War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 27

“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 ShÄ«gÅ«’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; Tomanāk 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.