The summer after I’d taken up residence in my house, Duke Kathandrion and I went on down to the Great Fair for the annual meeting of what was coming to be known as ‘the Arendish Council’. That name wasn’t particularly original, but it was modeled, after all, on the ‘Alorn Council’ held at Riva, and Arends are fond of traditions – even those that aren’t their own. There were some frictions that needed to be smoothed over, but nothing major.

What interested me far more than politics that summer was the fact that Baroness Asrana was with child.

‘Is it always this awkward and cumbersome, Polly?’ she asked me one evening after the day’s business meeting was over.

‘Usually,’ I replied. ‘When are you due?’

‘Early this coming winter – about forever and six days.’

‘I’ll come down to Vo Mandor and lend you a hand.’

‘Oh, you don’t have to do that, Polly.’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Strange as it may seem, I’m very fond of you, Asrana, and I’m not going to leave you in the hands of strangers.’

‘But –’

‘Hush, Asrana. It’s settled.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ It sounded submissive, but I knew Asrana well enough to know that submission and humility were not part of her nature.

After the council meetings were over, Kathandrion and I rode on back to Vo Wacune. ‘Somehow this all seems very strange,’ Kathandrion mused on the last day of our journey.

‘What does?’

‘Meeting and sitting down with hereditary enemies.’

‘You might as well get used to it, Kathandrion. So long as I’m around – and I’ll be around for a long, long time – this annual get-together’s going to be a fixture in Arendia. Talking with people is far better than fighting with them.’

‘What an unnatural thing to suggest.’

I rolled my eyes upward with a theatrical look of long-suffering resignation. ‘Arends,’ I sighed.

Kathandrion laughed. ‘I just love it when you do that, Polgara,’ he said. ‘It makes everything we do seem so childish.’

‘It is, Kathandrion. Believe me, it is.’

The rest of the summer passed without incident, but the autumn was filled with social events. Evidently that’s an Arendish custom: ‘Rest all summer, and then have parties until the snow flies.’

Killane accompanied me on down to Vo Mandor when I calculated that Asrana’s time was approaching. He didn’t ask; he didn’t suggest; he just did it. ‘I’ll not be after lettin’ y’ travel alone, Lady-O,’ he told me when I protested. ‘Settin aside th’ dangers, yer social standin’ would suffer were it t’ become known that y’ can’t afford a proper escort, don’t y’ know.’

I didn’t make an issue of it, since I rather enjoyed his company, and I was amused at the way servants frequently bully their employers. Killane took what he believed to be his duties quite seriously.

It was snowing when we reached Vo Mandor, a thick, swirling snow that blotted out everything more than a few yards away with a seething cloud of white. Mandorin greeted me very warmly, and he had that worried expression on his face that seems to mark the visage of every expectant father.

I turned the Baron of Vo Mandor over to Killane with instructions to keep him out of my hair and proceeded to tend the grossly expectant baroness. There were narcotic compounds I knew of to moderate her labor pains, and if it came right down to it, I could put her to sleep with a single thought. It didn’t get down to that, though, because Asrana’s delivery of her son was a fairly easy one. Mandorin was so proud that he nearly burst. New fathers are like that, I’ve noticed.

There was nothing really pressing to draw me immediately back to Vo Wacune. My house was in the care of Killane’s capable relatives, and traveling in the winter isn’t very pleasant, so I gave in to the urgings of Mandorin and Asrana to stay over until the bad weather was past.

It was pleasant to spend time with old friends, and then too, I got to play with the baby quite a bit. But spring inevitably arrived, and Killane and I started making preparations for our return to Vo Wacune.

As it turned out, however, another old friend came by on the afternoon of the day before we’d planned to depart. Earl Mangaran, the de facto Duke of Asturia, had been conferring with Corrolin in Vo Mimbre, and, accompanied by his heavily armed troop of bodyguards, he came riding up the long causeway to Vo Mandor.

Mangaran hadn’t noticeably aged since the coup that had elevated him to the throne, but his eyes looked very tired. After all the greetings in the courtyard, Mandorin led us to a secure room high in one of the towers to discuss certain state matters. Given the nature of Vo Mandor, I didn’t really think those precautions were necessary, but this was still Arendia, after all.

‘Well, Mangaran,’ Asrana asked after we’d all seated ourselves, ‘did some emergency send you off to Vo Mimbre, or did you just yearn for Duke Corrolin’s company?’

Mangaran passed a weary hand across his face. ‘I sometimes think I might have been wiser to have left town when you ladies were plotting our little revolution,’ he said. ‘Now I think I know why Oldoran spent all his time up to his eyebrows in drink. There are so many details.’ He sighed mournfully. ‘I went on down to Vo Mimbre to advise Duke Corrolin that there’s serious trouble in Vo Astur. Now I’m on my way to Vo Wacune to talk with Duke Kathandrion about the same matter. I’m advising the both of them that they’d better form a strong alliance. Asturia’s right on the verge of going up in flames.’

‘There’s nothing new about that, Mangaran,’ Asrana noted. ‘Asturia’s been smouldering since I was a little girl. Which particular embers are glowing this time?’

‘I rather suspect that history’s going to call this “the nephew war”,’ Mangaran replied with a gloomy face. ‘I have no living sons, and my claim to the ducal throne is fairly specious. We did depose Oldoran on the flimsiest of legal grounds that day, and the one who should legally have taken his place was his eldest nephew, Nerasin.’

Asrana made a retching sound.

‘My sentiments exactly, Baroness,’ Mangaran said smoothly. Then he went on. ‘Unfortunately, my eldest nephew isn’t much better than Nerasin. He’s a foolish wastrel who’s up to his ears in gambling debts. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t put him in charge of a pig-pen.’

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