War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 44

Chapter Twelve

“Lovely!” Baroness Myacha breathed, looking down at the sparkling amethyst glory displayed on the swatch of black velvet.

The cloth — and the exquisitely cut gem on it—had been arranged on the polished mahogany table in the exact center of a shaft of golden sunlight, and sun reflections danced in eyes that were almost exactly the same shade as the stone. Neither the placement of the cloth nor the choice of the gem had been anything remotely like random, and Master Talthar Sheafbearer (who bore very little resemblance to a wizard named Varnaythus) smiled broadly behind his trader’s carefully bland expression as Borandas Daggeraxe, Baron Halthan, winced ever so slightly.

“It is quite a nice stone, Milady,” Talthar acknowledged after a moment, “although I fear it’s a bit over large for a lady’s delicate hand.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” the dark-haired baroness replied. “But set into a proper pendant, in silver, perhaps, not gold, I think…”

Talthar decided to let himself meet Baron Borandas’ eyes. Borandas gazed back at him for a heartbeat or so, then smiled wryly in acknowledgment of his inevitable defeat.

“Do you truly want it, my love?” he asked, and Talthar’s mental ears pricked at the baron’s gently teasing, undeniably tender tone.

“Yes,” Myacha sighed, looking up with a slight smile. “On the other hand, I fear Master Sheafbearer has far too good a notion of his wares’ worth! I have entirely too many fribbleows and pretty toys to justify paying him what I have no doubt he would demand from you, Milord.”

She actually sounded as if she meant it, Talthar noted, and that was interesting, too. Myacha was barely half Borandas’ age. She was also his second wife, two years younger than Borandas’ eldest son, Thorandas, and when their marriage had been arranged by Myacha’s father three years earlier, the near-universal opinion had been that Borandas was buying himself a sweet, toothsome morsel to warm his bed and flatter his ego as he moved into his sixties. In fact, that had been Talthar’s opinion until perhaps thirty or forty seconds ago.

I tend to forget sometimes how much…detail and nuance you can lose relying solely upon scrying spells and the gramerhain, he thought. I should have paid more attention and not relied so heavily on Court gossip, I suppose. Of course, having to worry about that bastard Brayahs didn’t make it any simpler in this case.

His professional merchant’s expression hid his inner frown as readily as it had hidden his smile, which was just as well. Thoughts of Brayahs Daggeraxe, the son of Borandas’ deceased uncle, tended to have that effect upon him. Having any mage that closely related to one of the Kingdom’s barons would have been bad enough, but Brayahs was considerably more strongly talented than the majority of his fellows. He was not simply a wind-walker and a healer, but (if the rumors were true) had the gift of foresight, as well. And to make Talthar’s unhappiness complete, he was a mind-speaker, to boot, and one who’d come to his mage powers late. That mind-speakery of his made him particularly good at sniffing out any use of wizardry in his vicinity, and the fact that he’d been a man grown before his mage talents awoke meant he’d also been trained as a knight before he became a mage. After which he’d gone on and added the martial arts training of a master mishuk to his repertoire. His weapon (and weaponless) skills would have been more than enough to make him particularly resilient to assassination attempts, and successfully ambushing any wind-walker, even one without those skills, was no easy achievement at the best of times.

All of which meant that while it wouldn’t necessarily be impossible to assassinate him, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do it in any way that didn’t require the obvious use of sorcery or some other less than natural agency which would draw all sorts of unwanted attention. Talthar was perfectly prepared to have Brayahs murdered — indeed, he was looking forward to it — and he was more than willing to use whatever was required to make that happen, but he couldn’t afford any moves in that direction at this point. The last thing he needed was to focus the attention of other magi on the North Riding before he had his hooks firmly into Borandas or his heir.

Time enough for that later, he reminded himself now. Patience and cunning are just as important as — and more reliable than — brute power, especially at a time like this. Once all the pieces are in place he’ll have to go, but let’s not joggle our own elbow just because we find his continued existence inconvenient as hell.

All of which was true enough, although “inconvenient” was a pale description of the situation. The one good thing about Brayahs’ birth and ability was that King Markhos had enlisted him as one of the Crown magi who served as his investigators and agents. That made him even more dangerous, in some ways, but it also meant he’d been called to Sothofalas for the summer session of the Great Council, which would keep him busy for at least a month or two. His talents — and his influence with his cousin — were the real reason Talthar had deferred his first visit to Halthan until he could be certain the mage would be somewhere else. And why it had taken him over six months to prepare the ground properly for this first approach at all.

“Oh, I’m certain the Baron and I could come to a reasonable agreement, Milady,” he said out loud, allowing a very slight flicker of amusement into his eyes in response to Borandas’ smile.

“Why do I have the feeling that your idea of ‘reasonable’ and my own aren’t going to be precisely the same, Master Sheafbearer?” the baron responded, and Talthar permitted himself a chuckle.

“Because you, Milord Baron, are a shrewd, hardheaded bargainer, while I, alas, am an equally shrewd, clutch-fisted trader. Nonetheless, when such a fair lady is involved, it’s likely — well, possible, at any rate — that even such as I may find myself giving at least a modest amount of ground.”

“You, Master Sheafbearer,” Baroness Myacha told him with a smile of her own, “are a very dangerous man. Milord,” she looked at Borandas, “I forbid you to pay this man what this stone is truly worth.”

“A shrewd blow, Milady!” Talthar congratulated her. “Not that I would ever have expected the Baron to willingly part with this gem’s true worth.” He sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, that state of affairs is one any master trader is unhappily accustomed to confronting.” He sighed again, his expression mournful. “In order to make our way in the world at all, we become accustomed to being regularly out-bargained by our customers!”

“I trust you’ll forgive me for asking you this, Master Sheafbearer,” Baron Borandas said a bit tartly, “but would it happen that your mother was particularly well acquainted with Hirahim?”

“Borandas!” Myacha laughed and smacked him across the knuckles with her hand-painted fan.

“Actually, Milord Baron,” Talthar allowed with a smile, “when I was a mere lad, my father did remark once or twice upon how little like the rest of the family I looked.”

“I’m not surprised,” Borandas said, then drew a deep breath. “Very well, I already know this is going to hurt. Why don’t you go ahead and name your starting point. And in the meantime, my love,” he looked at Myacha with a warm smile of his own, “would you be so kind as to ring for Trelsan and request beverages. And perhaps a plate of sandwiches, as well.” He looked back at Talthar with a challenging glint in his blue eyes. “I believe we might be here long enough to require the sustenance before we’re done.”