War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 37

“I think so.” Leeana nodded, but she did not (Balcartha noted) tell her exactly what it was Yalith had sent her to Thalar Keep to do. The younger woman’s reticence didn’t offend the five hundred. In fact, she approved of it — strongly — and the fact that Leeana wasn’t the sort to gossip about any diplomatic missions upon which she might be sent was one of the reasons she tended to get sent on them.

Well, that and the fact that she’s smart as a whip, not to mention better educated than at least three quarters of our war maids, and better informed on the Kingdom’s politics than Yalith and me combined. And equipped with a confidence in her ability to handle even people like Trisu that most war maids twice her age could only envy. The really funny thing is that as smart as she is, I don’t think she fully understands even now just how unusual that confidence of hers is.

Part of it, the five hundred knew, was simply who and what she’d been born. It would have been ridiculous to expect someone like her friend Garlahna, who’d been raised on a farm, to have the same confidence and poise as the only daughter of one of the Kingdom’s four most powerful nobles. There was reason in everything, after all. Yet birth alone couldn’t explain Leeana Hanathafressa, and neither could the young woman’s knife-edged intelligence.

The truth, Balcartha admitted to herself just a bit more grimly, was that the majority of war maids had been damaged — or at least scarred — by whatever it was which had driven them to revolt against all the rules and expectations of “proper conduct” which had been trained into them. Not all of them, of course. There would always be those who simply discovered they wanted something more out of their lives. That they wanted to step beyond the mold and the restrictions, and thank Lillinara for them! But there was no point trying to deny that the war maid community was a refuge — a place to heal, or even hide — for the majority of women who sought it out.

In a sense, that was true for Leeana, as well, but what she’d come to hide from was the proposal of an arranged marriage she’d known her father’s political enemies had contrived as a weapon against him. And if she’d had the inevitable regrets, shed the inevitable tears at giving up her family, there’d been nothing damaged or scarred about her. There’d been only that deep, abiding, astounding strength, and over the years, Balcartha had come to have an equally deep and abiding respect for the parents who’d given it to her.

“And did Lord Trisu’s grooms offer to take care of Boots for you?” the five hundred asked out loud, her eyes gleaming faintly, and Leeana snorted.

“Lillinara, no!” She shook her head. “How can you even ask such a thing? Any properly bred Sothōii male offer to care for a war maid’s horse? They were far too busy undressing Garlahna and me with their eyes!”

“Alas, that doesn’t seem to happen to me anymore,” Balcartha said mournfully, running one hand over her gray hair.

“Trust me, I wish it didn’t happen to me, either!” Leeana said vehemently.

“Oh, hush, child!” Balcartha stopped running her hand over her hair to shake an index finger at the younger woman. “Trust me, the day men don’t look at you, you’ll notice! I know what you’d really like to do is wring their necks, and I’d pay good kormaks to see you do it. For that matter, I’d offer to help if I thought you’d need it! But you’re only as young and good-looking as you are once, so go ahead and rub their noses in it. In a properly ladylike way, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Leeana agreed, but a faint echo of Taraiys’ fiery blush seemed to touch her cheekbones, and Balcartha frowned mentally.

Quite a few war maids, especially the ones who’d fled to the free-towns like Kalatha rather than being born there, took full advantage of the sexual freedom their new lives offered. Some of them took too much advantage of it, in Balcartha’s opinion, and the behavior of certain war maids she could call to mind didn’t help the bigoted stereotype which viewed all war maids as perhaps a half-step above common harlots. Or below them, perhaps. Of course, it was hard to blame them, after what many of them had endured, and whoever any individual war maid might choose to bed was her concern and hers alone. Whatever else might be true, war maids belonged to themselves, not anyone else, in all ways. They’d given up far too much of the rest of their lives to compromise on that, however much their “licentious ways” offended the society they’d rejected, and they were perfectly prepared to make their defiance of that society’s rules abundantly, one might even have said flagrantly, clear.

Expecting anything else would have been not merely foolish but wrong, and as a general rule Balcartha didn’t make it her business to worry about what any of her war maids did whenever they were off duty. Still, she’d become aware Leeana wasn’t one of the ones who took advantage of that particular aspect of her freedom. Or if she did, she was incredibly discreet about it, at any rate. Bacartha had thought for a while that she and Gharlana might decide to pair up, but that obviously wasn’t the case…especially now that Barlahn Ironsmith had come on the scene! And it wasn’t as if someone with Leeana’s looks and warm, open personality hadn’t attracted plenty of attention, male and female alike, especially over the last few years. But she’d rebuffed all of them — with a smile or a laughing, wicked joke that made it abundantly obvious she was no prude, whatever else might be true, far more often than not. And she clearly had a healthy appreciation for her own attractiveness. Aside from an occasional flash of resentment like her comment about Traisu’s armsmen — and the gods knew Balcartha understood that well enough! — she never seemed the least…repressed, or unhappy, but still…

“But still” it isn’t any of your business, old woman! the five hundred scolded herself. It’s up to her who she does — or doesn’t — sleep with, so just you let her worry about it!

“Well,” she said out loud, “I’m glad to hear your mission was a success and you didn’t leave any bruised or broken armsmen in your wake.”

“Not this time, anyway.” Leeana grimaced. “I can’t guarantee that won’t happen another time, though!”

“Just make sure there’s a witness who can honestly testify that he made the first move, and you’ve got my blessing.” Balcartha’s tone was light, but there was a genuine note of warning in it, as well, and she waited to continue until Leeana nodded back.

“And now that I’ve issued my stern injunction, what was it you wanted to see me about?” she asked then.

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about a furlough,” Leeana said, and Balcartha’s mental ears pricked.

The younger woman looked as relaxed and comfortable as she’d been from the moment she entered the office, yet there was some subtle change. Some tiny shift in her body language, or perhaps something in her eyes. Balcartha couldn’t put a finger on what that “something” was, but that didn’t prevent her from knowing it was there.

“A furlough?” she repeated.

“Yes.” Leeana shrugged. “It turns out I’ve been running up unused leave time for quite a while now. In fact, according to Erlis, I’ve got over three months of it on the books. With your permission, I’d like to use some of that up now.”

“Over three months?” Balcartha blinked. To have accrued that much unused leave time, Leeana must have pretty much not taken any leave at all for the last couple of years, and the five hundred rebuked herself for not having noticed. Attention to duty and hard work were always praiseworthy qualities and much to be encouraged, but it was important for anyone to save a little time for herself, as well. In fact, it was as important as attention to duty, and if she’d realized Leeana was shorting herself on leave to that extent…

“Yes, Ma’am.” Leeana made a small, almost apologetic gesture. “It just sort of…piled up.”

Those mental ears of Balcartha’s twitched again as Leeana’s tone registered.

Now why don’t I believe it just “piled up”? And if it didn’t, why has she been saving it up on purpose?

“I suppose that happens sometimes,” she said after a moment, “if not usually to quite that extent. And if it has, then by all means let’s get some of it used up. Unless you’re planning on letting it go on ‘piling up’ until you can retire a year or two early!”

“That’s not what I had in mind.” Leeana grinned and shook her head. “In fact, if the Guard can spare me, I’d like to go ahead and take a month or two of it, starting next month.”

“I’m sure we can survive without you for a few weeks,” Balcartha said dryly. “May I ask exactly what it is you have in mind to do with all that time?”

“Well…” Leeana shrugged. “Next month is my birthday, and I’d like to go home — to Hill Guard, I mean — for it.”

Balcartha’s eyes narrowed in sudden understanding.

“That’s right. You’ll be twenty-one this year, won’t you?” she said.

“Yes, I will,” Leeana replied, meeting her gaze levelly, and Balcartha nodded slowly.