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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Seven
Last updated: Monday, May 21, 2012 07:25 EDT
I really hate this, Shahana Lillinarafressa thought moodily as the right leaf of Thalar Keep’s heavy wooden gates swung open at her approach, and the fact that her own fair-mindedness told her she was being unreasonable only made her mood even worse.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter, and since that was true, she was determined to discharge her duty well. However badly it set her teeth on edge.
Her mail jingled as her horse trotted through the gatehouse entry tunnel, hooves noisy on the pavement, the sound echoing under the circles of the murder holes in the passageway’s roof. Then she was out into the sunlight once again, drawing rein in the keep’s cobblestoned courtyard. It wasn’t much of a keep to someone who’d seen the massive engineering works and fortifications of the Empire of the Axe, but she supposed it was a fairly impressive pile of stone for a relatively minor lord warden of the Sothoii. Poorly designed and laid out by the standards of competent fortress engineers, perhaps, not to mention easily dominated by proper siege engines on the nearby high ground and with an equally easily-mined earth footing instead of solid stone, but impressive for a Sothoii keep. Of course, for anyone else
She grimaced mentally as the reflection flashed through her brain. She was being cattish again, she thought, and reminded herself — again — to keep her opinion of Lord Trisu’s family seat to herself. However justified it might be.
Stop that! she scolded herself.
Behind her, the combination honor guard and delegation from Kalatha rode out of the same tunnel, and she sensed the male eyes watching all of them with the combined curiosity and flicker of hostility to which any arm of Lillinara became accustomed, at least in the Kingdom of the Sothoii. The hostility quotient was probably a little higher in this case, she reflected, given her war maid escort and memories of what had so nearly happened six or seven years ago. However –
“Welcome, Dame Shahana,” Sir Altharn Warblade, the senior officer of Thalar Keep’s garrison, greeted her with a bow.
Shahana was no knight — no arm was — and the title was yet another thing about her current duty that set those teeth of hers on edge, but she couldn’t seem to break the Sothoii of the need to append some sort of title they recognized to her name. Even now, she wasn’t certain whether that was because they needed that formal label to feel remotely comfortable with any woman who lived her life under arms, or if it was because of her champion’s status. Of course, the arms weren’t quite like any other deity’s champions, but it was probably too much to expect any Sothoii to grasp that point. They were doing their best to be courteous, and given how hard it must be for any new thought to claw its way through their brains, she had no choice but to take it in the spirit in which it was — probably — intended.
“And greetings to you, Sir Altharn,” she replied pleasantly, half-bowing in the saddle.
“As always, it’s a pleasure to see you,” Sir Altharn lied politely. “Will you step down from the saddle and let us see to your horse?”
“With pleasure,” Shahana said, swinging down from her mount.
One thing she had to admit was that the Sothoii deserved every bit of their reputation as horse breeders. Her own mare was a case in point, a gift from the man she was here to see. And another of those little irritations with which she had to cope, considering how little she relished having to feel grateful to Lord Warden Trisu for any reason. Sadly, she had little choice from that perspective, since Spring Storm Cloud Rising, the name the Sothoii had inflicted upon the beautiful creature, was undoubtedly the finest horse she’d ever ridden in her life. She’d shortened the splendiferous name to “Stormy,” of course — not even the Sothoii routinely used the names they bestowed upon their horses — and she paused to rub the iron gray’s satin nose before she handed the reins to the waiting groom. Stormy nosed back affectionately, and Shahana smiled for a moment before she turned back to Warblade.
“We’ll take good care of her, Milady,” the armsman promised as the groom led the mare away, and Shahana nodded.
“I know,” she said, and she did. Despite all the things about the Sothoii which irritated her, there were almost as many things she liked, when she had the patience to admit it to herself, and their near universal dedication to the four-legged wonders they bred was high on the list.
“Then if you’ll accompany me,” Warblade invited, and she nodded again and fell in at his side as he escorted her into the main keep.
* * *
Leeana Hanathafressa dismounted from her own gelding as Sir Altharn led Arm Shahana off to her first meeting. She didn’t envy the arm — a stubborner, more iron-headed individual than the current Lord Warden of Lorham would have been impossible to imagine — and she wasn’t looking forward to her own visit with him, either. But whatever his other failings, Trisu was at least unfailingly (if coldly, disapprovingly, and stiffly) courteous, even to her. The same could not be said for some of his armsmen.
She felt eyes upon her as she came lithely down from the saddle. She knew it wasn’t because of her horsemanship, and she suppressed an urge to tug down her chari’s hem. It was ridiculous, of course, and one of the reasons she most hated her occasional trips to Thalar Keep, where every single armsman and servant knew exactly who she’d been born to be. The knowledge behind those eyes made her much more aware than usual of just how much thigh the chari showed, and she could imagine only too readily how the minds behind some of those eyes were stripping her the rest of the way naked.
The owners of those eyes would undoubtedly have done the same to any war maid, but there was no point pretending they didn’t pay special attention to her. Legally, all war maids were equal before the law, absolved of all previous family affiliation and duties, yet it seemed every living Sothoii knew who her father was. That made her an object of special interest to almost everyone and one of special contempt to those who insisted on thinking of all war maids as unnatural creatures, the best of whom were little better than common harlots and all of whom were dark dish0nor to their family names. The thought of successfully bedding her held a special attraction for quite a few Sothoii males, and not just because she happened to be young and good looking, and she knew exactly why that was. And what was almost worse, there were countless “proper” Sothoii women who undoubtedly figured that was exactly what she deserved after the humiliation and shame she’d inflicted upon her parents.
There’d been a time when her awareness of those watching eyes and the thoughts behind them had embarrassed her more than she would have believed possible; now, it only made her angry. She had no intention of revealing that to her audience, though, however much pleasure it would have done her to rip off a few heads and shove them up their owners’ bodily orifices.
The tart thought woke an unexpected sparkle of welcome amusement, and she reached up and patted Boots’ neck. The bay brown gelding blew heavily, trying to convince her the journey from Kalatha had worn him to the bone, but she knew better, and she smiled.
“Don’t lie to me,” she told him. “I’ve known you too long for that.”
Boots tossed his head with a snort, recognizing her tone, and she laughed. Yet even as she did, she felt those eyes, and that pissed-off part of her still wanted to go turn some of them black and blue.
“Kitty, kitty, sheathe those claws,” a voice murmured very quietly beside her, and she glanced at Garlahna. “I know what you’re thinking,” her best friend said. “For that matter, I’m thinking the same thing, but if you go and start kicking their arses the way they deserve, Mayor Yalith and Balcartha will have a few sharp things to say to you when we get home.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leeana replied, elevating her nose. “Although, I do notice no one’s offered to take care of our horses for us again.”
“As if you’d let anyone else take care of Boots!” Garlahna snorted.
“That’s not the point. The point is that they didn’t offer.”
Garlahna shrugged, and Leeana reminded herself not to grimace. Her friend was unaware of the finer points of etiquette among the Sothoii aristocracy. As such, she didn’t recognize the deeply offensive insult the Kalathan war maids had just been offered. For that matter, most war maids wouldn’t have recognized it, given the relatively humble origins from which the majority of them sprang, which was probably one reason Trisu’s armsmen and grooms took such delight in offering it. They knew how they’d just slighted the two of them, and the fact that war maids in general were too stupid to even know they’d been insulted only made it better.
And then there was Leeana herself the one war maid they could be certain would know how profoundly she’d just been insulted.
She found a certain degree of revenge in smiling at the grooms and hostlers standing around with their hands ostentatiously in their pockets as she and Garlahna passed on their way to the stables. It wasn’t the kind of smile Sothoii were accustomed to seeing from war maids, and she knew her mother would have been appalled if she could see it. There were advantages to having been raised as the daughter of one of the Kingdom’s foremost powerful nobles, however, and she knew exactly how to put the proper cold edge of contempt into an otherwise pleasant expression.
“Thinks her shit doesn’t stink,” she heard someone mutter in a voice she was perfectly aware she was supposed to hear. She ignored it except to give her hips a slight swish which would also have appalled her mother.
“One of these days, you’re going to get us mobbed,” Garlahna told her quietly. “You do know that, don’t you?”
Leeana arched an eyebrow at her friend, and Garlahna chuckled. “When it happens, I’m hiding behind you,” Garlahna warned, brown eyes gleaming with amusement in the stable’s dim light as she and Leeana began un-saddling their horses.
“Coward,” Leeana said, smiling back.
“No, just practical; I know my limitations — relatively speaking, of course. Besides, Barlahn doesn’t like it when I bring back black eyes from one of these little jaunts with you. I think he thinks it’s unladylike.”
“Barlahn?” Leeana laughed out loud. “He’ll just want to hear about what you did to the poor jerk who gave it to you in the first place!”
“I don’t know where you get those ridiculous ideas about him,” Garlahna said severely, swinging her saddle up onto a tack rack. “He’s a very delicate and refined man, you know.”
“Sure he is. And I know just what part of his ‘refined’ personality most attracts you, too. I have seen him swimming, you know!” Leeana rolled her eyes, and Garlahna smacked her lightly on the shoulder.
Leeana racked her own saddle, whisked off Boots’ saddle blanket, and began briskly rubbing him down. It was a task she’d performed hundreds, even thousands, of times before, and she flared her nostrils, inhaling the familiar, welcome scents of horseflesh, saddle soap, leather, oil, and hay. Whatever she might think of Trisu’s armsmen’s standards of courtesy, they kept Thalar Keep’s stables in meticulous order, and she was prepared to forgive them quite a bit as long as that was true.
“So, are you going to try to talk to him today, or wait until tomorrow?” Garlahna asked, rubbing down her own horse with considerably less pleasure than Leeana.
“I think Arm Shahana’s going to keep him pretty fully occupied today,” Leeana replied.
“Besides which, you don’t want to talk to him one moment sooner than you have to.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, but you were thinking it pretty loudly.”
“Is it my fault the man’s an idiot?” Leeana demanded, shaking her head disgustedly. “I swear, sometimes I wonder what Mayor Yalith is thinking, sending me to talk to him about something like this!”
“I’d imagine it has something to do with, oh, I don’t know the fact that you understand ‘something like this’ better than any of the rest of us?”
Leeana snorted, but she had to concede that Garlahna had probably put her finger on it. There weren’t many — in fact, she admitted, there weren’t any — other war maids with her perspective on the internal workings of the aristocracy and its obligations under the Kingdom’s laws and traditions. That made her the logical person to “informally” discuss minor points of contention with Trisu before they turned into formal complaints. Once it reached the complaint stage, someone older and more senior would be sent to handle the matter, but Mayor Yalith had gotten into the habit of using Leeana to keep things from ever getting to that point. Of course, there was the minor fact that the mayor couldn’t possibly have found an envoy who would have been more offensive to Trisu’s prejudices. Which, Leeana had suspected a time or two, might well be another reason she kept getting selected for these little visits.
I do wish the mayor could find another way to tweak Trisu’s nose, she thought moodily, her arm moving rhythmically while she continued to rub Boots down. Not that I don’t sympathize with her. And not that she isn’t making a valid point, for that matter. War maids aren’t supposed to cater to the prejudices of our male “betters,” and sending someone Trisu has to be polite to despite himself is one way to underscore that for him. Unfortunately, understanding what she’s doing doesn’t make it any more pleasant to be her clue stick.
“I’ll talk to him about it tomorrow,” she said out loud.
“Try not to do it until after breakfast,” Garlahna advised. “That’s the most important meal of the day, you know. I’d hate for you to lose your appetite that early.”
“Welcome, Arm Shahana,” Trisu Pickaxe said as Warblade personally ushered Shahana into his spartan, whitewashed office high in Thalar Keep’s central tower.
“Thank you, Milord,” she replied. As much as she and Trisu grated on one another’s nerves, he was always punctiliously polite whenever they met. And he was apparently the only man in all of Lorham who could remember the proper form of address for one of Lillinara’s champions.
“May I offer you refreshment?” Trisu continued, waving one hand at the small side table, where a bottle of Dwarvenhame whiskey and two crystal glasses kept company with a moisture-beaded pitcher of beer and a much larger beer stein. At least he’d learned that much about her, she thought.
“That would be most welcome, Milord,” she replied with a slight smile, and he personally and expertly poured beer into the stein and handed it to her. She sipped with unfeigned pleasure, since Trisu had one of the better brewmasters she’d ever encountered.
“This is good, Milord,” she acknowledged.
“I’m pleased you like it,” he replied with a genuine smile. Then he waved her into the chair facing his desk and waited until she sat before seating himself once more. “May I ask to what I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“Nothing earth shattering this time, Milord.” Shahana smiled thinly. “The Voice knew I had business in Kalatha, and she asked me to stop by and visit you while I was in the vicinity. She wanted me to extend her respects, and to tell you Quaysar expects a very good harvest this year, if the weather holds fair. She hopes to be able to make good on the taxes you so graciously deferred last fall.”
“It’s good of her to take the trouble to inform me of that,” Trisu replied.
He took a sip from his own glass of whiskey, and Shahana wondered if it was to erase the taste of that courteous response from his mouth. Then she scolded herself. No, he didn’t like the war maids, and he would have been far happier if Quaysar had lain in someone else’s wardenship, but she’d never heard an overtly discourteous word out of him. Bluntness that verged on rudeness, sometimes, for he was a plainspoken, almost painfully honest man who took a certain pride in being that way, but never deliberate discourtesy.
“Please inform the Voice that there’s no urgency in making up last year’s shortfall,” he continued after a moment. “Bad harvests can happen to anyone, but it looks like a good harvest for almost everyone this year if, as you say, the weather holds. That’s what I’m hearing from my bailiffs, at any rate, which means we’re anticipating a strong income stream, and I realize the Temple has yet to fully recover.” He smiled thinly. “Given the way events almost worked out, I fully understand that her treasury is still under considerable pressure.”
“Thank you, Milord.”
It was a bit difficult for Shahana to get the words out in a normal tone as Trisu reminded her of how close the Quaysar temple of Lillinara had come to total disaster. He was right about the strain the temple’s treasury had been under ever since, although that pressure was finally beginning to ease, thank the Goddess! But the last several years have been hard ones in the wake of Shigu’s devastating attack.
And the real reason you’re pissed off by Trisu’s “understanding tone” isn’t just because he was right all along when he claimed there was something seriously wrong in Quaysar, either. It’s because Dame Kaeritha got the call to straighten that entire mess out instead of you, isn’t it?
She didn’t much like admitting that. In fact, she was self-honest enough to know she spent as much of her time as she could not admitting it. That, unfortunately, didn’t make it untrue.
No, it doesn’t. But, dammit, we should have seen what was happening, and the Mother should have sent one of Her arms to deal with it!
The thought flashed through her mind, and she raised her stein, taking another long swallow of the clean, rich tasting beer to hide her expression while she dealt with it.
The truth was that Lillinara’s arms wouldn’t have been remotely as well equipped as Dame Kaeritha had been to deal with the assault on the Quaysar temple, and Shahana knew it. Arms of the Mother, like Shahana herself, were trained warriors, but Shahana wasn’t remotely Kaeritha Seldansdaughter’s equal in that respect. Partly that was because of the difference in the deities they served, of course; Tomanak was the god of war, after all! His champions were primarily warriors, but that function was secondary for most arms.
Most arms, as Shahana herself had, heard Lillinara’s voice early in life and began as arms of the Maiden — students, scholars, and explorers taking their first steps on the road of life, studying and learning in order to prepare themselves for greater responsibilities in the course of time. The majority of them eventually became arms of the Mother, although not all ever made that transition. The ones who didn’t tended to become the Church’s librarians, researchers, and scribes or sometimes envoys, but they certainly weren’t Lillinara’s mailed fist. Arms of the Maiden had some training under arms, yet it was minimal, just enough to let them look after themselves in an emergency, because they were supposed to be concentrating on other things.
Arms of the Mother were fully engaged with life. They were trained warriors, but their primary function was to nourish. Many of them, too, remained scholars, serving as teachers and educators. Others, like Shahana, were skilled healers and midwives or surgeons in addition to their weapons training. As warriors, they were guardians and protectors, the custodians of the precious fire of life Lillinara shared with her mother Kontifrio. More than one arm of the Mother had died defending that flame, but they were defenders, not the spearheads of justice Tomanak’s champions so often were.
And then there were the arms of the Crone. Not all arms of the Mother made that transition, and Shahana sometimes wondered if she had the moral fortitude to make it herself. Arms of the Mother defended life; arms of the Crone were focused on the proper ending of life. The healers among them served the hospices which offered care and support for the elderly, the dying. Where those slipping into Isvaria’s shadows were given the dignity and comfort they deserved. It took a special bravery to open one’s heart to those who must inevitably fade, to embrace the natural tide and ease the final flicker of the flame arms of the Mother protected so fiercely, and Shahana wasn’t at all certain she had that much courage.
But arms of the Crone weren’t just healers. They, too, were warriors, yet their function was not to defend life, but to avenge it. An arm of the Mother would seek, far more often than not, to capture a criminal and deliver him to justice, whatever his offense; when Lillinara dispatched an arm of the Crone, it was to slay, not to capture.
And that was why neither an arm of the Mother nor an arm of the Crone would have been remotely as well suited to dealing with Shigu’s attack on Quaysar. However much Shahana might dislike admitting it, that had required a sword with a keener edge than hers. Once Shigu had replaced the legitimate Voice with her own creature and corrupted the captain of the Quaysar Temple Guard, nothing short of Tomanak Himself and His champions could have pried her loose again without the utter devastation of the temple. For that matter, even Dame Kaeritha and Bahzell Bahnakson had inevitably left broad swaths of destruction in their wake, and the Temple Guard had been devastated. Well over two thirds of its armsmen and war maids had been corrupted to a greater or a lesser extent — many of them knowingly; others without even realizing what was happening — and the survivors’ morale had been shattered by the realization of how utterly they’d failed to protect the temple they’d been called upon to serve.
And that was why Shahana had been permanently assigned to Quaysar for the last six and a half years. Rebuilding the temple was a task to which arms of the Mother were far better suited, and she and the current Voice — trained healers, both of them — had carried out that rebuilding with slow but steady progress. It helped that the Voice was a native Sothoii and that she’d never been a war maid. Trisu, for example, found it much easier to interact with her than he did even now with Mayor Yalith at Kalatha. For that matter, he found it easier to interact with her than he did with Shahana, who’d been born and raised in the Empire of the Axe.
And he still gets along better with Dame Kaeritha than he does with either of us, Shahana thought moodily. Is that because he’s more comfortable thinking of her as “just” another warrior? Or is it because in the end, she realized he was right and the war maids were wrong about what was happening? Does a part of him think of her as his partisan and not simply as an impartial judge sent by Scale Balancer?
Of course, she admitted, it was also entirely possible that only a champion of Tomanak could have been impartial in a case like this one. Lillinara’s arms dealt regularly with prejudice — especially here in the Kingdom of the Sothoii and especially against war maids — and they did have a natural tendency to react defensively first and consider impartiality second.
So the Gods probably knew what They were doing when they sent Dame Kaeritha and not you, she told herself yet again. Maybe you should just go ahead and accept that They usually know what They’re doing?
The familiar tartness of that thought restored much of her humor, and she lowered her stein and smiled at Trisu.
“I’m sure the Voice will appreciate your generosity and understanding,” she said. “We’re making continued progress in rebuilding, and Quaysar is becoming prosperous again, but there’s no point pretending it couldn’t very easily have gone the other way.”
Trisu’s gray eyes went cold and distant, looking at something Shahana couldn’t see. They stayed that way for several seconds before he shook himself and refocused on her face.
“I know,” he repeated. “And the truth is, Arm Shahana, that I blame myself, at least in part.”
“You do?” Shahana couldn’t quite keep the surprise out of her own voice. As far as she knew, this was the first time Trisu had ever said anything like that. “In fairness, Milord,” she said a bit unwillingly, “yours was the only voice raising the alarm. It’s scarcely your fault that no one listened to you until Dame Kaeritha came along.”
“You think not?” Trisu sat back in his chair, elbows on chair arms, cradling his glass of whiskey in both hands, and smiled in what certainly looked like faint amusement. “I think perhaps you’re being overly generous, Milady.”
“In what way?” she asked, trying not to bridle at the honorific he’d chosen.
“It’s tactful of you and the Voice not to remark upon it, Arm Shahana,” he said, still with that faint smile, “but my own attitude, and that of my family, towards the war maids is scarcely a secret. Indeed, I’ve been known to express myself, ah, somewhat intemperately, I suppose, upon the subject in private conversation from time to time. Nowhere near as intemperately as my Uncle Saeth or my cousin Triahm, perhaps, but still intemperately enough. I won’t pretend I don’t believe many of my less than flattering opinions where the war maids are concerned are justified, either. Obviously, you and I aren’t going to agree with one another in that regard. However, it’s a lord warden’s responsibility to discharge his duties as impartially as he possibly can, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d put myself into a position where I wasn’t able to do that.”
“As nearly as I can tell, Milord,” Shahana said a bit stiffly, “you did discharge them impartially. It certainly turned out you were the one who was correctly interpreting the situation and the provisions of the Kalatha town charter. Whatever anyone may have thought at the time, you were completely within your legal rights.”
“Oh, I know I was,” he acknowledged with a slightly broader smile, eyes glinting as he recognized how unhappy it made her to acknowledge that point. “But the problem, Milady, is that everyone else knew about my let’s be courteous and call them prejudices where the war maids were concerned. And because they did, there was an automatic assumption that I wasn’t acting impartially. I put myself in that position by not watching my words more carefully, and I can’t quite free myself of the suspicion that Shigu chose Lorham and Quaysar specifically because I’d allowed myself to be far more outspoken about my feelings than a responsible lord warden would have done. Those opinions of mine were too broadly known, and without Dame Kaeritha’s intervention, that would have made Shigu’s lies entirely too plausible.”
Shahana blinked. She couldn’t help it, because she would never have expected that analysis out of Trisu Pickaxe. It was entirely too insightful to be coming from someone like him.
Only it just did, didn’t it? she thought. And the fact that you would never have expected it probably says more about you than it does about him, doesn’t it? Damn the man! Now I can’t even congratulate myself for overcoming my prejudices against him better than he overcomes his against me!
“Milord,” she said, regarding him levelly, “there’s probably something in what you say, but perhaps it cuts both ways. I’ll concede you’ve been a bit more outspoken than I might have wished upon occasion, but so have the war maids. And, for that matter, the Quaysar Temple has been more confrontational than absolutely necessary from time to time. I think you’re right that it was the tension between all parties, and the fact that that tension was so widely known, that cleared the way for Shigu’s attempt in the first place. But you weren’t the only source of that tension.”
“Oh, I never said I was!” Trisu actually chuckled, leaning even further back in his chair. “Milady, it would never do for me to say I was more at fault than the war maids! Just think of the consternation that would cause among my armsmen and anyone else who knows me! Besides, the entire situation would never have arisen if not for the unnatural and perverse lifestyle the war maids have chosen to embrace now would it?”
Shahana had just raised her stein for another sip of beer. Now she spluttered into it and lowered the stein again to glare at him as he delivered his last sentence in a tone of perfect, matter-of-fact sincerity, as if he’d simply remarked that the sun was likely to rise in the east tomorrow morning. She started to open her mouth, then paused as their gazes met and she saw the amusement sparkling deep in his eyes. She drew a deep breath and shook her head.
“Milord,” she said tartly, “if you’re not careful, I’m going to decide you have a sense of humor after all, and then where will you be?”
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