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Dear gods, Leeana groaned to Garlahna as she dragged herself into the welcoming steam of the training salles attached baths. Remind me to never, ever say anything Ravlahn could take as a challenge again!

She did seem just a tad inspired, Garlahna agreed with a chuckle. She stopped Leeana by one of the big, communal tubs and began helping to unlace her yathu. Leeana sagged bonelessly, leaning gratefully back against the raised, masonry lip of the poollike tub.

Yes, she did, someone else observed, and Leeana turned to look at the speaker. It was a war maid shed seen once or twice before, but hadnt actually been introduced to. The other woman was probably a few years older than Ravlahn, with short blond hair. She was soaking in the slightly cooler tub beside the one Leeana was leaning against, and it was obvious from her hard-trained muscles and scarsmost of them small, but including one or two which were fairly spectacularthat she was one of the true war maids.

Soumeta Harlahnnafressa, the other woman introduced herself with a lazy smile, then raised one arm from the water to wave a dripping hand at the other two womenboth somewhere between her own age and Leeanaswho shared the tub with her. Tharnha Garhlanfressa, Soumeta said, indicating the dark-haired, dark-complected woman to her right, and Eramis Yohlahnafressa.

Eramis complexion was as fair as Tharnhas was dark, and the long hair, temporarily done up in a knot atop her head, was a platinum blond so pale it was almost white. All things considered, Soumeta and her companions made a striking trio, Leeana thought.

LeeanaLeeana Hanathafressa, she said, politely introducing herself in return. It still took her a moment or two to remember to use her matronym, and she felt her face go just a little pink over the embarrassing hesitation.

I know, Soumeta said with a smile. Everyone in Kalathas been talking about you ever since you arrived, you know.

Oh. Leeana felt her blush darken. She half-turned away from the other woman and busied herself peeling out of the rest of her clothing. Shed spent enough time undressed in front of maids and seamstresses and in Hill Guards womens baths not to be particularly bothered by her nudity under normal circumstances. At the moment, however, she felt sufficiently embarrassed by Soumetas comment to climb into the water more quickly than usual.

And, of course, the water is hotter than usual, she thought, trying not to squeal and leap back out as the stinging tide enveloped her. She managed to settle down almost normally, up to her neck in steaming water, and after the first second or two, the liquid heat began its magic and started sucking the aches and pains out of her muscles.

Garlahna joined her a moment later, considerably more cautiously.

I did notice that theyve built the fire under the water heater a bit higher than usual today, Soumeta commented to no one in particular. Leeana darted a look at her, and then found herself forced to chuckle at the older womans knowing expression.

Yes, they have, she confirmed feelingly, and Soumeta smiled at her.

Actually, Leeana continued in a more normal voice, its probably a good thing they did. I can use the extra heat after the way Hundred Ravlahn just spent the last decade or so chasing me around the salle. And beating me senseless whenever she caught up with me!

Oh, I think you may be being a bit too hard on yourself, Soumeta replied. Leeana blinked at her in surprise, and Soumeta laughed. Im not saying youre ready to go out and begin slaying brigandsnot by a long chalk! But Ive seen quite a few new girls do a lot worse than you were doing out there today.

Like me, for example, Eramis agreed with something like a cross between a giggle and a chuckle. She shook her head. It took me weeks to get to the point of actually swinging back at Erlisshe was still doing all of the training herself, one arm or not, when I arrived. At least you were trying, Leeana!

And she actually got through Ravlahns guardonce, anyway, Garlahna pointed out.

I noticed, Soumeta agreed with a nod.

Oh, she just let me do that! Leeana protested, turning pink all over again. And, she thought, looking down at her half-submerged breasts, I really am pink all over. Wonderful.

The Hundred doesnt just let people get a pop in past her guard, Soumeta told her. I wont say you didnt have the element of surprise on your side, but youre quick, Leeana. Very quick. She considered the younger woman appraisingly. I think you could work out very well in the Guard after youve completed your probationary period.

Leeana looked up, certain Soumeta was teasing. But the older war maids expression was completely serious.

Oh, I dont think Leeana began, then stopped herself, suddenly aware that she didnt have any idea what she wanted to say.

The last thing shed ever wanted to be was some sort of female warrior. Not out of any sort of physical fear, but because it had simply never occurred to her that she might. And, she added honestly, because the fact was that the thought of hurting other people frightened her much more than the thought of being hurt herself. Nor did she cherish many illusions about the glory of combat. She was the daughter and granddaughter of warriorsheir of a tradition of women whod sent generation after generation of husbands and sons off to war and all too often never gotten them home again. The notion of charging into battle held very little allure for Leeana Hanathafressa.

Yet the truth was that shed discovered she was one of those cheerful lunatics who actually enjoyed physical exercise. Not only that, but she found a strange, obscure, but solid enjoyment in the challenge of Hundred Ravlahns instruction. They were working almost entirely without weapons at the moment, but shed also discovered that she was looking forward to the day that that changed.

And, she thought, there really are some things important enough to fight for. Glory might not be one of them, but that doesnt mean they dont exist.

Well, its not as if you have to make up your mind tomorrow, Soumeta pointed out. For that matter, its not as if Five Hundred Ermath was going to invite you to take over her duties next week!

Im sure shell wait at least, oh, a month or two, Tharnha agreed with a laugh, and Leeana had to grin back.

But aside from your physical training, Soumeta continued, how are you settling in, Leeana?

Better than I expected, Leeana admitted.

It must have been hard, coming from your family, Tharnha murmured,

I imagine its hard coming from any family, Leeana said, and kicked herself mentally as she heard the edge of chill which had crept into her voice.

Tharnha isnt exactly the most tactful person in the world, Soumeta observed with a grin, and gave the dark-haired war maid a friendly clout on the back of her head. Then the blonde looked back at Leeana. Still, she didnt say anything the rest of us havent thought, I suppose. In fact, were all wondering about why you came and whether or not youre glad you did. She cocked her head, gazing thoughtfully at Leeana. You have to admit, Leeanawe dont exactly see the heir of a baron wandering around in a chari and yathu every day!

Well, no. I guess not, Leeana said, then shrugged and looked at Tharnha. Im sorry if I sounded offended or something, Tharnha. Its just sort of a sore point with me.

Where we came from and why is a sore point for a lot of us, Tharnha agreed. And I should have kept my big mouth shut about it.

Well, yes, Eramis agreed. But like Soumeta says, were all being eaten to death by little bugs trying not to ask you, Leeana. She flashed a smile at the younger woman. I mean, if you tell us to shut up and mind our own business, we will, of course. But you have to know well go right on wondering, whatever you say. She waved both hands over her head. We shouldnt, but were only human, you know!

Yes, I suppose I do, Leeana sighed. She considered it for a few seconds, frowning down into the water of her tub, then sighed.

Let me put it this way. I didnt leave my family because of anything they did, all right? It was a political She paused. My father received an offer for meone I didnt want to accept. She made a face. No one would have wanted to accept it, actually. Father wouldnt have made me, but there would have been a lot of political pressure on him to accept it, or something like it. So I decided Id rather be a war maid.

She considered that for a few seconds, frowning, and decided it was accurate enough to go on with.

As for whether or not Im glad I came, ask me again in a month or so! I should have at least caught my breath by then.

Soumeta laughed, and both of the other war maids with her chuckled.

I dont think itll take that long, Soumeta said. You seem to be adjusting better than most candidates do. And I hear youve already found some extra work to help pay for your horse?

And what a horse! Tharnha said, rolling her eyes in appreciative envy.

Well, yes, Leeana admitted a bit uncomfortably, remembering Mayor Yaliths warnings about resentment from other war maids.

I envy you the horse, Soumeta said, as if shed read Leeanas mind, but I definitely dont envy you all the extra work!

Of course you dont! Eramis snickered teasingly. It would cut into your social calendar.

You can just leave my social calendar out of this, Mistress Gossip, Soumeta told her with a mock-serious glower.

Why? Its not as if everybody in Kalatha doesnt know all about your red-hot sex life, Soumeta. Tharnha rolled her eyes again, as enviously as she had over Leeanas possession of Boots.

Well, Soumeta acknowledged a bit complacently, I do try to do my bit to balance the scales.

Balance the scales? Leeana blushed as the question popped out of her, apparently of its own volition, and Soumetas eyes swung lazily back to her. She hadnt intended to say a single word, she told herself furiously. What other people did with their own lives was their business, not hers! But, still

Sure, Soumeta said, after a moment or two during which she seemed to find Leeanas blush enormously entertaining. Think of all the years and years and years men have been chasing after women like we were mares in season and they were all stallions in rut. Of course, if we ever let any of them catch usoutside a nice, legal marriage bed, at leastthen we were the loose women she made what Leeana considered was a fairly obvious decision not to use a few other, cruder terms for opening our legs for them. And Lillinara help us if we actually got pregnant without a wedding bracelet!

She rolled her eyes theatrically and her friends laughed, but there was an undeniable flicker of anger under the humor in Soumetas voice, and the others laughter had a hard edge.

Given how long thats been going on, Soumeta continued after a moment, I figure its time we started evening things up a little. I think we ought to be chasing them for a change. And if one of them decides he wants to spend an evening cozying up to me, well fine. But if he thinks hes going to nail me down like a good, obedient little girl afterwards, hes got another thought or two coming. Funny how few of them seem to realize its going to be that way, though. And it may show a nasty streak, but I have to admit, I sort of like looking back over my shoulder to watch their faces when they realize I mean No and walk away wiggling my sweet arse at them.

Shed watched Leeanas face while she spoke, and the younger woman had the distinct impression Soumeta was gauging her reaction carefully. But was that because Leeana was younger, and Soumeta wanted to see how sheltered her pre-Kalatha existence had truly been? Or was there another reason?

Leeana felt a sudden urge to look at Garlahna and see how she was reacting to the conversation, but she decided that wouldnt be a good idea. So, instead, she shrugged.

I dont think thats something Im going to have to worry about for a while, she said lightly. Ive got my probation to complete, and Erlis and Ravlahn waiting to work my backside off while I do it. Between that, chores, working for Theretha, and mucking out Boots stalloh! and helping Lanitha at the school, too!Im not going to have enough time to eat and sleep by myself, much less with anyone else!

But its such a waste to actually sleep with someone when there are so many other interesting things you could be doing, Soumeta said with a wicked smile, then laughed at Leeanas expression. Sorry! I didnt meant to tease you. And I think youre probably right about how much free time youre likely to have, at least for the next few weeks. But this is something youre going to have to think about sooner or later, you know, Leeana, she went on in a more serious tone. Youre a war maid nowor you will be, when you finish your probation, anywayand that means the decisions will be yours. Nor your fathers, or your familys, or anyone elses: yours. Thats the reason most of us became war maids in the first place, to make those decisions for ourselves.

I know, Leeana agreed, remembering her first days conversation with Johlana.

And its the fact that we want to make them which pisses off people like Trisu of Lorham, Eramis said darkly.

Among other things, Soumeta agreed, still looking at Leeana. But theres more to it in his case, too, Eramis. You know how hard hes been pushing us about everything ever since he inherited the title. Of course he resents the fact that we dont all ask How high? any time he says Jump! But hes after more than just changing that. She glowered. Hes one of those bastards who wants to turn the clock back two or three hundred years and just pretend the war maids never existed. That we never had a charter at all. And until someone kicks him right in those great big balls hes so proud of having, hes going to go right on pushing, and pushing, and pushing until we give him what he damned well wants or

She stopped abruptly and gave her head a short, angry shake that sloshed water over the lip of her tub.

Sorry, Leeana, she said after a heartbeat or two, with a smile that looked almost natural. Didnt mean to climb up on my personal hobbyhorse. It just really pisses me off to see someone like him pushing us aroundagain!as if we were all still meek little female mice living in a world full of male cats. Or obedient little puppets waiting till they get around to coming home and hauling us off to bed by our hair! Well, were not, and its time someone pointed that out to him and all the men like him.

Im sure D It was Leeanas turn to stop herself short. Dame Kaeritha hadnt told her she was free to discuss the mission which had brought the knight to Kalatha in the first place. She hadnt told her she wasnt free to do so, either, of course, but a champions business was a champions business, not a subject for bathhouse gossiping.

Im sure Mayor Yalith and the Town Council know what theyre doing, she said instead, and hid a mental wince. What shed just said was probably true enough, but it sounded like the sort of fatuous thing a schoolgirl without two thoughts to rub together would have said.

Hmph! Soumeta snorted, flouncing in the water. Maybe they do, and maybe they dont. Well, at least some of them do, Im sure, she corrected herself. But this is a war maid free-town, you know. We all get a voiceand a votewhen it comes to deciding what we should be doing. And if this keeps up, Trisu may just find his precious claims starting something he wont like the finish of!

And about time, too, Tharnha muttered.

In a lot of ways, Eramis agreed, then stretched and yawned elaborately. The motion arched her spine and brought her shapely bosom free of the water, and she preened like a cat, with a shameless sensuality which Leeana had never before encountered. I think youre right about who should be chasing who, too, Soumeta, she said lazily. Lets get what we want from them and let them have the broken hearts for a change.

Hah! Broken something, anyway, Tharnha agreed with a chuckle.

Well, Im already doing my bit, Soumeta reminded her with a predatory smile. But whether or not I can keep on doing it depends on whether or not interfering bastards like Trisu can squeeze us all back into their little toy boxes and lock us up there. And I, for one, plan on chopping a few of them up for dog meat before they manage to do that.

Thats sort of what the Voice said at the Temple when I was at Quaysar last fall, Tharnha said. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged just a little defensively. Well, she did! she insisted.

Leeana blinked. Shed heard of the Temple of Lillinara at Quaysar, though shed never been there. But shed never heard of a Voice getting involved in secular affairs unless the very lives of women were involved and the situation was close to desperate.

The Voice said we should stand up to Lord Trisu more strongly? Garlahna said in a voice which showed shed found the idea as disturbing as Leeana had,

Not in so many words, Tharnha admitted. But she did say she was concerned. That the Mothers daughters should always oppose and fight people who try to make all women victims, and who else do you think she couldve been talking about right now?

Voices dont send people off to war, Tharnha, Soumeta said. Or not very often, anyway. She probably just meant we should stand our ground. The guardswoman snorted. A Voice cant go around telling us to push back even harder than hes pushing us, whatever she might want to say. Not without provoking all kinds of complaints from every lord wardenevery male lord wardenin the Kingdom, anyway. Which doesnt mean it wouldnt be a good idea, of course. Just that a Voice is a little too visible to tell people that.

Maybe not, Soumeta, Eramis said, but you know the Voice thinks we shouldnt let anyone push us around the way we always have before. You know that.

I never said she didnt, Soumeta replied. I just said she has to be careful about any official position she takes because of who she is. If you want me to admit shes given her support to people like Saretha and her supporters on the Town Council, then I will. Im just saying that shes smart enough and subtle enough to do it in ways that arent going to drag her, the temple, or the Mother into open conflict with a lord warden.

Youre probably right, Tharnha agreed. She didnt sound as if she really did agree, but she smiled and shrugged anyway.

In the meantime, though, she said more brightly, did any of you see that good looking blond armsman who rode in with the wine merchant this afternoon? Yummmmmm!

She batted her eyes at the others, and Eramis giggled.

I wouldnt mind getting to know him a little better, I can tell you that! Tharnha went on with a cheerful leer. Look at that arse of hisand those shoulders! You know what they say about puppies growing up to match the size of their feet? She leered again, harder. Well, if certain other portions of his anatomy have grown up to match those shoulders!

Chapter Twenty-Nine | Wind Rider's Oath | Chapter Thirty