‘Here’s the way we’ll do it. I’ve had a fair amount of experience in positions of power at times, and I’m going to start reminiscing – telling Salmissra stories about how I managed this or that crisis, the tedious business of coddling powerful nobles, arranging the tax-code so that it didn’t generate an immediate rebellion, and all the other tricks of running a government. The whole idea will be to get Salmissra interested in the field of politics. Then, when she starts asking questions, I’ll pretend to be unfamiliar with Nyissan customs and suggest that she send for you. The whole idea is to rather gently educate her to the point that she’s an adequate ruler. From there, we’ll move on to letting her make decisions.’
He gave me a shrewd look. ‘Where’s the catch, Lady Polgara?’ he asked. ‘What’s in this for you?’
‘I want stability here in Nyissa, Rissus. There are things afoot that you aren’t aware of, and they’re going to be fairly titanic. I don’t want Ctuchik dictating Nyissan policy.’
‘You won’t get any arguments from me there, Polgara.’
‘Good. Now, then, I’ve weaned her off some of the more incapacitating narcotics, but let’s reduce her intake of the others as well. I know there are certain compounds she has to take regularly to keep her from visibly aging, but let’s cut her dosage to an absolute minimum. Who’s her apothecary?’
‘Speaking,’ he said with a faint smile.
‘Really? It’s very unusual for a pharmacologist to be in a position of power in government.’
‘Not in Nyissa it isn’t, Polgara. Here in Sthiss Tor, the key to the queen’s drug cabinet is the key to power. It may sound immodest, but I’m the most skilled pharmacologist in all of Nyissa. In a land of addicts, the apothecary rules, but it’s all sort of under the table. It might be nice to be official.’