War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 20

Sharlassa was only too well aware of it, at any rate.

Yet she could have handled that hostility if it had been the only problem. Or she thought she could have. She might have been wrong about that, the way she’d been wrong about so many other things in her life.

She sighed again and leaned forward, picking at a bit of moss on the stone wall, feeling the unseen, damp pressure of the rain growing slowly more omnipresent. A patch of the moss came loose and she held it up, studying it, feeling the velvety softness of it against the ball of her thumb. The back, where it had kissed against the stone, was rougher grained, papery, so different from its front, and she wondered if that was some sort of metaphor for her life…or if she was only being maudlin again.

She snorted softly, with bittersweet regret for what might have happened. It was strange, and it made her feel guilty sometimes, but she could hardly remember what Sathek had truly looked like. They’d been supposed to have his miniature painted for her before he’d ridden off with Sir Trianal to deal with the mystery attacks being launched on Lord Warden Glanharrow’s herds and fields. She ought to remember anyway, painting or no painting — she’d been madly in love with him, hadn’t she? — but she didn’t. Not truly. She remembered how she’d felt about him, how she’d looked forward to the marriage as soon as she was old enough, sometimes she even remembered the feel of his arms around her, but his face was slipping away from her. In an odd way, and one which frequently made her feel almost unbearably guilty, she had a far clearer memory of Sir Trianal’s face on the day he’d personally ridden up to her father’s house to tell her that Sathek Smallsword had died in his baron’s service and under Sir Trianal’s command.

Well, of course you remember Sir Trianal’s face better! Her inner voice was tart this time. Sathek is gone, and you never got that miniature painted, and they say the mind forgets what the heart remembers. Besides, Sir Trianal isn’t dead, now is he? It’s been — what? All of three hours since you saw him at breakfast? That probably tends to keep him a little fresher in your memory, don’t you think?

True enough. That was true enough. And it still didn’t keep her from feeling guilty when she couldn’t remember. Just as the fact that life was what it was, and Lillinara knew Sharlassa couldn’t change it just by wishing it was different, didn’t make her any happier about it.

At least Mother knows you need all the help you can get, she reminded herself. No matter how much you wish she’d stop beating herself up for “not having done right by you” when you were a girl! She didn’t know where we were going to wind up any more than Father did. Or than you did, for that matter! And when it comes down to it, teaching you to think of yourself as a fine lady would have been the cruelest thing she could have done before Father became a lord warden.

So, yes, she was deeply grateful to Lady Sharmatha for sending her where she could get the schooling she needed as a proper Sothōii noblewoman, even if it did seem like one of Hirahim’s worse jokes to find herself in that position. And no one could possibly have been more understanding or kinder or a better teacher than Baroness Hanatha. Yet sending Sharlassa here — sending her to the place she still thought of deep in her bones as “home” — had its own sharp, jagged edges. She was no longer the person she’d been when she’d lived here in one of the neat little houses maintained for the garrison’s officers. The girls she’d grown up with — those that weren’t married, at any rate — had no better idea of how to act around her now than she had of how to act around them. Even her closest friends felt awkward and uncomfortable, divided by that invisible armor of rank which lay between them, afraid someone — possibly even Sharlassa herself — would think they were being overly familiar if they dared to treat their old friend as a friend.

She sighed yet again — she was getting a lot of practice at that this afternoon — and tossed the moss up into the air. Unlike the ribbon, it plummeted to the ground, disappearing into the orchard’s grass, and she found herself wishing she could do the same.

It was a potentially dangerous thought, especially here in Balthar, and she knew her mother was concerned about that, however careful she’d been to never discuss it with her daughter in so many words. But there wasn’t any point pretending the idea hadn’t crossed Sharlassa’s mind more than once.

Lady Leeana Bowmaster had been just as much a tomboy as ever Sharlassa Dragonclaw had been, and she’d gone through life with a fearlessness Sharlassa deeply envied. She’d wondered sometimes if that was because Leeana was not simply one of the most nobly born young women in the entire Kingdom but also an only child, treated more like a son than even she’d realized at the time. Now, with her own closer acquaintance with Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, Sharlassa knew it wasn’t that Leeana’s parents had treated her like a son but that they’d treated her as a unique person in her own right. Baroness Hanatha treated Sharlassa the same way, and she’d seen the easy affection and love — the trust — in the way they treated Sir Trianal, as well.

Yet there was no denying that Sharlassa had deeply admired and respected Leeana. Of course, Leanna had been not simply the daughter of her liege lord but also over two years older than Sharlassa. They’d never been anything someone might have described as friends, for they’d lived in different worlds which simply happened to overlap from time to time. But those worlds had overlapped — sometimes in one of the paddocks or the stables, sometimes right here in this orchard when both of them had helped gather apples — and whenever they had, Leeana had been unfailingly friendly and kind. More than that, she’d…radiated something, something Sharlassa had seemed to sense the way she sensed the apple trees around her now. There’d been a sparkle, a strength, a sense of vibrant, flickering energy. No doubt that was as much her imagination as sometimes dreaming she was a tree, but that hadn’t made the sensation feel any less real, and she couldn’t quite convince herself that it had all been imagination.

She frowned moodily, with the expression her father had always called “scratching a mental itch” when she’d been younger, just before he chucked her under the chin or snatched her up onto his shoulder or tickled her unmercifully. She wished he was here to do that now and distract her from her brown, unreasonably moody mood, although it would, of course, be unspeakably improper for Lord Jahsak to do such a thing with Lady Sharlassa.

In a way, that feeling that she could almost reach out and touch the innermost being of the orchard’s trees was to blame for much of her present mood, and she knew it. She treasured the feeling, took strength from it as if it helped to center her and remind her of who she was deep down inside, not simply who she had to learn to be as Lady Sharlassa. Yet she’d always secretly thought she would someday outgrow the absurd fancy that she could sense the trees at all, and she hadn’t. In fact, it was actually growing stronger, and she sometimes thought she was reaching deeper and further.

Was the problem that she wanted to be able to do that? That she was so unhappy, so uncertain, about who she must learn to be that she longed for escape into some warm, comforting dream? Or into something which could distract her from learning the lessons her life had set her? Or was she simply losing her mind in a pleasantly harmless sort of way?