War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 21

Her lips twitched at that last thought, remembering Granny Marlys. All Balthar’s children had loved Granny growing up, although even the youngest of them had realized she was what some of the adults in their lives called “not quite right.” As she’d grown older, Sharlassa had realized that people who were “quite right” didn’t firmly believe they were the goddess Chemalka and could summon rain on a whim or make the sun shine whenever they wanted to. Yet aside from that minor foible, Granny Marlys had been the warmest, kindest person — and greatest storyteller — imaginable. Not a parent in Balthar would have hesitated for a moment to ask Granny to care for a child, and her kitchen had been a magic land where the scent of fresh cookies or gingerbread had a habit of ambushing a youthful visitor.

But, no, she wasn’t another Granny. Granny had simply ignored the fact that she couldn’t always make the sun shine whenever she wanted to…and that she frequently managed to get herself drenched working in her kitchen garden because that rain she’d forbidden to fall had fallen anyway. And she’d regarded all of the mortals around her with a benign sense that all of them were there to serve her whims but that she didn’t really need them to do anything for her just at the moment, so they might as well go ahead and get along with their own lives until she did need them.

Sharlassa didn’t live in that comfortable sort of imaginary world. That was the problem, after all! And that was why it…worried her, if that wasn’t putting it too strongly, that she seemed to be becoming more sensitive, not less, to at least portions of the world around her.

And if you’re going to become “more sensitive” to part of the world, why not all of it? she asked herself bitingly. But, no, you can’t do that, can you? It has to be just some of the world and just some of the people in it!

To be fair, she’d always thought she could sense Kengayr whenever the courser was around. And there’d been that feeling that she could tell thirty seconds ahead of time when her father or her mother was about to walk through a door or someone like Leeana had been about to come around a corner. She’d mentioned that to her mother once, and Lady Sharmatha (only, of course, she hadn’t been “Lady” Sharmatha at that point) had told her about something called “syn shai’hain.” Sharlassa had never heard of it, but her mother had explained that it meant “something seen before” or “something already seen” in ancient Kontovaran. Sometimes, Sharmatha had told her eleven-year-old daughter seriously as they’d peeled apples — apples from this very orchard, in fact — for one of Sharmatha’s peerless pies, someone had a flash, a feeling, that they’d already done or seen or experienced something. No one knew exactly why or exactly how it worked, but it happened to a lot of people, especially those — she looked up under her eyelashes with a smile — who had particularly active imaginations.

For a long time, Sharlassa had simply accepted that her awareness of the world about her was simply syn shai’hain, something she was imagining after the fact but so quickly it seemed to have come before the fact. Unfortunately, that had been easier when it happened less often. Because the truth was, whether she really wanted to admit it or not, that it was happening more and more often. Practically every time she saw Prince Bahzell, for example. Or Walsharno. Or, on a lesser scale, Dathgar or Gayrhalan. Or…one or two other people.

She grimaced and ran her hands over her wind-tousled hair, trying not to feel…trapped. That wasn’t the word for it, but it came so close. She was being hammered and squeezed into a shape that wasn’t hers, and the fact that the people who were doing the shaping had only her best interests at heart — that so many of them genuinely loved her — made it no more pleasant to be turned into someone she wasn’t.

Which was why her mother was concerned about her youthful admiration for Lady Leeana, she knew. Lady Sharmatha would never say so, but she had to worry that Sharlassa might decide to follow Leeana’s example and seek refuge among the war maids’ free-towns. And, truth to tell, there were times when Sharlassa had been tempted, especially now that she’d had the opportunity to meet Leeana Hanathafressa on her occasional, brief visits to Balthar. That sense of energy and focused purpose and sheer passion for living which she’d sensed — or thought she’d sensed — in Leeana when they’d both been so much younger was brighter and stronger than ever. She never had the sense that there weren’t things about Leeana’s life and the decisions she’d made which she regretted, some of them bitterly, but regret was part of life, wasn’t it? Sometimes there were no perfect solutions or choices, only better ones…or worse. And Sharlassa had never once sensed from Leeana any feeling that she’d made the wrong decisions, given the choices which had lain open to her.

Yet Sharlassa faced a life of very different choices, for much as she’d admired Leeana, Leeana Hanathafressa was larger-than-life. Like Prince Bahzell, she met the world head on, unflinchingly, making the choice that seemed best to her and accepting the consequences, whatever they might be. And she was braver than Sharlassa. Or perhaps not so much braver as more fearless, for there was a difference between those two things. And when it came down to it, as unhappy as Sharlassa might feel about who she was being forced to become, she wasn’t brave enough to give up the parents she loved so dearly. She’d seen Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, and she knew they’d never stopped loving their daughter for a moment. She was confident Lord Jahsak and Lady Sharmatha would never have stopped loving her, even if she’d done something as outrageous as to run away to the war maids. But she also knew how deeply that separation would pain them — and her — and at least there was no prospect of her being forced into marriage with someone as disgusting as Rulth Blackhill! In fact —

She stopped that thought ruthlessly in its tracks. She wasn’t going to think about that again, even though it did seem bitterly unfair that she should be forced out of the world in which she’d grown up and yet not allowed into the world in which —

Stop that! she scolded herself. It’s not going to happen. Or at least the moon will fall and the sun will freeze before it does! And how much of all this doom and gloom and worrying about being able to “sense” trees is all about that kind of foolishness? A lot, I’ll bet. She gave herself a shake. Maybe it’s a pity you’re too old for Mother to put over her knee when you start being this foolish! Your brain always seemed to work better as a child when she stimulated your posterior, after all.

She startled herself with a giggle at the image that thought evoked, given that she was two inches taller than her mother these days. Not that Lady Sharmatha had become one bit less formidable, by any means! Besides —

Something struck the back of her left hand ever so lightly. She looked down, and her eyebrows rose as she saw the spot of dampness. Another appeared on her sleeve as she watched, and she felt more light impacts on her head.

Told you those clouds were going to rain, didn’t I? She told herself tartly. And you didn’t listen, did you? You never do. Honestly, I don’t know why I put up with me!

The rain was falling faster — well, more thickly, at any rate. It was still more mist than rain, and she sensed no thunder behind it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to thoroughly soak anything — or anyone — foolish enough to be caught out in it. Not to mention a specific young lady (of sorts, anyway) who’d managed to get herself caught in an apple orchard the better part of a mile from Hill Guard’s snug, tight roofs.