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"How many fighters are with them?" asked Raoul.
"Four Rider Groups," replied Dom. "The Fourth - the Queen's Rabbits. The... First. They don't have a nickname," Dom said when Kel made a questioning noise. "They're just the First. The Fourteenth, Gret's Shadows, and the Seventeenth, Group Askew. There's Commander Buri. Oh, splendid - Captain Glaisdan and First Company. He looks as sour as a pickled beet."
"If he's wearing his old-style armor, probably his face is the same color," Flyndan said. "Why couldn't that fusspot stay at the palace? First Company's all wrong for this."
"If I pretend I like you, squire, can I use the spygla.s.s?" Lerant asked Kel.
"Please don't try," she replied. "You're not that good an actor. Dom, he can look when you're done."
"Some people are c.o.c.ky ever since they killed a whole centaur," Lerant remarked to the air.
"Some people are annoying," Dom retorted, giving him the spygla.s.s. "So, Kel, about the Yamani ladies..."
The royal courier who had twittered at Raoul's elbow all the way from Corus said, "My lord Knight Commander, why do we hesitate? The king was quite firm - "
"So you've said. Often," Raoul growled, black eyes smoldering. He raised his voice. "My dears, there's no help for it. Let us join in the panoply." He urged Amberfire into a careful walk.
Lerant handed the spygla.s.s to Kel and hoisted the Knight Commander's banner, setting his mount forward. Flyndan joined him, his doughy face as gloomy as Raoul's.
"Not too fast," called Raoul. "Lets not scare anyone."
"His majesty said with all deliberate speed!" chirped the courier. He flinched under Lerant's glare.
"That's how we're doing it," Raoul told him. "Deliberately."
Kel hid a smile. Raoul had argued that one company of the Own on progress was sufficient. The king had overruled him and here they were. They merged with the progress, Third Company behind the ranks of n.o.bles as Raoul, attended by Kel, caught up with the monarchs.
The king glanced at Raoul. In a less exalted man his expression might have been called a scowl. Prince Eitaro let Raoul take his place.
"Master Oakbridge has found you hosts to lodge with in the city," Kel heard Jonathan say coldly as they approached the main gates. "Near the governor's palace, so you won't have any excuse for lateness at the social events."
"As my king orders," said Raoul, his voice blandly pleasant. Kel glanced at him. What was he up to? The griffin squawked, and she returned to their game: trying to wrestle a rawhide strip out of his beak. He rarely bit or scratched her while playing. The king was also suspicious. "It is, eh?" Raoul indicated the immortal, who growled as he wrestled with the leather. "Did Oakbridge mention our friend?" inquired Raoul. "Where Kel goes, he goes."
"No one's going to want a griffin in his house," the king snapped. "Most folk don't believe it's just people who actually handle the thing who get attacked. She'll have to camp with the rest of the progress."
"I'm to attend b.a.l.l.s and banquets without my squire?" demanded Raoul, all innocence. "I can't handle things like requesting water to shave with, or getting my clothes pressed. I need Kel."
"You managed for twenty years," growled the king, blue eyes flashing in anger.
"This is different," Raoul informed him.
Jonathan stared grimly ahead, drumming his fingers on his saddle horn. Finally he ordered, "Tell the Lord Seneschal to give you a place in the camp, then. And I expect you to be on time for social events!"
"Sire," Raoul said, bowing deeply in the saddle. He motioned to the side of the road with his head, and turned Amberfire out of the main parade. Kel followed, her face Yamani-straight.
The Lord Seneschal nearly screamed when he realized he needed to find a place in the camp for the Knight Commander. Drawing up these camps required tact, diplomacy, and quick thinking. Obviously enemies could not pitch their tents side by side, and the most important n.o.bles would not take it well if they camped cheek by jowl with soldiers. For a moment Kel feared the Seneschal was going to have an apoplexy as his face turned a rich plum color. He grabbed a map on a parchment and hurriedly drew a square, putting Raoul's name on it. He squawked a servant's name, then turned to his next problem.
The man he'd summoned did not turn colors or raise his voice. He gave a few commands, then led Raoul and Kel down a gra.s.sy lane between tents, explaining the customs and layout of the camp. By the time he'd shown Raoul and Kel the privies and open-air kitchens and escorted them to their a.s.signed s.p.a.ce, servants had set up a large tent for Raoul, connected to a smaller one for Kel.
"And they say a stolen griffin's unlucky," Raoul told her smugly as they inspected their new domain.
At Whitethorn castle a servant directed Kel to an a.s.sembly room. She joined other squires to await their usual spate of banquet instructions from the palace master of ceremonies, Upton Oakbridge. He was in hurried conference with a man in Whitethorn colors and a woman who bore the smears and s.m.u.tches of a cook.
Neal wasn't present. Cleon was, smiling at her in a way that made her feel odd, warm and shivery at the same time. She wasn't sure that she liked it and welcomed the distraction of greeting the others. Her five year-mates were present. So were the newest squires.
"Owen, you've joined our ranks?" Kel teased. Of course he'd pa.s.sed the big examinations. She didn't have to ask if he'd found a knight-master. His clothes told the tale: he wore the blue shirt and hose and the silver tunic of a squire attached to palace service.
"I've got the t.i.tle, but not the work," Owen said glumly. He was a plump fourteen-year-old, two inches shorter than Kel, with unruly brown curls and gray eyes. He loved books and had no sense of tact. He also had a wild courage that led him to plunge into battle outnumbered. Gloom was not his natural state.
"What happened?" she asked. "I thought surely you'd be chosen."
"Lord Wyldon says it's like last year," Owen told her. "You had the congress, so everyone took their time picking. Now it's this progress. There are squireless knights everywhere, but they're in no rush. It stinks. And in the meantime I get to answer to him." He nodded toward Master Oakbridge, who was sending the Whitethorn man and the cook away.
"Attention!" called Oakbridge. Kel hugged Owen around the shoulders as they faced the master of ceremonies. Oakbridge did his work with dramatics and prophecies that all would go horribly awry. Having dealt with him over Midwinter, Kel wondered why the man hadn't died of a heart attack. Instead he seemed to thrive on disaster and finding people seated in the wrong places. The thought of Owen's having to report to him day and night made her wince in sympathy.
Briskly Oakbridge gave instructions. These banquets were only a little different from page service: squires were a.s.signed to a table where their knight-masters were joined by a dinner companion and other notables. Once the feast was over, guests roamed while squires remained at their posts, refilling gla.s.ses, offering sweets, fruits, and cheeses, and providing finger bowls and napkins.
Kel listened, committing what Oakbridge said to memory. When he finished, she found Cleon beside her. He followed Kel to the table where finger bowls and towels were laid out.
"I thought you would never get here," he said as they took up towels and bowls.
"Lord Raoul was just finishing up a few things," she replied, eyes fixed on her bowl. It quivered; she was trembling for some reason, and much too aware of Cleon's warm body at her side.
"Finishing up? Hah," said Merric of Hollyrose behind them. He was a wiry, lanky boy with very red hair, Kel's year-mate and friend. "Everyone knows the king sent him a message saying catch up now."
"Well, is social scheduling what you thought you'd do as a knight?" Kel asked as they started for the banquet hall.
"I didn't think," Merric said cheerfully. "I just did what my parents told me, for once."
They split up, going to the tables where their knight-masters sat. Kel looked for Owen, who went to the table where Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami sat and got a smiling welcome.
Kel was edgy, as she always was when she had new social duties, but tucked it behind her Yamani mask. Raoul had no bland face to hide behind. With the pretty eighteen-year-old daughter of a local baron as his dinner partner, he turned into a block of wood. His companion, made nervous by his rank, age, and silence, chattered. Numair and Daine, seated with them, were too busy talking about books to rescue them.
Kel looked around to see who she could recognize. Buri was as wooden as Raoul. A local guildsman was her partner; he had no trouble talking at the wordless K'mir. The king and queen looked as if they enjoyed talking with the Whitethorn governor and his lady, while the Yamani ladies kept those who shared their tables politely occupied.
At last came Kel's favorite part of a state banquet. Artful creations in jellies, cakes, and sugar called subtleties were served between courses for diners to admire and eat. The first ones were simple, like the spun sugar crowns that represented the four royal personages in attendance. By the end of the feast they were works of art.
Whitethorn's cooks surpa.s.sed themselves. Their last subtlety was a silvery winged horse of molded sugar and marzipan. It reared on its hind legs, bat-like wings extended, forelegs pawing the air. Before it stood a foal, wings hanging limply, legs hardly strong enough to support it. But for the size they could be real, thought Kel as she joined the diners in applause. She wished she could make beautiful things like that.
Musicians took the center of the room. Raoul excused himself to his dinner partner and went to greet his friends. As soon as he left, a young man came to lead Raoul's dinner partner into a group of people their own age.
Kel remained at her post, talking with Numair and Daine and waiting on those who came to sit with them. At last Raoul signaled that he was ready to go. Kel turned in her pitcher and tray and ran to fetch Amberfire and Hoshi.
They were halfway back to camp when Raoul broke their comfortable silence. "They're holding a tournament over the next two days. I want you to have a look before we enter you in the compet.i.tions - you're about ready. Have you seen one?"
Kel shook her head. "The Yamanis don't have them. They just beat each other half to death in training."
"They sound like sensible people. Do they hold banquets?" Raoul asked wistfully.
"Better," Kel told him. "They have parties where they view the moon in reflecting ponds, or fireflies in lanterns, or patterns of cherry tree blossoms against the sky, and they make up poetry about it."
Raoul shuddered and changed the subject.
The tournament, held just before Kel's sixteenth birthday, was educational. It was also the first time Kel squired for Raoul in the traditional way. Since Raoul was scheduled to joust in the afternoon, she had all morning to inspect, clean, and polish his armor and that of his warhorse, black Drum. The metal pieces were clean - she had scoured them at the palace - but an extra rub of the polishing cloth never hurt. She also checked each of his weapons: an a.s.sortment of lances, should one break, his sword, and his mace. He shouldn't need the last two - these were exhibitions, not true combat - but Kel wanted everything ready, just in case. She shook out Drum's saddle blanket and went over his tack, polishing and testing each join and st.i.tch. Lord Wyldon had pounded it into the pages' heads: equipment not in perfect condition was a danger to the one who used it. Kel took his words to heart.
Raoul came to the tent after a light midday meal and changed clothes behind a screen. Wearing breeches, hose, and a loose white shirt, he walked to the center of the room. As he pulled on his quilted gambeson, Kel fit and buckled the leg plates of his armor. Piece by piece they went, Kel snugging the leather straps comfortably, checking the fit of each plate with him before they went on to the next.
"If it were Jerel alone, I'd stick to the padded stuff, not all this clank," Raoul said as he raised his arms for the breastplate. "He knows exhibition rules. But Myles says a couple of charmers from Tusaine are threatening to give me a try. And one of the conservatives has put it about that he'll bash my head in because I, oh, what was that phrase? Encouraged your pretensions, that's it."
"Then I should fight him, sir" Kel tightened a buckle.
"Nonsense. I'll ram some manners into him and tell the king I can't attend the banquet because I pulled a muscle." When Kel didn't reply, Raoul gripped her shoulder and waited until she met his eyes. "Please don't deny me my fun," he said with a smile. "Conservatives haven't found the, er, courage to joust against me in years. Now they'll come out of the woodwork. They think the G.o.ds will withdraw their favor from me because I picked you. Haven't you ever noticed that people who win say it's because the G.o.ds know they are in the right, but if they lose, it wasn't the G.o.ds who declared them wrong? Their opponent cheated, or their equipment was bad."
Kel grinned. She had heard something like that.
"And the money I win from them in penalties will buy armor for you. That's rather fitting, don't you think?"
It was fitting, put that way. Kel still shook her head at him. What could she say? He clearly loved to joust; just as clearly he hated the artificiality of the progress. Who was she to deny him some entertainment? When he let go, she picked up a pauldron, or shoulder piece. "Left arm, sir," she told him. Obediently Raoul lifted the requested limb.
Kel watched the jousting from the field itself, where she waited in case Raoul needed her. Cleon, Merric, and Owen kept her company. For the first time in her life she saw knights and squires vie against one another with a variety of weapons.
Compet.i.tions like this served more than one purpose. They gave knights who did not live in troubled areas a way to keep their battle skills sharp. Squires got a chance to hone their fighting techniques in a warlike setting. A squire who won combats might earn enough in prize money and penalties against the loser to buy horses and outfit himself and his mount. Monarchs and n.o.bles who spent their time at court could see which of the country's warriors possessed unusual ability and courage: such warriors might be invited to guard the kingdom for the Crown. n.o.bles settled quarrels at tournaments as an alternative to blood feuds that might last for generations. n.o.ble families showed off marriageable daughters, and the people saw another aspect of the monarchs.
Until nearly ten years ago tournaments, with their padded, guarded weapons and elaborate ceremonies, were seen as interesting but useless exhibitions of old-fashioned skills and a risk to the lives and limbs of those who competed. Then the immortals began to reappear in the human realm. Suddenly tournaments were vital, a way to find those who could best protect the realm. Kel wasn't sure that she liked these contests with their possibilities for injury. At the same time she knew how important this practice was. She gave up trying to decide how she felt and simply prayed that no one got hurt.
Raoul and Jerel of Nenan had their exhibition match. Raoul knocked his friend from the saddle easily. That afternoon he beat one of the two knights from Tusaine, unhorsing him even more swiftly than he had Jerel. A conservative challenged him, Wayland of Darroch. He remained in the saddle after the first charge; Raoul's lance broke. On the second charge Wayland's lance shattered. On the third pa.s.s Raoul knocked the conservative from the saddle and collected fifteen gold crowns from him.
"In the old days you could keep the armor and horse of the man you beat," Owen said to Kel. Living in Tortall his whole life, he had seen plenty of tournaments. "Now, though, most people would rather pay in coins."
"It's simpler," Cleon replied absently. It was his second comment of the afternoon, the first being, "h.e.l.lo."
Raoul went to his tent to drink a pitcher of water and change his clothes, Kel following while Owen and Cleon stayed to watch more contests. Once Raoul left for a bath, Kel hung out his sweat-soaked garments and went to Drum. Lerant was there already. Drum was spotless, testimony to a long grooming. Kel met Lerant's possessive glare with a friendly nod and cleaned the horse's tack. Lerant might think they competed for Raoul's time, but Kel knew better. Her relationship to her knight-master was simply different from, not better than, the standard-bearer's.
The next day she and Raoul did the same tournament routine. She watched him alone as Owen and Cleon entered other compet.i.tions. Kel had no interest in risking her own bones to prove her skill. She was content to wait on her knight-master.
She watched the second Tusaine knight tilt against Raoul and lose, wincing in pity every time Raoul's lance smashed into his foe's shield. It looked as painful as she knew it felt. She could have warned Raoul's challengers, but they didn't think to ask her.
Stigand of Fenrigh also lost: he was carried off the field. Once they returned to their tents, Raoul dispatched Kel to check on him.
Duke Baird, chief of the royal healers, was in Stigand's tent. Though the servants refused to talk to Kel, Baird did after he left his patient. "A cracked skull, that's all," Neal's father told Kel. "You'd think it was a thrust to his heart, the way he carried on. He'll be fit to ride in the morning."
"I didn't think anything could open up Stigand's head," Raoul said when Kel brought the news back to him. "It just shows, miracles still happen."
Once Raoul was napping and his armor was clean, Kel went to visit the Yamani ladies. They served her green tea, played with the sparrows and Jump, inquired after the griffin back in Kel's tent, and talked. Finally Shinkokami stood and asked, "Anyone for a game of fan toss?"
"I haven't played in years," Kel demurred, but she followed the Yamanis outside.
Shinko produced a fan, offering it to Kel. The shukusen was as heavy as she remembered, cherry-red silk on thin, elegantly pierced steel ribs that were dull at the base, razor sharp on the ends. Kel opened the fan, thought a prayer, and tossed it up, giving it a spin to flip it over. She caught it, the base thunking neatly into her palm.
"See?" asked Yuki. "Your body remembers."
"My body also remembers days in the saddle in the rain," Kel said, straight-faced. "That doesn't mean I like it." The ladies hid their smiles, but their eyes crinkled with amus.e.m.e.nt. They liked Kel's humor.
The four young women formed a circle on the gra.s.s outside Shinko's tent. They started by throwing the fan low. Kel missed the proper flip twice, sending the open fan edge-first into the ground. She retrieved and cleaned it, hiding embarra.s.sment while the ladies hid smiles.
On they played, throwing the fan a little higher each time it completed a circuit of the group. It looked like a giant scarlet b.u.t.terfly as it turned and spun in the air. The Yamani ladies were as graceful as dancers, Shinkokami in a pink kimono for the afternoon, Yuki in pale blue, Lady Haname in cream with bamboo printed in green. Kel didn't try to be as graceful. She stood well braced, her eyes on that whirling crimson silk. At last she found the rhythm and was catching it one-handed herself.
When they had it ten feet in the air, Shinko gave the Yamani command, "the blossom opens." Now they could throw to anyone in the circle. The fan went from one to another, the players speeding up until it was a crimson blur. Shinko called the word for "sinking sun." They slowed. Now they dipped as they caught the fan, whipped it around both hands, then dipped again before wafting it to the next player. They had a chance to breathe, and the slower pace was a different kind of exercise.
"This is the prettiest thing I've ever seen," Kel heard Neal remark. "May I play?" He stepped among them to catch the fan. There was no time to stop him. The women gasped - and Neal caught the shukusen base down. He nearly dropped it, not expecting the weight of steel.
"What is this thing?" he demanded, staring at the fan with wide green eyes.
Yuki walked over to him. "There is a saying in the Islands," she told him stiffly. "Beware the women of the warrior cla.s.s, for all they touch is both decorative and deadly." Taking the fan, she went to a pile of tent poles and picked one up. She carried it back to Neal, unfurled the fan with a snap, and slashed the open edge across the pole. A piece of wood dropped to the ground. She folded the fan with another snap and entered the princess's tent.
Shinkokami and Lady Haname followed her, bowing politely to Neal as they pa.s.sed, their eyes crinkled with hidden laughter. Neal still had not recovered from the sight of the pretty fan slicing the pole like sausage.
Kel patted his back. "Don't worry," she said. "Yuki cools off pretty quickly."
Neal looked at her. "She's angry?"
"I think you frightened her," Kel replied. "You frightened me. Meathead." She cuffed him lightly. "Didn't your mother teach you not to grab things? You could have lost all of your fingers. I doubt your father, good as he is, could put them back on."
"What was that?" Neal demanded.
"A shukusen - a lady fan," Kel told him. "If a lady thinks she's in danger, but doesn't want to complicate things by openly carrying a weapon, she takes a shukusen."
"I want one," the queen said. Kel looked around. They had gathered an audience during their game. It included her majesty, Buri, some local ladies who looked appalled or fascinated, and a stocky female a head shorter than Kel. She wore a dark blue silk tunic over a white linen shirt, full blue silk trousers, and calf-high boots. A sword and dagger hung at her belt: they looked expensive and well used. Coppery hair brushed her shoulders; she regarded Kel with violet eyes.
Kel swallowed. Alanna the Lioness, King's Champion, Baroness of Pirate's Swoop and heir of Barony Olau, gave her the tiniest of nods, then walked into the crowd.
Kel took a breath, remembering Queen Thayet's comments. "I'm sure the princess would be glad to have one made for you, your majesty."
"I'm going to ask right now," the queen said. She entered the princess's tent.
"You could have said the Lioness was here!" Kel whispered to Neal.
"Well, I'm here, aren't I? And I didn't exactly have the chance," he pointed out dryly. "We just rode in. Since when do you call me Meathead?"
"Since you act like one," retorted Kel. "Let's find something to drink. I'm parched." She dragged him to the food vendors' tents as the crowd broke up.