As the banquet reached hour four, Kelandry of Mindelan tried her best not to fidget. This is ridiculous, she scolded herself. I wore a weighted training harness for three years. I’ve ridden in the rain and the mud for days straight. I fight in full armor with a seven-foot glaive strapped to my back and a battle axe at my waist. This dress is nothing. But it was. Somehow Lalasa’s beautiful creation of silk and boning itched in ways she had never felt before even as Kel recognized that she had never looked so lovely in her life. And I thought the formal page outfits were a pain!
Her closest tablemate, a small but sturdy red-headed woman Kel regarded with equal parts affection and awe, chuckled at Kel’s distress. “I thought it was just me, but this banquet must be dragging on if even you can’t look stoic anymore,” Alanna the Lioness, said.
To Alanna’s left, Nealen of Queensgrove snorted. “You’ll have to excuse my yearmate’s rudeness,” he said to his former knight master. “She’s out of practice staying still.”
Kel shrugged. “It’s the first time I’ve been at the Midwinter’s Festival and nothing has been expected of me. When you’re a page, Master Oakbridge keeps you running all night. When you’re a squire, you’re still kept running all night and you spend the week worrying about your friends in the Ordeal. Once you are a knight, no one wants anything from you anymore.”
“Yes,” Neal drawled. “It’s so terrible how they expect us to relax. I don’t know how the Crown gets away with this tyranny.”
Alanna opened her mouth to respond when a passing page caught her eye. Alanna twisted round to look. Turning back, she grimaced at Kel and shook her head. Not this one. Turning her attention back to her former squire, Alanna said, “Not everyone devotes as much energy to avoiding work as you.”
“True. Madmen and women like you and Kel devote their energy to finding more of it.” Neal stretched as their table’s page hurried over, a young, weedy boy who stammered whenever Alanna or Kel looked at him.He bowed stiffly at the two women before he turned to Neal.
“I beg your pardon, knights and, er, lady knights. I’ve a message for Sir Nealan of Queensgrove.”
It’ll be nice when there are enough of us that they just call us “knights”, Kel thought.
“Speak your message,” Neal said.
The page bowed again. “Sir, Yukimi noh Daiomoru sends her regards and asks if you plan on rescuing her from the grasps of political sycophants hoping to weasel their way closer to the new royal couple.” The page paused and blushed. “Her words, sir.”
“Yuki’s really adapted to Tortallian frankness,” Kel said. “The girl I knew back on the Yamani Isles would only whisper that behind her fan.”
Neal stood, tugged the wrinkles out of his tunic, and smoothed out his wisps of a beard. “There must be something in our water. Makes all our women loud and crazy.” Alanna tossed her napkin at him, and Neal put up his hands. “Did I say that was a bad thing? Such temper, Lioness.” He turned to the page and gave him a copper. “For your troubles.” The boy took it with a boy and fled. “I must leave you, ladies. My duty as a husband calls.”
“See it calls you far away. For a very, very long time,” Alanna said. Kel assumed she was teasing, although it was hard to tell with the two of them. Both took more pleasure riling people up than any other followers of the Code of Chivalry.
Neal waved Alanna off and nodded to Kel. “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow at Lord Raoul’s post-Festival celebration. I believe he’s celebrating missing most of the Festival.” He looked at Alanna. The Lioness arched one eyebrow and Neal sighed. “I must find more docile friends to love,” he said as he walked away.
Alanna sighed. “Peace and quiet at last. I hope he rescues his wife from the political debates instead of getting sucked into them himself.”
They were alone now. Sir Miles and Sir Gareth the Younger had joined the king’s company to discuss matters of grave importance (and also, Kel suspected, boring subject matter). Buri slipped off after the appetizers, no doubt to hide with Raoul behind some tapestry. And while most ladies came with escorts, Alanna and Kel were no average ladies, and their expected escorts were no average men. Alanna’s husband had business, although the nature of it was vague as always, and Dom was still positioned at the Scanran border. Not, of course, that anyone expected Dom to escort Kel. Kel wasn’t even sure if she expected that.
Alanna sipped her wine while she studied the pages hiding by the kitchen. Kel kept her eyes peeled too, sneaking glances at the Lioness now and then. At the beginning of their friendship, when Alanna was still just a legend in Kel’s mind and Kel was just a symbol in Alanna’s, the thought of sitting casually with the Lioness terrified her nearly as much as heights did. She worried that Alanna would find her odd or desperate or strange. Kel didn’t usually put much stock in what other people thought of her—she did her job and those that would change their minds did, and those that wouldn’t didn’t matter —but the thought of the King’s Champion, the first female knight in over a century, not liking her made Kel’s stomach flop.
“You’re doing it again,” Alanna said suddenly.
Kel frowned. “I’m sorry?”
“Fidgeting.” Alanna’s purple eyes glinted with amusement. “As much as I hate to agree with the incorrigible scamp who has kindly left our table, you do need to learn to relax.”
“I just…” Kel paused, looking for the right words for her jumble of thoughts. “There’s so much I need to do.”
“There will always be things you need to do. You are a good knight and a good person, and that guarantees you will spend the next seventy years of your life hopping from one essential task to the next.” Alanna smiled wryly. “I can sympathize. So take it from me: Enjoy breaks while you have them.”
But I should be back at New Hope! Kel thought. Alanna gave her a look like she heard. “Relax,” Alanna ordered. “Get drunk. Try dancing. Find a boy to talk with—a nice and discreet one, mind you. There’s no reason to feed the palace gossip mill.”
There was a pause while Kel weighed honesty against discretion. Well, why not? It’s Midwinter. “I have a boy to talk to,” Kel said as casually as she could. “He’s just not here at the moment.”
“Domitan of Masbolle,” Alanna said instantly. Kel must have looked shocked because Alanna laughed and punched the air. “I knew it! You should hear the way he speaks about you. He gushes.”
“You know him?” Kel asked. That seemed like the less embarrassing revelation to deal with.
“You think I don’t know the man who dubbed my squire ‘Meathead’?” Alanna looked truly happy as she regarded Kel, who felt more and more like sinking into her chair. “You two would be adorable together. Well done.”
“Thank you,” Kel said, at a loss for other words. “I think—” She hesitated. Two tiny pages popped out of the kitchen and Kel quickly studied them. No, not these ones either. Turning back to Alanna, she tried to gather her thoughts. “I think he loves me. He hasn’t said it, and I can’t be certain, but he talks about his future sometimes like he’s sure I’ll be in it.”
“Does that make you happy?” Alanna said carefully.
Kel frowned. “I don’t like changes. I don’t like getting used to and enjoying one thing only for it to become something new.”
“You sound so conservative,” Alanna teased. She nudged Kel with her shoulder. “Cheer up. You’re twenty-two. You’ve got time to sort your love life out.”
“Did you already know the man you were going to marry at my age?” Kel asked.
“I met him when I was ten, and he was the first man I spoke to in Corus. Our love story is not typical.”
Kel sighed. That sounded so convenient. “The Yamani say that the truest love is the kind that forms between children.”
“Well, he was sixteen at the time,” Alanna said dryly, “but he’s never quite managed to grow up so the saying still holds true.”
They sat together in silence for a time, watching the crowd. The Festival was grander than ever, although “grand” was more positive a word than Kel felt like using. Royalty was ostentatious, she knew that, but this year the king had pulled out all the stops. Everything was golden, sparkling, ornate and utterly impractical. The banquet was undeniably beautiful, but Kel could not appreciate the scene without calculating how much new equipment each gold-embroidered tablecloth would buy.
“Domitan is free to love you,” Alanna said. “He’s not entitled to your love in response. Answer him as you want to answer.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“That must be new for you.”
“Not when it comes to boys,” Kel muttered.
Alanna looked more amused than Kel thought was appropriate. “Are you active with Domitan, if you don’t mind me asking?” Alanna said with a meaningful look.
Kel glanced around to make sure no twelve year old pages—or fifty year old busybodies—were listening. “Yes. We’ve been since about last winter. I was involved with another boy before, but he wanted to wait until marriage.”
“I see impatience runs in Neal’s family. And here I thought your lineage more respectable.”
Kel knew Alanna well enough to know that she did not mean it as a barb, but it pricked to close to what half the court assumed about her for Kel to be properly amused. “I don’t see the point in waiting myself. Marriage is a long way away for me.”
Alanna smiled fondly. “I remember those days. Cherish them. The next thing you know, you have three kids and grey hair.”
Maybe someday, but it would be a very distant day. The more she thought about it, the less she felt like a mother.
Alanna had a wicked look as she asked, “Do you need any information? Any advice from a married woman?”
“No! No, no, no.” Kel put her hands up. “No. I’m good, really. We’re…good.”
Alanna started laughing again. “Well, if the idea is so horrible to you, I’ll leave you be. Just tell me.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “How is it?”
Kel thought for a moment. “It got better.”
Their giggles were interrupted by heralds announcing the arrival of the final course, a dozen cakes in the form of the great cities of Tortall, from mysterious city of the Persopolis to the magnificent castle of Corus. The artistry of the cakes was exquisite, exact replicas of the cities through the medium of baked goods. There were even windows made of spun sugar and doors that open and shut. Kel couldn’t stop herself from scowling at them.
“Don’t tell me you have a problem with sweets,” Alanna said. “We might finally have found an issue that divides us.”
Kel smoothed out her anger, willing her heart calm. “It’s not the sweets I object to. It’s the spectacle.”
Alanna glanced around the banquet hall. “I’ll admit that Jonathon has been a bit exuberant this year, but that’s politics for you. Power demands pageantry. If no one knows you have power, what good is it?”
Kel shook her head. “It’s a waste. Everyone knows the Crown’s authority.”
Alanna raised a finger. “Ah, but that’s authority. Jonathan’s crown is a testament to his authority, but it isn’t what gives him the strength to enforce it. Power is not the same as authority. The Court may give lip-service to his right to rule, but sometimes Jonathan needs to remind them of his ability.”
Kel may never have forgiven the king for putting her through a probation period—a life’s first major disappointment cuts deep and leaves a scar—but her issues to him as a man did not blind her to his success as a king. “He’s formed alliances with the Bazhir, the Yamani, and Tusaine for the first time in our history. He controls the Dominion Jewel, the most powerful mage in the world is loyal to him, and our training school produces the finest knights in the world.”
Don’t forget our excellent spy operations,” Alanna added. “But people’s memories get short, especially in times of hardship. A short war unites a nation; a long one wearies it. And our war with Scanra has lasted far longer than we expected, even after your contribution.”
Kel grimaced. It was true. Even after Kel had slain the creator of the Scanran war machines, the forces of King Maggur fought bitterly for every inch of land. They had no reasonable hope of winning, not with Scanra’s weak harvest and weaker tribal alliances, but they were determined to make Tortall’s victory costly. They’d turned to guerilla tactics in the mountainous border region between the two nations, and they were willing to lay down their lives for every square inch.
Still, the gaudiness of the Midwinter’s Festival felt tasteless to Kel, a slap in the face to the soldiers who died and the ones who were still there fighting in the bleakest of conditions. “If everyone could put some trust in each other and go without the things they don’t need, we could redirect all this wealth to ending the war.”
“If people could trust each other and go without, we wouldn’t be fighting this war. We’d be living in some happy utopia that would be very boring for people like you and me.”
Kel opened her mouth to respond, when a young page from the kitchens walked past carrying a message for one of the nobles. “That’s her!” Kel said. Alanna whirled around and stared at the page as she bowed to Sir Kenrick of Lotz.
“Are you sure?” Alanna asked. “I have children and even I have difficulty telling the genders apart before puberty.”
Kel nodded. “Black hair, dark skin, freckles, and a light step. I saw her in the training yards earlier this week. She’s shaky with the sword and terrible with the lance, but you should see her with a bow or an axe.”
Alanna squinted. “That must be her. I can’t think of any other reason Sir Kenrick would sneer at a page.” Her voice was tight with anger. Kel clasped her friend’s arm and gave her a warning look. Alanna sighed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I never flew to your defense, did I?” They both turned back to study the girl. “Page Fadima of Yar al Suhl,” Alanna said happily. “She looks calm.”
“She’s so small,” Kel said.
Alanna elbowed her. “We don’t all get to have giant blood in us. And she’ll grow. Soon enough she’ll grow right out of her new riding boots.” Like she had for Kel a decade earlier, Alanna was secretly sending Fadima gifts that a female page would need: exercise balls, bruise balm, a new dagger, anything that would help her keep up with the boys. Officially, Alanna was free like any knight to visit the training grounds. In actuality, her presence caused nothing but speculation of magical interference. Though it killed her, Alanna kept away and limited her involvement to a few anonymous gifts.
Being neither a baroness nor the highest knight in the realm, Kel’s pockets were considerably shallower. However, since Kel was about as magical as a puddle of mud, there was no reason for her to stay away. Still, she’d been away at New Hope for the last two years. This was the first time she’d been within a city of the newest female page.
Fadima bowed to Sir Kenrick, the model of a first-year page, and hurried back to the kitchens. As she went, Kel willed her to look over, but Fadima kept her eyes straight ahead and disappeared into the back rooms. “There goes my reason for coming to the Festival,” Alanna said. “Maybe I’ll join Raoul hiding in the armory.”
“Not unless you take me with you,” Kel said.
Alanna hummed, her thoughts elsewhere. When she looked back at Kel, her purple eyes were sober, her lips a thin line. “You haven’t spoken to her yet?” Kel shook her head. “Do it. Before you leave, do it.”
“I was planning on stopping by. I have to be careful. I don’t want to alienate her from her yearmates.” Kel remembered her own four years as a page, noticed and observed for every small thing. Fadima couldn’t avoid that, but Kel could do her best not to make it worse.
Alanna waved this off. “She’ll be singled out anyway. She’ll always be singled out. There will never be a time in her life when she can just blend in. I need you to tell her that. She needs to know that the world is watching. If she fails, that could be the end of female knights.”
Kel frowned. “You didn’t get that message to me.”
“But I thought it. Every day,” Alanna said, far more serious than she’d been before. “We got so lucky with you, Kel. The Goddess blessed us when you chose to become a knight.” Kel fidgeted under Alanna’s intense stare. There was a tightness in her chest that could be either embarrassment or pride. “No one can deny what you’ve done—although the Goddess knows that the conservatives have tried. You are undeniably a good knight and that is the most powerful weapon we have against the bigots and relics.”
Kel looked down to hide her blush. When she looked back up again, she saw that the Lioness was red-faced herself. And men say women are better at emotion.
“They’ll never stop attacking us,” Alanna continued. “Fadima is their newest opportunity. If she fails, they’ll hold her up as an example that you and I were flukes. If she succeeds, they’ll wait for the next girl. Eventually, there’ll be too many ‘flukes’ for even the conservatives doubt. That’s not for a long time, though.”
“She shouldn’t be held to special standards,” Kel said. Though she served her king and respected her former training master, she could not look back on her probation as anything more than a wasted year that neither strengthened Kel nor appeased her detractors. She had no desire to command Fadima to jump through extra hoops.
Alanna frowned at Kel. “She shouldn’t be held to special standards, but she is. Resenting that won’t change anything.” The look she gave Kel was almost pitying. “That’s why you will never be happy, Kel. You see the world the way it should be and you don’t understand why nobody else does.”
There was no point denying it. That was why she became a knight, so she would have the strength to make the Realm the way it ought to be. “I'm happy doing good work. So are you. Do you expect me to believe that you aren't aware of how the world should be?”
Alanna nodded, her eyes distant. “I see your ideal world too. The problem is, after all these years, I can’t avoid seeing the other stuff in the way.” She sighed. “It doesn’t mean you stop trying to change things. It just means you start with a little less energy and a lot less hope. I envy you for many things,” she said with a wan smile, “but that most of all.”
“But I wouldn’t be anything if you hadn’t started,” Kel protested too loudly and too eagerly. Alanna gave her a curious look as Kel collected herself and continued in what she hoped was a slightly more dignified manner. “I wouldn’t be here without you. You’re my hero. You’re everyone’s hero. If I do anything great, it’s because you did it first.”
Alanna looked down and clasped Kel’s arm. “That’s not true, not at all,” she said softly. “But thank you.” Not knowing what else to do, Kel put her hand over Alanna’s and they sat there a moment still and silent as the banquet churned around them. Then Alanna coughed and the spell was broken.
Alanna stood and smiled sheepishly. “Well, this mutual admiration society is lovely, but I want to get some cake before the court devours it all.”
Kel looked over at the sprawling expanse of ornate baked goods that half of the court was crowded around. “There’s enough cake left to fill ten giants.”
Alanna sniffed. “You’ve never seen Sir Wyman of Princeport eat. We’ll be lucky if he leaves the plates intact.” And without turning back to see if Kel was following, Alanna headed straight for the massive chocolate confection shaped like Port Legann.
Kel’s body groaned as she stretched. Five days of lounging around and it was already getting lazy. Kel would have to see if she could fit in another round of weapon practice before bed. Maybe she could join Fadima on the training pitch. Kel would have to talk to her, sooner or later. She wasn’t so far from her own page days. She remembered what it was like when she would have given anything short of her knighthood to talk to someone who understood what she was going through.
What would she say, though? Kel could tell her that her life would never be easier. That the bar would always be too high, and if she cleared it every time, people would say that they’d made things easier for girls. That respect would be hard-earned and easily lost. She could tell Fadima that she’d surrendered her identity as a person to become a symbol, and because of that, she could not just be a good knight. She had to be great. Anything less would be viewed as failure.
Kel could tell her that. But she’d spent enough time rallying troops to know that fear only lead people so far. Hope carried them home.
Look at Alanna, the Lioness Rampant, hero among heroes, she could tell Fadima. But Kel pushed aside Alanna’s blinding, unique glory and thought of those who did not glow with the light of gods. She saw the Queen’s Riders, women who a generation ago would be disgraced for their martial skill, and she saw the girls at tournaments as they cheered Kel on. She saw her own soldiers jump to arms at the orders of a woman, and she saw her lord Wyldon, one of the most respected conservatives in the land, tell her that she was everything a knight should be. She saw her friends, who followed her into enemy territory without doubt. And she saw Dom who loved her for her strength.
Kel saw the future as clear as if it took human form and stood before her. It was bright and shining and as unstoppable as the rising sun.
By the Goddess, Alanna, I think you’re wrong. There’s nothing they can do to stop us now. Slow us, yes. But they can’t stop this.
For the first time all evening, Kel felt comfortable.
As she rose to join her friend, Kel spared one last hopeful glance at the kitchens. Page Fadima of Yar al Suhl stared back at her, eyes wide and mouth open. Kel’s heart caught in her throat as smiled back. The small face flushed and popped out of view behind the pillar that hid the pages from the crowd. Kel should teach her how to sneak better. Kel could do that.
Midwinter’s luck, lady page, Kel thought, still smiling to herself as she walked towards Alanna slicing off a piece of the famous Legaan Observatory Tower. You'll make us proud.