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One day in mid-October they halted on top of a bluff. Corus sprawled on both sides of the Olorun below. Opposite, on the southern heights, was the palace.
Kel sighed. Raoul looked at her. In reply to his silent question she said: "I was wishing we didn't have to stop."
He nodded. "I thought the same. But you know, Buri might object."
Kel shivered. "As much as I like you, my lord, I'd sooner deal with the objections of a cobra. It's safer."
Chuckling, Raoul led the way back to the road. It was time to go home.
To Raoul's disappointment, Buri was in the south with her Seventeenth Rider Group. Kel expected the K'mir's absence would mean uneven numbers in the morning glaive practices, but instead she found no lack of partners. Several young n.o.blewomen had joined the group. Being part of the circle around Shinkokami, Kel was also called in on plans for that spring's royal wedding: after allowing the realm to recover from the Grand Progress, Roald and Shinkokami would marry at last. Kel thought asking her for wedding ideas was like asking a cat how to raise horses, but she did her best.
She did not visit the Chapel of the Ordeal. She would spend the night there soon enough.
Raoul continued her lessons as winter set in. Using their tactical experience of the Scanran raids in their district, he helped her put them together with the reports from all the other districts on the northern border. From that knowledge they worked out the Scanran warlord's overall strategy for the summer - Raoul called it the eagle's-eye view, instead of the vole's. Kel liked this as much as she did chess.
The King's Own was recruiting: Captain Linden of Second Company had a.s.sembled candidates for Raoul's approval. If they were accepted, they would begin training with Second Company among the Bazhir. Kel sat in on Raoul's interviews, taking notes and giving her impressions of each candidate at his request. He called it part of her continuing education in command. She still thought he was optimistic.
Neal and Merric returned in early November, the Ordeal clearly on their minds, though they talked of everything but that during meals and time off. Kel worried about them: Neal and Merric were the most imaginative of all those in her year. She understood their nerves, of course. No one could forget Vinson or Joren, and her own experiences of the iron door gave her dreams that woke her gasping in the night.
Buri and the Seventeenth returned. So did other knights and squires, most from the north. Cleon did not come, but wrote instead. General Vanget had ordered him to drill local boys in the defense of themselves and their villages. The best time for such lessons was in the winter, when the crops were in. Kel wrote back that she knew orders were orders, though she had to throw out three efforts before she had a letter she could send. The others had splotches on them.
Six knight-masters prepared their part of the Ordeal ritual. The timetable was that followed by knights and squires for centuries: a bath, instruction in the code of chivalry by two knights, a night-long vigil in the chapel until the first ray of sun touched the wall, then entry into the Chamber. One instructor would be the squire's knight-master, who also found the second knight for the ritual. The other could be a family member, but it was more proper if he were someone less closely connected. Lady Alanna had bespoken the king for Neal's instruction that summer. The lady, Neal told Kel in his wry drawl, left very little to chance.
Kel was afraid to ask Raoul if he'd approached anyone for her. She didn't want to hear that he'd been refused. What if she were the first in memory to be instructed by one knight? It was bad enough that her own ritual differed slightly from the others'. As Lady Alanna had done, with knights who knew she was female, Kel would bathe alone, and be instructed in the code after she dressed.
She knew she was silly to worry about bad luck following any changes in the steps of the rite. Clean was clean, no matter who did or did not see her wash. Many knights owed Raoul favors and would help him, if not The Girl. When she caught herself worrying about things she couldn't fix, she found work to keep her busy. Raoul would say if there were a problem.
One December morning he returned from a meeting to find Kel in his study, sorting his notes about the Owns applicants. "Well," he said, digging his hands into his pockets, "we have a second knight. I don't know what you'll think. I took him up on the offer. I thought he had a point."
Kel stared at him. "He who?"
Raoul grimaced, a sheepish look in his eyes. "Turomot of Wellam."
She knew that name, though she hadn't thought of its owner as a candidate. Turomot of Wellam, when did she... "The magistrate?" she cried, her voice squeaking.
"The Lord Magistrate?" she persisted.
Raoul nodded again.
Raoul nodded a third time. "Kel, it was his idea."
"He hates me," Kel said, her knees wobbling. "And he isn't a knight. Is he?"
"Actually, yes," Raoul told her. "He hasn't lifted a sword in fifty years, of course. And he doesn't hate you. At least, I don't think he does. What he hates, what he told me, is that people meddled with his procedures to validate pages. He's going to make sure no one tries that with you again. Look, if he's there, no one will dare say anyone gave you any help."
"The vigil?" Kel looked at Raoul with pleading eyes.
"He's, um, going to sit up with you. That's been done before, so you don't have to worry about a jinx."
Kel's head ached. "He's too old to be up all night. That place isn't even heated."
"G.o.ds above, don't tell him that! He already told me he wasn't in his grave yet and he'd thank me to stop hinting he was decrepit!"
The day before the holiday, the knight-masters of the squires to take the Ordeal met for their own ceremony with the new training master and the king and queen. They drank a toast to the new year, wrote the squires' names on bits of paper, and shook them up in a plain clay bowl. The order in which the queen drew names was the order in which the squires faced the Chamber. When Kel heard the results, she thought that the Yamani trickster G.o.d Sakuyo had danced in that bowl.
Neal was first. She was last.
As candidates for the Ordeal, they were excused from Midwinter service. Kel wondered if someone had miscalculated - it couldn't help them to have more time to imagine the worst - but that was the way it was done. She also knew Neal. If he wasn't distracted, he would make himself sick with worry. She enlisted Yuki to help her. Neal and Yuki always had something to talk, or argue, about. That Midwinter day the three of them went to the city for an early supper and a visit to the winter fair. They played games, watched jugglers and fire-eaters, and listened to a storyteller relate the birth of Mithros. By the time they climbed the hill to the palace, they had to rush; the sun had set.
The girls left Neal in the squires' wing and walked on through the palace in silence. Kel was about to bid her friend a good evening when she realized that Yuki's silence might not be due to weariness. The Yamani's mouth was drawn tight and her eyes were haunted.
"You're afraid for him," Kel remarked as they crossed the main hall.
Yuki automatically reached for her fan, popped it open, and hid her face behind it. It was the Yamani way to say the fan holder was embarra.s.sed. "I'm not a Yamani anymore. I'm allowed to be rude. Foreigners don't know any better," Kel pointed out. She pushed the trembling fan aside. "Yukimi noh Daiomoru, it is going to be a long night. You're worried for him. So am I. We'd best sit it out together, don't you think?"
Yuki furled her fan and traced the pattern on one slender steel rib. "I was there, when they carried the beautiful Joren out. Not - as a sightseer. But there were shadows in him, for all his beauty. I wanted to see if this Ordeal purged them." She tucked her fan in her obi. "He looked as if he'd lost all hope of sunrise. Neal... If something happens..."
"I wondered," Kel admitted. "But you flirt with so many men that I wasn't sure."
"Neither was I," Yuki said with a shaky smile. "Not until today."
"Time for glaive practice," Kel said, glad to have someone to look after. "Then a bath, a ma.s.sage, some archery in one of the indoor courts. If you don't sleep after all that, I will admit defeat."
Yuki did sleep, in one of her armchairs. Kel stayed awake through the long night, deep in meditation. She woke Yuki before dawn and helped her change into fresh clothes. The sun was half over the horizon by the time they reached the Chapel of the Ordeal.
They weren't alone. The chapel was crowded. Even though last year's squires had taken their Ordeals without problems, everyone remembered Joren and Vinson.
It felt like forever before the iron door to the Chamber creaked open. Yuki grabbed Kel's arm.
Neal stumbled out. His hair and the undyed cotton garments he wore were dark with sweat. His face was gray, his green eyes hectic and red-rimmed, as if he'd wept.
Lady Alanna wrapped a blanket around him and led her former squire toward the door. They were pa.s.sing Kel and Yuki when Neal halted and turned toward them. There was a question in his eyes for Yuki. The Yamani girl looked down, then drew her folded shukusen from her obi and offered it to him, dull end first. Neal took the fan with trembling fingers, then let Alanna guide him out of the chapel.
That night, when the king knighted him, Neal wore Yuki's delicate, deadly shukusen in his belt.
Kel was there each morning as her year-mates emerged from the Chamber. Esmond of Nicoline was second. Seaver of Tasride was third, followed by Quinden of Marti's Hill. They looked as if they'd been ground up and spat out, just as Neal had. Each was whole in mind and body; by the time they were knighted at sunset, their terror was hidden, replaced by awe that this moment had come at last.
Then it was Merric's turn. Kel, Neal, and Seaver spent the afternoon with him. They rode, sledded, and practiced quarterstaves, anything to keep him moving and unthinking. It didn't work. He got paler as the sun began to set; he couldn't eat supper. Finally they went to his room to wait until the Watch called the hour when he had to prepare for the bath. As Kel, Seaver, and Neal rose to go, Merric asked, "Kel? A word?"
She waited until Neal closed the door after him. "What is it?"
He swallowed. "Are you scared?" he asked, blue eyes huge in his bone-white face.
Kel reviewed the answers she could give, then said, "Witless."
Merric nodded. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his chin. "I can do this."
She smiled. "I know you can."
He clasped her hand warmly, then shooed her from his room. She kept her own kind of vigil again with Neal and Seaver. They spent the long watch in her room, dozing in chairs as they waited.
Dawn. They went to the Chapel, arriving just as Merric left the Chamber. He looked exhausted, but oddly rea.s.sured. He grinned at his friends when he saw them. "Too scared to scream," he told them, before his knight-master towed him off for a bath, food, and rest.
In the morning Kel had breakfast with her parents and visited Lalasa, just in case. Then she took Peachblossom, Jump, and the birds, and went for a long ride in the Royal Forest, where she heard nothing but the calls of birds and the plop of snow falling from the trees. She drew that quiet into her. What would come would come, whether she fretted herself to pieces or not. She would rather enjoy the weather, which wasn't too cold, and the quiet. As much as she loved her friends, sometimes it was good to hear no one at all.
She returned to her room late in the day and sat down to write to Cleon. More than anything, she wished he were here. That was her main regret, that he wasn't here. If something were to happen tonight, she wouldn't have seen him, talked with him, or kissed him good-bye.
She lost track of how long she sat looking at blank parchment, unable to think of something graceful to say. The ink was dry on her quill when she finally tried to write. Frowning, she trimmed the pen and waited this time until she came to a decision, then dipped her quill. She wrote, "Dear Cleon - I love you and I will miss you. Kel." After all, if she survived, he would never read one of their two forbidden words, "love," in her note. If she didn't, it wouldn't matter.
"I could do better," she told Jump, "but I can't seem to manage it right now."
She didn't want to eat with people who'd talk to her. Instead she went to the kitchens and cajoled a maid into giving her a plate of food. She ate in a little-used pantry and returned the plate with thanks, then went to visit Peachblossom and Hoshi. Her last stop was her room. She gathered up the clothes she was to wear during her vigil, then went to the sparrows to give each one a caress.
She kissed Jump on the head. "Be good and be careful, all of you," she said, her voice shaking. She gripped her fear with an iron hand before it made her weak. Thinking back on the things she had seen when she touched the Chamber door, she knew that it could resurrect all that terrified her and make it real. This time would be the last, one way or another. "G.o.ddess bless," she told her animals, and closed her door behind her. Inside her room, baffled by her strange behavior, upset at being locked in, Jump began to bark.
The room where the bath was held was attached to the Chapel, but at least it was heated. Raoul and Turomot met her there. No one's added sugar to Duke Turomot's lemon, Kel thought as she bowed and thanked the Lord Magistrate for honoring her.
The men waited in the hall while she scrubbed every inch of herself from crown to soles. Once she had put on the undyed cotton breeches and shirt, the rough material chafing her damp skin, she admitted Raoul and Turomot.
"Keladry of Mindelan, are you prepared to be instructed?" asked the duke. He would not sit this night out shoeless in thin cotton. Over his clothes he wore a heavy velvet robe with a fur collar and lining; on his head was a velvet cap with flaps that covered his ears. He even wore gloves.
"I am," Kel replied firmly.
Ritual dictated each man's words.
"If you survive the Ordeal of Knighthood, you will be a Knight of the Realm," said Raoul gravely. "You will be sworn to protect those weaker than you, to obey your overlord, to live in a way that honors your kingdom and your G.o.ds."
Turomot cleared his throat, then said, "To wear the shield of a knight is an important thing. You may not ignore a cry for help. It means that rich and poor, young and old, male and female may look to you for rescue, and you cannot deny them."
Back and forth they continued the instruction, reminding her of her duty to uphold the law and her own honor, to keep her word, to heed the rules of chivalry. Kel let all of it fall into her heart like stones into a still pool, sending ripples through her spirit as they fell. Those words were the reason she had come this far, the whole reason she needed to be a knight. She wanted them to be as much a part of her as blood and bone.
At last Raoul opened the door to the chapel. Cold air swept over Kel's skin. "Remember," he said gravely, "you must make no sound between now and the time you leave the Chamber of the Ordeal." Leaning down, he kissed her forehead as her father might, then gave her a hug. She hugged back, praying that it wouldn't be the last time she would see this man.
Turomot cleared his throat meaningfully. Taking a breath, Kel walked into that cold room. A single lamp burning in front of the gold sun disk behind the altar was the only light in the room. Kel followed it to the bench positioned in front of the Chamber of the Ordeal and sat.
Her feet were cold. Her skin and hair were cold. She could see wisps of steam from her skin and breath. If she thought about physical comfort, it would be a long and bitter night. That would not do.
She had been told to think about the code of chivalry, what it could mean to her and the realm. She was to think about her life, and choose where she wanted to go. No one had said she could not do that as she meditated.
Behind her she could hear Lord Turomot settling himself in the chair that had been set at the back of the chapel for him. She wished he hadn't done this. Of course he'd done it before - he was a knight, after all - but he was far too old to spend hours in an unheated room in the dead of winter. Still, his resolve to do his duty, to make sure that no one interfered with her vigil as Joren had interfered with her big examinations, awed her. If she could do as well at eighteen as he did tonight at almost eighty, she could take pride in herself.
Kel settled on the bench and placed her hands face-up in her lap, pressing thumbs to forefingers to show wholeness and emptiness, as the emperor's armsmistress had taught her. Yamani warriors meditated with broken limbs, in sleet and snow, even as their wounds got st.i.tched up. I can do this, she thought. She let her thoughts and fears stream away from the still pond that was her image of herself as she wanted to be.
That pond showed her a man, stubborn, harsh, old, who spent the night in discomfort. He did not do it for the squire who kept vigil there, but for the sake of duty, and for the web of custom and law that was the realm.
The realm. In her time as a squire she had seen more of it than most people knew existed, from the damp and mossy streets of Pearlmouth to Northwatch Fortress. She had hunted pirates in the west, built up dams against floods in the east. Mountains, green valleys, desert - she had ridden or walked in them all, measuring them with blisters and grit. Was this what was meant by "the realm"? Or was it other things: a little girl with a muddy doll, Burchard of Stone Mountain livid with grief and rage, a king who admitted a law was wrong, Lalasa in her bustling shop with pins in her mouth. If they were the realm, then so were griffins, sparrows, dogs ugly and beautiful, Stormwings, foul- and sweet-tempered horses, spidrens.
If she owed duty to the realm, then it was not the dry, withered thing it sounded in peoples mouths. Duty was what was owed, good parts and bad, to keep the realm growing, to keep it as fair as life could be kept. Duty was an old man, snug in his furlined robe, snoring lightly somewhere behind her.
A hand touched her shoulder, calling her into the present.
Kel looked at the priest. The lamp had guttered out. In the back of the Chapel, Duke Turomot cleared his throat.
The door to the Chamber of the Ordeal was open.
She tried to stand and almost pitched onto her face. Her legs were stiff after a long, motionless night. The priest caught her and held her until she could walk. With a nod of thanks Kel entered the Chamber. It was a small, boxlike room, its ceiling, walls, and floor all plain gray stone flags. The door clanged shut, leaving her in total darkness. Terror surged through Kel: anything could come at her now, and she would never see it.
Clenching her fists until they hurt, she stuffed her fear into the smallest out-of-the-way corner she could find. Of course she was afraid; she was always afraid. She just didn't have to admit it.
Within herself she thought she heard a voice say, Now we shall see.
She stood on a gra.s.sy plain. The only sound was the endless whistle of the wind as it blew, shaping tall gra.s.ses into shiny, rippling waves. She looked for the sun to fix her position and found solid, high, pale clouds. Later the sun would come out, or night would fall. She could guess her position then.
Kel turned in a circle. There: a tree, a pine, a lone tower on the plain. The sky arched down to the ground in almost every direction, without mountains or any other trees to break the horizon. Kel listened, searching for the sound of animals or running water. All she heard was the constant sigh of the wind.
If she was to survive for long, she would need water. That made her choice of action clear. The tree would be her goal. If she found no water by the time she reached it, she could use it as a watch post to find water. Kel stretched her muscles, then started to walk.
She thought she trudged onward for a long time, but it was impossible to tell. The light never changed, the wind never stopped, and she didn't get tired. She did get very bored. About to hum a song for company, she stopped just in time. If this was part of her Ordeal, she had to keep silent.
Finally she reached the tree. It was a fir, like her northern watch post. Gripping a low branch, Kel hoisted herself up and began to climb. Bark and pieces of broken limbs bit into her sore feet. Patches of sap stuck to her hands. She climbed despite them, determined to see where she was. Up and up she went. She refused to think of how high she must be, far higher than she'd been in that border fir. I climbed down the outer stair of Balor's Needle, she told herself grimly. At least here, if I fall, the branches will slow me down till I can grab on.
The wind picked up, tugging her clothes. Worse, it pressed the tree until the fir began to sway. Reaching for the next branch, Kel missed. Her foot slipped. One-handed she clung to the overhead branch as the wind dragged at her.
Is this the best you can do? she thought at the Chamber as she got both feet on a branch again. Balor's Needle was scarier - She closed her eyes. Even in her own mind she couldn't hold her tongue. How clever was it to anger the thing in the Chamber while she was in its power?
Below she heard wood break. It was followed by the sound of heavy, leafy branches falling in an avalanche. When Kel opened her eyes, knowing she would not like what she saw, she found that the ground was now visible. It was hundreds of feet below, a distance far greater than that from the observation platform to the base of Balor's Needle. Kel's head swam. She trembled as she clutched the tree, and sweat poured from her body.
She closed her eyelids - they fought their way open, though she wanted them shut. The pine swayed. A gust made the trunk whip away from the clinging Kel: she hung on, somehow, wrapping legs and arms around it. The trunk shook as the wind grabbed her clothes.
Now her stomach rolled as she rode the trunk to and fro on arcs that grew gradually wider. The tree started to whip. She knew what was coming as clearly as if the Chamber shouted it in her ear. She could hang on as her grasp on the trunk weakened, or she could die when it snapped.
Her chief regret was that they would think her death here meant that girls were not supposed to be knights. That Lady Alanna was a fluke or a miracle. Pianola, her sister, and Yvenne would have to find other dreams. It was no longer a matter of Kel's surviving the Ordeal: the Chamber meant to kill her. What she could refuse it was the banquet of fear she would feed it if she clung to the very last. Perhaps it was her fate to die in such a fall - that would be why heights had always scared her.
Kel let go of the lashing tree trunk, and dropped.
She landed on sand with a thump. She was twelve again, in a familiar-looking valley in the hill country, with sand on the ground, reddish-brown stone cliffs in front of her. Faleron, Neal, Prosper of Tameran, Merric, Owen, and Seaver cl.u.s.tered around her. They carried hunting weapons and looked panic-stricken.
Bandits rode around them on rugged horses, cutting the pages off from any escape. There were more than twenty raiders; hard, desperate men without so much as a patchless shirt between them. Their weapons were the only good things they had - good enough to carve up pages silly enough to stumble into their camp, at least.
"Kel, help us!" cried Faleron. "What do we do?"
It hadn't been that way six years before. Faleron, the senior page, had been in command. He hadn't asked for help from anyone; he had frozen. So had Neal, the oldest. They lived that day because Kel had kept her head.
She wasn't keeping it now. She couldn't breathe; she couldn't think. The archers among the bandits fitted arrows to strings. The pages had to do something, but what? If they broke left, they ran back into the bandit camp. The men blocked them in front and on the right. The cliff was at their backs. She couldn't decide. If the page archers shot, what would happen if they missed? What if they ran out of arrows?