Their Cantros instructor left a week before the winter break with instructions that any final exams could be sent to him in Perisen. It hardly surprised the cadets, who passed it off as another sign of the man’s persistent aloofness. Ellis, however, was one of the few who knew what had passed the previous weekend in the library of the manor house, when Siviata suggested that Captain Dantreon and his brothers could work their way back into the good graces of their mother’s family by agreeing to an advantageous marriage he’d arranged for their sister. The language—what Ellis could follow—had become increasingly heated, until Siviata and the captain were yelling at each other in Cantros. Captain Sirtris finally broke in to calm them down.
Ellis, standing just outside the library door at that point—in case the captain needed someone to throw books at Siviata—was rather surprised to discover that Sirtris spoke Cantros very well. Then again, the man was good at everything, so she shouldn’t be too shocked. Either way, he managed to calm the agitated Siviata and walked with him back to the Reserve House. Ellis had no idea what Sirtris said to him, but the man packed up and left.
The remaining week went smoothly, though, and at its end, the cadets held a celebration out at the Reserve House. They claimed it was to honor the season, but Ellis knew they were actually hailing Master Overton’s departure. Once Overton left, the mood at the estate improved markedly. They’d endured him for the remainder of the session, sitting poker stiff in his class and never saying a word. Her score on his exam seemed unfairly low, but Ellis didn’t complain.
And the number staying over the holiday would be larger this year. Not only were Mikhal and Llelas remaining at Amiestrin, but Jerin had decided to forego returning to the bosom of his family in Perisen, despite the fact that his mother had ordered him to return home. He wrote an excruciatingly polite letter declining the request, the first time, he told Ellis, he’d ever defied his mother.
Marshal Dantreon wasn’t taking his family to their home in the capital, either. Instead, Verin and Sivian–about whom Ellis had heard just enough to make her curious–would be coming to Kensit. Captain Dantreon would stay at the Reserve House while his brothers took rooms at the inn, the house their father rented in the village being too small to hold them all. There was, the captain told Ellis one evening, a room being held for Andrian in case he decided to come. Ellis felt sorry for little Idiris, whose father didn’t think her worth returning for.
The day after most of the cadets left, Ellis finally made time to go see the seamstress in the village, Mrs. Tolan. A week prior, Mrs. Verus had taken Ellis measurements to order a new set of uniforms. Since Ellis was too young to be an official member of the Guard, she didn’t have a salary, but Marshal Severin himself had agreed to pay for the uniforms from a fund set aside for clothing and housing of members of the Guard in distress. It was a strange compromise, one of many they’d had to make since her father ordered her placement in the Guard. Either way, Mrs. Verus had warned Mrs. Tolan to expect Ellis’ visit. The seamstress already had much of the work finished, needing only final fittings for the new uniforms and greatcoat to be ready.
“You’ve finally filled out a bit, I was telling the husband at church last week,” Mrs. Tolan told her. “Good to know the dress will hang proper.”
Ellis blinked, not sure whether she was more horrified that her boyish physique was a topic of discussion at church or shocked there was a dress among her planned garments. “Um…dress?”
“Yes, we’ll fit that once I’ve got your sleeves done.” She gently pushed Ellis back into place in front of an old gilt-edged mirror. “Now, stand straight so I can mark them.”
Ellis took a breath and stood up straight. “I didn’t order a dress.”
“It was on the order list,” Mrs. Tolan said firmly.
Ellis frowned. “I don’t think the Guard will pay for anything other than uniforms.”
“It’s already paid for,” Mrs. Tolan mumbled, rubbing the chalk against Ellis’ sleeve cuff. “So don’t worry yourself about it.”
The dress was made of blue wool, lined but still light enough to be worn most of the year. And it was the same color as her dress uniform. Ellis didn’t think she’d recognize herself in any other color now. Although the neckline couldn’t be considered low, especially when compared with some of the ones she’d seen last solstice, it surprised her to see her collarbones bared above the oval of the dress’ neckline.
She swallowed. At least the dress’ simple lines flattered her admittedly-boyish figure. As plain as she was, she wouldn’t be able to live up to anything grander. “It’s lovely.”
When Ellis finally managed to find the housekeeper at the estate, Mrs. Verus explained that the money for the new wardrobe had not come from the strained household budget as Ellis had feared. “I believe Miss Eladine ordered a dress for you at the same time she ordered one for herself.”
It took even longer to track down Merielle, who, Ellis found shifting one of the couches in the rotunda to clean under it herself. She helped lift the couch enough that Merielle could dust under it, then helped move it back. “Did you pay for the seamstress to make me a dress?” she asked once they’d set it down.
Merielle’s already-flushed cheeks bloomed with new color. “She wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“She didn’t,” Ellis admitted. “Not directly. But why?”
Merielle opened her mouth to speak, then paused. Then she said, “No one will let me pay them back. The captain said they won’t, and I know you won’t now, and I’ve been saving my money for four years now. So…I thought Mrs. Tolan could make you a dress for the solstice party. I mean, I know you don’t have one, so…”
Pay them back? “Have you been saving money all along to pay for the…for what I paid?”
“That was my father’s money in the first place,” Ellis said. “And he never really cared what I did with it.”
Merielle fixed her with a rare dry expression, head tilted to one side.
Stupid argument. Ellis knew better than anyone the long-term consequences of that one rebellion against her father’s orders. “But you don’t have to.”
“I want to,” Merielle said. “I want to feel like I’ve…gotten past that.”
Ellis felt her brows draw together. She wished Merielle didn’t feel indebted, but she didn’t know any way to stop her from feeling that way. There’s no way that I can understand what this means to her.
“It’s a nice dress,” she finally said. “Thank you.”
Merielle beamed. “Now all you need to do is learn to dance.”
The new boots arrived first, three pair in all, a shocking extravagance. Each pair fit perfectly, without the feel of a single nail in the sole. They didn’t squeak, although they did crackle after the fashion of new leather. The boot maker even included extra laces. The new uniforms showed up the next day. Fresh cloth without the accumulated scents of years of wear. Ellis almost hated to put one on, but the sleeves actually covered her wrists and the jacket fit through the shoulders and chest, where her already-let-out uniforms of last year had grown uncomfortably tight.
And the dress was, as she’d said, very nice. Merielle proclaimed it exactly the right color. She borrowed blue ribbons from Melia and promised to weave them into Ellis’ hair for the festival. Since they had more than a week to wait, Ellis carefully folded the blue dress and put it away in her armoire. At least this year I won’t look like a crow.
Jerin set about teaching her to dance. He could instruct her, but he couldn’t do so while he played. Eventually that problem solved itself when Sivian Dantreon arrived from university.
Sivian strongly resembled the captain, far more so than Verin, but he lacked his brother’s seriousness. After only a day at Kensit, he had already fallen into trouble with his father over half-a-dozen trifles, so he began to ride out to Amiestrin every day. Ostensibly, he came to visit the captain, but Ellis suspected he just wanted to keep out of his father’s hair. She found him amusing, and he was more than willing to teach her to dance.
Unfortunately, what looked to be simple when she watched others do it was in truth a confusing stream of steps and counter steps. When she stepped on Sivian’s toes enough times, he declared her hopeless at dancing with a partner and that she should just learn the men’s dances instead. At least she wouldn’t step on anyone else’s toes, he reasoned.
She didn’t point out that she would be wearing a dress to the festival. If she had, he likely wouldn’t have paid her any heed.
In truth, she found them easier. She didn’t have to worry about where a partner had gone. However, if she placed a foot improperly, she often ended up on the floor. Sivian just laughed at her and hauled her back up, thoroughly merciless when she made mistakes. Mikhal didn’t approve, but held his tongue and made suggestions far more helpful than Sivian’s.
Llelas laughed along with Sivian. They seemed to feed off each other, each coming up with a worse insult to describe her lack of ability. Ellis realized it had become a game between them, so she didn’t take it too personally. After a time it simply became ridiculous.
But dancing was harder work than Ellis had ever suspected, and she went to bed almost as tired as if she’d spent the entire day sparring.
Winter Solstice dinner would be a regular feast this year. Not only was Jerin added to their company, but, after thinking about it, Ellis decided she would invite the marshal’s family to join them for dinner. Her request surprised the marshal, but he accepted all the same. So all of the marshal’s family–save his eldest son–appeared at Amiestrin on Winter Solstice day after services in the village.
The dinner proved a merry one, particularly when compared to the previous year. Afterward, Merielle played for them in the rotunda. None of the Dantreons had heard her play before and she performed splendidly, hardly nervous at all this year.
Later that evening, when the Dantreons had returned to the village and the three other cadets retired to the Reserve House, Ellis wandered back to the library. Captain Dantreon and Captain Sirtris lingered over coffee there, so Ellis joined them near the fire. She had walked in on the middle of a conversation but neither seemed to mind, so she sat and waited, listening as they talked.
Captain Dantreon ran a hand through his dark hair, rumpling it. “I suppose you had about as much fun watching over my sister,” he was saying to the other captain.
“I managed to keep her out of trouble,” Sirtris responded coolly.
“She showed up at dinner without any stains on her dress, twigs in her hair or rips in her hem,” Captain Dantreon observed.
“I did not allow her to climb trees.” Sirtris cast a glance in Ellis’ direction. “Did Sivian step on your toes?”
“No. I stepped on his, I’m afraid, sir.”
“Not everyone is a dancer,” he said in consolation.
Ellis grinned. “According to Sivian and Llelas, I shouldn’t even go near the festival for fear the roof might collapse, sir.”
“Oh, dear.” Captain Dantreon seemed inclined to deliver his brother a lecture on politeness, but Ellis just laughed about it. Better they exercise their wit on her than Mikhal, she told him, since she wouldn’t take it as personally.
They stayed there talking until almost midnight, when Captain Sirtris started to yawn. Realizing the hour, Ellis decided to return to her rooms and let them go back to the Reserve House, since the next day would be long as well.
December 22, 494
I’m looking forward to the Winter Festival. Merielle is far more comfortable this year than last, and now I know what to expect.
Llelas has been exceptionally nice this last week, and I don’t have a single bruise on my face. Merielle promised to help me put up my hair. Certainly, no one will ask me to dance. I don’t think that anyone would have the nerve, which is just as well. Sivian, despite being passably nice, is a terrible teacher.
I enjoyed sitting with the captains this evening and just talking. With all my extra duties, I haven’t had the chance to do so for a long time.
She ripped out the page and tossed it in the fire, smiling.