‘Under the circumstances it was the best I could do. I wasn’t big enough to bash out his brains. He’s going to have a very itchy scalp for the next week or so, though. I’ll stop by that mountain of his from time to time to make sure he stays put. Mallorea’s gone all to pieces, you know.’

‘Oh?’

‘When word got back that Torak wasn’t functioning any more, independence movements started springing up all over the continent. The old emperor - the one Torak deposed - is back on the throne at Mal Zeth now, but he’s not really very effective. He’s got a grandson - Korzeth, I think his name is. The old emperor’s grooming him for the task of reuniting Mallorea. I was going to slip into the palace and slit the little monster’s throat, but the Master told me not to - very firmly. Evidently, Korzeth’s line’s going to produce somebody we’re going to need on down the line. That’s about it, Belgarath, so pass all this on to the twins and to Pol. I’m going back to Cthol Murgos. I think I’ll graze on Zedar’s head for a while longer.’ Then he blurred back into feathers and went out the window.

I made my apologies to Mandor and Wildantor the next morning and rode north, intending to go to Seline to advise Pol of these developments, but I hadn’t gone five miles when I heard the sound of a galloping horse behind me. I was more than a little startled when I saw that it was General Cerran.

‘Belgarath!’ he shouted before he’d even caught up with me. ‘Thank Nedra I caught up with you before you vanished into the Asturian Forest! Ran Borune wants you to come back to Tol Honeth!’

‘Have you run out of couriers, Cerran?’ I asked, a little amused to see a middle-aged Tolnedran general reduced to a messenger-boy.

‘It’s a sensitive matter, old friend. Something’s going on in Tol Honeth that might involve you. The emperor doesn’t even want you to come to the palace. I’m supposed to take you to a certain place and then leave you to your own devices. His Majesty thinks it might be one of those things a Tolnedran wouldn’t understand, but you would.’

‘You’ve managed to arouse my curiosity, Cerran. Can you give me any details?’

‘There’s a member of the Honethite family who’s a thoroughgoing scoundrel.’

‘I thought they all were.’

‘This one’s so bad that his family’s disowned him. There are some things so rancid that even the Honeths can’t stomach them, but this fellow, Olgon, will do anything for a price. He does business out of a low tavern that’s frequented by pickpockets and hired killers. We like to keep an eye on him, so a couple of our agents have wormed their way in amongst the regular patrons. We’re fairly sure that the Drasnian ambassador’s got some people in there as well.’

‘You could probably make a safe bet on that,’ I agreed.

‘Truly. To cut this short, a couple of weeks ago, this Honethite Olgon was approached by a Nyissan who said that his employer would pay a great deal of money to find out where you are - and much more to find out where Lady Polgara is.’

‘Pol’s not in Tolnedra.’

‘We were fairly sure she wasn’t, but Olgon’s got people scattered all over the western kingdoms, and he has contacts with just about every thief and outlaw on this side of the escarpment.’

‘Why would a Nyissan be trying to find us?’

‘His employer isn’t Nyissan. One of our agents was close enough to eavesdrop when the Nyissan told Olgon his employer’s name. The man who’s looking for you is called Asharak the Murgo.’

‘I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of him.’

‘It’s an assumed name. Our intelligence service has quite an extensive file on this particular Murgo. He uses about a half-dozen names, but here’s one report about twenty years old that identifies him as somebody named Chamdar. Does that name mean anything to you?’

I gaped at him for a moment, and then I wheeled my horse and spurred him toward the south and Tol Honeth.

Chapter 44

General Cerran and I very nearly killed our horses getting to Tol Honeth. I’m sure Cerran thought I’d gone crazy until I told him of some of my previous encounters with Ctuchik’s ambitious underling. When we finally reached Tol Honeth, we went immediately to the Drasnian embassy. Ran Borune’s intelligence service was good, I suppose, but it was no match for Rhodar’s. The Drasnian ambassador was a stout fellow named Kheral, and he didn’t seem very surprised to see us when we were escorted into his red-draped office. ‘I rather thought you might be stopping by, Ancient One,’ he said to me.

‘Let’s get down to business, Kheral,’ I said, cutting across the pleasantries. ‘How much can you tell me about this fellow who calls himself Asharak the Murgo?’

Kheral leaned back, clasping his pudgy hands on his paunch. ‘He was fairly active here in Tolnedra back before the war, Belgarath - all the usual things, spies, corrupting government officials, and the like. There were dozens of Murgos doing that sort of thing back in those days. We routinely kept an eye on all of them, but Asharak wasn’t doing anything so radically different from the others that he stood out.’

‘Didn’t your home office in Boktor make the connection?’

‘Evidently not. Asharak’s name was in our reports, but it was mixed in with the names of all the other Murgo agents, so it didn’t ring any bells. Then Kal Torak invaded Drasnia, and the intelligence service had to move out of Boktor in a hurry. They set up shop in Riva, but the files were an absolute shambles. That might explain why later reports on Asharak didn’t attract attention until just recently. Murgo operatives were still functioning here in Tolnedra even after the South Caravan Route was closed, but when the war started getting serious, they all left the country.’

‘Good riddance,’ Cerran noted.

‘No, General, not really,’ Kheral disagreed. ‘Murgos sort of stand out in the western kingdoms, so they’re easy to identify. Ctuchik’s using Dagashi now instead, and it’s much more challenging to try to identify them. We did manage to locate one a few months back, though, so I put some people to watching him. Then, about two weeks ago, this Dagashi was speaking with a fellow who looked like a Sendar, but probably wasn’t, and one of my agents was close enough to them to hear them talking about some orders they’d received from Asharak the Murgo. I sent a report to our temporary headquarters in Riva, and a clerk who was a little more alert than the one who’s been mishandling my correspondence made the connection. He checked the dossier we’ve kept on Asharak for years now, and he found some documents that were cross-referenced to the file we keep on Chamdar. The Chief of Service alerted me, and I arranged to leak information to Ran Borune’s spies. I knew that you’d recently visited the palace, Belgarath, and there was a good chance that the emperor would know where you’d gone. I felt that it’d be easier - and cheaper - to let his people find you rather than sending out my own.’

Cerran was looking speculatively at Kheral. ‘I’m getting the distinct impression that you wear two hats, your Excellency,’ he observed.

‘Didn’t you know that, Cerran?’ I asked him. ‘Every Drasnian ambassador in the world’s a member of the intelligence service.’

Kheral made a slight face. ‘It’s a budgetary consideration, General,’ he explained. ‘King Rhodar’s a very thrifty fellow, and this way he only has to pay one salary rather than two. The savings do mount up after a while.’

Cerran smiled. ‘How typically Drasnian,’ he murmured.

‘How does this renegade Honethite, Olgon, fit into all of this, Kheral?’ I asked.

‘I was just getting to that, Ancient One. The Dagashi we’ve been watching is currently posing as a Nyissan - shaved head, silk robe, and all of that. He’s been spending a lot of time in that tavern Olgon frequents. I’ve got a couple of agents close to Olgon, and we’re fairly sure Tolnedran intelligence does as well. This so-called Nyissan was the one who enlisted Olgon to aid in the search for you and Lady Polgara.’

I stood up. ‘I think maybe I’d better go to this tavern and have a look at Olgon for myself. Exactly where is the place?’

‘On the southern end of the island.’ Cerran told me, ‘but would that be wise? You are fairly well-known, and I’m sure that Asharak’s Dagashi would recognize you.’

‘I can disguise myself, Cerran,’ I assured him. ‘Nobody’s going to recognize me.’ I looked him straight in the face. ‘You don’t really want to know how I do that, do you?’

He looked uncomfortable. ‘No, I guess not, Belgarath,’ he said.

‘I didn’t think so. Kheral, why don’t you have one of your people show me where this tavern is? I’ll take it from there. You two wait here. I’ll be back in a little bit.’

When you enter the city of Tol Honeth, you get the impression that it’s all stately houses and marble-sheathed public buildings, but, like every other city in the world, it has its share of slums. The tavern to which Kheral’s spy took me was decidedly shabby, and it was identified by a crude sign that supposedly represented a cluster of grapes. I think that every tavern in the west has the same sign out front. The sun was just going down when the Drasnian spy pointed out the tavern and then went off down the street. I stepped back into a reeking alleyway, formed the image of a tall, lean fellow dressed in rags in my mind, and then fitted myself into that image. Then I half-staggered out of the alley, crossed the street, and went into the dimly lighted, stale-smelling tavern. I plopped myself down on a bench at one of the wobbly tables and loudly announced, ‘I’ll have beer!’

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