War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 14

“Ah?” Sahrdohr cocked an eyebrow, and Varnaythus smiled unpleasantly.

“I don’t have all the details yet, myself, but apparently the Ghouls are going to be receiving just a bit of a reinforcement. Quite a sizeable one, actually — possibly even enough of one to give one of those damned champions of Tomanāk pause. And since the Ghoul Moor’s always been a…chancy proposition for the other side, let’s say, no one’s likely to be very surprised if this year’s expedition suffers an accident or two, even if the accident is rather more spectacular than most.”

The younger wizard nodded, and Varnaythus nodded back, then leaned back in his chair.

“The only downside in helping the ghouls slow them up is that if it does slow them up, it’s likely to undercut the sense of urgency we’ve been trying to encourage among Tellian’s opponents. One of my jobs is going to be keeping that urgency alive, and that means convincing Yeraghor and Cassan of just how close to success they are at court. Cassan’s had too much personal experience with the ghouls to expect them to stop Tellian’s and Bahzell’s plans unless they succeed a lot more spectacularly than I expect, but Yeraghor will probably tend to overestimate their chances, and even Cassan’s likely to see it as a reprieve. He’ll expect it to give him more time to build opposition in Sothōfalas and on the Great Council, and he may figure the losses Tellian’s about to take will help his own arguments that the entire idea is going to cost more than it’s likely to be worth to the Kingdom in the long run. I need to knock both of those notions on the head, and for that I’m going to want access to Tellian’s correspondence with Macebearer and Shaftmaster. Can you get it for me, Malahk?”

“I don’t know.” Sahrdohr frowned thoughtfully. “Shaftmaster’s, yes. I’ll have to be careful, but I can get to it without too much difficulty. If it will be all right to use a capture spell on it, that is?”

It was Varnaythus’ turn to frown. A capture spell was a very minor working, one even one of those accursed magi probably wouldn’t notice unless he was right on top of it at the moment it was triggered. It required the use of a very small gramerhain, however, and if that was found on Sahrdohr’s person…

“You’re not concerned about carrying the stone with you?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t concerned, but I think the risk would be manageable.” The younger wizard smiled crookedly and held out his left hand, then tapped the ring on his second finger with his right index finger. It was an obviously old piece, set with a rather cheap looking opal. “I’ve been wearing this ever since I got here just for a moment like this one,” Sahrdohr continued. “Everyone knows it has great sentimental value to me, despite the poor quality of the stone — it was a gift from my grandmother to my grandfather — so nobody thinks anything more about it. But –”

He touched the opal itself and it flashed into sudden clarity, like water-clear quartz. It stayed that way until he took his finger away again, when it turned just as quickly back into the milky stone it had been to begin with.

“Very nice,” Varnaythus said sincerely.

The fact that Sahrdohr had put the ring into place so long ago was yet another demonstration of his basic intelligence and foresight. And even at this short range, even after having had the glamour concealing the gramerhain demonstrated to him, Varnaythus could detect barely a whisper of the spell. If that was a sample of Sahrdohr’s craftsmanship, he was further along towards the rank of master than Varnaythus had thought.

“All right, if you’re comfortable using a capture spell, I’ll leave that in your hands. But what about Macebearer?”

“That’s going to be a lot harder,” Sahrdohr replied. “I’ve at least got an excuse to be in Shaftmaster’s office. I work for the man, after all. But I’m not high enough in the Exchequer to be wandering into the Prime Councilor’s office and examining his personal correspondence with Baron Tellian.”

“I really want to get our hands on those letters,” Varnaythus said. “Shaftmaster’s estimates will help — probably a lot — but Cassan’s still keeping his head down, even without our gingering up the ghouls. I need proof of how much ground Tellian is gaining with Macebearer and Markhos to get him stirred back up again.”

“Why don’t we just forge it?” Sahrdohr asked. “It wouldn’t be difficult — I can at least get samples of Macebearer’s signature and his personal secretary’s handwriting, and we already have samples of Tellian’s. We could create correspondence that said whatever we needed it to say, then mix it in with genuine correspondence between Tellian and Shaftmaster.”

“Tempting,” Varnaythus conceded. “Unfortunately, Cassan’s almost as good at this game as he thinks he is. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he’s managed to get someone of his own inside Macebearer’s staff. Probably not someone with the kind of access he’d like to have, but he might well have enough access to realize we’re feeding him doctored documents.”

“I might have a solution,” Salgahn offered, and shrugged when both wizards looked at him. “I have a couple of men of my own inside the Palace. One of them’s covered as a stable hand, but the other’s on the housekeeping staff. He happens to be quite a good burglar, as a matter of fact.”

“Does he, now?” Varnaythus considered the other man thoughtfully.

Like most dog brothers, Salgahn was officially a follower of Sharnā, although he was scarcely very devout. In fact, Varnaythus doubted Salgahn had ever seen one of Sharnā’s actual rituals. It wasn’t the sort of thing which would have appealed to him any more than it would have appealed to Varnaythus himself. But every profession required at least some support structure, and the Assassins Guild had found its support in the church of Sharnā. Which meant that from time to time, whether they liked it or not, the dog brothers found themselves “urgently requested” to assist the church. Of course, the fact that Salgahn hadn’t bothered to mention his men’s presence in King Markhos palace until this very moment made Varnaythus wonder just how completely Salgahn had thrown himself into this operation.

And I don’t blame him a bit if he’s been thinking from the very beginning in terms of ratholes to dash down the instant this ship hits a reef, the wizard reflected, then chuckled mentally as he realized how liberally he’d just mixed metaphors.

“Just how obviously could your burglar burglarize the Prime Councilor’s files?” he asked out loud.

“Obviously?” Salgahn raised an eyebrow.

“If everyone knows Macebearer’s office was successfully broken into, then Cassan’s a lot less likely to worry about whether or not we’re trying to feed him forged documents. If we’re going to physically steal them anyway, I’d like to leave enough evidence behind — evidence that Macebearer and the Crown would be able to keep from becoming general knowledge — to prime the pump with Cassan. His need to show how smart he is his biggest weakness, when you come down to it. So if he knows about the ‘secret burglary’ when I show him copies — or even originals — from Macebearer’s files, he’ll be so smug about knowing how I got them that he won’t even consider whether or not any alterations were made before he saw them. Letting someone convince himself always works better than trying to sell it to him from the outside.”

“It’ll make it a little riskier for my man,” Salgahn pointed out.

“I’ll triple the Guild’s usual fee.”

“Then I’m sure something can be worked out.” Salgahn smiled, and Varnaythus chuckled.

“What about Borandas?” Sahrdohr asked, and Varnaythus frowned thoughtfully.

Borandas Daggeraxe was the Baron of Halthan and Lord Warden of the North Riding. The oldest of the four great barons of the Kingdom, he was also of no more than average intelligence, and he knew it. He was aware of the political power games swirling around at Court, but he was wise enough not to fish in such troubled waters and let himself be drawn into the toils of smarter but less scrupulous players. His son, Thorandas, was sharper than Borandas, and he’d been his father’s primary political advisor for years. He understood the value of maintaining the North Riding’s neutrality in the bitter power struggle between Cassan and Tellian. With Yeraghor of the East Riding supporting Cassan and the wind rider’s representative supporting Tellian, that neutrality allowed the North Riding to effectively hold the balance of power on the Great Council, and Thorandas was unlikely to favor any course which would endanger that situation. On the other hand, he was also one of the hard-line anti-hradani bigots.…

“I’m not sure about Borandas,” Varnaythus admitted. “But if Tellian’s correspondence with Macebearer says what I think it says, then showing certain select passages to Thorandas might pay a very nice dividend in the fullness of time. I’ll have to think about that once we see what it actually does say.”

Sahrdohr nodded, and Varnaythus drew a deep breath.

“Now,” he said, “the reason I want to get my hands on all that documentation is that the time has come — or is coming very soon — for us to…restructure the Kingdom of the Sothōii. And this is how we’re going to do it. First –”