Chapter 11

Leon pounded his fist on the table. “Another failure!”

He glared at the robed dark one seated across the table. He called himself Zalbard. Since the day of Yuber’s banishment, he had been Leon’s contact. It was a change which Leon could have done without.

“It was... unfortunate.” Zalbard stroked his beard for a moment, then a smile passed across his angular green face. Unlike Yuber’s predatory grimace, it was disarming, even pleasant. Leon was not disarmed. Nor was he pleased. “But at least we have made an important discovery.”

“I’m in no mood for your games,” Leon said. “And what discovery can possibly be worth the loss of a True Rune?”

Zalbard’s smile returned. “That the Player’s new agent is from another world, perhaps?”

“He is bringing in allies from his homeworld?” Leon asked.

“It seems not. This operative is from a third world. One, admittedly, through which the Player seems to have passed, but not his own.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. That was interesting. Considering the speed with which the Player had ingratiated himself to the Greenhill leadership, it was possible that he had out-world resources to draw on. “But why wait a year to call upon such aid?”

Zalbard shrugged. “Time is... different... in other worlds, and particularly during travel between worlds. A summons issued immediately upon arrival might not have reached the other world and been responded to for such an interval. Even if this operative began his passage immediately after the Player and his companion, such time could have elapsed.”

The discovery of such information hardly made up for the loss of a Rune, at least to Leon. It might be relevant in the future, but for now he needed the Runes. Soon. “Interesting. But pointless, at least for now. And perhaps you could remind me of what important lesson we learned from the escape of Leknaat’s apprentice?”

“We expected him to be here, at this tower,” Zalbard snapped. “Perhaps if you had told us that he would be in Gregminster, we would have dealt with him better.”

“Perhaps,” Leon said, “I expected you to be able to find an arrogant boy!”

Zalbard leaned forward. He no doubt would have intimidated a lesser man. But Leon wasn’t afraid of the dark ones, especially after witnessing Yuber’s defeat. “You overstep your bounds, Silverburg.”

Leon tapped his forehead, causing the Rune of the Gate he wore there to glow faintly. “Just remember that I can send you home with a thought, dark one. From what I’ve heard, that isn’t a very popular destination among your kind.”

The way Zalbard stiffened confirmed that statement. Whatever the homeland of the dark ones was, Leon did not care to visit it if their reactions were any indication. Of course, he didn’t care to visit any place where his ‘allies’ would have an advantage over him.

“We should not be in conflict, Lord Silverburg,” Zalbard said. He lowered his head. “So profitable an alliance as ours should not be torn by strife.”

Leon nodded. Profitable to one of us, anyway, he thought. He still didn’t know what the dark ones would ask of him once he had collected the Runes. He would have been far more concerned if he’d had any intention of granting their request. “You are of course right,” he said. “But so profitable an alliance as ours should not be brought low because of failure, either.”

One of the reasons that Leon preferred Yuber to Zalbard was that the black knight had been too arrogant to be a sycophant. Zalbard did not share that virtue. “I concede the point,” the dark one said, dipping his head again.

Still, if a sycophant could be forced to agree to something important, he was useful. And Leon never, ever, let a useful resource go to waste. “Then I expect a better performance from you and yours.”

“We shall deliver better performance, Lord Silverburg, insofar as we are able. But events have been proceeding extremely quickly, as I’m sure you’ll-”

“You’ve been using second-rate agents,” Leon snapped. He stood and looked down his nose at the dark one. “I won’t have you send another half-witted barbarian like the last one. If this continues...” Leon let Zalbard draw his own conclusions about what would happen if it continued.

“Perhaps Belselk was somewhat... inappropriate to the task.” Zalbard rose from his own seat. Leon was forced to look up at him, as the dark one stood well over seven feet tall. It was Zalbard’s habit, Leon had discovered, to always take the literal and psychological high ground in that manner. “He is more suitable to the front lines than he is to retrieving valuable goods.”

“Yes,” Leon said.

“I shall pass your request on to my master. I hope you will understand that he is reluctant to dispatch our best agents. My own presence here was considered necessary only because Yuber proved insufficient.”

And you’re so humble, Leon thought. Still, he had no use for false humility. If Zalbard was as good as he claimed, that was that. If not... well, Leon had no use for boasting, either. A braggart could be turned against himself all too easily. “I’m sure that if your master were to send even a few more agents of your caliber, we would not suffer so many setbacks.”

Zalbard stroked his beard. “This is so.”

Leon smiled to himself. So simple. “Perhaps, for both our sakes, it would be prudent to suggest such a course to your master. I doubt that he is any more pleased than I by the many disappointments which have occurred since your arrival.”

The self-satisfied grin faded from Zalbard’s face. “Surely you do not suggest that I am responsible?”

“Not at all,” Leon said, well aware that he had done so. “I can see that you are both capable and diligent. But to a distant master, it must seem like our defeats have matched our victories. In eight years of Yuber’s tenure, we achieved great things. Now...”

“You make an excellent argument, Lord Silverburg. I can see why you were chosen as our ally.” Zalbard bowed so low that his horns nearly touched the table. “With your permission, I shall take these suggestions to my master.”

“By all means,” Leon said, dismissing the dark one with a wave of his hand. Zalbard was nothing if not ostentatious. He disappeared in a puff of smoke that left an unpleasant, sulfurous smell in the room.

Leon took his seat again. He chuckled. “When I make a deal with the devil,” he said, “the devil had best read the fine print.”