“To what do I owe the pleasure?” the richly dressed nobleman asked sardonically as soon as the servant who had ushered Varnaythus into his study departed, closing the door silently behind him.
“I was merely in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by and compare notes with you, Milord Triahm,” the wizard-priest said smoothly. He walked across to one of the comfortable chairs which faced the other man’s desk and arched his eyebrows as he rested one hand atop the chair back. His host nodded brusque permission, and he seated himself, then leaned back and crossed his legs.
“It’s possible things will be coming to a head sooner than we’d anticipated,” he continued. “And a new wrinkle has been added—one I thought you should know about. I’m not certain how much effect it will have on your own concerns here in Lorham, but the possibilities it suggests are at least … intriguing.”
The other man ignored his own chair and crossed to prop a shoulder against the frame of the window behind his desk, half-turning his back on his guest. He gazed out through the glass at the gathering dusk. Thalar Keep, the ancestral seat of the Pickaxes of Lorham, loomed against the darkening sky, dominating the view, and his mouth tightened ever so slightly. Varnaythus couldn’t see his expression with his face turned away towards the window, but he read the other man’s emotions clearly in the tight set of his shoulders.
“Indeed,” the nondescript wizard confirmed. “Unless my sources are much less reliable than usual, a new war maid will be arriving in Kalatha sometime soon.”
“How marvelous,” the nobleman growled, then made a spitting sound. “And just why should the arrival of one more unnatural bitch concern me?”
“Ah, but this particular unnatural bitch is Lady Leeana Bowmaster,” Varnaythus purred.
For a second or two, Triahm seemed not to have heard him at all. Then he whipped around from the window, his eyes wide with disbelief.
“Not in the least, Milord,” Varnaythus said calmly. “It’s remotely possible my information is in error,” actually, he knew it wasn’t; he’d been tracking Leeana in his gramerhain for the last several days and witnessed her arrival in Kalatha the day before, “but I have every reason to believe it’s accurate. If she hasn’t arrived in Kalatha already, it’s only a matter of a day or so before she does.”
“Well, well, well,” the other man murmured. He moved away from the window and lowered himself slowly into his own chair, never taking his eyes from Varnaythus’ face. “That does present some possibilities, doesn’t it?”
“I believe you might reasonably say that, Milord,” Varnaythus replied in the voice of a tomcat with cream-clotted whiskers.
“Tellian’s always been overly soft where those bitches are concerned,” Triahm growled. “Probably because his idiot of an ancestor provided them with the initial foothold to begin their pollution of the Kingdom. Personally, that connection would have been enough to make me feel ashamed, not turn me into some sort of lap cat for them. Maybe this humiliation will finally open his eyes!”
“It’s certainly possible,” Varnaythus agreed. For his part, he’d always found Triahm’s blindly bigoted, unthinking hatred for the war maids and all they stood for as stupid as it was useful. He doubted that a man like Tellian would ever fall prey to its like, however.
On the other hand, Tellian was a Sothoii, and now that his daughter had succeeded in reaching the war maids before he overtook her, it was at least possible he would react exactly as Triahm anticipated. Which, after all, was one of the reasons Varnaythus had decided against attempting to intercept and assassinate the girl. Kaeritha’s presence was the other reason, he admitted frankly to himself. Champions of Tomanak were hard to kill, even—or especially—by arcane means. Still, he’d felt sufficiently confident of managing it to have justified the risk of a few proxies, at least.
But however badly her death might have hurt and weakened her parents, the Dark Gods would weaken the kingdom far more seriously if their servants could set the Lord Warden of the West Riding openly against the war maids. Even if Tellian managed to avoid that particular trap, having his only child run away to become a despised war maid was going to cost him dearly in political support from the more conservative members of the Royal Council. Not to mention all of the delicious possibilities for destabilizing the war maids’ charter when the question of the Balthar succession was thrown into the mix.
The wizard-priest rubbed mental hands together in gleeful contemplation of the possibilities, but he kept his expression composed and attentive.
“Even if it doesn’t,” Triahm went on, thinking aloud and unaware of his guest’s own thoughts, “this is bound to have a major impact. It’s going to drag Tellian right into the middle of Trisu’s little difficulties.” He smiled nastily. “It should be interesting to see which way that pushes my dear, irritating cousin.”
“If Tellian does end up at odds with the war maids himself, it’s likely to embolden Trisu considerably,” Varnaythus pointed out. “I imagine he’ll become even more persistent in pressing his claims if he thinks Tellian will openly support him. And I’d be surprised if those claims didn’t harden and become more extensive, as well.”
“But even if Tellian is gutless enough to swallow the shame, the fact that his precious daughter has seen fit to join one side of the dispute will compel him to be very careful about his own position,” Triahm said. “If he supports the war maids, he’ll be accused of favoritism.”
“Perhaps so,” Varnaythus said. “On the other hand, if he openly supports Trisu, at least some people will accuse him of doing so because he’s angry with the war maids and wants to punish them.”
“Either outcome could be useful to us,” Triahm observed, beginning to play with a crystal paperweight from his desk. “His neutrality has worked against us from the start. It throws everything back to the local level and prevents Trisu from acting decisively.”
“He won’t be able to remain neutral very much longer, whatever happens with his daughter,” Varnaythus assured him. “Unless I very much miss my guess, the tension on both sides is rapidly approaching the critical level.”
He considered informing Triahm of who had become Leeana’s escort to Kalatha, and decided—again—that warning him of the incipient arrival of a champion of Tomanak in Lorham wouldn’t exactly fill him with confidence.
“When it does, it’s going to lead to open conflict between Trisu and Kalatha, probably with Quaysar going up in flames at the same time,” he said instead, and his smile was even nastier than Triahm’s had been. “Once it comes to outright warfare, Tellian’s going to be forced to take a position, whether he wants to or not, or be accused of ignoring his responsibility to enforce the King’s peace. Under the circumstances, I don’t believe he’ll have very much choice other than to back his own vassal, Trisu, against Kalatha.”
“Only, of course, it won’t be Trisu, will it?” An ugly light danced in Triahm’s gray eyes, and Varnaythus carefully hid a smile of triumph. The man was so predictable it was pathetic.
“Not if our plans succeed, Milord,” he agreed.
“And they will succeed,” Triahm said flatly, and gave Varnaythus an ominous glance. “Your man is already in position, is he not?”
“Have no fear, Milord,” Varnaythus said smoothly. “My agent—” if Triahm wanted to assume that Varnaythus’ assassin (well, Salgahn’s, if the wizard-priest wanted to be accurate) was a man, that was fine with him “— is ready to strike when the moment is right. But that moment won’t come until we can provoke the proper level of violence between your cousin and Kalatha and be sure suspicion is directed where we want it to go.”
“Understood, understood,” Triahm said in an irritated tone, waving one hand dismissively. “Of course the timing is critical. But once he’s gone, and the blame for his death is laid in the proper quarter, there will be no suspicions of me when I assume the titles which ought to have been mine. And it will give me the excuse I need to burn that cancer at Kalatha out of the flesh of Lorham once and for all!”
“So it will, Milord,” Varnaythus agreed. “So it will.”