A heavy snowfall blanketed the estate again in the middle of March. Master Winhain declined to drag them out into the snow this time, so Lieutenant Sidreiyan and Captain Dantreon devised between them the assignment of challenging each squad with finding a way to destroy one of their own fortresses.
East drew the Padraichi Garrison, resting on the Cantreidian border in Serione province. One of the oldest garrisons, Padraichi was a crumbling stone fortress left over from the early settlement of Jenear. It loomed over the edge of the Siritya River, only approachable from the north—the Serione side. Fortunately, Mikhal’s home lay close by and he knew the terrain well.
They settled in the library, having located a map of the countryside and a diagram of the garrison. South chose to sit near the doors and the other two groups retreated to the Reserve House library to hone their plans. They discussed several different ways to take the fortress, all of them favoring heavy artillery. The difficulty would be transporting the guns to Padraichi. They argued over the subject for over an hour.
Late in the afternoon, a sudden stirring from South got their attention. Strangers walked into the library and, at Llelas’ urging, they all rose. Ellis glanced over, wondering what motivated their reaction.
Then, with a twist in her gut, she rose along with the others, all too aware of her rumpled uniform. She swallowed. This is never a good thing.
The king had simply walked in on them unannounced, the four guardsmen with him a small but formidable escort. No one had a moment’s doubt as to his identity. Even if they’d never laid eyes on him before, they’d all seen his likeness in the papers. Ellis stared, unable to help herself.
His hair was grayer than the last time she’d seen him, and he’d lost weight, looking leaner than ever. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man but he had an air of authority. His overcoat obscured most of his attire. He held his hat in his gloved hands, as if waiting for a footman to arrive to carry it away. The four guardsmen seemed to evaluate, then dismiss, the cadets standing about the library, ranking them as either of limited importance…or limited threat.
The silence stretched on. Ellis worried that the others would hear her heart banging in her ears as they all stood there at attention, still as doorposts.
“Where is Marshal Dantreon?”
The king had spoken directly to her.
Yelled might be a better description of the tone. He was annoyed, Ellis could tell.
“Marshal Dantreon has been detained at his home due to a family emergency, sire.” Her voice barely wavered, she was grateful to note.
He scares me. It had taken her three years to admit it, but she was frightened of this man who could force her into any path he chose. She drew herself up as tall as she could, suddenly noting he wasn’t as tall as she remembered. She could almost look him in the eye now. Three years ago, she’d not even come up to his shoulder.
He seemed vexed at her answer and took a moment to formulate his own response. “Where, then, is Captain Dantreon?”
Ellis heard Thomas stepping up behind her. “The officers are meeting in the rotunda, Sire,” she answered before Thomas said anything.
The king transferred his attention to Thomas anyway. “And who are you, Guardsman?”
“Thomas Farrier, Sire.”
When he heard the name, some flicker of recognition passed across the king’s face. He glanced at the other cadets then.
“Yefin Fariana, Mikhal Deviron, and Jerin Marisi,” Ellis offered before he asked.
Her father stepped around her to stand before Jerin. He stared fixedly into Jerin’s face and then lifted his gloved hand, lightly touching Jerin’s cheek as if to ascertain whether he was real. Jerin stood frozen, clearly uncertain how to react. Then, as suddenly as he’d approached, the king turned away again to look at Ellis, completely ignoring her cousin.
“This happened sooner than I’d have thought.” He touched the tip of a finger to Ellis’ scarred cheek.
He knew, then. A flash of anger heated her cheeks.
“What are you doing here, then, without the officers present? Are you teaching yourself?”
“We are preparing an invasion plan, Sire,” she said.
He glanced down at the map and diagram laid out on the table. Then he turned it toward him. “They never show the tunnels on these maps.”
“Tunnels, Sire?” she repeated, feeling stupid.
“There’s a system of mines under that part of the mountains. Tunnels lead from the basements of the fortress down to those mines. Walled off when I was a boy. You can only find them on the older maps, not these new ones. Captain Dantreon, did you not inform them of the change?”
Ellis started. Captain Dantreon stood in the doorway of the library, a displeased expression on his face. She didn’t know how her father could have seen him.
“No, Sire,” the captain said without hesitation. “If they had chosen to use an older map, they would have known. However, an invading force doesn’t always have all the pertinent information. Which is as it should be, Sire.”
Ellis realized two things at that moment. The captain wasn’t scared of her father, nor did he like him. She felt a twitch of fear, thinking her father would lash out at the captain for his answer.
Instead, the king merely raised an eyebrow. “I have a matter I wish to discuss with the officers, Captain.”
“We’ve been meeting in the rotunda. If you would follow me, Sire.”
The king and his guard swept from the library and out into the hall, leaving the bemused cadets behind. Silence held for a moment. Ellis felt Thomas’ hand on her back and let out a gusty sigh of relief. As if a wind had blown through the library, the tension in the room eased and all the cadets set back to work.
Thomas sent Mikhal to the kitchen to beg a fresh pot of coffee from Melia. Ellis slumped down at the table, suddenly worn by her encounter with her father. Jerin laid a hand on her sleeve, seeming more concerned about her than the king’s strange reaction to himself. Mikhal came back with the coffee and the others settled down, South doing the same after a moment’s surprised whispering. The remaining time they spent there blurred in Ellis’ mind.
Not long before dinner, Ellis watched from the windows of the library as her father’s coach pulled around to the front drive. His guard formed up as he mounted the steps of the coach, never looking back.
It was the same sensation, Ellis thought. The same one she’d felt three years ago when he’d come and left in anger. The same feeling she’d felt when abandoned at Amiestrin all those years ago. It was as if some part of her soul had been ripped out with neither warning nor explanation. It had always been her father’s way of dealing with her.
Captain Dantreon waited in the library, setting up the chessboard as she walked in. Ellis settled at the table, looking down at the set. He’d given her white as always.
“You don’t like my father, do you, sir?” Ellis asked after a moment of staring blindly at the pieces.
He sat back in his chair, the firelight casting shadows across his dark face. “Are you asking me as an officer, or as your cousin?”
Surprised, Ellis met his eyes. He was offering to give her the truth. He couldn’t do that as an officer. “I’m asking as your cousin.”
He picked his king off the board and toyed with it. “Your father has given me an amazing amount of leeway and what I can only see as an unmerited promotion. I would call it nepotism if it weren’t for the fact that he seems to have absolutely no interest in my father or brothers. I’m the means to some end and happen to have profited by it. I can just as suddenly fall into his path and, if that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wound up dead.”
Ellis didn’t think the chill that ran through her came off the windows. She’d never heard Captain Dantreon say anything that cynical before. “You don’t like him?”
“I would have to say I don’t,” he answered.
A family comment, she realized, something that would stay within the family. The captain might be a distant cousin, but he was still a Dantreon. Jerin is more closely related to me, but when it comes down to it, he’s a Marisi.
“Do you know why my father reacted so strangely to Jerin?” she asked then. At his baffled expression, she relayed what had happened.
He frowned, picking up one piece after another, his dark eyes thoughtful. “Jerin is special.”
“And snow is cold. I realize that without being told, sir. What do you mean by that?”
He caught his lower lip between his teeth, apparently mulling over whether to answer her or not. “It’s difficult to explain. It will sound bad.”
“I’ll keep an open mind.”
He shook his head. “How much do you understand about the Gift?”
She shrugged. “I’ve been reading about it. Some families have it and others don’t. It only passes through the male line, so Jerin’s family doesn’t have it. But I suspect that the books I’ve read left out more than they actually told me.”
He nodded slowly. “In my branch of the family, the gift isn’t particularly strong. For some reason, in yours it is. The Revasiens appear to have it, and supposedly the Arnacassans and the Saratinyas, all to varying degrees. Other than your father, Sub-marshal Revasien is the strongest seer of whom I know. One thing they seem to agree upon, though, is that for some reason, Jerin doesn’t have a future.”
His pronouncement sent chills down her spine. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t want you to think he’s a dead man. Instead, he’s someone whose future isn’t set. There’s some decision he has to make, something he’s going to do, or not do. Therefore, when someone with the Gift looks at him, they see nothing.”
And that explained her father’s strange reaction. “How often does that happen?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “My gift is very limited. I never see anything more than a day or two ahead anyway, so whatever Jerin is going to do is beyond my abilities. The worrying part is that, according to Sub-marshal Revasien, whatever Jerin is going to do, it’ll end up affecting many people—thousands, perhaps the entire country. The world is simply waiting on Jerin’s action.”
“Good heavens,” she breathed, appalled. “What is it that Jerin’s supposed to do?”
“No one has the slightest idea.”
He shook his head again.
“Well, has anyone told Jerin?” she asked.
The captain glanced down at a pawn he held in his hand. “If you were Jerin, would you want to hear that?”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, wondering how she would react if it were her. He had withheld the truth about her brothers, in his mind to protect her, just as she was supposed to keep silent about Llelas’s Grandfather to shield the captain. Just as she’d not told people about Merielle’s origin to protect her, or about the firing of her four guards years ago, letting them stay at the estate for all of their protection. The world was a series of compromises with the truth, it seemed.
The captain smiled at her then. “You see the problem. Sub-marshal Revasien seems to believe the future has already begun to shift in one of the directions. Something must have already happened that will affect Jerin’s decision. In fact, whatever it was, it happened before Jerin even joined the Guard.”
Ellis sat back and looked at the captain for a minute. He returned the stare. It was, she decided, pointless to try to chase down all the implications of what he’d just said. “Do all of you sit down together at dinner and discuss this sort of thing?”
He blinked, caught off-guard by the non-sequitur question. “To be honest, I’ve never been invited to their discussions. I only hear it second-hand from my father. To them, I don’t have a gift worth considering.”
“You always seem to know when trouble’s coming.” Ellis pulled her feet up onto the edge of the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees, trying to ward off the chill. It had grown even colder in the library.
“I didn’t know the king was coming.”
“So perhaps you weren’t meant to know that.”
“You think God kept it a secret from me for a reason, then?” He seemed amused. “Are you cold?”
“I’m fine, sir. Perhaps you would have tried to change something if you’d known.”
“We can chase that logic around until morning.”
“Can you change something you’ve seen?” she asked after a moment’s silence. She’d asked him that before.
“I’ve tried. I’ve never succeeded, but I’ve tried. I think it must be possible, else why have the gift in the first place?”
Ellis didn’t attempt to answer that. “So why did my father come here?”
“He says it’s gotten into the newspapers that not only are we training a girl here, but that it’s you. There’s a rather lurid account in one of your being injured due to your tendency to get into fights.”
Although his voice was perfectly controlled, Ellis could hear his anger. Her reputation meant more to him that it did to herself, she decided. “Why would they bother?”
“You know,” he said in a dry tone, “it is possible that you might have political importance one day.”
Ellis ignored the laughter in his voice. “I’ve already had that lecture from Llelas, I think. I can’t imagine why anyone attaches importance to what I do only because of who I’m born.”
“Then I think you greatly misunderstand the way of the world, Ellis.” He shook his head, smiling a little. “What exactly did Llelas warn you about, anyway?”
“Well, he and Thomas and I had a talk about that kind of thing. The Separatists.”
“Llelas thinks I can trust Thomas to be impartial.”
“Well, Thomas is about the most apolitical person I’ve ever met,” the captain agreed. “Not unaware, he just refuses to let it sway him. You were raised here, Ellis. Political concerns were far away. They weren’t part of your upbringing.”
“I didn’t mean to imply any oversight,” she said.
“I didn’t think you did. If your father wanted you raised differently, he should have seen to it. He should have no cause to complain, given the slightness of his involvement in your life.”
Ellis opened her mouth to defend her father and then shut it just as quickly. “Why does he care then, about the papers? I’ve read them. They report sordid things about the nobility every day.”
“Same question I asked. I have no idea why he came. What he had to tell us wasn’t news, so I can’t help but wonder if it were merely a pretext–if he didn’t come for some other purpose altogether. If that’s the case we’ll never know what it was.”
“Perhaps he came to get a look at Jerin.”
“For that matter, he might have wanted to meet Lieutenant Sidreiyan, or perhaps your new horse.”
Ellis sat silent. The chill off the windows had grown more pronounced, and the captain stood up and pulled the drapes, lessening the cold. He stopped and put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. He knew, Ellis thought, how badly she’d wanted some kind of sign from her father.
March 15, 494
I suppose I shouldn’t let it bother me, but I did expect something. I wanted to hear Father say that I had done well, or that he was pleased. I’ve worked so hard with nothing from him, ever. I suppose that’s the way it will always be. At least this time he spoke to me, which is more than he’s done since I was a child. I can’t help but feel that he should at least have thanked me for trying.
The worst of it is that I can no longer tell myself that I’m doing this to please my father. It doesn’t please him, it seems. I do have a talent for soldiering. It just remains to be seen if I can ever win any sort of acceptance from the Guard.
Captain Dantreon always seems to know what’s bothering me. He’s very perceptive in that way. He’s good with people–except Llelas.
I don’t talk with Jerin quite so easily. The captain and I just think more alike. All Thomas ever talks about is work. He’s so focused on becoming a marshal one day that he barely allows time for anything else in his life, and I know nothing about gardening, his other love. Trying to talk to Llelas is like trying to pull hay through a sheet. He always explodes in my face or goes off in some direction I don’t understand. I think that’s because he was raised so very Menhirre, and I was not.
Thankfully, Captain Dantreon always seems willing to listen.