War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 28

Arms of the Mother were fully engaged with life. They were trained warriors, but their primary function was to nourish. Many of them, too, remained scholars, serving as teachers and educators. Others, like Shahana, were skilled healers and midwives or surgeons in addition to their weapons training. As warriors, they were guardians and protectors, the custodians of the precious fire of life Lillinara shared with her mother Kontifrio. More than one arm of the Mother had died defending that flame, but they were defenders, not the spearheads of justice Tomanāk’s champions so often were.

And then there were the arms of the Crone. Not all arms of the Mother made that transition, and Shahana sometimes wondered if she had the moral fortitude to make it herself. Arms of the Mother defended life; arms of the Crone were focused on the proper ending of life. The healers among them served the hospices which offered care and support for the elderly, the dying. Where those slipping into Isvaria’s shadows were given the dignity and comfort they deserved. It took a special bravery to open one’s heart to those who must inevitably fade, to embrace the natural tide and ease the final flicker of the flame arms of the Mother protected so fiercely, and Shahana wasn’t at all certain she had that much courage.

But arms of the Crone weren’t just healers. They, too, were warriors, yet their function was not to defend life, but to avenge it. An arm of the Mother would seek, far more often than not, to capture a criminal and deliver him to justice, whatever his offense; when Lillinara dispatched an arm of the Crone, it was to slay, not to capture.

And that was why neither an arm of the Mother nor an arm of the Crone would have been remotely as well suited to dealing with ShÄ«gÅ«’s attack on Quaysar. However much Shahana might dislike admitting it, that had required a sword with a keener edge than hers. Once ShÄ«gÅ« had replaced the legitimate Voice with her own creature and corrupted the captain of the Quaysar Temple Guard, nothing short of Tomanāk Himself and His champions could have pried her loose again without the utter devastation of the temple. For that matter, even Dame Kaeritha and Bahzell Bahnakson had inevitably left broad swaths of destruction in their wake, and the Temple Guard had been devastated. Well over two thirds of its armsmen and war maids had been corrupted to a greater or a lesser extent — many of them knowingly; others without even realizing what was happening — and the survivors’ morale had been shattered by the realization of how utterly they’d failed to protect the temple they’d been called upon to serve.

And that was why Shahana had been permanently assigned to Quaysar for the last six and a half years. Rebuilding the temple was a task to which arms of the Mother were far better suited, and she and the current Voice — trained healers, both of them — had carried out that rebuilding with slow but steady progress. It helped that the Voice was a native Sothōii…and that she’d never been a war maid. Trisu, for example, found it much easier to interact with her than he did even now with Mayor Yalith at Kalatha. For that matter, he found it easier to interact with her than he did with Shahana, who’d been born and raised in the Empire of the Axe.

And he still gets along better with Dame Kaeritha than he does with either of us, Shahana thought moodily. Is that because he’s more comfortable thinking of her as “just” another warrior? Or is it because in the end, she realized he was right and the war maids were wrong about what was happening? Does a part of him think of her as his partisan and not simply as an impartial judge sent by Scale Balancer?

Of course, she admitted, it was also entirely possible that only a champion of Tomanāk could have been impartial in a case like this one. Lillinara’s arms dealt regularly with prejudice — especially here in the Kingdom of the Sothōii and especially against war maids — and they did have a natural tendency to react defensively first and consider impartiality second.

So the Gods probably knew what They were doing when they sent Dame Kaeritha and not you, she told herself yet again. Maybe you should just go ahead and accept that They usually know what They’re doing?

The familiar tartness of that thought restored much of her humor, and she lowered her stein and smiled at Trisu.

“I’m sure the Voice will appreciate your generosity and understanding,” she said. “We’re making continued progress in rebuilding, and Quaysar is becoming prosperous again, but there’s no point pretending it couldn’t very easily have gone the other way.”

“I know.”

Trisu’s gray eyes went cold and distant, looking at something Shahana couldn’t see. They stayed that way for several seconds before he shook himself and refocused on her face.

“I know,” he repeated. “And the truth is, Arm Shahana, that I blame myself, at least in part.”

“You do?” Shahana couldn’t quite keep the surprise out of her own voice. As far as she knew, this was the first time Trisu had ever said anything like that. “In fairness, Milord,” she said a bit unwillingly, “yours was the only voice raising the alarm. It’s scarcely your fault that no one listened to you until Dame Kaeritha came along.”

“You think not?” Trisu sat back in his chair, elbows on chair arms, cradling his glass of whiskey in both hands, and smiled in what certainly looked like faint amusement. “I think perhaps you’re being overly generous, Milady.”

“In what way?” she asked, trying not to bridle at the honorific he’d chosen.

“It’s tactful of you and the Voice not to remark upon it, Arm Shahana,” he said, still with that faint smile, “but my own attitude, and that of my family, towards the war maids is scarcely a secret. Indeed, I’ve been known to express myself, ah, somewhat intemperately, I suppose, upon the subject in private conversation from time to time. Nowhere near as intemperately as my Uncle Saeth or my cousin Triahm, perhaps, but still intemperately enough. I won’t pretend I don’t believe many of my…less than flattering opinions where the war maids are concerned are justified, either. Obviously, you and I aren’t going to agree with one another in that regard. However, it’s a lord warden’s responsibility to discharge his duties as impartially as he possibly can, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d put myself into a position where I wasn’t able to do that.”

“As nearly as I can tell, Milord,” Shahana said a bit stiffly, “you did discharge them impartially. It certainly turned out you were the one who was correctly interpreting the situation and the provisions of the Kalatha town charter. Whatever anyone may have thought at the time, you were completely within your legal rights.”

“Oh, I know I was,” he acknowledged with a slightly broader smile, eyes glinting as he recognized how unhappy it made her to acknowledge that point. “But the problem, Milady, is that everyone else knew about my…let’s be courteous and call them prejudices where the war maids were concerned. And because they did, there was an automatic assumption that I wasn’t acting impartially. I put myself in that position by not watching my words more carefully, and I can’t quite free myself of the suspicion that ShÄ«gÅ« chose Lorham and Quaysar specifically because I’d allowed myself to be far more outspoken about my feelings than a responsible lord warden would have done. Those opinions of mine were too broadly known, and without Dame Kaeritha’s intervention, that would have made ShÄ«gÅ«’s lies entirely too plausible.”

Shahana blinked. She couldn’t help it, because she would never have expected that analysis out of Trisu Pickaxe. It was entirely too insightful to be coming from someone like him.

Only it just did, didn’t it? she thought. And the fact that you would never have expected it probably says more about you than it does about him, doesn’t it? Damn the man! Now I can’t even congratulate myself for overcoming my prejudices against him better than he overcomes his against me!

“Milord,” she said, regarding him levelly, “there’s probably something in what you say, but perhaps it cuts both ways. I’ll concede you’ve been a bit more…outspoken than I might have wished upon occasion, but so have the war maids. And, for that matter, the Quaysar Temple has been more confrontational than absolutely necessary from time to time. I think you’re right that it was the tension between all parties, and the fact that that tension was so widely known, that cleared the way for ShÄ«gÅ«’s attempt in the first place. But you weren’t the only source of that tension.”

“Oh, I never said I was!” Trisu actually chuckled, leaning even further back in his chair. “Milady, it would never do for me to say I was more at fault than the war maids! Just think of the consternation that would cause among my armsmen and anyone else who knows me! Besides, the entire situation would never have arisen if not for the unnatural and perverse lifestyle the war maids have chosen to embrace now would it?”

Shahana had just raised her stein for another sip of beer. Now she spluttered into it and lowered the stein again to glare at him as he delivered his last sentence in a tone of perfect, matter-of-fact sincerity, as if he’d simply remarked that the sun was likely to rise in the east tomorrow morning. She started to open her mouth, then paused as their gazes met and she saw the amusement sparkling deep in his eyes. She drew a deep breath and shook her head.

“Milord,” she said tartly, “if you’re not careful, I’m going to decide you have a sense of humor after all, and then where will you be?”