Over the next several weeks, things began to fall into a pattern.
Most mornings Ellis ran out toward the village with Llelas and Kellen. Heall and Mikhal had taken to coming along as well. Thomas, when she invited him to join them, told her that was why he had a horse.
After the morning classes, Ellis would often work with Llelas on his writing in Versh–which had improved. On occasion, Heall would drop in as well, bringing one of his written assignments for her to peruse. Although his Versh was better than Llelas’, he still needed work.
And the evenings, she spent working on her martial skills with either Thomas or Llelas. While she and Thomas had switched to wooden practice blades, she discovered those could do plenty of damage. The resulting bruises proved she still had much to learn. Once Thomas caught her with her guard turned in. His saber crashed into the back of her hand with a blow that brought tears to her eyes. He didn’t allow her time to check it, just told her to pick up her blade and face him again.
Later that evening over his chessboard, Lieutenant Dantreon said, “Thomas told me he hit you pretty hard.”
Ellis kept her hand in her lap, trying to conceal the spreading blue and red across the back of her hand. Unfortunately, lieutenant insisted on looking at it. “I think I learned my lesson, sir,” she said. “I watch my guard from now on.”
“Sometimes it’s the only way to learn,” he said in a troubled voice. “Go to the kitchen and see if they have any ice to put on that.”
Llelas didn’t show any sympathy the next evening though, making her use that hand just like any other day. He’d taught her several types of punch and how to combine them together, but it seemed they’d made very little progress beyond that. Later, he kept telling her.
Wrapping her hands provided some measure of protection for her knuckles, but they still ached after one of his practice sessions. He also made her do push-ups, which quickly became one of her least favorite things about Llelas Sevireiya.
Some of the other cadets started coming out to watch her practice in the evening, giving in to curiosity, she supposed. Thomas never seemed to mind when they watched her at saber practice, even when the onlookers began to cheer occasionally. Llelas, on the other hand, found the interlopers highly annoying. Ellis dreaded that because it usually translated into more push-ups for her. Still, she noticed that fewer and fewer nights she went to bed aching, which couldn’t be a bad thing.
Llelas led his gelding into the stable, contemplating the wisdom of agreeing to her bargain. He had put off hitting the girl about a long as he thought he could. She had helped with his writing, though, and so he would carry on. She had decent form, but failed to comprehend its importance. She would learn that the moment she defended herself from an actual punch.
He got the saddle off and onto a saddle rack before the beast made its first try at stepping on his foot. Llelas shoved at the creature’s shoulder. It turned its head and snapped its teeth together at him.
“You’re a perfect match,” a voice said in Versh from farther inside the stables. A young man walked out of the shadows, his livery proclaiming him one of the grooms.
Llelas held in a groan. The young man’s face was unfamiliar, but the cadence of his deep voice was unmistakable. He had never seen this guise of Grandfather’s before, but it was possible that Grandfather had taken on the likeness of an actual groom from the village. Or a groom that had lived a hundred years ago. He shook his head. “What are you doing here?”
“Cousin,” the groom said, head tilting back toward the shadows, “are you surprised?”
“Sadly, no.” That head motion reminded Llelas that other grooms worked in these stables, even if none were visible at the moment. “Why are you working in the stables?”
“Because Mother isn’t paying my bills any longer.” The false groom came closer, picked up a brush, and ran it down the gelding’s flank. The horse cast a white-eyed glance at him. “I thought I could ask you for a bit of spare money.”
Llelas gazed at Grandfather over the back of the horse, perplexed. “I thought you were gone,” he said in Relance. “Why did you come back?”
Without looking up, Grandfather said, “I need to be introduced to the officer. And the girl. Officer first.”
“Lieutenant Dantreon?” Llelas asked. If he recalled correctly, in his disguise as Aelis, Grandfather had worked hard to stay out of the man’s sight.
“No, the other one,” Grandfather said. “The Galasiene one.”
“That would be the one Viridias suggested.”
“Why?” Grandfather had said that Sirtris was the one Llelas needed to watch out for.
“Because he knows all about Sirien—something about an incident a few years back—and has kept his mouth closed. Viridias says I can trust him.”
“You intend to tell him the truth? A Galasiene? Do you not know what he will say?”
“That I am…a demon?” Grandfather chuckled as he curried the horse. “I am told your lieutenant is made of stronger fiber than that.”
No point in arguing. At least it was Lieutenant Sirtris rather than Lieutenant Dantreon. Llelas was unsure he could ever arrange a meeting with the latter. Or that he wanted to. “Fine. When?”
“As soon as possible,” Grandfather said with a wide grin.
The teeth were the same, healthy and all there. That was one thing Llelas had noted about the variations of Grandfather’s identity he had seen. The teeth never changed. “I will ask him to come to watch me practice with the girl this evening,” Llelas said.
“How long are you going to call her the girl?” Grandfather asked as he came around the horse to curry that side.
“As long as I need to,” Llelas told him.
“So that you do not confuse her with a woman?”
Llelas just shook his head and walked away, leaving the horse to Grandfather’s tender mercies.
Securing Lieutenant Sirtris’ presence was easier than Llelas expected. He simply told the lieutenant that he and Ellis would exchange blows for the first time, and Sirtris agreed that an officer’s presence might be wise. The lieutenant also agreed that the officer attending should not be Lieutenant Dantreon, who might lose objectivity when seeing a young girl fight a cadet he disliked.
That evening, Ellis met with Llelas at the regular time, only this time, Lieutenant Sirtris had shown up to watch. The ballroom was cold with the first brush of winter on the glass. After the ritual time spent in push-ups and sit-ups, she felt warm enough not to mind the cold anymore.
For his part, Lieutenant Sirtris brought a chair and set it against the wall, stretched his legs out before him, and appeared to have fallen asleep. She was accustomed to Thomas coming to watch, and occasionally some of the other cadets, but not the lieutenant. That explained why Thomas hadn’t come—perhaps Sirtris was substituting for him.
“What is he doing here?” she asked Llelas.
“If there is a fight in a garrison,” Llelas said in very-formal sounding Versh, “an officer must be present to supervise or the participants will be…” That was the point where his Versh failed him.
“Disciplined,” Lieutenant Sirtris said without opening his eyes.
Llelas looked chastened, but repeated that to Ellis.
“Oh. Are we actually going to fight?”
He laughed shortly. “No, but we will try.”
Meaning that she had no chance. This will definitely be embarrassing. Sighing, Ellis went ahead and wrapped her hands as he’d taught her. He did his own much more quickly, then directed her to the center of the ballroom. When she stood a couple of feet from him, he said, “Now hit me.”
She’d been waiting to do that for a couple of months now. It proved to be more difficult than it sounded. He blocked her punches easily, and when she almost thought she had him, he would sidestep out of her way. Again and again until she was panting with the exertion.
“What is the purpose of this?” she finally asked. “What am I supposed to learn by chasing you around forever.”
“Forever?” he asked. “That was not long. It is important to learn this. If I do not wish to hit you, then I can avoid you until you have made yourself tired.”
“I think you’ve proven that,” she said, holding her hands out.
He shrugged and, before she even saw it, his left fist connected with her jaw. Ellis fell to one knee, shocked by the pain, her eyes watering. Llelas grabbed the shoulder of her shirt and dragged her back to her feet, unapologetic.
“Do not put your hands down. Do not ever stop like that when you are fighting,” he hissed in her ear. “It does not matter that it hurts. If you are still, your opponent can hit you again.”
Ellis quickly lifted her hands in defense and took a step away from him, fearing he might do that. It had been a straight punch to her jaw, she realized, not his strongest attack. That could have been much worse.
She stepped away for a moment, signaling that she wanted to take a break. Llelas looked displeased, but allowed it.
Fortunately, Lieutenant Sirtris still sat with eyes closed, not witnessing her acting like a child. She wiped her watering eyes with her wrapped hand and sniffed. Her nose had, embarrassingly enough, begun to run. Ellis felt along her jaw.
Now I know how it feels to be hit. I wanted to learn to do this. I knew this would happen. At least the pain is passing quickly. And it will next time, too. She squared her shoulders and faced Llelas again.
“Better,” he said. “I want you to block my punches. We have practiced this. Now I want to see you do it.”
His left hand came at her jaw again. This time she swayed back and blocked the punch. He’ll try for the body next, she thought, and caught the right uppercut before it landed. She could have gone for the right side of his body, but the opportunity passed and then it was too late.
He continued to try out different combinations of punches, and for the most part, she blocked them successfully. One blow to her stomach almost sent her to her knees again, but she managed to stay on her feet and keep her hands up. He seemed pleased with that.
And she began to see where she could hit him. Only one attempt was successful; she connected with a punch to his body. It did no more than make him cough, but it made her feel better to know she had some chance of striking back.
He finally called a halt for the day and allowed her to sit down. Ellis sank down on the floor right where she was, letting her arms drape over the tops of her knees and dropping her head down onto her chest. She hadn’t realized until just then how tired she was.
Llelas came and crouched before her. He took one hand and began to unwrap it. “What do you think, then,” he asked. “Try again tomorrow?”
Ellis lifted her head. He didn’t even look tired. This is nothing to him. “Lovely,” she said anyway.
Llelas finished unwrapping her hands, not bothering to check her knuckles for damage this time. Lieutenant Sirtris had risen from the dead at some point, though, and came to stand over the two of them. He peered down at Ellis, a narrow line between his pale brows.
“Is this worth doing?” he asked her.
Ellis gazed up at him. The first wave of tiredness had receded, but her jaw had started to throb. It was going to bruise, she could tell. Actually, she was going to be sore all over, like the first time she’d ridden a horse or worked with a saber. She wanted to cry—just a little bit—but she wasn’t going to do it where anyone could see her. She could hold it in. She lifted her chin and said, “Yes, sir, this is worth doing.”
The lieutenant helped her up. “Well then, next time hit him harder.”
She laughed. “Yes, sir.”
He turned to Llelas, who’d risen without help. “Mr. Sevireiya, if you need me again, let me know.”
Llelas rubbed one hand with the other, eyes downcast. “There is something else, sir. I need you to meet someone.”
Ellis glanced at Llelas’ downturned face. Why is he nervous? Who could he…
Lieutenant Sirtris went still, probably asking himself the same questions. “What is this, Mr. Sevireiya?”
“One of the grooms, sir,” Llelas said. “He was supposed to be here. I do not know where…”
“I’m right here.” A young man in groom’s livery approached them from the doorway.
Ellis gaped. She’d been looking that direction only a second before and hadn’t seen him. He looked to be in his early twenties, and of a middling height and lean build that made her suspect he was a Menhirre like Llelas.
“I was told a new groom was hired,” the lieutenant said. “Given that I wasn’t asked to vet you like all the others, I suppose you’re working for the Guard in some capacity.”
“I am,” the groom said as he came closer. His voice was deeper than Llelas’ and bore no mountain accent. “Consider this your chance to evaluate me now. I need free passage throughout this facility.”
Sirtris folded his arms over his chest. “I understood the marshals had already had someone come out to investigate the personnel.”
“Oh, I did,” the young man said. “I’m not concerned about anyone currently within these walls. But I am worried about someone coming in.”
Sirtris took a step to his right, a move that put him between Ellis and the newcomer. “The person they sent was female.”
“I was female then,” the young man said with absolute sincerity. “I’m male now.”
Ellis stepped back, unsure whether the man was sane.
“I met her,” Sirtris said, “and you could not pass yourself off as her.”
The young man smiled at Sirtris and then shook himself, almost like one of the dogs after coming in out of the rain. Ellis blinked as his form blurred, and then…
A housemaid stood in front of them, wearing the same uniform that Merielle always did. Everything had changed, even her—his?—boots had changed to shoes.
Lieutenant Sirtris tugged Ellis behind him, but she wanted to see this person. “Sir, I…”
“Quiet,” Llelas said softly, nearly in her ear. “Let the lieutenant talk to her.”
“I am not a threat, lieutenant,” the maid said in a very different voice, high pitched and a touch childish. “I am here to do my job, just as you are.”
Ellis peered at the maid. I’ve seen her before, haven’t I? How is that possible?
“You’re a demon,” Lieutenant Sirtris said.
The maid laughed, a light tinkling sound. “I’ve always found that label a little objectionable, Lieutenant, but you are Galasiene. Among the Menhirre, I’m known as the Old Man of the Mountains.”