The Low Lovers of Anastelle YraibyNaokoSmith©
He was an Easterner of course, not a soft Southerner. Not like Hanya el Jien who came from the balmy fertile plains of Iarve where the soft-eyed cattle gave rich creamy milk and they grew the precious wheat traded all across the country and made smooth elegant silk not rough embroidered felt and knitted woollen cloth. He only laughed at her insulting remark.
"You wolf maiden," he said mockingly. "Are you only happy in the freezing snow and ice in which you hope your suitors will be preserved until you are inclined to one and can pop him in your oven to do to your taste?"
"I am happy wherever you are not," she answered. He grinned as he accepted the tea from her hands, wrapping his fingers around the bowl and holding it to his face to get some warmth from the steam. She took the other bowl upstairs for Lallia.
"What do you want?" She demanded as she came back down the stairs, her feet still only clad in her colourful thick knitted socks.
"I want you," he answered, lifting his head to look at her with the louche grin on his mouth. His eyes did not smile, though, they always had some inner gleam of sadness in them which many women found irresistibly appealing. But not Anata.
She rolled her beautiful dark slanted eyes and said in a bored tone of voice: "Yes of course but unfortunately you are not my preference."
"Oh I know," he answered carelessly. "It is why I want you so much." He lifted his sad dark eyes and grinned into her annoyed face. "You are pretty," he said softly, "but I can buy ten pretty birds of paradise to put on my arm if I wish for them. You are smart and funny and you are Tashka's friend. Those are all interesting to me. But most of all, you do not want me. I like to chase down your favours even though you do not want to give them to me." He turned his head and grinned on her. She only gave an annoyed sigh although she knew he liked it that she did not pretend to a chaste outrage at his speaking to her so crudely. "I do not like them to resist," he added. "I never like to force a favour," the careless manner in which he said it made it plain that he had once or twice done so. "I am not your preference," he said, "and you are an honourable slut. You only like to give a favour where your fancy chooses, not here and there wherever without caring for the consequence. But believe me," his voice became soft, like a tongue reaching down to caress her into her sex, "I will be able to please you, even against your preference. You will not resist," he said, "but you will never give me your favour willingly. I should think that would amuse me for quite six months before your spirit is broken and you start to cry when I please you." He added as if it were a nothing on the side of his offer to allow her to pleasure him against her preference: "I will of course pay you very handsomely for the privilege, my darling."
"You are disgusting," she said, curling her lip at him. "Get out before my brother gets home."
"Oh is your honour under your brother's eye?" he enquired with a soft low laugh, setting down the bowl of tea on the heavy old chair beside him. "Is it not your father who guards you close here to keep your honour bright? While he attends to his important business -- in his rather unusual offices in Erjeine." He looked around him at the neglected heavy old-fashioned furniture, the lack of ornaments about the place, the evident poverty. He ran his eyes over her in her knitted and felt peasant clothes. "You think it over," he said quietly. "You will not always be the plump pigeon that you are, my sweetie. Especially if there are no cakes for tea," he laughed the soft and low laugh as if he knew it well how happy she and Lallia were when there were enough extra almonds in the harvest and they could keep some and buy some sugar to make cakes for tea parties with their girl friends.
He came up to her quickly before she had a chance to start back and seized her plump cheek in his finger and thumb, pinching it so hard that she made a little cry.
"I will have your favour willing or no," he said, "but I prefer to take it willing, my darling. You think on it, while you play about with your preferences and your father plays off your heritage at cards. Would you not prefer to give me your favours willing for a pocket full of money rather than lose them for an handkerchief of tears."
After supper that night, Jamies sat dozing in the armchair by the range but when Lallia tried to persuade him to bed, he laid his hand on her arm and said gently: "You go on up, my dear. Boys," he said in a firm tone, "go to bed."
He got up and came over to the pine table and sat opposite Anata, who lifted her eyes from the baby's smock she was embroidering in an elaborate Southern pattern Lady el Jien had shown her, so delicate compared to the big pictures in gold thread with which the Northern peasants decorated garments. Jamies was looking tired after his long day's hard labour. His cheeks were lean and hollowed and his eyes had always a strained anxiety lurking in them. They had all eaten better since his marriage; Lallia's father would often come by with something from his farm, but Jamies' concern for keeping up what he felt were responsibilities due to the people under him in fealty in addition to the physical labour on the land took a toll on him.
When the others had left, he asked her, "Will you be going to the café with el Jien van Iarve?"
"Oh surely," she said in a careless tone of voice. "I will take the boys with me, they are so keen to hear him talk of matters of honour although in truth, he had those scars from an accident when he was only new commissioned, he has never been in a battle."
"And what of this other, el V'lair van Athagine?" he asked.
"I am sorry he disturbed Lallia, in her condition," Anata said penitently. "He is notorious."
"Yes," her brother said. "He is notorious for his extravagance and his family are infamous for the manner in which they treat women. I think you should take el Jien."
She sat in the light of the one candle on the table. Her head had gone down, he could only see the top of her head.
"el Jien is honourable and will treat you with consideration," he urged. "I prithou, Anata," she was appalled to hear his voice tremble with emotion. "I was well sorry that you let el Maien slip through your fingers. Surely you will not give the go-by to both these chances of comfort and an easy life as well."
"Tashka is not my preference!" she flung her head up with the tears sparkling in her dark slanted eyes. "Tashka is my friend," she said. "I am sorry, I know how hard it is for you to manage, and now you have a baby to come. I know how much you need me to bring some money in but must it be like this!" her face turned up to him was twisted with misery and shame like an Angel of the Sorrows.
His face twisted with sorrow turned back to her. "No no, Anata, not for us!" he cried. "How can you think I would ask such a thing? For yourself. What is there for you here? You are so intelligent and funny and you love to play. Take this chance. Either one of them will like to make you happy, to take you to the parties at the Palace tricked out like a Princess, to take you to court for the concerts and exhibitions or to the Esten Lakes or the beach resorts in H'las where you may see Tashka el Maien when the war is over. You enjoyed el Maien's company so much and were so happy to go down to Sietter for that hunting party, you had such a merry time of it with people who were able to indulge your wit and humour. This is a chance for you to have that life. What does it matter if it is but a side slip affair? Either of them will give you sufficient to ensure you enjoy a good life ever after. You are sure to meet other ... friends to your heart. But not here in a ruined hill fort in the mountains. If the boys will only put their heads down to learn their letters we can get them commissions in the army. I will ask it of van P'shan and I think the el T'fels will do it for us, especially now that Lady van P'shan is known to have an interest in you, but what of you? I worry so for you, my dear, what kind of life is this? for you?"
She was crying. Tears rolled from her dark slanted eyes down her soft creamy magnolia petal cheeks. She got up and came round the table, sniffing, to stand by him and press her hand on his shoulder. "This is my home," she sobbed. "You are my family. I am so sorry, Jamies. It has been so hard on us and especially you. Do not push me away."
"It'll be a matter of a glove, with el V'lair," he said gloomily.
"No no!" she said anxiously. Jamies had never had the opportunity to learn properly how to fight in the duel. Most days he did not even wear in his belt the set of weaponry which their father had passed over to him, it got in his way in the menial work he undertook on their lands.
"He is a disgusting dog and they are saying his sole purpose in coming here is to pin you," he answered her. "If you are not willing to take him, he is sure to offer you some insult that requires a glove. I ought to do it now for the manner in which he behaved to Lallia, only she is but a farmer's daughter."
"My honour is under dadi's eye, not yours," she suggested, wiping her hand over her eyes. "Lallia would not be grateful if you threw your life in the hazard for some notion of honour she would laugh to hear us pretend to on her account."
He sighed and said, "well, there's the benefit to taking a farmer's daughter."
"It is not the only benefit," she said, gripping her hand on his shoulder. He smiled softly and said, "No."
The twins of course had already found their own means to get into Hanya el Jien's pocket. They were disappointed when they learned that his dreadful scars were not the outcome of some glorious action in battle and that el Jien limped too badly to have ever fought properly in the duel. However he was a man of honour, when they pressed him on the subject he became embarrassed in a way which made it evident that he had once or twice thrown the glove and he willingly taught them duelling steps and even wrestling holds, utilising the Yrais' barn for the purpose. He was happy to throw money away on hiring sledges and for buns and cakes even if Anata were not of the party.
Anata was cross at first, thinking that he was using the twins to come close to her. She made him come to the fort to tell him he must not hope for her company if he sought theirs but she was inveigled instead into a sledging race. She took Petra and he took Fiotr. They shot down the slopes at the back of the shepherds' huts past the nut orchards, screaming and laughing. She won, of course, and then they exchanged twins to try again but she always won. They fell off in the snow and wrestled with the twins, then they went back to the fort for some hot chocolate and ginger cake which Lallia had mysteriously acquired. She saw Lieutenant-Lord Hanya el Jien's scarred face so bright with laughter that his enjoyment was evident even on his mauled features and she understood that he actually liked being with the boys.
She liked it herself and wished heartily she could have got out with them more often. Hanya started coming back to the fort with the twins for meals, which became suspiciously tasty and began to stretch into three courses. Lallia only looked demure when pressed on the subject and said she was an excellent manager. She was a farmer's daughter and cared more for good food than for the family pride, besides she was carrying a baby and very willing to accept mysterious saddle-bags of food without question for the sake of a nourishing meal.
Instead of getting to go across the frozen lakes in a sledge drawn by mountain ponies and tease the boys and Hanya afterwards over hot chocolate, Anata was obliged to be occupied with the disgusting attentions of el V'lair. She met him for lunch sometimes in Erjeine, since this kept him away from the fort, trying to find ways to lessen his admiration for her but the more she parried his advances, the more he admired her skill in doing so. It was very annoying. If she flirted with the waiters they were uneasy instead of excited and el V'lair only watched with a grin riding on his rich red mouth. When he said he would pay one of them to fuck her if she let him watch she gave it up. Then she did not even have the pleasure of their thin under-nourished bodies leaning close to her under pretence of shaking her napkin over her lap while she chatted irritably to the muscular powerful commanding officer sitting opposite her.
Thankfully their father usually only managed to get himself home late at night from the card-playing hells where he squandered his army pension and any other monies he could lay his hands on. However his old army cronies inevitably teased him about the high ranking aristos who had suddenly claimed the hospitality of the el T'fels after meeting his daughter. Learning one day from the twins that Hanya was coming by, he made an unwelcome appearance at the lunch table.
Hanya's face was always inexpressive but Anata thought hopefully that a sort of shiver of distaste went through him when he was obliged to offer his sword hand to Captain-Sir Jamies Yrai as his host at a meal he had supplied the ingredients for himself. The Captain retained little of the physical fitness with which he had once marched and ridden in the troop where he had been commissioned. Running to fat and with dissipated lines on a face where he had missed patches of hair when he shaved, he always smelt of cheap stale alcohol. There was something in his broken physique that suggested the stocky strong frame Jamies had and a flash in his sunken eyes that reminded you of Anata but on the whole when looking at him, you felt only surprise that his children had turned out so well.
A little crude questioning told Captain-Sir Yrai that Hanya was not part of the pink-fingered set and had no interest in gambling. He fixed his sharp card-player's eyes on the scarred figure clad in an elegantly cut hacking jacket and warm breeches, sitting between his two youngest sons and patiently responding to their questions about some brigands he had once run across. His responses were disappointing to the boys since they focussed not on some romantic tale of kidnap and escape from hill caves stuffed with booty but on the problems caused to the free passage of trade by brigandage. Captain-Sir Yrai visibly curled his lip at this mercantile assessment and left them all to it straight after the meal.
Anata was mindful of Lady el Jien's anxieties about Hanya and after some deliberation she picked out a suitable friend of her acquaintance to take to tea with him. Lisette was a tall slender young woman with a sophisticated mind who had enjoyed a two-three affairs of the heart and body in a discreet manner. She worked with her father trading jewels out of the mines and Anata thought she would be able to listen to Hanya's talk of trading networks with attention and intelligent interest. She came along to the café looking like an highly appropriate companion for a member of the high nobility in a beautiful velvet cloak with under it a simple velvet pinafore dress and her arms demure in the silk sleeves of a delicately embroidered undergarment.
But it was Hanya who led Lisette on to talk and who listened with an intent gravity in his round blue eyes. He showed no interest in her elegance, even when she made a becoming dip of the eyes and sweet smile on being offered his sword hand in the courteous manner he always showed to women of whatever degree, but nor did he exhibit any shyness towards her. Later Lisette castigated Anata roundly, laughing as she said he had lured out of her all kinds of privy information about the arrangements between the el T'fel family and the merchants by which trade was managed in P'shan. Anata realised that Lady el Jien was wrong. He was not shy around young women.
He was only gauche and shy around her.
They were lying in some straw in the barn. She had been hunting through the bales for eggs and he had been teaching the boys wrestling moves. When the boys eventually ran off to try them out on the shepherd children, Hanya chucked himself, laughing, onto the straw. She had enough eggs to make some sweet spiced custard for a pudding after lunch (since they need not depend on the eggs for the main course) so she came and lay down on her side near him, looking at his long lean body in the warm plain jumper and woollen breeches and long riding boots, at his scarred face and his blue eyes twisting like swallows away from her with a soft blush.
"Why do you like me, my dear?" she asked. "You are an highly honourable man. Why are you not asking your brother whom he might bestow you on to secure his ties with another region from where you might manage your work on trade as the sworn Lord."
He flicked his eyes at her, they seemed to crease in his smile to see her leaning up on her elbow in the straw, in a red felt suit embroidered in gold with mountain hares, staring at him with dark slanted eyes which were serious for once.
"My brother has tried to have my sister and I assassinated for our involvement in trade," he reminded her. "I own his regional debt," he added. "He will not bestow me anywhere I do not wish to go." He looked at her then added softly with the blush rising up his cheek: "My dear."
"You own the regional debt for Iarve?" she repeated incredulously.
"Among others," he answered casually. Then he looked at her and laughed suddenly. "Yes," he said in a drily amused voice. "I am very wealthy." He hesitated before going on, "I am ... I am the richest aristocrat in the country," so shyly that you might have thought he was making an idle boast, except that Anata knew he was the least likely person to do so. The blush went hot up his scarred and his unscarred cheek. He leaned suddenly up on his elbow to look intently into her eyes and said: "Does ... does that interest you at all?" anxiously.
She laughed to realise that he was desperately, incompetently, trying to flirt with her. "No my dear," she said. She had intended her low tender tone as a response to his shyness although as she spoke she realised it had come out in a seductive sweet husky murmur. She made her voice firmer in rejection. "That is not my preference," she said.
"What is your preference?" he asked. His face was inexpressive as ever but his tone remained anxious.
"Oh darling," she said softly, looking into his eyes like summer skies. "I like them shy," he lifted his blue eyes to her hopefully. "I like them young," she said. He made an appealing shrug, "I mean younger than myself," she explained. "I like them low," she said. "Y'know: the butcher's boy or the groom or some clerk in a cloth store. I just like a quick favour and to go, not any steady affair."
"Um, I am not offering an affair," his voice was husky with embarrassment, she lifted her beautiful dark slanted eyes to him in query. "I am offering you my ring," he said.
They stared at each other. Then she said in a choked voice and as if he had proposed some quite dishonourable arrangement: "No!"
He sat suddenly up and a businesslike look appeared on his face. This was what did not appeal to her, when it became apparent that he was used to move with confident ease among the rich and powerful, pulling them into networks to do as he wished them to do. "I cannot be going to be sworn Lord of any one region," he said. "That would compromise my ability to represent the merchants across the country as a whole. Nor can I take any merchant's daughter to be my wife and make it appear that I might favour one trade over another. Ar't an aristocrat but not of the high nobility so not expected to tie me into any region. Likest to make a pretty show at the parties and draws't people together to chat easily. That would be so useful to me."