The next day Master Overton returned. At first glance, Ellis thought she’d like him. He appeared very scholarly and able to answer all manner of questions. Sitting in his class, however, proved to be a far different experience than having Sirtris at the head of the classroom.
Overton talked. On and on and on, until Ellis thought she might fall asleep. It amazed her how boring the history of one’s country could become, particularly since she’d loved studying it in the past. She revised her first impression of the man. He would never be able to answer her questions about history–because he would never shut up. When the time came to release the class, none of the cadets had gotten in a single word.
Her first week passed quickly, though. Ellis found herself buried under a raft of reading assignments and written ones as well. On some, the quarters could collaborate, but on others, each cadet had to work alone.
And then there was the saber. Thomas spent three evenings working with her that week. Although the saber didn’t feel heavy when Ellis first picked it up, as the minutes progressed, it seemed to weigh more and more. After an eternity of learning how to draw and sheath the thing without cutting off her horse’s ears–Thomas had been very specific about that part–he taught her basic cuts and parries.
Her hand and wrist ached. After the second evening, they were even worse. She began to doubt Thomas’ goodwill.
He had, though, when pressed, answered her questions about noblemen quite plainly and with a good deal of honesty, for which she was grateful. His family had actually emigrated from Verina, Thomas explained, to escape the stranglehold the nobility held on land ownership there. Therefore they had little interest in the nobility of Jenear save as trading partners. They didn’t even give special consideration to the duke of the province in which they lived when he dealt with them. That attitude may have worked against his family more than once, Thomas claimed, but they stuck by it.
Mikhal wouldn’t answer her, claiming it wasn’t a proper question for her to ask. Yefin gave her an answer no more defined than the one he gave on the first day of the week. Jerin, on the other hand, waxed poetic about the responsibility of the nobility to care for the commoners in their domains and represent them before the king and in the Council.
It was enough to make Ellis’ head spin. Jerin and Thomas hadn’t said the same thing at all, which made her wonder what the others had to say, so she began asking. By the time she had gone through half of the cadets, she thought her definition had only become more convoluted. There were, she decided, other issues tied to the one question that seemed to bring out a curious animosity whenever she asked.
When she finally got down to the last two, Llelas Sevireiya and Heall Morniani, she realized they’d started avoiding her. Thomas warned her that the other cadets were becoming annoyed by her dogged pursuit of the issue. Ellis almost decided not to bother the other two. They had, however, taken the matter into their own hands.
Upon entering Master Overton’s classroom the next morning, Llelas stopped by her seat. He held two folded pieces of paper out to her. She took them and he continued on to his usual chair, ignoring her. When Master Overton entered, she slid the two sheets inside her notebook to look at later.
One was a brief note from Heall saying he wasn’t going to answer. Well, at least he was honest about it.
The other note came from Llelas. Somehow though, he managed to sum up what she formulated for herself from the multiplicity of answers she’d received.
To be a nobleman is to be born one. No more. Nobility, he wrote, is no surety of noble action.
That night, she burned his note in the grate, contemplating his words rather than writing in her journal.
Llelas sat atop the roof of the Reserve House letting the wind tease through his hair. It was cool, and he was blessedly alone. That had been one of the great drawbacks of coming to this place. He never had quiet and solitude. Even when he lived in the crowded and noisy Cantreidian Quarter in Perisen, rooftops had always been his place of peace.
So when he heard the door to the roof open, he sighed and opened his eyes. When he glanced over, he sat the person he expected. Grandfather—or rather, Aelis—had been trying to get his attention for most of the week. That was one of the rare advantages of sharing a small room with Anthony Ironwright—it kept Aelis away. As she approached, he asked, “What do you want?”
“You are unfailingly rude, little boy.” She came and settled next to him on the roof where they could gaze down into the gardens below.
Llelas had never understood the need for gardens. His mother had put endless hours into the one at the manor, only to have his father regularly stumble through it when he was drunk. Attractive, he supposed, but surely not worth the effort they took to maintain. “I believed that we were beyond common courtesies.”
She swept a hand across her skirts. “You will always be a little child to me.”
That was likely true. Aelis was old. Very old. It mattered not that she appeared to be younger than him. Nor did it matter that she was currently female. She was the Old Man of the Mountains, the creature from whom all the Gifted had inherited their abilities. Thinking of that, he remembered to ask about Arhen Demiranya’s stories. “Grandfather, have you also lived in Serione?”
“Stars, no. Not my territory,” Aelis said.
“Then when Arhen speaks of the Old Man of Serione, does he speak of your brother?” It was a worrisome thought, that Aelis might not be unique.
Aelis leaned back on her elbows and gazed up at the night sky. “I have no idea.”
Llelas licked his lips. The agreement he had made with Grandfather kept him quiet about the creature’s existence. Grandfather had protected Sandrine Province for centuries, keeping the Bremagni out of the northern mountains while Llelas’ ancestors kept the lowlanders out of the southern valleys. Was it possible that another creature like her had made a similar deal with the rulers of Serione Province?
“Not the same at all,” Aelis said when he asked. “He took over the Medriacassan, not the provincial lord.”
The Medriacassan was a powerful clan, ruling much of the province of Serione without much heed to the earl’s law. “But he is not related to you?”
“I don’t think so. I never met him, nor was I interested in doing so. The one in Jestriyan, either. They came and went. I stay.”
At least two others like her. “Why is there only one legend of the Old Man, then?”
Aelis laughed. “Why bother to create a new identity when there’s already one there for you to assume?”
His life always became more uncomfortable when Grandfather was honest with him. “How convenient for them that you have created one.”
“Created? What makes you think I was the first?”
Llelas covered his face with his hands. Why did I ask into this? “Are you not the Old Man?”
“I am the Old Man of the Mountains,” Aelis said, stressing the last part of that title.
“Fine,” Llelas said.
“The Old Man of Serione left years ago,” she added, “so I have been alone here for some time. But that…may have changed.”
Llelas snapped to attention. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been working at the Marisi Palace for some time, and I’ve recently begun to catch whiff of another of my kind. I don’t know where he is, but given the current questions regarding the succession, I have concerns. You need to fix that girl in your head, because you’re one of the few that one of my kind can’t fool.”
That could not be a good sign. “Is that why you came here? Because you fear an imposter taking her place?”
“Or yours, boy. Or the little Marisi. Until I know what he plans, I can’t outmaneuver him.”
“He? The other, you mean?”
“No, Anton Marisi.” Aelis rose and shook out her skirts. “Make the girl your friend. Make Jerin Marisi your friend. He’s vital to everything, but Sirien doesn’t know how. The seers say he has no set future.”
Sub-marshal Revasien had told him that about Jerin Marisi, along with a warning not to trifle with him. People with no set future were the lynchpins on which all others’ futures turned. It didn’t surprise Llelas that Sub-marshal Revasien and Grandfather had conflicting views on what to do with Llelas’ inoffensive youngest cousin.
Geris Seran took Ellis out that Saturday, with Thomas and Yefin tagging along, to teach her how to shoot. Her guardsman had wanted to do so since she was a child, but Mrs. Verus always refused to let her handle guns.
The books Ellis had read didn’t mention the noise, the smell, or the way the gun wanted to jump out of her already saber-sore hand. Even so, for a first time she decided she didn’t do too poorly. At least the others hadn’t mocked her early attempts at marksmanship.
That afternoon, she found herself mercifully alone for the first time in weeks. Several of the cadets had ridden into Jenesetta after breakfast and the officers retreated to the library. The others returned to the Reserve House so Ellis wandered to the far end of the manor. The rotunda had been added on to the western end of the manor house, just as had the kitchens on the other end. As such, thick stone walls stood between it and the body of the manor. On her half-day off, Merielle could play her violin there without disturbing anyone.
Ellis could hear her playing as she entered. She startled Daria, who lay near Merielle’s feet, fascinated by the music. Daria had taken to following the maid about since Ellis was no longer available for conversation. Merielle was so shy that it probably wouldn’t occur to her that she could send the little girl away.
Ellis settled onto one of the divans and listened. Merielle played with her eyes closed, lost in the music. It was a mournful song, one of the ones she captured so well. She had more to be sad about than happy, Ellis knew. It wasn’t that she didn’t play jigs and reels well; she simply didn’t have the same feel for them.
Merielle played on, and Daria snuggled close by Ellis’ side. Ellis put an arm around the little girl and they listened until the older girl reached the end of the piece. Then Daria pointed to the figure standing in the doorway.
“That was magnificent,” Jerin said as he stepped into the rotunda.
Merielle jumped like a startled hare. She whipped around and when she saw him, flushed a bright red, easy with her pale skin. She took a couple of steps backward and ended sitting down abruptly on one of the divans, clutching her old violin against her. Ellis got up to stand between her friend and Jerin. Noting the girl’s startled reaction, Jerin wisely stayed by the door, looking as non-threatening as possible.
“It’s just my cousin,” she told Merielle. “Jerin’s all right.”
Jerin raised his eyebrows at that pronouncement. “Thank you very much, Ellis. I’m happy to know you think I am all right. Could you not come up with something warmer than that? I’m nice, I’m good, I’m pleasant company?”
He was chattering to diffuse Merielle’s worry. “What are you doing down here anyway? Were you following me?”
“To answer backwards, yes, I was following you, and I was looking for you because Thomas has an idea that we should work on Master Winhain’s assignment this afternoon.”
Ellis groaned inwardly. “Oh, no.”
“Couldn’t you tell him you couldn’t find me?”
Jerin feigned a shocked look. “Lie? To Thomas?”
Ellis sighed. Thomas could be unrelenting in his pursuit of the perfect grade. “Could you put him off, then? Until after dinner? I just want the afternoon off.”
Jerin cocked his head, considering. “I can do that.” He winked at Ellis, waved at Daria, and then bowed in Merielle’s direction. “Miss, someone with your talent deserves a better instrument. It was a privilege to hear you play.”
He ducked back out the door, closing it firmly behind him.
Ellis collapsed on the divan next to Merielle and groaned. “Watch Thomas come charging in here in a few minutes to find some other work for me to do. I swear he doesn’t know how to do anything else. All I want is just one afternoon. I’ll get back to work this evening.”
“Which one is Thomas?” Daria asked sleepily.
“The big one with black hair who went out with your father and me this morning.” Ellis told her.
“Oh. He’s nice. Daddy likes him.” If Geris Seran liked someone, then his daughter would naturally approve.
“I’m glad to know that. Most of the time, I like him, too.” Ellis reached across and patted Daria’s back, but the girl had fallen asleep on the divan.
The blush had finally faded from Merielle’s fair cheeks. “I’m not even wearing shoes,” she said plaintively.
Not quite certain what that meant, Ellis asked.
“I was in my bare feet and…and my hair is down. If he tells Mrs. Verus he saw me like that, I don’t know what she’ll say.” She started to twist her flaxen hair up as she spoke.
“Jerin won’t say a word, I promise.”
“I can’t believe I appeared in front of a…lord…dressed like this.” She pulled some hairpins from a pocket and twisted her hair up, jamming the pins in haphazardly.
“You’re being silly, Merielle. Jerin would be more upset if he knew he’d upset you. He hates for people to be upset.”
Merielle gave her a peculiar look, biting her lip as she did so. She glanced down at her violin. “How did he know this isn’t a good instrument? Most people can’t tell.”
Ellis shrugged. “Who knows? He sings very well. If I ask him, he’ll tell me.”
“Oh, don’t,” Merielle said breathlessly.
Sometimes Ellis just wanted to shake her. On the other hand, Merielle had to be concerned about what her superiors thought, the unfortunate reality of being a servant. She would never lose her position at the estate, but if Mrs. Verus was displeased, Merielle might find herself assigned permanently to the laundry or some other hideous chore–at least until Ellis found out.
“Jerin really is a very nice person,” Ellis reassured her a final time. “He won’t cause you any trouble. And if he does, I’ll make him pay.”
Merielle’s eyes went wide. “No, you mustn’t do that.”
Ellis found herself talking her friend into defending Jerin after a few rounds and then, realizing how silly the argument was, they both laughed. Ellis felt relieved to hear Merielle laugh. She’d been entirely too glum for the last month.
“Everyone says he’s very friendly,” Merielle finally allowed, “but they say his family is horrible. They say his brother is involved with the Separatists. But they say he’s not like his brothers.”
This was news to Ellis. The Separatists posed only a vague threat this close to the capital, she thought. “Who, they?”
“Oh, the girls from the village. The cadets are about all they talk about, you see.” Eight new maids came daily from the village, in addition to the two girls who’d worked at the estate before the cadets arrived.
“Truly? What do they say?” She hadn’t thought the cadets would be a topic of conversation.
Merielle laid aside her bow and folded her legs, bare feet and all, under her on the divan. “Well, they all say that the Deviron boy is beautiful.”
Mikhal wouldn’t appreciate that choice of words. Ellis hadn’t thought about him in those terms but, after a moment’s consideration, she had to concede the point. “What else?”
“Let’s see,” Merielle thought for a moment, “Everyone from the village talks about Sevireiya and Kemiranya. They go there in the morning, so the villagers see them all the time.”
Merielle smiled slyly, seeming pleased that she knew something Ellis didn’t. “They get up in the morning and run to the village at dawn. Sometimes Mr. Morniani goes with them as well.”
Two miles each way. Ellis wasn’t certain she could run that far. However that did explain why she’d had the impression they slept late. “Why would they do that?”
“They say that Mr. Sevireiya used to be a prizefighter when he lived in Perisen, and that’s something they do, I suppose. The others keep him company.”
A prizefighter? “Is that really true?”
“It’s what they say. I don’t know if it’s true.”
Ellis considered that for a while. Llelas Sevireiya was the oldest of the cadets and had only been in the Guard for a short time. What had he been doing before he came of age? “What do they say about Thomas?”
Merielle smiled. “Farrier? Well, everyone likes him, and they say his family is very rich. And several of the girls are enamored of his…backside.”
“Excuse me? What does that mean?”
Merielle blushed, easy with her very fair skin. “I mean exactly what I said. They compare the cadets and talk about what they like about them. God forbid a man should walk into that laundry on a Friday.”
“No wonder the lieutenants forbade the cadets to go near the female staff. It’s not for the maids’ safety; it’s for the cadets’. So what do you think?”
“I haven’t looked,” Merielle replied, putting her delicate nose in the air. “I just listen. They don’t want to talk to me anyway.”
Ellis had forgotten that the girls from the village always looked down on Merielle, with her being Galasiene. “Well, then, you have to tell me everything they say,” Ellis ordered.
After all, Information is power, Cantrian claimed. For the next hour, Merielle combed her memory and repeated everything she could recall that went on in the underworld of the servants. Daria snored gently, oblivious to the whole discussion.
It was harder than she expected to keep a straight face that evening. While Ellis didn’t consider herself a good judge of such things, she did agree that Mikhal was beautiful. He had the dark curly hair that almost all of the eastern cadets had, similar to hers and Jerin’s, but he had soulful brown eyes that always seemed a little sad. The brown eyes, Ellis decided, made the difference in his case.
Yefin did have an attractive smile, although she couldn’t recall having ever seen Llelas’ smile to compare the two. Ellis thought it was Yefin’s easy-going nature that made him so likeable, and Llelas Sevireiya certainly didn’t have that.
Thomas and Yefin were about the same size, both tall and more heavily built than the lean Menhirre cadets. Yefin had light brown hair, though, and Ellis wondered for the first time if he might have some Galasiene blood in him. Neither was as beautiful as Mikhal.
Thomas, irritable to begin with, only became more irritable when she burst out laughing after he got up to pull a book off the library shelf.
She’d had more productive evenings.
After they planned out their course of action for Monday, with Yefin taking the written end of the assignment this time, they headed back to the Reserve House, leaving Ellis behind in a fit of giggles.
“I thought Thomas was going to hit you over the head with that book,” Jerin commented. “What’s gotten into you?”
Ellis calmed herself. “Nothing. It’s just someone said something funny to me and I keep thinking of it. I’ll get over it.” She’d better. She wiped at her eyes.
“Who was the girl you were talking to?” he asked.
She suddenly divined why he’d stayed. “Merielle? One of the maids who lives here. You aren’t supposed to talk to her.”
“She’s Galasiene, isn’t she?”
“Yes.” Fortunately, he didn’t ask how a girl from Galas ended up at Amiestrin.
“Where did she learn to play? She’s very good, you know.”
“None of your concern, Jerin. How did you know it’s a cheap violin?”
“I play some, you know, so I can hear the difference.”
“You do? I didn’t know that.”
He shrugged, passing it off as unimportant. “I’m not that good with a violin. I prefer the pianoforte or the pipes.” He bid her good night then, and Ellis sat a moment longer, deciding she really knew nothing about her cousin after all.
August 25, 493
I’m beginning to think there’s more to Jerin than meets the eye–or ear, in his case. I can’t imagine him having a horrible family, but I think I should ask some time. He must have thought well of Merielle, not badly, because his questions about her were kind, at least.
Merielle must be lonely if the girls from the village still won’t talk to her. It’s a good thing Daria follows her around, so she’ll have someone to talk to.
Admittedly, the maids have to talk about something, but there must be a better topic than comparing the cadets as if they were horses up for auction. I don’t know where they find time for that kind of silliness. At least Merielle isn’t like that, so not all girls are that…absurd.
I must not laugh about this tomorrow. Thomas will hit me over the head next time.