Garlahna, Leeana decided, had a pronounced gift for apt description.
“Lots worse” than Erlis had made it sound was exactly how her first day had been.
The thought took almost more energy than she had as she dragged herself out of the kitchen. The sun had set over an hour ago, but she’d been up since at least an hour before dawn. And she didn’t believe she’d sat down for more than five minutes in a row all day long. Well, maybe with Lanitha. But it still didn’t feel as if she had.
Yesterday had been bad enough, but today had set a new record.
Garlahna had led Leeana about Kalatha yesterday afternoon like some sort of fresh exhibit in a freak show. Not that the older war maid had treated her like a freak or done anything but her very best to make Leeana feel welcome. Yet that hadn’t kept Leeana from realizing that it wasn’t just her imagination when she thought that other eyes watched closely. She and Garlahna had found themselves in a bubble of moving silence, surrounded by people—almost all of them women, though no more than half of them wore the chari and yathu—who watched them with almost frightening intensity.
Leeana knew where it had come from, of course. Mayor Yalith had put it into words during their interview, but she hadn’t really needed the mayor to do so. Of course her very presence here in Kalatha had to be seen as a threat. She might be certain that the parents and family she’d fled wouldn’t hold her actions against the war maids in general or Kalatha in particular, but there was no way the other inhabitants of Kalatha could share her assurance. They had to be wondering how her choice to come here would affect Baron Tellian’s decisions if it finally came to a showdown between them and one of his vassals. And at least some of them had to be wondering what could possibly have possessed the daughter of the man who was arguably the most powerful noble of the entire Kingdom to flee to join them. Why would she have given up the wealth, the prestige? The power of a father whose rank would have protected her from the things which had driven them into flight? What had he done to her to make her flee from him? What could have made her hate him that much?
She’d wanted to turn around and scream at them. To tell them they were wrong to worry about her father’s reaction and fools to believe for one instant that he’d ever hurt her. To shout that she’d run away from Hill Guard not because she hated her parents, but because she loved them so much. But that would only have made things worse—or convinced them she was insane. And so, like Garlahna, she’d pretended not to notice the way they stared or their whispered speculations.
She doubted that she’d fooled very many of them.
She certainly hadn’t fooled Garlahna. Her mentor had never commented directly upon the watching eyes, but she’d taken the opportunity to raise her voice in conversation with Leeana from time to time and “let slip” a few, pithy observations about small-minded, small-town gossip-mongers and people with nothing better to do with their time than make idiots out of themselves by gawking at other perfectly ordinary people or events. At least some of the watchers had taken Garlahna’s none-too-subtle hints and gone off to find other things to do. Most of them hadn’t, but Leeana had appreciated the other young woman’s efforts.
Their first stop had been Administration, located in the Town Hall, on the opposite side of the building from Mayor Yalith’s office. Leeana had been a bit surprised by the quiet, orderly efficiency of the office. She shouldn’t have been, she told herself, but it appeared that, despite herself, she’d absorbed more of the traditional prejudice against the war maids on a subconscious level than she’d thought. The sight of the orderly rows of filing cabinets, each drawer neatly tabbed and filled with folders or note cards, had astounded her.
Baron Tellian was one of the most progressive members of the Sothoii nobility, and he had only begun the transition from the old, cumbersome scrolls on which all important documents had “traditionally” been stored. It was an awkward proposition for him, given how many of his riding’s original documents were on those same old-fashioned scrolls, but he was determined to change over as much of his record-keeping and administration as possible. The original idea had come from the Empire of the Axe, like so many administrative reforms, but he’d recognized its manifold advantages as soon as he saw them.
Yet Kalatha must have completed the same process he was only just beginning at least several years ago. Leeana had never expected that. On the other hand, she’d reminded herself, Kalatha had many fewer records and carried far less of an administrative burden than her father’s responsibilities entailed. No doubt it had been enormously easier for such a small town, with such a minuscule jurisdiction, to make the transition.
She’d been just a bit shocked at how spitefully she’d told herself that. The strength of her need to “defend” her father by denigrating anyone who’d accomplished a similar task sooner than he had astonished her. It had also made her feel more than a little bit ashamed of herself , but she’d managed to shake that emotion off by the time Garlahna hauled her in front of Dalthys Hallafressa, the Town Administrator.
“No, not the Mayor,” Dalthys had informed her gruffly. Leeana had blinked, surprised by the Administrator’s response to the question she hadn’t asked. Dalthys, a heavyset woman in her late thirties or early forties, with graying brown hair, had given her a weary yet somehow conspiratorial smile.
“Mayor Yalith has the honor and dubious pleasure of governing Kalatha,” Dalthys explained. “I only run it. You might think of it as if she were, oh, a baron, say, and I were her seneschal.” Her brown eyes had glinted with amusement at Leeana’s expression. “Put another way, she has to take all the political headaches, and I get to get on with the everyday business of executing policy. Does that make sense?”
“Uh, yes—yes, Ma’am, it does.”
“No need for ’ma’ams,’ my girl,” Dalthys had told her with a slight frown. “We don’t talk to each other that way, and we don’t bow and scrape, either. Job titles or given names—or military ranks, for the Guard—work just fine for any war maid,” she’d half-growled.
“Yes, Ma—” Leeana had blushed, but she’d also managed to stop herself in time, and Dalthys had snorted.
“Not trying to bite your head off, Leeana,” she’d said more gently. “As a matter of fact, the fact that you—” meaning, Leeana had realized, “someone from your background,” although Dalthys had been too tactful to put it into so many words “—feel that we incorrigible war maids deserve to be addressed courteously just indicates that you were well brought up. But it’s best to get into the proper habits of thought from the outset, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Administrator Dalthys.”
“Good! I can always spot the smart ones. They’re the ones who agree with me!” Dalthys had chuckled, and Leeana had smiled at her.
“All right, all right,” Dalthys had said then, opening a huge ledger and frowning at the pages. “We need to find you a room.”
“Excuse me, Dalthys,” Garlahna had said.
“Yes?” Dalthys had looked up, over the top edge of the ledger, to fix Garlahna with her sharp eyes.
“At least for now, Erlis would like Leeana to room near me. I’m her assigned mentor, and since she’s here on a probationary basis, well—”
She’d shrugged, and Dalthys had nodded, slowly at first, then more rapidly.
“That makes sense,” she’d agreed, and looked back down at her ledger, flipping pages. Then she’d stopped and studied a column of entries. “I have one room—it’s technically a double, but there’s no one else assigned to it right now—three doors down the hall from yours, Garlahna,” she’d said after a moment. “Is that close enough?”
“That will be fine!” Garlahna had agreed, and Dalthys had looked back at Leeana.
“Most of the people in Kalatha own their own homes, or rent, just like in any other town,” she’d explained, “but any war maid is entitled under the charter to one full year of free housing and meals when she first joins us. For someone like you, Leeana, who has to serve a probationary period first, that’s extended to a year and a half. And we also try to look after our own people if they find themselves unable to pay their own way through no fault of their own, of course.” She’d shrugged. “At any rate, the town owns several dormitories where that free housing is provided. In addition, we rent rooms in the dormitories at what I like to think are very reasonable rates for war maids who’ve used up their free months. That’s what Garlahna’s been doing for several years now.”
Leeana had nodded her thanks for the explanation, and Dalthys had chuckled.
“Don’t get to feeling too grateful for your room till you see it,” the administrator advised her. “It’s adequate, but not all that huge. Although, now that I think about it, the fact that we’re giving you a double with no roommate will tend to offset that somewhat. But however ’free’ it may technically be, I assure you that you’ll do more than enough work to compensate us for our generosity.”
“I understand … Dalthys,” Leeana had said with a wry smile.
“Well,” Dalthys had said with a slow smile, “if you don’t now, you will after your first night working in the dining hall!”
She’d chuckled again, then found the key to Leeana’s new room and shooed both young women out of her office.
The next stop had been Housekeeping.
Ermath Balcarafressa, who held the title of Housekeeper, was like no “housekeeper” Leeana had ever met. Leeana rather doubted that Ermath had done any manual labor in years, because hers was an administrative title, like Dalthys’. “Housekeeping” was apparently one of Kalatha’s larger municipal divisions, with responsibility for a wide range of maintenance, cleaning, and service duties—including the dining hall.
It had been apparent that Ermath discharged her duties efficiently, but Leeana had been unable to warm to her as she had to Dalthys. Physically, Ermath was the antithesis of the Town Administrator in many ways. She was much older, with hair so white it was probably painful to the eye in direct sunlight, and thin as a rail. She was also sharp featured, and had a tongue to match, with little of Dalthys’ lurking humor.
“So, you’re the one,” she’d said as soon as Garlahna delivered Leeana to her office.
Leeana had obviously looked more taken aback then she’d meant to, and Ermath had laughed. It sounded more like a cackle than a laugh, especially compared to Dalthys’ warm chuckle.
“The one all the fuss is over, girl!” the Housekeeper had told her. “Lillinara! There hasn’t been this much excitement over a new candidate in— Well, in as long as I can remember!” She’d cackled again. “This’ ll hit that bastard Trisu right where he lives. Don’t you think for a minute it won’t!”
Leeana hadn’t had any notion of how to react, so she’d watched Garlahna from the corner of her eye and taken her cue from her mentor’s lack of expression. Since she was the one actually talking to Ermath (or, at least, being talked to by Ermath), she’d settled for noddingpleasantly and saying as little as a she possibly could in response to the Housekeeper’s comments and questions. It hadn’t actually taken very long, but it had seemed much longer, before they got out of Ermath’s office with the required vouchers for bed linens, towels, washcloths, and the one year’s worth of clothing the charter required the town to provide to any new war maid.
At least Leeana had grown up accustomed to being measured, poked, and prodded by dressmakers and seamstresses. That had helped at their next stop, when Garlahna delivered her into the hands Johlana Ermathfressa.
Johlana’s face would have made it obvious she was the Housekeeper’s daughter even without her war maid matronym. But she was no more than half her mother’s age, and the bright, humorous intelligence behind her eyes softened her sharp features remarkably. Leeana had been grateful for the difference between mother and daughter as Johlana discussed her wardrobe needs with a cheerfully earthy pragmatism that carried over into things like monthly cycle choices, and from there to homilies about sex, contraceptive techniques, and young women away from watchful families for the first time, even as she measured busily away. She’d seemed mightily amused by Leeana’s obvious reservations about the chari and yathu she was expected to wear, but she’d also taken pity upon her.
“Oh, for Lillinara’s sake—you won’t be expected to wear them all the time, Leeana!” she’d scolded. “I know. I know! Scandalous—simply scandalous!—until you get used to them. But you’ll find they’re more practical than you might think just yet. And, when you’re not ’in uniform’ for physical training or some sort of heavy labor, you can wear whatever you want. In fact, we’ll actually provide you with a couple of pairs of trousers and shirts or smocks in the colors you’d prefer. And once you find a way to earn a kormak here or there—and all of our girls do that eventually, don’t they, Garlahna?—you can spend them on whatever you want. Including something nice to wear. We may be war maids, but we’re still females, too. Trust me, there’s always a market for pretties of one sort or another here in Kalatha!”
Garlahna had nodded in enthusiastic agreement, and Leeana had smiled. Then Johlana had gathered up her jotted-down notes on Leeana’s measurements and needs.
“You’re a tall thing,” she’d observed. “Good thing charis and yathus are fairly easy to fit!” She’d shaken her head. “The biggest problem’s going to be lacing a yathu tight enough until you fill out, girl! At least holding the chari up won’t be a problem. Good breeders run in your family?”
Leeana had turned an interesting shade of red—again—at about that point, and Johlana had laughed.
“Don’t pay me any attention, Leeana—no one else does, that’s for sure! Just run along now. I’ll have something for you to face Erlis in tomorrow morning.”
She’d made waving motions with both hands, and Garlahna and Leeana had made a hasty escape.
Leeana had been astonished as they emerged from Johlana’s office to discover that the sun had already set. But her surprise had faded quickly as she realized just how tired she was. She and Kaeritha had ridden hard all morning to reach Kalatha, and she hadn’t really stopped moving from the moment she dismounted here. None of which even considered the sheer emotional stress of all she’d been through in the last twelve hours or so. “Worn out” was a pale way to describe her physical condition, and she’d wanted to weep in sheer exhaustion as she realized she and Garlahna still had to drag her bed linens to her assigned room and make up her bed before she could tumble into it.
She’d concluded later that Garlahna had known exactly how she felt, but her mentor had allowed no sign of that awareness to color her voice or her manner. She’d moved briskly along, simply assuming that Leeana would keep trotting along at her side, and because Garlahna had assumed that, Leeana had discovered she had no choice but to meet her mentor’s expectations.
Somehow, she’d managed—with a lot more help from Garlahna than she suspected a “mentor” was supposed to provide—to get her room more or less ready for occupancy. But then Garlahna had refused to allow her to collapse across the thin, hard mattress of the narrowest bed she had ever contemplated sleeping in. Instead, she’d marched a staggeringly tired Leeana to the meal hall, sat her down on one of the benches, and bullied one of the kitchen workers into providing a huge bowl of thick, delicious vegetable soup despite the lateness of the hour. Leeana had never tasted anything so wonderful in her entire life … she only wished she’d been awake enough to remember it later.
Things hadn’t gotten any better the next morning.
Garlahna turned out to be one of those disgusting people who were bright and cheerful the instant they got out of bed. Leeana had nothing against mornings, but she usually preferred to at least let the sun get up before she did. Garlahna, however, had rousted her out of bed over an hour before sunrise—and not with the welcoming cup of hot chocolate Marthya would have brought her—and helped her into the new garments one of Johlana’s minions had deposited outside Leeana’s door during the night.
There was quite a difference, Leeana had discovered, between seeing the chari and yathu on someone else, or even worrying about how they would feel on her, and actually finding herself dressed—if that wasn’t too strong a verb—in them for the first time. She’d been certain she was about to fall right back out of them! And despite the fact that she was far less bountifully provided for by nature then Garlahna, she’d been appalled by the amount of cleavage that showed once the yathu was laced snugly—very snugly—into place. If its designed function was to support her bosom during physical exertion, it was admirably fitted to the job, she’d decided. In fact, she’d rather thought that one of her father’s steel breastplates had to have more flex to it. She wasn’t quite certain how something could be simultaneously so confining and so humiliatingly revealing, but the yathu had managed just fine.
Not that the chari had been any better! The amount of leg it showed was bad enough, and she’d made a firm mental note to be very careful how she sat down in it. But she hadn’t realized quite how low on the hips it sat, either, and the notion of displaying her navel for the entire world to see had not been a comfortable fit for the girl who had been the daughter of the Baron of Balthar. As for how her mother would have reacted to the sight—!
And it had been cold! The least they could have done was to provide her with shoes, she’d thought plaintively as Garlahna urged her out into the windy predawn darkness. She’d shivered convulsively as the chill breeze nipped at all that conveniently exposed skin, but that had been little more than a minor inconvenience compared to the wet, muddy, occasionally gravel-strewn ground under her bare feet.
“My feet are freezing!” she’d whispered to Garlahna.
“Hah! Only your feet?” Garlahna had laughed. “Sweetheart, I came to Kalatha in early winter. I froze my sweet young arse off—not to mention something a bit higher!”
“You would have to mention that!” Leeana had groaned, reaching down to tug uselessly at her chari’s hem as another cold breeze blew up it. She was accustomed to long skirts or trousers, and the predawn wind’s chilly kisses on places it had no business kissing made her wish desperately that she was wearing them now.
“Oh, stop whining!” Garlahna’s cheerful snort had robbed the words of any offense. “I bet you don’t even have icicles down there yet!”
“No, but they’re forming nicely. And why can’t I even wear shoes?” Leeana had moaned, too miserable, for the moment at least, to remember her aristocratic pride.
“Anything that doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger,” Garlahna had replied with an oddly sympathetic chuckle. “That’s what they told me, anyway! And even if it weren’t true, it’s a matter of tradition.” She’d shrugged. “Personally, I always figured it was just our way of proving how much tougher than mere men we are.”
“I’d rather have warm feet and let them sneer at me for being weak,” Leeana had muttered back.
“Hush!” Garlahna had said, and Leeana had looked up to discover that they had just joined at least forty or fifty other war maids.
At first, she’d assumed that mandatory morning calisthenics for everyone must be part of the same bizarre, self-mortifying philosophy which had denied her shoes. She certainly couldn’t think of any other reason for so many women, of all ages—she even saw Dalthys and Johlana among them—to be standing around semi-naked and barefooted in the icy predawn wind! It had taken her several shivering minutes of listening to scraps of other conversations to discover that most of them had chosen to be there. That they actually enjoyed these “brisk” morning workouts together.
At that moment, Leeana had begun to seriously consider the possibility that all of those who insisted any woman had to be mad to choose to be a war maid were right.
Unfortunately, unlike the lunatics who’d been there voluntarily, Leeana had had no choice. Nor, she’d discovered, had Garlahna. It didn’t seem to bother the other young woman particularly, but as Leeana’s “mentor,” she was expected to lead by example. Leeana suspected that it would have bothered her a great deal, if their roles had been reversed.
She’d still been standing there, shivering as she looked woebegonely about herself in the gray half-light, when Erlis and another, younger, war maid with chestnut hair had come bounding energetically up. Erlis had a whistle, which she had immediately begun to blow with revolting vigor, and thus had begun what was quite possibly the most hideous single morning of Leeana Hanathafressa’s life.
Leeana had always been an active girl. She’d ridden virtually every day of her life, from the time she could walk. She’d been an energetic hiker, and she and her maids had enjoyed swimming—at least when it was warm enough for the water not to turn them blue the instant they jumped into it. But she’d never been particularly interested in exercise for exercise’s own sake. For her, physical exertion had been a way to get from one point to another, or a secondary cost of doing something that she enjoyed.
Erlis obviously came from a completely different tradition. It had been the first time Leeana had ever encountered a carefully planned exercise regimen, and she’d hated it. And not just because she’d been cold, miserable, and hungry, either. Leeana was accustomed to being good at what she did. She most emphatically was not accustomed to being clumsy or inept, and she’d felt both of those things as she attempted to emulate the war maids around her.
It had lasted for a seeming eternity, but that had turned out to be just long enough to prepare her for an even more humiliating experience. At least the physical exertion had warmed her up, and it had also loosened up her muscles. Which was fortunate, since Erlis and the chestnut-haired woman, who turned out to be Ravlahn Thregafressa, had descended upon her for the promised “evaluation of her general physical skills.”
By the time their exam—finally—came to a close, Leeana had concluded that she had no “general physical skills.” She’d done her best, and at least her examiners had maintained grave, nonjudgmental facades as she strove to meet their demands. But it had been evident to her that her life as an indolent aristocrat had left her woefully underequipped with the physical skills a war maid required. The only area in which she’d felt she’d performed with something approaching adequacy had been the sprints they required of her. She supposed that she’d done at least semi-adequately in the longer runs, as well, but that was about the best she could say.
At least they’d released her in the end and allowed her to stagger off under Garlahna’s guidance, limping on her bruised-feeling, bare feet, to the mess hall for breakfast. Back home in Balthar, Leeana had normally made do with hot chocolate or tea, a croissant or two, butter, some honey, perhaps, and a few pieces of fruit, when it was in season. But here in Kalatha, she’d found herself devouring a third huge bowl of honey-laced porridge, and then wondering where she could find just a little bit more of it for dessert. To her amazement, she’d actually felt almost human again when she finished.
Her relief had been brief, however. They’d given her a half-hour, or so, for breakfast to settle, and then Garlahna—that traitor she’d thought was becoming her friend—had borne her off to face Hundred Ravlahn in the training salle. The only real blessing had been that there’d been no one there besides Garlahna and Ravlahn to witness her fresh inadequacy.
It hadn’t really been her fault, and she’d known it. She’d never been trained with a bow, although she was an excellent shot with the light crossbows with which Sothoii noblewomen hunted birds and small game. And however radical Tellian Bowmaster might have been, it would never have crossed his mind to have his daughter trained in swordsmanship, or in the most effective way to open someone’s belly with a dagger. Nor, for that matter, had it ever occurred to him to teach his only child the finer points of using a garrotte, or throwing a knife or throwing stars.
Her abilities when it came to hand-to-hand combat without weapons had been even more rudimentary—not to say laughable—than her clumsy efforts with the various wooden training weapons with which Ravlahn had provided her. The one thing Leeana had been able to say with a certain forlorn pride at the end of two and a half grueling hours, was that she’d never stopped trying. Her efforts might simply have served to demonstrate that she was about as dangerous to another human being as a newborn kitten, but at least she’d tried. And, she thought miserably, she’d ended up with the bruises, the bloody nose, and the split lip to prove it, too.
She’d hobbled off to the mess hall, still under Garlahna’s escort, in time for lunch. Which, she’d discovered, she’d needed at least as badly as she had breakfast. She’d ravened her way through three heaping servings of buttered potatoes, baked beans, and fried chicken and been wondering wistfully if she quite dared to ask for a fourth helping of the potatoes, when a youngish-looking woman in a neat gray gown came over to her and Garlahna.
“Yes?” Leeana had looked up from her mostly empty plate suspiciously, her spoon still clutched in her hand, and something about her expression had made the other woman smile.
“I’m Lanitha,” she’d said.
“Oh.” Leeana had lowered her spoon. “The archivist?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Lanitha had agreed. “Personally, I prefer ’librarian,’ but I suppose my duties do make archivist a better fit, these days.” She’d grimaced. “I’m also, however, the principal of our town school here in Kalatha.”
“Oh,” Leeana had said in a tone she’d belatedly realized might have been described as less than wildly enthusiastic.
“I see you’ve been having an … interesting day,” Lanitha had observed, her voice wavering oddly while she tried not to smile. “I’ll try not to make things any more difficult for you than I have to. But I do need to get some feel for your scholastic abilities.”
Leeana had hovered on the brink of asking her why, but she’d suppressed the question in time. She’d had no doubt she would discover the answer, probably sooner than she wanted to.
“If you’re finished eating,” Lanitha had continued in a tone which, for all its politeness, had informed Leeana that she was finished eating, “why don’t you—and Garlahna, of course—come along with me? This shouldn’t take more than two or three hours.”
“Of course,” Leeana had replied, with only a trace of glumness. Then she’d put her spoon down, given it a regretful pat, and followed Lanitha out of the mess hall.