April 495, Amiestrin
Ellis Dantreon buttoned the row of silver buttons down the front of her uniform blouse and then pulled on the blue jacket. She wondered why she bothered to wear her best one. By the time they reached Jenesetta, the dark blue of her uniform would be sprinkled with dust and wrinkled. Her new boots would be chafed by the stirrups, the laces well broken in.
She sat and fixed the stirrup straps on her trousers, catching sight of herself in the mirror before she turned away. At the moment, she could pass for Jerin’s scarred younger brother. In three hours, she would likely resemble Jerin’s filthy younger brother.
Ellis grabbed her greatcoat off its hook by the door and pulled it on over the rest. She hoped the coat would absorb the worst of the road dust. She didn’t want to arrive in the capital looking like a farmer.
Other cadets already bustled about the stable yard. Her gelding, Five, greeted her with a whinny, seemingly more eager to be gone than she was. She saddled him and walked him around to the other side of the Manor House to wait with the other cadets, by no means the last to be ready.
She carried her own pistol today, given permission by the captains to carry it on her person. Thankfully, her cousin Jerin had brought her weapons up from the Reserve House armory, saving her the trip out there. She slid her machete and saber into their scabbards and then waited along with the others. Her breath steamed in the chill air, the last vestiges of the cold snap still hanging on, as if winter wouldn’t leave until they had this over with.
Jerin looked worn, his gray eyes shadowed. Ellis thought he’d grown up in the last week, just as she had. He pulled his hat down over his dark hair, a worried look on his normally happy face. The other squads began to form up in rows. Ellis knew she would end up in the very middle of the squadron. She didn’t have to ask.
Captain Dantreon was one of the last to come around from the stables, having been busy that morning making certain everything necessary arrived in the capital with them. As he passed her, he gestured for Ellis to come speak with him. She handed her reins over to Jerin and pursued the captain as he headed to the front of the formation.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, his breath steaming as he spoke. He didn’t look at her, his eyes taking in the rows of cadets.
Ellis glanced up the drive toward the manor house. The sun began to rise, casting a pink pall on the horizon behind the old stone walls. Everything seemed so normal. “It’s just like another day of cavalry maneuvers, sir.”
The captain’s warm brown eyes turned on her. She had to angle her head to meet his eyes, but not too much anymore. He laid a hand on her arm. “We’re taking you directly to a man who would very much like to see you dead. Don’t think of yourself as part of the Guard right now, Ellis. You are the reason for the Guard.”
They all had the black facing of the king’s bodyguard sewn into their uniform blouses, proclaiming their affiliation within the Guard. They were her guard now, not just a handful of cadets. “I understand, sir,” she told him. “I’ll keep my head down.”
“There’s not much chance he’ll try again,” the captain said, giving her one of his reassuring smiles. “He doesn’t know we’re coming.”
He let go of her arm, mounted, and gazed down at her. For a moment, she thought he meant to add something but he shook his head, settled his hat, and motioned for her to return to her squad.
The very last to get into saddle, Ellis arranged her greatcoat about her and made certain her chinstrap was fixed. Then they all started down the drive at a walk, looking strangely like a parade on its way to the capital.