War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 42

“I’ll not say it didn’t surprise me, as well,” the hradani confessed. “But the more I thought on it, the more it came to me as how there’s more folk than I can count betwixt here and Bortalik as might just feel the kormaks slipping from their fingers these days. There’s not a Purple Lord ever born, for instance, as wouldn’t cut his own mother’s throat to stop such as the Baron and my Da and old Kilthan are about. And Vaijon” — he flipped his ears at the human champion as he spoke — “and I each questioned the lot of them separately, and more than one time apiece. They’d a mortal lot to say in hopes of avoiding a nasty end on someone’s rope, yet the thing that struck me strongest was every one of them laid to it as how the ‘armsman’ as paid for Tellian’s death ‘let slip’ as how he was in the service of a Sothōii lord. Now, I’m naught but a simple hradani, when all’s said, yet it’s in my mind as how a clumsy fellow might let such as that slip out once or twice, but it’s a true work of art to be ‘accidentally’ telling every single one of the men as you’re sending out to kill the second or third-ranking noble of the entire Kingdom as how it was one of the Kingdom’s other nobles hired them.”

Yurokhas’ eyes narrowed, and Sir Jerhas frowned. The Prime Councilor had been chosen for his office in part because Amber Grass lay in the North Riding, which was traditionally neutral in the struggle between Cassan and Tellian. Following the King’s dismissal of Garthmahn Ironhelm, he’d needed an obviously “neutral” choice, and there were those who’d been inclined to think that was the only reason he’d settled on Sir Jerhas. The new Prime Councilor was a bluff sort of fellow, with little time to waste on things like book learning. He was not, to put it mildly, broadly respected as a scholar, and he wasn’t above being flattered and cajoled by someone who approached him the right way. But he was also personally incorruptible, highly experienced, and one of the shrewdest negotiators Bahzell had ever encountered. Despite his impatience with formal learning and erudition, there was nothing at all wrong with the brain behind those blue eyes of his. And for all of his efforts to dissuade Yurokhas from flinging Cassan’s name about, there was no more doubt in his mind than in the prince’s about where Tellian’s most dangerous enemies were to be found.

“A truly clever conspirator might expect us to think exactly that, Prince Bahzell,” he pointed out after a moment.

“Aye, and so he might.” Bahzell nodded calmly. “Yet truth be told, Sir Jerhas, Cassan’s not so clever as all that.”

The Prime Councilor looked as skeptical as Yurokhas had a moment before, and Bahzell chuckled coldly.

“Don’t you be forgetting who my Da is! If you’re minded to watch a clever conspirator at his trade, you’ll not do better than him. Ruthless, yes — I’ll grant Cassan that. And crooked-minded as Sharnā. But it’s only the power he was born with and the blackhearted greed of him makes him truly dangerous. It’s that as gives him so many others to be hiding behind and using. Aye, and throwing away as soon as ever it suits his needs.” The huge hradani’s expression was grim. “I’ve no use at all, at all, for a man as sets out to betray not only his oaths but all of those as have a right to look to him for justice and protection, and that’s a frame as fits Cassan like a glove. But it’s in my mind he’s not nearly so clever as he’s thinking he is, and it’s that will bring him down in the end.”

Sir Jerhas grimaced. Clearly he wasn’t precisely overjoyed to hear Bahzell predicting Cassan’s ultimate downfall, and in many ways, the hradani couldn’t blame him. Bringing Cassan down, however satisfying and however obvious the rogue baron’s guilt might become, would be a deadly dangerous business. The ties of personal loyalty ran deep among Sothōii; that was one of their greatest strengths. Yet it was one of their greatest weaknesses, as well, for many a lord warden and armsman would consider himself bound by his personal oath of fealty, no matter how great the guilt of the one to whom he’d given it. Cassan and Yeraghor of Ersok had far too many retainers who were likely to feel exactly that way, even in an open confrontation with the Crown, and it hadn’t been that many years since the Sothōii’s most recent “Time of Troubles.”

Which, after all, went a long way towards explaining how cautious King Markhos and his Prime Councilor had to be in their dealings with the emerging alliance of Tellian, Bahnak, and Kilthandahknarthas.

“You may well be right,” Yurokhas growled. “In fact, I hope you are, because the bastard can’t be ‘brought down’ too soon for me!”

The prince’s sincerity was obvious, and Sir Jerhas’ grimace became a genuine wince.

“I’d like to see him a foot or so shorter, myself, Your Highness,” Tellian observed mildly. “In fact, at the moment, with all due respect for Bahzell and Vaijon’s opinion as to who hired this particular lot of assassins, I probably have even more motivation than you do. Having said that, however, I’m not so certain your brother would thank you for saying that where anyone else might hear you. For that matter, I don’t think you’re doing Sir Jerhas’ peace of mind any great favor even now.”

Yurokhas looked at him for a moment, then gave himself a shake and barked another laugh.

“You’re right, of course, Brother,” he said, addressing Tellian not simply as one wind rider to another but as the long-ago youth who’d been fostered by Tellian’s father in Balthar. “I never was exactly noted for my patience, was I?”

“No, not so much,” Tellian agreed in a judicious tone. Then he chuckled and smacked the prince gently on the shoulder. “On the other hand, much as I would never have admitted it to you when you were a scrubby young terror, all elbows and knees, Your Highness, you’re not exactly the most thick-witted fellow I’ve ever known, either.”

“Spare my blushes,” Yurokhas snorted with a smile, and Bahzell wondered how many other Sothōii — if any — could have spoken to the prince that way.

Yurokhas stood for a moment, looking back and forth between Sir Jerhas, Tellian, and Bahzell, then gave himself another shake and drew a deep breath.

“Well,” he said briskly, “now that I’ve had the opportunity to get all that out of my system, I suppose it’s time we got down to business.”

“By all means, Your Highness,” Sir Jerhas said, bowing his guests towards the large, polished table set to catch the breeze billowing the silk hangings as it swept in off the balcony.

It would, perhaps, have been unfair to call the Prime Councilor’s expression relieved at the prince’s willingness to step back from his anger at Cassan, but it would have been headed in the right direction, Bahzell thought as he settled somewhat gingerly into his own chair. It creaked alarmingly under him, but it didn’t collapse.

Immediately, at least.

“Should I assume the fact that you came along for the trip indicates you and Tellian have settled your plans for the summer well enough to discuss them with me, Sir Vaijon?” Yurokhas asked once they were all seated, and Vaijon shrugged slightly.

“Mostly, Your Highness,” he agreed. “To be honest, I couldn’t actually have told you the real reason for my decision to accompany Bahzell and the Baron this time.” He smiled crookedly. “Tomanāk has a tendency to send us where He needs us without necessarily explaining it all to us ahead of time. Unless I’m badly mistaken, though, this time around it was more to send another healer than another sword.”

“And I’m grateful for it,” Yurokhas said quietly. “But you do have a campaign plan?”

“We do.” Vaijon nodded. “Or the skeleton of one, at any rate. Baron Tellian and I still have to work out the exact number of armsmen he can make available.”

“Under Trianal?” Yurokhas asked, glancing at Tellian, who nodded.