Authors: Will Shetterly,Emma Bull
The Magician nodded. "The nature of the spell?"
"Releasing the binding on the altar of the Gold priesthood."
The Magician chewed his lip. "You're right. I've been asked to set a price for that task."
"I'm truly sorry, Count Dashif, but that is a confidential matter. Now, unless there is something else, my man will show you—"
"My dear wizard—"
"It will be useless, I'm sorry to say, to offer me more money."
"If you would—"
"You certainly aren't about to ask for a refund, are you? I thought you knew me."
"I do," said Dashif.
There was a moment of silence, during which Dashif made no move to leave.
"Well?" said The Magician at last.
"I would like this information, wizard."
"I'm sorry. I would rather not have to ask my servants to—"
''There is no need to play that game with me, wizard. You have one servant in addition to Gogo, whatever the tales may say. I know a shapeshifter when I see one, and I can recognize the soul behind the multitude."
The Magician shrugged.
"I imagine," Dashif continued, "that you would be sorry to lose your butler. And your cook. And your errand boy. And—"
"What are you talking about?" asked The Magician, his eyes narrowing.
"I would also imagine that, even if you kept him, you would just as soon knowledge didn't come out about his nature."
"You're playing a dangerous game, Count."
"It gets more dangerous, wizard."
"With what can you threaten my servants?"
"Servant. Have you ever heard of His Excellency, the Chancellor of Colethea?"
The Magician showed no reaction, not that Dashif had expected one. "Perhaps."
"His body was found floating in the canal two and a half months ago."
"How does this—"
"His heart had been pierced by a single blade thrust. He seems to have fought a duel, despite the ordinances. We know this duel was fought with your servant, wizard. And we can prove it."
"I doubt that," said The Magician.
Dashif shook his head. "Oh, you can force your way into my mind if you choose, find out what the proof is, and dismantle it—"
"I can do more than that, Count Dashif."
"Yes. You can kill me. But then the note that I left explaining all the details of this will come to the attention of His Scarlet Eminence, who thoroughly disapproves of dueling, not to mention the killing of his servants."
"Before killing you, Count, I could compel you to destroy this note."
Dashif looked him in the eye. "I doubt it."
They studied each other for a moment, then The Magician grunted. "Perhaps not. But evidence—"
"Yes, you can destroy it. But I would like to point out a few things. Item: Even if you save your servant from the law, the news will come out about his nature. I think you would prefer it didn't. Item: You would have to put yourself to a great deal of trouble without recompense, a practice I know you find distasteful. Item: You would lose, at least, the Levar's future business, and you might find yourself harried and attacked. The former will cost you money; the latter will be a nuisance. Item: If, instead of all this, you cooperate, you will be serving the Levar, doing me a favor, and I will add another forty levars to what I have already given you."
The Magician shifted in his chair. "You build a strong case," he said.
"I will be helping the city, you say?"
Another pause. Then, "You should have said so at once."
"My apologies. Thoughtless of me."
"The money, please."
"The information first."
"The money first."
Dashif walked out of Wizard's Row and found a footcab. "The Red Temple," he said.
"That will be three coppers, please, my lord." said the cabman.
"You should be a wizard," said Dashif.
The main entrance to the Temple of the Faith of the Twin Forces was gaudy, huge, impressive, and always open. Dashif avoided it, as he avoided all main entrances whenever possible. The entrance on the east side was seldom used, but still a public access. It led, more or less directly, into the presence of the beadle, a prematurely balding man of about two and twenty.
"Yes, my lord?" said this worthy young man. "Do you wish a consultation?"
"Have you a particular priest with whom you wish to consult?"
The beadle gestured disdainfully. "My lord, the Lady Narni is a high priest. She cannot spend her time . . . " His voice trailed off as Dashif held up the ring on the third finger of his right hand, bezel turned out. The beadle swallowed and said, "Up the stairs, my lord. The second door on the left. I'll send for her."
Dashif went up to the indicated room. It was a simple audience chamber, intimate but plush. He stood in the center of the room and waited for about five minutes before the door opened.
The woman who entered was small and seemed to be about sixteen or seventeen. She was buxom, and her hair was darkish blond. Her eyes were an innocent, merry blue. She was dressed in the red robes of the priesthood, but the clothing was of a far tighter fit than that of most priests.
She saw Dashif and squealed. "Count Dashif," she said breathlessly. "You wanted me? Oh! I'm so happy to see you. Why don't you ever visit me? I get so lonely here all alone, without anyone to talk to or, or anything."
Dashif said, "Save it, Your Grace."
Her face took on a sudden wry cynicism. "If you like, my lord," she said coolly. "What do you need?"
"His Scarlet Eminence would like a service."
"Oh, would he indeed? Then, no doubt, I should go see him, shouldn't I?"
Dashif shrugged. "If you like. But Pitullio says he's in one of those moods. Still, it's up to you. I can tell you what it is, if you'd prefer."
She gave him a dry chuckle. "What a surprise. Very well, then. Let's hear it."
"The Emissary from Ka Zhir."
"I see. Information."
"Yes. He's been scheming with a group of Gold priests. Who and where are they?"
"How am I to find out, my lord?"
"Do as you think best, Your Grace. You know where your skills lay. Excuse me, lie."
She sighed. "Why am I only used for my body? When will I find a man who wants me for my money?"
"You have three days."
"I'll need one night."
Dashif took the short walk to the Levar's palace, returned to his chambers, and carefully destroyed the note about The Magician. He'd never expected to need it anyway. He undressed, set his pistols next to his bed, and prepared himself for sleep.
As he closed his eyes, an image appeared before him. Tail, slim, with smooth, dark skin, and long, dark hair. Erina. Erina, Erina, Erina.
He sighed. It was going to be a long night.
The next morning a note appeared with Dashif's breakfast tray. He broke the seal, and read, "The basement of a newly-abandoned inn, in Old Town, Number 61 on the Street of the Dreamers.—N. P.S.: He wasn't half-bad. You should try him."
Dashif first destroyed the note, then ate his breakfast. He cleaned and carefully reloaded his pistols before leaving his apartments in the palace and finding a footcab to take him to Old Town.
It would, he decided later, have been too much to hope for that they would all have been sitting there discussing the scheme to free the spell in the altar. But they were certainly present, and they were certainly Gold priests, and that was enough. He crouched in a dark corner of the basement. They were all in gold robes. There were nearly a score of them facing the front of the room, about equally divided between men and women. There were nine in the front, facing the others, in fuller, richer robes. The ones facing forward all seemed to be in their twenties. The ones facing the back seemed to range in age from forty to sixty.
Nine of them,
Hmmm. If I had a score of guards...no, that would involve the Levar directly. I'll have to think of something else.
They appeared to be concentrating intensely on their activity. So much so that Dashif had had no trouble penetrating the basement. Dashif had never seen such a thing before, but he'd heard enough to be able to tell what they were doing. They were praying.
"Good afternoon, Count Dashif. Is there a problem?"
"Not at all, Snake. Merely something I wish to buy."
"Always glad to help. What is it?"
"How much is that cut glass decanter worth?"
"What will you...Never mind. Thirty levars."
"What about that gaudy saber in the corner?"
"Even more, I'm afraid. Forty-five."
"Hmmm. The looking glass, against the back wall?"
"The silver-framed one, with the jewels?"
"Those are sapphires, Count Dashif. Six hundred levars."
''I'll take it."
"I'd like it delivered, if you please. To me, personally; no one else."
"I may be forced to have someone inspect it first."
"That is correct. But you needn't worry. You must await me in the square near the Old Town Farmer's Market, at the third hour, tomorrow."
"About this inspection..."
"As I said, you needn't worry. Someone may wish to see it, but that is all. Allow it, but be certain to hand the package over to me personally."
"Until tomorrow, then."
Narni frowned in concentration. "Would you mind telling me, my lord, what the significance of the water is?"
"You have no need to know, Your Grace," said Dashif. Her eyes narrowed and a storm quickly began forming on her brow. He chuckled. No sense in baiting her too much, he decided. "Never mind. The messenger is a follower of the Way of Herself. When she is offered the ritual, she'll assume the priest is, also. Remember, she won't know he's a priest."
"What's the point?"
"To alleviate her suspicions. The package is worth six hundred levars—she isn't going to take her eyes off it without prompting. "
Narni nodded. "All right. I can do my part well enough. But tell me, why are you making everything so complicated?"
Dashif paused, looking for an answer. "You have no need to know," he said at last.
The priest wore baggy blue pants, a light green tunic, and a wide hat of bright yellow. He looked nothing like a priest. But he couldn't afford to look like a priest—yet. Soon, with the help of the God, he would wear his gold robes before the world.
Once more he thanked his God and, quite literally, counted his blessings. Eighteen years after the catastrophe—eighteen years of thinking that all was lost forever. Then, only a few months before, (l) the foreigner had come as if sent by the God Himself (and strange were His ways that He would send a Zhir to help them in Liavek!). The Zhir had explained that the altar could be unbound, what monies would be required, and who to see when the monies were available. He had even (2) promised to supply the money when the time came.
And now, (3) apparently the time had come. How mysterious are thy ways, Lord. That fair lady, serving as a priest (as if they deserved the word, the murderers!) for the Red ones, waiting to serve the God in her way. She had appeared from nowhere, frightened but determined, and told them when and how they would receive the money.
He recited her instructions to himself once more. The time, the place, the woman with the package, the contents of the package, the long series of passwords and countersigns needed to verify who they were.
Around him walked the other high priests, equally disguised. As they neared the appointed place, he turned to them and said, "Wait here for the signal. You remember the plan?"
"Yes," said a sister. "We are to walk in front of the messenger, jostling her and getting in her way."
"That is correct. Don't worry; she won't be trying any harder than she has to, to make it look good. And if anything happens to me—"
"If anything happens to me, take the parcel, whatever it is, and
. If we should happen to meet any guards, use your knives."
"I don't know if I can, brother."
He looked fully into her face. "I hope we don't have to, sister. But if we do, you'll be able."
She nodded. He took a deep breath, and a last look at his friends, his comrades through the long years of waiting.
The old East Wall was in sight. The sun told him that the third hour was near. His friends lounged around the small farmer's market, unobtrusively mingling with the customers and merchants. He breathed deeply and settled down to wait.
He'd only been there a matter of moments when she appeared—dark and willowy, just as she'd been described. He was startled for a moment when he recognized...what was her name? Serpent, or something? The owner of the Tiger's Eye. Was she one of the Faithful, or merely fulfilling a commission? Well, best not to take any chances. She had the package, that was all that mattered.
He approached her. "Excuse me, but are you looking for the Count?"
She nodded. "I suppose you wish to inspect the parcel." There was the faintest bite to her tone, as if she thought this exchange to be so much foolishness.
As he'd been told she would, she scrutinized him carefully. Apparently satisfied of his harmlessness, she nodded and said, "Very well." Then she peeled back the cloth covering.
He gasped. It was a looking glass in a silver frame with impossibly intricate detail work. The silver alone must be worth a small fortune, not to mention the sapphires clustered at the top and the bottom. But more, the whole of it was a work of art. This would certainly pay for that wizard the foreigner had told him of. He felt his pulse racing as he silently thanked the God for their fortune.
"By the...Levar," he said quaveringly, prudently amending his oath. "Hide it away, quickly!"
She nodded and covered it, but from her expression, he guessed that she was pleased that he understood its worth and its beauty. For an instant he regretted the need to dispose of it, but the God came first, always. He bowed to her, not trusting himself to speak. He stood there for a moment in silence, then noticed that she was looking around the market area. Almost choking, he remembered that he hadn't yet completed the code. The last part bothered him a bit, for he knew it to be the ritual of another faith, but those were his instructions.