War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 33

Chapter Nine

Well, that’s disappointing, and in more ways than one, Master Varnaythus thought glumly, gazing into his gramerhain as a huge, bloodstained bay courser rolled very, very cautiously off of Tellian Bowmaster.

The courser took three tries to make it back to his feet, and two more coursers moved in on either side, leaning their shoulders against him to help him stay there. It was obvious he needed the help, but he stood there stubbornly, refusing to move until Tellian had been helped back to his feet, as well. The baron was pale, clearly at least as shaky as his courser and just as soaked with blood, but he leaned on Bahzell Bahnakson’s arm and reached up to caress the courser’s ears.

Dathgar lowered his head, resting his nose gently, gently on his rider’s shoulder, and Tellian threw both arms around his neck, leaning into him. It was all very touching, Varnaythus thought with a sour expression, but it would have been ever so much more satisfactory if at least one of them had been standing disconsolately over the other’s dead body.

And we came so close to getting both of them, that’s what really pisses me off. He shook his head. I’d almost rather have missed them completely than to have come that close and fallen short! Damn it, I thought Salgahn was better than that!

He wasn’t really being fair, and he knew it. He also didn’t care. He sat back, arms folded, glowering at the gramerhain as Bahzell left Tellian to Dathgar while he joined Vaijon in seeing to the other wounded. Without Salgahn, Arthnar Fire Oar’s assassins would never have come as near to successes they had, and he knew it. For that matter, he hadn’t really expected he and the dog brother would be able to talk the River Brigands’ warlord into even making the attempt! It had been worth suggesting to both him and Cassan, though, and no doubt the sizable bag of gold which had passed from the South Riding to Krelik had quite a bit to do with the fact that Arthnar had been willing to run the risk.

Well, that and the fact that he’d been able to hire his killers without their ever realizing who was actually paying them.

That was deft of him, Varnaythus acknowledged grudgingly. And he thought of that part without even any prompting from Salgahn. Of course, Cassan may not think it was all that clever once Bahzell gets around to interrogating his prisoners.

The wizard had presented Salgahn to Fire Oar as a Sothōii renegade who’d been sufficiently familiar with Tellian’s movements and habits to provide the sort of inside information that might make a successful assassination possible. As he’d hoped, that had inspired Arthnar to use Salgahn to organize the attempt itself, but he hadn’t expected the twist Arthnar had come up with. Arthnar himself had retained his anonymity as their ultimate employer, since it would have struck any interrogator as highly suspicious, in the unfortunately probable event that any of the assassins were taken alive, if the assassins’ ultimate paymaster hadn’t concealed his identity. But he’d instructed Salgahn to emphasize his Sothōii accent when he recruited them…and to casually “let fall” the fact that he was in the service of an undisclosed Sothōii noble. Salgahn had never actually said he was working for Cassan or Yeraghor, of course, but assuming Tellian followed up on what the surviving would-be assassins could tell him, there wasn’t much question who he was going to end up blaming for it. And Cassan could hardly argue that it had been Fire Oar, not him, without facing the embarrassing question of just how he knew it had been Fire Oar.

Not too shabby, Varnaythus admitted. Get paid by someone to be his deniable assassin, then avoid drawing suspicion yourself by arranging things so that the fellow who paid you is the one people are most likely to suspect! I think I may have to revise my estimate of Arthnar’s capabilities upward. And however pissed off I am, I also have to admit he came closer to getting Tellian than anyone else has! Of course, a lot of that was due to Salgahn. Too bad he won’t be around to make any other attempts. He shook his head. I’m beginning to understand why the dog brothers are so reluctant to go after Bahzell, given how uniformly fatal their failures have been so far. Who would have thought even Bahzell could throw a dagger that far and that accurately with his off hand? But, damn it, I really thought this time he was going to pull it off!

The truth was, the wizard thought, blanking his gramerhain with an impatient wave, that if it hadn’t been for the presence of not simply one, but no less than three champions of Tomanāk, either Tellian or Dathgar would definitely be dead. And if one of Salgahn’s men had managed to get an arrow or two into Bahzell or Vaijon — or even Bahzell’s Phrobus-damned courser! — Varnaythus would have counted the operation a resounding success, despite the dog brother’s spectacular demise.

But they hadn’t, and it wasn’t, which turned the attempt into an equally resounding failure. Although, now that he thought about it, increasing Tellian’s suspicions of Cassan would probably be worthwhile in its own right. After all, it wasn’t that the Dark Gods actually needed Cassan to win; they only needed him to destroy the Kingdom’s cohesion trying to win. In fact, it would actually suit them even better to see the entire Kingdom dissolve into something like that interminable bloodletting in Ferenmoss. Twenty or thirty years of civil war, preferably with enough attention diverted to break up Prince Bahnak’s experiment in hradani unity, would be just about perfect from his Lady’s perspective.

Well, since you never expected them to succeed in the first place, at least the fact that they didn’t hasn’t dislocated any of your own plans, he told himself as philosophically as he could. And you should probably make sure Cassan finds out about this as soon as you can do it without raising any suspicions about just how you learned about Arthnar’s failure that quickly. Not that a little delay couldn’t be useful. He smiled unpleasantly. After all, it’ll give you more time to decide exactly how you want to let Cassan know about Arthnar’s…misdirection. It never hurts to add a bit of salt to the wound when it comes to sowing dissension, now does it?

* * *

< So there you are…at last, > Walsharno said as Bahzell Bahnakson stepped out of the village inn’s back door. A cool, still dawn drifted under the towering oak which shaded the inn, and the hradani stretched hugely, foxlike ears half-flattened while he yawned, as the courser ambled over to greet him.

“And a good morning to you, too,” Bahzell said, recovering from his yawn and reaching out to rub Walsharno’s nose. “I’m hoping you had a restful evening?”

< It’s a hard, hard life, > Walsharno said mournfully, raising his head to lip playfully at the hradani’s ears. < Some people get nice, snug roofs overhead, and other people get left out in the freezing cold all night long. >

“Freezing is it, now?”

Sunlight was already slanting golden shafts through the leaves overhead, promising plenty of warmth to come, and Bahzell chuckled and patted the side of Walsharno’s neck.

< Well, it could have been. In fact, it could have been raining or snowing for all you’d know about it, and if it had, I still would’ve been outside in it! > Walsharno returned with spirit. < It’s not like I would’ve fitted into that wretched little stable, at any rate! >

“And no more did I fit into that ‘wretched little’ bed,” Bahzell pointed out. “It’s a hard floor that bedchamber has!”

He reached back to knead the small of his back, and someone laughed behind him. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder, and smiled as Hathan Shieldarm joined him and Walsharno.