The morning dawned clear with a chill about it, the first sign of fall. Ellis donned her new dress uniform, thinking uncharitable things about both Thomas Farrier and Geris’ horse. She’d woken sore before but she couldn’t remember anything worse than this. Her entire backside felt stiff. Walking is going to be a problem.
She hobbled through the courtyard, first stopping to scratch the dogs’ ears. Then she tried to stretch out some of the stiffness. By the time she reached the stable, she could walk with a plausible appearance of normalcy.
Thomas waited for her, immaculate in his dress blue uniform, the silver braid on his shoulders and chest gleaming in the morning light. He’d saddled Geris’ mount as well as his own. “I’m glad I didn’t have to go hunting for you,” he told her.
Not put off by his crisp appearance, she asked, “What did you and the lieutenant discuss after I left?”
Thomas seemed unfazed by the question. “You, Llelas, our mothers and Master Overton. I think that’s about it.”
“You must know the lieutenant fairly well.”
“Yes, I would say that I do. Don’t try to distract me. You’ll have to get on the horse sooner or later.”
Ellis obediently mounted, easing her sore rump into the saddle. She rearranged her reins and directed the gelding out of the stable yard under Thomas’ direction. Her borrowed horse seemed content to follow his.
“Out to the lake and back,” Thomas ordered.
The distance to the lake and back gave the horse a good run and Ellis felt better by the time they returned to the stables. She was grateful Thomas had insisted. She still considered using one of the powders Merielle gave her. The chapel pews in Kensit wouldn’t feel any softer after an hour of sitting.
They walked up to the manor house to find the others. The scant number of cadets in the dining hall hinted that several didn’t plan to attend services, which surprised her. She would have thought it mandatory. In the past, it had been.
She had vague memories of attending public services with her nurse as a child, but couldn’t remember any particulars. Ellis sat down next to her cousin, frowning.
Jerin dropped a hand on her sleeve. “Getting nervous?”
“I haven’t been to a public service here. I’m not certain I’ll remember what to do.”
“Stay with me,” he assured her. “I won’t let you go wrong.”
She felt better for his assurance and finished her food quickly. Thomas took his meal standing–a reminder to the others that they didn’t want to be tardy.
Ellis felt a touch of guilt as they rode through the tall gates of the estate. She’d broken the rules. It felt strange to be beyond the walls again. She held her head high, determined not to show her anxiety.
They arrived in time to find the village stirring. The horses’ hooves clicked on the cobbled main street as they headed toward the church. A young man passed them by, and then a family in a wagon, all seemingly headed there as well. The villagers nodded respectfully, so Ellis decided guardsmen weren’t too uncommon a sight. Kensit lay on the high road from Jenesetta to Comhi, after all.
They dismounted before the church and Yefin tied their mounts to the churchyard fence. When they entered the small building, they saw that the two Dantreons had preceded them. They sat in the estate’s front pew and moved down to allow the newcomers room. Ellis settled between Jerin and Thomas and then took stock of her surroundings.
Not nearly as grand as the churches in the capital, it was clean and in decent repair. Most of the pews showed wear, although those dedicated to Amiestrin certainly didn’t. Jerin whispered into Ellis’ ear, reminding her about what to expect during the service.
Kellen Kemiranya and Heall Morniani, the two cadets from Serione Province, strode in and settled on the pew behind them. Father Dachran arrived after them along with the family they passed on the street. Out of the corner of her eye, Ellis noted the villager’s surprise as they entered to find guardsmen in their chapel.
Jerin squeezed her elbow. “It’ll pass. Give them time to become accustomed to our being here. Eventually they won’t spare us a glance, you know.”
Ellis tried to relax. Jerin knew people better than she did. If he said the villagers would eventually accept their presence, it must be so. It was just a matter of discipline, to forge through the difficult parts. She lifted her chin and focused her eyes straight ahead.
The church filled quickly. A glance at Thomas’ pocket-watch showed it was time for the service to begin and the bell started tolling as the last of the villagers hurried in. Ellis counted eight cadets. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught the surprising sight of Llelas Sevireiya and Anthony Ironwright entering together. The unlikely pair settled in the pew behind the others just as the priest began the services.
The service proceeded much as Jerin foretold. She remembered a few snatches of songs and did her best to catch the words. The church she’d attended with her nurse in the capital had printed hymnals, she recalled, but she hadn’t been old enough to read them. Jerin, true to his word, kept a hand at her elbow and silently gestured when she should sit or rise or kneel. He had, she discovered, a very good singing voice, certainly the best she could ever recall hearing.
With all the distractions preying on her mind, Ellis paid little attention to Father Dachran’s words. She settled for giving the appearance of attention. After his short talk, they spent a time in silent contemplation before the service ended with a hymn she’d heard Melia sing in the kitchen. Ellis sang along passably. Joining in, she felt for the first time a part of the group despite the smallness of her voice.
Afterward, the villagers filed out and the cadets with them. They stood about in the churchyard as Father Dachran spoke with Marshal Dantreon. Only then did Ellis realize she’d become the object of scrutiny.
The uniform. She hadn’t thought that would be the problem. On the road into town, no one had looked at them carefully enough to discern anything beyond their identity as guardsmen, but during the services there had been plenty of time for them to figure out that the cadet with the thick braid was a girl. A chill curtain of disapproval hung unspoken between herself and the villagers.
Ellis lifted her chin and faced the stares. Father Dachran came and took her hand, greeting her as he always did.
She smiled back at him woodenly. “May I introduce my friends, Father? My cousin, Jerin Marisi, Thomas Farrier, Yefin Fariana, and Mikhal Deviron.” The priest shook hands with Thomas, but not the others. She introduced the remaining cadets: Kellen, Anthony–whose jaw was notably swollen and discolored–and Llelas from South, Heall from West, and Kirvan from North.
Father Dachran’s welcome evoked a half-hearted response from the villagers. Although his wife hurried the children away, the innkeeper introduced himself as the father of one of the new maids out at the manor. He gave Ellis’ costume a furtive glance, but said nothing. Once the Dantreons headed back to the estate, the other cadets seemed content to explore the village, but Thomas suggested they begin the trip back. The five members of East sorted out their mounts and returned on the road to the manor.
The day had warmed nicely and they reached the estate in half an hour. Only when they rode along the manor’s drive did they notice a carriage waiting there, a young man in the king’s livery walking the horses. Ellis glanced across at Thomas.
“It’s only Master Overton,” he explained. “Lieutenant Dantreon said he would be coming this morning. That’s why they left so quickly after services.”
Ellis knew the name. Overton had been the king’s tutor when her father was a boy. He’d remained in the king’s service, now his close advisor instead. Evidently, her father had sent him to become her tutor as well.
As they walked their horses down the drive, a handsome gray-haired man in elegant attire stormed out the doors of the manor house and flung himself into the carriage. The young groom scarcely had time to climb onto the box before the driver headed back out toward the main road. The cadets led their horses off the drive to get out of the way as the carriage passed.
“Hmm,” Thomas said, then shrugged. “Let’s get to work.”
They spent their last day of freedom out in the meadows again, Ellis trying to learn a lifetime’s worth of riding in an afternoon. Other guests had arrived during the afternoon but Ellis was simply too tired to ask about them after dinner. She excused herself to the lieutenant, who had offered her a rematch at chess. Then she took her coffee back to her room, took a long hot bath–feeling guilty all the while because she knew the other cadets couldn’t–and fell face down on the bed, already fast asleep.
Sirtris brought a new worry to Carmeyon’s attention that evening, as if Overtone’s furious departure hadn’t been adequately troublesome. “I found out where the estate’s money has been going.”
“Have you been looking for it?” Carmeyon asked with some surprise.
Sirtris gave him a bemused look, as if to question his sanity. “Of course, I have. I’ve looked over the books from the past ten years or so. Four years ago, the guardsmen here were paid through the Palace Garrison’s funds.”
“That makes sense. Wouldn’t they officially be a part of Sub-marshal Korileys’ detachment?” As head of the king’s bodyguard, Korileys also oversaw security at all royal estates.
“Yes,” Sirtris allowed. “They were.”
Carmeyon noticed the use of the past tense. “Not anymore?”
“I only worked it out when one of them came to me to say he would like to visit his father who’s very ill. Now that we’re here, he feels he can make a short visit, and the princess will still be safe.”
Carmeyon frowned. Korileys could send a guardsman to Amiestrin to replace the man if he needed to be gone long. When he suggested that, Sirtris just shook his head.
“There are no guardsmen assigned here. Those four men haven’t been paid for the last three years, save out of household expenses. The housekeeper admitted that the king himself ordered Korileys to discharge them from the Guard.”
“Why? And why are they still here, then?”
“That’s the question.”
“No,” Carmeyon said. “The question is why the king would leave this estate unguarded when his daughter lives here.”
“A question for Sub-marshal Revasien,” Sirtris said, naming the sub-marshal in charge of troop assignments. Korileys was in charge of those Guards guarding the king and his properties, but Revasien was the one who would funnel other men into the assignment. “Perhaps you could write to him, as he’s a friend of your family?”
For a moment, they stared at each other, neither sure what to say. Revasien and his father were on good terms. Carmeyon had always found the man unnerving, though. Revasien was a seer, but of a caliber that made his own family’s paltry gifts seem negligible. Revasien put soldiers where they were needed, where the country needed them to be. It seemed like an unfair level of power for anyone to have, and more than once Revasien had been accused—privately of course, since his Gift had never been made public—of manipulating people’s lives. He’d even once convinced Sirtris to carry out what seemed to be a string of nonsensical instructions, the result of which Sirtris had never divulged to Carmeyon.
“I’d rather not involve him in this,” Carmeyon finally said. “I’ll ask Cadet Dantreon directly.”
The next morning, Ellis joined him in the library before breakfast. When asked, she squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and said, “They’re my guests. I have the right to invite them to stay here, don’t I, sir?”
“I have no idea,” he said. The girl’s cheeks were flushed, the most emotional he’d seen her get about anything so far.
“I told Mrs. Verus I wanted them to stay. She didn’t say I couldn’t have them stay.”
Certainly, Carmeyon reckoned, the housekeeper wouldn’t have wanted them to leave either. Four guardsmen were hardly enough to protect an estate this size. If they’d left, the staff would have been almost all women. Not to mention that one of the guardsmen, Geris Seran, had married the cook. If he left, his wife would probably go as well. “I think you backed her into a corner. Why were no other guardsmen sent to take their place?”
Ellis’ jaw clenched. “My father didn’t want any sent. He said if I intended to make all my own decisions without following his instructions, I could fend for myself.”
“He said that?” Carmeyon asked, appalled.
“Well,” she admitted, “no. He wrote it in a letter to Mrs. Verus.” She sat down across from him, looking defeated.
“What did you do that made him so angry with you, may I ask?” Carmeyon kept his voice calm, warring with disbelief. This must be her ‘bad decision’.
Ellis chewed at one of her fingernails absently for a moment, but then lifted her chin and looked him squarely in the eye. “Could I have your promise it won’t go any further, sir?”
“Why? Did you do something illegal?” he joked.
“Well, that depends on how you look at it, sir. I don’t really know.”
He suspected now why Sirtris sent him to question Ellis about the so-called incident. Sirtris didn’t want to touch this. “Do you know I studied politics and law at university?”
“Oh. No, sir.” Her brow furrowed. “That might help us, though.”
Her eyes stayed on the surface of the table. “Well, me and…and Merielle, sir. One of the maids. I don’t know if I can legally free her. I didn’t get any kind of deed or papers from him.”
“Deed? You bought her?” No wonder Sirtris stayed away from this. “Please tell me you didn’t buy her,” Carmeyon said without much hope. “Where would you have bought her? When did this happen?”
“I was twelve. Father sent me money and told us to go to Comhi so I could pick out a horse.”
Why could the king never do anything in a straightforward way? “Comhi? Why not just send a horse from the capital? Better yet, why not bring you to Jenesetta? Comhi is days from here.” He suddenly understood why she’d never learned to ride before they came.
“Father said to go there. We were following orders, sir.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Up to a point, you mean. Do you realize that if you used his money to purchase a slave that you’ve technically made the king of Jenear a slave-owner?”
“He gave the money to me as a gift. It was my money then. I’m the one who bought her.” She folded her thin arms across her chest, wide gray eyes determined.
For a second, he wanted to laugh. “Who knows?”
She began chewing her nail again. “My guardsmen went with me. Mrs. Verus and Melia know. Other people have probably figured it out, but they don’t know, sir. And they can’t prove anything, since there’s no paperwork.”
Carmeyon pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t think he’d tell his father about this. “Why?”
“At the inn. Her…owner had the room next to mine and he was beating her in the middle of the night and she was crying. I could hear it through the walls. I had to do something, sir,” she whispered. “He’d beaten her till she was bleeding.” She sat up straighter and lifted her chin. “I had to do something.”
Carmeyon tried to picture a twelve-year-old Ellis facing down the girl’s master in the bedroom of an inn. She would have done exactly that, he decided. She would have demanded he stop beating the girl and, when he offered Merielle’s status as property as his justification, Ellis would have done the most sensible thing. She’d had money, and four guardsmen to back her demands. Carmeyon sighed. “Now I know why Geris Seran has gray hair.”
“Did you know about the maid?” Carmeyon asked Sirtris later.
“I don’t know anything,” Sirtris said carefully.
“Did you suspect?” Carmeyon corrected himself.
“They show up from time to time, far from home,” Sirtris said, laying down his journal, “Galasiene children sold as slaves. I did wonder how a lone girl from Galas came to be employed at an estate in the middle of Jenesetta Province. I suspect you can find hundreds of them in Cantreides, and thousands in Verina.”
Carmeyon knew the calm in Sirtris’ voice belied his true feelings about the situation. The division of the territory of Galas had left more than half his people under the Versh crown–and the Versh still carried on the practice of slavery. “Ellis says she was sold when she was two or three. The girl doesn’t even know how old she is.”
“From a debtor’s prison?”
“She doesn’t remember. She doesn’t know her surname, either.”
Sirtris heaved a sigh. “The girl’s a well-trained musician, Mrs. Verus told me. Someone probably bought her as a child to be trained up to music, for a private orchestra or some other idiotic notion, and then sold her off later when she wasn’t young enough to be a novelty any longer.”
“You don’t want to question how she ended up here,” Carmeyon warned. “So what do we do?”
Sirtris favored him with a stern glance. “We do nothing. The estate can support the four men, and no one else needs to know about the girl’s background.”
“I’ve seen the girl,” Carmeyon said, “and I can’t imagine her living that kind of life. She looks very innocent.”
“She is, Carmeyon. Whatever that girl did before she came here wasn’t her choice. No matter what her father thought, no matter the legal consequences, Ellis did the right thing. Ellis gave the girl a second chance at life. So many like her never get that.”
Looking at Sirtris’ face, Carmeyon decided he would take his friend’s advice. Legally, it was a nightmare, but at twelve years old, given the same situation, he might just have done the same.
Go on to Chapter 7 (not available yet)