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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 Apr 08, 2012 8:45 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 10

Garlahna nodded and touched the gelding's sides with her heels, heading back towards the wagons in Erlis' wake as the three hundred looped her reins around the stump of her left arm, pressing them in against her side, and walked up to the edge of the pothole to survey the problem. The rest of the escort had already dismounted, as well, and the six of them were uncoiling their saddle ropes as they prepared to add their own horses' efforts to disinterring the wagon. Garlahna knew all about leading by example, but she'd already done that three times today, and her boots and trousers were caked with dried mud to the knee to prove it. "Follow me!" was all very well when it came time to lead her people into actual combat, but this time, she decided, she was perfectly prepared to let the members of her detachment wade out into the mud while she confined herself to a proper supervisory role. She knew she was going to have to climb down out of the saddle and help out eventually -- the hole was so deep it was undoubtedly going to take all of them to wrestle the wagons across it -- but there was no point doing it until somebody else had gotten thoroughly muddy this time around, and she drew up beside Erlis on the lip of the swamp.

"That really is a deep hole," she commented, swatting irritably at a horsefly as two of the other war maids kicked off their boots and started wading towards the wagon. Erlis looked up at her, smiling faintly as she found Garlahna still in the saddle, and the younger woman shook her head. "The wagons were even more heavily loaded on the way to Thalar. Thank Lillinara we didn't put one of them into this mess then!"

"Absolutely," Erlis agreed fervently. She looked back at the mudhole stretching almost all the way across the road. "That would have been the perfect way to start this little expedition, wouldn't it?"

Garlahna nodded, but then she frowned as another thought struck her. Why hadn't they encountered the pothole on the way out? As wide as it was, it should have been impossible to avoid. It was possible one of the spring thunderstorms could have dumped enough rain on this stretch of the road to make the hole worse without having rained on them in Thalar, but it wasn't all that likely. Besides, enough fresh rain to have created this morass should have generated even more mud along the road's shoulders, shouldn't it? But that meant --

"I think --" she began sharply, but it was already too late.

A chalk-covered beanbag came flying out of the grass on the south side of the lane and smacked Erlis right between the shoulder blades in a puff of colored dust. The three hundred jerked, then whirled around with an oath born of twenty-plus years' service as a professional soldier…just as three more beanbags thudded into the trio of war maids standing in the mud on the north side of the road. An instant later, more of them smacked into two of the three on the south side of the road, as well, and the single dismounted war maid who hadn't already been hit ducked under the wagon in a geyser of muddy water, snatching out her short sword with one hand and reaching for her bandolier of throwing stars with the other. Despite her own surprise, Garlahna knew better than to try to stand and fight. Instead, she reined her gelding's head around and slapped her heels in -- hard -- trying to break free of the ambush before one of those infernal beanbags found her. If she could circle back around to counterattack --

It was a good idea, but before the horse had even moved, a very tall, redhaired young woman bounded out of a stretch of grass Garlahna would have sworn couldn't have hidden a rabbit. The newcomer took three strides, tucked a bare foot into the front of Garlahna's offside stirrup, pinning her own foot in place, grabbed the saddle horn with her right hand, and pivoted on the stirrup, swinging her left leg over the horse's croup and dropping to sit neatly behind the saddle. It happened too quickly for Garlahna to react, and the newcomer's hands settled on her shoulders and gripped tightly.

"You're turning blue, Garlahna!" the redhaired war maid announced cheerfully. "Too bad, I really liked you."

"Very funny, Leeana," Garlahna growled, looking over her shoulder with a disgusted expression as the last war maid of the escort, despite the protection of the wagon, was hit by three different beanbags flying in from three different directions.

"You're dead, too, Saltha!" another voice crowed from the grass.

"Oh, yeah?" Saltha Mahrlafressa, the war maid under the wagon, sounded as disgusted as Garlahna felt. "Well, I'm mucky enough already, Raythas," she retorted, raking a glob of mud out of her graying hair and looking at it distastefully. "If you think I'm going to die dramatically and bellyflop into this mudhole, you've got another think coming!"

"Spoilsport."

Raythas Talafressa emerged from the grass with a grin, followed by two more, equally delighted young women in traditional war maid garb. They'd added leather leg guards to protect their otherwise bare legs from the prairie grass, but aside from that they looked revoltingly cool and comfortable, Garlahna thought from inside her sweaty trousers and shirt. They also looked revoltingly pleased with themselves.

"Nicely done," Erlis acknowledged, shaking her head as she looked at their attackers. "Not that we didn't help you by acting like drooling idiots who shouldn't be let out without a keeper." She grimaced. "What a convenient mudhole you just happened to find to stop us for you."

"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" Leeana agreed. She slid down from the back of Garlahna's horse and grinned impudently up at her friend as her left hand twirled the garrotte she hadn't wrapped around Garlahna's neck. "It only took us four or five hours to get it dug. The biggest problem was hauling in the water to fill it after we got it properly excavated." She looked back at Erlis. "We were only an hour or two behind you on the way out, so the mud had plenty of time to cure."

"So I see."

Erlis stretched out her hand to help Saltha out of the mudhole while she considered the victors. The three hundred didn't like losing, but she had to admire Leeana's tactics. The manufactured pothole had been a masterstroke, an obstacle which was certain to stop the wagons but which hadn't set off any mental alarms because they'd already had to deal with so many mudholes. And as she looked further into the grass on either side of the road, she saw the blinds Leeana and her three companions had painstakingly constructed to conceal them until they struck.

It's a good thing they weren't really trying to kill us, she reflected with more than a little chagrin. All eight members of the escort -- except Garlahna -- bore large, bright splotches of chalk dust from the beanbags which had been substituted for the far more lethal throwing stars (or knives) which would have come their way if Leeana had been serious. I must be getting old to let the young hellion get away with it this way!

Yet even as she thought that, she knew that wasn't the true reason. Yes, she really should have been more suspicious -- or alert, at least -- but that wouldn't have mattered in the end, given how carefully Leeana had organized things. The girl had come a long way in the six and a half years since she'd fled to the war maids. She was still not quite twenty-two years old, yet she was already a commander of seventy-five, and whether she realized it or not, Erlis and Balcartha Evahnalfressa, the commander of five hundred who commanded the City Guard, were quietly grooming her for far higher rank. Indeed, Erlis was beginning to wonder if Kalatha would be allowed to keep her. The war maids were legally obligated to provide troops in the Crown's service in return for the royal charter which had created them in the first place, and any field commander in his (or her) right mind was going to want an officer of Leanna Hanathafressa's caliber. No matter what challenge Erlis and Balcartha threw at her, she took it in stride, and she was so cheerful even old sweats like Saltha couldn't seem to take offense when she effortlessly ran rings around them.

Or got promoted past them, for that matter.

"All right," she said finally. "You won; we lost. So you get the bathhouse first tonight and you get the three-day passes."

Leeana and the other members of her team looked at one another with broad grins, and Erlis let them have their moment before she gave them a rather nasty smile of her own.

"And now that you've won, why don't the four of you just wade out into that marvelous mudhole of yours and help us get this wagon out of it?"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:55 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 11

Chapter Three

The small, carefully nondescript man sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes as the flickering glow died in the heart of the water-clear gramerhain crystal on the desk before him. His name was Varnaythus, or that was the one he most commonly went by among those who knew who (and what) he truly was, at any rate. He looked to be no more than in his mid-forties, yet he was actually well past eighty -- there were some advantages to being a wand wizard willing to manipulate blood magic -- and no one had learned his true name in at least the last sixty years. It was safer that way.

Of course, "safe" was a relative term.

He climbed out of his chair and began pacing back and forth across the small, luxurious (and carefully hidden) room. There were no windows, and the light from the oil lamps was dim, despite the highly polished reflectors, to eyes which had become accustomed to the grammerhain's brilliance. He could have flooded the room with clear, sourceless light, but black wizards who wanted to stay alive in Norfressa avoided that sort of self-indulgence. Wizardry was outlawed upon pain of death in virtually all Norfressan realms, and however much Varnaythus might resent that, he couldn't pretend he didn't understand it. That reaction had been inevitable after the Wizard Wars destroyed the Empire of Ottovar and turned the entire continent of Kontovar into a blasted wasteland which had needed a thousand years to recover. It was actually quite useful to Vanaythus' Lady and her fellows, in many ways. It certainly reduced the opposition's strength and ability to respond to arcane attacks, at any rate.

There were wizards here, but most of them tended to be at best a dingy shade of gray. The fact that they were already outlawed and condemned made it far easier for the Carnadosans to recruit them, as well, and not even the ones unwilling to actively serve the Dark themselves would be interested in calling attention to himself if he happened to notice that another wizard was practicing the art in his vicinity. Unfortunately, if Varnaythus didn't have to worry about being turned in by another wizard, he did have to worry about magi.

He puffed his lips in familiar frustration as he paced. The wizard lords of Kontovar still didn't understand how the mage talents worked. Varnaythus himself had picked up far more about the effects and consequences of their various abilities, including some interesting…intersections with the art, but he'd gathered that information very cautiously indeed. Much of it had been gleaned by picking the brains (in some cases literally) of other nonmagi, while the rest had come from wary, circumspect observation with the stealthiest scrying spells he could command. And all of it, unfortunately, remained largely theoretical, since he had absolutely no desire to risk his own personal hide in order to test his conjectures. Quite a few wizards who'd done that sort of thing had never found the opportunity to report back on their success, for some reason.

Still, they did know at least a little about them. For instance, it was obvious the talents themselves were products of the Wizard Wars, the result of some deep change in the very being of the current magi's ancestors, although it had never manifested in Kontovar even after the Fall. He suspected there'd been very, very few of them in the beginning, when refugees from all of Kontovar first flooded into Norfressa. There couldn't have been many, since no one had really recognized their existence at all for over seven hundred years, and they'd only become sufficiently numerous to begin organizing their mage academies in the last three or four centuries.

The Carnadosan lords of Kontovar hadn't even noticed them at first, and by the time they'd begun to realize just how…inconvenient they might prove to their own ultimate plans, the magi had been too firmly entrenched to eliminate. Efforts to acquire live magi for study hadn't worked out well, either. The bastards were slippery as fish and even more elusive, and trained magi had a nasty tendency to die, often taking any wizard unfortunate enough to have been interrogating them at the moment with them, if they were captured. Not to mention the fact that many of them could call for help telepathically over even lengthy distances. Varnaythus knew of at least three expeditions to capture magi which had come to unfortunate ends when the magi in question managed to guide cruisers of the Royal and Imperial Navy to intercept the ships carrying them to Kontovar. The effort hadn't been abandoned, but it was one of those tasks to be approached very, very cautiously, and he was more than happy to leave it to someone else, like Tremala. Or even better, now that he thought about it -- however serious a rival Tremala might be, he actually liked her, after all -- someone like that insufferable, egotistical, irritating pain Rethak.

More to the point, however, the accursed magi could sense the use of the art. Some were more sensitive than others -- in fact, some of them were damned bloodhounds where sorcery was concerned! -- but all of them had at least some sensitivity to it. And unlike Norfressan wizards, they had no reason not to report any sorcery they detected. In fact, the mage academies' Oath of Semkirk required magi to fight dark wizardry and blood magic, and the bastards had been growing steadily into ever more of a pain in the arse for the last two hundred years.

Nor was their ability to sense wizardry the only threat they posed to Kontovaran ambitions. They had other talents as well -- from the ability to speak mind-to-mind across vast distances, to healing, to distance-viewing, to the ability to unerringly detect lies, plus Phrobus only knew what else. Thankfully, none of them had more than three or four such talents each, but groups of them could combine their abilities into the sort of threat which had to make any wizard wary, and they were oathbound to use their abilities to serve others, which made them disgustingly popular with the very people who most hated and feared wizardry. Many rulers welcomed them into their realms, often relying upon them as agents, investigators, and representatives, and King Markhos of the Sothōii had opened his arms even more broadly to them than most. There was no mage academy in his kingdom -- Sothōii mages were trained in one of their Axeman allies' academies, usually at either Axe Hallow or Belhadan -- but there were dozens of them wandering around Markhos' capital of Sothōfalas, and all it would take was for one of them to stroll past when Varnaythus was using the art, at which point all manner of unpleasant things would happen.

A soft, musical tone sounded out of the empty air, and Varnaythus turned towards one of the office's featureless walls. Nothing happened for a moment; then the outline of a doorframe appeared in the middle of the wall. It glowed dimly, seeming to quiver a little around the edges, then solidified.

"Enter," he said, and the glowing door swung open to admit two other men.

One of them looked to be about the same age as Varnaythus, and he was even more nondescript and bland looking. The other was younger, with red-blond hair and gray eyes. At just over six feet, he was also considerably taller than the other two, and his clothing was much richer, that of a mid-level functionary at court, perhaps. Looking through the door by which they'd entered the office, it was as if that single door had opened into two totally separate locations…which was fair enough, since that was exactly what it had done.

"You're late," Varnaythus observed brusquely, waving the newcomers to chairs in front of his desk. He waited until they'd seated themselves, then sank back into his own chair, leaned his elbows on the blotter on either side of his gramerhain with his fingers interlaced above it, and leaned forward to rest his chin on the backs of his raised hands. "I don't want to belabor the point," he said then, "but using the art is risky enough without having our timetable screwed up."

"I couldn't get to the portal," the older of his two guests said. He shrugged. "Someone decided to choose today to drop off two dray loads of tea. Somehow I didn't think you'd want me activating it from my end with half a dozen warehouseman carrying crates of tea in and out."

"No, I don't suppose that would have been a very good idea," Varnaythus acknowledged. He straightened, then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his stomach. "I never was very happy about that location. Unfortunately, moving it at this point would be too risky. As a matter of fact, it would be safer to build an entirely new portal somewhere else." He raised one eyebrow. "Would you happen to have a more convenient -- and safer -- spot in mind, Salgahn?"

"Not right this minute, no," Salgahn replied. "I'll think about it. There aren't really all that many options, though. Not unless I want to risk letting some of the other dog brothers find out about it."

His final sentence ended on the rising note of a question and he raised one eyebrow.

"Not yet." Varnaythus shook his head quickly.

"With all due respect, Varnaythus," the younger of the two newcomers said, "we've been saying 'not yet' for over six years now. Are we ever really going to move at all?"

Varnaythus regarded him thoughtfully. Unlike himself, Magister Malahk Sahrdohr truly was as young as he looked, but he'd proven himself to be smart, ambitious, and capable. As his title indicated, he ranked well below a master wizard like Varnaythus in both training and raw strength, but he'd risen high and quickly in the service of the Church of Carnadosa through a combination of the intelligent use of the skills he did possess and a degree of absolute ruthlessness Varnaythus had seldom seen equaled.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Apr 12, 2012 10:09 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 12

"You do remember what happened the last time we 'moved' here in the Kingdom, don't you?" he inquired mildly.

"Of course I do." Sahrdohr shrugged. "I read all the reports before I even left Trōfrōlantha. And I understand why we had to let things settle back down. But it's been six years. Forgive me for pointing this out, but the original plan indicated we were rapidly approaching one of the critical cusp points, and it's only gotten closer since. If we don't do something soon, it's going to be right on top of us!"

Varnaythus nodded. Sahrdohr had a valid point, although Varnaythus suspected his impatience had more to do with his current role here in Sothōfalas than with approaching "cusp points." In his alter ego as Mahrahk Firearrow, Sahrdohr was a mid-level bureaucrat in the Exchequer. His position gave him access to all sorts of sensitive information but it was junior enough to keep him from attracting unwanted attention, and he did his job well. Unfortunately, it restricted him to a much less luxurious lifestyle than the one to which he had been accustomed in Kontovar and required him to be civil to and even take orders from men without so much as a trace of the magical ability which would have given them authority there. That had to be irksome enough by itself, yet his position inside the Palace itself meant he dared not employ the art at all. The King kept at least two or three magi at court permanently, and the magister would have been promptly detected if he'd done anything of the sort.

Varnaythus felt an unwilling ripple of sympathy for the younger man. Being forced to restrict his use of the art was hard for any wizard; renouncing it entirely, even if only temporarily, as Sahrdohr's role had required him to do, was the next best thing to intolerable. All questions of power and ambition aside, there was a splendor to the art, a glory no wizard could truly resist. He had to reach out to it, for better or for worse, and Sahrdohr had been denied the chance to do that for over four years, ever since his own arrival here in Sothōfalas. No wonder he was feeling impatient.

"If you've read the reports, Malahk," the older wizard said after a moment, "then you know I'm the only one of the senior agents originally assigned to this operation who's still alive. Salgahn here and I did our jobs just about perfectly, and I still barely got away with my skin. Jerghar and Paratha were less fortunate, and Farrier is…still laboring under the Spider's disapproval, shall we say?"

He grimaced at the thought of how the Twisted One had chosen to express Her unhappiness with Dahlaha Farrier. He'd never liked the woman, but seeing what had happened to her made him uncomfortably aware of what could happen to him. And that was with Shīgū's decision to be "lenient" with the servant who'd failed Her.

"Worse," he continued, "our last little escapade almost certainly warned the other side -- Wencit, at the very least -- that we've become far more interested in the Sothōii than we ever were before. Don't you think it makes sense to proceed with a modicum of caution when all of that is true?"

"Caution, yes," Sahrdohr agreed. "But we can't afford to allow ourselves to be paralyzed, either. Especially not if we really are coming up on one of the cusp points."

"And would you happen to know why it's a cusp point?" Varnaythus asked mildly, extending his thumbs and tapping them together. He raised both eyebrows and cocked his head, and Sahrdohr looked back with a stubborn expression for several seconds. Then the younger man shrugged irritably.

"No," he said shortly.

"Neither do I," Varnaythus told him. It was Sahrdohr's eyebrows' turn to shoot upward and his eyes widened with surprise. Surprise that turned into skepticism almost instantly, Varnaythus noticed.

"I'm telling you the truth," he said. "I realize that's a novel approach, but we're in rather an unusual situation here. They haven't told me why They want us to do what They want us to do. All They've told me is what They want us to do. Now, to me that suggests this may be even more important than They're prepared to admit even to us. Either that or They don't know everything that's involved here. Either way, there's no way I'm going to rush in and blow this operation a second time. Is that understood?"

Sahrdohr gazed at him for at least a minute. Then he nodded slowly, and Varnaythus nodded back just a bit more emphatically. Both of them understood the subtext of what Varnaythus had just said. He'd avoided the Dark Gods' displeasure because unlike his deceased associates, he'd carried out his own portion of the operation almost flawlessly. Perhaps even more importantly, he'd covered his backside by carefully sending very complete reports -- including reports of the several times he'd warned those associates that things were slipping -- back to Kontovar. Coupled with the years of successful service he'd given to Carnadosa, that had sufficed to protect him from divine wrath. It was unusual for one of the Dark Gods' minions to survive the failure of a single mission remotely this important, however; it was unheard of for one of them to survive a second failure.

Varnaythus understood that, and he had no intention of failing, yet he wished passionately that his mistress had explained more about the reasons for this operation. What he'd said to Sahrdohr was nothing but the truth, and he hated operating blindly. It wouldn't be the first time he'd had to do it, but he'd never liked it. It was difficult -- and risky -- to improvise or modify strategies when he didn't even know what the ultimate motives of and reasons for his orders were.

The orders themselves were remarkably clear and unambiguous, however. That was something.

"All right," he said after a moment, allowing his chair to come back upright. "Having just told you we're not going to move until we're ready, now I'm going to tell you that we are ready…almost."

"We are?" Sahrdohr straightened with a jerk, and even Salgahn's eyes narrowed speculatively.

"'Almost,' I said," Varnaythus cautioned, raising one index finger. "There's been a certain degree of…discussion back and forth, and I've convinced Them we need a narrower focus this time. One of the reasons we failed last time was that each of Them had His or Her own objectives and strategies. This time our Lady is in charge, Sahrdohr, and we're going to avoid the kinds of distractions that got in the way last time."

Both Sahrdohr and Salgahn nodded in understanding. The Dark Gods' greatest weakness was their unwillingness to truly cooperate with one another. The same weakness afflicted their servants, but it was even worse among the gods themselves.

"That's good to hear," Sahrdohr said after a moment, and to his credit, he sounded as if he actually meant it. Which he might, Varnaythus reflected. The mortality rate among the Dark Gods' servants who had actually faced Bahzell Bahnakson or Tomanāk's other champions here on the Wind Plain had been effectively total. Sahrdohr could well be analyzing how his own position might be improved if something unfortunate happened to Varnaythus.

Of course, if whatever happens to me is truly unfortunate, it'll probably happen to him, too. I wonder if he's factoring that into his analysis?

"I think it's good news, too," he replied aloud. "But let's not any of us start thinking this is going to be simple, because it's not."

"If it were going to be simple, they wouldn't need us," Sahrdohr said with a grin which made him look even younger.

"A reassuring thought, I'm sure," Varnaythus said dryly, and Salgahn surprised him with a chuckle.

"All right," the elder wizard continued. "We've been 'authorized' to assassinate Bahzell and Tellian ourselves if we can find a way to do it." He rolled his eyes, and both of his companions grimaced. The Dark Gods had tried that approach more than once now…with uniformly disastrous results for their mortal instruments. None of the present trio were in favor of encountering those same results in person.

"Obviously," he continued, "there are limits to how directly we can approach that sort of thing. I'm, ah…doing my best to encourage our good friend Arthnar to organize an attempt, and he's certainly got more than enough motivation, given what their canal projects are going to do to his own arrangements. Unfortunately, he's not an idiot, either, so I don't know how successful I'll be in getting him to move." He shrugged. "I think we can probably get him to at least see what a few anonymously hired mercenaries can accomplish, but it would be foolish to expect a high chance of success out of that sort of attempt."

"I can understand his reluctance," Sahrdohr said drily. "On the other hand, what about an attempt on Bahnak or Kilthandahknarthas? Killing either of them would probably derail their damned project, as well, wouldn't it? I'll admit they could probably survive better without the dwarf than without Bahnak, even if Kilthan was the one who got Silver Cavern and Dwarvenhame to put their weight behind Bahnak in the first place. But losing him would still have to be a major blow. And Bahnak, now…he's the glue holding this entire hradani 'Confederation' together, and there have to be enough Bloody Swords who'd love to see him dead."

Varnaythus regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then glanced at Salgahn.

"Would you care to undertake either of those assignments?" he asked the assassin, and Salgahn snorted harshly.
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Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Apr 15, 2012 8:20 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 13

"Get an assassin close enough to Kilthan of Silver Cavern? Not bloody likely! We don't have that many dwarven dog brothers to begin with, and the security around any clan head -- and especially that clan head -- is far too tight for any stranger to get to him. We might be able to manage it the next time he heads out with the trade caravans, but do we have the time to wait that long?"

He looked the question at Varnaythus, who shook his head.

"Almost certainly not. And, frankly, it sounds like investing the effort it would take to get to him would be a waste of our resources. Not to mention coming entirely too close to spreading ourselves too thin with the same kind of 'let's kill everyone in sight' stupidity that screwed up Their plans last time."

"That's about what I thought." Salgahn shrugged. "And as far as Bahnak is concerned, his security's almost as good as Kilthan's. I'm pretty sure we could get to him, but there's no way we could make it look like anything except a very obvious assassination…and not by hradani."

"We couldn't simply…assist one of the Bloody Swords who hate him?" Sahrdohr asked.

"There aren't as many of them as you might think," Varnaythus said grimly. "He's actually making this Confederation of his work, and the Bloody Swords who still have enough of a power base to risk going after him and infuriating every single Horse Stealer in Norfressa are smart enough to recognize that they've never been as well off as they are now. For that matter, they remember how Harnak's and Chalgaz's association with us turned even some of their fellow Bloody Swords against Navahk before the war. They're not going to be in any hurry to do anything that could make people think they're signing up with Sharnā and the Dog Brothers. Besides, Bahnak's done too damned good a job of training up those children of his. All of them, not just Bahzell. He may be the glue that put the hradani together in the first place, but I think Barondir and the rest would almost certainly manage to hold them together if he were to die suddenly."

"You're probably right about that," Salgahn agreed after considering it for a moment or two. "And, to be honest, hradani are hard to kill under the best of circumstances. You may remember how much trouble we had trying to take Bahzell and Brandark even before Bahzell became a champion! Of course, they're both special cases, even for hradani, but trying to get through Bahnak's bodyguard with anything except a full frontal assault would be…unlikely. And hradani are damned near impossible to poison with anything except an instantly fatal dose. Considering all the difficulties, taking Bahnak with any normal tactics would probably be at least as hard as taking Bahzell. Our best odds would be with Tellian, frankly, and even that would be a challenge. Not impossible, by any stretch, mind you, but definitely a challenge. Which is the reason Arthnar's not going to be all that keen on trying it, I suspect."

"Oh, I agree," Varnaythus said. "Which doesn't mean I won't be trying as hard as I can to talk him into it. In fact, I think we're going to have to get you involved in that as well, Salgahn."

"Oh?" The assassin raised an eyebrow at him, his expression wary. "And just how did you have it in mind for that to work?"

"I need someone to help do that convincing…and to make sure things are properly organized if we can talk him into it. He's cleverer than Cassan thinks he is, but he does have a certain tendency towards brute force solutions. We need something a bit more subtle than that. Or, at least, we need it to be something that steers any suspicion towards Tellian's purely local adversaries, since we" -- he met his fellows' gazes levelly -- "are specifically forbidden to make any attempt which could be traced back to us."

"We are?" If Sahrdohr was dismayed by the restriction, he hid it remarkably well, Varnaythus thought dryly.

"The overall operation is too important, and the odds against a successful assassination are too high, to justify risking it," he said calmly, not mentioning that he was the one who'd made that argument -- successfully, thank Carnadosa! -- when he first received his instructions. "If we launch a direct attack that's powerful enough to have a decent chance of success, the Order of Tomanāk is entirely too likely to be able to prove we were behind it…and that would prove They were behind it." Varnaythus shook his head. "We absolutely can't risk providing any evidence of that until all the other pieces are in place -- not if we hope to succeed in our other plans, that is."

His fellows nodded gravely, and although it was obvious their approval had more to do with their own odds of personal survival than any tactical constraints, that didn't make anything he'd just said untrue. If -- if -- they succeeded in killing both Bahzell and Tellian, they would probably succeed in their overall mission. If they tried and failed, however, and if the effort proved the Dark Gods were trying to eliminate the two of them, it would strengthen Tellian's position in the Kingdom immeasurably. Sothōii were often impulsive and always prickly where things like honor and family feuds were concerned, but despite the stereotype certain of their enemies nourished, they weren't stupid. Certainly they weren't too slow to figure out that if the Dark Gods wanted someone dead it was because whoever they were trying to kill stood in their way, at any rate. That might not bother some of their…more self-serving nobles, perhaps, but whatever their internal political squabbles might be, the vast majority of the Sothōii could be expected to close ranks instantly against any recognized intrusion by Phrobus and his offspring.

And if that let Varnaythus stay far, far away from any direct attack on Bahzell Bloody Hand, that was a wonderful thing as far as he was concerned.

"That doesn't mean we won't be involved, of course," he continued out loud, "but we are going to have to be as certain as we can that our cutouts will work. I think we're going to have to send you down to talk to Arthnar, Salgahn -- I can arrange an introduction that will get you in to see him -- to help move him gently in the proper direction. We don't want the Guild openly involved. The last thing we need is any suggestion of dog brothers stirring up trouble, so we'll have to cover you as a mercenary with the right connections. I haven't decided yet whether or not we want you involved in the actual attempt or only in setting things in motion, and I don't see any way we can decide until we have a better idea of what he's willing to do, but I want to keep our options open in that respect."

Salgahn nodded, and if he looked less than delighted by the prospect, Varnaythus found that understandable enough.

"In the meantime," the wizard went on, "I've maintained my contacts with Cassan, and he's been kind enough to provide me with an introduction to Yeraghor, as well. Needless to say, neither of them is the least bit happy over what Tellian's up to, although I'm not positive Yeraghor truly realizes how close to finished that damned tunnel is. Or how profoundly the entire project -- assuming it succeeds, of course -- is going to change this part of Norfressa, for that matter."

"How close are they?" Sahrdohr asked, and Varnaythus shrugged irritably.

"I was just watching that unmitigated little pain Chanharsa." He gestured at the gramerhain. "She's putting in a forty or fifty-yard section every day or so now, and she's only got about another three-quarters of a mile to go. That's only another two months. And the locks in the Balthar are already finished -- they've had barges hauling construction materials all the way from Hurgrum to The Gullet for two months now. The Derm Canal's taking longer, but I expect it to be finished by next spring, even allowing for construction shutting down over the winter months. In fact, they might even get it done before first snowfall, if the weather favors them over the summer."

Sahrdohr pursed his lips in a silent whistle, but Salgahn shook his head.

"That's all well and good," he pointed out, "but they've still got the River Brigands and the Ghoul Moor to worry about. As you just pointed out, Arthnar isn't going to take Bahnak's and Tellian's plans very cheerfully."

"Neither are the Purple Lords," Varnaythus agreed. "But exactly how do you think they're going to discourage a trio like Tellian, Kilthan, and Bahnak? Unless we -- by which I'm afraid I really mean you, this time around -- can convince Arthnar to try to kill them…and he succeeds, of course."

Salgahn snorted in acknowledgment, but he also shook his head again.

"I'm just saying it's going to be a little more complicated than simply building a couple of canals and digging a tunnel," he said.

"And that's exactly what Yeraghor's been counting on -- and Cassan, too, I suspect." Varnaythus shrugged. "Which, frankly, is…shortsighted of them, to say the least. Given the success rate Tellian and Bahnak -- and Kilthan; let's not forget him -- have demonstrated to date, how likely do you think it is that they won't succeed this time, as well?"

It was Salgahn's turn to shrug, conceding the point.

"As it happens, the Ghoul Moor is going to figure rather more prominently in our plans than I'd thought it was," Varnaythus continued. "I don't know that it's going to give us everything we want, although the chance that it might is actually better than I expected before She told me what resources we'll have there. Even if it doesn't work as well as expected" -- he grimaced, and the others joined him as they recalled other plans which had failed to work exactly as the people who'd made them had expected -- "it's still going to hurt them badly. It may actually stop the canal project completely, although I expect it's more likely just to slow them up for a year or two. More to the point, it ought to both draw attention to the foot of the Escarpment and away from what we're really after on top of it. It may well fan the fire under Cassan and Yeraghor, as well, and whether it does or not, nothing that goes wrong for them on the Ghoul Moor is going to suggest any special interference on our part."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 17, 2012 8:38 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 14

"Ah?" Sahrdohr cocked an eyebrow, and Varnaythus smiled unpleasantly.

"I don't have all the details yet, myself, but apparently the Ghouls are going to be receiving just a bit of a reinforcement. Quite a sizeable one, actually -- possibly even enough of one to give one of those damned champions of Tomanāk pause. And since the Ghoul Moor's always been a…chancy proposition for the other side, let's say, no one's likely to be very surprised if this year's expedition suffers an accident or two, even if the accident is rather more spectacular than most."

The younger wizard nodded, and Varnaythus nodded back, then leaned back in his chair.

"The only downside in helping the ghouls slow them up is that if it does slow them up, it's likely to undercut the sense of urgency we've been trying to encourage among Tellian's opponents. One of my jobs is going to be keeping that urgency alive, and that means convincing Yeraghor and Cassan of just how close to success they are at court. Cassan's had too much personal experience with the ghouls to expect them to stop Tellian's and Bahzell's plans unless they succeed a lot more spectacularly than I expect, but Yeraghor will probably tend to overestimate their chances, and even Cassan's likely to see it as a reprieve. He'll expect it to give him more time to build opposition in Sothōfalas and on the Great Council, and he may figure the losses Tellian's about to take will help his own arguments that the entire idea is going to cost more than it's likely to be worth to the Kingdom in the long run. I need to knock both of those notions on the head, and for that I'm going to want access to Tellian's correspondence with Macebearer and Shaftmaster. Can you get it for me, Malahk?"

"I don't know." Sahrdohr frowned thoughtfully. "Shaftmaster's, yes. I'll have to be careful, but I can get to it without too much difficulty. If it will be all right to use a capture spell on it, that is?"

It was Varnaythus' turn to frown. A capture spell was a very minor working, one even one of those accursed magi probably wouldn't notice unless he was right on top of it at the moment it was triggered. It required the use of a very small gramerhain, however, and if that was found on Sahrdohr's person…

"You're not concerned about carrying the stone with you?"

"I didn't say I wasn't concerned, but I think the risk would be manageable." The younger wizard smiled crookedly and held out his left hand, then tapped the ring on his second finger with his right index finger. It was an obviously old piece, set with a rather cheap looking opal. "I've been wearing this ever since I got here just for a moment like this one," Sahrdohr continued. "Everyone knows it has great sentimental value to me, despite the poor quality of the stone -- it was a gift from my grandmother to my grandfather -- so nobody thinks anything more about it. But --"

He touched the opal itself and it flashed into sudden clarity, like water-clear quartz. It stayed that way until he took his finger away again, when it turned just as quickly back into the milky stone it had been to begin with.

"Very nice," Varnaythus said sincerely.

The fact that Sahrdohr had put the ring into place so long ago was yet another demonstration of his basic intelligence and foresight. And even at this short range, even after having had the glamour concealing the gramerhain demonstrated to him, Varnaythus could detect barely a whisper of the spell. If that was a sample of Sahrdohr's craftsmanship, he was further along towards the rank of master than Varnaythus had thought.

"All right, if you're comfortable using a capture spell, I'll leave that in your hands. But what about Macebearer?"

"That's going to be a lot harder," Sahrdohr replied. "I've at least got an excuse to be in Shaftmaster's office. I work for the man, after all. But I'm not high enough in the Exchequer to be wandering into the Prime Councilor's office and examining his personal correspondence with Baron Tellian."

"I really want to get our hands on those letters," Varnaythus said. "Shaftmaster's estimates will help -- probably a lot -- but Cassan's still keeping his head down, even without our gingering up the ghouls. I need proof of how much ground Tellian is gaining with Macebearer and Markhos to get him stirred back up again."

"Why don't we just forge it?" Sahrdohr asked. "It wouldn't be difficult -- I can at least get samples of Macebearer's signature and his personal secretary's handwriting, and we already have samples of Tellian's. We could create correspondence that said whatever we needed it to say, then mix it in with genuine correspondence between Tellian and Shaftmaster."

"Tempting," Varnaythus conceded. "Unfortunately, Cassan's almost as good at this game as he thinks he is. I wouldn't be surprised to find out he's managed to get someone of his own inside Macebearer's staff. Probably not someone with the kind of access he'd like to have, but he might well have enough access to realize we're feeding him doctored documents."

"I might have a solution," Salgahn offered, and shrugged when both wizards looked at him. "I have a couple of men of my own inside the Palace. One of them's covered as a stable hand, but the other's on the housekeeping staff. He happens to be quite a good burglar, as a matter of fact."

"Does he, now?" Varnaythus considered the other man thoughtfully.

Like most dog brothers, Salgahn was officially a follower of Sharnā, although he was scarcely very devout. In fact, Varnaythus doubted Salgahn had ever seen one of Sharnā's actual rituals. It wasn't the sort of thing which would have appealed to him any more than it would have appealed to Varnaythus himself. But every profession required at least some support structure, and the Assassins Guild had found its support in the church of Sharnā. Which meant that from time to time, whether they liked it or not, the dog brothers found themselves "urgently requested" to assist the church. Of course, the fact that Salgahn hadn't bothered to mention his men's presence in King Markhos palace until this very moment made Varnaythus wonder just how completely Salgahn had thrown himself into this operation.

And I don't blame him a bit if he's been thinking from the very beginning in terms of ratholes to dash down the instant this ship hits a reef, the wizard reflected, then chuckled mentally as he realized how liberally he'd just mixed metaphors.

"Just how obviously could your burglar burglarize the Prime Councilor's files?" he asked out loud.

"Obviously?" Salgahn raised an eyebrow.

"If everyone knows Macebearer's office was successfully broken into, then Cassan's a lot less likely to worry about whether or not we're trying to feed him forged documents. If we're going to physically steal them anyway, I'd like to leave enough evidence behind -- evidence that Macebearer and the Crown would be able to keep from becoming general knowledge -- to prime the pump with Cassan. His need to show how smart he is his biggest weakness, when you come down to it. So if he knows about the 'secret burglary' when I show him copies -- or even originals -- from Macebearer's files, he'll be so smug about knowing how I got them that he won't even consider whether or not any alterations were made before he saw them. Letting someone convince himself always works better than trying to sell it to him from the outside."

"It'll make it a little riskier for my man," Salgahn pointed out.

"I'll triple the Guild's usual fee."

"Then I'm sure something can be worked out." Salgahn smiled, and Varnaythus chuckled.

"What about Borandas?" Sahrdohr asked, and Varnaythus frowned thoughtfully.

Borandas Daggeraxe was the Baron of Halthan and Lord Warden of the North Riding. The oldest of the four great barons of the Kingdom, he was also of no more than average intelligence, and he knew it. He was aware of the political power games swirling around at Court, but he was wise enough not to fish in such troubled waters and let himself be drawn into the toils of smarter but less scrupulous players. His son, Thorandas, was sharper than Borandas, and he'd been his father's primary political advisor for years. He understood the value of maintaining the North Riding's neutrality in the bitter power struggle between Cassan and Tellian. With Yeraghor of the East Riding supporting Cassan and the wind rider's representative supporting Tellian, that neutrality allowed the North Riding to effectively hold the balance of power on the Great Council, and Thorandas was unlikely to favor any course which would endanger that situation. On the other hand, he was also one of the hard-line anti-hradani bigots.…

"I'm not sure about Borandas," Varnaythus admitted. "But if Tellian's correspondence with Macebearer says what I think it says, then showing certain select passages to Thorandas might pay a very nice dividend in the fullness of time. I'll have to think about that once we see what it actually does say."

Sahrdohr nodded, and Varnaythus drew a deep breath.

"Now," he said, "the reason I want to get my hands on all that documentation is that the time has come -- or is coming very soon -- for us to…restructure the Kingdom of the Sothōii. And this is how we're going to do it. First --"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Apr 19, 2012 9:05 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 15

Chapter Four

"Careful, lummox! That's my head you're dumping crap all over!"

The hradani stopped, parked the wheelbarrow carefully, and then leaned sideways, looking over the edge of the excavation.

"And would you be telling me what in Fiendark's name you're doing down there right this very minute?" he inquired testily.

"My job," the dwarf standing in the bottom of the steep-walled cut replied in an even testier voice.

He took off his battered, well-used safety helmet to examine its top carefully, then rubbed a finger across the fresh patch of dust (and dent) the falling piece of rock had left in the steel and looked up accusingly. The hradani hadn't actually "dumped" it on him -- his wheelbarrow had simply dislodged a small stone in passing and knocked it over the edge -- but the result had been the same.

"If I hadn't been wearing this, you'd have splattered my brains all over the cut!" he said.

"Now that I wouldn't have," the hradani replied virtuously. "They'd not have covered more than a handspan of dirt at most, and likely less, come to think on it. And you've still not told me what it was you thought you were after doing down there when it was yourself told us to start pouring in the ballast."

"Checking the form, if you must know," the dwarf growled. "No one signed the check sheet." He waved a clipboard irritably. "Somebody has to do a walkthrough before the voids get filled in!"

"Well, you'll not be doing any 'walkthroughs' so very much longer if you don't get your sawed-off arse out of the way."

"'Sawed-off arse,' is it?" the dwarf demanded. He stumped over to the ladder fixed to the face of the massive, freestanding wooden form and started swarming up it. "For about one copper kormak I'll use you for ballast!"

"Ah? And how would you be doing that?" The hradani propped his hands on his hips and looked down at the dwarf from his towering inches. "I'm thinking a wee little fellow like you's likely to strain himself moving someone who's properly grown!"

The dwarf made it to the top of the ladder and across the wooden plank between the form and the solid ground beyond the cut, and stalked towards the enormous hradani. He was barely four feet tall, which made him less than two thirds the hradani's height, and he looked even smaller beside a massive, hradani-scaled "wheelbarrow" larger than most pony carts. But his beard seemed to bristle and he jabbed an index finger like a sword as he halted in the wheelbarrow's shadow and glared up at the hradani.

"It's a pity all a hradani's growth goes into his height instead of his brain," he observed acidly. "Not that I should be too surprised, I suppose. After all, when a skull's that thick, there can't be all that much room for brains inside it!"

"Sure and I'm thinking such envy must be a hard thing to bear," the hradani replied. "Still and all," he gripped the wheelbarrow's handles again, "such as me, being full grown and all, would look right strange creeping about in those squinchy little tunnels your folk favor."

He lifted, straightening his spine with a slight grunt of effort, and the heavy wooden handles -- well over six inches in diameter -- flexed visibly as the wheelbarrow's massive load of gravel went thundering down into the excavation. A plume of dust rose, blowing on the hot afternoon breeze, and he glanced down with satisfaction.

"Which isn't to say such as you wouldn't be looking right strange pushing around wheelbarrows as are all grown up, either, now I think on it, now is it?"

The dwarf shook his head with a disgusted expression, but his lips twitched slightly, and the hradani smiled benignly down upon him.

"You're like to do yourself a mischief venting all that spleen, Gorsan, and a sad thing that would be," he said. "Well, sadder for some than for others, now I think on it."

"Somebody's going to suffer a mischief, at any rate," Gorsandahknarthas zoi'Felahkandarnas growled back.

"And so I have already, I'm thinking," the hradani sighed. "Why, I might be off lounging around on guard duty somewhere -- or at least mucking out a stable -- and instead, here I am, wheeling around loads of gravel to fill a hole I had the digging of my own self in the first place, and all of it with a wee little runt no higher than my knee yammering and whining the time." He shook his head dolefully. "It's enough to make a man tear up like a babe in arms, it is, and I'm after wondering just what it was I had the doing of that got me on Prince Bahnak's bad side and landed me here."

"You really don't want me to answer that one," the dwarf told him with a chuckle. "Or maybe you do. Listing all the reasons he doesn't want to trust you doing something hard would take long enough to keep both of us standing here till the end of the shift after yours, wouldn't it?"

The hradani grinned, conceding Gorsan the last word, and trundled back off for another load of fill. Gorsan watched him go, then stepped back out of the way as another hradani wheeled another massive wheelbarrow down the pathway of wooden planks which had been laid across the muddy ground. The newcomer had clearly heard most of the exchange, and he shook his head, foxlike ears cocked in amusement, as he dumped his own load of gravel into the gap between the form and the side of the excavation.

Gorsan shot him the expected grumpy look, but the dwarf's brown eyes twinkled when he did. The truth was that he got along extraordinarily well -- indeed, far better than he'd expected -- with the hradani laboring on the Derm Canal. The canal was the longest and (in most ways) most vital portion of the massive construction project conceived by Kilthandahknarthas of Silver Cavern, Bahnak of Hurgrum, and Tellian of Balthar six years earlier, and it had been an enormous professional compliment when Gorsan was named its chief engineer. It had been inevitable that it would go to someone from Clan Felahkandarnas, given that Felahkandarnas stood second to Clan Harkanath in Silver Cavern by only the slimmest of margins and that not even Harkanath had been in a position to finance something like this solely out of its own resources. All of Silver Cavern was deeply invested in it, and the other clans had a right to nominate their own fair share of its supervisors. There'd still been at least a dozen possible candidates for the assignment, however, and Kilthandahknarthas and Thersahkdahknarthas dinha'Felahkandarnas had made the choice based on proven ability. On the other hand, that ability had been demonstrated working with other dwarves, and although Gorsan would never have admitted it to a soul, he'd approached the notion of supervising a mixed crew of hradani, dwarves, and humans with pronounced trepidation.

Actually, he conceded, watching another outsized wheelbarrow approach, it hadn't been the humans who'd concerned him. The hradani's reputation as the most dangerous of the Races of Man had been well earned over the twelve hundred years since the fall of Kontovar. Their tendency to erupt in berserk, homicidal fury when struck by the Rage -- the inherited madness of their race -- was enough to make anyone nervous, especially people who'd lived in the same vicinity as them for the past several centuries, and the old adage about burned hands teaching best had come forcibly to mind when he first contemplated his assignment.

In theory that had all changed now, and Gorsan admitted that he'd seen no episodes of the Rage during the five and a half years he'd supervised the canal's construction. Despite that, he still wasn't certain he believed all the stories he'd heard about how the Rage had changed, even if they were vouched for by Wencit of Rūm and a champion of Tomanāk. For that matter, he still had a few problems wrapping his mind around the concept of a hradani champion at all!

But whatever might be true about the Rage, he'd discovered there were definite advantages to a work force whose laborers had the size, strength, and sheer stamina of hradani. They took workloads in stride which would have made even a dwarf blanch, and for the first time in Gorsan's experience, a job actually looked like it was going to come in ahead of schedule, even with the miserable weather of northern Norfressa to slow things up!

And there was no question that Prince Bahnak of Hurgrum was a far cry from the stereotypical barbarian brigand most people thought of when anyone said the word "hradani" to them, either. Gorsan had met the prince and most of his almost equally formidable offspring, and he suspected the rumor that Bahnak had suggested the project to Kilthan rather than the other way around might well be true. The dwarves of Dwarvenhame were far more accustomed to interacting with the other Races of Man than any of the ancestral clans had been back in Kontovar, and Kilthandahknarthas was even more accustomed to it than most, but the sheer boldness and scale of the Derm Canal -- and its implications for all of Norfressa -- were staggering.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Apr 22, 2012 8:41 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 16

We should have thought of it years ago, he reflected now, clasping his hands behind him as he strolled down the brink of the canal cut. Except for the minor matter of its being impossible until Bahnak came along!

He snorted at the thought, but it was undeniably true. Even for dwarven engineers, the thought of building a canal almost four hundred leagues long between the human city of Derm and the hradani city of Hurgrum could never have been anything but a fantasy as long as the hradani city states had been at one another's throats. But Bahnak of Hurgrum's Clan Iron Axe had finally brought hundreds of years of ongoing conflict to an end.

For now, at least.

Gorsan grimaced as his mind insisted on adding the qualifier, yet it was hard to believe anyone or anything could truly turn the northern hradani into a single realm and keep it that way. But Bahnak and his Horse Stealers hadn't hammered the Bloody Swords into surrender by simple force of arms. Oh, he had hammered them -- that was the only way anyone ever convinced a hradani to do anything he didn't want to, after all; that much hadn't changed whatever might have happened to the Rage -- yet it had been Bahnak's shrewd diplomacy which had made his victory possible…and which looked like making his conquest stand up. Even the name he'd chosen -- the Northern Confederation -- only underscored his shrewd understanding of his own people. No one doubted for a moment that the "Northern Confederation" was actually a kingdom and that Bahnak was its king, yet he'd been careful to avoid the other clans' stubborn, hardheaded, not to say intransigent noses in that reality. Instead, it remained a simple confederation, no more (officially) than an upgrade and an enlargement of the old Northern Alliance he'd forged amongst the Horse Stealers, and he remained a simple prince, no more (officially) then first among equals. It was true, perhaps, that he stood "first among equals" by a very considerable margin, yet he was careful to show what Gorsan believed was a genuine concern and respect for the opinions of the members of his newly created Council of Princes. No one was going to be so foolish as to cross him or mistake him for anyone but the Confederation's undisputed ruler, but that was due in no small part to his demonstration that he understood the responsibilities of a ruler.

The fact that he was already proving one of the canniest rulers in Norfressan history didn't hurt, either, Gorsan reflected. He wasn't afraid to think, as his ability to conceive of something like the Derm Canal and drive it through to success amply demonstrated. No doubt it had been difficult to convince the newly conquered Bloody Swords to take the proposal seriously, at least at first. Getting them to realize there could be more profit in supporting commerce than in plundering it couldn't have been easy, at any rate! It had probably helped that the canal would stretch right across the traditional Bloody Sword holdings, giving them ample opportunity to make plenty of money off of the freight it would soon be carrying. And, after the initial labor of building the thing, for far less effort than more traditional wealth-gathering hradani practices, like looting and pillaging.

And once shippers get accustomed to the notion of actually sending their cargoes through hradani lands, they'll probably take a certain comfort in the fact that the hradani will be providing security rather than raiding their goods. It would take a lunatic to cross hradani guards on their own ground!

He stopped and gazed out across the sprawling construction site. Close at hand, crews used rollers and muscle-powered, footed pile drivers to tamp down the gravel ballast filling the gap between the wall of the excavation and the finished wooden forms which awaited the concrete. Gorsan would have preferred to use even more gravel and have a sarthnasik like Chanharsa fuse it, but other portions of the project were already eating up the efforts of at least two-thirds of Silver Cavern's available sarthnaisks, and concrete worked just fine for something as routine as a canal. Further west, the next lock in line was nearing completion, and more crews were tearing down the heavy forms now that the concrete had set. And, further west still, barges loaded with construction material moved steadily up and down the portion of the canal which was already operable.

The Derm Canal had been the most exhausting and exhilarating project of Gorsan's career, and his heart swelled with pride as he watched those barges moving across the gently rolling grasslands of Navahk. Another six months, he thought hopefully. Assuming they could finish before winter set in, that was. He shuddered as he remembered other winters, but he was determined they were going to beat this one. And with the Balthar locks already open and the Gullet Tunnel almost completed, the entire route could be ready and open as early as sometime next spring. He could hardly believe it even now, but those construction barges were the clearest possible proof that it really was going to work.

And those Purple Lord bastards down in Bortalik are going to be dropping in droves out of sheer apoplexy when it does, he thought with grim satisfaction. Which suits me just fine.

* * *

"Do you think Shaftmaster's estimates are accurate?" the man across the table asked, and Cassan Axehammer reminded himself not to roll his eyes.

Yeraghor Stonecastle, Baron Ersok and Lord Warden of the East Riding, was of little more than average height for a Sothōii -- two inches shorter than Cassan himself -- and as dark and swarthy as Cassan was blond. He had very long arms, and his powerful wrists accurately reflected the rigorous traditional training regimen he maintained, despite his high rank. He and Cassan were kinsmen and close political allies, but there were times Yeraghor's ability to belabor the obvious grated on Cassan's nerves. In fact, it bothered him more because he knew how intelligent Yeraghor actually was, which only made his tendency to ask obviously rhetorical questions even more irritating.

"I don't know whether they're accurate or not," Cassan said once he was sure his voice would come out the way he wanted it to.

He sipped expensive Dwarvenhame whiskey, then set the crystal glass down very precisely in front of him and leaned back. His comfortable rattan chair creaked under his weight, and he gazed out across the rolling green fields of the Barony of Frahmahn. He could see literally for miles from the roofed balcony set on the west side of his castle's central keep, and everything he saw was his. But somewhere out there, beyond what he could see, beyond the borders of his own South Riding, lay Tellian of Balthar's West Riding, and he felt his jaw muscles clench as he considered the reason -- the real reason -- for this meeting with Yeraghor.

"I don't know whether they're accurate, but I think it's obvious Shaftmaster thinks they are -- or will be, when all's said and done. And given that he's the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I'm not prepared to say he's wrong."

"And you're sure they're genuine?" Yeraghor asked, his eyes narrowing shrewdly. "Master Talthar's a resourceful soul, but we both know he has irons of his own in this fire."

"I'm sure," Cassan replied grimly. "And I've spent some time looking at the reports his estimates are based on, too." His expression wasn't getting any happier. "I'm not sure I agree with all of his analyses, but he can't be too far off."

"Shit," Yeraghor said flatly. Unlike Cassan, Yeraghor preferred beer to whiskey, and he buried his nose briefly in his silver chased tankard. Then he slapped it back on the table and glowered at Cassan.

"And this business about Macebearer signing on? It all looks genuine enough… I doubt he'd hesitate to offer us false information or even outright forgeries if it would serve his purposes. And capable or not, actually getting his hands on Macebearer's records -- or even just getting access to them -- couldn't have been easy. I know." He smiled thinly. "I've tried myself on more than one occasion!"

"They're not forgeries," Cassan said with a grimace. "I haven't managed to get anyone inside Macebearer's staff yet, either -- not high enough to get his hands on this sort of documentation, at least -- but I do have my sources in the Palace. Which is how I know someone broke into his office a few weeks ago. They've all done their best to hush it up, of course, but the investigation was as thorough as it was quiet. Talthar hasn't mentioned it to me specifically, but I'm pretty sure the 'servant' who disappeared the same night Macebearer got himself burglarized was his man." He shrugged. "I recognized Macebearer's handwriting, too. I don't think there's any question the documents are exactly what Talthar told me they are, and that means those estimates are about as accurate -- or official, at least -- as they get."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 24, 2012 8:53 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 17

"Wonderful," Yeraghor said bitterly. "Things are bad enough the way they are. The last thing we need is Tellian getting Crown approval for that kind of boost to his revenues!"

It was nice that Yeraghor agreed with him, Cassan thought acidly, but it would have been even nicer if he could have foregone -- just this once -- his compulsion to restate the obvious. But then Cassan made himself stop and draw a deep breath. His temper, he reminded himself, remained closer to the surface and faster to flare than he would have liked, and however irritating Yeraghor might be, Cassan had no business taking out his ire on his kinsman. Nor was it reasonable to expect any other initial response out of him, given the circumstances. Yes, Yeraghor's conclusion was blindingly obvious, but Cassan had had the advantage of two additional weeks to study the documents the other baron had seen only in the last hour or so.

And obvious or not, he had a point, Cassan conceded sourly.

One of the unfortunate realities of life was that the water transport of trade goods was far and away safer, faster, and much, much cheaper than trying to ship the same goods overland. That was true even in the Empire of the Axe, with its superb highways; here on the Wind Plain, or in the Empire of the Spear -- where even the best of roads were dirt and the worst were…well, pretty terrible -- moving anything remotely bulky by land over any really extended distance was far too expensive for anyone to show a profit on it.

As a consequence, it had always been difficult for Axeman merchants to ship their goods into the Kingdom of the Sothōii. It was possible to move at least some of them (mostly low-bulk luxury goods) overland from Dwarvenhame through the West Riding, but the Ordan Mountains and their foothills were a formidable barrier even over dwarf-designed high roads, and roads in the Duchy of Ordanfalas and the Duchy of Barondir, between Dwarvenhame and the West Riding, were no better than those of the Kingdom itself. For that matter, Barondir had a perennial problem with brigands and raiders, and the duke himself had been known to charge unexpected and sometimes extortionate "tolls" with very little warning.

Most of the Axeman goods that did reach the Sothōii made their way up the long, majestic stretch of the mighty Spear River, and even that was barely a tithe of what it might have been. Bortalik Bay, at the mouth of the Spear, lay well over twenty-five hundred leagues south of the Wind Plain. That was an enormous voyage, and Axeman goods coming up the river first had to sail clear down around Norfressa's western coast just to reach Bortalik. Yet distance was only the first hurdle they faced, for the half-elven Purple Lords who ruled Bortalik were deeply resentful of the Empire of the Axe's economic dominance, and they regarded the entire basin of the Spear as their own private preserve. The tolls they charged to permit Axeman goods to pass through Bortalik and up the river were damned close to confiscatory, and they also used their strategic position to fasten a stranglehold on the foreign trade of the Empire of the Spear -- one that frequently drifted over into outright control of Spearman politics. Any Spearman noble who angered the Purple Lords was apt to find all access to foreign goods embargoed by them, with consequences ranging from the merely painful to the ruinous.

Neither Cassan nor Yeraghor had any particular problem with that arrangement. What happened in the Empire of the Spear was no concern of theirs, and if Axeman goods found it difficult to make the voyage from Bortalik to Nachfalas, Cassan's clifftop port above the Escarpment, Purple Lord goods made the trip just fine. True, it made the Kingdom's economy almost as vulnerable to Purple Lord manipulation as the Empire of the Spear's in some ways, but that was actually advantageous in many respects, especially from Cassan's viewpoint. That "unavoidable Purple Lord pressure" gave the Kingdom another card to play when it came to managing its relationship with its Axeman allies, who could be counted upon to cough up occasional concessions to sweeten the alliance as a counterbalance. And, on a more personal level, Cassan showed a pretty profit on all of the trade, Purple Lord or not, that passed through his lands on its way to Sothōfalas and other points north. As for Yeraghor, the East Riding was the site of most of the Kingdom's iron mines and smithies, and Yeraghor's smiths and craftsmen had absolutely no desire to find themselves competing with the smithies and forges of Dwarvenhame.

But that, unfortunately, was exactly what was going to happen if Tellian succeeded in his latest intolerable scheme. The so-called Derm Canal was going to make it possible for Axeman merchant barges to sail up the Morvan River to Derm, the highest navigable point on that river, and then across to the Hangnysti River at Bahnak's capital of Hurgrum and up the Balthar River to the very foot of the Escarpment and their accursed "Gullet Tunnel." Once their goods reached the top of the Escarpment, the Balthar would be available again to ferry them all the way to Tellian's capital, or they could be delivered directly to Sothōfalas by way of Glanharrow in less than a third of the time it took for them to reach the capital from Nachfalas…all without paying a single kormak in tolls to the South Riding. And worst of all, it would break the Purple Lords' monopoly on the Spear River. Those same barges could sail down the Hangnysti to the Spear and as far south as they pleased with cargos of Axeman goods and return the same way with cargoes from Spearman merchants without ever going near Bortalik Bay. The Purple Lords were about to lose a disastrous portion of their wealth and power, and while Cassan would have lost no sleep over that, the thought that largish chunks of that same wealth and power would be pouring into Bahnak's accursed Northern Confederation and the West Riding, instead, was another matter entirely. While it was likely his own income would actually increase, given the Nachfalas location and the greater volume of trade which would be passing up and down the upper Spear, that increase would be only a shadow -- and a very thin, dim shadow, at that—of the revenue increase Tellian was about to see.

Cassan's nostrils flared as he contemplated that grim future and a dull tide of resentment burned through him yet again as he remembered how close he'd come to defeating Tellian for good.

The two of them had been locked in combat for dominance on the Great Council for over twenty years now, and their respective houses had fought that same battle still longer -- all the way back to the Kingdom's very first Time of Troubles -- with the struggle seesawing back and forth with the shifting of political tides. Under King Sandahl, the present King's father, the House of Axehammer had enjoyed a pronounced advantage, but Cassan's position had slipped under King Markhos…thanks, in no small part, to the advice the King had received from his younger brother, Yurokhas. Prince Yurokhas had been fostered at Balthar under Tellian's father at the insistence of the Great Council, which had feared the South Riding's influence with King Sandahl. He'd known the present baron since boyhood, and to make bad worse, he too was a wind rider, like Tellian. Besides, Cassan was forced to admit that he'd overplayed his own hand during Markhos' brief regency.

Markhos had been fostered at Toramos, the seat of the Barons of Frahmahn, under Cassan's father, and Cassan had expected to capitalize on that relationship. It had been a mistake. He admitted that freely, if not happily. He'd put the boy's hackles up, and he'd probably been just a bit too open -- well, heavy-handed, if he was going to be honest -- about using the advantages of his riding's position on the Spear. He'd been younger then, himself, barely a dozen years Markhos' senior, and he'd come to his own dignities only a few years before, but that was no excuse for his clumsiness, and he knew it.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Apr 26, 2012 8:57 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 18

Still, he'd been confident of regaining all the ground he'd lost, and then some, when Tellian "surrendered" over four thousand of his men to less than eighty hradani. The hatred between the Sothōii and their hradani "neighbors" was deep as the sea and bitter as brine, and Tellian had passed up the perfect opportunity to ride down into the Horse Stealers' lands and burn their cities behind them while their own warriors were off battling their Bloody Sword enemies. He'd been right there, poised to carry through the attack, with plenty of reinforcements available to follow his original spearhead down The Gullet. He could have destroyed "Prince" Bahnak's alliance, prevented the Phrobus-damned abortion of a unified hradani "Confederation" on the Wind Plain's very flank before it even began, and he'd let eighty of the barbarians stop him! And, even worse in some ways, he'd actually accepted the blasphemous claim that Tomanāk Orfro could conceivably have chosen a hradani as one of His champions! For that matter, he'd accepted Wencit of Rūm's preposterous lie that it was the Sothōii who'd begun the millennium and more of bitter, brutal warfare between themselves and the hradani.

The court faction which had been most concerned about the possibility of a unified hradani realm had been furious, nor had they been alone in that. Even some of those who'd been prepared to take a wait-and-see attitude had been shocked -- and more than a little frightened, whether they'd wanted to admit it or not -- by the idea that Tellian had actually connived to create the "Northern Confederation." And the notion that he should recognize the champion status of a Horse Stealer hradani, the most hated and reviled of all the hradani clans, had triggered an upsurge of bitter anger. Cassan would never be able to be certain, but he strongly suspected that only Prince Yurokhas' support for Tellian -- and his acceptance that Tomanāk might actually have been so insane as to take a hradani as His champion -- had motivated Markhos to resist the furious demands that Tellian be stripped of his membership on the Great Council. Indeed, there'd been demands that he be stripped of his barony and lord wardenship, as well.

Yet even though Markhos had stopped short of accepting those demands, Cassan had known how thin the ice had become under Tellian's feet, and he'd been confident that this time he could finish off his rival's influence in Sothōfalas once and for all.

Unfortunately, it hadn't worked out that way. That his strategy to undermine Tellian's rule with a series of safely deniable attacks on Festian of Glanharrow had collapsed would have been bad enough, but then that bastard Bahzell had been given credit for saving the tattered remnants of the Warm Springs courser herd and actually going on to defeat a pack of demons set upon the coursers by none other than Krahana herself! Cassan still found that tale too ridiculous to accept. He was willing to admit Bahzell might have had something to do with rescuing the surviving coursers -- certainly something had inspired them to accept him as a wind rider, which was almost as blasphemous as the idea that he might actually be a champion -- but Cassan Axehammer would believe Tomanāk had accepted Bahzell Bahnakson as one of His champions when Tomanāk turned up in person in his own great hall to tell him so!

And then, as if that hadn't been enough, that meddlesome, common-born bitch Kaeritha Seldansdaughter had seen fit to interfere in the Kingdom's internal affairs, as well. Of course Cassan wouldn't have wanted someone like Shīgū to succeed in destroying an entire temple of any God of Light, but Lillinara was scarcely his favorite deity, either. If it had had to happen to someone's temple, he would have managed to bear up under the knowledge that it had been Hers. And as for the war maids --! Anything that got rid of those unnatural bitches once and for all couldn't be all bad.

King Markhos appeared to see things differently, however. Worse, he'd sent his accursed magi to investigate Tellian's and Kaeritha's claims.

Personally, Cassan had never trusted the magi, anyway. Oh, he knew all about their precious Oath of Semkirk and how it bound all of them to use their powers only within the law…and as far as he was concerned, that and a silver kormak would get him a cup of hot chocolate. No one with the unnatural powers the magi claimed could be trusted. If for no other reason, how could anyone but the magi themselves verify that they were telling the truth about what they did -- or didn't -- do with those powers of theirs? And the last thing he wanted was anyone peering around inside his head, which was why he always wore the amulet that blocked any mage from doing just that. Fortunately, at least some people had naturally strong blocks which made them all but impossible to read without a major -- and obvious -- effort (assuming the magi were telling the truth about their abilities, at least), and since his amulet simply duplicated that natural block, its protection hadn't triggered any alarms in and of itself.

That had prevented the magi from denouncing him as part of the "plot" against Tellian. But it hadn't prevented them from uncovering almost all of the minor lords warden who'd been involved, and one of them -- Saratic Redhelm of Golden Vale -- had been Cassan's own vassal and distant kinsman. That had almost proved disastrous, but Cassan had installed enough layers of insulation between him and Saratic to at least confuse the issue. The danger that Saratic might have chosen to trade his testimony against Cassan for some sort of clemency, or even outright immunity, from the Crown had presented itself…but only until Darnas Warshoe, that useful armsman, saw to it that Saratic suffered an accident.

And given what Saratic had been up to, at least a sizable minority of the Kingdom's nobles strongly suspected Tellian had been behind that "accident," not Cassan. It wasn't the sort of thing Tellian normally did, but mercenaries hired by another Sothōii noble didn't normally try to kill Tellian's nephew and heir-adoptive, either. There were some provocations no one could allow to pass unanswered.

Cassan doubted anyone in the entire Kingdom believed he hadn't been behind the raids, yet with Saratic's death, there'd been no proof, and not even an irate monarch proceeded against one of the four most powerful nobles of his realm without incontrovertible proof. Not openly, at any rate. Still, whatever anyone else might think, King Markhos obviously knew who'd instigated it all, and he'd made his displeasure clear by stripping Golden Vale from the South Riding and incorporating it into Tellian's West Riding…officially as a form of reparations for Saratic's actions, although everyone knew whose wrist he'd actually been smacking. Nor had he stopped there.

He'd summarily dismissed Garthmahn Ironhelm, Lord Warden of Chersa, who'd been his Prime Councilor -- and Cassan's firm ally -- for over ten years. And he'd also informed Cassan in a cold, painful personal interview that he himself would be unwelcome in Sothōfalas for the next year or two. The King had stopped short of expelling Cassan formally from the Great Council, yet Ironhelm's dismissal and his own banishment from Sothōfalas, however temporary it might be, had reduced his web of alliances and influence to tatters. He'd only recently begun putting those alliances back together, and they remained a ghost of what they had been.

Which was, after all, one of the reasons Yeraghor had become even more vital to all of his future plans.

"You're right, of course, Yeraghor," he said finally. "And it's not just the revenues Tellian's looking at, either. There's the correspondence from Macebearer, as well. This isn't just about money. Tellian's climbing deeper and deeper into bed with the Axemen and that bastard Bahnak. He's not only going to drag the entire Kingdom into actually endorsing Bahnak's rule, but he's going to get our foreign policy tied directly to Dwarvenhame! And when the dust settles, he's going to be the real power broker here on the Wind Plain. Don't think for a minute that that isn't exactly what he has in mind in the long run, and when he gets it, don't think he's going to forget anyone who's ever done him an injury, either."

He looked across the table into Yeraghor's eyes, and his own were grim.

"He can rhapsodize about how much good this is going to do our economy, but Shaftmaster and Macebearer are blind, drooling idiots if they can't see the downside! And even if they don't think it's a downside for the rest of the Kingdom, it's damned well going to be one for us. Assuming, of course" -- he smiled thinly -- "that we were so foolish as to let Tellian and Bahnak get away with it."
*
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Apr 29, 2012 8:31 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 19

Chapter Five

The clouds looked less than promising Lady Sharlassa Dragonclaw thought, looking unhappily at the overcast settling lower about the shoulders of Hill Guard Castle.

Lady Sharlassa sat under the branches of the castle's apple orchard, but they were barely beginning to bud, and it was far too early in the year to expect them to offer her any protection if Chemalka decided to go ahead and release the rain hovering in those clouds. The breeze was strengthening, too, blowing through the apple branches and lifting stray locks of auburn hair on puffs of blossom-scented perfume, and her nostrils flared as she drew the green, living incense of the world deep into her lungs. She felt alive at moments like this in a way she'd never really been able to explain even to herself, far less to anyone else. It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.

Her mother had only smiled fondly and mentioned things like active imaginations when a much younger Sharlassa tried to describe moments like this, and Sharlassa knew she was right. Yet imagination or not, she did feel the life moving with the breeze, tantalizing her with that damp kiss of rain to come. Personally, Sharlassa had no desire to find herself soaked to the skin, but that sense of oneness with the apple trees whispered to her that they were looking forward to it.

Well, it was nice that someone was looking forward to something, she thought, and heaved a deep, mournful sigh as the reflection returned her to the reason she was sitting here on a rather damp wall of rough, unmortared stone in an apple orchard almost two hundred leagues from her home. Or, rather, from her new home, since she'd been born and raised less than six miles from where she sat at that very moment. That was another reason she found this apple orchard so restful; she'd spent enough hours sitting here as a little girl for the trees to be old friends. Or gleaning windfallen fruit between meals. Or clambering around in their branches like a squirrel during harvest. In fact, one of those trees, not so very far from where she sat at this very moment, had her initials carved into its bark. She could still remember the thrashing she'd gotten from her mother for "defacing" one of the Baron's trees!

A smile flickered across her face at the memory and she put her palms flat on the top of the wall, leaning back slightly to rest her weight on them while she arched her spine and looked up at those clouds. Life had been so much simpler then, without as many opportunities, perhaps, but without as many prices, either. And no one -- except her parents, of course -- had really been that concerned if a hoyden teenager wandered off to sit in an apple orchard somewhere once her chores were done. Now, of course, everyone cared, and the nature of her "chores" had changed rather drastically.

She looked back at the castle whose walls had loomed protectively over her parents' modest stone house when she was a girl. Somewhere inside those walls, at this very moment, Tahlmah Bronzebow, her harassed maid, was undoubtedly searching for her. On the basis of past Sharlassa hunts, she estimated that Tahlmah wouldn't quite be ready to call out Duke Tellian's armsmen yet. That would take, oh…another hour and a half. Possibly two. Unless, of course, it occurred to Tahlmah to come check the orchard again. Sharlassa was certain her maid had looked here first, but the initial phase of Sharlassa's current truancy had taken her to the stables, instead, to spend fifteen or twenty minutes communing with the one being in all the world who always commiserated with her. Muddy -- known on official occasions as Summer Rain Falling -- might not understand the reasons for his mistress' moodiness and occasional aspirations to rebellion, but he never stinted on his sympathy.

Which, she sometimes reflected, probably had something to do with the lumps of sugar that were customarily nestled in her pocket when she went to call upon him.

She smiled at the thought and took her right hand off the wall long enough to pull one of the dark green ribbons out of her hair. She held it up between thumb and forefinger, listening to it snap gently as the breeze played with it, then opened her hand and let it fly. It swooped up into the branches of one of the trees, wrapped itself around a limb, and flew bravely, like a banner against the steadily darkening charcoal of the sky.

You're being silly, she told herself…again. Every single one of the girls you grew up with would give her eyeteeth for your life, and you know it! Well, all but one of them, maybe. Of course, her life went the opposite direction from yours, didn't it?

She laughed at the thought, but that didn't make it untrue. Yet what all those other girls she'd grown up with probably wouldn't believe for a moment was that she'd never wanted to be a lord warden's daughter. She'd been perfectly happy -- well, almost perfectly happy -- as the daughter of a simple armsman. Oh, she'd been proud of her father and the officer's rank he'd gained. And being a wind rider's daughter had made her even prouder. She could still remember the first time Kengayr, her father's courser companion, had presented his huge, soft nose to a grubby five-year-old's hand, towering over her like a vast gray mountain. A single one of his forehooves had been as big as she was, and his head had been bigger -- she could have used one of his horseshoes for the seat of a swing, and he could have squashed her with a thought -- but all she'd felt was the wonder of him, and she'd known even then that Kengayr meant her father really was as wonderful as she'd always thought he was.

But Sir Jahsak Dragonclaw could have stopped at Major Dragonclaw in Baron Tellian's service, as far as Sharlassa was concerned. In fact, she wished he had!

If wishes were fishes, we'd never want food, she told herself tartly, quoting one of her mother's favorite maxims. Yet there were times she suspected Lady Sharmatha wasn't a lot happier about the "Lady" in front of her name than Sharlassa was about the one in front of hers. In fact, she was certain there were, although Lady Sharmatha would no more ever admit that than her father might admit that he, too, must cherish occasional second thoughts about the consequences of the honor Baron Tellian had bestowed upon him.

And it is an honor, you twit, Sharlassa told herself sternly. From a common armsman to a knight and a wind rider and a major all the way to lord warden?! It's the kind of honor other people only dream of, and you should spend your time being happy for him -- and proud of him -- instead of worrying about all the problems it's made for you!

Unfortunately, it was easier for Sir Jahsak -- and for her brothers -- than it was for Sharlassa…or her mother. The rules were so hard for a girl who'd been raised as a tomboy until she was thirteen years old. She was still trying to figure them out, six years later, and she dreaded the even greater number of rules -- the endless number of rules -- she'd have to worry about in years to come. She knew her mother found her new role as Lady Golden Vale an uncomfortable fit, and not just because so many of "their" retainers and tenants hated and resented them as interlopers and usurpers. It would take someone much braver than Sharlassa to show Lady Sharmatha disrespect to her face, yet Sharmatha had to be aware of the way all those hostile eyes scrutinized her, watching for any miscue or misstep they could pounce upon as fresh proof of how uncouth and unworthy of his lord wardenship Sir Jahsak was.
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