Îra stood abruptly at his last word. Aichan stepped forwards, stretching out a hand to greet her. “It is my pleasure to meet you, marquísa,” he said in a deep voice, trying to look into her eyes.
She ignored him. “Commander,” she protested, “surely there is a mistake. I am a squad leader, and squad leaders never have partners. I don’t need him! I can do this on my own.”
Çawl chuckled softly to himself. “Ah, Îra. I believe you both will learn valuable lessons from working together.” She started to protest, but he held up his hand. “I know as well as anyone that you are a perfectly capable, independent woman, but trust me, I have plans for you that I would never consider allowing you to attempt alone.”
“But—’’ she started again.
“That is my final say,” Çawl pronounced. “Now, I will leave you two to get better acquainted.” He nodded at the two, who bowed slightly to him, and left.
Îra felt Aichan’s eyes upon her, but she refused to look at him. Insufferable man. Who does he think he is, if he really expects me to fall for him like others do after he comes in here and wrecks my reputation? Does he not know how difficult it is for a woman to gain the same standing as a man, even if she is the granddaughter of the great marquísa Kâtirai? Now I have to share what I’ve earned with some pretty face who thinks he can just walk in here and pick up everything I’ve struggled to earn during the past thirty-one years, not to mention making me the laughingstock of the entire Rebellion. Who ever heard of a squad leader having a partner?! Instead of looking at him, she picked up her sword. She heard Aichan gasp. “Is that the sword Lûemikärœth, in truth?” he asked.
“Yes, it is,” she confirmed. So, then, he has studied the history of sword craft, she thought with an internal smile.
“I have read much about this sword and its history,” he said, “though my last information was that it belonged to the great marquísa, Kâtirai.”
She finally looked at him, returning her sword to its sheath. “It did,” she said innocently, “but my falladue gave it to me on my fortieth birthday.” The look of shock on his face was priceless.
He stuttered. “You are…a Raiite, then?”
“Half Raiite,” she replied.
“You look young for one who is only half Raiite, yet has lived more than forty years,” he observed.
“I am also one-eighth kât,” she explained.
“I am half Raiite, also,” he offered. When she did not respond, he asked, “How did your grandmother come by the sword?”
She looked impudently at him. “Why, you yourself said it belonged latest to her,” and she knew great pleasure as his jaw dropped in understanding. “The chore of showing you the castle falls to me,” she said. “Let us get it over with.”
He frowned at her obvious dislike of him and followed her out of the room.
Îra was training one of her quísah in special dueling maneuvers when Fallajon scurried across the training room to join her. “Marquísa, you will never guess what just happened,” Fallajon exclaimed, her excitement brimming over.
Îra removed her helmet. “You are learning well, Gondacîh,” she told the knight. “Go and tell Charnekk I say you two should practice together for an hour, then do your chores before supper.” The quísah bowed then rushed to find his brother Charnekk and obey his leader.
That done, she turned to Fallajon. “What happened?” she inquired.
Fallajon pulled her to a bench and said, “I was in the armory, and there was a new transfer in there being fitted in the heraldry of Bethjuedt. He is sooo handsome and courteous! His name is Aichan, and he is a marquísah. Word has it he is a squad leader, and that the Commander gave him a partner. Who is so fortunate as to be his partner, I wonder? Everyone here loves him already.”
Îra frowned darkly and informed her roommate and friend, “He is my partner.”
Fallajon gasped. “Oh, you blessed girl! Have you met him yet?”
“I have, but blessed is the last thing I consider myself. I cannot stand the man! He is so—so, chauvinistic! Men like him are the reason that we are the only women squad leaders in the Bethjuedt division, and there are scarcely a handful of female captains in all of Rai,” she ranted.
Fallajon protested, “Oh, come now, dear, surely he cannot be that bad. He was nothing but manners when I met him!”
Îra ignored her and continued, “And who ever heard of a squad leader having a partner? It is so humiliating! It isn’t enough that I have labored for more than thirty years to get this position, but after I have it, I’m made to share it—an unheard-of event—with a male supremacist. Do you think my quísah will have any respect for me when they hear of this? No!”
The girls were quiet for a while, Îra fuming over her plight, Fallajon letting her calm down some. Finally, Fallajon spoke. “Îra, dear, I do not think people will think less of you because of this. Everyone knows how capable you are and respects you deeply—especially your quísah and our fellow squad leaders, and even the captains and the Commander,” she observed. “And we all respect the judgment of Çawl; and he often has wider plans that he does not tell us about. He fits his name, ‘He Who Knows.’”
Îra sighed. “I suppose you’re right. I wish—if he had to give me a partner, why couldn’t it have been someone like Pôtheem or Vander?”
Fallajon laughed. “I don’t think there are any men sweeter or more brotherly than those two dear boys,” she agreed.
“I know!” Îra agreed. “Remember when you were sick last year, and they convinced the cook to make that delicious beef stew, then Vander brought you up a huge bowl of it and managed to get it past everyone else without losing a single spoonful?”
“And when your dad died and they debated with the Commander for half of the day to convince him to let you go home for a month rather than three days?”
Someone in front of them cleared his throat. The girls looked up, startled, to see Aichan. They stood.
“How pleasant to find you here—it is Fallajon, is it not?” Aichan asked that lady, flashing her a winning smile.
“It is, marquísah Aichan,” she replied, returning his smile. “What a wonderful memory you have! After all the people you have met so far, I am honored that you remember me.”
“How could I forget the name of a beautiful, talented lady such as yourself?” he asked. “And please, call me Aichan.”
Îra coughed softly. Aichan glanced at her, as if reminded of an unpleasant reality he would rather forget. “Marquísa,” he said emotionlessly, acknowledging her presence.
She narrowed her eyes and nodded at him. “Marquísah.”
He turned back to Fallajon. “Do I detect a slight Rôdúan accent in your voice, my lady?” he inquired with interest.
“You do, indeed,” she said.
“What a marvel! I myself grew up in Rôdúeh,” he enthused.
As they chatted, Îra’s mood, which Fallajon had lifted, darkened. Finally, she could handle it not longer. “Fallajon, dear, I have some things to see to. Will you excuse me until supper?” she asked her friend.
“Oh, of course!” Fallajon said. “Sorry for keeping you waiting.”
Îra left them, holding her head high and proud. I cannot stand that man!!! How will I ever manage to be his partner?
 Kâtirai: “Kât/Nymph of the River;” Kâtirai is one of the top marquísa and has been for over 100 years. She is one of the prominent figures in the story preceding this one.
 Lûemikärœth: “Light in Darkness” or “Slayer of Falsehood”; this sword has been traditionally passed down to the female champions of Maraiah, originally the sword of Raïballeon sister of Savíayr, secondly the sword of Stewardess Jennoëvre. At the time of this story, it had grown in the thought of most into a legend or even a myth.
 falladue: “Second Mother”; the Maraian term for grandmother
 Raiite: descendent of Raih, fourth son of Maraiah. To Raih’s descendents were granted gifts of superior sensory functioning and long life. As Raih, not Lacashain, was given the birthright, the kings of Maraiah were all descended from Raih.
 kât: “Spirit;” generally equivalent with nymphs.
 Fallajon: “Mother Loves”
 Gondacîh: “Voice/Speaker of Comfort”
 Charnekk: “Hearer of Promise”
 Pôtheem: “Full of Friendship”
 Vander: “To Follow (as in, to follow Aia’s leading)/Leader”