Feeling unready, Ellis took Mrs. Verus’ place at the head of the servants to greet the newcomers as they arrived in the dining hall. She knew how to deal with her people here but these were strangers, some of them nobility. She had no idea how to talk to that sort of person in the flesh. The library lacked books on etiquette and she recalled very little of court manners from her childhood at the palace. She hoped country manners would suffice for now.
She would never remember all of their names, of that she was absolutely certain. Fortunately, Lieutenant Dantreon chose to make the necessary introductions. He seemed to recognize her discomfort, even though she did her best not to show it.
Lieutenant Sirtris she would remember. Only the second Galasiene she’d ever met, his blond hair and winter-fair skin left no doubt as to his heritage. ‘Lieutenant’ seemed to be his given name, because her tall cousin didn’t supply any other.
Ellis endured the introductions, struggling to remember all the rules she’d ever been taught. Versh people shook hands; Menhirre bowed, but didn’t shake hands. Some of the boys didn’t look Versh and didn’t have Versh names, but shook her hand in the Versh style anyway, which confused her.
There were Menhirre, one of her guardsmen had once told her, and then there were Menhirre. Some families kept to the old customs, he’d explained—the ones who spoke Relance, and believed in old superstitions, and spent far more time at their prayers. Those Menhirre, in turn, referred to the ones who’d adopted Versh manners as ‘Jenear’. Thoroughly flustered, Ellis settled for trying to read their body language before sticking her hand out.
Her cousin Jerin Marisi smiled winningly at her and bowed, forgoing the handshake. He’d met her before, he claimed, but she’d only been a toddler then. He couldn’t have been much older. Only a hand taller than her, his features strongly resembled what she saw daily in her mirror. His dark hair curled, although not as frantically as her own, and his gray eyes looked just the same shade.
Once Lieutenant Dantreon introduced the last of his men, they took their seats at the table, the largest crowd this room had seen in Ellis’ memory. She seated herself at the head with Lieutenant Sirtris on her right and her cousin Jerin on her left.
It felt almost unreal to sit there, as if she were playing at tea as Melia’s daughter, Daria, sometimes did. The guardsmen took the place of Daria’s stuffed dolls but were much more animated.
Melia and one of the maids served them and then left the diners to refill their bowls and glasses for themselves. The guardsmen acted properly grateful for the meal. If they objected to the informal manner of service, they said nothing.
Jerin leaned toward Ellis after he had finished his stew. “I hope your people are able to forgive our unannounced arrival, Your Highness. We had very little time to pack, so we mostly came unprepared.”
It took Ellis a moment to realize he hadn’t been mistaken in his form of address. In her mind, ‘Highness’ was a title reserved for her father…or the queen. “I prefer you address me by name, sir.”
His dark eyebrows shot up in a look of surprise. “You wish me to call you Ellis, then?”
His reaction told her she’d committed some sort of solecism. The Galasiene lieutenant was listening though, so Ellis decided not to back down. “If we are all to be students here, then that makes us equals, doesn’t it? Deference should be given to officers and not bestowed according to birth,” she quoted The Officer’s Guide, grateful she had something to support her words.
Jerin leaned back in his chair, evidently much struck by the idea. She realized belatedly that she had just stripped him of his own title as well, since she should address him as ‘Lord Jerin’. Ellis spied a twitch of the lips from the silent Sirtris and decided she’d won his approval at least. She might regret having said that in the future, though.
“Why did you have little time to pack, sir?” she asked her cousin, changing the subject.
He perked up at that. “If I’m to call you by name, then you should call me Jerin. We are cousins, after all, you know.” When Ellis nodded her agreement, he continued. “The lieutenants only notified us we’d been accepted yesterday. I’m glad I told them I wanted to apply, though. I thought, better to spend my time learning how to be an officer than sitting in the North Country Garrison. A younger son like myself has no future in politics, you know. My best chance for a brilliant future is here in the Guard.”
Ellis smiled. He’d told her more in a minute than she’d learned in her entire conversation with Lieutenant Dantreon. The young guardsmen had come to Amiestrin to train as officers, and she, strangely enough, was to learn with them.
It won’t hurt to keep him talking. “Are you all younger sons, Jerin?”
“I don’t know all of the men here,” he admitted, “but some of those I do know are. I’ve heard Lieutenant Sirtris is his father’s heir, although I don’t think he’s titled.”
A quick glance affirmed that the lieutenant still appeared disinclined to interfere in their discussion. He applied his bread to the stew left in his bowl instead. “And Lieutenant Dantreon?”
“Ah. He’s his father’s second son. His older brother is in the Guard as well, though. All the Dantreons serve, you know.”
She’d never realized entire families served the crown.
Jerin rattled on. “Mikhal Deviron is the Earl of Jestriyan’s fourth son, and Yefin Fariana,” he pointed discreetly down the table as he explained, “is the second son of the Earl of Kilmesia. Now, Llelas Sevireiya is the only son of the Duke of Sandrine,” he said, bending closer to whisper, “but his family has no money. He’s actually a cousin of mine, too, but I’ve never met him before today.”
Ellis picked out Mikhal as the youngest of the guardsmen, though still a few years her senior. Yefin was the one with the ready smile and the light brown hair. Llelas seemed older than the others, with glints of white showing in his black hair. He ignored them, apparently not overhearing Jerin’s indiscreet admission about his family’s finances.
“It will take me some time to remember all these names,” Ellis admitted.
“I don’t know everyone yet, but I do think I have all the names down, you know. I’ll help you.” He pointed them out one at a time and Ellis tried to fix each in her memory. The last, the young man sitting next to Sirtris, Jerin didn’t know, but Ellis recalled the name ‘Thomas’. He was the only one of the younger guardsmen who wore earrings, which caught her attention. Having sat next to the silent lieutenant for the entire meal, Thomas glanced up at the sound of his name.
Realizing they’d caught his ear, Jerin hissed across at him. “Thomas, what is your surname?”
The surprised guardsman supplied the name ‘Farrier’—a Versh trade name, as so many of their surnames went.
Jerin continued his monologue, telling her of the Guard’s quarters at the Palace Garrison, then the North Country Garrison, where he’d evidently spent his first several months of duty. Ellis finally took her leave of the young men when she realized the lieutenants intended to herd them back to the other wing of the manor. She waited in her room until she figured they’d all gone and then made her way back down the hallway and toward the kitchens.
When she entered the dining room, she found Lieutenant Dantreon waiting for her. She opened her mouth and then shut it, recognizing she’d been outmaneuvered.
“You don’t need to worry about the cook—I’ve assigned four of the boys to help her clean.”
He even knows why I’m here. Ellis drew herself up as tall as she could. She still fell a foot short of the lieutenant’s height. “The household is my responsibility when Mrs. Verus is gone, sir.”
He glanced down at her feet, his dark face expressionless. Too late, Ellis realized that her bare feet showed under the hem of her skirt. She resisted the urge to hide them. Now she felt childish.
“We’ll meet with you in the morning,” he told her. “Remember—at nine.”
With a mumbled promise, Ellis whisked herself out of the room and ran back down the hall to her bedroom. She leaned her back against her door and took a deep breath. What she had known of her life here at Amiestrin—the comfortable arrangement she’d slowly reached with the staff and her place within that group-—the guardsmen’s arrival had changed that. Not being allowed to work in the kitchen was a symbolic defeat only, but it still stung.
She sat down at her desk and took out her journal, a tattered notebook that had been with her for several months and now only contained a few blank pages. She uncapped the ink and began to write.
August 6, 493
I’m not certain why Father wants me to do this, but it does make sense. After all this time reading those books, perhaps I’ll be able to put them to use.
I have cousins. I didn’t remember that. Jerin is nice, but he talks too much. Lieutenant Dantreon seems nice as well, but he is too perspicacious. I hope I used that correctly.
I couldn’t tell if Jerin meant that Llelas was his cousin and not mine or a cousin of both of us. He looks bad tempered, like Conrad when one of his horses gets sick. I wish there were some sort of book here that listed my family tree, but those must be kept at the palace. Of course, Conrad once told me that all the nobility were related, so I guess we must all three be cousins of some sort.
I liked Thomas Farrier. He’s Versh. He wears two earrings which means he’s been in two battles, I think, unlike any of the others. Geris said each represents a specific battle. He has an even dozen running up his left ear, but so do all my other old guardsmen.
The two lieutenants have some as well, but I didn’t count. The only recent fighting has been on the border with Bremen, so they must have been stationed up north. They must have been in one of the three garrisons along the border…
Ellis kept writing, trying to recall something about each of the young men she’d met. Three of them she couldn’t locate in her memory at all, leaving her thirteen plus the two officers. In the end, she filled two whole pages of her journal.
She blew on the last of her writing to hurry the ink. When it was dry enough, she carefully ripped out the pages and threw them into the fire.
Go on to Chapter 3 (not available yet)