Llelas watched Lieutenant Sirtris’ face. The Galasiene officer kept his eyes firmly on Grandfather—Aelis, at the moment—as if concerned that Grandfather might attack. It was useless to fear that, though. If Grandfather wanted him dead, he would not survive the night.
Ellis, for her part, was thinking quickly. She was calculating, likely trying to work out ramifications…
“How can you be male or female?” the lieutenant asked, jaw clenched. “Are you actually female?”
“That’s a very personal question,” Grandfather said. “And if we’re not having sex, it’s none of your business.”
Llelas felt the tips of his ears burn. “Grandfather! The girl!”
Grandfather—Aelis—leaned over to peer at Ellis past Llelas’ shoulder, and in her childish voice said, “Girl, you’ve lived on a farm most of your life. I’ll bet you know more about sex than the boy did at your age.”
Ellis had gone a little pale, Llelas saw, but seemed determined not to cringe away. His own cheeks were hot now. “Please, be polite.”
Aelis sighed and shook herself, rippling her appearance again, and coming out of it as a replica of him, then repeated the action and imitated the lieutenant, uniform and all. The fake lieutenant peered at the original. “As you can see, you have a problem, lieutenant.”
It was a very good imitation of the lieutenant’s voice. For his part, the real lieutenant did not recoil at seeing himself. This was likely why Viridias had chosen him rather than Lieutenant Dantreon. Sirtris kept his composure, and reacted only after giving events due consideration.
The real lieutenant turned to Llelas. “Mr. Sevireiya, is this man actually your grandfather?”
“No, sir,” Llelas admitted. “He’s my…great grand-mother.”
That last bit barely came out as a whisper. My least favorite thing to talk about. He could accept the idea that Grandfather changed gender at times. He had heard that most of his life. But it was no easier to reconcile that the man in front of them was his grandfather’s mother than it was to grasp that he was old enough to be his grandfather’s mother. Grandfather looked young. Llelas’ eyes told him that, and it was jarring to see one thing yet know another. Or multiple others, and know they were all true.
“Well, that answers my previous question, I suppose,” the lieutenant said—the real one.
Grandfather shook himself again, settling back into the form of the groom who’d first entered the room. He ran fingers through his now-dark hair to tame it. “Lieutenant, I am not here to amuse you. We could do this all evening, and my point wouldn’t be made. I am here to warn you, and her, for that matter.”
The lieutenant folded his arms over his chest and took a step to the right to better hide Ellis behind him. “Can I assume that Sub-marshal Viridias knows who—what—you are?”
“Viridias knows a few of my guises,” the groom answered. “Enough to know that others like me can cause chaos.”
“Others like you?”
The groom nodded. “Do you know much about ants, Lieutenant?”
“I do not,” Sirtris said.
“Ants survive by bringing food back to their colony. When food is running low where they are, they begin to look for a place to establish a new colony. They send out scouts, and those scouts will report back if they find suitable conditions—food, I mean—for a new colony, and then one by one the colony moves to the new location.”
“Are referring to my people as food?”
The groom gave Sirtris a dry look and shook his head. “Don’t be obtuse, lieutenant. Much like humans, my kind live for power. Control.”
“Your kind?” Sirtris asked. “Demons?”
“That word again. I find it offensive, lieutenant. Unfortunately, an accident of linguistics makes the truth unclear. Our word for ourselves is aras.”
“Which in Relance is merely man,” Sirtris said, betraying a familiarity with Relance Llelas had not known of. “Are you one of these scouts?”
“No,” the groom said. “I have been here a long time. Long enough that I belong here. I will do all I can to keep them away from my children.”
“The Menhirre?” Ellis asked. “Is that who you mean?”
The lieutenant signaled for her to be silent. “So why did Viridias send you to me? I am, after all, Galasiene.”
“Yes, you are, aren’t you? Viridias didn’t pick you. I did.” The groom folded his arms. “Viridias merely approved your inclusion. You’re observant, the very reason I would normally stay away from you.”
“But now you need my help,” Sirtris said.
“You can be where I am not,” the groom said. “If one of my kind tries to slip in here, you will notice.”
Sirtris squared his shoulders. “How?”
“Because you will notice that something is wrong. That the person you’re looking at is a touch too short…or too tall. That their teeth look different. That they smell wrong, or that they have a behavioral tic that is misplaced, or that they’ve forgotten something important, or want to go somewhere in appropriate. It will nag at you mind. All I ask is that you don’t ignore it.”
The lieutenant remained quiet for a moment. Ellis tried to move out from behind him, and he gripped her arm more fiercely. “Stay put, cadet.” He turned back to Grandfather. “And what should I do if I have suspicions?”
“Tell me. Or if you can’t find me, tell the boy. He’s the one who can make the determination if one of your people has been replaced.”
“You think they might try to replace one of the cadets?” Sirtris shook his head. “There are more vulnerable places in this country. People who are more vulnerable, yet with more power.”
“Very true,” Grandfather said. “But then there’s Sirien.”
Lieutenant Sirtris’ shoulders slumped a bit. “Sub-marshal Revasien?”
“Yes, I’m told you had a…shall we call it an experience?…with him a few years back.”
Llelas tried to get a look at the lieutenant’s face, but was at the wrong angle. Apparently, the man must know that Sirien Revasien was a seer—a very powerful one, and that was closely guarded knowledge.
The lieutenant pinched the bridge of his nose. “I do not want to be involved in these things.”
And Grandfather laughed. “Too late.”
Ellis wanted to ask a thousand questions. They were waiting to pour out of her mouth, only she was here as an afterthought, and didn’t want them to send her away. So she held her tongue while Lieutenant Sirtris did all the talking and Llelas alternately flushed with embarrassment or cringed at the groom’s words. I’ll get it all out of Llelas later.
“How is Sub-marshal Revasien involved in this?” the lieutenant asked the…person in front of him.
“He’s not,” the groom said. “He has no knowledge that this is going on. In fact, that’s why I’m here, not there. Sirien can’t see me. He can’t see any of my kind. Not actually. So when there are holes in his foreknowledge, there’s a good chance that I am there.”
Ellis found herself blinking madly as she tried to work out the logic behind that. “Is Sub-marshal Revasien a seer?”
“Shh,” Llelas told her.
“Why am I here if I can’t ask questions?” she hissed at him.
“When do you not ask questions?” he returned in a half voice. “You are always asking questions.”
“He can’t see your kind?” the lieutenant repeated. “In his visions, you mean.”
“Yes. Therefore, we are difficult to predict, and thus set off ripples of unpredicted events that he finds incredibly annoying.”
“I can understand that part,” Sirtris said in a clearly vexed tone. “Do you have more details for me? Do you have a time table? How many? Any more specific motivation?”
The groom shook his head. “All I know is that there’s at least one other like me here in this country, and if there’s one that I suspect, then there are probably a dozen I don’t. And that means your country is in danger, and currently, her.” He pointed at Ellis.
She swallowed, but lifted her chin. Do not let an undetermined threat…something…something.
She couldn’t remember the rest of that quote, a sure sign that her mind was whirling out of control. To calm down, she took a cautious breath, closed her eyes, and concentrated on listening. Nothing sounded odd, so she sniffed instead. She could smell herself, of course, overripe from the exertion of the evening’s work. Unlike her, Llelas had barely worked up a sweat, but she thought she could catch his scent. The lieutenant smelled of wool and starch and…wine? And, even though he only stood a few feet away, Ellis couldn’t catch the smell of the groom. She had an impression of dirt, which was likely the result of working in the stable.
Calmer now, she opened her eyes. “Why me?”
“Because you have a brother,” he said, “who has never stepped on Jenear soil, and that makes other see you as a potential path to the throne.”
Ellis couldn’t argue that point, although she’d always figured she’d be married off to accomplish that, not deceived by someone like…this person in front of her.
The groom started to walk away, but Sirtris grabbed his sleeve. “I have more questions.”
“And you have Llelas to answer them,” the groom said. He tugged his arm free. “And I have to get back to work. A lot of horses and not enough grooms. Write to Viridias if you need confirmation.” And with that he did walk away.
Sirtris shifted to face Llelas, his jaw clenched and lips pressed in a thin line. “Do you want to explain this to me?”
Llelas stood at attention. “I absolutely do not, sir, but I do not think I have much choice.”
Sirtris shook his head. “Cadet Dantreon, do you understand that you are not to discuss this with anyone else, not even Lieutenant Dantreon?”
Ellis nodded briskly.
“I want to meet with you tomorrow, Miss Dantreon. After morning classes. We’ll discuss this further then.”
I’m being dismissed. Ellis shot a glance at Llelas, who seemed resigned to staying here with the lieutenant and answering his questions. She was only going to be fed the minimal answers Sirtris considered appropriate…unless she badgered them out of Llelas. She picked up her jacket from over the chair where she’d laid it, and headed back toward her room.
There were too many questions in her head, and she couldn’t sort out which she wanted answered first. When she’d bathed and dressed for bed, she sat down at her desk and contemplated her journal with its missing pages.
November 3, 493
Was he even wearing clothes?