It was strange to be in Corus again, after so much time spent at New Hope. Strange to walk down the familiar streets, and see that not much had changed for the dwellers of the city. Keladry of Mindelan felt a lifetime had passed since she last saw Tortall’s capital. And yet the city didn’t acknowledge the passage of time.
It felt wrong to Kel, that nothing had changed.
But when she reached the storefront of Lalasa’s shop, her friend smiled at her from the steps and their eyes met, and Kel saw that something had changed after all.
Why I'm in Corus
“I need a dress to wear to the wedding,” the lady knight said, feeling heat creep up her neck. “The wedding. That’s why I’m in Corus.”
“Oh, of course, my lady,” was the answer she got. “You know I am never too busy to do sewing for you.”
There was something wistful in the way the statement was made.
“I’m glad to see you… even if that isn’t why I returned to the capital.”
Those words resulted in a bright smile as the smaller woman whipped out a measuring cord.
“I have to leave again after the ceremony.”
A disappointed hum.
Rare silence stretched between them.
“Will you write me?”
Protector of the Small
Kel laid out the deep grey-blue dress Lalasa had made for her to wear to the royal wedding. Lalasa despaired that the green of Goldenlake looked better with Kel’s complexion, but Kel was a knight now, and Mindelan’s colors suited her just fine.
Kel turned to see Lalasa smiling at her from the doorway of the suite Kel had been given in the palace.
“Lalasa,” Kel returned warmly, remembering a time when Lalasa had barely spoken and been so frightened, even of Kel. It was so long ago, and yet not so long all at once.
They stood frozen for a moment, their eyes locked, something strange and new between them. Kel wondered if Lalasa felt it too as her stomach fluttered. It seemed she was still hopelessly fickle. Neal, Cleon, Dom… now Lalasa?
It never occurred to Kel to be ashamed to have feelings for another woman. In the Yamani Islands, it was not unknown for some men to openly prefer other men, some women other women.
Jump barked, breaking the tension as Lalasa laughed, leaning down to pet him. “Master Jump! I didn’t realize you brought him with you, Lady Kel.”
“Jump comes with me everywhere,” Kel replied, turning back to her new dress and picking it up as her barrel chested dog gamboled at their feet. “There’s a boy around here somewhere as well. Tobe. I picked him up on the way to my post. He’s probably in the stables with Peachblossom.”
“The horse boy?” Lalasa asked as she took the dress from Kel and returned it to the bed. Firm and sure, she plucked at Kel’s clothes, undoing laces and buckles as she had in the old days when Kel was a page and Lalasa her maid.
Kel flushed, pulling away from Lalasa, her new appreciation for the woman turning the simple act into something much more intimate. “Yes,” she answered, to cover her awkwardness. “How did you know?”
Lalasa smiled, lifting the dress to help Kel put it on as Kel finished removing her usual attire. “The whole palace is talking about you crossing into Scanra to save your people.” She pulled Kel’s arms through the delicate dress sleeves, which were long and decoratively embroidered – a fashion inspired by the Yamani.
As she leaned in close to tie Kel’s sash, Lalasa whispered, “Protector of the Small.”
Kel reminded herself to be as stone.
Thoughts and Whispers
“Oh, my lady,” Lalasa sighed as Kel returned from the wedding ceremony to change for the reception. “It looked so lovely from the streets.”
Never one for idle hands, Lalasa began laying out Kel’s change of clothes. Kel undressed, trying very hard not to think of the woman in the room with her – focusing instead on not wrinkling her dress as she removed it, on how tidy her room had become since she’d left.
“Lalasa, you aren’t my maid anymore,” she halfheartedly scolded.
“I wish I could go to the party,” Lalasa said with envy.
“So do I,” Kel agreed.
“Don’t be greedy, Kel,” Lord Raoul greeted her with a cheeky grin. “You’re taking the best hiding place.”
Kel’s lips twitched up as she came back to herself. “I’m not hiding, milord, just thinking. Besides,” she continued dryly, “I thought you preferred behind the drapes to secluded corners.”
Raoul laughed his infectious laugh, making Kel smile wider. “I’ve found parties more enjoyable since my engagement,” he turned to look at Buri, resplendent in red as she attended the queen. “Maybe it’ll be your turn next, squire.” He winked.
Kel’s face went Yamani smooth as she returned to her thoughts.
“Lady Kel,” Lalasa hissed from the entryway of the ballroom. Startled to see Lalasa at the wedding reception, Kel quickly headed over, cursing herself for not carrying her sword.
“Lalasa, what is it?” Kel asked quietly, clasping the woman’s smaller hands in her own as she scanned her face.
As she looked down at Lalasa, it struck Kel how dainty, even beautiful Lalasa was. She would make a far better noble’s wife than Kel could ever hope to be. It offended Kel, suddenly, that Lalasa could not attend a royal party, all to save the pride of the noble class.
Standing on tip toe to reach her lady knight’s ear, Lalasa whispered, “There is a messenger from the king in your rooms.”
It was difficult for Kel to focus on Lalasa’s words through the sensation of hot breath and soft lips on her ear. She shivered, unable to stop herself.
“My lady?” Lalasa asked in concern.
Cursing herself for ten kinds of fool, Kel dragged her mind from the haze of lust Lalasa evoked. “A message from the king? Why now?” She glanced at the throne.
She barely heard Lalasa’s reply, so caught up was she in watching her lips.
The King's Messenger
The king's messenger turned out to be Stefan, the palace groom. Before Kel could ask if there was something wrong with Peachblossom or if Tobe had gotten into mischief, he smiled and placed his finger to his lips, shushing her.
"A word, Lady Kel," Stefan began, with a significant look in Lalasa's direction.
"She stays," Kel replied before Lalasa could make a move to leave the room. She tired of Lalasa being kept out, sent away.
As if she were not important.
Stefan shrugged, indicating that he would do things the way Kel wanted. "Courtesy of the Whisper Man," he winked, holding out a fat purse and a sheaf of papers, sealed with wax bearing the crest of the Conte line.
Wordlessly, Kel took the proffered items, feeling the weight of coins in the leather purse. She broke the seal on the documents, unfolding them to see ornate, official writing.
"The king has declared New Hope and the surrounding land a fief? And made me its lady?" Kel asked, her voice completely flat, even to her own ears.
She was utterly shocked.
Stefan nodded as Lalasa gasped, coming over to look over Kel's shoulder.
"It's the king's way of sayin' thanks, unofficial like," Stefan grinned. "Can't be rewardin' traitors after all, even if they did save a whole fief's worth o' people, or the conservatives will be drivin' his majesty crazy."
"Well," Kel said, still stunned by the enormity of the moment. "We can't have that."
"My lady," Lalasa said, silhouetted in the open doorway. Kel had insisted she stay through the night, disliking the thought of Lalasa walking alone through the streets of Corus after dark.
"Yes, Lalasa?" Kel asked as she stretched for her morning exercises.
"I wish you didn't have to leave so soon. I've - I've missed you terribly, my lady."
Kel's heart jumped into her throat, and she was certain that color warmed her cheeks. She hoped Lalasa didn't notice. "I'll come back to visit you soon, Lalasa."
"I can always depend on you, my lady," Lalasa returned, tears in her voice.
Kel straightened, her mouth dry. She swallowed thickly, and met Lalasa's eyes. "Yes, Lalasa. Always."