‘There’s no real harm in it, Belgarath.’

‘Not unless it gets out of hand. I think it’s time for you to get married and settle down.’

‘I can do that later,’ he replied. ‘Right now I’ve got business to take care of in Nyissa.’

I flew south to Algaria and it only took me two days to find Cho-Ram. The Chief of the clan-chiefs of Algaria was fairly old, and his hair and beard were almost as white as mine. Old or not, though, you wouldn’t have wanted to fight him. Age hadn’t slowed his saber-hand in the slightest. I honestly believe he could have cut off both a man’s ears so quickly that the man wouldn’t notice that they were gone for a day or so.

We met in one of those rolling houses Fleet-foot had designed, so I was fairly sure we’d have some privacy. Cho-Ram and I were neighbors and old friends, so I didn’t have to bully him the way I had Valcor and Radek. He listened carefully as I told him about the assassination of Gorek and of what we were going to do about it.

When I finished, he leaned back, his black, horsehide jacket creaking. ‘We’ll be violating Tolnedran territory, you know,’ he pointed out.

‘That can’t be helped,’ I said. ‘Somebody put Salmissra up to this, and I want to find out who he is before he gets too much of a running head start on me.’

‘Ctuchik, maybe?’

‘It’s possible. Let’s see what Salmissra has to say before we lay siege to Rak Cthol, though. Radek should be along soon. Join forces with him when he gets here. I’m going down to the Vale. If Beldin’s made it back from Mallorea, I’ll send him along with you. If he hasn’t, I’ll send the twins. If Ctuchik was behind this and he’s still in Nyissa you’ll need someone along to counter anything he throws at you. I think I’d better go with Valcor and Brand. The Rivans are enraged, and you know how the Chereks are.’

He smiled. ‘Oh, yes,’ he agreed. ‘The whole world knows how the Chereks are.’

‘Gather your clans, Cho-Ram. Radek should be along in a bit. If you have to, go on ahead of his infantry. I want to be in Sthiss Tor before the rainy season sets in.’

‘I appreciate that, Ancient One. Wading through swamps in the rain is very hard on the horses.’

Then I left for the Vale.

My luck was holding up, because Beldin had made it back from Mallorea two days earlier. I love the twins, but they’re too gentle for the plans I had for Nyissa. Beldin can be appropriately ungentle when the occasion arises.

Let me set something straight here. There’s no denying the fact that I was very angry about the murder of Gorek and his family. They were relatives, after all, but the campaign I’d mapped out had very little to do with vengeance, and a great deal to do with deliberate terrorism. Things in the world were already complicated enough without the Nyissans dabbling in international politics. They had access to too many poisons and narcotics for my taste, so the Alorn invasion of that swamp was designed almost entirely to persuade the snake-people to stay home and mind their own business. I suppose that says a few uncomplimentary things about me, but that can’t be helped.

‘What are you going to do if the Murgos decide to play, too?’ Beldin asked me after I’d laid out my plan for him.

‘I don’t think we need to worry about that,’ I replied with more confidence than I really felt. ‘Ctuchik controls Cthol Murgos, no matter who’s sitting on the throne in Rak Goska, and Ctuchik knows that it’s not time for a confrontation with the Alorns yet. A lot more has to happen before we get to that.’ I scowled at the floor of Beldin’s tower for a moment. ‘You’d better stay clear of Murgo territory, though, just to be on the safe side.’

‘You’ve got a peculiar idea of “safe”, Belgarath. If I can’t go through Cthol Murgos, I’ll have to go through Tolnedra, and the legions won’t like that very much.’

‘I’ll swing over to Tol Honeth before I go back to Val Alorn. The Vorduvians are back in power again, but Ran Vordue I has only been on the throne for about a year. I’ll talk with him.’

‘Inexperienced people make mistakes, Belgarath.’

‘I know, but they usually hesitate before they make them. We’ll be finished in Nyissa before he makes up his mind.’

Beldin shrugged. ‘It’s your war. I’ll see you in Sthiss Tor.’

I flew to Tol Honeth then and went to the imperial compound. Some forged documents identified me as a special emissary of the Alorn kings, and I got in to see the emperor immediately.

Emperor Ran Vordue I of the third Vorduvian Dynasty was a youngish man with deep-sunk eyes and a gaunt face. He was seated on a marble throne, and he was wearing the traditional gold-colored mantle. ‘Welcome to Tol Honeth, Ancient One,’ he greeted me. He knew in a general sort of way who I was, but like most Tolnedrans, he thought my name was some kind of hereditary title.

‘Let’s skip the pleasantries and get to the point, Ran Vordue,’ I told him. ‘The Nyissans have assassinated the Rivan King, and the Alorns are mounting a punitive expedition.’

‘What? Why wasn’t I told?’

‘You just were. There’s going to be a technical violation of your borders. I strongly advise you just to let it slide. The Alorns are feeling belligerent just now. Their business is with the Nyissans, but if your legions get in their way, they’ll plow them under. The Algars and Drasnians are going to march south through the Tolnedran mountains. Pretend you don’t see them.’

‘Can’t this be settled without war?’ he asked me rather plaintively. ‘I have some very good negotiators at my disposal. They could persuade Salmissra to pay reparations or something.’

‘I’m afraid not, your Majesty. You know how Alorns are. Half-way measures won’t satisfy them. Just stay out of it.’

‘Couldn’t your Alorns go through Murgo territory instead? I’m new on the throne, Belgarath. If I don’t take some kind of action, I’ll be viewed as a weakling.’

‘Send letters of protest to the Alorn Kings. I’ll make them apologize after it’s all over.’ Then an idea came to me. ‘Here’s a thought,’ I told him. ‘If you want to do something muscular to impress the Honeths and the Horbites, send your legions down to your southern border and seal it off. Don’t let anybody come across.’

He squinted at me. ‘Very clever, Belgarath,’ he said. ‘You’re using me, aren’t you? If I seal that border, you won’t have to.’

I grinned at him. ‘You’re going to have to do something, Ran Vordue. The politics of the situation almost demands it. The Honeths will start calling you Ran Vordue the chicken-livered if you don’t march your legions off in some direction. I guarantee that the Alorns won’t cross that border, and the other great families might accept the notion that it was your show of force that kept them out. We’ll both get something we want that way.’

‘You’ve got me over a barrel, old man.’

‘I know,’ I replied. ‘It’s up to you, though. You know what’s coming, and you know what you’d probably better do about it. Oh, one other thing. Who’s the most deeply involved in the Nyissan trade?’

‘The Honeths,’ he replied shortly. ‘They’re in it up to their ears. They’ve got millions invested down there.’ Then a slow, evil smile came over his gaunt face. ‘A disruption of the Nyissan economy would push the Honeths to the verge of bankruptcy, you realize.’

‘Wouldn’t that be a shame? You see, Ran Vordue? Every cloud has its silver lining. All you have to do is look for it. Well, we’ve both got things to do, so I won’t bother you any more. Think it over. I’m sure you’ll come to the right decision.’ Then I bowed perfunctorily and left him to his amusements.

Another one of those early summer storms swept in out of the Great Western Sea to batter the coast, so it took me almost a week to get back to Val Alorn, and by the time I got there, Valcor had assembled his fleet and gathered his army. I contacted Beldin, and he advised me that the Algars and Drasnians had joined forces at the Algarian stronghold and were marching south. Everything seemed to be on schedule, so I unleashed Valcor and his berserkers.

The storm had finally passed, and we sailed from Val Alorn under a bright blue sky. I had a few tense moments when we went through the Cherek Bore, but otherwise the voyage to the Isle of the Winds was uneventful.

The meeting between Valcor and Brand there on the wharf was emotional. Brand had lost his king, and Valcor had lost a brother Alorn monarch. Valcor suggested a few memorial tankards, but I headed that off immediately. ‘We’re running behind, gentlemen,’ I told them crisply. ‘Radek and Cho-Ram are already in the Tolnedran mountains, and it’s a long way to the mouth of the River of the Serpent. We can do our drinking after the war. Let’s get the Rivans on board and get started.’

We sailed southward past Arendia and Tolnedra and anchored just off the mouth of the River of the Woods. For any number of reasons, Ran Vordue had followed my suggestion, and his legions were patrolling the north bank of the river.


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