Horsemanship, Ellis quickly learned, was going to be a trial. Despite Thomas’ best efforts, she still felt woefully unprepared.
Their Master of Horse was a retired Sub-marshal, Maell Winhain, who would have had the silver hair to hint at his age if he had any hair at all. His slight build suggested a racer rather than a soldier, but he quickly proved otherwise. On horseback, he could knock any of them out of the saddle in a matter of minutes, even Thomas—although it took a bit longer for him. Winhain outmaneuvered them all, his horse appearing to move with him without even needing direction.
Nor did he seem put off by the fact that he’d been asked to teach a girl. He dumped Ellis into the grass with as little remorse as he’d shown in unhorsing Jerin.
No point to having a mount beneath you, he told them, if it wasn’t there when you needed to move. As a first day of lessons, Ellis thought it a bit harsh.
She liked Marshal Dantreon’s class better, where they discussed the first two chapters of the officer’s guide. They met in one of the reserve house’s classrooms and Ellis sat in the third row with the rest of East. In that class, she felt she could hold her own.
Her final class that day was History and Geography. Lieutenant Dantreon explained that Master Overton had been their intended instructor for that topic. Evidently, although the lieutenant didn’t clarify, Overton had caused a ruckus the day before, threatening to bring the officers before the king for their ‘flouting’ of his orders. Ellis was glad she’d missed it.
Instead, Lieutenant Sirtris began by quizzing them over a large map of Jenear drawn on a chalkboard. Ellis promptly identified provinces and capitals when asked, with an accuracy which surprised some of the other cadets who lacked knowledge of her peculiar ability to remember things she’d seen.
They identified all the garrisons and outposts, discussing with each its date of construction and purpose, and then the major routes between each garrison. They also discussed the new railway intended to link Jenesetta, Perisen, and Comhi. Once the rail linked the country, the horse would become obsolete, Anthony Ironwright argued. Sirtris seemed disdainful, claiming that it would be decades before anyone put a railway into Galas or any of the other border provinces.
Once the question had been raised, though, it became the topic of a heated debate that carried over into dinner. Evidently, the cadets had strong opinions about who should control the country’s taxes and how they should be spent.
After dinner, Thomas and Yefin separated one of the older newspapers in the library and perused it. Lieutenant Sirtris and Master Winhain discussed something on the far side of the library with Marshal Dantreon looking on. Lieutenant Dantreon sat writing one of his multitudinous letters but, spotting her, he gestured her over to the table at which he sat. Ellis came and sat gingerly across from him.
“You know,” he commented, “on my first day in the Guard, Sub-marshal Winhain wrestled me out of my saddle and dumped me in the mud, and I’m twice his size. Is he still doing that?”
“Yes, sir, he is,” Ellis admitted ruefully.
“I had to go back to the barracks and change into my other uniform.”
“He was kinder to us, sir. He dumped us into the grass instead,” she allowed.
“Retirement must have mellowed him then.”
Ellis shook her head. She had bruises all over her body, not only from this morning’s activities, but also from her horsemanship lessons over the weekend. Her right elbow ached fiercely from a bang she’d taken on Sunday afternoon. In addition, she still had to learn to hold a saber, which Thomas promised would be more difficult than it looked.
The lieutenant offered a game of chess and Ellis agreed more because she wanted the company than to play the game. After fetching the board, he set up the pieces. Ellis made the first move.
“I’ve been here for a long time, sir,” she started. “I don’t remember what…” she paused, trying to think of the proper way to phrase her idea, “…what people are like in the capital. I only know the people who live here at Amiestrin.”
“That’s understandable,” he commented as he moved a piece. “You were only five when you came here.”
Ellis had trouble getting her idea into words. “I spent most of my time in the nursery. I don’t remember the palace much, just bits of memories–mostly about the queen or Nurse.”
The lieutenant nodded, waiting for her to work out what she meant to say.He kept his eyes on the board while she spoke.
“Listening to the discussion this evening at dinner, I realized that, about some issues, there’s a good deal of hostility I’ve never heard before, sir.” Ellis felt displeased with the way she’d said that, but it approached what she wanted.
He glanced up at her, apparently considering her words carefully. “What kind of issues?”
Now he was studying her, she realized. “We were talking about the railway, sir. There were strong opinions being expressed about…what the nobles want and what the commoners want and who pays for what. I’m not even certain I know what the difference between a noble and a commoner is, sir.”
He sat back in his chair and gazed at her, his dark face serious. It was unusual for her to have someone paying so much attention to her questions. “I think you’ll find there are different opinions about that.” He called Yefin and Thomas over to the table and they came, Thomas’ eyes immediately going to the chessboard before them.
“Gentlemen, can you tell me the difference between a noble and a commoner?”
Thomas and Yefin locked eyes with each other, both clearly uncomfortable. Thomas finally framed an answer. “A noble is a person who is related to someone with a title. A commoner is not.”
“How closely related?” the lieutenant asked.
“It depends on whether their family has influence. Whether they’re respected. I’d say a respected family can be generations removed, like yours, sir, and still be considered nobility, but one that isn’t can have a title but be thought…poor relations.”
The lieutenant shrugged and then looked at Yefin.
“Even the most disreputable family is still considered nobility, though,” Yefin added. “Titles pass through the family line. That’s what they consider important, sir.”
“So what’s a commoner, then?”
Yefin glanced quickly at Thomas. “Someone whose family has been wise enough not to become entangled with the nobility, sir.” Yefin smiled his easy grin, seeming pleased with his answer.
Thomas thumped him on the back of the head. The two got on very well, Ellis knew, but couldn’t put together a direct answer for fear of offending each other.
The lieutenant turned back to her. “You were right. Nobility is an issue that generates hostility. It is hard to define; I’m a walking example of that. My older brother is a nobleman. His mother and father were both of the nobility, so he is as well. My mother was a commoner, and a foreigner, so some nobles consider me a commoner and some don’t.”
The lieutenant had been her confidante since he’d arrived at Amiestrin. Ellis found she didn’t want to risk offending him any more than Yefin and Thomas wanted to offend each other. Suddenly she thought she understood the issue better than she had a few minutes before.
“They’re just words, aren’t they, sir?”
“Words can be very powerful. Even in the Guard, there remains a preconception that noblemen make better officers.”
Ellis considered Thomas and Yefin. She had no doubt Thomas would make a better officer than Yefin, and she thought Yefin would agree. “That’s inefficient, sir.”
“I agree,” he said, not looking at either of the others. “Now if only you and I could convince the king of that, and the Council, we’d really be making progress.”
Ellis decided to mull it over later. She sat blinking for a moment. Thomas reached out and moved one of her pieces.
“The king doesn’t talk to me,” Ellis reminded the lieutenant. She wouldn’t be convincing her father of anything.
“Perhaps some day he will,” he suggested.
Ellis turned her attention back to the board and saw that Thomas had placed a piece where she could put the lieutenant in check. She waited for him to move and then did so. “Check. What is your brother like, sir? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I have three–but I assume you mean the eldest.” He saw her look of surprise, and smiled. “Andrian is ten years older than I. He looks and acts much like Father, so of course they irritate each other terribly. My other brothers are younger, and we’re all more like Mother. My sister looks just like her.” A fond smile lit his face.
“I’ve never met my brother,” Ellis said before she realized they all knew that. “I wish I knew him; that he could have lived here with me.”
She saw Thomas glance quickly at Yefin, some silent communication passing between them. The lieutenant merely raised an eyebrow. Thomas moved one of her pieces again, causing her to glare at him. He merely shrugged.
“I’ve always wondered if he’s Gifted,” she admitted, “like my…our father.”
“We all wonder that,” the lieutenant said quietly. He moved his queen.
Checkmate again, Ellis realized.
Llelas had intended to go into the library, hoping to find the lieutenants there, but was sidetracked when he saw a familiar figure clothed in the black of the household staff. He didn’t catch a glimpse of her face and yet could not shake the idea that he knew her. The officers had told them that the girls on the household staff were off-limits—they should not even speak with them—but Llelas followed her slight form down the hallways toward the kitchens. He caught up with her just as she stepped into the dark dining hall, and laid a hand on her arm, hoping to catch her before she slipped away.
The girl’s arm snapped backward into the side of his chest. She shoved hard, slamming his body back into the door jamb. Llelas let out an oof as she turned and set a steely hand about his throat. Then she stepped back, letting him go. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?” she hissed in Versh.
Llelas coughed and rubbed his offended throat. It was, indeed, Grandfather, as he expected. “What are you doing here?” he whispered in Relance.
She switched to that language, keeping her voice down. “I have been reassigned here.”
Someone assigned her to go somewhere? And she obeys? “Sub-marshal Revasien?”
Grandfather—or Aelis as she was known in this disguise—held up one hand to stop him. “Sirien must not know I am here. Viridias sent me. Do not ruin anything, little boy.”
Llelas shook his head. Sub-marshal Sirien Revasien oversaw troop assignments, so of course he would have nothing to do with a maid at Amiestrin. Then again, Revasien was responsible for Llelas’ presence here, so it was an easy assumption. On the other hand, Sub-marshal Viridias oversaw security of the palaces and royal estates, which had little to do with maids, either. “Why are you working for Viridias?”
“That is not your concern, boy,” she hissed. “Now go on.”
“I want to know what you plan to do here. I cannot protect you otherwise.”
“Protect me?” Aelis said. “Is that a jest?”
“I have an obligation…”
“No, you want to nose into my business. Do not make the mistake of thinking you understand my purpose.”
“That I will betray you?” Aelis interrupted again. “That others will learn what you are? There is no…” She stopped abruptly.
Llelas heard footsteps coming down the hallway toward them, and in this place, there was nowhere to hide. Not in this dining room. Llelas squared his shoulders, determined to ride this out.
“Say nothing,” Aelis said. “I was not here.”
And then she disappeared, a chill settling where she stood a second before.
Lieutenant Sirtris stepped into the dining hall, his pale eyes scanning the room before settling on Llelas. “Cadet, what are you doing here?”
“I was hungry,” Llelas lied. “I thought to ask if the kitchen had…more food.”
“Late night snack?” the lieutenant supplied. “I see. I thought I heard voices.”
Better not to lie to this man. Llelas just shrugged.
“Carry on, then,” the lieutenant said. He walked a few steps past Llelas, directly through the spot where Aelis had stood, and paused there as if he could sense something had happened. He shook his head and walked on, though, leaving Llelas alone in the dark room.
That is the man Grandfather has to watch out for.
Carmeyon considered the fire for a long time after she left. From time to time, he admitted, he mistook her for an adult. Ellis was certainly more familiar with military matters than many of the cadets and her vocabulary occasionally fooled him into thinking her as worldly as the others. Then she would surprise him by asking a question which showed she wasn’t.
A child raised at the palace would have known, even at her age, the answer to her question. Perhaps the king had been right to send her here, he decided.
Carmeyon started when his father touched him on the shoulder.
“What were you discussing?” the marshal asked.
“Ellis asked the difference between a noble and a commoner.” It was still a delicate topic, even between father and son. Carmeyon didn’t elaborate any further.
His father sat down in the chair across from him and stretched out his legs. His knees troubled him on damp nights, Carmeyon knew. “Did you come up with an answer?”
Carmeyon began putting the pieces back in their case. “Not yet, sir. She also speculated as to whether her brother might have the Gift.”
“We all wonder that,” his father said. “It would be nice to know if he’s actually his father’s son.”
There had always been some question, with the queen fleeing to her home as she had, as to whether the boy might be base-born. “He’s what, eight? Nine? Would he even be manifesting it yet?”
“The Revasien boys are, aren’t they?”
Carmeyon frowned, thinking he hadn’t seen those two often enough to make that judgment. “I’ll take your word for that.”
“I’ve visited recently. The elder of the two has decided that he likes telling people’s fortunes.” He had an amused expression on his face.
“Oh, dear. Did he offer to tell yours?”
“Yes, whereupon he told me I’d live a long life. He could just look at the color of my hair and tell that, I’m afraid. He didn’t predict lots of grandchildren, though.”
Carmeyon laughed at his father’s sorrowful tone. Father only had one grandchild, the daughter of his oldest son. “Poor Father. Andrian and his wife might have a dozen more children for all you know.”
“And not the rest of you? Well, at least Miralys will get married some day.” His father sighed.
“A prediction, sir?” Carmeyon couldn’t imagine anyone marrying his bratty sister.
“No, it’s simply inevitable,” he said. He shifted in his seat, looking displeased now. “Master Overton will be returning in the morning, I think.”
“I have to admit, I don’t particularly like him.”
“We’ll just have to live with him, son. It’s the king’s decision.” With that he rose, heading toward his room in the west wing.
Carmeyon closed the case, wondering sourly where Master Overton would fit into the game the marshals played. The king’s advisor generally sided with any vote against strengthening the Guard. The reopening of the War College clearly hadn’t pleased him.
August 13, 493
Fortunately, the lieutenants seem to have forgiven me for the problems with Merielle. I hope they don’t look at her differently from now on, like most people would. Still, they seem to have decided to keep the secret, for which I’m grateful. Lieutenant Dantreon didn’t mention it at all tonight.
Clearly, there’s a difference between a nobleman and a commoner, but I think it’s just terminology. Being a slave is legally different altogether.
On the other hand, the argument over dinner showed that some of the cadets feel strongly about the issue, so it really does have to have some relevance. I know I’m a noble but I’m not certain what that means. Thomas and Yefin didn’t want to talk about it together, so perhaps if I asked them individually, they would be able to answer better. Jerin, too.
That would be her course of action, Ellis decided. Divide and conquer.