Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 45

“Of course,” said the boyar, bowing again. “Come in! Come in! My cook has a wonderful way with blue trout. I think it good enough even for the capital. I have been there, you know.”

He was not quite babbling, but plainly more than a little nervous. Vlad reminded himself that the boyar, like most such, was a provincial. A wealthy one, obviously, but he had probably never entertained anyone of Vlad’s rank before.

“Buda is so magnificent. Beautiful. The reflection of the castle in the river! Not to mention” — this came almost with a giggle — “His Majesty’s taste in pole-ornaments.” Then he seem to recall himself. “But I am a terrible host. Let me give you some wine! Arpad!”

He gestured to a hovering servant, who was waiting with a tray holding large goblets. Next to him was a man holding an ornately enchased silver beaker. That was the same man — Benedickt, if Vlad recalled correctly — who had come to deliver the message. He poured red wine into the goblets.

The boyar took his wine and immediately raised it in a toast to his visitor. “Your health, my liege. May you reign long and prosperously!”

They drank. It was strong, heavy red wine.

“Ah!” said his host. “Bull’s blood, Benedickt, see that the prince’s glass is filled!”

“I am not reigning yet,” said Vlad, feeling a little uncomfortable in his borrowed peasant’s Sunday black wool and simple linen shirt, while his host was wearing embroidered puce velvet. “But I do hope to enlist your aid . . .”

“Of course. Of course. You have only to ask, my liege. Come, though, and meet my family.”

They walked through into a large sale. A sulky looking plump boy in his late teens stood there, dressed in the height of last year’s court fashion in Buda. Sitting next to him on a settee was an older woman — clearly his mother, from the resemblance — wearing a rust-colored high-waisted velvet overgown, with a fine saffron linen shift puffing out from slits in the sleeves and showing at the neckline. It was an opulent garment, although she filled it too generously, especially the low, almost transparent shift studded with seed pearls. So it seemed to Vlad, at any rate — but then, he had been allowed little contact with women by Emeric. Perhaps he was mistaken.

“Anselm, Clara,” said the boyar. “Come and make your bow to the prince. My Lord, may I present my wife and son, ardent supporters of your cause. Benedickt. See that we have wine.”

More goblets were produced, more wine drunk, as they waited to be called to dine. Vlad could only hope that they would be quick about it. He was very hungry, and everyone, including the factotum Benedickt, was keen to see that his glass was full.

His hostess had begged him to come and sit next to her on the settee. Vlad wished now that he had remained standing. She seemed to find reason to touch him every few words, to run her fingers delicately along his arm, and to urge him to drink more wine. The woman puzzled him. It had been many years since he had been a guest in the home of another person. He really could not remember this sort of behavior. But he’d been a mere boy, interested in boyish things, and heartily bored by social events. His brief encounters with the Hungarian court and the women thereof had not suggested that this was the way they behaved. But perhaps things were different here in the provinces?

He still found it embarrassing. Possibly awkward, as well. The boyar seemed eager to commit his men and money to Vlad’s cause. He really did not want the man taking offence about his guest’s conduct with his wife.

“I wish you would tell us about what they are wearing at the court,” asked the young man, surveying his own raiment. Vlad had never given his clothing a second thought. It was set out for him and he was dressed by his valet. Vlad had found the dresses of women more interesting to look at. He was, naturally, aware of the prevailing mode. But his own dress was not something that he had ever been much interested by.

“Don’t bother the prince,” said his mother, taking the opportunity to pat Vlad’s hand again. “The prince needs more wine, Benedickt.”

He didn’t. Fortunately, a butler came and called them to eat just at that point.

“I’m afraid,” said his hostess almost as soon as they’d taken their seats, “that we have very little to set before you tonight. Some good fish. The blue trout is our pride, but other than that, we only have some venison, some broiled boar, sweetbreads, and a brace of roasted duck.”

Vlad did not point out that for the last while he’d been lucky to dine on rather ill-cooked rabbit, and a few scrawny chickens that his conscience pricked him about. The gypsies might possibly have bought them, but he rather doubted it. Instead he just said: “That sounds delightful.”

“Can we give you another glass of wine?” she asked, leaning over and brushing her breast against his shoulder. Somewhere in the conversation it had come out that the lady Clara was considered a great beauty.

Plainly she had not compared herself to the radiant Lady Elizabeth. His image of beauty, he feared, would be forever colored by Countess Bartholdi’s flawless perfection.

* * *

It was a very long meal. Vlad had been awake a long time and ridden many leagues, and the turmoil of the happenings at the inn had not permitted him to rest. The combination of food and lots of wine was making him worried that he would quietly slide under the table, snoring. He could remember some of his father’s guests doing that. Now he understood why.

On the other hand, if he remembered right, most of those had become quite rowdy before doing that. Wine did not seem to have that kind of effect on him at all, however. He was just very tired.

Apparently, his hosts must be aware of the effects of so much wine. They were watching him closely, possibly in fear that he would start becoming rowdy.

He must make the extra effort. He needed them. “I think that I need some air,” he said, his voice reflecting that inner tiredness.

He pushed his chair back. He noticed that his solicitous host had done the same, as had his son, and Benedickt the majordomo had come to draw his chair out for him. Slightly embarrassed by all this attention, he was paying less of a mind to his feet than he should have been. He hooked one on the chair leg and stumbled.

“Seize him, Benedickt!” shouted his host, surging forward. Moments later, a surprised Vlad was bowled over by his host, his host’s son, the majordomo, two other footmen, and even his host’s wife. She, admittedly, did little more than try to kick him on the shin.

“By God, he has even more of a capacity than his accursed grandfather was supposed to have!” grunted his host.

“His other appetites are less,” said the lady of the house disdainfully.

The boyar snorted. “I was never so embarrassed as by your behavior. You conducted yourself like a harlot.”

“You told me to do so, Klasparuj,” she said angrily.

“Yes, well, I thought he would be less likely to notice us plying him with drink if he was distracted by a little flirtation. I did not mean you had to engage in that kind of coquetry! Now, go and get us some rope. We need to bind him fast. It will be some hours before the Croats can be here.”

“Send one of the footmen,” she said sulkily, turning her head away. “I have done enough for you. I cannot see what the fuss is about, anyway. I mean, look at him! Dressed like that!”