‘Shall we take our Salmissra in hand and make a real queen of her then, Rissus?’
‘That might be nice. A real queen would be sort of a novelty. We could achieve that stability you want – set up strict procedures for poisoning opponents, limitations on the use of professional assassins, and all that.’ He leaned back reflectively. ‘Things have been chaotic here in Nyissa for the last century or so,’ he noted. ‘Maybe it’s time for us to set up some rules, and around here, nobody’s going to pay attention to rules unless they’re handed down from the throne. Yes, I’ll agree to your proposal. Let’s go ahead and make a real queen out of Salmissra.’
And so we did that. From earliest childhood, Salmissra had never had a real friend. At the first sign of her affection for any of those around her, the sound of the tops coming off all the poison bottles rattled the windows. She was desperately lonely and more than a little afraid. I assured her that nobody in his right mind would try to poison me, and she opened her heart to me with an almost child-like trust. Actually, it was rather touching. I discovered a simple uncomplicated little girl under all the trappings of her royalty, and I became genuinely fond of her.
That’s happened to me on occasion. The most impossible friendship I’ve developed is the one I have for Zakath. That one should have stopped the sun. My affection for Salmissra didn’t even come close to that one.
I had a professional interest in Nyissan pharmacology, so between us, Salmissra and I ran poor Rissus ragged. When he wasn’t giving her lessons in practical politics – Nyissan style – he was introducing me to the exotic world of Nyissan herbs. Oddly, there were even some roots, berries, leaves, and twigs in the jungles of Nyissa that were actually beneficial – under tightly controlled circumstances, of course.
After I’d been in Nyissa for a half-year or so, the twins advised me that father had stopped by Emgaard and that he wanted to see me. Salmissra wept when I told her that I was going to have to leave soon, but I’d carefully insinuated Rissus and Salas into her affection, so I was sure that they could fill in the gap in their queen’s life. To insure that they’d never betray her child-like trust, I told them that if they did, I’d come back to Nyissa and feed them to the leeches that infested the River of the Serpent. You wouldn’t believe how fervently they promised to be good after that little exchange.
Then I went to the throne-room and said goodbye to the Serpent Queen. She wept and clung to me, but I gently untangled her arms from about my neck, kissed her cheek, and handed her over to Rissus and Salas. Then I left.
It was early in the winter when I reached the Vale, and the snow was piled deeply around father’s tower. I swooped in, resumed my own form, and braced myself.
‘Well, Pol,’ he said as I came up the stairs. ‘I was sort of wondering if you’d decided to stay the winter in Nyissa.’
That’s the rainy season down there, father,’ I reminded him. ‘Sthiss Tor’s bad enough already without adding a steady downpour. You wanted to see me?’
‘I always want to see you, Pol. I yearn for your company all the time.’
‘Please,’ I said, ‘spare me. What’s bothering you now?’
‘Did it occur to you to let me know what you were doing?’
‘Not really, no. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, father.’
‘I sort of like to stay abreast of things, Pol.’
There wouldn’t be any problem if that’s all you did, father, but you’re nosey.’
‘Pol!’ he protested.
‘But you are, father, and you know it. Oh, I met Chamdar down there. I don’t think he enjoyed our meeting very much, but I certainly did.’
‘Was he breathing the last time you saw him?’
‘I think he was breathing fire, father. I spiked his scheme by exposing him to Salmissra, and she put a price on his head.’
‘Slick,’ he complimented me.
‘I rather liked it. Have you got anything to eat around here? I’m positively famished.’
There’s something in that pot over there. I forget exactly what it is.’
I went to his fireplace and lifted the lid. ‘Was it pea-soup, perhaps?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Maybe we’d better throw it out, then.’
‘Because it’s green, father. I think you might have let it age a little-too long. Go down to the pantry and bring up a ham. I’ll fix us something to eat and tell you all about what Salmissra and I did to poor old Chammy.’
Father laughed uproariously when I gave him a slightly embellished account of my adventure in the land of the Snake People.
‘You did very well, Pol,’ he approved when I’d finished. ‘Were you really that fond of Salmissra, though?’
‘She wasn’t at all like most of the others, father,’ I told him a bit sadly. ‘I believe she was quite a bit like the one who had Gorek assassinated. I think I felt much the same about this one as you did about the other one. She’s very vulnerable, and once I showed her that I was her friend, she was very affectionate. She even cried when I left.’
‘I didn’t think anybody named Salmissra even knew how to cry.’
‘You’re wrong, father. They all do. They’ve learned not to let it show is all. Oh, I saw movement on the south caravan route on my way here.’
‘Yes. The Murgos have reopened trade with Tolnedra. That’s a polite way of saying that we’re going to go back to seeing spies every time we turn around again. You’d better go on to Cherek and let the twins come back home and start digging into the Mrin again. If anybody’s going to make sense out of it, it’ll be them.’
‘First thing in the morning, father,’ I told him. ‘Oh, that whatever-it-was you had growing in your cooking pot is in that bucket by the head of the stairs. I’d take it out and bury it, if I were you. I think it’s getting very close to coming alive, and I don’t believe you’d want it crawling into bed with you.’
And so I went on back to Emgaard to take up my task again, and the twins went back to the Vale to take up theirs. My sojourn in Nyissa had been something of the order of a vacation, but every vacation comes to an end eventually, and it was good to get back to work again.
Then, in 5300, the twins made another breakthrough, and they confidently announced that this was the century of the Godslayer. I spoke at some length with Geran, who was by now quite elderly, and with his son, Darion, a stone-cutter. Geran, as I said, was quite old, and he was just a little vague. I don’t think he really understood when I told him that we were going to have to move to Sendaria.