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Her Majesty, Queen Porenn of Drasnia, was in a pensive mood. She stood at the window of her pink-frilled sitting room in the palace at Boktor watching her son Kheva and Unrak, the son of Barak of Trellheim, at play in a garden drenched with morning sunlight. The boys had reached that age where sometimes it seemed almost possible to see them growing, and their voices wavered uncertainly between boyish soprano and manly baritone. Porenn sighed, smoothing the front of her black gown. The Queen of Drasnia had worn black since the death of her husband. “You would be proud of him, my dear Rhodar,” she whispered sadly.
There was a light knock at her door.
“Yes?” she replied, not turning.
“There’s a Nadrak here to see you, your Majesty,” the aged butler at the door reported. “He says you know him.”
“He says his name is Yarblek.”
“Oh, yes. Prince Kheldar’s associate. Show him in, please.”
“There’s a woman with him, your Majesty,” the butler said with a disapproving expression. “She uses language your Majesty might prefer not to hear.”
Porenn smiled warmly. “That must be Vella,” she said. “I’ve heard her swear before. I don’t know that she’s really all that serious about it. Show them both in, if you would, please.”
“At once, your Majesty.”
Yarblek was as shabby as ever. At some point, the shoulder seam of his long black overcoat had given way and had been rudimentarily repaired with a piece of rawhide thong. His beard was coarse and black and scraggly, his hair was unkempt, and he looked as if he didn’t smell very good. “Your Majesty,” he said grandly, attempting a bow which was marred a bit by an unsteady lurch.
“Drunk already, Master Yarblek?” Porenn asked him archly.
“No, not really, Porenn,” he replied, unabashed. “It’s just a little carry-over from last night.”
The queen was not offended by the Nadrak’s use of her first name. Yarblek’s grip on formality had never been very firm.
The woman who had entered with him was a stunningly beautiful Nadrak with blue-black hair and smoldering eyes. She was dressed in tight-fitting leather trousers and a black leather vest. A silver-hilted dagger protruded from each of her boot tops, and two more were tucked under the wide leather belt about her waist. She bowed with infinite grace. “You’re looking tired, Porenn,” she observed. “I think you need more sleep.”
Porenn laughed. “Tell that to the people who bring me stacks of parchment every hour or so.”
“I made myself a rule years ago,” Yarblek said, sprawling uninvited in a chair. “Never put anything down in writing. It saves time as well as keeping me out of trouble.”
“It seems to me that I’ve heard Kheldar say the same thing.”
Yarblek shrugged. “Silk’s got a good grip on reality.”
“I haven’t seen you two for quite some time,” Porenn noted, also sitting.
“We’ve been in Mallorea,” Vella told her, wandering around the room and looking appraisingly at the furnishings.
“Isn’t that dangerous? I’ve heard that there’s plague there.”
“It’s pretty much confined to Mal Zeth,” Yarblek replied. “Polgara persuaded the Emperor to seal up the city.”
“Polgara?” Porenn exclaimed, coming to her feet. “What’s she doing in Mallorea?”
“She was going in the general direction of a place called Ashaba the last time I saw her. She had Belgarath and the others with her.”
“How did they get to Mallorea?”
“By boat, I’d imagine. It’s a long swim.”
“Yarblek, am I going to have to drag every single scrap of information out of you?” Porenn demanded in exasperation.
“I’m getting to it, Porenn,” he said, sounding a little injured. “Do you want the story first or the messages? I’ve got lots of messages for you, and Vella’s got a couple more that she won’t even talk about—at least not to me.”
“Just start at the beginning, Yarblek.”
“Any way you want it.” He scratched at his beard. “The way I got the story is that Silk and Belgarath and the others were in Cthol Murgos. They got captured by the Malloreans, and ’Zakath took them all to Mal Zeth. The young fellow with the big sword—Belgarion, isn’t it? Anyway, he and ’Zakath got to be friends—”
“Garion and ’Zakath?” Porenn asked incredulously. “How?”
“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there when it happened. To make it short, they were friends, but then the plague broke out in Mal Zeth. I managed to sneak Silk and the others out of the city, and we went north. We separated before we got to Venna. They wanted to go to this Ashaba place, and I had a caravan load of goods I wanted to get to Yar Marak. Made a fairly good profit, actually.”
“Why were they going to Ashaba?”
“They were after some woman named Zandramas—the one who abducted Belgarion’s son.”
“A woman? Zandramas is a woman?”
“So they told me. Belgarath gave me a letter for you. It’s all in there. I told him that he shouldn’t write it down, but he wouldn’t listen to me.” Yarblek unwound himself from his chair, fished around inside his overcoat, and handed a rumpled and none-too-clean piece of parchment to the queen. Then he strolled to the window and looked out. “Isn’t that Trellheim’s boy down there?” he asked. “The husky one with the red hair?”
Porenn was reading the parchment. “Yes,” she said absently, trying to concentrate on the message.
“Is he here? Trellheim, I mean?”
“Yes. I don’t know if he’s awake yet, though. He stayed up rather late last night and he was a little tipsy when he went to bed.”
Yarblek laughed. “That’s Barak, all right. Has he got his wife and daughters with him, too?”
“No,” Porenn said. “They stayed in Val Alorn, making the preparations for his oldest daughter’s wedding.”
“Is she that old already?”
“Chereks marry young. They seem to think it’s the best way to keep a girl out of trouble. Barak and his son came here to get away from all the fuss.”
Yarblek laughed again. “I think I’ll go wake him up and see if he’s got anything to drink.” He touched his forefinger to the spot between his eyes with a pained look. “I’m feeling a little delicate this morning, and Barak’s a good man to get well with. I’ll stop back when I’m feeling better. Besides, you’ve got your mail to read. Oh,” he said, “I almost forgot. Here are some others.” He started rummaging around inside his shabby coat. “One from Polgara.” He tossed it negligently on the table. “One from Belgarion. One from Silk, and one from the blond girl with the dimples—the one they call Velvet. The snake didn’t send anything—you know how snakes are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m really not feeling too good.” He lurched to the door and went out.
“That is the most exasperating man in the world,” Porenn declared.
“He does it on purpose.” Vella shrugged. “He thinks it’s funny.”
“Yarblek said that you have some messages for me, too,” the queen said. “I suppose I should read them all at once—get all the shocks over with at one time.”
“I’ve only got one, Porenn,” Vella replied, “and it isn’t in writing. Liselle—the one they call Velvet—asked me to tell you something when we were alone.”
“All right,” Porenn said, putting down Belgarath’s letter.
“I’m not sure how they found out about this,” Vella said, “but it seems that the King of Cthol Murgos is not the son of Taur Urgas.”
“What are you saying, Vella?”
“Urgit isn’t even related to that frothing lunatic. It seems that a number of years ago, a certain Drasnian businessman paid a visit to the palace in Rak Goska. He and Taur Urgas’ second wife became friendly.” She smiled with one eyebrow slightly raised. “Very friendly. I’ve always had that suspicion about Murgo women. Anyway, Urgit was the result of that friendship.”
A terrible suspicion began to dawn on Queen Porenn.
Vella grinned impishly at her. “We all knew that Silk had royal connections,” she said. “We just didn’t know how many royal families he was connected to.”
“No!” Porenn gasped.
Vella laughed. “Oh, yes. Liselle confronted Urgit’s mother with it, and the lady confessed.” The Nadrak girl’s face grew serious. “The whole point of Liselle’s message is that Silk doesn’t want that bony fellow, Javelin, to find out about it. Liselle felt that she had to report it to somebody. That’s why she told me to pass it on to you. I guess you’re supposed to decide whether to tell Javelin or not.”
“How very kind of her,” Porenn said drily. “Now they want me to keep secrets from the chief of my own intelligence service.”
Vella’s eyes twinkled. “Liselle’s in a kind of difficult situation, Porenn,” she said. “I know that I drink too much and I swear a lot. That makes people think that I’m stupid, but I’m not. Nadrak women know the world, and I have very good eyes. I didn’t actually catch them at it, but I’d be willing to wager half the money I’ll get when Yarblek sells me that Silk and Liselle are keeping company.”
“I couldn’t prove it, Porenn, but I know what I saw.” The Nadrak girl sniffed at her leather vest and made a sour face. “If it’s not too much trouble, I would really like to take a bath. I’ve been in the saddle for weeks. Horses are nice enough animals, I suppose, but I really don’t want to smell like one.”
Porenn’s mind was working very fast now; to give herself time to think, she rose and approached the wild Nadrak girl. “Have you ever worn satin, Vella?” she asked. “A gown, perhaps?”
“Satin? Me?” Vella laughed coarsely. “Nadraks never wear satin.”
“Then you might be the very first.” Queen Porenn reached out her small white hands and lifted Vella’s wealth of blue-black hair into a tumbled mass atop her head. “I’d give my soul for hair like that,” she murmured.
“I’ll trade you,” Vella offered. “Do you know what price I could bring if I were blond?”
“Hush, Vella,” Porenn said absently. “I’m trying to think.” She twined the girl’s hair loosely about her hands, startled at how alive it felt. Then she reached out, lifted Vella’s chin, and looked into her huge eyes. Something seemed to reach out and touch the Queen of Drasnia, and she suddenly knew the destiny of this half-wild child before her. “Oh, my dear,” she almost laughed, “what an amazing future you have in store for you. You’ll touch the sky, Vella, the very sky.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Porenn.”
“You will.” Porenn looked at the perfect face before her. “Yes,” she said, “satin, I think. Lavender would be nice.”
“I prefer red.”
“No, dear,” Porenn told her. “Red just wouldn’t do. It definitely has to be lavender.” She reached out and touched the girl’s ears. “And I think amethyst here and here.”
“What are you up to?”
“It’s a game, child. Drasnians are very good at games. And when I’m done, I’ll double your price.” Porenn was just a bit smug about it. “Bathe first, then let’s see what we can do with you.”
Vella shrugged. “As long as I can keep my daggers.”
“We’ll work that out.”
“Can you really do something with a lump like me?” Vella asked, almost plaintively.
“Trust me,” Porenn said, smiling. “Now go bathe, child. I have letters to read and decisions to make.”
After the Queen of Drasnia had read the letters, she summoned her butler and issued a couple of orders. “I want to speak with the Earl of Trellheim,” she said, “before he gets any drunker. I also need to talk with Javelin just as soon as he can get to the palace.”
It was perhaps ten minutes later when Barak appeared in her doorway. He was a bit bleary-eyed, and his vast red beard stuck out in all directions. Yarblek came with him.
“Put away your tankards, gentlemen,” Porenn said crisply. “There’s work to be done. Barak, is the Seabird ready to sail?”
“She’s always ready,” he said in an injured tone.
“Good. Then round up your sailors. You have a number of places to go. I’m calling a meeting of the Alorn Council. Get word to Anheg, Fulrach, and Brand’s son Kail at Riva. Stop off in Arendia and pick up Mandorallen and Lelldorin.” She pursed her lips. “Korodullin’s not well enough to travel, so bypass Vo Mimbre. He’d get out of his deathbed to attend if he knew what was going on. Go to Tol Honeth instead and get Varana. I’ll send word to Cho-Hag and Hettar myself. Yarblek, you go to Yar Nadrak and get Drosta. Leave Vella here with me.”
“No buts, Yarblek. Do exactly as I say.”
“I thought you said this was a meeting of the Alorn Council, Porenn,” Barak objected. “Why are we inviting the Arends and the Tolnedrans—and the Nadraks?”
“We’ve got an emergency on our hands, Barak, and it concerns everybody.”
They stood staring stupidly at her.
She clapped her hands together sharply. “Quickly, gentlemen, quickly. We don’t have any time to waste.”
Urgit, High King of Cthol Murgos, sat on his garish throne in the Drojim Palace in Rak Urga. He was dressed in his favorite purple doublet and hose, he had one leg negligently cocked over the arm of the throne, and he was absently tossing his crown back and forth between his hands as he listened to the droning voice of Agachak, the cadaverous-looking Hierarch of Rak Urga. “It’s going to have to wait, Agachak,” he said finally. “I’m getting married next month.”
“This is a command of the Church, Urgit.”
“Wonderful. Give the Church my regards.”
Agachak looked taken a bit aback. “You don’t believe in anything now, do you, my King?”
“Not very much, no. Is this sick world we live in ready for atheism yet?”
For the first time in his life, Urgit saw doubt on the face of the Hierarch. “Atheism’s a clean place, Agachak,” he said, “a flat, gray, empty place where man makes his own destiny, and let the Gods go hang. I didn’t make them; they didn’t make me; and we’re quits on all of that. I wish them well, though.”
“This is unlike you, Urgit,” Agachak said.
“No, not really. I’m just tired of playing the clown.” He stretched out his leg and tossed his crown at his foot like a hoop. He caught it and kicked it back again. “You don’t really understand, do you, Agachak?” he said as he caught the crown out of midair.
The Hierarch of Rak Urga drew himself up. “This is not a request, Urgit. I’m not asking you.”
“Good. Because I’m not going.”
“I command you to go.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you realize to whom you’re talking?”
“Perfectly, old boy. You’re the same tiresome old Grolim who’s been boring me to tears ever since I inherited the throne from that fellow who used to chew on the carpets back in Rak Goska. Listen carefully, Agachak. I’ll use short words and simple sentences so that I don’t confuse you. I am not going to Mallorea. I’ve never had any intention of going to Mallorea. There’s nothing I want to see in Mallorea. There’s nothing I want to do there. I most definitely do not intend to put myself anywhere near Kal Zakath, and he’s gone back to Mal Zeth. Not only that, they have demons in Mallorea. Have you ever seen a demon, Agachak?”
“Once or twice,” the Hierarch replied sullenly.
“And you’re still going to Mallorea? Agachak, you’re as crazy as Taur Urgas was.”
“I can make you king of all of Angarak.”
“I don’t want to be king of all of Angarak. I don’t even want to be King of Cthol Murgos. All I want is to be left alone to contemplate the horror that’s about to descend on me.”
“Your marriage, you mean?” Agachak’s face grew sly. “You could evade that by coming to Mallorea with me.”
“Have I been going too fast for you, Agachak? A wife is bad enough. Demons are much worse. Did anybody ever tell you what that thing did to Chabat?” Urgit shuddered.
“I can protect you.”
Urgit laughed scornfully. “You, Agachak? You couldn’t even protect yourself. Even Polgara had to have help from a God to deal with that monster. Do you plan to resurrect Torak to give you a hand? Or maybe you could appeal to Aldur. He’s the one who helped Polgara. I don’t really think He’d like you, though. I don’t even like you, and I’ve known you all my life.”
“You go too far, Urgit.”
“No. Not far enough, Agachak. For centuries—eons, probably—you Grolims have held the upper hand in Cthol Murgos, but that was when Ctuchik was still alive, and Ctuchik is dead now. You did know about that, didn’t you, old boy? He tried his hand against Belgarath, and Belgarath disassembled him right down to the floor. I may be the only Murgo alive who’s ever met Belgarath and lived to talk about it. We’re actually on fairly good terms. Would you like to meet him? I could probably arrange an introduction, if you’d like.”
Agachak visibly shrank back.
“Much better, Agachak,” Urgit said smoothly. “I’m delighted at your grasp of the realities of the situation. Now, I’m certain that you can raise your hand and wiggle your fingers at me, but now I know how to recognize that sort of thing. I watched Belgarion rather closely while we were trotting across Cthaka last winter. If your hand moves even a fraction of an inch, you’re going to get about a bushel basket full of arrows right in the middle of the back. The archers are already in place, and their bows are already drawn. Give it some thought, Agachak—while you’re leaving.”
“This is not like you, Urgit,” Agachak said, his nostrils white with fury.
“I know. Delightful, isn’t it? You may go now, Agachak.”
The Hierarch spun on his heel and started toward the door.
“Oh, by the way, old boy,” Urgit added. “I’ve had news that our dear brother Gethel of Thulldom recently died—probably something he ate. Thulls eat almost anything that swims, flies, crawls, or spawns on rotten meat. It’s a pity, actually. Gethel was one of the few people in the world I could bully. Anyway, he’s been succeeded on the throne by his half-wit son, Nathel. I’ve met Nathel. He has the mentality of an earthworm, but he’s a true Angarak king. Why don’t you see if he wants to go to Mallorea with you? It might take you a while to explain to him where Mallorea is, since I think he believes that the world is flat, but I have every confidence in you, Agachak.” Urgit flipped his hand at the fuming Hierarch. “Run along now,” he said. “Go back to your temple and gut a few more Grolims. Maybe you can even get the fires started in your sanctum again. If nothing else, I’m sure it will calm your nerves.”
Agachak stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Urgit doubled over, pounding on the arm of his throne and howling in glee.