A Match for the el Maiens Ch. 06
Please leave comments for me. Thank you! (Diolch.)
Vadya walked Midnight slowly down the hill into the river port of Paviat. He had enjoyed a riotous three day journey with Tashka and Pava doing imitations along the way. Pava had made up a particularly successful one of an amorous old court Lady, pretending to look over a fan at the two of them and calling them 'naughty boys' and making Tashka giggle so much that once he fell off Jewel.
Vadya was nervous coming into a Sietter town although there was currently no open enmity between H'las and Sietter and he and Tashka were in civilian clothes, not the black and blue H'las uniform. He wondered whether to give another name at the inn.
As he looked about him he was disagreeably struck by the dingy evidence of poverty. The Vail country villages they had passed through had seemed prosperous and healthy. Was it because Paviat was so much bigger a town that its people seemed ragged and thinner? Surely in Port H'las there were not so many empty shops. He saw that Tashka had dismounted beside a group of pinch-faced women queuing at a bread shop with children clustered to their skirts.
Pava was smiling affectionately. "The little lamb had always a tender heart," he said. "He feels the responsibility - as if it is any matter of his."
"Responsibility to Sietter folk?" Vadya asked, frowning.
"Uh, er, to the poor," Pava said. "Because his family is also so poor." He grinned.
"Oh yes!" Vadya said scornfully. "That is so evident from his wardrobe!"
Tashka's summer riding suit was of cool black linen and he was even wearing a gold bird studded in his ear on a simple journey through the countryside. Vadya saw Tashka swing up onto Jewel away from the women whose grey faces were raised to him with grateful expressions. Vadya's mouth quirked in a smile, Tashka never could bear to see children in poverty. Tashka's face as he rode up to them was angry and he rode past without speaking of the low quality bread the women were trying to buy, the miserable wares set out in the few shops that were not boarded up, the people who sat in huddled groups on street corners instead of enjoying a cake and a bowl of tea in a comfortable café.
As they rode on into Paviat, the road changed from mud to cobblestones and the shops became bigger and full of choicer goods: a rainbow of silks on display, a row of jewellers' stalls, a vegetable stall with fresh greenery and colourful young root vegetables. There seemed to be few people out buying, however. The shopkeepers wore anxious frowns as they idled by the racks of goods they had laid out so tidily that it was evident they had too much time on their hands.
"There will be little custom at the Ship Inn," Tashka said when Vadya suggested Pava give his name for all their rooms. "Since there is no accord with H'las, the merchants do not come up from Port H'las and this town is empty. The landlord will be well glad to have someone of your quality to stay. He may even give you a better room in hopes that you will tell the H'las merchants to come back to Paviat." He looked sombrely at a row of seamstresses' workshops where the women were sitting out on the pavement in the summer sunshine, chatting and playing with their children because they had no work and no money to send the children to school. In H'las there was free schooling but that was not an expenditure Lord Pava el Maien van Sietter found useful. He argued that allowing children to work cheaply instead of getting learning beyond their proper place in life encouraged business to come to Sietter.
They clattered into the cobbled yard of the old Ship Inn. The cheery yellow paint on its timber-framed front was peeling but the yard was kept weed-free. Two grooms came straight out of the stables to take their horses' reins with faces bright and eager to see well-appointed travellers come to Paviat.
The landlord himself had come out, he came down the stairs at the front of the inn. Even his plump cheerful beaming smile seemed muted, his skin hung around his jowls and his jacket on his shoulders loose as if he had recently lost some firm fat that had sat comfortably around his tummy and hips. However he spoke up pleasantly: "Commander-Lord el Gaiel, Commander-Lord el Jien, Captain Maien. This way, your Lordships ... Captain." He looked uncertainly at Tashka, Tashka gave him a long hard stare and he smiled deprecatingly, bowed low and ushered them into the inn. "You have had letters," he added, handing a packet each to Pava and Tashka.
"Some coffee? Some wine?" he offered, directing them into the sitting-room. The big light room looked out over the stables opposite and you could see through the many little panes in the window all the way down the hill to the boats tied up at the dock. There were comfortable armchairs and sofas in cheerful colours pulled up to make companionable groups around the room but they were all empty apart from one armchair near the fireplace where a lean young Knight in the livery of King's Herald was dozing with his despatch-box chained to his wrist.
Pava and Tashka drifted over to the broad wooden sill of the window where some cushions were arranged to make an appealing seat, tearing open the packets of paper in which their letters were wrapped. The yellow sealing wax on each packet had no seal stamped into it, Pava was grumbling that it must be his tailor, how had the man found out his direction. Vadya asked for beer for them all and picking up a newssheet he flopped into one of the squashy comfortable armchairs.
"Gracious Angels!" Pava exclaimed loudly. Vadya looked up at him. Pava was staring at his letter. Tashka gave him a savage shove. He looked at the young officer then at Vadya and said in a careless tone, "what an invoice. I am sure I must have had a suit dripping with darling emeralds all the way from the mines of the H'velst Mountains to cost this much!"
Vadya looked back at his newssheet. It was full of speculation about better trade relations between H'las and Sietter. Vadya thought what that might mean for Port Paviat and also for Port H'las where he knew that his father had had to pay out heavily in order to keep businesses that would otherwise have been prosperous from being ruined.
"It is from Anna," he heard Pava hiss, "inviting me to the Castle!"
He was not interested in Pava's affairs but he was surprised to hear Tashka whisper back: "Yes, I know. Shall you come then?"
"What, I come to Clair's place?" Pava murmured in a sour tone.
"Come to my home and Anna's," Tashka replied. "Will you not be glad to see Ladda again?"
"Are her poor bones still rattling around the castle?" Pava laughed softly. "Oh-h-h! Angels. Is Anna serious? She has writ that Clair himself asks me to go, most particular."
"Why would he not?" Tashka asked. "He has always loved you, Pava. Have you forgot how he and Hanya sat by your side every night turn by turn when you were so ill in Falaise?"
"Do not talk to me of Clair and Hanya," Pava's voice was strangely gentle. He did not sound like his usual flippant self, Vadya thought he sounded as if he were about to cry. "Hanya is gone: Hanya, with those eyes like ice and under them the heart as warm as summer. He died for Clair but I had rather Clair had lost at Shier Bridge and Hanya could be with us still."
"Do you not think Clair feels as you do?" Tashka's voice was husky with sorrow. "How can you deny Clair one friendly visit when he has lost Hanya forever!"
"My dear, leave it, leave it!"
"And Clair? Who lost Hanya and who loves you so much but you will not give him your small finger in friendship. You know it well, he would never have married Anna if van Sietter had not forced him to it yet you tried to give him your glove for it - your brother officer!"
"Tashka, the woman is worth the sun and moon and stars! Woulds't have offered a glove yourself to any who spoke slightingly of her except that she is such a pacifist. How am I to feel watching Clair giving her the go-by for such a quantity of trash going in and out his bed?"
"You are a fine one to blame Clair for a few one-day-one-nights. And what is Clair worth to you? The soiling of a glove when he marched and laughed and fought by your side: your brother officer."
Vadya was staring blankly at his newssheet. Shier Bridge, a brilliant victory for Commander-Lord Clair el Maien van Sietter of Fourth Sietter, Pava's brother officer, but hardly a subject that H'las soldiers ought to talk about so carelessly; particularly if they were referring to Commander-Lord el Maien only by his first name. There were two thoughts running through Vadya's head side by side. The first said it was absurd to think that a Sietter nobleman would join a H'las troop - except as a spy, and if they were sending a spy what for would they send a nobleman? The second said: Captain Maien, so keen for the honour of Lady Anastelle el Maien van Sietter?
"My Angel," Pava said huskily, "my baby Lieutenant, give me peace. Has't always kept my heart twisted in your fingers. Little Lieutenant-Lord Tashka el Maien van Sietter, what a dance woulds't lead me back in Fourth Sietter. They must miss you so much, those other Angels who thought woulds't be their Lord General and who will always be for you through Hell and through life. Although I give it you, the H'las colours show off your beauty well, my dear."
Vadya stood suddenly up from the armchair, the newssheet falling to his feet. He turned a brown face twisting with fury to the two of them. He saw Pava's face stricken with horror and Tashka: those exquisite blue eyes came up to him wide, the rose-petal mouth opening in appeal.
"Hear me!" Tashka cried, reaching pleading arms out to Vadya. "Oh my Commander! Hear me!" but Vadya turned and ran from the room, furious with the idea that beat at his brain: 'Tashka is a spy! He was sent to spy on me!'
An hour later it was Pava who came to look for him. He found Vadya sitting on a grey stone wall across the road from the hotel. Vadya was staring down the winding street below the wall, down to the broad river in the sunny distance, thinking bitterly how much he hated sneaking spies and trying to convince himself that Flava Trait would be an excellent Captain, better than Tashka. Although he would struggle with those two butterfly-witted aristocrats, they were hard enough for Tashka to handle ... but Trait would probably do much better. Possibly.
"Halloo my darling!" Pava was standing cautiously well back from him. "Ar't angry still?"
"How can I not be angry?" Vadya demanded but his face as he turned round was forlorn not angry, "suddenly finding an el Maien van Sietter in my troop, brother of the man who defeated us at Shier Bridge, an officer himself of Fourth Sietter, the very troop that decimated Fifth and Ninth H'las so horribly?"
"Tashka is no spy," Pava said, sitting on the wall beside him.
"I know," Vadya replied. "He has defended my honour and even saved my life but why did you put him in my troop? It was you who sent him me, what made you send me an el Maien van Sietter?"
"I will tell it you," Pava said. He settled grumblingly on the hard stones of the wall and looked into Vadya's face with a gentle guilty humour in his eyes. "Three years back, his father came proposing a match that was ... impossible."
"Why was it impossible?" Vadya asked.
"Never mind why, dearest Vadya," Pava said evasively. His green eyes narrowed in a momentary glare. "We knew that van Sietter would have him killed if he gave him the No, van Sietter hates him so much. He would be nearly as glad of the excuse to kill him as of the chance to bestow him to make a tie somewhere!"
"How can a father want to kill his own son?" Vadya objected.
"Listen," Pava leant close to him and stared into his warm brown eyes. "van Sietter is not like your papa, dearest. He is a snake. He thinks that Tashka is not his child, he is convinced he is the child of a servant. It is for that reason that van V'ta, Tashka's uncle, is also out for Tashka's blood. He wants to wash off the shame of his sister's affair with her servant in Tashka's blood." Vadya looked incredulous, Pava made a dismissive gesture. "van V'ta lives by the Northern code.
"We had to look about for somewhere to hide the little flower. I suggested as a joke an H'las troop. Tashka had been an officer of Fourth Sietter - he was too young for them to agree to take him to war but still van Sietter would never expect him to be willing to serve in H'las. But Tashka took me serious, he was happy to think of going to H'las because he says the structure of the command is the best in Trossia. Then he heard that hads't a vacant Captaincy and he started begging me to use my influence with you. I said it was too dangerous but he said the risk would be worth the candle-flame. I wrote that letter recommending him to your notice. And everything I said in it was the sweet truth, is it not? Do not deny that Tashka is the fine officer I promised you he would be and a loving friend to boot."
Vadya shrugged, his eyes turned down to where his fingers pleated up the edge of his green linen riding jacket. "You should know," he said shortly. "He was your Lieutenant in Fourth Sietter, is it not? What a fool I am not to have guessed it, the way you talked about and with him. I never imagined that a Sietter man would have the insolence to present himself in an H'las troop so I thought there must be other reasons for your love of him," he scowled in embarrassment. He had even thought they were lovers when Pava had been Tashka's senior officer. Pava winced at the bitter tone in his voice. Vadya went on: "So why did the ... scum stay in my troop? Is his father still searching for him?"
"Oh no," Pava replied, looking away down to the river with a more normal mocking grin. "After a year van Sietter said he did not care what became of darling Tashka so I sent to him and offered him Ninth Vail, I thought I would give it up to him because I love the pretty cherub so and I wanted him to have at least some rag of the military career he deserves. He ought to make Lord General one day, only his stupid papa is so against him and when we say Clair will make him a General he says the structure of the command in Sietter is not of an acceptable standard! Such cheek, he was always sure of himself that one. I thought I would get him a Commander's banner, my parents are not military minds so they would not understand why an el Maien van Sietter ought not to be in charge of some other region's troop and the Generals in Turaine would kill for the privilege of having him even if it was just in the field! But the little so-and-so, he would not come back to me. He said he did not think he was fit yet to be Commander, lying little fox, and that he just liked to be with Sixth H'las and you."
Vadya looked away down the street to where the river sparkled in the distance and thought, 'he likes to be with me,' and felt like bursting into tears.
"Does't not know how happy he was to come and be your Captain?" Pava asked. "When he was a baby Lieutenant he heard of some strategy of yours and ever since he used to try to get the H'las despatches so he could read about you. Clair and Hanya used to tease him about it, they could make him cry with temper if they said were't but a scum in the H'las chain of command uselessly focussed on duty of care. He thinks the way the chain of command is organised in H'las is superior to any other region and he thinks of you as the tip-top flower of military skill, my dear! When wrotes't to offer him the Captain's sword there was no managing the baby, he was that proud to go and be given his sword by you - the sworn enemy of his family."
It made Vadya feel so stupidly thrilled to think of Tashka as a baby Lieutenant following his career in the despatches that he could not look Pava in the eye. "Where is he?" he asked gruffly.
"He is in his room," Pava answered, swinging his grin back onto Vadya's face. "He says shall't throw him out of Sixth H'las and his heart is broken and he wants to die. I never saw anyone in such despair! Shall't throw him out?"
"Of course not," Vadya said with a sudden grin back at him. "You have met my other Captains, what fun would Sixth H'las be without Tashka? and I am sure his Quarter would desert - even to Sietter! if I did throw him out. But Pava, I cannot say if it can be. My father and the Generals' strategic staff are sure to be suspicious as to why an el Maien van Sietter would wish to serve with me. My father loves Tashka well; he has been seeking to make accord with van Sietter, he may even approve, it would make a tie between the two regions but I must speak of it with him."
"Do so, my dear," Pava said lazily, getting up off the wall and rubbing his bottom ruefully. "We had better go and tell that little lamb how things are or he will throw himself on his own rapier, convinced that shall't never love him the more!"
Vadya lifted one knee up and rested his chin on it, asking, "Clair el Maien, he is your friend, is it not?"
"No," Pava said grimly.
"Why not? You were friends. You trained together as baby Lieutenants. What happened to break your friendship?"
"Why," Pava said. "He married my own favourite cousin, Arianna el Jien. I was in love with her, sithou."
"But you love so many women."
Pava sat back down on the wall again with a smile that curled sorrowfully in his eyes. "Oh no," he said. "I have some fun with some women. She was the only one I ever truly loved, my first love. Although Maive - but we are both the oldest, it cannot be. Ah yes, Arianna el Jien, walking like an Angel in spring in a meadow in Iarve. She is the cleverest woman in the land yet made to hold a man's love. Her laugh is like the sound of streams in summer and her eyes are like the summer skies. Sweet Hell! Clair used to tease me about her but he himself would admit she is a beauty worth dreaming over. Then one day my father called me out of Ninth Vail to tell me ... van Sietter and her pig of a brother had stitched this match up. I thought Clair would slip the knot and run away with ... run away but the next I heard he had walked her to the altar at court. What a cold empty marriage for them and Angel of Baya, what a tragedy for this poor fool Pava el Jien, to see his best friend married to his beloved cousin!" Pava's green eyes staring up at the old Ship Inn were as hard as stones. "I tried to write to Anna, to persuade her to run away with me. I know not where I thought I would take her, my mother loves me and papa is a soft-hearted fool but for sure they would not shelter a runaway van Sietter bride! She answered ... so coldly, it broke my heart again. Later I found out Clair had his reasons for what he did but what did I care? I took my anger out on that arrogant cold-hearted scum who married my sweetheart without caring a copper coin's curse for her beauty or her intelligence or the warmth of her shy kisses."
"What is he like, Clair el Maien?" Vadya asked hesitantly. He had heard a lot about young van Sietter, who was his age and had fought in the same war as he had - on the opposite side. They said he was the most beloved Commander of the Sietter army, that his junior officers would have followed him to Hell. They said Shier Bridge was worse than Hell but the juniors and men followed him into the valley there and that afterwards he broke his heart so badly over what he had put them and himself through that he went off to court and broke everyone-else's hearts. They said he was the most desirable man at court and as scandalous as his mother. His grandmother in duty bound said they talked a lot of horse-manure about young van Sietter and that he was a high intelligence and she was proud to call him a friend - but then she was quite scandalous herself.