Learning the Dance
When she let the dogs out in the morning, Ellis discovered it had snowed again overnight. Conrad would be clearing the road to the village this morning, no doubt. Heavier snow would fall soon and there would be no running in it or riding in it unless necessary.
Ellis met with Llelas after lunch to practice. Mikhal didn’t show up this time but Sirtris did, bringing a newspaper with him as always. He settled into a chair and turned his attention to the words on the paper. Llelas concentrated on blocking. Only once did he hit her particularly hard, an uppercut that snapped her head back on her neck and sent her to the floor. She rolled over and got to her feet again, trying to keep out of his range until her head cleared. To her surprise, Llelas waited, a pleased look on his face. He’s being easy on me today.
After dinner, Ellis succeeded in talking the two other cadets into coming to listen to Merielle practice, claiming that the other girl needed to perform before an audience. Merielle turned three different shades of red when she saw the two cadets, but didn’t protest. For a fraction of a second, her bow stopped as she faltered, then she took up the music again.
Llelas stopped at the entryway and removed his boots and socks, leaving them by the door of the rotunda. Mikhal followed his lead so Ellis did likewise. This must be some other bizarre Menhirre custom.
With the heavy drapes pulled and a fire blazing in the fireplace, the rotunda was the warmest spot in the entire manor. In this room, it didn’t seem too much like winter.
Merielle flushed when they applauded her at the piece’s end. She picked a second piece, her eyes closing as she played. Ellis sat with her feet tucked under her legs and began to watch a strange interplay going on between Mikhal and Llelas as they sat across from each other. They glanced at each other and then both started counting.
“Seven eights and seven—Melidrhu,” Mikhal announced abruptly.
Llelas evidently knew exactly what that meant. He nodded, still listening to the pace of the music. The tune repeated itself, Merielle playing faster this time. Ellis watched as Llelas and Mikhal started moving their feet in time with the melody, working out the steps to some dance they both knew. The taps and stomps of their feet were in time with each other.
The music repeated again, even faster and the next round faster still. Ellis suddenly understood. The point was to go faster and faster without faltering. Llelas started losing ground to Mikhal at some point and burst out laughing, quitting while Mikhal went on.
Melia stood in the doorway, Daria grasping her hand. She spoke as soon as Merielle finished the piece. “You know, lads, if you were to move some of this furniture into the hallway, you could actually practice.”
Merielle looked surprised at the further intrusion, but said nothing. Llelas and Mikhal glanced at each other. Ellis could tell they both wanted to, but didn’t want to admit it.
“I assure you,” Melia continued, “every other young man in the area is practicing this week. I wouldn’t want them to have an edge on anyone from Amiestrin.”
“Mrs. Seran,” Llelas responded with a laugh, “I believe your husband will out-dance us all.”
Geris? Dance? Ellis raised her eyebrows at the bizarre thought. Of course, she’d never gone to any of the festivals in the village. Her guardsmen might dance the entire evening there and she would never have heard of it.
Melia settled onto the divan next to Ellis, Daria on her other side, leaning against her.
Reaching some silent consensus, Llelas and Mikhal moved two of the divans and a low table out into the hallway, leaving a large, clear space in the middle of the room. They rolled back the rug, exposing chilly stone. Merielle waited patiently, seeming bemused by all the fuss. After politely asking Ellis’ permission—why, she didn’t know—the two young men put their boots back on and stood waiting.
“Could you play the same piece again, miss?” Mikhal asked.
Merielle nodded and lifted her bow. Mikhal picked up the beat immediately, Llelas joining in a few counts later. The dance, it seemed to Ellis, was a careful pattern of stepping, hopping, turning and clapping. The first round came off with the two managing to keep their steps together. Merielle closed her eyes, no longer watching.
“These are country dances,” Melia whispered in Ellis’ ear, “so you’ll not have seen anything like them when you were a child at court.”
No, she remembered dancing, but only as if seen from afar, but a slow, elegant swirl of color, not this. “How often does someone sprain an ankle doing this?” she couldn’t resist asking.
“That depends on how drunk they are when they start,” Melia whispered back.
As the music reached its fastest tempo, Llelas suddenly missed a step, almost fell down, and backed away, laughing. Mikhal kept going, easily keeping the beat until the end. He flourished a bow in Merielle’s direction, smiling what Ellis thought to be the first real smile she’d seen on his face since she’d met him. The others clapped for both his performance and Merielle’s.
Daria laughed. “Will you teach me, Mr. Llelas?”
Mikhal quickly a look of shock. Ellis could tell that, for some reason, he didn’t approve. She hadn’t known before how many things Mikhal didn’t approve of.
“This is like walking on your hands, miss,” Llelas said to the girl.
“Not when I’m wearing a skirt,” Daria replied, responding by rote. She crossed her arms and sulked.
Ellis doubted one could perform such a dance wearing skirts. She’d get her feet tangled and break her neck. Daria settled back against her side, lamenting her garments under her breath but resigned to mere watching.
Merielle ran through her repertoire, a variety of tunes. The cadets danced to most of them, basing their steps on the meter of the music rather than a particular tune.
Ellis decided that if Llelas couldn’t keep up, she had no chance of managing it herself. He enjoyed himself, though. It did look like fun.
December 21, 493
Merielle did very well tonight. She didn’t become too flustered. I think she’ll be able to manage it.
The whole dancing business was very interesting. There is something Mikhal excels at—other than his appearance, I mean. I think somehow he feels he’s not as good as the older cadets. I feel that way sometimes too because there are so many things they all know that I don’t like the dancing.
I wonder if all the cadets know how to dance. I can see Yefin and Jerin doing it, but Thomas? I doubt Sirtris dances—he’s far too serious. Lieutenant Dantreon probably does. I bet my four old guardsmen have been going to the village and dancing at every festival and I never knew.
Melia told me women don’t participate in these dances. Now I know why Mikhal looked so shocked when Daria asked Llelas to teach her how. Mikhal is easily shocked. He still doesn’t approve of my wearing trousers.
He and Llelas seem to be getting along better today. They found they have something in common after all.
One of the guardsmen had gone into the capital the day before and returned that morning, laden with books. Llelas was grateful that he had done extra work, finding him a pair of books on coal mining written in Relance. They discussed the mining industry in Jestriyan and Serione provinces—thus the Relance—where the bulk of Jenear’s coal mining was located.
Mikhal had a pair of books to read as well, although they turned out to be novels.
The girl had requested a half dozen books that covered myths and legends about the Old Man of the Mountains. Llelas made himself not laugh at her choices. That was his fault, since he had refused her myriad questions. In truth, he was no more comfortable discussing Grandfather than any other aspect of his past. She also had a book that purported to be about seers, although Llelas considered it no more likely to be accurate than the ones about Grandfather. Only seers knew what seers were like, and he doubted they wanted to discuss their gifts with anyone.
She settled in the library, though, and spent most of the day reading that. Since the village’s festivities would fall tomorrow, Llelas chose not to practice with her. No point in giving her an additional bruising before she appeared in the village.
“Do you think any of that stuff is true?” she asked Llelas as all three of them walked to the kitchens to search out lunch.
“Stuff?” he asked, unsure what she meant.
“The business about the wind chimes or the bowls of milk,” she said. “Those don’t make sense.”
“Those are old superstitions,” Mikhal intervened. “I don’t know how true they are, but I would not mock someone who did believe that.”
The bowl of milk left on a house’s back step was to seek out the Old Man’s blessing in the matter of having children. Since Llelas was doubtful that Grandfather had ever blessed anyone—or held any priestly office of any kind—he considered that one idiotic. And yet it persisted. The other was new to him. “I know nothing about wind chimes,” he admitted.
“In Jestriyan,” Mikhal provided, “wind chimes are used to charm the Old Man. For his favor, especially in a marriage. It is common for a newly married couple to put up a wind chime together. In most cities in Jestriyan, there’s a wind garden, where one may leave a set of chimes if one has no house of one’s own.”
“Wait…is there not one in the capital?” Llelas asked. “I never knew what that was for.”
As they entered the dining room, Mikhal asked, “Do your people not put up chimes?”
“No,” Llelas said. “I had never heard of that.” Had Grandfather not said there was a separate Old Man in Jestriyan? Perhaps that Old Man had started different traditions. He would have to add that to the list of things to ask Grandfather should he ever see him again.
“It can be very charming,” Mikhal said. “Or terribly annoying, depending on how close you live.”
Llelas laughed at his aggrieved tone. “You do not like them?”
“The wind garden in Conmaren is right across from the garrison,” Mikhal said. “If you are stationed too close, you will go mad after a couple of hours.”
Llelas chuckled. “That I understand.”
They spent a peaceable afternoon reading more, and managed not to fall out in anger again. And dinner that night was a festive affair, with the resident staff sitting down to eat alongside the stoic Lieutenant Sirtris and the remaining cadets. The Galasiene girl played her fiddle again afterwards, and Geris Seran proved that he could indeed dance. Llelas went to bed that night on good terms with the world, the best he had felt in some time.
The village held their winter festival the day after the solstice in their meeting hall. Evergreens were strewn over the rafters and a brightly lit hearth assured that anyone too near it would be overheated. The girls wore their most colorful dresses and their hair up, bright ribbons woven through their braids. The men wore their Sunday finery.
For Ellis, it was an amazing whirl of color, almost like those vague memories she had of balls she’d spied upon when a child. She’d worn her dark skirt and best weskit, along with a sweater that was too short in the sleeves now. She felt like a crow—a crow with a bruised cheek. She’d had nothing else to wear, though, and she couldn’t envision herself begging to borrow a dress from one of the maids.
Cheers arose as Melia’s carefully prepared pies and cakes were placed upon the table among the other viands. Mrs. Verus had many friends among the villagers and disappeared with several of them to play cards in a back room. One young lady attached herself to Gordon’s arm and seemed content to stay by his side for the remainder of the evening, which made Ellis wonder if their head gardener might be considering marriage.
The constable declared the beginning of the festival, introducing the three fiddlers. The two others were older gentlemen of the neighboring countryside. Merielle stood quietly by in her Sunday dress, which Ellis could actually say looked better than her own. Merielle faded back behind the other two as they played a slow melody. Dancers formed up across the floor, both men and women.
Ellis watched from the chair Geris had procured for her. He and Melia joined the intricate pattern that took the dancers in pairs from one end of the room to the other. Before she could puzzle out the pattern, the dance ended and Merielle began one of the fast pieces she’d practiced at Amiestrin.
Men lined up, slowly increasing in number until there were almost twenty men of all ages. As Merielle increased the tempo, a few men left the line, unable to keep in time. At the end, only five remained, both Mikhal and Llelas among them. The crowd cheered. The innkeeper brought glasses of beer out to those remaining and the floor cleared for the next dance. One of older fiddlers brought out a set of pipes and the two began another slow dance.
Melia returned to Ellis’ side, and Geris came to stand behind her, making her feel protected in all the whirl of activity. Someone stayed at her side the entire evening. Llelas finally returned, beer glass in hand, which he offered to Geris in exchange for the opportunity to escort Geris’ wife out onto the floor. Sirtris kept a watchful eye on them all.
Llelas and Mikhal both danced several of the dances, clearly ignoring the hopeful gazes of many of the village girls. Neither chose a partner younger than thirty, Ellis noted, heading off any unpleasant gossip. No one asked her to dance. She would have had to refuse anyway.
Llelas noticed that the girl was about to doze off in her seat. Not surprising. She had nothing to do here, after all. He started around the edge of the dance floor, meaning to sit and talk with her, but was relieved to see that Mikhal got there first. He turned instead and asked a round woman with graying curls if she would care to dance with him. That lady blushed prettily and took his arm for the dance. She proved to be a lively partner, all smiles and laughter. It wasn’t until Llelas was leading her back to her seat that he saw the expression on Ellis’ face.
The girl gazed at Mikhal with mouth slightly agape, her dark brows drawn together almost comically. Mikhal reached up to touch her cheek, and for a second, Llelas thought the younger man must have declared his admiration for the girl—a foolish choice since they would have to work together for the remainder of the two years.
But Ellis jumped to her feet and backed away from Mikhal, her lips moving.
From across the room, Llelas watched as Mikhal rose and followed her, his hands spread wide. He tried to grab one of Ellis’ hands, gesturing out to the dance floor as he did so. Seeing that, Llelas began pushing his way around the dance floor to reach them. He was unsure why it bothered him, but if nothing else, the girl was uncomfortable. He came around the side just as Ellis was about to back into the lieutenant, who wore an angry look on his face now.
“You let me kiss you before,” Mikhal said, sounding a bit bleary.
Too much beer. Llelas moved around Ellis, blocking Mikhal’s path. Others were crowding about now, mouths agape as whatever drama this was played out.
“That’s not true,” she said fiercely.
“In the stables,” Mikhal said. “You did, earlier tonight. You said we could…”
Llelas stepped in and shoved one hand over Mikhal’s mouth, stopping him from saying more. It was ironic that he was defending the girl’s honor here. He cared not what Ellis had promised the younger man, but to speak out in front of this crowd of villagers was uncalled for. He began pushing Mikhal in the direction of the ballroom doors, thinking that if he could get the younger man outside, the cold air would clear his head.
Mikhal suddenly shoved him, hard, with far more strength than Llelas expected. Llelas stumbled back, landing on his rump on the floor.
“And you,” Mikhal said, pointing at Llelas on the floor. “Everyone knows what a seithais you are. They say you’ve slept with half the whores in…”
Llelas jumped to his feet, but dropped when he heard the click of a gun’s hammer, an instinct he had learned in Perisen.
“Mr. Deviron,” the lieutenant said from behind him, “you will…
Mikhal Deviron disappeared.
Llelas felt cold wrap around him, brushing his skin as if it fled past him to fill the void where Mikhal had been. Or not Mikhal.
“Seran, watch her!” the lieutenant barked and jumped over a prone Llelas, heading for the door.
Llelas rolled to his feet and gave chase, but when they went through the door into the night air, there was nothing there. The lieutenant rounded on him. “Was that Mikhal or not? The Old Man said you would know.”
“I do not think that was Mikhal.” Movers were incredibly rare among humans. It was a Gift that diluted very easily, only intact for one or two generations. “Give me a moment to concentrate.”
He closed his eyes and drew in several breaths of cold air, imagining himself on the roof of the Reserve House where he usually did this. His Gift spun his spirit self, refusing to let him settle. It showed him Sovre, and then his father, and then Ellis back in the ballroom, shaking her head and speaking with Geris Seran. Then a half-dozen others, including some of the too many people he met in his days in Perisen. And then he stood in a dark place, over the body of Mikhal Deviron, lying on a bed of straw.
Llelas opened his eyes. “The stable.”
The lieutenant holstered his pistol and walked purposefully in that direction. “She had not been out of my sight all night. What he said wasn’t true.”
Llelas sighed. “It does not matter. You will have great difficulty convincing those people that was not Mikhal Deviron. People believe their eyes.”
The lieutenant went to the wall in the stable and took down one of the lanterns. “Are you armed?”
“No, sir.” Llelas closed his eyes briefly again, getting a feel for Mikhal’s location. “In the back.”
He followed the lieutenant as the man peered into the last stalls. Llelas spotted Mikhal slumped in the corner of one of them, his mouth open. For an instant, Llelas thought he was dead, but then Mikhal snorted, relieving him of that worry.
“I will get him,” Llelas said. He went in and lifted a groggy Mikhal over one shoulder, then carried him to a bench inside the stable door and set him on it.
Lieutenant Sirtris slapped Mikhal’s cheek—not too hard—and the young man’s eyes fluttered.
Mikhal surveyed his surroundings, rubbing the back of his head. “She hit me. Why…?”
“Who hit you?” the lieutenant asked sharply.
“Ellis,” Mikhal said. “She came out here with me and…” He flushed bright red, visible even in the dim light of the lantern. “We were talking,” he said. “That’s all.”
Even if his Gift had not told him this was the true Mikhal Deviron, Llelas had no doubts now. “It was an imposter,” he said. “She never left the ballroom.”
Mikhal shook his head and then grimaced. “No, I went to the…”
“Toilets?” Llelas supplied when he hesitated.
“Yes,” Mikhal said. “She met me in that hallway.”
Llelas turned to the lieutenant and shrugged. “This is the true Mikhal, sir. He was deceived, too.”
The lieutenant folded his arms over his chest, frowning. “And now we have an entire hall full of gossip to quell.”
Llelas nodded. “Yes, but…I have an idea.”