Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Fifteen

"Father isn't far behind now."

Kaeritha looked up from the breakfast fire. Leeana was standing beside the road, her raised arm hooked up across Boots' withers while she stared back the way they'd come the day before. Her expression was tense, and she stood very still, only the fingers of her right hand moving as they caressed the thick, shaggy warmth of the gelding's winter coat.

"What makes you so certain?" Kaeritha asked, for there'd been no question at all in the sober pronouncement.

"I could say it's because I know he had to have missed me by the second morning and that it's easy to guess he's been pushing hard after me ever since," the girl said. "But the truth is, I just know." She turned and looked at Kaeritha. "I always know where he and Mother are," she said simply.

Kaeritha chewed on that for a few moments, while she busied herself turning strips of bacon in her blackened camp skillet. Then she whipped the bacon out of the popping grease and spread it over their last slabs of slightly stale bread. She dumped the grease into the flames and watched the fire sputter eagerly, then looked back up at Leeana.

The girl's face was drawn, and Boots and Cloudy were both beginning to show the effect of the stiff pace they had set. Of course, Leeana and Boots had covered the same distance in twenty-four hours less than she and Cloudy had, but she'd been pushing hard herself ever since the girl caught up with her. However furious and worried he might be, Tellian was too levelheaded to risk riding in pursuit with only Hathan—the Lord Warden of the West Riding would be too juicy a target for the ill-intentioned to pass up—but he and his wind brother would be setting a crushing pace for the rest of his armsmen, and Kaeritha knew it.

"What do you mean, you know where they are?" she asked after a moment.

"I just do." Leeana gave Boots one more caress, then stepped closer to Kaeritha and the fire and accepted her share of the bread and bacon. She took an appreciative bite of the humble repast and shrugged.

"I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be mysterious about it—I just don't know a good way to explain it. Mother says the Sight has always run in her family, all the way back to the Fall." She shrugged again. "I don't really know about that. It's not as if there've been dozens of magi in our family, or anything like that. But I always know where they are, or if they're unhappy . . . or hurt." She shivered, her face suddenly drawn and old beyond its years. "Just like I knew when Moonshine went down and rolled across Mother."

She stared at something only she could see for several seconds, then shook herself. She looked down at the bread and bacon in her hand, as if seeing them for the first time, and gave Kaeritha a smile that was somehow shy, almost embarrassed, before she raised the food and bit into it again.

"Do they always 'know' where you are?" Kaeritha asked after a moment.

"No." Leeana shook her head. Then she paused. "Well, actually, I don't know for certain about Mother. I know when I was a very little girl, she always seemed to know just when I was about to get into mischief, but I always just put that down to 'mommy magic.' I do know Father doesn't have any trace of whatever it is, though. If he did, I'd have gotten into trouble so many times in the last few years that I doubt I'd be able to sit in a saddle at all! I'd never have gotten away with running away in the first place, either. And I can tell from how unhappy and worried he feels right now that he doesn't realize they're no more than a few hours behind us."

Her eyes darkened with the last sentence, and her voice was low. The thought of her father's unhappiness and worry clearly distressed her.

"It's not too late to change your mind, Leeana," Kaeritha said quietly. The girl looked at her quickly, and the knight shrugged. "If he's that close, all we have to do is sit here for a few hours. Or we can go on. From the map and directions your father's steward gave me, Kalatha can't be more than another two or three hours down the road. But the decision is yours."

"Not anymore," Leeana half-whispered. Her nostrils flared, and then she shook her head firmly. "It's a decision I've already made, Dame Kaeritha. I can't—won't—change it now. Besides," she managed a crooked smile, "he may be unhappy and worried, but those aren't the only things he's feeling. He knows where I'm going, and why."

"He does? You're certain of that?"

"Oh, I wasn't foolish enough to leave any tear-spotted notes that might come to light sooner than I wanted," Leeana said dryly. "Father is a wind rider, you know. If I hadn't managed to buy at least a full day's head start, he'd have forgotten about waiting for his bodyguards and he and Hathan would have come after me alone. And in that case, he'd have been certain to catch up with me, even on Boots.

"Since he didn't, I have to assume I did manage to keep anyone from realizing I'd left long enough to get the start I needed. But Father isn't an idiot, and he knows I'm not one, either. He must have figured out where I was going the instant someone finally realized I was missing, and he's been coming after me ever since. But, you know, there's a part of him that doesn't want to catch me."

She finished the last bite of her bread and bacon, then stood, looking across at Kaeritha, and this time her smile was gentle, almost tender.

"Like you, he's afraid I'm making a terrible mistake, and he's determined to keep me from doing it, if he can. But he knows why I'm doing it, too. And that's why a part of him doesn't want to catch me. Actually wants me to beat him to Kalatha. He knows as well as I do that the war maids are the only way I'll avoid eventually being forced to become a pedigreed broodmare dropping foals for Blackhill . . . or someone. Mother was never that for him, and he knows I'll never be that for anyone. He taught me to feel that way—to value myself that much—himself, and he knows that, too."

"Which won't prevent him from stopping you if he can," Kaeritha said.

"No." Leeana shook her head. "Silly, isn't it? Here we both are—me, running away from him; him, chasing after me to bring me back, whether I want to come or not—and all of it because of how much we love each other."

A tear glittered for an instant, but she wiped it briskly away and turned to busy herself tightening the girth on Boots' saddle.

"Yes," Kaeritha said softly, emptying the teapot over the fire's embers and beginning to cover the ashes with dirt. "Yes, Leeana. Very silly indeed."

* * *

"Soumeta is here, Mayor. She says she has an appointment."

Yalith Tamilthfressa, Mayor of Kalatha, looked up from the paperwork on her desk with a grimace. Her assistant, Sharral Ahnlarfressa, stood in the door of her office, with a sour expression which was only too accurate a mirror of Yalith's own emotions.

"What about Theretha?" Yalith asked. "Is she here, too?"

"Theretha?" Sharral shook her head. "It's just Soumeta. And I checked your calendar. If she does have an appointment this morning, I didn't write it down there."

"Neither did anyone else," Yalith sighed.

"In that case," Sharral said grimly, "I'll send her packing so fast her head will swim!"

She started to turn to go, but Yalith's quick headshake stopped her.

"No," the mayor said. "Oh, I'd love to turn you loose on her, Sharral, but I can't quite do that."

"Why not?" Sharral demanded.

"You know perfectly well why. As big a pain in the arse as she may be, she's not exactly alone in her feelings, now is she?"

"Yalith," Sharral said, dropping the formal title she normally used when addressing her old friend on official town business, "she's only a Fifty. If you want her jerked up short for insubordination, I'm sure Balcartha would be delighted to take care of it for you."

Yalith leaned back in her chair and smiled affectionately at her assistant. For all practical purposes, Sharral was her unofficial vice-mayor, really, although the town charter provided for no such office. They'd known one another since girlhood, although Yalith had been born in Kalatha and Sharral had been five years old when her mother became a war maid. Ahnlar Geramahnfressa had been luckier than some—Sharral had been an only child. It was always sticky, and often painful, when a woman with children sought out the war maids. It was unusual for a mother to become a war maid, because the war maids' charter didn't provide any legal basis for her to retain custody of, or even the right to visit, her children after she severed herself from her family. It was a very rare, or very desperate, mother who was prepared to risk losing all contact with her children, however intolerable her own life might seem.

Yet a surprising number of them were allowed to take their daughters with them. In most cases, Yalith thought, that said all that needed saying about the fathers of those children. Those men didn't relinquish possession of their children out of gentleness and love; they did it because those children were merely daughters, not something as important as a son. No wonder the women unfortunate enough to be married to them sought any escape they could find!

But however their wives might feel, Yalith often wondered how someone like Sharral felt when she thought about it. How did it feel to know that the man who'd sired you had cared less for you than he did for a pair of old shoes? Did you feel rejected, discarded as something unimportant and easily replaced? Or did you spend every morning thanking Lillinara that you'd escaped having anything to do with a parent who could feel that way about his own child? Yalith knew how she felt about anyone who could do that, but she also knew the mind and the heart could be cruelly unreasonable.

"If I thought I could turn Balcartha loose on her, I'd enjoy that even more than handing her over to you, Sharral," the mayor said. "I'd really relish watching that, as a matter of fact. But it might look just a bit extreme to turn a Five Hundred—and the commander of the entire Town Guard, at that—loose on a mere Fifty. Not without clear provocation, at any rate."

"Extreme!" Sharral sniffed. "Balcartha is the Guard commander, and Soumeta is one of her officers—one of her junior officers, Yalith. A junior officer who's just lied to me in order to get in to see you without an appointment! That strikes me as a fair to middling offense against good discipline, and if Balcartha can't rake Soumeta over the coals for something like that, then just exactly who can?"

"But that's the point, isn't it?" Yalith's mouth quirked in something much too astringent to be called a smile. "Soumeta isn't here just for herself, and she knows I know it. Besides, maybe she's right."

"And maybe she's a dangerous, arrogant, hotheaded, prejudiced, trouble-making idiot with the morals of a mink in heat, the appetites of a praying mantis, and delusions of her own importance, too!"

"You don't have to mince words with me after all these years, Sharral," Yalith said with a harsh chuckle. "Tell me how you really feel about her."

"It's not a joke, damn it, Yalith!" Sharral waved both hands in frustration.

"No, it's not," Yalith agreed more soberly. "But whether we like it or not, at this particular moment Soumeta is only saying what a dangerous number of other war maids think. So I can't just let you or Balcartha step on her—not without giving her a little more rope, first, at the very least—without running the risk of further alienating the people who already think I'm being too accommodating. Like Maretha and her crowd."

Sharral's lips tightened as if she wanted to dispute that. Unfortunately, she couldn't.

"All right," she sighed. "You win—or lose, or whatever it is you're doing! I'll show her in."

* * *

"Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice, Mayor," Soumeta said as Sharral closed the office door behind her and Yalith pointed at a chair on the other side of her desk.

"Did I do that?" Yalith asked pleasantly, arching both eyebrows and steepling her fingers in front of her chest as she leaned back and rested her elbows on the arms of her chair. "That's odd. I could have sworn Sharral just told me that you had an appointment with me."

Soumeta flushed, and Yalith smiled internally. Had the other woman really expected that a meaningless polite formula could somehow convince Yalith to gloss over what amounted to an arrogant demand that the mayor see her?

"I suppose I shouldn't have done that," Soumeta muttered after a moment. "It's just that it's important that I speak to you, and I didn't think Sharral was even going to tell you I was here."

"Sharral tells me about everyone who asks to see me, Soumeta," Yalith said evenly. "Whether she likes them or not."

Soumeta's flush deepened. It was especially obvious in someone with her fair skin and golden hair, and Yalith let her stew in her own juices for several seconds.

"Very well," she said finally. "You're here. What was so important that you simply had to see me?"

"Mayor Yalith," Soumeta gave herself a visible shake and leaned forward in her chair, "the situation in Lorham is worse than ever, and it's getting steadily worse still. We have to do something!"

"And what, precisely, would you like me to do, Soumeta?" Yalith asked with deadly patience.

"We can't just stand there while Trisu and his toadies systematically tear down everything we've accomplished in the last two hundred years!" Soumeta protested. "It's bad enough that he's violating our boundaries with that gristmill of his, or our prerogatives with those road tolls, but now his so-called market master in Thalar is squeezing us completely out." She bared her teeth. "Do you think for one minute that someone like Manuar would dare to do that without Trisu's backing?"

"First," Yalith said levelly, her dark eyes trained on Soumeta like twin ballistae, "we're not 'just standing there.' Second, there seems to be some question as to exactly what Master Manuar is or is not doing in Thalar. Third, when the Council and I specified that you were to be our official representative to him, we also instructed you not to be confrontational. The object was to make a firm statement through a spokeswoman official enough to make our concern plain, not to antagonize the man."

"Antagonize him!" Soumeta exclaimed. "Mayor, he claimed Jolhanna was responsible for all our difficulties!"

"I've read your report, Soumeta," Yalith said. "It's . . . unfortunate that you excluded Theretha from your meeting with the market master."

"Are you accusing me of misrepresenting what Manuar said?" Soumeta demanded harshly.

"I'm saying a second viewpoint on the conversation would have been useful." Yalith held the younger woman's angry eyes with her own. "And I'm suggesting that Theretha, who knows Manuar personally, might have been able to prevent the conversation from getting so out of hand so quickly. And, frankly, Soumeta, I'm also suggesting that intransigence is often in the eye of the beholder. You went into that meeting with blood already in your eye—and don't pretend to me, or to yourself, that you didn't—and that's hardly the way to evoke a cooperative atmosphere."

"I went into that meeting determined to be just as reasonable as Manuar allowed me to be," Soumeta snapped. "You and the Council had sent me as our official representative—was I supposed to just stand there and let him lie to me about Jolhanna without calling him on it?"

"Yes, we sent you as our official representative. We also stressed the importance of being reasonable. Of bending over backward, if that was what it took, to make it abundantly clear that we aren't the ones provoking the problems."

"And letting him shuffle all the blame off on Jolhanna would have made us look 'reasonable'?" Soumeta barked a sharp, angry laugh. "It would have proved to him that we were weak enough to let him get away with a barefaced lie!"

"What you ought to have done was to tell him that you could not believe Jolhanna would have deliberately or knowingly provoked problems between us and the Thalar merchants. You should never have accused him of lying about it. Instead, you should have assured him that both I, as Mayor, and the Town Council would look into his allegations most carefully. And you should have pointed out to him that while we were looking into them, it remained his responsibility to ensure that the Thalar market, as opposed to the individual merchants in it, abided by the terms of our charter."

Soumeta muttered something under her breath and looked rebellious, and Yalith suppressed a sudden burning desire to snap the other woman's head off. She settled for glaring at Soumeta for a breath or two before she continued in that same, meticulous tone.

"You should also have listened to Theretha. She wanted to stay, to look for Herian. For that matter, to speak to Manuar herself. Instead, you bustled her back off to Kalatha."

"The Council charged me with responsibility for her safety," Soumeta grated through clenched teeth. "In my judgment, her safety was at risk in Thalar."

"But it's the soundness of your judgment which is really in question here, isn't it, Soumeta?" Yalith asked softly.

"If you didn't trust my judgment, then you shouldn't have sent me in the first place!" Soumeta shot back.

"You weren't my choice," Yalith told her flatly. "I didn't object to it, which I probably should have. But I didn't choose you for the job because, frankly, I was concerned that something just like this might happen."

"It's time we stopped being afraid of them!" Soumeta said fiercely. "It's time we pushed back instead of just letting them push us! If you can't see that, then others can! We're just lying down for them, reacting to every fresh infringement with one more tearful protest instead of kicking them in the balls, and that's not being reasonable! It's spreading your legs for them and inviting them to—"

"That's enough!" Yalith slapped her desktop so hard her hand stung, and Soumeta's mouth snapped shut in shock. The mayor leaned over the desk towards her, her normally mild eyes crackling with anger, and the younger, taller war maid shrank back in her chair.

"You're young," Yalith told her icily. "Older than Theretha, perhaps, but that's not saying all that much, is it? You're impatient, you're angry, you're not terribly smart, and you're just spoiling for a fight. Well, unless we're luckier than we have any reasonable right to hope, you may have found us one. I don't expect you to understand just how serious the problems you've helped create really are, because you're too busy patting yourself on the back and congratulating yourself on having 'taken a stand.' But I do expect you to obey the instructions you're given. I also expect you to keep a civil tongue in your head when you address the Mayor of Kalatha. And you'd better remember both of those things, girl, because if you can't at least pretend to the most basic courtesy or obey the instructions your superiors give you, then I will discuss with Balcartha whether or not you are fit to be trusted with any responsibility, including your position as an officer of the Town Guard. Is that perfectly clear, Fifty Soumeta?"

Soumeta stared at her, more terrified and cowed by Yalith's freezing cold precision than she would ever have been by any shouted confrontation. Yalith held her eye for another handful of heartbeats, then nodded very slightly.

"You may go, Fifty Soumeta. And the next time you tell my assistant you have an appointment to see me, you had better have an appointment. Because if you don't, you will never have one again. Is that also clear?"

Soumeta nodded quickly, and Yalith snorted.

"Then go," she said, and Soumeta seemed to levitate up out of her chair. She disappeared through the door much more rapidly than she'd entered, and it closed behind her.

It opened again after a moment, and Sharral stuck her head back into Yalith's office.

"I thought you said we couldn't step on her?" the assistant said mildly.

"No, I said you and Balcartha couldn't step on her."

"Isn't that more or less the same thing?"

"Not even remotely." Yalith grimaced. "What I just did was to personally counsel and reprimand a junior officer because I was dissatisfied with the fashion in which she'd carried out the instructions I'd given her. Well, I did smack her for insubordination, too, but that was on a personal level. What I did not do was to have one of my subordinate minions—that's you, Sharral—whack her, nor did I overreact by having one of her military -superiors—that's Balcartha—give her the same reprimand." The mayor shrugged. "Not even her sponsors on the Council can suggest that anything that just transpired in this office was remotely improper on my part. Or that she didn't just give me ample justification for the hammer I did bring down on her."

"And just which member of the Council do you expect to be fooled by all of this dancing around the point?"

"I don't expect to fool anyone," Yalith said. "You know what sort of juggling act I'm already doing with the Council. The sides are pretty clearly drawn, but as long as I stay within the bounds of custom and usage, Maretha's clique doesn't have a pretext to call for an open vote of censure."

"Do you really think it's that bad?" Sharral looked at the mayor, her expression both dismayed and surprised.

"Do I really think that? No." Yalith shook her head. "But that doesn't mean I'm right. And it also doesn't mean the situation can't change. So until I'm positive about exactly what it is Maretha wants—and that I can keep her from getting whatever it is—I'm not planning on taking any chances."

She shook her head again.

"This thing has been building for a long time now, Sharral. I don't like the way the intensity has suddenly started climbing over the last year or two, either. And, to be honest, I'm just as angry as Soumeta or Maretha could possibly be. But right this minute, the situation is hanging on the very brink of going out of control. We don't need some silly confrontation—or anything!—to make things even worse."

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