A Match for the el Maiens Ch. 04
Copyright © 2015 Naoko Smith
Please leave comments for me. Thank you! (Diolch.)
One of the sentries was running through the camp. Vadya lifted his head from the diagram of the Palair box disposition which he had been drawing on a board. The young Lieutenants seated on the ground in front of him turned to look where he was looking and Basra got out of his folding canvas chair and stared down the hillside.
"Sir!" the sentry shouted. "Captain Maien is coming!"
Tashka's four Lieutenants got hurriedly to their feet. A huge smile lit up Vadya's face, he put the chalk down and said, "to Quarter," to the junior officers but Basra scowled at Tashka's Lieutenants to make them wait.
Tashka was riding at a smooth gallop up the green hillside from the ford, with Commander-Lord Pava el Jien van Vail and a clutch of Ninth Vail officers. Tashka slowed to a trot, came neatly up through the excited groups of soldiers and swung off his grey horse Jewel, handing his reins to a waiting trooper with a warm smile of thanks.
He was wearing yet another new suit: grey and blue, his blue shirt had a white lace edging and he had a sapphire and pearl earring hanging from one ear. He looked like the choicest dressed young Lordling fresh from court.
He strolled lazily over to his commanding officer with that characteristic sensuous roll to his slim hips in thigh length riding boots. There was a sniggering grin on his rose-petal mouth. He gripped Vadya's shoulder with his left hand. Vadya grinned shyly back, giving the firm muscle of Tashka's arm the sort of casual clasp which brother officers give each other. Tashka was his junior, he ought to have gone to his knee and pressed Vadya's left hand to his forehead but Vadya was in the habit of treating him more as an equal. Vadya flicked Tashka's earring with one finger. Tashka shrugged a shoulder and said: "It is a present from Pava," by way of excuse. His impish smile said he was wearing it just because he loved to dress well.
"Darling!" Pava called across. "We have brought you a picnic. I am sure woulds't be happy to provide for us but to be per-fectly honest, campaign biscuits are not quite to my officers' taste!" Even Pava, with his blond hair elegantly cut too long for the army, his big el Jien frame more softly muscular than the hardened bodies of the active soldiers around him, clad in an embroidered green cotton that brought out the colour of his laughing green eyes, and with a string of emeralds in his ear, was not quite as choice as Tashka.
Vadya, laughing and protesting the quality of the food in his troop, went to greet young Lord van Vail. Tashka went to greet his hovering clutch of Lieutenants. Vadya swung round with Pava's hand in his grip to watch them swarm up to him with their babble of chatter, thinking that it was no wonder he was so pleased to have his Captain back. Those eager young cubs had run him ragged with their nonsense. They were as bright as their own polished buttons, they were forever laying out the tents in some interesting new disposition, arguing with each other about the qualities of manoeuvres Tashka had taught them and insisting on having his thoughts about the Maien Tiger and that was when el Darien forgot to throw his lightweight arrogance about to tease Lein about his politics.
Hanya and Flava looked mockingly at Tashka's earring but Tashka only grinned and turned his head so that the sun sparkled off it. He put his arm around el Darien's shoulders and drew young van Trattai to Pava's attention, saying: "Volka is chasing your cousin Sevie's skirt!" and making him blush. Then he went to take a quick look round his Quarter.
Vadya's man-servant Batren brought out Vadya's black and gold rugs and the embroidered cushions which Vadya had as a gift from his cousins in P'shan. He and Pava's serving men spread them in front of Vadya's tent in the shade of the entrance flaps raised to make a canopy and began unpacking the picnic hampers.
Tashka came running back through the encampment to the other three Captains of Sixth H'las. Fiotr Araine said: "What is that in your ear? Some special medal you got for outstanding conduct in flirting?" and Tashka dragged him into a mock wrestling match, his lean muscular body rippling like a fish out of Fiotr's hard hands.
Pava had brought the two of his Captains who were serious soldiers. Although everyone said his troop was just a play troop he did actually take some of it out on manoeuvres. He would say he did it to keep his figure trim for dancing. Tashka introduced the Ninth Vail officers and sat with all the other Captains, discussing manoeuvres and troop movements, the elegant earring twinkling as he moved his head. The bluff rough army Captains looked shyly at him in his lovely suit but they listened intently to anything he said.
Vadya and Pava sat in the cushions in the shade in front of Vadya's tent, a little way from the Captains on one side and the aristocrat-Lieutenants on the other. Vadya had last seen Pava at his party, surrounded by scantily dressed women and visiting officer-aristocrats, quarrelling with a magnificent brunette. In his green suit he looked just as foppish as he had done then.
"Did your friend forgive you for sending her to the inn while you let Tashka sleep in your tent with you?" he enquired with a smile. He watched Pava covertly to see if the young Lord blushed at the mention of Tashka sleeping in his tent but Pava only gave a lazy snigger.
"Hartha?" he said. "She remained very annoyed that I would not give her the tent with such a lovely sweetmeat as Tashka. She left with a kind-hearted Knight-Captain from Avror who said he would, er, take good care of her till he could see her safe with her mama." Pava's eyes glinted humorously in the sunshine. "She is a sweet slut," he said, "but my darling, I do not think your papa will be pleased if I introduce Hartha to your consideration for a bride!"
Instead of laughing and punching Pava in the arm, Vadya looked off into the distance, his big generous mouth screwing up. Pava looked curiously at him. "Why ar't so serious?" he asked, "I will find you a suitable girl if ar't thinking of the succession for the sake of the region. Angels! I have had to shuffle enough women off my fingers in my time." Vadya reached out and gripped his arm to make him stop.
"My father has writ me," he said. "There is someone he has found for me."
Pava made a sympathetic grimace. "Who is it he has chosen?" he asked.
Vadya looked away down at the stream below the encampment and shrugged. "He does not say," he said softly.
Pava screwed his face up at this. He put his hand on Vadya's hand on his arm and squeezed it, saying: "Your father is kind and loves you well. He is like my mother, he will never force you to a match."
"Have they ever put a match to you then?" Vadya asked.
Pava sighed, turning his handsome blond head to look at the woods in the distance. "Yes," he said. "I was betrothed, or nearly, twice. The first time, my cousin Arianna, I would have wed her with a singing heart but her brother had some more important tie he wished to make." Vadya saw Pava's face turn unexpectedly bleak in the sunshine, unlike the laughing careless expression the young Lord usually showed to the world. "The second time, my mother slipped the knot for me. My father was fooled into setting up the match but I went to the Generals ... I mean I asked my mother and she slipped the knot. I would marry any woman my mother found it necessary for our lovely region to be tied with and look for my pleasures outside our marriage bed – except that one. Your father is like that, Vadya, if it not be a good match for you, he will slip the knot."
Vadya looked gravely at Pava. "I must think of H'las," he said. "Whoever the woman be, if it be in our region's interest, I will take her and be true to her, I swear it."
Pava raised his eyebrows. "Oh do so, sweetness," he said in amused tones. "I only think of Pava el Jien. To keep me true, any woman my mama find for me must be intelligent, sweet-natured, with big breasts, devoted to me, an Angel in the kitchen ..." Vadya was laughing but he knew that it was the same for Pava as for him. If Pava's mother (who was the oldest child and had inherited the Vail region; his father was a younger son of the el Jiens van Iarve) wanted him to make a match that was in any way reasonable Pava would take the woman and abide by his vow to her – at least for a time.
"You would not be like el V'lair van Athagine," Vadya said. "That poor woman, Lallia el Farin. Her brother is one of my Lieutenants. When we met el V'lair and Tenth in a tavern in Thiel last year we had a struggle to keep Hanya from el V'lair's throat. He did not even take a glove from his belt, just made for el V'lair with bare hands!"
"Oh, Lallia," Pava said casually. "She escaped going to bloody Athagine to be chained and now they have broken her marriage."
"Your pardon," Vadya said. "I forgot el V'lair is a friend of yours."
"No he is not," Pava replied with unusual coldness. "On any road, how dids't keep young van Graiel from his throat?"
"While we were holding him back, Tashka came into the tavern," Vadya replied. "I know not what Tashka has against el V'lair van Athagine but he went to him straight and hit him so hard that he broke his knuckles. He still carries the scars of it and I will swear el V'lair has a mark on his chin. I should say Tashka broke el V'lair's jaw from the way he lay on the floor after."
"Tashka broke his knuckles in Tarra el V'lair's face?" Pava sat up, turning his head to stare at Tashka with a peculiarly knowing grin.
Vadya sat up at this sniff of a clue to the mystery which had always shrouded his junior officer's background. "Yes," he said drily, "it is strange, is it not? that Captain Tashka Maien, a mere lesser aristo from Vail, should have any thing against Commander-Lord Tarra el V'lair van Athagine. When he went to hit el V'lair, el V'lair was laughing as if they knew each other well. el V'lair did not even raise his fists in defence yet Tashka struck him thunder and lightning."
"Who said Tashka was a lesser aristocrat from Vail?" Pava responded cheerfully. "He is plain Captain Maien."
"Oh yes," Vadya said scornfully, "and he can afford two matched horses and whatever weaponry he wants to buy himself, plays enormous sums of money at cards and wears a sapphire and pearl earring from Commander-Lord Pava el Jien van Vail as if it were no more than glass."
"I wonder why he waited so long to give it el V'lair," Pava mused. He put one long finger up to his full mouth and put a kiss on it which he blew at Tashka, who had turned his head as if sensing that they were talking about him. Tashka sniggered that wicked dirty laugh, tossing his head and getting up to go to where Batren and the serving men were starting to hand out the food.
"Well ask him then," Vadya said mockingly. "I am glad it is not only I who have questions about plain Captain Maien who is not a lesser aristocrat from Vail but was recommended so highly to my notice by Commander-Lord el Jien van Vail."
Tashka – excellent young officer that he was – had secured three plates and three bowls of wine on a tray and was coming over to sit with them. Pava called teasingly to him as he walked towards them. "My darling, whyever dids't take so long to give it good and proper to that scum el V'lair van Athagine?"
The smile dropped suddenly from Tashka's startled face, lifted to them. His eyes narrowed and he looked away across the camp, coming to a halt with the tray of food and wine in his lean tanned hands. His scarred right hand clenched on the edge of the tray, making the bowls of wine tremble. He looked up at Vadya with his slanted blue eyes wide and soft, as if tears might come into them, as if he were saying: Why did you betray me and tell of that?
Vadya had never seen Tashka cry, not even when some scum in Thiel pulled a dagger on him and tore his back open, after calling on the Angel of Mercy. He felt stricken that he had been the cause of upsetting Tashka. He got hurriedly up and went to help hand out Pava's food and wine, saying: "There is nothing in it for us."
Tashka sat down and looked quickly at Pava, a darting anxious blue glance. "Have you always known?" he asked. Pava nodded his head with a smile so gentle, so understanding – of what? that it made Vadya stare. "Do not tell Clair," Tashka said. "Tarra is Clair's friend and ... and he was ... I like him – a bit," he said defensively but Pava only smiled, "so I never sought him out but when I saw him ... he had that bloody grin on his face to see me!" His pretty face suddenly twisted in a vicious snarl and the cold killing gleam came into his eyes.
"Am I likely to speak to Clair?" Pava replied with a wistful smile.
Tashka looked back down at his scarred knuckles and Vadya said: "On any road it was a famous fight!" They grinned a wordless male grin, sharing the memory of a smoky old tavern full of flying fists and a glorious disorder of men all engaged in a hand to hand battle that would not end in death and terror as the real business of their lives sometimes did.
"el Gaiel tells me he is to be betrothed," Pava said in an obvious attempt to change the subject.
For some reason Vadya felt a nervous chill as he looked to see how Tashka would take this piece of news. Tashka's tanned face had become quite still and his eyes had gone cold again, he did not look at Vadya but away at the horizon as if he were not interested in some political marriage which had nothing to do with the business of the troop.
Hanya el Farin van Graiel was walking towards them, he turned his graceful clear dark face to Pava with a smile, saying: "Pava el Jien van Vail," in semi-formal greeting. Vadya did not mind el Farin hearing about his betrothal, he knew el Farin would not gossip about it.
"It cannot be my cousin Sevie," Pava said speculatively, "since she is caught up in el Darien's heartstrings. el Darien has a little sister but since he is your junior officer you already have a tie with Trattai, besides she is too young."
Tashka sniggered suddenly, back in his nose. His slanted blue eyes came round on Vadya flashing with his wicked laugh. He said, "yes, a sweet little virgin sewing silk cushion covers in Trattai Castle."
"If el Darien hears you, he will give you his sweet little virgin silk glove," Pava said.
"No he will not," Tashka said with another snigger. "I am his sweet little senior officer."
"She sounds a most proper maiden," Vadya said crossly. "You must not talk so of Lady el Darien, Maien." He looked away but out of the corner of his eye he saw Pava, Tashka and Hanya el Farin exchanging grins to his irritation.
"You are unlucky to miss Sevie el Jien," Tashka sniggered. "What a storming beauty!" he nudged Pava. "Breasts and hips as big and soft as your pillows with that little waist she got from the riding, golden hair like the summer sun rising and eyes like summer skies."
"The older sister, Lady Arianna el Jien, is a great beauty, is it not?" Hanya el Farin put in. "And an high intelligence."
Tashka's blue eyes came round to el Farin in a curiously narrowed stare but then they flashed back at Pava with an enigmatic sparkle in them. "Are you thinking of writing a poem in praise of her high intelligence?" he said.
Vadya and Hanya el Farin snorted with laughter; it was widely known that el Maien van Sietter had given el Parva van Selaine the glove and deliberately cut him in the face over some ridiculous epic poem he wrote about the famously chaste Lady el Jien – Pava's cousin who was bestowed off on young van Sietter. Pava looked cross.
"There is Maive el Staten, of course," Tashka said, the glint flashing in his eye becoming wickedly teasing. Hanya el Farin looked up at Vadya who started blushing. Everyone in Sixth H'las knew he had once stopped out all night with the buxom young Lady el Staten whose whole family were notorious sluts.
"Maive!" Pava exclaimed. "That pink-fingered vixen! Your father would never ask you ... what?" Tashka was nudging him. "Oh. Um, well, a most delightful young woman ... lovely breasts ... I mean mind. But not for your marriage bed, my dear."
"Shush, she is el Vaie's cousin," Tashka said through another snigger, jerking his head at the Lieutenants a little way off. "He is ... sensitive about his family's honour."
"There is the daughter of the el Marins," Pava suggested. "She is a delicate piece of china if you like to take your tea in a delicate china dish. I saw her ankle in the dance once – ver-ry nice." Vadya looked aside in mortified embarrassment. "She reads darling little scrolls of poetry and paints pretty pictures of puppies and kittens which you could stick up in your lovely box-desk to moon over."
"Oh Lisette," Tashka said, lolling back on the rug and cushions. "She is no high intelligence to trouble you with a lot of stuff about politics, just clever enough to turn her pretty eyes and wave her pretty leg at you and hook you to her way."
"There is an el Shosta daughter is it not?" Hanya el Farin put in.
"Ah yes," Tashka said drily. "Clipping rider to the hounds and a voice that can be clearly heard admonishing the houndsmen across three regions. The el Shostas have no truck with any clever artistic nonsense of course. They are an excellent solid kind of people who breed good strong army officers." Vadya's face became so glum at this prospect that the other three could not look him in the eye without bursting into unsympathetic laughter.
"You have a younger sister," Hanya el Farin said to Pava but Pava shook his head, saying, "Vee's preferences make her ineligible to marry among the high nobility." Hanya el Farin's smile at Pava had a tinge of regret in it, he knew his own father was looking about for someone to bestow on him. Pava's sister was a charming and vivacious beauty. Hanya was sorry to have it confirmed that the el Jiens of the wine-producing Vail region would not be able to bestow her on any of the sons of the high nobility. After the disastrous attempt to palm off his sister on el V'lair van Athagine el Farin had refused to countenance a match until his father broke his sister's marriage. His sister was finally and happily settled and el Farin turned it over in his mind to ask Tashka who among the daughters of the high nobility might suit his brother.
"Is there not a younger el F'lara Lady?" Pava was asking. el Farin tried not to show how keen he was to hear more about this younger daughter of the wine-growing V'ta region. "Your ... your um, somebody knowest of."
Tashka shot him a sharp look and said, "Lady Ilya el F'lara van V'ta is too young," in a stuffy voice. "She can barely 'broider a napkin, some silk shirt for a commanding officer is quite beyond her needle and thread. She has never yet learnt to give a 'no' so if you are willing to wait, in time she will make you a perfect little mouse-wife. While you are waiting for her to um, learn to ... sew a shirt, she will embroider the whole set of napkins and a tablecloth to match. She might even learn to give a 'yes'." Pava rolled around the rug laughing at this.
By now Vadya was feeling extremely annoyed about this list of the high nobility fillies being trotted out for his consideration. The objective and knowledgeable assessment Pava and Tashka put forward made most of them sound proper maidens appropriate for the hand of el Gaiel van H'las but also boring and he was suspicious as to how Tashka Maien had come by such a complete catalogue of their virtues – or vices, which he probably knew even more about. "If only there were an el Maien daughter," he said crossly. "I would know it well who my betrothed might be! the way things are with Sietter and ourselves."