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.She grabbed Linsha’s ankle one afternoon and pulled her under the water until Linsha was half dead from lack of air.Whenever she could get away with it, she chose Linsha as a partner during practice skirmishes with the bell clubs, sticks, or wooden swords and fought with such a vicious intensity that Linsha found herself covered with lumps and bruises.Fortunately none of the other women joined Malawaitha in her petty spitefulness.They were too cowed by the Empress.But they looked askance at Linsha as if they expected her to do something, and they did not help her.Most of the time they turned away from the human woman in their midst and pretended she did not exist.This frustrating state of affairs went on for another six days until one evening Malawaitha slipped up beside her in a dim corridor on the way to the evening meal.One moment Linsha saw someone slide out of a darkened room as she passed and the next a hand grabbed the chain around her neck and yanked.The strong chain did not break but tore into her skin and pulled her off balance.Pain burned into her neck.Yet the pain did not burn nearly as hot as her fury.Without a sound she spun and swung a vicious punch into Malawaitha’s midriff just below her breastbone.As she hoped, the Tarmak was completely unprepared for such a move.Her fist sank into Malawaitha’s unprotected belly and drove the air out of her lungs.The tall woman grunted and doubled over, her hands clutching her stomach.Linsha’s fingers closed over Malawaitha’s long braid and yanked her head up to Linsha’s eye level.“Touch these scales again and I will kill you.”Malawaitha did not understand the words, but she caught the intent of Linsha’s threat quite clearly.“One day Lanther will give me scales,” she hissed in her language.“And you will be food for the Emperor’s dogs.”Linsha translated most of it and almost made a slip by snapping a reply in Tarmakian.Instead she bit her lip hard and thrust Malawaitha away from her.At that moment the Empress sailed into the hall, followed by her slaves and several of the lesser ranked females.She raked her dark eyes over both women and her expression darkened.“There is blood on the neck of the Drathkin’kela.What have you done now?” she demanded of Malawaitha.Without waiting for an answer, she strode up to Linsha and examined her neck and the chain with the dragon scales.Angrily she turned on the younger woman.“I am ashamed for you.You know the rules of the Akeelawasee, yet you flaunt your desires in our faces.There are times to challenge and times to let patience rule your actions.Do you understand?”Linsha did not entirely understand.There seemed to be layers of meaning in the Empress’s choice of words that were beyond her limited comprehension of Tarmakian.But Malawaitha understood quite well.She bowed low and stood meekly when the Empress said to her slave, “Take her to the Room of Chastising and give her seven lashes for the attempted theft,” then she swept on to the dining hall with her servants in her wake.Linsha watched them all go until she was alone in the hallway once again.Slowly she turned on her heel and walked back to the dormitory where her sleeping cell gathered the first shadows of evening.Her appetite forgotten, she lay down on her pallet and her fingers closed around the dragon scales.A deep, wrenching longing welled up inside to see her friends again.Any friendly face would do: Sir Hugh with his blunt easy grin, Leonidas (preferably without his crossbow), Falaius Taneek, or even the healer, Danian, with his hawk and his red-haired apprentice.But more than anyone else, she desperately wanted to see Varia and Crucible.Especially Crucible.She would not have believed it was possible back there on the fields of the Red Rose, but the big bronze had become a vital part of her life.When she rejected him without giving him a chance to explain or giving herself time to think, she had torn her life apart.She had sent him away to live or die without her, and now all she had was an aching vastness in her heart and a regret that grew larger in her mind like a cancer.She wanted so much to see him again, to sit in the comfortable, reassuring circle of his neck and tail and talk to him as they used to do.Perhaps in time she could understand why he hadn’t told her about his human shape, the shape she had known so well as Lord Hogan Bight.Perhaps.But now it was probably too late.She was trapped in this distant land where he could not find her, held hostage in a palace with a hateful rival and a promised husband she despised.Crucible, for all she knew, was dead.Linsha lay on her pallet in the gathering darkness and silently cried for lost friends.It was a long time before she found the solace of sleep.Malawaitha’s Choice5“I’m invited to a what?” Linsha said, hanging upside down from a bar.She was using the bar to strengthen her stomach muscles by doing upside down sit-ups.It was an exercise she hated, but the results were worth the effort.“The Akkad’s initiation,” Afec said patiently for the second time.“There will be a ceremony and a feast.”“What is this ceremony?” Linsha asked while she bobbed up and down.“During the afternoon the Emperor, his guards, the high-ranking warriors, the priests, and certain officials of the court perform rites to prepare the dead Akkad-Ur for his journey in the afterlife.They then complete the ceremony to name Lanther Darthassian as the Akkad-Dar, the new warleader of the Tarmak hosts.”“And I have to go to the ceremony?” Linsha inquired.“No.Women do not attend military ceremonies.”“Why not?” she demanded.Sweat ran down her face, or rather up her face, and dripped on the mats below.She puffed for air every time she swung her upper body upward.“I’ve been to plenty.Several initiations of rank, several knighting ceremonies, a vigil for a Legionnaire.I went to a military wedding, too, and I’ve seen my share of military tribunals.”Afec sighed, knowing she wasn’t paying strict attention.“Women do not attend military ceremonies.That is simply Tarmak tradition.”“Fine.Fine.I don’t want to go anyway.” She swung up again, grabbed the bar with her hands, and dropped her legs to the ground.“So what is the feast? Will Lanther be there?”“The feast is held for the entire court.The Akkad-Dar has specifically requested that you attend.”“Oh?” She wiped her face thoughtfully with a small towel.“And he will be officially instated as the warleader.I wonder what he plans to do about Malawaitha.”“I’m sure I don’t know,” Afec replied.“But for your sake I hope he treads carefully.He will not want to insult the Emperor.”“I don’t suppose I could just slip out, go down to the docks, and catch the next ship back to Ansalon?” Linsha said, half in jest, as she stretched to ease her aching abdominal muscles.Afec looked appalled.“Lady, I beg you.Do not do that.There are no ships that go to Ansalon except the military fleet.You would be caught and put to death, and the warleader himself could not prevent it.”Linsha had been talking partly in a wishful way, but the adamant tone of the old slave gave her pause.While she had examined several ways of slipping out of the palace, she hadn’t had a way to check out the city and look for any avenues of escape from the island.The news that there were no ships that sailed to Ansalon-anywhere on Ansalon-was bitter indeed [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]