I hated Lev in the beginning. Savlii was a demanding bastard who went through pages like shoes - seemed all the fun was in the breaking in phase. I had been hand-picked by the priestess Vay when I was only fourteen and hardly just begun my military training. Life with Savlii was simple, not good, just simple and predictable. The directive of a page is service to his Eyre. Unlike other Houseborne males, pages are forbidden from taking up arms in battle. There was nothing lower in Eltesnian society than a page. Even a convicted murderer, as a proper Eltesnian citizen, far outranked a page. I hated Vay for dooming me to an even lower fate than my birth itself had, but I soon hated Lev even more.
For a couple of years I deemed myself quite the efficient page, following Savlii day and night. I was silent and sturdy, but mainly silent as Savlii was not fond of my voice. In all fairness, he wouldn't have cared very much for what I had to say.
Meanwhile Nalev received a serious injury to his left leg when he was knocked down then trampled by his own horse in battle. His convalescence was painful and slow. The House bestowed upon him the title of Eyre, but at his tender age it only increased further accusations of favoritism from the clergy. Savlii despised him and openly mocked him as a pampered upstart, a puppet of the House. To him it was a great outrage that a priest would be made Erye. Lev was not part of our bastard class but rather brought in as an orphan when he was about ten years of age. His parents and older sister were butchered when fighting resumed as the seventy year peace of the Great Quiet came to an abrupt end.
Like it or not, as Lev's superior officer, Erye Savlii was responsible for getting Nalev back on his feet and into action. We visited him frequently to check on his progress. Months dragged on and Savlii felt that Nalev was fit for duty. As the high priestess and highest authority in the holy war it was Vay, and Vay alone, that was expecting no less than a full and complete recovery, no matter how long it took.
My efficiency and familiarity were my undoing with Savlii and, bored of my companionship, he was eager to trade me in for a newer, prettier face. The bright spot in the transfer from position of page was that he would recommend me for training to become school master at the military academy. The bugger of the whole promotion was that a former page must first become an eunuch. As if that weren't bad enough, it would also preclude me from serving in the army proper. Since I had no say in the entire matter, I made my peace with my fate.
Savlii, and by extension I, paid another visit to Nalev at the hospital. After their typical banter, Lev suggested that they play cards and made him an offer far too tempting to pass up. Lev wagered his title for my transference to him. Knowing Lev as one of the worst card players of all time, Savlii accepted. He expected quick, satisfying victory. Until my dying day I will never forget the look of shock and disbelief when he lost.
"I don't know how you did it, Nalev," Savlii warned, "but you'll get what's coming to you. I swear the boy will be your ruination."
Savlii marched off in a huff, leaving me behind. As a page I rarely had the opportunity to speak, and had certainly never spoken with Nalev in all the visits Savlii and I made to the hospital, for that would have been seen as a major insult to authority.
"Very fortunate that you won, Erye Nalev. Else I suspect there would two more eunuchs at the academy."
"I had no intention of losing, Misha." He said quite pragmatically.
An unbelievably handsome valiant young general had risked his career to acquire me but didn't have a bloody clue what to do with me. Every attempt to comfort or assist him in any capacity was immediately thwarted. He insisted on dressing himself even though he could barely stand on his bad leg. I tried to work with him in his rehabilitation but he coldly informed me that was the job of his doctors. He was very proud and equally frustrated that his recovery should take so long. I kept my distance from him and even found myself almost fondly reminiscent of the hairy beast that smelled of rotten cheese, at least until he would pay his next visit.
My new Eyre accused me of moping about like a dejected child and asked me what I could possibly have to be upset about. It certainly wasn't in keeping with my position to answer at all, let alone let loose the tirade that ensued about how at least I'd have something useful to do with myself if I were back at the academy. He looked at me crossly.
"Can you read?"
"It is forbidden..."
"Answer the damn question, Misha." Nalev snapped.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Who taught you?"
"I'd rather not say."
"You have a problem with following rules." Nalev said bluntly.
"I shall endeavor to follow your command without question."
"I very much doubt that." He said and pointed to a book on the table.
Then he had me read aloud, while he interrupted at the slightest infraction of mispronunciation, tone and diction. I had learned from my foster sister, a mere child that had put herself at great risk by disobeying the law. Serena was my sole friend and only comfort those long seven years when I was raised by her father, a cold-hearted drunkard. Now I was being challenged by a overzealous intellectual task master. Writing proved even more painful and I routinely received a crack over the hand if I appeared to lose interest and concentration.
"Why does it have to be perfect?" I asked.
"Because, Misha, I will not have you handling my correspondences in a shoddy manner. I am in need of a secretary. I find that I have great difficulty reading since the accident."
"I haven't noticed."
"Are you telling me what I see, Misha?" He glared at me with those penetrating blue eyes.
"No, of course not. That would be extremely pretentious, Erye Nalev. However, I think you would be better suited by a proper secretary. I hardly think using your page--"
"It's bad enough I have to share tight quarters with you." Nalev said bluntly.
"Yes, Erye Nalev."
I clearly remember wanting to take that stick away from him and bash him over the head, on occasions too numerous to recollect over those long, grueling months at the hospital.
I was amazed at how quickly those feelings diminished once Lev was finally deemed fit to resume active command on the Western front. His temperament improved with his renewed sense of purpose and within days we were at the encampment. On our first night there he called my name very quietly and I laid down beside him. It was dark but I could feel his eyes watching me as surely as his warm breath on my face. Lev placed his hand gently on my forehead and his fingers slowly passed over my eyelids and nose. I kissed the palm of his hand as it hovered there. Then his fingers traced my lips.
"You are without a doubt the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in my life," he said softly.
I don't think perfectionists are ever very easy to love, but from that moment, he was impossible to hate.
By twenty years of age not only was I the oldest page in Eltesnian military history but I had surpassed my Eyre in both height and weight, so much so that I more closely resembled his body guard than scribe. Savlii, who never cared much for Lev, was surprisingly silent regarding our lingering arrangement, patiently waiting his prophetic words to come to pass. I had already lost friends in battle and was continually frustrated by my inability to take up arms and join them, but there were limits even to what Lev could get away with, in spite of all of Vay's authority. The fact that Vay was high priestess never ceased to amaze me. Humorless and uncharismatic, she was all business and pragmatism, be it for prostitution, war or day-to-day economic development of the House. She had always shown rather uncharacteristic warmth to me and once when I was a child I asked her why. "You're a special child, Misha. Always remember that," was her reply.
Vay's influence was felt almost as palpable in the court of Cznorh during the reign of King Dalma as it was in the House and she spoke highly of Lev. Yearly, he received the highly coveted invitation to participate in the Re-enactment of Entrapment. Yearly, I had to remind him that it was in his best interest to go. Occasionally he would be invited to attend a royal birthday or wedding as was the case when Prince Roarke married Princess Adelaide of Belaurii.
It was at the wedding celebration that we first met the King's cousin Lady Zbinka. Approaching thirty never married, she seemed to instantly get it in her head that Lev would make a good husband and proposed to him on the spot. She was an odd contradiction, both refined and boisterous, her presence was felt when she walked into any room. The Erye told her that he was flattered by her offer, but that her interests would be better suited with another choice.
"My apologies, Erye Nalev," Zbinka started with a coy smile. "I have caught you at the disadvantage that you know little of me, while I know everything about you. Would you care to talk somewhere more private?"
The reply was a very polite "no", but she persuaded both of us to join her in a quiet study. She explained, in great detail, her activities over the years in protest of the dehumanization of the Houseborne class. There had been rumors of her involvement especially in the kidnappings of Houseborne males from their foster homes and subsequent placement elsewhere. Allegations that if proven would lead to her execution, royalty or not.
Lev thanked her for placing her trust in him but didn't see the benefit in an alliance. Clearly, she did and continued in her negotiations.
"Erye Nalev, you have become larger than life in your quiet yet subversive manner and put a face on a cause so many of us secretly defend. The two of you have broken infraction after infraction of the outdated and abhorrent code of conduct regarding the Houseborne and have managed to remain relatively unscathed. Alone, I'm not sure how much longer we can defy the system. Together, we represent a very powerful alliance that takes us much closer to the realization of our goals."
I wasn't aware that we had any such lofty goals, at least not before that night. It had always been more of a struggle for day to day existence more than a cause. But Zbinka made her impression on Nalev and before year's end he received permission from Vay to be married. As the figure head of authority for both the clerical and political power that Zbinka sought to undermine, Vay was confident that Nalev would ultimately remain loyal to his previous commitments.
The marriage seemed to signify a change with Savlii and he resumed his vocal attacks on Lev. We often played cards together, and since Lev had such terrible difficulty in reading I got to play his hands. Unlike Lev, I always won which added to Savlii's dissatisfaction.
"I can not believe you make me play with a page," Savlii huffed.
"And that you always lose to a page?" Nalev scoffed.
"I don't know what you're trying to prove, Nalev. Your behavior lacks any semblance of propriety and can not be overlooked for much longer. Your familiarity with this man is an abomination."
"Unlike your familiarity with him when he was a child?"
"You've taken a military institution and made a complete mockery of it. You're entitled to a page, Eyre Nalev, not a wife."
"Actually, I'm entitled to both and have done a reasonable job in keeping both satisfied. Which is more than I can say for your relationships. Who was it your wife ran off with again? Your brother, as I recall."
"Mock me if you will. I will see you driven out of the army," Savlii said and got up.
"Eyre Savlii, aren't you forgetting something?" Lev asked.
Savlii threw some money down on the table and left. It was always good to see him leave.
As it turned out taunting the superior officer, though immediately rewarding was not beneficial in the long run. The political climate of Eltesnia and especially within the high court of Cznorh was changing, distancing itself from the powerful intrusion of the House while elevating the authority of the King's Council. King Dalma vehemently opposed this shift from the start, but he was swayed over time by the pervasive efforts of those closest to him. The direct ramification for us was that Nalev's ties to the House mattered less and less. And Savlii was poised for retribution.
Lev was promoted to the Office of Disciplinary Affairs which had the dubious honor of trying and executing all offenders of Houseborne misconduct, including infractions perpetrated by Eltesnian citizens. Savlii took enormous satisfaction in knowing that his nemesis spent every waking hour treading lightly with his personal life while being forced to uphold a system that he despised. I remained with Lev as his secretary for a number of months before he had a sudden miraculous recovery with his eye sight and sent me to live with Zbinka as her guard. Those were bittersweet times for all of us and, as in the never ending war, we took comfort wherever we could find it.