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STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jun 17, 2012 9:10 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 40

"Oh! That was a clean hit!" Tellian congratulated, and Vaijon nodded in acknowledgment with a suitably modest expression.

"Aye, so it was," Bahzell agreed, glancing at the younger champion.

Vaijon grinned at him, and the hradani shook his head. His human friend had reverted -- partly, at least -- to the Vaijon he'd first met in Belhadan. He was never going to attain such heights of magnificence again, thank Tomanāk, but he'd definitely turned his regular attire up a notch for the occasion. The plain woolen surcoat he'd adopted for normal wear had been replaced with one of green silk, glittering with genuine gold bullion, and the spurs on the glistening black boots stretched out before him as he lounged inelegantly on the base of his spine in the comfortable (and expensive) chair gleamed with silver inlay.

"Of course," Bahzell continued, "while I've no choice but to admit it's true as death hradani can be a mite slow noticing as how someone's trying to get through to them, I'm thinking someone as lives in a glass house might be a mite careful how he lobs cobblestones about. It's in my mind as how I recall a young Axeman popinjay as was a bit behind hand himself when it came time to be listening to others."

"Ouch!" Tellian's smile turned into a huge grin, and he shook his head wryly. "I'd say you're playing with fire today, Vaijon!"

"If I were minded to be bringing up people who deliberately did their dead level best to shove their fingers into their long, hairy ears to avoid hearing someone rather than simply being…too preoccupied to notice someone trying to get their attention, I would undoubtedly respond in kind," Vaijon observed, then sighed. "That would be conduct unbecoming a champion of Tomanāk, however. Besides, it would be taking unfair advantage of someone whose more ancient -- uh, excuse me, I meant more senior -- mental processes have reduced him to bringing up something that happened seven years ago in an effort to divert attention from the sad decay of his own acuity in his declining years."

"Oh ho!" Bahzell laughed. "That's cost you an ally or two, I'm thinking!" He twitched his ears impudently in Tellian's direction, and Vaijon glanced at the baron, who was regarding him with a distinctly beady eye.

"'Declining years'?" Tellian repeated. "Are you sure that's the way you want to describe someone all of three months older than I am? And a hradani, to boot? Unless I'm mistaken, Bahzell is actually considerably younger for his people than you are for ours."

"Perhaps I should re-think that particular, possibly unfortunate choice of words," Vaijon replied. "It does seem to imply I was ascribing Bahzell's less than blindingly fast thought processes to the inevitable deterioration of age, which couldn't have been farther from my intent. After all, it would have been disrespectful for someone as youthful as myself to make such an…indelicate observation about one of my elders. Either of my elders."

"If you grab his shoulders, I'll grab his ankles, and I'm sure between the two of us doddering old wrecks, we can toss him off the balcony," Tellian said.

"Tempting as the thought might be, I'm thinking as how it's a nasty mess we'd make in Sir Jerhas' courtyard," Bahzell replied. "Come to that, there's no need. It's a long journey back to Hill Guard, and no knowing what sort of mischief might be befalling a fellow out on the high road and all. Indeed, we've but to ask, and it's certain I am Dathgar and Walsharno betwixt them could manage to tread on him just a bit."

"I'm sure they could," Tellian said, but his smile had faded. His expression was much more sober as he gazed at both the champions, and Bahzell grimaced slightly.

"It may be as how my brain is slowing a mite," he rumbled. "I'd no mind to recall such as that to you, Tellian."

"I know." Tellian shook his head quickly, one hand just brushing his chest where the arrowheads had driven into him. "And I should have listened to the two of you -- Tomanāk! The four of you! -- and gone ahead and worn the damned armor."

< Eight, actually, but who's counting? > Walsharno observed, loudly enough Bahzell knew he was making certain Dathgar could hear him and relay to Tellian. < I make it you, me, Brandark, Vaijon, Hathan, Gayrhalan, Dathgar, and -- especially! -- Baroness Hanatha. Did I leave anyone out, Brother? >

"No, you didn't," Tellian said before Bahzell could respond. "And I'm not looking forward to what Hanatha's going to have to say to me when I get home."

His shudder, Bahzell thought, wasn't entirely feigned, and the hradani didn't blame him. Tellian had written his wife the evening immediately after the attack…and her reply letter had arrived via a courier whose lathered horse spoke eloquently of the urgency with which she'd dispatched it. Bahzell didn't doubt for a moment that she intended to rehash her initial reaction to how close Tellian had come to death the instant she got her hands on him once again. Well, not the very first instant; she'd be too busy hugging him until his ribs needed healing all over again before she got around to bashing his head for him the way he deserved. But she'd get around to it in time, and take the time to do it properly when she did.

And a good thing it will be, too, the hradani thought, looking at the man who'd become one of his closest friends. For a man as is one of the canniest, hardest headed fellows I've yet to meet, that was about as addlepated a decision as ever I've seen.

He knew he was being at least a little unfair to Tellian, but he didn't really care. Some people were less entitled than others to take chances with their own safety when they knew they had enemies who would vastly prefer to see them dead.

And then there's the little matter of that cough of his, the hradani thought grimly, glancing at Vaijon. None of the three champions had shared Tomanāk's confirmation about that with the baron yet, but it was going to have to be addressed eventually. On the other hand, if Wencit of Rūm ran true to form, they ought to be seeing him in Hill Guard sometime in the next two or three months. If dark wizardry was indeed to blame for the baron's "illness," it might be best to have the world's last white wizard available for any discussion of how a repeat performance could be avoided.

"I got another letter from her yesterday, you know," Tellian said after a moment, and rolled his eyes.

"Did you now? And should we be taking it she's still a mite put out with you?" Bahzell inquired genially

"You could put it that way, I suppose. Although, to be fair," Tellian's tone was judicious, "that would be a little like saying the Ice Sisters are a 'mite' chilly. In mid-winter."

Both his companions chuckled at that one, since the Ice Sister Lakes spent three months out of the year under frozen sheets of ice several feet thick. Tellian joined their laughter, but then his expression sobered and he sighed.

"What?" Vaijon asked, and the baron shrugged.

"Hanatha got a letter from Leanna. She's coming home for a visit for her birthday."

"A visit, is it?" Bahzell's ears twitched.

"Yes, and I'm going to be stuck here in Sothōfalas!" Tellian's frustration was plain. "I hardly ever get to see her, and now this!"

He glowered, and Bahzell smiled sympathetically as he heard a father's unhappiness. He had no children of his own -- as Tellian had just suggested, he was actually on the young side, by his own people's standards, to even have been thinking about that yet, and champions seldom had the time to even consider parenthood -- but he had nieces and nephews in plenty. Some fathers -- too many of them, in fact, in Bahzell's opinion -- would be less than devastated by missing a visit from a war maid daughter, but Tellian wasn't one of them, and Bahzell understood the baron's disappointment only too well. In fact…

"And did your lady write how long she'll be visiting?" he asked, and Tellian snorted.

"Not long enough, I'm afraid. Or not for me, anyway, if I end up stuck here as long as I'm afraid I'm going to. You should at least have a chance to see her on your way through to Hurgrum, though."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jun 19, 2012 9:12 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 41

"Will I, now? That's good to be hearing." Tellian raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm thinking as how by that time she and your lady will have had time enough and to spare to agree with one another about those as don't wear armor when they ought," Bahzell explained with a smile. "Indeed, it's in my mind as how if I'm truly lucky, they'll've worn themselves down to a nub without the strength to be starting in on me for having let you be doing something so daft as that. Mind, I'm none too optimistic about it, though. Like as not they'll see me as naught but a setting up exercise for Hanatha once she's after getting you home again and safely into arm's reach."

"Um," Tellian considered that for a moment, then grimaced. "I'm afraid you may be onto something there. But I'm going to expect you to protect me from her if you are, you know."

"Ah? And would it happen you could explain just why I might be daft enough to do anything of the sort?"

"It's an ancient Wakūo tradition," Tellian assured him.

"Wakūo, is it?" Bahzell cocked his ears and arched one eyebrow, wondering where Tellian was headed. The fierce nomads who dominated the vast, rolling wastelands beyond the Spearmen's Great Eastern Forest had more traditions, customs, and practices (not to mention rituals, ceremonies, and taboos) than even the dwarves. No one -- not even the Wakūo themselves, he suspected -- could possibly keep all of them straight.

"Of course! If a Wakūo warrior saves someone's life, he's responsible for that person for the rest of his own life. And if you don't protect me from Hanatha, you'll be derelict in your duties!"

Vaijon laughed out loud, and Bahzell shook his head as Tellian looked at him guilelessly.

"If it happened as how I was Wakūo -- or even as how you were Wakūo, come to that -- I might be thinking as how you had a point. But as I'm not, and no more are you, and seeing as it happens I'm more than a mite in agreement with her, I'm afraid as how I'll be otherwise occupied at the moment. Probably counting the knotholes in Walsharno's stall. Or something nigh as important as that, leastwise."

"Traitor!"

< Prudent! > Walsharno countered with a silent equine laugh. < A lot more prudent than I ever would have expected out of you, as a matter of fact, Brother! >

"Now, that's no way for a Sothōii baron to be carrying on," Bahzell chided. "In fact --"

He broke off as the chamber door opened to admit the two men for whom they'd been waiting.

Sir Jerhas Macebearer, Lord Warden of Amber Grass, was in his mid-sixties, white-haired, blue-eyed, and richly dressed, with a luxurious mustache that drooped almost to his chin. He'd never been of more than average height for a Sothōii, and he'd grown slightly stooped with age, but his stride was still firm and powerful, despite the polished ebony cane in his right hand. His shirt was of the finest, snow-white linen, with its full sleeves gathered into embroidered wristbands; his tabard-like tunic was even more richly embroidered, as befitted the Kingdom of the Sothōii's Prime Councilor; and the intricately worked golden chain of his office flickered with brilliant reflections about his neck. The plain leather scabbard of the businesslike dagger sheathed at his left hip should have struck a jarring note, but instead, it simply looked inevitable.

Prince Yurokhas Silveraxe was over four inches taller than Sir Jerhas, with the same red hair and blue eyes as his older brother, the King. He was five years older than Vaijon, and two inches shorter, yet the two men bore a decided resemblance to one another. Partly, that was because Prince Yurokhas's court tunic was neither the deep blue of royalty nor marked with the simple silver ax of his house. Instead, it was exactly the same shade as Vaijon and Bahzell's surcoats and emblazoned with the crossed swords and mace of Tomanāk. Almost more even than that, though, was the fact that Yurokhas, despite his princely rank, believed in keeping himself in training. He was broad-shouldered, powerfully built, and sinewy, and he even moved like Vaijon, with an unconscious, almost feline grace.

"Your Highness," Tellian said, rising quickly from his chair and dropping to one knee before Yurokhas.

"Oh, get up, Tellian!" the prince said testily. "We both have better things to do than to waste time with you crawling around on the floor. Besides, I've heard about that little adventure you got yourself into on the way here!" Blue eyes scrutinized Tellian closely as the baron rose obediently. "Hanatha's going to have your hide, and my only regret is that I won't be there to watch her take it. What in Fiendark's Furies did you think you were doing?"

"Always so tactful, so diplomatic," Tellian murmured, and Yurokhas cracked a laugh.

"I'll give you 'diplomatic' if you ever let anything like that happen again!" The prince reached out, resting one hand on each of Tellian's shoulders, and looked deep into his eyes. "There's too damned much going on for you to let people go poking arrows into you, damn it! And that doesn't even consider how I'll feel if you let something like that happen to you again."

His voice softened on the final sentence, and he gave Tellian a gentle shake. The baron smiled crookedly and shrugged.

"Nobody seems to believe this," he said a bit plaintively, "but I genuinely didn't expect anyone to go 'poking arrows' into me. I suppose the event demonstrates that I should have, but I didn't actively set out to help…parties unknown finish me off, you know. That could have happened to anyone."

Yurokhas snorted with panache.

"You were doing pretty well there, until that last sentence," he told the older man. "You aren't just 'anyone,' and things like that aren't supposed to happen to one of the Kingdom's barons. Especially not when it's one of the other barons who's behind it!"

"Your Highness." Sir Jerhas spoke quietly, but his tone carried an edge of admonition, and he shook an index finger at the prince when Yurokhas looked at him.

"I'll dissemble all you want me to in public, Jerhas," Yurokhas replied unrepentantly. "In private, though, I'm not going to pretend we don't all know who was really behind this. Or that his holdings don't lie somewhere roughly, oh, south of here!"

"As for that, Your Highness," Bahzell rumbled, "while I'll not say as how he didn't have a finger in the pie somewhere, there's not a one of the fellows as surrendered to us who'd a word to say at all, at all, about Duke Cassan."

Sir Jerhas rolled his eyes and puffed his mustache disapprovingly as Bahzell mentioned Cassan's name, although he didn't waste his time denying that the Baron of Frahmahn could possibly have been involved in the assault on his fellow baron. Yurokhas, on the other hand, didn't even try to disguise his skepticism.

"I'm not one to question one of His champions in the normal order of things, Prince Bahzell," he said, reaching out to clasp forearms with Bahzell. "Especially not when the champion in question's accomplished all you have. But I find it very difficult to believe anything like this could have happened to Tellian without Cassan being involved in it somewhere."

"Aye, and so he may've been," Bahzell acknowledged. "And I'll not deny I'd find more than a mite of pleasure in seeing him take the tumble he's more than earned. But for all that, it's a rare man as is willing to try to lie to one of Himself's champions, and I've yet to meet the one as can actually do it! So if it were to happen as you called me to testify, it's no choice I'd have but to swear under oath as not one of them so much as mentioned Cassan by name. In fact, it's in my mind as how whoever did buy their swords for this was never a Sothōii at all."

"What?" Yurokhas' skepticism was clearer than ever, and even Sir Jerhas' eyes widened at Bahzell's assertion.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:08 pm

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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.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jun 24, 2012 9:06 pm

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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.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jun 26, 2012 9:05 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 44

Chapter Twelve

"Lovely!" Baroness Myacha breathed, looking down at the sparkling amethyst glory displayed on the swatch of black velvet.

The cloth -- and the exquisitely cut gem on it—had been arranged on the polished mahogany table in the exact center of a shaft of golden sunlight, and sun reflections danced in eyes that were almost exactly the same shade as the stone. Neither the placement of the cloth nor the choice of the gem had been anything remotely like random, and Master Talthar Sheafbearer (who bore very little resemblance to a wizard named Varnaythus) smiled broadly behind his trader's carefully bland expression as Borandas Daggeraxe, Baron Halthan, winced ever so slightly.

"It is quite a nice stone, Milady," Talthar acknowledged after a moment, "although I fear it's a bit over large for a lady's delicate hand."

"Oh, I quite agree," the dark-haired baroness replied. "But set into a proper pendant, in silver, perhaps, not gold, I think…"

Talthar decided to let himself meet Baron Borandas' eyes. Borandas gazed back at him for a heartbeat or so, then smiled wryly in acknowledgment of his inevitable defeat.

"Do you truly want it, my love?" he asked, and Talthar's mental ears pricked at the baron's gently teasing, undeniably tender tone.

"Yes," Myacha sighed, looking up with a slight smile. "On the other hand, I fear Master Sheafbearer has far too good a notion of his wares' worth! I have entirely too many fribbleows and pretty toys to justify paying him what I have no doubt he would demand from you, Milord."

She actually sounded as if she meant it, Talthar noted, and that was interesting, too. Myacha was barely half Borandas' age. She was also his second wife, two years younger than Borandas' eldest son, Thorandas, and when their marriage had been arranged by Myacha's father three years earlier, the near-universal opinion had been that Borandas was buying himself a sweet, toothsome morsel to warm his bed and flatter his ego as he moved into his sixties. In fact, that had been Talthar's opinion until perhaps thirty or forty seconds ago.

I tend to forget sometimes how much…detail and nuance you can lose relying solely upon scrying spells and the gramerhain, he thought. I should have paid more attention and not relied so heavily on Court gossip, I suppose. Of course, having to worry about that bastard Brayahs didn't make it any simpler in this case.

His professional merchant's expression hid his inner frown as readily as it had hidden his smile, which was just as well. Thoughts of Brayahs Daggeraxe, the son of Borandas' deceased uncle, tended to have that effect upon him. Having any mage that closely related to one of the Kingdom's barons would have been bad enough, but Brayahs was considerably more strongly talented than the majority of his fellows. He was not simply a wind-walker and a healer, but (if the rumors were true) had the gift of foresight, as well. And to make Talthar's unhappiness complete, he was a mind-speaker, to boot, and one who'd come to his mage powers late. That mind-speakery of his made him particularly good at sniffing out any use of wizardry in his vicinity, and the fact that he'd been a man grown before his mage talents awoke meant he'd also been trained as a knight before he became a mage. After which he'd gone on and added the martial arts training of a master mishuk to his repertoire. His weapon (and weaponless) skills would have been more than enough to make him particularly resilient to assassination attempts, and successfully ambushing any wind-walker, even one without those skills, was no easy achievement at the best of times.

All of which meant that while it wouldn't necessarily be impossible to assassinate him, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do it in any way that didn't require the obvious use of sorcery or some other less than natural agency which would draw all sorts of unwanted attention. Talthar was perfectly prepared to have Brayahs murdered -- indeed, he was looking forward to it -- and he was more than willing to use whatever was required to make that happen, but he couldn't afford any moves in that direction at this point. The last thing he needed was to focus the attention of other magi on the North Riding before he had his hooks firmly into Borandas or his heir.

Time enough for that later, he reminded himself now. Patience and cunning are just as important as -- and more reliable than -- brute power, especially at a time like this. Once all the pieces are in place he'll have to go, but let's not joggle our own elbow just because we find his continued existence inconvenient as hell.

All of which was true enough, although "inconvenient" was a pale description of the situation. The one good thing about Brayahs' birth and ability was that King Markhos had enlisted him as one of the Crown magi who served as his investigators and agents. That made him even more dangerous, in some ways, but it also meant he'd been called to Sothofalas for the summer session of the Great Council, which would keep him busy for at least a month or two. His talents -- and his influence with his cousin -- were the real reason Talthar had deferred his first visit to Halthan until he could be certain the mage would be somewhere else. And why it had taken him over six months to prepare the ground properly for this first approach at all.

"Oh, I'm certain the Baron and I could come to a reasonable agreement, Milady," he said out loud, allowing a very slight flicker of amusement into his eyes in response to Borandas' smile.

"Why do I have the feeling that your idea of 'reasonable' and my own aren't going to be precisely the same, Master Sheafbearer?" the baron responded, and Talthar permitted himself a chuckle.

"Because you, Milord Baron, are a shrewd, hardheaded bargainer, while I, alas, am an equally shrewd, clutch-fisted trader. Nonetheless, when such a fair lady is involved, it's likely -- well, possible, at any rate -- that even such as I may find myself giving at least a modest amount of ground."

"You, Master Sheafbearer," Baroness Myacha told him with a smile of her own, "are a very dangerous man. Milord," she looked at Borandas, "I forbid you to pay this man what this stone is truly worth."

"A shrewd blow, Milady!" Talthar congratulated her. "Not that I would ever have expected the Baron to willingly part with this gem's true worth." He sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, that state of affairs is one any master trader is unhappily accustomed to confronting." He sighed again, his expression mournful. "In order to make our way in the world at all, we become accustomed to being regularly out-bargained by our customers!"

"I trust you'll forgive me for asking you this, Master Sheafbearer," Baron Borandas said a bit tartly, "but would it happen that your mother was particularly well acquainted with Hirahim?"

"Borandas!" Myacha laughed and smacked him across the knuckles with her hand-painted fan.

"Actually, Milord Baron," Talthar allowed with a smile, "when I was a mere lad, my father did remark once or twice upon how little like the rest of the family I looked."

"I'm not surprised," Borandas said, then drew a deep breath. "Very well, I already know this is going to hurt. Why don't you go ahead and name your starting point. And in the meantime, my love," he looked at Myacha with a warm smile of his own, "would you be so kind as to ring for Trelsan and request beverages. And perhaps a plate of sandwiches, as well." He looked back at Talthar with a challenging glint in his blue eyes. "I believe we might be here long enough to require the sustenance before we're done."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jun 28, 2012 9:04 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 45

* * *

Much later that evening, Talthar Sheafbearer carefully locked the door of his bedchamber on the second floor of The Halthan Arms, the most prestigious -- and expensive -- inn in Borandas' capital city, behind him. It was a large, luxuriously furnished chamber, as befitted a merchant of his obvious wealth, but that wasn't the reason he looked around it for several moments with careful, intent eyes. Then he drew a deep breath and closed those eyes, reaching out with other senses and trained abilities. He extended his feelers delicately, carefully, with all the hair-trigger sensitivity of a nervous cat, searching for the aura he'd learned to associate with Brayahs Daggeraxe. Brayahs wasn't scheduled to visit his cousin for at least the next couple of weeks, but Phrobus knew schedules were subject to change, and if that accursed mage was anywhere close to Halthan…

After the better part of five minutes, Talthar drew a deep breath and opened his eyes once more, this time with an expression of satisfaction. He crossed briskly to the chamber's window and carefully closed the drapes before he set the hard-sided leather case in his right hand in the center of the table placed in front of the window. There was nothing particularly remarkable about that case -- any gem-trader would have carried something very like it -- and he drew a finely wrought key from where it had nestled inside his tunic on a silver chain and used it to unlock the case. He returned the key to its normal place, opened the case, and reached into it for the fist-sized lump of almost clear quartz stowed away at its very bottom. The quartz was no more remarkable than the case itself, aside from the fact that it was an extraordinarily plebeian piece of rock for a gem merchant of Talthar's obvious wealth to carry about with him.

Except, of course, for the fact that it wasn't quartz at all.

He laid the gramerhain on the table, then closed the case and set it aside. He wasn't entirely happy about what he was going to do next, but there were limits in all things. He could have continued to hold the glamour which disguised him while using the gramerhain, but the combination of the glamour and the scrying spell he was about to use would have required him to expend considerably more energy. After all, scrying spells were intended to provide True Sight, so in many ways the two workings would be diametrically opposed to one another. Worse than the drain upon his own powers, however, that opposition would produce a far stronger, brighter signature and make him even more vulnerable to detection by any other wizard -- or mage, damn it -- in the vicinity. Besides, the glamour was a relatively low-energy construct tied into the diamond stud in his left ear, and artifact-bound spells were not only harder to detect but could be activated (or reactivated) very quickly.

He knew all of that, and none of it made him any happier. Nor did it make the decision any less inevitable, unfortunately, and so he drew a deep breath, touched the stud with his index finger, and murmured a single word in Old Kontovaran.

Talthar Sheafbearer seemed to waver like a reflection in moving water. And then, between one breath and another, he vanished, replaced by Master Varnaythus.

Varnaythus exhaled, then smiled mirthlessly as he caught his slightly blurry reflection in the chamber's mirror. Talthar was no more remarkable looking than Varnaythus himself, but he was an inch or two taller, at least ten years older, and fair-haired where Varnaythus' hair was a nondescript brown. Neither of them would ever stand out in a crowd, but neither would either ever be mistaken for the other, which was rather the point.

He'd seriously considered creating yet another persona for his activities here in the North Riding, but he'd decided against it in the end. Cassan and Yeraghor both knew him as Talthar. While they had every reason in the world to keep "Talthar's" existence a secret, they knew what he looked like, and as Varnaythus was able to burrow deeper and deeper into the North Riding it might become important for Talthar to be able to function as a known go-between for the various conspirators he intended to put into play and keep there. Bringing in yet someone else he'd have to remember to be would only complicate things still further, and unlike some of his fellow wizards, Varnaythus had never delighted in complexity for its own sake. Nor had he ever been foolish enough to confuse mere complexity with subtlety, which was probably one of the reasons he'd been so much more successful -- and longer lived -- than some of those selfsame fellow wizards.

He smiled again, more naturally, at the thought, then seated himself at the table and drew the gramerhain towards him. He cradled his hands around it, gazing down into its depths, and spoke the quiet command that woke a gradually strengthening glitter deep in its clear, flawless depths. The flicker of light grew stronger, glowing up from the table to light his face from below, throwing his eye sockets into shadow. Had the window's drapes been open and had anyone happened to glance in the inn's direction, they would have seen an improbably clear, bright brilliance flooding out into the night. Fortunately, the drapes weren't open, and so no one disturbed him as the brilliance flared up, brighter than ever, and then coalesced, settling back into the gramerhain. It flowed together, darkening steadily, until it became the closed-eyed face of Magister Malahk Sahrdohr in Sothofalas, more than three hundred and fifty leagues from Halthan.

It took Sahrdohr almost three full minutes to become aware of him and activate his own gramerhain. Then the eyes of his image opened as he settled into the working from his own end, and he arched an eyebrow.

"I expected you two hours ago," he pointed out mildly.

"I'm aware of that." Varnaythus' tone was just a bit testy. "You may remember, however, that there are a few additional difficulties from this end?"

"True," Sahrdohr responded, apparently oblivious to his superior's testiness. "On the other hand, you only have to worry about one mage. A powerful one, I'll grant, but still only one. By my current count, there are at least three dozen of the bastards here in Sothofalas…including the one you're worried about. Which means I'm just a little more likely to be detected by one of them than you are."

"Really?" Varnaythus smiled thinly. "Your wards are that inferior, are they?"

Sahrdohr's eyes gleamed. He was obviously pleased by his ability to get a rise out of Varnaythus, but he also bent his head in acknowledgment of the other wizard's point. His own chamber in Sothofalas had been carefully shielded and warded with every detection deflecting glamour the Council of Carnadosa had been able to devise. As far as they'd been able to determine -- so far, at least -- those glamours ought to baffle even a mage. There was no way to be certain of that, however, and putting them in place required a series of workings which had to be accomplished in a very precise order and over several days' time. There was no way Varnaythus could possibly have erected matching wards here in Halthan.

"So now that I have contacted you," Varnaythus continued in a brisker tone which accepted both Sahrdohr's point and his unspoken concession, "is there anything interesting to report from your end?"

"I'm not sure, really." Sahrdohr shrugged. "Bahzell and Tellian are still here; according to my sources, Bahzell, at least, will be heading back to Balthar sometime in the next two or three days. Vaijon's already left, probably to get the summer campaign into the Ghoul Moor properly underway. The only really interesting thing about that side of things" -- the younger wizard smiled -- "is that Yurokhas went with him."

"Ah?" Varnaythus arched an eyebrow and pursed his lips. "That is interesting," he acknowledged after a few moments' thought. "Are you suggesting Yurokhas is going to be involved in Tellian and Bahnak's campaign?"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jul 01, 2012 8:50 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 46

"According to my sources, Yurokhas is most definitely not going to be involved," Sahrdohr replied. "One of Sir Jerhas' senior clerks told me -- confidentially, of course -- that His Majesty was very firm about that and that His Highness was very meek and dutiful about accepting the King's instructions."

"Of course he was."

Varnaythus shook his head. Prince Yurokhas was almost certainly the only person in the entire Kingdom of the Sothōii who would meekly and obediently accept his monarch's instructions…and then cheerfully go and do exactly what he'd intended to do all along. It wasn't something for the faint of heart, even in Yurokhas' case, but by now he'd had years of practice. More than enough of them to accustom King Markhos to the notion that it was going to go on happening. In fact, it had gotten even worse since Crown Prince Norandhor's birth four years ago, when Yurokhas had suddenly become second in line for the crown. He'd always chafed against the restrictions imposed by his place as Markhos' heir, and now that he'd become so much less irreplaceable…

"That could work out quite well, couldn't it?" Varnaythus continued. "Assuming that campaign goes as well as I'm sure we all hope it will, at any rate."

"That's true. Such a tragic possibility for any good, loyal Sothōii." Sahrdohr allowed himself a suitably mournful expression for a moment, then shrugged. "Of course, we still have a long way to go before we can convince Cassan to take advantage of the opportunity at his end, and unless we can move against both of them simultaneously --"

He grimaced, and Varnaythus nodded. Eliminating one of the royal brothers would be a less than optimal outcome. In fact, it might well prove disastrous, depending upon the circumstances under which that elimination occurred.

"That's a worthwhile point," he acknowledged, "but if this was going to be easy, They wouldn't have needed us, would they? They could have gone on trusting it to idiots like Jerghar or Dahlaha."

"Agreed."

"I take it the numbers Tellian provided to Shaftmaster confirmed what we'd expected?" Varnaythus asked, changing the subject.

"Unfortunately." There was no amusement in Sahrdohr's grimace this time. "I'm not senior enough to have sat in on any of the meetings myself, but I was able to get my hands on a true copy of Sir Whalandys' notes courtesy of my capture spell. I'll transfer a copy to you at the end of our conversation, but I don't think you'll be any happier with them than I was. Assuming Kilthandahknarthas' estimates are accurate -- and when was the last time one of his estimates wasn't accurate? -- Tellian Bowmaster is about to become the richest Sothōii noble in history. Phrobus only knows how much Bahnak is going to make out of it, but the Exchequer's share of Tellian's income alone is going to add somewhere between ten and twelve percent to its annual revenues. And that's from its direct share of his income; it doesn't even count all of the indirect revenues the Crown is going to generate off of the increased trade."

Varnaythus' jaw clenched. He'd known the numbers were going to be bad, but he'd continued to hope they wouldn't be quite that bad. Unfortunately, the wizard lords of Carnadosa weren't very good when it came to estimating trade revenues and opportunities. The economy they'd rebuilt in Kontovar depended upon totally different means of manufacture and transport, and the truth was that he'd been slow to fully recognize the implications of the Derm Canal. As it was, he'd come to suspect Kilthandahknarthas was being deliberately conservative in the estimates he was sharing with his partners in the project, which suggested all sorts of unpleasant possibilities if it couldn't be stopped after all. On the other hand…

"The Purple Lords aren't going to like that at all, are they?" he said thoughtfully.

"I think that would be putting it rather conservatively, actually." Sahrdohr's irony came through the link quite well, Varnaythus thought. "This is going to literally ruin at least a dozen of their major trading houses. In fact, it's probably going to be a lot worse than that, especially if the Spearmen come on board with Kilthandahknarthas and Tellian as enthusiastically as I expect they will. If Bortalik Bay suddenly isn't the only -- or even the best -- gateway to the Spear, the consequences will be devastating for them."

"Yes, and they'll resent it, won't they?" Varnaythus' eyes gleamed. "And while they're resenting it, who are they going to blame for it?"

"Ah?" It was Sahrdohr's turn to pause, eyebrows rising in speculation. He sat that way for perhaps fifteen seconds, then nodded. "Yes, that would have unfortunate repercussions for any sense of loyalty they might feel for their neighbors to the north, wouldn't it?"

"Which might make them more open to conversations with their neighbors to the south, don't you think?" Varnaythus almost purred.

"I suspect it might," Sahrdohr agreed. "Of course, that doesn't change our instructions, does it?"

"No, but it might not be a bad point for me to include in my next report."

The two wizards' gazes met in shared understanding. There was very little chance they would be ordered to cease their efforts to strangle the entire project before birth, but it never hurt to have a fallback position ready. Pointing out the potential benefits -- especially when that potential was as large as it might well prove in this instance -- which could still accrue if they failed in their mission could well contribute to their own continued existence if worse came to worst.

"I think that would be a very good idea," Sahrdohr said, and Varnaythus snorted in amusement.

"And may I ask how your mission in Halthan is faring so far?" the magister asked after a moment.

"Reasonably well," Varnaythus replied. "I think we need to look more closely at Baroness Myacha, though. She's not the bedchamber trophy we thought she was. Worse, I think she has a brain that works, and she seems to be unfortunately…resilient."

"Another one with a latent Gift?"

"Possibly. Quite possibly." Varnaythus shrugged. "We'll have to see what we can do about tracking back on her pedigree, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she has at least a touch of it. It runs in too damned many of the old families to make me happy."

"You think she has the True Sight?" Sahrdohr's unhappiness with that thought was obvious.

"If she does, it's completely untrained, and without training, the worst likely outcome would be for her to be vaguely uncomfortable around me without being able to put her finger on why. I didn't see any sign of that this afternoon, although that doesn't prove anything." Varnaythus grimaced. "I'll just have to add her to the list of people in this accursed barony that I need to avoid as much as possible. It would help if Borandas weren't as besotted with her as he obviously is, though."

"Wonderful." Sahrdohr shook his head with a disgusted expression.

"Oh, it's not that bad. Potentially inconvenient, I agree, but as I say, I'm not that concerned about her realizing Talthar is a glamour."

"No, but what if she should find herself feeling 'vaguely uncomfortable' around him and happen to discuss that with her husband's cousin the mage?" Sahrdohr challenged. "And what if her husband's cousin the mage has already figured out she could have a touch of the Gift herself?"

"Which is the reason I'm going to do my best to avoid her," Varnaythus pointed out in an oblique acknowledgment of the magister's point.

The magi had made it a matter of high priority to collect every scrap of information they could on the art, and that unmitigated pain in the arse Wencit of Rūm had made it an equally high priority to answer their questions and hand over the not inconsiderable personal library he'd managed to salvage from the wreckage of Kontovar. As a result, they were far better informed about wizardry than their Carnadosan opponents were about the powers of magi, which meant Master Brayahs was probably as conversant with the symptoms of a latent Gift for the art as Varnaythus himself.

"In the meantime," he went on in a determinedly brisk tone, "the rest of my visit here seems to have gone quite well. It's remarkable how gems of high quality open doors, isn't it?"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Wed Jul 04, 2012 9:13 pm

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This book should be available now so this is the last snippet. By the way, sorry that I forgot to post this snippet last night. [Embarrassed Smile]


War Maid's Choice - Snippet 47

Sahrdohr snorted. Given the possibilities of the art, "Talthar's" wares could have been still better, but it was unwise to draw too much attention. His stones were of just about the highest quality anyone could reasonably expect a single trader outside Dwarvenhame to possess; anything more than that might well have drawn the very questions they were so eager to avoid.

"And our friend Bronzehelm? Is he as…suitable as we'd hoped?"

"I believe so." Varnaythus leaned back in his chair, stapling his fingers under his chin. "He's more devoted and loyal to Borandas than we'd estimated -- quite a bit more, to be honest. But he's nowhere near so resilient as Baroness Myacha seems to be. I think we're going to have to be as careful to avoid using the art to…shape him appropriately as I was afraid we were, but I also think he's going to be even more amenable to suggestion with the appropriate enhancements."

Sahrdohr's smile would have done credit to a shark, and Varnaythus smiled back. Sir Dahlnar Bronzehelm was Baron Borandas' seneschal, responsible for the management and administration of the baron's household here in Halthan. He was also one of Borandas' closest confidants, and he'd been with the baron for the better part of thirty years. Very few people could be better placed to subtly shape Borandas' views, which didn't even consider how valuable a listening post within the North Riding he could become. It would have been far more convenient if they'd been able to use the art to…modify his existing loyalties and views, but there was too much chance of a mage noticing that sort of tampering. Especially if the mage in question was so inconsiderate as to be both a healer and a mind-speaker. Fortunately, there were drugs which could produce the same effect, albeit more slowly and gradually. Even better, that slow and gradual process was virtually indistinguishable from the fashion in which anyone's opinions might naturally come to change over time. There was some risk, of course -- nothing could completely avoid that when one was forced to deal with a mage -- yet the probability that even as strongly gifted a mage as Brayahs would notice their meddling would be far, far lower than the chance of his detecting the art.

"And Thorandas?" Sahrdohr asked.

"I haven't had an opportunity to come within reach of him yet," Varnaythus admitted. "Hopefully I'll manage that before 'Talthar' is scheduled to leave. In the meantime, though, judging from what I've been able to pick up about him from the more open minds here in Halthan, I'd say our original impressions are probably fairly accurate. Borandas clearly relies heavily on his advice -- that was obvious from the way his aura peaked each time I mentioned Thorandas' name. I think it's safe to say he trusts his son's judgment in most ways, if not all."

"That fits pretty well with everything I've heard about them here in the Palace," Sahrdohr agreed. "And I had an opportunity to drop his name into a conversation with Shaftmaster day before yesterday, which led to a couple of interesting tidbits. For one thing, Sir Whalandys made it pretty clear that most people think Thorandas is a sharper blade than his father…and that Baron Borandas realizes it."

"Really?" Varnaythus cocked his head thoughtfully. "That's helpful, especially if Cassan's right about Thorandas' attitude towards the hradani. He has to be as well aware as his father that at the moment the North Riding holds the balance between Tellian and Cassan on the Great Council. The question is how he's likely to react when he realizes just how thoroughly this Derm Canal is going to scramble all of the traditional balances of power here on the Wind Plain. If he's as prejudiced against the hradani as Cassan and Yeraghor think, that's bound to play a role in his evaluation of the new…realities, shall we say? And that's going to have an effect on the advice he gives his father about it, now isn't it?"

"Exactly." Sahrdohr's smile was even thinner than before. "And if Sir Dahlnar starts giving the same advice?"

"Especially if he comes slowly and gradually to share Thorandas' concerns, yes." Varnaythus nodded. "Not too quickly, though. Borandas may not be the very smartest man in the entire Kingdom, but he's not exactly a fool, either. He's going to think twice -- more likely three or four times -- before he steps into any sort of arrangement with Cassan. For that matter, Thorandas isn't going to be in any hurry to forget how badly Cassan burned his fingers last time he and Tellian squared off."

"No, but I've had a thought about that."

"What sort of thought?" Varnaythus' tone was a bit cautious, and Sahrdohr chuckled.

"It's not that inventive," the magister assured his superior. "But that's the second interesting tidbit I got from our good Chancellor. According to Shaftmaster, Thorandas is in the market for a wife. In fact, Sir Whalandys approves of that; he thinks it's past time Thorandas settled down and started breeding heirs of his own. Unfortunately -- from my esteemed superior's perspective, at any rate -- Sir Thorandas seems rather taken with Shairnayith Axehammer."

"He does?" Varnaythus' eyes narrowed, and Sahrdohr leaned back and raised both hands.

"That's what Shaftmaster seems to believe, at any rate, and he's not very happy about the notion."

"I can see why he might not be, given how enthusiastically he's been supporting Tellian at Court," Varnaythus observed in a tone of considerable understatement. Then he frowned. "I can see why he might not be," he repeated, "but I didn't pick up a hint of anything of the sort from Cassan the last time I was in Toramos."

"Maybe he isn't aware of Thorandas' thinking," Sahrdohr suggested.

"Cassan?" Varnaythus barked a laugh. "Trust me, if Shaftmaster's right and Thorandas really is looking in Shairnayith's direction, Cassan knows about it, all right. He'd never miss something like that, especially where Shairnayith is concerned! In fact," his eyes narrowed again, "that could be the problem. He dotes on the girl, after all, and it could be that he's perfectly aware of the opportunity and simply chooses to ignore it. If he'd been in any rush to marry her off, they could have managed it long ago, I'm sure. There have to have been plenty of other offers for her by now, at any rate. She's -- what, twenty-two? -- for Carnadosa's sake! Do you seriously think nobody's even so much as tested the water where a prize like her is concerned?"

"Maybe there've been quite a few offers and he simply hasn't thought any of them were worth accepting," Sahrdohr pointed out. "She's his older daughter, after all. As you say, that makes her the kind of prize that doesn't come along often. That's a political token a man like Cassan isn't going to be in a hurry to use too soon!"

"That's true enough," Varnaythus acknowledged. "But she's a deep one herself, and the Lady knows she worships the ground her father walks on. The possibility of a direct marriage alliance between the Axehammers and the Daggeraxes?" The wizard snorted. "She'd have to recognize the potential advantages Cassan could wring out of that! And short of Yurokhas himself -- and Fiendark knows Yurokhas would never marry an Axehammer -- where's she going to find a better marriage than to the North Riding's heir?"

"Agreed. On the other hand, the consequences would be fairly obvious to just about everyone," Sahrdohr pointed out, "and the Great Council would have to approve the marriage."

"If Borandas approved it, he, Cassan, and Yeraghor between them would have a clear majority."

"And would Markhos be foolish enough to let it go through, anyway?" Sahrdohr challenged. "He'd have to assent, too."

"If he were around to do the assenting," Varnaythus pointed out in turn, his voice soft. "If he wasn't -- if the Great Council happened to be acting as regent to a minor heir -- then that wouldn't matter, would it?"

"No," the magister said slowly.

"So if Cassan and Yeraghor were to decide this marriage would be a good idea, and if Thorandas is as receptive to the notion as your good friend the Chancellor seems to be suggesting, then we might just have found another argument to help sway Cassan to our thinking about the best way to deal with the Crown's unfortunate support for Tellian's little project, mightn't we?"

The two wizards gazed at each other through their linked gramerhains and slowly, slowly smiled.
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Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
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