Ellis rose and dressed in her uniform, just wanting to get through the day. The glass of brandy she’d drunk the night before had left her with a headache. Not long after she dressed, Conrad and James appeared in the hallway, preparing to move her furniture about on Mrs. Verus’ directions. While the bedroom was spacious enough, the bustle reminded her that she’d lost some of her freedom.
Standing against the far wall as they moved about in her room, Ellis suddenly realized what she’d missed. Where are the dogs?
Dread made her stomach sink. She opened the courtyard door and looked out onto the abandoned space. Boot prints crisscrossed the new snow, but there were no dogs there. Her breath came a little short.
Ellis hurried out of her room, not wanting to humiliate herself in front of the others. She leaned back against the wall in the still-dark hallway, drew a few deep breaths, and forced herself to remain calm. Breathing in and out. Out and in.
At some point, Captain Dantreon appeared at the end of the hall and gestured for her to join him. Ellis managed to shove herself away from the wall. She kept her knees from wobbling by sheer will as she followed him to the kitchens.
Despite the nausea she felt, she ate the breakfast Melia set before her. Captain Dantreon appeared to have drawn the duty of watching over her. He picked at his own food while she ate, looking as if he felt no better than she did. Afterward, he led her out to the back of the house.
The shattered glass of the door had been replaced with boards—that must be the glass she’d heard breaking the night before. The snow had ended early in the night, leaving a light coat on the walkway, crossed and re-crossed by many sets of tracks. We’re headed out to the stables.
“Where are my dogs?” she finally asked him, dreading the answer.
He stopped on the walkway. “In the stables. We think someone sedated them but gave them too much. Conrad said that Four never woke up,” he finished. “He thinks the others will be fine in a day or two, though. He’s holding them there so he can watch over them.”
Ellis leaned over, her hand pressed against her knees. She drew in a cold breath through her nose and pushed herself back to standing. “Poor Daria.”
The captain gazed at her, worry plain on his face. “And you too, Miss Dantreon.”
She wrapped her arms around her chest and nodded once. “Where are we going?”
“I need you to look at the body, tell me anything that you notice,” he said quietly. He stepped back to her side and placed his bandaged hand under her elbow, drawing her with him. “We need to do this.”
“I know.” Ellis bit at her lip to fight back the wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm her again. She tugged her elbow free from his grip but kept her feet moving, determined not to act like a child in front of him.
The draped form lay on the ground in the stable, wrapped in the blue coverlet that had been on her bed for the last ten years. The captain knelt next to the figure, glancing up at her first before pulling back the cover.
Ellis did her best to see the unmoving form before her as a carcass. She’d seen dead animals before, she reasoned. Whatever had made this body a human being was long gone.
I did that. I killed him. She drew a shaky breath and squatted down next to the captain.
She stared at the man’s clothing for a time, and then forced herself to look at the blood-streaked face. In death, his features had settled into a relaxed state, different from the snarl she’d seen on his face in the darkness. He wasn’t nearly as large a man as he’d seemed then.
Ellis leaned closer, examining the wound.
“How far were you from him when you fired?” the captain asked.
“Halfway across the bed. I had just rolled away from him with the gun.” Her voice had steadied.
“A good shot, then,” he remarked.
Ellis glanced across at him to determine what he meant by that, but his face showed nothing. “It would have been hard to miss at that range.”
The captain nodded. “What do you make of him?”
Ellis turned her attention back to the man on the ground. “He’s not a soldier. He’s old enough to have fought in the last war, but no earrings, although some Menhirre don’t take the earrings, so I could be wrong. He didn’t walk into the manor in these clothes.” Seeing the captain’s raised brows, she clarified. “Well, if he had, someone would have noticed. His clothes are clean, too. I guess there wasn’t anything in his pockets?”
“No coat. He was probably going to go back to his hiding place and planned to sneak out in the confusion afterward. No reason to carry anything with him.”
“He had his watch with him. Sirtris has it now.”
“I wonder why? It’s not as if he could see the time while hiding in my wardrobe.”
“Vanity, perhaps?” the captain suggested with a shrug.
She stared at the dead man for a minute. “I wonder who hired him? When we know that, we’ll know why, won’t we?”
Ellis rose. The cold snap had arrived most fortuitously. Dealing with this in the heat of summer would have been far more unpleasant. That thought made her feel ill again, and she walked out of the stables into the embrace of the cool air.
She didn’t stop to look at the blanket-covered mound by the north door of the stables.
She leaned against the outside wall, wrapping her arms around herself and gazing up toward the blue sky. She would deal with Four’s passing when the time came. Now she had to hold herself together. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
Presently, the captain emerged and escorted her back to the house. Despite the sunshine melting the snow, it seemed a very bleak day.
The captain sat down with her in the library. Ellis gritted her teeth and looked up at the ceiling. She had gone to bed foolishly assuming that Daria had taken the dogs into her room as the girl sometimes did. If only I had thought to check on them, things might have gone differently. I would have noticed something was wrong, and Lieutenant Telmaren might have been able to save Four, but I was too tired to bother.
Her self-control failed her again, and she started to sob. The captain put his arms around her for a moment, letting her cry on his shoulder.
Thomas Farrier was one of the last. He stared down at the body as Captain Sirtris requested at breakfast, but he’d never seen the dead man before.
It had been a good, clean shot, but Ellis wouldn’t appreciate hearing that. The first time he’d killed a man in a skirmish on the Bregmani border, he hadn’t been able to eat for a couple of days. But sense had won out over horror, and he’d risen the next morning and had breakfast with the rest of the guardsmen. He could never take back the death he’d dealt out, nor of any of the others that followed. My place is to question that I’m on the right side to begin with.
Ellis had acted to preserve her own life, always the right side.
He rose and considered the body a moment longer as Yefin made his way out of the stables and Llelas Sevireiya walked in. Without a glance at Thomas, Llelas crouched down next to the body. He and Kellen and Heall had run into town this morning, Thomas knew, and Llelas still wore that garb, his hair wet with sweat.
“Could this be one of them?” Thomas asked quietly, tilting his head toward the body. An aras, like the ones who’d come to the estate the previous year, imitating other people and causing chaos.
“One shot?” Llelas said as he surveyed at the body. “No, I think not.”
Llelas made a hmphing sound, then tugged the sheet down to expose the man’s arms. He peered at the black shirt’s cuff, as if it was of great interest.
“What is it? Do you know him?”
Llelas shook his head. “No, but…the sleeve. See the sewing on the sleeve end? It is… fancy.”
“Fancy?” he asked, switching to Cantros, a language Llelas spoke better than Versh.
“Ah, decorative,” Llelas said. “The cuff has a decorative border. Very Cantreidian, on a Menhirre man. That makes me think of Perisen.”
Thomas could barely make out the black-on-black stitching around the edge of the cuff, a pattern of triangles. Now that he thought about it, he’d owned a few shirts when he was younger with that pattern on the cuff. From Cantreidian tailors in Perisen, just as Llelas suggested. “I see what you mean.”
“Help me take this off,” Llelas insisted, grabbing the sheet and pushing it farther down.
Still standing, Thomas hauled the entire sheet away, exposing the dead man’s full body. Nothing unusual, average size and build for a Menhirre, with all black clothing. He crouched next to Llelas then. “What are we looking for?”
“Do you not think this clothing is odd for the countryside? This man is… a professional. A thief or an assassin. Look at the soles of his boots. They would not last a week if worn on the street.”
Thomas peered at the boots as requested. The soles were soft, made for silence rather than durability. “I agree.”
Llelas rose and walked around to look at the boots more closely. They came up to mid-calf, the sides much heavier leather than the soles. “Maker’s mark. Help me.”
And with that, Llelas began unlacing one of the boots. After a short internal debate—This is a bit ghoulish, isn’t it?—Thomas helped him.