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Chapter Eleven

So, Prince Bahzell, a youthful voice said, can I pick your brains for Fathers secrets?

Bahzell turned from where hed stood on Hill Guards curtain wall, leaning on the battlements while he stared out across the endless grasslands of the Wind Plain. The mornings 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 Plains 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 the precisely the correct adjective.

Im not thinking as how my poor brain is after being all that worth picking, Milady, he told her with a smile.

Dont 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 dont 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.

Its not so very bad a thing if those as dont much like you spend their time thinking about how much brighter than you theyre after being, he said after a moment. Ill not claim to be a genius, at the best of times, Milady. Yet for all that, it may be Im not quite the idiot my old das 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, theres plenty of those as are ready to assume any hradani, regardo boot. He gave her a slow smile. Well, Im thinking those as call my folk barbarians arent far wrong, when alls 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 youve demonstrated how smoothly you can avoid answering a simple question.

Avoid, Milady? he asked innocently. What question would that have been?

The one about Fathers secrets, she said patiently.

Ah, that question! He nodded. Well, do you know, Milady, I dont really think as how its my place to be saying aught about the Barons 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 Im thinking as how he wanted you to be using your regular sources, not bringing in new ones.

Youre 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.

Youre 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 dont let them get in the way of business.

Business, is it? Bahzell considered her thoughtfully. Im hoping you wont 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?

Its 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. Its not as if anyone is going to let me train to be a knight, even if that were what I wanted to dowhich it isnt. Im only a daughter, after all. Most people figure a daughters only job is to become someones 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 arent 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 agemost of the daughters of the nobility, I sometimes thinkseem 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 theyre intelligent, possibly evenLillinara forbid!more intelligent than the men around them, is the one certain way to guarantee that theyll never catch a husband!

She rolled her eyes, and Bahzell nodded slowly.

Aye, Ive seen the same often enough, and not just amongst your daughters of the nobility, Milady. And truth to tell, Ive always thought as how any girl foolish enough to believe that is after deserving the sort of husband shes likely to be catching. Ill not deny that, often as not, it seems as how theres a point in most young bucks lives where brains, if youll be forgiving my bluntness, arent the very first thing they look for in a girl. Then again, its always seemed to me as how theres a point in most young bucks lives when their brains arent good for so very much, so I suppose if a lass is after acting just brainless enough at just the very right moment, shes likely enough to be catching herself a husband. Like as not, though, its not the husband as shed 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. Its 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 shes after waiting for you to be solving them all. And if youd 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, Id 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 Sothoii 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 inheritanceor, my sons, rathermeans 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 Ill actually like whoever it is, life would be perfect.

It might not be so very bad as all that, Bahzell said slowly.

She looked back up at him, her eyes suddenly dark, as if with betrayal, and he shook his head quickly.

Lass, he said, abandoning the Miladies with which he was usually careful to address her, Im not after saying that just because Im after being a great, musclebound male lump of gristle whos not the least idea of what it is thats worrying you. Ill not say Ive worried the worries you have, or that Ive some magical ability to be putting myself inside your head and your life. But marriages of state arent so very unheard of amongst hradani, either. Theyre not so common as amongst your folk, no doubt, but its 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, theyre like as not to end up biting the arseah, I mean be the saying the backsideof whoever was after being stupid enough to arrange them in the first place.

Im not saying as how every arranged hradani marriage is after being all sunshine and light, because Tomanak knows as theyre not. But, then, thats after being true of marriages in general, when alls said. And Im 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 youre not wishful to be making.

I know theyll try not to, Leeana agreed after a moment. But the truth is, Prince Bahzell, that we Sothoii and you hradani look at some things very differently. And whatever Father and Mother may think, the rest of the nobilityand the Kings Councilthink of sons as heirs and daughters as trading chips. She shook her head sadly. The pressure on Father to accept someones offer for my hand is already heavy, and its going to mount steadily. The other Councilors may have different reasons for pressing him, but theyll all do it eventually, and thats going to happen sooner rather than later.

Youre right, Bahzell said after a long, thoughtful pause. Our folk are after being different. Because of the Rage, as much as anything else, Im thinking.

The Rage? What does that have to do with arranged marriages? Leeana asked.

Why, Id think that was after being plain enough, Bahzell said with a grim smile. Think it through, lass. Youre after knowing what the Rage is, what its 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 thats the reason, Im thinking, why amongst hradani, lasses choose their own lads, and brides choose their own grooms. Theyve enough to put up with living amongst men the Rage can be touching, and truth to tell, its our women whove been the backbone of what little stability we hradani have been managing to cling to since the Fall. Unlike some other folk, weve none of us ever been able to shut our eyes to how important thats after being to all of us. Ill not say our women are all of them free to live their lives any way they choose, but theyve a sight more freedom than women do amongst you Sothoii. Or amongst most of the human folk Ive 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 Ive seen, lass, Bahzell said gently, your father and mother are after thinking more like hradani than most. Theyve fashioned their own lives out of joy and pain, and theyve 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. Ill try to remember what youve said, because youre right. Father and Mother will do everything anyone in their position could possibly do to protect me from the sort of marriage Im afraid of. Of course, thats not quite the same thing as saying Ill be able to make the marriage I want, but its 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 couldntnot 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 Castles walls once more.

* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | Chapter Twelve