War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 24

“I don’t think He’d mind, Milord,” Vaijon said dryly, “and I know neither Bahzell nor I would object to spending four or five minutes taking care of it. So perhaps you should balance your laudable determination not to pester Tomanāk over ‘something that minor’ against the fact that we’re both going to be just about insufferable if you don’t let us take care of it and it gets worse again.”

“I think you’d better surrender while the surrendering is good, Uncle,” Sir Trianal Bowmaster said, smiling as he crossed the council chamber from his place by the windows and held out his own arm to Vaijon. “I’ve certainly been suggesting the same thing to you long enough, and so has Aunt Hanatha.”

“And why doesn’t one of you just go ahead and say ‘You’re not as young as you used to be and you need looking after, Tellian’?” Tellian demanded acidly.

“Because we’re thinking as how it would only be making you stubborner still?” Bahzell suggested in an innocent tone, and despite himself, Tellian laughed.

“Seriously,” Vaijon said, “you ought to let us get rid of it for you, Milord. Perhaps it is only a minor inconvenience, but there’s no point in your putting up with it, and I agree with Bahzell. There are enough people who wish you ill for something that just keeps hanging on this way to make me unhappy. I’m not trying to encourage you to look for assassins under your bed every night, but we know for a fact that the Dark doesn’t much care for you. You’re probably right that it’s nothing more than a simple cough…but you might not be, too, and it would make all of us feel a lot better if it went away. Especially if you’re going to be traveling to Sothōfalas with Bahzell and Brandark and this damned rain hangs on the way it looks like doing. The last thing we need is for you to come down with something like you had last winter when you need to be on your toes dealing with Lord Amber Grass and Prince Yurokhas.”

Tellian glowered at him for a moment, then sighed and shook his head.

“All right. All right!” He shook his head again. “I yield. I still think you’re all worrying like a batch of mother hens, but I can see I’m not going to get any rest until I do it your way.”

“And why you couldn’t have been realizing that a week ago is a sad puzzle to me,” Bahzell told him with a slow smile.

“Probably because I’m getting so old, frail, and senile,” Tellian replied darkly, then pointed at the chairs around the table. “And I suppose we should all sit back down before my aged knees collapse and I fall down in a drooling heap.”

The others all laughed, although at forty-six, Bahzell was actually a few months older than the baron. On the other hand, he was also a hradani, and hradani routinely lived two hundred years or more, assuming they managed to avoid death by violence. That made him a very young man by his own people’s standards. Indeed, he was little more than a stripling, younger even than Tirinal of Balthar, by hradani reckoning.

They settled themselves around the conference table and Trianal poured a big, steaming cup of tea and passed it to Vaijon.

“This wouldn’t be more of that vile morning moss tea, would it?” the champion asked, sniffing the fragrant steam suspiciously.

“Not in Hill Guard,” Tellian reassured him. “Would you like me to drink some first to reassure you?”

“That won’t be necessary, Milord,” Vaijon said. “Unlike some of the people sitting around this table, I don’t think you’d deliberately set out to poison an innocent and unsuspecting man.”

“You’ve a way of holding grudges, don’t you just?” Bahzell observed. “We told you as how it would relieve your cramps, and so it did, didn’t it?”

“That’s your story, and you’re sticking to it, I see.” Vaijon sipped cautiously, then smiled and drank more deeply. “Thank you, Milord,” he said. “It’s good.”

“You’re welcome.” Tellian leaned back in his chair, covering his mouth as he coughed again, and Trianal poured him a cup and slid it across to him. The baron grimaced, but he also drank dutifully, then raised both eyebrows at his nephew. “Satisfied?”

“For now,” Trianal replied, and Tellian snorted.

“Well, pour yourself some,” he directed sternly. “I wasn’t the one running around out in the rain without even a doublet, now was I?”

Trianal smiled and shook his head. But he also poured himself a cup obediently and sipped from it.

“I trust you’re satisfied now, Uncle?” he asked, and Tellian chuckled.

“For now,” he said, drinking some more of his own tea, and then cocked his head at Vaijon.

“Prince Bahnak asked me to give you his greetings,” Vaijon said, responding to the silent invitation to begin. “And Princess Arthanal’s sent along that pillowcase she’s been embroidering for Baroness Hanatha. I understand this one completes the entire set.”

“Your mother’s skill with a needle never ceases to amaze me, Bahzell,” Tellian said with simple sincerity, “although how she finds the time to use it with everything she and your father have on their plates amazes me even more. Please tell her how much Hanatha and I appreciate the gift…and the thought that went into it, even more.”

“I will that,” Bahzell assured him. “I’m thinking as how that’s not all Father had to be saying, though.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Vaijon agreed. “A messenger came in from Kilthan just before I left Hurgrum. It seems Kilthan’s agents are reporting that the Purple Lords are finally waking up, and they don’t much like what they’re hearing.”

“My heart bleeds for them,” Tellian said sardonically.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to waste much sympathy on them, Milord. But Kilthan’s of the opinion they might try to do something to scuttle the entire project.”

“Like what?” Trianal asked. At twenty-seven, Tellian’s nephew was a broad shouldered, solidly built young man. He was also an inch shorter than Brandark, making him the shortest person in the room, as well as the youngest, but there was nothing hesitant about his manner. “They don’t exactly have an army they could send up this way — or not one worth a solitary damn, at any rate.” He snorted contemptuously. “And even if they had one, we are just a bit too far from their frontiers for that,” he added.

“No, they can’t get at us with troops, even assuming they had an army used to doing anything more strenuous than terrorizing ‘uppity’ peasants, but they do have influence,” his uncle pointed out, never looking away from Vaijon. “That’s what Kilthan’s thinking about, isn’t it?”

“He and Prince Bahnak both,” Vaijon confirmed with a nod. “Mind you, I don’t think the Purple Lords would be above trying to provoke some sort of more…direct action. I imagine the possibility of using the River Brigands as catspaws has to’ve crossed their brains, for example. It’s the sort of idea that would appeal to them. But I think they’re more concerned about behind the scenes efforts in Sothōfalas itself, Milord.”

“Where Cassan and Yeraghor would just love to help them succeed,” Tellian said sourly.

“Something along that line, yes.” Vaijon nodded again.

“Which would be lending some added point to our visit,” Bahzell observed.

“Perhaps. No, probably,” Tellian said. “Not that Cassan and Yeraghor need any outside encouragement to do anything they can to break our knees for us.”

“From the construction side, I’d say it’s really too late for them to stop you, Milord,” Brandark put in.

“It’s never too late for that, Brandark,” Tellian replied. “If the faction that’s most worried about Prince Bahnak’s power base had its way, the King would lead an army down the Escarpment, burn Hurgrum and the rest of the Confederation to the ground, and take the entire project over in the Crown’s name. I suspect at least half of them have to be bright enough to figure out how Kilthan would react to that, even assuming Prince Bahnak didn’t hand us our heads — which I rather suspect he would — but that wouldn’t stop them from proposing it for a moment. And if they didn’t get it, their fallback position would be to insist that King Markhos embargo any trade between the Confederation and the Kingdom. For that matter, some of them are going to argue that the canals and the tunnel are only going to increase the Empire of the Axe’s ‘already disproportionate influence’ in the Kingdom’s politics and policy.”

“It’s not something they’ll find simple to be stuffing back into the bottle,” Bahzell rumbled, “which isn’t to say as how they won’t try to do just that. And I’m thinking they’ve more than enough ways to be causing us grief if it should happen they take it into their heads to be doing it.”

“Which is why you and I are going to Sothōfalas,” Tellian agreed, then looked back at the window at the steady rain and grimaced. “Not that I’m really looking forward to the trip.”

“Ah, but it could be worse,” Brandark comforted him. “You could be headed in the opposite direction.”

“Not a feeble and ancient wreck like myself.” Tellian coughed again, quite a bit more dramatically than strictly necessary. “That’s a job for a younger — and more waterproof — man.”

“You’re so good to me, Uncle,” Trianal said dryly, and Tellian chuckled and reached across the table to clasp his nephew’s shoulder.