Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Twenty-Nine

"Is that crate about ready, Leeana?"

"Almost, Theretha!" Leeana called back up the stair. She finished wrapping the last piece of glassware in its protective braided straw and slipped it into the proper pigeonhole in the crate's top tray. Then she scooped up an armful of loose straw and sifted it down over the tray, making certain that every piece was packed snugly into place yet padded and cushioned against unexpected impacts.

The straw caught on her fingers, and she grimaced with wry humor as she looked down at them. Her hands were as slender as they had always been, with the same long, aristocratic fingers, but now they were work--roughened, nicked, and chapped, as well. They were also bruised, she noted, and two of her fingernails had been gnawed back to the quick after she broke them practicing unarmed combat against Garlahna under Ravlahn's supervision. And they'd developed a nicely growing crop of calluses from mucking out stalls and sweeping up in the municipal stables.

She patted the last of the straw down into a smooth layer, then laid the top slats of the crate across the frame and reached for the tack hammer. Quick, crisp strokes tacked each slat neatly into place, and she set the hammer back down, dipped the paintbrush into the pot of paint, and inscribed the crate's number from the bill of lading on both side panels.

"It's done, Theretha!" she called, stepping to the foot of the stair and looking up it.

"Oh, good!" Theretha replied as she appeared at the head of the stair, smiling down at her helper. "I don't know how I would have gotten this shipment packed in time without you," she continued gratefully, and Leeana grinned.

"Be sure you remember my efficiency the next time you need an assistant!" she said cheerfully.

"Oh, I will—I will!" Theretha assured her. The glassblower came down the stair into her shop's basement and patted the final crate of the consignment with a proprietary air.

"Good! I can use the money."

"Can't we all?" Theretha grimaced humorously, and Leeana laughed. She liked Theretha, and it had been an unanticipated surprise to discover her mother's favorite glassblower lived and worked here in Kalatha. The fact that she'd recognized Theretha's work when she saw it in the shop's display window had emboldened her to answer the other war maid's advertisement when she saw it posted on the Town Hall notice board.

It had worked out quite well, she thought with a certain satisfaction. Recognition of Theretha's work had made her feel as if the shop were somehow connected with the home she'd left behind forever. She treasured that feeling. But perhaps even more importantly, it was what had given her the confidence to approach someone else in search of work for the first time in her entire life.

Theretha was about as little like Leeana's pre-Kalatha vision of a war maid as it was possible to be. She was shy—though not at all timid, a distinction it had taken Leeana a day or two to recognize—and very much on the retiring side, except where her art and her shop were concerned. She was petite, and Leeana doubted Theretha had reported for a single morning's calisthenics since the day she thankfully finished her required physical training period and escaped the mandatory workouts. She wore a pair of wire-framed glasses for close work, and her favorite article of clothing was a burn-spotted smock improbably decorated with butterflies embroidered in blue, red, and gold. She appeared to have no special passions, aside from her obvious love for glass and the somehow fanatical absentmindedness which seemed to take possession of her the instant she touched her glassblower's pipe. On first acquaintance, she seemed like the sort of person who would always have a mousehole to hide in and would probably spend every night curled up in bed with a book.

Despite that, Theretha was one of the most popular citizens of Kalatha. She seemed to know literally everyone, and everyone who knew her, liked her. She was perpetually helpful, unassuming, yet cheerful, and something about her made everyone want to look after her. It was almost like some protective coloration or natural defense mechanism, although it clearly wasn't anything Theretha did. It was simply who she was. Even Leeana, who was certainly the newest war maid in town and at least ten years younger than Theretha, to boot, felt the protective urge which made Theretha a sort of surrogate kid sister for everyone.

There was nothing childlike about Theretha when it came to business, however, and she was an exacting taskmistress. She'd already been through three part-time workers before Leeana walked through her shop door, and none of them had been satisfactory. Which had been fortunate for Leeana . . . who had been. After the first afternoon, Theretha had agreed to pay her on a piece basis, rather than an hourly one, despite the glassblower's initial fear that haste would increase breakage. It hadn't, and Leeana had discovered that if she really concentrated, she could earn half again as much in the same period of time—or earn the same amount and still get to her scheduled class with Hundred Ravlahn on time.

Which, she reminded herself as the Town Hall clock struck the hour, was not a minor consideration.

"I've got to run, Theretha!" she said. "I'm going to be late for Hundred Ravlahn. Can I pick up my pay tomorrow morning? I've got to pay the stable master for next week."

"Of course you can," Theretha assured her. "And, trust me, you don't want to be late for Ravlahn." She rolled her eyes. "So scoot!"

"On my way!" Leeana assured her, and darted out of the shop door.

"Hi, Leeana!" a voice called as she went bounding down the pedestrian walkway beside the town's main street. "We're all going over to the Green Maiden after dinner, and we—"

"No time, Besthrya," Leeana called back over her shoulder, never slowing her pace. "Sorry! And I'm going to be mucking out stalls again after dinner!" She made a face, waved, and disappeared around the corner.

She kept running, and it occurred to her that the last week had made some major changes in her life. Garlahna had been her lifeline for the first day or so, and Leeana had clung to her desperately . . . whenever she wasn't collapsed in bed trying to catch up on that half-mythic thing called "sleep." But rather to her own surprise, she'd found herself adjusting to her new life with remarkable speed. Or perhaps it wasn't so remarkable. She'd never had the opportunity to watch any other war maids adapting to the same changes, but Hundred Erlis and her assistants—like Hundred -Ravlahn—must have taken scores or hundreds of war maid candidates through the same process over the years. Their confident, competent briskness was immensely reassuring, despite their demanding expectations. And after the first day or so, Leeana had realized that, unlike her, they knew exactly what they were doing. Which meant all she had to do was whatever they told her to.

So she had, and in the process, she'd discovered she truly did have at least some aptitude for the -physical training they subjected her to. That had come as a pronounced surprise for her, and she'd been just a bit piqued by the fact that it hadn't seemed to surprise them. She supposed she ought to take that as a compliment, but the occasional pigeon-eating-cat looks she surprised on their faces made it a bit difficult.

They'd started rather gently with her (though it certainly hadn't seemed that way to her at the time!), but they'd also designed a program whose rigor mounted steadily. Leeana had too little experience with deliberate physical conditioning to realize just how grueling a pace they were actually setting for her, however. No one had ever told her she should be collapsing in exhaustion or whimpering that they were pushing her too hard, and so she'd simply buckled down to the challenge of meeting their expectations and discovered she was actually having fun, in an exhausting sort of way. She was even beginning to make some progress in her combat training, although she was still considerably short of the tyro level. At least she was learning to trust her ability to move, and Ravlahn and Garlahna had gotten her past the "Oh, I couldn't possibly hit anyone!" stage.

Of course, she grinned at the thought, her tongue gently probing at a loosened tooth, until my guard gets a lot better, I'm not the one who's going to be doing most of the hitting!

At that, though, she was doing far better in physical training than she was when it came to her kitchen skills. She was perpetually nicking herself peeling potatoes, cutting up onions, or chopping carrots. It had gotten to the point that she'd acquired the nickname "Leeana Bloody Finger" and one or two of the permanent kitchen staff had taken to referring to tomato-based soups as "Leeana juice." Personally, Leeana hadn't found either witticism all that hilarious (despite a certain amusement at the unintended echo of Prince Bahzell's cognomen), but she treasured them anyway. Especially the night one of Kalatha's resident bards, Filkhata Yanakfressa, had unveiled "The Lay of Leeana Bloody Finger" to near-universal gales of laughter. It was a sign that she was finding true acceptance as who she'd become, unshadowed by who she once had been.

Now if there'd only been about five more hours in a day! What with her morning calisthenics, two sessions a day with Ravlahn, an hour or so as an assistant teacher with Lanitha, and the daily work crew assignments—-usually, but not always, in the stable (because of Boots) and the kitchen—required of any new war maid in return for the free housing the town furnished to her, it was all but impossible to find the time to care for Boots.

At least the stable's attached paddocks were large enough for the gelding to get some self-provided exercise trotting around and exploring or playing follow-the-leader with other horses. But while that might have been sufficient for a sedentary horse, or one who'd been retired, it certainly wasn't sufficient for Boots! He needed regular workouts if he was going to stay healthy, and somehow she had to find time to at least work him regularly on a lunging line. Taking him out for a brisk ride was even better, of course, but it also ate much more deeply into her time. Given that she had to personally muck out his stall, in addition to grooming, feeding, watering, and exercising him, time was not something of which she had a surplus. Especially not when she factored in the need to do enough odd jobs to earn the money she needed to pay the portion of his stabling fees not covered by her work as one of the stable master's part-time grooms.

Money wasn't something Lady Leeana Bowmaster had ever worried about particularly, but it had become a matter of rather burning urgency to Leeana Hanathafressa.

Fortunately, Leeana had discovered one area in which she could save some of the time she needed so badly elsewhere. It wasn't as if she really needed more than five hours of sleep a night, after all.

She turned another corner and picked up her pace a bit more as she saw the weapons salle before her. Garlahna was waiting on the wooden porch, and she looked up and waved as Leeana pounded down the last dozen yards or so and dashed up the steps to the porch.

"Running late, girl!" Garlahna observed, and Leeana stuck out her tongue at her mentor. "Go ahead," Garlahna shrugged. "Make faces at me. But I'll bet you Ravlahn works you a bit harder than usual for it!"

"Hah!" Leeana snorted, passing her friend at a dead run. "That's an empty threat if I ever heard one—she can't work me any harder than she's already doing!"

"Oh, can't I?" another voice inquired, and Leeana skidded to a halt with an almost comical expression of dismay as Ravlahn Thregafressa smiled at her. The assistant training mistress stood just inside the salle door, hands propped on her hips, and Leeana managed to give her a smile that was only slightly sickly.

"Uh, I hope you aren't going to take any silly jokes I may have made to Garlahna seriously?" she said.

"Oh, of course not," Ravlahn agreed with a broad, toothy smile, and waved Leeana courteously past her into the salle.

* * *

"Dear gods," Leeana groaned to Garlahna as she dragged herself into the welcoming steam of the training salle's attached baths. "Remind me to never, ever say anything Ravlahn could take as a challenge again!"

"She did seem just a tad inspired," Garlahna agreed with a chuckle. She stopped Leeana by one of the big, communal tubs and began helping to unlace her yathu. Leeana sagged bonelessly, leaning gratefully back against the raised, masonry lip of the poollike tub.

"Yes, she did," someone else observed, and Leeana turned to look at the speaker. It was a war maid she'd seen once or twice before, but hadn't actually been introduced to. The other woman was probably a few years older than Ravlahn, with short blond hair. She was soaking in the slightly cooler tub beside the one Leeana was leaning against, and it was obvious from her hard-trained muscles and scars—most of them small, but including one or two which were fairly spectacular—that she was one of the true war maids.

"Soumeta Harlahnnafressa," the other woman introduced herself with a lazy smile, then raised one arm from the water to wave a dripping hand at the other two women—both somewhere between her own age and Leeana's—who shared the tub with her. "Tharnha Garhlanfressa," Soumeta said, indicating the dark-haired, dark-complected woman to her right, "and Eramis Yohlahnafressa."

Eramis' complexion was as fair as Tharnha's was dark, and the long hair, temporarily done up in a knot atop her head, was a platinum blond so pale it was almost white. All things considered, Soumeta and her companions made a striking trio, Leeana thought.

"Leeana—Leeana Hanathafressa," she said, politely introducing herself in return. It still took her a moment or two to remember to use her matronym, and she felt her face go just a little pink over the embarrassing hesitation.

"I know," Soumeta said with a smile. "Everyone in Kalatha's been talking about you ever since you arrived, you know."

"Oh." Leeana felt her blush darken. She half-turned away from the other woman and busied herself peeling out of the rest of her clothing. She'd spent enough time undressed in front of maids and seamstresses and in Hill Guard's women's baths not to be particularly bothered by her nudity under normal circumstances. At the moment, however, she felt sufficiently embarrassed by Soumeta's comment to climb into the water more quickly than usual.

And, of course, the water is hotter than usual, she thought, trying not to squeal and leap back out as the stinging tide enveloped her. She managed to settle down almost normally, up to her neck in steaming water, and after the first second or two, the liquid heat began its magic and started sucking the aches and pains out of her muscles.

Garlahna joined her a moment later, considerably more cautiously.

"I did notice that they've built the fire under the water heater a bit higher than usual today," Soumeta commented to no one in particular. Leeana darted a look at her, and then found herself forced to chuckle at the older woman's knowing expression.

"Yes, they have," she confirmed feelingly, and Soumeta smiled at her.

"Actually," Leeana continued in a more normal voice, "it's probably a good thing they did. I can use the extra heat after the way Hundred Ravlahn just spent the last decade or so chasing me around the salle. And beating me senseless whenever she caught up with me!"

"Oh, I think you may be being a bit too hard on yourself," Soumeta replied. Leeana blinked at her in surprise, and Soumeta laughed. "I'm not saying you're ready to go out and begin slaying brigands—not by a long chalk! But I've seen quite a few new girls do a lot worse than you were doing out there today."

"Like me, for example," Eramis agreed with something like a cross between a giggle and a chuckle. She shook her head. "It took me weeks to get to the point of actually swinging back at Erlis—she was still doing all of the training herself, one arm or not, when I arrived. At least you were trying, Leeana!"

"And she actually got through Ravlahn's guard—once, anyway," Garlahna pointed out.

"I noticed," Soumeta agreed with a nod.

"Oh, she just let me do that!" Leeana protested, turning pink all over again. And, she thought, looking down at her half-submerged breasts, I really am pink all over. Wonderful.

"The Hundred doesn't 'just let' people get a pop in past her guard," Soumeta told her. "I won't say you didn't have the element of surprise on your side, but you're quick, Leeana. Very quick." She considered the younger woman appraisingly. "I think you could work out very well in the Guard after you've completed your probationary period."

Leeana looked up, certain Soumeta was teasing. But the older war maid's expression was completely serious.

"Oh, I don't think—" Leeana began, then stopped herself, suddenly aware that she didn't have any idea what she wanted to say.

The last thing she'd ever wanted to be was some sort of female warrior. Not out of any sort of physical fear, but because it had simply never occurred to her that she might. And, she added honestly, because the fact was that the thought of hurting other people frightened her much more than the thought of being hurt herself. Nor did she cherish many illusions about the "glory" of combat. She was the daughter and granddaughter of -warriors—heir of a tradition of women who'd sent generation after generation of husbands and sons off to war . . . and all too often never gotten them home again. The notion of charging into battle held very little allure for Leeana Hanathafressa.

Yet the truth was that she'd discovered she was one of those cheerful lunatics who actually enjoyed physical exercise. Not only that, but she found a strange, obscure, but solid enjoyment in the challenge of Hundred Ravlahn's instruction. They were working almost entirely without weapons at the moment, but she'd also discovered that she was looking forward to the day that that changed.

And, she thought, there really are some things important enough to fight for. "Glory" might not be one of them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

"Well, it's not as if you have to make up your mind tomorrow," Soumeta pointed out. "For that matter, it's not as if Five Hundred Ermath was going to invite you to take over her duties next week!"

"I'm sure she'll wait at least, oh, a month or two," Tharnha agreed with a laugh, and Leeana had to grin back.

"But aside from your physical training," Soumeta continued, "how are you settling in, Leeana?"

"Better than I expected," Leeana admitted.

"It must have been hard, coming from your family," Tharnha murmured,

"I imagine it's hard coming from any family," Leeana said, and kicked herself mentally as she heard the edge of chill which had crept into her voice.

"Tharnha isn't exactly the most tactful person in the world," Soumeta observed with a grin, and gave the dark-haired war maid a friendly clout on the back of her head. Then the blonde looked back at Leeana. "Still, she didn't say anything the rest of us haven't thought, I suppose. In fact, we're all wondering about why you came and whether or not you're glad you did." She cocked her head, gazing thoughtfully at Leeana. "You have to admit, Leeana—we don't exactly see the heir of a baron wandering around in a chari and yathu every day!"

"Well, no. I guess not," Leeana said, then shrugged and looked at Tharnha. "I'm sorry if I sounded offended or something, Tharnha. It's just sort of a sore point with me."

"Where we came from and why is a 'sore point' for a lot of us," Tharnha agreed. "And I should have kept my big mouth shut about it."

"Well, yes," Eramis agreed. "But like Soumeta says, we're all being eaten to death by little bugs trying not to ask you, Leeana." She flashed a smile at the younger woman. "I mean, if you tell us to shut up and mind our own business, we will, of course. But you have to know we'll go right on wondering, whatever you say." She waved both hands over her head. "We shouldn't, but we're only human, you know!"

"Yes, I suppose I do," Leeana sighed. She considered it for a few seconds, frowning down into the water of her tub, then sighed.

"Let me put it this way. I didn't leave my family because of anything they did, all right? It was a political—" She paused. "My father received an offer for me—one I didn't want to accept." She made a face. "No one would have wanted to accept it, actually. Father wouldn't have made me, but there would have been a lot of political pressure on him to accept it, or something like it. So I decided I'd rather be a war maid."

She considered that for a few seconds, frowning, and decided it was accurate enough to go on with.

"As for whether or not I'm glad I came, ask me again in a month or so! I should have at least caught my breath by then."

Soumeta laughed, and both of the other war maids with her chuckled.

"I don't think it'll take that long," Soumeta said. "You seem to be adjusting better than most candidates do. And I hear you've already found some extra work to help pay for your horse?"

"And what a horse!" Tharnha said, rolling her eyes in appreciative envy.

"Well, yes," Leeana admitted a bit uncomfortably, remembering Mayor Yalith's warnings about resentment from other war maids.

"I envy you the horse," Soumeta said, as if she'd read Leeana's mind, "but I definitely don't envy you all the extra work!"

"Of course you don't!" Eramis snickered teasingly. "It would cut into your . . . social calendar."

"You can just leave my social calendar out of this, Mistress Gossip," Soumeta told her with a mock--serious glower.

"Why? It's not as if everybody in Kalatha doesn't know all about your red-hot sex life, Soumeta." Tharnha rolled her eyes again, as enviously as she had over Leeana's possession of Boots.

"Well," Soumeta acknowledged a bit complacently, "I do try to do my bit to balance the scales."

"Balance the scales?" Leeana blushed as the question popped out of her, apparently of its own volition, and Soumeta's eyes swung lazily back to her. She hadn't intended to say a single word, she told herself furiously. What other people did with their own lives was their business, not hers! But, still . . .

"Sure," Soumeta said, after a moment or two during which she seemed to find Leeana's blush enormously entertaining. "Think of all the years and years and years men have been chasing after women like we were mares in season and they were all stallions in rut. Of course, if we ever let any of them catch us—outside a nice, legal marriage bed, at least—then we were the 'loose women'—" she made what Leeana considered was a fairly obvious decision not to use a few other, cruder terms "—for opening our legs for them. And Lillinara help us if we actually got pregnant without a wedding bracelet!"

She rolled her eyes theatrically and her friends laughed, but there was an undeniable flicker of anger under the humor in Soumeta's voice, and the others' laughter had a hard edge.

"Given how long that's been going on," Soumeta continued after a moment, "I figure it's time we started evening things up a little. I think we ought to be chasing them for a change. And if one of them decides he wants to spend an evening cozying up to me, well fine. But if he thinks he's going to nail me down like a good, obedient little girl afterwards, he's got another thought or two coming. Funny how few of them seem to realize it's going to be that way, though. And it may show a nasty streak, but I have to admit, I sort of like looking back over my shoulder to watch their faces when they realize I mean 'No' and walk away wiggling my sweet arse at them."

She'd watched Leeana's face while she spoke, and the younger woman had the distinct impression Soumeta was gauging her reaction carefully. But was that because Leeana was younger, and Soumeta wanted to see how sheltered her pre-Kalatha existence had truly been? Or was there another reason?

Leeana felt a sudden urge to look at Garlahna and see how she was reacting to the conversation, but she decided that wouldn't be a good idea. So, instead, she shrugged.

"I don't think that's something I'm going to have to worry about for a while," she said lightly. "I've got my probation to complete, and Erlis and Ravlahn waiting to work my backside off while I do it. Between that, chores, working for Theretha, and mucking out Boots' stall—oh! and helping Lanitha at the school, too!—I'm not going to have enough time to eat and sleep by myself, much less with anyone else!"

"But it's such a waste to actually sleep with someone when there are so many other interesting things you could be doing," Soumeta said with a wicked smile, then laughed at Leeana's expression. "Sorry! I didn't meant to tease you. And I think you're probably right about how much free time you're likely to have, at least for the next few weeks. But this is something you're going to have to think about sooner or later, you know, Leeana," she went on in a more serious tone. "You're a war maid now—or you will be, when you finish your probation, anyway—and that means the decisions will be yours. Not your father's, or your family's, or anyone else's: yours. That's the reason most of us became war maids in the first place, to make those decisions for ourselves."

"I know," Leeana agreed, remembering her first day's conversation with Johlana.

"And it's the fact that we want to make them which pisses off people like Trisu of Lorham," Eramis said darkly.

"Among other things," Soumeta agreed, still looking at Leeana. "But there's more to it in his case, too, Eramis. You know how hard he's been pushing us about everything ever since he inherited the title. Of course he resents the fact that we don't all ask 'How high?' any time he says 'Jump!' But he's after more than just changing that." She glowered. "He's one of those bastards who wants to turn the clock back two or three hundred years and just pretend the war maids never existed. That we never had a charter at all. And until someone kicks him right in those great big balls he's so proud of having, he's going to go right on pushing, and pushing, and pushing until we give him what he damned well wants or—"

She stopped abruptly and gave her head a short, angry shake that sloshed water over the lip of her tub.

"Sorry, Leeana," she said after a heartbeat or two, with a smile that looked almost natural. "Didn't mean to climb up on my personal hobbyhorse. It just really pisses me off to see someone like him pushing us around—again!—as if we were all still meek little female mice living in a world full of male cats. Or obedient little puppets waiting till they get around to coming home and hauling us off to bed by our hair! Well, we're not, and it's time someone pointed that out to him . . . and all the men like him."

"I'm sure D—" It was Leeana's turn to stop herself short. Dame Kaeritha hadn't told her she was free to discuss the mission which had brought the knight to Kalatha in the first place. She hadn't told her she wasn't free to do so, either, of course, but a champion's business was a champion's business, not a subject for bathhouse gossiping.

"I'm sure Mayor Yalith and the Town Council know what they're doing," she said instead, and hid a mental wince. What she'd just said was probably true enough, but it sounded like the sort of fatuous thing a schoolgirl without two thoughts to rub together would have said.

"Hmph!" Soumeta snorted, flouncing in the water. "Maybe they do, and maybe they don't. Well, at least some of them do, I'm sure," she corrected herself. "But this is a war maid free-town, you know. We all get a voice—and a vote—when it comes to deciding what we should be doing. And if this keeps up, Trisu may just find his precious claims starting something he won't like the finish of!"

"And about time, too," Tharnha muttered.

"In a lot of ways," Eramis agreed, then stretched and yawned elaborately. The motion arched her spine and brought her shapely bosom free of the water, and she preened like a cat, with a shameless sensuality which Leeana had never before encountered. "I think you're right about who should be chasing who, too, Soumeta," she said lazily. "Let's get what we want from them and let them have the broken hearts for a change."

"Hah! Broken something, anyway," Tharnha agreed with a chuckle.

"Well, I'm already doing my bit," Soumeta reminded her with a predatory smile. "But whether or not I can keep on doing it depends on whether or not interfering bastards like Trisu can squeeze us all back into their little toy boxes and lock us up there. And I, for one, plan on chopping a few of them up for dog meat before they manage to do that."

"That's sort of what the Voice said at the Temple when I was at Quaysar last fall," Tharnha said. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged just a little defensively. "Well, she did!" she insisted.

Leeana blinked. She'd heard of the Temple of -Lillinara at Quaysar, though she'd never been there. But she'd never heard of a Voice getting involved in secular affairs unless the very lives of women were involved and the situation was close to desperate.

"The Voice said we should stand up to Lord Trisu more strongly?" Garlahna said in a voice which showed she'd found the idea as disturbing as Leeana had.

"Not in so many words," Tharnha admitted. "But she did say she was concerned. That the Mother's daughters should always oppose and fight people who try to make all women victims, and who else do you think she could've been talking about right now?"

"Voices don't send people off to war, Tharnha," Soumeta said. "Or not very often, anyway. She probably just meant we should stand our ground." The guardswoman snorted. "A Voice can't go around telling us to push back even harder than he's pushing us, whatever she might want to say. Not without provoking all kinds of complaints from every lord warden—every male lord warden—in the Kingdom, anyway. Which doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good idea, of course. Just that a Voice is a little too visible to tell people that."

"Maybe not, Soumeta," Eramis said, "but you know the Voice thinks we shouldn't let anyone push us around the way we always have before. You know that."

"I never said she didn't," Soumeta replied. "I just said she has to be careful about any official position she takes because of who she is. If you want me to admit she's given her support to people like Maretha and her supporters on the Town Council, then I will. I'm just saying that she's smart enough and subtle enough to do it in ways that aren't going to drag her, the temple, or the Mother into open conflict with a lord warden."

"You're probably right," Tharnha agreed. She didn't sound as if she really did agree, but she smiled and shrugged anyway.

"In the meantime, though," she said more brightly, "did any of you see that good looking blond armsman who rode in with the wine merchant this afternoon? Yummmmmm!"

She batted her eyes at the others, and Eramis -giggled.

"I wouldn't mind getting to know him a little better, I can tell you that!" Tharnha went on with a cheerful leer. "Look at that arse of his—and those shoulders! You know what they say about puppies growing up to match the size of their feet?" She leered again, harder. "Well, if certain other portions of his anatomy have grown up to match those shoulders—!"

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