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Oh! Excuse me, Prince Bahzell! I didnt see you.

No harm done, Bahzell said mildly, setting the girl back on her feet. Shed emerged from the half-hidden arch with more speed than decorum, but his reflexes had been good enough to catch her before the actual impact that would have bounced her off her feet. Her maid came bustling down the stair behind her, then screeched to a halt as she saw her charge being set effortlessly upright by a pair of hands the size of small shovels.

The maidMarthya, he thought her name was, if he recalled correctlywas obviously less than enthralled by the sight, but she didnt look especially surprised. Nor was Bahzell, really. One thing hed discovered early on about his hosts daughter was that she was utterly lacking in the sort of bored languor which appeared to be the current, carefully cultivated ideal of most aristocratic young Sothoii noblewoman. It might be too much to call her own accustomed pace headlong, but not by very much.

He smiled down at herhowever tall she might be for a human child, she was barely even petite for a Horse Stealer girland restrained himself with some difficulty from patting her on the head. She wouldnt have appreciated it if hed yielded to the temptation, he thought dryly.

Although she had her fathers hair and height, shed thankfully escaped Tellians hawklike profile. At fourteen, shed just emerged from the coltishly awkward stage, although there were momentslike this onewhen she suffered temporary relapses. She had an insatiable curiosity to go along with an obviously keen mind, and she obviously found Brandark and Bahzell himself exotically intriguing, no doubt because they were the first hradani shed actually met. He found the obvious intensity of her curiosity amusing, but hed learned to take her questions seriously, despite the fact that someone her age would have remained firmly immured in the schoolroom, had she been one of his sisters. Leeanas mother and father, on the other hand, had long since begun her formal tutelage as their only heir. The shorter-lived humans often seemed to do things with breakneck speed compared to hradani. So he reminded himself once again that Leeana Bowmaster obviously didnt consider herself the barely-out-of-leading-strings child he saw when he looked at her.

The fact that she was as cute as a basketful of puppies didnt make it any easier for him to remember that she wasor at least thought she wasolder than she looked to him. The irritated looks she gave him when he forgot, however, did. So he supposed it was something of a wash.

Its kind of you to be so understanding, she told him now. But if Id been watching where I was going, I would never have come bursting out of the gallery stair and run into you that way. So if no harm was done, it was only a matter of pure luck. Please dont mention to Mother that I did! She rolled her green eyes. She already thinks I have the deportment of a stable hand.

Now, somehow Im doubtful shed be putting it quite that way, Bahzell said with a grin. Not that she wouldnt be after having a few tart things to say, Im sure. But shell not hear about it from me, Milady.

Thank you. She smiled up at him warmly. And might I ask how your visit home went? she continued.

Better than Id hoped, more ways than not, he replied, and shook his head in something very like bemusement. Father and Mother are well enough, though Id not have thought anyone could be as busy as theyre after being at the moment.

Im not surprised, she said, and chuckled. Just keeping up with all your sisters and brothers must be challenge enough without settling all the political problems your fathers facing right now!

Aye, youve got that right enough, he agreed. Still and all, theyve had more than enough experience managing all of us; its the rest of my folk keeping their hands full just now. My Das a lot of details to be settlingand some of them ugly ones, toobut Im thinking things are after beginning to quiet down a mite. He snorted. Of course, it could be as how thats because theres after being so few left as feel like arguing the fine points with him. The crows have finished picking over Churnazhs head, and his son Chalaks after being so stupid not even the likes of Churnazhs hangers-on will be following him. Arshams the only one of Churnazhs get with the brains to be coming in out of a thunderstorm, and they must have come from his mother, for they cant have been coming from his father! And the fact that hes bastard-born isnt so very big a thing to be holding against him in the succession amongst our folk. So now hes sworn fealty to Father as Prince of Navahk, the rest of the Bloody Swords are after lining up to do the same. He glanced at Brandark for a moment, his expression half-apologetic, and shrugged. If I were being a betting man, which Im not, Id put my kormaks on the fighting being over for good and all at last.

Leeana cocked her head in thought. Most Sothoii might have considered Bahzells response to her question a bit odd. Ladiesand especially gently born ones who were still little more than childrenshould be sheltered from the brutal realities of the difficult problems and solutions which faced rulers. Leeana, though, only weighed what hed said carefully, then nodded. One thing about her which was not at all childlike, Bahzell thought, was her obviously deep interest in politics. Or her uncanny ability to grasp the ramifications of her fathers current, convoluted political problems. For that matter, her grasp of the problems facing Bahzells father was better than that quite a few hradani chieftains could claim.

Do you think the fighting is over, too, Lord Brandark? she asked softly after several seconds of consideration. She looked at the shorter hradani, and Brandark gazed back at her for a long moment, his eyes more thoughtful than Bahzells, then shrugged.

Yes, I do, Milady, he said. And while I wont go so far as to say Im happy the Bloody Swords have had their feet systematically kicked out from under them by a bunch of loutish Horse Stealers, its certainly not a bad thing if the fighting really is over. He grimaced. Weve been killing each other over one imagined insult or another for almost as long as the Horse Stealers and your people have been doing the same thing. As someone who once wanted to be a bard, I may regret the loss of all those glorious, ballad-inspiring episodes of mutual bloodletting and slaughter. As a historian, and someone whos seen the bloodletting in question firsthand, Id just as soon settle for the ballads we already have. And all the gods know Bahzells father is infinitely preferable to someone like Churnazh.

He kept his tone light, but his gaze was level, and she looked back at him for several heartbeats before she nodded.

I can see that, she said. Its funny, isnt it? All the songs and tales are full of high adventure, not what really happens in a war. And Ive heard lots of songs about splendid victories and defiance even in defeat. But I dont think Ive ever heard even one where the side that lost ends up admitting that its better that they didnt win.

Bahzells mobile ears cocked, and one eyebrow arched, but Brandark simply nodded, as if unsurprised by her observation.

Its not an easy thing to do, he agreed. And the bards who write songs suggesting that its a good thing their own side got its backside kicked tend to find their audiences less than receptive. Unfortunately, that doesnt mean it isnt true sometimes, does it?

No, I dont suppose it does, she said, and looked back at Bahzell. So from what you and Lord Brandark are saying, Prince Bahzell, it sounds as if you may find yourself an official ambassador for the King of the Hradani after all.

Bahzells deep, rumbling chuckle could have been alarming if she hadnt heard it before and known what it was. She cocked her head at him, and he grinned.

Now, that I wont be. He shook his head. First, Ive no least desire to be anyones official ambassador. Second, Milady, Ive even less of a notion how to go about being one! And third, the one thing my Das least likely ever to be calling himself is King of the Hradani.

There I have to agree with Bahzell, Brandark agreed with a slightly less rumbling laugh of his own. Prince Bahnak is many things, Milady, but one thing hes remarkably free of is anything resembling delusions of grandeur. Unlike Bahzell, hes also a very bright fellow. Which means he understands exactly how hard a bunch of hradani princes would find it to take anyone who called himself King of the Hradani seriously. I have no idea what title hell finally come up with, but I feel confident that it wont have the word king in it anywhere.

Perhaps not, she said. But what he chooses to call himself wont change what he actually is, now will it? Her tone was a bit tarter, and the green eyes gazing up at the two hradani were a bit harder.

No, it wont, Brandark agreed. Which is my real point, I suppose. Just as hes unlikely to rub his recent enemies noses in their defeat by calling himself a king, hes not going to make your fathers position even more difficult by asking him to officially accept a hradani ambassador at his court.

Leeanas eyes widened very briefly. Then they narrowed again, even more briefly, before she nodded.

That does make sense, she said after a moment, and Brandark wondered if the girl realized how completely her thoughtful tone demolished her pretense of having accidentally collided with Bahzell. She stood there for a second or two, as if being certain shed digested the information thoroughly, than shook herself and smiled at Bahzell again.

Now Ive compounded my carelessness in running into you by keeping you and Lord Brandark standing here nattering away, she apologized. I seem to be going from triumph to triumph this afternoon, dont I?

In a manner of speaking, I suppose, he agreed. Not but what Brandark and I havent enjoyed the conversation.

Its kind of you to say so, but Ive detained both of you long enough. Marthya? She looked over her shoulder at her maid and gathered up the older woman with her eyes. Then she gave Bahzell and Brandark a quick, abbreviated curtsy and whisked Marthya off down a connecting hallway.

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