"Reading about wool," he replied.


"I think I'm supposed to know about it. Everybody stands around talking about wool with these sober expressions on their faces. It seems to be terribly important to them."

"Do you really care that much about it?"

He shrugged. "It helps to pay the bills."

She drifted over to the window and stared out at the rain. "Will it never stop?" she demanded at last.

"Eventually, I suppose."

"I think I'll send for Arell. Maybe we can go down into the city and look around the shops."

"It's pretty wet out there, Ce'Nedra."

"I can wear a cloak, and a little rain won't make me melt. Would you give me some money?"

"I thought I gave you some just last week."

"I spent it. Now I need some more."

Garion put aside the report and went to a heavy cabinet standing against the wall. He took a key from a pocket in his doublet, unlocked the cabinet and pulled out the top drawer. Ce'Nedra came over and looked curiously into the drawer. It was about half-filled with coins, gold, silver, and copper, all jumbled together.

"Where did you get all of that?" she exclaimed.

"They give it to me from time to time," he answered. "I throw it in there because I don't want to carry it around. I thought you knew about it."

"How would I know about it? You never tell me anything. How much have you got in there?"

He shrugged. "I don't know."

"Garion!" Her voice was shocked. "Don't you even count it?"

"No. Should I?"

"You're obviously not a Tolnedran. This isn't the whole royal treasury, is it?"

"No. They keep that someplace else. This is just for personal expenses, I think."

"It has to be counted, Garion."

"I don't really have the time, Ce'Nedra."

"Well, I do. Pull that drawer out and bring it over to the table."

He did that, grunting slightly at the weight, and then stood smiling fondly as she sat down and happily started counting money. He had not realized just how much sheer pleasure she could take in handling and stacking coins. She actually glowed as the merry tinkle of money filled her ears. A few of the coins had become tarnished. She looked at those disapprovingly and stopped her count to polish them carefully on the hem of her gown.

"Were you going to go down into the city?" he asked, resuming his seat at the other end of the table.

"Not today, I guess." She kept on counting. A single lock of her hair strayed down across her face, and she absently blew at it from time to time as she concentrated on the task at hand. She dug another handful of jingling coins out of the drawer and began to stack them carefully on the table in front of her. She looked so serious about it that Garion started to laugh.

She looked up sharply. "What's so funny?" she demanded.

"Nothing, dear," he said and went back to work to the clinking accompaniment of Ce'Nedra's counting.

As the summer wore on, the news from the southern latitudes continued to be good. King Urgit of Cthol Murgos had retreated deeper into the mountains, and the advance of the Emperor Kal Zakath of Mallorea slowed even more. The Mallorean army had suffered dreadful losses in its first efforts to pursue the Murgos in that craggy wasteland and it now moved with extreme caution. Garion received the news of the near-stalemate in the south with great satisfaction.

Toward the end of summer, word arrived from Algaria that Garion's cousin Adara had just presented Hettar with their second son. Ce'Nedra went wild with delight and dipped deeply into the drawer in Garion's study to buy suitable gifts for both mother and child.

The news which arrived in early autumn, however, was not so joyous. In a sadly worded letter, General Varana advised them that Ce'Nedra's father, Emperor Ran Borune XXIII, was sinking fast and that they should make haste to Tol Honeth. Fortunately, the autumn sky remained clear as the ship which carried the Rivan King and his desperately worried little wife ran south before a good following breeze.

They reached Tol Horb at the broad mouth of the Nedrane within a week and then began rowing upriver to the Imperial Capital at Tol Honeth.

They had gone no more than a few leagues when their ship was met by a flotilla of white and gold barges, which formed up around them to escort them to Tol Honeth. Aboard those barges was a chorus of young Tolnedran women who strewed flower petals on the broad surface of the Nedrane and caroled a formal greeting to the Imperial Princess.

Garion stood beside Ce'Nedra on the deck of their ship, frowning slightly at this choral welcome. "Is that altogether appropriate?" he asked.

"It's the custom," she said. "Members of the Imperial Family are always escorted to the city."

Garion listened to the words of the song. "Haven't they heard about your wedding yet?" he asked. "They're greeting the Imperial Princess, not the Rivan Queen."

"We're a provincial people, Garion," Ce'Nedra said. "In a Tolnedran's eyes, an Imperial Princess is much more important than the queen of some remote island."

The singing continued as they moved on upriver. As the gleaming white city of Tol Honeth came into view, a huge brazen fanfare greeted them from the walls. A detachment of burnished legionnaires, their scarlet pennons snapping in the breeze and the plumes on their helmets tossing, awaited them on the marble quay to escort them through the broad avenues to the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

General Varana, a blocky-looking professional soldier with short-cropped, curly hair and a noticeable limp, met them at the palace gate. His expression was somber.

"Are we in time, uncle?" Ce'Nedra asked with an almost frightened note in her voice.

The general nodded, then took the little queen in his arms. "You're going to have to be brave, Ce'Nedra," he told her. "Your father is very, very ill."

"Is there any hope at all?" she asked in a small voice.

"We can always hope," Varana replied, but his tone said otherwise.

"Can I see him now?"

"Of course." The general looked gravely at Garion. "Your Majesty," he said, nodding.

"Your Highness," Garion replied, remembering that Ce'Nedra's wily father had "adopted" Varana several years back, and that the general was heir apparent to the Imperial Throne.

Varana led them with his limping gait through the marble corridors of the vast palace to a quiet wing and a door flanked by a towering pair of legionnaires in burnished breastplates.