War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 26

Chapter Seven

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 Sothōii. 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii. 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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” Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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 Sothōii 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.