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And has your investigation thrown any fresh light on my differences with Mayor Yalith? Trisu asked as he toyed with his glass. Like many Sothoii nobles, he was particularly fond of the expensive liqueurs distilled in Dwarvenhame and the Empire of the Axe. Kaeritha liked them just fine herself, but she also entertained a lively respect for their potency. Which was why she had contented herself with wine rather than the brandy Trisu had offered her.

Some, Milord, she said.

He leaned back, cocking an eyebrow, and regarded her thoughtfully.

May I take it that whatever you and Salthan discoveredor discussed, at leastthis afternoon has at least not inspired you to immediately rule against me?

It was never my intent to immediately rule for or against anyone, Milord, she said mildly. I would prefer, at this point, not to be a great deal more specific than that, although honesty and simple justice do compel me to admit that, so far at least, the situation is considerably less cut and dried than I had assumed initially.

Well, he said with a slight smile, I suppose I must consider that an improvement, given your original comments to me. Kaerithas temper stirred, but she suppressed it firmly, and he continued. And I must admit, he went on, that Im gratified to see exactly the sort of impartiality and willingness to consider all the evidence which I would have expected out of a champion of Tomanak. The more so because I have something of a reputation for stubbornness myself. I know how difficult it is for anyone, however honest or however good hisor herintentions, to truly consider fresh evidence which appears to contradict evidence hes already accepted as valid.

For a moment, Kaeritha wondered if somehow Salthans oath had slipped. But even as the thought crossed her mind, she dismissed it out of hand. She didnt believe the magistrate would have knowingly or intentionally violated it under any circumstances. More than that, even if hed been inclined to do so, he couldnt have been able to break an oath sworn on a champions sword, which, in the moment of swearing, actually was the very Sword of Tomanak. It was simply a fresh warning to her never to underestimate Trisus intelligence just because she detested his opinions and attitudes.

Its not always easy, no, she agreed. But it is a trick any of Tomanaks champions has to master. I imagine the lord of any domain has to be able to do much the same thing if hes going to administer justice fairly.

She smiled affably, hiding her amusementmostlyas his eyes flashed when her shot went home.

On the other hand, Milord, she continued more briskly, I feel Im definitely making progress where the documents and their interpretations are concerned. At the moment, I have more questions than I have answers, but at least I believe Ive figured out what the questions themselves are. And I feel confident Tomanak will lead me to their answers in the end.

But there is one other matter which doesnt relate to the documents or, actually, officially to Kalatha itself in any way.

Indeed? he said coolly when she paused.

Yes, Milord. When I spoke with Mayor Yalith, it was clear to me that more was involved than the simple legalities of your disagreement could explain. There was, quite frankly, a great deal of anger on the war maids part. And, to be equally frank, it became quite apparent in speaking with you that the same is true from your perspective.

Trisus gray eyes were hard, and she raised one hand in a slight throwing away gesture.

Milord, thats almost always the case when a dispute reaches the point this one has. Its not necessarily because either side is inherently evil, either. Its because the people on both sides are just thatpeople. And people, Milord, get angry with other people they feel are wrong or, even worse, out to cheat them in some way. Its a fact of life which any judgeor champion of Tomanaksimply has to take into consideration. Just as you have to take it into consideration, Im sure, when youre forced to adjudicate between the conflicting claims of two of your retainers or tenants.

It would have been too much to say that Trisus anger dissipated, but at least he nodded grudgingly in an admission that shed made her point.

Quite often, she continued, there are additional causes for anger and resentment. When people are already unhappy with one another, theyre seldom as interested as they might otherwise be in extending the benefit of the doubt to the people theyre unhappy with.

I understand that youre attempting to prepare me for some point you intend to raise and think Ill find objectionable, Lady Champion, Trisu said with a thin smile which actually held a trace of genuine amusement. Shall we simply agree that youve done that now and get on with it?

Well, yes, I suppose we could. Kaeritha gave him an answering smile and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

Where I was going, Milord, is that the Mayors share of the intransigence in this dispute seems to be fueled in no small part by her belief that youve shown insufficient respect for the Voice of Lillinara at Quaysar.

What you truly mean, Milady, Trisu responded in a flat, hard voice, is that she believes I have shown no respect for the Voice. And, while were on the subject, that she bitterly resents my failure to solve the disappearanceor murderof the Voices handmaidens.

Once again, Kaeritha was surprised by his blunt, head-on attitude. Not that she should have been, perhaps, she reflected. Trisu was in many ways the quintessential Sothoii. He might be capable of tactical subtlety on the battlefield, but he disdained anything that smacked of the indirect approach in his own life.

She felt a fresh flicker of anger at the confrontational light in his eyes, but she reminded herself once more never to underestimate this intolerable young mans native intelligence. Nor was she about to forget that the evidence she herself had turned up that afternoon strongly suggested that there was more than a little merit to his interpretation of the actual legal disputes.

I suppose that is what I mean, she conceded after a moment. Although thats considerably more pointed than the manner in which I would have chosen to express it.

He looked at her long and steadily, then dipped his head in a small bob of acknowledgment. He even had the grace to blush ever so slightly, she thought. But one thing he didnt do was retreat from the point hed just made.

No doubt it was more confrontational than one as courteous as youve already proven yourself to be would have phrased it to her host, Milady. For that, I apologize. But that was essentially what she said, was it not?

Essentially, she acknowledged.

I thought it would be, he said and gazed at her speculatively for a few more seconds. Given your willingness to consider and examine the evidence Salthan and I offered you, I would assume youve raised this point in order to hear my side of it directly.

His tone made the statement a question, and she nodded.

Dame Kaeritha, he began after a moment, I wont attempt to pretend that Im not more uncomfortable dealing with Lillinara and Her followers than I am with other gods and their worshipers. I dont understand Lillinara. And I dont much care for many of the things Her followers justify on the basis of things Shes supposed to have told them. To be perfectly honest, there are times I wonder just how much of what Shes supposed to have said was actually invented by people who would have found it convenient for Her to tell them what they wanted to hear in the first place.

Kaeritha arched her eyebrows.

Thats a surprisingly frank admission, Milord, she observed.

No sane man doubts the existence of the gods, Milady, he replied. But no intelligent man doubts that charlatans and tricksters are fully capable of using the gods and the religious faith of others for their own manipulative ends. Surely you wouldnt expect someone charged with the governance of any domain to close his eyes to that possibility?

No, I wouldnt, she said, and felt a brief flicker of something very like affection for this hard-edged, opinionated youngster. In fact, that sort of manipulation is one of the things champions spend a lot of their time undoing and repairing.

I thought it probably would be. Trisu sipped brandy, then set down his glass, and his nostrils flared.

I brought up my discomfort with Lillinara intentionally, Milady. I wanted you to be aware that I was aware of it. And because I am aware of it, I reminded myself when I met Lillinaras newest Voice that the fact that I dont like what someone tells me She wants me to do doesnt necessarily make that someone a liar. But in this instance, Ive come to the conclusion that the so-called Voice at Quaysar is one of those manipulators.

Thats an extremely serious charge, Lord Trisu. Kaerithas voice was low, her expression grim, yet she wasnt remotely as surprised to hear it as she should have been.

Im aware of that, he replied with unwonted somberness. Its also one which I havent previously made to anyone in so many words. I would suspect, however, that Mayor Yalith, whodespite our many and lively differencesis an intelligent woman, knows that its what I think.

And why do you think it, Milord?

First and foremost, Im sure, is the fact that I dont much care for this particular Voice. In fact, the day I first met her, when she arrived to take up her post at Quaysar, she and I took one another in immediate and intense dislike.

Took one another in immediate dislike? Kaeritha repeated, and Trisu chuckled sourly.

Milady, I couldnt possibly dislike her as much as I do without her disliking me right back! I dont care how saintly a Voice of Lillinara is supposed to be.

Despite herself, Kaeritha laughed, and he shrugged and continued.

Its not unusual, I imagine, for the lord of any domain to have differences of opinion with the priests and priestesses whose spheres of authority and responsibility overlap with his. Each of us would like to be master in his own house, and when we have conflicting views or objectives, that natural resentment can only grow stronger.

But in this case, it went further than that.

He paused, and Kaeritha watched his face. It was as hard, as uncompromising, as ever, yet there was something else behind his expression now. She didnt know quite what the emotion was, but she knew it was there.

How so, Milord? she asked after the silence had stretched out for several breaths.

I dont he began, then stopped. No, Dame Kaeritha, he said, thats not true. I started to say that I dont really know how to answer your question, but I do. I suppose I hesitated because I was afraid honesty might alienate you.

Honesty may anger me, Milord, she said with the seriousness his tone and manner deserved. It shouldnt, but Im only the champion of a god, not a god myself. But this much I will promise you, on my sword and His. So long as you give me honesty, I will give you an open ear and an open mind. She smiled without humor. As youve been honest with me, Ill be honest with you. You hold certain beliefs and opinions with which I am as uncomfortable as Im sure you are with the war maids. No doubt youd already realized that. But whether or not I agree with you in those matters has nothing to do with whether or not I trust your honesty.

That was well said, Milady, Trisu said with the first completely ungrudging warmth hed displayed. Then he drew a deep breath.

As Im sure Mayor Yalith told you, the original town of Quaysar has effectively been absorbed by the temple there. In the process, the office of the Voice of the temple has merged with the office of the mayor of Quaysar, as well. By tradition, the same person has held both of them for the past seventy-odd years. Which means the Voice isnt simply the priestess of the temple, but also the secular head of the community. In that role, shes one of my vassals, which has occasionally created uncomfortable strains between the various Voices and my own father and grandfather. Inevitably, I suppose, given the unavoidable difficulties the Voices must have faced in juggling their secular obligations to the Lord of Lorham with their spiritual obligations to his subjects. And, of course, to the war maids over whom my house has no actual jurisdiction.

My father had seen to it that I would be aware such difficulties were only to be expected from time to time. I think he was afraid that without such an awareness I would be unwilling to consider the sorts of compromises which situations like that might require. Hed seen enough of that attitude from my Uncle Sareth, I suspect, and even as a child, Im afraid I wasnt exactly noted for cheerful compromises. He snorted a sudden laugh of his own and shook his head when Kaeritha looked a question at him. Your pardon, Milady. I was just thinking about how fervently my tutors and arms instructors would have endorsed that last statement of mine.

Kaeritha nodded. At least he was able to laugh at himself sometimes, she thought.

At any rate, he continued, I was prepared for the possibility that the new Voice and I might not exactly take to one another on sight. What I wasnt prepared for was the well, the wave of wrongness that poured off of her.

Wrongness? Kaeritha repeated very carefully.

I dont know a better word for it, Trisu said. It was as if every word she said rang false. Every word, Milady. Ive met other people I simply didnt like, and Im sure other people have had that reaction to me. But this was like a dog and a cat closed into the same cageor perhaps a snake and a ferret. It was there between us from the instant she opened her mouth, and although it shames me to admit it, something about her frightened me.

He looked squarely at Kaeritha, and his gray eyes were dark.

If you want the full truth of it, Milady, he said very quietly, I wasnt at all sure which of us was the ferret and which the serpent.

Chapter Thirty-Two | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *