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He truly is an idiot, isnt he?

Triahm? a soft, throaty contralto said from behind Varnaythus. The contraltos owner laughed. Are you only just now realizing that?

Scarcely, Dahlaha, Varnaythus said dryly. It was his turn to gaze out of a window over the night-darkened streets of Thalar. It was a much nicer window than the one in Triahms office, although Triahm had paid for both of them.

The wizard-priest craned his neck, gazing up past the luxurious mansions overhanging eaves at a night sky the color of darkest cobalt and full of stars. There was no moon tonight, which was probably a good sign, he told himself. Then he turned away from the stars and back to business.

His hostess, reclining on the chaise longue across the table from him, was one of the most beautiful women hed ever seen. He admitted that candidly, yet her beauty didnt really appeal to him. He could appreciate and admire her sleek, golden hair and huge blue eyes, the impeccable bone structure of her graceful, oval face and high cheekbones, and the svelte lines of the richly curved figure which hovered just this side of overripeness. But the pouting mouth that whispered passion to other men whispered to him of corruption.

There was something too perfect about Dahlaha Farriers sensual beauty. Not even Varnaythus could be certain, but he strongly suspected that her natural appearance had been significantly improved upon. Unfortunately, improving the packaging had made no difference to what lived inside it, which was hardly surprising. Women who turned to Dahlahas chosen deity were already corrupt, with a soul-deep twistedness, because only a woman who was could endure Her service. Priestesses like Dahlaha could count upon being gifted with eye-catching physical beauty, if they did not already possess it, but no amount of enhanced beauty was going to change that inner distortion.

Varnaythus enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh as much or more than the next man, and he had no inherent objection to corruption. But there was a hunger to Dahlahas corruptionone as dark as Jerghars lust for blood, although it yearned for something quite different. Varnaythus had no illusions about what would ultimately happen to any man who surrendered himself to Dahlahas power.

Of course Ive always known Triahm is a fool, the wizard-priest continued, settling himself into the more conventional chair he preferred to the chaise longues Dahlaha favored. No doubt so that she could display her indisputable charms to best advantage. If he werent a fool, he wouldnt be the tool we need. And if stupidity and ambition didnt blind him to everything but what he wants, he might ask himself a few awkward questions about just where and how you were able to find him hirelings with our capabilities. But despite all that, it genuinely annoys me to find myself helping an idiot like that supplant someone who at least has a working brain.

Whats this? The conspirator as philosopher? Dahlaha laughed again. Or is it just a case of pragmatic necessity offending your innate sense of artistry?

The latter, probably, Varnaythus said. He leaned forward and snagged another apple from the table. It was from the previous falls harvest, and its skin was wrinkled, but its taste remained pleasantly sweet.

Say what you will about Cassan, he continued as he chewed, the man is at least competent within the limits of what he knows is going on. And he has two or three people working for him who are very good at what they dolike Darnas Warshoe. He shook his head and took another bite of apple. Warshoes good enough that I actually had to hunt him down and arrange for him to stumble over Cathman the Peddler.

Oh? Dahlaha laughed. Are you still using that old faker as an alias?

It works, Varnaythus replied with a grin. And even though hes considered a harmless old crank, he does manage to find a few charms and protective amulets that actually work. Fortunately for us, Cassans one real weakness is an absolute phobia about magi reading his mind. The wizard-priest shrugged. Its silly of him, of course, but it inspired him to send Warshoe to Cathman for amulets to prevent it as soon as Warshoe reported that Cathman was in Toramos. Amulets of my own design, of course. And the beauty of it is that Cassan insists that all of his closest henchmen wear them at all times, to keep magi from picking their brains, so now I can keep track of all of them without even needing my gramerhain. Which is probably a good thing, given how busy Cassan keeps themespecially Warshoe.

Well, thats Cassan, not Triahm, she said. But if it makes you feel better about helping an idiot, just remember how unlikely he is to survive long enough to enjoy his success. As you said yourself, his incompetence was one of the reasons They chose him as Their tool. Do you honestly expect him to be able to navigate the storm were preparing for him?

No, of course not. Varnaythus munched on his apple, then chuckled suddenly. And you know what? It does make me feel better.

Dahlaha laughed yet again and raised her glass in mock salute. He waved the half-eaten apple at her in response, then applied himself to finishing it off.

Do you really think that having Tellians daughter injected into the situation at Kalatha is going to work to our advantage? his hostess asked after a moment, her tone much more serious, and Varnaythus snorted.

Its hard to say. he took a last bite of apple, tossed the gnawed core back onto his plate, and then stretched. With another, more typical Sothoii noble, Id be more prepared to hazard a prediction. But Tellian is scarcely typicalI suspect that thats the main reason They want him dead, or at least discredited and set at odds with the Crown. He shrugged. The man loves his wife and his daughter, and I frankly think its unlikely hell cut himself off from the girl, whatever shes done. Thats the real reason I opposed killing her. If we can get him tangled up in our little web Dahlahas eyes flashed at his choice of noun, as hed known they would it would do far more to destabilize the kingdom as a whole than anything we might achieve locally here in Lorham.

Dont underestimate what were doing here, Varnaythus. Dahlahas husky voice had turned cold and hard, and Varnaythus glanced at her. My Lady doesnt waste Her efforts on minor projects, she continued. The web Shes weaving here will stretch out to every corner of the Wind Plain. Yes, drawing Tellian into Her toils would make things easier. But in the end, She will achieve her goals even without him.

And if a champion of Tomanak interferes? Varnaythus asked levelly. There was an odd, greenish flicker at the backs of Dahlahas eyes, and he felt his pulse quicken with a sudden tingle of something much too much like fear for his taste. But he made himself look into those eyes steadily, and reminded himself that he, too, had his patron.

Tomanak! Dahlaha hissed the hated name. Her long, graceful fingers with their crimson-painted nails flexed like claws, or pincers, and she spat on the floor. That for your precious champion! she snarled.

She really didnt look at all beautiful in that moment, Varnaythus reflected.

Thats all very well, he said in a brisk, businesslike voice, but your Lady is the one whos going to have to deal with this Kaeritha if she gets that far putting things together.

She wont, his hostess said shortly.

Dahlaha, he said patiently, thats exactly the sort of thinking that leads to unfortunate errors. I remind you of what happened to Tharnatus when this same champion and Bahzell came calling in Navahk.

Tharnatus was a fool, and Sharna is a coward, she shot back, and her ripe mouth twisted with contempt. I cant believe your Lady let Herself be roped into that entire mess. One thing Carnadosa has always been is smart, so what was She thinking of to throw good money after bad that way?

The Lady of the Wand is smart, Varnaythus agreed. In this case, though, She had no choice. The decision came from Phrobus Himself.

Dahlaha looked up from her wineglass, her expression suddenly taut. Then she shrugged.

I still dont understand why Phrobus allowed himself to be convinced to let Sharna deal with the hradani in the first place. Granted, even He should have been able to handle a horde of ignorant barbarians, but His father must have known Hed think small, as usual. And then He chose Tharnatus as His chief priest. Tharnatus! She barked a vicious laugh. He always was as stupid as Triahm, and he certainly proved it in Navahk! First he overestimated his own cleverness and power, and then Sharna was too terrified of Tomanak to face him openly when Tharnatus needed Him most. But that wont happen here. My Lady fears no one and nothing! When we require Her aid, She ll provide it, and spit in Tomanaks face, if She must.

Varnaythus gazed at her for several seconds, and his stomach muscles tightened at what he saw in her expression. It was more than possible that she was reading too much into her deitys intentions. But it was also possible that she wasnt. Dahlahas Lady was noted for neither her sense of restraint nor her willingness to accept any limitations upon her power. Or, for that matter, for what most mortals would have called her sanity. The wizard-priest remembered his conversation with Jerghar, and he felt sweat trying to pop out along his hairline.

I trust it wont be necessary for it to come to that, he said after a moment, choosing his words and controlling his tone rather more carefully than he usually did in conversation with Dahlaha.

I doubt very much that it will.

She, too, seemed to have stepped back a pace from the intensity of the moment before. She lifted her wineglass and sipped delicately, then set it gently on the table.

All of the pieces are in place, she said. When They decided to place this portion of the plan in Her care, They knew what They were doing. Her smile was a thing of ice and old, dried bone. Weve placed Her agentsincluding the ones who dont even realize theyre working for Herin all of the critical places.

Including Trisus household? Varnaythus asked in a neutral tone, and she grimaced.

No, she admitted. Not there. She shrugged irritably. theres something about Trisu that bothers me. When I look at him, I dont see what I see in other mens eyes.

She picked up the wineglass once more, but this time only to glower down into its depths, not to drink from it, and Varnaythus watched her expression from behind masklike eyes. It was obvious that she resented Trisus apparent immunity to the allure of her exquisitely maintained beauty and raw sexuality, but there was more to it than simple resentment. There was also uncertainty, almost a trace of fear, and he cocked his head.

What do you see in hiseyes? he asked finally, and she shrugged again, this time angrily.

Suspicion, she hissed, like a cat passing a fishbone, and glowered at her fellow conspirator. The green flicker was back in her eyes, although fainter than before, and he could almost physically taste her angerat him, this timefor forcing her to admit that. But he could stand more than Dahlahas anger if that was the price of making sure hedidnt disappoint Them.

Suspicion of what? he asked, quietly, but in a tone whose firmness reminded her that he was her superiorfor now, at leastand warned her that he expected an answer.

I dont know, she admitted, then tossed her head angrily. I know he knows Im Triahms mistress, and hes too straitlaced to care for that. Besides, he likes Triahms wife, and Im sure he resents his cousins infidelity because of that, as well. But theres something else in there, too, and Im not sure exactly what it is.

She obviously hated confessing that much, but she made herself meet Varnaythus eyes steadily, and it seemed to him that she was being honest about her concerns. Or, at least, as honest as it was possible for her to be.

Well, he obviously doesnt know Who you serve, the wizard-priest observed. If he did, youd be deador at least fled, with his troops in hot pursuit, which would be almost as bad from Their viewpoint. I wonder

His voice trailed off, and he gazed into the distance at something only he could see, his fingers drumming absently on his thigh while he thought. Dahlaha stood it in silence for as long as she could, then cleared her throat noisily. His eyes popped back into focus and swiveled to her.

You wonder what? she demanded.

I wonder if hes Gifted, the wizard-priest replied.

Gifted? Dahlaha sat up on her chaise lounge, her expression alarmed. Is that possible?

Of course its possible. Varnaythus grimaced. Hes a Sothoii. Whatever they may have degenerated into since, theyre descended from the oldest, highest noble families of the Empire of Ottovar. Some of them probably have traces of Ottovar and Gwynythas blood in their veins even today. Most of the surviving wizard lords of Kontovar are descended from exactly the same source, for Phrobus sake. The Art is bred into their bone and blood, Dahlaha. Its our good fortune that their ancestors turned so completely against all forms of wizardry after their escape to Norfressa. Theres a very good chance Trisus bloodline carries the Gift, but theres virtually no chance at all of his knowing it. Still, if its strong enough, he might well have at least a touch of True Sight. In which case he probably recognizes that theres something hidden behind your outward appearance. Theres no way he could know what, not without a great deal of training he cant possibly have had. But many people who possess instinctive True Sight rely on it even if they dont know exactly what it is. He shrugged. Most of them simply assume that they have unusually accurate hunches and let it go at that.

You never suggested he might have any abilities like that!

I dont recall your ever having asked me what abilities he might have, Varnaythus replied coolly. As youve pointed out to me several times, this end of the operation is yoursyours and your Ladys. I assumed that if youd had any reason to believe you needed my assistance, you would have asked for it.

Dahlaha glared at him, obviously looking for a fresh line of attack, but his defense was unassailable. The Lorham and Kalatha portions of the master plan to destabilize the Kingdom of the Sothoii and return it to the Time of Troubles were, indeed, her responsibility.

Very well, she huffed finally, be that way. But at least tell me thisis this untrained Gift of his likely to see through Triahms role playing?

It probably already has, Varnaythus said calmly. Luckily for us, even if he were trained, he wouldnt be able to read minds. Hes not a mage, Dahlaha. Im sure he realized long ago that his dear cousin Triahm hates his guts and resents the fact that a man ten years younger than he is inherited the title he wants so badly. Trisu doesnt trust Triahm as far as he could throw a courser, but aside from helping to confirm that his general suspicions are justified, the True Sight wont help him anywhere else. Although, its possible that the combination of his distrust for Triahm and any True Sight he might possess could explain why he should have taken his cousins mistress in such dislike. He flicked one hand in a throwing-away gesture. On the other hand, does it really matter? Do you really care how much Trisu may dislike you? I mean, youre planning on having the man killed, Dahlaha, so what does it matter if he doesnt particularly care for you?

It doesnt matter at all, she said, except that the eye he keeps on me has prevented me from infiltrating his household the way I managed at Kalatha. I havent cared to take too many chances, so Ive been unable to eliminate or tamper with people like Salthan.

Theres not really any need to put Salthan out of the way, Varnaythus said after a brief consideration. Or, rather, we can let Triahm deal with it once Trisus dead. Thats the beauty of it. We didnt have to change anything at this end.

I know. Id still feel better if I had more positive control of the situation, though.

Theres never any such thing as too much control, Varnaythus agreed. Still, it sounds as if you have things in hand. What truly matters is goading the war maids into providing the proper provocation, not whether or not Trisu responds to it exactly the way we want him to. After all, he leaned back with an expansive gesture and an icy smile, when the time comes, what will count isnt what actually happened, but what everyone thinks happened.

Chapter Twenty | Wind Rider's Oath | Chapter Twenty-One