There are always other options. But sometimes you have to settle.
To His Royal Majesty King Jonathan IV of Conte,
My wife Ilane and I are honored to accept your offer to return to Tortall with the Yamani delegation. We will be taking the ship with the rest of the diplomatic envoys.
On a more personal note, Mindelan is also honored to accept the marriage contract between our youngest daughter Keladry and Lord Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak. Keladry is one of Princess Shinkokami's ladies, and hopefully will get along well with Lord Raoul. We give thanks to you for both offering and arranging the specifics of the match.
Baron Piers of Mindelan
She finds out that she's getting married. She doesn't scream or cry. She doesn't hit things. She doesn't do any of that, even though she wants to. She wants to so, so much, but it wouldn't be proper or right.
She nods and sits in the room with her parents as her father reads the letter, takes delicate sips of bitter, earthy green tea.
Her parents say that she doesn't have to do it, that it is entirely her choice. That there are other men, other paths she can choose to take.
But Kel knows that she's going to Tortall with Shinko, and she knows that she won't be able to return to the Isles for a very long time, if ever at all. She knows that sometimes you have to settle.
Kel is not left alone very much on the trip to Tortall. Shinkokami is nervous about her marriage and forming a new life in a foreign country. Ilane of Mindelan has told the princess many things about Tortall, and Kel is able to offer some experiences from when she went back with her sisters for their betrothals and weddings, but Shinkokami feels very disconnected. She worries about her looks, her knowledge of classical weaponry, her hair, her accent.
Kel spends much time with Yuki as well, talking to her about Tortall, or what she remembers of it, and reminiscing about the Isles they've just barely left behind. The other girl is her closest friend, the one who she grew up with and accepted her when she was still the awkward foreign child who tripped over her kimono and didn't speak the language, and suddenly the same may happen to Yuki, even though she now doesn't have to marry a distant cousin she never much liked.
On the boat to Tortall, Kel repeats to herself over and over everything that she knows about her betrothed. He's famous in Tortall and well-known in the Yamani Islands. He's tall, like her. He has black hair and dark eyes. He will be meeting her at her family's townhouse a week after her arrival, and will accompany her to the ball introducing Shinko to the realm. He is called the Giantkiller, and he is the lord of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak.
It's a fine match, arranged by the king of Tortall himself and agreed to by her father, her mother and her. Some of the Yamani nobles they're closer to have given unsolicited agreements as well. Despite the age difference, everyone agrees that this marriage is an excellent arrangement: one of the king's favorites engaged to the daughter of one of the Yamani Emperor's favorites. It's perfect. And Patricine, Demadina, Adie, and Orie have all been wed to good men from good families, in Tortall and the Islands, so why should the youngest daughter be the exception?
Kel secretly wishes that she, like Patricine, could marry a Yamani man and stay in the lands that have been her home for 12 years instead of having to return to a foreign realm or better yet never marry at all and stay as a bodyguard to one of the Yamani princesses, however politics dictate otherwise. As Princess Shinkokami journeys to her husband, so does Kel as one of her ladies. And despite all of the advice from stiff etiquette masters, from various noblewomen, from Yuki (who she at least gets to travel with), from her mother and father on how to be a woman that the Tortallans will recognize as their own, Kel is truly a lady of the Yamani warrior class: one who can gut grown men with her fan and wield a pole arm with an eighteen inch blade- plus she can do it in a dress.
She desperately hopes that Lord Raoul is the type of man that finds that trait attractive.
The docks at Tortall smell like the fish and the sea, but the air has a harsher, saltier tang to it.
Shinko breaths it in, her eyes open wide and looking around the docks- cleaned up for them, with a welcoming committee consisting of Kel's parents, who had journeyed ahead to finish arrangements on their estate, waiting with the Prime Minister and his family, as well as a few knights. One of them, Kel realizes, is her brother Conal in full dress armor. He looks fairly uncomfortable.
She gives a mental shrug and walks to her parents, even though she saw them scant weeks before. She breathes in her mother's familiar scent of perfume and spice. Her father hugs her; Conal gives a stiff nod. She gives him a slight bow back, bound by her kimono. When they arrive at her parents' house she should probably put on Tortallan dress, should put on earbobs and bracelets, should start to play the part of the Tortallan lady- not the Yamani one- as she's been instructed.
Shinko appears relieved to see Ilane, and Kel turns back at her and gives her a reassuring look. Yuki, too, seems less uncomfortable than she could have been if it were a huge mass of bright, sparkling nobles with their false smiles and insincere eyes.
After greetings and a message read by the prime minister, Gareth of Naxen, they board carriages. Kel will stay with her parents for a few days and then move to rooms in the palace with the princess.
Time for her to go to her new home.
There's no chaperone in the room. This is the first thing that Kel notices when she walks into the sitting room where her fiancé waits for her. She had been led to understand that most meetings like this have a parent or aunt, or perhaps even a matchmaker there, but she supposes that it is different when one of the couple is respectable and an advisor to the king, as opposed to some randy green knight.
The door is left open, and her mother and father wait somewhere outside, but she stands in there alone with him.
Her first impression is yes, he is big. Of course he is big. His hair is curled tightly and mussed slightly, like he has been running his hands through it. He probably has; he looks nervous. His face is kind and boyish, with ruddy cheeks and guarded eyes.
Kel bows, as it is hard to curtsy the proper the Tortallan way in a kimono. Lord Raoul stands and does the same.
She sits down in the chair that he pulls out for her, folds her hands neatly in her lap, then rearranges them. She pulls out her fan from a fold in her kimono, and covers half her face with it before remembering that Tortallan women don't do that. Tortallan woman smile bewitchingly and beckon with their eyes. They don't carry fans you can kill people with.
Kel doesn't want to put down the fan, and instead peers over its rim. The man in front of her is definitely handsome and muscular, and she as she glances downwards she realizes that he has large, strong hands.
All these snippets don't quite yet add up to a person.
Kel inclines her head. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sir" she says. His lips twitch, like he's trying a friendly smile for this shy girl, but he can't quite get there.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance as well, Lady Keladry," he responds. "I hope your journey from the Yamani Islands was pleasant."
She swallows. "It was fine," Kel responds. Think think think, she tells herself. What is she supposed to say next, what is she supposed to do. What is he supposed to do?
"So," Raoul says, and he stretches out the vowel in the word. She watches his mouth. "Do you miss the Islands?"
"I do, somewhat," she allows, goes straight for the diplomatic answer. "As do the princess and her other ladies. Tortall is very different." It feels so odd to be speaking Common. The word shapes are so different, and her parents spoke primarily Yamani, even at home. She hears her words come out with the barest hint of an accent and hates how it marks her even more so as different.
"How so?" He seems to be grasping at the ends of her sentence; clearly her betrothed isn't that comfortable in social situations like these.
"The people are very different here. They are less reserved."
"I've heard," Raoul replies. "I've read and enjoyed your father's books- the etiquette one not as much as the history ones of course."
"Thank you," Kel smiles, but it is hidden behind the fan. She lowers it a little bit, so the tips of the spokes are under her chin.
She can't imagine spending the rest of her life with this man. He isn't mean or rude, isn't anything like the horror stories she could have dreamed, that Shinko did dream before she was engaged to Prince Roald, but honestly she is envying her friend. The prince is supposed to be reserved but witty and pleasant- Lord Raoul is merely and clearly uncomfortable with the idea of wedding a foreign girl half his age.
Kel is trying; she really is. But she has been advised to not talk about her love of weapons, and she senses that talking about Yamani style versus Tortallan would make him more ill at ease.
She inhales. "Would you like some tea?" she asks.
Raoul has absolutely no clue what to make of Keladry. He supposes that she is pretty enough, if he cared overmuch about that, with greenish eyes and a tan, something he always thinks is attractive on girls. But she's so damned polite and quiet. So Yamani that it positively unsettles him. To his eyes she is intimidated by him, and that unnerves him the most. He's friendly, goddammit. He is a very nice person, despite his tendency to huff at idiotic recruits. People like him.
And that fan of hers- he doesn't know who she is trying to fool with the thing. He can see in the way that she holds it that it is clearly a weapon. It looks like it's made of iron too, an anomaly considering that most of the fans he has seen in the Corus markets are made of bamboo or other light woods. The cheapest are those paper ones they sell on festival days that are worth less than the coin itself.
Keladry holds her fan like she knows what she's doing, but he would hate to bring it up. Not because she knows the weapon, but because it would be odd and awkward, like he has been observing her too closely, creepily so, even though it's just one of those things he, as a knight, tends to notice about people.
One thing is certain: he's going to have to talk to Jon about this. This girl makes him feel unsettled. She seem to stare right through him. He was never entirely comfortable with the marriage, especially him marrying a teenager who has spent the majority of her life abroad, but she's just- he doesn't know. Jon strong-armed him into this, and he wouldn't be surprised if he did the same to Piers of Mindelan (though the man is a diplomat, and likely to know what all those tricky royal phrasings really mean).
Raoul thinks of when his king will have time to have a chat.
Four days after her arrival back to Tortall, Kel moves from her family's house to rooms in the palace. A day after that she is at glaive practice with Shinko, Yuki, Lady Haname, and the queen.
Kel is surprised to see Queen Thayet there, but it turns out that she has been training with the glaive for some months. Kel had heard about the Riders, of course, but this, the Queen's firsthand knowledge of foreign weaponry- this shocks her, a little. She thinks that the queen would very much like Nariko, the Yamani Emperor's armsmistress.
Yuki murmurs to her that Ilane will be joining them later in the morning, but for now it is just the five of them, unfortunately odd-numbered.
They start with perfunctory introductions and then pattern dances, slow then fast. The queen does the most basic, Shinko the more elegant ones. Yuki is still stretching, and Kel goes through her favorite pattern dances, relishing the feel of the movements, the weight of the glaive.
Eventually, Yuki and Kel start to fight. Kel is better at arms in general, but Yuki is more sly. Still, Kel has the upper hand, even though she takes care that she doesn't press it. Were this a real battle, there would have been several openings to take, but instead she twists and turns, moving in ways that make the fight last just a little bit longer.
She is so engrossed that she doesn't notice the soft footsteps into the courtyard, nor the queen's excusing herself to Shinko, who sits delicately on a bench, her glaive resting casually at her side.
She does notice the slow claps that come from the side of the courtyard when she finally takes her opening, disarming her friend and bringing the blade inches away from Yuki's throat before she lowers it gently.
Kel turns, gasps. Her eyebrows flicker in surprise.
"I was not expecting you here, my lord," she says, when it becomes apparent he is waiting for her to speak.
"That was... impressive," Raoul says, his eyes taking her measure. "How long have you been training with that?"
"Since I was six. Ten years."
His eyebrows shoot almost to his hairline. "Well."
Kel glances over to Yuki, who appears to be hiding a smile. The queen, too, looks pleased, but of course- she is friends with Lord Raoul.
"Thank you," Kel feels like she should smile in acknowledgment, do something besides speak those few words.
Inside she sighs, yet- he doesn't seem to be upset.
"Would you mind if I stayed and watched for a while?" He is looking at her but the question is directed at all of them there.
"Feel free," Queen Thayet says briskly, and they take up again. Yuki practices with Lady Haname, so Kel does a pattern dance by herself, once of the more advanced ones.
When she finishes, Raoul is standing beside her- and how does he manage to move so quietly in boots? "I had guessed from that fan of yours that you knew how to use some weapons," he says softly, "but this is beyond what I could have expected. You've trained with the Yamani armsmaster? What else do you know?"
Kel peers up at him. "Armsmistress," she corrects him. He smiles, and she continues. "I'm proficient at hand-to-hand, archery, other pole-arms. Glaive, shukusen- both ceremonial dances and normal fighting. And I've worked with a sword." She looks into his eyes directly for the first time.
"Well," he repeats. "You'll have to show me more someday. Perhaps you'll even figure out how to joust."
Kel ducks her head and, before she can stop herself, she grins.
Raoul does too.
Raoul has to leave Corus for a week.
Bandits have attacked a town in the Royal Forest. As it isn't so much a bloody mess as what he is usually witness too, he is supposed to go with the Own for only a week before turning over command to Flyndan and Buri and her Riders. He rides next to her for most of the trip, enjoying the conversation. They've done this for years and it is a familiar and almost comforting pattern: catch the bandits and bring them to justice.
"I can't believe that you're going to be married," is the first thing that Buri says to him, once they've settled into a rhythm.
"I can't believe you're bringing that up," Raoul responds.
"Of course I am," Buri replies. "I want to know what you think."
"What I think," he repeats. Raoul tilts his head at her. "Well. I don't know. It's a pity that she stayed in the Yamani Islands as one of the Princess's ladies. She knows how to use weapons- she could have gone for her knighthood if she had been here."
"Alright, that sounds well enough," Buri says, "and by the way, if she knows how to use weapons as well as you appear to be saying- and you do sound extremely impressed- then she's probably in some part one of the Princess's bodyguards- but what do you think about her?"
"Oh," Raoul tilts his head again, his default thoughtful pose. "I... don't really know. She's so much younger, and she's so quiet with me- I just don't know."
"You might want to make up your mind," Buri smiles at him. "You're going to have to marry that girl. It would be good to have an opinion of her."
"I know," he says. "Trust me, Buri, I know that."
There's a little bit of sadness in her smile. "You're a good man, Raoul," Buri looks at him with compassion. "I know that, you know that. Jon knows that. That's why you're marrying her. You won't do wrong by this Keladry."
Raoul sighs. "But what if I do?"
"You won't," Buri says. "I hear that she's fairly tall too, so you don't even need to worry about looming too much."
"What're friends for, right?"
Buri quirks her brow at him and he grins. He breaths out.
They ride on.
Raoul is good. He doesn't storm into Jon's study when it is time for his appointment, he doesn't start off with a yell. He sits calmly in the chair, he intertwines his fingers, he leans forward.
And then he starts. He enunciates as clearly as he can. "She's sixteen."
Jonathan nods. "Yes."
"I mean, I knew that when I agreed, I know that she's a teenager, I know she's spent most of her life in a foreign country, and you know I only agreed to this because you impressed the importance of it on me very strongly, but-"
Jon shakes his head. "You can't break the contract, Raoul."
"I know. Gods, that's not the point. I wouldn't do that. But have you met this girl?" He leans forward more, looking into his king's eyes. "She's not like some silly noble's daughter that I could marry and then leave to her own devices- sleep with enough to produce an heir, maybe a spare, and then move to another room and do what I like. Most Tortallan girls would- Mithros, they would understand that. You know how most marriages between the nobility are... you know. Ican't do that. I can't live like that. I can't."
Jonathan leans back in his chair, his back against the silken cushions. He looks very regal sitting there, the light from the window picking out highlights in his hair, but he looks very tired and much older than his friend has ever seen him.
"I know, Raoul." Jon sighs. "I'm sorry. I know."
Raoul stares into that window behind Jon, the wholly magnificent view that the king sits in front of and never sees, day in and day out.
"And you know what else, I can't imagine consummating it. She acts so jumpy around me, like I'm going to bear down and attack her at any time. And she's trained as a warrior. I don't know why she acts like this, but it makes me uncomfortable in my own skin. She never shows any emotions either! I understand that's a Yamani thing, but she tries to stop doing it and tries to let her true feeling slip through, and then it all looks fake! Keladry- she's a nice enough girl, and I don't mind talking to her, in fact I've enjoyed it so far and she has interests similar to mine, but what if I do wrong by her? I know I'm going to, I know it. Your Majesty, you have to- Jon, I can't."
"I'm sorry," Jon repeats, and Raoul can see that he truly is, for both him not having the ability-or willingness-to act and the situation that was set up initially. "I can't say that I understand, Raoul, because I don't, but I see your points."
"Don't try to tell me I'll be fine, godsdammit."
"I won't," and Jon looks inappropriately amused, before schooling his features back to composed and worried. "I have a feeling that will only agitate you more."
Raoul huffs. "Yes."
Jon rubs his forehead with one hand, clearly frustrated with the direction the conversation is going. "But you won't hurt her. You're a good man."
"I wasn't always," Raoul says quietly. "You know that. And she's just a child- a child trained in enough of the fighting arts to give most men pause, but she's a child-"
All the king can manage to say is "I know."
It's Yuki who Kel talks to. Not Shinko, because Shinko has worries of her own and Kel doesn't want to trouble her more. Yuki is tougher than the princess, and Yuki doesn't have worries about a husband and becoming the future queen of a country she doesn't know.
It's also Yuki who realizes exactly how worried Kel is, because she pulls her aside one day after lunch and forces her to take a walk through the gardens.
"Keladry," her friend says, lightly waving her fan as they stroll. "Breathe."
"I know," Kel says, glancing over. "I'm trying."
"You are not succeeding," Yuki points out the obvious. "Why are you so scared of this man?"
"He's a hero," Kel says. "He's the sort of person I would look up to. He has a list of accomplishments as long as my leg."
"That doesn't mean that he isn't a person," Yuki says. "You and I both have seen that kings and emperors are only people. So is your Lord Raoul."
The problem, Kel thinks, is that he doesn't feel like one. "He's like stone," she says, "and occasionally he shows flashes of being real."
"Mmm," Yuki says, signaling for her to continue.
"And the way he acts around me, especially the way that he was initially. I cannot place why I make him uncomfortable."
Yuki hums again.
"I don't know if I'm too formal or too informal. I don't know if I talk too much or too little. I don't know."
Yuki stops abruptly and Kel faces her. Yuki is shorter than her, but her dark eyes bore directly into Kel's own. "Stop being so scared," she directs. "Is it that you are uncomfortable with being married?"
And Kel's shoulders drop, because Yuki has picked it out from her rush of words and ideas. "Gods, Yuki- yes. Yes. I don't want to be married, I don't want to be a wife, I don't want to have children-"
"And you'll have to," Yuki interrupts her. "Because you don't have a choice."
"Sometimes I wish I could run away," Kel responds. "Sometimes I wish I could go to the highest point on the highest mountain in the Islands and sit there with my glaive and my fan and meditate. Sometimes I wish I could travel to Carthak, or, or Maren or Tyra or the Roof of the World, just like the Lioness- if I could disappear into the desert or the mountains and never be heard of again."
"You would get terribly lonely," Yuki says, her fan waving hypnotically. "Wouldn't you?"
"I don't know if I would," Kel whispers, and tries as hard as she can to not cry. She succeeds, bites the inside of her lips until the shuddery feeling is out of her.
"Let's get out of here," Yuki murmurs, her hand finding Kel's. "Come with me and I'll make you a nice pot of tea."
Kel allows herself to be led out of the gardens, back into the comfort of Yuki's rooms. "Alright," she says. "Alright."
Kel has a gown for the party. She has a hairdo and a perfume, earbobs and matching bracelets, shoes she can barely walk in, and petticoats that scratch only a little. The only thing she is missing is the will to go.
Yuki and Shinko find her resplendent, made up like a lady ought to be.
Silently, Shinkokami slips a knife into her hand, long, thin, and pointed, to place accordingly into her hairdo. There's a cap on the end of it so it looks like a bauble, and it's wrought with Yamani lettering. "I told the queen you'd want this," she says. "She understands and gave you permission, as one of my ladies."
"It helps," Kel says, and slips her feet into her shoes. "Let's go."
Despite all of this, Shinkokami's introduction party is an ordeal. That is the only way that Kel can describe it. She stands with Yuki and Haname in a Tortallan outfit, dressed in a color that she suspects isn't entirely becoming to her while Shinko sits on a dais and looks polite and pleasant and uninterested in her future husband.
Prince Roald is handsome, was charming enough when Shinko made introductions and inquired after his health, but he and Shinkokami have not had a conversation with each other the entire night and Yuki is beginning to be worried about her friend.
Kel is worried about other things as well but she focuses.
They are served by Tortallan squires dressed in the colors of their knight-masters. Some look intimidated when they see Yuki and Kel, some are silent, and some try to flirt.
One boy with green eyes flirts rather well, and Kel notices that Yuki notices, even though she had sent him away with a tight smile.
"Is Lord Raoul supposed to be at this party?" Yuki whispers eventually, hiding her mouth behind a cupped hand. "Haname told me that she had heard word of that, and I do believe he was to escort you, if that is the custom."
"I don't know," Kel admits. "There was some bandit trouble or something recently, and I don't see him here- he sent message to Mama and Papa that he might not be available. We've had our meeting and he's busy with the King's Own. We're to see each other in a few days to exchange Midwinter gifts or some such rot to make up for this missed opportunity. There's no courting ritual or anything beyond that. We're to be married. I suppose that's enough."
"You're still upset," Yuki says. "You're upset about your marriage, Shinko is upset about hers..."
"Speaking of which," Kel says, indicating the princess. "We should go speak with her soon before she falls asleep with her eyes open."
Yuki nods her agreement, but then the green-eyed squire, Nealan something, comes up to them.
"Begging your pardon, but you two are the ladies of her highness Princess Shinkokami, are you not?"
Kel and Yuki blink for a moment, caught off-guard, until Kel remembers her manners. "I am Lady Keladry of Mindelan and this is Lady Yukimi noh Daimoru," she says.
"Charmed," Nealan smiles equitably, bowing. "I'm Nealan of Queenscove, Neal really as neither of you are my great-aunt, and I'm one of Prince Roald's friends, also Lady Alanna's squire. Much to my chagrin."
"It is a pleasure to meet you," Yuki responds.
"I've noticed," Neal says, skipping over more pleasantries, "that the princess and your princess are having a rather hard time of it. Sources tell me she is an intelligent and thoughtful lady, and since I have found Roald is often amusing and well-spoken when he chooses to speak, the inevitable conclusion is that they should be getting along much better than they seem to be currently."
Kel knows that while Yuki agrees, her friend probably won't say it, or at least not in front of this outspoken boy.
"You may have a point," she says hesitantly, glancing over at Yuki, who nods slightly. "But- some awkwardness is understandable. They do not know each other well yet."
"It hurts to look at them," Neal declares, flinging his arms up in what she recognizes as a Player's dramatic gesture, oddly enough. "Look!"
"Be that as it may," Yuki says, after glancing over at the princess and the prince, "I do not see what I can do right now. Her Highness has told me that she and the other royals are to stay on the dais and receive people."
Neal grins. "I'll think of something eventually."
"I do not doubt it." Yuki's eyes crinkle at the corners and Kel can tell that this boy has piqued her friend's interest. Neal senses it too; he lays a hand on Yuki's elbow. "May I fetch you a refreshment, my lady?" and gives her another charming, silly grin. His eyes crinkle up at the corners.
"Very well," Yuki nods regally and they sweep off together.
Kel smiles inwardly at the pair they make, but she notices that she's been left alone.
Midwinter gift exchanges are to be between people who care for each other. The present is to be chosen with the recipient in mind, and even if it is only sweets, then it will be sweets that the recipients likes. If it is a book, it should be one that will be read, and so on and so forth.
Kel is supposed to get Raoul a gift, and he is supposed to get her one in return. But who is she supposed to ask for advice? The queen? One of his friends, all of whom are so much older than her?
In the end she purchases a woolen scarf, green and gold like the colors of his fief, and spends the rest of the day feeling woefully inadequate. She cannot even console herself with the thought that he must feel as bad as she does, for it is always acceptable to give a girl jewelry or some other sort of trinket.
She meets with him the next day at her family's townhouse; they will go out and walk together in the city. There is a chaperone this time, Kel's sister Adalia, but Adie has her fiancé with her and the two of them are walking a respectable distance behind, giggling and kissing and making absolute fools of themselves.
Kel has the impression that she's supposed to be Adalia and Merovec's chaperone more than they are to be hers, because she and her fiancé stand a respectable distance apart, don't touch at all, and make polite and strained conversation, just as they are expected to. Just as they will always do, if things do not change between them.
This, she tells herself, is the picture of what her life will be, unless she can get this man to open up, unless they can start to talk about things that matter, unless they can find more common threads, because the alternative is silent suppers and servants that whisper about the cold lady and reticent lord behind their backs. The alternative is lonely nights spent alone at a fief that won't feel like home, and Kel doesn't want that to be her future.
But it will only work out if she can give up parts of herself to him in return.