The Knight Commander of the Kings Own stared at the group of new recruits and allowed a small smile to escape. There were almost two dozen this season, which was a blessing, as First Company had only lost eight in the last year. If more than that proved especially competent in training, they might serve to fill holes in the other Companies next season.
The recruits followed their new Commander's every move with wary eyes; the palace gossips got to even the newest of visitors within hours. The Knight Commander should have commanded the respect of most in the palace at least, if not in the rest of the Kingdom, but it was rarely the case. Certain knights were the subject of gossip from their earliest days in training, especially those who were class-mates of the Lady Knight.
But this was a new evolution of the King's Own. The last of the old generation had retired, and all three Company Commanders were young knights, proven in combat, but not so stuffy as to look down on innovation.
At the moment, all three had squires, as did the Knight Commander. They, along with the company standard bearer stood at attention behind the Knight Commander and the Company Commanders.
This imposing picture stood before the new recruits; young men between 15 and 22, from families of all backgrounds and income levels. They knew little about the Knights before them; mere names without faces until today. Some of the greatest names of their generation now stood before them.
Feeling that the silence had lasted long enough to serve its intended purpose, the Knight Commander finally spoke. "For those of you who are just come, welcome to Corus. For those who have lived here for a while longer, welcome to the Palace."
There was a pause, but the recruits did not appear eased by these words. The Knight Commander continued. "You are here because you wish to join a most prestigious group of warriors. If you wish to serve alongside them, you must prove yourself worthy of the position."
"You have all passed the initial inspection; well of health, provided with two mounts and training clothes. If you pass through this phase of training, we shall provide you with the uniform of the Kings Own. If, in a year, you have continued to prove yourself worthy of wearing our colors, then you will become an official member of the Own."
"If you have come here on a lark, or you do not devote yourself to this training as intensely as your trainers demand, then you shall be sent away in shame. Do you understand?"
There was a general mumbling, and the Knight Commander frowned. Using a trained field bellow, the Third Company Commander shouted, "Your Knight Commander asked you a question. Do you understand?"
The group of trainees replied instantly and smartly. "Yes, Sir, Lady Knight!"
Lady Knight Keladry of Masbolle, Knight Commander of the Kings Own, returned to her chambers and gently shut the door. Only then did she allow her shoulders to droop.
"Tough day?" her husband, Dom, asked. Looking up, she noticed for the first time that they had company, and she automatically straitened.
"I blame you, Sir," she informed Raoul, who, along with Buri, was sitting at the table with Dom. "Hello, Buri."
Raoul burst out laughing and held out a goblet of water to his former squire. "All I did was suggest to Jonathan that you might be the perfect Knight to replace me, if he really wanted to continue to shake things up. You could have said 'no' when he asked."
Kel just gave him the look she had perfected long ago when her Knight Master said such things. "And foreswear my duty to the crown?" She gulped down the water and sat beside Dom, careful not to jostle his crippled leg. "No, I blame you because I have to be so forceful with them! I have to be as a hurrok to them all through training, before I can act as myself again!"
Kel still preferred teaching and training in small groups, encouraging questions and kindness, rather than the slap and bellow approach that most training masters adopted. However, Raoul had explained to her long ago that, in their initial training period, most recruits would view such kindness as weakness, because of her gender. Kel had snorted at the idea at the time, but it had since been proven true over and over again.
Dom handed her a plate just as a cautious knock came from the connecting door. "Come in, Yusuki," Kel replied. Her squire emerged from her own room and bowed properly. "You do not need to serve us tonight," Kel told her surrogate niece kindly. "Go eat with your friends in the Squire's hall."
Yusuki bowed again, and then grinned irrepressibly at her cousin and surrogate family. "Thank you, Ma'am," she replied, green eyes twinkling madly, before returning to her own room.
"I swear that girl is up to something," Kel muttered, knowing the look quite well as one Yusuki's father, Neal, had worn quite often in their page and squire years.
"I think she merely has a prank planned for one of her friends," Dom replied calmly.
Kel shot him a look; that sparkling-eyed look of mischief was not exclusive to Neal's side of the family. "No, she's up to something, and you're in on it." Kel accused her husband. A glance around the table confirmed her suspicions. "You all are!"
Before Raoul could protest his innocence, someone knocked at the door. Frowning, Kel half rose to open it, but it was pushed open immediately.
Yusuki entered, followed by her parents, Yuki and Neal, now Chief Healer to King Roald. Lady Alanna and her husband, Baron Cooper, were close behind them, and they were followed by Kel's three Company Commanders - Merric of Hollyrose, Owen of Jesslaw, and his cousin, Warric of Mandash - and her standard bearer and adopted son, Tobe. The last to arrive was Lalasa, who's belly was just beginning to protrude with her second child.
Kel warmly greeted her guests, finally beginning to suspect what was happening. She turned an accusing eye on Dom and Neal, who both sported innocent looks. "I'm not buying it, gentlemen? What's going on?"
They both grinned the family grin, but it was Yusuki, wrapping her arms around Kel's waist and smiling up at her with the same grin, who finally shed the light on the night's gathering.
"Happy birthday, Auntie Kel!"
Kel grinned down at her squire and surrogate niece and squeezed the girl's shoulders. "Thank you." She looked around at those she called family and her smile broadened. "Thank all of you,"
Her friends grinned warmly in reply, and Alana wrapped her arms around the younger knight's shoulders as the others chorused, "Happy birthday, Keladry."