The Unexpected Arrivals
Amiestrin—Two Years Earlier
There were horses in the drive.
Not that horses in and of themselves were a particularly 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 dogs came at her whistle, settling quietly on her command. From her distance, she could make out enough of their dress to recognize the newcomers for guardsmen. Four already lived in residence-—her personal guards who had been with her since she’d been bundled off to Amiestrin. Unfortunately, it looked as if a dozen or more had suddenly rained down on them from the capital.
Melia would be frantic, she realized. It would take a miracle for the cook to feed this many without any advance notice. She’d said nothing before Ellis left with the dogs this morning, so she must not have known.
Ellis couldn’t help wondering 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.
She 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 several large dogs. They reached the manor and disappeared around its side, vanishing into the gardens behind.
Probably one of the servant’s children, he decided.
He’d learned no one ever came here, 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 couldn’t help but be grateful the king specified Sirtris to be part of this mission. Sirtris had been his closest friend since they’d entered the Guard. He had a gift for understanding the logistics of this sort of endeavor. If Sirtris said they need more held 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 can 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,” he added. Sirtris would already have forbidden that, he realized belatedly.
Carmeyon went on into the house, grateful that the cadets seemed to be taking this setback calmly. Jerin Marisi, the closest thing to royalty among them, propped the tall oak doors open for the others to follow.
For one of the king’s households, Carmeyon thought it a remarkably plain and simple building. The tall doors and walls lacked the elegant carvings seen in 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 glass was 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.
In better days, his own great-great-grandfather had walked these halls, back when the estate of Amiestrin was a War College. He would have touched the same windowsills and doorframes. His grandfather had lived here in the manor’s earliest days. It would have been a grand house then, he thought. He’d never felt any attachment to the palace in Jenesetta or the royal mansion in Perisen, but this place somehow felt like home.
Carmeyon 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 to the kitchens, 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 then slid those loaves onto the tabletop. She turned back to pull out another batch and spotted him there. 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 at 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.
And 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 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 we 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 and wiped her hands on her apron. “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 here. She’s visiting family and 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 them take a turn at it later. Carmeyon only hoped they didn’t break too many of the king’s dishes.
“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 him out 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 injured 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 then 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 her eyes were 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 knew.
He lit the candles and stepped down from the chair. Then, 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 think that over as well. Then she 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,” he admitted. 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.”
“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.”
By the tenor of her voice, she must dread the prospect. “Don’t worry, then. That’s not why we’re here.” In the now-lit hall, he could see her relief. “You’re too young to be married off, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. “I’m almost fifteen now.”
“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 she only spoke the truth. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“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 rather, 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 knew how to take orders, which would be useful later. Carmeyon reached the last sconce. The dining hall 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, so they’ll be 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.
“You take it,” he said since the halls had grown dark with nightfall.
“I can find my way in the dark. 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 lived in the palace.
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 thought they would go on as they had here 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 for having been distracted, 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 hopes 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 dragged bedding from the guest rooms and laid it out, creating a makeshift barracks in what appeared to be a ballroom.
Sirtris gestured him over to a dais set against one wall. “Will we eat tonight?”
“Bread and stew.”
“Good enough.” Sirtris frowned. “Staff is too thin to manage this many, let alone any visitors we bring in.”
Sirtris always fretted over practical matters. Carmeyon tapped a finger against his jaw. “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.
“Well, since he’s decided to have her trained as a soldier rather than, say…a seamstress,” Carmeyon continued. “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.”
“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 as to 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 the 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 said 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.”