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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Eleven
Last updated: Monday, June 25, 2012 22:40 EDT
Bahzell leaned one shoulder against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, and whistled tunelessly as he gazed out from the balcony across the roofs and busy streets of Sothofalas. They were worth gazing at, although they couldn’t hold a candle to Belhadan or Axe Hallow. On the other hand, those were Axeman cities, with dwarvish engineering readily available and located in a far more densely populated land.
Sothofalas was substantially smaller than Axe Hallow, although it actually covered a greater area than Belhadan, he estimated. But the dwarven sarthnaisks who’d contributed to Belhadan’s construction had buried at least half of that city’s housing, shops, and warehouses in the solid stone of its mountainous terrain. Sothofalas sprawled out in every direction from the towering battlements of King Markhos’ great fortress of Sothokarnas, and beyond the rib of granite which had broken the Wind Plain’s surface like a broaching whale to serve as Sothokarnas’ foundation, the terrain was flat as a griddle on either side of the Pardahn River.
The Pardahn, yet another of the mighty Spear River’s countless tributaries, wasn’t all that much of a river, but it did offer the Sothoii capital a reliable source of water. And it was deep enough for barge traffic, he thought, watching a horse-drawn barge creeping towards the city. Hradani eyes were much better than human ones, and Bahzell could easily make out the crossed battleaxe and warhammer of Frahmahn flying from the stumpy flagstaff on the vessel’s stern. It was a lengthy haul from Nachfalas to Sothofalas, but he didn’t doubt Cassan was going to show a tidy profit on the barge’s cargo.
For now, at least, he told himself with grim satisfaction, and let his eyes sweep back across the steeply pitched, brightly colored roofs of Sothofalas. They built in stone or brick, the Sothoii, and they burned coal in winter. There wasn’t that much wood here on the Wind Plain, and what there was of it was far too precious to be used as a mere building material or fuel. In that respect, they really did have quite a bit in common with the subterranean cities of Dwarvenhame, he reflected. And, even more than his own people, they built thick walls, too, fit to stand the blasts of the far northern winter even at the Wind Plain’s altitude and thick enough to shed the sometimes fierce heat of the brief northern summer, as well. There were few exterior windows, however, and all of the larger, more prosperous homes clustered around his present vantage point had obviously been designed with an eye towards defense, even here in the very heart of the Kingdom’s capital. It was a reminder that feuds between the great Sothoii clans could be just as bloody as among Bahzell’s own people, but it was more than that, as well. Without handy terrain features, the Sothoii had deliberately constructed defensive strong points within their city. At least two thirds of Sothofalas’ present area lay beyond the old city walls, which had last been extended more than two generations ago and whose maintenance was scarcely the first charge on the Exchequer. That faintly offended Bahzell’s sense of the way things ought to be, but stone walls had never been the Sothoii idea of a proper defense, and the capital was far from unguarded. Indeed, if a hostile army ever managed to reach it at all — an almost insuperable challenge, given what Sothoii light cavalry and wind riders would do to any invader here on their home ground — those fortified villas would make Sothofalas a tougher nut to crack than it might expect, he thought.
Not that the city was any sort of grim, gray fortress. Its streets were as clean and well kept as any Axeman town might boast, and streamers, pennants, and wind-tube banners flew from the towers of Sothokarnas. The great royal standard which indicated the King was in residence snapped and cracked above its central keep, and every manor in the city appeared to sport the brave banners of whatever noble house had built them, as well. Nor was that the city’s only color. The Sothoii didn’t favor the bas relief sculptures and intricate mosaics Axeman architects incorporated into their public buildings, but the walls of Sothofalas’ buildings were bright with painted frescoes and murals. Those on more public buildings tended to reflect each structure’s function, but the competition between private homes was often fierce, and mural painters were both highly prized and lucratively paid. From where he stood, he could see artisans touching up at a dozen or so of those murals, apparently repairing the last of the winter’s ravages. And the streets themselves were full of pedestrians, carts, and — inevitably — mounted riders. The clatter of hooves, the rattle of cart wheels, the buzz of conversation, the cries of vendors and shouts of children all the vibrant, living noises of the city came to his ears like the music of life.
He’d considered stepping out onto the balcony proper, the better to enjoy its bustling life, but he’d decided against it. He wasn’t the hardest person in the Kingdom for people to recognize, and he and his fellow hradani remained less than fully welcome in the eyes of all too many Sothoii. There was no point calling unnecessary attention to his presence here in the city and especially not to the fact that he was an honored guest in this particular house. That was why he’d been careful to remain well back, where — hopefully — none of those who continued to cherish less than warm and welcoming thoughts might spy him.
He’d been careful when he first opened the balcony’s glass doors and propped himself here, as well, since the diamond-paned panels looked suspiciously fragile, and he’d had entirely too much experience with furnishings — and buildings — which hadn’t really been intended for a hradani who stood nine inches over seven feet to go about leaning on them. He’d tested the strength of the frame with a thoughtful expression before satisfying himself it was truly up to his weight, studiously ignoring the obvious amusement of his two companions while he did so.
< They’re only jealous of your noble stature, > Walsharno assured him in the back of his brain, speaking from the enormous, spotless stable appended to the mansion. < We coursers get that sort of thing from the lesser cousins all the time. And, of course, I understand that some of us actually get it from our less well grown fellow coursers upon occasion, as well. >
< Do they now? > Bahzell responded silently, continuing to whistle. < And who might it be as hears such a thing from such as, say, Gayrhalan? >
< I’m sure I wouldn’t know, > Walsharno replied primly, and Bahzell chuckled.
“Dathgar says you and Walsharno are being full of yourselves again,” Tellian Bowmaster remarked from behind him. Bahzell stopped whistling and glanced over his shoulder at the baron, ears cocked interrogatively, and Tellian chuckled. “Walsharno’s mind voice is a little stronger than other coursers’, you know. And, ah, Dathgar’s been around longer than he has and developed a bit better ‘hearing.’ If you two really don’t want him eavesdropping, Walsharno’s going to have to learn not to shout when the two of you aren’t nose-to-nose.”
< Shout, is it? > Walsharno demanded indignantly. < It’s no more than a firmly voiced discussion! > There was a brief pause. Then: < And I don’t recall asking for your opinion, either, Dathgar! >
Tellian’s eyes twinkled, and he shook his head.
“Dathgar just suggested that perhaps Walsharno thinks it’s only a ‘firmly voiced discussion’ because of the volume you two normally need to get through one another’s thick skulls.”
“I’m thinking you and your four-footed friend need to be finding yourselves another insult,” Bahzell said genially. “Mind, I’ll not say as how either of us are after having the very thinnest skulls in the whole wide world, but it’s in my mind as how someone who’s of a truly inventive turn of phrase could be coming up with something a mite fresher.”
“We can only do our humble best in Brandark’s absence,” Tellian replied with an apologetic air.
“Besides,” Vaijon put in, looking up from his book in the chair he’d tilted back against one of the handsomely decorated chamber’s walls, “we’ve found the simplest insults are best. You seem to miss the more complicated ones every so often.”
“Oh! That was a clean hit!” Tellian congratulated, and Vaijon nodded in acknowledgment with a suitably modest expression.
“Aye, so it was,” Bahzell agreed, glancing at the younger champion.
Vaijon grinned at him, and the hradani shook his head. His human friend had reverted — partly, at least — to the Vaijon he’d first met in Belhadan. He was never going to attain such heights of magnificence again, thank Tomanak, but he’d definitely turned his regular attire up a notch for the occasion. The plain woolen surcoat he’d adopted for normal wear had been replaced with one of green silk, glittering with genuine gold bullion, and the spurs on the glistening black boots stretched out before him as he lounged inelegantly on the base of his spine in the comfortable (and expensive) chair gleamed with silver inlay.
“Of course,” Bahzell continued, “while I’ve no choice but to admit it’s true as death hradani can be a mite slow noticing as how someone’s trying to get through to them, I’m thinking someone as lives in a glass house might be a mite careful how he lobs cobblestones about. It’s in my mind as how I recall a young Axeman popinjay as was a bit behind hand himself when it came time to be listening to others.”
“Ouch!” Tellian’s smile turned into a huge grin, and he shook his head wryly. “I’d say you’re playing with fire today, Vaijon!”
“If I were minded to be bringing up people who deliberately did their dead level best to shove their fingers into their long, hairy ears to avoid hearing someone rather than simply being too preoccupied to notice someone trying to get their attention, I would undoubtedly respond in kind,” Vaijon observed, then sighed. “That would be conduct unbecoming a champion of Tomanak, however. Besides, it would be taking unfair advantage of someone whose more ancient — uh, excuse me, I meant more senior — mental processes have reduced him to bringing up something that happened seven years ago in an effort to divert attention from the sad decay of his own acuity in his declining years.”
“Oh ho!” Bahzell laughed. “That’s cost you an ally or two, I’m thinking!” He twitched his ears impudently in Tellian’s direction, and Vaijon glanced at the baron, who was regarding him with a distinctly beady eye.
“‘Declining years’?” Tellian repeated. “Are you sure that’s the way you want to describe someone all of three months older than I am? And a hradani, to boot? Unless I’m mistaken, Bahzell is actually considerably younger for his people than you are for ours.”
“Perhaps I should re-think that particular, possibly unfortunate choice of words,” Vaijon replied. “It does seem to imply I was ascribing Bahzell’s less than blindingly fast thought processes to the inevitable deterioration of age, which couldn’t have been farther from my intent. After all, it would have been disrespectful for someone as youthful as myself to make such an indelicate observation about one of my elders. Either of my elders.”
“If you grab his shoulders, I’ll grab his ankles, and I’m sure between the two of us doddering old wrecks, we can toss him off the balcony,” Tellian said.
“Tempting as the thought might be, I’m thinking as how it’s a nasty mess we’d make in Sir Jerhas’ courtyard,” Bahzell replied. “Come to that, there’s no need. It’s a long journey back to Hill Guard, and no knowing what sort of mischief might be befalling a fellow out on the high road and all. Indeed, we’ve but to ask, and it’s certain I am Dathgar and Walsharno betwixt them could manage to tread on him just a bit.”
“I’m sure they could,” Tellian said, but his smile had faded. His expression was much more sober as he gazed at both the champions, and Bahzell grimaced slightly.
“It may be as how my brain is slowing a mite,” he rumbled. “I’d no mind to recall such as that to you, Tellian.”
“I know.” Tellian shook his head quickly, one hand just brushing his chest where the arrowheads had driven into him. “And I should have listened to the two of you — Tomanak! The four of you! — and gone ahead and worn the damned armor.”
< Eight, actually, but who’s counting? > Walsharno observed, loudly enough Bahzell knew he was making certain Dathgar could hear him and relay to Tellian. < I make it you, me, Brandark, Vaijon, Hathan, Gayrhalan, Dathgar, and — especially! — Baroness Hanatha. Did I leave anyone out, Brother? >
“No, you didn’t,” Tellian said before Bahzell could respond. “And I’m not looking forward to what Hanatha’s going to have to say to me when I get home.”
His shudder, Bahzell thought, wasn’t entirely feigned, and the hradani didn’t blame him. Tellian had written his wife the evening immediately after the attack and her reply letter had arrived via a courier whose lathered horse spoke eloquently of the urgency with which she’d dispatched it. Bahzell didn’t doubt for a moment that she intended to rehash her initial reaction to how close Tellian had come to death the instant she got her hands on him once again. Well, not the very first instant; she’d be too busy hugging him until his ribs needed healing all over again before she got around to bashing his head for him the way he deserved. But she’d get around to it in time, and take the time to do it properly when she did.
And a good thing it will be, too, the hradani thought, looking at the man who’d become one of his closest friends. For a man as is one of the canniest, hardest headed fellows I’ve yet to meet, that was about as addlepated a decision as ever I’ve seen.
He knew he was being at least a little unfair to Tellian, but he didn’t really care. Some people were less entitled than others to take chances with their own safety when they knew they had enemies who would vastly prefer to see them dead.
And then there’s the little matter of that cough of his, the hradani thought grimly, glancing at Vaijon. None of the three champions had shared Tomanak’s confirmation about that with the baron yet, but it was going to have to be addressed eventually. On the other hand, if Wencit of Rum ran true to form, they ought to be seeing him in Hill Guard sometime in the next two or three months. If dark wizardry was indeed to blame for the baron’s “illness,” it might be best to have the world’s last white wizard available for any discussion of how a repeat performance could be avoided.
“I got another letter from her yesterday, you know,” Tellian said after a moment, and rolled his eyes.
“Did you now? And should we be taking it she’s still a mite put out with you?” Bahzell inquired genially
“You could put it that way, I suppose. Although, to be fair,” Tellian’s tone was judicious, “that would be a little like saying the Ice Sisters are a ‘mite’ chilly. In mid-winter.”
Both his companions chuckled at that one, since the Ice Sister Lakes spent three months out of the year under frozen sheets of ice several feet thick. Tellian joined their laughter, but then his expression sobered and he sighed.
“What?” Vaijon asked, and the baron shrugged.
“Hanatha got a letter from Leanna. She’s coming home for a visit for her birthday.”
“A visit, is it?” Bahzell’s ears twitched.
“Yes, and I’m going to be stuck here in Sothofalas!” Tellian’s frustration was plain. “I hardly ever get to see her, and now this!”
He glowered, and Bahzell smiled sympathetically as he heard a father’s unhappiness. He had no children of his own — as Tellian had just suggested, he was actually on the young side, by his own people’s standards, to even have been thinking about that yet, and champions seldom had the time to even consider parenthood — but he had nieces and nephews in plenty. Some fathers — too many of them, in fact, in Bahzell’s opinion — would be less than devastated by missing a visit from a war maid daughter, but Tellian wasn’t one of them, and Bahzell understood the baron’s disappointment only too well. In fact
“And did your lady write how long she’ll be visiting?” he asked, and Tellian snorted.
“Not long enough, I’m afraid. Or not for me, anyway, if I end up stuck here as long as I’m afraid I’m going to. You should at least have a chance to see her on your way through to Hurgrum, though.”
“Will I, now? That’s good to be hearing.” Tellian raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m thinking as how by that time she and your lady will have had time enough and to spare to agree with one another about those as don’t wear armor when they ought,” Bahzell explained with a smile. “Indeed, it’s in my mind as how if I’m truly lucky, they’ll’ve worn themselves down to a nub without the strength to be starting in on me for having let you be doing something so daft as that. Mind, I’m none too optimistic about it, though. Like as not they’ll see me as naught but a setting up exercise for Hanatha once she’s after getting you home again and safely into arm’s reach.”
“Um,” Tellian considered that for a moment, then grimaced. “I’m afraid you may be onto something there. But I’m going to expect you to protect me from her if you are, you know.”
“Ah? And would it happen you could explain just why I might be daft enough to do anything of the sort?”
“It’s an ancient Wakuo tradition,” Tellian assured him.
“Wakuo, is it?” Bahzell cocked his ears and arched one eyebrow, wondering where Tellian was headed. The fierce nomads who dominated the vast, rolling wastelands beyond the Spearmen’s Great Eastern Forest had more traditions, customs, and practices (not to mention rituals, ceremonies, and taboos) than even the dwarves. No one — not even the Wakuo themselves, he suspected — could possibly keep all of them straight.
“Of course! If a Wakuo warrior saves someone’s life, he’s responsible for that person for the rest of his own life. And if you don’t protect me from Hanatha, you’ll be derelict in your duties!”
Vaijon laughed out loud, and Bahzell shook his head as Tellian looked at him guilelessly.
“If it happened as how I was Wakuo — or even as how you were Wakuo, come to that — I might be thinking as how you had a point. But as I’m not, and no more are you, and seeing as it happens I’m more than a mite in agreement with her, I’m afraid as how I’ll be otherwise occupied at the moment. Probably counting the knotholes in Walsharno’s stall. Or something nigh as important as that, leastwise.”
< Prudent! > Walsharno countered with a silent equine laugh. < A lot more prudent than I ever would have expected out of you, as a matter of fact, Brother! >
“Now, that’s no way for a Sothoii baron to be carrying on,” Bahzell chided. “In fact –”
He broke off as the chamber door opened to admit the two men for whom they’d been waiting.
Sir Jerhas Macebearer, Lord Warden of Amber Grass, was in his mid-sixties, white-haired, blue-eyed, and richly dressed, with a luxurious mustache that drooped almost to his chin. He’d never been of more than average height for a Sothoii, and he’d grown slightly stooped with age, but his stride was still firm and powerful, despite the polished ebony cane in his right hand. His shirt was of the finest, snow-white linen, with its full sleeves gathered into embroidered wristbands; his tabard-like tunic was even more richly embroidered, as befitted the Kingdom of the Sothoii’s Prime Councilor; and the intricately worked golden chain of his office flickered with brilliant reflections about his neck. The plain leather scabbard of the businesslike dagger sheathed at his left hip should have struck a jarring note, but instead, it simply looked inevitable.
Prince Yurokhas Silveraxe was over four inches taller than Sir Jerhas, with the same red hair and blue eyes as his older brother, the King. He was five years older than Vaijon, and two inches shorter, yet the two men bore a decided resemblance to one another. Partly, that was because Prince Yurokhas’s court tunic was neither the deep blue of royalty nor marked with the simple silver ax of his house. Instead, it was exactly the same shade as Vaijon and Bahzell’s surcoats and emblazoned with the crossed swords and mace of Tomanak. Almost more even than that, though, was the fact that Yurokhas, despite his princely rank, believed in keeping himself in training. He was broad-shouldered, powerfully built, and sinewy, and he even moved like Vaijon, with an unconscious, almost feline grace.
“Your Highness,” Tellian said, rising quickly from his chair and dropping to one knee before Yurokhas.
“Oh, get up, Tellian!” the prince said testily. “We both have better things to do than to waste time with you crawling around on the floor. Besides, I’ve heard about that little adventure you got yourself into on the way here!” Blue eyes scrutinized Tellian closely as the baron rose obediently. “Hanatha’s going to have your hide, and my only regret is that I won’t be there to watch her take it. What in Fiendark’s Furies did you think you were doing?”
“Always so tactful, so diplomatic,” Tellian murmured, and Yurokhas cracked a laugh.
“I’ll give you ‘diplomatic’ if you ever let anything like that happen again!” The prince reached out, resting one hand on each of Tellian’s shoulders, and looked deep into his eyes. “There’s too damned much going on for you to let people go poking arrows into you, damn it! And that doesn’t even consider how I’ll feel if you let something like that happen to you again.”
His voice softened on the final sentence, and he gave Tellian a gentle shake. The baron smiled crookedly and shrugged.
“Nobody seems to believe this,” he said a bit plaintively, “but I genuinely didn’t expect anyone to go ‘poking arrows’ into me. I suppose the event demonstrates that I should have, but I didn’t actively set out to help parties unknown finish me off, you know. That could have happened to anyone.”
Yurokhas snorted with panache.
“You were doing pretty well there, until that last sentence,” he told the older man. “You aren’t just ‘anyone,’ and things like that aren’t supposed to happen to one of the Kingdom’s barons. Especially not when it’s one of the other barons who’s behind it!”
“Your Highness.” Sir Jerhas spoke quietly, but his tone carried an edge of admonition, and he shook an index finger at the prince when Yurokhas looked at him.
“I’ll dissemble all you want me to in public, Jerhas,” Yurokhas replied unrepentantly. “In private, though, I’m not going to pretend we don’t all know who was really behind this. Or that his holdings don’t lie somewhere roughly, oh, south of here!”
“As for that, Your Highness,” Bahzell rumbled, “while I’ll not say as how he didn’t have a finger in the pie somewhere, there’s not a one of the fellows as surrendered to us who’d a word to say at all, at all, about Duke Cassan.”
Sir Jerhas rolled his eyes and puffed his mustache disapprovingly as Bahzell mentioned Cassan’s name, although he didn’t waste his time denying that the Baron of Frahmahn could possibly have been involved in the assault on his fellow baron. Yurokhas, on the other hand, didn’t even try to disguise his skepticism.
“I’m not one to question one of His champions in the normal order of things, Prince Bahzell,” he said, reaching out to clasp forearms with Bahzell. “Especially not when the champion in question’s accomplished all you have. But I find it very difficult to believe anything like this could have happened to Tellian without Cassan being involved in it somewhere.”
“Aye, and so he may’ve been,” Bahzell acknowledged. “And I’ll not deny I’d find more than a mite of pleasure in seeing him take the tumble he’s more than earned. But for all that, it’s a rare man as is willing to try to lie to one of Himself’s champions, and I’ve yet to meet the one as can actually do it! So if it were to happen as you called me to testify, it’s no choice I’d have but to swear under oath as not one of them so much as mentioned Cassan by name. In fact, it’s in my mind as how whoever did buy their swords for this was never a Sothoii at all.”
“What?” Yurokhas’ skepticism was clearer than ever, and even Sir Jerhas’ eyes widened at Bahzell’s assertion.
“I’ll not say it didn’t surprise me, as well,” the hradani confessed. “But the more I thought on it, the more it came to me as how there’s more folk than I can count betwixt here and Bortalik as might just feel the kormaks slipping from their fingers these days. There’s not a Purple Lord ever born, for instance, as wouldn’t cut his own mother’s throat to stop such as the Baron and my Da and old Kilthan are about. And Vaijon” — he flipped his ears at the human champion as he spoke — “and I each questioned the lot of them separately, and more than one time apiece. They’d a mortal lot to say in hopes of avoiding a nasty end on someone’s rope, yet the thing that struck me strongest was every one of them laid to it as how the ‘armsman’ as paid for Tellian’s death ‘let slip’ as how he was in the service of a Sothoii lord. Now, I’m naught but a simple hradani, when all’s said, yet it’s in my mind as how a clumsy fellow might let such as that slip out once or twice, but it’s a true work of art to be ‘accidentally’ telling every single one of the men as you’re sending out to kill the second or third-ranking noble of the entire Kingdom as how it was one of the Kingdom’s other nobles hired them.”
Yurokhas’ eyes narrowed, and Sir Jerhas frowned. The Prime Councilor had been chosen for his office in part because Amber Grass lay in the North Riding, which was traditionally neutral in the struggle between Cassan and Tellian. Following the King’s dismissal of Garthmahn Ironhelm, he’d needed an obviously “neutral” choice, and there were those who’d been inclined to think that was the only reason he’d settled on Sir Jerhas. The new Prime Councilor was a bluff sort of fellow, with little time to waste on things like book learning. He was not, to put it mildly, broadly respected as a scholar, and he wasn’t above being flattered and cajoled by someone who approached him the right way. But he was also personally incorruptible, highly experienced, and one of the shrewdest negotiators Bahzell had ever encountered. Despite his impatience with formal learning and erudition, there was nothing at all wrong with the brain behind those blue eyes of his. And for all of his efforts to dissuade Yurokhas from flinging Cassan’s name about, there was no more doubt in his mind than in the prince’s about where Tellian’s most dangerous enemies were to be found.
“A truly clever conspirator might expect us to think exactly that, Prince Bahzell,” he pointed out after a moment.
“Aye, and so he might.” Bahzell nodded calmly. “Yet truth be told, Sir Jerhas, Cassan’s not so clever as all that.”
The Prime Councilor looked as skeptical as Yurokhas had a moment before, and Bahzell chuckled coldly.
“Don’t you be forgetting who my Da is! If you’re minded to watch a clever conspirator at his trade, you’ll not do better than him. Ruthless, yes — I’ll grant Cassan that. And crooked-minded as Sharna. But it’s only the power he was born with and the blackhearted greed of him makes him truly dangerous. It’s that as gives him so many others to be hiding behind and using. Aye, and throwing away as soon as ever it suits his needs.” The huge hradani’s expression was grim. “I’ve no use at all, at all, for a man as sets out to betray not only his oaths but all of those as have a right to look to him for justice and protection, and that’s a frame as fits Cassan like a glove. But it’s in my mind he’s not nearly so clever as he’s thinking he is, and it’s that will bring him down in the end.”
Sir Jerhas grimaced. Clearly he wasn’t precisely overjoyed to hear Bahzell predicting Cassan’s ultimate downfall, and in many ways, the hradani couldn’t blame him. Bringing Cassan down, however satisfying and however obvious the rogue baron’s guilt might become, would be a deadly dangerous business. The ties of personal loyalty ran deep among Sothoii; that was one of their greatest strengths. Yet it was one of their greatest weaknesses, as well, for many a lord warden and armsman would consider himself bound by his personal oath of fealty, no matter how great the guilt of the one to whom he’d given it. Cassan and Yeraghor of Ersok had far too many retainers who were likely to feel exactly that way, even in an open confrontation with the Crown, and it hadn’t been that many years since the Sothoii’s most recent “Time of Troubles.”
Which, after all, went a long way towards explaining how cautious King Markhos and his Prime Councilor had to be in their dealings with the emerging alliance of Tellian, Bahnak, and Kilthandahknarthas.
“You may well be right,” Yurokhas growled. “In fact, I hope you are, because the bastard can’t be ‘brought down’ too soon for me!”
The prince’s sincerity was obvious, and Sir Jerhas’ grimace became a genuine wince.
“I’d like to see him a foot or so shorter, myself, Your Highness,” Tellian observed mildly. “In fact, at the moment, with all due respect for Bahzell and Vaijon’s opinion as to who hired this particular lot of assassins, I probably have even more motivation than you do. Having said that, however, I’m not so certain your brother would thank you for saying that where anyone else might hear you. For that matter, I don’t think you’re doing Sir Jerhas’ peace of mind any great favor even now.”
Yurokhas looked at him for a moment, then gave himself a shake and barked another laugh.
“You’re right, of course, Brother,” he said, addressing Tellian not simply as one wind rider to another but as the long-ago youth who’d been fostered by Tellian’s father in Balthar. “I never was exactly noted for my patience, was I?”
“No, not so much,” Tellian agreed in a judicious tone. Then he chuckled and smacked the prince gently on the shoulder. “On the other hand, much as I would never have admitted it to you when you were a scrubby young terror, all elbows and knees, Your Highness, you’re not exactly the most thick-witted fellow I’ve ever known, either.”
“Spare my blushes,” Yurokhas snorted with a smile, and Bahzell wondered how many other Sothoii — if any — could have spoken to the prince that way.
Yurokhas stood for a moment, looking back and forth between Sir Jerhas, Tellian, and Bahzell, then gave himself another shake and drew a deep breath.
“Well,” he said briskly, “now that I’ve had the opportunity to get all that out of my system, I suppose it’s time we got down to business.”
“By all means, Your Highness,” Sir Jerhas said, bowing his guests towards the large, polished table set to catch the breeze billowing the silk hangings as it swept in off the balcony.
It would, perhaps, have been unfair to call the Prime Councilor’s expression relieved at the prince’s willingness to step back from his anger at Cassan, but it would have been headed in the right direction, Bahzell thought as he settled somewhat gingerly into his own chair. It creaked alarmingly under him, but it didn’t collapse.
Immediately, at least.
“Should I assume the fact that you came along for the trip indicates you and Tellian have settled your plans for the summer well enough to discuss them with me, Sir Vaijon?” Yurokhas asked once they were all seated, and Vaijon shrugged slightly.
“Mostly, Your Highness,” he agreed. “To be honest, I couldn’t actually have told you the real reason for my decision to accompany Bahzell and the Baron this time.” He smiled crookedly. “Tomanak has a tendency to send us where He needs us without necessarily explaining it all to us ahead of time. Unless I’m badly mistaken, though, this time around it was more to send another healer than another sword.”
“And I’m grateful for it,” Yurokhas said quietly. “But you do have a campaign plan?”
“We do.” Vaijon nodded. “Or the skeleton of one, at any rate. Baron Tellian and I still have to work out the exact number of armsmen he can make available.”
“Under Trianal?” Yurokhas asked, glancing at Tellian, who nodded.
“I really wish you wouldn’t risk him quite so readily, Milord,” Sir Jerhas said. Tellian looked at him, and the Prime Councilor shrugged. “I understand your thinking, and I won’t say you’re wrong, but the lad’s not even married yet.” Sir Jerhas shook his head. “It was difficult enough getting the Council to settle the succession on him in the first place.” There might have been a faint flicker of distaste in his eyes for the circumstances which had made that Council decision necessary, but no trace of it touched his voice as he continued. “If something happens to him before he produces an heir of his own, all of that work will have been for nothing in the end.”
“I appreciate that,” Tellian replied after a moment. His own tone was level, and he held Sir Jerhas’ gaze with his own for just a moment before he continued. “I appreciate it, and I’ve pointed out to him that it’s past time he be thinking about that. Hanatha has some thoughts on the subject, as well. I think they’re very good thoughts, as a matter of fact, but the truth is that there’s no wife officially on the horizon for him yet, and in the meantime, someone needs to lead my armsmen and lords warden when I can’t. Besides, he’s already demonstrated his ability. He’s not simply my heir; he’s also one of my two or three best field commanders.”
Sir Jerhas nodded in unhappy acknowledgment. Not necessarily agreement, Bahzell thought, but in acceptance. No one needed to explain to the Prime Councilor how important it was for any baron’s heir, especially an heir-adoptive like Trianal, to prove his mettle in the eyes of the fighting men sworn to his service. Tellian couldn’t keep Trianal home if he himself wasn’t to take the field, not without some of his retainers’ questioning his own confidence in the youngster’s capabilities.
That much, Sir Jerhas understood perfectly. However little he might like the thought of exposing Trianal — and, through him, the security of the West Riding’s succession — to that sort of danger, it came with the young man’s position and duties. But Bahzell also suspected the Prime Councilor was less than delighted with Tellian’s failure to demand Trianal settle down and choose a wife. Or, for that matter, to select a bride for him. That was the way it was supposed to work among the great Sothoii houses, after all. Yet Tellian’s tone made it obvious that whatever “thoughts” Hanatha might be having, he had no intention of forcing the issue any time soon, despite the near-disastrous consequences of his own lack of marital resolution.
More than one of King Markhos’ nobles blamed Tellian’s soft heartedness for the fact that Balthar had ever required an heir-adoptive. In their opinion, Tellian should never have settled for a single girl child in the first place! No one blamed Baroness Hanatha for the riding accident which had left her unable to bear additional children, but her barrenness would have constituted a perfectly acceptable cause for him to set her aside and remarry. Indeed, given who he was and how much depended upon Balthar’s succession, it had been his duty to remarry. No one could have faulted him for it, nor would any dishonor have attached to Hanatha, under the circumstances, and two or three healthy sons would have obviated the entire mess that disgraceful hoyden Leeana had left in her wake when she scandalized the entire Kingdom by running off to the war maids.
Bahzell was reasonably confident Sir Jerhas tended to agree with those critics. He’d never said so, not in so many words, and the hradani was certain he never would. Yet there was no escaping the Prime Councilor’s basic conservatism, and he would vastly have preferred for Trianal to be settled in a nice, stable, carefully arranged marriage — preferably one which constituted a solid political alliance — rather than see yet another Baron of Balthar sliding off into Tellian and Hanatha’s mushy-minded romanticism. That sort of thing might make for good bard’s tales, but it was also the sort of thing that gave prime councilors sleepless nights.
“Well, I’ll want to discuss exactly what you and Tellian — and Prince Bahzell’s father, of course — have in mind for the campaign,” Yurokhas told Vaijon. “My brother’s going to want a report as soon as I can put one together for him.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Vaijon gave Yurokhas a polite half-bow across the table.
All of them understood that Yurokhas was the Crown’s true go-between. Sir Jerhas’ presence made it abundantly clear King Markhos continued to support both the Derm Canal and Tellian’s increasingly close relationship with Prince Bahnak’s Confederation, but Sir Jerhas was only his Prime Councilor. In a pinch — as Sir Jerhas understood perfectly well — he could be dismissed, banished back to Amber Grass in official disgrace, if it became politically expedient to do so. In fact, Bahzell suspected the old man would probably prefer to return to his own estates. Life would certainly be simpler then, and he wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about whether any of Cassan’s assassins might be looking his way, as well as Tellian’s.
Yet Markhos himself could have only the slightest personal contact with Bahzell or any other hradani envoy. The delicate balance of factions and attitudes among his own nobility precluded anything closer, and probably would for years to come. It was inconvenient, but there was no point pretending it could be any other way. Yurokhas, on the other hand, was not only a wind rider — like Bahzell — and a devout, well-known follower of Tomanak — also like Bahzell — but Tellian of Balthar’s foster brother, as well. If there was a single high ranking member of the Sothoii nobility who could afford the “contamination” of hobnobbing with Bahzell while simultaneously staying in close touch with Tellian and the King, that person was Prince Yurokhas. One or two of King Markhos’ nobles might be sufficiently irate over Tellian’s unforgivable actions to regard Yurokhas’ ongoing relationship with him with distaste, even anger, but the prince was far too wellborn for anyone to actually say so. And in the meantime, everyone maintained the fiction that Yurokhas’ association with Tellian — and Bahzell — had nothing at all to do with canals, Axemen, hradani kingdoms, or any of the rest of that appalling business. Nobody believed it for a moment, perhaps, but no one dared admit that.
“Should I assume you’ll be taking the Order into the field, as well?” Yurokhas asked Vaijon now.
“I will.” Vaijon’s smile was crooked. “We’re no longer at the point of our lads needing to keep the Baron’s armsmen and Prince Bahnak’s warriors from each other’s throats, but Hurthang tells me we’d probably have something like a mutiny on our hands if we tried to keep them home!” He shook his head. “There are just some things you can’t seem to get a hradani to do, and staying home from something like this is one of them.”
“I’ve come to the shocking conclusion that Sothoii and hradani are even more alike than Wencit’s always insisted they are,” Yurokhas said wryly. “In fact –”
“No,” Tellian said firmly. Yurokhas looked at him, and the baron snorted. “You are not invited, Yurokhas. Norandhor may mean you aren’t the King’s heir any longer, but if anything were to happen to you, it would be just as bad — probably worse! — than having something happen to Trianal. Can you imagine how Cassan and his lot would react if you managed to get yourself killed on the Ghoul Moor fighting alongside hradani as part of this entire plan they’re opposing as a threat to the Kingdom’s very existence?!”
“His Lordship is entirely correct, Your Highness,” Sir Jerhas said with unwonted, decidedly frosty formality. “The very possibility is out of the question!”
Yurokhas looked back and forth between them for a moment, then shrugged.
“Well,” he said mildly, “if that’s the way you both feel about it, I suppose that’s all there is to be said about it. Which means we should probably turn to the rest of the reason for your visit. I assume you have a progress report on the canals and the tunnel, Tellian?”
“I do,” Tellian replied, regarding the prince’s apparent meekness with an air of pronounced suspicion.
“Then I suppose we should go ahead and get started on that,” Yurokhas said equably, and Bahzell hid a smile. He might not yet know Yurokhas as well as Tellian did, but he’d come to know him well enough to understand the baron’s skepticism perfectly.
And to profoundly doubt that the matter of where Prince Yurokhas was going to spend the summer was remotely close to resolved.
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