The Arete: Princess Consort

A Study in When to Nod and Say Nothing

Chapter One:

The Cataphract

My company of heavy cavalry stood in their stirrups behind me in formation, bows drawn. To my right and left, other officers stood before their own companies of heavy cavalry, displaying our discipline as the best assault troops in the world. To the left and right of those several companies and behind all of us, companies of light cavalry stood in their stirrups with bows drawn, all waiting interminable seconds for the regimental officer to lower her arm.

The enemy infantry marched up toward us. Their drums sounded. Ours sounded louder. We held.

My heart pounded and my warhorse - Savaran - strained beneath me. Were it up to our whims, horse and woman alike, we'd charge down the slope to crash against their front line. But our forces were waiting just a little longer, and our discipline would hold however long was needed.

The regimental officer's arm dropped and we loosed a rain of arrows on our enemies. They halted and raised their shields in phalanxes. Their archers answered fire, but the arrows fell primarily among us heavy cavalry and bounced harmlessly off our lamellar armor.

Thrice more we loosed arrows. Countless unprotected limbs of the enemy infantry were punctured and ruined through gaps amongst their wall and roof of tall shields, until they were forced to tighten their ranks to virtual immobility to protect against the thickly falling missiles.

Only then did the regimental officer's arm drop again. We switched from our bows to our lances, hardwood poles stretching out the length again of our mounts ahead of us and tipped with two feet of piercing sharp metal.

The drums sped. The charge started, thundering down the slope with the massive weight of fully armored horse and rider behind each long lance driven into the enemies crouched behind their bossed, but ineffective, wooden shields.

Several threw their javelins to some effect. A few of our riders crashed to the ground on their dead or injured horses and others were stone dead in their saddles but still strapped in and riding angry warhorses galloping forward. Lances are adjustably clasped to the saddle and horse armor so that - even in death - our heavy cavalry deliver a final devastating charge.

Our charge folded the enemy line and sent their formations into complete disarray. Drawing up our lances, we drew forth our one-handed weapons for the ensuing melee. I prefer a nice mace as the blunt force blows needn't be angled as carefully in a hurry, but had my kopis - a short sword with a heavy forward curving blade - sheathed in my belt as well in case my mace was lost or I wanted to switch. With one swing, I broke the arm of an enemy thrusting upward at me with a silly shortsword. With another, I caved in the back of a cheap metal helmet of an enemy facing away from me. I imagined the skull beneath cracking, but may have only caused a concussion.

Dead or downed didn't matter for that day. We were deep in autumn and it would be the last battle before the end of the campaign season. The enemy leadership would be forced to sue for peace in the aftermath of this final rout and the less remaining semblance of an army they had the less favorable terms they could negotiate. So no prisoners and no withdrawal.

The drums changed again and we wheeled about and raced back up the slope. In the interim, our light cavalry broached the enemy flanks and their arrows rained down again as soon as we cleared the fray. Reforming into ranks after the steep loss of life and chaos of the charge and melee proved too tall an order for our enemies. They broke and ran.

We uncased our bows and loosed arrows at will at their retreating backs alongside our light cavalry. The drums changed again, signaling a full ceasefire. A portion of our light infantry - wearing wicker armor and fresh to battle - came to the fore to chase down and dispose of the stragglers. A few lucky souls might have survived them, but only a very few.

After fully reforming into our companies and mustering, our infantry and light cavalry began looting the battlefield. There was nothing to be found on the field more valuable to any of the heavy cavalry soldiery than their own mount and gear, so those companies who didn't lose any horses - like mine - returned to camp on foot, leading their tired chargers.

Of my 120, I lost three women to javelins. Conveniently and admittedly macrabely, the corpses stayed strapped in the saddle, so I personally led their mounts back with the dead women still ahorse. Their armor and equipment would be stripped back at camp and passed to new soldiers, because the cost of a charger and full lamellar armor for charger and rider was the greatest limiting factor in young soldiers joining a heavy cavalry regiment.

My First Sergeant caught up to me and we conferred on replacements for the dead as we hurried back. The company had to remain 120 strong, so my First Sergeant gave me three new names.

"Horsegirls" - young women of proven courage and caliber - were the pool of candidates for the newly empty slots for the whole heavy cavalry regiment. (They tended the horses, maintained the equipment, organized the baggage, and - most importantly - trained with us while waiting to come of age and be selected to open slots).

"Rakkex, Blaitax, and Zaquex." My First Sergeant had my confidence, so I called out the three names she recommended to me on our return to camp.

"Yes, ma'am." All three horsegirls answered with soldierly expressions on their faces, but naked anticipation in their voices. It'd be a very unlikely and dirty trick for a company officer like me to be doing anything but inviting them to join ranks under the circumstances.

I said the traditional words, "Due to your demonstrated honor, ability, and diligence, I prevail upon you to serve in my company."

"I accept, ma'am," they all proclaimed eagerly. I'd have been shocked if any refused.

While I certainly rushed to get the horsegirls whom my First Sergeant felt would most benefit my company, a subjective hairsbreadth of difference separated the candidates and they'd be fools to turn down an offer from even the worst company. Aging out and having to join the light cavalry was entirely possible for all of them, although most who were of age would likely be selected for the spring campaigning season to replace retiring soldiers.

"Bury the dead as you'd be buried, but take their horses and gear for your own as you take their places in the service of the Queen," I recited.

I noticed Blaitax was notably stockier than any of the corpses though, so I added, "Have the armor fitted by Garntor the blacksmith and also have her replace any missing or damaged equipment so that you're fully kitted. Charge the expenses to me." Horsegirl wages wouldn't be enough to have lamellar armor adjusted and it'd be weeks before their promotion was reflected in their pay.

"Yes, ma'am," they chorused again, but I heard a quieter, "Thank the Queen," sworn out by Blaitax.

Not being meant to hear it, I chose not to.

After seeing to my horse, I returned to my shared tent. I removed my own armor with practiced ease and proceeded to inspect and clean every piece and all my used weapons with a discipline beaten into me from childhood, before I even qualified for the Academy.

I tucked my kopis under the pillow on my bedroll out of prudent habit from Academy training. (Each of the eleven other heavy cavalry officers that I shared a tent with were of the same habit from the same training). Only then, and in my still bloodstained clothes, did I allow myself to fall onto my bedroll and sleep like the dead.

I was in the minority in getting sleep. Even late into the night, most of my horsewomen were looting the dead with the rest of the soldiery. I, on the other hand, belonged to the noble class and a great house at that (albeit only a thirdborn of one of the least branches of that great house).

Yet, common looting would still be too undignified for my position. Worse still, my demanding loot for myself - given my birth privilege and officer wages - would lose me the respect of those who followed me.

Most of my fellow officers were out as well though. They were taking advantage of the good spirits and availability of camp followers rather than traditionally looting, but celebrating our victory nevertheless.

I woke too few hours later, my hand on the hilt of my kopis at the sound of persons entering my tent.

"Sheesh Taiglox," Krigix reproved as she returned with the lady of her evening. "We've won. We'll be returning home in a few days, thank the Queen. Enjoy the spoils of victory while you can." With that, she slapped her temporary friend's ass and they proceeded to have loud, wet sex about six feet away from me.

I rolled to face away and distracted myself in rereading portions of my well-worn copy of Bavrox's Battle Ahorse for a couple minutes before I fell back into sleep, still holding the book open with my thumb. So long as the noise has been identified, I'm too professional a soldier to not sleep when sleep's available.

Another entrant at our tent caused me to reach for my kopis again. This time a stranger appeared alone. I released my kopis all the same. Our visitor was a royal messenger.

"I come for Lieutenant Taiglox of House Laerdya. You are to speak to the Queen."

It had been a good day generally and my company and I had performed well, but neither I nor any one of my company had performed heroics worthy of royal note. I expected, therefore, that I or one of mine had unwittingly done something to give great offense.

I stood, wishing I could have been bothered to change into fresh clothes before I slept. There is no making the Queen wait however, so I went unarmed and filthily dressed to where the royal tent had been erected in the previous hours after the battle was decisively won.

The massive royal tent was still being appointed inside and a mix of guards and members of the Queen's retinue milled about, waiting for their places to be readied.

The royal messenger and I walked inside to kneel before the Queen as she sat on her wooden throne with her court standing arrayed around her and hetaireias - noble heavy guards - posted beside her. The messenger announced me and was dismissed.

"Stand, Lieutenant. I've been speaking with your cousin here." She gestured to an imposing older woman in my house colors of cendrée and azure. Presumably, she was my fourth cousin thrice-removed, Laerdya, the head of House Laerdya, but we'd never met.

Were we to meet, etiquette clearly taught me told me to bow to her. It seemed entirely wrong, however, to bow to another in the presence of the Queen.

"Your Majesty." I stood and bowed to the Queen, then nodded to my head of house. "Cousin Laerdya."

By the half-smile of the Queen and small frown of Laerdya, I assumed that I'd acted wrongly, but been forgiven my ignorance. I had not, after all, been trained for such a circumstance. This occurrence quite simply should not have occurred. Not to me in any case.

Given my relatively low birth within my house, I should never have met either woman, let alone both at once. I swear all necessary fealties to my eldest aunt, which are sworn up the line to the Queen. So long as I fought and led well, I would be compensated well and accorded rooms in my eldest aunt's house between campaigning seasons and in my dotage.

My military career had a cap though. I'd never be a general. I'd never command an army. At best, I might rise to become a divisional officer, but certainly not to any position meriting the court's attention.

Nor did I desire such a thing. I am exactly what I've wanted to be since I joined the military Academy, a heavy cavalry officer in the Queen's army. Meanwhile, there I stood before the Queen and her court.

No one spoke and I became increasingly uncomfortable.

"Your Majesty, I apologize for my...ill state of dress...I..."

Thankfully, she interrupted my halting attempt and put me on more familiar footing.

"Never apologize for blood spilled in my service, Lieutenant. I'm told you fought well?" Likely she'd been told nothing about me in particular that day, but it was very much the polite question for a senior person to ask of an unmet junior person.

I filled my chest with breath properly as a soldier and reported formally in a more confident voice, "My company executed their portion of the battle plan as ordered, Your Majesty."

"Excellent, Lieutenant, although I've called you here for an altogether different reason. My next maiden daughter, Princess Caeli, is to be married to your house. Your cousin and I have selected you for the union."

"I am honored, Your Majesty," I answered appropriately that time, with the same words I'd have used if she had liked the hue of my hair or given me an apple. Meanwhile, my head was spinning.

I understood partially why I'd be a good choice. Were the Queen to have no warrior daughters or weak warrior daughters, she might have selected of the highest born of my house to gain a worthy successor. As was, the Queen had five worthy potential successors already of age (a wholly different problem for her.) Maybe she'd prefer a daughter-in-law who'd fulfill the required alliance with my house without being more competition for her own daughters? But she could get that from all but the very highest half dozen or so members of my house.

In theory, I had the right to reject the marriage. As a member of the noble class, I was obligated to marry as demanded by either of the two women before me. As a member of the warrior caste however, I could not be forced to take a wife no matter who the wife was. Rejection of such a demand would be unthinkable in reality though, because it'd certainly ruin my career and likely lead my family to disown me.

Not that I considered saying anything but that I was honored. I'm a loyal soldier and I was honored. It was just a bit of a major shock.

"Good," the Queen nodded, "You are dismissed to your duties until we break camp for winter in a few days, at which point you will be collected."

I bowed to both the Queen and Laerdya that time before turning smartly and leaving the luxurious tent.

Being a practical soldier as well as a loyal one, I set aside my concerns and returned to my tent and to sleep.

Dawn came very early that next morning and I rose with it. After a whoresbath and a change of clothes, I attended the regimental staff meeting and then breakfasted with my First Sergeant as was our habit.

"Ma'am, you had a royal audience last night?" she asked immediately over a mug of beer.

"Yes." Her knowing didn't surprise me. She knew when anyone in my company had a flea bite, which was part of why she was such a good First Sergeant. "I'm to marry for an alliance during the winter season. The upshot is that I won't be riding back to the border with you, so we'll need to handle all the admin for the offseason before we break camp."

"You're not being replaced though?" she worried aloud at me. I was well-liked up and down the chain of command and she legitimately wouldn't want to trade me for an officer of unknown qualities.

"No. It's only a political marriage. I'll be more than ready to muster for the spring campaign," I reassured her.

"Good," she affirmed gruffly, but then jibed, "Who's the unlucky lady?" She'd never let something like that slide without taking the opportunity to rib me.

"Princess Caeli," I answered simply.

My First Sergeant gave a low whistle, "Poor girl's giving up the lap of luxury in the finest palace in the capitol to go live with your country ass in the sticks?"

My aunt's house in the provinces would probably be a huge change for my intended, but I shrugged, "She'll adjust. She'll have to."

"Well that's warm. Do you even like girls, ma'am?" she jabbed. Soldiers forever insult one another, searching out sore spots, "I guess it doesn't matter. She'll be fucking around on you while you're on campaign all the time anyway.

"You know I like girls. I took part in the munera sexus and I had a fling with that infantry officer. I could even afford a hooker now and then if I weren't constantly bailing you lot of knuckleheads out of trouble," I jibed back, referring to the many times I'd paid fines, debts, and expenses for my various incorrigible soldiers, "And - like I said - it's a political marriage. What do I care who she fucks?" I bandied with false bravado.

Well, technically not false bravado. I really didn't care who a theoretical wife might sleep with and had no fear of cuckold's horns. I'd no reason to expect a wife to display such unwarranted wantonness however, and would not endeavor to foster a marriage that would birth such wantonness.

"Speaking of 'bailing out knuckleheads,'" Done trying to get my goat, she moved on to actual company business, "Reishix was caught fighting."

"Over what?" I took a swig of my beer.

"Perceived insult," she shrugged, "No permanent damage done to either party, but they were fool enough to have it out in front of a half a hundred witnesses with the high nobility in camp. It'll be a flogging or a fine."

"I'll pay the fine." Flogging often ended in permanent damage and my soldiers were too valuable to risk that way. Still, consequences were needed or running amok would commence. "Put her in charge of drilling the new soldiers whenever she's off duty."

My First Sergeant laughed, "She'd rather take the flogging, especially with the six more recruits we'll need."

"That's her right and choice." I had limited sympathy for troublemakers. The fine was always set too high to be paid by regular soldiers and the flogging itself struck me as unnecessarily brutal, but the punishment had to be a deterrence. The exhaustive training of new soldiers as an additional duty would suit just fine. "Six, not seven? So Hannax decided not to retire?"

"Told you. Die of old age in the saddle that one will." She took another bite of black bread.

"Again, her right." I had a bite of onion. "We'll have the others retired with proper ceremony and replaced tomorrow. I'll pay the difference in their wages to term and give them their letters of conveyance for lands in my aunt's region."

"We're for sure breaking and not wintering, then?" Another worry melted away.

"Yep," I affirmed, "from the Queen's own lips. 'In a few days.' Make sure you get the grain, pay, and, fodder needed from the quartermasters now. With the short levies and taxes this year, resources will be hotly contested when the order to break is passed."

My First Sergeant nodded sagely and downed the rest of her beer before leaving for her part to ready the company.

Those few days passed quickly with me far too busy to consider much more than putting my company in order for the winter season. As my First Sergeant prepared the physical requirements, I ensured the papers continuing their pays, duties, and promotions were organized. They are the least enjoyable portions of my own duties as a company officer and kept me up well into the night.

Just as I again fell into my bedroll, my name was called.

"Taiglox? Taiglox of House Laerdya?" A tall woman about my age with dark hair and dark eyes stepped into the tent. Her fine armor was gilded in gold. More notably, the base metal of her armor had been tempered to a deep purple in the forging process, which meant she was of the House Royal.

The purple and gold cloak she wore and its impracticality for being unslitted and unhooded also gave her high position away. Only a very powerful person could afford to wear an outer garment with such low utility.

"Here, Your Highness," I answered as I stood, recognizing that she must be one of my future sisters-in-law.

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