“The early bird got the worm, Sir.”
Blanrus glanced cautiously around the bar. “Not so loud!” he hissed furiously.
Macazecaha’s was crowded and noisy tonight, more so than usual. No one appeared to have overheard them so he grabbed Roget’s arm and pulled him down into the booth. He debated for a moment whether or not to draw the curtains, then decided against it. Drawing those curtains would be an instant signal to anyone in the bar that something was up. Better to risk being overheard than to start rumors that could find their way to the city guard.
“Where is he?” he asked.
Roget lowered his voice to match the mages. “Merc-Town,” he answered, referring to a part of the city known for the mercenaries that frequented it.
“And the woman?”
“Nothing. Maybe still on the ship, but Kasrah doesn’t think so.”
“Kasrah doesn’t think so,” Blanrus sneered. “Who told Kasrah he could think?” He drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, thinking furiously. Contrary to his harsh words, Kasrah Toe Feathers was one of his best spies. The halfling wouldn’t have speculated about the woman without a reason. But that raised more questions than it answered. Why was Bashaak back so soon? And what about the woman he was supposed to have found? Where was she? If he didn’t have her, why was he back? He shook his head, something didn’t feel right about this.
“Are you sure you got the message right? So help me Roget, if you got it wrong . . .”
“No, Master!” Roget’s eyes widened in fear. “I swear! Kasrah told me he saw him with his own eyes. Bashaak is here!”
“Watch your mouth, Roget,” Blanrus told him dangerously. “You’re not even supposed to know that name. If Bashaak finds out you know who he is, he’ll feed you to one of Macazecaha’s groundling cousins.” He inclined his head at the round shape floating in the center of the room.
Roget’s face went pasty and he nodded silently.
Blanrus considered his options in silence. He wanted to meet Bashaak and find out out about the girl, but he also wanted to be sure he wasn’t walking into a trap of some kind. Finally, he pulled out a small writing box and opened it up. He took out a sheet of paper, uncapped the ink well, and wrote swiftly. He paused several times to make sure of his wording then finally ended the note with his personal mark. He folded the paper and sealed it with wax.
“Find Unzar. Give this to him to give to our Carrzulman friend. Tell Unzar I used red ink.”
Roget gaped at the ink well that clearly showed black ink. “Red?”
“Just do it!”
“Yes, Master.” Roget took the envelope and slid out of the booth. He tossed a coin on the table for appearances and strode out.
Blanrus closed up his writing box and smiled to himself. “Red ink” was a code phrase telling Unzar he had used ink which could be seen through the paper in the right kind of light. If Bashaak used any spells to determine if the envelope had been opened before he got it, the results would come up negative. The wording in the note would tell Unzar exactly where to go and what to do; they’d used this method before.
He smiled again and started to slide out of the booth; a hand shoved him back suddenly and Bashaak sat down across from him. “What an excellent meeting place you’ve found for us,” the priest said softly. “I wholeheartedly approve.”
Blanrus’ heart nearly leapt out of his chest. Blast Roget’s clumsiness, he swore inwardly, he must have been followed. With a massive effort, he kept his face bland and nodded slowly. “Glad you like it, it’s one of my favorite places,” he replied evenly.
“Yes, I can see why,” Bashaak said meaningfully. For a split second his eyes deliberately rested on the rotund form of the barkeep.
It struck Blanrus like a bolt of lightning. That’s how he found me! And he’s so smug he wants me to know it too. The struggle to maintain his composure made him want to scream in fury but he merely said, “I’m gratified you’ve returned from your mission so quickly. Am I to assume that everything went well?” He was proud that his voice betrayed not the slightest hint of nervousness.
Surprisingly, however, it was Bashaak who now appeared uncomfortable. “Yes and no,” he said evasively. “I found a woman who matches your requirements perfectly, but I didn’t obtain her.”
“Why not?” Blanrus pressed him, sensing a sudden advantage despite not getting the sacrifice.
Bashaak visibly reddened. “The woman’s father is an official of the empire. I know him rather well, and he knows me.”
“You balked because of friendship?” Blanrus ejaculated incredulously.
Bashaak’s embarrassment vanished like ice on a hot day and his eyes darkened. “There is no love lost between Marak and me,” he grated. “He is a spy and a toady for Lord Gragan. He hasn’t the slightest respect for Ashima or his true worship.”
The mage was baffled. “Then what’s the problem?”
Bashaak steepled his fingers and peered thoughtfully over them. After a long moment, he asked, “What do you know about the current political situation in Xythia?” Xythia was the capital of one of the southern provinces of the Carrzulman Empire and a hotbed of political intrigue.
“Nothing,” Blanrus shrugged, seeing no reason to deny it.
“Then I won’t bore you with a detailed background,” Bashaak replied smoothly. “Suffice it to say that politics there, always tricky, have become fatally dangerous and unpredictable since the assassination of the High Priest. The current situation makes it impossible for anyone to move against Gragan and his men, including Marak, without triggering a civil war . . . a war whose outcome is far from certain.”
“So don’t leave any witnesses,” Blanrus snapped impatiently.
Bashaak was already shaking his head. “Marak’s cover as a spy is as a caravan master. As such he has dozens of guards who know nothing of his true loyalties. And his daughter, Illene, is constantly surrounded by her warrior maids. Add to that the assorted cooks and other workers on a large caravan, and you have far too many people to kill. In an encounter of that size, there are always survivors to carry tales to the wrong ears. As I said, those tales could start a war.” The priest shrugged slightly. “That is a chance I simply cannot take.”
Blanrus was thinking hard. He wasn’t about to let some ridiculous, groundling politics interfere with his own ambitions here. There had to be some way around it, some other answer. And there had to be some way to take advantage of Bashaak’s failure to fulfill his contract as well. Was there some way to accomplish both objectives – get the girl and pry more concessions out of the dour priest?
Across the crowded room, someone threw open a window to toss an unconscious drunk out into the street. The bright flash of daylight streaming in was an alien thing in the close, smokey confines of the bar, and a chorus of hisses and groans rose in protest. The window was slammed shut almost immediately, but not before Blanrus caught a brief glimpse of a ship pulling away from the far-away city docks. A sudden thought occurred to him and he turned back to Bashaak with an evil grin. “That’s alright my friend, I think perhaps we can arrange something else. Listen to this . . .”