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Kel smiled up at the redheaded squire. She had never noticed it before, but his eyes were an interesting, clear gray. "Wolfhounds are furry," she pointed out. "I hope my teeth aren't. And teeth aren't cold enough to be snow. How is it you get sillier every time I talk to you?"
"The joy of our nearness cooks my lovestruck heart," he explained with a soulful look.
"Or you've been looking at Scanrans longer than is good for you. Spend time with actual girls," she informed him sternly. "You wouldn't call me things like 'pearl of my heart' then."
"No, it's 'mirage of delight' today. 'Pearl of my heart' was when I was but a mere boy." They stood in the door, looking at the party. "I hate to say it, my dear, but I think our prince is a fathead," Cleon remarked. "There he sits with the most gorgeous creature in shoe leather, excepting your luminous self, of course - "
"Of course," Kel replied, straight-faced.
" - without a word to say. Somebody should tell him the lady can converse, and sensibly, too." Cleon straightened his shoulders. "If I don't return by dawn, wear my handkerchief beside your heart forever." He disappeared into a clump of guests. Kel lost the chance to say that she didn't have his handkerchief, and if she did, after a while it would begin to smell. He's right about the prince and princess, though, she thought, rearranging cups so her tray would balance.
"Did Cleon kiss you for Midwinter luck?" a familiar voice drawled in her ear.
"Did Princess Kalasin ask for a dance at the ball tomorrow night?" she retorted to Neal. "Cleon doesn't mean that stuff. He's just practicing." Changing the subject, she asked, "Is Lady Alanna here?"
Neal shook his head. "Home to Pirate's Swoop," he said. "Happily leaving me to Lord Wyldon's guidance while she embraces the baron and the children."
"You're doomed," Kel teased, and moved on.
She was about to return for a fresh tray when another familiar voice asked, "Squire Keladry, how are you?"
Kel turned and faced Commander Buri. The stocky K'mir looked grand in a crimson silk dress. The shade gave a touch of gold to her skin. Her overrobe was crinkled gold silk with jet beads on the hem. "Commander, you look wonderful," Kel said, trying to remember when she had seen her in anything but mud-splashed working clothes.
"I feel tormented," the woman replied. "And I wish you'd call me Buri. You know Riders don't hold with t.i.tles." Her dark eyes flicked around the room. "I haven't seen Raoul about. I suppose he defied their majesties and is hiding in his rooms."
"No, he's here," Kel said. "Not in this room, though, or we'd have seen a big lump behind the hangings."
Buri grinned, white teeth flashing against her dark complexion. "Yes, that's where I'd look. Can't say I blame him. The crowd around Thayet is thinning. I'd best say h.e.l.lo, or she might think I didn't show up per my orders." She saluted Kel and wandered off toward the monarchs.
Kel's eyes went to the prince and princess, who now smiled at one another as if their teeth hurt. This is no good, thought Kel. They have to learn how to talk. There must be a way to nudge them along.
She went to a door that opened onto a book room and peered in. Raoul was there, talking with Gareth the Younger, the king's closest advisor and one of his friends. Sir Gareth's wife, Lady Cythera, was tugging on her husband's sleeve. "I hate to interrupt," the lady explained, "but Prince Eitaro wants my husband to meet Lady Eitaro."
Kel moved on to offer drinks to foreign dignitaries. Yuki stopped her briefly. "When things are quieter, would you sit with her highness for a time?" she asked Kel, her usually merry eyes pleading. "She and the prince have nothing to say to one another, and she's sad. When someone mentioned you'd fought a forest campaign this summer, she showed interest. She'd love to hear the details." Kel's plan came together in the flick of an eye.
"Wait a moment, Yuki?" she asked, using her old nickname for the Yamani. She put her tray inside the serving room. "I've been thinking."
"Uh-oh," Yuki murmured wickedly.
Neal and Cleon were talking when Kel approached them. "Come here," she said, leading them to Yuki. The four entered the serving room. "Yuki, have you met my friends?" Kel introduced the young men, who bowed in the proper Yamani manner. "I think we agree, Roald and Shinkokami have to start talking. Now, Shinko - "
"Shinko?" Neal interrupted.
Kel smiled. "It's her nickname - she gave me permission to use it when we were little. Anyway, she wants to hear about that bandit hunt I was on this summer. Lord Raoul is in the book room - he's really good at helping people to relax. If you lads - "
"I am a man, I'll have you know," Neal said loftily, putting a hand on his chest. "Five years older - "
Kel elbowed him, ruining his dignity. Yuki covered a giggle with her fan. "Hasn't Lady Alanna taught you not to interrupt?" Kel asked. "Pay attention. Can you two" - she looked from him to Cleon - "get Roald interested? Otherwise he won't come - he'll think Shinko will be bored. And she won't say anything to him. She's worried he'll believe she's unmaidenly for wanting to hear about it." Shinko had let a few interesting things slip during morning glaive practices. "If we get them together with Lord Raoul, though, and maybe Commander Buri, they'll be so interesting that Roald and Shinko might relax."
"Why would he think she's unmaidenly?" protested Cleon. "His own mother hunts bandits."
"Prince Eitaro told my lady that men with unconventional mothers want conventional wives," Yuki said, her round cheeks red with vexation. "I don't think it's true - "
"Me neither," chorused Roald's three friends. They grinned at one another.
"This plan is good," Yuki said, closing her fan with a decisive snap. She tapped Neal's chest with it. "Signal me when you have Prince Roald's interest," she ordered him, and bustled off.
"Bossy little thing," Neal said to no one in particular. "Let's go hook Roald, Cleon."
Kel went to talk with Raoul. He was eager to help, if it didn't mean leaving the book room. Kel suspected he was also glad to have a good excuse if the king asked him where he'd been. She found Buri, who was more than happy to join them.
It was some time before Kel, Neal, and Cleon were finally able to join the book room gathering after the second shift of squires arrived to take their tasks. The prince and princess were caught up, asking sharp questions of the two commanders and of Kel herself. Kel noted Roald's look of wonder and pleasure as Shinko revealed a thorough grasp of strategy, supply problems, and tracking. Pressed by Raoul and Buri to tell what she knew, she described Yamani battles and tactics. From there talk ranged over other battles against immortals, bandit chasing in Tortall and the Yamani Islands, and the latest round of trouble with Scanra.
Others came and left: Lady Haname, Kel's parents, Sir Gareth and Lady Cythera, the queen. Roald's knight-master, Lord Imrah, stayed for some time. Everyone groaned when Imrah's lady dragged him away at last.
Slowly the group shrank to its original members. Neal and Yuki then left for a mages' party. The prince and princess left together, debating the advantages of crossbows over longbows.
Raoul, Buri, Kel, and Cleon watched them go. "Who would have thought?" murmured Cleon. "She looks like she'd break if you touched her too hard."
Kel got to her feet. "Come to the training yard the queen's ladies use some morning and see how fragile she is." She covered a yawn. "If you'll excuse me, I'm asleep on my feet."
Cleon got up. "G.o.ds, I've yet to finish wrapping gifts."
Buri and Raoul waved to them and continued their conversation.
"So have you survived your first night of squire social duty?" asked Cleon as they wound their way through the last partygoers in the Crystal Room.
"It could've been worse," Kel replied. "I'm just sleepy."
"You see Lord Raoul at parties and b.a.l.l.s, and he looks like a piece of wood," Cleon said as they walked down the hall. "But he isn't, is he?"
Kel shook her head. "He's completely different with me and the men." She smiled. "Something he said once - I guess a lot of mothers with daughters to marry off come after him at these things."
Cleon's smile was crooked. "There are a lot of them, and they can be persistent."
They had reached the place where their paths separated. Kel looked up at Cleon. "I wouldn't know," she teased. "I don't have to worry about matchmaking mothers."
Cleon leaned down and pressed his lips gently to hers. "Midwinter luck, Kel," he whispered. He turned crimson, and strode down the hall.
Kel stood there for some time, completely poleaxed.
The next evening Cleon had duty at a different party from Kel. That's a relief, she told herself as she offered sweetmeats to the heads of guilds and their wives. Of course it's a relief, not to see him so soon. I need time to decide what to say to him, or what to do, when I see him. Particularly what I'll do. Not that I plan to do anything.
Then they didn't serve together at any other Midwinter parties. Kel only glimpsed him once, at a distance. She told herself that she was not unhappy that he hadn't seen her.
She kept busy. She tended the griffin, who was quiet after his encounter with Daine. She practiced weapons with the queen, the Yamanis, and her mother, and rode Peachblossom and Hoshi. She wrapped and sent out her Midwinter gifts the day before the longest night of the year, and opened hers the next morning. Her unknown benefactor had not vanished with Raoul's taking her on - among her gifts was a splendid bra.s.s-mounted spygla.s.s, one that Raoul threatened to steal. Raoul himself had given Kel a beautifully made pair of armored gauntlets that were nearly as flexible as cloth gloves, and padded inside for warmth. Kel's gift to him was the best feathers shed by the griffin, each bright orange and perfect. Kel knew she could have sold them, but the look on Raoul's face when he thanked her was more valuable.
Kel had started something with the book room conversation. Others like it continued during the holiday parties. Raoul and Buri presided; Shinkokami and her Yamani ladies and Prince Roald and his friends always came, though plenty of others took part. Warfare wasn't the only topic. The Tortallans were curious about Yamani customs and history; the reverse was true of the Yamanis. They could ask any question about the Eastern Lands and no one would laugh. Kel felt a little smug as she watched Roald and Shinkokami lose their shyness with one another. It was nice to end the old year with a good idea.
During the festivities Kel thought of those squires who faced their Ordeals that year. Each night one of them held vigil; each morning one entered the Chamber at dawn. Did they have visions in the chapel? Kel wondered as she filled gla.s.ses and served food. Did they touch that iron door in the night, or were they content to face the Chamber only when the time came to walk into it?
Despite her curiosity she never joined the cl.u.s.ter of family and friends that waited for the squires to leave the Chamber. It didn't seem right, as if it were indecent for her to look on the squires' faces just then.
That year ten of them entered the Chamber, three more than the holiday had nights. Afterward Kel waited three days, to allow for cleaning, before she went into the chapel alone. She didn't think she broke any rules doing this, but she had to be alone in any event.
The chapel smelled of beeswax and cleansing herbs. The sun disk shone from a recent polishing. Only the Chamber door looked the same as it had that summer.
Kel shivered: the room was cold. She blew on her fingers, then pressed her hands flat on the cold iron.
Something bound her from shoulders to feet, locking her arms against her sides and her legs together. The binding was tight, though she saw nothing but the clothes she wore. Another band lay over her mouth, gagging her.
She stood at one end of a long room. Next to her was a line of people who pa.s.sed - without looking her way. One at a time they advanced to a table nearly ten yards from Kel. She could smell them, it was so real: soap, damp wool, fear-sweat. She knew most of them: Lalasa's friend Tian, Bernin from Owlshollow, the girl whose doll she'd found at Haresfield, the girl's mother, Shinkokami, Jump, Peachblossom, Lerant.
Kel twisted frantically, trying to get free, with no luck. She could not move or utter a sound. Fighting to catch her breath, Kel stared at the table. Duke Turomot, the Lord Magistrate, consulted a long sheet of parchment; Ebroin of Genlith, the steward for the lord of Stone Mountain, manipulated a large abacus as the duke spoke. They sat behind the table. Joren of Stone Mountain leaned on it, beautiful in black velvet, his hair pale gold against the dense black. He smiled mockingly at the people in the line.
"Lalasa Isran," Ebroin said clearly, taking up his abacus.
Kel wrenched hard at her bindings. A muscle pulled in her neck, sending a white-hot streak of pain into her skull.
"Dressmaker," Turomot said, drumming his fingers on the table. Ebroin touched a bead on the abacus. "Breeding age, looks well when clean, strong enough for servant's work, rarely ill." For each comment, Ebroin flicked another bead on the abacus. "That is all of worth about her," Turomot said.
Ebroin calculated a sum on the abacus and wrote it on the slate, which he pa.s.sed to Joren. The young man looked at it.
"Not interested, "Joren said. "Cull her."
The centaurs Gray streak and Iriseyes walked out of nowhere to grab Lalasa's arms. They dragged her to one side. There another centaur clubbed her with a spiked mace. Lalasa fell into a pit in the floor.
"Shinkokami, Yamani princess," Turomot said, reading from his parchment. "A good bride price, connections, and an alliance with the Yamani Islands. Embroiders, dances, knows the use of weapons." Ebroin flicked abacus beads and wrote a new total on his slate.
Joren inspected it. "Fifty gold crowns. Not a copper more. It's risky, taking a woman who uses weapons."
Turomot nodded. Graystreak and Iriseyes took Shinko's arms to lead her out.
Bernin stepped up. "Bernin of Owlshollow," Turomot read from his parchment. "Trained shepherd, a guide - "
Joren raised a hand. "I have no need of shepherds or guides," he said. "Cull him."
Kel fought her bonds to stop this, whatever it was, without success. Joren kept Haname and Kel's mother, sending them to some unknown place, then ordered that the Haresfield girl, Yuki, and Jump be culled. They were clubbed down as Kel fought to do something, anything. She was trying to scream to Peachblossom to run when she fell.
She was in the Chapel of the Ordeal, pouring sweat, her throat raw from smothered screams. Her body ached furiously.
Trembling, she staggered to her feet and stared at the Chamber door, fists clenched. You won't beat me this way, she told it silently. You will never beat me.
She stalked out, letting the door slam behind her. Only when she reached her room did she allow herself to cry. The sight of those familiar bodies in a b.l.o.o.d.y heap would haunt her for weeks.
THE GREAT PROGRESS BEGINS.
Third Company took to the road just two days after Kel's encounter with the Chamber door, to escort the outgoing Tyran amba.s.sador to his own border. They rode south on a trip Lerant mockingly described as "departing the land of snow and sleet for the land of rain and sleet."
Kel was relieved to be away. She hadn't seen Cleon privately since that astonishing kiss. She couldn't decide if she wanted to see him or never to see him again. She didn't know which would be worse, finding that he'd done it on a dare or that he'd done it because he'd wanted to. Either reason meant a rat's nest of problems.
At the Tyran border they said farewell to the outgoing amba.s.sador and welcomed the new one. Third Company got ten days to recuperate before they escorted the new amba.s.sador and his lady to Corus. Kel, seeing all of the goods in the Pearlmouth marketplaces, did some of her shopping for next Midwinter. The way things went with the Own, she wanted to do such tasks when she could. An emergency might interfere later.
In February after they returned to Corus, Third Company headed down the coast. They were accompanied by Baron George Cooper of Pirate's Swoop, a man people both pitied and looked down on for marrying Alanna the Lioness. Kel watched him intently. She wanted to know why the Lioness had married this man, who wasn't even handsome, for all that he was well muscled for someone in his late forties. The only attractive thing about him was a pair of humorous hazel eyes. Nice eyes hardly seemed to Kel like grounds for marriage.
The baron had heard of pirates who spent the winter near a town called Bay Cove. He led Third Company there over a series of goat trails. It gave them a good vantage point from which to scout the pirates' nest and plan their attack. There was a short, pitched fight, which Third Company won easily. Kel did little more than stand by Raoul, listening to the orders he gave and the reports he got. With pirates in tow, they sought the Port Legann magistrate. That meant another series of trials, another set of executions. More than once she wished there were a different way to handle murderers.
In March they stayed with the Bazhir. Kel, Lerant, Dom, and some of the others raced against the Bazhir, though Kel seldom won. Hoshi was fast and strong, but she was no match for the dainty-boned Bazhir horses, called by their proud owners "children of the wind." Raoul gave her more jousting lessons, something that puzzled Bazhir men and amused Bazhir women. They would gather around Kel afterward to put balm on her bruises and tease her.
They spent April on the banks of the Drell River, which flooded when the winter snows melted. Kel's back was a solid ache as she labored with Raoul and the men to sh.o.r.e up the flood walls.
In early May they returned to the Bazhir and helped the headman of the Sunset Dragon tribe celebrate the birth of twins to his wife. After that Raoul led them back to the palace.
There wasn't a n.o.ble in sight. The immense parade of the Great Progress, designed to introduce Tortallans to Shinkokami and to renew the people's ties to the monarchs, had departed. With it rode courtiers, maids, hostlers, clerks, barbers, huntsmen, guards, cooks, errand boys, and anyone else who might prove useful. The palace was not deserted: while the n.o.bles might be gone, hordes of workmen had arrived to fix anything that needed repair, apply fresh coats of paint and whitewash, and pursue other loud, dusty tasks. The kingdoms administrators still worked at their desks. The courts still met; the officials who ran the kingdom's tax collections and postal service labored here. Still, compared to the palace at Midwinter, Kel found the place sadly empty.
"Peace and quiet!" Raoul said as his company rode into their courtyard. "I revel in it!"
"But we will be catching up?" prodded Flyndan.
"When we're rested," said Raoul gravely. "I myself feel quite tired."
"And every time you get the bit between your teeth and decide you don't care what the king wants, you two end up b.u.t.ting heads. One day you won't be able to charm your way out of a royal reprimand." Flyn kept his voice low - only Kel heard him, though she pretended she didn't.
"He wouldn't b.u.t.t heads with me if he didn't keep using us like a garland of pearls to dress up his majesty," Raoul said, keeping his own voice down. "We're a combat unit, not a dance troupe. We leave when we're rested."
Flyndan shook his head and dismounted.
They had two lazy weeks before a firm message arrived from the king. Third Company packed and rode slowly for six days. At last they topped a ridge that overlooked the city of Whitethorn, tucked into a delta formed by the rivers Olorun and Tirragen. There they watched the fat, glittering serpent of the royal progress come into view. The local people had the same idea: they lined the road in their festival best, all wearing some bit of royal blue ribbon. More people flooded onto the road through Whitethorn's open gates, eager to see the realm's notables.
The city was swathed in banners and garlands. Tortallan and Yamani flags waved atop every tower. Grave town fathers in long robes and elegant hats stood on the wall over the main gate. Little girls in white bearing flower garlands stood with them.
The procession came on. With her new spygla.s.s Kel could see the riders behind the heralds. The king and queen rode with Roald and Shinkokami between them. Prince Eitaro scowled on the king's right - Kel knew his arthritis must be bothering him - as his wife serenely guided her mount on the queen's left. Behind Thayet rode her ladies, fourteen young women of good family and education, who could grace a party and ride and shoot well enough to keep up with Queen Thayet in an emergency. Yuki and Lady Haname rode with them. Kel smiled: her Yamani friends had been adopted.
"Don't be greedy," Dom said, elbowing her. "A chivalrous knight shares."
His nearness still did mad things to her emotions, though lately she kept thinking about Cleon, wondering what it would be like to kiss him back. Kel handed over the spygla.s.s. "Try not to steam it up looking for pretty girls," she ordered. The griffin cawed and flapped from his post on the placid Hoshi's saddle horn, as if he echoed Kel.
"You just don't understand a fellow's interest in females," Dom murmured, glued to the spygla.s.s.