"I don't think you should be here," the powerfully built, blond-haired nobleman said. His expression was almost neutral, but his hand lingered near the hilt of his dagger and his voice was dangerously flat. He was a man who neither liked surprises nor was accustomed to—or brooked—disobedience, and it showed.
"It's not as if anyone else knows that I am here, Milord Baron," his visitor replied. He was a nondescript little man, brown-haired and brown-eyed, and his clothing was just as unremarkable and easily forgotten as he was. He might have been a tradesman, or a clerk. Possibly a minor functionary, attached to the household of some middle-ranked nobleman. Perhaps even a moderately prosperous physician with a middle-class patient list.
But, of course, the baron thought, he was none of those. Although what precisely he actually was remained much less satisfyingly defined than the list of things he wasn't.
The baron listened to the spatter of raindrops and the splash of gurgling downspouts on the terrace outside the study of his private suite and considered pointing out that he was on his way to bed and suggesting that the other come back at a more convenient time. As a matter of fact, he considered the idea very carefully before, in the end, he rejected it.
"And how can you be so certain no one knows?" he asked instead.
"My dear Baron!" The little man sounded affronted, although he was respectful enough about it to satisfy propriety. "We're talking about part of my stock in trade! What sort of a conspirator would I be if I couldn't be positive about things like that?"
The baron clenched his teeth at the word "conspirator." Not because it was inaccurate, but because he disliked hearing it bandied about so casually by a man about whom he knew far less than he liked. And also, perhaps, because a noble of his rank was never party to something so common as a "conspiracy."
"I repeat," he said, his voice frosted with a warning edge of chill, "how can you be so certain?"
"Because your armsmen aren't swarming into your chambers even as we speak, Milord," his visitor said in a much more serious tone. The baron arched one eyebrow, and the other man nodded. "If I could get into your personal chambers without them noticing me, I think it's safe to say that no one else could possibly suspect I'm here. Besides, I have a few . . . other ways of being certain I'm not under observation."
The baron shrugged and crossed the study. He sat in the comfortable chair behind his desk and turned to face his visitor. He had to agree that the point about his armsmen's not having noticed the other's arrival was a good one. And then there was the other man's second point. The baron neither knew nor wanted to know all of the resources his self-proclaimed fellow conspirator might possess. He strongly suspected that sorcery was among them, and if it was, it was most certainly not white sorcery. And since the punishment for dark sorcery and blood magic was death, he preferred to have no more direct knowledge than he could avoid. In an ironic sort of way, his very ignorance—however hard he had to work to maintain it—would be his most powerful protection if things ever went far enough wrong for him to face investigation. Even a court-appointed mage could only confirm the truth of his statement when he testified that he didn't know that the other was a sorcerer.
"Well," he said, after regarding the nondescript man coldly for almost a full minute, "since you're here, I suppose it wouldn't hurt for you to go ahead and tell me why."
The other man seemed remarkably unaffected by the fishy eye of such a powerful noble. He wasn't precisely insouciant about it, but he strolled across to stand at a corner of the desk, hands clasped behind him while he toasted his backside at the baron's fireplace, and smiled.
"There are a few matters I thought we ought, perhaps, to discuss," he said easily. "And there are also some bits of news about which you probably should be informed. So since I was already in Sōthōfalas, I decided to come on as far as Toramos and share them with you."
"What sort of news?" the baron asked.
"For starters, Festian has decided to formally appeal to Tellian for assistance." The baron grunted in an unsurprised sort of way, and the little man chuckled. "I know, I know—we expected that from the beginning. Indeed, I'm mostly surprised that he's waited this long."
"That's because you're not a lord," the baron said, and smiled thinly as he not so subtly emphasized the gap between his rank and that of his visitor. "Yes, he has both the right and the duty to call upon his liege in a matter like this. But by appealing to Tellian for aid he admits his inability to handle the problem out of his own resources, and among our people, that will constitute a serious blow to his authority and legitimacy in many eyes." He shrugged. "Whatever I may think of Festian and his claim to Glanharrow, I understand the constraints he faces."
"No doubt you're better placed to understand," the little man agreed amiably, unfazed by any effort on his ostensible employer's part to put him in his place. "My question is whether or not you want his messenger—he's decided to send Sir Yarran—to reach Tellian."
"Surely what I want or don't want has little bearing at this point," the baron said, watching the other man's face carefully from behind the untroubled expression of a veteran politician. "Balthar is the better part of a hundred and fifty leagues from where we sit."
"True." The other man nodded and pursed his lips judiciously. "On the other hand, I did just tell you that Festian has decided to appeal to Tellian, not that he's already done so. If my . . . sources can get that information to me that promptly, what makes you think I couldn't get instructions back to them just as quickly?"
"Put that way, I don't suppose there's any reason you couldn't," the baron acknowledged, silently taking himself to task for asking the question in the first place. That sort of probe was dangerous to his carefully maintained ignorance. He leaned back in his chair, stroking his beard, and considered the question.
"I think it's best that we leave his messenger alone," he said finally. "While it's tempting to take this opportunity to dispose of Yarran once and for all, it's better to remember that a prudent spider weaves her webs patiently. Yarran is a capable enough man, in a rough-edged sort of way, and he's completely loyal to Festian. As such, he'll have to go eventually. But killing him—or even arranging a perfectly natural seeming accident for him—at this particular moment would only make Tellian even more suspicious than he'll already be."
"In what way?" the little man asked in a tone of mild curiosity.
"Yarran is Festian's senior field commander," the baron said. "If we kill him at this point, we up the stakes all around. It would be a major escalation from simply stealing cattle, or even horses. As I say, we'll have to do it eventually, but I've just launched a little arrow which ought to add significantly to Tellian's distractions. I'd prefer to give that time to work on him before we escalate any further. Especially if the escalation in question might be sufficiently significant for Tellian to justify calling in Crown investigators. Those infernal busybodies are probably just panting to poke their noses in, and half of them are magi, curse them."
His last observation was an exaggeration, but not all that great a one. The Crown's best investigators were magi, with the mage talents to make them fiendishly effective at ferreting out the truth, however well it hid itself. King Markhos' father's decision to found the Sōthōfalas Mage Academy and commission almost a quarter of its yearly graduates as Crown investigators was a major reason the Time of Troubles of his own father's reign had not repeated themselves. Cassan knew that, and as Baron Toramos and Lord Warden of the South Riding, he had to approve, in a grudging sort of way. But that didn't keep him from detesting the consequences for his own plans . . . or regarding the Crown investigators with a wariness that verged far more closely than he cared to admit on outright fear.
"That might be unfortunate at this point," the other man agreed, wondering idly what sort of "arrow" the baron might have sent Tellian's way. "But as dangerous as magi are, it's not as if they'd really make that much difference, is it?" The baron frowned, and he shrugged. "I don't wish to appear alarmist, but at the moment, Baron Tellian has not one, but two champions of Tomanāk as houseguests," he pointed out. "I approve of all the precautions you've taken against magi, Milord, and I'm glad I was able to assist in some small way with them. But given my choice between two of Scale Balancer's champions and every mage in the world, I'd probably choose the magi."
"A point," the baron conceded. "But, of course, that assumes the two of them really are champions of Tomanāk." He bared strong, even, white teeth in something no one would ever have called a smile. "Given that we're talking about a hradani and a hradani-lover who's not only a woman but who publicly admits she was born a peasant, I sincerely doubt they are."
His visitor's expression didn't even flicker, but it wasn't easy for the little man to keep it from doing so. The baron was a powerful, cunning man who was not unduly burdened by scruples. In his own way, he was easily one of the most intelligent men the little man had ever encountered, as well. But he was also a Sothōii, and a bigot. Armored by his own iron prejudice, he genuinely didn't believe that Bahzell Bahnakson or Dame Kaeritha could possibly be what they claimed to be.
"I can understand why you might doubt their legitimacy," he lied after a moment, "but that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. If even half the things they say about this Bahzell are true, he has a nasty habit of surviving rather . . . extreme threats. And whatever we may believe about them, a significant number of people, especially in Balthar and, unfortunately, Sōthōfalas, accept that they truly are champions. I might point out that even Wencit of Rūm has vouched for them. So whether they are or not, they're going to be allowed to operate as if they were."
"So Wencit of Rūmvouches for them, does he? Well, how wonderful!" The baron made a disgusted sound and looked as if he wanted to spit. "Wencit may be impressive to many people, but I'm not one of them," he said.
This time, the little man couldn't keep his shock, even fear, entirely out of his expression, and the baron chuckled harshly.
"Don't mistake me," he said. "I freely acknowledge Wencit's power, and I have no intention of openly challenging him or giving him a visible threat as a target. However, it's been my observation that Wencit is also an inveterate meddler. He works for his own ends and according to his own plans, and he's done it for so long now that I'd be surprised if even he remembers what all those ends are. I don't doubt for a moment that he would 'vouch' for this Bahzell and 'Dame Kaeritha' if it served his purposes. For that matter, I don't doubt that he'd vouch for a three-legged, one-eyed, mangy dog if it served his purposes."
His visitor nodded neutrally, but even as he did, he made a mental note to reevaluate all of the plans he and the baron had hatched together. Cunning and intelligent the nobleman might be, but what he'd just said showed an alarming ability to project his own deviousness and inherent dishonesty onto others, whether it was merited or not. The nondescript little man had no objection to deviousness and dishonesty—they, like his ability to suddenly appear places he shouldn't be able to get into—were part of his stock in trade, after all. But automatically assuming that those same qualities were what motivated an opponent, especially a powerful opponent like Wencit of Rūm, was dangerous. Success required that enemies not be underestimated or discounted.
"At the same time," the baron continued, "I recognize that his imprimatur grants this Bahzell and this Kaeritha a certain legitimacy. Fortunately, Wencit himself has already left the Wind Plain. Apparently, he believes he's accomplished whatever goal brought him here in the first place, which may well be true. But what matters for our purposes is that he's no longer here to continue to support their ridiculous claims . . . or to protect them."
"Assuming they require his protection," the other man observed.
"Oh," the baron said unpleasantly, "I think you can rely upon it that they'll require all the protection they can get before too very much longer. I have quite a few little diversions planned for both of them. Especially 'Prince Bahzell.' I believe you'll find they're much too busy just staying alive to spend a great deal of time driving spokes into our wheels."
"I see." The other man nodded again, then stretched and walked slowly across to a chair which faced the baron's desk. He settled into it and crossed his legs, and his mind was busy behind his bland eyes.
Obviously, the baron had plans even he hadn't yet discovered. Well, that had been a given from the outset. Whatever his other flaws, the baron was an experienced and skillful conspirator, and the nondescript man had taken it for granted from the beginning that he would keep his various conspiracies as separated from one another as he could. Which was only fair, since the nondescript man was doing precisely the same thing.
But all of this secrecy and skulking about, however entertaining and profitable it might be, did lead to the occasional moment of uncertainty. For example, what sort of deviltry did the baron have in mind for Bahzell and Kaeritha? And did he began to suspect the deviltry the nondescript man and his other . . . associates had in mind for the two of them? More to the point, would the baron's plans get in the way of the nondescript man's?
He considered the delightfully different possibility of simply asking the baron straightforwardly what he intended, but he was afraid the shock might do his host's health a mischief. Besides, if he asked the baron that, the baron might ask him the same question, and that could lead to all sorts of complications. The nondescript man was confident that the baron was every bit as ambitious and ruthless as he could have hoped, but there were probably limits to the actions and allies he was prepared to contemplate, even so. Given how hard he was working at maintaining his technical ignorance about the nondescript man's own abilities, it seemed safe enough to assume he would definitely balk at direct, knowing association with black wizardry and Dark Gods. For that matter, it was even possible (however unlikely) that if the baron discovered the nondescript man's full intentions and plans he might actually choose to place the well-being of the Kingdom above his own power and position.
"I suppose, since you've obviously already made arrangements to keep both of them occupied, that you're aware Prince Yurokhas seems close to convincing the King to grant official ambassadorial status to Prince Bahzell?"
"I know the Prince would like to convince the King to do so," the baron replied a bit cautiously. "According to my own sources, however, the King remains resistant. And, I should add, that's also been my own observation as a member of his Council."
"The King does remain resistant . . . so far," the other man agreed. "But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to grant it, Milord. As you must know even better than I, Markhos is skilled at keeping his own counsel and -avoiding any open appearance of commitment until after he's made up his mind to act."
"That's certainly true enough," the baron agreed sourly. "He learned that from his father. Fortunately, however, and with all due respect for the Crown, he's not as intelligent, in some ways, as his younger brother." The baron snorted. "Yurokhas may have a big enough maggot in his brain where religion is concerned to accept that this Bahzell might really be a champion of Tomanāk, but aside from that, he's a dangerous man. We're fortunate so much of his time is taken up with the Order of Tomanāk in Sōthōfalas. If it wasn't, he'd have even more opportunity to lead the King into dangerously foolish policy decisions."
"I thought you just said the Prince was intelligent," the other man said, more to poke the baron with a sharp stick than because he disagreed. A slight gleam in the baron's eye suggested that he understood exactly why the question had been asked, but he chose to answer it anyway.
"He is intelligent. Unfortunately, even intelligent people can be wrong, especially when something like religious belief begins to interfere with the pragmatic requirements of governing a kingdom. And when that happens, the more intelligent the believer is, the more damage he can do before someone else stops him. That's why Yurokhas is dangerous. He's not only smarter than the King, unfortunately, but the King knows he is, which is even more dangerous. Markhos doesn't always agree with Yurokhas, and he's quite capable of rejecting his brother's advice. But he doesn't do it out of hand, and it doesn't keep him from trusting Yurokhas and regarding the Prince as his closest, most reliable adviser."
"I see," the little man said again, and nodded. "Actually, Milord, that agrees very closely with my own analysis. Which leads to another perhaps delicate question." He paused until the baron raised his eyebrows politely, then shrugged. "I'm curious, Milord. Have you, by any chance, considered . . . removing Yurokhas from the equation?"
"I am prepared to do many things in the service of the Kingdom and its best interests," the baron said in a cold, flat voice. "Yet the King is the heart and soul of the Kingdom. It is his person which unites us, and without that unity, we would disintegrate once more into the patchwork of squabbling, warring factions we had become in his grandfather's day. Because of that, his person must be sacrosanct, whatever I may think of his policies of the moment, under any but the most desperate of imaginable circumstances. At present, Prince Yurokhas stands only fifth in the succession, after the King's sons, yet the blood in his veins is the same as that in the veins of King Markhos himself. Mistaken and dangerous though I believe him to be, I will not see it spilled unless there is no other possible way to save the Kingdom."
"I see," the nondescript man said yet again. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers across his chest, and gazed steadily at the baron. How much of that, he wondered, was actually sincere? And how much of it is no more than so much rationalization? Protection not of the all-unifying King or his precious person but of the system and hierarchy which grants the good Baron his own power base?
Not that it really mattered. He'd been told what he needed to know. Always assuming the baron had told him the truth.
"Very well, Milord," he said finally. "I think we've each given the other enough to chew on for the moment. I'll keep you informed of anything my sources turn up about Festian, Tellian, and the rest. For now, Lord Saratic and his people will keep the pressure on all of them, I feel certain."
He cocked one questioning eyebrow, and the baron nodded in confirmation.
"Excellent! And while they're doing that, my associates and I will be doing our bit to help. And if anything occurs to us which might help to distract or otherwise occupy Bahzell and Kaeritha, I assure you that we'll act upon it. With your agreement, I'll drop back by for another visit in about a week, unless something comes up in the meantime. If something should happen to come to your attention, or if any small way in which we might be of service should occur to you, you know how to get word to me."
The baron nodded just short of curtly, and the nondescript man rose from his chair.
"In that case, Milord, I'll bid you good evening," he said cheerfully, and stepped out of a windowed door onto the rain-swept terrace beyond. One of the baron's most trusted armsmen was responsible for guarding that door, but no shout of alarm or challenge was raised. Not that the baron thought for a moment that any lack of alertness on his armsman's part was to blame for that silence.
He watched his visitor disappear, then snorted in irritation, stood, and crossed the study to close the door behind him. Then he continued his interrupted trip towards his bedchamber, considering the conversation which had just ended.
As the other man had said, he reflected, he had a great deal to chew upon before he dropped off to sleep.