“Is that crate about ready, Leeana?”
“Almost, Theretha!” Leeana called back up the stair. She finished wrapping the last piece of glassware in its protective braided straw and slipped it into the proper pigeonhole in the crate’s top tray. Then she scooped up an armful of loose straw and sifted it down over the tray, making certain that every piece was packed snugly into place yet padded and cushioned against unexpected impacts.
The straw caught on her fingers, and she grimaced with wry humor as she looked down at them. Her hands were as slender as they had always been, with the same long, aristocratic fingers, but now they were work-roughened, nicked, and chapped, as well. They were also bruised, she noted, and two of her fingernails had been gnawed back to the quick after she broke them practicing unarmed combat against Garlahna under Ravlahn’s supervision. And they’d developed a nicely growing crop of calluses from mucking out stalls and sweeping up in the municipal stables.
She patted the last of the straw down into a smooth layer, then laid the top slats of the crate across the frame and reached for the tack hammer. Quick, crisp strokes tacked each slat neatly into place, and she set the hammer back down, dipped the paintbrush into the pot of paint, and inscribed the crate’s number from the bill of lading on both side panels.
“It’s done, Theretha!” she called, stepping to the foot of the stair and looking up it.
“Oh, good!” Theretha replied as she appeared at the head of the stair, smiling down at her helper. “I don’t know how I would have gotten this shipment packed in time without you,” she continued gratefully, and Leeana grinned.
“Be sure you remember my efficiency the next time you need an assistant!” she said cheerfully.
“Oh, I will—I will!” Theretha assured her. The glassblower came down the stair into her shop’s basement and patted the final crate of the consignment with a proprietary air.
“Good! I can use the money.”
“Can’t we all?” Theretha grimaced humorously, and Leeana laughed. She liked Theretha, and it had been an unanticipated surprise to discover her mother’s favorite glassblower lived and worked here in Kalatha. The fact that she’d recognized Theretha’s work when she saw it in the shop’s display window had emboldened her to answer the other war maid’s advertisement when she saw it posted on the Town Hall notice board.
It had worked out quite well, she thought with a certain satisfaction. Recognition of Theretha’s work had made her feel as if the shop were somehow connected with the home she’d left behind forever. She treasured that feeling. But perhaps even more importantly, it was what had given her the confidence to approach someone else in search of work for the first time in her entire life.
Theretha was about as little like Leeana’s pre-Kalatha vision of a war maid as it was possible to be. She was shy—though not at all timid, a distinction it had taken Leeana a day or two to recognize—and very much on the retiring side, except where her art and her shop were concerned. She was petite, and Leeana doubted Theretha had reported for a single morning’s calisthenics since the day she thankfully finished her required physical training period and escaped the mandatory workouts. She wore a pair of wire-framed glasses for close work, and her favorite article of clothing was a burn-spotted smock improbably decorated with butterflies embroidered in blue, red, and gold. She appeared to have no special passions, aside from her obvious love for glass and the somehow fanatical absentmindedness which seemed to take possession of her the instant she touched her glassblower’s pipe. On first acquaintance, she seemed like the sort of person who would always have a mousehole to hide in and would probably spend every night curled up in bed with a book.
Despite that, Theretha was one of the most popular citizens of Kalatha. She seemed to know literally everyone, and everyone who knew her, liked her. She was perpetually helpful, unassuming, yet cheerful, and something about her made everyone want to look after her. It was almost like some protective coloration or natural defense mechanism, although it clearly wasn’t anything Theretha did. It was simply who she was. Even Leeana, who was certainly the newest war maid in town and at least ten years younger than Theretha, to boot, felt the protective urge which made Theretha a sort of surrogate kid sister for everyone.
There was nothing childlike about Theretha when it came to business, however, and she was an exacting taskmistress. She’d already been through three part-time workers before Leeana walked through her shop door, and none of them had been satisfactory. Which had been fortunate for Leeana … who had been. After the first afternoon, Theretha had agreed to pay her on a piece basis, rather than an hourly one, despite the glassblower’s initial fear that haste would increase breakage. It hadn’t, and Leeana had discovered that if she really concentrated, she could earn half again as much in the same period of time—or earn the same amount and still get to her scheduled class with Hundred Ravlahn on time.
Which, she reminded herself as the Town Hall clock struck the hour, was not a minor consideration.
“I’ve got to run, Theretha!” she said. “I’m going to the late for Hundred Ravlahn. Can I pick up my pay tomorrow morning? I’ve got to pay the stable master for next week.”
“Of course you can,” Theretha assured her. “And, trust me, you don’t want to be late for Ravlahn.” She rolled her eyes. “So scoot!”
“On my way!” Leeana assured her, and darted out of the shop door.
“Hi, Leeana!” a voice called as she went bounding down the pedestrian walkway beside the town’s main street. “We’re all going over to the Green Maiden after dinner, and we—”
“No time, Besthrya,” Leeana called back over her shoulder, never slowing her pace. “Sorry! And I’m going to be mucking out stalls again after dinner!” She made a face, waved, and disappeared around the corner.
She kept running, and it occurred to her that the last week had made some major changes in her life. Garlahna had been her lifeline for the first day or so, and Leeana had clung to her desperately … whenever she wasn’t collapsed in bed trying to catch up on that half-mythic thing called “sleep.” But rather to her own surprise, she’d found herself adjusting to her new life with remarkable speed. Or perhaps it wasn’t so remarkable. She’d never had the opportunity to watch any other war maids adapting to the same changes, but Hundred Erlis and her assistants—like Hundred Ravlahn—must have taken scores or hundreds of war maid candidates through the same process over the years. Their confident, competent briskness was immensely reassuring, despite their demanding expectations. And after the first day or so, Leeana had realized that, unlike her, they knew exactly what they were doing. Which meant all she had to do was whatever they told her to.
So she had, and in the process, she’d discovered she truly did have at least some aptitude for the physical training they subjected her to. That had come as a pronounced surprise for her, and she’d been just a bit piqued by the fact that it hadn’t seemed to surprise them. She supposed she ought to take that as a compliment, but the occasional pigeon-eating-cat looks she surprised on their faces made it a bit difficult.
They’d started rather gently with her (though it certainly hadn’t seemed that way to her at the time!), but they’d also designed a program whose rigor mounted steadily. Leeana had too little experience with deliberate physical conditioning to realize just how grueling a pace they were actually setting for her, however. No one had ever told her she should be collapsing in exhaustion or whimpering that they were pushing her too hard, and so she’d simply buckled down to the challenge of meeting their expectations and discovered she was actually having fun, in an exhausting sort of way. She was even beginning to make some progress in her combat training, although she was still considerably short of the tyro level. At least she was learning to trust her ability to move, and Ravlahn and Garlahna had gotten her past the “Oh, I couldn’t possibly hit anyone!” stage.
Of course, she grinned at the thought, her tongue gently probing at a loosened tooth, until my guard gets a lot better, I’m not the one who’s going to be doing most of the hitting!
At that, though, she was doing far better in physical training than she was when it came to her kitchen skills. She was perpetually nicking herself peeling potatoes, cutting up onions, or chopping carrots. It had gotten to the point that she’d acquired the nickname “Leeana Bloody Finger” and one or two of the permanent kitchen staff had taken to referring to tomato-based soups as “Leeana juice.” Personally, Leeana hadn’t found either witticism all that hilarious (despite a certain amusement at the unintended echo of Prince Bahzell’s cognomen), but she treasured them anyway. Especially the night one of Kalatha’s resident bards, Filkhata Yanakfressa, had unveiled “The Lay of Leeana Bloody Finger” to near-universal gales of laughter. It was a sign that she was finding true acceptance as who she’d become, unshadowed by who she once had been.
Now if there’d only been about five more hours in a day! What with her morning calisthenics, two sessions a day with Ravlahn, an hour or so as an assistant teacher with Lanitha, and the daily work crew assignments—usually, but not always, in the stable (because of Boots) and the kitchen—required of any new war maid in return for the free housing the town furnished to her, it was all but impossible to find the time to care for Boots.
At least the stable’s attached paddocks were large enough for the gelding to get some self-provided exercise trotting around and exploring or playing follow-the-leader with other horses. But while that might have been sufficient for a sedentary horse, or one who’d been retired, it certainly wasn’t sufficient for Boots! He needed regular workouts if he was going to stay healthy, and somehow she had to find time to at least work him regularly on a lunging line. Taking him out for a brisk ride was even better, of course, but it also ate much more deeply into her time. Given that she had to personally muck out his stall, in addition to grooming, feeding, watering, and exercising him, time was not something of which she had a surplus. Especially not when she factored in the need to do enough odd jobs to earn the money she needed to pay the portion of his stabling fees not covered by her work as one of the stable master’s part-time grooms.
Money wasn’t something Lady Leeana Bowmaster had ever worried about particularly, but it had become a matter of rather burning urgency to Leeana Hanathafressa.
Fortunately, Leeana had discovered one area in which she could save some of the time she needed so badly elsewhere. It wasn’t as if she really needed more than five hours of sleep a night, after all.
She turned another corner and picked up her pace a bit more as she saw the weapons salle before her. Garlahna was waiting on the wooden porch, and she looked up and waved as Leeana pounded down the last dozen yards or so and dashed up the steps to the porch.
“Running late, girl!” Garlahna observed, and Leeana stuck out her tongue at her mentor. “Go ahead,” Garlahna shrugged. “Make faces at me. But I’ll bet you Ravlahn works you a bit harder than usual for it!”
“Hah!” Leeana snorted, passing her friend at a dead run. “That’s an empty threat if I ever heard one—she can’t work me any harder than she’s already doing!”
“Oh, can’t I?” another voice inquired, and Leeana skidded to a halt with an almost comical expression of dismay as Ravlahn Thregafressa smiled at her. The assistant training mistress stood just inside the salle door, hands propped on her hips, and Leeana managed to give her a smile that was only slightly sickly.
“Uh, I hope you aren’t going to take any silly jokes I may have made to Garlahna seriously?” she said.
“Oh, of course not,” Ravlahn agreed with a broad, toothy smile, and waved Leeana courteously past her into the salle.