"So, Prince Bahzell," a youthful voice said, "can I pick your brains for Father's secrets?"
Bahzell turned from where he'd stood on Hill Guard's curtain wall, leaning on the battlements while he stared out across the endless grasslands of the Wind Plain. The morning's overcast had blown away on the winds of noon, and the afternoon sun was settling towards a western horizon of such crystalline blue beauty that it hurt the eyes. The deep, dark green of the reborn grasslands, nourished by the long, soaking rains, spread out below him like the visible proof of the Wind Plain's short-seasoned fertility. The wind blowing out of the northwest was still on the cool side of warm, but Bahzell enjoyed its slight bite as he luxuriated in an absence of raindrops.
Leeana Bowmaster stood behind him, in one of the simple yet elegant gowns her mother had lately begun to insist she wear. The wind molded the fabric to her long legs, and strands of hair which had escaped her braid danced about her face, flickering like gilded serpents in the sunlight. With her green eyes sparkling with mischievous deviltry, she looked even cuter than usual, Bahzell told himself, steadfastly ignoring the fact that "cute" might not be precisely the correct adjective.
"I'm not thinking as how my poor brain is after being all that worth picking, Milady," he told her with a smile.
"Don't be silly, Milord Prince." She walked across to stand beside him, gazing out over the same green vista. "Given how hard you work at it, you really don't do a very good job of hiding your intelligence."
Bahzell looked at her profile sidelong. That was coming to grips with a vengeance, he thought.
"It's not so very bad a thing if those as don't much like you spend their time thinking about how much brighter than you they're after being," he said after a moment. "I'll not claim to be a genius, at the best of times, Milady. Yet for all that, it may be I'm not quite the idiot my old da's been known to call me."
"And I imagine it helps that quite a few people are bigoted enough to listen to the way you Horse Stealers talk rather than to what it is you say," Leeana mused.
"Aye, no doubt it does," Bahzell agreed. "If it comes to that, there's plenty of those as are ready to assume any hradani, regardless of how it might be he talks, must be a barbarian, and stupid to boot." He gave her a slow smile. "Well, I'm thinking those as call my folk barbarians aren't far wrong, when all's said. But those as think all barbarians are after being stupid . . ."
He shrugged, twitching his ears gently, and she laughed delightedly. It was a lovely sound, like bits of crystal music blown on the wind.
"I can see where that would be a mistake," she agreed. "Especially now that you've demonstrated how smoothly you can avoid answering a simple question."
"Avoid, Milady?" he asked innocently. "What question would that have been?"
"The one about Father's secrets," she said patiently.
"Ah, that question!" He nodded. "Well, do you know, Milady, I don't really think as how it's my place to be saying aught about the Baron's confidences." She opened her mouth, but he held up his right hand, index finger extended. "Oh, I was there when he was after challenging you," he agreed. "But I'm thinking as how he wanted you to be using your regular sources, not bringing in new ones."
"You're probably right," she said after considering it briefly. "On the other hand, any 'regular source' was a new one, once." She shrugged fetchingly. "I have to recruit them at some point, you know."
Bahzell laughed out loud, and she grinned impudently up at him.
"You're after reminding me of my sister Marglyth," he told her. "Maybe with a bit of Sharkah thrown in for spice. Not a scruple amongst the three of you."
"I do so have scruples!" she told him, elevating her nose with a disdainful sniff. "I just don't let them get in the way of business."
" 'Business,' is it?" Bahzell considered her thoughtfully. "I'm hoping you won't take this wrongly, Milady, but are you so very sure as how this is the sort of 'business' as you should be wanting to learn?"
"It's the only one I can learn," she said, and the levity had ebbed from her voice. She continued to look up at him, but now those huge, dark green eyes were serious, almost somber. "It's not as if anyone is going to let me train to be a knight, even if that were what I wanted to do—which it isn't. I'm only a daughter, after all. Most people figure a daughter's only job is to become someone's wife and produce babies. Preferably male ones."
There was a pronounced bite in her tone, and Bahzell felt a stir of sympathy.
"At least Father and Mother aren't like some parents," she continued in the voice of someone conscientiously reminding herself to look on the bright side. "A lot of other girls my age—most of the daughters of the nobility, I sometimes think—seem to have been taught that catching husbands and producing offspring are the only two things that could possibly matter. And the majority of them seem to think admitting that they're intelligent, possibly even—Lillinara forbid!—more intelligent than the men around them, is the one certain way to guarantee that they'll never catch a husband!"
She rolled her eyes, and Bahzell nodded slowly.
"Aye, I've seen the same often enough, and not just amongst your daughters of the nobility, Milady. And truth to tell, I've always thought as how any girl foolish enough to believe that is after deserving the sort of husband she's likely to be catching. I'll not deny that, often as not, it seems as how there's a point in most young bucks' lives where brains, if you'll be forgiving my bluntness, aren't the very first thing they look for in a girl. Then again, it's always seemed to me as how there's a point in most young bucks' lives when their brains aren't good for so very much, so I suppose if a lass is after acting just brainless enough at just the very right moment, she's likely enough to be catching herself a husband. Like as not, though, it's not the husband as she'd soonest be keeping down the road."
"Really?" She looked at him very intently.
"Oh, aye," he rumbled, once more gazing out across the grasslands and away from the potential distraction of those green eyes. "It's in my mind that a lass as is looking for a husband worth keeping ought to be doing all in the world she can so as to be scaring off the stupid ones. Any man as has his wits about him ought to be smart enough to know a wife with brains at least as good as his own is a treasure. Best to have someone as can help when life is after throwing problems at you, not someone as can only clasp her hands and look at you worshipfully while she's after waiting for you to be solving them all. And if you'd not have the two of you growing tired of one another, best to have someone you can actually be talking to. Why," he looked back down at her at last, smiling another slow smile, "I'd not be admitting this in front of Brandark, you understand, but it might not be so very bad a thing as to be finding yourself one who can actually read."
"Oh, I do wish more Sothōii thought like that!" Leeana said with a gurgle of laughter. "Not that it would make all that much difference for someone like me, I suppose," she continued, the laughter fading as she turned back to the vista below the walls. "Mother and Father will be far more understanding and careful about it than most parents in their situation would be, but my inheritance—or, my sons', rather—means politics and alliances are bound to figure in whoever marries me." She gave a thin smile. "On the other hand, I suppose I ought to be grateful that I can be absolutely certain that someone will marry me! Now if I could only feel remotely as confident that I'll actually like whoever it is, life would be perfect."
"It might not be so very bad as all that," Bahzell said slowly.
"Lass," he said, abandoning the "Miladies" with which he was usually careful to address her, "I'm not after saying that just because I'm after being a great, musclebound male lump of gristle who's not the least idea of what it is that's worrying you. I'll not say I've worried the worries you have, or that I've some magical ability to be putting myself inside your head and your life. But 'marriages of state' aren't so very unheard of amongst hradani, either. They're not so common as amongst your folk, no doubt, but it's a concern as shows itself amongst our chieftains and princes and their families often enough. And the thing we hradani have been after learning is that an unhappy 'marriage of state' is dangerous. Not to be dancing around the point, they're like as not to end up biting the arse—ah, I mean to be the saying the backside—of whoever was after being stupid enough to arrange them in the first place.
"I'm not saying as how every arranged hradani marriage is after being all sunshine and light, because Tomanāk knows as they're not. But, then, that's after being true of marriages in general, when all's said. And I'm thinking as how your parents are after being smart enough, and loving you enough, not to be letting anyone press you into a marriage as you're not wishful to be making."
"I know they'll try not to," Leeana agreed after a moment. "But the truth is, Prince Bahzell, that we Sothōii and you hradani look at some things very differently. And whatever Father and Mother may think, the rest of the nobility—and the King's Council—think of sons as heirs and daughters as trading chips." She shook her head sadly. "The pressure on Father to accept someone's offer for my hand is already heavy, and it's going to mount steadily. The other Councilors may have different reasons for pressing him, but they'll alldo it eventually, and that's going to happen sooner rather than later."
"You're right," Bahzell said after a long, thoughtful pause. "Our folk are after being different. Because of the Rage, as much as anything else, I'm thinking."
"The Rage? What does that have to do with arranged marriages?" Leeana asked.
"Why, I'd think that was after being plain enough," Bahzell said with a grim smile. "Think it through, lass. You're after knowing what the Rage is, what it's been costing my folk over the years." Leeana nodded slowly, and he shrugged. "Well, who amongst us does the Rage never touch?"
"Your women," Leeana said softly.
"Aye," Bahzell agreed. "And that's the reason, I'm thinking, why amongst hradani, lasses choose their own lads, and brides choose their own grooms. They've enough to put up with living amongst men the Rage can be touching, and truth to tell, it's our women who've been the backbone of what little stability we hradani have been managing to cling to since the Fall. Unlike some other folk, we've none of us ever been able to shut our eyes to how important that's after being to all of us. I'll not say our women are all of them free to live their lives any way they choose, but they've a sight more freedom than women do amongst you Sothōii. Or amongst most of the human folk I've seen."
"I knew there was something I liked about hradani," Leeana said with a flickering smile. "I only wish it was that way for us, as well."
"From what I've seen, lass," Bahzell said gently, "your father and mother are after thinking more like hradani than most. They've fashioned their own lives out of joy and pain, and they've not forgotten what it was first made them love each other. You be trusting them, Leeana Bowmaster. You be trusting them not to forget that for you, either."
She looked up at him very strangely, and he gazed down into her human eyes, wondering exactly what she was thinking. Then she gave herself a small shake and smiled at him once more.
"Thank you, Prince Bahzell," she said simply. "For listening and not laughing. And for understanding without just trying to pat me on the head and tell me to run along and play. I'll try to remember what you've said, because you're right. Father and Mother will do everything anyone in their position could possibly do to protect me from the sort of marriage I'm afraid of. Of course, that's not quite the same thing as saying I'll be able to make the marriage I want, but it's a great deal more than most girls in my position could say."
She looked up at him for a few more seconds, and he wished he could think of something else to say, one more reassurance. But he couldn't—not without resorting to comforting lies, and this young woman deserved better from him than that. And so he simply looked back at her, until she gave him an abbreviated curtsy and walked away, leaving him alone on Hill Guard Castle's walls once more.