How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 34

          “God gave Man free will,” Cahnyr said. “That means some men will choose to do evil, and the innocent will suffer as a result. You can’t judge yourself guilty because you were unable to stop all the evil Clyntahn and others chose to do. You stopped all it was in your power to stop, and God can ask no more than that.”

          She stared out the window for several more moments, then drew a deep breath and gave herself a visible shake.

          “You’re probably right, Your Eminence, but I intend to do a great deal more to those bastards before I’m done.” She turned back from the window, and the steel behind her eyes was plain to see. “Not immediately, because it’s going to take time to put the pieces in place. But once they are, Zhaspahr Clyntahn may find wearing the Grand Inquisitor’s cap a lot less pleasant than he does today.”

          Cahnyr regarded her with a distinct sense of trepidation. He knew very few details of her current activities, and he knew she intended to keep it that way. Not because she distrusted him, but because she was one of the most accomplished mistresses of intrigue in the history of Zion. That placed her in some select company. Indeed, she’d matched wits with the full suppressive power of the Office of Inquisition, and she’d won. Not everything she’d wanted, perhaps, and whatever she might say — or he might say to her — she would never truly forgive herself for the victims she hadn’t managed to save. Yet none of that changed the fact that she’d outmaneuvered the Grand Inquisitor on ground of his own choosing, from the very heart of his power and authority, and done it so adroitly and smoothly he still didn’t know what had hit him.

          Or who.

          The woman who’d contrived all of that, kept that many plots in the air simultaneously without any of them slipping, plucked so many souls —  including Zhasyn Cahnyr’s — from the Inquisition’s clutches, wasn’t about to begin letting her right hand know what left hand was doing now unless she absolutely had to. He didn’t resent her reticence, or think it indicated any mistrust in his own discretion. But he did worry about what she might be up to.

          “Whatever your plans, my dear,” he said, “I’ll pray for their success.”

          “Careful, Your Eminence!” Her smile turned suddenly roguish. “Remember my past vocation! You might not want to go around writing blank bank drafts like that!”

          “Oh,” he reached out and touched her cheek lightly, “I think I’ll take my chances on that.”

* * * * * * * * * *

          “Madam Pahrsahn! How nice to see you again!”

          The young man with auburn hair and gray eyes walked around his outsized desk to take his visitor’s subtly perfumed hand in both of his. He bent over it, pressing a kiss on its back, then tucked it into his elbow and escorted her across the large office to the armchairs facing one another across a low table of beaten copper.

          “Thank you, Master Qwentyn,” she said as she seated herself.

A freshly fed fire crackled briskly in the grate to her right, noisily consuming gleaming coal which had probably come from Zhasyn Cahnyr’s archbishopric in Glacierheart, she thought. Owain Qwentyn sat in the chair facing hers and leaned forward to personally pour hot chocolate into a delicate cup and hand it to her. He poured more chocolate into a second cup, picked it up on its saucer, and leaned back in his chair, regarding her expectantly.

          “I must say, I wasn’t certain you’d be coming today after all,” he said, waving his free hand at the office window. The previous day’s gray skies had made good on their wintry promise, and sleety rain pounded and rattled against the glass, sliding down it to gather in crusty waves in the corners of the panes. “I really would have preferred to stay home myself, all things considered,” he added.

          “I’m afraid I didn’t have that option.” She smiled charmingly at him. “I’ve got quite a few things to do over the next few five-days. If I started letting my schedule slip, I’d never get them done.”

          “I can believe that,” he said, and he meant it.

The House of Qwentyn was by any measure the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful banking house in the Republic of Siddarmark and had been for generations. It hadn’t gotten that way by accident, and a man as young as Owain Qwentyn wouldn’t have held his present position, family connections or no, if he hadn’t demonstrated his fitness for it. He’d been trusted with some of the house’s most sensitive accounts for the last five years, which had exposed him to some fascinating financial strategists, yet Aivah Pahrsahn was probably the most intriguing puzzle yet to come his way.

Her primary accounts with the House of Qwentyn had been established over two decades ago, although he wouldn’t have said she could possibly be a day past thirty-five, and her balance was enviable. In fact, it was a lot better than merely “enviable,” if he wanted to be accurate. Coupled with her long established holdings in real estate and farmland, her investments in half a dozen of the Republic’s biggest granaries and mining enterprises, and her stake in several of Siddar City’s most prosperous merchant houses, that balance made her quite possibly the wealthiest woman Owain had ever met. Yet those transactions and acquisitions had been executed so gradually and steadily over the years, and spread between so many apparently separate accounts, that no one had noticed just how wealthy she was becoming. And no member of the House of Qwentyn had ever met her, either; every one of her instructions had arrived by mail. By courier, in point of fact, and not even via the Church’s semaphore system or even wyvern post.

It had all been very mysterious when Owain finally looked at her accounts as a whole for the first time. He might not have noticed her even now if the somnolent, steady pace of her transactions hadn’t suddenly become so much more active. Indeed, they’d become almost hectic, including a series of heavy transfers of funds since the . . . difficulties with Charis had begun, yet despite the many years she’d been a customer of his house, no one seemed to know where she’d come from in the first place. Somewhere in the Temple Lands, that much was obvious, yet where and how remained unanswered questions, and the House of Qwentyn, for all its discretion, was accustomed to knowing everything there was to know about its clients.

          But not in this case. She’d presented all the necessary documentation to establish her identity on her arrival, and there was no question of her authority over those widespread accounts. Yet she’d simply appeared in Siddar a month or so ago, stepping into the capital city’s social and financial life as if she’d always been there. She was beautiful, poised, obviously well educated, and gracious, and a great many of the social elite knew her (or weren’t prepared to admit they didn’t know Polite Society’s latest adornment, at any rate), but Owain had been unable to nail down a single hard fact about her past life, and the air of mystery which clung to her only made her more fascinating.

          “I’ve brought the list of transactions with me,” she said now, reaching into her purse and extracting several sheets of paper. She extended them across the table to him, then sat back sipping her chocolate while he unfolded them and ran his eyes down the lines of clean, flowing script.