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The figure appeared out of the shadows of the alcove so quickly that Sen Dunsidan was almost on top of it before he realized it was there. The hallway leading to his sleeping chamber was dark with nightfall's shadows, and the light from the wall lamps cast only scattered halos of fuzzy brightness. The lamps gave no help in this instance, and the Minister of Defense was given no chance either to flee or defend himself.
"A word, if you please, Minister."
The intruder was cloaked and hooded, and although Sen Dunsidan was reminded at once of the Ilse Witch he knew without question that it was not she. This was a man, not a womantoo much size and bulk to be anything else, and the words were rough and masculine. The witch's small, slender form and cool, smooth voice were missing. She had come to him only a week earlier, before departing on her voyage aboard Black Moclips, tracking the Druid Walker and his company to an unknown destination. Now this intruder, cloaked and hooded in the same manner, had appeared in the same wayat night and unannounced. He wondered at once what the connection was between the two.
Masking his surprise and the hint of fear that clutched at his chest, Sen Dunsidan nodded. "Where would you like to share this word?"
"Your sleeping chamber will do."
A big man himself, still in the prime of his life, the Minister of Defense nevertheless felt dwarfed by the other. It was more than simply size; it was presence, as well. The intruder exuded strength and confidence not usually encountered in ordinary men. Sen Dunsidan did not ask how he had managed to gain entry to the closely guarded, walled compound. He did not ask how he had moved unchallenged to the upper floor of his quarters. Such questions were pointless. He simply accepted that the intruder was capable of this and much more. He did as he was bidden. He walked past with a deferential bow, opened his bedroom door, and beckoned the other inside.
The lights were lit here, as well, though no more brightly than in the hallway without, and the intruder moved at once into the shadows.
"Sit down, Minister, and I will tell you what I want."
Sen Dunsidan sat in a high-backed chair and crossed his legs comfortably. His fear and surprise had faded. If the other meant him harm, he would not have bothered to announce himself. He wanted something that a Minister of Defense of the Federation's Coalition Council could offer, so there was no particular cause for concern. Not yet, anyway. That could change if he could not supply the answers the other sought. But Sen Dunsidan was a master at telling others what they expected to hear.
"Some cold ale?" he asked.
"Pour some for yourself, Minister."
Sen Dunsidan hesitated, surprised by insistence in the other's voice. Then he rose and walked to the table at his bedside that held the ice bucket, ale pitcher nestled within it, and several glasses. He stood looking down at the ale as he poured, his long silver hair hanging loose about his shoulders save where it was braided above the ears, as was the current fashion. He did not like what he was feeling now, uncertainty come so swiftly on the heels of newfound confidence. He had better be careful of this man; step lightly.
He walked back to his chair and reseated himself, sipping at the ale. His strong face turned toward the other, a barely visible presence amid the shadows.
"I have something to ask of you," the intruder said softly.
Sen Dunsidan nodded and made an expansive gesture with one hand.
The intruder shifted slightly. "Be warned, Minister. Do not think to placate me with promises you do not intend to keep. I am not here to waste my time on fools who think to dismiss me with empty words. If I sense you dissemble, I will simply kill you and have done with it. Do you understand?"
Sen Dunsidan took a deep breath to steady himself. "I understand."
The other said nothing further for a moment, then moved out from the deep shadows to the edges of the light. "I am called the Morgawr. I am mentor to the Ilse Witch."
"Ah." The Minister of Defense nodded. He had not been wrong about the similarities of appearance.
The cloaked form moved a little closer. "You and I are about to form a partnership, Minister. A new partnership, one to replace that which you shared with my pupil. She no longer has need of you. She will not come to see you again. But I will. Often."
"Does she know this?" Dunsidan asked softly.
"She knows nowhere near as much as she thinks." The other's voice was hard and low. "She has decided to betray me, and for her infidelity she will be punished. I will administer her punishment when I see her next. This does not concern you, save that you should know why you will not see her again. All these years, I have been the force behind her efforts. I have been the one who gave her the power to form alliances like the one she shared with you. But she breaches my trust and thus forfeits my protection. She is of no further use."
Sen Dunsidan took a long pull on his ale and set the glass aside. "You will forgive me, sir, if I voice a note of skepticism. I don't know you, but I do know her. I know what she can do. I know what happens to those who betray her, and I do not intend to become one of them."
"Perhaps you would do better to be afraid of me. I am the one who stands here in front of you."
"Perhaps. But the Dark Lady has a way of showing up when least expected. Show me her head, and I will be more than happy to discuss a new agreement."
The cloaked figure laughed softly. "Well spoken, Minister. You offer a politician's answer to a tough demand. But I think you must reconsider. Look at me."
He reached up for his hood and pulled it away to reveal his face. It was the face of the Ilse Witch, youthful and smooth and filled with danger. Sen Dunsidan started in spite of himself. Then the girl's face changed, almost as if it were a mirage, and became Sen Dunsidan'shard planes and edges, piercing blue eyes, silvery hair worn long, and a half smile that seemed ready to promise anything.
"You and I are very much alike, Minister."
The face changed again. Another took its place, the face of a younger man, but it was no one Sen Dunsidan had ever seen. It was nondescript, bland to the point of being forgettable, devoid of interesting or memorable features.
"Is this who I really am, Minister? Do I reveal myself now?" He paused. "Or am I really like this?"
The face shimmered and changed into something monstrous, a reptilian visage with a blunt snout and slits for eyes. Rough, gray scales coated a weathered face, and a wide, serrated mouth opened to reveal rows of sharply pointed teeth. Gimlet eyes, hate-filled and poisonous, glimmered with green fire.
The intruder pulled the hood back into place, and his face disappeared into the resulting shadows. Sen Dunsidan sat motionless in his chair. He was all too aware of what he was being told. This man had the use of a very powerful magic. At the very least, he could shape-shift, and it was likely he could do much more than that. He was a man who enjoyed the excesses of power as much as the Minister of Defense did, and he would use that power in whatever way he felt he must to get what he wanted.
"I said we were alike, Minister," the intruder whispered. "We both appear as one thing when in truth we are another. I know you. I know you as I know myself. You would do anything to further your power in the hierarchy of the Federation. You indulge yourself in pleasures that are forbidden to other men. You covet what you cannot have and scheme to secure it. You smile and feign friendship when in truth you are the very serpent your enemies fear."
Sen Dunsidan kept his politician's smile in place. What was it this creature wanted of him?
"I tell you all this not to anger you, Minister, but to make certain you do not mistake my intent. I am here to help you further your ambitions in exchange for help you can in turn supply to me. I desire to pursue the witch on her voyage. I desire to be there when she does battle with the Druid, as I am certain she must. I desire to catch her with the magic she pursues, because I intend to take it from her and then to take her life. But to accomplish this, I will need a fleet of airships and the men to crew them."
Sen Dunsidan stared at him in disbelief. "What you ask is impossible."
"Nothing is impossible, Minister." The black robes shifted with a soft rustle as the intruder crossed the room. "Is what I ask any more impossible than what you seek?"
The Minister of Defense hesitated. "Which is what?"
"To be Prime Minister. To take control of the Coalition Council once and for all. To rule the Federation, and by doing so, the Four Lands."
A number of thoughts passed swiftly through Sen Dunsidan's mind, but all of them came down to one. The intruder was right. Sen Dunsidan would do anything to make himself Prime Minister and control the Coalition Council. Even the Ilse Witch had known of this ambition, though she had never voiced it in such a way as this, a way that suggested it might be within reach.
"Both seem impossible to me," he answered the other carefully.
"You fail to see what I am telling you," the intruder said. "I am telling you why I will prove a better ally than the little witch. Who stands between you and your goal? The Prime Minister, who is hardy and well? He will serve long years before he steps down. His chosen successor, the Minister of the Treasury, Jaren Arken? He is a man younger than you and equally powerful, equally ruthless. He aspires to be Minister of Defense, doesn't he? He seeks your position on the council."
A cold rage swept through Sen Dunsidan on hearing those words. It was true, of courseall of it. Arken was his worst enemy, a man slippery and elusive as a snake, cold-blooded and reptilian through and through. He wanted the man dead, but had not yet figured out a way to accomplish it. He had asked the Ilse Witch for help, but whatever other exchange of favors she was willing to accept, she had always refused to kill for him.
"What is your offer, Morgawr?" he asked bluntly, tiring of this game.
"Only this. By tomorrow night, the men who stand in your way will be no more. No blame or suspicion will attach to you. The position you covet will be yours for the taking. No one will oppose you. No one will question your right to lead. This is what I can do for you. In exchange, you must do what I askgive me the ships and the men to sail them. A Minister of Defense can do this, especially when he stands to become Prime Minister."
The other's voice became a whisper. "Accept the partnership I am offering, so that not only may we help each other now, but we may help each other again when it becomes necessary."
Sen Dunsidan took a long moment to consider what was being asked. He badly wanted to be Prime Minister. He would do anything to secure the position. But he mistrusted this creature, this Morgawr, a thing not entirely human, a wielder of magic that could undo a man before he had time to realize what was happening. He was still unconvinced of the advisability of doing what he was being asked to do. He was afraid of the Ilse Witch; he could admit that to himself if to no one else. If he crossed her and she found out, he was a dead man; she would hunt him down and destroy him. On the other hand, if the Morgawr was to destroy her as he said he would, then Sen Dunsidan would do well to rethink his concerns.
A bird in the hand, it was commonly accepted, was worth two in the bush. If a path to the position of Prime Minister of the Co- alition Council could be cleared, almost any risk was worth the taking.