Bandits came for Lalasa’s family and burned the whole farm out, except for her, because she had been at the river washing clothes. Lalasa did not miss her father or her brothers for all the long years of her life, which should tell you something about her.
She cried for them anyway, and that should tell you something too.
The first time Lalasa stepped into Lady Kel’s rooms, she was unsure of what kind of fairy story she’d accidentally stumbled into. A stout white dog with a twice-broken tail grinned up at her while sparrows flitted about the room and out the open shutters. There was a giant foreign spear Lalasa would later would learn was called a glaive hung on the wall, as well as paintings and waving-cat sculptures, which all seemed undeniably alien to the estranged farm girl Lalasa still felt like.
In the midst of all this almost fairy-tale absurdity (wild songbirds perching on your hand for a bit of fruit? A porcelain cat waving on the windowsill?), there stood a sturdy, solid young girl with unadorned hair cut short. Her expression was steady as she listened to Gower’s request that she take his niece Lalasa on as a maid. There was no one who looked less like someone belonging in a fairy story than Keladry of Mindelan.
But her story was legendary, wasn’t it? Even with such a solid, quiet presence at its center, this was a story to change lives: the first openly female page in two centuries.
Kel looked at the world through steady eyes, and Lalasa would have felt jealous at her even calm if she hadn’t been busy being confused.
When Lalasa first knew Kel she thought stone was a good name for her—or mountain even more so. Kel was tall even as a page, steady and unreadable, unmoving under the beatings and strife of a knight student’s life.
Kel explained, now and then, a bit about the Yamani Islands where she had grown up as a diplomats’ daughter. She had been raised with a respect for peace, for serenity, for quiet and calm. I want my heart to be stone, Kel would think on hard days, on dark nights. I want to be a still lake on a calm day. She called it meditation but Lalasa thought it sounded like a prayer.
Lalasa, learning the lumps of her bedroll in Kel’s dressing room those first few weeks, thought she would never understand Kel’s reasons for choosing this life. Maybe Keladry of Mindelan was just some mountain spirit made flesh—incomprehensible, looking for the life that most reminded her of rock falls.
For weeks, Lalasa thought Kel never cried, a creature made of no water at all. One morning Kel bounced with dismay in front of the mirror and realized she’d have to add a piece of cloth armor to her repertoire that none of the other pages would need. Lalasa bustled cheerily, feeding the sparrows, and told her she’d order her a breastband from the tailors. Kel, the indomitable, the mad, the incomprehensibly calm, started crying.
Kel had never cried, not coming home with bruises from training, not coming back with black eyes from bullies. Lalasa cried all the time—over rips in Kel's clothes, Kel joked.
Lalasa clutched the sparrow’s feed bowls and stared at this young woman who was brought to frustrated tears at the thought of having to wear a breastband. “I hate it when my body does things without asking me,” Kel said.
In their own unasked-for trial by fear, three years later, Lalasa would describe that time before Kel as a year of fighting off men and being slapped by women. For those weeks between the first night she’d run to Uncle Gower for help and the day he found her a place with Kel, Lalasa slept on Gower’s little cot while he snored on the floor. Even his snores were glum little things. She had never had a more comforting lullaby.
Gower built silences with quiet steady hands. Her uncle whittled in the evenings or did his mending or slowly frowned his way line by line through a borrowed book. Plump, cheery Salma would invite herself over for tea. She chattered into Gower’s glum silence and Lalasa’s petrified one. Lalasa thought it might have been Salma who had suggested asking Kel to take her on.
Once she was Lady Kel’s maid, Lalasa would wait til her uncle was done with his morning duties and then let herself into his rooms, bold as Salma, with her hands full of biscuits and hot coffee. Gower wasn’t much for words, but he would take a biscuit and she would mend Kel’s latest rips or sketch out some imagined gown, riding habit, or tailored tunic she could never imagine being allowed to make real.
Lalasa couldn’t imagine a lot of things, in those days—not the feel of silk on her fingers, or a queen’s trust on her shoulders, the warmth of Tian pressed up all against her side. She pricked herself with a mending needle, then, and kept sewing. Stop dreaming, she told herself, because it was a lie—she imagined it all, she did, even before her first commission, even before the first time Tian held her hand. She wanted it all. She just couldn’t imagine having it, having anything at all.
Kel's brother had given her a fear of heights and a hatred of bullies. Lalasa's had given her a fear of everything else.
That first summer, they spent the months in Kel’s parents’ townhouse in Corus. Lalasa stared, the first few days, at this place her sturdy, incomprehensible mistress had come from—the sturdy diplomat and his tall, elegant wife; her seemingly dozens of siblings and siblings’ spouses and children and grandchildren dashing in and out at random. Only two of Kel’s sisters were in permanent residence, young impeccable ladies about ready to enter into society.
Lalasa was put up in a nice little room with a window that opened into one of the courtyards. It had two beds. She didn’t meet the second occupant until the second night, when Lalasa tiptoed into the room to find a stranger sewing on the opposite bed.
When the other woman noticed her, she offered a hand, smiling easily. “I’m Tianine, Lady Orannie’s maid. You can call me Tian, though.”
“Lalasa, Lady Kel’s.” It was a squeak. She had liked living in Lady Kel’s rooms all year, no one to bother her but the dog and the birds.
“Ah, yes, the sister who’s trying for knighthood. She must be something.”
“Yes,” said Lalasa. “She is.” She reached over, looking at the skirts Tian was mending. “This is lovely.”
“Are you a seamstress?”
“I like beautiful things,” Lalasa explained, her hands moving softly over the fabric. She liked that here, soft was the right way to be.
It was days later that Tian caught Lalasa sketching a design in her notebook. She made a delighted noise, snatching at the papers even as Lalasa tried to hide them. “You are a seamstress,” Tian accused, smiling.
“Hardly,” Lalasa murmured, letting the sketches slip out of her hands to Tian’s.
"I like beautiful things, too," Tian confided. She ran her hands over Lalasa's sketches. "These deserve to be seen."
Lalasa flushed and shook her head. “I’m just—”
“These are beautiful,” said Tian. “May I borrow a few?” At Lalasa’s tentative nod, Tian grinned. “You’ll see,” she said.
Kel's sisters looked like her and didn't. Coiled hair and soft palms, they were older and slenderer than their tough younger sibling, but they could go mountain-hard and lake-glassy the same way Kel could. That summer they dragged Kel around the markets, buying summer plums and teasing her into dresses. "No sashes for you," Orannie said, and Lalasa privately agreed, eyeing Kel's solid body type. Tian, catching this, grinned at her.
A dapper young man standing nearby coughed lightly, trying to companionably join the teasing, and made a comment about bulls in china shops, cows in clothes shops. Kel's sisters turned to him, going to lethal politeness, sharp as an icy lake. Lalasa stepped back hastily—so apparently Kel wasn't the only mountain spirit in the family, ready to rain avalanches down on bullies' heads.
Tian sidled up to her. "So, no sashes for Lady Kel. Let's see what might work instead—my mistress will be a while with that."
They found Kel a few dresses to wear for when Kel felt like reminding the other pages that can demolish you on the practice courts and overtly feminine weren’t mutually exclusive.
“Kel never used to wear dresses without a fight,” one sister murmured to the other.
The other grinned. “This is a fight. Her stubbornness far outweighs her hatred of skirts.”
Tian poked her head into their shared room that evening, to find Lalasa reading and quietly missing the sparrows’ chirpy presences. “I’m going out with some friends. You should come, Lalasa.”
Lalasa got the feeling Tian was the sort of person who liked to make other people her projects. “I don’t...”
“Come on, for me,” Tian said, smiling. It really was a striking smile, crinkling all the way up to her eyes like she meant it. She swept long hair out of her face and said, “I had fun in the market today, didn’t you? Let’s have a little more.”
Lalasa got her jacket.
It was not entirely a mistake. Tian’s friends were nice, chirpy girls—they reminded Lalasa a bit of the sparrows, flitting about, adding to the general fairy-tale feel of her life these days. They went to a local eaterie, where they giggled about their mistresses and clients, lovers and friends.
One was engaged to a man apparently all the others knew, and they tossed old incomprehensible jokes back and forth to each other. She tried to turn it around by teasing Tian about a maid from the next house over.
Tian raised her chin, refusing to blush in a way Lalasa would eventually learn was very characteristic, and said, “She found a husband, the poor dear.”
“What brings you to the city?” one of the girls asked Lalasa.
“It’s a long story,” Lalasa said.
After the eaterie, they went to a series of taverns. Young men bought them drinks and competed loudly in front of them, with games of skill, strength, chance, or just straight bravado. The night got darker and things got both louder and shakier. Lalasa wrapped her jacket tighter and tighter around herself, even though it was too warm in the building, and sweated stubbornly. She thought about Kel, so very brave and so very solid. She thought about Tian, and how very bright she could smile. Lalasa felt small and wan.
“You want to step outside?” said a familiar cheery voice at her shoulder, and then Lalasa found herself dragged outside, her hand clasped in Tian’s fingers.
They sagged into the cold outside, the shock of it sending Tian giggling. “You didn’t look like you were having much fun,” she said when she’d caught her breath. Her cheeks, paler than Lalasa’s, were flushed.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Lalasa stammered. Tian was still holding her hand, which Lalasa realized was sweaty. She flushed and dragged it out of Tian’s warm grip. “You don’t need to be out here with me.”
“Silly,” she said. “That’s not what I meant.” Tian glanced down at her empty palm, curling her fingers. She looked a little unsteady on her feet, glowing with warmth. Lalasa shivered. “This wasn’t your kind of night. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“Stop that,” said Tian. “You’re allowed to not like things, you know? Come on, let’s head home.”
“You don’t have to leave your friends—”
“Oh, they’ll hardly notice. Ana’s got her eyes on that Scanran bloke who keeps winning at pool, and the rest of the girls are placing bets. C’mon, I’ve got an idea for an apology.”
Tian bought them roasted chestnuts off a street stall and then dragged Lalasa up to Temple Way. At this time of night, it was quiet but for a few priests and worshippers going about their business. The street blazed, though, golden lamps lit evenly all down its long straight line. The palace stood gleaming in the shadowy distance.
“It’s beautiful,” said Lalasa.
“I figured you didn’t get out much,” Tian said. “And this is a sight worth seeing.”
The city spread out around them, lit with lamps here and there like gleaming embroideries on some cross-patched black and gold skirt. Lalasa looked up for what seemed like the first time in weeks.
When they got too cold to keep going, they went home. When they tiptoed back into their empty room and tumbled into their beds, their fingers were still sticky from the chestnuts.
At summer’s end, Tian’s mistress commissioned Lalasa for a gown, to Lalasa’s startled blush and quiet, interior sense of just desserts. It was not very humble, perhaps, but Lalasa eyed the lady’s frame and knew just the color to set off the blush tones of her skin, just the cut to make her outshine the rest.
They moved back into the page quarters, Kel and Lalasa, and were both welcomed enthusiastically by the courtyard sparrows. Lalasa barely slept those first few nights, staying up scribbling on her cot in Kel’s dressing room. She didn’t sleep properly until not the night the gown was done but the first night it was worn. Lalasa hovered at the doors of the ballroom, watched the dark silks gleam in the candlelight, flutter and flicker in the light, and thought I did that.
Lalasa was not the only one who noticed Lady Orannie’s gown. More commissions came in, from other court ladies, and Lalasa’s fingers were busy, smudged with sketching ink and wrapped with threads. She kept up with Kel’s mending (the girl tore everything) and was startled, curious, pleased with the way quiet pride lit up in Kel’s eyes every time she caught sight of Lalasa working on her latest skirt.
“Would you like to learn how to defend yourself?” Kel asked one afternoon.
Kel was all rolling muscles and steady stances. Lalasa looked down at her slender fingers and said, “My lady, I couldn’t,” but Kel was very stubborn.
A few weeks later, Lalasa threw her mistress all the way to the door. When Lalasa stammeringly tried to apologize, Kel laughed for one of the first times Lalasa had witnessed, bursting with congratulations. “Now, can you do it again?”
When Vinson came after Lalasa, she held him off until the sparrows brought Kel. It was a fairy story again, wild songbirds bringing knights in shining armor, and Lalasa wasn’t sure who she was in the story. She shook for days. She had left scars on Vinson, that pleased her, that terrified her.
(Years later, the Chamber of Ordeal left bruises on Vinson for every one he had left on other people. Lalasa didn’t look to see if she recognized any).
After Lalasa’s fifth dress, Tian came skidding down the pages’ wing corridor just after breakfast. “A new commission,” Tian panted. “Queen Thayet’s asked for you.”
Lalasa felt like a farmgirl for the first time in weeks, her skirt muddy from washing at the river, her braids unraveled. “No, not really?” she said.
“I told you they deserved to be seen,” said Tian. “I’m a wonderful judge of character.”
During the queen’s first fitting, Lalasa had to stick her majesty with a pin before Lalasa could relax. Later, Kel would tell her the story of her first glaive practice with the queen, stark terrified until Thayet dumped her on her behind and told her to stop pulling her blows.
“I’m an immigrant to the city myself,” said Thayet, after coaxing a few whispers of backstory out of Lalasa. The queen was beautiful, as calm as Kel but much friendlier about it. “My father was a Kmir warlord, very far east from here. There was a civil war, when I was your age, and I came here. I was terrified.”
“You can’t ever have been frightened, majesty.”
“Oh, I was,” said Thayet. “Buri—my bodyguard,” she explained. “My best friend. Buri was maybe even more frightened than me—she was more furious than I was, too, and I think those go hand in hand sometimes.”
“Everything fell apart,” murmured Lalasa. “What did you do?”
“We ran,” said Queen Thayet simply. “I’m very proud of that. It’s a hard thing to do, to pick up all the threads of a life. Now, I was thinking something in cream.”
Tian’s mistress was in town, side-eyeing suitors at court, so Tian helped Lalasa with the gowns. They curled up in Lalasa’s room or Tian’s, Tian working on hemlines while Lalasa chewed her lip over careful embroidery and kept an eye on every stitch.
“No, not like that,” said Lalasa once, not sharp but firm. Kneeling, she showed the proper motions to Tian, speaking with low authority. When she was done, her fingers hesitated over the perfect line of stitches, her breath freezing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“Take charge?” offered Tian. Lalasa risked a look up and saw Tian was smiling. It was a wide smile, bright and proud. Lalasa ducked her head, running the pads of her fingers across the unfinished hem. She risked a glance up through her eyelashes. Tian was still smiling.
Kel grew. She stretched her seams and Lalasa let out each hemline with more and more pride. She understood her better, these days, this solid young woman who cried over breastbands but not bruises. Kel kept insisting on giving Lalasa self-defense lessons. Lalasa forced her feet into fighting stances in the line for the servants’ mess hall, felt it grow more natural every day. Her mind danced off to hemlines, to fingers sticky from roasted chestnuts, and her stance grew solid, grew steady, grew roots.
Kel’s friends brought the younger pages to her for teaching, for staff work and hand-to-hand. Lalasa tried her best to keep sitting in the corner, sewing, when the room filled with noise and combat lessons. She thought this was to keep herself from running, but when she finally caved and rose to her feet, Lalasa found herself leaning down, correcting a young boy’s stance. “Feet closer together,” she heard herself say, and thought Tian would smile at me for that.
Tian and Lalasa had a fight before the kidnapping. It was about the proper color for a gown’s lining; it was about Tian’s expectations and Lalasa’s fears, about not knowing what they were to each other. Lalasa was certain nothing beautiful could ever love her back. Tian, who had never been frightened in her life and so did not know how it tasted on others’ tongue, was frustrated with how Lalasa did not know how to ask for things.
Two men came and stole Lalasa away from Kel’s rooms. They tied her up on top of the tallest tower in the palace and left her there in the open air. She thought furiously about stories of long-haired girls trapped in towers. Lalasa didn’t have a dragon, just a crooked-tailed dog named Jump tied up whining at her ankles. She didn’t have a shining knight, just a stocky page in training who would have to risk every dream of knighthood Kel had ever had to skip her final examinations to search for her missing maid.
(It said something about what the last three years had meant, that Lalasa never doubted Kel would come).
Lalasa wasn’t even a princess in a tower, just someone who made queens’ skirts, just a girl a long way from home. It was a very cold night, even with Jump curled up at the small of her back. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt six, hiding in the farmhouse attic from her father’s rage; felt eleven, crying herself to sleep; felt fourteen, washing clothes in the river unaware bandits were orphaning her a half mile to the west.
Lalasa flexed her muscles, trying to keep warm, to keep from cramping (she didn’t keep from cramping, but at least she had something to blame her tears on).
This was not any of those moments. She was not six, eleven, fourteen. This was the difference: she was lost, she was frightened, but she knew someone was looking for her.
She felt the early sunlight starting to filter over the hills. She knew the view from up here must be beautiful; poor Kel, who was so terrified of heights, had probably never seen it. But Lalasa had liked to climb to high places in the palace while Kel was in classes. She liked standing up high and looking out, knowing that no matter how long she looked she would never see her father’s house. She had come so very far.
It was a long night. When Kel crawled out onto the platform, petrified with fear and blazing with protective rage, Lalasa wept like she hadn’t since the bandits.
She didn’t need anything to blame her tears on. She had spent so many tears for other people, for rips in Kel’s clothes, for her family’s fates, for the sparrow fledglings in the courtyard. But these tears were for her, and she deserved them. Kel had come. Down below in the palace, Uncle Gower was looking for her. Tian was looking for her. Lalasa clutched Kel’s hands and cried like every tear was something she had earned (she had).
They left Kel’s blood and Lalasa’s tears on the stair outside Balor’s Needle. They sacrificed other things, too, on that long terrifying climb—Kel’s fear of heights and Lalasa’s fears of being left behind. Kel had come for her (some people were to be trusted). Lalasa had braved that broken, rusted, open-air stairway; she had survived the long, cold night; her quick thinking had saved Jump’s life and her struggles had left scratches on her attackers.
They had left their fears on that tower, and now here they were, two shaking, victorious women standing on the steady ground.
After getting Kel settled, talking to the Palace watch, and getting a warm drink and a change of clothes, Lalasa walked up to Tian’s rooms. She knocked on the door, stepped inside, and shut it behind her. She was not afraid. She reached out with shaking hands and kissed Tian.
Kel became a squire and Lalasa spent a month scouring the city for a proper premises for her dress shop. She poked in corners and listened to the owners bluff, flirt, and cajole. “For a pretty little lass like you,” they said and Lalasa thanked them for their time and walked away.
Eventually, she chose a space with wide bright windows set above a tea shop. The old woman who owned the building and ran the tea shop had frail bones and big, broad hands. Lalasa liked the windows set in the upper floor, in the north and south walls, the way the whole place lit up with light. She set off one small room as her living quarters and started carting in rolls of cloth, boxes or thread and beads, a safe for seed pearls and lesser stones. They kept the gems for the nobles’ dresses up at the palace, sent them down with an armed guard when Lalasa was putting on the final touches.
The sparrow who had fetched Kel to come to Lalasa’s aid and a handful of others followed Lalasa from Kel’s old page rooms to the new dress shop. They nested in the trees outside the wide windows and Lalasa felt like she’d brought some fairy tale with her.
Queen Thayet came down to Lalasa’s dress shop one afternoon to ask a favor. Buri, old bodyguard and now Commander of the Queen’s Riders, needed a gown. “She doesn’t like dresses,” Thayet warned. “She’s very nice, I promise, but this sort of thing puts her on edge. I’ve told her to watch her tongue, but that only goes so far.”
A few days later, Lalasa paused at the entrance of the fitting room, taking a moment to survey the battlefield. A stocky Kmir woman stood, hands stuffed in her pockets, Buri's muscles as solid as Kel’s were growing up to be. Lalasa was pretty sure Buri didn’t know quite how hard she was scowling. She would look beautiful in red, Lalasa thought.
Lalasa wondered if Buri had cried at her first breastband, and then realized that Buri had probably hit puberty somewhere in the midst of a civil war, on the run with the daughter of the warlord as her charge. Lalasa watched Buri fidget and thought that having to deal with kingdom-altering calamities had nothing to do with crying or not crying when your body changed without your permission.
Lalasa took a deep breath and stepped into the room. “Movement,” she said, and Buri looked up. “You want freedom of movement,” Lalasa continued, “but not excess fabric to tangle you up. Comfort. You want to look good, but not eye-catching.” She smiled. “You would look lovely in red.”
Lalasa managed to get Buri into not one dress but two. She also managed to cajole some news of Kel, whose knight-master Raoul had apparently worked with Buri and her Riders over the matters of some bandits.
“Kel sends letters, but she’s so bad at bragging about herself,” Lalasa explained apologetically.
Lalasa’s landlady had three granddaughters. It started with them: impromptu defense classes in her shop after hours. Then Tian’s chirpy friends all wanted to learn how to break out of holds, how to throw a man twice their size. They were giggly about it, but they showed up, kilted up their skirts, rolled up their sleeves.
After a few months had gone by, Lalasa found herself closing up the shop early three nights a week and teaching waitresses and merchants’ maids, farmer’s daughters and apprentice fishmongers. She went to sleep exhausted. She woke with sparrows chattering at her window.
One of the staff from the upper palace poked their head into Lalasa’s shop one late afternoon. “Lord Raoul and his squire are back.” Lalasa closed the shop early and found Tian. They helped Kel and Raoul, her similarly exhausted knight-master, back into their quarters and then into hot baths. (Raoul fled before that part, wise man).
Kel was taller. Lalasa unpacked her old mistress’s clothes bag, tutting at new rips, and tried not to glow with pride. This girl, this unbreakable girl with dreamer’s eyes, she had new bruises and from the way her clothes fell on her she’d redistributed her muscles again. She was settling in to a new life. Kel was exhausted and dirty. It looked good on her.
Lalasa was settling in, too, to her little shop, to days filled with sketches and sewing and bright light steaming through the windows, but also to bantering with fabric merchants and royal purchasers; measuring clients, sizing them up, making them what they needed. Lalasa was learning to ask for things. Tian was learning to respect that not everyone had grown up with a steady ground under their feet.
Lalasa got the last dirt of Kel’s face then she helped the younger girl get into her bed. Kel squeezed her hand tight, once, before she drifted off.
This life looked good on both of them.
It took them over a year after Balor’s Needle to catch the man who had hired Lalasa’s kidnappers, but in the end, they did. Kel came home from the field, exhausted, and Lalasa closed her shop for the day to attend the hearing.
There were things Kel could never understand for all her kindness, her patience, her empathy. Lalasa had gone to bed hungry as a child, again and again, because there was only so much porridge and she had brothers who deserved it more. If someone slapped Kel it was grounds for a duel. The head chambermaid in the palace would whack her maids for being girls, for being too slow, for being shy or outspoken or there.
Kel could get furiously, burningly angry when the courts charged Lalasa’s kidnappers only coin for their crimes, but it was Lalasa who sat there, holding Tian’s hand, and listened to the magistrate quantify her life’s worth in gold. There were things Kel would never understand, because Kel was allowed to get furious where Lalasa breathed, resigned, and thought about all the things she could touch, could build, could break.
But that was what Lalasa loved about Kel, maybe. Lalasa lived in this world, one held together by stitches and bad laws, but Kel was the kind to stand up in the silence that followed the ruling and demand an explanation, demand a change.
Thayet had said once, of Buri, that great fury went hand in hand with fear. Lalasa watched Kel shake with rage and wondered.
Lalasa sat in that court room as a magistrate read out the price of a maid—of this maid, of Lalasa Isran and all her flinches, all the ways she could throw men across the room, every place where Tian had touched her, her every stitch. Lalasa watched Kel rise up and demand explanation.
You lied, Lalasa thought, or maybe you still don’t know. You’re no stone, Lady Kel, no Lump, no mountain. You’re fire. I love you but I stopped envying you years ago.
For the next three nights, Lalasa woke from nightmares. For each Tian was beside her. At the first, Tian reached out an affectionate hand and Lalasa flinched away.
Tian hesitated. "Lalasa, can I touch you right now?"
"Of course you can," Lalasa said. I walked from home to here. I lived through that year before Kel—and all the years after. I walked down Balor's Needle. I can do this.
"Lalasa, do you want to be touched?" Tian repeated calmly.
Lalasa bit in a quick breath, then shook her head. Her braids slithered around her shoulders.
"Okay," said Tian. The silence sat between them for a moment and then Tian started talking softly, filling up the quiet night—no, that wasn't quite right. Tian didn't fill things. She made space, tamped out the silence so that when Lalasa finally caught her breath she didn't have to break it, just had to add her own quiet words to the open rhythm of Tian's.
It wasn't that Tian filled in a part of Lalasa that was empty—she gave her space to grow. She gave her a place to fill. Tian called her beautiful and opened her hands wide.
Kel and Raoul went back to work. Tian spent some of her time in Corus and some at the estates of her mistress’s betrothed. “Good man, terrible mother-in-law,” Tian confided. More commissions continued to pour into Lalasa’s shop.
Lalasa consulted with visiting Carthaki tailors and sketches stashed in the library, then piece by piece built up a wardrobe for Thayet’s eldest daughter, Kalasin. The girl had her father’s piercing gaze, the one that seemed to take you apart and put you back together. Kalasin had her mother’s poise and the smile that drew you in, but her own infectious bright curiosity.
Kalasin was clearly terrified of her coming marriage to the Carthaki emperor, but Lalasa also saw her watching the map hung up on the wall as she measured the princess in her quarters. (Princesses did not travel down to the lower city for their dressmaking appointments). Kalasin’s eyes were her father’s, but they held a steady light that was all her own. Her gaze walked the Cathaki borders drawn in broad brush strokes on the wall map, brushed over the shapes of Carthak’s deserts and grasslands, ran along its rivers. For all her trepidation, Lalasa could tell Kalasin was aching for this. She needed this, an adventure big enough that she could sink her life into it.
Lalasa made Kalasin a wardrobe of elegant court dresses and riding habits fit for an empress, styled to fit glowingly among the Carthaki fashions. She made sure to tuck a bit of Tortall in here and there—a hemline here, a cloak lined with good Tortallan wool, an embroidery of flowers that would never bloom in Carthak but that Kalasin would have seen sprout up outside her bedroom window every spring. Lalasa made sure to make the riding outfits sturdy and fine, fit for a young woman who would step into a new life with her hands wide open, ready for the fall, who was eyeing the map on the wall like it was a chin raised in challenge.
(Golds, creams, accents of jet black; a deep jewel blue to bring out every trace of color in her eyes; all bold colors, all queenly and present, commanding the eyes, because Lalasa had no doubts about the sort of things Kalasin would accomplish in her life).
Her landlady pressed chamomile into Lalasa’s hands at the end of a long day. They sat companionably. Lalasa thought about how violet would go with the old lady’s skin tone while the woman, when pressed, talked about growing up in lower Corus, the rise and fall of the Dancing Dove, the flowers of her favorite spring thirty years ago, and what rebuilding the city had looked like down here after Roger of Conte’s magical earthquake. “We cared a bit more about the quake than the coup,” her landlady confided and refilled Lalasa’s mug.
The beautiful Yamani who came to marry Roald, the crown prince and Thayet’s eldest son, turned out to be a childhood friend of Kel’s. Lalasa could see it—the way this calm woman, steady and flexible, would work well with Kel’s sturdy self. But Lalasa was ready to rally to Shinkokami’s cause before Kel ever called her Shinko and said her childhood nickname had been Cricket and that she was one of the few to truly, honestly befriend Kel when she had been just a stiff, ignorant barbarian child on foreign soil.
Lalasa stopped at the door of the fitting room to take in the battlefield and the first thing she saw of Shinkokami was the kimono (she itched with curiosity). The second was the way Shinko held her spine, looked over every inch of the walls with intelligence hidden behind a polite calm. The Yamani princess reminded Lalasa of nothing so much as the way she imagined little Kalasin stepping into the Carthaki court for the first time, chin high, eyes bright—except for how it reminded Lalasa of the way terror and relief had warred in her own belly when she took her first steps onto the bustling streets of Corus, two weeks gone from home and her father’s voice still ringing in her ears.
Tian’s mistress’s betrothal finally went through. Tian sent her imperfectly proportioned but enthusiastic sketches of the festivities and rather more usefully descriptive letters. Tian’s lady moved out to live with husband down the coast and Tian, of course, followed. Lalasa’s bed felt too big for weeks, her tiny room echoing like a cavernous space.
They wrote letters, back and forth. Tian’s mistress and her husband spent more than half their time in the capital, so Lalasa’s bed felt right more nights than it didn’t.
The Chamber of Ordeal was where would-be knights came to test their worth. They walked in and the door shut behind them. They never spoke of what they saw, but every one came out a little broken. Some didn’t come out at all, but were carried out and then buried.
Squires, waiting for their Ordeal to come limping toward them, would visit the Chamber and stand outside its vast iron door. The bravest, the most foolish, would touch it, to get a glimpse of the kind of nightmares they had to look forward to.
Lalasa knew Kel had visited it at least three times. She knew without even having to look for the shake in Kel’s hands after every visit that Kel had touched it each time.
A month before the day when Kel was to take her Ordeal, to walk into that Chamber and only maybe walk out, Lalasa walked down to the waiting room that lay outside of it. She sat on the stark pews for a long moment, looking up at the iron door.
It’s a nightmare box, Kel had told her. A hammer.
It broke people open and showed them their darkest parts. It was a beating, a branding, a brutal holy rite for the men and women who dared to be the defenders of the kingdom.
Kel had come to visit it often in the years before her Ordeal, to press her palms up against its freezing iron door and grit her teeth while it played out waking nightmares before her eyes. For the rest of her life, Lalasa would never respect anyone as much as she did her stocky, brave ex-mistress. She would love few people more than she loved her stubborn, strong young friend.
Lalasa stood up and walked to stand in front of the cold iron. She did not touch the door and it felt nothing like cowardice.
You have nothing to teach me, Lalasa told the iron door, surprised. I am not your kind of hero. I know my shadows and I know my fears and that is all you can do—break people. Shatter them, so they can prove they can stand it. I don’t need to prove anything to you.
I don’t need to learn my darknesses. I needed to learn my light.
She had learned of Kel’s loyalty and Tian’s shining eyes and soft touches. Lalasa watched the girls she taught standing in the mess hall line, their knees bent subtly in a proper combat stance while they laughed, looked at each other, talked with their hands.
You killed a monster, scarred another, she told it, thinking of Joren and Vinson. You will cleanse Kel, burn her clean, because if anyone deserves to wear a shield it is Keladry of Mindelan.
But that is not my kind of strength. Lalasa firmed her chin. That doesn’t mean I am not strong.
Kel will save the world, again and again. She will blaze and a hundred young girls will find the strength to follow her footsteps, knights and warriors, saviors. Lalasa felt something hot in her chest, a burning pride for the steady young woman she had seen grow so very tall.
Kel will save the world. I will save me.
Lalasa left. She did not look back.
It had been three weeks since she’d seen Tian when Lalasa heard a noise at her doorway one afternoon a few days before Midwinter.
“I hear someone’s little old mistress has an Ordeal of Knighthood this winter.”
“Busybody,” Lalasa told Tian fondly.
“I thought you could use some company.”
You need a certain amount of flexibility to pass the Ordeal, they said. Good thing Kel’s not a mountain, thought Lalasa. She’s not flexible, exactly, but she’s true, she’s good, and all her blasted stubbornness is for other people.
“She’ll make it through,” said Tian, soft, when Lalasa shook herself awake with night terrors.
People lose because they try to beat it. They try to win. Arrogance: Kel didn’t have it. She was here to help people.
Lalasa didn’t sleep for the whole night Kel spent in the Chamber. She and Tian dressed snugly and headed up to the palace after dawn. Their only delay was Tian vehemently dragging Lalasa down a side street to buy some roasted chestnuts.
Kel was shaking when she stepped out of the Chamber. It was not with fear, not relief, not exhaustion, but rage. The Ordeal had stripped her down to her very core.
Lalasa watched her old mistress, her young friend, standing there in front of the massive iron door, all her fire revealed. What had the Chamber done? This was supposed to be an Ordeal about Kel, breaking her, building her, testing her—but Kel only got furious for other people.
Well, if anyone could get the Chamber of Ordeal to change its century-old ways, it would be Keladry of Mindelan.
Raoul and Kel’s parents whisked Kel away for food and hot baths. That afternoon, Lalasa stood in the waiting crowd again as King Jonathan (blue tunic, to match his eyes) knighted the realm’s first official lady knight. Lalasa beamed to see the three women who stepped up to give Kel her shield: Thayet, Buri, and Shinkokami. Lalasa knew every stitch on them, but it was the honest way they glowed with pride at their young friend that struck her hardest.
Kel slid the shield onto her arm, blinking as it fit perfectly. She lifted her eyes to find Lalasa in the crowd. Lalasa grinned back at her, wiping tears from her cheeks. She could see the affection in Kel’s eyes—you cry at everything.
For you, Lalasa thought. Today, just for you.
They wouldn’t have time to exchange very many words today; there were too many friends and family members crowding close around Kel. But Lalasa managed to get her by the elbow during the rowdy dinner in a Corus eaterie. Kel solemnly passed her a handkerchief and Lalasa giggled. “I am so very proud of you, lady knight.”
Kel reached out and squeezed her hands. “We’ve come a long way, both of us,” she said. The crowd pulled Kel away and Lalasa watched her go. Then she went back home, to Tian.
Both their journeys had begun at a riverside. At eleven, Kel tried to kill a monster with nothing but stones and her righteous fury. (You have never been a mountain, child, never anything but a fire).
At fourteen, Lalasa had knelt at the riverside, washing clothes, running her fingers over the seams, learning how to put things back together, make them whole.
She had come so many miles since then, so many cold shaking nights, so many stitches and friendships, but some days Lalasa felt like she was still there with her knees sunk in the cold shore muck. Those days, she looked up to Tian’s smile or her latest letter, to the sketches pinned to her walls and all the things her hands had made.
The next afternoon, the light coming in the dress shop windows was bright and scattering across the worn wood floor. Lalasa put away her needle and went down to see if her landlady was up for a cup of chamomile.