War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 43

“I really wish you wouldn’t risk him quite so readily, Milord,” Sir Jerhas said. Tellian looked at him, and the Prime Councilor shrugged. “I understand your thinking, and I won’t say you’re wrong, but the lad’s not even married yet.” Sir Jerhas shook his head. “It was difficult enough getting the Council to settle the succession on him in the first place.” There might have been a faint flicker of distaste in his eyes for the circumstances which had made that Council decision necessary, but no trace of it touched his voice as he continued. “If something happens to him before he produces an heir of his own, all of that work will have been for nothing in the end.”

“I appreciate that,” Tellian replied after a moment. His own tone was level, and he held Sir Jerhas’ gaze with his own for just a moment before he continued. “I appreciate it, and I’ve pointed out to him that it’s past time he be thinking about that. Hanatha…has some thoughts on the subject, as well. I think they’re very good thoughts, as a matter of fact, but the truth is that there’s no wife officially on the horizon for him yet, and in the meantime, someone needs to lead my armsmen and lords warden when I can’t. Besides, he’s already demonstrated his ability. He’s not simply my heir; he’s also one of my two or three best field commanders.”

Sir Jerhas nodded in unhappy acknowledgment. Not necessarily agreement, Bahzell thought, but in acceptance. No one needed to explain to the Prime Councilor how important it was for any baron’s heir, especially an heir-adoptive like Trianal, to prove his mettle in the eyes of the fighting men sworn to his service. Tellian couldn’t keep Trianal home if he himself wasn’t to take the field, not without some of his retainers’ questioning his own confidence in the youngster’s capabilities.

That much, Sir Jerhas understood perfectly. However little he might like the thought of exposing Trianal — and, through him, the security of the West Riding’s succession — to that sort of danger, it came with the young man’s position and duties. But Bahzell also suspected the Prime Councilor was less than delighted with Tellian’s failure to demand Trianal settle down and choose a wife. Or, for that matter, to select a bride for him. That was the way it was supposed to work among the great Sothōii houses, after all. Yet Tellian’s tone made it obvious that whatever “thoughts” Hanatha might be having, he had no intention of forcing the issue any time soon, despite the near-disastrous consequences of his own…lack of marital resolution.

More than one of King Markhos’ nobles blamed Tellian’s soft heartedness for the fact that Balthar had ever required an heir-adoptive. In their opinion, Tellian should never have settled for a single girl child in the first place! No one blamed Baroness Hanatha for the riding accident which had left her unable to bear additional children, but her barrenness would have constituted a perfectly acceptable cause for him to set her aside and remarry. Indeed, given who he was and how much depended upon Balthar’s succession, it had been his duty to remarry. No one could have faulted him for it, nor would any dishonor have attached to Hanatha, under the circumstances, and two or three healthy sons would have obviated the entire mess that disgraceful hoyden Leeana had left in her wake when she scandalized the entire Kingdom by running off to the war maids.

Bahzell was reasonably confident Sir Jerhas tended to agree with those critics. He’d never said so, not in so many words, and the hradani was certain he never would. Yet there was no escaping the Prime Councilor’s basic conservatism, and he would vastly have preferred for Trianal to be settled in a nice, stable, carefully arranged marriage — preferably one which constituted a solid political alliance — rather than see yet another Baron of Balthar sliding off into Tellian and Hanatha’s mushy-minded romanticism. That sort of thing might make for good bard’s tales, but it was also the sort of thing that gave prime councilors sleepless nights.

“Well, I’ll want to discuss exactly what you and Tellian — and Prince Bahzell’s father, of course — have in mind for the campaign,” Yurokhas told Vaijon. “My brother’s going to want a report as soon as I can put one together for him.”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Vaijon gave Yurokhas a polite half-bow across the table.

All of them understood that Yurokhas was the Crown’s true go-between. Sir Jerhas’ presence made it abundantly clear King Markhos continued to support both the Derm Canal and Tellian’s increasingly close relationship with Prince Bahnak’s Confederation, but Sir Jerhas was only his Prime Councilor. In a pinch — as Sir Jerhas understood perfectly well — he could be dismissed, banished back to Amber Grass in official disgrace, if it became politically expedient to do so. In fact, Bahzell suspected the old man would probably prefer to return to his own estates. Life would certainly be simpler then, and he wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about whether any of Cassan’s assassins might be looking his way, as well as Tellian’s.

Yet Markhos himself could have only the slightest personal contact with Bahzell or any other hradani envoy. The delicate balance of factions and attitudes among his own nobility precluded anything closer, and probably would for years to come. It was inconvenient, but there was no point pretending it could be any other way. Yurokhas, on the other hand, was not only a wind rider — like Bahzell — and a devout, well-known follower of Tomanāk — also like Bahzell — but Tellian of Balthar’s foster brother, as well. If there was a single high ranking member of the Sothōii nobility who could afford the “contamination” of hobnobbing with Bahzell while simultaneously staying in close touch with Tellian and the King, that person was Prince Yurokhas. One or two of King Markhos’ nobles might be sufficiently irate over Tellian’s unforgivable actions to regard Yurokhas’ ongoing relationship with him with distaste, even anger, but the prince was far too wellborn for anyone to actually say so. And in the meantime, everyone maintained the fiction that Yurokhas’ association with Tellian — and Bahzell — had nothing at all to do with canals, Axemen, hradani kingdoms, or any of the rest of that appalling business. Nobody believed it for a moment, perhaps, but no one dared admit that.

“Should I assume you’ll be taking the Order into the field, as well?” Yurokhas asked Vaijon now.

“I will.” Vaijon’s smile was crooked. “We’re no longer at the point of our lads needing to keep the Baron’s armsmen and Prince Bahnak’s warriors from each other’s throats, but Hurthang tells me we’d probably have something like a mutiny on our hands if we tried to keep them home!” He shook his head. “There are just some things you can’t seem to get a hradani to do, and staying home from something like this is one of them.”

“I’ve come to the shocking conclusion that Sothōii and hradani are even more alike than Wencit’s always insisted they are,” Yurokhas said wryly. “In fact –”

“No,” Tellian said firmly. Yurokhas looked at him, and the baron snorted. “You are not invited, Yurokhas. Norandhor may mean you aren’t the King’s heir any longer, but if anything were to happen to you, it would be just as bad — probably worse! — than having something happen to Trianal. Can you imagine how Cassan and his lot would react if you managed to get yourself killed on the Ghoul Moor fighting alongside hradani as part of this entire plan they’re opposing as a threat to the Kingdom’s very existence?!”

“His Lordship is entirely correct, Your Highness,” Sir Jerhas said with unwonted, decidedly frosty formality. “The very possibility is out of the question!”

Yurokhas looked back and forth between them for a moment, then shrugged.

“Well,” he said mildly, “if that’s the way you both feel about it, I suppose that’s all there is to be said about it. Which means we should probably turn to the rest of the reason for your visit. I assume you have a progress report on the canals and the tunnel, Tellian?”

“I do,” Tellian replied, regarding the prince’s apparent meekness with an air of pronounced suspicion.

“Then I suppose we should go ahead and get started on that,” Yurokhas said equably, and Bahzell hid a smile. He might not yet know Yurokhas as well as Tellian did, but he’d come to know him well enough to understand the baron’s skepticism perfectly.

And to profoundly doubt that the matter of where Prince Yurokhas was going to spend the summer was remotely close to resolved.