War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 36
“Leeana is here, Five Hundred.”
Commander of Five Hundred Balcartha Evahnalfressa looked up from the paperwork on her desk, one eyebrow raised as she regarded the youthful war maid currently detailed as her aide. It was a rotating assignment which was usually shared by the newest and most junior members of the Kalatha City Guardâ€¦much to their trepidation. Most of them thought that things were arranged that way to be sure they were suitably terrified by the Guard’s commander before they were released to the general population. In fact, it was so that they got an inside look at how the Guard ran as early in their careers as possibleâ€¦and so that Balcartha had the opportunity to personally evaluate each of them. The Guard wasn’t all that enormous, after all. Certainly, it wasn’t so big that she couldn’t actually know each of her war maids, yet new recruits had a pronounced tendency to hide from their commanding officer in the underbrush, at least until they got their feet under them. Balcartha understood that. She even sympathized with them. Yet she had no intention of allowing them to get away with it, either.
“Leeana, Taraiys?” the five hundred asked in a musing tone, and the girl — she couldn’t have been a day over seventeen — blushed rosily. It was a fascinating shade of deep red, Balcartha noted, and Taraiys’ blond hair, blue eyes, and very fair complexion made it even more spectacular.
“I beg your pardon, Five Hundred,” she said stiffly. “I meant to say that Seventy-Five Leeana is here. She says she has an appointment.”
“Ah — that Leeana,” Balcartha murmured, and watched Taraiys’ blush turn even darker. For a moment, the five hundred wondered if smoke was actually going to curl up off of the girl’s skin. But she didn’t quite burst into spontaneous flames, and after a moment, the Guard commander relented and smiled slightly. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been expecting the Seventy-Five. Please ask her to step into my lair.”
“Yes, Five Hundred!” Taraiys actually came to attention and touched her chest with a raised fist in salute, and Balcartha managed not to crack a smile as she solemnly returned it. Then she leaned comfortably back in her swivel chair, legs crossed, propped her elbows on the chair arms, and steepled her fingers under her chin.
“Seventy-Five Leeana, Five Hundred!” Taraiys announced with sharp formality a moment later, opening the door and ushering the considerably taller Leeana through it. Her head barely topped the older war maid’s shoulder, and Leanna’s jade-green eyes danced with devilish delight as they met the five hundred’s over Taraiys head. Her lips quivered with her womanfully struggle to restrain the smile obviously dancing right behind those eyes, but somehow she managed to maintain a suitably solemn demeanor when Balcartha gave her a warning glance.
“Thank you, Taraiys,” the five hundred said solemnly. “That will be all, I think.”
“Yes, Five Hundred!” Taraiys saluted again and disappeared through the office door with the air of a rabbit escaping down its hole, perhaps half a leap in front of the fox. The door closed behind her, and something suspiciously like a giggle spurted out of Leeana.
“That will be quite enough of that, Seventy-Five Leeana,” Balcartha said primly.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Five Hundred Balcartha!” Leeana said earnestly. “Mother! She was so red when you sent her back out I thought you’d set her on fire!” The tall, redhaired young woman shook her head. “What did you say to her?”
“That’s between her and me.” Balcartha smiled and shook her own head. “She does color up spectacularly though, doesn’t she?”
“Oh, I think you could certainly say that,” Leeana agreed. Then she smiled a bit penitently. “I really shouldn’t make fun of her for it though, I suppose. I can produce a pretty spectacular blush of my own, can’t I?”
“On the rare occasions when anyone can manage to embarrass you, yes,” Balcartha agreed.
“Are you implying that such a low person as myself no longer has the delicacy to feel embarrassment?” Leeana asked innocently, and Balcartha chuckled.
“Something like thatâ€¦these days, at least,” she agreed, and Leeana threw up her right hand as if she were acknowledging a touch in a training match.
“I deserved that,” she acknowledged. “But she really is awfully young, isn’t she?”
“This from the broken down old grandmother in front of me?” Balcartha raised both eyebrows. “I seem to remember a fourteen-year-old who didn’t know which end of the dagger to hold when Erlis and Ravlahn first evaluated her. Now, let me see, let me seeâ€¦what was her name?”
She gazed up at the ceiling, lips pursed in obvious thought, and Leeana laughed.
“You really are training with live blades today, aren’t you, Five Hundred Balcartha?”
“Only against some,” Balcartha replied with a twinkle.
As the commander of the Kalatha Guard, she wasn’t supposed to have favorites, and she never allowed favoritism to govern her actions, but there was no point pretending she didn’t have a special place in her heart for Leeana Hanathafressa. She did remember — vividly — the pampered fourteen-year-old noblewoman who’d fled to Kalatha almost seven years before. Not that Leanna had realized she’d been pampered, and by the standards of her birth rank, she hadn’t been. Which hadn’t changed the fact that, as Balcartha had just pointed out, she’d been totally unequipped with the skills her new life was going to require of her. Her embarrassment at finding herself clad — more or less — in the traditional chari and yathu had been only too apparent to someone with Balcartha’s experience, and unlike most war maids, Leanna hadn’t fled to Kalatha to escape an intolerable, all too often abusive family situation. Indeed, she’d escaped to Kalatha no more than hours in front of her pursuing father because of how much she’d loved her parents, and she’d been miserably homesick and unhappy at leaving them, however bravely she’d tried to hide it.
Looking at her now, Balcartha could still see that fourteen-year-old inside the poised, confident, athletic young woman who had replaced her. Not the misery or the uncertainty, but the dauntless, uncomplaining spirit which had risen to meet the demands of a life so utterly different from the one to which she had been raised.
Now Leeana smiled at her, and Balcartha unsteepled her fingers to point at the empty chair in front of her desk.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Leeana said meekly and settled obediently into the indicated chair. She also folded her hands neatly in her lap, planted her feet very close together, and sat very straight with a demure, earnestly attentive expression.
“You do realize you’re about to draw two extra weeks of patrol duty for being such a smartass, don’t you?” Balcartha inquired.
“Oh, I suppose something like that might happen in some other city guard,” Leeana replied. “My five hundred is far too broad-minded and much too far above the sort of petty mindedness which would permit that sort of mean-spirited retaliationâ€¦Ma’am.”
“You just go right on believing that until you see the patrol roster,” Balcartha advised her. Then she shook her head. “Although truth be told, and given how much you actually seem to enjoy running around out in the grasslands, I suppose I’d better come up with some other way to demonstrate my petty mindedness. Maybe I should convince the mayor to send you back for another conversation with Lord Warden Trisu.”
“Mother forbid!” Leeana leaned back and raised both hands in a gesture of surrender, the dismay in her expression only half-feigned. “I’ll be good. I promise I’ll be good!”
“That bad, was it?” Balcartha swung her chair slowly from side to side. “Didn’t Arm Shahana’s visit give you any cover? I thought he was on his best behavior when she comes to call on him.”
“I suppose he is, really.” Leeana cocked her head, and her tone was more serious. “I’d say he’s at least trying, anyway. Unfortunately — as you and Mayor Yalith are both perfectly well aware — Trisu can’t quite seem to forget who my father is.” She grimaced. “He’s not very good at hiding his conviction that becoming a war maid is about the most disgraceful thing a properly reared young noblewoman could possibly have done. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t try very hard, really.”
“What do you mean?” Balcartha’s chair stopped swinging and her eyes narrowed.
“Oh, I’m not saying he goes out of his way to offer me insults, Balcartha,” Leeana said quickly. “On the other hand, you know he doesn’t believe in operating under false pretenses, and becoming a war maid isn’t some sort of minor faux pas like getting myself caught sleeping with someone else’s husband or producing a child whose father I can’t name. It’s a seriously reprehensible thing for anyone to do!”
There was a genuine bite under the humor in her tone, Balcartha noted, continuing to gaze at her intently, and the younger woman shrugged.
“Whatever he may have thought or felt, he was perfectly polite in the way he addressed me, Balcartha. And let’s face it, we both know Mayor Yalith chooses me as her envoy to make a specific point to him. I understand that. That doesn’t mean I don’t get a little tired sometimes of being used as the mayor’s hammer, but I understand it.” She shrugged again. “If putting up with the occasional visit to Trisu is the worst thing the war maids ever ask of me, I’ll figure I’ve been a lot luckier than I deserve.”
“I see.” Balcartha considered her for another few seconds, then tipped back in her chair once more. “Should I take it, then, that you accomplished whatever it was Yalith sent you there to deal with?”