A Match for the el Maiens Ch. 07
Please leave comments for me. Thank you! (Diolch.)
The seabirds cried above, Vadya sniffed the salt tang of the air and felt a stiff breeze in his hair. It was a cloudy day with occasional sudden shafts of sunlight making the choppy waves in the estuary sparkle. There were flags hanging out on Vadya's caravel and the sailors raised a huzza! as his boat went by, he waved his hat to them and they waved spontaneously back.
He saw his father on the quay, a broad greying soldier with a gentle bearded face, wearing a long dark robe.
The Port H'las band was there to play Vadya off the boat and into his father's embrace. There was a great crowd of people cheering him and the Port H'las Guard gave him three huzzas, to his embarrassment. His father had come down in the carriage, it was dull to ride up to the castle inside a carriage although at least they did not have people thronging round getting in the way of their horses in order to shout their love and gratitude to his father and their affection to him. As he looked out of the windows at prosperous people in many-coloured garments merrily engaged in choosing and buying wares and eating out in shops and at wayside stalls, he thought of the poverty he had seen in Port Paviat. His father's warm brown eyes were looking not at the shops but at him, Lord van H'las was asking about Fiotr's wedding which they had celebrated earlier in the year and about the raid on Second Thiel for ten cases of Pava's white wine.
They went to his father's office as usual, a big room lined with bookcases of papers, his father's desk was piled with stacks of more papers. By the fire, his father had a clutch of old leather armchairs with his pipes in a rack on a table and a drinks cabinet conveniently hidden behind a fake bookcase. The square castle set on the hill above the port was full of reception rooms and sitting-rooms but since Vadya's mother had died, these had slowly become cleaner and tidier. General-Lord van H'las retreated from the maid-servants and dusters as he had never done in the field of battle and settled himself in the room where he spent so much time with his seneschal, secretaries and fellow Generals.
He got out a special whisky with a gleaming look of pleasure. Vadya preferred brandy himself but to please his father he was happy to take a bowl of whatever his father brought out. "I found this in a small shop at court," van H'las said conspiratorially, sitting heavily back in his chair with a squeak of leather, his silk-draped knees comfortably spread out. "Ten cases! And half the price that I would have paid in Port H'las, I tell it you." His father was convinced he was good with money but Vadya knew that his generosity made heavy demands on an income which the dwindling trade through Port H'las had reduced. There were often arguments with the seneschal about taxes van H'las did not wish to raise and funds out to support his people which the seneschal would sometimes absolutely refuse to countenance.
As Vadya sipped the whisky, which offered an aromatic and smooth yet hot taste in his mouth, he looked over at all the papers scattered on his father's desk and asked: "How in Hell do you manage with all that? Did you always have Prianne Fidor to help you?"
His father pulled a grimace. "I am so lucky to have him," he said mournfully, "and he makes me so cross! Can you imagine, now he says I must make a tax on the boats mooring up the river. Only because some poor fisher-folk have taken to tying up on the river banks when they cannot afford the port duties."
Vadya laughed. "You mean some smugglers!" he exclaimed.
van H'las looked shifty. "Well," he said, "they let us have brandy and wine at a good price. It is a saving!"
"You will have to let Prianne set the duty on the river banks," Vadya said with another laugh. "You cannot be countenancing smugglers!"
"I suppose not," van H'las said with a sigh. "They promised to bring a fine old brandy down from Athagine," he put in temptingly. Vadya shook his head, smiling. His father said: "You'll have it all to do yourself some day."
"Not for many years, I trust!" Vadya replied with a grin. "You can have the smugglers a few years more, papa."
"I am well glad you have had a good summer in Vail," his father said. "You suffered in V'ta in the spring."
"There were a couple of problems," Vadya said slowly, turning his small bowl in his big brown hands and staring into it. His father looked at him in query with gentle brown eyes.
"You know Tashka Maien," Vadya said. "He is a fine officer who has demonstrated great loyalty to us." His father raised his eyebrows, one seamed by a scar, at this. He knew perfectly well how loyal Tashka was, he was the one who decorated Tashka for his action in V'ta. "I have always hoped that one day he would take a General's ring and serve me in strategic all our lives," Vadya said. "I love him ... like a brother."
"And?" van H'las said carelessly, taking a delicate sip of his whisky with an appreciative sigh. "Tashka Maien is the one for me! I confess it, I would have him to my staff if I could steal him from you but I know his life is hung on your banner." His eyes lifted. "Maien is a great friend to you. He seems content to remain in the field and I allow it because I too imagine we will reward his loyalty to you one day. I deliberately held him back so that you two would develop that close working relationship which will enable him to serve better as your Major General." He gave an affectionate smile, tinged with rueful humour. Tashka had frequently stripped him of cash at cards on visits with Vadya. One over-enthusiastic night he won so much money off van H'las that when he realised what he had done to his most senior officer and host he tried not to take it. Of course the Lord General insisted on paying such a heavy debt of honour. Tashka used the money to buy a set of cannons, saying he had never understood why they had not utilised Castle H'las' strategic position overlooking the port in case of a sea-based attack.
"Well ... it is, that Tashka is not plain Captain Maien," Vadya said hesitantly.
"Not plain Captain Maien?" Lord van H'las repeated in a puzzled voice. "Does it matter who his family are? Is he born the wrong side of the bed, is that it? I have always thought he must come from an aristocratic family. Who is he, then?"
"He is ... Lord Tashka el Maien van Sietter," Vadya answered.
There was a long silence. Lord van H'las' face was frozen, he sat with his small whisky bowl in his hand, staring blankly away. His mouth moved but no words came out. Vadya began to feel miserable, it did not look as if his father would pass the matter off lightly as Vadya had started to hope he would.
"Damned Hell!" Lord van H'las said suddenly in a peculiar hoarse voice. "Tashka Maien! Surely ... he can drink the mess dry, and that story about the farmer's daughter ... Holy Heaven, he has been with you in the field three years! And ... he is your junior officer!"
"Y-yes," Vadya said in an uncertain voice. "But papa, he is loyal. I swear he was not put in the troop to spy on us."
"Sweet Angels of Light!" van H'las' face was suddenly full of rage, Vadya sat back in astonishment, he could not remember having seen his father so angry. "What is that damned dog Pava el Maien about! I will ... no, oh Hell! I cannot!" His face seemed to crumple up, twisted by a despair that Vadya felt was out of proportion to a simple request that a loyal young officer who happened to be from an enemy region's ruling family should be allowed to remain at his post. "We have got to accept it!" van H'las exclaimed. "I see it now! He is hoping to insult us and drive us to war again. We cannot go to war again, the people have suffered enough. Oh but my boy, my Vadyan," his face turned to Vadya was full of trouble and sorrow. "What am I asking you to do?" Vadya looked at his father, waited. His father sat in silence, biting his lip and frowning to one side, turning the small bowl of whisky in his hands, shaking his head and forming words with his lips only to reject them.
"So ... Tashka may not," Vadya began but his father interrupted him, saying: "L-let us talk of your betrothal."
They looked at each other in the grey bright light that fell through the big square windows of the office. Lord Esha's face was troubled and unhappy. Vadya shrugged and his face became gentle and mild.
"Papa," he said. He blushed to hear his own gruff voice come out with the childish word when they were talking such adult business. "My marriage must be thought of some time. There is no special woman in my life and I have always known I might not be able to choose my own bride. We must think of H'las. I came through Port Paviat, papa. I was so surprised by the way people there have to live. Some of them are hungry! You can see it in their faces. I do not want to be the cause of our people in Port H'las and Port Ithilien going hungry. I only ... if she might be a pleasant woman, you know that I will do everything to make ours an happy marriage." He looked pleadingly into his father's eyes with clear gentle brown eyes.
His father would not meet his eyes. He said, "even a betrothal would help. You might keep a betrothal for a year while trade settles. That might be enough."
Vadya's heart felt heavy inside his chest. "Let me know her name at the least of it," he said, attempting a light tone of voice.
"She is ... her name ... L-Lady ... er, Anastelle el Maien van Sietter," his father said.
Vadya's eyes widened in surprise. Through his brain danced all the images of the honourable Lady Anastelle el Maien van Sietter he had made up out of the comments he had heard. A quick-brained warm-hearted woman with sexy eyes and a lovely leg. A fine dancer and rider and someone who instead of giving you some boring bit of lace for your shirt might take your shirt off you at cards. An Angel of a woman as far above an ordinary man as the stars. A woman he had been told he would not have the good fortune to marry. There was a flutter at his heart, a romantic surge of emotion that he profoundly mistrusted. This daughter of his mother's cousin from V'ta and that old snake van Sietter, there was little chance that she would be a gentle creature like his own mother. Did she favour her heartbreaker of a mother, who had scandalously crossed the boundaries of decency in an affair that was still talked about, or the cold heartless politician who was her father? Did she favour her brother who was already so close to his heart, whose beauty had possibly lured Vadya into a kiss nearly as forbidden as the ones her mother had succumbed to?
Then he thought of Tashka. What would it mean to them if he married Tashka's sister, the woman whose very name caused his junior officer to reach for his weapons. That merry wit and the quick-thinking strategic mind, the tall lean muscular body, slippery as a fish in wrestling, skilful and strong in defence of his fellow soldiers in battle. Would he ever again share a book or a story of the day's manoeuvres or a ride in the early morning when the birds were barely singing and the mist was still on the ground with his young Captain who could make his heart jump in his chest with the joy of life? Would he ever again lift his eyes from the campaign table of maps, and meet those laughing slanted blue eyes full of warm admiration and love?