The fall semester rolled forward, with things taking a couple of weeks to settle into a pattern. Once a week, Thomas worked with her on foot combat. And started her with fighting Llelas, who had no natural ability with a sword. As such, he tended to swing at her a bit wildly. She felt like she had the upper hand for a time, but then Thomas had Yefin fight her instead, and she was back to being the student.
Llelas kept her practicing as well, teaching her every dirty trick he could recall. He’d made the change at the beginning of the fall, declaring that should she ever truly need to fight with her hands, she shouldn’t be too concerned about rules. When he’d learned to fight, Llelas claimed, many of the other prizefighters came from different backgrounds. One had been an acrobat, one what Ellis could only describe as a hired thug, and a third claimed to have been an assassin. Llelas knew more ways to hurt other people with his hands-—and, as it turned out, his feet, elbows, and knees–than Ellis ever considered possible.
And she’d started fighting some of the other cadets, always under Captain Sirtris’ watchful eye. It wasn’t until she was fighting Sereis Fallarcassan, the cadet from North Country Province, that she realized that this could get awkward. Sereis took a swing at her, but stepped to one side, his open hand ending up on her rump. She was so startled that she almost stepped away from the fight.
Llelas’ mouth was in a straight line, but he said nothing.
Ellis lifted her fists and reengaged, this time watching for that unusual tactic. Sereis wasn’t even trying to hit her, she decided, several passes later. He was trying to touch her instead.
When he succeeded in getting a hand on her chest, she stepped away. “You either fight me,” she snapped at him, “or go paw someone else.”
Sereis smiled at her like he’d won after all. He shrugged. “Well, perhaps another day.”
And with that, he scooped up his jacket and strolled out of the ballroom, unwrapping his hands as he went.
For a moment, there was silence. Ellis took a deep breath. She’d done the majority of moving about in that aborted bout, waiting for him to engage, so she was more winded than Series had been.
“Why did you think he was an appropriate choice, Mr. Sevireiya?” Captain Sirtris asked in a cool voice.
Llelas drew himself up and turned to face the captain. “That would have happened sooner or later, Captain. It is better to have happened here in controlled conditions.”
“Where I could call him out for it?” The captain rose from his chair and started toward Ellis. “Do you understand what just happened, Miss Dantreon?”
Her cheeks heated. “Yes, sir. I’m not a child. I have noticed his…attitude before.”
Sereis Fallarcassan had made his interest in her clear. He hadn’t been intrusive, but he cast an occasional glance at her with enough heat behind it that she had no doubt what he meant by it.
The captain regarded her with a line between his fair brows, as if weighing what to say to her.
“I’m not interested in him,” she said, “if that worries you.”
The captain coughed into one hand, his eyes twinkling with laughter briefly. Then he sobered again. “Miss Dantreon, it was made clear to the other cadets that sexual liaisons between cadets are strongly discouraged for the duration of their time here at the war college. I don’t know whether Marshal Dantreon addressed that with you, but it does apply to you as well.”
Her cheeks were burning again. “I understand that, sir.”
Marshal Dantreon hadn’t said as much to her, but it seemed to go without saying. She was here to learn to be a soldier, not anything else. She didn’t see why Sereis didn’t understand that.
The captain gazed at her, his head tilted, as if he was weighing how best to handle the situation. Or perhaps she had blood on her nose. It was difficult to tell with him. His eyes returned to Llelas instead. “Mr. Sevireiya, you may continue your lesson, although there will be no more fighting.”
Llelas nodded. He hadn’t dressed out for sparring anyway. “Yes, sir.”
Sirtris walked on out of the ballroom, stopping to pick up Sereis’ discarded wraps and set them on a chair.
Ellis let out an exasperated sigh. On the whole, she liked Sereis. He was intelligent, charming, and an excellent marksman. “Why did he do that?”
“The captain?” Llelas asked. “Or Fallarcassan?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t come to fight. He was wasting my time.”
Llelas pointed to the dais. “Sit down.”
Ellis went and sat on the edge and started unwrapping her hands.
“This is not a waste of your time, Ellis,” Llelas said gravely. He settled on the floor, cross-legged, a few feet away. “He did not come here to fight you, so why was he here?”
“To irritate me?”
“To test you, I think,” Llelas said. “To see how you would respond should he try that again later. Perhaps at a time without witnesses.”
She glanced across at him. “To see if I like him?”
“Like is not what concerns him. He wants to know if you are…willing.”
She returned to unwrapping her right hand. “I’m not. I thought I made that clear.”
“In this setting, you did,” Llelas said. “But the next time?”
She caught his meaning. It was one thing to snap at Sereis when she had Captain Sirtris and Llelas present. They would never have allowed Sereis to pressure her. Likely the only reason Llelas had allowed Sereis to go as far as he had was to make a point…to her. “So what do I do?”
“Well, for the time here, you should not pursue him, even if you wish.”
She couldn’t tell from his expression whether he was joking or not. “I don’t wish.”
Llelas’ head bobbled and he half-shrugged. “I cannot be sure without asking you. But, you cannot know whether he will be as not interested. So if he tries again?”
“Ah, this is where I step on his foot or kick him in the balls. That’s why you’ve been teaching me that.”
“Not the only reason,” he said. “But you must start watching the men around you. I would want to say that they are all worthy of trust, but…that is never true.”
This was a shade worse than learning that Mikhal Deviron had developed an infatuation with her the previous year. Fortunately, he’d outgrown that. She trusted the four cadets of East. And Llelas, of course. But Thomas and Llelas planned for her to spend time fighting other cadets this year, and she had no idea how each of them viewed her. I’m about to learn.
“Any way to predict which ones will be a problem and which won’t?” she asked. With sixteen cadets all living in the Reserve House, surely they wouldn’t have any secrets left after more than a year. Although now that she thought about it, Llelas had kept his secret from most of them, so that might not be valid.
“Heall and Yefin are betrothed,” he said, something she already knew. Yefin would marry as soon as this year was over, likely next May. And if she understood correctly, being betrothed in the mountains was the same as married already, so Heall had a wife. “Jerin, Thomas, and Mikhal you know,” Llelas added. “Dleyan and Sean have girls in the capital, and John, too. I think. Arhen has a boyfriend there. The others, I do not know. I know a couple of them go whoring when the time is allowed.”
Ellis felt herself blinking, trying to process the idea that any of the cadets she knew went whoring in the capital over the weekends. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that the cadet sitting before her had confessed to that in the past, too. “And you?”
Llelas laughed shortly. “I made an oath. I promised there would be no more women, no more drugs, no more drinking. Not until I married. I have embarrassed my brother enough.”
“Didn’t you have a beer at the solstice?” There had been a party in the village, and she’d seen Llelas handed a beer at one point. Or perhaps that had been Mikhal.
“No. I had one, but gave it away. I keep my promises. It is simpler for me to be forbidden all than to try to have only one drink.” He shrugged eloquently. “It is my family’s special words.”
He frowned, gazing at the wood of the ballroom floor. “The words that are on drawings with the name Sevireiya. As on old…papers and documents.”
“Oh. A motto? Your family motto?”
“Yes,” he said. “It is for each family. Your family says We Serve, yes?”
That was, indeed, the Dantreon family motto. A little old-fashioned to use one, but both of them came from old families. “So, what is yours?”
“It is in Relance, but…” He rose to his feet, apparently pondering the best translation. “Forever, all or nothing.”
That actually suited him quite well, Ellis decided.
Carmeyon played chess with Ellis the next evening, and she seemed unmoved by whatever it was that Fallarcassan had done to her. Once again, he was grateful that Sirtris was sitting in on those sparring session rather than himself, because he would have been tempted to rip Fallarcassan’s arms off.
I will never understand how Sirtris stays so calm about everything.
Verin insisted on coming over to watch the game, but after one quelling glance from Ellis, he resisted the urge to coach her. Carmeyon could almost feel his brother snickering to himself as he watched Ellis keep his queen at bay. But he managed to place her king in check and take the game on the next move.
“That took far longer than it should have,” Verin pointed out afterward. “If I’d been playing her, I would have had her in nine moves.”
Carmeyon was fairly sure Verin pulled that number out of the air. “Miss Dantreon, would you like to play him?”
Ellis’ eyes narrowed as she gazed at Verin. “I’ve only been playing for a year.”
Verin grinned at her. “Long enough.”
So Verin switched seats with him and they set up the board anew. Carmeyon held his tongue while Verin matched each of her moves and, in exactly nine, declared a checkmate. “Told you so,” he said.
Ellis peered down at the board. “Oh. I see what you did now.”
“It’s a fairly classic opening gambit,” Verin said with a dismissive shrug.
“Do not start in on a chess lecture.” Carmeyon turned to Ellis. “There are plenty of books to teach you every gambit out there, if you want to spend time learning that.”
“I should have thought of that before,” she said. “Would it be worth my time?”
Carmeyon shook his head. “That depends entirely on your objective in playing chess. If you’re after the fast win like my brother here, then yes.”
“Carmeyon plays the long, boring, chatty game,” Verin said. “That’s why he loses so often.”
Ellis’ lips pressed together like she was having deep thoughts.
“Admittedly,” Carmeyon said, “Verin will beat me almost every time.”
“You have different priorities when you play,” Ellis said. “Does your sister play like your brother, sir?”
Carmeyon held his groan inside. “I don’t know how exactly she plays, but she wins more frequently than I do.”
Verin found that uproariously funny, and nearly knocked over the board while slapping his knee.
From his table closer to the window, Sirtris said mildly, “Miralys cheats, Carmeyon.”
He turned about to see whether Sirtris was serious. “No, she doesn’t.”
“Yes, she does.” Still chuckling, Verin gripped the edge of the board to keep it on the small table.
Sirtris continued to write in his journal. “She moves pieces while you’re not looking, Carmeyon. A couple of times, I’ve seen her palm one.”
Oddly, Carmeyon could believe that Miralys cheated, now that he considered it. Sirtris’ betrayal was the part he didn’t believe. “And you never mentioned this to me?”
“It’s only chess,” Sirtris said dismissively as he put his pen away. “Not treason.”
Well, he has a point. “Did she ever tell you how she found out what your given name is?” As long as he’d known Sirtris, he’d managed to keep that information secret, only to have Miralys divulge earlier that year that she knew it. She still hadn’t told Carmeyon. “Did she get Revasien to tell her?”
Sirtris closed his journal and puffed out his cheeks. “No. She wrote to my mother.”
It was Carmeyon’s turn to laugh. “Your mother? How on earth did she get your mother’s address?”
“I suspect that did come from Revasien.”
“He gave out personnel information?” Verin asked, sounding scandalized.
“No, of course not, the sub-marshal wouldn’t do that,” Sirtris said. “He borrowed a personal letter and asked her to leave it on the table in the hallway for me. She filched it instead.”
“Why would he borrow a letter from you?” Carmeyon asked.
Sirtris rose and gathered his things. “You would have to ask him.”
Ellis had peered at Sirtris throughout the discussion, her head tilted to one side as if viewing a particularly perplexing anagram. Carmeyon turned to her. “An observation?”
Her eyes flicked between him and Sirtris, who was escaping out the library door. “No, sir. Nothing, sir.”
Verin laughed again and pushed himself out of Carmeyon’s usual chair. “Miralys lives to torture Sirtris. I’m going to go over to the Reserve House and see if any of the cadets are looking for help. Miss Dantreon, it was a pleasure.”
She rolled her eyes, but bid him a good night.
“Another game?” Carmeyon asked, hoping this time he would have a chance to chat with her.
She agreed, and they played a long, slow game wherein he learned how she felt about all her classes this year, how her lessons with Farrier and Sevireiya were going—skirting the issue with Fallarcassan—and how pleased she was with Miss Eladine’s legal situation. Once the manumission papers came through, Carmeyon felt sure he could find an old school friend who would be willing to help her file for Jenear citizenship. Or perhaps Sirtris’ family had already thought of that, too.
“I prefer playing against you, sir,” she said, even though he’d won.
“Because you’d win more often?”
“No, sir. I just enjoy your company better than your brother’s.”
He shook his head. “I’ll make sure to tell him that later.”
Ellis rose and dusted off the front of her trousers, a reflex more than anything else. “Goodnight, sir.”
“Goodnight, Miss Dantreon.” For all that he often felt like everything at this school constantly slipped out of his control, at least he knew where Ellis stood on everything.