Nine Months Earlier
The lake—more a pond, actually—on the grounds of the estate of Amiestrin was Ellis’ favorite place. There was a large flat stone under the shade of the rhododendron bushes that hung over the spot carved out by the stream’s springtime excess, an excellent spot to sit and think. Her dogs lay nearby, panting in the late summer heat. She’d had plenty of time to do so over the last week, the break between the end of the summer classes and the beginning of the fall ones.
Everyone she wanted to talk with was gone.
Thomas Farrier—the leader of her quarter, East—had headed out immediately after finishing his exams to visit his family over the break. His large, very Versh family was important to him. Figuring in his travel time, he would only have three days with them, but he clearly felt that was worth the rush. Llelas Sevireiya had gone almost as quickly, planning on meeting with his half-brother in the capital. His brother had been wounded the previous winter, and this was Llelas’ first chance since then to see his brother in person. Even though Ellis knew Llelas didn’t care for his father, he was close to his brother.
At least they have family.
Ellis sighed and shifted on the stone. She’d sat in one spot long enough that her rump was getting numb.
She did have much of a family. The queen had simply left the country when Ellis was five, and her father, not wanting to raise a child himself, had exiled Ellis to this estate out in the country. Since that day, she’d seen him three times, and each occasion had been maddening for the lack of interest her father showed. But she hadn’t seen her mother at all. And while she had three younger brothers, she’d never met any of them. That didn’t seem like real family. Not in the way that Thomas talked about his many brothers and sisters, and his parents. And not like Llelas and his half-brother, who were determined to be a family, even without their father’s involvement.
She had cousins, though, good and bad. The Dantreons she knew—Marshal Dantreon, Captain Dantreon, and now his sister Miralys—were undoubtedly good. Despite sharing her family name, they weren’t what Llelas called near cousins. The Marisi family were more closely related, but were a mixed bag. Jerin Marisi, her fellow cadet in East, was also one of her best friends. His elder brothers, though, were reportedly Separatists, with worrisome ideas about their own proximity to the throne. Ideas that might involve her one day, an unwelcome prospect.
Four lifted his grayed muzzle, his ears pricking. Ellis gestured for him to remain still and tilted her head to hear better. If the old dog could catch a sound, surely she could as well. Recognizing the distant crunch of horses on the front drive, she pushed herself up off the rock, dusted off her worn old skirt, and began the trek back up to the manor house. It could be any one of the cadets returning, but she could hope it was one she actually wanted to talk to.
The manor house was a spare building of two stories of golden stone, a rotunda limpeted onto one end. From Ellis’ angle, she could see the garden spilling out between the main house and the Reserve House in the distance, a little unkempt since it wasn’t the estate’s main priority. The dogs, their long black hair cropped short this time of year, surged ahead of her to reach the house and another spot to lie down, so she walked the last part of the path to the house’s back door alone. She peered in through the glass panes, but couldn’t see who’d arrived. It had to be an officer if they were entering the main house first. The cadets usually headed back to the Reserve House.
She took a moment to assess her appearance, checking her skirt’s hem for dirt and grass. Her boots—her uniform boots since her old footwear no longer fit—were clean and her weskit wasn’t too badly rumpled. The old linen shirt was yellowed with age and her wrists stuck out past the cuffs, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. She checked her braid to make sure it wasn’t too bad, then opened the door and stepped inside.
The manor house was much like its exterior promised, tall and plain hallways with pale woods and sun-faded carpets. Ellis walked through the back entryway, and around to the main front hall where two men stood peering in at the old college’s military library. It was stuffy in the house, but opening windows this time of year would mean chaff and dust flying in as well since farmers were beginning their wheat harvest.
One of the officers was Captain Dantreon, easy to pick out given his size and dark visage. He stood taller than the other officer, who was, surprisingly, just as dark. He was gesturing toward the desks within the library when Captain Dantreon caught sight of her, and a smile touched his face.
If she weren’t far too busy to have time to moon over the male residents of the war college the way the housemaids did, Ellis suspected that Captain Dantreon would be her choice. Not that she would ever tell anyone that, even Merielle. But there was something so comforting and familiar about his company that she valued her time spent playing chess with him more than many of her other pursuits.
“Miss Dantreon,” he said, “may I introduce my brother, Lieutenant Dantreon?”
The captain had three brothers, one older and two younger, but this was her first time to meet one of them. Ellis crossed to where they waited and put out one hand. “Sir, welcome to Amiestrin.”
The younger brother laughed, apparently at her formality, but shook her hand firmly. “I’m Verin,” he said in a voice not as deep as his brother’s. “With the Engineers.”
Ellis had looked forward to beginning the engineering class this fall, since it was an aspect of military service more mathematical than most. “Do you like that? Being an Engineer?”
He grinned, enthusiasm almost infecting the air about him. “It is the most important part of the military, as I’m sure you know.”
“Yes, but do you like it?” the captain asked before Ellis had to clarify.
Despite being an adult with a serious rank like lieutenant, Verin bounced on his feet. “Yes. Even if I weren’t in the Guard, I would be doing this. I love…making things more efficient.”
He wasn’t as handsome as his brother—or as tall—but Ellis could see all the similarities that left her no doubt they were stamped from the same mold. Both looked like they had spent the entire summer outside, although Ellis knew that darkness wouldn’t leave their skin in winter, a gift from their Cantreidian mother. Both had the same straight nose, thick straight eyebrows, and straight dark hair, but the younger brother was simply not quite as…
Ellis couldn’t decide what quality was missing, but the lieutenant was simply not the same as the captain. Already she knew he was far less serious about the war college. “I look forward to the class, sir” she managed.
“Yes, he will talk you ear off about sewage if you let him,” the captain said in a dry voice. “Miss Dantreon, I hope nothing untoward happened while I was gone.”
That was a question. “No, sir. It was very quiet.”
The last month had been filled with insanity, but it was important not to let the captain know that. Or his brother, Ellis guessed. The insanity—which had included the kidnapping of his sister, the death of several strangers, and the burning of a local farm’s barn—had also involved Grandfather. Whatever Grandfather was, he wasn’t human. And Seers and creatures like Grandfather didn’t mix, apparently, a situation given substance by the fact that as soon as Captain Dantreon had stood in Grandfather’s presence, he’d started forgetting. He’d collapsed in pain, yet woke later with no memory of why. And when he’d tried to discuss that with her, he’d forgotten more. And he’d known it—he’d looked scared.
So I’m not going to say a word. She was going to protect him from what had happened, even if he ordered her to do otherwise.
“I’m glad to hear that,” the captain said. “I’ve brought you something from the capital, by the way. We’ll go unpack, and then I’ll drop by the library to hand it over.”
Ellis heard a dismissal in that, which was fine with her. It would give her time to dress properly. So she left the brothers at the library door and hurried back through the halls to her bedroom.
Hers was the only occupied bedroom in this part of the manor house. Ellis would have preferred to have Merielle closer, but as a live-in maid, Merielle was stuck in the servant’s quarters up on the second floor. And Merielle was dedicated to the housemaid identity she’d carved out here. She took her work very seriously because she felt she needed to earn a place in this household. She more than did that, in Ellis’ opinion. Fortunately, Ellis found the other girl hanging up a freshly pressed uniform in her armoire.
“Ah, the captain’s back,” Ellis said a bit breathlessly. “I need to get back into uniform.”
Merielle lifted Ellis’ second-best uniform out of the armoire bit by bit. “Have the other cadets returned?”
Ellis unbuttoned her weskit and started working on her shirt-cuffs. “Not that I’ve seen. I was out with the dogs all morning. If my cousin comes back, I’ll let you know.”
Merielle’s cheeks went pink. She was very fair-skinned, making Ellis look dark in comparison. With her Galasiene paleness and flaxen hair, Merielle was the oddity here at Amiestrin. It hadn’t taken long for her path to cross with that of Ellis’ cousin Jerin Marisi, who was clearly enamored, not so much for Merielle’s looking like a delicate rose but for her ability to play the violin…although Merielle’s beauty didn’t hurt. But Jerin knew the rules of the war college, and the household staff were strictly off limits to the cadets, so he’d barely ever spoken to Merielle. That didn’t keep his eyes from losing all focus whenever she walked by. Merielle did her best to avoid him, mostly to keep Jerin out of trouble. “I was wondering when you’d resume your fighting lessons,” she said primly.
Ellis chewed her upper lip and resolved not to tease Merielle further. Thomas Farrier had been teaching her horsemanship and the saber since the beginning of last year’s classes. It had eaten up a great deal of her spare time, but she had to do something to catch up with the world knowledge the other cadets had. And to that end she’d enlisted Llelas Sevireiya’s help as well. Having once been a prizefighter, he’d seemed like the natural choice to teach her to fistfight. When she chose him, she hadn’t understood the ramifications in picking a man like him, not only a soon-to-be duke but also a Menhirre with a scandalous personal history and unknown political leanings.
In her eyes, though, the great worth of Thomas and Llelas was that neither treated her like a child. She would be sixteen in a couple of weeks, and there was nothing worse than the occasional instructor who treated her like she was too young to comprehend what they were saying.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I know,” she told Merielle. That would mean extra changes of clothing and more washing for Merielle, who maintained Ellis’ rag-tag garments. Unfortunately, the household budget didn’t extend to purchasing a new wardrobe, not when there were salaries to pay, cadets to feed, and horses to maintain. So Merielle did her best to keep Ellis’ old clothing from falling apart, and kept Ellis’ uniforms in perfect condition.
Half an hour later, Ellis was back in the library. She checked the polish on her boots to make sure the dogs hadn’t licked them, and then settled to wait for the captain’s return. Merielle had taken the time to comb out and braid Ellis’ hair, only finding a few bits of twig caught among the curls, so Ellis felt confident she looked her best.
Carmeyon Dantreon was finding his brother Verin as tiring as always. Verin was witty and sarcastic and misguidedly enthusiastic about building things. Carmeyon had long suspected that Verin would one day leave the Guard to be an engineer fulltime. As they weren’t at war, most of the Engineers’ work was currently hypothetical, and therefore less rewarding.
But he managed to get Verin squirreled away in his assigned quarters in the Reserve House. Then Carmeyon unpacked his own bags, setting aside the book he’d brought for Ellis.
He’d gone up to the capital to meet with the marshals, one of their endless requests for updates on the state of the war college. While he was clearly too young to be in charge of the college—after all, he wasn’t much older than their oldest cadet, Mr. Sevireiya—the marshals agreed that he was doing well enough as an administrator. He wasn’t doing that alone, of course. Sirtris was handling all the disciplinary issues, being far more evenhanded than Carmeyon himself, and the marshals were bringing in one retired officer after another to teach the cadets. And his own father was usually on the grounds, a retired marshal of the Guard present to handle odd things like the king showing up unannounced.
It’s worked for a year. Unfortunately, there was no telling how long it would take for the enterprise to become political, and therefore unwieldly. Carmeyon hoped they could get this first class of nascent officers out into the field before that happened, at the very least.
He did a quick survey of his comfortable room, grabbed up the book, and headed back to the manor house to give it to Ellis. The pathway between the two was graveled, and the garden was a bit overgrown. He could tell that without knowing much about gardening himself. But he also knew that unlike other royal households, this one had a very limited budget. That was one thing that he hoped the marshals could find a way around this year. He’d written to half the members of the Council—those who favored the military—and asked for their help in securing permanent funding for the college. It seemed more and more likely that he would have to appear in front of the Council this year and personally beg for taxpayer funding. He didn’t look forward to drawing their attention, or having them question the whole idea of training the king’s daughter here.
As he was headed for the steps up to the back of the house, he saw Llelas Sevireiya headed in his direction, apparently just arrived. The Menhirre cadet had only one bag carried by a strap across his chest. Out of uniform, he looked a bit like a vagabond. Sevireiya had the usual Menhirre build, smaller and leaner than the Versh, with olive skin that could, if exposed to enough sun, approach the shade of brown Carmeyon wore every day of his life. A twinge of dislike crossed Carmeyon’s mind, but he did his best to dispel it. It didn’t help knowing that in a fair fight, Sevireiya, despite being younger and lighter, would probably thrash him thoroughly.
“Mr. Sevireiya,” Carmeyon said. “Welcome back.”
The cadet inclined his head as he came closer. “Thank you, sir.”
“Did you have time to return home?”
The cadet’s bright blue eyes lifted, and for a second Carmeyon wondered if the younger man was going to debate his right to ask a question that was no more than a common curiosity. “No, sir,” Sevireiya said. “I was in the capital.”
Carmeyon nodded once. “I hope you enjoyed your time off.”
Without waiting for a response—the conversation wasn’t going anywhere—Carmeyon opened the door and went inside. Sevireiya continued toward the Reserve House, apparently unaware how he made Carmeyon’s neck prickle. Although Ellis had once told Carmeyon he was.
Shaking his head, Carmeyon made his way to the library, pausing at the door when he saw that Ellis was already there. The girl sat at one of the table, a newspaper laid out before her. She was in uniform now, as if being caught wearing a skirt wasn’t allowed.
She was the reason for his being here. He’d been charged with training the king’s daughter to be a soldier. They’d taken those orders and stretched them to include the other cadets here. But she was the most important one, and the least likely to see herself that way. Her mother had abandoned her, and her father had thrown her aside like a scrap of used paper.
Even so, she’d proven to be both intelligent and persistent, both in and out of the classroom. She never quit, even when her fellows began to find her annoying, earning her the nickname badger–or kitarhi from the Menhirre cadets. And she didn’t often have a chance to rest or pursue anything other than soldiering, so Carmeyon was willing to indulge her rare asides into the mythical. When he crossed to her table, she glanced up, the afternoon light catching the ugly scar on her left cheek. It split over her cheekbone into a y-shape, tugging the eyelid slightly out of evenness. She rose to her feet.
“Don’t worry, Miss Dantreon,” he said, gesturing for her to sit. “I recalled our conversation about families, and since this library doesn’t have a copy, I thought I would lend you ours.”
Her eyes lifted to his face. “Ours, sir?”
“The copy from my father’s house in the capital,” he clarified as he handed her the book.
“Genealogical Listings for the Year 490,” she read aloud. “I don’t understand, sir. This is four years old.”
Perhaps she thought it was an assignment. “Yes, it is, but that doesn’t make much difference. They only publish this once every five years. If you’re curious about your family’s bloodlines, they’ll be in there.”
“Oh. Thank you, sir.” Ellis opened the book, and he took a few minutes to explain how the various listings were organized.
Surnames were arranged alphabetically with pages cross-referenced. She located ‘Dantreon’ farther back in the book. Finding the reference that listed her father, Ellis noted that her own name appeared there. “Have I been in this all along?” she asked.
He nearly laughed, but managed to keep it in. She was interested in bloodlines because of her curiosity about the fabled Gifts that ran among certain families of the Menhirre. Most people only looked at this book to see how closely they could claim they were related to the royal family. “Since the 480 edition,” he said. “You’d just been born when they went to press on that one, I suppose. It would have been in fall of 479.”
Her straight brows drew together almost comically. “If I’m in this book, how could the newspapers not have known who I was when they found out my name?”
Yes, the newspapers had been baffled by the inclusion of Ellis Dantreon among the cadets at Amiestrin. They’d assumed at first that this must be some distant cousin who happened to have the same name as Ellis—a male cousin, of course. It had taken a while for them to verify that she was indeed the king’s daughter, and they’d mostly withheld printing the sort of lurid lies that one might expect in regard to a young woman placed among so many young men. Until it became clear that she was actually training with the men—shooting, fist-fighting, and cavalry maneuvers—then the reports had taken on a censorious tone.
“These books aren’t widely available,” he told her. “I suppose some never thought to look. Other papers may have chosen not to mention it for fear of offending your father. The law allows him to place restrictions on their printing or fine them for publishing something he doesn’t want seen.”
“Truly?” Ellis glanced at the entry again.
Ellis Karsyet Dantreon, it read.
“I didn’t know I had a middle name,” she noted, more to herself than to him. “Are you in here, sir?”
He shook his head. “None of my family is. Look at this.” He flipped back a few pages until he reached the Dantreon family of five generations before. The king at that time, Selerian Dantreon, had one sibling, a twin brother named Sivian. The letters MGNM appeared beneath his name.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing out the inscription.
“Morganatic marriage, a Versh term. The children of that marriage have no legal rights of inheritance. That’s where my family line disappears.”
“Why would they say that? I mean, why would that happen?”
“Sivian–for whom one of my younger brothers is named, if you recall–served as the ambassador to Galas, still an independent nation at that time. He married a Galasiene woman without his father’s permission. His father claimed the marriage would be null in Jenear, but never actually had it nullified. All the same, Sivian didn’t return to Jenear until after his father died.”
She touched the page. “How sad. Was the marriage nullified?”
“Never legally,” he admitted, “causing difficulties over the succession. I suppose the king never had the heart to go through with disowning his son. Periodically there are noises made about returning our family to the line of succession, which my father cringes to hear.”
He did, too, although he wasn’t going to admit that aloud. He fell under enough scrutiny in the Guard. He could only imagine how difficult life would be if he was a member of the royalty.
Ellis reverently ran a finger down the book’s gilt spine—it held information, one of her favorite things. “Could I take this to my room, sir? I’d like to look through it.”
He had a mental image of her reading every page of the book between now and when classes started again in two days. “Of course. I brought it specially for you.”
Ellis thanked him again, scooped up the book, and headed back to her room. Carmeyon only hoped she could manage to get some sleep tonight.