"Hello, Miriam." She sat alone at the table as I entered my apartments. "Where's Imogen?"
"Um..." I'd only asked because I never saw the one without the other, but her hesitation to answer worried me.
"Where's Imogen, Miriam?" I inquired more insistently. Not too forcefully, because cowing a shy 13 year-old takes minimal force.
"I don't know," Miriam admitted, "She went somewhere with Corporal Kemptrux."
"Miriam, did Imogen want to go with the corporal?"
"Uh-huh," Miriam nodded enthusiastically.
"That's alright then. As long as she wanted to go." Really, it wasn't all that surprising with the two teens being together all the time. "We'll have to see about getting you a soldier too," I ruffled her hair, "in a few years maybe. For now, you should probably get to bed, no?"
"Without Imogen?" She'd probably never been without her sister at night.
"I'm going to read for awhile. Want me to read aloud?" I offered.
Miriam nodded. I read by candlelight in the servants' quarters until she fell asleep. Late as it was and dull as siege planning is, she dropped off quickly and I moved back to the table to read.
Not for the first time, I considered that I'd a household full of teens and no adults to run things. While I'd little use for a valet myself, maybe having a proper adult in my service to look after all the kids in my service wouldn't be the worst thing.
Two hours later, Kemptrux and Imogen tried to sneak in quietly.
"Milady, we were just..." Imogen trailed.
"Off being teenagers?" I suggested helpfully. "It's alright. But probably time to be off to bed now, Imogen?"
"Yes, milady." She hurried off.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Time got away from us," Kemptrux apologized.
"Don't worry about it. And don't feel like you need to sneak around. But you will be getting up with the dawn and me to go riding, so you'd best get a couple hours of sleep," I clarified, "in your own room."
Dawn came quick. Kemptrux definitely moved and responded more slowly than she should have, but a lack of sleep is its own best chastisement. The dog-tired corporal might rethink staying out so late next time, especially since she couldn't even indulge in complaining of an exhaustion that was her own damned fault.
My maneuvers and halts remained crisp and precise. Savaran's hooves pounded clouds of dust up as he cut and wheeled cleanly in and out of hard galloping. Only my searching distracted me, peering between the merlons and in the windows for the early sun to be reflected off a spyglass. I thought I saw a flash a few times, but couldn't be certain.
Seven bells rang out. We returned the horses to the stables and ourselves to my rooms, whereupon we met Vostiv.
"Good morning, ma'am. I'm Vostiv, twelfthborn of Miwirdya." She wore the carob and hunter green of House Miwirdya, so that wasn't terribly surprising. The 'v' at the end of her name, versus the 'x' that I'm sure would be there one day, denoted an expected warrior yet too young for caste designation. I instantly liked her for her stalwart bearing and confident tone.
"Well met, Vostiv. I'm Lieutenant Taiglox, thirdborn of Trijox, House Laerdya. This is Corporal Kemptrux, 1st company, 1st guardswoman regiment, 2nd division, House Laerdya. What can we do for you?" I liked her, but didn't understand her purpose.
"Ma'am, I've been assigned to your household by Princess Yonjax. I'm to be your page." Assignment as a page is not at all unusual for great houses, where young nobles can make connections and learn advanced skills by being placed in the households of other nobles. Since the connections and skills I had to offer were all cavalry related, I assumed Yonjax sent her to me for training ahorse.
"Page?! You're a whole bleeding book aren't you?" The girl stood almost nose to nose with me in height and had already filled out some and built up some musculature. Pages were usually between six and 12 years of age, maybe as old as 14, but not the hulking womanchild before me. "How old are you?"
"Twelve, ma'am," she beamed, "I shot up several inches this year." Yonjax choosing me made even more sense. The girl would already wear heavy armor with relative ease, but might break the back of a light cavalry jennet once she finished growing.
"Well, welcome, Vostiv," I clapped the youth's shoulder, "We're grabbing some breakfast. Won't you join us?"
We all sat at the table and ate. Kemptrux scarfed hers quickly, but Vostiv had to answer my questions.
"You plan to join the warrior caste, Vostiv?"
"Yes, ma'am," she agreed reflexively and paused, "It's my hope that, if you find me worthy, I might become your squire someday."
"Ah," I shared a glance with Kemptrux, "I'm not a knight actually."
Vostiv's face fell for a second, but her bearing was such that she regained her composure as quickly as she lost it and didn't speak her disappointment.
"But, as a member of my household, I'll seek out a proper knight whose service you can join. In the meantime, I am a cataphract in the Queen's army, so I can't teach you all that stylish tourney pageantry, but there's no one better to train you to ride in battle and to kill from horseback."
"That sounds excellent, ma'am."
"To that end, do you have any page-y type studies you're required to attend?"
"Yes, ma'am. From 9 to 10 bells we meet in the West Forum to study heraldry, history, and sciences."
"Good. Continue that. You'll also join Kemptrux and me from dawn to 7 bells for riding and from 5 bells to dark for weapons training. Between riding and weapons training you'll find no less than two hours to study proper warcraft texts. Other than that, do as you like mostly."
Vostiv queried, "You don't have any duties for me?"
"Maybe message carrying? I keep my own kit and tack. So will you. Imogen and Miriam handle everything else."
"I don't have any kit or tack, ma'am," Vostiv admitted, "Pages aren't bought such things."
"Well, my pages are. Kemptrux could use new gear too. I'll take you both to decent smiths when I get a free day. Until then, you'll need to borrow from the fortress guardswomen for training."
"Thank you, ma'am!" they chorused.
We finished eating and Kemptrux excused herself, but Vostiv stayed. "Ma'am, you have your guardswoman sit your table and eat with you?"
To be fair, Vostiv was honestly asking about a behavior she didn't understand and not intentionally insulting Kemptrux. I felt compelled to start her martial lessons with a correction to her attitude all the same. "Yes. If a woman is good enough to shed blood for my Queen, she's more than good enough to eat at my table."
"I'd not heard the thing put such a way," Vostiv frowned and nodded, years of not seeing guardswomen as whole people dimming her view, "I should think on it."
"Do, but," I warned, "to be a successful military leader, you're going to need to adopt that attitude in the field whether you agree with it or not. Never eat better, ride less, sleep more, or train easier than those who follow you. Don't be stingy with money, spoils, or credit and don't be above any soldierly pursuits."
"Or they'll mutiny?" she whispered, glancing about like a young girl naming a ghost.
"No," I laughed at her childish seriousness. "Mutineers forfeit their honor and place in the army. It's only a theoretical last resort in the event of untenably dishonorable orders. More of a folktale than a modern practice."
"Then why should the esteem of soldiers be so highly valued?"
"You won't keep higher command without the esteem of your soldiers. No general wants her principal officers to garner only hostile obedience and malicious compliance, to be undermined at every turn by followers who want her to fail. The most successful military leaders are loved and respected, so that soldiers will follow them willingly against any odds."
"Huh," she nodded and mulled as she ate. I let her, mulling my impending date myself.
I glanced at Vostiv. Her dark hair and dark eyes looked so familiar. I should have realized it sooner.
"How are you related to Princess Yonjax?"
"Our mothers were natural sisters," Vostiv answered, too carefully.
"Making Princesses Yonjax and Caeli your close cousins." Thinking back to Kemptrux's consternation and Yonjax's intended planted spy, I added, "You should feel comfortable in telling them in detail about anything you see or hear while in my service. You needn't feel conflicted."
Vostiv exhaled in relief and nodded.
"You'll bunk with Kemptrux. I think the two of you can shore up each others' honest ignorances about how the other half lives. Go ahead and settle in."
"Now, I have to clean myself up. I've a date with a princess."
Bathed and dressed in my finest clothes, I reached the gardens' entrance long before Yonjax arrived and spoke idly with some guardswomen posted there, one of whom I'd trained with the night before. The garden itself was contained within the large fortress, encircled by its high slate stone walls and watered by a flowing freshwater spring. Through the garden gate, I saw a cornucopia of vibrant plants growing along manicured pathways.
"Taiglox, good to see you. Caeli's running a bit late," Yonjax explained as she strolled up with her hetaireias, "Did you get a chance to meet my little cousin?"
"Yes, although 'little' probably isn't the word."
"I know. Strapping isn't she?" Yonjax fairly beamed, "A half dozen quality years as a squire and an Academy education, and I bet she'll be knighted at eighteen. Great rider, too. I think she could be a Master of Cavalry one day. That's why I thought she could learn a lot from squiring for you."
"Not a knight, Yonjax."
"Oh, sorry. You're being knighted this week."
I bristled, "I'm an honest soldier, fighting for Queen and country, not for entertainment. I am not going to be a pouncy knight."
"You're going to reject a knighthood from the Queen, then?"
"I am going to be a pouncy knight," I capitulated instantly, if without enthusiasm.
"Attagirl. Don't worry overmuch. It's just so that you're a better suitor for Caeli." Yonjax pointed to a group of four guardswomen walking with Caeli. "Speaking of."
My intended wore a plummy blue flowing dress - girded and accessorized in gold, - her dark hair plaited and wrapped in gold netting, and carefully applied cosmetics that made her deep dark eyes brighter, her applecheeks flusher, and her plump lips fuller. She shined through all the fashionable dress though, a beautiful person in her own right.
"Hi," she greeted us softly as she reached us.
"Hi," I realized that I had been and still was staring.
"Hi," she repeated, looking down a little.
I didn't want to say 'hi' again. "You beautiful. I mean you look," I corrected myself, "You are very beautiful."
She smiled shyly. Her mouth opened and closed again, like she wanted to say something but willed herself to say something else. "You're very...tall." She glanced up at me thrice.
"I am tall," I agreed rather stupidly. I swear I had operated within my own language previously to some success. Yet I felt as incompetent as if my language were foreign to me and I was pulling out the few basic words I knew in an attempt to explain complex concepts with a rudimentary vocabulary.
She smiled again, but Yonjax interrupted us, "This is going to be a long two fucking weeks."
Caeli turned to the impatient Yonjax, "You promised," she insisted with a determined look and a wag of her finger, apparently not shy with her big sister.
"I did promise to be nice," Yonjax agreed and gestured for the guards to open the garden gate. "Why don't you two walk on ahead and look at the plants?" She pointed to her little sister, "Most of them are beautiful," then she pointed to me, "and many of them are tall."
Caeli held out her hand, "I'm afraid that's as nice as Yonjax gets," she apologized.
"I gathered, Princess Caeli." I offered her my arm. Her hand and wrist slipped under, fingers resting on my forearm just outside the crook of my elbow.
"It's just Caeli to you." Her fingers seemed to be feeling along my forearm and her wrist continued to rub my bicep. I absolutely flexed. "We're to marry, after all."
"Hello then, Caeli." I loved the way her name tasted on my tongue.
"No!" Yonjax broke in, "Stop that. Walk forward. Look at the damned flowers."
"Shall we, Caeli?"
She nodded eagerly.
We trod at a moderate pace along stone edged walkways. Greenery of all sorts lined the path, arching over in places. Lovely flowering bushes and blossoming trees, climbing vines and low shrubs, and aromatic herbs and spiky cacti, the gardens really represented a massive botanical spectrum of beauty.
"Do you walk here often, Caeli?" I found a way to say her name again.
"Yes. It's pretty and it's sort of outside."
"I like it, too. Amazing that the gardeners can get plants to grow here from so many disparate native regions."
"You know flowers?"
"Somewhat. It's important to know what edibles and succulents can be foraged in various foreign countries. Others can be indicators of geographic location, seasonal change, and impending weather. I've a couple books on regional flora and fauna that I can lend you?"
"I don't read," she answered quietly.
"Well, not everyone enjoys reading," I responded neutrally, but a dislike of reading was the first and only thing I'd learned about her that was negative to me.
"It's not that," she admitted, seemingly ashamed, "I don't know how. I'm not allowed to learn."
"Oh." I frowned and glanced back in confusion at Yonjax, who followed us at a respectable chaperoning distance that was near enough to hear and far enough to feign not hearing. Forced illiteracy made no sense to me, given Caeli's affluence and leisure.
"Traditionally, highborn noble ladies like Caeli are not taught to read prior to marriage. After marriage, it's your call," she explained helpfully.
Caeli's stiff upper lip was a testament to her willpower, because her arm shook in mine. She needn't have worried.
"Of course you may learn to read," I answered the question Caeli remained too decorous to ask. "I can teach you before the spring campaign and we'll see about getting you a tutor when I leave, if you want one."
"Thank you!" She threw her arms around my neck and her body therefore against me. I settled my hands on her hips, unsure if hugging her back were allowed.
In that moment, I realized that there was little I wouldn't do for her appreciation and affection, but could hardly say that on our first day of courtship. I laughed instead, "It'd be a bit of a waste to send letters home otherwise, Caeli."
"You'll write to me?" Her face turned up toward me and her lips parted. Yonjax, and the implications of the six armed hetaireias with her, checked my urge to kiss my beautiful princess who was not yet technically mine.
"Sure," I'd never had a sweetheart to write home to before, "They might be awfully dull though. 'It was windy yesterday.' 'We drilled again today.' That sort of thing."
"Doesn't sound dull to me," she sighed and laid her head on my shoulder.
"Ahem," Yonjax chimed in, "We seem to have stalled a bit in our walk here?"
"Sorry, Yon," she released me, but retook my arm, "But drilling isn't dull. I've watched you drill in the yard a few times," she admitted to me.
"I'm glad I interest you, Caeli," I answered easily and made her blush.
"Do you normally ride on that big gray horse?"
"Yes. His name is Savaran. You can ride him if you like?" I thought of my reading gaffe and amended, "Do you like to ride?"
"Yes, very much."
"We can go now, if you like?"
"Um, I'm not really...prepared for that right now."
"Don't worry," I misread her hesitancy, "He's safe as a lamb. He won't hurt you."
"It's not that."
"We can finish seeing the garden first."
"No, I can't," she sounded disappointed. I'd disappointed her.
"Nevermind then. We can do something you'd like better?"
"For fuck's sake, Taiglox, look at how she's dressed," Yonjax lost her lenity with my density. "How's she going to ride a warhorse in a damn gown?"
"Oh," That made sense. "I'm sorry, Caeli. No practical experience with lovely gowns, I'm afraid. We'll go riding another time?"
"No, I'm sorry. I want to wear something that would..." she started, but didn't finish the thought for embarrassment.
"Don't be sorry, Caeli. I go riding every day. Seeing you in that dress is a much rarer and more satisfying treat." I'd finally said something right, because Caeli's eyes shone.
"Pfff," Yonjax voiced her irritation with the growing smarminess.
Caeli shot a quick dirty look back at her sister.
Yonjax grinned unapologetically, but made her sister an offering. "Heoldax is leading a hunt in the royal forest tomorrow. Why don't you two go along?"
Caeli squeezed my arm.
"I'd love to," I agreed.
"Alright. Stable at 6 bells, Taiglox."
"Yes, ma'am," I accepted the order instinctively.
"Good. Tomorrow is Heoldax's turn to be bored by your courtship anyway."
We approached a large open area, cobbled with tiny pebbles, where eight paths all met. At the center of the cobbled flat stood a huge fountain, topped by a nude black stone naiad rising majestically above carved marble waves. Sparkling and tinkling freshwater flowed from her outstretched hands into the base of the large fountain.
A dozen musicians stepped forth from another path, playing a mix of woodwinds, horns, and harps. Even I recognized them all as traditional instruments for formal dances, and so I could reasonably anticipate Caeli's next question.
"Do you dance, Taiglox?" Caeli asked me coyly. The set up was far too obvious to be denied, so we tacitly ignored it instead. We all pretended that the musical troupe had appeared on that spot at that time quite naturally of their own volition.
"I'm woefully unschooled in dance," Her face fell for a second, which I couldn't abide. "But I'd like to learn, if you'd teach me?"
She smiled and the world grew brighter.
I'd lied a little about wanting to learn to dance specifically, but the physicality did attract me. Dancing was a socially acceptable activity in which I could touch and hold my future bride with an enticing level of intimacy for a public courtship, so I was both glad and flattered that she'd set it up.
Caeli put one of my hands on the small of her back and held my other outstretched. Her own free hand rested against my shoulder.
After about twenty minutes of moderate frustration, I was doing a less halting box step with a few twirls. The timing of the twirls was a mystery to me, but I greatly enjoyed spinning her.
Caeli nodded to the band leader. The music sped and the style of dance changed. She held me closer, but the steps were much trickier and I stumbled more than once.
Yonjax laughed heartily, "Taiglox, you look for all the world like a dancing bear."
"Hey," Caeli rebuked her sister, "she's my dancing bear," she smiled mischievously up at me.
"Dancing bear am I?" I mock-roared as I lifted her by her ribcage and spun her in the air with no concern for rhythm or beat.
She giggled uncontrollably and I set her down.
She found her way back into my arms though. We'd both stopped dancing. Again her elfin face seemed to beg for my kiss and this time I leaned in to-
"Time to go, little sister," Yonjax announced, "You can play with your dancing bear more tomorrow. C'mon now."
Caeli glared bright raw murder at her chaparone, but Yonjax only laughed.
I reluctantly let the lovely Caeli go, frustrated that we couldn't just be married then. It wasn't that I wanted to take my bridal privileges. Not all of them. Not all right away. I just didn't want to give her back so soon.