The nondescript man stood gazing moodily out of a second-story inn window with his hands folded behind his back. He was no more remarkable looking than he'd been when he appeared uninvited in Baron Cassan's suite, but the other two people in the room with him watched him attentively. There was deep respect, possibly even fear, in their eyes, and they were careful not to intrude upon his thoughts.
Unlike the weather during his last visit to the baron, the day beyond the window was beautiful. Just a hint of a breeze whispered across the city of Balthar, scarcely enough to set the great standard over the castle above the city gently flapping. Birdsong echoed from the city's towers and eaves, drifting through the rise and fall of voices from the market two blocks over and the rumbling clatter of the wheels and hooves of a heavy freight wagon passing below the window. The early morning sun shone brilliantly from a high blue sky, cradled amid dramatic billows of fleecy white clouds. Like most Sothōii towns and cities, Balthar enjoyed excellent drains and sewers, and the air breathing lightly through the window was remarkably free of the odors it would have carried in many another city the unremarkable man had visited in his time. He drew a deep, lung-filling breath of the fresh spring air . . . which did absolutely nothing to improve his mood.
"Well!" he said finally, turning away from the window. He balanced on the balls of his feet, weight forward, hands still clasped behind him, and both of the other men in the room seemed to shrink ever so slightly away from him. "This is a fine mess, isn't it?"
His tone was almost conversational, but neither of the others appeared inclined to respond, and he smiled thinly.
"Come, now! You know the plan as well as I do. Would you say it's proceeding properly?"
"Not exactly according to schedule, no," one of his companions finally replied. The speaker was taller than the nondescript man, with black hair, yet shared something of his lack of remarkability. Except, perhaps, for his dark eyes. There was a peculiar stillness about them, an almost reptilian, unblinking watchfulness. "On the other hand, Master Varnaythus, that's scarcely mine or Jerghar's fault, is it?"
He met the nondescript man's gaze steadily, and it was Varnaythus who finally shrugged irritably.
"I suppose not," he said in a peevish tone. Then he shook his head. "No. No, it isn't," he continued in quite a different tone. It wasn't precisely apologetic, perhaps, but it was at least an admission that his irritation was making him unreasonable.
"Actually," he turned back to the window's open casement, but his shoulders weren't quite so taut and his hands' interlocked grip relaxed slightly, "I think what I'm most frustrated about is having such an unanticipated opportunity slip through our fingers this way."
"If I'd had even a day or two of warning," the black-haired man replied, "I might have been able to put together enough men to do something about it. But Tellian rode out of here like Fiendark's Furies were on his heels. And the armsmen he took with him were all from his personal guard." He shrugged. "I don't have more than a dozen men here in Balthar at the moment—and usually barely half that many, given how low a profile we have to maintain—and I'm not going up against Tellian's handpicked guards, even from ambush, without at least twice their number. We might get Tellian before they killed us all, but the Guild doesn't accept contracts it knows are going to be suicidal."
"I understand, Salgahn," Varnaythus said. "I don't like it, but I certainly understand it. And I don't disagree with your analysis. It's just that opportunities to catch Tellian in the open, especially when he's distracted by personal problems and his guard might be down, are so few and far between that I hate to waste one when it comes along."
"A pity you couldn't scry far enough ahead to see it coming," the third man said at that. Jerghar Sholdan was taller than Varnaythus, shorter than Salgahn, and better dressed than either of them. Indeed, he looked like what he was—a wealthy merchant banker who had arrived in Balthar several months before to represent the interests of half a dozen prominent Axeman and Purple Lord merchants. He was well groomed and clean-shaven, with fair hair, manicured hands, and cheerful blue eyes, yet there was something else about him. . . .
Varnaythus knew what that "something else" was, since it was he who had provided the charm which both offset the "banker's" aversion to direct sunlight and prevented others from noticing his minor peculiarities.
"Scrying isn't as simple as people without a trace of the Art at their command sometimes assume, Jerghar," Varnaythus said, still gazing out the window. "And unless I'm mistaken, it was your job to keep Tellian under observation, since that entire portion of the operation is your responsibility."
He turned from the window finally, facing Sholdan with a thin smile.
"Scrying takes concentration, a lack of distractions, and enough preliminary information to at least know where to look. Even the best wizard can only employ one scry spell at a time, you know. To watch all of our possible targets by gramerhain, I'd have to concentrate on doing nothing but that, and given the quality of coconspirator currently available to me, I don't seem to be able to find enough time free of distractions to do other people's work for them."
Sholdan's eyes narrowed, and his lips tightened, showing just a flash of sharp, oddly elongated teeth. He started a quick retort, then made himself swallow it unspoken as he remembered who—and what—Varnaythus was.
Varnaythus watched him unblinkingly, then smiled again, even more thinly than before.
"The problem," the black wizard said as if the venomous exchange had never occurred, "is that there are too many cooks busily stirring this particular pot. We know who most of the major players are, but don't delude yourself into believing that we know who all of them are. There's no possible way to predict what people you don't even know about are going to do next. That's bad enough, but I prefer it to having someone I do know about take me as completely by surprise as Cassan managed with this little gem."
"Do you think he kept us in the dark because he's begun to distrust us?" Salgahn asked.
"I think he kept us in the dark because he doesn't want his own shadow to know what he's doing, much less anyone else," Varnaythus snorted. "Which, to be fair, doesn't make him so very different from us. And he did at least warn me he'd taken measures to 'distract' Tellian." The wizard twitched his shoulders in another shrug, his smile tart as alum. "He probably wouldn't have given me any specifics, whatever he expected, but I doubt very much that he anticipated a result quite this . . . spectacular. After all, who would have expected the girl to bolt this way?"
"I can see that," Salgahn said thoughtfully. "On the other hand, I wonder what else he's working on that he hasn't bothered to mention to us?"
"He's operating exactly the same way we are," Varnaythus replied. "We're certainly not going to tell him what we actually have in mind, are we?" He took one hand from behind him and waved it in a dismissive gesture. "Our whole object, where he's concerned, is to keep him convinced he's the prime mover and that he's simply using our services. I'm sure he's intelligent enough to assume we have ends of our own in mind, however, and that means he's not stupid enough to trust us. So he'll tell us just enough about his plans to make us useful to him . . . just as we're doing where he's concerned. Of course, however much he may distrust us, it's probably never occurred to him that we intend to destabilize the entire Kingdom and let him take the blame for it."
"I'm sure it hasn't," Sholdan agreed, working his way back into the conversation. "After all, he's a baron, and he doesn't know who we're really working for. He sees us only as tools, not anyone who could seriously threaten someone as powerful as he is."
"Which is why They wanted him brought into this in the first place," Varnaythus said. "I only wish I felt more confident that They aren't overreaching."
"Of course They aren't!" Sholdan stared at him, eyes wide in shock. Salgahn seemed much less appalled by Varnaythus' temerity, but dog brothers weren't especially noted for piety even where their own patron, Sharnā, was concerned.
"Oh, don't be an old woman, Jerghar!" Varnaythus snapped. "Of course They can make mistakes! If They couldn't, They'd have finished off the other side twelve hundred years ago. What bothers me this time around is how many balls They expect us to keep in the air simultaneously. If it all works—or even if only half of it works—the results will be all They could hope for. But the more complex the plan, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong, too. All I'm saying is that, speaking as the person responsible for making it all fit together at the critical moment, I wish They could have kept things a bit simpler."
"All you have to do is follow orders," Sholdan protested, and Varnaythus snorted.
"If that were all I was required to do, They wouldn't need me here at all, Jerghar! But They do need me, because someone has to adjust when bits and pieces of the master plan go to your Lady's Seventh Hell in a handbasket! All I have to say is that it's a good thing the other side can make mistakes, too. Especially this time around."
A fine sheen of perspiration dewed Sholdan's forehead. He seemed genuinely horrified by the wizard's attitude.
"If you offend Her—or any of the rest of Them!—Varnaythus, no power on earth—" he began, and Varnaythus laughed.
"I don't intend to offend anyone—certainly not any of Them! But They picked me to oversee this operation—all of this operation—because I'm not afraid to use my brain. They need someone who's willing to remember there are at least two sides in any war, and that the other sides work just as hard at beating you as you do at beating them. And do you really think for a moment that Their counterparts are unaware of what They're doing?"
"Well, of course theyknow She and the others are working against them. But if they really knew all we're doing, surely they would have acted directly against us by now."
"You do have a brain, don't you, Jerghar?" Varnaythus asked. The banker swelled with anger, but Varnaythus continued calmly. "I've always assumed you must, because without one, you couldn't be as successful at amassing wealth as you've been, even allowing for all the business your Lady's church throws your way. But when you say something like that, I find myself questioning my basic assumptions. Perhaps it has something to do with your diet."
"And just what do you mean by that?" Sholdan demanded.
"By what? You mean the bit about your diet?" The wizard's smile was deadly, and Sholdan shook his head sharply.
"Not that!" he snapped. "The rest of it. What did you mean by the rest of it?"
"I meant that you have a dazzling ability to overlook the obvious when reality isn't to your liking." Varnaythus shook his head. "Both sides are limited in what they can do," he continued in an elaborately patient voice. "Not even They dare to intervene directly and personally very often, and the other side chooses to do it even less frequently. Which—we might as well be honest here, since it's just us plotters—is a very good thing for Them, since the other side is more powerful than They are."
Sholdan's eyes darted around the inn room with more than a hint of true panic. Salgahn, on the other hand, looked faintly amused.
"Oh, calm down, Jerghar," Varnaythus said wearily. "Of course the other side is more powerful! Not only individually, but in numbers, as well. But what of it? How powerful one god or another may be is really immaterial to us mortals." Sholdan goggled at him, and he snorted. "Any god could evaporate any one of us with a thought, if he or she decided to," he pointed out acerbically. "Does it really matter if one of them decides to turn us into purple vapor, instead of orange vapor?"
"B-b-b-but—" Sholdan stuttered.
"The point is," Varnaythus said, "that even the weakest god is so much more powerful than any mortal that any differences of power between deities aren't particularly significant. The fact that Tomanāk, say," he watched Sholdan flinch physically at his offhand use of that hated name, "is individually more powerful than any one of Them doesn't matter a solitary damn to you, me, or any other mortal. There's only so much power any deity can apply to the physical universe without smashing the whole thing, which would defeat his own purpose, and either side is perfectly capable of doing that if they get too openly involved. That's why both of them need agents in the first place, to avoid the escalation of direct confrontations that could get out of hand. You know that."
"But—" Sholdan tried again.
"Oh, give it a rest, Jerghar!" Salgahn interjected. "And you stop needling him, Varnaythus!" Both of the others looked at him, and the assassin shrugged. "We can debate about agents, direct divine intervention, and the destruction of the world some other time," he said impatiently. "What matters right now is that the gods on the other side have chosen to restrict their direct intervention, that they believe in free will, and that, unlike certain gods on our side," he carefully named no names, "that they expect theiragents to think for themselves. And, as Varnaythus says, Jerghar, even if they wanted to lead someone like Bahzell around by the hand all day long, they can make mistakes, too."
"Salgahn's right, Jerghar," Varnaythus said. "I shouldn't try to goad you that way. But if you want confirmation that the other side isn't whispering the details of all of Their plans into their precious champions' ears—or anyone else's—look at what happened to the coursers. Do you think that precious stallion would have let any of his herd stay behind over the winter if he'd realized my Lady was influencing their minds? Or do you honestly believe the Sothōiiwould have allowed an entire herd of their precious coursers to walk right into destruction if they'd known what was about to happen?"
"Well, no," Sholdan said.
"Neither do I. And while I'm about it, I might as well acknowledge that your Lady and Her servants succeeded brilliantly in that particular phase of the operation."
"It would have been better if the shardohns had gotten them all," Sholdan grumbled, but Varnaythus shook his head.
"No. It's much better this way—someone had to get home to tell the Sothōii what happened. You'll get all the rest of them in time, if the plan works properly, but for now those poor, pathetic survivors are bound to arouse every protective instinct the Sothōii have. And if there hadn't been any survivors at all, how could we have goaded them into responding?"
"I can see that," Salgahn said. "On the other hand, it was Tellian who was supposed to be sucked in, not Bahzell."
"Yes," Sholdan said. "No one suggested we'd have to deal with a champion of Tomanāk!" There wasn't much question that in this case the "we" meant Jerghar Sholdan and his coreligionists, not Varnaythus and Salgahn or any of their associates.
"The possibility was always there," Varnaythus pointed out, his tone less cutting but still a bit impatient. "Ideally, Tellian would have taken his men out himself and been destroyed, of course. But there was always the chance—the distinct probability, really—that Bahzell would insist on accompanying him. It's what those interfering busybodies of Tomanāk's do." He shrugged. "If the plan is sound and it's executed properly, it should be capable of dealing with 'Prince Bahzell.' And even if we don't manage to destroy him, we may manage to kill Brandark. That wouldn't be as good as getting Bahzell, of course, but it's almost as good as getting Tellian."
"I wish They'd tell us why it's so damned important to kill two damned hradani," Salgahn muttered. "Tellian, I can understand. For that matter, Bahzell makes sense. But why Brandark? He's no prince or champion!"
"I'm sure we'll find out someday, if we don't manage to kill him," Varnaythus said dryly. "Always assuming we survive not killing him in the first place. Which, just between the three of us, is another reason I'm perfectly happy to see Bahzell and Brandark riding off towards Warm Springs without us. I'm just upset because Tellian isn't with them."
"And because you don't know what else Cassan might be up to that could disorder our plans," Salgahn put in.
"And because of that," Varnaythus admitted.
"I'll have my people in Toramos see what they can find out," the assassin said. "I know your contacts with Cassan are probably better than mine, but I've got more sets of eyes and ears than you do."
"Good!" Varnaythus grunted. "I'll do what I can, as well, but there are too many magi in Toramos for comfort. Cassan may be more than a bit irrational on the subject, but they really do constitute a threat—to us, at least, if not to him. If you want real honesty, that's the main reason I haven't done more scrying, Jerghar," he admitted. "If I use any of the really effective spells, one of them is likely to catch me at it. They probably wouldn't be able to identify me, but they could certainly tell who I was trying to watch, which could be almost as bad."
"I'd prefer for them not to know we're using wizardry at all," Salgahn said frankly. "Anything that might bring Wencit of Rūm back to the Wind Plain would be a really bad idea, as far as I'm concerned!"
"Amen to that," Varnaythus said fervently, and touched the lump under his shirt and tunic that was the small wizard's wand of wrought silver he wore on the chain about his neck. His clothing hid it, but the simple fact that he possessed it would earn the death penalty if it was discovered. And if Wencit of Rūm should happen to discover that Varnaythus wore the amulet of a priest of Carnadosa, death would probably be preferable to his fate.
"What about Kalatha?" Sholdan asked.
"At the moment, everything seems to be proceeding nicely. I'll check with Dahlaha while I'm there, of course but I don't expect any problems to have cropped up since my last visit," Varnaythus told him.
The banker looked as if he wanted to ask more questions, but Varnaythus had made it clear he intended to keep the different aspects of the complex, interwoven operation as compartmentalized as possible. He needed Sholdan's cooperation—or, rather, his cooperation and that of his fellow Servants of Krahana. But however reliable the banker's discretion might have been in matters of business, Varnaythus didn't trust his ability to keep his mouth shut (and his hands off) anything really important. Time enough to let Sholdan know all that was involved at Kalatha when the operation had been crowned with success. For the moment, let him continue to think that nothing else was as important as killing Bahzell, Tellian, and Brandark.
"Very well," the wizard-priest continued, shaking aside his thoughts. "I believe we're all up to date. Jerghar, get word to your Lady's Servants immediately that Bahzell and Brandark are on their way, then get up there and take personal charge of dealing with them. Salgahn, I'll check with your message drop in Sōthōfalas to see what you may have discovered when I get back to the capital. In the meantime, I have a few errands to take care of for Them before I head back."
The other two nodded, and he strode briskly out of the room. One of the advantages of wizardry was how quickly he could cover ground, he thought. He had plenty of time to drop by Lorham and check the Kalathan situation's progress personally before he headed back to Sōthōfalas.