The Arranged Marriage

Rustling in the loft gave the girl away. For a moment, Sirtris considered walking on to the house. He could pretend he hadn’t heard anything, leave Miralys up there, and catch a nap before dinner. In the end, though, his sense of duty won out over his fatigue.

He hung up his tack and climbed the ladder to the loft. As he expected, he found his best friend Carmeyon’s fourteen-year-old sister huddled back in the hay, protectively clutching a fabric sack that wriggled.

Sirtris pulled himself into the loft, grateful he had enough room to stand upright. He disliked the idea of delivering a lecture from his knees. “Well, what is it this time?”

“They were going to drown them,” Miralys began, her large brown eyes welling with tears. She laid one slender arm across the sack as if concerned he might tear it away and stomp on the contents.

“Drown what?” The sack began to mewl, supplying the answer before she did. Cats—multiple cats. “Well, now that we’ve established their species, what made you think these beasts were in need of your rescue?”

She opened her mouth, closed it, and then lifted her chin and regarded him coolly, the regal effect ruined by a stray piece of hay lodged in her hair. “I was told so by a seer,” she said.

Sirtris fought the urge to roll his eyes. His own people, the Galasiene, didn’t generally give credence to such claims, but since he’d come to serve in the Guard in Jenear, he’d found reason to reconsider. His friend Carmeyon had the questionable taste to have been born into a family of seers. For the most part, Sirtris considered what they foresaw vague enough to be any other man’s educated guess, but their occasional accuracies made him hesitant to dismiss the Gift outright. “Who?”

A calculating look crossed Miralys’ face.

The Gift, Sirtris had been told, never passed to the females in the Dantreon family. Miralys should have been able to predict his next words anyway. “Don’t bother to lie.”

Her dark eyes went wide. “How dare you imply that?”

Miralys had a stable of various personas she donned when she thought they would help her get her way. He secretly called that one The Indignant Queen.

Sirtris heaved out a sigh. “Who? Exactly how many do you have in there? And from where did you get them?” He ticked the questions off on his fingers. “Answer all three.”

Her eyes slid toward upper corner of the loft, and her delicate nose twitched—a hint that she was trying to figure out what face to use on him next.

Sirtris wanted to shake the girl. At her age, she shouldn’t be getting into such ridiculous scrapes. “Do you want my help or not?”

When she didn’t respond, he headed back to the ladder, checking his blue uniform trousers for dust and hay.

“Wait,” she called after him. “You won’t tell Father, will you?”

Marshal Dantreon could hardly escape noticing a handful of felines introduced into his household. Sirtris wouldn’t need to say a word about them. He had no doubt the marshal would easily divine the source of the new arrivals. That was, if Miralys’ father hadn’t already predicted their appearance.

“I won’t tell him,” Sirtris conceded, “provided I get my answers.”

Miralys struggled to her feet, suddenly awkward—the Anxious Princess face. She’d evidently selected some of her oldest clothes for her cat-rescuing foray, which explained the brevity of her skirts. She’d grown over the summer and the hem exposed several inches of shapely leg along with very pretty feet.

Recognizing the direction of his thoughts, Sirtris forced his eyes back to the wriggling sack.

But Miralys quickly regrouped. She brushed hay from the mismatched skirt and weskit and promptly said, “Sirien, four, and the royal stables.”

Sirtris groaned. The Dantreons had ties to the royal family of Jenear—cousins of one degree or another—but Sirtris doubted that tenuous relationship gave Miralys the right to plunder the palace grounds. As a member of the Guard, he should drag her back to the garrison for theft, marshal’s daughter or not. Keeping his mouth shut would make him complicit in kitten theft.

Could he be tossed out of the Guard for kitten theft? No, probably not.

Even worse, the readiness with which she divulged the answers told him she’d intended to confess all along. Only now he’d agreed to help her, which made him exceptionally stupid, soft-hearted, or gullible. “Let me look at them.”

She lifted the sack—a lace-edged pillowcase with yellowish stains at the bottom—and held it open so he could view the tiger-striped inhabitants. Sirtris settled to one knee to get a better look, hoping he wasn’t grinding anything unpleasant into his uniform. “They aren’t weaned yet, Miralys.”

“Oh. But I can keep them in my room, can’t I? No one will know.”

Marshal Dantreon didn’t permit animals inside his house. He’d made a rule about it two summers before following the incident involving Miralys and a dozen lizards. Sirtris shook his head. “Your father would never allow it. We can ask Mrs. Winters if she’ll let you keep them in the kitchens somewhere out of the way. If not, they’ll have to stay here in the stable. And you’ll need to feed them every few hours.”

Her eyes filled with tears. They looked almost real–her Tortured Heroine face. “You will help me, won’t you?”

Sirtris rose and took the pillowcase from her. “These are your kittens, and you have to feed them. Do not think about suborning Mrs. Winters to do it for you—or any of the maids for that matter. They have enough work to do already.”

Still holding the wriggling bag with one hand, he made his way to the bottom of the ladder and politely stood aside while she clambered down. “Now,” he asked, “who exactly is this Sirien?”

Her eyes fixed on her dusty feet. “He told me not to tell.”

In the end, she did.

DividerVictorianBottom1

An hour later, with Mrs. Winter’s reluctant permission, the kittens rested in a basket in a corner of the family’s kitchen while Miralys fed them milk using one of her own rarely-worn gloves. Satisfied that he had everything under control, Sirtris decided he should pay a visit to the palace garrison.

A guardsman directed him to Captain Sirien Revasien’s office on the fourth floor of the vast garrison building. When Sirtris finally located the office, he found the door standing open, with no one at the receiving desk. He stood in the outer office, wondering what the proper protocol would be for interrupting a superior officer when their aide had disappeared.

“Ah, Lieutenant Sirtris,” an accented voice said from inside the inner office. “I have been expecting you.”

His own identity could be easily divined, Sirtris knew. He was the only Galasiene serving in the Guard. His blond hair and fair complexion stood out in this city of dark-haired olive-skinned Jenear.

But the captain hadn’t seen him yet. “Your door was open, sir,” Sirtris explained.

Captain Revasien came to his door and gestured for Sirtris to come into his office. The man visited the Dantreon household with some regularity, but Sirtris had never had the chance to speak to him. His accent and gloved hands told Sirtris that Revasien came from the northeastern mountains, where customs differed from those of the capital. And though the man had touches of gray in his dark hair, Sirtris suspected Revasien must be young for his rank. He didn’t seem serious enough.

“I sent the lieutenant to fetch some tea,” Revasien said, “and asked him to leave the door open for you.”

There had to be a violation of some regulation in that lapse, but Sirtris decided he should let it pass.

Revasien settled at his desk and gestured for Sirtris to sit. “Now, as to why you are here…”

Sirtris remained standing. While he didn’t have the right to upbraid a senior officer, he could at least find out why the man was meddling with his friend’s sister. “Actually, sir, I came to ask why you sent the marshal’s daughter to steal from the palace stables.”

Revasien shrugged. “I wanted you to come see me. I should have thought that obvious.”

Sirtris wondered if it was merely cultural disparity that made the captain’s answer sound like nonsense. “Am I to understand you tricked a girl into stealing a litter of kittens, sir, because you thought I would come here to discuss that with you?”

“Well, they would have drowned them. They have far too many cats in the stables already, and the king will not allow them in the palace.” Revasien leaned back, crossing his legs. “May I call you Damon?”

For a moment, Sirtris didn’t speak, thoroughly disconcerted. “I prefer not to use that name,” he finally managed. “I wasn’t aware anyone here knew it. I’d rather be addressed by my surname.”

Revasien smiled. “I will do so, then, Sirtris.”

“Out of curiosity, sir, how did you find out?”

Revasien picked up his empty teacup and frowned at it. “I think that since you live with the Dantreon family this summer it is safe to assume you know of their special talents, yes?”

Sirtris nodded, his brows drawing together.

“It is simple, then, to understand,” the captain continued. “Your name will become common knowledge because your wife will insist on addressing you by it.”

“I don’t have a wife.”

“Not yet,” the captain said with an amused smile.

Sirtris shook his head and wondered if Revasien was simply crazy. Still, he’d been correct about the given name, which hinted he might actually be a seer, even if not a member of the Dantreon family. Sirtris hadn’t known others existed. Just for confirmation, he asked, “Are you a seer, sir?”

“Very few people are aware of that, Sirtris,” the captain said. “I will not reveal your name to anyone, if you in turn do not reveal my secret.”

When Sirtris had joined the guard at eighteen, someone had started a betting pool at the garrison as to who would discover his given name first. Three years later, no one had won. Secrecy seemed a fair trade. “So why tell me?”

“I need your help,” the captain said.

“How exactly could I help you, sir?”

“This is regarding an arranged marriage. I need you to help…” The captain appeared to be searching his mind for the appropriate word. “…disarrange it.”

Oh, he didn’t like where this was going. He didn’t like meddling in other’s affairs. “Whose marriage, sir?”

“The Earl of Galas will meet with the Earl of Kilmesia tomorrow to arrange a marriage for his eldest daughter.”

Sirtris had never met the earl personally. “I believe his daughter’s only about four, sir. By the time she’s of an age to marry, the arrangement may very likely have been voided on its own.”

“Between Galas and Kilmesia?” the captain asked, his tone disbelieving. The two neighboring provinces had always had close ties. “Certainly not. No, it must never become a fact.”

“Why not?”

The captain blinked, seemingly at a loss.

Sirtris wondered if the man expected him to comply merely on his say-so. Perhaps people always did. “Why not, sir?”

“Because she is meant to marry someone else,” the captain said with a tolerant smile.

“I see. And why don’t you talk to the earl yourself, sir?”

“The earl is a superstitious man.” The captain shrugged, looking chagrined. “If I went to him, he would refuse my advice on principle.”

Most Galasiene didn’t approve of the special Gifts to which the Jenear laid claim. For some reason lost in antiquity, such talents were generally considered proof of ‘demon blood.’ If the captain showed up on the earl’s doorstep, the earl might not prove welcoming. “And why would he listen to me?” Sirtris asked.

“Despite your lack of a title, Lieutenant Sirtris, I am well aware of your family’s background. You do have ample influence to sway the earl’s choice.”

Sirtris had also thought that bit of information, like his given name, was a secret here in the capital. His people’s use of patronymics rather than surnames made it more difficult for Jenear genealogists to keep track of Galasiene bloodlines. The name Sirtris—Siron’s son—identified his father’s name but not his family line, a fact that Sirtris had relied on to downplay his identity. Galas had once been an independent kingdom, and his ancestors had ruled there. Even though that time had passed more than a century before, that didn’t mean the Earl of Galas wouldn’t prefer closer ties with the older royal line—especially since the possessors of that bloodline lived in the half of old Galas that fell under Versh rule, not Jenear.

“And, for your help,” the captain continued, “I will answer a question for you.”

Sirtris regarded the man with narrowed eyes. “What sort of question?”

The captain shrugged and held his hands wide. “Whatever you what to know, provided I am able. I do not know everything.”

Like a fortune-teller at a country fair, Sirtris realized, thoroughly irritated that the captain believed he would participate in such nonsense. He returned to his original complaint. “The end does not make every action excusable, sir. You should not have involved Miss Dantreon.”

“Oh, Miralys did it in return for an answered question herself,” the captain said, “and I saw to it she was in no danger. I look on her as a younger sister, Lieutenant.”

Sirtris pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t know whether to be more embarrassed at being fooled by a fourteen-year-old or angry that she’d betrayed him into the captain’s hands. “So what do you need me to do?”

“First, I need to borrow your most recent letter from your parents…” the captain began. The list went on from there.

DividerVictorianBottom1

When Sirtris got back to the Dantreon household, he found Mrs. Winters feeding the kittens, precisely what he’d expected would happen. He wondered sourly if that counted as ability to see into the future.

He located the annoying young lady in the library playing chess with her brother. He stopped at the threshold for a moment where she couldn’t see him. At the moment, she wore her Serious face as she contemplated her next move on the chessboard. She had the capacity to be a brilliant tactician one day. It was rather a shame that she spent so much time acting like a little girl.

At least she’d located her slippers and stockings and gotten all the hay out of her hair. She usually presented a civilized facade at dinner for her father’s sake, although it didn’t often linger this long into the evening.

Carmeyon glanced up and saw Sirtris there. He’d inherited his father’s height and heavier build, making his sister seem fragile in comparison. “She’s beating me again,” Carmeyon told him, a desperate look on his dark face. “I don’t even know how this time.”

The fact that Miralys regularly beat her brother stemmed from her use of unorthodox strategies, but Sirtris didn’t intend to point that out. “It’s fortunate for you then that your sister has an appointment in the kitchen, isn’t it?” Sirtris asked with raised brows.

She looked up, a line between her delicate brows. “Mrs. Winters said she would do it, Sirtris.”

“I thought I made it clear that I expected you to take care of it yourself,” he reminded her.

“Take care of what?” Carmeyon asked.

“The kittens she stole from the palace stables.”

Miralys gasped. “You said you wouldn’t tell.”

“I said I wouldn’t tell your father, Miralys. I never promised not to tell your brother. Asking servants do something for you without your father’s permission places them in a difficult position. I am very disappointed in you.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

Sirtris doubted they were real this time either. “You need to go down to the kitchen and take over for Mrs. Winters. She has other duties and can’t spend all her time covering for your lack of responsibility.”

Head meekly bowed, the girl rose from her chair and dashed from the room.

“You lecture better than anyone I know, Sirtris,” Carmeyon said when she’d gone. “You should teach Father how to do that.”

Sirtris had no doubt that Marshal Dantreon could lecture well if he chose to do so. “Your father is very tolerant of her…impulsiveness.”

“Is that what it’s called?” Carmeyon laughed, evidently unperturbed by his sister’s negligent behavior. “No, it’s just that every time he looks at her, he sees Mother and gives in.”

A portrait of the siblings’ deceased mother hung on the library wall between two shelves of books. She’d been a dark-eyed beauty of Cantreidian descent, and the marshal had reportedly fallen headlong into love with her. Miralys already showed the promise of looking a great deal like that lady.

“She may resemble your mother,” Sirtris said in a carrying voice, “but I doubt she’ll ever have half your mother’s reputed elegance. Ladies don’t listen at doors.”

A gasp sounded out in the hallway, followed by the whisper of running feet.

DividerVictorianBottom1

In the morning, Sirtris put on his dress uniform before going down to breakfast, struggling to get the pale blue sash to lie properly. He disliked the dress uniform. With its silver braid and shiny buttons, it seemed…self-aggrandizing.

Although the marshal usually left the house quite early, when Sirtris arrived in the dining room, Carmeyon and Miralys still sat at the table, whispering conspiratorially.

“Why the dress uniform?” Carmeyon asked.

They’d both been scheduled to patrol the palace grounds that day, but Revasien had arranged for Sirtris to be released from the duty roster. “I need to run a few errands…and make a social call,” Sirtris admitted with a heavy sigh.

Carmeyon raised an eyebrow, but didn’t inquire further. “Father’s found a school that’ll take the brat,” Carmeyon told him then, evidently the big news of the morning.

“Don’t call me that,” Miralys said, her cheeks flushing.

Sirtris was moderately certain her embarrassment wasn’t faked this time. “A school that hasn’t heard about the incident with the headmistress and the crickets? We can only be grateful they haven’t yet found out about her penchant for stealing cats.”

“I had a reason,” she said, chin lifting stubbornly. “It was a favor.”

“It was done in return for a favor, you mean. Have you told your father you’re using the captain as a fortune-teller?”

She shot a worried glance at her brother.

“You didn’t ask Captain Revasien questions, did you, brat?” Carmeyon demanded, sounding exasperated. “Father’s told you not to trifle with him. It’s foolish.”

She threw a sausage at his head, narrowly missing.

“Brat, sit down,” Carmeyon said. “No throwing food.”

“Don’t call me that,” she hissed.

“I wouldn’t if you would act your age,” he said.

She stuck her nose in the air and looked toward Sirtris as if she expected him to champion her.

“It’s a good thing the school’s willing to take her off your hands,” Sirtris told Carmeyon, “or I’d be tempted to dump her in the coal bin.”

With a watery sniff, Miralys rose and swept out of the room with all the dignity of a queen. Once she’d gotten far enough away, her brother broke into laughter.

“She’ll grow up someday,” Carmeyon said.

Sirtris retrieved the jettisoned sausage from the floor and wrapped it in a napkin. The dogs in the stable wouldn’t mind a little dust. “Heaven help us all when she does.”

DividerVictorianBottom1

The visit to Captain Revasien’s office came first. Sirtris knocked on the frame of the open door and startled a young lieutenant bent in concentration over a pile of papers on his desk.
The man shuffled his paperwork and located an agenda under it, then gave Sirtris a confused look. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant Sirtris, but your appointment isn’t until two.”

He didn’t know he had an appointment. That would be later, after the cemetery, he supposed, his second task for the day.

Captain Revasien emerged from the inner office, sparing him the need to explain. “Ah, Lieutenant.”

Sirtris fished a letter out of his jacket pocket and handed it over with reluctant fingers. “I would like that back, sir.”

“Certainly,” the captain said.

“If I may ask, why do you need it, sir?”

The captain glanced down at the letter in question. “Your parents’ address does not appear on your personnel papers, Lieutenant. I dislike incomplete paperwork.”

Well, that made two of them, but he’d left it blank intentionally. Technically, since his parents lived in the other half of Galas, they were Versh citizens, and he wasn’t allowed to serve in Jenear’s army. Still, the captain didn’t look alarmed by that address. Sirtris decided that was about as much information as he was going to get on that issue. He felt his back teeth gridning together. “I suppose I’ll be back at two, then.”

“Yes, of course. Ah, by the way, Marshal Dantreon is expecting you.”

That wasn’t one of his assigned tasks, but Sirtris felt certain the captain knew he would go.

DividerVictorianBottom1

Marshal Dantreon’s aide didn’t look at all surprised to see him. Sirtris wondered if anything did surprise the marshal’s aide, or if he had ample warning for every interruption.

A cup of coffee waited on a small table next to a chair in the marshal’s office. Following the aide’s silent gestures, Sirtris sat and took a sip while the marshal finished signing a document and handed it over to his aide.

The marshal, a tall man with graying hair and a serious demeanor, fixed Sirtris with a direct gaze. “I understand that Captain Revasien has asked you for a favor of sorts, son.”

The marshal had taken to calling him ‘son’ that summer, perhaps because he addressed everyone else in the house that way—except Miralys. “Yes, sir. He did, however, ask me not to discuss it with anyone.”

The marshal sat back. “I expect you have some misgivings.”

Sirtris suspected Marshal Dantreon had picked up on his skepticism regarding seers long ago. “Yes, sir.”

“Revasien hasn’t told me exactly what he intended to ask of you. However, I thought I should inform you that while my Gift is insignificant, the captain’s is…profound.”

Sirtris took another sip of coffee. “Does that give him the right to meddle with me, sir? And your daughter?”

The marshal didn’t seem offended. “With the Gift does come some responsibility to see certain things put in motion when needed. I wanted you to know that I respect his judgment.”

In other words, do whatever silly task the man sets you at. “Thank you, sir, for reassuring me.”

The marshal smiled at him. “Whatever the eventual outcome of your efforts today, son, I wanted to let you know that in the time that you and Carmeyon have been friends, I’ve come to have a great deal of respect for you. I know that whatever decision you make will be the right one.”

No, he hadn’t imagined the marshal’s emphasis on that word. “Decision about what, sir?”

The marshal’s brows drew together, making Sirtris suspect he’d said more than he intended. “I expect you’ll know when you get there.”

Sirtris finished his coffee and asked to be excused. Much more conversation with the marshal and his head would explode. The marshal grinned for some reason, and let him go.

DividerVictorianBottom1

In daylight, the cemetery was lovely. The grounds sprawled over and around a hilltop, the graves of noblemen and kings highest, and lesser families lower down. The summit offered an excellent view of the city and palace. Sirtris reflected wryly that it would be a lovely site for a picnic if not for all the dead people.

Narrow, overgrown paths circled the sides of the hill. According to the captain’s instructions, he had to find one Galasiene buried among all these Jenear, so Sirtris ambled through the rows of stones, searching for a name that looked familiar.

Some headstones were so old and worn he could barely decipher the names on them. A few he had to liberate from the clutches of vines before he could read them. The sun began to warm the cemetery as he walked. He almost took off his uniform jacket but, concerned someone might see him, sweltered instead. After an hour of trudging along the paths, he considered cursing the captain’s name.

He continued up the back side of the hill toward the area where royalty lay buried, and there he spotted his quarry, a newer headstone reading CORIATRIS. The name on it had to be Galasiene—a patronymic like his own, Corian’s son. Sirtris surveyed the grass-covered grave and decided he’d have to risk dirtying his trousers. He knelt down, pulled out his knife and carefully felt around in the grass for the grave-box. If Coriatris had been Galasiene, there should be one nearby—Galasiene were rarely buried without one.

He’d put a couple dozen holes into the ground before he tried behind the stone. He wedged his arm into the area between the slope and the marker. His second stab at the dirt confirmed the presence of a satisfyingly solid obstacle.

Someone had wanted that grave-box kept secure. Likely another Galasiene, fearing that vandals would rob the dead. After glancing around, Sirtris pulled off his jacket, set it over the headstone, and started digging.

The ground finally divulged a rectangular box carved out of gray stone, small enough to fit on his palm. Usually, a grave box held something treasured by each surviving family member. Sirtris apologized to the dead man and, after sorting out his uniform, deposited the box in his jacket pocket. He started down the other side of the path. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps before he saw a familiar name.

REVASIEN, the stone read.

DividerVictorianBottom1

It had only taken a few minutes of chatting with the cemetery’s caretaker to learn that the headstone he’d seen was, indeed, that of Captain Revasien’s sister. Evidently, the captain visited it regularly.

Sirtris caught a quick lunch in the garrison mess and still managed to make his appointment. His irritation had dissipated only slightly. “I would have appreciated it if you had told me where the grave was, sir.”

The captain seemed confused. “I did not know where it was, Lieutenant, which is why I needed you to look for it.”

“It was about ten feet past your sister’s headstone.”

“No. Truthfully?” The man sounded completely sincere.

Sirtris wondered if Revasien had been taking acting lessons from a certain young lady. “Yes, sir. Coriatris?”

“Oh, my apologies, Lieutenant,” the captain said with an embarrassed-sounding laugh. “I have seen that stone but I did not know it for Galasiene.”

Sirtris shut his eyes and reminded himself that strangling a superior officer was out of the question. “So, what now?”

“Did you find the box?”

Sirtris produced it, offering up a quick prayer of apology as he did so. The captain used a letter opener to pry the gummed lid apart and lifted out a gold locket on a slender chain. He set it aside, drew a similar necklace from his desk drawer, and laid it carefully in the box in place of the other.

“Ah,” the captain said, “I knew I had some need to keep this.”

Sirtris suspected it must have belonged to the captain’s sister, already buried so close by.

The captain closed the box and resealed it by heating the gum. “Coriatris, you said?”

“Yes,” Sirien said. “I found it buried behind the stone.”

“I shall visit my sister’s grave later, so that I may return this. She is far from home also, and will be sympathetic to Mr. Coriatris’ loneliness.”

Sirtris nodded, grateful the captain understood that the box should be replaced—and not empty. “So what did you want me to do?”

“Well, I suppose you should go see the earl now. Time is growing short, Lieutenant.”

“And how do I persuade the earl to see me?”

The captain handed him the locket from the box and a note sealed with wax. “Use that,” he suggested, motioning toward the locket, “and please give this note to him when your business is complete.”

DividerVictorianBottom1

Gaining admittance to the household of the Earl of Galas proved much easier than Sirtris would have expected. The butler seemed relieved to see another Galasiene in this foreign city. He took the locket and disappeared into the back of the house.

Sirtris sat on a white couch in the entry hall, gazing across at a bare wall. He’d grown accustomed to the stronger colors favored in Jenear culture. After four years in the capital, the white and cream of a traditional Galasiene household seemed austere.

The sound of footsteps heralded the butler’s return, but when Sirtris glanced up he was surprised to see that the earl himself had come to greet him. Although the earl looked to be in his early thirties, the man had an avuncular air. Indeed, he might have passed for Sirtris’ uncle, with similar coloring and build.

The earl extended his hand as he came forward. “I’ve wanted to meet you, Lieutenant,” he said. “The only Galasiene serving in the Guard. I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”

“I’m grateful you agreed to see me, sir.”

“Where did you get this locket?” the earl asked, holding up the item in question.

“From a grave box,” Sirtris admitted. It sounded ghoulish to say it aloud.

The earl shot him a disturbed look.

“I was told, sir,” Sirtris explained, “that it might be important to you.”

The earl nodded. He held up the locket, his eyes misty. “This belonged to my youngest sister, Iselle, whom we’ve thought dead for many years. Was it…her grave?”

Sirtris shook his head, relieved that he didn’t have that sort of news. “No, sir. A man’s, of the name Coriatris. The date was two years ago.”

The earl’s pale eyes narrowed. “Ah, now I understand. Deron Coriatris, it would have been. Our parents forbade her to marry him. She disappeared the night before she was to wed the man they chose for her. She must have run away with him instead.” He shook his head. “Two years ago? We never thought she would come here. Now that we know she has, perhaps we can locate her and bring her back home.”

Sirtris had never heard of the girl’s disappearance, but among proper Galasiene society, such a thing would have been kept quiet. “I hope you may, sir.”

“So this is why you’ve come? To bring me such news?”

Well, the locket disposed the man to listen. The rest was up to him. “Actually, sir, I have an odd request to make.”

“I’m meeting with Kilmesia at the moment,” the earl said with a furrowed brow, “but if you’ll wait until we’ve finished, I can give you as much time as you need.”

“It is about Kilmesia that I’ve come, sir,” Sirtris said apologetically, “so I don’t think it can wait.”

Looking baffled, the earl gestured him toward a sitting room off the entryway and dispatched the butler back to make his other guest comfortable.

“And what do you know of my business with Kilmesia?” the earl asked once the servant had gone.

“I understand you’re planning to engage your eldest daughter to one of his sons.” Observing the man’s face, Sirtris could tell the captain had gotten that right.

The earl frowned. “Who told you such a thing?”

“Someone who prefers to remain anonymous, but he went to a great deal of trouble to get me to come here to talk to you. He feels strongly that she shouldn’t marry the boy.”

“It’s years away, Lieutenant.” The earl gave him a perplexed look, likely as bemused by the request as Sirtris himself. He sat down on one of his white-covered chairs. “Why interfere now?”

“My…friend believes you would feel obliged to honor the commitment, no matter the temptation to do otherwise, sir. He didn’t specify anything of your other daughters.”

The earl leaned forward. “What does this have to do with you?”

“I was manipulated into this,” Sirtris admitted.

“And why didn’t this person come see me himself?”

“He didn’t believe his presence would sway you, sir.”

The earl nodded slowly. “But yours would. Interesting. I must provide for the girl, you know. Are you offering yourself in place of Kilmesia’s son?”

Sirtris opened his mouth and then snapped it shut when he realized he must look like a flustered trout. It hadn’t occurred to him that his actions would be interpreted so.

“No. I…” It would accomplish what the captain wanted quite neatly. Even if the wedding didn’t take place for a dozen years, such an arrangement would be a coup for the earl. Sirtris suspected his own mother would be pleased, as well. And he would have to marry sooner or later, but…

He struggled to come up with a plausible excuse. “Uh, I have no plans to marry at this time, sir.”

“Unfortunate,” the earl said, shaking his head. “If I’ve no alternative, I’ve no reason to pass up this opportunity.”

Sirtris tried to come up with one. “I don’t know why my friend was so adamant shouldn’t be made, sir, but he was. All I can do is beg your cooperation—as a personal favor to myself and my family.”

The earl leaned back in his chair and gave Sirtris a shrewd look. “My wife believes the child she’s carrying now feels like a boy. I have no idea how women judge such things, but…”

Sirtris knew then what the man wanted. His mother expected another child soon, almost without doubt yet another sister. “I can speak with my father,” he said, “about arranging a match with one of my sisters if your wife does have a boy.”

The earl regarded him for a moment with narrowed eyes, and then nodded. “Since there is some question, Lieutenant, I will work out something else with Kilmesia.”

Sirtris let loose a pent breath, and then recalled the note in his pocket. “Thank you. I was asked to give you this, sir.”

The earl took the note and broke the seal. He drew a pair of spectacles from a vest pocket and put them on his nose, holding the note at some distance anyway. Then he folded up the note and tucked it into his jacket. For the first time, Sirtris worried what bizarre instructions the note might contain.

“If you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant,” the earl said. “I need to go speak to my guest and break the news to him. It has been very interesting meeting you. I’d like you to come see me again, on a day when I’m not more rushed. And, please tell your friend I’ll take them.” With that confusing comment, he hurried out of the room.

Sirtris wanted to beat his head against the door.

DividerVictorianBottom1

Since he’d planned to meet the captain later that evening, it was simply a matter of waiting out the afternoon at the Dantreon house. He didn’t have anything better to do, so he spent the afternoon alternatively supervising Miralys—being far better at coercing her into doing her lessons than her temporary governess—and composing a letter to his parents explaining the muddle in which he’d involved them.

He also made certain Miralys fed the kittens herself, determined that she should bear some responsibility for this fiasco. After a moment of sulky silence, she tugged on his sleeve. “Will you talk to Father for me?”

Sirtris gave her a suspicious look. He wasn’t sure which mask she was wearing at the moment. She seemed almost sincere. “About?”

Miralys caught her lower lip between her teeth. “Can you ask him not to send me away? To the finishing school, I mean. I don’t want to go.”

Sirtris shook his head and sighed. “Don’t you want to get married someday?”

A faint line appeared between her eyebrows. “Yes,” she said in a hesitant voice.

“Your husband will expect you to comport yourself like a lady. To manage his home, to be his hostess, to raise his children. That’s what that kind of school teaches. I know I would expect that of my wife.”

Her face went thoughtful. “Oh, I see.”

Well, I’ve done my part to help out the marshal, Sirtris thought.

For a time, Miralys remained uncharacteristically pensive, feeding the kittens in silence. Shortly before dinner the captain arrived, coming in through the back courtyard door—an appointment to speak with the marshal, he’d told Sirtris that afternoon.

Revasien grinned when he saw Miralys feeding one of the kittens. “I believe I owe you something, Miss Dantreon.”

With a guilty glance at Sirtris, Miralys dropped the sodden glove in the bowl of milk and set the kitten she held back in the basket. She gestured for the captain to lean down so she could whisper in his ear.

The promised question, Sirtris recalled.

The captain regarded her gravely when she’d finished. “Yes,” he said, “but—this is important—only if you can learn to obey.”

Miralys looked offended. “That’s cheating, Sirien. I thought you said yes.”

“It will not work any other way.”

Sirtris frowned, wondering what Revasien had promised the girl, especially since it required that she attempt obedience. Miralys gestured for the captain to come closer again and whispered in his ear once more.

Revasien stood up and chuckled. “You will just have to find that out for yourself. I suggest you write to someone who would know,” he said, and handed her something.

She glanced at the item, slipped it into a pocket, and dutifully returned to her kitten-feeding. “Thank you, Sirien.”

“You are welcome. You are going to a new school tomorrow, are you not?”

Miralys’ eyes slid in Sirtris’ direction, her expression resigned. “Yes.”

“Good. Your father will be pleased.” He turned his attention on Sirtris. “Perhaps we could speak in the library while I wait for the marshal?”

Once inside, Sirtris folded his arms over his chest and favored the captain with his sternest glare. “In the future, sir, please don’t involve me in your machinations. Nor should you trifle with Miss Dantreon. She’s of an age to be easily influenced.”

“Easily influenced? Miralys Dantreon?” Revasien laughed. “Do not worry. I told you before I made certain she would come to no harm.”

“Still,” Sirtris said, “bribing a young lady could be misconstrued. I sincerely doubt her father would approve.”

“Her father was in the room when I made the arrangement,” Revasien said, revealing yet another layer to the plot.

Sirtris sighed. “I see. And did her father know how you were bribing her?”

“I believe he knew precisely what I would tell her today.”

“Because of his Gift? He knew what you would say?”

“The marshal’s Gift is not a strong one. Rather, I think it a result of his grasp of human nature.” The captain settled into a chair and laced his fingers over his knee. “You do understand why I have asked you to do all these things, do you not?”

A dozen various answers crossed his mind, most of which would have been considered disrespectful of a superior officer.  “No,” Sirtris finally said. “I’ve no idea.”

“One day you will receive an order from me, one that goes against your personal plans, and I want you to understand that I do not make such requests lightly. Everything is related, even when that may not seem the case.”

Sirtris pinched the bridge of his nose. “I will keep that in mind.”

The captain smiled widely. “So, I offered to answer one of your questions, Lieutenant. What do you wish to know? Young ladies always ask the same thing,” he added. “You, on the other hand, have not asked, even though I made it plain that I knew.”

Sirtris chased that around in his head for a moment, trying to decipher that cryptic statement. He recalled then that Revasien had mentioned his future wife. That was a topic Sirtris didn’t want discussed for a second time in one day. “Are you familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, sir?”

The captain smiled. “Is there any other kind?”

Sirtris closed his eyes and counted to ten. “I have nothing to ask you.”

“Not even the obvious question? The one to which you know I have the answer? I will not tell you then, even though I think…” Revasien gazed at him for a second. “…you already know the answer.”

Sirtris sat down, hard.

“You see,” the captain said, “you do know, which is why you turned down a perfectly good offer of a betrothal this afternoon.”

Sirtris crossed his arms over his chest. “I did as I thought best. Don’t read anything into it.”

“The point is,” he said, “you did refuse the offer. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.”

Sirtris had already asked himself that—a few hundred times. “You told me the earl’s daughter was meant to marry someone else.”

“Could I not have meant you?”

Sirtris glared at him.

“Perhaps it is only a question of human nature,” the captain said.

“Miralys is just a child,” Sirtris protested.

“Not quite any longer,” the captain said with a wry smile, “as I have no doubt you have noticed. In a few years she will be quite grown up, I think.”

Flushing, Sirtris stood and pushed back his chair. “If the future couldn’t be changed, you wouldn’t have sent me on your idiotic chase today.”

“There are some things I see,” the captain said raising his hands in a questioning gesture, “that can be affected, Sirtris, or need to be. There are others that are simply…inevitable.”

For the first time in his life, Sirtris considered storming out of a room and slamming the door. No, that would be childish. He took a deep breath instead, determined to carry out his obligations before he escaped. “The earl told me to tell you he would take them. Your wretched kittens, I suppose?”

“Yes, the earl keeps large stables here in the city and is always looking for mousers.”

“Then next time send one of his daughters out to steal them,” Sirtris snapped. He took another breath and calmly managed to ask, “May I have my father’s letter back?”

“Oh, I don’t have it here.”

Of course, not. “Then may I come to your office to retrieve it tomorrow?”

“Actually, I gave it to Miralys.”

Sirtris recalled the item that the captain had surreptitiously passed to the girl. He gave in to his earlier impulse and slammed the door on his way out of the library.

It was a bit of an disappointment. He’d expected to enjoy it, but instead only felt foolish and melodramatic. He should leave the histrionics to young ladies, he decided as he stalked back to the kitchen.

Miralys put down the kitten she held, probably warned by his furious expression.

“Give me the letter,” he said, holding out his hand.

The expressions playing across her features hinted that she was contemplating a few different lies, but she surrendered the letter in an unusually compliant fashion. “Yes, Sirtris.”

He stuffed the letter in his jacket. “Did you read it?”

Miralys affected a prim air. “No. That would be rude.”

Sirtris dragged a hand through his hair. He was not going to fare well in this conversation, not as irritated as he was. He decided retreat was the wisest course.

“Did Sirien answer a question for you?” Miralys asked as he turned away.

He looked back, folded his arms over his chest, and regarded her sternly. “I chose not to ask him anything.”

She picked up the kitten again, and gave him a doubtful look, not a child’s expression at all. “Nothing?”

He just stared down at her.

She looked up at him then, her thick lashes lowering over her dark eyes. “How long do I have to stay at that finishing school?”

Another question lay behind that one—a question he didn’t feel up to contemplating after the day he’d had. He was going to go back to his room and stay there until the girl was safely packed off to school. Surely they could keep her there for a few years, at least. After that, he was going to be in terrible trouble.

“Until you’re finished.” He turned and walked down the hallway, pleased he’d managed to get in the last word.

“Yes, Sirtris,” she called after him.

He suspected those might one day become his two favorite words.