‘Persuade?’ Asrana asked mildly.
‘That’s just a polite way of saying “bully”, Asrana,’ I told her. ‘I’m very good at bullying people. Over the years I’ve noticed that rulers who’re on shaky ground at home almost always start a war with some neighbor on the theory that an outside war will redirect all those pent-up hatreds. I’ll strongly urge the eventual ruler of Asturia not to do that – and I can be very persuasive when I set my mind to it. I’ve devoted a great deal of time and effort to the establishment of peace in Arendia, and I’m not going to let some Asturian who thinks he’s come up with an entirely new idea disrupt that peace just to consolidate his position at home. We can all hope that the ultimate winner in Asturia will be reasonable. If he’s not, I’ll grind his face in reasonableness until he gets my point.’ I looked around sternly. ‘Have I made myself clear?’
‘Yes, mother,’ Kathandrion replied with feigned meekness.
Corrolin burst out laughing at that, and the conference moved on to its conclusion with a good-humored tone. I’d probably overstated things, but these were Arends, after all. The alliance between Kathandrion and Corrolin was firmly in place when we separated. That was the important thing. Now, no amount of Asturian conniving was likely to disrupt it.
Kathandrion and I returned to Vo Wacune, and he moved his forces up to the eastern border of Asturia, while Corrolin blockaded the southern edge of that troubled duchy. Asturia was sealed off now, and ‘the nephew war’ was strictly confined. Emissaries from both Nerasin and Olburton scurried around making ridiculous offers in both Vo Wacune and Vo Mimbre, but Kathandrion and Corrolin steadfastly refused to even see them.
I had a few concerns about Asrana and what she might do. She still had many contacts in Asturia, and she could, if she chose to do so, greatly influence the course of events there. I knew that she held Olburton in contempt, but she absolutely despised Nerasin. Given a choice between them, she’d probably – with reluctance – come down on Olburton’s side. I wanted a continuing stalemate in Asturia, so I strongly urged my enthusiastic friend to keep her nose out of things there.
All this scheming and intrigue was beginning to make me tired. A good juggler can keep a dozen brightly colored balls in the air all at the same time – as long as the balls aren’t slippery. My problem was that some knave had greased all the balls I was trying to juggle.
The year 2325 wound on down toward the annual feast-day called Erastide that marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. There was the usual party at the ducal palace in Vo Wacune, and the highlight of the whole affair was the announcement by Crown Prince Alleran that his wife, Mayaserell, was with child. All in all, I approved of that. At least there wasn’t going to be a messy argument about succession in the Duchy of Wacune.
The following spring the messiness in Asturia was climaxed by a phenomenal bow-shot of at least two hundred paces. Since the arrow involved ended up protruding from the center of Olburton’s chest, things in Asturia suddenly got very noisy. Olburton had controlled the cities, while Nerasin had held sway out in the more conservative countryside. In effect, Olburton had owned the people and Nerasin the land. There’d been a kind of balance, which I’d striven to maintain, but with Olburton’s death that stalemate went out the window. Nerasin did not immediately attack Vo Astur, but concentrated instead on capturing the smaller cities and towns. By the early summer of 2326, Vo Astur was an island in the middle of a hostile sea, and its situation was made all the more precarious by the petty squabbling of Olburton’s relatives. The ultimate outcome was fairly predictable. By early autumn, Nerasin had reclaimed his drunken uncle’s throne in Vo Astur.
And that was when Asrana stepped in, muddying the waters for all she was worth. I’m not sure exactly where she found the phrase, but the idea of ‘destabilizing the government of Asturia’ absolutely fascinated her, and she had plenty of contacts back home to assist her.
It was several months before word of Asrana’s activities reached me in Vo Wacune, and as soon as I heard of them, I sent Killane out to shop around town for a large mirror – ’the largest you can find’. I wasn’t really all that curious about my own reflection. I knew what I looked like, after all. Killane’s shopping expedition was a ruse designed to get him out of the house long enough for me to slip away from him. I did not want an escort this time. I gave him a quarter of an hour to immerse himself in the cabinet shops in the commercial district of Vo Wacune, and then I retired to my rose-garden, stepped out of sight behind a hedge, and went falcon. I wanted to reach Vo Mandor before Asrana could come up with any more mischief.
Evening was settling on the battlements of Mandorin’s castle when I arrived, winging my way out of the northeast. I settled on the parapet, sent out a quick, searching thought to locate Asrana, and then changed back. I was irritated, but not really in that state melodramatically called ‘high dudgeon’. I suppose that ‘medium dudgeon’ would have been more apt. Fortunately, Asrana was alone, dreamily brushing her hair, when I burst in on her.
‘Polly!’ she exclaimed, dropping her hair brush. ‘You startled me.’
‘I’m going to do worse than that in a minute, Asrana. What on earth do you think you’re doing in Asturia?’
Her eyes hardened. ‘I’m keeping Nerasin off balance, that’s all. Believe me, Polly, I know exactly what I’m doing. Right now, Nerasin’s afraid to turn his back on anybody in his court, and I have it on the best authority that he never sleeps in the same bed for two nights in a row. I’ve spun imaginary plots in his palace like cobwebs. He’s afraid to close his eyes.’
‘I want you to stop it at once.’
‘No, Polly,’ she replied coolly. ‘I don’t think so. I’m Asturian myself, and I know the Asturian mind far better than you do. Nerasin’s only interested in his own precious skin, so he’ll ignore the alliance between Wacune and Mimbre if he thinks a war will cement his grip on power. He won’t care a jot if that war kills half the men in Asturia. All I’m doing is keeping him so busy protecting his own life that he doesn’t have time to start that war.’
‘Asrana, he'll eventually realize that all these imaginary plots are just a ruse, and then he’ll ignore them.’
‘I certainly hope so,’ she said, ‘because that’s when the plots will stop being imaginary. I am going to kill him, Polly. Look upon it as my gift to you.’