Merielle managed to get all of Ellis’ hair up into a neat knot at the nape of her neck, with blue ribbons wound through the braids. Ellis sat on the edge of her bed, praying it wouldn’t all fall down when she moved. She’d forgotten the feel of having all that hair massed at the back of her head, and it seemed precarious.
One thing had escaped her notice earlier in the week. She had no slippers to match the blue dress. Her old black slippers no longer fit, not surprising since not much of her old wardrobe did. In the end, she wore her new pair of uniform boots, hoping the dress would cover them.
She went down to meet the other three cadets at the stables, her new greatcoat keeping out the chilly wind. The air promised new snow, and Ellis knew a heavy snowfall would come soon, so she’d prepared for the worst. She buttoned her coat up to her neck as she walked.
The staff had gone on earlier, taking Merielle with them, so the cadets left last. Jerin, Llelas and Mikhal were at the stables, mounts saddled and waiting when she got there. Jerin waved as she walked down the path, and a puzzled look crossed his face when she stopped suddenly in her tracks.
Kijal, she whispered when she saw his odd look. She’d missed another detail. She couldn’t ride in this dress. When she’d gone to the festival last year, she’d ridden in the carriage with Melia, so there hadn’t been a problem.
Llelas realized her dilemma first. A grin crossed his face and he shook his head. He waved for her to come down anyway, and Ellis walked into the stable yard, holding her skirt up to keep it out of the dirt.
“I will help you up,” he told her, “and you can ride behind your cousin.”
Ellis flushed. Jerin didn’t seem to mind, though. He mounted and Llelas came over to lift her up behind him. He put his hands around her waist and hoisted her up onto the horse’s rump.
“Enough alike to be brother and sister,” Llelas commented in an amused voice. “It looks like you have raided your brother’s closet.”
If Llelas was amused enough to tease, it couldn’t be too bad. Ellis put her arms lightly around Jerin’s waist and balanced herself behind him.
“I’ve never ridden like this before,” she whispered in Jerin’s ear.
“Well, don’t fall off, or I’ll leave you to walk.” Jerin joked. She heeded his warning all the same and tightened her arms around his waist.
Mikhal and Llelas preceded them out of the stable yard and headed down the road toward the village. They managed to reach Kensit without any mishap–late, of course, but then, as Llelas had noted earlier, they didn’t have to help move any tables.
The dancing had already started, so they left their coats with a servant and went into the main hall. Jerin led Ellis and Mikhal to an empty table, and Llelas faded into the crowd near the edge of the dance floor, hunting for Captain Sirtris. Dancers circled the floor in some sort of pairs dance. Ellis sat down, determined to enjoy the whirl of color this year, and not to eat as many sweets.
Despite the many times he’d been in Jenesetta for the Winter Festival, Carmeyon decided he preferred the sheer pleasure the people of Kensit took in their celebration. The hall glowed with light, and every rafter and railing had been draped with greenery. Of course, the last year had been a good one for the village so the festive atmosphere was truly justified.
He spotted his father on the edge of the room, caught in a discussion with Sivian. Sivian’s scores on his most recent exams represented a nadir in the family’s history of scholarship. Carmeyon hoped Sivian would decide to leave university before the deans asked him to.
Across the room, Sirtris merely leaned against the wall, watching the dancing. Ellis sat at the table nearby with Jerin and Mikhal, her chin propped on her folded hands. She wore her new dress. The exact color that Jerin and Mikhal wore, Carmeyon still didn’t think he could get away with calling it a uniform. Nevertheless, he thought it suited her. Judging by her radiant smile, she liked it as well.
He saw Miralys and Idiris enter the hall then, just out of view of the dance floor. Miralys took her niece’s jacket from her and handed it to the girl in charge of the coats. Idiris immediately worked her way through the press of people to Carmeyon’s side. When she gestured, he bent down to listen to her request that he dance with her.
As he straightened up, he had the barest glimpse of his sister as she removed her own coat. Miralys had worn the most inappropriate dress she owned. Carmeyon couldn’t recall ever having seen it before. In the capital, the neckline would be considered daring. Here in Kensit, the villagers would call it scandalous.
Carmeyon grabbed Idiris’ hand and started hauling her toward the door, determined to reach Miralys before she entered the main room and earned the censure of the entire village. Unfortunately, too many people milled between him and the doorway.
Then he saw Sirtris slip out into the foyer. Sirtris placed Miralys’ coat back around her shoulders and had her out the door before anyone noticed. Carmeyon breathed a sigh of relief. Sirtris would probably take her over his knee and paddle her, he reckoned, but it would do Miralys good.
Idiris squeaked. Carmeyon realized he held her hand too tightly. He smiled down at her guiltily and apologized. He picked her up, deciding that would be easier than trying to drag the girl around the side of the dance floor again.
Sivian continued his argument with their father, clearly having missed Miralys’ aborted arrival. His father remained calm, clearly refusing to argue with Sivian in the midst of the celebration. Carmeyon whispered in Idiris’ ear and she nodded, a willing conspirator.
He interrupted his brother’s commentary. “Sivian, Idiris told me she’d like to dance with you, since you’re the best dancer in the family.”
He set Idiris on her feet and she promptly held out her hands to Sivian. Sivian’s scowl vanished as he led her out toward the floor.
Carmeyon glared after his youngest brother, exasperated. “I wanted to go and have a word with Miralys before she comes back, if you don’t mind, sir.”
His father turned his eyes away from the dancing. “Comes back? I wasn’t aware she arrived.”
“I believe she went home to change her dress. I hoped you’d watch after Idiris until I came back.”
“Certainly, although I think you should just take her with you.” He pointed to a tangle on the dance floor.
Sivian already walked back in their direction with Idiris in tow. A large reddish stain marred the front of her pale yellow dress. Tears ran down her pretty face.
Sivian ran a hand though his hair. “We wandered into someone on the edge of the floor,” he said apologetically. “I’m sorry, shorty.” He added that last to Idiris, who wiped at her face.
Carmeyon held his hand. “I was just going to the house. You can come with me and put on another dress.”
Idiris bit her lip and nodded, trying to look brave. He led her around the edges of the floor out to the foyer. The girl there quickly brought them their coats, and then he escorted his niece down the road to the house.
Miralys must have gone in the back door, Carmeyon realized, and walked around the back of the small house. Entering the mudroom, he could hear Miralys speaking from her bedroom. Idiris quickly hid herself behind the doorjamb and gestured for him to do so as well. “I’m going to be a spy,” she hissed at him.
A wonderful notion for the girl to have gotten in her head. Carmeyon recognized Miralys’ evil influence. He hid behind the doorjamb anyway.
“I need your help with these last two buttons, Damon.” Miralys’ voice sounded in the hallway now.
It took just a moment for Carmeyon to realize to whom she’d spoken. He heard someone rise from a chair in the sitting room and cross to the hallway, just out of his sight.
“Thank you,” Miralys said then, very quietly.
“I hope I’ve made myself perfectly clear. I do expect to be obeyed,” Sirtris said.
“Yes, Damon. Does this one meet your approval?”
“Yes. You may burn the other one. Where did you get a dress like that? I’m certain your father never bought you such a thing.”
“One of the girls at school gave it to me. It didn’t fit her.”
“Well, it doesn’t fit you either. I don’t care what the fashion in the capital is. If you wore a dress like that in Galas they’d call you a whore.”
Carmeyon almost interfered at that.
“So, this is acceptable?”
“I would rather see it up to here.”
“Now you sound like my brother.” By her tone, Carmeyon had no doubt which brother she meant.
“I am not your brother.” Sirtris answered her, his voice quieter.
Carmeyon strained to hear her answer but her voice was too soft. “Come on, we’d better get you a new dress,” he told Idiris then.
Idiris pulled him out into the hallway. The other two stood not ten feet away, and wouldn’t have noticed Carmeyon if he’d slammed the door coming in.
Miralys had one gloved hand knotted in Sirtris’ fair hair, her other arm around his waist. He was kissing her, or she him, and they were so intent on each other that they didn’t realize they had an audience. To Carmeyon’s eye, it definitely looked as if it had happened before.
He coughed into his hand. Idiris giggled, which made him wonder if she’d expected to catch them at this.
Sirtris pulled away, looking surprised but not at all guilty. Miralys turned around and saw them then. She took one look at Idiris, held out her hand imperiously, and led her niece from the hall toward her bedroom. She didn’t even spare a glance for Carmeyon.
Carmeyon stood staring at Sirtris. “Your given name is Damon?” he asked finally.
Sirtris actually laughed, his shoulders easing. “It’s a family name. And I hate it, so don’t use it.”
To be truthful, Carmeyon had suspected something far more dreadful. Damon, at least, sounded adequately serious for his friend.
“I meant to discuss this with you last night, but Ellis came into the library and I didn’t have the chance,” Sirtris said. Then, more seriously, “I thought you would take my head off.”
Carmeyon laughed shortly. “Perhaps tomorrow when I’ve figured this out.”
“I had planned to speak to your father tonight, after the festival, but Miralys forced my hand, so to speak. I would prefer you give me a chance to tell him first.” Sirtris looked perfectly calm now, as if they were discussing the weather, or…pancakes.
“How long has this been going on?” Carmeyon asked, aware that he sounded a bit plaintive.
Sirtris swallowed, his jaw clenching. “She told me four years ago she’d decided to marry me,” he admitted. “I knew her well enough to know that I was likely doomed. She isn’t the sort who gives up easily once she has an idea in her head.”
That would have been the summer of the cricket affair; his sister had only been fourteen. But even then, very headstrong. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t answer her directly. I just told her I would never marry a girl who couldn’t behave like a lady.” Sirtris shook his head. “I wasn’t certain she’d do it.”
But she’d meekly gone away to school to learn just that. Once Miralys made her mind up to something, Carmeyon knew, no one could change it. “She’s going to drive you insane.”
“Very likely. I believe the obey part of the vows will be our problem.”
“I heard that, Damon.” Miralys walked back into the hallway, Idiris in tow. Idiris now wore a rose-colored dress similar to her aunt’s, her hair ribbons and slippers changed as well. It seemed that a complete overhaul had been necessary to cheer his niece. “Your mother told me the appearance of obedience was sufficient in Galas,” Miralys said to Sirtris. “On both sides, if I’m not mistaken. She says that the appearance of marital unity was important there.”
Sirtris—Damon—sighed but didn’t argue further.
Miralys put her nose in the air. “Shall we go?”
Carmeyon shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. Nothing ever flustered her.
“You promised to dance with me,” Idiris reminded him. Tugging on Carmeyon’s hand. Evidently the memory of the horrid incident with Sivian had passed along with the ruined dress.
Carmeyon decided this was going to be a very long and evening.
Ellis noticed when half the Dantreons disappeared, along with Captain Sirtris. They all returned later, but she could tell something had happened. Captain Dantreon looked dumbfounded. He found a spot on one of the walls and leaned there, not talking. He wore his thinking look, so Ellis decided she’d best not intrude.
In the end, she did dance twice. Sivian asked her to step out on the floor with him. Ellis managed to survive that without embarrassing herself too badly. Then Jerin said that since her other cousin could dance with her, it would only be right for him to do so as well. He led her onto the floor where she stepped on his feet several times. Jerin just laughed.
For the most part, the male cadets danced most every other dance. Mikhal again managed to keep his feet under him the longest. Llelas did well for the first five tries but then claimed tiredness. Mikhal, having been won more beers than he knew what to do with, handed one to Ellis. She had no more than a few sips when Llelas returned to the table. Without asking, he took it from her and carried it off. He gave it to Captain Dantreon, who probably didn’t even look at what he drank.
Since Ellis knew more about Llelas now, she didn’t argue. He was trying to watch out for her–a kind thought on his part, even if annoying.
The evening passed quickly, though, with no repeat of the chaos that threatened last year when one of Grandfather’s kind had imitated Mikhal. She was grateful, because nothing distracted from Merielle’s wonderful performance, so much surer than last year. Several of the village’s younger men even asked to dance with her, although Merielle only danced a couple of times since she was one of the musicians.
The festival ended with one last dance. Afraid that she’d fall asleep at the table, Ellis stood up to watch the last string of dancers, not at their best. Melia Seran had told her the previous year that the men’s grace depended on how much they’d had to drink during the course of the night. Jerin joined the last group, earning one final beer, mostly by the course that most of the other men were overly-merry.
Llelas finally herded the other cadets together to ride back to Amiestrin, not as simple as it sounded. First, they had to retrieve their greatcoats, a chore Mikhal took on since Llelas had to keep a hand on Jerin. That task done, Llelas sent him to retrieve their horses. Waiting out in the cold dark, Ellis understood why he’d sent Mikhal rather than Jerin. Llelas grasped the sleeve of Jerin’s coat, keeping him close. Jerin, she realized, was drunk.
Mikhal looked sleepy when he returned with their three mounts, but otherwise unaffected by his several drinks. Evidently, he bore it better than her cousin did.
“What’s wrong with Jerin?” she whispered as Jerin mounted.
“I think that is clear,” Llelas answered, sounding cross.
He hadn’t understood her question precisely, Ellis decided. He climbed onto his dun gelding. “I do not think you should ride behind,” he said, holding out a hand. “You will fall asleep and then fall off.”
Ellis had to agree. She’d nearly fallen asleep in the hall. So she put her foot atop Llelas’ in the stirrup and jumped. She landed on the horse’s back and almost slipped back to the ground before Llelas steadied her. After a moment she got settled with her knee around the cantle of the saddle and Llelas’ right arm reaching around her to hold the reins.
Mikhal handed Jerin his reins, and Jerin took off down the main street at a trot.
“After him,” Llelas ordered, and Mikhal jumped up on his horse and followed his inebriated roommate.
“The blind leads the blind.” Llelas set his horse after the other two, but at a slower pace.
Once they’d reached the edge of the village, Ellis felt the cold seeping into her hands. She remembered putting her gloves in her pockets and decided to fish them out. It was difficult to do that with Llelas holding her.
“What in hell are you doing?” he snapped, showing an increased proficiency in cursing in Versh.
“Trying to get my gloves,” she answered reasonably, hoping not to provoke him any further.
“Well, stop this, or I am going to drop you.”
“Just let me get my gloves.”
“Put your damn hands in your pockets.”
“I can’t reach my pockets,” she snapped back at him. “If I could, I would have my gloves.”
He reined in the horse and stripped off his own gloves. “Put these on and stop complaining.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” she said.
“Then shut up.”
Llelas was in one of his foul moods, so Ellis crossed her arms and tried her best to ignore him. She elected not to mention that her legs had grown cold. He’d only mock her for wearing a dress and trying to pass herself off as a lady.
He woke her again in the stable yard.
Ellis blinked muzzily. She had turned sideways and wrapped an arm around his waist, which was a good deal more comfortable. She didn’t know how long the ride had taken, but it had begun to snow. At a walk, it must have taken near an hour to get here from the village.
Llelas slid down from the horse first and put his hands on her waist to help her, as if she couldn’t jump down from a horse by herself. He set her on her feet.
She blinked stupidly at him for a moment, still not quite lucid. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
“Go up to the house. You should get to bed.” He didn’t sound cross anymore. It sounded more like a pensive mood, strange from Llelas.
She decided not to argue and left him unsaddling his horse. She let herself in the back doors and went to her room. She fell asleep almost before her head touched the pillows.
Llelas sat on the roof in the feathery fall of snow. Jerin Marisi had collapsed in his bed, according to Mikhal, as soon as they returned to the Reserve House. He was grateful Jerin had arrived here alive, but rather annoyed at Jerin for getting drunk. They were all responsible for Ellis. Jerin’s condition had made him a liability rather than a help.
It frightened Llelas more than he would like to admit that they had all left Ellis in his care.
He would have expected Captain Dantreon at least to come and fetch the girl away from him. No one had come, though, and he had ridden through the snow with her in his arms.
She was hopelessly naïve, too caught up in her pursuit of accurate history and soldiering to pay attention to the men around her. He had even warned her, making her see that the others like Sereis lacked her seriousness. She thought too much.
He had never yet seen her react, save in anger. She went away and thought and thought and then decided how she felt. For some reason she believed others acted with their minds as well. The scar on her cheek should have proven to her that others were not always rational. Especially not me.
He closed his eyes and saw her lying on her bed, the bedclothes not even pulled back and her in her dress and boots. Her too-long hair still had the ribbons wound through it, although the braid was no longer pulled up in a knot. She held one fist against her cheek. She often slept that way.
Llelas opened his eyes again and watched the snow fall, cool and clean.
A handful of months to go, and he would be away from this place and any temptation he might feel to act inappropriately toward Ellis Dantreon. He was her teacher, and he could keep that status clear in his mind. He had vows to keep and a province to save, and he would not risk hurting her.