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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Ten
Last updated: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 22:22 EDT
“Leeana is here, Five Hundred.”
Commander of Five Hundred Balcartha Evahnalfressa looked up from the paperwork on her desk, one eyebrow raised as she regarded the youthful war maid currently detailed as her aide. It was a rotating assignment which was usually shared by the newest and most junior members of the Kalatha City Guard much to their trepidation. Most of them thought that things were arranged that way to be sure they were suitably terrified by the Guard’s commander before they were released to the general population. In fact, it was so that they got an inside look at how the Guard ran as early in their careers as possible and so that Balcartha had the opportunity to personally evaluate each of them. The Guard wasn’t all that enormous, after all. Certainly, it wasn’t so big that she couldn’t actually know each of her war maids, yet new recruits had a pronounced tendency to hide from their commanding officer in the underbrush, at least until they got their feet under them. Balcartha understood that. She even sympathized with them. Yet she had no intention of allowing them to get away with it, either.
“Leeana, Taraiys?” the five hundred asked in a musing tone, and the girl — she couldn’t have been a day over seventeen — blushed rosily. It was a fascinating shade of deep red, Balcartha noted, and Taraiys’ blond hair, blue eyes, and very fair complexion made it even more spectacular.
“I beg your pardon, Five Hundred,” she said stiffly. “I meant to say that Seventy-Five Leeana is here. She says she has an appointment.”
“Ah — that Leeana,” Balcartha murmured, and watched Taraiys’ blush turn even darker. For a moment, the five hundred wondered if smoke was actually going to curl up off of the girl’s skin. But she didn’t quite burst into spontaneous flames, and after a moment, the Guard commander relented and smiled slightly. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been expecting the Seventy-Five. Please ask her to step into my lair.”
“Yes, Five Hundred!” Taraiys actually came to attention and touched her chest with a raised fist in salute, and Balcartha managed not to crack a smile as she solemnly returned it. Then she leaned comfortably back in her swivel chair, legs crossed, propped her elbows on the chair arms, and steepled her fingers under her chin.
“Seventy-Five Leeana, Five Hundred!” Taraiys announced with sharp formality a moment later, opening the door and ushering the considerably taller Leeana through it. Her head barely topped the older war maid’s shoulder, and Leanna’s jade-green eyes danced with devilish delight as they met the five hundred’s over Taraiys head. Her lips quivered with her womanfully struggle to restrain the smile obviously dancing right behind those eyes, but somehow she managed to maintain a suitably solemn demeanor when Balcartha gave her a warning glance.
“Thank you, Taraiys,” the five hundred said solemnly. “That will be all, I think.”
“Yes, Five Hundred!” Taraiys saluted again and disappeared through the office door with the air of a rabbit escaping down its hole, perhaps half a leap in front of the fox. The door closed behind her, and something suspiciously like a giggle spurted out of Leeana.
“That will be quite enough of that, Seventy-Five Leeana,” Balcartha said primly.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Five Hundred Balcartha!” Leeana said earnestly. “Mother! She was so red when you sent her back out I thought you’d set her on fire!” The tall, redhaired young woman shook her head. “What did you say to her?”
“That’s between her and me.” Balcartha smiled and shook her own head. “She does color up spectacularly though, doesn’t she?”
“Oh, I think you could certainly say that,” Leeana agreed. Then she smiled a bit penitently. “I really shouldn’t make fun of her for it though, I suppose. I can produce a pretty spectacular blush of my own, can’t I?”
“On the rare occasions when anyone can manage to embarrass you, yes,” Balcartha agreed.
“Are you implying that such a low person as myself no longer has the delicacy to feel embarrassment?” Leeana asked innocently, and Balcartha chuckled.
“Something like that these days, at least,” she agreed, and Leeana threw up her right hand as if she were acknowledging a touch in a training match.
“I deserved that,” she acknowledged. “But she really is awfully young, isn’t she?”
“This from the broken down old grandmother in front of me?” Balcartha raised both eyebrows. “I seem to remember a fourteen-year-old who didn’t know which end of the dagger to hold when Erlis and Ravlahn first evaluated her. Now, let me see, let me see what was her name?”
She gazed up at the ceiling, lips pursed in obvious thought, and Leeana laughed.
“You really are training with live blades today, aren’t you, Five Hundred Balcartha?”
“Only against some,” Balcartha replied with a twinkle.
As the commander of the Kalatha Guard, she wasn’t supposed to have favorites, and she never allowed favoritism to govern her actions, but there was no point pretending she didn’t have a special place in her heart for Leeana Hanathafressa. She did remember — vividly — the pampered fourteen-year-old noblewoman who’d fled to Kalatha almost seven years before. Not that Leanna had realized she’d been pampered, and by the standards of her birth rank, she hadn’t been. Which hadn’t changed the fact that, as Balcartha had just pointed out, she’d been totally unequipped with the skills her new life was going to require of her. Her embarrassment at finding herself clad — more or less — in the traditional chari and yathu had been only too apparent to someone with Balcartha’s experience, and unlike most war maids, Leanna hadn’t fled to Kalatha to escape an intolerable, all too often abusive family situation. Indeed, she’d escaped to Kalatha no more than hours in front of her pursuing father because of how much she’d loved her parents, and she’d been miserably homesick and unhappy at leaving them, however bravely she’d tried to hide it.
Looking at her now, Balcartha could still see that fourteen-year-old inside the poised, confident, athletic young woman who had replaced her. Not the misery or the uncertainty, but the dauntless, uncomplaining spirit which had risen to meet the demands of a life so utterly different from the one to which she had been raised.
Now Leeana smiled at her, and Balcartha unsteepled her fingers to point at the empty chair in front of her desk.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Leeana said meekly and settled obediently into the indicated chair. She also folded her hands neatly in her lap, planted her feet very close together, and sat very straight with a demure, earnestly attentive expression.
“You do realize you’re about to draw two extra weeks of patrol duty for being such a smartass, don’t you?” Balcartha inquired.
“Oh, I suppose something like that might happen in some other city guard,” Leeana replied. “My five hundred is far too broad-minded and much too far above the sort of petty mindedness which would permit that sort of mean-spirited retaliation Ma’am.”
“You just go right on believing that until you see the patrol roster,” Balcartha advised her. Then she shook her head. “Although truth be told, and given how much you actually seem to enjoy running around out in the grasslands, I suppose I’d better come up with some other way to demonstrate my petty mindedness. Maybe I should convince the mayor to send you back for another conversation with Lord Warden Trisu.”
“Mother forbid!” Leeana leaned back and raised both hands in a gesture of surrender, the dismay in her expression only half-feigned. “I’ll be good. I promise I’ll be good!”
“That bad, was it?” Balcartha swung her chair slowly from side to side. “Didn’t Arm Shahana’s visit give you any cover? I thought he was on his best behavior when she comes to call on him.”
“I suppose he is, really.” Leeana cocked her head, and her tone was more serious. “I’d say he’s at least trying, anyway. Unfortunately — as you and Mayor Yalith are both perfectly well aware — Trisu can’t quite seem to forget who my father is.” She grimaced. “He’s not very good at hiding his conviction that becoming a war maid is about the most disgraceful thing a properly reared young noblewoman could possibly have done. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t try very hard, really.”
“What do you mean?” Balcartha’s chair stopped swinging and her eyes narrowed.
“Oh, I’m not saying he goes out of his way to offer me insults, Balcartha,” Leeana said quickly. “On the other hand, you know he doesn’t believe in operating under false pretenses, and becoming a war maid isn’t some sort of minor faux pas like getting myself caught sleeping with someone else’s husband or producing a child whose father I can’t name. It’s a seriously reprehensible thing for anyone to do!”
There was a genuine bite under the humor in her tone, Balcartha noted, continuing to gaze at her intently, and the younger woman shrugged.
“Whatever he may have thought or felt, he was perfectly polite in the way he addressed me, Balcartha. And let’s face it, we both know Mayor Yalith chooses me as her envoy to make a specific point to him. I understand that. That doesn’t mean I don’t get a little tired sometimes of being used as the mayor’s hammer, but I understand it.” She shrugged again. “If putting up with the occasional visit to Trisu is the worst thing the war maids ever ask of me, I’ll figure I’ve been a lot luckier than I deserve.”
“I see.” Balcartha considered her for another few seconds, then tipped back in her chair once more. “Should I take it, then, that you accomplished whatever it was Yalith sent you there to deal with?”
“I think so.” Leeana nodded, but she did not (Balcartha noted) tell her exactly what it was Yalith had sent her to Thalar Keep to do. The younger woman’s reticence didn’t offend the five hundred. In fact, she approved of it — strongly — and the fact that Leeana wasn’t the sort to gossip about any diplomatic missions upon which she might be sent was one of the reasons she tended to get sent on them.
Well, that and the fact that she’s smart as a whip, not to mention better educated than at least three quarters of our war maids, and better informed on the Kingdom’s politics than Yalith and me combined. And equipped with a confidence in her ability to handle even people like Trisu that most war maids twice her age could only envy. The really funny thing is that as smart as she is, I don’t think she fully understands even now just how unusual that confidence of hers is.
Part of it, the five hundred knew, was simply who and what she’d been born. It would have been ridiculous to expect someone like her friend Garlahna, who’d been raised on a farm, to have the same confidence and poise as the only daughter of one of the Kingdom’s four most powerful nobles. There was reason in everything, after all. Yet birth alone couldn’t explain Leeana Hanathafressa, and neither could the young woman’s knife-edged intelligence.
The truth, Balcartha admitted to herself just a bit more grimly, was that the majority of war maids had been damaged — or at least scarred — by whatever it was which had driven them to revolt against all the rules and expectations of “proper conduct” which had been trained into them. Not all of them, of course. There would always be those who simply discovered they wanted something more out of their lives. That they wanted to step beyond the mold and the restrictions, and thank Lillinara for them! But there was no point trying to deny that the war maid community was a refuge — a place to heal, or even hide — for the majority of women who sought it out.
In a sense, that was true for Leeana, as well, but what she’d come to hide from was the proposal of an arranged marriage she’d known her father’s political enemies had contrived as a weapon against him. And if she’d had the inevitable regrets, shed the inevitable tears at giving up her family, there’d been nothing damaged or scarred about her. There’d been only that deep, abiding, astounding strength, and over the years, Balcartha had come to have an equally deep and abiding respect for the parents who’d given it to her.
“And did Lord Trisu’s grooms offer to take care of Boots for you?” the five hundred asked out loud, her eyes gleaming faintly, and Leeana snorted.
“Lillinara, no!” She shook her head. “How can you even ask such a thing? Any properly bred Sothoii male offer to care for a war maid’s horse? They were far too busy undressing Garlahna and me with their eyes!”
“Alas, that doesn’t seem to happen to me anymore,” Balcartha said mournfully, running one hand over her gray hair.
“Trust me, I wish it didn’t happen to me, either!” Leeana said vehemently.
“Oh, hush, child!” Balcartha stopped running her hand over her hair to shake an index finger at the younger woman. “Trust me, the day men don’t look at you, you’ll notice! I know what you’d really like to do is wring their necks, and I’d pay good kormaks to see you do it. For that matter, I’d offer to help if I thought you’d need it! But you’re only as young and good-looking as you are once, so go ahead and rub their noses in it. In a properly ladylike way, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” Leeana agreed, but a faint echo of Taraiys’ fiery blush seemed to touch her cheekbones, and Balcartha frowned mentally.
Quite a few war maids, especially the ones who’d fled to the free-towns like Kalatha rather than being born there, took full advantage of the sexual freedom their new lives offered. Some of them took too much advantage of it, in Balcartha’s opinion, and the behavior of certain war maids she could call to mind didn’t help the bigoted stereotype which viewed all war maids as perhaps a half-step above common harlots. Or below them, perhaps. Of course, it was hard to blame them, after what many of them had endured, and whoever any individual war maid might choose to bed was her concern and hers alone. Whatever else might be true, war maids belonged to themselves, not anyone else, in all ways. They’d given up far too much of the rest of their lives to compromise on that, however much their “licentious ways” offended the society they’d rejected, and they were perfectly prepared to make their defiance of that society’s rules abundantly, one might even have said flagrantly, clear.
Expecting anything else would have been not merely foolish but wrong, and as a general rule Balcartha didn’t make it her business to worry about what any of her war maids did whenever they were off duty. Still, she’d become aware Leeana wasn’t one of the ones who took advantage of that particular aspect of her freedom. Or if she did, she was incredibly discreet about it, at any rate. Bacartha had thought for a while that she and Gharlana might decide to pair up, but that obviously wasn’t the case especially now that Barlahn Ironsmith had come on the scene! And it wasn’t as if someone with Leeana’s looks and warm, open personality hadn’t attracted plenty of attention, male and female alike, especially over the last few years. But she’d rebuffed all of them — with a smile or a laughing, wicked joke that made it abundantly obvious she was no prude, whatever else might be true, far more often than not. And she clearly had a healthy appreciation for her own attractiveness. Aside from an occasional flash of resentment like her comment about Traisu’s armsmen — and the gods knew Balcartha understood that well enough! — she never seemed the least repressed, or unhappy, but still
“But still” it isn’t any of your business, old woman! the five hundred scolded herself. It’s up to her who she does — or doesn’t — sleep with, so just you let her worry about it!
“Well,” she said out loud, “I’m glad to hear your mission was a success and you didn’t leave any bruised or broken armsmen in your wake.”
“Not this time, anyway.” Leeana grimaced. “I can’t guarantee that won’t happen another time, though!”
“Just make sure there’s a witness who can honestly testify that he made the first move, and you’ve got my blessing.” Balcartha’s tone was light, but there was a genuine note of warning in it, as well, and she waited to continue until Leeana nodded back.
“And now that I’ve issued my stern injunction, what was it you wanted to see me about?” she asked then.
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about a furlough,” Leeana said, and Balcartha’s mental ears pricked.
The younger woman looked as relaxed and comfortable as she’d been from the moment she entered the office, yet there was some subtle change. Some tiny shift in her body language, or perhaps something in her eyes. Balcartha couldn’t put a finger on what that “something” was, but that didn’t prevent her from knowing it was there.
“A furlough?” she repeated.
“Yes.” Leeana shrugged. “It turns out I’ve been running up unused leave time for quite a while now. In fact, according to Erlis, I’ve got over three months of it on the books. With your permission, I’d like to use some of that up now.”
“Over three months?” Balcartha blinked. To have accrued that much unused leave time, Leeana must have pretty much not taken any leave at all for the last couple of years, and the five hundred rebuked herself for not having noticed. Attention to duty and hard work were always praiseworthy qualities and much to be encouraged, but it was important for anyone to save a little time for herself, as well. In fact, it was as important as attention to duty, and if she’d realized Leeana was shorting herself on leave to that extent
“Yes, Ma’am.” Leeana made a small, almost apologetic gesture. “It just sort of piled up.”
Those mental ears of Balcartha’s twitched again as Leeana’s tone registered.
Now why don’t I believe it just “piled up”? And if it didn’t, why has she been saving it up on purpose?
“I suppose that happens sometimes,” she said after a moment, “if not usually to quite that extent. And if it has, then by all means let’s get some of it used up. Unless you’re planning on letting it go on ‘piling up’ until you can retire a year or two early!”
“That’s not what I had in mind.” Leeana grinned and shook her head. “In fact, if the Guard can spare me, I’d like to go ahead and take a month or two of it, starting next month.”
“I’m sure we can survive without you for a few weeks,” Balcartha said dryly. “May I ask exactly what it is you have in mind to do with all that time?”
“Well ” Leeana shrugged. “Next month is my birthday, and I’d like to go home — to Hill Guard, I mean — for it.”
Balcartha’s eyes narrowed in sudden understanding.
“That’s right. You’ll be twenty-one this year, won’t you?” she said.
“Yes, I will,” Leeana replied, meeting her gaze levelly, and Balcartha nodded slowly.
Twenty-one was the year of majority, the official beginning of adulthood, for a Sothoii noblewoman. For noblemen, it came two years earlier than that — just another of those little natural advantages which accrued to someone who’d had the good sense to be born male. Among those scandalous war maids, of course, the rules were somewhat different, and unlike Leeana Bowmaster, Leeana Hanathafressa had been legally an adult from the moment she completed her probationary period.
Several questions followed one another through Balcartha’s mind as she and the younger woman gazed at one another. But the only one who had the right to ask Leeana those questions was Leeana herself, and so –
“I don’t see any problem about arranging a couple of months of leave for you,” the five hundred said. “You’ll have to discuss it with Erlis, of course — make sure she’s covered while you’re away — but I feel confident we’ll manage in your absence somehow.”
“Leeana! Over here!”
Garlahna’s shout cut through the friendly, noisy, dimly lit din of The Green Maiden’s common room, and Leeana turned her head, peering through the rather smoky air until she spotted her friend at a corner table. Unlike her, Garlahna had exchanged her chari and yathu for a gown for the evening, and its amber silk clung to her like a second skin. It was interesting, Leeana thought, how the gown actually emphasized Garlahna’s undeniably curvaceous figure so much more emphatically than the far more “revealing” traditional war maid attire did. It was a point she’d been paying more attention to of late herself, and she admired the embroidery on her friend’s deeply plunging bodice.
Of course, some people had more curves to emphasize in the first place, she reflected, although she had to admit she was less challenged in that area herself than she’d once expected to be. It was simply that Garlahna could have challenged anyone in that particular competition.
She smiled at the familiar thought as Garlahna waved, beckoning her over. Then she waved back and started working her way through the crowd.
The Green Maiden was always crowded, especially on the evenings like this one, when fresh rain clouds had come swelling up along the western horizon as the sun settled towards evening. It didn’t feel like it was going to be one of the Wind Plain’s tumultuous thunderstorms, but unless Leeana missed her guess, they were in for a long, steady soaking. In fact, the first drops had already begun to fall, although no one could possibly hear them pattering on the The Green Maiden’s roof through the chattering voices, the clatter of tableware, the calls for refilled mugs and glasses, and the preliminary tootling of the three musicians setting up for the evening’s entertainment on the tiny stage beside the huge fireplace.
Leeana reached the table Garlahna had snagged and paused to use both hands to slick beads of rainwater off of her bare shoulders and upper arms before she hooked a toe under the unoccupied chair on her side and pulled it out.
“Didn’t think you were going to make it before the floodgates opened,” Garlahna observed.
“I didn’t — quite,” Leeana pointed out wryly. “And I’ve got gate duty tonight. Third watch, in fact.” She grimaced. “It ought to be coming down nicely by then.”
“And Barlahn and I will be thinking of you with the deepest sympathy as we listen to the rain drumming on the roof and gurgling in the gutters,” Garlahna assured her, leaning comfortably against Barlahn Ironsmith’s shoulder. It was a well muscled shoulder, connected to powerful arms and calloused, capable hands, one of which was draped possessively around Garlahna at that very moment. “Assuming we can spare any of our attention from more pressing matters, that is,” Garlahna added with a smile.
“Knowing you?” Leeana snorted. “Somehow I don’t think I’d better be counting on you to come make sure I haven’t come down with pneumonia.”
“Are you suggesting anything could possibly distract me from my deep and burning concern about my very best friend’s well-being on a dark and stormy night like this?”
“I’m suggesting it would take Chemalka’s own thunderbolt to get any ‘spare attention’ out of the two of you!”
“Well, that’s only because we’re going to be enjoying a few thunderbolts of our own,” Garlahna replied, arching her spine ever so slightly to round her bosom provocatively, then batted her eyes in Barlahn’s direction.
“Shameless hussy,” he remarked comfortably, smiling down at her, and she laughed and patted him on the thigh.
“Yep, and you love it,” she told him. “Don’t try to pretend differently to me!”
“Happen I’m not so likely to be doing that. ‘S long as you don’t take t’ taking me for granted, anywise.”
“Trust me, that’s not going to happen,” she purred, raising her head far enough to plant a kiss on the side of his neck.
“Good.” He smiled again, then looked across the table at Leeana. “And a good evening to you, too, Leeana,” he said blandly.
“Why don’t the two of you just go ahead and get a room here at the inn?” Leeana asked sweetly. “It would save so much time. And I’d be happy to wait to order until you got back.”
“I tried, but they were all already taken,” Garlahna said mournfully. “Still,” she brightened, “I understand Raythas told Shallys she’d only need her room for an hour or so.” She smiled wickedly at Leeana. “I’m sure Barlahn and I could get it when she’s done if you’d care to join us before you go on watch, that is.”
“Garlahna, if I thought you were really willing to share Barlahn for even one moment, you might actually manage to embarrass me,” Leeana told her with a smile of her own. “Since I know perfectly well what a greedy bitch you are where he’s concerned, I’m not really worried.”
“Spoilsport!” Garlahna laughed, then looked up as one of The Green Maiden’s servers appeared at the edge of the table. Like quite a few of the other war maids scattered around the common room, the woman had a pipe clasped between her teeth, and smoke curled up from its bowl to join the haze drifting overhead as she cocked an eyebrow at the three of them.
“So are you finally ready to order, Garlahna? Or do you and Barlahn want to sit over here in each other’s laps for another hour or so, first? Oh, and hi, Leeana.”
“Hi, Barthyma.” Leeana shook her head and jabbed a thumb in Garlahna’s direction. “You know the two of them are lowering the tone of your entire establishment, don’t you?”
“I keep telling them to get a room,” Barthyma Darhanfressa replied, and raised both eyebrows as Garlahna went into a fit of giggles. “I said something especially funny?” she asked.
“Only to someone like Garlahna,” Leeana assured her. “And since I’ve got the duty in another couple of hours, I’ll go ahead and order a beer now, if you don’t mind. And is that venison I smell?”
“Shallys’ special recipe,” Barthyma confirmed.
“Then I’ll have that, too. With the buttered potatoes and lima beans. Oh, and don’t forget the cornbread! And –”
“And make sure it’s a generous portion,” Barthyma finished for her with a smile, and shook her head. “Girl, it’s a good thing you’re as fanatical as you are about those morning runs of yours!”
“I’m just making sure I get to go on enjoying the good things in life,” Leeana replied with a smile.
“Some of them, at least,” Garlahna said. “Personally, I prefer to burn off the pounds without running around barefoot in the misty morn.”
Leeana shook her head fondly. Garlahna might miss the occasional morning, but the two of them ran together at least four days a week.
“So, are you two going to order?” Barthyma asked the dark-haired war maid, and Barlahn laughed.
“O’ course she is. In fact,” he smiled down at Garlahna, “I’m thinking you’d best fetch her an extra portion, too.” He looked up at Barthyma and winked. “Happen she’ll need her strength tonight.”
“Mother, take me now!” Barthyma rolled her eyes, and looked back at Leeana. “If it gets any deeper back here, you’re going to drown before you have to go out in the rain, Leeana. You’re always welcome at the bar if you need to escape.”
“Thanks,” Leeana said wryly, “but I think I’ll just stay here and take notes.”
“Take notes?” Garlahna sat up a little straighter, brown eyes narrowing slightly. “And the cause of this sudden curiosity of yours would be –?”
“Who said anything about ‘curiosity’?” Leeana retorted. “I’m just looking for blackmail material.”
“Blackmail material?” Garhlahna laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding! I was a farm girl, not a ‘noblewoman’ like someone I could mention, before I ran off to the war maids!”
“Oh, I know it wouldn’t have any effect on you,” Leanna shot back. “But Barlahn was a respectable fellow before he took up with you. He may still have a reputation to worry about, you know!”
She grinned at her friend, green eyes dancing, but Garlahna gazed back at her with that same speculative air for a heartbeat or two. There was something about Leeana’s tone, she thought. And was that the slightest edge of a blush along the other war maid’s cheekbones?
Their eyes met for just a moment, and then Garlahna snorted.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, snuggling comfortably back down beside her freemate. “If Barlahn was going to worry about his ‘reputation,’ he never would’ve ‘taken up’ with me in the first place!”
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