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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 Yaliths own emotions.

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

Theretha? Sharral shook her head. Its just Soumeta. And I checked your calendar. If she does have an appointment this morning, I didnt write it down there.

Neither did anyone else, Yalith sighed.

In that case, Sharral said grimly, Ill send her packing so fast her head will swim!

She started to turn to go, but Yaliths quick headshake stopped her.

No, the mayor said. Oh, Id love to turn you loose on her, Sharral, but I cant quite do that.

Why not? Sharral demanded.

You know perfectly well why. As big a pain in the arse as she may be, shes 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, shes only a Fifty. If you want her jerked up short for insubordination, Im 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. Theyd 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 someSharral 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 whod 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 youd 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, Id enjoy that even more than handing her over to you, Sharral, the mayor said. Id really relish watching that, as a matter of fact. But it might look just a bit extreme to turn a Five Hundredand the commander of the entire Town Guard, at thatloose 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 officersone of her junior officers, Yalith. A junior officer whos 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 cant rake Soumeta over the coals for something like that, then just exactly who can?

But thats the point, isnt it? Yaliths mouth quirked in something much too astringent to be called a smile. Soumeta isnt here just for herself, and she knows I know it. Besides, maybe shes right.

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

You dont 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.

Its not a joke, damn it, Yalith! Sharral waved both hands in frustration.

No, its 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 cant just let you or Balcartha step on hernot without giving her a little more rope, first, at the very leastwithout running the risk of further alienating the people who already think Im being too accommodating. Like Saretha and her crowd.

Sharrals lips tightened as if she wanted to dispute that. Unfortunately, she couldnt.

All right, she sighed. You winor lose, or whatever it is youre doing! Ill show her in.

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