When Llelas arrived in the stable in the morning, he found the girl already there, questioning one of her old guardsmen about the newest groom, her hands held wide as if for explanation.
Too late. Whenever Llelas wanted to question Grandfather about, Grandfather was gone. He seemed to have a talent for evasion—not a Gift perhaps, but close. He had left the previous morning, likely while Ellis was reading that confusing letter. Llelas sighed and went to saddle his gelding.
The dun beast was in no better mood than he was, and managed to plant one hoof firmly atop Llelas’ boot before shifting his weight over onto it. Llelas shoved the horse’s shoulder and pushed him off. “Seithais,” he hissed.
“Mr. Sevireiya,” Geris Seran’s voice floated to his ears from somewhere inside the stable. “Watch your language.”
The man had excellent hearing. Llelas glanced about the stable yard to see if anyone else had overheard him. He was late, and only a handful of the cadets were still there. None seemed to have overheard his cursing the beast. As he watched, Ellis led her borrowed gelding out of the stable. She caught his eye and lifted one shoulder apologetically.
She had not shown up to run to town in the morning. Llelas had considered dragging her from her room. In the end, though, he decided that would be unwise, and went without her. They could argue about this later, but he understood her instinct to hide away from everyone, himself included, so he would let it pass this once.
Yesterday had been a difficult day for her. She was a child who had never faced as much blunt truth in one day before, he suspected. He leaned back to see her clearly. Her eyes were red with lack of sleep, but she smoothed the blanket on her mount’s back with a determined air. “Tomorrow you will not miss running,” he told her.
She glanced at him. “I have questions. I made a list this morning.”
He groaned inwardly. I was afraid of that.
Ellis felt doomed to frustration. The groom who claimed he was the Old Man of the Mountains—a claim that Llelas clearly believed true—had disappeared before she had a chance to question him. Lieutenant Sirtris left for the capital, and Llelas seemed unwilling to discuss either his relationship with the missing groom or his knowledge of how seers worked. Captain Dantreon answered her questions about her brother’s letter with a rueful shrug and a confession that he didn’t know much about the king’s Gift. Her list of questions—she’d memorized them rather than leaving them about where anyone could find them—remained mostly unanswered.
She considered going to the library and picking through the books she’d not yet read to see whether there was more about the Old Man of the Mountains or seers in them, but given that final exams were approaching for their first semester of classes, she reluctantly decided that the exams had to be her first priority, and buried her nose in the texts that they were supposed to be studying, much to the relief of Thomas and the other members of East.
Fortunately, no other news arrived to complicate her life further. When he returned the following week, Lieutenant Sirtris assured her privately that he had no answers for her other than a reiteration of the request to be cautious of imposters. She would have felt better if she had answers.
And even though he wouldn’t talk about the groom, Llelas continued to teach her. Most of the bruises left by Thomas were hidden by her uniform, but the ones she garnered boxing too often were on her face or hands. When it came time for the cadets to pack for their winter break, she wasn’t sure whether she was please or dismayed to learn that Llelas had no intention to go back to his home. She’d secretly looked forward to having a few weeks of no new bruises.
Lieutenant Sirtris also intended to stay, claiming that Galas was too far to go in three scant weeks. Ellis hoped she would be able to question him over the break, although given his reticence, that might not gain any results. Mikhal had stayed for the holiday, claiming Jestriyan, like Galas, was too far. Ellis considered that the most conventional explanation he could find for not returning home. His real reasons she couldn’t guess.
Once the exams were completed, the cadets began to flow out of the Reserve House, each going their own way, either to their homes or to meet friends or family in the capital. Lieutenant Dantreon and his father left on Saturday morning, the last to go, and to Ellis, the manor seemed empty.
Llelas claimed that he needed to catch up on writing letters, and Mikhal said he wanted to finish reading a book, so Ellis spent the first morning in the library, perusing the various military titles that she hadn’t yet read. Those that had tables of contents showed her nothing about the Old Man of the Mountains or seers, and when Lieutenant Sirtris finally showed up in the library, he confirmed that there was unlikely to be anything in those books about either of the topics that occupied her.
“Shouldn’t you be studying next semester’s topics?” he asked blandly. “You could read ahead.”
I could. Ellis pressed her lips together, wondering why her immediate reaction was not to do so. Before the other cadets had come here, she’d liked nothing more than reading these books. She’d intended to read every last one of them eventually. But that seemed like a lifetime ago. Her priorities had changed. Or was it her interests? “I think I can split my time,” she equivocated.
Sirtris didn’t glance up from his newspaper. “Then perhaps another source for books. Make out a list of what you’re looking for, and I’ll see if one of the guardsmen is willing to ride up to the capital and pick up some books for you.”
That did get Sirtris to look at her. “The king funds several public libraries in the capital, Miss Dantreon. Kensit doesn’t have one, but I will inquire whether a small one can be set up in the village. The villagers might enjoy that.”
“I’ve never thought of that,” Ellis admitted.
“Make me a list,” he said again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Can…” She licked her lips. “Can the others get books, too? Merielle, I mean. And maybe Mrs. Seran?” On the occasions when Geris had gone to the capital, he visited a store that sold used books since his wife loved to read.
“Put whatever they want on the list,” the lieutenant said, a faint smile tugging at his lips. “I’ll work on setting it up.”
That afternoon, she met with Llelas again for a boxing lesson. Claiming that she would lose her edge—whatever that was—he’d agreed to cut back the frequency of her lessons over the break, but not free her from them entirely. So she found herself back in the ballroom, performing her usual exercises to get warm, and then wrapping her hands prior to the lessons. Mikhal watched her do so, a frown on his handsome face. While some of the other cadets had come to watch when she and Llelas sparred over the last two weeks, Mikhal hadn’t.
As usual, Lieutenant Sirtris joined them in the ballroom, sat in his chair, and pretended to go to sleep. She and Llelas went through the same pattern of her starting off simply trying to hit him. Anywhere. He moved quickly out of her reach every time she took a swing at him, occasionally barking at her in Relance to keep her hands up. When she finally landed a hit in his right side, he riposted with a punch that merely grazed her cheek.
It stung, but she managed to keep her feet. She got her hands back up in front of her face before he had a chance to bark at her about it.
“Stop now?” he asked.
“No, let’s go on.”
“Good.” He took another swing at her, and Ellis leaned back out of his reach.
It was exhilarating. She was doing something right. They continued to move around the floor, Llelas watching her feet and hands with narrowed eyes, but after a half-dozen more exchanges, he held his hands wide. “Enough.”
Ellis stepped out of his range. She put her hands on her knees and bent partway over, breathing hard now that she was still. Llelas came and helped her unwrap her hands, not bothering to check her knuckles for damage this time.
Mikhal came over, glaring at Llelas. Ignoring him, Llelas tilted Ellis’ chin with his fingers to see her cheek better. “Not too bad. Go get some ice in the kitchen.”
Ellis touched the spot where he’d hit her. It felt tender, but certainly didn’t hurt like the first time he’d hit her. She made her way to the kitchen, Mikhal insisting on accompanying her as if she didn’t walk these halls every day. The cook promised that Daria could bring her some ice in a few minutes. Still bristling, Mikhal offered to escort her to her room, but she told him she would be fine. His sullen anger had begun to get on her nerves.
Mystified, she returned to her room, cleaned herself up, and lay down on the bed. A few minutes later, Daria let herself into the room, bearing a chunk of ice wrapped in a clean towel. She climbed up on the bed, and Ellis couldn’t help flinching when the little girl accidentally touched a sore spot on her side—that one was Thomas’ doing.
“Daddy says you were play-fighting with Mr. Llelas.”
Ellis tried not to laugh. Play-fighting. “He’s teaching me how to fight, dear.”
“Because I asked him to.”
“Will he teach me, too?”
Ellis smiled. “Maybe when you’re older—as old as I am.”
Daria looked downcast. “That’s a long time away. Mr. Llelas taught me how to stand on my hands!” Then she cast a sorrowful glance down at her dress. “But he said I can only do that when I’m wearing trousers like you, so I can’t show you. I wish I could wear trousers all the time.”
Daria would grow up to be a beauty. Her future suitors wouldn’t be impressed by her wearing trousers and standing on her hands. Then again, perhaps she would be a soldier, and those would be useful talents. Ellis sighed. “You won’t think that when you’re my age.”
“You sound like Mama.” With that dire pronouncement, Daria slipped off the bed and left the room.
Ellis shut her eyes and fell fast asleep.
When Merielle came to wake her for dinner, she got up groggily, flinching from the cold spot where the ice had melted on her pillow.
Merielle touched her sore cheek with careful fingers, having more familiarity with bruises than Ellis liked to think about. “The ice was a good idea,” Merielle noted. “It keeps the swelling down.”
Merielle took the sodden rag from the bed and pulled the case from the pillow, laying them out to dry as Ellis dressed.
“Does it hurt less once you’re used to it?” Ellis asked.
The older girl smiled ruefully. “Once you know it’s coming, you can steel yourself to take it. It still hurts, only it doesn’t take you by surprise, so in a way, you do become accustomed to it. You learn that eventually it’ll stop hurting.”
“Until the next time.”
“Until the next time,” Merielle agreed.
When she got to the dinner table, Ellis found herself dining with only Llelas, Mikhal, and Lieutenant Sirtris. It was strange to sit at that long table and see it nearly empty. Added to that, Mikhal was in a foul mood still about Llelas hitting her. He’d chosen to sit next to her on one end of the table, while Llelas and Lieutenant Sirtris sat across from them. Sirtris seemed disinclined to comment on Mikhal’s ire, and Llelas simply rolled his eyes and paid attention to his food.
“How can I learn to fight without fighting?” she asked Mikhal in a hushed tone.
“It’s not proper,” he hissed back. “He is an improper person for you to know at all, not fit company for you under any circumstances.”
Lieutenant Sirtris shook his head. “Mr. Deviron, please keep your opinions to yourself where other cadets are involved.”
Mikhal flushed, and Ellis felt grateful for Sirtris’ interference. She didn’t understand why this had set Mikhal off. After all, he never complained about the beatings she took from Thomas. The rest of the meal was eaten in near silence, and when it ended, Ellis headed to the library in Sirtris’ company, the other two cadets trailing behind. Llelas took advantage of the light in the library to look at her bruised cheek again, carefully not touching the spot, but tilting her chin in his hand. At that, Mikhal puffed up like a storm cloud and left before he could get into trouble with Lieutenant Sirtris.
“You should stop provoking him,” Lieutenant Sirtris said calmly.
Llelas flushed, but turned and bowed in the lieutenant’s direction. “My apologies, sir. It is only that he is so easy to provoke. I have trouble resisting.”
“Try harder,” was Sirtris’ only response to that.
Llelas nodded his acquiescence.
“What did you do to provoke him?” Ellis asked. She hadn’t picked it up.
At that, Llelas laughed heartily.
Lieutenant Sirtris took pity on her. “He touched your face. Among the Menhirre, one does not touch another person’s skin unless they are family or a close friend or unless the situation strictly warrants it. It implies a certain degree of familiarity. It is polite to ask permission first.”
The subtlety of that escaped her. He’d merely been looking at her cheek. She didn’t find it inappropriate. Of course, that would explain why she couldn’t recall a single occasion when Jerin or Mikhal had touched her. The stricture didn’t seem to apply to Thomas, who was Versh, although she recalled that in company he usually didn’t touch her either. Then again, Mikhal never objected to Thomas. Evidently, in Mikhal’s mind, Thomas made an acceptable friend, but Llelas did not.
“So what doesn’t he like about you?” Ellis asked Llelas. He’d been toying with Mikhal and using her as his accomplice, even if she hadn’t realized it.
“I should think all things about me,” he admitted, serious now. “I am not fit company.”
Lieutenant Sirtris sat back in his chair, staying out of this turn of the conversation. He started writing in his journal.
“Do you mean politics?” Ellis asked.
“I do not believe politics have ever entered young Mikhal’s thoughts.”
Llelas sat back in his chair, searching for the words to say this properly. “I have a bad reputation, child. I have participated in vices—drinking, gambling, whoring. I am not a criminal, but I have not been a saint either.”
If he expected her to flinch at his admission, she didn’t satisfy him. “Oh, that. I’ve already heard all that.” Merielle had heard rumors of Llelas’ scandalous life in Perisen. “You forgot cursing.”
Llelas flushed again. “My apologies. I can only unlearn one vice at a time.”
Lieutenant Sirtris considered her gravely. “What did you think he meant, then?”
“Oh, I thought he meant something current. Well, other than the face-touching business. I didn’t mean to drag up old wounds.” It hadn’t occurred to her that Mikhal would be concerned about past history.
“Do not be willing to dismiss it,” Llelas said then. “I will have that reputation for the rest of my life. It will follow me where I go. It is a part of me now, like my shadow. If you associate with me, it will attach itself to you as well. In that way, young Mikhal has right.”
Llelas rolled his eyes at her.
“You should still apologize to him for trying to annoy him. Mikhal’s simply worried about me.”
“I will do so, then.” He left with the obvious intent of tracking down the other cadet and abasing himself.
Lieutenant Sirtris gazed at her for a moment after Llelas left. “That will only make it worse, you know.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“For such a bright girl,” he said, “about some things you are hopelessly unobservant, Ellis. Mr. Deviron is jealous.”
“Of…what?” she blurted, too surprised to be polite.
“I believe sometimes you forget that you are a young woman and therefore young men are likely to notice you.”
“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumping. “I’m too plain to attract that kind of attention, sir.”
Sirtris gazed at her for a time before answering, his pale eyes calculating. “It is true that you will not be beautiful, Miss Dantreon, but I’m inclined to think you’ll grow into a handsome woman when you are older.” He paused. “I believe it is your strength instead, that men will admire, rather than your face. Men don’t always consider a pretty face the most important thing in a woman.”
Handsome. It wasn’t a compliment, but it wasn’t an insult, either. She hoped he was wrong about Mikhal, but Sirtris watched everyone and everything. “I don’t have time for nonsense like that,” she said finally. “Besides, I don’t think my father intends for me to marry. He wouldn’t have had me trained like this if he did, sir.”
Sirtris didn’t argue that point. “Whether your father intends a marriage, when a woman is placed among a group of men, she attracts attention. That can generate hostility. Mr. Deviron is jealous of the familiarity Mr. Sevireiya has with you, and resents it. Given Mr. Sevireiya’s sordid reputation—yes, I meant that word,” he held up his hand to forestall her when she drew breath to object to his words, “because I don’t believe you understand how bad his reputation truly is-—it’s easy for Mr. Deviron to jump to the conclusion that he truly is being overly familiar with you.”
A warning, well thought out and carefully worded, the way Sirtris did everything. He’d probably been working up to this lecture for weeks.
Just then Merielle peered inside the library door, blushing when she saw Sirtris there. She gestured for Ellis to come. Glad to have an excuse to escape the lieutenant’s scrutiny, Ellis rose. She excused herself and informed Sirtris of where she’d be so he could tell the other two, in case they wanted to join her. On an impulse, she invited him to come as well but felt embarrassingly relieved when he declined.
Despite her now-foul mood, listening to Merielle practice the various jigs she prepared for the festival cheered her. Since they were alone, Ellis took her boots off and curled up on the divan. Once she finished practicing, Merielle settled across from her, and Ellis told her all about her discussion with Sirtris.
December 20, 493
Merielle, unfortunately, agrees with Lt. Sirtris said about Mikhal. Which just makes me wonder how ‘horribly unobservant’ I am.
Of course, no one ever notices Merielle. She has the ability to fade into the paneling whenever she doesn’t want to be seen—figuratively, that is. Lieutenant Sirtris does it as well. Perhaps all Galasiene do. Wouldn’t that be a nice ability to have? To be able to disappear when you don’t want to be noticed? Merielle would be invisible all the time.
I hope Llelas and Mikhal aren’t snippy all day tomorrow. I know Llelas has a bad reputation, but to hold it against him would be like blaming Merielle for everything she ever had to do when she was a slave. She never had a choice. The scars on her back prove that. But she’s not a slave now, and to call her names because of her past would be wrong. I suppose Llelas is the same way, because he hasn’t done anything bad since he got here (except curse a lot).
Lieutenant Dantreon would have had the whole thing sorted out by now. Sirtris has a different way of handling problems. He doesn’t get involved. He lectures instead. I suppose that’s why I wish Lieutenant Dantreon was here. He’s better at this kind of problem. He would try to mediate, I think.
I wish Sirtris hadn’t told me.