The door-flap of her pavilion was thrust back and the Black Vavasor strode in without any ceremony. He was dressed magnificently in a cream shirt with luxuriantly embroidered sleeves, a black jerkin spangled with tiny beads of jet and panels which touched the knee-high gleaming boots. Instead of the sombre riding cloak she had seen him wear before, he had chosen a dark red cape, in some shimmering offworld fabric, also embroidered with gems. His head was unadorned apart from the long, dark, locks of his hair.
This time when he looked at her he did see her. Alexa, who always noticed such things, watched the pupils of his eyes expand and was satisfied. He gave a courtly bow and moved to take her hand.
“Lady,” he said, “you are truly beautiful. I see now why the cities ring with songs about Alexa the Fair.”
It was a pretty enough speech, but disappointingly unoriginal. If that was the best he could manage she was in for a rather dull evening. Alexa let him draw her to her feet, feeling his eyes sweep over her body in mute appreciation.
“I have heard songs sung about the Black Vavasor too,” she observed sweetly and was rewarded by a tightening of his grip and a curious look which became a smile.
“But my songs are not so beautiful, I know.”
Alexa was determined to get her entertainment somehow.
“I am not so sure, Honoured One, the songs they sing about Terzibrand bring tears to the eyes of all those who hear them.”
He had been guiding her towards the entrance but her words brought him to a standstill. Alexa was tall and could meet the gaze of most men as an equal, but she found her head tilting back to meet the Vavasor’s dark eyes. If they held any expression at all, it was one of mild amusement, as he said: “Lady, if you feel we are already familiar enough to trade insults, you should call me Jariq – unless of course, you prefer one of the other names they give me in the songs. But then you might find it just a little embarrassing calling me ‘Baby-Slaying Bastard’ across the Castellan’s dinner table.”
Alexa let her lips curve up into a smile.
“I am sure ‘Jariq’ will suffice – at least for the first two courses.”
“Then may the gods make the third course a dessert dish to keep your tongue sweet,” he said reverently and led her out of the tent, helping her into the palanquin.
She was borne up to the Castle to cries of: ‘Make way for the Vavasor of Reva and the Caravansi Alexa’, for the night of the Bride’s Banquet was also a night of carnival for the common people and the streets were crowded with a festive throng. Peering between the drapes of her palanquin, Alexa was glad that she had a good guard. In places, the soldiers had to ride forward and beat people away with the flats of their swords and once she saw the Vavasor on his black pony, threaten a group of rowdy youths with his pistol before they drew back and let the small cavalcade pass through.
As they began the climb to the castle the noise of music and shouting died away below. Soon after, they passed through the gates and the palanquin was set down in the torch-lit courtyard near where a long carpet, finely woven with scenes picturing dancing and festival, had been placed over the steps that led up to the Great Hall. The sounds from within were of revelry little less restrained than that of the city. The drapes were pulled back and the Vavasor smiled down at her offering his arm. She returned the smile and accepted the arm, rising gracefully to step out onto the carpet.
“You have never attended the Bride’s Banquet before?” he asked as they walked together up the steps.
“Is it that obvious?”
“Not at all. But I had better warn you that it is not an event for those of delicate sensibilities. Towards the end, it can get quite – um -“
“Interesting? Entertaining?” she suggested, her eyebrows arching interrogatively.
The tall man laughed.
“I was going to say ‘hazardous’ but perhaps you are right. We can leave once the Castellan’s family have withdrawn if you like. It should remain relatively civilised until then.”
“I do hope not,” Alexa said with great sincerity and the Vavasor looked at her with an obvious amusement.
They were given seats next to the High Table as befitted the Vavasor’s noble status and Alexa was frankly delighted to find herself seated above the rest of Alfor’s merchant community. She also quickly realised that her concern of being overshadowed in such a glittering company had been unfounded.
Without a doubt, it was she who drew the marvelling eyes of the men and envious glances from the women, particularly when they recognised her escort. Even the Castellan’s wife, in her magnificent costume, still looked plump and dowdy by comparison, together with her plump, dowdy daughters. The Bride was very pretty indeed, but in this company, her youth and freshness were hidden beneath an air of nervous awe.
Alexa looked around the room, recognising many of the merchants and acknowledging them by the slightest tilt of her head. At the high table, apart from the Castellan’s family and the Bride, she recognised by sight only one other figure and that was Qabal Vyazin himself, who was already looking bored, as he made polite conversation with the young lady sitting to his left.
The table opposite where she sat was obviously set aside for the family of the Bride. They sat stiffly, as if ill at ease, dressed in their sadly inadequate best clothes and talking together in whispers. Only the girl’s mother seemed happy and she kept bestowing proud and adoring glances on her favoured daughter, who sat beside the Castellan. The father looked utterly miserable as if he were already regretting the high cost of seeing that his daughter secured this prize. If they were lucky their investment might be repaid through the girl making a good marriage to some minor noble. They were not a poor family, but from their dress and demeanour, Alexa guessed that they could ill-afford to waste money on such a gamble.
Then the doors of the hall were closed as the last arrivals took their seats and the Banquet began in earnest. The noise was, of course, tumultuous: the hubbub of voices, the clatter of plates and goblets and the drone of the inevitable musicians made it very difficult to talk even to your neighbour at times. But Alexa was quite content to sit quietly and observe. She noticed that the Vavasor, too, seemed little inclined to conversation. He was diligent in seeing that she lacked for nothing, but his mind was clearly elsewhere and occasionally she would catch him in an unguarded moment looking strangely pensive. Although he kept her platter and goblet filled he ate sparingly himself and only sipped at his wine.
At one point his expression hardened and she followed his gaze to where it was resting on a curly blond head. Its owner had his back to them and was drawing the undivided attention of several tables at the lower end of the room, as he was playing on the thirteen-stringed lysigal and singing. Although the musicians nearer at hand made it impossible to hear what he sang, the reactions of those who could hear seemed to suggest it was humorous in the extreme, most were laughing – some uncontrollably.
The third course came and went and Alexa found that she had as yet encountered no opportunity to use the Vavasor’s given name or any other. She decided that it was mildly insulting to be escorted by one of the most notorious and desirable men in the Western Continent and not be the sole object of his thoughts. With malicious intent, she leant towards him.
“Would the Baby-Slaying Bastard care for some more wine?” Her voice was deliberately pitched to be just loud enough to make heads nearby turn towards them.
The Vavasor glanced at her with distant dark eyes as though scarcely aware she was there and then seemed to come to himself and gave a crooked smile.
“Lady, you take your revenge unfairly,” he said softly so only she could hear.