My service to Savlii had ended. Vay did her best to comfort me but I hardly heard a word she was saying. I was far too anxiety-ridden about my immediate future as I sat there concentrating on the tiny crunching sound emanating from inside my head as I gnawed off every last fingernail. A woman came to get Vay and they disappeared leaving me all alone in her quarters. I tried to resign myself to my new life. It was quite an opportunity for a page. Normally only Houseborne soldiers who had either sustained significant injury or simply grown too old to fight were admitted to academic pursuits. And, yes, even they were subject to becoming an eunuch first. Eltesnia certainly couldn't afford to have an educated and well-fed bastard class spawning their discontentment at the expense of the winning the Holy War against Kanabulan.
Vay returned what seemed an eternity later. Her lips moved; eventually her words began to register once I noticed that she was smiling. It seemed that Lev had challenged Savlii to a game of cards and made him an offer far too tempting to pass up: he wagered his title as general against my transference to him. Because everyone in the hospital knew Lev to be one of the worst card players of all time, Savlii accepted and expected quick, satisfying victory. I should have liked very much to have been there to see the look on his face when Lev beat him.
That is how 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 and nurses. He was very proud and equally frustrated that his convalescence 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 accompanied with his new page. Had I ever been as young and innocent as the lanky freckle-faced boy that now hung on his every word and gesture?
Other than Savlii and his new boy, Lev was visited regularly by a gaggle of priestesses, artists and scholars. Vay herself generally joined us for mid-day and evening meals when she wasn't tending to matters in the House. Most people loved Nalev. He was a phenomenal listener which somehow made him seem much wiser than his years.
Without any duties to speak of I spent much of my time sweeping the floor and dusting all the plants. Occasionally Lev would glance over at me but tended to be silent unless he was entertaining company. The only company I disliked were the priestesses. Savlii came to bark at Lev and criticize Vay, but the ladies of the House were too familiar with Lev from his days serving as High Priest and many seemed just as likely to jump into bed with him as shake his hand upon greeting him.
To take my mind away from the absurdity of my situation, I confiscated some paper left on the table, picked up a pen and began to draw the incredibly shiny plants. By my own estimation, I wasn't that bad so I kept drawing. Soon I attempted Lev.
"What's bothering you, Misha?" Lev asked peering over the top of his book.
"Nothing," I said and continued to draw.
"You're moping around like a dejected child."
I looked up from my drawing. By now he was staring me down not in an angry way but in a very determined way none the less. It was hardly in keeping with my standing as page to speak let alone release the tirade that ensued. When I finally I stopped talking I remember feeling much relieved. Then there was the silence. A terrible silence that slapped me back to reality.
Lev raised on eyebrow, paused then said, "You're jealous."
"That's a ridiculous thing to say!" I protested. It was a ridiculous thing to say but far more ridiculous that it was true.
"The priestesses are merely assisting in my rehabilitation. After spending a few years with Savlii I suspect a little rehabilitation would do you some good as well."
He laughed at me then went back to his book and I to my drawing. At least I pretended to draw. Before too long he hobbled out of bed to sit near me at the table.
"I knew I was good-looking, but that really is remarkable," he said with a wide grin.
"Thank you," I said staring intently at the drawing. His kicked his good leg next to mine and it startled me causing me drop my pen.
"You are jealous," he said leaning toward me. "That's sweet."
I assumed that he was mocking me until he kissed me and I felt his fingertips digging into my thigh. I savored every turn of his mouth and the warmth of his breath on my face, yet each action, glance or word seemed to be a contradiction of the one before. Pausing for a moment I rested my forehead against his and bit down hard on my lip.
"I don't know what you want, Lev," I confessed.
There was another long and terribly awkward pause before he banged his head against mine a few times hoping to knock some sense into me, "When you figure it out, let me know."
I picked up my pen from the floor and set it gently, quietly onto the table. Lev sat back in his chair and began looking through my other drawings. One in particular was a very elaborate map I was working on. I had tried to remember every detail of "No Man's Land" from my time with Savlii.
"You know how to write." Lev looked up from the map and gazed at me more with contemplation than consternation. I sat motionless as my heart and mind began to race. There was no use in denying it-- even if, unlike jealousy, it was a grave offense.
"Can you read?" Nalev asked.
"It is forbidden..." I stammered.
"Answer the damn question, Misha."
"Yes," I admitted quietly fixating on some dust on the plant on the table.
"Who taught you?"
"I'd rather not say."
"You have a problem with following rules," Nalev observed. "Did Savlii know?"
"No. I don't think so."
"Then why would he be so set on sending you off to become headmaster?"
"I can assure you that he never discussed any of his motivations with me."
He studied the map a while longer and a pleased look came across his face, "You did all this from memory?"
"I spent a lot of time there. I really couldn't help picking up the names of the places."
"How far from Kestri to Nethua?" He asked.
"Nethua to Cznorh?"
"Ravnesh to Mt. Vondra?"
"101 miles." I paused. "Unless it's the wet season and the northeastern section of the Ibiere swells so badly that you need to go via Timbledown. Then it becomes 132 miles."
"Bring me that dark green book over there." He pointed to a book on the shelf next to the large window.
"General Asden's Journal?" I asked.
"It's a green book surrounded by green foliage, yet you know exactly which one I'm talking about?"
"I must have noticed it when I was taking care of the plants."
"You've been reading my books," he accused.
"No." It was the truth. I had read many of Savlii's books when he was out of sight. Other than Lev's books of poetry, their collections were about the same.
"Just bring me the book," he said waving off my excuses.
I set the book in front of him and he opened it to one of Asden's maps of "No Man's Land". He compared it with mine for a few moments then pointed to the spot on mine just southeast of where the Gadler joins up with the much larger Ibiere.
"What's here?" Lev asked.
"Gelassi?" I asked in reply.
"You didn't include it."
"I'm wasn't finished with the map."
"There's not so much as a dot."
"There's not very much there. Most of it was destroyed when the Great Quiet ended."
"So many legends of gold and gems, but treasure hunters didn't dare disturb the finest farmland in three countries. Only war would be foolhardy enough for that," he said under his breath.
"You've been there?"
"When the great poet Jaun Sei was exiled from Belaurii for his satire he bought some land in Gelassi and married the neighboring farmer's daughter, thinking it would be good for someone to know a thing or two about agriculture. He had nine sons and five daughters. When his wife's father died he inherited his sizable and more profitable farm securing the futures of his children. Jaun Sei's third oldest son was named Waelin; Waelin was my father."
He turned to the start of Asden's account then he had me read aloud, but proceeded to interrupt me at the slightest infraction of mispronunciation, tone or 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 drunkard father. Now I was being challenged by a overzealous intellectual task master. Writing would prove even more painful as I routinely received a crack over the hand if I appeared to lose interest and concentration.
"Why does it have to be perfect?" I protested.
"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.
"No, of course not, Erye Nalev. However, I think you would be better suited by a proper secretary. I hardly think using your page--"
"I have no need of a page!" Nalev said crossly.
"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. Clearly Lev was testing my mettle yet he gave no indication as to how I was doing. While it was terribly frustrating it was also challenging and flattering that he spent so much of his time tormenting me.
***We had finally entered the last stretch of Lev's recovery where he got to shed the awful leg contraption for good and began to walk about with only a cane. It seemed that he was in more pain than usual because of his increased activity, but he was in much better spirits and he pushed himself much harder than even his doctors would have liked.
Late one morning, after a long walk and longer swim, we returned to our quarters to get ready for lunch. While changing he lost his balance and he actually thanked me for steadying him. Only a month before he would have sooner hit the floor than accept my help.
"Misha, you would make a fine headmaster." He sat down on at the foot of his bed and stretched his leg with a slight grimace. "If you had the chance, would you do it?"
"Go to the academy?"
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"You're really far to intelligent to make a good lap dog. I'd have no trouble getting you in. There's really no way around the nasty entrance requirement."
"You're asking me if I'd rather be castrated or be your page?"
"Companion," he corrected.
I studied his face for any expression, but he was holding back so as not to influence my decision. My decision? For the first time in my life I had a choice. It wasn't even a small and insignificant choice like what time I awoke or what I'd wear for the day.
"Do I have to give you my answer now, or can I think about it?"
"Take all the time you need."
"I'll stay," I replied.
"After all these months of testing, was that the right answer?"
"I don't know if it's the right answer, but it was the answer I was hoping for."
I carefully pinned him to the bed and kissed him. He protested ever so slightly that the timing was wrong and endeavored to work harder to convince him otherwise. Absolutely nothing was going to interrupt us this time. Not him. Not me.
But the knock on the door was another matter completely. It wasn't one of those just ignore them and they'll think no one's home sort of knocks. It was Vay telling us that the King and Prince had finally arrived.
"Finally?!" I looked at Lev. "You knew they were coming?"
"I told you it wasn't the right time."
"But the bloody King?! Didn't you think that was important to mention?" I straightened my clothes and ran my fingers through my hair. "How do I look?"
"If you didn't look so damn good we wouldn't be having this argument in the first place," he muttered. "Would you please relax."
I finally understood what it was about Lev that so infuriated Savlii; Lev was impetuous and reckless. While I found those traits quite endearing I was far too young and smitten to foresee that I'd spend the rest of my life bailing him out of dire situations.
There was another set of knocks at the door and Lev answered it, smiling warmly. Even with all of the visitors that came and went, I was flabbergasted to witness King Dalma and young Prince Roarke walk through the door.
King Dalma was a large man with dark features. His wore the dress uniform of the King's Army, with just enough gaudy embellishment to stand out. He had served as his father before him and his before that. The difference was that Dalma didn't have the benefit of serving during the Great Quiet-- a truce that lasted for nearly 75 years -- and he had battle scars to prove it.
The Prince looked to be about my age. His complexion was lighter than his father's but his expression much darker. He wore the plain robes of the priesthood, the type generally worn while performing manual labor around the hospital but also used during mourning. In his case, it was the latter as his only sister had poisoned herself earlier that same year.
King Dalma embraced Lev in a very ceremonious way then helped him to his seat at the table before sitting down.
"Did we call at a bad time?" The King asked.
"It is always a pleasure to be in the presence of our Most Illustrious Majesties." Lev replied and smiled at the Prince. "And how is my star pupil doing today?"
"Fine, Eyre Nalev." Roarke's face was sullen and voice unconvincing.
"King Dalma, Prince Roarke, allow me to introduce... " Lev started.
"As if you're not already the talk of the whole court and army. Oh the earful I get from Paynor. He and Savlii would like nothing more than to see you horsewhipped, thrown out of the army, killed then horsewhipped some more."
"Fortunately for me your cousin doesn't rule the country." Lev said smugly.
"And he never will," Dalma promised. "How are you doing, Lev?"
"I am improving every day and should like very much if you could use your persuasion with Vay to have me released for duty soon."
"In due time, Lev. Besides if you hurry off who's going to finish teaching Roarke Ancient Dzai in time for his first Re-enactment?"
"This is the big year." Lev looked at the Prince who had a blank expression. "I assume you're concerned with more than general pronunciation," he said with a knowing look to the father.
"He'll be staying here until the beginning of Purlong. Do have him ready by then," Dalma patted Lev's hand and winked at him. "Make me proud. It's Paynor's turn to attend this year and I intend to remind him whose side of the family is in power," he said as he left the room.
"Well, grab your books from the shelf and have a seat, Prince Roarke."
It was unheard of for a page to sit down with royalty, let alone study with them but Lev was more than accommodating and the Prince couldn't have cared less. Before too terribly long Lev picked up his stick and cracked it over the Prince's writing hand. I didn't do a good enough job at stifling my laughter and both Lev and Roarke shot me an angry look before they, too, began to laugh. For the Prince it was actually more of an exasperated sigh that escaped through clenched teeth. As for me, it grew into a hearty belly laugh as I finally caught the innuendo between the King and Lev. The gaggle of priestesses would be far too busy acclimating Roarke for the less cerebral requirements of the Re-enactment to bother themselves with Lev. My life, though from perfect, had become quite tolerable.
The Re-enactment of Entrapment was the most highly revered tenant of the Dzai religion and also the greatest fundraiser for the House. While active participants were almost exclusively either royalty or wealthy landowners, merchants and humble politicians outbid each other for the highly coveted spectator booths. By the sheer definition of the word, it was an orgy, but a fully-orchestrated and efficiently synchronized orgy. It was considered very lucky to be conceived during the Re-enactment. Personally, I never saw the benefit of it. My mother was one of a few hundred prostitutes, it was against House custom to reveal her identity, and my father was some rich influential man with no concern for either of us. Prince Roarke and I were born within a week of each other and I had the nagging curiosity as to whether or not we were related and wound up at the opposite ends of society.
Prince Roarke was brilliant, intellectually speaking, and I enjoyed the debates he and Lev would have about the ancient texts. There were times that his mood would lift, usually after spending some time with Renet Palidora, a saucy and curvaceous red head, with who he had become quite smitten. Even so when Purlong came along I knew I'd miss his company.