Excerpt from The Amiestrin Gambit

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Chapter 1

There were horses in the drive.

Not that horses in and of themselves were an unusual thing, nor the men moving among them. There were simply too many horses and too many men.

Ellis lay down behind the crest of the hill. The old dogs came at her whistle, settling quietly on her command. From her vantage point, she could make out enough of the newcomers’ dress to recognize them for guardsmen. Four already lived in residence—her personal guards who’d been with her since she was bundled off to Amiestrin. Unfortunately, it looked as if a dozen or more had suddenly rained down on them from the capital.

What catastrophe landed this on them? Only once had guardsmen ever come in force to Amiestrin, the one time her father had come to see her. She watched as several of the men led their mounts back around the other side of the house toward the stables. Clearly, they intended to stay the night.

Melia will be frantic. It would take a miracle for the cook to feed this many without advance notice. She’d said nothing this morning; she must not have known. So Ellis gathered the dogs about her, reckoning a couple hundred pounds of black, hairy beast would keep the guardsmen at a distance. Best to get to the kitchen before she got into trouble.

* * *

Lieutenant Dantreon looked up in time to catch a glimpse of a dark-haired girl in the meadow. She ran down the side of the hill through the tall grass, preceded by four large dogs. They reached the manor house and disappeared around its side, vanishing into the gardens behind. Probably one of the servant’s children.

Carmeyon sighed. He glanced up to the small banner mounted atop the rotunda that stood on one end of the manor house. The circle and crossbars of the Jenear Guard flew there, as if no one had ever forgotten this estate once held a war college. As if it wasn’t a royal residence at all.

No one ever came here, he’d learned. No one visited, not even the king. The estate sat behind its high walls, a secret and hidden retreat. Even so, that knowledge hadn’t prepared him for the king’s neglect of the place and his daughter. Only a dozen or so servants lived here and that included the four guardsmen already in residence. In bringing his cadets here, he’d nearly tripled the size of the household.

The manor itself seemed in good repair and the stables sound. Once past the initial shock, a few of the residents turned out to help situate their new guests—a stableman, a gardener, and the four guardsmen. The cook, he’d heard, was frantically trying to stretch out an evening meal that Carmeyon now suspected might not involve meat. Evidently, no one had bothered to warn the household they were coming.

Lieutenant Sirtris joined him on the steps, his fair hair glowing reddish in the light of the setting sun. He gestured toward a group of cadets leading their mounts around the side of the house. “That’s the last of the horses. There’s enough hay to last a while. We’ll have to come up with more help in the stables.”

Carmeyon was grateful the king had specified that Sirtris would be part of this bizarre mission. Sirtris had been his closest friend since they’d entered the Guard and—more importantly—had a gift for understanding the logistics of this sort of endeavor. If Sirtris said they need more help in the stables, it must be so.

“Good enough for today,” Carmeyon returned. “The west wing is uninhabited, so we’ll make ourselves at home there until we figure out what to do with this place. I’m going to find the kitchen and let the cook know we don’t intend to eat any of the residents. Try to keep the boys out of the rest of the house.” Sirtris would already have forbidden that, he realized belatedly.

Carmeyon went on into the house, grateful the cadets seemed to be taking this setback calmly. The closest thing to royalty among the cadets, Jerin Marisi, propped the tall oak doors open for the others to follow, a smile on his pleasantly handsome face, as if it had never occurred to him to leave it to someone else.

Carmeyon walked on, surveying the place his cadets were taking over. For one of the king’s households, it was remarkably plain. The tall doors and walls lacked the elegant carvings of the palace in Jenesetta. The once-elegant rugs were threadbare, and the curtains faded, but the wood floors gleamed with polish where the rugs came to their ends. The windows were clear and the wall hangings free of dust. Along the hallways sconces glowed, tallow candles filling them.

The bones of the house were in good shape, but its clothing was worn. The staff clearly worked hard to keep the manor ready for visitors. Unfortunately, hard work couldn’t replace tired furnishings.

Carmeyon fingered one of the intricate floral-patterned wall hangings, where once-red roses had faded to a sickly peach. His great-great-grandfather had walked these halls in better days when the estate of Amiestrin was a war college. He would have touched the same windowsills and doorframes. And his grandfather had lived here in the manor’s earliest days.

It would have been a grand house then. Carmeyon had never felt any attachment to the palace in Jenesetta or the royal mansion in Perisen, but this place somehow felt like home.

He headed toward the east wing of the manor. He passed a library on the left and followed along an ell of the building, guided by the smell of cooking. The hallway gave onto a dining hall and, past that, a service area that connected to the kitchens.

As he opened the door, he realized the hallways had grown dark—only because the kitchen surprised him with its brightness. Just inside the doorway, the girl he’d seen on the hill removed bread from the oven with a peel. She thumped a loaf in a practiced manner and slid it onto the work table. She turned back to pull out another batch and spotted him. With the peel in her hands, she couldn’t help blocking the hallway. “I’m sorry. You’ll need to wait, sir.”

Carmeyon blinked, feeling as if his mind had gone dim. Not a servant’s child, after all.

Tall for her age and on the skinny side, her resemblance to the king was undeniable. She had his gray eyes and a strong, but not pretty, face. Her clothes looked as worn as any of the servants’. She’d thrown an apron over her weskit but still went bare-armed. Her dark hair fell in a tangled mess to her waist.

What does one say to a princess while she’s cooking one’s dinner?

She pulled out the remainder of the bread, placed the peel against the wall, and closed up the oven. Only then did she allow him into the kitchen, directing him toward the cook.

A youngish woman with a stern gaze, the ruddy-cheeked cook seemed understandably harried. “Your men will have to be happy with stew tonight, Lieutenant,” she told him, waving a knife as she spoke. “We hadn’t a chance to fill the larder and had to throw in every bit of meat we had.”

Carmeyon gave her his best smile. “I came to tell you not to fret about it, ma’am. The boys can make do.”

The cook unbent a little. She put down the knife, wiped her hands on her apron, and twitched her dark braid over her shoulder. “Well, if you can give us half an hour, we should have everything ready.”

“Certainly,” Carmeyon said. “May I assume you are in charge of the household?”

“The king,” she informed him with careful emphasis, “is in charge of this household, but Mrs. Verus is the housekeeper. She’s visiting family, I’m afraid, but will be back in the morning.”

“Very good.” Carmeyon glanced about the tidy kitchen. “My thanks for your efforts. I’d like to send you a few of the boys to help clean up afterward, if you could use them. If they get in your way, you can send them packing. Some of us have washed dishes before,” he reassured her.

Most of the cadets came from noble houses. He would let those take a turn at it later. Carmeyon hoped they didn’t break too many of the king’s dishes in the interim.

“We’d appreciate the help,” the cook said. “We’ll be prepared in the dining hall soon. You can bring your men there.” Apparently having dismissed him, she turned her attention to the girl. “Ellis, light the candles in the hall and then go get yourself cleaned up. Out!”

The girl plucked a taper from one of the sconces and edged past Carmeyon into the dim hall. As he watched, she dragged a heavy wooden dining chair up to the first sconce, climbed up, and lit the candles. Then she repeated the process for the second sconce.

“Do you know why we’re here?” Carmeyon asked her.

She glanced at him as if just noting his presence in the room. “You must be…necessary.”

Carmeyon heard the emphasis she put on the word but couldn’t decipher her meaning. He tried a different approach. “Were you told we were coming?”

Wax dripped onto her hand and she put the burnt finger into her mouth. “None of us knew, so I would have to say not. Mrs. Verus would have said something. You’re fortunate we were baking bread today.”

Carmeyon took the taper from her and handed her down from the chair. “I’ll do this. I’d like you to answer a few questions for me, if you please.”

“Am I in some sort of trouble, sir?”

Carmeyon stepped up onto the chair and glanced down at the girl. With her jaw clenched and her arms folded tightly across her chest, she looked shockingly like her father. She had his square chin and serious face. Only the shape of her eyes was different, probably inherited from the queen.

At least that would blunt any question of her parentage. There had been nasty rumors circulating since the day her father bundled her away to this estate. Carmeyon lit the candles and stepped down from the chair. Extending a hand, he introduced himself. “Lieutenant Carmeyon Dantreon. I’m to be one of your instructors.”

“Instructors,” she repeated and then paused, seemingly considering his words. “We have the same surname. Are you some sort of relative of mine?”

“I’m a cousin of yours, although not close.”

“Oh.” She appeared to mull that over as well, then shook his hand firmly. “I am pleased to meet you.”

She doesn’t appear pleased. He picked up the chair and carried it to another sconce. “Another of our cousins, Jerin Marisi, is here as well.”

She chose not to comment on that. “What are you supposed to instruct me in?” she asked instead. “I know how to read and write. And math—I’m quite good at that. Mrs. Verus has me keep the books now.”

“That’s good to know.” Carmeyon dragged the chair over to the far wall. “As to what you are to study, that’s something we should discuss tomorrow with Lieutenant Sirtris present.”

Again, she took a moment before speaking. “Is it that bad?”

Carmeyon couldn’t help thinking it was. “Our orders came from the king himself, and we will do our best to carry them out.”

“Oh, it must be bad,” she observed.

Carmeyon lit the candles and then moved the chair. “What is the worst thing you can think of?” he asked, actually curious to hear her answer.

“I’m to be sent off to be married.”

Now that statement came out quickly, so it was likely something she’d given some thought before. By the tenor of her voice, she must dread the prospect. “Don’t worry,” he said. “That’s not why we’re here. You’re too young to be married off, don’t you think?”

She shrugged. “I’m almost fifteen now.”

Carmeyon shook his head. He would have been livid if his father had tried to marry off his sister at that age. “You wouldn’t try to talk him out of it?”

“My father? He doesn’t talk to me.”

That sounded petulant, like something a child hunting for pity would say, but Carmeyon had an unpleasant feeling that she only spoke the truth. “When was the last time you saw him?”

Her thin arms crossed over her chest. “He came here about two years ago. I saw him then.”

“Does he write to you?”

“He writes to Mrs. Verus sometimes.” She paused and reconsidered. “Or his secretary does.”

Carmeyon continued lighting the tapers. He decided she was being truthful. “Well, I think we’d best discuss it in the morning. Can you be ready to meet with us by nine?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You will need to address me as ‘lieutenant’, or ‘sir’.”

After a startled blink, she amended her statement. “Yes, of course, sir.”

At least she knows how to take orders. That would be useful later. Carmeyon finished the last sconce. The dining hall now glowed with flickering light. He handed her the taper and put the chair back in its spot.

“The guardsmen with me are to be considered your equals,” he warned her. “Don’t be intimidated by their age or their polish. They’re to be your fellow students and are expected to treat you as an equal. If you have problems with any of them, you’re to let me know.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Carmeyon gestured for her to precede him out of the hall. She held out the taper for him. The halls had grown dark with nightfall. “You take it,” he said.

“I can find my way in the dark,” she told him. “I don’t know that you can, sir.”

Accepting that logic, Carmeyon took the candle and, with only one slight mishap, made his way back to the west wing.

* * *

Ellis raced down the hall to her rooms in the darkness. She flung open her tall door, dashed into her dressing room, and rummaged through her armoire, her mind whirling.

Instructors, the lieutenant had said. Never before had her father taken any pains to see her trained to do anything. That she knew how to read was only by the interference of Mrs. Verus, who’d been scandalized when she learned no tutor had been sent for her charge. Melia taught her math. Ellis had taken her education into her own hands after that, poring through the old library and studying the old school’s texts. So what, she wondered, would she learn from a group of guardsmen?

The water in the basin felt cool after the heat of the kitchen. Ellis ran a damp cloth over her face. She stopped and considered herself in the mirror, wondering what her new cousin must have thought of her with her tangled hair and stained weskit. She might have met him long ago, but she didn’t have many clear memories of the time before she’d been sent to Amiestrin.

It seemed like a different girl who’d lived in the palace.

Not me.

Ellis made herself tuck that thought away and focus on what was currently important. The staff couldn’t handle this many people on a daily basis. Having kept the books for the last two years, she knew they had no funds to hire more help. Then again, if the king considered these soldiers necessary, he might make the funds available. Villagers from nearby Kensit would be willing to take employment at the estate. If her father would allow it, that was.

Somehow, she’d believed they would go on here as they had forever, with no new faces and no intrusions on their quiet lives. It hadn’t occurred to her that the outside world would come here instead.

Ellis abruptly realized she’d been sitting before her mirror with her hands idle while her mind wandered. Annoyed with herself, she untangled her hair with damp fingers, braided it into a single plait, and pinned it back. Discipline begins with an ordered mind, she quoted to herself.

She chose a severe dress in the hope that the others would take her seriously, thinking it fortuitous that she’d recently let out the hem. Appearances had better not be important.

 

* * *

 

Carmeyon found Sirtris supervising the sleeping arrangements for the night. Under his watchful eye, the cadets had dragged excess bedding from the guest rooms and laid it out in what appeared to be a ballroom, creating neat rows of makeshift beds. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but it was better than sleeping on the hard ground outside.

Sirtris spotted Carmeyon and gestured him over to a dais set against one wall. “Will we eat tonight?”

Carmeyon held in a sigh. “Bread and stew.”

“Good enough.” Sirtris frowned. “Staff is too thin to manage this many, let alone any instructors we bring in.”

Sirtris always fretted over practical matters.

Carmeyon rubbed a finger along his stubbled jaw and briefly hoped Sirtris had worked out a plan for bathing facilities as well. “The marshals are working on getting funds for this. We’ll figure something out in the meantime. If the king didn’t approve of opening the war college, at least tacitly, he wouldn’t have told us to bring so many guardsmen with us.”

Sirtris turned a doubtful gaze in his direction.

It was actually the marshals’ plan to use this assignment as an excuse to open the old war college, admittedly in a very limited way. He, Sirtris, and sixteen guardsmen had been transferred to the estate to instruct the girl. Including the others in the instruction was a logical step…save that the two lieutenants in command were too young and inexperienced to be running such an enterprise. The marshals hoped that older, retired officers would step in to offer a valid education for the other cadets. That was the plan.

Whether they could carry it off was another thing entirely.

“Well, since he’s decided to have her trained as a soldier rather than, say…a seamstress,” Carmeyon added, “he must foresee some point in the future at which she’ll be required to use those skills. The most likely extension of that logic is that we eventually find ourselves at war, in which case additional trained officers will be needed.”

Sirtris rolled his eyes. “Is that the argument you are going to use when we’re arrested?”

“Absolutely. Sub-marshal Korileys came up with it,” Carmeyon admitted. The sub-marshal headed up the king’s personal bodyguard, giving him some insight into how the king’s mind worked. “Our actions are well within the king’s orders.”

Sirtris shook his head. “We’re going to hang,” he predicted dryly. “That’s not your Gift speaking to you, by the way, just common sense.”

Carmeyon understood Sirtris’ lack of faith. Sirtris distrusted the Dantreon family’s Gift with reason. Despite the occasional aid their foreknowledge gave them, it often left them without any foresight at times when they most needed it. They didn’t know the king wouldn’t have their heads, but his father’s Gift had foretold with its usual vagueness that the marshals’ ploy would work. Carmeyon placed his faith in that.

“I have to say I don’t approve of how he’s raised his daughter,” he added after a moment.

Sirtris spared him a glance. “You found her? Where has she been hiding?”

“She was in the kitchen, helping with supper,” Carmeyon supplied.

“Ah, I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

 

 

Chapter 2

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 struggled to remember all the rules she’d been taught. Versh people shook hands; Menhirre bowed, but didn’t shake hands. Unfortunately, some of the young men didn’t look Versh and didn’t have Versh names, but shook her hand in the Versh style anyway, which confused her.

There are Menhirre, one of her guardsmen had once told her, and there are 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.

After he had finished his stew, Jerin leaned toward Ellis. “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, 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 had just stripped him of his own title as well, since she should probably address him as ‘Lord Jerin’.

Ellis spied a twitch of the lips from the silent Sirtris. At least I’ve won his approval.

“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, 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.”

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.

Ellis smiled at him. 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 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 handsome Mikhal as the youngest of the guardsmen—though still a few years her senior, she guessed. Yefin was the broad-shouldered one with light brown hair and a ready smile. Llelas seemed older than the others, glints of white already showing in his black hair. “It will take me some time to remember all these names,” she 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. When the lieutenants began to herd the young men back to the other wing of the manor, Ellis took her leave. She retreated to 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, but then shut it. She’d been outmaneuvered.

“You don’t need to worry about the cook,” the lieutenant told her. “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. 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 dashed 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. The tattered notebook 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. I couldn’t tell if he meant that Llelas was his cousin and not mine, or a cousin of both of us. I wish there were some sort of book here that listed my family tree, but those must be kept at the palace. Of course, Geris once told me that all the nobility were related, so I guess we must all three be cousins of some sort, and the lieutenant, too.

Thomas Farrier wears two earrings which means he’s been in two battles, I think. Geris said each represents a specific battle. He has a 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.

* * *

Llelas Sevireiya tried to ignore the others around him as he settled into his bedding, such as it was. The officers, clearly as unprepared for this nonsense as the cadets, had set up a temporary barracks in a ballroom. The high ceiling caused the place to echo, and he could clearly hear three cadets arguing in Versh. He only caught one word in ten, though.

That was one of the reasons he should not be here. The courses would surely be taught in Versh, and he had never learned that tongue, or not much. In Sandrine Province, it was never needed. In the Cantreidian Quarter of Perisen, they spoke mostly Cantros. Here, his head hurt from merely trying to follow conversations.

There were other speakers of Relance here, but Llelas was unsure whether they were toadying him. It would take time to learn who among them meant their words and who simply sought favors.

One of the other cadets—one of the big Versh boys—stepped over Llelas’ bedroll and apologized in Cantros as he went. Llelas responded in that language without thinking, but the other cadet had no further response. Llelas took a close look at him so he would know later which one spoke Cantros.

Then he closed his eyes, chasing sleep. His Gift chose not to cooperate.

He found his spirit-self standing in Sovre’s office, watching his half-brother consult a thick legal tome, likely preparing for a case. Then he was swept to the palace garrison in Jenesetta, where Sub-marshal Revasien sat in his quarters, his two young nephews next to him on their worn old sofa as he read to them from an equally worn book. Llelas listened for a moment, then tore his spirit-self away. He expected to see his father, but instead, he found himself standing in a hallway of the ducal palace in Perisen. With its tall white and gold walls, the fine cream-colored carpets, and pale wood floors, the elegant hall was unmistakable.

Near the end of that abandoned hallway, a young woman scrubbed the floor on her hands and knees.

Her face turned toward him, revealing bright blue eyes much like his own. Her dark hair was pulled up under a cap. She rose, set down her scrub brush, and walked toward him.

Only once had another person seen his spirit-self standing there, invisible.

When the young woman stood a few feet from where Llelas waited, she crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. In a high, childish voice, she asked, “Are you spying on me, little boy?”

The voice was wrong, but only one person called him little boy. Llelas’ spirit-self had no breath to groan. Or to speak. But he tried. “I am here unwilling, Grandfather.”

And as always, Grandfather seemed to hear him, even though he made no sound.

“Go away then, little boy.” Grandfather—Aelis in this form—waved one hand at Llelas’ disembodied self and he found himself thrown back into his own body.

Llelas opened his eyes, hoping none of the cadets had noticed his trance. Fortunately, the lieutenants had doused the lights, granting him secrecy. He let out a slow breath, relieved not to have been caught.

When he closed his eyes once more, true sleep came.

EA-FOC-33

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