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Protector - Squire Part 10

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"That is the law," said the duke. "A maidservant belongs to her mistress. Squire Joren deprived you of her services - I understand she worked at that time on a gown for her majesty" - he looked at the queen, who inclined her head - "and caused disruption to her work later as a result of disordered nerves. I remind you the woman was also granted five gold crowns in my judgment."

"Lady Kel, please, hush," Lalasa begged, tugging on Kel's arm. "The ones who did it are going to hard labor, that's what matters."

"They wouldn't have touched you if he hadn't paid them," Kel told her. To the magistrate she said, "If he'd kidnapped me he'd have gotten prison or trial by combat." She clenched her hands so tightly that two griffin wounds reopened. "But for her he tosses a few coins in our laps and goes on his way."

"Your tone borders on the insubordinate," Duke Turomot said, his eyes like ice. "My clerk will send you the law pertinent to cases in which n.o.bles interfere with those of common blood under the protection of other n.o.bles. These laws have been in our codes for centuries, squire, worked out by men far wiser than you. If you have no more questions...?"

Lalasa and Raoul tugged Kel back down on the bench. "Choose battleground and enemy when you have a chance to win," Raoul whispered in Kel's ear. "Mithros himself couldn't get old Turomot to admit a law is unfair."



"It's like me giving you my wages," Lalasa added softly. "I told you, most n.o.bles keep nearly all of what their servants earn - it's their right. Maybe you're too full of ideals to do it, but other n.o.bles aren't. My lady, don't make enemies here because of me!

While they talked, Duke Turomot ended the trial, giving instructions to his clerk and the Master Advocate. Kel sat with her head down, trying to become stone, trying to envision herself as a calm lake. It did no good. She could not let this go without one more try at a protest.

Granite cracked on bronze; she heard the rustle of cloth as everyone got to their feet. King Jonathan stopped to speak quietly to Turomot; the Lord Magistrate nodded. The king gave the queen his arm, and they walked toward the aisle.

Kel stepped around Lalasa.

"Mindelan, don't do this!" hissed Lord Wyldon.

Kel reddened slightly. She didn't want to distress him more than Joren had already. Still, she raised her head and said, "Your majesties, may I speak?"

A big hand rested on her shoulder. Raoul said quietly into her ear, "Not in public, Kel. Ask for a private word."

The monarchs turned. King Jonathan raised his brows. "Squire Keladry?"

Raoul never steered her wrong. "Privately, sire, if possible?" asked Kel, and bowed.

Thayet nodded to her husband. The king looked at Turomot's clerk. The Lord Magistrate had already vanished into his private chambers.

"Sire, my office is empty, if you will excuse the clutter," the clerk offered. He went to one of the doors that led off the chamber and opened it with a low bow.

"May I come, too?" Raoul asked softly.

Kel nodded as the monarchs entered the clerk's chamber. She looked at her maid. "Lalasa?" she asked. "It concerns you."

Lalasa's dark face paled. "My lady, I couldn't. That company's too grand for the likes of me."

And besides, I shouldn't risk the queen taking her custom away if I upset her, Kel realized. She squeezed Lalasa's hand and followed the monarchs, Raoul at her elbow.

nine.

MIDWINTER LUCK.

Don't confront monarchs in public, Kel," Raoul murmured. "If you make them look bad in front of those who should fear and obey them, they get nasty. Jonathan's a good enough sort as kings go, but that doesn't go far."

Kel nodded. Her heart thudded in her breast. She couldn't let this pa.s.s. It's all of a piece with this king, she thought. He doesn't understand what "fair" means.

The walls in the clerks office were lined with shelves of books and papers. A double desk took up much of the open s.p.a.ce. The king leaned against it, bracing himself with both hands. Queen Thayet sat in a chair, spreading her blue skirts around her. Raoul shut the courtroom door and leaned against it.

Kel bowed to the monarchs, righting to keep her emotions from her face if not her spirit. Her hands shook. She stood with them locked behind her, so no one but Raoul could see her weakness.

"What may we do for you, Squire Keladry?" inquired the king, smiling. It was an attractive smile. The king himself was attractive, black-haired and -bearded, with sapphire-blue eyes, fair skin, and a good build for a man who spent his time indoors. His velvet tunic and silk hose matched his eyes; his black silk shirt, full in the sleeves and tight at the cuffs, was elegant.

His looks were wasted on Kel. Dom had prettier eyes and a warmer heart. She could not like Jonathan, though she would serve him and his queen. He had made her take a year of probation as a page when no male had to. He relied on charm to get his way. That summer Lalasa told her that Jonathans oldest daughter, Princess Kalasin, had wanted to be the first female page, until her father talked her out of it. Kel wasn't surprised. She didn't think much of the man, though she had to admit he was a good king. Maybe her father was right, and good kings weren't always good men.

"What just happened? It was wrong, sire," she said firmly. "If Joren had kidnapped me instead of my maid, the legal penalties would have been much worse.

"Because if a member of the old n.o.bility kidnapped one of the new n.o.bility, it would cause a civil war," replied the king. "I like to discourage that kind of thing."

"But by law it's right that I be paid for the inconvenience of my maid being frightened to death? Not even that she gets the money, but I do? That's not right. It's like saying common folk are slaves. Their rights are measured in coin, not justice." She stopped there, swallowing hard. She'd done her best to keep her voice calm.

For a very long moment the room was silent. Finally the king sighed and crossed his arms. "It's not right," he told Kel, to her profound shock. "Only a fool would say that it was. I am called many things," he admitted with a crooked smile, "but 'fool' isn't one. What do you want?"

Kel swallowed. She was in it this far; it would be silly to blink now. "Change the law, sire."

"Change the law," the king repeated. "Squire, what do you think her majesty and I have done ever since we took the thrones? No, don't answer - I dread to think what you might have the courage to say. We have been trying to change laws - not this particular one, but many like it." He smiled bitterly. "The problem is that monarchs who wish to live until their grandchildren are born do not hand down any law they like. We must treat with our n.o.bles, who are equipped to go to war against us; we must compromise with them. We must treat and compromise with merchants, who give loans for pet projects such as dredging Port Legann's harbor. We compromise and treat with farmers, who feed us, and street people, who can burn a city down. There are priests and priestesses, who can tell people the G.o.ds have turned their faces from the Crown, so they need not obey us. And the mages - I'll leave it to your imagination what mages will do when angered. Any law Thayet and I propose offends someone. We must balance opposing forces. Our successes vary."

Kel blinked. She had never guessed that even the lowliest could exact revenge against their betters, if they didn't mind its cost. "My point is the same, Your Majesty," she repeated. "This particular law is just plain bad."

"We could use the story of Lalasa's kidnapping to stir up sentiment for a revision," the king murmured. "My dear? Your opinion?"

"Keladry's right," replied Queen Thayet in her cool, direct manner. "This stinks of slavery. We could get the Mithrans' support - just say we're making it so the same law applies to all. The G.o.ddess's temples will see it as greater protection for female servants."

"I'd hoped you'd want to spare us another battle with the n.o.bility," murmured her husband and co-ruler. "Raoul? Come on, old man, voice an opinion if you dare."

"Now, Jon, you know I have opinions all the time," said Kel's knight-master. "I just don't air them when you've got your ears closed. I'd as soon save my breath."

"And?" the king demanded.

"I'm with Kel," Raoul told him. "The scene we saw in there reeked. That piece of rat dung knew before he came that the worst he would get was a fine. He used that to make the courts and the Crown look stupid."

The king winced. "Don't soften your words to spare me," he said drily. "Just speak your mind."

"Stone Mountain can pay fifty times that without a cramp," Raoul said "Old Turomot laid on all the extras he could, and it still didn't faze Joren. I thought that adding Lalasa's dressmaking to raise the fine was inspired, myself."

"You think Turomot would look into changing the law?" Jonathan inquired. "Usually I have to wheedle and grant all kinds of concessions before he'll so much as ask his clerks to look up precedents. He's the stickiest of the conservatives."

"Who just got told by a whelp that he'd given way to royal pressure," Raoul pointed out. "I think right now old Turomot would love to rewrite this law, just in case Squire Joren tries a similar trick one day."

"So there you have it, Keladry," said the king.

Kel blinked, startled to be addressed. She had been dazzled by the speedy discussion. If this was how kingdoms were ruled and people's fates were decided, she wouldn't be happy until she was in Peachblossom's saddle and as far from the palace as she could manage. "Sire?" she asked politely.

"We cannot change the solution in Lalasa's case. We can set the process of change in motion. It's slow - "

"Painfully," remarked the queen.

The king nodded. "But in the end the law will change."

"That's a start," Kel agreed.

"There's a price, my dear," King Jonathan said, capturing her eyes with his own. "In case you were going to challenge Squire Joren, as is your right under ancient custom..." He shook his head. "Unacceptable. This chat we've had is about how things must change from the rule of privilege to the rule of law for all. It means you must be content to have your quarrels settled by law, not by privilege."

He was right, curse him, thought Kel. If the country were to be governed by one set of laws, there could be exceptions for no one. She would have to accept the law's justice, even when she thought it unfair. Her intent to beat the tar out of Joren had to stay a happy fantasy.

"Very well, your majesty," she said. "If you keep your word to change this particular law, I won't challenge Joren."

The king extended his hands. Kel wasn't sure what he wanted until Raoul nudged her. Then she realized the king wanted her to swear.

She put her hands in his and knelt. "I, Keladry of Mindelan, will forego my privilege to challenge Joren of Stone Mountain, as long as work for a change in that law is made," she said, meeting the king's eyes.

"And I, Jonathan of Conte, do swear on my own behalf and that of Queen Thayet to do all in the Crown's power to have that law changed," replied the king solemnly. "Do you keep faith with me, and I will keep faith with you."

Dismissed from the clerk's office, Kel found Jump whining at the courtroom door. There was a new set of four parallel scratches, fresh and b.l.o.o.d.y, across the old scars on his heavy muzzle, and a frantic look in his tiny eyes. Kel didn't need to talk to animals like Daine to know there was trouble at home. She followed Jump through the crowded palace at a trot, barely noticing the looks she was given as she pa.s.sed.

She heard battle before she saw it, sparrow shrieks and the yowls and rasps of an angry young griffin. She burst into her room. The griffin's platform was knocked over, the contents of his dishes scattered on the floor. The griffin himself alternately stood on his hind legs, wings spread, trying to grab sparrows as the birds circled and attacked his head, or hunkered down to protect his eyes. Pinpoints of blood dotted the feathers on his face, showing where his foes had scored a touch. He stood in front of Kel's desk and would not move. Behind him, in the hollow where she put her legs as she worked, Kel heard frantic peeping.

She yanked the coverlet from her bed and threw it over the immortal. The sparrows scattered as it descended. As the griffin thrashed against the heavy folds, Kel knelt to look under the desk. He had trapped one of the male sparrows there. One of the bird's wings trailed on the ground, marked like Jump by a griffin claw.

Kel brought the captive out, cuddling him in her hands. She had named this one Arrow, because the black bib at his throat was shaped like an arrowhead. "Find Daine, somebody," she ordered. Three sparrows zipped out a small window that stood open.

Kel whipped the coverlet off the griffin, knocking him on his back. He struggled to his feet with a hiss, his copper-colored eyes hot.

Kel spanked the griffin as she would a puppy or kitten, loudly rather than hard. She made sure he saw Arrow so he would connect the sparrow with the punishment - she hoped. Finally she let him escape to the well in the desk where he'd held the sparrow. There he spread his wings in a mantling gesture, cawing at Jump, as if he knew the dog had brought Kel. Holding Arrow against her chest, she poked up the fire, then got a clean cloth. She wadded up the cloth and put the sparrow in it, settling him in her lap.

Suddenly tears spilled from her eyes. It was too much - the griffin, her normal duties, the trial, even her talk with the king. If only someone could help with the griffin! But Daine was the only one who could deal with the grudge held by griffin parents, and she was far busier than Kel.

Arrow peeped with alarm. "It's just monthly glooms," Kel said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "Human females get them. I should be as brave as you, defying a griffin."

Daine came and went, leaving behind her a healed sparrow and a griffin with - she and Kel hoped - an aversion to killing small birds. When Raoul knocked on the connecting door, Kel was cleaning up the mess.

"Trouble with the monster?" Raoul asked kindly.

Kel scowled at the griffin, still in his wooden prison with Jump as guard. "All mended, we hope."

Raoul leaned against the door frame, hands stuffed in his pockets. "Do you want help with him? He won't take food, but I could transport him and look after him. I can certainly defend myself from his family."

Kel smiled gratefully at him. It was typical of him to offer. "You're very kind, sir, but we'll muddle along. At least now we can hope he won't be hunting sparrows." Remembering her duty, she asked, "Did you need me for something?" She looked at the dog. "Jump, let him out."

Jump growled at his captive; the griffin hissed. As soon as Jump moved, the griffin stalked out from under the desk, pumped his wings, and hopped onto a chair, up to its back, then onto his platform. There he spread his wings, hissed at Kel, and began to groom himself.

"I was curious about how you felt," Raoul said in answer to Kel's question. "Jon surprised you?"

"He did that," Kel said grudgingly, picking up her comforter and shaking it. Griffin feathers and down stuffing drifted to the floor. As she fumbled with the heavy cover, trying to find the damage, Raoul took one side. He backed up until the comforter was stretched out, then turned it with Kel when she saw no damage on top. The rips were on the underside, five in all. She and Raoul laid the comforter flat on the bed, and Kel got her sewing kit.

"I don't know what I expected, but that wasn't it," she admitted as she prepared needle and thread. "Offering to change the law, or try to, for me? Why? Why would the queen agree?"

"Because you were right. It's a bad law. The middle cla.s.ses are on the rise, Kel. Laws like that one will breed resentment, even bloodshed someday, if they aren't corrected." Raoul helped himself to her thread and needles and began to st.i.tch one rip as Kel worked on another. "And maybe Jon thought this might get you on his side. He never does anything for just one reason." He set tiny st.i.tches and sewed quickly, his big fingers deft. Sparrows lined up on his shoulders and head to watch, fascinated. Jump picked a more comfortable seat on an undamaged part of the comforter.

Looking at her master, Kel thought, Will there ever be a time when he doesn't surprise me? "I still don't know what I think," she admitted. "I owe him my duty, anyway."

"Yes, but there's a difference between someone who performs what's required because it's duty, and one who does what's needed because he or she believes in the Crown. You should keep in mind that he probably wants you to be confused about him." Raoul shook his head. "He wasn't this complicated when we were pages. I guess you never know how people will grow up."

"What was it like?" asked Kel. "You, Lady Alanna, the king - it's hard to see you as pages or squires."

Raoul grinned. "Like puppies in a basket," he said. "All paws and tails." He talked as they sewed, telling her stories of his past. Finishing a story about a bully who had beaten the page called Alan, until the day that the disguised Alanna had beaten him in turn, Raoul shook his head. "The only smart thing Ralon ever did was leave after that. He'd never have pa.s.sed his Ordeal. I'm afraid Squire Joren won't, either."

"Sir?" Kel asked, startled and curious. Raoul pointed to the longest tear. They had finished the others. "Race you to the middle of that," he offered. As they hurried to thread their needles and start at opposite ends, he continued, "You need a certain amount of, oh, flexibility, to face the Chamber of the Ordeal. You have to know when to bend. If I were training master, I wouldn't have let Joren get this far."

Kel stared at him, mouth open, until she realized he'd already begun to sew and she was falling behind. As she dug her needle into the cloth, she protested, "But if you pa.s.s the exams and do the work, and don't do anything really bad, the training master can't stop you from being a squire and then taking the Ordeal."

"Of course he can," Raoul told her, amused. "There are ways to discourage someone who is unfit. And often you're doing them a favor. The Chamber is..." He fell silent, shadows in his eyes, though he continued to st.i.tch. "Hard," he said at last. "It's not that it's merciless. To have mercy or lack it, you need humanity. The Chamber hasn't got it. It would be like, oh, hating the griffin because he's a thankless little bit of winged vermin. Yes, you," he told the griffin, who flapped his wings. "Don't let it go to your head. Kel, the griffin can't change what he is, and the Chamber is unchangeable. Squires have broken themselves trying to defeat it." He reached the middle of the tear and tied off his thread with a triumphant smile. "Amazing, the skills a fellow picks up in forty years of bachelordom, don't you think?" he taunted Kel as he got to his feet.

She grinned at him, still finishing her part of the job. "You just did that because you can," she retorted.

"Think about the king," Raoul said. "If you're wary, he won't surprise you too often or too unpleasantly."

She watched him go back to his rooms, then finished her repairs. Done, she inspected his work - it was better than hers.

Was he right about Joren? Raoul saw so much in people, more than anyone she'd ever known, even Neal or her parents. But Lord Wyldon would have seen any great flaws in Joren, surely, and corrected them.

Like Joren's hiring criminals to kidnap someone? asked part of her that had spent too much time conversing with nasty, suspicious Neal. He questioned anything and everything. Worse, he now had some of Kel doing it too, and the rest of her never seemed to have any answers.

Musicians played lilting tunes in the Crystal Room, a gilded jewel box where the largest of the Midwinter First Night parties was held. Garlands of winter flowers and ivy hung on the walls. Heavy logs burned in the two large hearths, releasing piney scents. Candles burned in every window and in the crystal chandelier.

The king and queen sat beside one fire, the queen dramatic in black velvet with a sleeveless overrobe of silver cloth as fine as gauze. Her gown, overrobe, and crown were edged with diamonds and pearls. Kel knew that every st.i.tch was Lalasa's, and glowed with pride in her friend. The king wore a white damask tunic edged with gold trim, white silk hose, and a white silk shirt. Gold lace rose at his collar and cuffs. There were no jewels in his lacy gold crown - they weren't needed. Kel admired the picture they made and kept well away from them. She was still thinking about their conversation three days before.

Kel herself was in Goldenlake colors, her dress outfit: a green velvet tunic so plush she had to stop herself from stroking it, green silk hose, and a pale yellow shirt with full sleeves. Like the queen's clothes, Kel's were made by Lalasa and fit perfectly.

Where her friend had found time to make them Kel didn't know. When she'd taken Lalasa the money from Joren's fine earlier that day, the shop was filled with ladies, their maids, Lalasa, and her helpers. Kel might have argued when Lalasa refused to take more than twenty gold n.o.bles of the fine, but it was so noisy and Lalasa so preoccupied that Kel fled. She returned to her room with the package that contained her Midwinter garb and thirty crowns. Lalasa had been just this stubborn when Kel refused to keep the lion's share of her fees while Lalasa was her maid.

Kel sighed. She'd almost rather be in Lalasa's shop again than walking around this pretty room, carrying a tray of cups filled with mulled cider or grape juice, offering them to those who did not have a drink. Most did. Cleon, Neal, and Quinden of Marti's Hill also carried trays of liquid refreshments: wine, punch, brandy, and, for the Yamanis, rice wine and tea. Four other squires offered food: rolls, tarts, candied fruits, marzipan figures, nuts, and small winter apples, sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon.

They all looked as bored as Kel. Even Prince Roald, the only squire who did not serve, looked bored. When Shinkokami, elegant in a Tortallan-style gown of peach silk, spoke to him, he put a look of interest on his face. Whenever he replied to or addressed his wife-to-be, Shinkokami leaned toward him, offering an attentive ear.

They'll have the politest marriage ever, thought Kel. It was hard to tell if the Yamani was bored, although Kel, watching Shinkokami smooth the bronze silk fan in her lap, suspected that she was. Both princess and prince were more genuinely interested when others came to talk to them. Yukimi, in a sky-blue kimono patterned with gold phoenixes, often returned to her mistress to talk. So did Lady Haname, vivid in a maroon kimono embroidered with white clouds, once she could wriggle out of a cl.u.s.ter of male admirers. She and Yuki were supported by Kel's mother Ilane, Prince Eitaro's wife, and the queen. Roald's visitors included his father, his friends among the squires, and his knight-master, Imrah of Legann. Kel also stopped to chat with Shinkokami. She knew how uncomfortable it was to be among alien people with strange customs.

She worried about the betrothed couple. Shy, both of them, she thought as she collected empty cups from tables and ledges. Something ought to be done.

"You shimmer like a mirage of delight," Cleon murmured as they met in the serving room. They turned in trays of empty cups and plates to take up full ones. "Your teeth call to mind wolfhounds romping in the snow."

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Protector - Squire Part 10 summary

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