Llelas walked around behind the stable, not wanting to make a display of himself in front of Mikhal Deviron. The boy was a bit addled from being struck, but he might remember this. Llelas trusted the lieutenant to keep his mouth closed on what he knew about Llelas’ Gift, but he had no faith in Deviron.
There was a drive behind the stable. Llelas stood in the dirty, slushy snow and closed his eyes. He thought of Grandfather, thinking of his changeable nature, his capriciousness, his often-inappropriate levity. For a time, his spirit-self drifted, unable to lock on to Grandfather. Just when he decided to give in, he realized that the stood watching that maid again—Aelis—as she spoke with another maid in a dark hallway of the Marisi Palace.
So that is where she went—back to the old assignment.
Llelas pushed his spirit-self closer to Aelis, hoping to grab her attention. She continued to speak with the other maid for a moment, but then sent the girl on her way up the stairs to the next floor. Only then did she turn her attention on him. “What is it, little boy?”
“You are needed here,” Llelas said. “Now.”
Aelis crossed her arms over her chest, mouth twisting to one side.
“The other was here,” Llelas said, “only a moment ago.”
Suddenly, Aelis was gone. Llelas felt a touch on his physical body and that sent his spirit-self hurtling back to it, painfully fast. He took a great breath of air, mentally ruing the headache that would follow later. It always did.
“Pay attention, boy,” Aelis snapped in the dark alleyway. “What happened?”
“The other pretended to be one of the cadets,” Llelas explained, turning to face her. “He said things meant to embarrass her.”
Aelis sniffed at the air as if she could smell the other. “I am missing a party. How dreadful.”
Llelas grabbed her hand, trying to drag her attention back to him. “I need you to help us. The other disappeared in the middle of the ballroom. How do we explain that?”
Aelis’ eyes narrowed. “You want me to solve your problems for you?”
Llelas began to protest, then changed his mind. “Yes.”
Aelis snorted. She tugged her hand free of his, and then shook herself like a dog, settling into a fair copy of Mikhal Deviron. She—no, he—was too short for Mikhal, Llelas realized, but no one would catch that on first glance. “Will I do?” he asked.
“Mikhal’s voice is lower,” Llelas supplied. “And he’s…”
“From Jestriyan,” Grandfather finished in a deeper tone, mimicking Mikhal’s eastern lilt. He wasn’t dressed like Mikhal, but that could be fixed. He walked off, around to the front of the stable, Llelas jogging after him. When they stepped inside, the lieutenant was still talking to a groggy Mikhal who, when he saw Grandfather walk through the door, jumped to his feet.
“What is this?” the true Mikhal asked, terror in his voice. “Who are you?”
Grandfather surveyed Mikhal’s garb, and then his own garb changed color to match. There were still differences—Grandfather’s garb was not actually a uniform, but the colors were right. Most people would assume he was a soldier. He walked to Mikhal’s side. “I’m sorry, boy,” he said in Versh, “but I need to do this for theatrical effect.”
He swept the hair back from Mikhal’s forehead.
Mikhal jumped back with a startled cry. Grandfather’s hand dropped, but not before blood began dripping from a narrow cut near Mikhal’s scalp. “Ow!” Mikhal cried. “Why did you do that?”
“If you’re not bleeding,” Grandfather said, “no one will believe you’ve been attacked. It’s a small cut, boy, and won’t even need stitches. Stop sniveling.”
Now Mikhal looked mortally offended as well as anxious. “Who are you?”
“For now I am your twin,” Grandfather said in the same voice. “That’s all you need to know. Lieutenant, you might take him inside and show him to the girl so she’ll know he is innocent. Wait till then to stop the bleeding, though. It adds drama.”
Mikhal dropped a bloody hand from his forehead and opened his month, but the lieutenant grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the stable door. Llelas let out a pent breath once they were gone.
“I told you that one was smart,” Grandfather said, returning to Relance.
“Deviron?” Llelas asked.
“No, the lieutenant. He did not ask who I was. He knew you went to fetch me. Now, go on. You need to be there, too, before I go in and make a scene.”
Llelas went, contemplating what it meant for Grandfather to make a scene. It was not a phrase one used in Relance, but he understood that Versh idiom well enough.
Ellis rose when she saw Lieutenant Sirtris leading Mikhal toward where she sat. Sirtris had a determined expression on his pale face and blood on his white gloves. Blood that apparently came from Mikhal. Ellis dug in her skirt pocket and drew out a handkerchief.
That’s the real Mikhal. Something about his movements and expressions struck her as…right. She folded the handkerchief hurriedly and when they reached her, she handed it to the lieutenant. Sirtris quickly clapped it to Mikhal’s forehead and ordered him to press it there. Several of the locals crowded around, whispering, to get a look at him.
Geris Seran stepped in front of Ellis to keep the locals at bay. “What happened, Lieutenant? Did the two of you fight?”
“Hardly,” Sirtris said loudly enough for the nearest spectators to hear. “I found him in one of the stalls, unconscious. The man who was in here was an imposter—someone who looks enough like one of our cadets to get close. I had heard rumors of such a visitor, but hadn’t heard where he was stay…”
Llelas made his way to join them. “Sir, I looked everywhere for the man who attacked him…”
“He disappeared,” one of the locals—the baker—noted, pointing at Mikhal. “We all saw him disappear. From this very room!”
Lieutenant Sirtris sighed patiently. “Mr. Deviron did not disappear. He…”
Crashing glass and cries of startlement sounded behind them. Geris was standing solidly in front of her, but Ellis managed to squeeze to one side in time to see Mikhal—another Mikhal—struggling out from under a table laden with desserts. He’d bumped the ornate multi-tiered set of glass plates that had held pastries, all now scattered and broken on the floor. One of the bystanders—the priest—tried to grab his arm, but before the man got a grip on him, he tore loose and ran out the ballroom front door, colliding with a couple entering from the hallway. The man fell, but the fake Mikhal kept the woman on her feet by grasping her elbows. Then he set her loose and dashed away down the hall.
Everyone started talking at once, the ballroom erupting in speculation and recriminations. Ellis glanced at Mikhal, who seemed lost and tired now, his cut forehead still seeping blood. Lieutenant Sirtris scowled. And Llelas wore an expression of polite shock that didn’t fool Ellis at all. Daria could have done a better job of feigning surprise.
“We’ll leave the locals to sort this out,” Lieutenant Sirtris said. “Come along Miss, Dantreon, Mr. Deviron. The faster I get you back to the manor, the faster we’ll get that cut sewn up.”
Mikhal grimaced and pressed the handkerchief back to his forehead. “Yes, sir.”
Ellis just wanted to get home.
December 23, 493
I know who the third Mikhal was. Llelas’ false astonishment was not believable at all. It’s the second one that worries me.
I’ve never been accused of something like that before. Llelas thinks that imposter was trying to make me look like a whore. Because I’m around men all day. He says some people will just assume of me, Lieutenant Sirtris said that, too, a few days ago–although far more politely.
I need to read more about this, but if legends about the Old Man are true, and now I’ve seen someone Move, then a lot of other Gifts listed in those books might exist, too. Finders who can locate other people. Watchers who can spy on others without being there. There could be someone Watching me right now.
As soon as she wrote that, Ellis held her breath. That had to be true, all the time. She rose, yanked out that page without even waiting for it to dry, and tossed it on the fire.
After a near-sleepless night, Ellis had a headache, so she dawdled over her morning routine and didn’t emerge from her room until far later than usual. She found Lieutenant Sirtris reading the newspapers in the library. The other two cadets had eaten breakfast long before and gone their separate ways. Llelas had a letter from home, the lieutenant told her, and Mikhal had taken himself off to write one.
Perhaps that was for the best. She didn’t want to know what was going through Mikhal’s head when he thought he was alone with her…but was actually with the imposter. She wasn’t going to be the one to explain to him about his mysterious double, either. That should be Llelas or the lieutenant. How did she even know whether she had permission to talk about it?
She hated that she’d felt so helpless last night when all those villagers had looked at her as if the imposter’s words might be true. She was old enough to know that it hadn’t even been all that terrible. But she felt soiled anyway, unable to refute such a nebulous charge. Unsure where she stood with anyone, she did what she knew how to do best–she curled up in a chair in the library and read.
It wasn’t until after she returned from lunch in the kitchens that she ran into Mikhal. She could just see the thin line of last night’s cut near his scalp. It would heal well, she guessed. He looked sheepish when he spotted her, but squared his shoulders, walked over to her chair, and announced, “I must apologize for my part in what happened last night.”
Ellis wasn’t sure that wording was accurate. “We know it wasn’t actually you.”
“True, but…it was an imposter who used me to embarrass you. If I had not gone with…it, it could not have imitated me.”
Ellis hadn’t given it as much thought, but Llelas never spoke of the Old Man as it. Llelas always said he or she, depending on whether the Old Man was in a male or female guise. “I think you’re supposed to call her her.”
“It was not a woman. It was a man who dis…” Mikhal’s mouth pursed.
“In that case you should have called him him,” Ellis noted.
“It is less confusing,” Mikhal insisted. “That is not important now. I made a mistake, and I am sorry that it…my mistake…caused you embarrassment.”
Ellis was not as concerned about the embarrassment at this point. Embarrassment faded. She could put it aside. She had experienced that a few times already this fall.
But like learning about her two new brothers and the business with the Separatists and someone thinking she should marry Jerin’s older brother…this was something she would have to live with. It would work into the fabric of her life and always be with her. And among other things, she had no time for Mikhal’s affection for her. There was simply too much going on to spend time on him. But she wasn’t sure how to tell him that without hurting his feelings.
“Fine,” she said, unable to come up with a better response. “Did Llelas explain to you about the imposter?”
“That it was the Old Man, but not the Old Man? Yes. And that I am not supposed to mention it.”
Ellis felt her brows draw together. Llelas hadn’t presented all the truth to Mikhal, had he? “Have you seen Llelas today?”
“Only this morning,” Mikhal said, shaking his head. “He had a headache. Then he got a letter from the lieutenant and he went away to read it. I have not seen him since.”
“He didn’t eat lunch?”
“No, he did not.”
That was odd. “We should go find him.”
Mikhal began to protest when she rose, but shut his mouth and followed her instead. They walked through the snowy garden to the Reserve House. With most of its inhabitants gone, the it was surprisingly quiet. Mikhal led her up to the second floor where the cadets lived, usually off-limits to her. Neither of them thought Sirtris would be too out of sorts about it, particularly if he didn’t find out. Mikhal identified each room’s inhabitants as they moved along, stopping at the room shared by Llelas and Anthony.
A discreet knock brought no answer, so Mikhal pounded on the door. When that got no response, he tried opening it, gesturing for Ellis to move back so she wouldn’t see inside.
Mikhal cursed softly and stepped into the room. Ellis followed him, curious. Mikhal rarely cursed.
Llelas wasn’t inside, but the room showed he’d been there. One of the beds was overturned, the wash basin tipped over as well, with the pitcher missing. Ellis found it smashed against the far wall. The desk had been spared the whirlwind, but the books had been thrown across the room. Her dictionary now had a broken spine. The inkwell still sat on the desk. Nothing of Anthony’s was disturbed.
“This isn’t normal, is it?” Ellis asked after walking around the room once.
“Hardly. Usually not a thing out of place,” Mikhal admitted. “He had to have done this while I was at the manor with you. I would have heard this.” He cursed again in a low voice and then apologized when he realized he had done so. “What could have set him off?”
“The letter from home?”
“I do not do this when I receive letters,” Mikhal said, picking up pieces of the pitcher. “We cannot just go through his things. He would kill me.”
Ellis placed the dictionary back on the desk. “Where could he have gone?”
Mikhal brushed his hands on his trousers. “Sometimes he goes into the village to talk to the priest.”
“The priest? Truly?” She wouldn’t have thought Llelas on such good terms with Father Dachran.
Mikhal came up with a second answer. “Ah. Sometimes he sits on the roof. Come on.”
Closing the door behind them, Mikhal led her back down the hallway and up to the narrow stairs leading to the roof. Mikhal pulled her up onto the roof with a firm hand on her sleeve.
She’d never been out on the roof of the Reserve House before. If Mrs. Verus finds out, she’ll have spasms.
The roof had a flat area with a low rail about it, giving an excellent view of the gardens laid out below. A series of stone chimneys punctuated the roof and on the far side of one they found Llelas. He sat staring out into the woods to the north. He wore his uniform jacket, but nothing heavier than that.
“What are you doing out here?” Ellis asked. “You don’t even have a coat on.”
Llelas didn’t answer. Mikhal knelt down, shaking Llelas’ sleeve to get his attention. “Your fingers are turning blue,” he said.
“Go away,” Llelas hissed. He shut his eyes. Ellis stood over them, uncertain what she should say.
Mikhal shook his sleeve again, more insistently this time. “This is stupid. Come inside.”
Llelas turned to look at the younger man and Ellis stepped back, surprised by the fury on Llelas’ face. He said something to Mikhal in Relance, ending with one of the few words of that language Ellis did know—ihras, or bastard.
What is going on? They were fine last night.
Mikhal turned a stricken faced toward Ellis, clearly realizing she’d understood a part of what Llelas said. He turned even paler and without a word stumbled back toward the stairway.
“How could you say such a thing?” she asked Llelas.
“Well, it is true, they say,” Llelas ground out, as if he’d remarked on something as commonplace as Mikhal’s hair color, not his parentage. “He should get accustomed to having it said to his face. My brother certainly hears it often enough.”
Ah, his half-brother whom he admired. That still made no sense of why he’d lashed out at Mikhal. Not that Mikhal had been an easy companion these last two weeks, but his mistakes didn’t merit the anger she’d heard in Llelas tone.
She kicked him in the rump. Then she kicked him again for good measure. “You’re having some sort of tantrum and he comes out here to find you because we’re worried about you and you take it out on him. What do you think you’re doing?”
He rose suddenly, coming to his feet in a single fluid motion. “I do not ask for you to come out here. I do not ask for him to bother me. I do not need some wealthy little bastard telling me what to do.”
Ellis had no idea what prompted that attack. “Llelas, why are you so mad at him?”
“I am not mad with him,” he answered in an icy tone.
She’d never once been afraid of Llelas Sevireiya. Not until now. Ellis took a step back without intending to. “Then whom? It certainly sounded like you were mad at him.”
“It is not fair that someone like him can go through life and never be bothered. That someone like Lieutenant Dantreon can live his life and never be called a damned half-breed because…”
Ellis slapped him.
She saw it coming—more of a reflex than anything else—but she was too surprised to react. His fist caught the only unbruised spot on her jaw.
Ellis stumbled in the wet snow. Her left cheekbone hit the corner of the chimney and pain exploded through her head, sending her to her knees.
Then Llelas’ icy hand was pressing firmly against her cheek. He dragged her toward the stairs. When she faltered but he hauled her to the stairwell door. He took her hand in his bloody fingers and pressed it against her face. “Hold it there,” he ordered.
He tugged her down the stairs, yelling for Mikhal before they’d even reached the third floor landing.
Mikhal appeared at the bottom of the stairs and gasped when he saw them. Llelas yelled at him again. Mikhal took off running.
Llelas forced Ellis to sit on a bench in the hallway. “Keep your hand here,” he said. “Press it hard.”
He left her. Ellis sat in the chilly hallway, a wave of nausea making her grit her teeth together. She could feel blood pooling down inside her shirt’s collar.
Llelas returned after a long time, his hands full with a basin and towels. He set them down on the bench and peeled her reluctant hand away from her face. It hurt, but with his fingers pressing hard against her cheekbone, she could tolerate it. Taking one of the towels, he wet it and then began cleaning the blood from her face. He looked even sicker than she felt.
“There are pieces of stone,” he explained, exchanging the blood-stained towel for a fresh one.
Lieutenant Sirtris entered the hallway with Mikhal close behind him. Llelas ignored them, looking for bits of stone while two fingers still held the edges of the gash closed.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Sirtris asked in a wintry voice.
“Yes.” Llelas continued with his careful dabbing.
The lieutenant sent Mikhal back to the manor house, this time to fetch a needle and thread. “And brandy,” Llelas shouted after him.
Ellis hissed when he touched a particularly tender spot. At least the nausea was passing. He skin still felt hot and prickly. “You’re going to…”
“Do not talk please.” Llelas surveyed the gash, evidently trying to decide where to put the stitches.
She’d helped Conrad do this to a horse once who’d cut a leg on a broken post. Now she was about to find out how that horse had felt.
Neither Llelas nor the lieutenant spoke in the silence, tension swirling about them. Only a few minutes later, Merielle appeared with the needle and thread, a bottle of something Ellis knew would sting, and a bowl full of snow. The other girl’s face went white when she saw the bloody towels, but she calmly handed Llelas the needle and set her other burdens on a bench nearby.
Picking up the bottle one-handed, Llelas poured a generous amount onto one of the towels. “This is going to hurt,” he warned just before he touched it to her cheek.
Ellis felt it burn all the way down to her toes. It was all she could do not to cry out. Her eyes began to run.
Llelas asked Merielle to hold the edges of the cut. She came and replaced his stained fingers with hers. The stitching was unpleasant, particularly the feel of the thread sliding through her skin, but it was bearable. Ellis clenched her jaw and focused all her energy on being still. When he’d finished tying off the last knot, Llelas dabbed again at the cut with the brandy-soaked towel, the burning not nearly as bad this time.
As soon as Llelas finished, Lieutenant Sirtris gestured him away from her. Llelas slid down against the far wall, putting his head in his hands. Mikhal stood further away, frozen in uncertainty.
Lieutenant Sirtris stripped off his coat and handed it to Merielle, who’d evidently run out to the Reserve House coatless, and ordered her back to the main house. Merielle made one last gesture for Ellis to hold some of the snow to her cheek and then, yanking on the lieutenant’s coat, left without a word.
Lieutenant Sirtris folded his arms over his chest. “I would like to hear as concise a description as possible of how this happened.”
Ellis realized he was looking at her. “I hit him. He hit me. I slipped and fell and hit my cheek against the side of the chimney.” She scrubbed between her fingers with a clean corner of one of the towels.
“She did not hit me,” Llelas protested. “She slapped me.”
“After I kicked him a couple of times.”
“Am I to understand, then,” Sirtris asked quietly, “that the two of you were fighting when this happened?”
Ellis’ affirmative answer came out at the same time as Llelas’ negative one.
“No, Mr. Sevireiya? What happened then?”
“I provoked her, sir.”
“Did she strike you first, Mr. Sevireiya?”
“Yes, sir,” Llelas admitted.
Ellis suspected he wanted to lie about it. If she understood the rules properly, that made her the transgressor. Llelas would want to take that responsibility. His erratic behavior might had provoked her, but she was clearly the one who’d struck first. Why did I hit him?
Sirtris stood gazing down at the two of them, his face unreadable. “Mr. Sevireiya, I want to meet with you at four o’clock in the main house library to discuss this. Be cleaned up by then. Miss Dantreon, I expect to talk to you at four-thirty.” With that, he swept from the hall, leaving the three cadets staring in his wake.
I have three hours before Lieutenant Sirtris kills me, then. Ellis put her hand into the melting snow and held a handful against the aching cheek. It didn’t feel good, but it would help keep down any swelling, so she could bear it. Llelas raised his head and met her eyes. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am.” He looked at the ceiling. Ellis recognized that trick, a way to keep one’s eyes from tearing. Merielle had taught it to her. “I had no business to say what I did, Mikhal Deviron. My deep apologies.”
“It is the truth,” Mikhal whispered.
“If I could take back what I said, I would. I was wrong to say it.”
Mikhal stood silent for a time. He finally walked away, ignoring Llelas’ apology.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ellis asked, hoping to get an answer this time.
Llelas covered his face again with his hands and for a long time, said nothing. “I do not know even if he is alive still.”
He wouldn’t worry for his father, Ellis knew. “Your brother?”
“A letter came today from my sister, saying he had been stabbed and she was not certain if he would live. And that is all I know. My head hurts and I cannot see him. There is nothing I can do now but wait.”
“A drunk man in the tavern, calling him a Cantreidian half-breed,” he paused, anger in his tone. “As if half the people of the mountains are not part God only knows what.”
She understood his frustration, knowing he could do nothing but sit and wait. She could understand his anger over the unfairness of the attack on his brother. She could almost follow his thinking now, reasoning why he’d lashed out at Lieutenant Dantreon and Mikhal. Almost, but not quite. “Is your brother older than you or younger?”
“Older. Twelve years.”
“And your sister?”
“Younger by a month. Sovre jokes and says we are twins. He says we are too much alike.”
But he’d never met the sister, if she recalled that discussion. Ellis dropped her hand from her cheek. Most of the snow had melted away already. She dropped the slushy remainder back into the basin. “I can see why you understand about my brothers.”
Llelas gave a dry laugh. He stood slowly, as if he felt older than usual. “Come, I will walk you back to the manor.”
Ellis let him put a hand under her elbow and help her up. The dizziness passed quickly. She reminded him to go get a coat. While he was gone, she attempt to straighten the towels on the bench but found that if she leaned over, her face felt like it would explode. She decided to leave the mess for him.
Llelas came back down the stairs, wearing coat and gloves this time. He walked with her through the gardens and all the way to the rear steps of the manor house without a word. He stopped on the steps. “I am sorry for this,” he said finally.
“I’ll be fine.” One thing she’d learned over the last few months—everything eventually healed, no matter how painful at the outset.
“You will not say that when you are older. My apologies.” With that, he walked slowly down the steps and back into the garden.
Ellis stared after him, wondering at his cryptic statement. Then she understood.
She went inside and made her way to her room, ignoring Mrs. Verus’ horrified query as she passed the housekeeper in the hall. Ellis shut the door quickly and locked it behind her. She leaned against it, trying to calm her breathing. After a moment, she peeled off her coat and jacket and dropped them on the floor.
She made herself cross the room and sit before the mirror. The light from the courtyard lit the right side of her face, showing the still-greenish bruise along her jaw. She turned her face to catch the light.
It ran along the line of her cheekbone from below the center of her eye, splitting into a gruesome ‘y’ over the bone, stopping an inch short of her hairline. The cut was ragged, the stitches looking black in the dimness of her room. It had begun to swell. Blood stained her shirt around the collar.
Sirtris is wrong, she thought. I’ll never be considered handsome. Not anymore.