War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 39

Chapter Eleven

Bahzell leaned one shoulder against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, and whistled tunelessly as he gazed out from the balcony across the roofs and busy streets of Sothōfalas. They were worth gazing at, although they couldn’t hold a candle to Belhadan or Axe Hallow. On the other hand, those were Axeman cities, with dwarvish engineering readily available and located in a far more densely populated land.

Sothōfalas was substantially smaller than Axe Hallow, although it actually covered a greater area than Belhadan, he estimated. But the dwarven sarthnaisks who’d contributed to Belhadan’s construction had buried at least half of that city’s housing, shops, and warehouses in the solid stone of its mountainous terrain. Sothōfalas sprawled out in every direction from the towering battlements of King Markhos’ great fortress of Sothōkarnas, and beyond the rib of granite which had broken the Wind Plain’s surface like a broaching whale to serve as Sothōkarnas’ foundation, the terrain was flat as a griddle on either side of the Pardahn River.

The Pardahn, yet another of the mighty Spear River’s countless tributaries, wasn’t all that much of a river, but it did offer the Sothōii capital a reliable source of water. And it was deep enough for barge traffic, he thought, watching a horse-drawn barge creeping towards the city. Hradani eyes were much better than human ones, and Bahzell could easily make out the crossed battleaxe and warhammer of Frahmahn flying from the stumpy flagstaff on the vessel’s stern. It was a lengthy haul from Nachfalas to Sothōfalas, but he didn’t doubt Cassan was going to show a tidy profit on the barge’s cargo.

For now, at least, he told himself with grim satisfaction, and let his eyes sweep back across the steeply pitched, brightly colored roofs of Sothōfalas. They built in stone or brick, the Sothōii, and they burned coal in winter. There wasn’t that much wood here on the Wind Plain, and what there was of it was far too precious to be used as a mere building material or fuel. In that respect, they really did have quite a bit in common with the subterranean cities of Dwarvenhame, he reflected. And, even more than his own people, they built thick walls, too, fit to stand the blasts of the far northern winter even at the Wind Plain’s altitude and thick enough to shed the sometimes fierce heat of the brief northern summer, as well. There were few exterior windows, however, and all of the larger, more prosperous homes clustered around his present vantage point had obviously been designed with an eye towards defense, even here in the very heart of the Kingdom’s capital. It was a reminder that feuds between the great Sothōii clans could be just as bloody as among Bahzell’s own people, but it was more than that, as well. Without handy terrain features, the Sothōii had deliberately constructed defensive strong points within their city. At least two thirds of Sothōfalas’ present area lay beyond the old city walls, which had last been extended more than two generations ago…and whose maintenance was scarcely the first charge on the Exchequer. That faintly offended Bahzell’s sense of the way things ought to be, but stone walls had never been the Sothōii idea of a proper defense, and the capital was far from unguarded. Indeed, if a hostile army ever managed to reach it at all — an almost insuperable challenge, given what Sothōii light cavalry and wind riders would do to any invader here on their home ground — those fortified villas would make Sothōfalas a tougher nut to crack than it might expect, he thought.

Not that the city was any sort of grim, gray fortress. Its streets were as clean and well kept as any Axeman town might boast, and streamers, pennants, and wind-tube banners flew from the towers of Sothōkarnas. The great royal standard which indicated the King was in residence snapped and cracked above its central keep, and every manor in the city appeared to sport the brave banners of whatever noble house had built them, as well. Nor was that the city’s only color. The Sothōii didn’t favor the bas relief sculptures and intricate mosaics Axeman architects incorporated into their public buildings, but the walls of Sothōfalas’ buildings were bright with painted frescoes and murals. Those on more public buildings tended to reflect each structure’s function, but the competition between private homes was often fierce, and mural painters were both highly prized and lucratively paid. From where he stood, he could see artisans touching up at a dozen or so of those murals, apparently repairing the last of the winter’s ravages. And the streets themselves were full of pedestrians, carts, and — inevitably — mounted riders. The clatter of hooves, the rattle of cart wheels, the buzz of conversation, the cries of vendors and shouts of children…all the vibrant, living noises of the city came to his ears like the music of life.

He’d considered stepping out onto the balcony proper, the better to enjoy its bustling life, but he’d decided against it. He wasn’t the hardest person in the Kingdom for people to recognize, and he and his fellow hradani remained less than fully welcome in the eyes of all too many Sothōii. There was no point calling unnecessary attention to his presence here in the city…and especially not to the fact that he was an honored guest in this particular house. That was why he’d been careful to remain well back, where — hopefully — none of those who continued to cherish less than warm and welcoming thoughts might spy him.

He’d been careful when he first opened the balcony’s glass doors and propped himself here, as well, since the diamond-paned panels looked suspiciously fragile, and he’d had entirely too much experience with furnishings — and buildings — which hadn’t really been intended for a hradani who stood nine inches over seven feet to go about leaning on them. He’d tested the strength of the frame with a thoughtful expression before satisfying himself it was truly up to his weight, studiously ignoring the obvious amusement of his two companions while he did so.

< They’re only jealous of your noble stature, > Walsharno assured him in the back of his brain, speaking from the enormous, spotless stable appended to the mansion. < We coursers get that sort of thing from the lesser cousins all the time. And, of course, I understand that some of us actually get it from our…less well grown fellow coursers upon occasion, as well. >

< Do they now? > Bahzell responded silently, continuing to whistle. < And who might it be as hears such a thing from such as, say, Gayrhalan? >

< I’m sure I wouldn’t know, > Walsharno replied primly, and Bahzell chuckled.

“Dathgar says you and Walsharno are being full of yourselves again,” Tellian Bowmaster remarked from behind him. Bahzell stopped whistling and glanced over his shoulder at the baron, ears cocked interrogatively, and Tellian chuckled. “Walsharno’s mind voice is a little stronger than other coursers’, you know. And, ah, Dathgar’s been around longer than he has and developed a bit better ‘hearing.’ If you two really don’t want him eavesdropping, Walsharno’s going to have to learn not to shout when the two of you aren’t nose-to-nose.”

< Shout, is it? > Walsharno demanded indignantly. < It’s no more than a…firmly voiced discussion! > There was a brief pause. Then: < And I don’t recall asking for your opinion, either, Dathgar! >

Tellian’s eyes twinkled, and he shook his head.

“Dathgar just suggested that perhaps Walsharno thinks it’s only a ‘firmly voiced discussion’ because of the volume you two normally need to get through one another’s thick skulls.”

“I’m thinking you and your four-footed friend need to be finding yourselves another insult,” Bahzell said genially. “Mind, I’ll not say as how either of us are after having the very thinnest skulls in the whole wide world, but it’s in my mind as how someone who’s of a truly inventive turn of phrase could be coming up with something a mite fresher.”

“We can only do our humble best in Brandark’s absence,” Tellian replied with an apologetic air.

“Besides,” Vaijon put in, looking up from his book in the chair he’d tilted back against one of the handsomely decorated chamber’s walls, “we’ve found the simplest insults are best. You seem to miss the more complicated ones every so often.”