A Friendly Visit
Ellis gazed at her aching hand. She’d done something to it while practicing with Llelas, although he’d assured her that none of her bones looked broken. Cracked, most likely, he said. That meant time off from boxing practice to let it heal, and a bucket of rice in her room. She was supposed to work with the stuff every day, forcing her hands in and out and gripping handfuls of it, which would somehow harden her hands. Since Llelas’ hands seemed as hard as steel, she was going to follow his instructions, but not today.
She sat in the library now, studying for the artillery exam in Lieutenant Sidreiyan’s class. It was mostly mathematical, so that wouldn’t be too much of a challenge to her, but she wanted to do well. She wasn’t worried about Thomas or Yefin passing the exam, but Jerin struggled a bit with the math.
She finished the problem that she was working on and glanced up in time to see Miralys Dantreon strolling up the drive, her little niece with her.
The dogs…I promised to introduce her to the dogs. And Daria. Ellis carefully slipped her notes inside her book, closed it, and set it aside on one of the shelves. If Miralys Dantreon was making an effort to be friendly, Ellis wasn’t going to snub her nose at her. She got up and headed outside to greet her cousin.
The elder Miss Dantreon was wearing a dress of military blue, dark enough to flatter her skin, while the younger was dressed in similar colors, as if she’d chosen to mimic her aunt. Ellis wondered if the intention was the other way around—if the aunt chose similar garb to make Idiris feel like they belonged together.
“Have I come at a bad time?” Miralys asked, glancing up and smiling brightly at Ellis. “I wasn’t sure of the class schedule, but we’re prepare to wait, if needed, or come another day.”
Miralys was being considerate, at least. Ellis set aside any qualms about her cousin’s possible motives and made herself smile back. “Uh, no, this is fine. I was studying. I can do that later.” She looked down at Idiris then. “Would you like to come meet my dogs? They’re big, but they’re old, so they mostly lie around if they can.”
The girl nodded silently.
“So if you’ll come with me,” Ellis said, “I’ll show you where my room is.” She led the way down the hallway and, fortunately, caught Merielle in passing and asked her to see if Daria could come to her room.
“Daria’s littler than you,” she told Idiris as they walked on, “but she wanted to meet you.” She wasn’t sure how much difference there was between Daria’s six and Idiris’ eight, but surely they were close enough in age to have something in common.
Miralys tapped her niece’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be nice to make a new friend here?”
Turning down the narrower hallway, Ellis caught the smell of Miralys’ perfume, something strong and floral, which made her nose twitch. She fought down the desire to sneeze. She remembered perfumes from the palace and her childhood, although this wasn’t the sort of scent her mother would have worn. Ellis reached her bedroom door and opened it, then went to open the courtyard doors to let the dogs in.
It wasn’t steamy this summer, but being black dogs, they were still happy to come inside and collapse onto her bedroom floor like piles of discarded hair. After a moment, Idiris settled on the floor next to Two and started patting his shoulder. Ellis held in her amusement at the girl’s tentativeness. Daria would lie on top of the dogs if they were doing this.
“What is his name?” Idiris asked.
“They are One, Two, Three, and Four,” Ellis said, pointing each one out as she spoke their names. The expression on Miralys’ face wasn’t quite derisive, but Ellis felt compelled to add, “I wasn’t very old when I named them, and I had no idea what proper dog names were like.”
“No dogs at the palace?” Miralys asked, still waiting back by the door.
“If there were,” Ellis said, “I never saw them.”
“I like their names,” Idiris said, stroking Two awkwardly. Clearly, she hadn’t been around dogs much either. Two, for his part, simply accepted the adoration as something that humans did and continued to pant noisily.
The bedroom door opened and Daria slipped inside, pausing only to smile at Miralys on her way to greet the dogs. She plopped down onto the floor and announced, “My name’s Daria. What’s yours?”
The older child—clearly the less outgoing of the two—blushed a little, then gave her name.
“Two likes to be scratched in his ears,” Daria said, and proceeded to demonstrate by leaning over the dog to insert her finger in his ear canal. “And Three likes his tummy scratched.”
Ellis watched for a moment as Idiris stretched over obediently to scratch the second dog’s belly. The girls both giggled as Two groaned appreciatively.
“They’re very gentle dogs,” Ellis said to Miralys, “despite their size..”
“It’s fine to leave them here, then?”
“Your niece is safe, I promise Daria says she wants to be an animal trainer in the circus one day,” Ellis added. “They’re more her dogs than mine now.” Her constant absence had contributed to that, but Daria was naturally good with animals as well.
Miralys smiled knowingly. “So…would you be willing to how me around a bit?”
Ellis wanted to get back to her books, but the captain would surely want her to behave in a friendly manner toward his sister, so she nodded.
“Excellent,” Miralys said. “Where do we go first?”
“Ah…how about the library?” Ellis suggested.
“Is that where I’d find Mr. Sevireiya?” Miralys asked, taking Ellis’ arm.
Ellis froze for only a split-second, surprised by the familiarity, but kept walking. Miralys was family, after all. “I doubt it,” she admitted. “He prefers the library in the reserve house to study.”
“I can’t imagine he’s the studious sort,” Miralys said then.
That seemed a little insulting. Ellis twisted her lips to one side, and finally said, “We have an artillery test coming up, so I suspect he’s spending every spare moment trying to get the math worked out.”
“Not good with math, is he?” Miralys smiled up at her.
“Uh, not bad,” Ellis said. “It’s just not one of his strengths.”
They’d reached the end of the hall then, back to the library where they’d started out. Ellis peered in and saw that Captain Sirtris had entered at some point and was poring through the newspaper as usual. Captain Dantreon and Marshal Dantreon were not there, but Lieutenant Sidreiyan sat in the back, apparently writing a letter or in a journal.
“So…um, this is the library,” Ellis said, gesturing with her free hand. Her cheeks flushed. Of course, it’s the library. All the books. “And, you know Captain Sirtris, and that’s Lieutenant Sidreiyan in the corner.”
“Hmmm,” Miralys said. “Him I haven’t met. Will you introduce me?”
Ellis had the distinct feeling that Sidreiyan would not appreciate that. “He looks busy, Miss Dantreon. Perhaps another time?”
Captain Sirtris was clearly close enough to overheard them, but kept his eyes on his newspaper, his lips in a thin line.
“Captain Sirtris,” Miralys said anyway. “Lovely afternoon.”
He glanced up, one pale brow rising. Then his eyes returned to his newspaper.
Ellis could tell Miss Dantreon wasn’t welcome in the library, so she suggested they move on. “Perhaps the stables?”
“That sounds interesting,” Miralys said. “Perhaps there are handsome stable boys there.”
Ellis pressed her lips together and simply started walking that way, pulling Miralys along with her. Miralys began quizzing her about Llelas, questions that Ellis tried to answer as slightly as possible. She was sure Llelas wouldn’t appreciate her discussing him.
Llelas scowled down at the page, trying to figure out where his numbers had gone wrong. His answer was dissimilar to Anthony’s, always a bad sign. Despite being thick in some subjects, Anthony did well with basic maths. Far better than I do.
“May I see your work?” he finally asked.
Anthony shook his head a little but slid the paper over. The Reserve House library was unusually quiet today, most of the cadets in the same quandary that Llelas was in. Artillery was math, and the ones stuck here still were all the ones who hated it.
Sean got up—mostly to stretch his legs, Llelas suspected—and went to unlatch a window. “I wonder who Captain Sirtris is coming for,” he mused as he swung the window open.
Llelas glanced over his shoulder and saw Captain Sirtris striding purposefully up the gravel walk to the Reserve House, a grim twist to his lips. “I believe someone is in trouble.”
Unfortunately, that someone proved to be himself. A moment later, the captain stepped into the library and made a sharp gesture to summon Llelas out into the hallway. Llelas set aside his books and went. What have I done this time?
“Come with me,” the captain said when Llelas stepped over the threshold. “Outside. We need to talk.”
That was not a good sign. Llelas followed him out of the Reserve House, onto the steps. “Sir? What have I done?”
Sirtris held up one hand. “You’re supposed to know if someone is one of the imposters.”
Llelas glanced back at the library windows and gestured for the others to stay back. “You think he is here?” he asked in a soft voice.
“She,” Sirtris said. “Miralys Dantreon came to visit and…” He took a frustrated breath. “She looked at me…the wrong way.”
That was the sort of complain children made. It could, however, be true. “Give me a moment.”
Llelas closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to see Miralys Dantreon. He had a feel for her; after all, he’d talked with her several times. He tried to find that tenuous tie to her, to see her in whatever she was doing, but his gift failed him. He opened his eyes. “Where would she be?”
“She’s with Ellis,” the captain said. “I think they were walking toward the stables.”
Llelas tried again, this time seeking Ellis in his mind. And he found her, walking down the pathway to the stables, arm and arm with Miralys Dantreon. Who could not be Miralys Dantreon—not if he failed to find her this close by. “Stables,” he said before jogging that way.
He ran without waiting for the captain to catch him up. He took the gravel path almost all the way to the back of the main house, and then cut through the gardens, hurdled a hedge, and came out onto the lawn. He hit the stable path close enough to see the stable doors. They had already gone inside. Llelas ran faster.
The horses were all out in the paddock, so there wasn’t much to see in the stable. Ellis showed her cousin anyway. It was a nice stable, or at least in her limited experience, it was. It was a large stable, with a center aisle with stalls on either side. Conrad was particular about keeping the place clean. Ellis led her cousin past the tack room and the feed room, and showed her the stall where Five, if he’d been in the stable, would have been. It was a rather pointless exercise, but Miralys seemed interested.
Ellis jumped when the stable door banged all the way open. She caught sight of Llelas there, peering about wildly as if he couldn’t see clearly. He was out of breath.
It took a lot for Llelas to be out of breath.
She tugged to get free from Miralys, but Miralys’ grasp on her arm tightened, so Ellis just yelled at him. “What is it?”
“I must talk with you,” he called, staying by the doorway, several stalls away. “Now, Ellis!”
Ellis swallowed, wondering what could be wrong. Llelas never ordered her around like that save when instructing her. Miralys’ grip on her arm tightened, so Llelas must have startled her, too. “I’ll go see what he wants,” Ellis told her. “It’s all right.”
Miralys didn’t let go of her arm. She whispered to Ellis, “He’s angry with me.”
Ellis glanced at her cousin, who looked truly frightened. Odd, when she’d been so eager to seek Llelas out a short while ago. Miralys glanced around her, as if looking for a place to hide. “He won’t hurt you,” Ellis said.
“No,” Grandfather said as he emerged from the next stall over. “But I will.”
He stepped forward, grabbed Miralys by the arm, and jerked her to him. He had a knife in his hand, Ellis saw then. “Don’t be stupid, little girl,” he said to her as her mouth opened to protest. “I’ve warned you about this.”
Ellis shut her mouth.
“Who are you?” Miralys cried, trying to jerk away.
Captain Sirtris jogged through the stable door then. His eyes went wide. “Let her go!”
From behind, Llelas grabbed the captain’s arms to hold him back. “Don’t interfere, captain.”
Sirtris tried to pull free. “She knows where Miralys is.”
Ellis blinked, her mind whirling as everything seemed to slow around her. The strained expression on Sirtris’ face, the realization on Miralys’ that she’d been caught, the cool calm on Grandfather’s face as the knife in his hand thrust into Miralys’ side…
…and Miralys’ scream as she struggled to escape Grandfather’s arms, her blood now dripping down onto the straw.