War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 16

We should have thought of it years ago, he reflected now, clasping his hands behind him as he strolled down the brink of the canal cut. Except for the minor matter of its being impossible until Bahnak came along!

He snorted at the thought, but it was undeniably true. Even for dwarven engineers, the thought of building a canal almost four hundred leagues long between the human city of Derm and the hradani city of Hurgrum could never have been anything but a fantasy as long as the hradani city states had been at one another’s throats. But Bahnak of Hurgrum’s Clan Iron Axe had finally brought hundreds of years of ongoing conflict to an end.

For now, at least.

Gorsan grimaced as his mind insisted on adding the qualifier, yet it was hard to believe anyone or anything could truly turn the northern hradani into a single realm and keep it that way. But Bahnak and his Horse Stealers hadn’t hammered the Bloody Swords into surrender by simple force of arms. Oh, he had hammered them — that was the only way anyone ever convinced a hradani to do anything he didn’t want to, after all; that much hadn’t changed whatever might have happened to the Rage — yet it had been Bahnak’s shrewd diplomacy which had made his victory possible…and which looked like making his conquest stand up. Even the name he’d chosen — the Northern Confederation — only underscored his shrewd understanding of his own people. No one doubted for a moment that the “Northern Confederation” was actually a kingdom and that Bahnak was its king, yet he’d been careful to avoid the other clans’ stubborn, hardheaded, not to say intransigent noses in that reality. Instead, it remained a simple confederation, no more (officially) than an upgrade and an enlargement of the old Northern Alliance he’d forged amongst the Horse Stealers, and he remained a simple prince, no more (officially) then first among equals. It was true, perhaps, that he stood “first among equals” by a very considerable margin, yet he was careful to show what Gorsan believed was a genuine concern and respect for the opinions of the members of his newly created Council of Princes. No one was going to be so foolish as to cross him or mistake him for anyone but the Confederation’s undisputed ruler, but that was due in no small part to his demonstration that he understood the responsibilities of a ruler.

The fact that he was already proving one of the canniest rulers in Norfressan history didn’t hurt, either, Gorsan reflected. He wasn’t afraid to think, as his ability to conceive of something like the Derm Canal and drive it through to success amply demonstrated. No doubt it had been difficult to convince the newly conquered Bloody Swords to take the proposal seriously, at least at first. Getting them to realize there could be more profit in supporting commerce than in plundering it couldn’t have been easy, at any rate! It had probably helped that the canal would stretch right across the traditional Bloody Sword holdings, giving them ample opportunity to make plenty of money off of the freight it would soon be carrying. And, after the initial labor of building the thing, for far less effort than more traditional wealth-gathering hradani practices, like looting and pillaging.

And once shippers get accustomed to the notion of actually sending their cargoes through hradani lands, they’ll probably take a certain comfort in the fact that the hradani will be providing security rather than raiding their goods. It would take a lunatic to cross hradani guards on their own ground!

He stopped and gazed out across the sprawling construction site. Close at hand, crews used rollers and muscle-powered, footed pile drivers to tamp down the gravel ballast filling the gap between the wall of the excavation and the finished wooden forms which awaited the concrete. Gorsan would have preferred to use even more gravel and have a sarthnasik like Chanharsa fuse it, but other portions of the project were already eating up the efforts of at least two-thirds of Silver Cavern’s available sarthnaisks, and concrete worked just fine for something as routine as a canal. Further west, the next lock in line was nearing completion, and more crews were tearing down the heavy forms now that the concrete had set. And, further west still, barges loaded with construction material moved steadily up and down the portion of the canal which was already operable.

The Derm Canal had been the most exhausting and exhilarating project of Gorsan’s career, and his heart swelled with pride as he watched those barges moving across the gently rolling grasslands of Navahk. Another six months, he thought hopefully. Assuming they could finish before winter set in, that was. He shuddered as he remembered other winters, but he was determined they were going to beat this one. And with the Balthar locks already open and the Gullet Tunnel almost completed, the entire route could be ready and open as early as sometime next spring. He could hardly believe it even now, but those construction barges were the clearest possible proof that it really was going to work.

And those Purple Lord bastards down in Bortalik are going to be dropping in droves out of sheer apoplexy when it does, he thought with grim satisfaction. Which suits me just fine.

* * *

“Do you think Shaftmaster’s estimates are accurate?” the man across the table asked, and Cassan Axehammer reminded himself not to roll his eyes.

Yeraghor Stonecastle, Baron Ersok and Lord Warden of the East Riding, was of little more than average height for a Sothōii—two inches shorter than Cassan himself — and as dark and swarthy as Cassan was blond. He had very long arms, and his powerful wrists accurately reflected the rigorous traditional training regimen he maintained, despite his high rank. He and Cassan were kinsmen and close political allies, but there were times Yeraghor’s ability to belabor the obvious grated on Cassan’s nerves. In fact, it bothered him more because he knew how intelligent Yeraghor actually was, which only made his tendency to ask obviously rhetorical questions even more irritating.

“I don’t know whether they’re accurate or not,” Cassan said once he was sure his voice would come out the way he wanted it to.

He sipped expensive Dwarvenhame whiskey, then set the crystal glass down very precisely in front of him and leaned back. His comfortable rattan chair creaked under his weight, and he gazed out across the rolling green fields of the Barony of Frahmahn. He could see literally for miles from the roofed balcony set on the west side of his castle’s central keep, and everything he saw was his. But somewhere out there, beyond what he could see, beyond the borders of his own South Riding, lay Tellian of Balthar’s West Riding, and he felt his jaw muscles clench as he considered the reason — the real reason — for this meeting with Yeraghor.

“I don’t know whether they’re accurate, but I think it’s obvious Shaftmaster thinks they are — or will be, when all’s said and done. And given that he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I’m not prepared to say he’s wrong.”

“And you’re sure they’re genuine?” Yeraghor asked, his eyes narrowing shrewdly. “Master Talthar’s a resourceful soul, but we both know he has irons of his own in this fire.”

“I’m sure,” Cassan replied grimly. “And I’ve spent some time looking at the reports his estimates are based on, too.” His expression wasn’t getting any happier. “I’m not sure I agree with all of his analyses, but he can’t be too far off.”

“Shit,” Yeraghor said flatly. Unlike Cassan, Yeraghor preferred beer to whiskey, and he buried his nose briefly in his silver chased tankard. Then he slapped it back on the table and glowered at Cassan.

“And this business about Macebearer signing on? It all looks genuine enough… I doubt he’d hesitate to offer us false information or even outright forgeries if it would serve his purposes. And capable or not, actually getting his hands on Macebearer’s records — or even just getting access to them — couldn’t have been easy. I know.” He smiled thinly. “I’ve tried myself on more than one occasion!”

“They’re not forgeries,” Cassan said with a grimace. “I haven’t managed to get anyone inside Macebearer’s staff yet, either — not high enough to get his hands on this sort of documentation, at least — but I do have my sources in the Palace. Which is how I know someone broke into his office a few weeks ago. They’ve all done their best to hush it up, of course, but the investigation was as thorough as it was quiet. Talthar hasn’t mentioned it to me specifically, but I’m pretty sure the ‘servant’ who disappeared the same night Macebearer got himself burglarized was his man.” He shrugged. “I recognized Macebearer’s handwriting, too. I don’t think there’s any question the documents are exactly what Talthar told me they are, and that means those estimates are about as accurate — or official, at least — as they get.”