Merielle finally persuaded Ellis to unlock the door. Once again, she’d brought ice.
Ellis lay down with a cold compress held to her aching cheek and an extra pillow behind her head. Merielle sat down on the other side of the bed, for once unconcerned about her duties. Mrs. Verus had allowed her the afternoon off her duties to nurse Ellis.
“We should drag in extra ice from the lake this winter just for my face.” Ellis tried to see the humor in the situation.
Merielle ignored her attempted joke. “As long as you keep the swelling down and keep it protected, the scar shouldn’t be too bad.”
Ellis bit her lip. She’d already cried about this and refused to do so again. “What should I do?”
Merielle made a few suggestions about keeping the cut clean, the most important thing for now. Then they could worry, she said, about keeping it supple. “He did a good job cleaning it, though. It’ll seep over the next few days, but if it doesn’t become infected, it should knit well.”
Merielle’s confidence made her feel better. The horse she’d stitched up herself had been left with a large scar on his leg. Llelas had more practice, Ellis hoped.
Merielle suggested she try to rest until Lieutenant Sirtris meant to talk to her. Ellis thought it impossible, but under her friend’s watchful eye, she slipped into a light sleep.
Merielle woke her with half an hour to spare. Strange dreams had made her fitful, so she didn’t feel rested at all. Between the two of them, they managed to get Ellis cleaned up enough to be presentable, although her greatcoat and jacket would definitely have to be cleaned. Her shirt couldn’t be saved. The blood had already stained the white linen. She changed into another uniform while Merielle straightened the items to carry off to the laundry. Ellis reached the library with five minutes to spare, thinking Lieutenant Sirtris wouldn’t be in a mood to tolerate tardiness.
Llelas came out just as she stepped over the threshold of the library, his face set. He saw her and flinched, just enough that she caught the movement. Ellis wasn’t certain what to say to him.
“The lieutenant is waiting for you,” was all he told her, gesturing for her to go in.
The interview with Lieutenant Sirtris wasn’t as unpleasant as she suspected it could have been. He gazed at her coolly, evidently having taken out most of his earlier ire on Llelas.
“If you were one of my sisters,” he began, “I would have a great deal to say to you about the general wisdom of your actions, Miss Dantreon. You started a fight on a snowy rooftop, standing next to a chimney, with a clearly overwrought man whose training so far exceeds your own that he could have very easily killed you. Do you understand how lucky you were?”
Ellis cringed inwardly. Sirtris had a gift for paring things down to their most stupid elements. “Yes, sir.”
“But as I told Mr. Sevireiya, I intend to treat this precisely as if you were two regular guardsmen in this situation. Fighting in a garrison is prohibited unless sanctioned and monitored by an officer. Mr. Sevireiya claims that he provoked the fight. You claim that you struck him first. Is that accurate?”
“Since this is your first offense, I’ll warn you that it’s not to be repeated. The purpose of allowing sanctioned disputes within a garrison is to control the circumstances under which such disputes take place. One of the reasons for that is to prevent such consequences as combatants becoming more seriously injured than was intended. Do you understand me, Miss Dantreon?”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
“Should you in the future choose to repeat this action, there will be commensurate disciplinary action taken. The general punishment for a second offense is usually additional duties such as those your friend Mr. Sevireiya will be enjoying for the next month. Additional offenses incur increasing levels of discipline up to and including expulsion from the Guard. Do you understand, Miss Dantreon?”
Ellis felt the knot in her stomach loosen. He was letting her off the hook. “Yes, sir.”
“I also discussed with Mr. Sevireiya the import of that person’s actions toward you and Mikhal.”
She’d been about to rise, but she eased back down into her chair. Sirtris meant the imposter, the one who’d hit Mikhal and tried to kiss her. “Yes, sir?”
“Did he get a hand on you at any point? On your bare skin?”
Ellis closed her eyes, trying to sort that out in her mind. The fake Mikhal sat down next to her and talked only for a moment before reaching over to touch her cheek. That was what had tipped her off—Mikhal with his insistence that touching another’s skin was forbidden, particularly the face. “I am reasonably sure, sir, that he didn’t touch my skin.”
“He may not have been wearing gloves,” Sirtris added, “even though it appeared that he did.”
Ellis licked her lips, fighting down an urge to giggle. She wasn’t even sure why her brain thought that was funny. But it confirmed her suspicion that the imposter—and Llelas’ Grandfather—might not be wearing clothes. That they could wear fake clothing, just like their fake faces. She forced herself to focus back on the night at the dance. “No, sir, he didn’t touch me.”
Sirtris nodded grimly. “We don’t know what he was trying to accomplish that night, but I have been told that if one of them touches you, especially near the face, they can Read you. Your memories, Miss Dantreon. That gives them additional information to make their imitation better.”
And that made a bit more sense out of the Menhirre custom of not touching another’s face. Not without permission. “I see.”
Lieutenant Sirtris peered at her, lips narrowed. She had the feeling that he wanted more from her, or something different out of this conversation. Then she recalled that Llelas had touched her face, many times. What did that mean about him? “I will keep that in mind, sir. Do you think he’s coming back?”
“The imposter?” Sirtris asked. “He took a large risk trying to get to you. He incapacitated Mikhal to get to you, and then used that form to spew nonsense about you likely intended to publicly injure your reputation. You need to pay more attention, because this is clearly about you, Miss Dantreon.”
Ellis licked her lips. Her head had begun to ache again. She didn’t want this kind of attention. “So what do I do?”
“I talked with our friend again this morning, the one who helped at the dance,” he began.
He didn’t want to call that person the Old Man, she realized. Why not?
“He will be returning here soon and will take up residence,” Sirtris continued. “But now we know more about our imposter. His size is an important factor. He’s not large enough to imitate someone like Mr. Farrier, Mr. Fariana, or Lieutenant Dantreon, so they can serve as safe companions for you.”
Not Llelas, not Mikhal, not Jerin. They were all in the same height range. Basically, none of the Menhirre students, she decided. “But not you.”
“No, Miss Dantreon, not me. So I’d like you to remain vigilant around me.”
She sighed. Why has life suddenly gotten so complicated? “Yes, sir.”
“You are not to discuss the incident with Jerin, nor with anyone else who wasn’t there,” he said. “Sub-marshal Viridias fears it would start a panic is people began to questions everyone around them. For now, we’ll keep this quiet.”
“I can do that, sir.”
“Any other questions for me?”
She was sure that other things would occur to her, but her head was aching now and she just wanted to lie down again. “No, sir.”
“Then you are dismissed.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She turned and headed for the door, wobbly-kneed with relief.
He called her back and she stopped. “I’m curious,” he said. “Did you actually think he wouldn’t hit back?”
Back to Llelas. By his tone, she could decline to answer. “I don’t think I thought at all, sir.”
His lips twisted again. “Next time, think first, Miss Dantreon.”
Ellis nodded and left the library, relieved he’d let her go on a more cordial note. It didn’t surprise her to find Llelas leaning against the wall in the hallway, waiting for her to emerge. He gave her a curious look.
“He let me off with a warning,” she told him.
“He is kind to me,” Llelas said. “He should send me back to the capital.” Then he pushed away from the wall and left.
Ellis hoped Sirtris wouldn’t do that. After all, she’d just started to make progress. And Llelas was clearly key to figuring out what this imposter wanted from her.
She ate dinner in her room that night, not wanting to be the object of further scrutiny. It would be bad enough when the other cadets returned. She tried to write in her journal but found that looking down at the page hurt more than she could stand. Instead, she lay propped up on her extra pillows and thought, wondering if her father had ever foreseen the week’s events.
Llelas straightened his room in the eerie silence of the Reserve House. He still smelled her blood on his hands. It showed on the cuffs of his shirt, drying to an ugly brown.
Ellis had already forgiven him for striking her, a terrifying thing, for it meant she would most likely forgive him the next time it happened, and the next.
His chances of making allies here had failed, just when he had made progress with his young cousin Jerin. The Marisi would not appreciate his hitting the girl. And he had lost any chance of friendship with the Deviron boy as well, stupidly repeating a bit of Kellen’s nasty gossip. When his temper took him, reason flew out the window, and his self-discipline winged away with it. Just like Father, he reminded himself.
The mirror showed him a face looking too much like the Duke of Sandrine. It frightened him. He had been bred to have his father’s talent, like a horse, only he had been born with father’s weaknesses as well.
He would do the penance the lieutenant commanded of him…willingly, for he deserved it.
And the lieutenant needed him here. He was the one who could separate a friend from the imposter. So for that, he was glad he was staying.
Jerin arrived the next morning, days earlier than originally expected. Ellis spotted him riding up the drive from the library window. Feeling self-conscious, she stayed in the library, trying to read the newspaper. Her head ached though, making it difficult to focus for long. Eventually though, Jerin came in seeking her. He dropped his copious luggage in the library doorway, laying his gloves and greatcoat atop them.
His smile faded as her got his first look at her face. The cut was a swollen, angry red. The sunshine in the library highlighted all the traces of the bruises she’d earned since the cadets had left. No doubt she looked a proper mess.
“What did he do to you?” Jerin blurted out.
Ellis held up her hand to forestall him. ” Jerin, I can’t learn to fight without being hit. I have to learn. Thomas has hit me any number of times, just never on the face, so you don’t see those bruises. Don’t treat this as if it’s different.”
He sat back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “That is not from learning to box.”
She gazed at him, suddenly wondering whether he was truly Jerin or not. After all, Jerin wasn’t supposed to be back, yet. “It’s not important.”
He leaned closer, peering at her stitches. “Is it painful?”
Ellis had made herself not back away from him, but he hadn’t tried to touch her, so she relaxed. “It was bad when I woke this morning,” she admitted, “but it’s better now. Merielle says it will be like this for a few days. It’s better if I don’t think about it.”
“Ah,” he said.
“How was Perisen?” she asked, an adequate distraction from her face.
Jerin sighed and toyed with the glass she’d left on the table. He was, she decided, trying to think of a kind thing to say. “My family is difficult at times,” he finally said.
“Is that why you’re back early?”
“There was little reason to stay. I am not very interesting to my family. I disappoint them, you know.”
The admission surprised her. How could they consider Jerin disappointing?
“My brothers wanted to know everything about you, though. Politics are very important in my family, you know, and they wanted to know how everyone stood on this or that issue. And Llelas. On and on with ‘How fares little cousin Kadahn’. That’s his Cantreidian name, you know, the name he used while he lived in Perisen. I didn’t even know they knew him.”
Llelas used a different name when he lived in Perisen? That was a question to ask Llelas, not Jerin, who was apparently tired of talking about Llelas. It must have been difficult for him, receiving less attention from his family than two cousins he’d only just met. But of course, Llelas would interest them. Llelas would one day hold a seat on the Council, so the Duke of Perisen would want to know where he stood. And she, unfortunately, understood better now why they might be interested in her.
“How boring for you,” she said. An insipid answer, but the best she could come up with. “So when did you start back?”
He shrugged. “Oh, yesterday. Part of the rail line is completed. I hired horses out of Perisen and then rode the train to Jenesetta all the way from Kaliam. It’s amazing. It takes two days off the trip. They believe it will be complete all the way to Perisen next spring. They are building a huge bridge over the Laksitya River Gorge so that the train will not go down at all in the valley there. It’s absolutely amazing. You should see it.”
They’d read about the railroad in the papers but evidently it was much more impressive when seen first hand. Jerin rattled on for a few minutes about the rail line and then began with the wonders of the rail depots along the way. It was going, he explained, to revolutionize commerce in the northern part of the country. Coal and textiles would soon flow out of Perisen on the rail, and steel would be “railed” into the city. Ellis listened, picturing the map in her head to place what he said.
When Jerin had exhausted himself on that subject, he remembered the luggage he’d brought with him. With an excited glow, he picked up a hard-sided case and carried it over. “Now this,” he explained, laying the case on the table, “belongs to my brother Hessien. It is only on loan until he should ask for it back.”
Ellis opened the latches of the case. Inside lay a violin, its dark wood gleaming in the afternoon sun. Even with her untrained eye, she recognized its value. “Does he not play anymore?”
“Not since he was my age. I doubt he’ll miss it. He left it at my mother’s home. He lives at the palace with Anton, you know. You will keep it, won’t you?”
She felt like a conspirator in a poorly written play. Thomas would have just handed it over without explanation. Llelas would have told her flat out why he’d brought it. Jerin had to go about it the hard way, though.
“Of course, I will,” she said. “Until your brother asks for it back, that is. Thank you, Jerin. I’d like to hear such a fine instrument played, so I’ll probably ask Merielle to try it out for me, if you don’t mind.” She closed up the case, intending to carry it to the rotunda later. “Mikhal will be glad to see you. He and Llelas didn’t brush along very well.”
Jerin gathered his remaining bags and tugged his coat back on. “I should have asked Mikhal to come back with me,” he said distractedly. “I think next Christmas I’ll just stay here.”
He truly must not have enjoyed his visit with his family to suggest foregoing it next year. Well, if he did stay, he could at least keep his comrades from each other’s throats.
Once Jerin left, Ellis went in search of Merielle. She found the maid in the kitchen, helping Melia prepare luncheon. With the cook’s permission, she dragged Merielle to the library. The violin case lay on the table where she’d left it.
“I wanted to show you what my cousin lent me,” she explained to the confused maid. “Open it.”
Merielle opened the case and sat down. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed. Then she surprised Ellis by putting her hand over her mouth and fleeing the room, eyes shining with tears.
Lunch was cheerier with Jerin there to add his chatter. He coaxed Mikhal out of his sulks and even got Sirtris talking at one point, although it didn’t last. Ellis ate gingerly, aware with every movement of her jaw how the cut pulled and flexed. Jerin shot her a sympathetic look when he saw her flinch but didn’t mention it again. Llelas had spent his morning working in the stables and didn’t show up to eat.
She went to the ballroom to find Llelas that afternoon, but he wasn’t there. She finally tracked him down in the stables, where he stood talking with Conrad. “Are we not to practice today?”
He seemed surprised. “No. You need to rest the cut. Later,” he finished and turned back to his work.
Ellis went back into the manor. Her head ached too much to read, so she decided she could use the time to let out the hems and sleeves of her uniforms. Her jackets were too tight through the shoulders and chest as well, but those were difficult alterations she didn’t think she could manage. After acquiring the sewing basket from Mrs. Verus, she went to her room and began the tedious work. It took a while to find a comfortable position where she didn’t look down at the fabric but, by the time the afternoon had passed, she’d finished both of her uniform trousers and started on the skirt she’d worn to the festival. The seat of the skirt was shiny from wear, but she didn’t think she could do anything about that.
Merielle came in as Ellis finished the hem. “I could have done that for you,” she said in her quiet voice.
“I have nothing else to do and you’re busy,” Ellis defended herself. “I might as well do it.” After all, she’d learned to sew for just that reason. It seemed inefficient to make someone else do it when she had more than enough free time. She showed Merielle the skirt’s back, thinking the older girl might know how to fix it.
“It’s too worn,” Merielle judged, “but I’ll try holding it over the tea kettle.” She set the skirt down in her lap. “I’m sorry for this afternoon. Your cousin shouldn’t have brought that violin. It’s far too valuable for me to play.”
“Well, it’s a good thing he lent it to me, then, not you. I don’t care how valuable it is. I just thought it was nice of him to think of me when he was in Perisen.”
Merielle giggled, a blush stealing across her pale cheeks. “Yes, it was very kind.”
“Will Mrs. Verus let you have time off to practice?”
“I’m so far behind in my work I doubt I’ll ever catch up. It’ll have to wait till tomorrow.” Mrs. Verus wouldn’t refuse her normal half-day even if the staff was behind. “You’re going to be late for dinner,” Merielle said. She surveyed Ellis’ stitches, pronounced her fit, and sent her on her way.
That evening, Ellis and Jerin and Mikhal sat companionably around a table in the library, sipping at their coffee and enjoying a chance to catch Jerin up on all that happened in his absence. When Jerin learned Merielle had played for the festival, he claimed he’d missed something worth staying at Amiestrin to hear. Having heard about the dull time he had in Perisen, they all agreed.
“By the way, Merielle thought you were kind to remember me when you were at home, so thank you.” Jerin blushed, which Ellis considered an interesting reaction.
They talked for a while longer, but afterwards, Llelas caught her sleeve before he left the room. “He is Jerin,” Llelas said, and then headed away.
Ellis had forgotten her momentary flash of worry that Jerin might be the imposter. She hadn’t been vigilant, and Sitris would be disappointed.
December 28, 493
I sat and looked at my face for a long time. The bruises are beginning to fade, like they always do, but this cut is going to scar. I hope it’s not too bad, but that doesn’t really matter because this is just the first. There’ll be others. I suppose it’s a good thing that this happened during the break so I don’t have to study or practice with Thomas who wouldn’t be sympathetic at all.
Lieutenant Sirtris wants me to be on guard against imposters. I said that I would do so, but just as quickly let Jerin sit down right next to me. And Merielle. If the imposter could pretend to be me, then he—or she—could pretend to be Merielle too.
I can’t live every day questioning every person. It’s not possible. Not for me, at least.