"Aracia, of course," Zelana replied. "I think her mind is slipping even more than it was when she tried to conceal Lillabeth's Dream. I wish that there was some way that we could put her to sleep a few months early this time. Then we could all concentrate on the Vlagh and stop worrying about our sister."

"It probably would make things a lot easier."

"What is it about Aracia that makes her start to go to pieces at the end of every cycle?" Zelana demanded. "I was thinking back, and as closely as I can remember, Aracia's never once gone off to sleep without fighting it every step of the way. Why does she do that?"

Dahlaine shrugged. "Inferiority, most likely. When you include our alternates, there are eight of us altogether, and as closely as I've been able to determine, our alternates trade off authority in the same way that we do. That suggests that Aracia's the dominant one for only twenty-five thousand years. Then she has to wait for a hundred and seventy-five eons for dominance to return. For some reason, she just can't stand that. She yearns to be at the center of the entire universe. If I remember correctly—and I usually do—the last time she was dominant, she literally wallowed in her position. Of course there weren't any developed humans around back then, so she was the only one around who could adore her, but as I remember, her self-adoration was more than a little extreme."

Zelana smiled. "Maybe you and I should join Veltan when our next waking cycle rolls around. I'm sure he was just trying to make a joke of it—we all know how much Veltan enjoys jokes—but he told me on one occasion that he might just go back and camp out on the moon when Aracia's next cycle of dominance comes along, and I think he was about half-serious when he said it."

"That's our baby brother for you. Any time responsibility comes along, Veltan runs away." Dahlaine scratched his cheek. "It probably wouldn't have made much difference in eons past, but there are humans in our various Domains now. I don't know about you, dear sister, but I will not permit Aracia to run roughshod over the people of my Domain."

"You almost sound like you're thinking about declaring war on our sister."

"I'd hardly call it a war, Zelana. Aracia's people are supposed to spend every waking moment adoring her, so they wouldn't pose much of a threat."

"You're putting our sister in the same category as holy—but crazy—Azakan of the Atazak Nation of your own Domain, big brother," Zelana said. Then she frowned. "There are quite a few similarities, though, aren't there?"

"Except that Aracia actually has the power to make things happen. Poor Azakan spent most of his time ordering the earth and sky to obey him, but I don't think they paid very much attention. Aracia, however, has a certain amount of power, so she can make things happen if she feels the need."

"Maybe so, but none of us are permitted to use that power if killing things is going to be involved. If Aracia steps over that line, she'll probably vanish right then and there," Zelana suggested. "And if Aracia vanishes, will we still be here? There's a linkage between the four of us, Dahlaine, and if one of us ceases to exist, isn't it quite possible that we'll all just vanish?"

"You're starting to give me a headache, Zelana."

"At least it's still there to ache, mighty brother."

"I think we've had one stroke of good luck, Zelana. Your pirate chief has persuaded Commander Narasan not to just pack up and go home. We're going to need forts in Long-Pass, and when someone says 'forts,' he's usually talking about Trogites. Did you have anything to do with Sorgan's little scheme?"

"No, big brother. As closely as I can determine, Hook-Beak came up with that all by himself. Of course, the likelihood that he'll be able to swindle a lot of gold out of Aracia probably played a large part in his decision, but right up beside his greed is his friendship for Narasan. He'll keep Aracia so flustered that she probably won't even remember that Narasan exists. He'll go on down to Aracia's absurdly overdone temple and persuade our none too bright sister that he'll be more than happy to defend her—ifshe'll give him enough gold."

"What's he going to defend her against?" Dahlaine asked. "The servants of the Vlagh will be coming down Long-Pass, so they won't be anywhere near Aracia's temple."

Zelana smiled. "If I know Sorgan—and I do—he'll come up with ways to keep Aracia—and her clergy—so terrified that they won't even think about sending anybody up Long-Pass to pester Narasan while he's building forts."

It wasn't much later when the door to Dahlaine's map room opened slightly, and Eleria looked in. "Ah, there you are, Beloved," she said to Zelana. "We should have guessed that you'd be in here conferring with dear old Grey-Beard."

"Mind your manners, Eleria," Zelana chided her Dreamer.

"I'm sorry, Old Grey-Beard," Eleria said with one of her mischievous grins. "We've been looking for you and the Beloved for hours now."

"We?" Dahlaine asked curiously.

"Big-Me and I. Mother wants us to talk with you."

"Mother?" Zelana asked, feeling suddenly baffled.

"We all have a mother, you know, Beloved. Big-Me can explain it much better than I can, I'm sure." Then Eleria came on inside the large room, and immediately behind her was an extremely beautiful lady.

Dahlaine gasped. "What are you doing, Balacenia?" he demanded. "You're not supposed to be awake yet."

"Grow up, Dahlaine," the lady replied. "Your little game almost tore the world apart. We've had a lot of trouble smoothing things over, and we're not even supposed to be awake yet."

Zelana was staring at the lady. "Are you really—" She almost choked at that point.

"Yes, Beloved, I am your alternate. Our Domain is still under your control, however. I promise that I won't tamper—unless Mother tells me—us—to." She put her hand on Eleria's shoulder. "This can be terribly confusing sometimes. This is Little-Me. You know her as Eleria, which is sort of all right, I suppose. She makes me laugh quite often, and laughter's good for the soul—or so I've been told. There is something I've been curious about, though. Where in the world did she come up with her hugs and kisses ploy? She has poor Vash so confused that he doesn't know exactly what to do."

Zelana suddenly smiled. "The idea came to Eleria back in the pink grotto when she was very, very young. She can kiss a pink dolphin into submission in no time at all." Then she looked rather closely at Balacenia, her alternate. "The resemblances are definitely there, Balacenia. You are, in fact, a grown-up version of Eleria the Dreamer. How is it that the two of you can both be in the same place at the same time?"