Authors: David Weber
“I’m afraid I can’t deny that.” Wencit’s face crinkled in an answering grin and he gave up. “I’m bound for Angthyr. The Scarthū Hills, to be precise.”
“Angthyr!” Bahzell sat back on the bench. “And just what sort of ‘puzzle’ might it be as takes you into that vipers’ nest? It’s more than enough I’ve heard—from Chanharsa and Barodahn’s factors, and not just the Order—to know Prince Altho’ll be at open blows with Ranalf of Carchon and Wulfra of Torfo by high summer. Aye, and past time he was about it, come to that!”
“I don’t doubt it. Despite which, I have to go. I’ll stay well clear of Carchon, though. I’m afraid the Duke remembers our last encounter, and I don’t have time to waste avoiding his guards.”
“As to that, no doubt you’ll know your own business best.” Another grin tugged at Bahzell’s lips and flattened his ears ever so slightly. “But it’s in my mind you and Brandark are too much alike under the skin. I’m sure I’ve no least idea who it was went around enchanting every harp in the Duchy to sing about the Duke’s bastardy. And I’m not so very sure his guardsmen would find themselves happy at all, at all, if it happened they were so unlucky as to lay you by the heels, come to that. But it’s in my mind Wulfra’s twice the man Ranalf is, and her barony lies right along the West Scarthū, Wencit! Just how was it you were thinking to avoid
“I don’t intend to avoid the lady. In point of fact, my business lies with her.”
“Wencit, you’re mad!” Leeana’s arm circled the free side of Bahzell’s neck as she leaned against him. Sitting, he was almost as tall as she was standing. “The Baroness is no enemy to take lightly!”
“Aye.” Bahzell eyed the wizard intently. “I’d not go calling on her without an army at my back—not if it so happened I had the choice. And don’t you be telling me as you don’t know as well as I do what she’s been about these past twenty years! If it should happen you don’t, then you’d best drop by the Academy for a wee chat with Master Lentos. It’s happy the Order of Semkirk would be to fill in those tiny gaps for you.”
“I’m perfectly well aware that the Baroness is a practitioner of the art, Bahzell,” Wencit said calmly. “And that she was…rather less than honest when she convinced King Faltho she and that whole little circle of hers honor the Strictures.” His expression was bleak. “I warned him allowing her to practice the art openly in Angthyr would be unwise, and so did the magi. Unfortunately, he chose to listen to the Purple Lords, instead.”
“It wasn’t just the money, Wencit,” Leeana put in quietly. “Not entirely. Wulfra can charm an adder out of its hole when she chooses to. Faltho truly believed she was loyal to the throne. And so did Fallona after her father died.”
“At least until the magi started looking into exactly how that ‘mysterious illness’ of his might have come about,” Wencit pointed out.
“Aye, and that’s one reason—one among many, I’m thinking—Prince Altho’s after wanting her head on a pike!” Bahzell flattened his ears in emphasis. “But she’s still one of the kingdom’s great nobles, the law’s still the law, and Ranalf’s daft enough to support her still. Whatever it might be as Altho
, it’s careful he’ll have to be, at least until he’s
of treason or blood sorcery, and Carnadosa only knows what deviltry she’ll be hatching in that tower of hers until he finds it. Don’t you go taking her for a lackweight, Wencit! She’s one to walk wary of.”
“And I’m not?” Wencit’s multi-hued eyes flamed. “I’ll admit she commands a portion of the art, but she’s not my equal yet!”
“You’ve no need to be someone’s equal for your henchmen to be putting an arrow in his back if he’s daft enough to go riding past your front gate,” Bahzell said succinctly.
“Granted.” Wencit raised a pacific hand. “But more rides on this than you know, Bahzell, and Wulfra’s mocked the Strictures too long. Besides, she has something of mine, and I want it back.”
“Ha!” Bahzell’s face lit. “I’m thinking you’ve always been a busy man, Wencit, but truth to tell, it’s in my mind you’ve waited overlong to deal with her. Is it a formal duel you’ll challenge her to, then?”
“And get that arrow you were just talking about in my back when I ride up to her gate to call her to account?” Wencit laughed derisively. “No, I’ve no desire to let the Baroness see me coming. And while I don’t doubt the time will come to settle that account of hers in full, that’s not the reason for this little jaunt.” There was no amusement in Wencit’s expression now, and he shook his head grimly. “Truth to tell, it’s an account badly in need of settling—you’re right enough about
, Bahzell—and I’ve had to wait too long to see to that, for a lot of reasons. I won’t pretend I’m not looking forward to…repairing that omission, but this is rather more important than showing her the error of her ways. To be honest, I’d prefer to be in and out again before she even knows I’ve been there.”
“But where do I fit in?” Kenhodan demanded. “What use is a sword in a confrontation between wizards?”
“The objective is to
an arcane confrontation, if possible,” Wencit answered. “I doubt we can avoid the art entirely, but the Barony of Torfo is two thousand leagues and more south of here. Even if I can reach it without open sorcery, the sheer length of the journey gives an enemy too many chances to arrange misadventures along the way. I don’t doubt will meet opposition in the art—after all, several weaker wizards run at Wulfra’s heels these days; she’d gladly risk
, and despite all her protests, I’ve caught the scent of Kontovar wafting north from time to time, as well—but most of what we encounter will be mortal enough for cold steel.”
“That’s your whole reason for taking me?” Kenhodan sounded skeptical.
“Wizards always have many reasons,” Wencit said gently. “Don’t ask for all of them. You wouldn’t like what you might hear. In fact, I don’t like knowing them all myself.”
“It’s a kormak or two I’d give to see the Baroness brought down a peg,” Bahzell said thoughtfully.
“Bahzell…!” Leeana’s tone was sharp.
“Now, lass. It’s not as if the Order hasn’t heard the same sorts of tales as Wencit and the magi, and well you know it. And as Wencit says, it’s time and past time she was seen to.” The big hradani’s expression had turned grim. “It’s in my mind it’s no coincidence he and Kenhodan were after washing up on our doorstep tonight.”
“And have you heard a single word from Him about it?” she demanded.
“No, that I haven’t. But himself’s not the sort as leads people about by the hand, now is he, lass? It’s a mind of my own I have, and I’m thinking he expects me to be using my head for more than a hat rack, time to time.”
Leeana glared at him for a long, still moment, then turned an even more sulfurous glare on the wizard.
“Wencit, if you encourage this great idiot to wander off without me and get himself killed just now—!”
Leeana’s eyes seemed to stray to Gwynna for a moment before she caught them and returned her gaze to the wizard.
“Leeana, talking sense to either of you is like trying to swim the Western Sea. I don’t even try anymore. After all these years, you’d think at least one of you would have gotten a
less stubborn, but no! And don’t even get me started on champions of Tomanāk and how unreasonable
can be. Even the ones who
hradani on top of everything else!”
“Wizards! You dangle the carrot in front of the ox, but it’s never
fault when the poor beast follows after it!”
“Very well.” Wencit turned to Bahzell. “Comforting as your sword and your presence have been in their time, I believe I can safely dispense with them. Kenhodan and I can see to our own safety, thank you. You and the Order have done more than enough for me in the past, Bahzell. And Leeana’s right that this is no time for you to be away from Belhadan.”
“Spoilsport!” Bahzell’s tone was wry, but his brown eyes were warm as they met Leeana’s worried green gaze.
“Perhaps, but I’d sooner have neither you nor Leeana in this. No, hear me out!” Wencit raised his voice, overriding Bahzell’s attempt to interrupt. “You’ve been good friends, among the best I’ve ever had, but too many pay for my friendship with their lives. I won’t have you do so when there’s no need. Kenhodan and I have to go, but you don’t. Not this time. The time may come when I have to ask you to risk your lives again—yes, and lose them, too—but not yet, Bahzell. Not yet! Gwynna needs both parents now, more than ever, and I tell you that if you mix in this venture, you’ll take a step you can never untake. The time will come when you curse the day you heard my name, Bahzell Bloody Hand.”
“Ominous words!” the hradani laughed, but then he shook his head, and his eyes were very serious. “It’s not so very many of himself’s champions as die in bed, Wencit. It might be you’ll recall a time or two we’ve had that selfsame discussion. And it’s in my mind there’s a risk or three you’ve run for other folk your own self over the last thirteen hundred years or so. You’ll not be frightening me—no, nor Leeana come to that—with warnings such as that.”
“Perhaps not, but don’t expect me not to try, you overgrown lummox!”
“Sure and life would come all over boring if you didn’t,” Bahzell replied with a slow smile, ears cocked in amusement.
“I’m so happy I’ve been able to keep you entertained. But that doesn’t change anything I just said about Gwynna needing both of you. Nor do I have any intention of exposing
to any sort of danger. In fact,” Wencit raised his head and sniffed, “we should leave now. I’ve lingered too long already. Farewell.”
He started to rise, but Bahzell’s palm slammed the table like a hammer. Kenhodan flinched as bowls and mugs jumped, and the towering hradani’s ears lay half flattened, his big, square teeth bared in something no one would ever mistake for a smile.
“Now that you’ll not do!” he rumbled. “My house is yours, and has been these sixty years! D’you think Leeana and I are after forgetting all you’ve done for us and ours? Who was it brought Tellian and me face-to-face and laid the truth about the hate betwixt hradani and Sothōii out for anyone with eyes to be seeing? And who was it saved my arse—aye, and Master Trayn’s, come to that—time and again? Who was it warned us of the mage power? No, Wencit of Rūm! I’m thinking it’s one thing to leave me out of your journeyings, but you’ll not be leaving my roof under threat! Not if I have to knock you senseless myself!”
“We’re entering a time of great peril, Bahzell,” Wencit said tensely. “Great evil may come to this house and all in it if we linger under your roof. I know you’re a champion of Tomanāk. I know what that means—none better. But great evil is coming to us all, more than enough for a dozen champions. Yet this is no demon, no devil—nothing that…simple and above board, and I tell you this now. You may meet your sorrow sooner if we stay, Bahzell. Believe me.”
“I do,” Bahzell said simply but unyieldingly. “What evil?”
“Bahzell, can’t you just take my word and let me go?” Wencit was half-pleading now. “Just this once, please. I will
involve you in this!”
“And you’ll not leave until you tell me,” Bahzell said inflexibly. “What evil would be after threatening this house if you stay?”
“An attempt was made on my life earlier tonight,” Wencit said unwillingly. “I expect another shortly, and Kenhodan’s presence may increase the probability.”
“All the more reason to stay,” Bahzell insisted. “It’s little liking I have for assassins, and it’s cold welcome dog brothers will find in my house!”
“Assassins, yes. If that were my only fear, then no place could be safer, and I wouldn’t worry about you. But my enemies command the art, as well. They won’t rely on mortal killers.”
“And whatever it happens they
rely on, it’s in my mind it won’t be so very happy to be meeting with a champion of Tomanāk. Best you be meeting it here, under a roof with extra eyes to guard and the entire Order ready to hand, come to that. I’m thinking there’s little even such as she could be getting past that!”
“I can’t involve the Order at this time, Bahzell,” Wencit said flatly. Bahzell’s mobile ears flattened in obvious surprise and the wizard sighed. “There are too many factors in play,” he said. “I can’t explain all of them to you, for a lot of reasons, but if the Order’s drawn into this—if it’s given proof someone is openly using the art against subjects of the King Emperor—you’ll have no choice but to move openly against Wulfra. And if you move openly against her, my only chance to retrieve what I need from her will disappear. You’re right that I do know even better than the Order of Semkirk just how vile she is, how much damage she’s already done. I
that, but believe me when I tell you that getting into Torfo and back out again is far more important than punishing her crimes. It’s even more important than preventing future crimes.”
“I’ve no need to involve the entire Order,” Bahzell said in that same unyielding tone. “But I’m himself’s champion, Wencit. And do you think it’s so very happy he’d be with me if it should happen I went and left you and Kenhodan to deal with this attack on your own?”
your protection!” Wencit snapped. “And I’ve been protecting myself quite handily since before the Fall! I know you’re a champion of Tomanāk, and I
your skull is thicker than the East Walls, but d’you think I want to expose Gwynna and Leeana to black sorcery?! Give me enough credit—”
He stopped suddenly, as if aware he’d made a grave tactical error, and so he had.
“Leeana is the daughter of Tellian and Hanatha of Balthar,” Leeana said proudly, “and Gwynna is the daughter of Bahzell Bahnakson and Leeana Hanathafressa. Will you have it said we turned away guests and friends in time of danger? Would you dishonor us so, Wencit?”
“Some things are more dangerous than others.” Wencit picked his words with care. “Believe me. Any attack on this house will be…extreme. Possibly extreme enough to require the rest of Bahzell’s chapter when I can’t afford—I literally
afford—to risk involving the Order of Tomanāk
the Order of Semkirk. Honor doesn’t require you to accept such risks for your daughter, Leeana. Especially not when the guest prefers to leave before his enemies strike.”