Llelas had managed to avoid Ellis the night before. She had hidden away in her room, reading a large book that interested him not at all. Instead he laid in his bed in the near-empty Reserve House, remembering the week he spent with his family, such as it was. He had stayed at Sovre’s small but tidy house in the capital, luxuriating in the company of Sovre’s family. Liana, his wife, was an excellent cook, and the children all believed that their uncle Llelas was a good man.
It had been good to see his brother Sovre whole and well. That had been the most welcome thing his time away from this school had brought him. There had been work waiting for him also, a large number of legal documents to sign and more contracts with the railroad company that had, in return for such agreements as Sovre and the board of the Sandrine Trust negotiated, chosen to route the Perisen-Jenesetta rail line through Sandrine Province rather than North Mornacassan Province. Currently there was nothing out there but track, but they would begin work soon on a station near the provincial seat. Llelas had to hope that his father would do nothing to spoil all Sovre’s hard work.
And he had met his half-sister, Siva. The girl had not been friendly, but she had stayed, which Sovre told him was a positive sign. According to Sovre, their sister distrusted almost everyone, men in particular, not surprising since she had grown up in a whorehouse in Stone Point. Her mother had died when Siva was twelve, and the girl fled to a cabin in the mountains. She lived alone there still, despite Sovre and Liana’s efforts to woo her into living with their family.
Like Sovre, Siva had a mother with Cantreidian blood, and thus was taller than Llelas by a few inches. It was always good to be reminded that he was the little brother, even if the girl was a month younger than him.
Llelas had almost not talked to Sovre about Grandfather’s business at the war college, but in the end decided Sovre needed to know. He had picked every shred of detail from his memories about the incident with the foreign aras. The aras—three of them—had spawned chaos in their efforts to scout out Grandfather and his descendants. They had done so by imitating various persons, some at the war college and some in Perisen. That was the aras’ true Gift, the ability to Shift their appearance to imitate others. Supposedly the trio were either gone or dead now, but Llelas needed Sovre to be on guard. As Sovre possessed only a touch of the Watcher’s Gift, he would instead have to rely on his wits to detect one of the aras. Llelas suspected Sovre would prove harder to fool than himself.
Despite his worries over the aras and what harm they might do, Llelas fell asleep, waking in the morning surprisingly well-rested. His mind had begun to accept this place as home, it seemed. He rose, dressed, and made his way out of the Reserve House to the pump near the stables. He stretched his neck for a time, and was rewarded when Ellis appeared, coming around from the side of the house with two of her large dogs ahead of her. Llelas dutifully petted them when they arrived and when Ellis caught them up, asked after the other two.
“Four hurt his foot,” she said, “and One is just being lazy.”
It still amused him that the girl had no more imagination than to name her pets for numbers. He would never say that aloud, though. “Are you ready to run?”
She wore the old garb that meant she was prepared, her dark hair braided back tightly, so he already knew the answer. She covered a yawn. “No, but we should go anyway.”
He managed to stifle his own yawn by clenching his jaw. “Lead on, then.”
She sighed but began to run, heading through the main gates of the estate and along the road to the village of Kensit. It was not far, but he had not run while in the capital, so it was good to feel himself stretching back out. Despite not being in uniform, Llelas had his knife sheathed at the small of his back. These days the threat to Ellis was clearer, and he would not fail to protect her while she was in his company.
Soon enough, they reached the village, and after claiming a hard roll at the inn, they turned back toward the estate. They walked the last of the trek. The two dogs ran ahead, eager to return to their comfortable courtyard and lie down. Ellis looked flushed from the run but not overly winded. “How do you do it?” she asked.
Not surprisingly, his Watcher’s Gift was the first thing she wanted to talk about. Before their exams, he had promised he would tell her—and Farrier. At least no one would overhear them here. “I do not know how. I was bred to it.”
Her brows drew together. “You were bred to do this?”
“My grandfather chose a Gifted woman for his wife, and then one to be my father’s wife as well.” He meant his actual grandfather, not Grandfather, who was his actual grandfather’s mother.
“Oh,” Ellis said with a dry-throated cough. “I meant the running. You never seem to tire. But I want to know that as well.”
So much for anticipating what she was thinking. “I run well because I practice. My father does not because he lays in his bed in the morning.”
Her head tilted, her brows raised. She was almost as tall as him now, he noted.
“Fine,” he said. “I learned when I was a child. When I was young I would hide from my father in the dovecote, but I worried for my mother. And after a time, I found that if I thought very hard, I could see her. I knew he beat her then, you must understand, because I saw him do so. There are no secrets in such a family like mine.”
Ellis walked on, gazing down at the road. “How old were you when you…saw that?”
“Six, I think. I always feared him but did not know why until then.”
“I am sorry,” she said softly.
Her father had been absent from most of her life, but having a father present was not always pleasant either. “After that, my mother began teaching me to control myself. To discipline my mind. Most people with this bloodline, they cannot govern who they see. But I can, most of the time. I can see who I want.”
“Whom,” she said softly.
“I can usually control whom I see. I do not intend to spy, but I often do.”
She considered that for a time. They had passed the wall of the estate and now were on the front drive, meaning that Captain Dantreon was likely watching them through the windows of the library. “How does it work?”
How to explain something for which there were few words? “We call it our spirit-self. That spirit self goes to where the other person is. Some Watchers can see and hear through their presence, others only see.” It varied from person to person, as if each developed their Gift in isolation. Perhaps one day Grandfather would make them all come together and work out a singular approach for using their Gift.
“So…it’s like a ghost version of you?” Ellis asked.
Ghost? “Uh…no. We call it the spirit-self.”
That made her twist her lips in frustration. “Very well. Can people see you when you spy on them?”
She must have written and memorized a list of questions to badger him with. “No, kitarhi, not most of the time. Grandfather can.”
“But he’s not human,” she pointed out.
“Other times, not often, someone can,” he said. “But I think you have right when you say it is like a ghost to them.”
She paused, ready to correct his grammar, then apparently decided not to do so, a first. Llelas counted that as a small victory.
“Who knows?” she asked after a moment. “About your Gift, I mean.”
“Not many,” Llelas admitted. “My brother, a few friends in Perisen and a few enemies, Sub-marshal Revasien, Lieutenant Sidreiyan, and now you.”
“And Thomas,” she reminded him. “You promised you would tell him.”
“I will tell Farrier.” Lieutenant Sirtris knew as well, although Llelas doubted the man knew exactly what he did. Sirtris seemed to prefer not to know.
They had reached their starting point, the stable yard. She sat down next to the pump on the grass. After a moment he did the same. “Is that how you found me that day? By the lake? By looking for me with your spirity-self.”
Is spirity a real word? He rested his arms on his knees. “Yes, I know where people are. I Find them.”
“Where is Thomas, then?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, letting his mind collect images. “Eating breakfast somewhere. I suppose it is an inn. Captain Dantreon is in the library. Sub-marshal Revasien just walked through the front doors of the Palace Garrison in Jenesetta. The Duke of Perisen is still abed. My brother is riding the road from his farm toward Stone Point.”
“How do you know all that?” she asked, impressed.
“I have to be able to Find a person to Watch them. Finding is a… small part, like using your saw to cut a thread.”
She bobbled her head as if that analogy made sense to her. “Do you only see things, or can you hear them as well?”
He held in a sigh. I agreed to do this. “If I think very hard, I can hear as well, but that takes much concentration.”
She cast him a sidelong glance. “Or read what they write?”
She must have suspect that, since she wrote notes in her journal intended for him to see. “Yes, like I am standing near. But I can choose not to read the words.”
He had glanced at her journal, but only when he saw something intended for him. Mostly.
She nodded, having already accepted that. “Does Anthony know?”
“He suspects something. If they had put me with one from my people, they would have known by now. Anthony is from Comhi. They laugh about the superstitious Menhirre. They do not know.” Good luck had landed him with Anthony Ironwright, or perhaps a touch of Providence, even if he had not thought so at first. His oversized Versh roommate had mistaken him for someone to bully, and had learned his mistake the hard way. But they had become friends of a sort over the past year, able to work together on a team.
“That’s why you sit on the roof, isn’t it?” Ellis asked.
“It is quiet. I can think there.”
“But you couldn’t see your brother when he was hurt.”
“I tried. I was upset,” He paused, deciding what to say. “If I am upset, I lose control. I see things that make no sense, or I see nothing at all. Or I cannot escape from what I do see.”
“What do you do when that happens?” she asked.
He laughed shortly. “After my mother died, I fled to Sovre’s house, but not long after, my father’s men came and dragged me back to the manor. I was so upset that I had visions every step of the way and spoke of them. His men thought I had lost my mind. I have learned since that there are ways to escape that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have no visions if I am unconscious; if I am exhausted. I have no visions if I am drunk or drugged into a stupor.”
Ellis wrapped her arms across her chest. “Is that why you used to drink so much?”
He stared at his boots. “When I was a boy, I would run in the hills until I was too exhausted to think. Drinking is faster. I learned that when I got to Perisen. That is why I started to drink. But…I kept drinking because I liked it, and then I found I could not stop. One does stupid things when one is drunk.”
“Is that why your father’s the way he is?” she asked then.
“I am my father’s son,” he admitted ruefully. She had a scar on her cheek from him hand, from a snowy afternoon on the rooftop when he lost his temper in a senseless argument and hit her. He had managed to pull the punch, but she slipped and hit her cheek against the brick chimney, earning a permanent reminder that Llelas Sevireiya could not control his temper. “Once, when I was ten, I think,” he continued, “I remember seeing him banging his head against the wall. I know now what he was trying to do. Then, I thought he was insane. It took two servants to drag him away, screaming the whole time. I can only wonder what he saw that was so horrible. He could not escape it.”
She remained silent for a long moment, until he finally rose to his feet to return to the Reserve House. The other cadets would be returning, and he wanted a chance to bathe before the hallways became too busy.
She shaded her eyes with one hand, the fingers calloused like his own. “Did you know we’re cousins?”
He kept himself from laughing at her. “Yes, although far cousins. Grandfather keeps track of bloodlines, so he makes…made me learn them.”
“Eighth cousins, on my mother’s side,” she said, still peering up at him. “You and Jerin are much closer.”
“I know this.”
“Oh.” She stood up. “Did you know I have a middle name?”
“No, I did not,” he admitted. “Although I am not surprised. Ellis is too short.” When she gave him her baffled look, he added, “A name needs six syllables for luck.”
She blinked at him. “That is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.”
He wondered if she grasped the irony of that statement.
Since Monday had been allocated for travel, and classes were scheduled to start the next day, most of the cadets arrived back at the estate during the day. That made it a busy day, catching up with the other members of East, discussing the new instructors, and bickering over the planned classes.
After dinner, Ellis played chess with Captain Dantreon, his younger brother leaning over her shoulder and making suggestions in a much louder voice than Thomas ever used. However, Verin Dantreon clearly knew his brother’s weaknesses. “Move your knight back,” he suggested at one point.
She could beat the captain on her own now, although admittedly not frequently. Ellis tucked away her vexation at his interference though. “Why?” she whispered back. “I’m moving toward his queen.”
Verin’s dark eyes twinkled with secret glee. “Trust me.”
She glanced over at Captain Dantreon, who merely held his hands wide, unwilling to give her guidance in this. “Fine,” she said, and moved the knight back onto her own side of the board.
The captain moved one of his bishops to block the new placement of her knight.
“Are you on his side?” she asked the lieutenant.
“Advance your pawn,” he said, pointing.
On the right side of the board, there were three pawns she’d advanced during the initial moments of play. The captain had moved his important pieces toward his own right, leaving nothing for her to capture. “Why?”
The captain sighed. “Verin, don’t help her. I can barely stay ahead of her as it is.”
The lieutenant leaned forward and touched the middle of the three pawns. “The three pawns are connected, protecting each other. If you can get one to the other side, you can promote it to queen.”
Ellis gestured. “I still have my queen.”
“Yes, but on your side of the board. Wouldn’t you rather have a queen on the eighth rank? You’ll take his king in one or two moves.”
Ellis mulled that over, trying to count the moves it would take her to get her three white pawns to the eighth rank versus how many pieces on the other side of the board the captain would take first. He might be able to snatch one of the pawns, but she didn’t think he could get all three and fight off her queen and knights at the same time. Having a queen on the far side of the board would be worth losing some pieces to achieve. She decided to try the lieutenant’s method, and moved one of her pawns forward.
The captain cast an exasperated glance at his brother and sighed as he moved a knight to take her queen. He set it on the side. “She already beats me. You didn’t need to teach her another way.”
“Keep this one back a step.” The lieutenant pointed out one of the pawns, gleefully ignoring his brother. “That way if he gets a rook up here to take one of them, you can take it on your next move.”
And interestingly enough, it worked. By the time she managed to get the first pawn up to the eighth rank and promoted it to a queen, the captain had taken her remaining knights, but that placed his king immediately in check, and one move later, she had him mated.
She had tended to discount pawns as disposable, but from now on, she would remember to keep an open mind about their usefulness. She called it an early night after that, though, as she’d had enough to think about in one day.
Once she’d changed into her old worn nightshirt, she sat and gazed at the face that stared back out of the mirror at her. All her life she’d been a pawn, moved about however her father wanted her. She had no doubt she would remain a pawn for some time to come, but perhaps this year she wouldn’t be pushed aside. Perhaps this was the year when she made her own move.
That sounded perfectly fine, save for the fact that she had no idea what move that would be.