The Passing of Pawns, Chapter 9

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Ellis woke in the morning to see the sun reflecting brightly into her room from the courtyard. A heavy snow had fallen. The sky must have cleared early in the morning. She rolled over and watched the fire in her grate, not wanting to leave the warmth of her bed. Her coat hung by the door, she had a blanket thrown over her, and the fire glowed warmly. Someone had already been in and out of her room.

She still wore her dress from the night before. Feeling guilty, she finally got up and got dressed, or rather got undressed and then dressed again in an old pair of trousers, vest and sweater. Her hair, still trapped inside a twist of ribbons, proved to be a challenge. Eventually she worked all of the ribbons out and braided her hair back in its normal plait. She carefully hung the blue dress, reckoning that Merielle would spirit it off to sponge and press it later.

She discovered plenty of food left over from the previous night in the larder: mince pie, lemon curd pie, and chocolate torte. Ellis settled on a small slice of the mince. She sat on one of the kitchen tables and consumed her prize, wondering if anyone but the maids had risen.

She climbed off the table and went to the library, pulling dog-hair from her sweater as she went. Light reflected off the snow-covered drive into the library, making it seem cheery. The captains sat in the two chairs before the hearth, facing sideways, so they saw her as she came in. Not wanting to interrupt their discussion, she looked through the mail on the table, and then finally chose one of the newspapers, picking a Relance one so she could practice.

Captain Sirtris left, probably heading back to the Reserve House to drag the cadets out of their beds and get them to some useful occupation. Captain Dantreon came over to her, glancing down at her list before he sat down.

“What are you doing?” he asked, puzzled.

“These are the words I don’t know. I thought Jerin could translate them for me, sir.”

“Are you going to read the entire paper that way?”

“I really should.”

The captain stretched out his legs, looking down at the tips of his boots. He wore his uniform, which made her wonder if he owned anything else. “Did you enjoy yourself last night?” he asked.

“It was very nice,” she answered. “The musicians were wonderful. I still think Merielle is the best.”

“She is very talented. Did my brother annoy you?”

He must be after something, she thought. “I didn’t even see Verin. Was he there, sir?”

“No. I meant Sivian, though.”

“Beyond dragging me onto the dance floor, no.”

“You danced with Jerin as well, though.”

“Jerin’s nice to me. Well, he’s nice to everyone, but he’s particularly nice to me, sir.”

“He finished up the evening rather poorly, didn’t he?”

Finally. Now she knew what this conversation was about. “I think you mean he was drunk, sir. Yes, I noticed.”

Captain Dantreon peered at her, a single line or concern between his brows. “Is that something he does regularly?”

“I don’t think so. I can’t be sure, but it certainly upset Llelas. I think he feels like he has to be Jerin’s guardian–older cousin and all.”

“Which would explain why he dragged Jerin out of bed last night and pinned his ears back.”

Pinned his…? “Literally?”

“No, of course not. Figuratively, but loudly enough that we all heard it. In his condition, I’ll bet Jerin thought his head would explode.”

Poor Jerin. Llelas probably chewed him up one side and down the other. “Llelas thinks Jerin is better than that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Llelas knows Anton and Hessien Marisi and has a very low opinion of them. He thinks Jerin is a better man than they are, so it worries him to see Jerin do something his brothers might do.”

“Like getting drunk at a winter festival.”

“I suppose so, sir.”

He’d stolen her pencil and sat silently flipping it through his fingers. Ellis considered grabbing it back, but decided not to. He seemed to be using it as a thinking tool.

“How do you suppose he knows them? Jerin told me he’d never met Llelas before he came here.” Evidently, the captain’s mind had gone off down a side road.

“I have no idea. I just know he doesn’t like them. He says their names the way he would talk about ticks.”

“Blood-sucking parasites?”

Ellis couldn’t help but laugh. She had a feeling that it might be an oddly appropriate comparison. “I gather he would concur. I think he knows things about Jerin’s brothers that Jerin doesn’t.”

The captain nodded slowly. “Jerin wants to believe people are good at heart.”

“True. If there are problems, one day he’ll find out,” she said quietly. “I think it’ll break his heart.”

The captain didn’t respond for a minute, and Ellis, unable to resist the urge any longer, stole the pencil out of his fingers when it paused in its motion. He gave her a startled look, as if he had no idea where the pencil came from.

“I’m always finding out,” he said, “there are things that I don’t know. Sirtris is engaged to marry my sister.”

“Thomas says it’s like your bottom lip, sir,” she said after deciding not to point out all the signs that she’d noted. “You can hardly see it because your nose is in the way.”

“You aren’t surprised?”

She sighed. “I couldn’t figure out why she was so…mean to Llelas, but then I saw it was all a game. Whenever she got too close to someone you didn’t like, you always asked Sirtris to go extract her. That made it obvious.”

“Obvious? It wasn’t to me. The next time something becomes obvious to you, please feel free to tell me.”

Ellis laughed at the plaintive sound in his voice. She supposed he felt slighted, left out of his sister’s plan. They talked about his family for a time, and then he left for the Reserve House to talk with Jerin.

Llelas found her there a while later. They practiced in the ballroom with Captain Sirtris monitoring them, but the practice session ran shorter than usual. Llelas seemed distracted, Ellis thought, and had very little criticism to offer.

The remainder of the day she spent with Mikhal and a profoundly apologetic Jerin. After dinner, the two cadets returned to the Reserve House, leaving Ellis to some much needed solitary thought.


December 23, 494

I think the captain is feeling much as I did when I found out that everyone knew about my half-brothers but me. I can’t help but sympathize. I suppose he feels like they didn’t trust him, but I think Captain Sirtris just hadn’t made a decision until the last few days, so he didn’t say anything. After that, he might have been waiting for the right moment and it never came. Sometimes that happens. Perhaps it never was the right time to tell me about my brothers, so no one ever got around to it.

Jerin heard the blacksmith in the village say he intended to come court Merielle-—which tells me why Jerin drank so much last night. Poor Jerin has his head in the clouds most of the time. Thankfully, Merielle is more sensible than he is.

I worry that I’ve made Llelas angry somehow, but usually if I do he just “pins my ears back” like he apparently did Jerin’s. He seemed cool to me today.


The spring session meant more Engineering and Galasiene.

Captain Melieren gave more of his bewildering lectures and Verin interpreted for the cadets later. The captain concentrated on logistics this time, or rather the technologies involved in logistics–roads, rail and bridges. Every topic had two facets: how to build such things, and how to render them unusable. The former proved the more difficult of the two, especially since the other side usually wanted to prevent that construction.

Galasiene turned out to be fascinating. Captain Sirtris made an excellent teacher, as Ellis recalled from his brief time instructing history the year before. The Galasiene were an insular people who usually didn’t go far beyond their borders. Sirtris was a true aberration.

Galas had the status of a territory, which meant it also had no vote in the Council. It had been neatly split by treaty between Verina and Jenear nearly a century ago with no say being given to the people there about the matter. An arbitrary line divided the people. Those to the east found themselves citizens of Jenear, and those to the west, Versh. They lived under two different sets of laws and two different kings.

Fortunately, both sides of the border used the same language. Not a structurally complex language like Cantros, but it used a different alphabet, which made it difficult for Ellis to learn since she had to translate the letters first, then the word.

Merielle found Ellis’ exercises fascinating. She’d never learned to read or write her native tongue, only Versh. Speaking Galasiene had been forbidden to her and all her companions after the debtors’ prison. It both saddened and intrigued Ellis when Merielle spoke of that time, like a doorway into the part of her life that she’d tried to lock away.

“I wonder if I could learn to speak it a little?” Merielle said one night in January, her expression wistful.

“It wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Ellis said. “Perhaps you could sit in the back of the classroom.”

Fortunately, Merielle had found that proposition shocking, since Captain Sirtris immediately disallowed it on the grounds that Merielle wasn’t one of the cadets. “However,” the captain said thoughtfully, “if Miss Eladine would not mind losing part of her off time, I would be happy to set up a regular time for her to study with me, provided that you accompany her.”

That was a simple bargain. Ellis had almost no time to herself as it was, but there would be value in her hearing Sirtris repeat parts from his lessons. She could definitely use work on her pronunciation. So the next Wednesday evening she bullied Merielle toward the library, and was surprised to find not only Sirtris there, but Miralys Dantreon as well. Merielle sat down quickly, as if she wanted to be out of their way.

Ellis wondered briefly whether Miralys was suspicious of Merielle but brushed that aside. Despite being from the same country, the captain and Merielle had nothing in common.

“I hope you don’t mind my horning in on your studies,” Miralys said to Merielle then. “I need the practice, too. I do expect to spend time in Galas in the future.”

Ellis hadn’t given much thought to her cousin’s future. “You do?”

“Of course.” Miralys pulled out a chair, sat, and lightly touched Merielle’s hand. “Whenever we do move there, if you would like to come visit with us, I would be happy to tour some of the country with you. Whatever you wish to see.”

Sitting at the end of the table, Ellis watched the two of them talk, Merielle’s natural shyness a stark counterpart to Miralys’ outgoing friendliness. When Sirtris came in a moment later, precisely on time, he actually smiled at his future wife.

It turned out that Miralys read Galasiene, but when she tried to speak it, her pronunciation was atrocious, an unfortunate side-effect of teaching herself the language. She claimed that at her school, she would sneak out late at night to study in an old, cobweb-filled attic room so the light of her lamp wouldn’t wake the other girls. By the twinkle in her eye, Ellis guessed that was a dramatic reading of the actual circumstances, but Merielle seemed to believe it. It was only after they finished the first lesson, which involved a good deal of self-deprecating laughter on Miralys’ part, that Ellis had a few seconds alone with her cousin. “Are you planning on coming every week?”

“If you don’t mind,” Miralys said taking one of Ellis’ hands in her own. “You don’t, do you?”

“No, it would mean that if I had to study something else, Miralys would still be able to have her lesson.” Ellis had worried about that, given her own workload.

“Good. Damon was worried about the girl’s reputation if he spent time alone with her. It’s ridiculous, but people make certain inferences because they’re the only two Galasiene out here. However, with his wife-to-be present, no one can think anything ill about their meeting.” She leaned closer. “Plus, Damon will have to escort me back to the village now. About the only time we have alone together, so I have a strong motive for coming here.”

Ellis recalled that Miralys cheated at chess, so it didn’t surprise her that her cousin had multiple motives for joining them.


Llelas sat on the rooftop of the Reserve House. There was no snow tonight, but the gardens below still held their coat of white from the last time. It was beautiful, serene, with almost not wind, which kept it from being nastily freezing.

Once he thought he was ready, he sent his spirit-self out, seeking his family. Sovre was in the capital again, working late in his study that looked warm and cozy under the gaslights. He found Siva in her cabin in the woods, wrapped up in a thick, patterned blanket before the fire as she flipped through a tattered children’s book filled with pictures; his sister didn’t read, one of the reasons Sovre wanted her to come and live with them, so she could learn. His father seemed to be in a small room, laid out on a narrow bed, which was better than the opium dens, Llelas decided. And Grandfather?

He was having trouble finding Grandfather of late.

The woman who’d found Grandfather begging on a street somewhere in Verina in the early winter had taken her to a whorehouse. Grandfather wouldn’t go there if she didn’t want to be there—it wasn’t as if Grandfather couldn’t simply Move herself away to safety at any time—so Llelas knew this was Grandfather’s scheme. Fortunately for Llelas’ grasp on his sanity, Grandfather hadn’t been made to sell herself, but instead was working as a maid. He still didn’t know why, though, and what this had to do with the aras Grandfather was hunting. Giving up on that search, Llelas opened his eyes.

There was a girl sitting next to him on the roof. Barefoot and dressed in maid’s garb, Galasiene and a little pregnant—Grandfather.

Kijal!” Llelas snapped. “Do not do that.”

The girl chuckled softly and flipped her dark blond braid over her shoulder. “Worth it.”

Llelas took a deep breath, taking in the cold air. “Where have you been?”

Her breath steamed in the cold air. “You know that. You spied on me enough.”

Llelas shook his head. “Why, then?”

Grandfather gazed at him, her expression amused. “I had an enemy to kill, of course.”

Ah, yes. The escaped aras. “And…did you?”

Grandfather took a deep breath. “Yes, and no. I was wrong before. This was not, as I thought, a matter of a few scouts sent ahead to find a new place for their cluster. This was a seed cluster.”

“Make me understand that,” Llelas said.

“Instead of sending out scouts, they sent out a queen and a handful of workers.”

Grandfather was fond of ant analogies, even though Llelas had no idea how Grandfather had learned about the insects.  “And what does that mean?”

“That there were several sent. And while I eliminated the queen, I was not able to discover how many were with her. I cannot know if there are any left. If there are, they may stay in Verina or go elsewhere, come here. I wish I could answer that.”

That meant that they would have to remain vigilant forever. “Then nothing has changed.”

“No, it is very different. I left Arelas centuries ago, where my kind was few and increasingly hemmed in by human settlement. But these newcomers are not fleeing here to escape persecution. If they sent out seed groups, that means they are too crowded in Arelas, too powerful. And that means they will keep coming. They had discovered a way to bend humans to their needs. This is colonization, little boy.”

Llelas gazed at that pale face, a sick feeling growing in his stomach. “When can we expect them to come?”

Grandfather shook her head. “We think in longer term than humans. They will give this cluster we found time to establish themselves or fail.”

Llelas shifted on the hard, cold stone. “How long?”

Grandfather licked her lips. “Fifteen years? Fifty? Hard to tell.”

“Are you sure she’s dead?”

Grandfather’s near-white eyebrows rose. “Very very sure.”

Do not ask how. “Um…what will you do now?”

Grandfather leaned back on her arms, staring up at the stars. “I will go back to the Marisi Palace, keep an eye on Anton.”

She would go back to being the maid there, then, Aelis. “Do you never tire of cleaning floors?”

“I enjoy working with my hands,” Grandfather said with a shrug.

Llelas gazed at the Galasiene woman next to him. “Are you truly pregnant?”

“No, I was faking it.” Her swollen stomach abruptly flattened, a freakish thing that made Llelas’ stomach turn uneasily. “That was one reason I had to make my move so fast—I can only extend my stomach that much, and the mistress was becoming suspicious.”

Grandfather had been gone for several months hunting this aras, and yet she called her move so fast. Llelas supposed when one was hundreds of years old, one could think that way.

Grandfather Moved herself away then, gone as quickly and silently as she’d come.


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