"Now remember, Soumeta. We need access to Herian and his outlets."
"I understand that, Theretha."
"Well, if things are as bad as Jolhanna says they are, then we've got to convince Master Manuar to approve our entry. And to enforce the charter's requirements that we be given fair access and the full protection of the law while we're here."
"Theretha," Soumeta said with exaggerated patience, "I was there when Mayor Yalith discussed the entire trip with you. I know why we're here, all right?"
Theretha Maglahnfressa bit her tongue. She knew it was only her own anxiety which made her so insistent. But still—
"Maybe I should come along," she said nervously. "I have met Master Manuar before. Maybe I could—"
"Theretha—!" Soumeta began, then visibly made herself stop and draw a deep breath.
"Look," she said, in the tone of someone hanging onto her own composure with both hands, "the Mayor discussed all of this with us before she sent us out here. She and the Town Council made it abundantly clear that the situation's gotten so bad that it's time we took an official position. And I, Theretha, as an officer in the City Guard, have official standing which you do not. As such, I will make the initial contact with the market master, and you won't. And I promise that I won't snatch him across the desk and cut his throat, no matter how he provokes me."
Theretha started to say something more, then closed her mouth with an almost audible snap as Soumeta glared at her. The older woman wasn't particularly fond of men, especially those in positions of power, in the first place, and her frustration was only too apparent. But Theretha never doubted that it—like the anger which accompanied it—was directed at the situation which had prompted this trip in the first place, and not at her.
Which didn't make her feel a whole lot better as she nodded acceptance of Soumeta's orders.
"Good," Soumeta growled, and Theretha stood huddled in her cloak, tense and unhappy beside the cart, and watched Soumeta stalk into the market master's office. A couple of townsfolk saw Soumeta coming and got out of her way—promptly. Unlike Theretha, Soumeta wore the war maids' chari and yathu with no cloak or poncho, despite the drizzly chill. She also wore a grimly determined expression . . . along with her swords, garrotte, and bandolier of throwing stars. No one was going to mistake her for anything but what she was—a dangerous individual in an unhappy mood—and Theretha wished she could convince herself that that was a good thing.
Her powers of self-persuasion didn't seem to be up to the task, and she didn't much care for the older war maid's expression herself, either. Nor did the fact that Soumeta had been nominated for this by Maretha Keralinfressa, the leader of the Council faction most in favor of taking a hard line with Trisu of Lorham, make her feel any better. She knew Mayor Yalith herself had wanted to be sure Kalatha sent someone who would stand up to any attempt at intimidation, but Theretha was worried by the politics of the choice. She couldn't escape the feeling that the real reason Yalith had put Soumeta in charge had been to blunt the increasingly vocal criticism of her own, less confrontational policies by Maretha's faction. Theretha was firmly in agreement with the mayor in this instance, and it worried her that Soumeta wasn't. Then again, she knew she'd never liked any sort of confrontation, whether it was physical or purely verbal, so perhaps she was overreacting.
She folded her delicate, skilled hands under the cloak, rubbing them lightly together for warmth. The spring day had been chilly enough at noon, with the sun directly overhead. Now that late afternoon was shading into evening and the omnipresent clouds of this torrential spring were blowing up once again out of the west, Theretha's breath was beginning to steam. It was going to be a wretched night if they wound up having to sleep under the thin protection of the cart's canvas cover, she thought miserably, and from Soumeta's combative expression, it was likely enough that that was precisely what they were going to do.
Not for the first time, Theretha wished she'd shown at least some aptitude for the weapons and self-defense training every war maid candidate was required to undergo. Unfortunately, she hadn't. Her instructors had done their best, but Theretha was a mouse at heart, not a direcat. As Darhanna, a senior instructor had put it, Theretha was one of those people whose best primary defense was to be invisible, because she simply couldn't bring herself to try to actually hurt someone, even in self-defense. Darhanna had been as kind as she could about it, and gotten her through the mandatory training somehow, but it had been only too obvious at the end of it that she regarded Theretha as someone who should never be allowed out without a keeper. Like Soumeta, she supposed.
Actually, Theretha agreed with Darhanna. There were times when she still couldn't believe she'd ever found the courage to run away to the war maids in the first place, despite everything her stepfather had done to her. She probably wouldn't have managed it even then, if her younger brother Barthon hadn't agreed to—insisted that she let him, actually—escort her to Kalatha, the nearest war maid free-town. Kalatha's mayor at the time had been deeply surprised to find a male member of her family actively abetting her in her flight. And surprise had turned into astonishment when the mayor discovered that Theretha's escape to the war maids had been Barthon's idea in the first place. In fact, the mayor had been suspicious, and initially disinclined to accept Theretha, as if she'd feared that Barthon was part of some elaborate trap or scheme to discredit the war maids. But then the mayor had received the report from Kalatha's senior physician on Theretha's condition.
It was the evidence of the botched, two-day-old miscarriage which had turned the mayor's suspicious resistance into angry acceptance. To her credit, the mayor hadn't even suggested that it might be Barthon's place to "avenge" Theretha. No doubt a good part of that restraint stemmed from the fact that war maids, like their patron Lillinara, believed it was a woman's own responsibility to seek redress for wrongs done to her. But the horrible, crippling burns Barthon had suffered in the furnace explosion which had killed their father would have prevented him from taking any sort of personal, direct action against their stepfather, and the mayor had recognized that. In fact, she'd offered Barthon a place in Kalatha, and Theretha still wished her brother had accepted the offer.
Despite the urging of the mayor and other older war maids, Theretha had steadfastly resisted the suggestion that she go to the courts in an effort to punish her stepfather. The odds against her being believed by the court in her home town were formidable. Those who knew only his public face thought her stepfather was an honest businessman, devoted to his deceased wife's family. They probably thought he liked puppies and small kittens, too, she thought grimly, and even if the magistrate had chosen to believe her, the chance that someone who could call on so many character witnesses—most of whom would actually believe what they were saying—would suffer any significant penalty would have been slight. As far as Theretha was concerned, she had better things to do with her life than to reopen all the old wounds in a futile effort to see her victimizer punished. She sometimes wondered if that belief was a reflection of the mouselike tendencies which had made any possibility of her becoming a warrior like Soumeta laughable.
Fortunately, she'd completed most of her apprenticeship before her father's death, and until her mother died, she'd insisted that Theretha's stepfather continue her training. He'd done so only grudgingly, but until his wife's death, he'd really had no choice, since she'd owned both the workshop and the store. But after Theretha's mother died, he'd taken gloating delight in refusing to sign her journeyman's certificate, no doubt because he'd seen that refusal as a means to deprive her of any independent livelihood and trap her in his power.
The war maids didn't much concern themselves with what sorts of certificates a woman might have received—or not received—before becoming a war maid. They were more concerned with what she could actually do, and the glassblower assigned to test Theretha had realized almost instantly what a treasure she represented. At sixteen and a half, Theretha had already possessed the skills her raw talent required to draw both utility and dazzling beauty from the clear, incandescent magic of molten sand. Now, ten years later, she was an acknowledged mistress of her craft, her work sought out and prized by wealthy commoners and aristocrats alike throughout most of the Kingdom of the Sothōii. Her pieces and name were even known to a select few collectors in the Empire of the Axe, and they commanded substantial prices. Very few of the connoisseurs who purchased them for prices Theretha sometimes had trouble believing were real, even now, realized she was a war maid, although it was unlikely many of them would have cared, even if they had.
She accepted an increasing number of commissions these days, but she'd never forgotten her father's admonition. Beauty was to the soul as water was to a fish, but it was the more mundane work of a glassblower's hands, dedicated to the day-to-day sustenance of others, that was his true reason for being. And so Theretha insisted—with the stubborn ferocity of a mouse who had discovered how to become a direcat in this one aspect of her life—upon keeping her hand turned to the merely useful, as well. The glassware, like the pharmacist's bottles and the spice seller's jars, which did nothing at all . . . except save lives or help someone else earn an honest living.
Or like the glassware in the cart she and Soumeta had brought to Thalar.
She hadn't really wanted to make the journey—-especially not now, when everything seemed so . . . unsettled and difficult. For that matter, Mayor Yalith clearly had very mixed feelings about it. In a way, Theretha was the "kid sister" of every war maid in Kalatha, and all of them were intensely protective of her. Probably because they realized she was completely unsuited to protect herself from anything more dangerous than a crazed chipmunk, she thought.
But she'd decided that she didn't have a choice, and then managed to convince Yalith to see it her way. The bulk of the output from Theretha's workshop and her six employees consisted not of her beautiful art pieces, but of those everyday, practical items. That was what earned the routine revenues Kalatha needed and paid the salaries of the people who worked for her. It was essential to maintain the outlet through which those wares might be sold.
Thalar wasn't a very large or especially wealthy town, but it was the largest and wealthiest in the holding of Lorham. More to the point, it had the biggest, most active market, and Theretha had established what she'd thought were good relationships with the merchants who distributed her more mundane products. Especially with Herian Axemaster, who handled over half of all the glassware and pottery which moved through Lorham. Herian was also a factor for Clan Harkanath, the powerful Dwarvenhame trading house. But those relationships seemed to have suffered serious damage, along with every other aspect of Kalatha's relations with Lord Trisu and all of his subjects. If she wanted to maintain her access to the Thalar market, and through it, to the world beyond, she'd decided, she had to come along and see what she could do to repair them And, as she had somewhat delicately suggested to the mayor, the fact that her Thalar contacts also knew about her art pieces, and that Herian had actually handled the sale of several of them for her, ought to give her a bit more clout than she might have had otherwise.
Unfortunately . . .
Theretha bit her lip as she looked in through the open door of the market master's office and saw Soumeta leaning over Master Manuar's desk. The lamps were already lit in anticipation of the rapidly oncoming evening, and Soumeta's short blond hair gleamed in their mellow light as she stabbed an angry index finger repeatedly onto the desk's top. It was impossible for Theretha to hear anything from here, but from Soumeta's flushed face and Manuar's thunderous expression she strongly suspected that the two of them were shouting at one another.
She stopped rubbing her hands together under her cloak, but only so that she could actively wring them. This was bad. This was very bad! Lillinara knew enough other war maids had experienced difficulties in Thalar's market, just as they had in what seemed to be every town, village, and hamlet throughout Trisu's domain. There'd always been some discrimination against war maid merchants, farmers, and craftswomen, but it had grown much worse over the past several months. In fact, it had reached the point that the market masters, the magistrates whose responsibility it was to oversee the fair and legal operation of the markets, appeared to have washed their hands of it. Some of them actually seemed to be actively harassing any war maid who entered their jurisdiction, or even flatly refusing to sign the permits required to trade in the markets they supervised. But Theretha hadn't been able to believe that Manuar, who'd always been a gruff stickler when it came to the discharge of his duties, could possibly be one of those.
Manuar suddenly shoved himself up out of his chair, and leaned forward over his desk. He braced his weight on the knuckles of his fisted left hand while he shoved his face within inches of Soumeta's and slammed his right palm on the desktop. If he hadn't been shouting before, he obviously was now, Theretha thought glumly, and took two involuntary steps towards his office before her memory of Yalith's instructions stopped her.
Soumeta closed her mouth, muscles bunching along her jaw as she clenched her teeth. She glared at the market master, her anger almost physically visible from where Theretha stood. Then she turned on her heel and stormed out of Manuar's office.
Not good, Theretha thought. Not good at all.
"That . . . that . . . that man!" Soumeta spat. Rain was beginning to sift over them again, glistening on her hair and the bare skin exposed by her chari and yathu, and she reminded Theretha of nothing in the world so much as a furious soaked cat.
"It looked like it didn't go very well?" Theretha's tone turned the statement into a question. She hated it when she did that. It always made her feel indecisive, more like a mouse than ever.
"You might say that," Soumeta snarled. "Just like you might say it's been a little damp this spring!"
"How bad was it?" Theretha sighed.
"Just for starters, he says Jolhanna is the one who's done all of the antagonizing here in Thalar. It wasn't any of the town's merchants—oh, no! For some reason known only to her, our representative—the person whose job it is to keep our access to the market open—has taken it upon herself to pick fights with virtually every important merchant in Thalar!"
"What?!" Theretha shook her head in confused disbelief. "Why in the world would she do something like that?"
"Exactly my point!" Soumeta's voice was harsh. "Jolhanna has—we have—no reason to be confrontational. Not here, not about this, and certainly not without provocation. But according to Manuar, that's exactly what she was. And because of her 'misbehavior,' the rest of us are not welcome here."
"He's officially excluded us from the market?" Theretha stared at the other war maid in shock.
"No, not officially," Soumeta replied, almost as if she hated conceding Manuar even that. "But he didn't have to. What he said was that, of course he would sign our permit and see to it that anyone trading with us complies with every requirement of the law and the charter. However, he pointed out, not even the charter requires people to buy from us if they choose not to. And apparently," she bared her teeth in a smile totally devoid of humor, "it just happens that every merchant in Thalar has decided not to trade with us. Completely spontaneously, of course."
"I'm sure Herian wouldn't feel that way," Theretha protested.
"Maybe not, but it doesn't matter," Soumeta sighed. "Herian isn't here."
"What?" Theretha blinked. "That's ridiculous. Herian is always here!"
"Not according to Manuar, he isn't," Soumeta said, biting off each word as if she were chewing horseshoes. Theretha looked at her in consternation, and she shrugged irritably. "Figure it out for yourself, Theretha. If Manuar's lying and Herian is here, then there's no point in even hoping he'll enforce the charter's provisions for us, whatever he says. And if Herian isn't here, that may be even worse. It may mean he's chosen to join in this boycott of our people and just doesn't want to openly admit it. Either way, I see no reason to stay here and batter our heads against a wall that isn't going to come down for us!"
"But—" Theretha began, only to have Soumeta cut her off with a sharp shake of her head.
"We're not staying," she said flatly.
"But we must!" Theretha protested. "We need the markets—the income! We can't just—"
"Oh, yes we can," Soumeta told her. "I don't like the feel of this one bit, Theretha. I'm not sure it's even safe here, certainly not sure enough to risk exposing you to danger."
"Me? In danger here in Thalar?" Soumeta seemed to be speaking a foreign language, and Theretha shook her head, trying to understand what the other war maid was thinking. "You should have let me talk to Manuar," she said with mingled plaintiveness and frustration. "He knows me. For Lillinara's sake, I've eaten lunch in his home, Soumeta!"
"I know you have. And I know that's one reason you were sent along in the first place. But he made it fairly obvious that there are people here in Thalar who are really upset over our supposed demands and Jolhanna's supposed hostility. He seems to think some of those upset people might just try to find someone to take revenge on."
"Revenge for what?" Theretha demanded in total confusion and exasperation. "All I want to do is sell some bottles! This doesn't make any sense!"
"That's because no one is feeling particularly sensible just now," Soumeta told her harshly. "And, for the second time, I don't have any idea what started it all. The one thing I'm positive of is that it wasn't Jolhanna who went crazy. After that, I don't have a clue. Unless—"
"Unless what?" Theretha asked when the other woman paused.
"Unless Trisu and his cronies are trying to concoct some sort of a bizarre pretext, a justification for the way they've been systematically infringing on our rights and boundaries."
"That's preposterous." Theretha wished she sounded more certain of that than she felt.
"Of course it is. But that doesn't mean it's not happening." The older war maid shook her head. "You know, I didn't want to believe it, myself. Not even when the Voice at Quaysar warned Mayor Yalith that the Mother was uneasy. But now—"
She shrugged, and Theretha nodded slowly and miserably. The Voice hadn't been very specific, or not, at least, in any of the messages from her which Theretha knew anything about. But when a priestess of -Lillinara—especially the priestess, at the Quaysar Temple of Lillinara—warned a war maid free-town of impending danger, it was best to pay attention.
"But that's why we're getting out of here, now—this evening," Soumeta continued flatly. "If I knew what was going on, I might not be so concerned over whether or not I could handle it. But this whole thing is so crazy, so bizarre, that I can't begin to figure out what's happening, or even what's already happened. In the meantime, though, it's my job to be sure you get home safe and sound. You and your art commissions are more important to Kalatha in the long run than opening the local markets, and if Manuar's telling the truth, not just blowing smoke out of his arse because he's pissed at me for calling him on his dereliction of his duties, then there might be a genuine danger of something . . . unpleasant happening to you.
"So climb back up in the cart, Theretha. We're leaving. Now."
Theretha opened her mouth, ready for one, final protest. But Soumeta's expression stopped her. The other woman's face was like a stone wall, a fortress turned against the world in general and Thalar and Master Manuar in particular. There was no point arguing, the glassblower realized.
The rain was falling harder as Theretha clambered up into the cart, in the center aisle between the crates of glassware they'd brought with them so hopefully. She heard the raindrops hitting the taut canvas above her, like an endless series of tiny fists, punching the cover. Here and there, water broke through the fabric, running downward across its inner curve. Some of it seemed to home in on Theretha, and she wrapped her cloak more tightly still about her as Soumeta walked around to the front of the cart and got a good grip on the cart pony's halter. The older woman clucked to the pony, and Theretha grabbed at one of the strapped-up crates for balance as the cart lurched back into motion.
She was going to be cold, wet, and thoroughly miserable by dawn, she thought as the sweet chiming of vibrated glass sang softly to the rain's patter from the crates. And the fact that Soumeta was going to be even wetter and colder only made her feel even more frustrated and obscurely guilty. Soumeta was right—Mayor Yalith had made it clear she was to be Kalatha's official representative, and that she was to "look after" Theretha. Yet Theretha couldn't rid herself of the gnawing suspicion that if she'd only spoken to Manuar herself, she might somehow have made a difference.
But she hadn't, and as the cart jolted and splashed through the rain, she settled into the most comfortable position she could find and wondered just when everything had started going so dreadfully wrong.