Veltan's voice came softly out of nowhere. "Maybe just a trifle extreme there, Sorgan."

"I think maybe I got carried away just a bit," Sorgan admitted. "Your sister and that uppity lady-priest of hers irritated me more than a little."

Veltan's laugh came out of nowhere. "On second thought, Sorgan, don't change a thing. I'm quite sure that my sister will come around fairly soon. Go on back out to your ship and wait. I'm almost certain that she'll send someone out to talk with you before long."

"I hope you're right, Veltan," Sorgan replied. "I didn't leave myself very much room to wiggle out of this."

Chapter Two

The husky oarsman from Bersla's log-canoe was leaning over the rail of the Ascension when Sorgan rowed his skiff out from the beach. "How did things go in the silly temple?" he asked when Sorgan pulled the skiff neatly in beside the ship.

"Things are sort of up in the air right now," Sorgan replied.

"If I understood what your signal meant a while back, you wanted to talk with me about something."

"I'll be right with you," Sorgan replied, starting up the rope ladder hanging down from the rail.

"This is a real fancy boat you've got here," the native said.

"It's not mine," Sorgan replied, swinging his leg over the rail. "I borrowed it from a friend." Then he squinted at the beefy native. "I'm just guessing here," he said, "but I take it that you don't have much use for that fat priest."

"He might make pretty good bait if I wanted to go fishing for sharks."

"It'd take a very big shark to eat that much," Sorgan said with a grin. "If that's the way you feel about him, why did you go to work for him?"

"Free food. I don't have to work very hard, and Fat Bersla makes sure that we get fed regularly. We don't eat as much as he does, but nobody else in the whole world eats as much as Bersla does."

"It definitely shows," Sorgan agreed. "You seem to keep track of how often that log-canoe of his rolls over."

"That's only natural, since I'm the one who rolls it."

"Do you want to run that past me again? I didn't quite follow you."

"It's the easiest thing in the world to do," the native said with a broad grin. "All I have to do to get poor Fat Bersla soaking wet is lean toward one side or the other. As long as everybody is sitting up straight, the canoe will keep on sitting upright in the water. One quick lean toward one side or the other rolls that thing in the blink of an eye. Any time Bersla starts to relax, I tip his canoe over."

"What for?"

"I don't like him. Nobody really likes him. If I don't roll his canoe every now and then, one of the other paddlers will. Bersla hasn't gone home dry for about three years now. We get wet, too, but our clothes dry in a hurry. Bersla's clothes are thick and fancy, so they take at least a week to dry out. That's a big part of what this is all about. He has to keep on giving us food to eat, whether he goes out in his canoe or not."

"You and I are going to get along just fine," Sorgan said. "What's your favorite kind of food?"

"Meat. Everybody likes meat."

"I'll see what I can do to chase down some meat for you."

"What will you want in exchange?"

"Information, my friend. Information. What's your name, anyway?"

"Platch," the native replied. "What's yours?"

"Sorgan Hook-Beak."

"How did you ever get a name like that?"

"I had to work for it a long time ago. Let's go have something to eat, shall we?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Platch replied.

Veltan came into the large cabin at the stern of the Ascension early the following morning. "It took me a while, but I managed to calm my sister just a bit. I explained some of the peculiarities of the Maag culture to her—after she'd sent the priestess Alcevan off on some meaningless errand. I made quite a big issue of what good warriors your people are. Aracia's very arrogant, but she does know that her priests would be useless in a confrontation with the Creatures of the Wasteland."

"Unless the bugs happen to be hungry," Sorgan added.

"I mentioned that, yes. When you get right down to it, though, it's very unlikely that Aracia or any of her servants will even see any of the servants of the Vlagh. Your scouts will tell the assorted priests that the bugs are out there and that they're living on a steady diet of people, but all that we're really doing is diverting their attention from the real invasion—the one that's pointed at Long-Pass."

"How would you say I should approach your sister?" Sorgan asked. "I might have been just a little too rough yesterday."

Veltan squinted at the cabin ceiling. "You might want to be a bit more polite today—not too polite, of course. Swagger a bit and brag about what a great warrior you are and how you defeated the servants of the Vlagh back in sister Zelana's Domain and helped Narasan in mine. Then tell her that you want to talk about gold. Gold doesn't mean anything to Aracia, but she'll probably try to make you lower your price. That's when you should storm out again and come back out to this ship. Try to make it look like you're just about ready to sail off and leave her here to fight her own war. This is very important, Sorgan. Don't ever back down when you're dealing with Aracia. She will come around when she realizes that you mean what you say."

"You people play very rough games with each other, don't you?"

"Indeed we do," Veltan agreed. Then he smiled slyly. "Fun though," he added.

Sorgan rowed the skiff back to the beach. Veltan offered to take up a set of oars to help, but Sorgan said "no" quite firmly. "I'm not trying to offend you, Veltan, but things go much more smoothly if there's only one man rowing. We'd both look sort of silly if we were soaking wet when we went back into that throne room. If we happened to do something wrong, we could tip this skiff over almost as fast as Platch can roll Bersla's log canoe."

"Did he ever tell you why he does that every so often?" Veltan asked.

"It takes the wind out of the fat man's sails," Sorgan replied with a chuckle. "A man who's soaking wet and dribbling water all over the floor doesn't look very important. Platch despises Bersla, so he keeps him wet most of the time."

Sorgan rowed the skiff up onto the same beach where he had beached her the previous day, and then he and Veltan went on up through the assorted buildings lying outside the temple.