War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 13

“Get an assassin close enough to Kilthan of Silver Cavern? Not bloody likely! We don’t have that many dwarven dog brothers to begin with, and the security around any clan head — and especially that clan head — is far too tight for any stranger to get to him. We might be able to manage it the next time he heads out with the trade caravans, but do we have the time to wait that long?”

He looked the question at Varnaythus, who shook his head.

“Almost certainly not. And, frankly, it sounds like investing the effort it would take to get to him would be a waste of our resources. Not to mention coming entirely too close to spreading ourselves too thin with the same kind of ‘let’s kill everyone in sight’ stupidity that screwed up Their plans last time.”

“That’s about what I thought.” Salgahn shrugged. “And as far as Bahnak is concerned, his security’s almost as good as Kilthan’s. I’m pretty sure we could get to him, but there’s no way we could make it look like anything except a very obvious assassination…and not by hradani.”

“We couldn’t simply…assist one of the Bloody Swords who hate him?” Sahrdohr asked.

“There aren’t as many of them as you might think,” Varnaythus said grimly. “He’s actually making this Confederation of his work, and the Bloody Swords who still have enough of a power base to risk going after him and infuriating every single Horse Stealer in Norfressa are smart enough to recognize that they’ve never been as well off as they are now. For that matter, they remember how Harnak’s and Chalgaz’s association with us turned even some of their fellow Bloody Swords against Navahk before the war. They’re not going to be in any hurry to do anything that could make people think they’re signing up with Sharnā and the Dog Brothers. Besides, Bahnak’s done too damned good a job of training up those children of his. All of them, not just Bahzell. He may be the glue that put the hradani together in the first place, but I think Barondir and the rest would almost certainly manage to hold them together if he were to die suddenly.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Salgahn agreed after considering it for a moment or two. “And, to be honest, hradani are hard to kill under the best of circumstances. You may remember how much trouble we had trying to take Bahzell and Brandark even before Bahzell became a champion! Of course, they’re both special cases, even for hradani, but trying to get through Bahnak’s bodyguard with anything except a full frontal assault would be…unlikely. And hradani are damned near impossible to poison with anything except an instantly fatal dose. Considering all the difficulties, taking Bahnak with any normal tactics would probably be at least as hard as taking Bahzell. Our best odds would be with Tellian, frankly, and even that would be a challenge. Not impossible, by any stretch, mind you, but definitely a challenge. Which is the reason Arthnar’s not going to be all that keen on trying it, I suspect.”

“Oh, I agree,” Varnaythus said. “Which doesn’t mean I won’t be trying as hard as I can to talk him into it. In fact, I think we’re going to have to get you involved in that as well, Salgahn.”

“Oh?” The assassin raised an eyebrow at him, his expression wary. “And just how did you have it in mind for that to work?”

“I need someone to help do that convincing…and to make sure things are properly organized if we can talk him into it. He’s cleverer than Cassan thinks he is, but he does have a certain tendency towards brute force solutions. We need something a bit more subtle than that. Or, at least, we need it to be something that steers any suspicion towards Tellian’s purely local adversaries, since we” — he met his fellows’ gazes levelly — “are specifically forbidden to make any attempt which could be traced back to us.”

“We are?” If Sahrdohr was dismayed by the restriction, he hid it remarkably well, Varnaythus thought dryly.

“The overall operation is too important, and the odds against a successful assassination are too high, to justify risking it,” he said calmly, not mentioning that he was the one who’d made that argument — successfully, thank Carnadosa! — when he first received his instructions. “If we launch a direct attack that’s powerful enough to have a decent chance of success, the Order of Tomanāk is entirely too likely to be able to prove we were behind it…and that would prove They were behind it.” Varnaythus shook his head. “We absolutely can’t risk providing any evidence of that until all the other pieces are in place — not if we hope to succeed in our other plans, that is.”

His fellows nodded gravely, and although it was obvious their approval had more to do with their own odds of personal survival than any tactical constraints, that didn’t make anything he’d just said untrue. If — if — they succeeded in killing both Bahzell and Tellian, they would probably succeed in their overall mission. If they tried and failed, however, and if the effort proved the Dark Gods were trying to eliminate the two of them, it would strengthen Tellian’s position in the Kingdom immeasurably. Sothōii were often impulsive and always prickly where things like honor and family feuds were concerned, but despite the stereotype certain of their enemies nourished, they weren’t stupid. Certainly they weren’t too slow to figure out that if the Dark Gods wanted someone dead it was because whoever they were trying to kill stood in their way, at any rate. That might not bother some of their…more self-serving nobles, perhaps, but whatever their internal political squabbles might be, the vast majority of the Sothōii could be expected to close ranks instantly against any recognized intrusion by Phrobus and his offspring.

And if that let Varnaythus stay far, far away from any direct attack on Bahzell Bloody Hand, that was a wonderful thing as far as he was concerned.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t be involved, of course,” he continued out loud, “but we are going to have to be as certain as we can that our cutouts will work. I think we’re going to have to send you down to talk to Arthnar, Salgahn — I can arrange an introduction that will get you in to see him — to help move him gently in the proper direction. We don’t want the Guild openly involved. The last thing we need is any suggestion of dog brothers stirring up trouble, so we’ll have to cover you as a mercenary with the right connections. I haven’t decided yet whether or not we want you involved in the actual attempt or only in setting things in motion, and I don’t see any way we can decide until we have a better idea of what he’s willing to do, but I want to keep our options open in that respect.”

Salgahn nodded, and if he looked less than delighted by the prospect, Varnaythus found that understandable enough.

“In the meantime,” the wizard went on, “I’ve maintained my contacts with Cassan, and he’s been kind enough to provide me with an introduction to Yeraghor, as well. Needless to say, neither of them is the least bit happy over what Tellian’s up to, although I’m not positive Yeraghor truly realizes how close to finished that damned tunnel is. Or how profoundly the entire project — assuming it succeeds, of course — is going to change this part of Norfressa, for that matter.”

“How close are they?” Sahrdohr asked, and Varnaythus shrugged irritably.

“I was just watching that unmitigated little pain Chanharsa.” He gestured at the gramerhain. “She’s putting in a forty or fifty-yard section every day or so now, and she’s only got about another three-quarters of a mile to go. That’s only another two months. And the locks in the Balthar are already finished — they’ve had barges hauling construction materials all the way from Hurgrum to The Gullet for two months now. The Derm Canal’s taking longer, but I expect it to be finished by next spring, even allowing for construction shutting down over the winter months. In fact, they might even get it done before first snowfall, if the weather favors them over the summer.”

Sahrdohr pursed his lips in a silent whistle, but Salgahn shook his head.

“That’s all well and good,” he pointed out, “but they’ve still got the River Brigands and the Ghoul Moor to worry about. As you just pointed out, Arthnar isn’t going to take Bahnak’s and Tellian’s plans very cheerfully.”

“Neither are the Purple Lords,” Varnaythus agreed. “But exactly how do you think they’re going to discourage a trio like Tellian, Kilthan, and Bahnak? Unless we — by which I’m afraid I really mean you, this time around — can convince Arthnar to try to kill them…and he succeeds, of course.”

Salgahn snorted in acknowledgment, but he also shook his head again.

“I’m just saying it’s going to be a little more complicated than simply building a couple of canals and digging a tunnel,” he said.

“And that’s exactly what Yeraghor’s been counting on — and Cassan, too, I suspect.” Varnaythus shrugged. “Which, frankly, is…shortsighted of them, to say the least. Given the success rate Tellian and Bahnak — and Kilthan; let’s not forget him — have demonstrated to date, how likely do you think it is that they won’t succeed this time, as well?”

It was Salgahn’s turn to shrug, conceding the point.

“As it happens, the Ghoul Moor is going to figure rather more prominently in our plans than I’d thought it was,” Varnaythus continued. “I don’t know that it’s going to give us everything we want, although the chance that it might is actually better than I expected before She told me what resources we’ll have there. Even if it doesn’t work as well as expected” — he grimaced, and the others joined him as they recalled other plans which had failed to work exactly as the people who’d made them had expected — “it’s still going to hurt them badly. It may actually stop the canal project completely, although I expect it’s more likely just to slow them up for a year or two. More to the point, it ought to both draw attention to the foot of the Escarpment and away from what we’re really after on top of it. It may well fan the fire under Cassan and Yeraghor, as well, and whether it does or not, nothing that goes wrong for them on the Ghoul Moor is going to suggest any special interference on our part.”