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Chapter Five

It was raining again, and no mere drizzle this time, either.

It seemed to do an awful lot of that on the Sothoii Wind Plain, Kaeritha thought.

She leaned one shoulder moodily against the deep-cut frame of a tower window, folded her arms across her chest, and stared out across Hill Guard Castles battlements at the raindrops falling silver spears. The sky was the color of wet charcoal, swirled by gusty wind and lumpy with the weight of rain not yet fallen, and the temperature was decidedly on the cool side. Not that it wasnt immensely preferable to the bone-freezing winter shed just endured.

Thunder rumbled somewhere above the cloud ceiling, and she grimaced as a harder gust of wind drove a spray of rain in through the open window. She didnt step back, though. Instead, she inhaled deeply, drawing the wet, living scent of the rain deep into her lungs. There was a fine, stimulating feel to it, despite the chillone that seemed to tingle in her bloodand her grimace faded into something suspiciously like a grin as she admitted the truth to herself.

It wasnt the rain that irritated her so. Not really. As a matter of fact, Kaeritha rather liked rain. She might have preferred a little less of it than the West Riding had received over the past several weeks, but the truth was that this rain was simply part and parcel of the real cause of her frustration. She should have been on her way at least two weeks ago, and instead shed allowed the rain to help delay her travel plans.

Not that there hadnt been enough other reasons for that same delay. She could come up with a lengthy list of those, all of them entirely valid, without really trying. Helping Bahzell and Hurthang steer the Hurgrum Chapter safely through the rocks and shoals of Sothoii public opinion, for example or impressing the error of their ways on the local bigots. Those had certainly been worthwhile endeavors. And so had lending her own presence as another, undeniably human, champion of Tomanak to Bahzells diplomatic mission. Unfortunately, she had to admit that however useful her efforts might have been, they were scarcely indispensable. No, her reasons for continually postponing her departure were beginning to turn into something entirely too much like excuses for her taste. Which meant that, rain or no rain, it was time she was on her way. Besides

Her thoughts broke off as a tall, red-haired young woman rounded the passageway corner with a hurried stride that was just short of a trot. The newcomer, who came to an abrupt halt as she caught sight of Kaeritha, was both young and quite tall, even for a Sothoii noblewoman. At fourteen, she was already at least six feet talltaller than Kaeritha herself, who was considered a tall woman, by Axeman standardsand she was also beginning to show the curves of what promised to be an extraordinarily attractive womanhood.

Her expression was a curious blend of pleasure, half-guilt, and semi-rebellion and her attire of the moment was better suited to a second under groom than an aristocratic young lady, Kaeritha thought wryly. She wore a worn pair of leather trousers (which, Kaeritha noted, were becoming more than a bit too tight in certain inappropriate places) under a faded smock which had been darned in half a dozen spots. It also showed several damp patches, and there were splashes of mud on the girls riding boots and the thoroughly soaked poncho hanging over her left arm.

Excuse me, Dame Kaeritha, she said quickly. I didnt mean to intrude on you. I was just taking a shortcut.

Its not an intrusion, Kaeritha assured her. And even if it were, unless Im mistaken, this is your familys home, Lady Leeana. I imagine its appropriate for you to wander about in it from time to time if it takes your fancy.

She smiled, and Leeana grinned back at her.

Well, yes, I guess, the girl said. On the other hand, if Im going to be honest about it, the real reason Im taking a shortcut this time is to stay out of Fathers sight.

Oh? Kaeritha said. And just how have you managed to infuriate your father so badly that you find it necessary to avoid his wrath?

I havent infuriated him at all yet. But Id like to get back to my quarters and changed out of these clothes while thats still true. Kaeritha cocked her head, her expression questioning, and the girl shrugged. I love Father, Dame Kaeritha, but he gets, well, fussy if I sneak out to go riding without half a dozen armsmen clattering around behind me. She made a face. And he and Mother are both beginning to insist that I ought to dress as befits my station. This time she rolled jade-green eyes with a martyred sigh, and Kaeritha was hard put not to chuckle.

However annoying it may be, she said instead, with commendable seriousness, they probably have a point, you know. Leeana looked at her skeptically, and Kaeritha shrugged. You are the only child of one of the four most powerful nobles of the entire Kingdom, she pointed out gently, and men like your father always have enemies. Youd make a powerful weapon against him in the wrong hands, Leeana.

I suppose youre right, Leeana conceded after a moment. Im safe enough here in Balthar, though. Even Fathers willing to admit that, when he isnt being stuffy just to make a point! And, she added in a darker tone, its not as if Im not a weapon against him anyway.

I dont think thats exactly fair, Kaeritha said with a quick frown. And Im certain thats not how he thinks of it.

No? Leeana gazed at her for several seconds, then gave her head a little toss that twitched her long, thick braid of damp golden-red hair. Maybe he doesnt, but that doesnt really change anything, Dame Kaeritha. Do you have any idea how many people want him to produce a real heir? She grimaced. The entire Kings Council certainly goes on at him enough about it whenever he attends!

Not the entire Council, Im sure, Kaeritha objected, her eyes widening slightly as she sensed the true depth of bitterness Leeanas normally cheerful demeanor concealed.

Oh, no, Leeana agreed. Only the ones who dont have sons they think are just the right age to marry off to the heir to Balthar and the West Riding. Or dont think theyre still young enough for the job themselvesthey can hardly wait to get their greasy little paws on me. She grimaced in disgust. All the rest of them, though, use it as an excuse to go on at him, gnawing away at his power base like a pack of mongrels snarling at a leashed wolfhound.

Is it really that bad? Kaeritha asked, and Leeana looked surprised by the question. I may be a champion of Tomanak, Leeana, Kaeritha said wryly, but Im also an Axewoman, not a Sothoii. Tomanak! She laughed. As far as that goes, Im only even an Axewoman by adoption. I was born a peasant in Moretz! So I may be intellectually familiar with the sorts of machinations that go on amongst great nobles, but I dont have that much first-hand experience with them.

Leeana appeared to have a little difficulty with the idea that a belted knightand a champion of Tomanak, into the bargaincould be that ignorant of things which were so much a part of her own life. And she also seemed surprised that Kaeritha seemed genuinely interested in her opinion.

Well, she said slowly, in the voice of one manifestly attempting to be as fair-minded as possible, it probably does seem even worse to me than it actually is, but its bad enough. You do know how Sothoii inheritance laws work, dont you?

That much I have down, in general terms, at least, Kaeritha assured her.

Then you know that while I cant legally inherit Fathers titles and lands myself, theyll pass through me as heir conveyant to my own children? Assuming he doesnt produce a son after all, of course.

Kaeritha nodded, and Leeana shrugged.

Since our enlightened customs and traditions wont permit a woman to inherit in her own right, whatever fortunate man wins my hand in matrimony will become my regent. Hell govern Balthar and hold the wardenship of the West Riding in my name, until our firstborn son inherits fathers titles and lands. And, of course, in the most unfortunate case that I might produce only daughters, heor the husband of my eldest daughterwould continue to hold the wardenship until one of them produced a son. The irony in her soprano voice was withering, especially coming from one so young, Kaeritha thought.

Because of that, Leeana continued, two thirds of the Council want Father to go ahead and set Mother aside to produce a good, strong, male heir. Some of them say its his duty to the bloodline, and others argue that a matrimonial regency always creates the possibility of a succession crisis. Some of them may even be sincere, but most of them know perfectly well he wont do it. They see it all as a sword to use against him, something he has to use up political capital fighting off. The last thing he needs, especially now, is to give his enemies any more weapons to use against him! But the ones who are sincere may be even worse, because the realreason they want him to produce a male heir is that none of them like to think about the possibility that such a plum might fall into the hands of one of their rivals. And the third of the Council who dont want him to set Mother aside probably hope theyre the ones who will catch the plum.

Kaeritha nodded slowly, gazing into the younger womans dark green eyes. Tellian Bowmasters marriage eighteen years before to Hanatha Whitesaddle had not simply united the Bowmasters of Balthar with the Whitesaddles of Windpeak. It had also been a love match, not just a political alliance between two powerful families. That had been obvious to anyone whod ever laid eyes on them.

And if it hadnt been, the fact that Tellian had furiously rejected any suggestion that he set Hanatha aside after the riding accident which had left the baroness with one crippled leg and cost her her fertility would have made it so. But that decision on his part did carry a heavy price for their only child.

And how does the plum feel about being caught? Kaeritha asked softly.

The plum? Leeana gazed back into Kaerithas midnight-blue eyes for several silent seconds, and her voice was even softer than Kaerithas when she finally replied. The plum would sell her soul to be anywhere else in the world, she said.

The two of them looked at each other, then Leeana shook herself, bobbed a quick half-bow, and turned abruptly away. She walked down the passage with quick, hard strides, her spine pikestaff-straight, and Kaeritha watched her go. She wondered if Leeana had actually intended to reveal the true depth of her feelings. And if the girl had ever revealed them that frankly to anyone else.

She frowned in troubled thought, then shook herself and turned back to the window as fresh thunder grumbled overhead. Her heart went out to the girland to her parents, for that matterbut that wasnt what had brought her to the Wind Plain, and it was past time she got on with what had brought her here. She gazed out the window a few moments longer, inhaled one more deep breath of rain from her relatively dry perch, and then turned away and walked briskly towards the towers spiral stair.

* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *