Sorgan looked longingly at the ornate temple door. "I don't suppose—" He left it hanging.
Veltan shook his head. "Sister Aracia wouldn't hold still for that, Sorgan. We might encounter the same objections when we tell my sister that we're going to have to tear down some of the outer reaches of her temple, but that door is much too important in my sister's eyes for her to agree to it as your price. Then too, how would you move it? It weighs tons, and even if you managed to get your hands on it, the sheer weight would sink any ship you could bring into the harbor. Stick to the gold blocks, Sorgan. They're much more convenient."
They passed through the long corridor and entered the throne room. Fat Bersla was delivering a flowery speech, comparing Zelana's sister to a sunrise, a hurricane, and an earthquake. Aracia's attention, however, seemed to be a bit divided, since the young priestess Alcevan was standing beside the throne whispering on and on. Sorgan sensed a certain competition there. It seemed that Bersla and Alcevan were each doing everything they could think of to get Aracia's attention.
Sorgan walked up to the marble pedestal and looked Aracia right in the face—which was probably against all the rules. "Well now," he said. "Veltan tells me that you're ready to listen to what I say."
"Not right now," Aracia replied with a note of irritation in her voice. "Takal Bersla is addressing me now."
Sorgan drew his sword. "That's not really much of a problem, you know. He'll stop talking just as soon as I kill him."
"You wouldn't dare!" Aracia exclaimed.
"Watch me," Sorgan suggested in an offhand sort of way. "You've got a problem, and I'm here to solve it. Let's dispense with all this foolishness and get down to business." He purposefully crossed the marble floor to where Bersla had just stopped talking. The word "kill" seemed to have gotten his attention.
"You have finished your speech, haven't you?" Sorgan asked, moving the point of his sword back and forth about six inches from Bersla's face.
Bersla nervously backed away. "Holy Aracia will protect me," he declared, still backing up.
"How?" Sorgan asked. "You did know that she's not permitted to kill things, didn't you? I don't have those restrictions. I can kill anything—or anybody—whenever I feel like it. You've got a very simple choice, fat man. What it all boils down to is shut up or die. The choice is entirely yours, though, but you'd better hurry. My sword's very thirsty right now."
Bersla flinched back, and then he ran out of the room.
Veltan was smiling. "I'd say that there's a certain charm to Hook-Beak's directness, wouldn't you, dear sister?"
"I will not tolerate this!" Aracia almost screamed.
"I think you'd better," Sorgan said bluntly. "I came here to protect you and your people—for money, of course—so let's get down to business. I'll start protecting right after you pay me."
"7 will decide when—and how much," Aracia declared. She was obviously trying to regain control in this situation.
"That might be very true, Lady Aracia," Sorgan said, "but I'm the one who'll say yes or no. Be nice to me, lady, because I'm the only one willing to protect you. You've offended your big brother and your sister, so they won't have anything to do with you. That sort of says that I'm the most important person in the whole wide world, wouldn't you say?"
Aracia gave him a cold, superior sort of look. "How much do you want?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't know," Sorgan replied. "How does one hundred blocks of pure gold sound to you?"
"It is, isn't it? Let's make it two hundred, then."
She stared at him, her eyes suddenly gone wide.
"It's entirely up to you, lady. That's the price. Take it or leave it." Then he turned and walked toward the door, not even bothering to look back.
"I'll pay! I'll pay!" Aracia almost screamed.
"That's more like it," Sorgan said. "Now you can see just how easy I am to get along with."
"He leaned on her, Padan," Veltan told their friend the next morning. "Very, very hard."
"I wish I'd been there to see that," Padan said with an evil sort of grin.
"Your whiskers aren't quite long enough to make it safe for you to roam around in the temple, Padan," Sorgan told the Trogite. "Give them another week before you visit that holy absurdity. You're not wearing your Trogite uniform, and that might be enough, but let's not take any chances yet. We want you to look entirely different before you start making any public appearances." He scratched his cheek. "I think maybe you and Rabbit should talk this over. Rabbit's got a fair idea of the horror stories he's going to tell Veltan's sister, but I think you might want to add a few other stories as well. We've seen quite a few different varieties of the bug-people, and we'll want to throw them all in Aracia's face—in bits and pieces, of course. Let's say that the first time you'll sorta concentrate on the snake-bugs that we encountered in Zelana's Domain. Then move on to the bug-bats and the turtle-shell bugs. Hold off on the spider-bugs for quite some time. That's the really scary one. I still have nightmares about people having their insides turned into a liquid that the spider drinks right out of them."
"It did eliminate Jalkan and Adnari Estarg, Captain Hook-Beak," Padan said. "A lot of us in Commander Narasan's army are quite sure that was the nicest thing anybody—or anything—could have done for us."
Sorgan smiled. "If I remember right, Gunda wanted to make that a national holiday down in Trog-land. I'll be sending Ox, Ham-Hand, and Torl out as well. Maybe you should all get together and decide which awful each one of you should present to Aracia and her assorted priests. Each one of you should have a different story to wave in Aracia's face. Remember that she was down in Veltan's Domain, so she knows about most of the varieties of bugs. Let's add a few new ones, though—bird-bugs, maybe, or wolf-bugs and lion-bugs. Maybe the group of you should get together and decide how you're going to spread these stories out and make them sound real. The whole idea is to give them new awfuls every so often, and each awful should be worse than the previous ones. We want to make Aracia's priests so terrified that they'll be afraid to come out of the temple to see the awfuls themselves." Then he had a sudden idea, and he looked at Veltan. "You know how to make images of things that aren't really there, don't you?"
"More or less," Veltan admitted. "Where are we going here?"