"Yes, Marthya, he is," Leeana Bowmaster agreed, and the maid hid a small smile at her youthful mistress' repressive tone. There was a reason for that repressiveness, she thought, and managed somehow not to giggle at the reflection.
"Pity about the ears though, Milady," she continued in an impishly innocent tone. "He could be almost handsome without them."
" 'Handsome' isn't exactly the word I'd choose to describe him," Leeana replied. Although, if she'd been prepared to be honest with her maid (which she most emphatically was not), she would have argued that the man in question was quite handsome even with the ears. Indeed, the undeniable edge of otherness they lent him only made him more exotically attractive.
"Well, at least he comes closer to handsome than his friend does!" Marthya observed, and this time Leeana chose to make no response at all. Marthya had known her since childhood, and she was only too capable of putting isolated comments together to divine her charge's thoughts with devastating accuracy. Which was not -something -Leeana needed her—or anyone else!—doing at this particular moment. Especially not where the current object of their attention was concerned.
The two of them stood in the concealing shadows of the minstrel gallery above Hill Guard Castle's great hall. Below them, Leeana's father and a dozen or so of his senior officers had just risen to greet two new arrivals. Well, not new, precisely. They'd been living at Hill Guard for weeks now. But they'd been away for several days, on a visit to their own people, and Leeana was afire with curiosity, among other things. Even her father (who any unprejudiced soul must concede was the best father in the Kingdom) sometimes forgot to mention interesting political information or speculation to a mere daughter. Besides, the newcomers fascinated Leeana. She was a Sothōii. No one had to tell her about the bitter, eternal enmity between her own people and the hradani. But these two were utterly at odds with the popular stereotype of their people, which would have made them interesting enough without all of the political ramifications of their presence.
And, she admitted, Marthya was quite correct about how tall her father's guest—or captor, depending upon one's perspective—was.
* * *
"Welcome back, Prince Bahzell. And you, too, Lord Brandark." Tellian Bowmaster, Baron of Balthar and Lord Warden of the West Riding, smiled with a genuine warmth some might have found surprising as he greeted his visitors. Tellian's tenor voice was melodious enough, but it always sounded a bit strange coming from someone who stood six and a half inches over six feet in height. As was true of many of the oldest noble houses of the Sothōii, members of the Bowmaster clan tended to be very tall, for humans, and Tellian was no exception.
"It's thankful for the welcome we are," the taller of the new arrivals replied in a deep bass that sounded not at all strange rumbling up out of the massive chest of a hradani who stood well over seven and a half feet in his stockings. "Still and all, I'm thinking you might want to be making that welcome a mite less obvious, Milord."
"Why?" Tellian smiled crookedly as he waved Bahzell and his companion towards chairs at the long refectory table before the fire blazing on the hearth. That hearth was big enough to consume entire trees but, like most fires on the rolling grasslands of the Wind Plain, it burned coal, not wood. "Those who believe I have even the faintest notion of what I'm doing won't be bothered by it. And those who are convinced I don't have any notion won't like me any more just because I pretend to sulk when you cross my threshold. That being so, I might as well at least be polite!"
"A succinct analysis, Milord," the smaller of the two hradani observed with a chuckle. At six feet two inches, Brandark Brandarkson was shorter than Tellian, far less Bahzell, and he dressed like someone who was as close to an overcivilized fop as any hradani could hope to come. But he was almost squat with muscle, and the shoulders under his exquisitely cut doublets and waistcoats were almost as broad as Bahzell's. Despite his shorter stature, he was one of the very few people who came close to matching Bahzell's lethality in a fight, which had been a handy thing, from time to time, for he was also a bard. Of sorts.
The hradani language was well suited to long, rolling cadences, and richly evocative verse and song. That was good, for during the darkest periods of their twelve centuries in Norfressa, it was only the oral traditions of their generally illiterate bards which had kept any of their history alive. Even today, bards were more honored among the hradani than among any other Norfressan people, except, perhaps, the elven lords of Saramantha, and Brandark had the soul of a bard. He was also a brilliant, completely self-educated scholar, and a talented musician. But not even his closest friends were willing to pretend that he could actually sing, and his poetry was almost as bad as his voice. He yearned to craft the epic poems to express the beauty his soul reached out to . . . and what he actually produced was doggerel. Witty, entertaining, trenchant doggerel, to be sure, but doggerel. Which perhaps explained his habit of writing biting, sometimes savage satire. Indeed, he'd spent years baiting Prince Churnazh of Navahk—something no one else had dared to do—and only the deadliness of the swordsman hiding beneath his foppish exterior had kept him alive while he did it.
Those days were behind him now, but his broad grin suggested that his inner satirist found the entire situation which had engulfed his friend and the Sothōii enormously entertaining.
Which Bahzell did not.
" 'Succinct' is all well and good," the Horse Stealer growled at his friend. "But there's enough as would like to see the two of us fall flat on our arses as it is, without us looking all happy to be seeing one another."
"No doubt we should maintain a proper decorum in more public venues," Tellian conceded. "But this is my home, Bahzell. I'll damned well greet anyone I want any way I want in it."
"I can't say as I can fault you there," Bahzell said after a moment. "Mind you, I'm thinking there's more Sothōii would rather see my head on a pike over your gate than my backside in this chair in front of your fire!"
"Not many more than the number of hradani who'd like to see my head over your father's gate in Hurgrum, I imagine," Tellian replied with a wry smile. "Although at least you didn't surrender an entire invasion army to a ragtag force of hradani you outnumbered thirty- or forty-to-one."
"But at least Prince Bahzell was also good enough to grant us all parole, Wind Brother," a shorter, stockier Sothōii pointed out.
"Yes, Hathan," Tellian agreed. "And I accepted his offer—which only makes those who would already have been prepared to be disgusted feel that the honor of all Sothōii has been mortally affronted, as well. They just can't decide if they're more furious with me for the 'travesty' of my surrender or with Bahzell for the 'humiliation' of his acceptance of it!"
"With all due respect, Baron," Brandark said, nodding his thanks as he reached for the wine glass Hathan had filled for him, "I'd say let them feel as affronted as they want to feel as long as what you and Bahzell are up to manages to keep your people from one another's throats. And speaking purely for myself, of course, and admitting that it's remotely possible I might be slightly prejudiced, I happen to feel you did exactly the right thing, since any solution which left my personal head on my shoulders was a good one. Which, of course, only underscores the brilliance and wisdom of the people who arrived at it."
Several of the humans seated at the table chuckled, yet their laughter had a darker edge. Tellian's decision to "surrender" the unauthorized invasion force Mathian Redhelm had led down the Gullet to attack the city state of Hurgrum was the only thing which had prevented the massacre of the first hradani chapter of the Order of Tomanāk in Norfressan history. It had also prevented the sack of Hurgrum, the slaughter of innocent women and children, and quite probably a new and even bloodier war between Sothōii and hradani.
Unfortunately, not everyone—and not just on the Sothōii side—had been in favor of preventing all those things.
It's truly remarkable how frantically we all cling to our most treasured hatreds, Brandark thought. And even though I would have said it was impossible, these Sothōii are even more bloody-minded about that than hradani are.
"You may be prejudiced, Brandark," Tellian said in a more serious tone, "but that doesn't make you wrong. And at least the King seems prepared to go along with us for now."
"For now," Bahzell agreed.
"And while that's true, we need to make as much progress as we can," Tellian continued. "Perhaps we can actually manage to turn his acceptance into enthusiastic support."
"It's certainly to be hoped so," Bahzell said. "And Father is after agreeing with you. I passed on your message to him, and he says as how, if you're willing, he's thinking it might be best for him to be sending another score or so of his lads up the Gullet to fill out my 'guards.' " The towering hradani shrugged, and his foxlike ears twitched gently back and forth. "For myself, I'd sooner not have any guards."
"I've explained that before, Bahzell," Tellian half-sighed. "You may not be an official ambassador, but that's one of the roles you've got to play. And if you expect a batch of stiff-necked Sothōii to take you seriously as an ambassador, you'd better have a proper retinue."
"Aye, you've explained it, right enough," Bahzell agreed. "And seeing as how Father agrees with you, and he's after being one of the canniest men I've yet to meet, I'll not say you're wrong. But it's in my mind that if I was after being one of those of your folk as don't think this is just the very best idea anyone ever had, then I'd not like to see a jumped up barbarian like me bringing in any more swords to stand behind him."
"You'd need a lot more men than your father is talking about sending before you could pose any sort of credible threat to the Kingdom," Tellian pointed out. "Again, Bahzell. You've got to play the part properly, and having your father send you the guards your position demands isn't going to upset anyone who wasn't already prepared to be upset with us. So for Toragan's sake, stop worrying about it!"
Bahzell regarded his host thoughtfully across the table for several seconds, then shrugged. He still wasn't certain he agreed with Tellian, and he was certain he wanted to do nothing which might make the Sothōii baron's position any more precarious than he had to. But if Tellian, his father and mother, his sister Marglyth, and even Brandark were all in agreement, it was obviously time for him to close his mouth and accept their advice.
"Well, seeing as you're all so set on it, I'll say no more against it," he said mildly.
"Tomanāk preserve us!" Brandark exclaimed. "My ears must be deceiving me. I could swear I just heard Bahzell Bahnakson say something reasonable!"
"Just you keep it up, little man. I'm thinking it should make an impressive funeral."
Brandark twitched his ears impudently at his -towering friend, and another, louder chuckle ran around the table.
"If you keep threatening me," Brandark said warningly, "I'll have you trodden on. It won't be that hard, you know." He elevated his prominent nose with a disdainful sniff. "Dathgar and Gayrhalan both like me much more than they like you."
"Oh-ho!" Tellian laughed and shook his head. "That's a lower blow than that song of yours, Brandark! Coursers have memories as long as Sothōii and hradani combined!"
"I prefer to think of it not so much as a matter of remembered past grievances as a case of exquisite and refined present good taste," Brandark replied. Then he shrugged. "Of course, the fact that they've spent the better part of a thousand years thinking of Horse Stealers as their natural mortal enemies might play some small part in it, I suppose."
"Aye, that they have," Bahzell rumbled. "And, truth to tell, I'm thinking as how I don't blame them if it should happen as how they're wanting to carry a grudge. At least they've been civil enough."
The baron might have chosen to make a joke of it, but it hadn't always been a laughing matter. And for many Sothōii—and coursers—it still wasn't. The Horse Stealers' "traditional" taste for horseflesh had always been grossly exaggerated—by themselves, often enough. Their habit of eating warhorses killed in combat had been the product of their bitter, unrelenting hatred for the humans who'd sought their extermination when first the Sothōii came to the Wind Plain—a case of striking back at their enemies in the way they knew would hurt them worst. They'd never made a practice of slaughtering live warhorses for the pot, however. That particular charge had been the product of Sothōii demonization of their foes, because the Horse Stealers had been right about how they would react. The Sothōii had regarded it as proof of the hradani's subhuman, blood soaked barbarian status. For the coursers, however, it had been the equivalent of cannibalism. To the best of Bahzell's knowledge, there'd been only two cases of coursers themselves being eaten in the entire bloody history of his people's endless battles with the Sothōii, and the coursers knew that as well as he did. But as Tellian had just said, coursers had long memories. It was fortunate that they were at least a little less prone than humans or hradani to visit responsibility for the sins of the fathers upon the sons.
A little less prone, at any rate.
"Really?" Brandark glanced at him sidelong. "Are you saying you didn't really need that doublet Gayrhalan tore to shreds . . . while you were wearing it?"
"Well, as to that," Bahzell replied with a calmness he'd been very far from feeling on the day in question, "I'm thinking as how Gayrhalan was after being in a bad mood that day. And I'll ask you to be taking note of the fact that he never drew any blood at all, at all. If he'd been so minded, it's an arm I would have been losing, and not just a doublet."
"That really is true," Hathan agreed, and shook his head, grinning wryly at the memory of his companion's fractious mood. "And it was at least partly my fault, too. I was a bit clumsy with my hoof knife that morning."
"No, you weren't," Tellian snorted. "Gayrhalan flinched and tossed you halfway across the stable when that stupid warhorse stallion of Trianal's slammed into the other side of the wall. How you managed to avoid really gashing him is more than I'll ever know. And Dathgar happens to agree with me, however unscrupulously Gayrhalan may try to shuffle the blame off on to you, Wind Brother!"
"You may be right," Hathan acknowledged with a slow smile, then chuckled. "I may have known one or two coursers with tempers worse than Gayrhalan's, but I know I haven't known three of them. There's a reason for his name, you know."
He chuckled again, louder, and Bahzell grinned at him. "Gayrhalan" meant "Storm Souled" in the Sothōii tongue, and the courser seemed to feel an almost Brandark-like obligation to live up to the image it conjured.
"They do say that coursers become more like their riders, and wind riders become more like their -coursers," Hathan continued, "and since Gayrhalan and I were both already a bit on the obnoxious side before we ever met—"
He shrugged, and the laughter was even louder this time.
"For all that, though," the wind rider continued after a moment, his tone at least marginally more serious, "he truly was just showing his temper, however ungracious of him it may have been."
"Oh, never fear, Hathan! There was never after being any least doubt in my mind on that score! It's battleaxes I've seen with blades less impressive than your outsized friend's teeth." Bahzell shook his head. "It was then and there that I was after making up my mind not to be calling on him—or on Dathgar, for that matter—without I'd been formally invited."
"How uncharacteristically wise of you," Brandark murmured in a mildly maliciously provocative voice.
Bahzell made a rude gesture at him, but the truth was that both Tellian's and Hathan's companions continued to regard all hradani, but especially all Horse Stealer hradani, with profound reservations. Given that a courser was one of the very few creatures on the face of the earth who could reduce a Horse Stealer to so much gory, trampled jelly, he was eminently prepared to give them as wide a berth as they desired for as long as they wanted it. However magnificent they might be, and however quickly hradani might heal, now that he'd finally seen them at close quarters, he preferred his bones unbroken.
"I've no doubt we've more than enough other matters to be discussing, Milord," he continued, returning his attention to Tellian. "Just for a beginning, Father says he and Kilthan have been talking over your notion of a three-way trade up the Escarpment, and he's of a mind to agree you've hit on an excellent idea. But I've a few matters that need doing for the Order, as well, and I've messages for Hurthang from Vaijon. Would it be that he and Kaeritha are somewhere about the place?"
"None of us expected you back before tomorrow," Hathan replied for the baron, "and the two of them went over to the temple this morning. They're not back yet, but we can certainly send word for them to return if it's urgent."
"Well, as to that," Bahzell said, pushing his chair back and coming to his feet, "I'm thinking there's no need to be rousting out one of your people to run messages. I need to be dropping by the temple myself, so if it's all the same to you, Milord," he nodded to Tellian, "I'll just be heading over that way."
* * *
"Oh! Excuse me, Prince Bahzell! I didn't see you."
"No harm done," Bahzell said mildly, setting the girl back on her feet. She'd emerged from the half-hidden arch with more speed than decorum, but his reflexes had been good enough to catch her before the actual impact that would have bounced her off her feet. Her maid came bustling down the stair behind her, then screeched to a halt as she saw her charge being set effortlessly upright by a pair of hands the size of small shovels.
The maid—Marthya, he thought her name was, if he recalled correctly—was obviously less than enthralled by the sight, but she didn't look especially surprised. Nor was Bahzell, really. One thing he'd discovered early on about his host's daughter was that she was utterly lacking in the sort of bored languor which appeared to be the current, carefully cultivated ideal of most aristocratic young Sothōii noblewomen. It might be too much to call her own accustomed pace headlong, but not by very much.
He smiled down at her—however tall she might be for a human child, she was barely even petite for a Horse Stealer girl—and restrained himself with some difficulty from patting her on the head. She wouldn't have appreciated it if he'd yielded to the temptation, he thought dryly.
Although she had her father's hair and height, she'd thankfully escaped Tellian's hawklike profile. At fourteen, she'd just emerged from the coltishly awkward stage, although there were moments—like this one—when she suffered temporary relapses. She had an insatiable curiosity to go along with an obviously keen mind, and she obviously found Brandark and Bahzell himself exotically intriguing, no doubt because they were the first hradani she'd actually met. He found the obvious intensity of her curiosity amusing, but he'd learned to take her questions seriously, despite the fact that someone her age would have remained firmly immured in the schoolroom, had she been one of his sisters. Leeana's mother and father, on the other hand, had long since begun her formal tutelage as their only heir. The shorter-lived humans often seemed to do things with breakneck speed compared to hradani. So he reminded himself once again that Leeana Bowmaster obviously didn't consider herself the barely-out-of-leading-strings child he saw when he looked at her.
The fact that she was as cute as a basketful of puppies didn't make it any easier for him to remember that she was—or at least thought she was—older than she looked to him. The . . . irritated looks she gave him when he forgot, however, did. So he supposed it was something of a wash.
"It's kind of you to be so understanding," she told him now. "But if I'd been watching where I was going, I would never have come bursting out of the gallery stair and run into you that way. So if no harm was done, it was only a matter of pure luck. Please don't mention to Mother that I did!" She rolled her green eyes. "She already thinks I have the deportment of a stable hand."
"Now, somehow I'm doubtful she'd be putting it quite that way," Bahzell said with a grin. "Not that she wouldn't be after having a few tart things to say, I'm sure. But she'll not hear about it from me, Milady."
"Thank you." She smiled up at him warmly. "And might I ask how your visit home went?" she continued.
"Better than I'd hoped, more ways than not," he replied, and shook his head in something very like bemusement. "Father and Mother are well enough, though I'd not have thought anyone could be as busy as they're after being at the moment."
"I'm not surprised," she said, and chuckled. "Just keeping up with all your sisters and brothers must be challenge enough without settling all the political problems your father's facing right now!"
"Aye, you've got that right enough," he agreed. "Still and all, they've had more than enough experience managing all of us; it's the rest of my folk keeping their hands full just now. My Da's a lot of details to be settling—and some of them ugly ones, too—but I'm thinking things are after beginning to quiet down a mite." He snorted. "Of course, it could be as how that's because there's after being so few left as feel like arguing the fine points with him. The crows have finished picking over Churnazh's head, and his son Chalak's after being so stupid not even the likes of Churnazh's hangers-on will be following him. Arsham's the only one of Churnazh's get with the brains to be coming in out of a thunderstorm, and they must have come from his mother, for they can't have been coming from his father! And the fact that he's bastard-born isn't so very big a thing to be holding against him in the succession amongst our folk. So now he's sworn fealty to Father as Prince of Navahk, the rest of the Bloody Swords are after lining up to do the same." He glanced at Brandark for a moment, his expression half-apologetic, and shrugged. "If I were being a betting man, which I'm not, I'd put my kormaks on the fighting being over for good and all at last."
Leeana cocked her head in thought. Most Sothōii might have considered Bahzell's response to her question a bit odd. Ladies—and especially gently born ones who were still little more than children—should be sheltered from the brutal realities of the difficult problems and solutions which faced rulers. Leeana, though, only weighed what he'd said carefully, then nodded. One thing about her which was not at all childlike, Bahzell thought, was her obviously deep interest in politics. Or her uncanny ability to grasp the ramifications of her father's current, convoluted political problems. For that matter, her grasp of the problems facing Bahzell's father was better than that quite a few hradani chieftains could claim.
"Do you think the fighting is over, too, Lord Brandark?" she asked softly after several seconds of consideration. She looked at the shorter hradani, and Brandark gazed back at her for a long moment, his eyes more thoughtful than Bahzell's, then shrugged.
"Yes, I do, Milady," he said. "And while I won't go so far as to say I'm happy the Bloody Swords have had their feet systematically kicked out from under them by a bunch of loutish Horse Stealers, it's certainly not a bad thing if the fighting really is over." He grimaced. "We've been killing each other over one imagined insult or another for almost as long as the Horse Stealers and your people have been doing the same thing. As someone who once wanted to be a bard, I may regret the loss of all those glorious, ballad-inspiring episodes of mutual bloodletting and slaughter. As a historian, and someone who's seen the bloodletting in question firsthand, I'd just as soon settle for the ballads we already have. And all the gods know Bahzell's father is infinitely preferable to someone like Churnazh."
He kept his tone light, but his gaze was level, and she looked back at him for several heartbeats before she nodded.
"I can see that," she said. "It's funny, isn't it? All the songs and tales are full of high adventure, not what really happens in a war. And I've heard lots of songs about splendid victories and defiance even in defeat. But I don't think I've ever heard even one where the side that lost ends up admitting that it's better that they didn't win."
Bahzell's mobile ears cocked, and one eyebrow arched, but Brandark simply nodded, as if unsurprised by her observation.
"It's not an easy thing to do," he agreed. "And the bards who write songs suggesting that it's a good thing their own side got its backside kicked tend to find their audiences less than receptive. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it isn't true sometimes, does it?"
"No, I don't suppose it does," she said, and looked back at Bahzell. "So from what you and Lord Brandark are saying, Prince Bahzell, it sounds as if you may find yourself an official ambassador for the King of the Hradani after all."
Bahzell's deep, rumbling chuckle could have been alarming if she hadn't heard it before and known what it was. She cocked her head at him, and he grinned.
"Now, that I won't be." He shook his head. "First, I've no least desire to be anyone's 'official ambassador.' Second, Milady, I've even less of a notion how to go about being one! And third, the one thing my Da's least likely ever to be calling himself is 'King of the Hradani.' "
"There I have to agree with Bahzell," Brandark agreed with a slightly less rumbling laugh of his own. "Prince Bahnak is many things, Milady, but one thing he's remarkably free of is anything resembling -delusions of grandeur. Unlike Bahzell, he's also a very bright fellow. Which means he understands exactly how hard a bunch of hradani princes would find it to take anyone who called himself 'King of the Hradani' seriously. I have no idea what title he'll finally come up with, but I feel confident that it won't have the word 'king' in it anywhere."
"Perhaps not," she said. "But what he chooses to call himself won't change what he actually is, now will it?" Her tone was a bit tarter, and the green eyes gazing up at the two hradani were a bit harder.
"No, it won't," Brandark agreed. "Which is my real point, I suppose. Just as he's unlikely to rub his recent enemies' noses in their defeat by calling himself a king, he's not going to make your father's position even more difficult by asking him to officially accept a hradani ambassador at his court."
Leeana's eyes widened very briefly. Then they narrowed again, even more briefly, before she nodded.
"That does make sense," she said after a moment, and Brandark wondered if the girl realized how completely her thoughtful tone demolished her pretense of having "accidentally" collided with Bahzell. She stood there for a second or two, as if being certain she'd digested the information thoroughly, than shook herself and smiled at Bahzell again.
"Now I've compounded my carelessness in running into you by keeping you and Lord Brandark standing here nattering away," she apologized. "I seem to be going from triumph to triumph this afternoon, don't I?"
"In a manner of speaking, I suppose," he agreed. "Not but what Brandark and I haven't enjoyed the conversation."
"It's kind of you to say so, but I've detained both of you long enough. Marthya?" She looked over her shoulder at her maid and gathered up the older woman with her eyes. Then she gave Bahzell and Brandark a quick, abbreviated curtsy and whisked Marthya off down a connecting hallway.