War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 17

“Wonderful,” Yeraghor said bitterly. “Things are bad enough the way they are. The last thing we need is Tellian getting Crown approval for that kind of boost to his revenues!”

It was nice that Yeraghor agreed with him, Cassan thought acidly, but it would have been even nicer if he could have foregone — just this once — his compulsion to restate the obvious. But then Cassan made himself stop and draw a deep breath. His temper, he reminded himself, remained closer to the surface and faster to flare than he would have liked, and however irritating Yeraghor might be, Cassan had no business taking out his ire on his kinsman. Nor was it reasonable to expect any other initial response out of him, given the circumstances. Yes, Yeraghor’s conclusion was blindingly obvious, but Cassan had had the advantage of two additional weeks to study the documents the other baron had seen only in the last hour or so.

And obvious or not, he had a point, Cassan conceded sourly.

One of the unfortunate realities of life was that the water transport of trade goods was far and away safer, faster, and much, much cheaper than trying to ship the same goods overland. That was true even in the Empire of the Axe, with its superb highways; here on the Wind Plain, or in the Empire of the Spear — where even the best of roads were dirt and the worst were…well, pretty terrible — moving anything remotely bulky by land over any really extended distance was far too expensive for anyone to show a profit on it.

As a consequence, it had always been difficult for Axeman merchants to ship their goods into the Kingdom of the Sothōii. It was possible to move at least some of them (mostly low-bulk luxury goods) overland from Dwarvenhame through the West Riding, but the Ordan Mountains and their foothills were a formidable barrier even over dwarf-designed high roads, and roads in the Duchy of Ordanfalas and the Duchy of Barondir, between Dwarvenhame and the West Riding, were no better than those of the Kingdom itself. For that matter, Barondir had a perennial problem with brigands and raiders, and the duke himself had been known to charge unexpected and sometimes extortionate “tolls” with very little warning.

Most of the Axeman goods that did reach the Sothōii made their way up the long, majestic stretch of the mighty Spear River, and even that was barely a tithe of what it might have been. Bortalik Bay, at the mouth of the Spear, lay well over twenty-five hundred leagues south of the Wind Plain. That was an enormous voyage, and Axeman goods coming up the river first had to sail clear down around Norfressa’s western coast just to reach Bortalik. Yet distance was only the first hurdle they faced, for the half-elven Purple Lords who ruled Bortalik were deeply resentful of the Empire of the Axe’s economic dominance, and they regarded the entire basin of the Spear as their own private preserve. The tolls they charged to permit Axeman goods to pass through Bortalik and up the river were damned close to confiscatory, and they also used their strategic position to fasten a stranglehold on the foreign trade of the Empire of the Spear — one that frequently drifted over into outright control of Spearman politics. Any Spearman noble who angered the Purple Lords was apt to find all access to foreign goods embargoed by them, with consequences ranging from the merely painful to the ruinous.

Neither Cassan nor Yeraghor had any particular problem with that arrangement. What happened in the Empire of the Spear was no concern of theirs, and if Axeman goods found it difficult to make the voyage from Bortalik to Nachfalas, Cassan’s clifftop port above the Escarpment, Purple Lord goods made the trip just fine. True, it made the Kingdom’s economy almost as vulnerable to Purple Lord manipulation as the Empire of the Spear’s in some ways, but that was actually advantageous in many respects, especially from Cassan’s viewpoint. That “unavoidable Purple Lord pressure” gave the Kingdom another card to play when it came to managing its relationship with its Axeman allies, who could be counted upon to cough up occasional concessions to sweeten the alliance as a counterbalance. And, on a more personal level, Cassan showed a pretty profit on all of the trade, Purple Lord or not, that passed through his lands on its way to Sothōfalas and other points north. As for Yeraghor, the East Riding was the site of most of the Kingdom’s iron mines and smithies, and Yeraghor’s smiths and craftsmen had absolutely no desire to find themselves competing with the smithies and forges of Dwarvenhame.

But that, unfortunately, was exactly what was going to happen if Tellian succeeded in his latest intolerable scheme. The so-called Derm Canal was going to make it possible for Axeman merchant barges to sail up the Morvan River to Derm, the highest navigable point on that river, and then across to the Hangnysti River at Bahnak’s capital of Hurgrum and up the Balthar River to the very foot of the Escarpment and their accursed “Gullet Tunnel.” Once their goods reached the top of the Escarpment, the Balthar would be available again to ferry them all the way to Tellian’s capital, or they could be delivered directly to Sothōfalas by way of Glanharrow in less than a third of the time it took for them to reach the capital from Nachfalas…all without paying a single kormak in tolls to the South Riding. And worst of all, it would break the Purple Lords’ monopoly on the Spear River. Those same barges could sail down the Hangnysti to the Spear and as far south as they pleased with cargos of Axeman goods and return the same way with cargoes from Spearman merchants without ever going near Bortalik Bay. The Purple Lords were about to lose a disastrous portion of their wealth and power, and while Cassan would have lost no sleep over that, the thought that largish chunks of that same wealth and power would be pouring into Bahnak’s accursed Northern Confederation and the West Riding, instead, was another matter entirely. While it was likely his own income would actually increase, given the Nachfalas location and the greater volume of trade which would be passing up and down the upper Spear, that increase would be only a shadow — and a very thin, dim shadow, at that—of the revenue increase Tellian was about to see.

Cassan’s nostrils flared as he contemplated that grim future and a dull tide of resentment burned through him yet again as he remembered how close he’d come to defeating Tellian for good.

The two of them had been locked in combat for dominance on the Great Council for over twenty years now, and their respective houses had fought that same battle still longer — all the way back to the Kingdom’s very first Time of Troubles — with the struggle seesawing back and forth with the shifting of political tides. Under King Sandahl, the present King’s father, the House of Axehammer had enjoyed a pronounced advantage, but Cassan’s position had slipped under King Markhos…thanks, in no small part, to the advice the King had received from his younger brother, Yurokhas. Prince Yurokhas had been fostered at Balthar under Tellian’s father at the insistence of the Great Council, which had feared the South Riding’s influence with King Sandahl. He’d known the present baron since boyhood, and to make bad worse, he too was a wind rider, like Tellian. Besides, Cassan was forced to admit that he’d overplayed his own hand during Markhos’ brief regency.

Markhos had been fostered at Toramos, the seat of the Barons of Frahmahn, under Cassan’s father, and Cassan had expected to capitalize on that relationship. It had been a mistake. He admitted that freely, if not happily. He’d put the boy’s hackles up, and he’d probably been just a bit too open — well, heavy-handed, if he was going to be honest — about using the advantages of his riding’s position on the Spear. He’d been younger then, himself, barely a dozen years Markhos’ senior, and he’d come to his own dignities only a few years before, but that was no excuse for his clumsiness, and he knew it.