"Let's take a walk, Longshanks."
Bahzell looked up from his book and quirked an eyebrow. Kilthandahknarthas dihna'Harkanath stood in the doorway of the comfortable (if low-ceilinged) room the Horse Stealer had been assigned and propped his fists impatiently upon his hips.
"Well, come along!"
"Ah?" Bahzell closed his book on the index finger of his left hand and used his right to tug at the fob dangling from his breeches pocket. He pressed the crown of the handsome-and expensive-watch attached to the fob and squinted at the golden hands sweeping about its painted ivory face. "Why, it's naught but eleven of the morning," he remarked. "Sure and you seem in a tearing rush about something, Kilthan. Are you sure it can't be waiting while I'm after finishing my chapter?"
"No, it can't," the dwarf said tartly. His topaz eyes twinkled wryly as they rested on the watch, but then he shook himself and glared at his towering guest. "And we don't have all day, you know."
"And why not?" Bahzell asked pleasantly. "From all accounts, it's snowing fit to bury a mountain whole outside. That being so, I'm not so all-fired eager as all that to be on my way, and I've naught else planned for the day except this book. And truth to tell, I've not found it all that enthralling."
"Good! In that case you won't mind coming with me. And I'm still waiting."
The dwarf was barely half Bahzell's height but with shoulders as broad as he was tall. He was also bald as a polished brown egg, with brilliant eyes under bushy tufts of eyebrows, and a magnificent forked beard streamed down over his belt buckle. From conversations with some of the other members of Clan Harkanath, Bahzell had discovered that Kilthan was considerably older than he'd first assumed. In fact, the clan lord merchant-prince was well into his third century, although the massive muscles characteristic of his race were only now beginning to lose the hard suppleness of his youth. Despite the difference in their heights, Bahzell would not have been eager to face Kilthandahknarthas in battle even today, much less in his prime.
But for the last century and a half Kilthan's most deadly weapons had been trade wagons, merchant ships, letters of credit, and investment funds, not battle axes. He favored plain clothing-well tailored and of good, serviceable fabric, but without the silks or velvets or the jewels or gold bullion embroidery others might choose-and he scarcely looked the part of one of Norfressa's wealthiest men. In fact, he looked more like an irascible tutor, standing there with his fists on his hips. But that was only true until you saw his eyes. Those strange, topaz eyes from which a core of burnished steel looked out upon the world.
"And what's after being so Phrobus-taken important?" The Horse Stealer demanded… but he also marked his place and set his book aside with the air of a small boy obeying an order to wash up for supper before things got still worse.
"We need to talk-and I want to show you something. Come on with you now!"
Kilthan turned and stumped away, and Bahzell shrugged, climbed out of his chair, patted his belt out of long habit to be certain he had his dagger, and followed him.
Someone else was waiting in the passageway, and Bahzell smiled and held out his hand to another friend. Rianthus of Sindor was a human, once a major in the Royal and Imperial Army, who had risen to command the private army which protected Clan Harkanath's merchant empire outside the Empire of the Axe, and both Bahzell and Brandark had developed a deep respect for him during their time under his orders.
"Is he always after being like this?" Bahzell asked him, jerking his head at Kilthan as the two of them followed the dwarf down the passage.
"Like what?" Rianthus replied. "You mean pushy, pompous, and a little arrogant?"
A loud snort came back from ahead of them, and Bahzell grinned.
"Aye-except that I was thinking more of a lot arrogant."
"Only when he's awake," Rianthus assured him.
"I might as well be 'arrogant' with you lot," Kilthan said without turning his head. "After all, there's no point wasting anything else on you, since neither of you seem to notice anyone else until they kick you in the arse."
"Are you saying we're just a mite dense?" Bahzell asked innocently.
"I'm saying I've met boulders with more brains than either of you," Kilthan told him tartly, and Bahzell laughed.
"Here now! That's no way to be talking to a man as has gone and signed on with Tomanak !"
"Ha! I've never met a champion of Tomanak yet who didn't need a little boy with a lantern to lead him around anywhere but on a battlefield!" Kilthan shot back, and Bahzell laughed again.
Kilthan said no more, even when the Horse Stealer deliberately gave him a few fresh openings, and Bahzell shrugged. Kilthandahknarthas of Silver Cavern was accustomed to doing things his own way, and he wasn't the sort to waste his time or anyone else's on frivolous concerns. Whatever he wanted to discuss was probably important, and Bahzell was willing to let him get to it in his own good time.
In the meanwhile, the Horse Stealer and Rianthus chatted amiably, bringing one another up to date on all that had passed since Bahzell and Brandark had left Kilthan's employ in Riverside. The hradani enjoyed the conversation-it was good to catch up on the affairs of the men who had been his companions in arms-and the walk also gave him a chance to see a bit more of Silver Cavern than he had upon his arrival yesterday.
Unlike Mountain Heart, Silver Cavern had been built exclusively by and for dwarves. With the exception of a few thousand humans like Rianthus and his men, who had become almost adoptive members of one of the great clans, only dwarves lived in Silver Cavern, and there were none of the surface homes which had covered the approaches to Mountain Heart.
Silver Cavern was also the better part of five hundred years older than Mountain Heart, and much larger. The original silver veins from which the city took its name had played out within two centuries of its founding, but there were other ores under the East Wall Mountains. More importantly, perhaps, there were also at least two powerful subterranean rivers, and the Silver Cavern dwarves made full use of them.
The city proper sprawled over half a dozen main levels, and an entire host of secondary and tertiary ones meandered off on their own. Bahzell was privately certain no one had the least idea where all the tunnels, passages, and chambers went, and one excavation had run into a series of immense natural caverns. The cave system ran for scores of miles, and even now, forty years after its discovery, had yet to be fully explored. Wide avenues and squares were interspersed with the large, underground villas and palaces of Silver Cavern's nobility and wealthy over the city's first two or three levels. From there, housing ran downward-both in elevation and quality-through the well-to-do to the middle-class and skilled artisans, to the poorest laborers.
Oddly enough, those laborers seemed to cherish little resentment of the wealthy compared to other places Bahzell had visited since leaving Hurgrum. Not that dwarves weren't ambitious, for very few people were more ambitious. No doubt there was a great deal of not-too-deeply-buried envy in the stereotype of the greedy, avaricious dwarf cherished by many members of the other Races of Man. Like most stereotypes, it was a gross exaggeration in many respects, yet a remarkable percentage of the world's wealth did end up in dwarvish hands somehow. By the standards of peasants in places like Navahk or the Land of the Purple Lords, even the poorest of Silver Cavern's dwarves were unbelievably rich, but they didn't compare themselves to outlanders. They compared themselves to their own wealthy, and every single one of them aspired to amass the fortune which would let him move to the High Quarter.
But that was the point-and, no doubt, the reason for much of their reputed avarice. They wanted to acquire wealth and the things that went with it, and they both believed they could and were completely willing to work like a lake full of beavers to attain that goal. When others talked of how dwarves were eternally on the lookout for opportunities to squeeze another kormak out of someone, they were absolutely accurate. There were exceptions, of course, as there were in all things, but the average dwarf was constantly working, thinking, and looking for opportunities. As a people, they didn't waste time sitting around envying others; they got on with improving their own lots, or those of their children, at least, and they had two- or three-hundred-year life spans in which to do it.
Small wonder there was a sense of bustling energy about Silver Cavern, even in the winter, Bahzell mused, and at least there was always room for upward mobility-in every sense of the word.
The underground city was liberally supplied with spiral ramps and staircases between levels, and some busier, heavily traveled sections also boasted moving cars which Kilthan called "elevators" to move people even more efficiently. Now the dwarf led Bahzell and Rianthus down one of the more secluded stairs, winding steadily deeper and deeper into the living rock of the mountains. The stairwell was on the cramped side for Bahzell, and the risers' height had been planned for people with legs much shorter than his. His calves began to complain in fairly short order, but he told them sternly to leave him alone and concentrated on following his guide. If a man two centuries older than he could make this hike, then no power in the universe could have made Bahzell Bahnakson beg for a rest break!
He kept a careful eye on his surroundings, as much to take his attention off those increasingly insistent calf muscles as anything else. Like Mountain Heart and, to a lesser extent, Tunnel's End, Silver Cavern's walls and doorways and windows were as much excuses for artwork as functional. The dwarves' passion for stone and rock crystal showed in the loving execution of leaf patterns, birds, stars and moons, tiny gargoyle faces, and clouds which adorned walls and ceilings. Door posts were carved in the shapes of tree trunks, executed with such fidelity Bahzell could identify them from their bark, and window frames were covered in traceries of climbing ivy, roses, and morning glories.
Bahzell hadn't seen it, of course, but Tharanal had pointed out the peak beyond which the city's main reservoir lay as they approached Silver Cavern yesterday, and pipes from it fed not only public buildings and private dwellings but also the fountains which danced and splashed at major intersections. The springs and freshets which had been loosed in the course of the city's excavation had also been trained, and streams ran cheerfully down rough, natural-looking beds carefully inset into the smooth floors of passages and halls. Here and there, those streams ran together into deep pools where huge, exotic goldfish and carp nudged up against stepping stones or swam their slow, endless dances under the arches of delicate bridges.
Almost certainly, though, the thing which made the uppermost levels the most desirable was their gardens. Like other dwarvish cities, Silver Cavern maintained vast, commercially run farming operations in the surface areas surrounding it. Those outside gardens produced most of the food stored away in the city's vast storerooms and icehouses, but the same natural gift for stone which had wrought the city as a whole had also produced the Upper Quarter's gardens by opening deep shafts wide enough to admit not simply air, but sunlight, as well. Those shafts drove all the way to the tallest peaks of the mountains above Silver Cavern in order to make their upper ends as inaccessible as possible from outside, and they were guarded by steel-barred grates and incorporated hatches of solid steel which could be closed at need, for they were potential chinks in the city's defenses. But they were chinks the Silver Cavern dwarves accepted cheerfully, for the mirrors which controlled and spread the light that streamed down those shafts let them bring the greenery and freshness of the outer world into their underground homeland.
Yet wonderful as Bahzell found Silver Cavern, he recognized the city's less lovely side, as well. As Tharanal had led them towards it yesterday, he'd seen thick plumes of smoke-and other, more noxious vapors-rising from outlying ventilation shafts like the fumaroles of volcanos. The acrid bite of coal smoke had caught at the back of his throat, and he'd seen the great, dark streaks of soot that discolored the snow on the downwind sides of many of those vents. He hadn't immediately recognized the purpose of the pairs of gleaming metal rails which ran down long ramps and intricately braced trestle bridges from several dark openings in the mountainside. But then he'd seen the cars, piled high with slag and ash and other refuse, that ran down those rails on flanged wheels. Gravity pulled them downward-sometimes singly, and sometimes in short trains that had been chained together-but they trailed stout cables or hawsers behind them, so that some unseen engine buried within the mountain could winch them back up and inside after they deposited their contents in one of the monstrous waste dumps at the foot of the ramps. The rails ran past what Bahzell had thought at first were steep, natural hills between the dumps and the mountain proper. But as they drew nearer and the regularity of those snow covered slopes registered, he'd realized that entire centuries of refuse had been deposited there as the rails extended further and further from the city. Apparently the dwarves had taken pains to shape and contour their garbage heaps, and the older dumps actually bore well-grown groves of trees, but those "foothills" were still an appalling comment on the sheer amount of rubbish Silver Cavern had spewed forth over the centuries.
No doubt the waste dumps, and the smoke and soot, and all the other fumes, were inevitable by-products of the dwarves' industry, but even though they seemed to make tremendous efforts to minimize the impact, he'd found the sights and smells less than appealing. Not that he hadn't seen far worse in other places, and with far smaller justification. Navahk, for example, was a cesspit compared to the damage Silver Cavern had inflicted upon its surroundings, as were parts of Riverside and other human cities he'd seen, and that squalor had produced nothing but disease and misery.
He shook himself out of his thoughts as Kilthan stepped off the stairs at a landing and led him and Rianthus down a side passage. There were few decorations here. Instead, these walls-some slick with condensation from the steam drifting through ventilation ducts-bore painted notices in the blocky dwarvish alphabet. Bahzell's command of written dwarvish was limited, to say the least. He could make out bits and pieces here and there, but not enough to make much sense beyond the obvious fact that most of them were directions of one sort or another. The arrows painted under some of them would have suggested that even if he'd been unable to read a single word of them.
It was much warmer down here, and the air had taken on a sharp, metallic tang that seemed to coat his sinuses and throat. And he became aware of vibrations, as if the rock itself were purring roughly, like some monstrous cat. He glanced sharply at Rianthus, but the human only smiled and flapped a hand, urging him on after Kilthan. The dwarf had paused at a bend in the corridor, looking back and beckoning impatiently, and Bahzell shrugged and trotted forward to join him-then stopped in astonishment.
Kilthan had halted on a high catwalk that snaked along the wall of a passage as wide as the Dwarvenhame Tunnel. But where the tunnel had been quiet, almost hushed, with the semisomnolence of winter's declining traffic, this passage rumbled and thudded and thundered. More of those steel rails were spiked to its stone floor, and powerful draft horses hauled dozens of cars along them, heaped with an indescribable welter of freight. He saw pike shafts and battle axes piled in some of them like bundles of firewood. Others seemed to be filled with shimmering fish scales until he realized what he was actually seeing was the glitter of light off the steel rings of mail, and still others were filled with shovel blades, mattock heads, axe and hammer heads, and dozens of other metal tools. Flatcars carried more of the gleaming rails, followed by gangs with sledgehammers and drills who clearly intended to extend the rail network still further somewhere far down the tunnel. More cars rumbled the other way, loaded with what looked like coal but wasn't, and knots of workmen flowed up and down the tunnel in either direction, as if Bahzell and his friends had arrived just in time for shift change.
The hradani stood staring down at the scene, awed by it yet wondering why Kilthan had brought him to see it. But then the dwarf poked him sharply in the ribs and jerked his head for Bahzell to follow him down the catwalk. It was too noisy for casual conversation. Not even Bahzell's powerful bass could have made itself easily heard, and the hradani opted to follow without questions. Hopefully, there would be a time for those-and answers-when the background racket had fallen to more endurable levels.
They walked down the catwalk for another fifteen minutes and passed three major cross tunnels before Kilthan turned into a small alcove, pulled open a heavy door, and waved the others through it. Bahzell had to squash himself down in an awkward crouch to clear the top of the opening, but he sighed in relief as the closing door muted the noise behind them. The lighting was much dimmer than it had been outside, but only until Kilthan opened a second door and ushered him into the most amazing sight yet.
The long, gallerylike chamber beyond the double doors was built in tiers, so that the dozens of dwarves seated in it all had a clear view through the huge window which made up its outer wall. That gave Bahzell space to stand fully upright once more, which would have been relief enough by itself, but the doors also acted as a sound baffle. No doubt that was so the dwarves in the chamber could hear one another without shouting, but his ears appreciated it anyway as he looked about him.
He had no idea what most of the people around him were doing, but he saw one of them bend over one of a bank of several bronze tubes (at least they looked like bronze) before her. The young woman flipped up a cover on the tube and blew down it, then spoke in firm clear tones. It would have looked ridiculous… if not for the fact that another voice, this one male, came back up the tube to her, clearly audible despite the background noise that came with it.
But however bizarre that might have seemed, Bahzell had little attention to pay it, for his eyes were fixed in wonder on the view through the windows which separated the gallery from the enormous cavern beyond them. He had never seen so much glass-or such clear glass-in one place, and he reached out to touch it as if to reassure himself that it truly existed. It was actually a double window, he realized after a moment, his thought processes slowed by the scene before him, and somehow that extra window muted the noise from its other side. And a good thing, too, he thought numbly. Without that muting effect, the people in this… this control room would have been deafened, for the racket beyond the glass must be far worse than the noise which had assaulted him on the catwalk down which they had come.
A wide river, its current diverted into square-cut stone channels, poured through the chamber beyond the windows to drive dozens of the largest waterwheels Bahzell had ever seen with steady, merciless force. Complex gears and shafting reached out from the wheels, transferring their power to machinery whose function, for the most part, the hradani was unable even to guess. But impressive as the wheels were, it was the steady, shuddering roar of enormous furnaces which dominated his impression of the scene. Despite the double windows and the thick stone wall separating him from them, the harsh, basso rumble of the forced-draft furnaces reached out to him, and he felt their power grumbling in his bones. Streams of fiery, lava-like slag spilled from openings in the furnaces' sides. More of those rail carts rolled steadily up to their tops, dumping crushed ore and what looked like already-burned coal into the hoppers which fed them. Kilthan stepped up beside him.
"That's coke mixed with the ore," the dwarf said quietly. "We used to use charcoal, but then we learned how to run coal through coking ovens." He smiled wryly. "A good thing, too. You may have noticed we have a lot more coal than trees down here."
Bahzell nodded, but his attention was on a huge iron cauldron or ladle as it tracked along an overhead rail, driven by the thumping waterwheels. It was enormous-twice his own height-and he swallowed as he watched molten metal seethe within it. He stared into that liquid, incandescent heart, and then flinched, despite all he could do, as a huge, fan-shaped billow of flame and sparks erupted from another vast piece of machinery.
"We're making steel, not iron, Bahzell," Kilthan told him, still quietly. "That-" he pointed at the bright shower of fury "-is from where we're blowing a stream of air through molten iron. Without going into details, let's just say it lets us produce steel by the ton… and more cheaply than we could produce wrought iron, as well."
Bahzell looked down at him, and the dwarf shrugged, then waved an arm at the scene beyond the window.
"We don't show this to just anyone. Not because it's arcane and complex-in fact, most of what you see out there is actually quite simple, once you break it down by task and function-but because it's the true heart of the Empire's economic dominance. We've spent centuries working out the most efficient ways to do the jobs you see going on out there, and after so long an investment, we've no interest in sharing our techniques with people like the Purple Lords." He paused, then frowned and shook his head. "No, let's be honest. Until we joined the Empire, we had no interest in sharing them with anyone. They were our secrets-the dwarves' secrets-and the source of our wealth and power. That was the true reason we were so hesitant about using nondwarvish labor."
Bahzell blinked down at him, overwhelmed and still confused. It seemed to take an inordinately long time for him to get his voice to work, but at least he cleared his throat and asked, "Were you after bringing all this from Kontovar after the Fall?"
"No." Kilthan stood beside him and gazed out the window with him, eyes distant. "Before the Fall, most of what we do here would have been done with wizardry, or at least with devices created and powered by wizardry. We had to start over, working our way up from the most basic concepts, to what you see out there. It's harder than it was in Kontovar-or the records seem to indicate that, at any rate-and we need enormous amounts of water power. There aren't too many sites where we can have that and proximity to coal for the coking ovens and to iron ore and copper ore and tin. Transportation is the biggest single bottleneck of our entire operation, but when all the elements combine properly, we can actually produce more steel and bronze in less time than anyone ever managed before the Fall."
"But why be showing me this?" Bahzell asked.
"Because of your father," Kilthan said simply.
"Ah?" The hradani turned to look down at him, and the dwarf met his eyes levelly.
"I was honored when you told me about Sharna's meddling in Navahk and asked my advice on dealing with it, Bahzell, but we already knew about it." He snorted at the Horse Stealer's expression. "Of course we did! Of all the Dark Gods, Torframos probably hates Sharna worst. He's none too fond of Fiendark, either, mind you, but Demon Breath prefers to hide his corruption underground, and Stone Beard doesn't like that. Stone and earth are His domain, and even if they weren't, no sane person wants Sharna anywhere near him, whatever god he serves. We don't have any more details about the late, unlamented Harnak's friends than you do, but we have enough to know we want that infection crushed, and the people who opened the door for it with it," he finished grimly.
"Well enough," Bahzell said, nodding slowly after another moment of silence. "I can be seeing that much, but you were after mentioning my father, as well."
"I was." Kilthan agreed, gazing out at the blast furnaces and water wheels. "Dwarves are patient, Bahzell," he said. "But we're good haters, too. I think both those qualities come from the stone dust in our blood. And we're also Torframos' servants, so patience or not, what we'd really prefer is to offer you a Dwarvenhame army to go in and burn Navahk to the ground. Unfortunately, we can't. We don't have proof Sharna is even there, and the only way we could get it would be to go in and dig it up by force. But we need the proof before we act."
"Just slow down there a mite," Bahzell interrupted. "Who exactly might this 'we' be that you're after mentioning?"
"I can't-" Kilthan began, then paused. "Let me just put it this way," he went on after a moment. "There are those both here in Dwarvenhame and back in Axe Hallow who recognize the threat Sharna's worship poses and who, under other circumstances, would possess the power to do something about that threat. But there are problems.
"First, if we were to invade Navahk, no matter what the reason, it would be seen as a foreign incursion that might well rally all the Bloody Sword cities behind Churnazh.
"Second, and to be honest, the thought of fighting hradani doesn't really appeal to us-and especially not to those of us who know hradani best.
"Third, the confrontation between Churnazh and your father has reached a stage where any outside interference could have catastrophic, unpredictable consequences. We might crush Churnazh and then withdraw, leaving a vacuum for Prince Bahnak to expand into… but we might also 'taint' him in the eyes of his fellow hradani as a 'tool' for outside interests. In that case, we could eliminate Churnazh only to shatter your father's alliances and set all the clans at one another's throats. That would be bad enough for your people, but if your lands turn into an ongoing, endless civil war like the one in Ferenmoss, it could spill over onto any of your neighbors, as well.
"And fourth, we don't dare make a move that even looks like we're taking sides between Churnazh and your father because of the Sothoii."
Bahzell had nodded slowly in time with each of Kilthan's earlier points, but now he stopped and looked at the dwarf sharply.
"And just what would the Sothoii be having to do with all this?"
"They're worried," Kilthan replied simply. "Ever since they first claimed the Wind Plain, there's been raiding and warfare between your people and them, Bahzell. Surely you know that better than I!" The hradani nodded once more, and Kilthan shrugged. "The way they see it, only the fact that you've been fighting amongst yourselves just as long has prevented it from being any worse. They were anxious enough when your father began uniting the Horse Stealers, but the idea that he may conquer and assimilate the Bloody Swords as well frightens them-badly."
"But we've scarcely bothered them at all, at all, since the first war with Navahk!"
"Of course you haven't. You've been preoccupied with Churnazh and his allies. But once Churnazh is gone and your father rules all the northern hradani, what will he do then? Troll Garth and the Ghoul Moor would block expansion to the southeast, and moving west or southwest would bring him into collision with the Border Kingdoms, which would bring the Empire in under the terms of our treaties with them. That leaves the north and northeast… which would bring him right up against the Wind Plain and the Sothoii, who just happen to be his own people's bitterest traditional enemy."
"That's daft, man! Oh, raids and counter-raids are one thing, but if we were ever actually invading the Wind Plain, the Sothoii would call in the Axemen quick as quick, and Father knows that as well as you or I!"
"I didn't say it was a rational fear," Kilthan said patiently. "But consider this. If-and I say if-Prince Bahnak did attempt a full-scale invasion, what would happen to anyone in its path before the Empire could respond to any Sothoii request for aid? The fact that any invasion would eventually turn into a slaughter for our combined forces-or, for that matter, the possibility that the windriders alone might beat it back-couldn't prevent your people from inflicting enormous damage before they were stopped."
"But we've no reason to!"
"I know that, and most of the King-Emperor's advisers know that. The Sothoii, unfortunately, don't appear to know it. At the moment, King Markhos is maintaining a wait-and-see attitude and hoping for the best. He's worried by the prospect of a unified hradani kingdom on his flank, but he's got the Escarpment as a barrier if worse comes to worst. And I think he also feels there's some potential for good in the possibility. For one thing, your Iron Axes may not have been raiding the Wind Plain, but some of the other Horse Stealer clans have shown less restraint, and your father hasn't been in a position to make them behave. I suspect Markhos feels having a single paramount hradani lord through whom he can negotiate with all the clans-or threaten them all, if he has to-could help put an end to that sort of thing.
"Unfortunately, he's not the only Sothoii with an interest in what happens. His own court is divided badly enough, but the situation is even worse in the West Riding. They're the ones closest to your folk, and the ones with the longest memories of what you and they have done to one another over the centuries. Baron Tellian seems to be taking his cue from King Markhos, but we can't be certain of that. And whatever Tellian may do, some of his district lords and minor lords are looking to their own flanks. Our information's become more spotty since winter closed the roads, but a good many of the West Riding's younger knights seem to be at least listening to Mathian Redhelm, the Lord Warden of Glanharrow, and he's an anti-hradani hothead if ever there was one. All of which means that if we were to intervene openly in Navahk, for any reason, and tilt the balance suddenly in your father's favor-" The dwarf shrugged.
"You're thinking they might be seeing no option but to nip in quick and nasty, before Father's gotten his feet under him, as it were," Bahzell said quietly.
"That's certainly one possibility. And another one is that someone like Mathian of Glanharrow might decide to act on his own and end up dragging the rest of the Kingdom with him, whatever Markhos and Tellian want. On the other hand, most of us-and I'm speaking now for Dwarvenhame in particular, not the Empire as a whole-feel your father's success would be in our interest, as well as his own. Ultimately, we think it would even be in the Sothoii's interest, although we don't expect all of them to see it that way immediately. You remember the first day we met, when I said your father sounded like a man who understood the business of ruling, not just looting?"
Bahzell nodded once more, and Kilthan flicked a hand in the air.
"Well, I still think that, and a man who understands ruling, and who can teach those who'll follow him to understand it, makes a far better neighbor than a snakepit of warring chieftains. Not only that, but anyone who knows anything at all about Bahnak knows he would never-ever-tolerate the worship of such as Sharna in his domain. And that being the case, we want to support him."
"But not openly," Bahzell said slowly.
"Not openly. Not at once," Kilthan agreed. "But I can make arrangements through my factor in Daranfel to slip some shipments over the border to Durghazh come spring."
"Shipments of what?" Bahzell's voice was flat, and Kilthan waved at the seething activity beyond the control room window.
"Armor. Pikes. Halberds. Axes and swords and arbalests."
"And in return?"
"In return, you and he will root out Sharna's activities in Navahk and wherever else you may find them in your lands. He'll pay us for the weapons when and as he can, and I assure you our price will be below the current market value of our wares. In addition, once he's defeated Churnazh, he will sign binding peace treaties with his neighbors-including the Sothoii. Some people might not place much faith in his word; I do, and so do my fellows on the Dwarvenhame Council. And in return for those treaties, Dwarvenhame will undertake, by equally formal treaty, to extend the same trade relationships to him as exist between us and other citizens of the Empire."
Bahzell inhaled sharply. That was a better offer than even the Border Kingdoms enjoyed. It amounted to the ability to trade with Axeman merchants without import or export duties of any sort. Prince Bahnak would not only have access to all the wonders Bahzell had seen since leaving home but also have that access at a considerably lower price than anyone else outside the Empire!
"That's a mighty tasty carrot, Kilthan," he said finally. "Speaking for myself alone, I've no choice but to call it a very tempting offer, but I've no authority to be speaking for anyone else."
"We realize that. We also realize that at this particular moment, your duty as a champion of Tomanak takes precedence even over your duty to your father. We have no intention of putting you in the position of trying to pick and choose between those responsibilities, and we know you can't possibly answer for your father without even speaking to him. But we also know that if we can't trust a champion of Tomanak to deliver a message for us, there's no one we can trust, and that your father trusts you. If we approached him openly or through some other intermediary, he would almost have to be suspicious. We certainly would be in his place. And while we might eventually convince him of our sincerity, it would take time we're very much afraid we may not have. So I was asked to explain this to you, because you know and, I hope, trust me. All we ask of you is that you carry our offer to your father and answer any questions he may have as honestly and completely as possible."
"Um." Bahzell nodded slowly, staring out through the control room windows once more while his mind turned over what Kilthan had just said. It had come at him completely without warning, but that didn't keep it from making sense, and his thoughts flipped back over his own earlier reflections on the monumental power shift looming in his homeland. He could readily believe the fears and suspicions Kilthan had described existed-especially on the part of the Sothoii-however daft he might think them to be. And he could see the logic behind Kilthan's offer. If he wanted to be crudely honest about it, he might as well call it Kilthan's bribe, he supposed, but it could equally well be called an astute act of statesmanship. What Kilthan offered, after all, would cost him, Dwarvenhame, and the Empire as a whole very little. In fact, all of those entities would undoubtedly make money off the transactions in the long term, if not quite as much as some of them might have with the import and export duties in place. And if the arrangement could bind Bahnak and his successors' interests to the Empire…
"All right," he said finally. "I'll take your message, Kilthan. Mind, I can't be promising Father will accept your offer, but I'll take it to him. And-" he looked back down at the dwarf "-for myself, I'll say I hope as how he accepts it."
"Thank you," Kilthan said solemnly, and held out his hand.