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STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue May 01, 2012 7:51 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 20

Sharlassa was only too well aware of it, at any rate.

Yet she could have handled that hostility if it had been the only problem. Or she thought she could have. She might have been wrong about that, the way she'd been wrong about so many other things in her life.

She sighed again and leaned forward, picking at a bit of moss on the stone wall, feeling the unseen, damp pressure of the rain growing slowly more omnipresent. A patch of the moss came loose and she held it up, studying it, feeling the velvety softness of it against the ball of her thumb. The back, where it had kissed against the stone, was rougher grained, papery, so different from its front, and she wondered if that was some sort of metaphor for her life…or if she was only being maudlin again.

She snorted softly, with bittersweet regret for what might have happened. It was strange, and it made her feel guilty sometimes, but she could hardly remember what Sathek had truly looked like. They'd been supposed to have his miniature painted for her before he'd ridden off with Sir Trianal to deal with the mystery attacks being launched on Lord Warden Glanharrow's herds and fields. She ought to remember anyway, painting or no painting -- she'd been madly in love with him, hadn't she? -- but she didn't. Not truly. She remembered how she'd felt about him, how she'd looked forward to the marriage as soon as she was old enough, sometimes she even remembered the feel of his arms around her, but his face was slipping away from her. In an odd way, and one which frequently made her feel almost unbearably guilty, she had a far clearer memory of Sir Trianal's face on the day he'd personally ridden up to her father's house to tell her that Sathek Smallsword had died in his baron's service and under Sir Trianal's command.

Well, of course you remember Sir Trianal's face better! Her inner voice was tart this time. Sathek is gone, and you never got that miniature painted, and they say the mind forgets what the heart remembers. Besides, Sir Trianal isn't dead, now is he? It's been -- what? All of three hours since you saw him at breakfast? That probably tends to keep him a little fresher in your memory, don't you think?

True enough. That was true enough. And it still didn't keep her from feeling guilty when she couldn't remember. Just as the fact that life was what it was, and Lillinara knew Sharlassa couldn't change it just by wishing it was different, didn't make her any happier about it.

At least Mother knows you need all the help you can get, she reminded herself. No matter how much you wish she'd stop beating herself up for "not having done right by you" when you were a girl! She didn't know where we were going to wind up any more than Father did. Or than you did, for that matter! And when it comes down to it, teaching you to think of yourself as a fine lady would have been the cruelest thing she could have done before Father became a lord warden.

So, yes, she was deeply grateful to Lady Sharmatha for sending her where she could get the schooling she needed as a proper Sothōii noblewoman, even if it did seem like one of Hirahim's worse jokes to find herself in that position. And no one could possibly have been more understanding or kinder or a better teacher than Baroness Hanatha. Yet sending Sharlassa here -- sending her to the place she still thought of deep in her bones as "home" -- had its own sharp, jagged edges. She was no longer the person she'd been when she'd lived here in one of the neat little houses maintained for the garrison's officers. The girls she'd grown up with -- those that weren't married, at any rate -- had no better idea of how to act around her now than she had of how to act around them. Even her closest friends felt awkward and uncomfortable, divided by that invisible armor of rank which lay between them, afraid someone -- possibly even Sharlassa herself -- would think they were being overly familiar if they dared to treat their old friend as a friend.

She sighed yet again -- she was getting a lot of practice at that this afternoon -- and tossed the moss up into the air. Unlike the ribbon, it plummeted to the ground, disappearing into the orchard's grass, and she found herself wishing she could do the same.

It was a potentially dangerous thought, especially here in Balthar, and she knew her mother was concerned about that, however careful she'd been to never discuss it with her daughter in so many words. But there wasn't any point pretending the idea hadn't crossed Sharlassa's mind more than once.

Lady Leeana Bowmaster had been just as much a tomboy as ever Sharlassa Dragonclaw had been, and she'd gone through life with a fearlessness Sharlassa deeply envied. She'd wondered sometimes if that was because Leeana was not simply one of the most nobly born young women in the entire Kingdom but also an only child, treated more like a son than even she'd realized at the time. Now, with her own closer acquaintance with Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, Sharlassa knew it wasn't that Leeana's parents had treated her like a son but that they'd treated her as a unique person in her own right. Baroness Hanatha treated Sharlassa the same way, and she'd seen the easy affection and love -- the trust -- in the way they treated Sir Trianal, as well.

Yet there was no denying that Sharlassa had deeply admired and respected Leeana. Of course, Leanna had been not simply the daughter of her liege lord but also over two years older than Sharlassa. They'd never been anything someone might have described as friends, for they'd lived in different worlds which simply happened to overlap from time to time. But those worlds had overlapped -- sometimes in one of the paddocks or the stables, sometimes right here in this orchard when both of them had helped gather apples -- and whenever they had, Leeana had been unfailingly friendly and kind. More than that, she'd…radiated something, something Sharlassa had seemed to sense the way she sensed the apple trees around her now. There'd been a sparkle, a strength, a sense of vibrant, flickering energy. No doubt that was as much her imagination as sometimes dreaming she was a tree, but that hadn't made the sensation feel any less real, and she couldn't quite convince herself that it had all been imagination.

She frowned moodily, with the expression her father had always called "scratching a mental itch" when she'd been younger, just before he chucked her under the chin or snatched her up onto his shoulder or tickled her unmercifully. She wished he was here to do that now and distract her from her brown, unreasonably moody mood, although it would, of course, be unspeakably improper for Lord Jahsak to do such a thing with Lady Sharlassa.

In a way, that feeling that she could almost reach out and touch the innermost being of the orchard's trees was to blame for much of her present mood, and she knew it. She treasured the feeling, took strength from it as if it helped to center her and remind her of who she was deep down inside, not simply who she had to learn to be as Lady Sharlassa. Yet she'd always secretly thought she would someday outgrow the absurd fancy that she could sense the trees at all, and she hadn't. In fact, it was actually growing stronger, and she sometimes thought she was reaching deeper and further.

Was the problem that she wanted to be able to do that? That she was so unhappy, so uncertain, about who she must learn to be that she longed for escape into some warm, comforting dream? Or into something which could distract her from learning the lessons her life had set her? Or was she simply losing her mind in a pleasantly harmless sort of way?
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu May 03, 2012 7:41 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 21

Her lips twitched at that last thought, remembering Granny Marlys. All Balthar's children had loved Granny growing up, although even the youngest of them had realized she was what some of the adults in their lives called "not quite right." As she'd grown older, Sharlassa had realized that people who were "quite right" didn't firmly believe they were the goddess Chemalka and could summon rain on a whim or make the sun shine whenever they wanted to. Yet aside from that minor foible, Granny Marlys had been the warmest, kindest person -- and greatest storyteller -- imaginable. Not a parent in Balthar would have hesitated for a moment to ask Granny to care for a child, and her kitchen had been a magic land where the scent of fresh cookies or gingerbread had a habit of ambushing a youthful visitor.

But, no, she wasn't another Granny. Granny had simply ignored the fact that she couldn't always make the sun shine whenever she wanted to…and that she frequently managed to get herself drenched working in her kitchen garden because that rain she'd forbidden to fall had fallen anyway. And she'd regarded all of the mortals around her with a benign sense that all of them were there to serve her whims but that she didn't really need them to do anything for her just at the moment, so they might as well go ahead and get along with their own lives until she did need them.

Sharlassa didn't live in that comfortable sort of imaginary world. That was the problem, after all! And that was why it…worried her, if that wasn't putting it too strongly, that she seemed to be becoming more sensitive, not less, to at least portions of the world around her.

And if you're going to become "more sensitive" to part of the world, why not all of it? she asked herself bitingly. But, no, you can't do that, can you? It has to be just some of the world and just some of the people in it!

To be fair, she'd always thought she could sense Kengayr whenever the courser was around. And there'd been that feeling that she could tell thirty seconds ahead of time when her father or her mother was about to walk through a door or someone like Leeana had been about to come around a corner. She'd mentioned that to her mother once, and Lady Sharmatha (only, of course, she hadn't been "Lady" Sharmatha at that point) had told her about something called "syn shai'hain." Sharlassa had never heard of it, but her mother had explained that it meant "something seen before" or "something already seen" in ancient Kontovaran. Sometimes, Sharmatha had told her eleven-year-old daughter seriously as they'd peeled apples -- apples from this very orchard, in fact -- for one of Sharmatha's peerless pies, someone had a flash, a feeling, that they'd already done or seen or experienced something. No one knew exactly why or exactly how it worked, but it happened to a lot of people, especially those -- she looked up under her eyelashes with a smile -- who had particularly active imaginations.

For a long time, Sharlassa had simply accepted that her awareness of the world about her was simply syn shai'hain, something she was imagining after the fact but so quickly it seemed to have come before the fact. Unfortunately, that had been easier when it happened less often. Because the truth was, whether she really wanted to admit it or not, that it was happening more and more often. Practically every time she saw Prince Bahzell, for example. Or Walsharno. Or, on a lesser scale, Dathgar or Gayrhalan. Or…one or two other people.

She grimaced and ran her hands over her wind-tousled hair, trying not to feel…trapped. That wasn't the word for it, but it came so close. She was being hammered and squeezed into a shape that wasn't hers, and the fact that the people who were doing the shaping had only her best interests at heart -- that so many of them genuinely loved her -- made it no more pleasant to be turned into someone she wasn't.

Which was why her mother was concerned about her youthful admiration for Lady Leeana, she knew. Lady Sharmatha would never say so, but she had to worry that Sharlassa might decide to follow Leeana's example and seek refuge among the war maids' free-towns. And, truth to tell, there were times when Sharlassa had been tempted, especially now that she'd had the opportunity to meet Leeana Hanathafressa on her occasional, brief visits to Balthar. That sense of energy and focused purpose and sheer passion for living which she'd sensed -- or thought she'd sensed -- in Leeana when they'd both been so much younger was brighter and stronger than ever. She never had the sense that there weren't things about Leeana's life and the decisions she'd made which she regretted, some of them bitterly, but regret was part of life, wasn't it? Sometimes there were no perfect solutions or choices, only better ones…or worse. And Sharlassa had never once sensed from Leeana any feeling that she'd made the wrong decisions, given the choices which had lain open to her.

Yet Sharlassa faced a life of very different choices, for much as she'd admired Leeana, Leeana Hanathafressa was larger-than-life. Like Prince Bahzell, she met the world head on, unflinchingly, making the choice that seemed best to her and accepting the consequences, whatever they might be. And she was braver than Sharlassa. Or perhaps not so much braver as more fearless, for there was a difference between those two things. And when it came down to it, as unhappy as Sharlassa might feel about who she was being forced to become, she wasn't brave enough to give up the parents she loved so dearly. She'd seen Baron Tellian and Baroness Hanatha, and she knew they'd never stopped loving their daughter for a moment. She was confident Lord Jahsak and Lady Sharmatha would never have stopped loving her, even if she'd done something as outrageous as to run away to the war maids. But she also knew how deeply that separation would pain them -- and her -- and at least there was no prospect of her being forced into marriage with someone as disgusting as Rulth Blackhill! In fact --

She stopped that thought ruthlessly in its tracks. She wasn't going to think about that again, even though it did seem bitterly unfair that she should be forced out of the world in which she'd grown up and yet not allowed into the world in which --

Stop that! she scolded herself. It's not going to happen. Or at least the moon will fall and the sun will freeze before it does! And how much of all this doom and gloom and worrying about being able to "sense" trees is all about that kind of foolishness? A lot, I'll bet. She gave herself a shake. Maybe it's a pity you're too old for Mother to put over her knee when you start being this foolish! Your brain always seemed to work better as a child when she stimulated your posterior, after all.

She startled herself with a giggle at the image that thought evoked, given that she was two inches taller than her mother these days. Not that Lady Sharmatha had become one bit less formidable, by any means! Besides --

Something struck the back of her left hand ever so lightly. She looked down, and her eyebrows rose as she saw the spot of dampness. Another appeared on her sleeve as she watched, and she felt more light impacts on her head.

Told you those clouds were going to rain, didn't I? She told herself tartly. And you didn't listen, did you? You never do. Honestly, I don't know why I put up with me!

The rain was falling faster -- well, more thickly, at any rate. It was still more mist than rain, and she sensed no thunder behind it, but that didn't mean it wasn't going to thoroughly soak anything -- or anyone -- foolish enough to be caught out in it. Not to mention a specific young lady (of sorts, anyway) who'd managed to get herself caught in an apple orchard the better part of a mile from Hill Guard's snug, tight roofs.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun May 06, 2012 7:21 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 22

Well, you're not going to get any dryer standing here than you'd get walking back to the castle through it, are you?

The prosaic thought made her chuckle, although she had a gloomily good idea of how Baroness Hanatha would react when she turned up wet, muddy, and bedraggled. Worse, she had a very clear appreciation of how Tahlmah was going to react to the same sight.

She started down the orchard's central aisle, suppressing a useless urge to scurry like one of Hill Guard's home farm's chickens. Unless she thought she could somehow run between the raindrops -- which seemed, on the face of it, rather unlikely -- she was still going to be soaked by the time she got back to the castle. That being the case, there seemed little point in adding breathless and exhausted to the wet, muddy, and bedraggled she was already going to be. Besides, she was wearing those new shoes Tahlmah had insisted she put on this morning, and they'd already rubbed up a blister on her right heel.

The raindrops were thicker and somehow wetter feeling by the time she reached the gate in the orchard's stone wall. She was just reaching for the latch when someone pulled it open from the other side and she slid to a halt in surprise.

"There you are!" Sir Trianal Bowmaster, heir-adoptive to Balthar, announced triumphantly. "I thought I might find you here! Hiding from the dance master again, were you?"

"I --" Sharlassa stopped, blushing rosily, and shook her head. "I was not hiding from the dance master, Milord!" she said then, a little spurt of laughter bubbling under the words. "Master Tobis is far too kind for me to be that rude to him."

"Really?" Sir Trianal cocked his head, looking at her skeptically. "Are you going to tell me you actually like learning to dance? Don't forget, I had to learn -- from Master Tobis, as a matter of fact -- and so did Leeana, and between the two of us, I don't think either of us really enjoyed being taught."

"Really," she told him firmly, and, in fact, it was true. The blister on her heel had her feeling a little less than eager about her next lesson with Tobis Yellowshield, but she truly did enjoy them. Unlike altogether too many of the other things she was being forced to learn. "Besides, I'm not scheduled for another lesson with him until after lunch."

"Oho! So you're hiding from Sir Jahlahan and his etiquette lesson!"

"I am not!" she declared even more forcefully (and mendaciously) than before. "I just…went on a walk and lost track of time, Milord."

"Since I am a belted knight, and no true knight would ever doubt a lady's word, I won't go into how…likely I find that explanation of your absence, Milady," he told her with a twinkle. "However, I did run into Mistress Tahlmah. She was walking very purposefully along the Great Gallery at the time -- heading, I think, to call on the master huntsman to borrow a couple of his bloodhounds."

"Oh, dear!" Sharlassa shook her head, her contrition genuine. So, unfortunately, was the amusement she felt at Sir Trianal's disrespectful but no doubt highly accurate description of her maid.

"Have no fear," Sir Trianal said, touching one hand to his heart and bowing to her. "Being the noble and kindly soul that I am, I assured Mistress Tahlmah that I would take it upon myself to check the orchard just in case. She informed me that she'd already searched -- I mean, checked -- there for you, but I felt it was worth another look. And if we hurry," he straightened, "I think we can probably sneak you back into the Castle before Mistress Tahlmah gathers up her nerve and informs Aunt Hanatha that the fairies have stolen you again."

Sharlassa hung her head, hearing the serious note under his humor and blushing more darkly than before.

"It's not as if you were the first person to ever sneak out for a little time of her -- or his -- own, you know." She wiggled at the note of amused but genuine sympathy in his tone. "I've been known to sneak away on occasion -- generally from my tutors, not the arms master," he confessed. "In fact, I'd do the same thing today, and I'm the next best thing to ten years older than you are."

"I know," she sighed, "but I really shouldn't do it. Especially not when Baroness Hanatha is being so kind to me."

"Aunt Hanatha is kind to everyone -- even me," Sir Trianal told her firmly. "It's the way she is. Although I will confess that she seems especially taken with you." He considered her thoughtfully. "Sometimes I think it's because you remind her of Leanna, but mostly I think it's because she simply likes the person you are. And even if she didn't, she knows how hard this all is for you."

"Milord?" She looked up quickly, startled, and he chuckled.

"You're not the only one who found out his life was going places he hadn't planned on, Milady. I never expected to be Uncle Tellian's heir-adoptive, you know. I knew he and Aunt Hanatha had a kindness for me, and I knew I'd always have a place here at Hill Guard if I needed it, but I always expected that to be as of vassal of whoever Leeana married. Of course, that changed."

His tone was much drier with the last sentence, but he also smiled and shook his head. Sir Trianal, Sharlassa had realized long ago, was not one of those who believed Leeana had disgraced her family or herself. Sharlassa was reasonably certain he was less than fond of war maids in general, but at least he seemed to respect them. She supposed a cynical person would say that was because Leeana's desertion to the war maids had worked out quite well for him, but Sharlassa knew that wasn't the reason for his attitude. She could feel the genuine affection, the love, for his cousin whenever he spoke about her. In fact --

Stop that, she told herself again.

"I do feel a little bit like a duckling trying to become a swan, Milord," she confessed after a moment.

"I know." He smiled again. "And, trust me, it does get better…eventually. Although --"

A much stronger wind gust blew through the orchard behind a vanguard of rain, drenching Sharlassa's spine, and Sir Trianal broke off.

"A duckling -- or a swan -- is what you're going to have to be if we're going to get you back to the house unsoaked!" he said, looking up at the clouds. He considered them for a moment, then whipped off his doublet and draped it over her shoulders and head.

"Milord, you can't --!" she began.

"Nonsense!" He laughed at her while the strengthening breeze plucked at his fine linen shirt with damp fingers. "I'm sure one of those lessons I evaded when I was younger said that any gentleman was required to give up his cloak or poncho -- if he had one -- to prevent a fair maid from getting drenched. Unfortunately, I seem to have left the house without either of those, so this will have to do."

"But you'll get soaked, and --"

"In that case, you really should stop arguing with me and get moving so we can get me under a roof before I become soaked to the bone and expire with pneumonia," he said sternly.

She looked at him helplessly for a moment, then laughed.

"Whatever you say, Milord! Whatever you say."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue May 08, 2012 9:16 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 23

Chapter Six

Rain pattered down on the roofs of Hill Guard castle. It was a little late in the year for the persistent, day-long, soaking rains of spring's first blush, and not quite early enough for the short-lived, torrential afternoon thunderstorms of midsummer, but there was enough water in the air to go around, Bahzell reflected, standing under the overhanging roof which projected over the central keep's massively timbered front door. And probably enough to fill the Bogs knee-deep and send the overflow gushing down the old riverbed to join the water from Chanharsa's tunnel culverts, he thought, regarding the waterfalls streaming like finely beaded curtains from the eaves of that protecting roof. That would be one explanation for the condition in which Baron Tellian's latest guest had arrived at his ancestral keep above the city of Balthar.

Bahzell's lips twitched in amusement as the muddy, soaked-to-the-skin, plainly dressed warrior climbed down from his saddle in Hill Guard's courtyard, for the newcomer bore precious little resemblance to the dandified, arrogant Sir Vaijon of Almerhas he'd first met the better part of ten years ago in Belhadan. The changes were much for the better, in Bahzell's opinion, although he hated to think about how Vaijon's father must have reacted the first time his wandering son returned for a visit. The beautiful, jeweled sword at Vaijon's side was about all that was left of his onetime sartorial splendor, and that sword had been even more profoundly changed than Vaijon himself.

"And aren't you just the drowned rat?" the massive hradani inquired genially as Vaijon climbed the steps towards him while one of Tellian's grooms led his horse towards the stable at a brisk pace.

"Drowned, certainly," Vaijon agreed wryly, reaching out to clasp forearms with him. "The Gullet's hock deep in a lot of places, and cold, too -- somebody forgot to tell Chemalka it's spring, I think -- but surely you can find something better than a rat to compare me to!"

"Oh, I'm sure I could, if it happened I was so minded," Bahzell replied, returning his clasp firmly.

"Which you aren't. I see." Vaijon nodded, then turned to Brandark, and extended his hand to the Bloody Sword in turn. "You could come to my assistance here, you know."

"I could…if it happened I was so minded," Brandark said with a grin, and Vaijon heaved a vast sigh.

"Not bad enough that I'm doomed to spend my life among barbarian hradani, but they have to insult me at every opportunity, as well."

"Aye, it's a hard lot you've drawn, and no mistake," Bahzell's tone was commiserating, but his eyes twinkled and his ears twitched in amusement.

"Yes, it is." Vaijon pushed back the hood of his poncho, showing golden hair which had once been elegantly coiffed but which he now wore in a plain warrior's braid very much like Bahzell's own. The Sothōii-style leather sweatband he'd adopted made him look older and tougher, somehow (not that he wasn't quite tough enough without it, as Bahzell knew even better than most), and the past six years had put laugh lines around his eyes and weathered his complexion to a dark, burnished bronze. At six and a half feet in height, Vaijon was "short" only in comparison to a Horse Stealer like Bahzell, and with his thirty-second birthday just past, he was settling into the prime of his life.

"The bit from Hurgrum to the Gullet wasn't so bad, now that they've got the locks open all the way," he continued. "A lot faster and easier than the first time I made that particular trip, at least! But I, for one, will be delighted once the tunnel finally breaks through and my poor horse doesn't have to swim all the way to the top of the damned Escarpment whenever there's a little sprinkle! I said as much to Chanharsa when I passed through, too. I even took her a basket of your mother's cookies as a bribe, Bahzell. I was sure that would inspire her to greater efforts! But she only laughed at me." He heaved a vast sigh. "I never would've guessed dwarves were just as disrespectful of birth and position as hradani."

"Well, I suppose the least we can be doing is to get you out of the rain now you're here," Bahzell told him. "Tellian was all set to come out and greet you his own self, but I told him as how he should be staying right where he was." The hradani's expression darkened slightly. "I'm not liking that cough of his one bit, and the man's too stubborn to be calling in a healer. Or letting me deal with it, come to that."

"Is he still coughing?" Vaijon's asked, blue eyes narrowing as he followed the two hradani into the keep and down a flagstoned corridor. It was a sign of how much things had changed in Balthar over the past six or seven years that none of the human armsmen or servants they encountered along the way so much as turned a hair when the unlikely trio passed them. Indeed, most of them smiled and nodded respectfully to Bahzell and his guest.

"Aye, that he is. Mind you, it's not so bad as it was this winter past, but it's easier in my mind I'd be if he could just be shut of it once and for all." Bahzell grimaced, ears flattening slightly. "There's no reason at all, at all, I can see why he isn't shut of it, and I'm none so pleased when someone as so many like so little is after being plagued by something like this. No doubt it's naught but my nasty, suspicious mind speaking, and so he's told me plain enough -- aye, and more than a mite testy he was about it, too -- but I'm thinking it's worn him down more than he's minded to admit even to himself." He shrugged. "Any road, Hanatha was more than happy to be helping me scold him into staying parked by the fire."

"That's ridiculous," Vaijon said testily. "This isn't the time for him to be sick, especially not with something that hangs on this way and won't let go, wherever it came from. I know he realizes how much depends on him right now. Why can't he grow up and let you take care of it for him?"

"And aren't you just the feistiest thing?" Bahzell said with a laugh. "Not but what you've a point." He shrugged again. "And I'll not be brokenhearted if it should be you've more success than I at making him see reason. There's times I think he's stubborner than a hradani!"

"Ha! No one's stubborner than a hradani, Bahzell! If anyone in the entire world's learned that by now, it's me."

"A bit of the pot and the kettle in that, Vaijon," Brandark pointed out mildly.

"And a damned good thing, too, given the job He and Bahzell have handed me," Vaijon retorted.

"Actually, you might have a point there," Brandark conceded after a moment. "And speaking as someone who always wanted to be a bard, I can't help noticing that there's a wagonload or two of poetic irony in where you've ended up, Vaijon."

"I'm so glad I'm able to keep you amused," Vaijon said.

"Oh, no! Keeping me amused is Bahzell's job!" Brandark reassured Vaijon, as they turned a corner and started up the steps to the keep's second floor.

"You just keep laughing, little man," Bahzell told him. "I'm thinking it would be a dreadful pity if such as you were to be suddenly falling down these stairs. And back up them -- a time or two -- now that I think on it. It's a fine bouncing ball you'd make."

Brandark started to reply, then stopped and contented himself with an amused shake of his head as Bahzell opened a door and led him and Vaijon into a well lit, third-floor council chamber. Diamond-paned windows looked out over the gray, rainy courtyard, but a cheerful coal fire crackled in the grate and a huge, steaming teapot sat in the middle of the polished table. The red-gold-haired man seated at the head of the table, closest to the fire, looked up as Vaijon and the hradani entered the chamber.

"Good morning, Vaijon!" Sir Tellian Bowmaster, Baron of Balthar and Lord Warden of the West Riding, said. He rose, holding out his hand, then coughed. The sound wasn't especially harsh, but it was deep in his throat and chest, with a damp, hollow edge, and Vaijon frowned as they clasped forearms in greeting.

"Good morning to you, Milord," he replied, forearms still clasped. "And why haven't you let Bahzell deal with that cough of yours?"

"Well, that's coming straight to the point," Tellian observed, arching his eyebrows.

"I've been dealing with hradani too long to beat about the bush, Milord," Vaijon said. "And since, at the moment, you have not one but two champions of Tomanāk right here in your council chamber, it seems to me to be a pretty fair question."

"It's only a cough, Vaijon," Tellian replied, releasing his forearm. "I'm not going to run around panicking just because I don't shake off a winter cough as quickly as I did when I was Trianal's age. And there's no need to be asking a champion -- or two champions -- to waste Tomanāk's time on something that minor!"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu May 10, 2012 7:53 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 24

"I don't think He'd mind, Milord," Vaijon said dryly, "and I know neither Bahzell nor I would object to spending four or five minutes taking care of it. So perhaps you should balance your laudable determination not to pester Tomanāk over 'something that minor' against the fact that we're both going to be just about insufferable if you don't let us take care of it and it gets worse again."

"I think you'd better surrender while the surrendering is good, Uncle," Sir Trianal Bowmaster said, smiling as he crossed the council chamber from his place by the windows and held out his own arm to Vaijon. "I've certainly been suggesting the same thing to you long enough, and so has Aunt Hanatha."

"And why doesn't one of you just go ahead and say 'You're not as young as you used to be and you need looking after, Tellian'?" Tellian demanded acidly.

"Because we're thinking as how it would only be making you stubborner still?" Bahzell suggested in an innocent tone, and despite himself, Tellian laughed.

"Seriously," Vaijon said, "you ought to let us get rid of it for you, Milord. Perhaps it is only a minor inconvenience, but there's no point in your putting up with it, and I agree with Bahzell. There are enough people who wish you ill for something that just keeps hanging on this way to make me unhappy. I'm not trying to encourage you to look for assassins under your bed every night, but we know for a fact that the Dark doesn't much care for you. You're probably right that it's nothing more than a simple cough…but you might not be, too, and it would make all of us feel a lot better if it went away. Especially if you're going to be traveling to Sothōfalas with Bahzell and Brandark and this damned rain hangs on the way it looks like doing. The last thing we need is for you to come down with something like you had last winter when you need to be on your toes dealing with Lord Amber Grass and Prince Yurokhas."

Tellian glowered at him for a moment, then sighed and shook his head.

"All right. All right!" He shook his head again. "I yield. I still think you're all worrying like a batch of mother hens, but I can see I'm not going to get any rest until I do it your way."

"And why you couldn't have been realizing that a week ago is a sad puzzle to me," Bahzell told him with a slow smile.

"Probably because I'm getting so old, frail, and senile," Tellian replied darkly, then pointed at the chairs around the table. "And I suppose we should all sit back down before my aged knees collapse and I fall down in a drooling heap."

The others all laughed, although at forty-six, Bahzell was actually a few months older than the baron. On the other hand, he was also a hradani, and hradani routinely lived two hundred years or more, assuming they managed to avoid death by violence. That made him a very young man by his own people's standards. Indeed, he was little more than a stripling, younger even than Tirinal of Balthar, by hradani reckoning.

They settled themselves around the conference table and Trianal poured a big, steaming cup of tea and passed it to Vaijon.

"This wouldn't be more of that vile morning moss tea, would it?" the champion asked, sniffing the fragrant steam suspiciously.

"Not in Hill Guard," Tellian reassured him. "Would you like me to drink some first to reassure you?"

"That won't be necessary, Milord," Vaijon said. "Unlike some of the people sitting around this table, I don't think you'd deliberately set out to poison an innocent and unsuspecting man."

"You've a way of holding grudges, don't you just?" Bahzell observed. "We told you as how it would relieve your cramps, and so it did, didn't it?"

"That's your story, and you're sticking to it, I see." Vaijon sipped cautiously, then smiled and drank more deeply. "Thank you, Milord," he said. "It's good."

"You're welcome." Tellian leaned back in his chair, covering his mouth as he coughed again, and Trianal poured him a cup and slid it across to him. The baron grimaced, but he also drank dutifully, then raised both eyebrows at his nephew. "Satisfied?"

"For now," Trianal replied, and Tellian snorted.

"Well, pour yourself some," he directed sternly. "I wasn't the one running around out in the rain without even a doublet, now was I?"

Trianal smiled and shook his head. But he also poured himself a cup obediently and sipped from it.

"I trust you're satisfied now, Uncle?" he asked, and Tellian chuckled.

"For now," he said, drinking some more of his own tea, and then cocked his head at Vaijon.

"Prince Bahnak asked me to give you his greetings," Vaijon said, responding to the silent invitation to begin. "And Princess Arthanal's sent along that pillowcase she's been embroidering for Baroness Hanatha. I understand this one completes the entire set."

"Your mother's skill with a needle never ceases to amaze me, Bahzell," Tellian said with simple sincerity, "although how she finds the time to use it with everything she and your father have on their plates amazes me even more. Please tell her how much Hanatha and I appreciate the gift…and the thought that went into it, even more."

"I will that," Bahzell assured him. "I'm thinking as how that's not all Father had to be saying, though."

"No, it wasn't," Vaijon agreed. "A messenger came in from Kilthan just before I left Hurgrum. It seems Kilthan's agents are reporting that the Purple Lords are finally waking up, and they don't much like what they're hearing."

"My heart bleeds for them," Tellian said sardonically.

"I don't think anyone's going to waste much sympathy on them, Milord. But Kilthan's of the opinion they might try to do something to scuttle the entire project."

"Like what?" Trianal asked. At twenty-seven, Tellian's nephew was a broad shouldered, solidly built young man. He was also an inch shorter than Brandark, making him the shortest person in the room, as well as the youngest, but there was nothing hesitant about his manner. "They don't exactly have an army they could send up this way -- or not one worth a solitary damn, at any rate." He snorted contemptuously. "And even if they had one, we are just a bit too far from their frontiers for that," he added.

"No, they can't get at us with troops, even assuming they had an army used to doing anything more strenuous than terrorizing 'uppity' peasants, but they do have influence," his uncle pointed out, never looking away from Vaijon. "That's what Kilthan's thinking about, isn't it?"

"He and Prince Bahnak both," Vaijon confirmed with a nod. "Mind you, I don't think the Purple Lords would be above trying to provoke some sort of more…direct action. I imagine the possibility of using the River Brigands as catspaws has to've crossed their brains, for example. It's the sort of idea that would appeal to them. But I think they're more concerned about behind the scenes efforts in Sothōfalas itself, Milord."

"Where Cassan and Yeraghor would just love to help them succeed," Tellian said sourly.

"Something along that line, yes." Vaijon nodded again.

"Which would be lending some added point to our visit," Bahzell observed.

"Perhaps. No, probably," Tellian said. "Not that Cassan and Yeraghor need any outside encouragement to do anything they can to break our knees for us."

"From the construction side, I'd say it's really too late for them to stop you, Milord," Brandark put in.

"It's never too late for that, Brandark," Tellian replied. "If the faction that's most worried about Prince Bahnak's power base had its way, the King would lead an army down the Escarpment, burn Hurgrum and the rest of the Confederation to the ground, and take the entire project over in the Crown's name. I suspect at least half of them have to be bright enough to figure out how Kilthan would react to that, even assuming Prince Bahnak didn't hand us our heads -- which I rather suspect he would -- but that wouldn't stop them from proposing it for a moment. And if they didn't get it, their fallback position would be to insist that King Markhos embargo any trade between the Confederation and the Kingdom. For that matter, some of them are going to argue that the canals and the tunnel are only going to increase the Empire of the Axe's 'already disproportionate influence' in the Kingdom's politics and policy."

"It's not something they'll find simple to be stuffing back into the bottle," Bahzell rumbled, "which isn't to say as how they won't try to do just that. And I'm thinking they've more than enough ways to be causing us grief if it should happen they take it into their heads to be doing it."

"Which is why you and I are going to Sothōfalas," Tellian agreed, then looked back at the window at the steady rain and grimaced. "Not that I'm really looking forward to the trip."

"Ah, but it could be worse," Brandark comforted him. "You could be headed in the opposite direction."

"Not a feeble and ancient wreck like myself." Tellian coughed again, quite a bit more dramatically than strictly necessary. "That's a job for a younger -- and more waterproof -- man."

"You're so good to me, Uncle," Trianal said dryly, and Tellian chuckled and reached across the table to clasp his nephew's shoulder.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun May 13, 2012 7:45 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 25

"You'll do fine. And you'll have Vaijon along to help out, once we get back from Sothōfalas."

"Isn't that about like saying the tinder will have a spark along to help it out, Milord?" Brandark inquired.

"You're welcome to come along yourself, Brandark," Vaijon invited, but the Bloody Sword shook his head quickly.

"I appreciate the invitation -- really, I do -- but I'm afraid I don't remember having lost anything on the Ghoul Moor."

The others laughed, although the notion of the upcoming summer's campaign wasn't an especially humorous topic. The Sothōii had been forced to launch periodic campaigns into the Ghoul Moor for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, generations of young Sothōii warriors -- like Trianal (and Tellian himself, if it came to that) -- had been blooded there. Yet those had all been little more than spoiling attacks, designed to drive the ghouls back from the foot of the Escarpment and remind them to stay clear of the Sothōii's horse herds on the far side of the Hangnysti River. With the approaching completion of the Derm Canal, something more permanent was required.

No one was foolish enough to believe the ghouls could actually be exterminated, although that would have been the preferred solution for anyone who'd ever had the misfortune to meet one of them. But if the entire canal project was to succeed, something had to be done to protect barge traffic on the Hangnysti. Ghouls, unfortunately, were excellent swimmers, and they had objectionable dining habits. It might be just a little difficult to convince bargemen to sail down the river knowing the ghouls -- who regarded them as tasty snacks which were tastiest of all while they were still alive -- were waiting to greet them.

That was the reason for the joint campaigns Tellian and Bahnak had mounted in the Ghoul Moor over the last two summers. The ghouls' territory stretched over seven hundred miles along the Hangnysti, and there was no hope that anyone could possibly actually control that vast an area. But what they could do was to secure the strip along the riverbank itself with a series of blockhouses and forts connected by mounted patrols. Maintaining those blockhouses and garrisons -- and especially the patrols -- wouldn't come cheap, but the projected earnings of the new trade route would more than cover the expense…assuming King Markhos wasn't convinced by the anti-hradani faction in Sothōfalas to forbid Sothōii participation.

At the moment, there seemed little probability their opponents would be able to persuade him to do anything of the sort, but the possibility couldn't be ruled out. And, in the meantime, the thought of Sothōii cavalry voluntarily cooperating with hradani infantry on any endeavor was enough to reduce those opponents to frothing fury. Even many of those who were tentatively in support of the new trade route were…uncomfortable with the notion. After a thousand years of merciless hostility, the concept of an army which combined hradani and Sothōii into a single, unified force was a profoundly unnatural one.

In fact, the first campaign season had gone less than smoothly. The armsmen of the West Riding were deeply loyal to their baron, yet his decision to fight side-by-side with hradani had come hard for many of them. Even those who'd accepted that Bahzell truly was a champion of Tomanāk and a wind rider had found it difficult to extend that same acceptance to hradani in general after so many centuries of bloodletting and mutual atrocities. There'd been a great deal of grumbling and more than a little resistance, not all of it from anti-hradani bigots, and Tellian had been forced to lead them himself that first year. And, of course, there were anti-Sothōii bigots in plenty on the hradani side, just to make the situation still better. Given the obstinacy quotient of Sothōii and hradani, the situation had been rife with potential disasters, and even with Tellian there in person, and with Bahnak's heir, Bahzell's oldest brother Barodahn, personally commanding the hradani contingent (and cracking heads where necessary), things had almost spiraled out of control on more than one occasion.

In the end, it had been the Order of Tomanāk more than anything else which had held things together. The Hurgrum Chapter had earned a high reputation among the Sothōii in the bloody battle to avenge the desecration of the Warm Springs courser herd, and its destruction of Sharnā's influence in Navahk had won it an equally high reputation among the hradani. The respect it enjoyed from human and hradani alike had allowed it to serve as both a unifying force and a buffer between the two factions when tempers flared. It had also led the way once battle was joined, and whatever they might think of one another, the Sothōii and Prince Bahnak's hradani were all fighting men. Where the Order led, they followed, and in the following they learned to respect one another, as well.

There were still occasional troublemakers from both sides, of course, although their fellows tended to quash them even more effectively than their officers might have. And the Order of Tomanāk remained a unifying force, as well as the point of the spear. By now, however, the West Riding by and large had at least accepted the concept that fighting with hradani rather than against them was a possibility. The fact that the Hurgrum Chapter was headed by a human, despite its exclusively hradani membership, hadn't been lost on Tellian's armsmen that first summer, either. In fact, the Hurgrum Chapter now boasted almost a dozen human members besides Vaijon, although any Sothōii would have flatly denied the possibility of such an arrangement before Tellian had "surrendered" to Bahzell in the Gullet.

Once this summer's campaign began, Vaijon would be personally leading the Order, and over the last half dozen years, he'd turned into a seasoned and skillful field commander. That was a transition not all knights, even of the Order of Tomanāk, made, and Bahzell was proud of the younger man.

"So you've made up your mind as how Trianal will be after commanding your armsmen this time?" he asked Tellian now, and the baron nodded.

"I've got a feeling you and I are going to be spending more time than either of us might like in Sothōfalas this year, Bahzell," he replied. "Especially me." He grimaced. "Besides, Trianal's more than up to the challenge, and he's senior enough -- and old enough now -- that I can delegate the job to him without worrying that any of my officers might feel they have to test the limits of his authority." He grinned at his nephew. "And he's still young enough I can downplay just how ticklish the situation in the Ghoul Moor is if I have to in Sothōfalas. After all, if it were really important, or if our alliance with your father was truly shaky, then surely I'd be there myself, wouldn't I?"

"And who was Father thinking about from his side, Vaijon?" Bahzell asked. "Barodahn? Thankhar?"

"Actually, no," Vaijon said. "He's sending Barodahn off to Silver Cavern for a conference with Kilthan and the other clan elders, and Thankhar's busy acting as his eyes and ears with Serman and the Derm Canal work crews. So he's picked someone else -- Yurgazh."

Bahzell blinked, ears flattening briefly in surprise, but then his eyes narrowed and he began to nod. Slowly, at first, then faster and more enthusiastically.

Prince Arsham Churnazhson had inherited the throne of Navahk following the death of his father. Despite his own illegitimacy, he'd always been popular with the Navahkan Army, and he'd fought well and hard against Hurgrum and her allies. In the end, he'd surrendered honorably, and while he was unlikely ever to be especially fond of Prince Bahnak or his sons, he'd also never had time for the perversions and cruelty of Churnazh's legitimate sons. Besides that, he was smarter than they'd been, able to recognize the advantages the unification of the northern hradani had brought to all of them. Navahk had gone from starving misery to something which actually approached prosperity; that had done wonders to consolidate the legitimacy of his rule, if not his parentage, in Navahkan eyes, and the completion of the canals and the tunnel was bound to bring his city state even greater prosperity.

Yurgazh Charkson was cut from much the same cloth as Arsham, and he'd become the Navahkan prince's senior general following the war. In addition, he and Bahzell had formed a wary semi-friendship during Bahzell's days as a political hostage in Navahk, which hadn't hurt his acceptability among Horse Stealers. Yet, like Arsham, he'd distinguished himself in both wars against Hurgrum, as well, which meant he was both popular with the Navahkans and respected by Bahnak's Horse Stealer officers. He had the moral authority to command the allegiance of both, and putting a Bloody Sword in command of the Northern Confederation's half of the Ghoul Moor expedition would constitute another major step in Bahnak's ongoing campaign to truly unify the northern hradani.

And letting deputies, however senior, represent both Tellian and Bahnak in the field would go far to suggest that human and hradani cooperation was becoming routine enough it no longer required heads to be knocked together on a wholesale basis.

"He's a canny one, my Da," Bahzell said with a smile. "Almost as canny as someone else as comes to mind." He twitched his ears at Tellian, who snorted.

"It's not canniness on my part, if that's what you mean, Bahzell; it's laziness. That's why the gods gave us youngsters to send out and do the hard work while we lie about drinking wine and belching."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue May 15, 2012 8:01 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 26

Chapter Seven

I really hate this, Shahana Lillinarafressa thought moodily as the right leaf of Thalar Keep's heavy wooden gates swung open at her approach, and the fact that her own fair-mindedness told her she was being unreasonable only made her mood even worse.

Unfortunately, she didn't have a lot of choice in the matter, and since that was true, she was determined to discharge her duty well. However badly it set her teeth on edge.

Her mail jingled as her horse trotted through the gatehouse entry tunnel, hooves noisy on the pavement, the sound echoing under the circles of the murder holes in the passageway's roof. Then she was out into the sunlight once again, drawing rein in the keep's cobblestoned courtyard. It wasn't much of a keep to someone who'd seen the massive engineering works and fortifications of the Empire of the Axe, but she supposed it was a fairly impressive pile of stone for a relatively minor lord warden of the Sothōii. Poorly designed and laid out by the standards of competent fortress engineers, perhaps, not to mention easily dominated by proper siege engines on the nearby high ground and with an equally easily-mined earth footing instead of solid stone, but impressive for a Sothōii keep. Of course, for anyone else…

She grimaced mentally as the reflection flashed through her brain. She was being cattish again, she thought, and reminded herself -- again -- to keep her opinion of Lord Trisu's family seat to herself. However justified it might be.

Stop that! she scolded herself.

Behind her, the combination honor guard and delegation from Kalatha rode out of the same tunnel, and she sensed the male eyes watching all of them with the combined curiosity and flicker of hostility to which any arm of Lillinara became accustomed, at least in the Kingdom of the Sothōii. The hostility quotient was probably a little higher in this case, she reflected, given her war maid escort and memories of what had so nearly happened six or seven years ago. However --

"Welcome, Dame Shahana," Sir Altharn Warblade, the senior officer of Thalar Keep's garrison, greeted her with a bow.

Shahana was no knight -- no arm was -- and the title was yet another thing about her current duty that set those teeth of hers on edge, but she couldn't seem to break the Sothōii of the need to append some sort of title they recognized to her name. Even now, she wasn't certain whether that was because they needed that formal label to feel remotely comfortable with any woman who lived her life under arms, or if it was because of her champion's status. Of course, the arms weren't quite like any other deity's champions, but it was probably too much to expect any Sothōii to grasp that point. They were doing their best to be courteous, and given how hard it must be for any new thought to claw its way through their brains, she had no choice but to take it in the spirit in which it was -- probably -- intended.

"And greetings to you, Sir Altharn," she replied pleasantly, half-bowing in the saddle.

"As always, it's a pleasure to see you," Sir Altharn lied politely. "Will you step down from the saddle and let us see to your horse?"

"With pleasure," Shahana said, swinging down from her mount.

One thing she had to admit was that the Sothōii deserved every bit of their reputation as horse breeders. Her own mare was a case in point, a gift from the man she was here to see. And another of those little irritations with which she had to cope, considering how little she relished having to feel grateful to Lord Warden Trisu for any reason. Sadly, she had little choice from that perspective, since Spring Storm Cloud Rising, the name the Sothōii had inflicted upon the beautiful creature, was undoubtedly the finest horse she'd ever ridden in her life. She'd shortened the splendiferous name to "Stormy," of course -- not even the Sothōii routinely used the names they bestowed upon their horses -- and she paused to rub the iron gray's satin nose before she handed the reins to the waiting groom. Stormy nosed back affectionately, and Shahana smiled for a moment before she turned back to Warblade.

"We'll take good care of her, Milady," the armsman promised as the groom led the mare away, and Shahana nodded.

"I know," she said, and she did. Despite all the things about the Sothōii which irritated her, there were almost as many things she liked, when she had the patience to admit it to herself, and their near universal dedication to the four-legged wonders they bred was high on the list.

"Then if you'll accompany me," Warblade invited, and she nodded again and fell in at his side as he escorted her into the main keep.

* * *

Leeana Hanathafressa dismounted from her own gelding as Sir Altharn led Arm Shahana off to her first meeting. She didn't envy the arm -- a stubborner, more iron-headed individual than the current Lord Warden of Lorham would have been impossible to imagine -- and she wasn't looking forward to her own visit with him, either. But whatever his other failings, Trisu was at least unfailingly (if coldly, disapprovingly, and stiffly) courteous, even to her. The same could not be said for some of his armsmen.

She felt eyes upon her as she came lithely down from the saddle. She knew it wasn't because of her horsemanship, and she suppressed an urge to tug down her chari's hem. It was ridiculous, of course, and one of the reasons she most hated her occasional trips to Thalar Keep, where every single armsman and servant knew exactly who she'd been born to be. The knowledge behind those eyes made her much more aware than usual of just how much thigh the chari showed, and she could imagine only too readily how the minds behind some of those eyes were stripping her the rest of the way naked.

The owners of those eyes would undoubtedly have done the same to any war maid, but there was no point pretending they didn't pay special attention to her. Legally, all war maids were equal before the law, absolved of all previous family affiliation and duties, yet it seemed every living Sothōii knew who her father was. That made her an object of special interest to almost everyone…and one of special contempt to those who insisted on thinking of all war maids as unnatural creatures, the best of whom were little better than common harlots and all of whom were dark dish0nor to their family names. The thought of successfully bedding her held a special attraction for quite a few Sothōii males, and not just because she happened to be young and good looking, and she knew exactly why that was. And what was almost worse, there were countless "proper" Sothōii women who undoubtedly figured that was exactly what she deserved after the humiliation and shame she'd inflicted upon her parents.

There'd been a time when her awareness of those watching eyes and the thoughts behind them had embarrassed her more than she would have believed possible; now, it only made her angry. She had no intention of revealing that to her audience, though, however much pleasure it would have done her to rip off a few heads and shove them up their owners' bodily orifices.

The tart thought woke an unexpected sparkle of welcome amusement, and she reached up and patted Boots' neck. The bay brown gelding blew heavily, trying to convince her the journey from Kalatha had worn him to the bone, but she knew better, and she smiled.

"Don't lie to me," she told him. "I've known you too long for that."

Boots tossed his head with a snort, recognizing her tone, and she laughed. Yet even as she did, she felt those eyes, and that pissed-off part of her still wanted to go turn some of them black and blue.

"Kitty, kitty, sheathe those claws," a voice murmured very quietly beside her, and she glanced at Garlahna. "I know what you're thinking," her best friend said. "For that matter, I'm thinking the same thing, but if you go and start kicking their arses the way they deserve, Mayor Yalith and Balcartha will have a few sharp things to say to you when we get home."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Leeana replied, elevating her nose. "Although, I do notice no one's offered to take care of our horses for us…again."

"As if you'd let anyone else take care of Boots!" Garlahna snorted.

"That's not the point. The point is that they didn't offer."

Garlahna shrugged, and Leeana reminded herself not to grimace. Her friend was unaware of the finer points of etiquette among the Sothōii aristocracy. As such, she didn't recognize the deeply offensive insult the Kalathan war maids had just been offered. For that matter, most war maids wouldn't have recognized it, given the relatively humble origins from which the majority of them sprang, which was probably one reason Trisu's armsmen and grooms took such delight in offering it. They knew how they'd just slighted the two of them, and the fact that war maids in general were too stupid to even know they'd been insulted only made it better.

And then there was Leeana herself…the one war maid they could be certain would know how profoundly she'd just been insulted.

She found a certain degree of revenge in smiling at the grooms and hostlers standing around with their hands ostentatiously in their pockets as she and Garlahna passed on their way to the stables. It wasn't the kind of smile Sothōii were accustomed to seeing from war maids, and she knew her mother would have been appalled if she could see it. There were advantages to having been raised as the daughter of one of the Kingdom's foremost powerful nobles, however, and she knew exactly how to put the proper cold edge of contempt into an otherwise pleasant expression.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu May 17, 2012 7:46 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 27

"Thinks her shit doesn't stink," she heard someone mutter in a voice she was perfectly aware she was supposed to hear. She ignored it…except to give her hips a slight swish which would also have appalled her mother.

"One of these days, you're going to get us mobbed," Garlahna told her quietly. "You do know that, don't you?"

Leeana arched an eyebrow at her friend, and Garlahna chuckled. "When it happens, I'm hiding behind you," Garlahna warned, brown eyes gleaming with amusement in the stable's dim light as she and Leeana began un-saddling their horses.

"Coward," Leeana said, smiling back.

"No, just practical; I know my limitations -- relatively speaking, of course. Besides, Barlahn doesn't like it when I bring back black eyes from one of these little jaunts with you. I think he thinks it's unladylike."

"Barlahn?" Leeana laughed out loud. "He'll just want to hear about what you did to the poor jerk who gave it to you in the first place!"

"I don't know where you get those ridiculous ideas about him," Garlahna said severely, swinging her saddle up onto a tack rack. "He's a very delicate and refined man, you know."

"Sure he is. And I know just what part of his 'refined' personality most attracts you, too. I have seen him swimming, you know!" Leeana rolled her eyes, and Garlahna smacked her lightly on the shoulder.

Leeana racked her own saddle, whisked off Boots' saddle blanket, and began briskly rubbing him down. It was a task she'd performed hundreds, even thousands, of times before, and she flared her nostrils, inhaling the familiar, welcome scents of horseflesh, saddle soap, leather, oil, and hay. Whatever she might think of Trisu's armsmen's standards of courtesy, they kept Thalar Keep's stables in meticulous order, and she was prepared to forgive them quite a bit as long as that was true.

"So, are you going to try to talk to him today, or wait until tomorrow?" Garlahna asked, rubbing down her own horse with considerably less pleasure than Leeana.

"I think Arm Shahana's going to keep him pretty fully occupied today," Leeana replied.

"Besides which, you don't want to talk to him one moment sooner than you have to."

"I didn't say that."

"No, but you were thinking it pretty loudly."

"Is it my fault the man's an idiot?" Leeana demanded, shaking her head disgustedly. "I swear, sometimes I wonder what Mayor Yalith is thinking, sending me to talk to him about something like this!"

"I'd imagine it has something to do with, oh, I don't know…the fact that you understand 'something like this' better than any of the rest of us?"

Leeana snorted, but she had to concede that Garlahna had probably put her finger on it. There weren't many -- in fact, she admitted, there weren't any -- other war maids with her perspective on the internal workings of the aristocracy and its obligations under the Kingdom's laws and traditions. That made her the logical person to "informally" discuss minor points of contention with Trisu before they turned into formal complaints. Once it reached the complaint stage, someone older and more senior would be sent to handle the matter, but Mayor Yalith had gotten into the habit of using Leeana to keep things from ever getting to that point. Of course, there was the minor fact that the mayor couldn't possibly have found an envoy who would have been more offensive to Trisu's prejudices. Which, Leeana had suspected a time or two, might well be another reason she kept getting selected for these little visits.

I do wish the mayor could find another way to tweak Trisu's nose, she thought moodily, her arm moving rhythmically while she continued to rub Boots down. Not that I don't sympathize with her. And not that she isn't making a valid point, for that matter. War maids aren't supposed to cater to the prejudices of our male "betters," and sending someone Trisu has to be polite to despite himself is one way to underscore that for him. Unfortunately, understanding what she's doing doesn't make it any more pleasant to be her clue stick.

"I'll talk to him about it tomorrow," she said out loud.

"Try not to do it until after breakfast," Garlahna advised. "That's the most important meal of the day, you know. I'd hate for you to lose your appetite that early."

* * *

"Welcome, Arm Shahana," Trisu Pickaxe said as Warblade personally ushered Shahana into his spartan, whitewashed office high in Thalar Keep's central tower.

"Thank you, Milord," she replied. As much as she and Trisu grated on one another's nerves, he was always punctiliously polite whenever they met. And he was apparently the only man in all of Lorham who could remember the proper form of address for one of Lillinara's champions.

"May I offer you refreshment?" Trisu continued, waving one hand at the small side table, where a bottle of Dwarvenhame whiskey and two crystal glasses kept company with a moisture-beaded pitcher of beer and a much larger beer stein. At least he'd learned that much about her, she thought.

"That would be most welcome, Milord," she replied with a slight smile, and he personally and expertly poured beer into the stein and handed it to her. She sipped with unfeigned pleasure, since Trisu had one of the better brewmasters she'd ever encountered.

"This is good, Milord," she acknowledged.

"I'm pleased you like it," he replied with a genuine smile. Then he waved her into the chair facing his desk and waited until she sat before seating himself once more. "May I ask to what I owe the pleasure of your visit?"

"Nothing earth shattering…this time, Milord." Shahana smiled thinly. "The Voice knew I had business in Kalatha, and she asked me to stop by and visit you while I was in the vicinity. She wanted me to extend her respects, and to tell you Quaysar expects a very good harvest this year, if the weather holds fair. She hopes to be able to make good on the taxes you so graciously deferred last fall."

"It's good of her to take the trouble to inform me of that," Trisu replied.

He took a sip from his own glass of whiskey, and Shahana wondered if it was to erase the taste of that courteous response from his mouth. Then she scolded herself. No, he didn't like the war maids, and he would have been far happier if Quaysar had lain in someone else's wardenship, but she'd never heard an overtly discourteous word out of him. Bluntness that verged on rudeness, sometimes, for he was a plainspoken, almost painfully honest man who took a certain pride in being that way, but never deliberate discourtesy.

"Please inform the Voice that there's no urgency in making up last year's shortfall," he continued after a moment. "Bad harvests can happen to anyone, but it looks like a good harvest for almost everyone this year if, as you say, the weather holds. That's what I'm hearing from my bailiffs, at any rate, which means we're anticipating a strong income stream, and I realize the Temple has yet to fully recover." He smiled thinly. "Given the way events almost worked out, I fully understand that her treasury is still under considerable pressure."

"Thank you, Milord."

It was a bit difficult for Shahana to get the words out in a normal tone as Trisu reminded her of how close the Quaysar temple of Lillinara had come to total disaster. He was right about the strain the temple's treasury had been under ever since, although that pressure was finally beginning to ease, thank the Goddess! But the last several years have been hard ones in the wake of Shīgū's devastating attack.

And the real reason you're pissed off by Trisu's "understanding tone" isn't just because he was right all along when he claimed there was something seriously wrong in Quaysar, either. It's because Dame Kaeritha got the call to straighten that entire mess out instead of you, isn't it?

She didn't much like admitting that. In fact, she was self-honest enough to know she spent as much of her time as she could not admitting it. That, unfortunately, didn't make it untrue.

No, it doesn't. But, dammit, we should have seen what was happening, and the Mother should have sent one of Her arms to deal with it!

The thought flashed through her mind, and she raised her stein, taking another long swallow of the clean, rich tasting beer to hide her expression while she dealt with it.

The truth was that Lillinara's arms wouldn't have been remotely as well equipped as Dame Kaeritha had been to deal with the assault on the Quaysar temple, and Shahana knew it. Arms of the Mother, like Shahana herself, were trained warriors, but Shahana wasn't remotely Kaeritha Seldansdaughter's equal in that respect. Partly that was because of the difference in the deities they served, of course; Tomanāk was the god of war, after all! His champions were primarily warriors, but that function was secondary for most arms.

Most arms, as Shahana herself had, heard Lillinara's voice early in life and began as arms of the Maiden -- students, scholars, and explorers taking their first steps on the road of life, studying and learning in order to prepare themselves for greater responsibilities in the course of time. The majority of them eventually became arms of the Mother, although not all ever made that transition. The ones who didn't tended to become the Church's librarians, researchers, and scribes or sometimes envoys, but they certainly weren't Lillinara's mailed fist. Arms of the Maiden had some training under arms, yet it was minimal, just enough to let them look after themselves in an emergency, because they were supposed to be concentrating on other things.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun May 20, 2012 7:51 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 28

Arms of the Mother were fully engaged with life. They were trained warriors, but their primary function was to nourish. Many of them, too, remained scholars, serving as teachers and educators. Others, like Shahana, were skilled healers and midwives or surgeons in addition to their weapons training. As warriors, they were guardians and protectors, the custodians of the precious fire of life Lillinara shared with her mother Kontifrio. More than one arm of the Mother had died defending that flame, but they were defenders, not the spearheads of justice Tomanāk's champions so often were.

And then there were the arms of the Crone. Not all arms of the Mother made that transition, and Shahana sometimes wondered if she had the moral fortitude to make it herself. Arms of the Mother defended life; arms of the Crone were focused on the proper ending of life. The healers among them served the hospices which offered care and support for the elderly, the dying. Where those slipping into Isvaria's shadows were given the dignity and comfort they deserved. It took a special bravery to open one's heart to those who must inevitably fade, to embrace the natural tide and ease the final flicker of the flame arms of the Mother protected so fiercely, and Shahana wasn't at all certain she had that much courage.

But arms of the Crone weren't just healers. They, too, were warriors, yet their function was not to defend life, but to avenge it. An arm of the Mother would seek, far more often than not, to capture a criminal and deliver him to justice, whatever his offense; when Lillinara dispatched an arm of the Crone, it was to slay, not to capture.

And that was why neither an arm of the Mother nor an arm of the Crone would have been remotely as well suited to dealing with Shīgū's attack on Quaysar. However much Shahana might dislike admitting it, that had required a sword with a keener edge than hers. Once Shīgū had replaced the legitimate Voice with her own creature and corrupted the captain of the Quaysar Temple Guard, nothing short of Tomanāk Himself and His champions could have pried her loose again without the utter devastation of the temple. For that matter, even Dame Kaeritha and Bahzell Bahnakson had inevitably left broad swaths of destruction in their wake, and the Temple Guard had been devastated. Well over two thirds of its armsmen and war maids had been corrupted to a greater or a lesser extent -- many of them knowingly; others without even realizing what was happening -- and the survivors' morale had been shattered by the realization of how utterly they'd failed to protect the temple they'd been called upon to serve.

And that was why Shahana had been permanently assigned to Quaysar for the last six and a half years. Rebuilding the temple was a task to which arms of the Mother were far better suited, and she and the current Voice -- trained healers, both of them -- had carried out that rebuilding with slow but steady progress. It helped that the Voice was a native Sothōii…and that she'd never been a war maid. Trisu, for example, found it much easier to interact with her than he did even now with Mayor Yalith at Kalatha. For that matter, he found it easier to interact with her than he did with Shahana, who'd been born and raised in the Empire of the Axe.

And he still gets along better with Dame Kaeritha than he does with either of us, Shahana thought moodily. Is that because he's more comfortable thinking of her as "just" another warrior? Or is it because in the end, she realized he was right and the war maids were wrong about what was happening? Does a part of him think of her as his partisan and not simply as an impartial judge sent by Scale Balancer?

Of course, she admitted, it was also entirely possible that only a champion of Tomanāk could have been impartial in a case like this one. Lillinara's arms dealt regularly with prejudice -- especially here in the Kingdom of the Sothōii and especially against war maids -- and they did have a natural tendency to react defensively first and consider impartiality second.

So the Gods probably knew what They were doing when they sent Dame Kaeritha and not you, she told herself yet again. Maybe you should just go ahead and accept that They usually know what They're doing?

The familiar tartness of that thought restored much of her humor, and she lowered her stein and smiled at Trisu.

"I'm sure the Voice will appreciate your generosity and understanding," she said. "We're making continued progress in rebuilding, and Quaysar is becoming prosperous again, but there's no point pretending it couldn't very easily have gone the other way."

"I know."

Trisu's gray eyes went cold and distant, looking at something Shahana couldn't see. They stayed that way for several seconds before he shook himself and refocused on her face.

"I know," he repeated. "And the truth is, Arm Shahana, that I blame myself, at least in part."

"You do?" Shahana couldn't quite keep the surprise out of her own voice. As far as she knew, this was the first time Trisu had ever said anything like that. "In fairness, Milord," she said a bit unwillingly, "yours was the only voice raising the alarm. It's scarcely your fault that no one listened to you until Dame Kaeritha came along."

"You think not?" Trisu sat back in his chair, elbows on chair arms, cradling his glass of whiskey in both hands, and smiled in what certainly looked like faint amusement. "I think perhaps you're being overly generous, Milady."

"In what way?" she asked, trying not to bridle at the honorific he'd chosen.

"It's tactful of you and the Voice not to remark upon it, Arm Shahana," he said, still with that faint smile, "but my own attitude, and that of my family, towards the war maids is scarcely a secret. Indeed, I've been known to express myself, ah, somewhat intemperately, I suppose, upon the subject in private conversation from time to time. Nowhere near as intemperately as my Uncle Saeth or my cousin Triahm, perhaps, but still intemperately enough. I won't pretend I don't believe many of my…less than flattering opinions where the war maids are concerned are justified, either. Obviously, you and I aren't going to agree with one another in that regard. However, it's a lord warden's responsibility to discharge his duties as impartially as he possibly can, and I've come to the conclusion that I'd put myself into a position where I wasn't able to do that."

"As nearly as I can tell, Milord," Shahana said a bit stiffly, "you did discharge them impartially. It certainly turned out you were the one who was correctly interpreting the situation and the provisions of the Kalatha town charter. Whatever anyone may have thought at the time, you were completely within your legal rights."

"Oh, I know I was," he acknowledged with a slightly broader smile, eyes glinting as he recognized how unhappy it made her to acknowledge that point. "But the problem, Milady, is that everyone else knew about my…let's be courteous and call them prejudices where the war maids were concerned. And because they did, there was an automatic assumption that I wasn't acting impartially. I put myself in that position by not watching my words more carefully, and I can't quite free myself of the suspicion that Shīgū chose Lorham and Quaysar specifically because I'd allowed myself to be far more outspoken about my feelings than a responsible lord warden would have done. Those opinions of mine were too broadly known, and without Dame Kaeritha's intervention, that would have made Shīgū's lies entirely too plausible."

Shahana blinked. She couldn't help it, because she would never have expected that analysis out of Trisu Pickaxe. It was entirely too insightful to be coming from someone like him.

Only it just did, didn't it? she thought. And the fact that you would never have expected it probably says more about you than it does about him, doesn't it? Damn the man! Now I can't even congratulate myself for overcoming my prejudices against him better than he overcomes his against me!

"Milord," she said, regarding him levelly, "there's probably something in what you say, but perhaps it cuts both ways. I'll concede you've been a bit more…outspoken than I might have wished upon occasion, but so have the war maids. And, for that matter, the Quaysar Temple has been more confrontational than absolutely necessary from time to time. I think you're right that it was the tension between all parties, and the fact that that tension was so widely known, that cleared the way for Shīgū's attempt in the first place. But you weren't the only source of that tension."

"Oh, I never said I was!" Trisu actually chuckled, leaning even further back in his chair. "Milady, it would never do for me to say I was more at fault than the war maids! Just think of the consternation that would cause among my armsmen and anyone else who knows me! Besides, the entire situation would never have arisen if not for the unnatural and perverse lifestyle the war maids have chosen to embrace now would it?"

Shahana had just raised her stein for another sip of beer. Now she spluttered into it and lowered the stein again to glare at him as he delivered his last sentence in a tone of perfect, matter-of-fact sincerity, as if he'd simply remarked that the sun was likely to rise in the east tomorrow morning. She started to open her mouth, then paused as their gazes met and she saw the amusement sparkling deep in his eyes. She drew a deep breath and shook her head.

"Milord," she said tartly, "if you're not careful, I'm going to decide you have a sense of humor after all, and then where will you be?"
*
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue May 22, 2012 7:57 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 29

Chapter Eight

< Do you think that if I asked Dathgar to just sort of nudge his horse -- you know, just hard enough to knock him out of the saddle -- he'd stop that racket? > Walsharno asked rather wistfully in the back of Bahzell's mind.

"Now isn't that a dreadful thing to be asking?" Bahzell replied, quietly enough not even another hradani could have overheard him. "And him doing all he can to wile away the leagues and all!"

< You do realize coursers' ears are even more sensitive than yours, don't you? > The mental voice was considerably more tart this time, and Bahzell chuckled, glancing ahead to where Brandark rode easily in the saddle, strumming his balalaika.

The musical tastes of individual coursers, he had discovered, varied at least as widely as those of the individual members of the Races of Man, and Walsharno's ran more to stately measures which relied heavily on woodwinds, viols, and cellos. He was not a fan of balalaika music, and he had even less taste for the dwarves' latest musical invention. They called it a "banjo," and Brandark was already showing what Walsharno considered a most unhealthy interest in the infernal new device. If he was going to be honest, Bahzell shared his courser brother's reservations where Brandark's new attraction was concerned, but the Bloody Sword's current selection didn't bother him anywhere nearly as badly as it obviously bothered Walsharno. At least he wasn't playing the "Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand." That was something, Bahzell reflected. And he wasn't singing, either, which was even better. In fact, taking everything together, and considering how much worse it could always get, Walsharno shouldn't be complaining at all.

< I wouldn't dream of "complaining." I'm only thinking about helping him have a little accident. >

"Oh, and isn't that ever so much better? I'm not so sure at all, at all, as how a champion of Tomanāk should be thinking such things."

< And you don't? >

"Ah, but it's only mortal I am, when all's said," Bahzell replied mournfully. "And I never said as how I'd never the slightest temptation of my own, come to that. The spirit's willing enough, but somehow…"

He shrugged, and Walsharno snorted in amusement. Baron Tellian heard that snort and turned his head, raising one eyebrow quizzically. No wind rider could hear another courser's voice, but all of them got quite adept at reading courser body language.

"Brandark?" the baron asked, gray eyes gleaming appreciatively.

"I'm sure I've no idea at all what it might be you're referring to, Milord," Bahzell replied innocently.

"I thought I'd heard somewhere that champions of Tomanāk weren't supposed to lie," Tellian observed to no one in particular, and Walsharno snorted again, louder than ever. He also tossed his head in an unmistakable nod.

"Traitor," Bahzell said wryly.

< Nonsense. Is it my fault I recognize the truth when I hear it? >

"It's not really all that bad," Tellian said thoughtfully. "And at least he's not singing. That's something."

< Two minds with but a single thought, > Walsharno said, and Bahzell chuckled.

"Truth to tell, though I'd not like to be admitting it to him, you understand, the little man's not so bad as all that when he plays. In fact, he's better than most, if it comes down to it."

"Agreed. It just seems…wrong, somehow. Or perhaps the word I really want is frivolous."

Tellian gazed up at the brilliant blue sky and the white drifts of cloud blowing about its polished dome. The day, for a change, was both dry and not too oppressively hot, with a breeze that was just short of brisk blowing out of the north behind them as they headed south along the Balthar-Sothōfalas high road. It was over two hundred leagues from Balthar to King Markhos' capital as the bird might have flown -- just under two hundred and sixty for road bound mortals -- and they were roughly halfway to their destination. This particular stretch of road was better maintained than many of the Kingdom's highways, largely because it lay in the West Riding and both Tellian and his father had made a point of seeing to the proper upkeep of the high roads passing through their riding, but it was still intended for horses and coursers, not heavy foot traffic or freight wagons. Instead of the broad, paved stone of the Empire of the Axe, it had a surface of river gravel, theoretically rolled level and bordered with wide shoulders of firm, hoof-friendly turf. Even in Balthar, the gravel surface left quite a bit to be desired, especially where the ravages of winter had not yet been repaired, but it was wide enough, and Tellian's escort had stretched out a bit, moving towards its western edge to take advantage of the band of shade projected by the trees along that side of the road as the sun moved towards afternoon.

All Sothōii high roads, like most of those in the Empire of the Axe, for that matter, were bordered by carefully planted rows of trees intended to provide windbreaks, shelter, and firewood for travelers forced to bivouac along the way. The penalties for casually felling those trees were stiff, but fallen limbs and branches were another matter, and the road crews thinned and tended them every year when they repaired the ravages of winter. The trees they took down were sawn into convenient lengths, with the thicker logs split, and stacked in neat wood piles at semiregular intervals for travelers' convenience. Combined with natural deadfalls, that was enough to keep most travelers from poaching on the living wood for fuel, and over the centuries, the neat rows of saplings had turned into gradually wider and wider belts of towering trees. Some of them were as much as three feet in diameter at the base, and Bahzell could hear the songs of birds and the rapid, drilling tattoo of a woodpecker through the rippling notes of Brandark's balalaika.

Tellian Bowmaster was far less self-important than many a man in his position might have been. In fact, left to his own preferences, he would have made this trip without fanfare, preferably accompanied by only Hathan Shieldarm, his wind brother, and Bahzell, Brandark, and Vaijon. That, unfortunately, was out of the question for one of the Kingdom's four great barons, especially now, and so he was accompanied instead by no less than thirty armsmen and ten pack horses loaded with the camping gear, provisions, and other paraphernalia for a party that size. (An Axeman noble probably would have used wagons; a Sothōii nobleman, painfully familiar with the Kingdom's roads, knew better than to try any such thing.) The armsmen in question wore the boiled leather armor and cuirasses of typical Sothōii light cavalry, and however unassuming Tellian might have preferred to be, the men of his personal guard hadn't been selected at random. They rode easily and comfortably, relaxed in their saddles, but their eyes were busy and alert, watching for any threat even here.

"It makes me feel like a troupe of traveling actors," Tellian grumbled now. "I mean, he's playing drinking songs! When he isn't playing something better suited to a brothel, that is. I mean, did he have to treat us to 'The Madam's Cross-Eyed Daughter,' of all things? Couldn't he at least play something serious?"

"Fair's fair, Milord," Vaijon put in with a grin. "I'd say your armsmen are enjoying the music. Of course, I could always get one of them to ask him for something more serious. Like, oh," he glanced at Bahzell, blue eyes dancing, "what was the name of that song…It's on the tip of my tongue. Something Bloody Hand, wasn't it?"

"And if you were to be so foolish as to put any such notion into his head, it's in my mind you'd likely come to a nasty end, my lad."

"It might be an improvement after all, though, Bahzell," Tellian said helpfully.

"That it wouldn't be," Bahzell informed him firmly. "Besides, I know it's been a while, but I'm not so sure as how your lads are really all that happy even yet with that verse of his about the 'Battle of the Gullet.' It might just be that if he was after starting in on that one they'd be having a thing or three to say to him about it."

"That was the entire idea, Bahzell," Vaijon explained.

< And a good one, too, > Walsharno said helpfully.
"I heard that!" Brandark called, never turning his head as he rode along in front of them. "And I've been working on another little piece, Vaijon. It's about a human who ends up running a chapter of the Order of Tomanāk full of hradani."

"Oh, it is, is it?" Vaijon grinned. "Go ahead -- I'd love to hear it! But if you do, then next time I set out on a trip with you, I'm bringing along the dancing girls and the troupe of acrobats to help you entertain."

"I've a feeling the lads wouldn't be all that happy about the acrobats, Sir Vaijon," Tarith Shieldarm, the commander of Tellian's escort, said. "But the dancing girls, now -- they might not be so very bad an idea."
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