War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 18

Still, he’d been confident of regaining all the ground he’d lost, and then some, when Tellian “surrendered” over four thousand of his men to less than eighty hradani. The hatred between the Sothōii and their hradani “neighbors” was deep as the sea and bitter as brine, and Tellian had passed up the perfect opportunity to ride down into the Horse Stealers’ lands and burn their cities behind them while their own warriors were off battling their Bloody Sword enemies. He’d been right there, poised to carry through the attack, with plenty of reinforcements available to follow his original spearhead down The Gullet. He could have destroyed “Prince” Bahnak’s alliance, prevented the Phrobus-damned abortion of a unified hradani “Confederation” on the Wind Plain’s very flank before it even began, and he’d let eighty of the barbarians stop him! And, even worse in some ways, he’d actually accepted the blasphemous claim that Tomanāk Orfro could conceivably have chosen a hradani as one of His champions! For that matter, he’d accepted Wencit of RÅ«m’s preposterous lie that it was the Sothōii who’d begun the millennium and more of bitter, brutal warfare between themselves and the hradani.

The court faction which had been most concerned about the possibility of a unified hradani realm had been furious, nor had they been alone in that. Even some of those who’d been prepared to take a wait-and-see attitude had been shocked — and more than a little frightened, whether they’d wanted to admit it or not — by the idea that Tellian had actually connived to create the “Northern Confederation.” And the notion that he should recognize the champion status of a Horse Stealer hradani, the most hated and reviled of all the hradani clans, had triggered an upsurge of bitter anger. Cassan would never be able to be certain, but he strongly suspected that only Prince Yurokhas’ support for Tellian — and his acceptance that Tomanāk might actually have been so insane as to take a hradani as His champion — had motivated Markhos to resist the furious demands that Tellian be stripped of his membership on the Great Council. Indeed, there’d been demands that he be stripped of his barony and lord wardenship, as well.

Yet even though Markhos had stopped short of accepting those demands, Cassan had known how thin the ice had become under Tellian’s feet, and he’d been confident that this time he could finish off his rival’s influence in Sothōfalas once and for all.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t worked out that way. That his strategy to undermine Tellian’s rule with a series of safely deniable attacks on Festian of Glanharrow had collapsed would have been bad enough, but then that bastard Bahzell had been given credit for saving the tattered remnants of the Warm Springs courser herd and actually going on to defeat a pack of demons set upon the coursers by none other than Krahana herself! Cassan still found that tale too ridiculous to accept. He was willing to admit Bahzell might have had something to do with rescuing the surviving coursers — certainly something had inspired them to accept him as a wind rider, which was almost as blasphemous as the idea that he might actually be a champion — but Cassan Axehammer would believe Tomanāk had accepted Bahzell Bahnakson as one of His champions when Tomanāk turned up in person in his own great hall to tell him so!

And then, as if that hadn’t been enough, that meddlesome, common-born bitch Kaeritha Seldansdaughter had seen fit to interfere in the Kingdom’s internal affairs, as well. Of course Cassan wouldn’t have wanted someone like ShÄ«gÅ« to succeed in destroying an entire temple of any God of Light, but Lillinara was scarcely his favorite deity, either. If it had had to happen to someone’s temple, he would have managed to bear up under the knowledge that it had been Hers. And as for the war maids –! Anything that got rid of those unnatural bitches once and for all couldn’t be all bad.

King Markhos appeared to see things differently, however. Worse, he’d sent his accursed magi to investigate Tellian’s and Kaeritha’s claims.

Personally, Cassan had never trusted the magi, anyway. Oh, he knew all about their precious Oath of Semkirk and how it bound all of them to use their powers only within the law…and as far as he was concerned, that and a silver kormak would get him a cup of hot chocolate. No one with the unnatural powers the magi claimed could be trusted. If for no other reason, how could anyone but the magi themselves verify that they were telling the truth about what they did — or didn’t — do with those powers of theirs? And the last thing he wanted was anyone peering around inside his head, which was why he always wore the amulet that blocked any mage from doing just that. Fortunately, at least some people had naturally strong blocks which made them all but impossible to read without a major — and obvious — effort (assuming the magi were telling the truth about their abilities, at least), and since his amulet simply duplicated that natural block, its protection hadn’t triggered any alarms in and of itself.

That had prevented the magi from denouncing him as part of the “plot” against Tellian. But it hadn’t prevented them from uncovering almost all of the minor lords warden who’d been involved, and one of them — Saratic Redhelm of Golden Vale — had been Cassan’s own vassal and distant kinsman. That had almost proved disastrous, but Cassan had installed enough layers of insulation between him and Saratic to at least confuse the issue. The danger that Saratic might have chosen to trade his testimony against Cassan for some sort of clemency, or even outright immunity, from the Crown had presented itself…but only until Darnas Warshoe, that useful armsman, saw to it that Saratic suffered an accident.

And given what Saratic had been up to, at least a sizable minority of the Kingdom’s nobles strongly suspected Tellian had been behind that “accident,” not Cassan. It wasn’t the sort of thing Tellian normally did, but mercenaries hired by another Sothōii noble didn’t normally try to kill Tellian’s nephew and heir-adoptive, either. There were some provocations no one could allow to pass unanswered.

Cassan doubted anyone in the entire Kingdom believed he hadn’t been behind the raids, yet with Saratic’s death, there’d been no proof, and not even an irate monarch proceeded against one of the four most powerful nobles of his realm without incontrovertible proof. Not openly, at any rate. Still, whatever anyone else might think, King Markhos obviously knew who’d instigated it all, and he’d made his displeasure clear by stripping Golden Vale from the South Riding and incorporating it into Tellian’s West Riding…officially as a form of reparations for Saratic’s actions, although everyone knew whose wrist he’d actually been smacking. Nor had he stopped there.

He’d summarily dismissed Garthmahn Ironhelm, Lord Warden of Chersa, who’d been his Prime Councilor — and Cassan’s firm ally — for over ten years. And he’d also informed Cassan in a cold, painful personal interview that he himself would be unwelcome in Sothōfalas for the next year or two. The King had stopped short of expelling Cassan formally from the Great Council, yet Ironhelm’s dismissal and his own banishment from Sothōfalas, however temporary it might be, had reduced his web of alliances and influence to tatters. He’d only recently begun putting those alliances back together, and they remained a ghost of what they had been.

Which was, after all, one of the reasons Yeraghor had become even more vital to all of his future plans.

“You’re right, of course, Yeraghor,” he said finally. “And it’s not just the revenues Tellian’s looking at, either. There’s the correspondence from Macebearer, as well. This isn’t just about money. Tellian’s climbing deeper and deeper into bed with the Axemen and that bastard Bahnak. He’s not only going to drag the entire Kingdom into actually endorsing Bahnak’s rule, but he’s going to get our foreign policy tied directly to Dwarvenhame! And when the dust settles, he’s going to be the real power broker here on the Wind Plain. Don’t think for a minute that that isn’t exactly what he has in mind in the long run, and when he gets it, don’t think he’s going to forget anyone who’s ever done him an injury, either.”

He looked across the table into Yeraghor’s eyes, and his own were grim.

“He can rhapsodize about how much good this is going to do our economy, but Shaftmaster and Macebearer are blind, drooling idiots if they can’t see the downside! And even if they don’t think it’s a downside for the rest of the Kingdom, it’s damned well going to be one for us. Assuming, of course” — he smiled thinly — “that we were so foolish as to let Tellian and Bahnak get away with it.”