Chapter 23

All right, don’t beat me over the head with it. Of course I should have realized that something very peculiar was going on. But if you’ll just stop and think about it for a moment, I believe you’ll understand. You’ll recall that Poledra’s apparent death had driven me quite mad. A man who has to be chained to his bed has problems. Then I’d spent two or three years pickling my brains in the waterfront dives in Camaar and another eight or nine entertaining the ladies of Mar Amon, and during all that time I saw a lot of things that weren’t really there. I’d grown so accustomed to that sort of thing that whenever I saw something unusual, I just shrugged it off as another hallucination. The incident at Beldaran’s wedding wasn’t a hallucination, but how was I supposed to know that? Try to be a little more understanding. It’ll make a better person of you.

And so Beldaran and Riva were married, and they were both deliriously happy. There were other things afoot in the world, however, and since the Alorn Kings were all on the Isle of the Winds anyway, Beldin suggested that we might want to seize the opportunity to discuss matters of state. All sorts of nonsense has been written about the origins of the Alorn Council, but that’s how it really started. The Tolnedrans have been objecting to this rather informal yearly gathering for centuries now - largely because they aren’t invited. Tolnedrans are a suspicious people, and any time they get word of a conference of any kind, they’re absolutely certain that there’s a plot against them at the bottom of it.

Polgara sat in on our conference. She didn’t particularly want to, right at first, but I insisted. I wasn’t going to give her an opportunity to wander about the citadel unsupervised.

I’m not sure that our impromptu conference really accomplished very much. We spent most of the time talking about the Angaraks. None of us were happy about their presence on this side of the Sea of the East, but for the moment there wasn’t much we could do about it. The distances were simply too great.

‘I could probably go into that forest to the east of the moors and burn down those cities the Nadraks are building there,’ Dras rumbled in that deep voice of his, ‘but there wouldn’t be much point to it. I don’t have the manpower to occupy all that wilderness. Sooner or later I’d have to pull out, and then the Nadraks would just come back out of the woods and rebuild.’

‘Have there been any contacts with them?’ Pol asked.

He shrugged. ‘A few skirmishes is about all. Every so often they come out of the mountains, and then we chase them back. I don’t think they’re very serious about it. They’re probably just testing our defenses.’

‘I meant peaceful contacts.’

‘There’s no such thing as peaceful contacts between Alorns and Angaraks, Polgara.’

‘Perhaps there should be.’

‘I think that’s against our religion.’

‘Maybe you should reconsider that. I understand that the Nadraks are merchants. They might be interested in trade.’

‘I don’t think they’ve got anything I’d want.’

‘Oh, yes they do, Dras. They’ve got information about the Murgos, and they’re the ones we’re really interested in. If anyone’s going to cause us trouble, it’ll be the Murgos. If we can find out from the Nadraks what they’re doing, we won’t have to go down to Rak Goska to investigate for ourselves.’

‘She’s got a point, Dras,’ Algar told his brother. ‘My people have had a few contacts with the Thulls, but you can’t get very much information out of a Thull. From what I hear, the Nadraks don’t care very much for the Murgos, so they probably wouldn’t mind passing information along.’

‘Can you actually climb the Eastern Escarpment to get to Mishrak ac Thull?’ Cherek asked him with a certain surprise.

‘There are some ravines that cut down through the escarpment, father,’ Algar replied. ‘They’re steep, but they’re passable. The Murgos patrol the western frontier of Mishrak ac Thull, and every so often one of those patrols comes down onto the plains of Algaria - usually to steal horses. We’d rather they didn’t do that, so we chase them back.’ He smiled faintly. ‘It’s easier to let them find those ravines for us than to go looking for them ourselves.’

‘There’s a thought,’ Dras noted. ‘If the Murgos want horses, couldn’t we interest them in trade, too?’

Algar shook his head. ‘Not Murgos, no. Their minds don’t work that way. One of my clan-chiefs questioned a Thull who actually knew his right hand from his left. The Thull said that Ctuchik’s at Rak Goska. As long as he’s dominating Murgo society, there won’t be any peaceful contacts with them.’

‘Pol’s right, then,’ Beldin said. ‘We’re going to have to try to work through the Nadraks.’ He squinted at the ceiling. ‘I don’t think this Angarak migration poses much of a threat - at least not yet. There weren’t all that many people in Cthol Mishrak to begin with, and Ctuchik’s got them spread out fairly thin. The real threat is still Mallorea. I think I’ll go back there and keep an eye on things. The Angaraks on this continent are just an advance party. They’re probably here to build supply dumps and staging areas. You won’t have to start sharpening your swords until the Malloreans begin coming across. I’ll keep my ear to the ground over there and let you know when the military moves north out of Mal Zeth toward the bridge.’

Polgara pursed her lips. ‘I think we might want to establish closer ties with the Tolnedrans and the Arends.’

‘Why’s that, dear sister?’ Riva asked her. He was her brother-in-law now, and he automatically used that form of address. Family’s an important thing to Alorns.

‘We might need their help with the Malloreans.’

‘The Tolnedrans wouldn’t help unless we paid them to,’ Cherek disagreed, ‘and the Arends are too busy fighting with each other.’

‘They live here too, Bear-shoulders,’ she pointed out, ‘and I don’t think they’d want Malloreans on this continent any more than we would. The legions could be very helpful, and the Arends have been training for war since before Torak split the world. Besides, Chaldan and Nedra would probably be offended if we all went off to war and didn’t invite them to come along.’

‘Excuse me, Polgara,’ Dras rumbled, ‘but how did you learn so much about politics? As I understand it, this is the first time you’ve ever been out of the Vale.’

‘Uncle Beldin keeps me posted,’ she replied, shrugging slightly. ‘It’s always nice to know what the neighbors are up to.’

‘Is there any point to involving the Nyissans or the Marags?’ Riva asked.

‘We should probably make the offer,’ I said. ‘The current Salmissra’s a fairly intelligent young woman, and she’s as concerned about the Angaraks as we are. The Marags wouldn’t be of much use. There aren’t that many of them, and the fact that they’re cannibals might make everybody else nervous.’

Beldin laughed that ugly laugh of his. ‘Tell them to start eating Angaraks. Let the Murgos get nervous.’

‘I think maybe we’d all better start thinking about going home,’ Cherek suggested, rising to his feet. ‘The wedding’s over now, and if the Malloreans are coming, we’d better start getting ready for them.’

And that was more or less the extent of the first Alorn Council.

‘Is it always that much fun?’ Polgara asked me as we were returning to our quarters.

‘Fun? Did I miss something?’

‘Politics, father,’ she explained, ‘all this business of trying to guess what the other side’s going to do.’

‘I’ve always rather enjoyed it.’

‘I guess you really are my father, then. That was much more fun than leading young men around by their noses or turning their knees to water just by fluttering my eyelashes at them.’

‘You’re a cruel woman, Polgara.’

‘I’m glad you realize that, father. It wouldn’t be much fun at all to catch you unawares.’ She gave me one of those obscure little smiles. ‘Watch out for me, father,’ she warned. ‘I’m at least as dangerous as you are or Torak is.’

You did say it, Pol, so don’t try to deny it.

Our parting from Beldaran wasn’t one of the happier moments in our lives. My love for my blonde daughter had been the anchor that had hauled me back to sanity, and Polgara’s ties to her twin sister were so complex that I couldn’t even begin to understand them.

Beldin and I talked at some length before we separated. He promised to keep me advised about what was going on in Mallorea, but I had a few suspicions about Beldin’s motives for going back there. I had the feeling that he wanted to continue his discussion of white-hot hooks with the leprous-looking Urvon, and there was always the chance of coming across Zedar in some out-of-the-way place. There are nicer people in the world than Beldin.

I wished him the best of luck - and I meant it. There are nicer people than me out there as well. ‘Grat is not nice, after all.

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