War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 11

Chapter Three

The small, carefully nondescript man sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes as the flickering glow died in the heart of the water-clear gramerhain crystal on the desk before him. His name was Varnaythus, or that was the one he most commonly went by among those who knew who (and what) he truly was, at any rate. He looked to be no more than in his mid-forties, yet he was actually well past eighty — there were some advantages to being a wand wizard willing to manipulate blood magic — and no one had learned his true name in at least the last sixty years. It was safer that way.

Of course, “safe” was a relative term.

He climbed out of his chair and began pacing back and forth across the small, luxurious (and carefully hidden) room. There were no windows, and the light from the oil lamps was dim, despite the highly polished reflectors, to eyes which had become accustomed to the grammerhain’s brilliance. He could have flooded the room with clear, sourceless light, but black wizards who wanted to stay alive in Norfressa avoided that sort of self-indulgence. Wizardry was outlawed upon pain of death in virtually all Norfressan realms, and however much Varnaythus might resent that, he couldn’t pretend he didn’t understand it. That reaction had been inevitable after the Wizard Wars destroyed the Empire of Ottovar and turned the entire continent of Kontovar into a blasted wasteland which had needed a thousand years to recover. It was actually quite useful to Vanaythus’ Lady and her fellows, in many ways. It certainly reduced the opposition’s strength and ability to respond to arcane attacks, at any rate.

There were wizards here, but most of them tended to be at best a dingy shade of gray. The fact that they were already outlawed and condemned made it far easier for the Carnadosans to recruit them, as well, and not even the ones unwilling to actively serve the Dark themselves would be interested in calling attention to himself if he happened to notice that another wizard was practicing the art in his vicinity. Unfortunately, if Varnaythus didn’t have to worry about being turned in by another wizard, he did have to worry about magi.

He puffed his lips in familiar frustration as he paced. The wizard lords of Kontovar still didn’t understand how the mage talents worked. Varnaythus himself had picked up far more about the effects and consequences of their various abilities, including some interesting…intersections with the art, but he’d gathered that information very cautiously indeed. Much of it had been gleaned by picking the brains (in some cases literally) of other nonmagi, while the rest had come from wary, circumspect observation with the stealthiest scrying spells he could command. And all of it, unfortunately, remained largely theoretical, since he had absolutely no desire to risk his own personal hide in order to test his conjectures. Quite a few wizards who’d done that sort of thing had never found the opportunity to report back on their success, for some reason.

Still, they did know at least a little about them. For instance, it was obvious the talents themselves were products of the Wizard Wars, the result of some deep change in the very being of the current magi’s ancestors, although it had never manifested in Kontovar even after the Fall. He suspected there’d been very, very few of them in the beginning, when refugees from all of Kontovar first flooded into Norfressa. There couldn’t have been many, since no one had really recognized their existence at all for over seven hundred years, and they’d only become sufficiently numerous to begin organizing their mage academies in the last three or four centuries.

The Carnadosan lords of Kontovar hadn’t even noticed them at first, and by the time they’d begun to realize just how…inconvenient they might prove to their own ultimate plans, the magi had been too firmly entrenched to eliminate. Efforts to acquire live magi for study hadn’t worked out well, either. The bastards were slippery as fish and even more elusive, and trained magi had a nasty tendency to die, often taking any wizard unfortunate enough to have been interrogating them at the moment with them, if they were captured. Not to mention the fact that many of them could call for help telepathically over even lengthy distances. Varnaythus knew of at least three expeditions to capture magi which had come to unfortunate ends when the magi in question managed to guide cruisers of the Royal and Imperial Navy to intercept the ships carrying them to Kontovar. The effort hadn’t been abandoned, but it was one of those tasks to be approached very, very cautiously, and he was more than happy to leave it to someone else, like Tremala. Or even better, now that he thought about it — however serious a rival Tremala might be, he actually liked her, after all — someone like that insufferable, egotistical, irritating pain Rethak.

More to the point, however, the accursed magi could sense the use of the art. Some were more sensitive than others — in fact, some of them were damned bloodhounds where sorcery was concerned! — but all of them had at least some sensitivity to it. And unlike Norfressan wizards, they had no reason not to report any sorcery they detected. In fact, the mage academies’ Oath of Semkirk required magi to fight dark wizardry and blood magic, and the bastards had been growing steadily into ever more of a pain in the arse for the last two hundred years.

Nor was their ability to sense wizardry the only threat they posed to Kontovaran ambitions. They had other talents as well — from the ability to speak mind-to-mind across vast distances, to healing, to distance-viewing, to the ability to unerringly detect lies, plus Phrobus only knew what else. Thankfully, none of them had more than three or four such talents each, but groups of them could combine their abilities into the sort of threat which had to make any wizard wary, and they were oathbound to use their abilities to serve others, which made them disgustingly popular with the very people who most hated and feared wizardry. Many rulers welcomed them into their realms, often relying upon them as agents, investigators, and representatives, and King Markhos of the Sothōii had opened his arms even more broadly to them than most. There was no mage academy in his kingdom — Sothōii mages were trained in one of their Axeman allies’ academies, usually at either Axe Hallow or Belhadan — but there were dozens of them wandering around Markhos’ capital of Sothōfalas, and all it would take was for one of them to stroll past when Varnaythus was using the art, at which point all manner of unpleasant things would happen.

A soft, musical tone sounded out of the empty air, and Varnaythus turned towards one of the office’s featureless walls. Nothing happened for a moment; then the outline of a doorframe appeared in the middle of the wall. It glowed dimly, seeming to quiver a little around the edges, then solidified.

“Enter,” he said, and the glowing door swung open to admit two other men.

One of them looked to be about the same age as Varnaythus, and he was even more nondescript and bland looking. The other was younger, with red-blond hair and gray eyes. At just over six feet, he was also considerably taller than the other two, and his clothing was much richer, that of a mid-level functionary at court, perhaps. Looking through the door by which they’d entered the office, it was as if that single door had opened into two totally separate locations…which was fair enough, since that was exactly what it had done.

“You’re late,” Varnaythus observed brusquely, waving the newcomers to chairs in front of his desk. He waited until they’d seated themselves, then sank back into his own chair, leaned his elbows on the blotter on either side of his gramerhain with his fingers interlaced above it, and leaned forward to rest his chin on the backs of his raised hands. “I don’t want to belabor the point,” he said then, “but using the art is risky enough without having our timetable screwed up.”

“I couldn’t get to the portal,” the older of his two guests said. He shrugged. “Someone decided to choose today to drop off two dray loads of tea. Somehow I didn’t think you’d want me activating it from my end with half a dozen warehouseman carrying crates of tea in and out.”

“No, I don’t suppose that would have been a very good idea,” Varnaythus acknowledged. He straightened, then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his stomach. “I never was very happy about that location. Unfortunately, moving it at this point would be too risky. As a matter of fact, it would be safer to build an entirely new portal somewhere else.” He raised one eyebrow. “Would you happen to have a more convenient — and safer — spot in mind, Salgahn?”

“Not right this minute, no,” Salgahn replied. “I’ll think about it. There aren’t really all that many options, though. Not unless I want to risk letting some of the other dog brothers find out about it.”

His final sentence ended on the rising note of a question and he raised one eyebrow.

“Not yet.” Varnaythus shook his head quickly.

“With all due respect, Varnaythus,” the younger of the two newcomers said, “we’ve been saying ‘not yet’ for over six years now. Are we ever really going to move at all?”

Varnaythus regarded him thoughtfully. Unlike himself, Magister Malahk Sahrdohr truly was as young as he looked, but he’d proven himself to be smart, ambitious, and capable. As his title indicated, he ranked well below a master wizard like Varnaythus in both training and raw strength, but he’d risen high and quickly in the service of the Church of Carnadosa through a combination of the intelligent use of the skills he did possess and a degree of absolute ruthlessness Varnaythus had seldom seen equaled.