"This is a side of you I don't think I've ever seen before, cousin," Torl said. "You're an excellent deceiver, aren't you?"
"I'm probably the best," Sorgan replied. "Let's go frighten Zelana's sister for an hour or so, and then I can come back to the Ascension and rest for a while. I've been running steadily for about three days now."
They rowed on to the beach just below Aracia's temple and then walked on up to the golden door. Evidently word had gotten out, and no priest—or priestess—tried to interfere as they marched on along the corridor that led to the throne room.
The fat priest Bersla was delivering another oration of praise when they entered Aracia's throne room. His majestic voice faltered when Sorgan marched in, however.
"Are you just about through?" Sorgan asked in a flat, unfriendly tone of voice.
"I was just about to leave, mighty Sorgan."
"No," Sorgan said abruptly, "stay. There's something I want you to see."
"As you wish, mighty Sorgan," Bersla replied in a squeaky sort of voice.
Sorgan approached the throne. "I've looked around your temple here, Lady Aracia," he said, "and we've got a lot of work ahead of us, I think, but for right now we need information—what kind of bugs are coming this way, anything new and unusual approaching, how close they are to where we are right now." Then he gestured at Rabbit and Torl. "These men are the best, so they'll be leading the scouting parties. I'm hoping that some of them will live long enough to bring back the information we need. There are many different varieties of bug-people. We know about quite a few of those, but there might be others as well. If there are, I want to know about them. We don't want any surprises. We already know that bugs can come at us from under the ground, from up in trees, and even out of the empty air. There's one variety that's part bug and part bat, and it flies around biting people, and the people die immediately."
Aracia shuddered. "How in the world did these things come into existence?"
Sorgan shrugged. "Their queen—the one called 'the Vlagh'—comes up with the idea for these various creatures, and then she lays eggs. When the eggs hatch, there's a whole new variety of bug. Worse yet, she lays those eggs by the thousands."
"They'd only be infants," the priestess Alcevan said. "They wouldn't be much of a danger for quite some time."
"I see that you've never spent much time around bugs," Sorgan said. "Bugs only live for about six weeks, and then they die. The infancy of a bug only lasts for three or four days, and then it's a full-grown adult, and it'll kill anything the Vlagh wants it to kill. They're not intelligent enough to be afraid of anything. I've seen two or three of them still attacking a fort after we've killed thousands of their friends. They just keep coming until they die."
"That's absurd!" Bersla declared.
"You'd better be ready for lots of absurd when the bug-people attack," Torl said. "About the only thing we've found that gets their attention is fire. When you set fire to something, it tends to get a little confused."
Then Sorgan gestured toward the door. "Take your men and go out there and see what you can find out. Don't get too many of your men killed by taking chances. I need information, not dead friends. Find out what you can and then hurry back, and be very careful. You can die some other time. This time I want live men who can tell me what I need to know."
Sorgan had moved his main force to the far western side of Aracia's temple. "If there really was going to be an invasion by the bug-people, they'd reach this part of Aracia's temple first," he told Padan. "That means that we'll need some kind of fort here to persuade Aracia and her priests that we are going to protect them. It won't have to be too close to a real fort. The temple itself isn't really that well-built, so the priests wouldn't recognize real construction even if it walked up and bit them on the nose. We'll move a few of the building blocks and maybe knock down a tower or two. Then we'll have the men pretend to be building some kind of fort and let it go at that. What we'll really be doing will be terrifying Aracia and her priests to the point that they'll be afraid to come out of the central temple."
"If this works out the way we want it to, we'll have pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, Captain," Padan said.
"Naturally," Sorgan boasted. "No matter what I do, I'm always the best." Then he laughed. "Sorry, Padan," he said then. "It was just too good an opportunity to let slip by."
"Where's Veltan?" Padan asked. "I haven't seen him for the last few days."
"He's nosing around over in the main temple," Sorgan replied. "I need to know how much of our silly story the priests—and Aracia, of course—have swallowed whole. If there are any doubts over there, we might have to play some more exotic games." Then he shivered. "Let's get in out of the weather, Padan," he said. "I hate winter."
They went on back inside to a room that had a stove, and it wasn't too much later when Veltan joined them.
"Well, Sorgan," he said, "you've managed to terrify my sister's priesthood."
"That was sort of what we had in mind, wasn't it?" Sorgan asked. "That's why we've been waving bugs around every time we're near any priest."
"It's you, not the bugs, that has them worried, Sorgan. They're desperately trying to come up with some way to reduce your grip on Aracia. They're afraid of you, and they hate you. It seems that you've got a tighter grip on Aracia than even we could imagine. I think it all goes back to Bersla. He had Aracia wrapped around his little finger with those stupid orations of his. Then you came along and pushed him back into a corner and threatened to kill him if he said one more word. He's had Aracia under his control for years now, and then you walked in and took her away from him in just a day or so. Aracia had the title, but Bersla had the power. Now he doesn't anymore."
"Poor, poor Fat Bersla," Sorgan murmured smugly.
"Now we come to the interesting part, Sorgan," Veltan said. "Bersla wants to kill you—or persuade some lesser priest to do the job for him."
"They don't even have weapons, Veltan," Sorgan scoffed.
"They do have knives, you know. They're made of stone, but a good hard stab in the back with a stone knife will penetrate your skin and go in far enough to do very serious damage to your vital organs. Bersla's doing everything he can think of to persuade some minor priest to stab you in the back. Quite a few of them are very interested by the offers Bersla has been waving in their faces. Instant promotion to the higher priesthood sounds very nice to young, ambitious priests who don't stand too high in the Church of Aracia."