I did not envy Dutiful. I had no advice to offer him. I sat myself down on the low stone wall that marked the edge of the young orchard. I lifted my hands to my face and rubbed my cheeks, as a man does when he has had too much to drink and seeks to drive the tingle from his face. I hoped folk would think me drunk and leave me sitting. I did not relish watching Dutiful go through his dilemma, but I dared not leave him. I sagged my shoulders and set my head as if staring into the distance while watching out of the corner of my eye.
Dutiful made an effort, speaking stiffly. “Perhaps I respect Narcheska Elliania too much to take what she has not offered.” I could feel his steely determination not to look at her breasts as he said this. His awareness of them, bared and warm so near him, was taking its toll.
He could not see the look Elliania cast to one side. That answer had not pleased her.
“But you don't respect me, do you?” the little minx taunted him.
“No,” he replied shortly. “I do not think that I do.”
“Then there is no problem. Show your boldness and kiss me!” Lestra commanded him triumphantly. “And I will tell her if she is missing anything worth having.” As if to force him to the act, she leaned forward suddenly, thrusting her face at him, even as one sly hand flew toward his groin. “What's this?” she crowed mischievously as Dutiful shot to his feet with an exclamation of outrage. “There's more than a kiss he has waiting for you, Elliania. Look at it! An army of one has pitched a tent for you there! Will the siege last long?”
“Stop it, Lestra!” Elliania snarled. She too had come to her feet. Her cheeks blazed with color and she did not look at Dutiful but scowled at her enemy. Her bared breasts rose and fell with her angry breath.
“Why? You've obviously no intent of doing anything interesting with him. Why shouldn't I take him? By rights, he should be mine, just as by rights I should be Narcheska. And will be, when he takes you off to be a lesser woman in his own mothershouse.”
Several of the girls gasped, but Elliania's eyes only blazed hotter.
“That is among the oldest of the lies you tell, Lestra! Your great-grandmother was the younger twin. Both midwives said so.”
“First out of the womb is not always oldest, Elliania. So many say. Your great-grandmother was a mewling, sickly kitten of a babe. Mine was the hearty, healthy child. Your great-grandmother had no right to be Narcheska, nor did her daughter, or her granddaughter, or you!”
“Sickly? Indeed! Then how is it that she lives still, as Great Mother! Take back your lie, Lestra, or I will cram it down your throat.” Elliania spoke in a flat, ugly voice. It carried well. I was not the only one who had turned to watch the quarrel. When Dutiful stepped forward, mouth open to speak, Elliania put her hand flat in the center of his chest and thrust him back. The young girls formed into a ring now around the potential combatants and he found himself outside it. He looked toward me as if for help.
Don't intervene, I think. Elliania has made it plain that she doesn't want you to.
I hoped my advice was good. Even as I attempted to Skill the situation to Chade, I saw Peottre. He had probably been lurking just out of my line of sight at the building's corner. He strolled over to the low wall where I sat and leaned one hip on it casually. “He should stay out of that,” he said to me casually.
I swung my head and regarded him blearily. “Who?”
He stared at me levelly. “Your prince. He should leave this to Elliania to settle. It's woman's business, and she won't welcome his interference. You should convey that to him, if you can.”
Peottre says, Step back from it. Let Elliania settle it.
What? Dutiful demanded in consternation.
Why is Peottre speaking to you? Chade demanded.
I don't know!
To Peottre, I said, “I'm just his guardsman, sir. I don't advise the Prince.”
“You're his bodyguard,” Peottre replied pleasantly. “Or his . . . what would it be in your language? His chaperon? As I am for Elliania. You're good, but you're not invisible. I've seen you watching him.”
“I'm his guardsman. I'm supposed to guard him,” I protested, letting the words slur a little. I wished I'd thought to have a glass of wine. The smell of spirits can be very convincing.
He was no longer looking at me. I turned to stare up the hill. There was a shout behind me from the door of the mothershouse, and I heard other people emerging. The two girls had gone into a clinch. With apparent ease, Lestra threw Elliania onto the ground on her back. Even at that distance, I heard her breath whoosh out of her. Peottre made a frustrated sound and he twitched in that small way that experienced fighters do when they are watching a prized student compete. As Lestra flung herself on top of Elliania, the smaller girl suddenly drew her knees up to her chest and firmly kicked her opponent in her midsection. Lestra shot backward, landing badly. Elliania rolled to her knees and, careless of her fine gown and coiffed hair, flung herself on top of Lestra. Every muscle in Peottre's neck and arms was taut, but he did not move. I came to my feet to gain a better vantage and gawked, just as the other Buckkeep guardsmen were doing. The Outislanders who had emerged to watch the struggle were interested, but not intent. Evidently, for girls or women to wrestle in this manner was not shocking to them.