Kaeritha left Kalatha seven days after her return from Thalar.
She hadn’t intended to stay that long, but her conversation with Leeana had suggested there might be more that needed looking into at Kalatha than she’d thought. Conducting her own discreet investigations took more time than she’d allowed for. But that was all right … it also took her longer than she’d expected to secure another opportunity to examine the original charter and land grant.
Sharral was as helpful and efficient as ever, but it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult for her to nail Lanitha down and arrange the visit to the town’s archives this time around, which seemed just a bit … odd. Although Lanitha was relatively new to her position as librarian and archivist, and more than a bit young for responsibilities of such magnitude, she’d also struck Kaeritha as attentive and determined to discharge those responsibilities to the very best of her ability. And her assistance during Kaeritha’s first visit to Kalatha had made it obvious that ability was quite high.
This time, though, Lanitha, although she made it obvious she was trying her very best, found it difficult to schedule an opportunity for Kaeritha to consult the required documents. Given their importance to the town of Kalatha itself, and to all war maids in general, Kaeritha wasn’t surprised that the young woman responsible for their security and proper care wanted to be present whenever they were consulted. If their positions had been reversed, Kaeritha would have felt exactly the same way. Not only that, but Lanitha had been a great help to her and Yalith when she first examined them. Still, she could have wished for it to take less than three days for Lanitha to clear her schedule sufficiently to allow her to offer Kaeritha the degree of personal assistance the champion of any god, and especially of the God of War and Justice, deserved. And then, on the fourth day, when Kaeritha arrived at the archives, she was surprised (although probably less so than she should have been) to discover that Lanitha had been called away by an unanticipated personal emergency. She’d left her profound apologies and promised she would be available the next day—or the day after that, at the very latest—without fail, but it had been simply impossible for her to keep her scheduled appointment.
Despite the undeniable frustration she’d felt at the delays, Kaeritha had put the time she found on her hands to efficient use. Most casual observers might have been excused for not noticing that, but Kaeritha had been a champion of Tomanak for quite a few years. And one thing champions of Tomanak learned—well, most of His champions, at any rate, Kaeritha had corrected herself with a smile—was how to conduct an unobtrusive investigation. It helped that most people expected a champion’s methods to be flashy and dramatic. As, indeed, some of the tools in Kaeritha’s arsenal were, she cheerfully admitted. But there were times when it was far better to be discreet, and this seemed to be one of them. Which was why none of the war maids of Kalatha noticed that the visiting champion of Tomanak sharing their meals, working out with them in the exercise salle, or training in weapons craft with them, managed to pick up an amazing amount of information.
Some of it was entirely open and aboveboard, and no less valuable because it was. Kaeritha’s own two-sword technique was one she had evolved almost entirely on her own. The fact that she’d been born ambidextrous helped explain why it had occurred to her, but there’d been few weapons masters (or mistresses) in the Empire of the Axe who taught a combat technique which used a primary weapon in each hand. Many of them taught sword and dagger, or sword and dirk, and even more of them taught techniques for fighting with one’s off hand, since it was always possible for one’s normal weapon hand or arm to be wounded. But all of that was quite different from fighting with matched short swords in both hands simultaneously.
Quite a few of the war maids, however, used a technique which, despite many differences in detail, was very similar over all. As it happened, Hundred Ravlahn was one of them, and Kaeritha looked forward to her opportunities to match her own skills against the Hundred’s. Ravlahn appeared to enjoy their training matches just as much as Kaeritha did, although it quickly became apparent to both of them that for all her own experience and skills, the war maid was thoroughly outclassed. But that, as Ravlahn pointed out herself, was as it ought to be when the person she was measuring her abilities against was a chosen champion of the God of War.
But in addition to adding some new wrinkles to her own combat repertoire, Kaeritha found the opportunity to spend time with Kalatha’s war maids in informal surroundings invaluable. It wasn’t so much what they said to her, as what they said to one another … or didn’t say to her when she asked carefully casual questions. Kaeritha’s natural hearing was more acute than that of most humans, although it fell far short of the sensitivity of a hradani like Bahzell. But one of her abilities as Tomanak’s champion was to “listen” to conversations she couldn’t possibly have overheard otherwise. It wasn’t like the telepathy many magi possessed, and she could only “listen” to conversations she knew about and could see with her own eyes. But it meant that even across a crowded ballroom—or a noisy training yard—she could sit in unobtrusively while other people spoke.
It was an ability she employed only sparingly, because it would have been so easy to misuse. But it was also one which was extraordinarily helpful to any investigator,
She used it to good effect during her extended stay in Kalatha, and what she heard confirmed her unhappy suspicion that Leeana hadn’t been an alarmist young woman seeing shadows where none existed. In fact, if anything, the girl had underestimated what was happening.
There was nothing overt enough that Kaeritha could have taken it to a magistrate, but the pattern was clear. There were at least three factions in Kalatha.
One was Mayor Yalith’s, which—for the moment, at least—was the most numerous and the most important and influential one. As Yalith herself, its members were angry with Trisu and determined to force him to admit his transgressions. They were gratified by the Quaysar Voice’s strong support, but they were still essentially prepared to allow the system to work. Partly because they were convinced of the rectitude of their own positions and believed that, ultimately, the courts must decide in their favor. But also because they accepted that it was incumbent upon them to prove they and their demands had been reasonable from the outset. It wasn’t because they were any less angry than anyone else, but they were only too well aware that the subjects of the Kingdom of the Sothoii were predisposed to view all war maids with disapproval. They were determined not to provide that prejudice with any fresh ammunition to use against them.
The second faction Kaeritha had identified consisted of most of the townsfolk who weren’t firmly behind their mayor. Their view of the disputes was that the mayor and her council were pushing too hard. It wasn’t that they doubted Yalith’s arguments or her judgment of the technical legalities of the situation; they simply didn’t feel the confrontation with Trisu was ultimately worth what it was likely to cost. Whatever else they might think of him, he was the most powerful noble in the vicinity, and they were going to have to deal with him—and his sons—for years to come, regardless of what any judge in a court might decide. Very few people in that faction, however, were upset enough to actively oppose Yalith. They simply didn’t support her, except with a certain disgruntled sense of civic responsibility, and there appeared to be significantly fewer of them than there were of the mayor’s strong partisans.
But it was the third faction, the one headed by Saretha Keralinfressa, which worried Kaeritha. The smallest of the three, it was also the angriest. Saretha’s position was clear and unambiguous—she was not simply furious with Trisu and those like him in Lorham but believed it was time to confront all of the war maids’ critics. Too much time had been wasted on fruitless efforts at compromise and conciliation, in her opinion, and all it had done was to encourage the continuation of the abuse of the war maids’ rights. Instead of the war maids proving that their demands were reasonable, it was time to become unreasonable, and make it clear to all of their opponents that they would no longer tolerate any infringement, however minor, of their prerogatives.
Saretha herself was in a distinct minority on the Town Council, but she was a charismatic speaker, and it was obvious that she was rapidly becoming Mayor Yalith’s strongest rival. Indeed, there were signs that she was contemplating challenging the mayor for office at the next election, although Kaeritha still judged her chances of winning were substantially less than even. Although her supporters on the council itself were vocal and intensely loyal, there weren’t many of them.
Yet the impact of her opposition to the mayor spread far beyond the council. In particular, it appeared to have aroused the fervent support of a small but determined group which consisted primarily, although not exclusively, of younger war maids and those too junior in Kalatha’s hierarchy to force their own opinions upon the Town Council. They seemed to consider Saretha their titular leader, yet they were even more vociferous and angry than she was.
The most senior of them whom Kaeritha had identified so far was a Soumeta Harlahnnafressa, and she was a mere commander of fifty, but that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t influential, and their fervor was frightening. They were the ones who were most furious with Trisu, most militant in their insistence that their rights, and those of all war maids, must be defended. They were impatient with any argument which suggested they must be cautious, or appear reasonable. It was time for someone else to be reasonable, as far as they were concerned, and in all honesty, Kaeritha found it easy to sympathize with them in that view.
But many of the conversations she overheard went beyond that. There were no more than ten or fifteen women whom Kaeritha would have considered “ringleaders.” The vast majority were no more or less than understandably outraged and angry women reacting to endless years of prejudice and bigotry. But those ten or fifteen Kaeritha had picked out clearly had an organized agenda. They weren’t simply angry; they were manipulating the anger of others and using it to subtly undermine the traditional figures of authority in the Kalathan war maid community.
That was bad enough, but Leeana had also been correct about the rest of what they were saying. Whether they were actually taking their cue directly from the Voice at Quaysar or not—and at this point, whatever her suspicions, Kaeritha had no way of knowing whether they were—they were using the Voice’s supposed statements and views to assert that Lillinara Herself supported self-centered, narcissistic life choices which appalled Kaeritha. And which she was grimly certain would be equally appalling to Lillinara. It wasn’t just the denial of responsibility, or the notion that it was morally acceptable to use someone else for one’s own advantage or pleasure. It was the fact that they justified that denial and notion at least in part on the basis that it was time the war maids “got even” for all the indignities and oppression they had ever suffered.
Kaeritha knew, from brutal personal experience, the difference between vengeance and justice, and she knew what bitter tang she tasted in the low-voiced, vitriolic conversations she listened to about her.
Unfortunately, all she had were suspicions. It was nothing she could really take to Yalith, and even if it had been, Yalith was angry enough herself that she might not have listened. Besides, there was something about the mayor’s own position that bothered Kaeritha. Yalith’s tenure as Mayor of Kalatha predated the beginnings of the current confrontation with Trisu. If, as Kaeritha had come to suspect, the original documents at Kalatha had been tampered with somehow, Yalith ought to have been aware of it. Which suggested, logically, that if something nefarious was going on in Kalatha, Yalith was a part of it. But Kaeritha didn’t think she was, and she’d done a little subtle probing of the mayor’s honesty—enough to be as certain as she could, without the same sort of examination she’d given Salthan, that Yalith honestly and sincerely believed she was in the right.
Which suggested to Kaeritha that something more than mere documents might have been tampered with in Kalatha.