War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 45

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Much later that evening, Talthar Sheafbearer carefully locked the door of his bedchamber on the second floor of The Halthan Arms, the most prestigious — and expensive — inn in Borandas’ capital city, behind him. It was a large, luxuriously furnished chamber, as befitted a merchant of his obvious wealth, but that wasn’t the reason he looked around it for several moments with careful, intent eyes. Then he drew a deep breath and closed those eyes, reaching out with other senses and trained abilities. He extended his feelers delicately, carefully, with all the hair-trigger sensitivity of a nervous cat, searching for the aura he’d learned to associate with Brayahs Daggeraxe. Brayahs wasn’t scheduled to visit his cousin for at least the next couple of weeks, but Phrobus knew schedules were subject to change, and if that accursed mage was anywhere close to Halthan…

After the better part of five minutes, Talthar drew a deep breath and opened his eyes once more, this time with an expression of satisfaction. He crossed briskly to the chamber’s window and carefully closed the drapes before he set the hard-sided leather case in his right hand in the center of the table placed in front of the window. There was nothing particularly remarkable about that case — any gem-trader would have carried something very like it — and he drew a finely wrought key from where it had nestled inside his tunic on a silver chain and used it to unlock the case. He returned the key to its normal place, opened the case, and reached into it for the fist-sized lump of almost clear quartz stowed away at its very bottom. The quartz was no more remarkable than the case itself, aside from the fact that it was an extraordinarily plebeian piece of rock for a gem merchant of Talthar’s obvious wealth to carry about with him.

Except, of course, for the fact that it wasn’t quartz at all.

He laid the gramerhain on the table, then closed the case and set it aside. He wasn’t entirely happy about what he was going to do next, but there were limits in all things. He could have continued to hold the glamour which disguised him while using the gramerhain, but the combination of the glamour and the scrying spell he was about to use would have required him to expend considerably more energy. After all, scrying spells were intended to provide True Sight, so in many ways the two workings would be diametrically opposed to one another. Worse than the drain upon his own powers, however, that opposition would produce a far stronger, brighter signature and make him even more vulnerable to detection by any other wizard — or mage, damn it — in the vicinity. Besides, the glamour was a relatively low-energy construct tied into the diamond stud in his left ear, and artifact-bound spells were not only harder to detect but could be activated (or reactivated) very quickly.

He knew all of that, and none of it made him any happier. Nor did it make the decision any less inevitable, unfortunately, and so he drew a deep breath, touched the stud with his index finger, and murmured a single word in Old Kontovaran.

Talthar Sheafbearer seemed to waver like a reflection in moving water. And then, between one breath and another, he vanished, replaced by Master Varnaythus.

Varnaythus exhaled, then smiled mirthlessly as he caught his slightly blurry reflection in the chamber’s mirror. Talthar was no more remarkable looking than Varnaythus himself, but he was an inch or two taller, at least ten years older, and fair-haired where Varnaythus’ hair was a nondescript brown. Neither of them would ever stand out in a crowd, but neither would either ever be mistaken for the other, which was rather the point.

He’d seriously considered creating yet another persona for his activities here in the North Riding, but he’d decided against it in the end. Cassan and Yeraghor both knew him as Talthar. While they had every reason in the world to keep “Talthar’s” existence a secret, they knew what he looked like, and as Varnaythus was able to burrow deeper and deeper into the North Riding it might become important for Talthar to be able to function as a known go-between for the various conspirators he intended to put into play and keep there. Bringing in yet someone else he’d have to remember to be would only complicate things still further, and unlike some of his fellow wizards, Varnaythus had never delighted in complexity for its own sake. Nor had he ever been foolish enough to confuse mere complexity with subtlety, which was probably one of the reasons he’d been so much more successful — and longer lived — than some of those selfsame fellow wizards.

He smiled again, more naturally, at the thought, then seated himself at the table and drew the gramerhain towards him. He cradled his hands around it, gazing down into its depths, and spoke the quiet command that woke a gradually strengthening glitter deep in its clear, flawless depths. The flicker of light grew stronger, glowing up from the table to light his face from below, throwing his eye sockets into shadow. Had the window’s drapes been open and had anyone happened to glance in the inn’s direction, they would have seen an improbably clear, bright brilliance flooding out into the night. Fortunately, the drapes weren’t open, and so no one disturbed him as the brilliance flared up, brighter than ever, and then coalesced, settling back into the gramerhain. It flowed together, darkening steadily, until it became the closed-eyed face of Magister Malahk Sahrdohr in Sothofalas, more than three hundred and fifty leagues from Halthan.

It took Sahrdohr almost three full minutes to become aware of him and activate his own gramerhain. Then the eyes of his image opened as he settled into the working from his own end, and he arched an eyebrow.

“I expected you two hours ago,” he pointed out mildly.

“I’m aware of that.” Varnaythus’ tone was just a bit testy. “You may remember, however, that there are a few additional difficulties from this end?”

“True,” Sahrdohr responded, apparently oblivious to his superior’s testiness. “On the other hand, you only have to worry about one mage. A powerful one, I’ll grant, but still only one. By my current count, there are at least three dozen of the bastards here in Sothofalas…including the one you’re worried about. Which means I’m just a little more likely to be detected by one of them than you are.”

“Really?” Varnaythus smiled thinly. “Your wards are that inferior, are they?”

Sahrdohr’s eyes gleamed. He was obviously pleased by his ability to get a rise out of Varnaythus, but he also bent his head in acknowledgment of the other wizard’s point. His own chamber in Sothofalas had been carefully shielded and warded with every detection deflecting glamour the Council of Carnadosa had been able to devise. As far as they’d been able to determine — so far, at least — those glamours ought to baffle even a mage. There was no way to be certain of that, however, and putting them in place required a series of workings which had to be accomplished in a very precise order and over several days’ time. There was no way Varnaythus could possibly have erected matching wards here in Halthan.

“So now that I have contacted you,” Varnaythus continued in a brisker tone which accepted both Sahrdohr’s point and his unspoken concession, “is there anything interesting to report from your end?”

“I’m not sure, really.” Sahrdohr shrugged. “Bahzell and Tellian are still here; according to my sources, Bahzell, at least, will be heading back to Balthar sometime in the next two or three days. Vaijon’s already left, probably to get the summer campaign into the Ghoul Moor properly underway. The only really interesting thing about that side of things” — the younger wizard smiled — “is that Yurokhas went with him.”

“Ah?” Varnaythus arched an eyebrow and pursed his lips. “That is interesting,” he acknowledged after a few moments’ thought. “Are you suggesting Yurokhas is going to be involved in Tellian and Bahnak’s campaign?”