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They don't make exceptions, not for The Girl. Not nice exceptions, anyway.

Kel is oddly comforted by her friends' outrage, Owen's furious tears, Lord Wyldon's cool, knowing look when he glances her way. Wyldon names the Goddess in his prayer for the first time since her first day here, and it is small comfort, but a balm nonetheless.

Lord Wyldon never fails to name the Goddess in every prayer he leads, after that one.

***

The problem with repeating all four years is no one's ever actually done it before. Other pages have been ordered to (rarely, but it's happened), but they've all quit instead.

The masters have no idea what to do with Kel. They can't very well treat her like a raw beginner; she's already mastered the staff, the sword, the quintain, the bookwork. The thinking-art masters have it easy, though; there is always more academic stuff to learn, so they just assign her more and more obscure topics.

The problem lies with the physical classes. The things Kel is ready to learn are the things usually left to knight-masters.

Wyldon solves the problem simply: he sets her to work teaching the younger pages. The Wildcat and the Horse also take her aside and teach her separately, when they can, and after a while Wyldon breaks down and gives her tilting lessons.

Kel doggedly perseveres.

***

The year hasn't even ended before the Crown finds out who hired the men to kidnap Lalasa.

It is Joren.

Kel is supremely unsurprised, and deeply dissatisfied with the trial. She wants so very badly to call Joren out, to smash his pretty sneering face in during a duel, but she is only a page.

I would have had you if I were a squire, Kel thinks, uncharacteristically bitter.

Joren is unrepentant. He believes he has won.

Kel knows better, and she will show him.

***

Shinkokami and the rest of the Yamani delegation arrives that same year. Shinko and Yuki are both very pleased to see Kel again, and very, very angry on her behalf.

"You must join us, in glaive practice," Shinko says. It is not really a request.

Kel would have accepted even if it was. "If my lord Wyldon agrees to it," she says.

After a long, considering moment, he does.

***

The year Roald and Cleon become knights, the Chamber kills Joren and shatters Vinson.

Kel is not sure she likes the fact that a room - no matter how much of an eldritch artifact it is - has destroyed her enemies for her. She wanted to get her knighthood, to see Joren's handsome face and Vinson's crueler one in the crowd when she accepted her shield. That will never happen now.

At least Lalasa and other women are safe from them, Kel tells herself firmly. That's what really matters.

***

Burchard of Stone Mountain attempts to kill Kel. His wife and brother-in-law don't bother to try restraining him until his screaming rouses the other pages.

Eerie strands of orange fire wind around Burchard's arms and yank his hands free of Kel's throat.

Burchard, cursing, turns on the page who has accosted him.

It is not the usual Conté gift, but Prince Jasson is not a very usual Conté.

Lord Burchard of Stone Mountain never comes to court again.

***

Kel knew, of course, that the younger princes were also in page training. Liam and Jasson, however, are entities unto themselves, and somehow contrive to fade into the woodwork.

Well. It's more like they both aren't in Kel's year - either time - and they are not the heir apparent, and so they are ignored while all eyes are on Roald.

Prince Liam becomes a squire the same year Owen does, the same year Roald becomes a knight. He is watchful, like his elder brother, and quiet, for all that he is - according to Owen, anyway - a spitfire on the practice courts.

He watches Kel, the whole final year they share in page training together, but never approaches her, never says a word.

Jasson plops down next to Kel the next day at breakfast. He, too, has the same dark, watchful eyes as Liam, and he waves off all of Kel's attempts at politeness.

"Just call me Jasson and have done with it, Mindelan," he advises.

The prince is two years younger than Kel, and they have never spoken until now, but from that day on he dogs her heels, sits with her at every meal and class, and keeps a sharp eye on whatever group of pages she's assisting with in the training yard.

Kel isn't sure whether to feel annoyed or grateful.

***

Lord Wyldon resigns. That shouldn't unsettle Kel as much as it does.

"My lord…" Kel trails off.

Wyldon merely looks at the page standing awkwardly in his doorway. Finally, he sighs and motions her into his office.

"Mindelan. I should have known." He regards her keenly. "You shouldn't worry so much, girl. HaMinch may be a conservative, but he is fair, and he has already agreed to abide by both the King's proclamation and my decisions."

That isn't entirely what's bothering Kel, but she is glad to hear it anyway. "Sir," she begins again. "Joren and Vinson…" Once more, Kel trails off.

Wyldon's grin is sardonic. "I shaped them, Mindelan. You know it as well as I do. There is always the occasional failure, but two in a year…" He shakes his head. "And then Lord Burchard nearly strangles you, right under my nose. Mindelan, it may be that the best thing said about my stint as training master is that you began your training under me." Wyldon's eyes are steady, stern. "In which case, I am most certainly the wrong man for the job. I almost did not let you stay."

Kel had already figured that out, but it hurts, a bit, to hear it anyway. She shrugs it off. "Sir, you can't leave. You're the kind of knight I always wanted to be."

There is an odd look in Wyldon's eyes. "I am not. That you think I am may be the greatest compliment I ever receive." He regards her a moment longer, then looks down at the half-packed top of his desk. "Shoo, Mindelan. Let me pack in peace."

Kel shoos.

***

Sir Padraig is a conservative, has agreed to abide by the decisions he has inherited, and is determined not to repeat any of his predecessor's mistakes. He calls all the pages into his office his first week there, one by one, and subjects them to extensive interviews and quizzing as hard as any page examination.

Kel is the last to be called in.

"Sir," she says.

The new training master is entirely bald, has an unfortunate nose, and all in all looks like a demented chicken. He also has canny, watery eyes that regard Kel solemnly.

"Mindelan," Sir Padraig says, in a deep, booming voice that absolutely does not match his scrawny frame. Kel almost jumps. Sir Padraig looks down at the papers on his desk. "You are the page who is repeating all four years, correct?"

"Yes, sir," Kel replies. It almost doesn't sting to say.

"Hm." Sir Padraig looks down at his papers again, then back at Kel. "Explain to me your decision-making process when you led your yearmates against the hill bandits," he rumbles.

Kel answers, then answers all his other questions, and thinks that the other pages were wrong: this surprise quiz is much harder than the page exams.

She can tell by the twitches of Sir Padraig's mouth what she has answered satisfactorily, and what she has not. There are a lot of downward twitches, and Kel knows she's failed at half the questions.

Finally, Sir Padraig sits back, folds his hands precisely on the edge of his desktop, and regards Kel silently.

Kel folds her own hands behind her and stands at perfect parade rest, keeping her chin up and her own gaze steady.

"Very good, Mindelan," Sir Padraig says, nearly shocking Kel into expression. "Very good, indeed."

"Sir, I failed half the questions," Kel points out, feeling rather blindsided.

Sir Padraig's smile is sharp and thin, and on his face looks rather cruel. "You passed half, Page Keladry," he points out in reply. "You shouldn't have passed any."

He rises, and motions for Kel to follow him. Together, they head down to the palace library.

"You have already figured out, I gather, that you are well beyond the other pages in your work." His voice is wry, and Kel thinks that maybe, she actually likes this man. "I will set you scenarios each week, and you will in turn write me full reports detailing all possible responses, all logistical challenges, and your solutions and recommendations."

Sir Padraig scans the shelves, then plucks one thick tome off the shelf. He hands it to her. "Study this, and report to me verbally on it next weekend." He turns to regard Kel. "Either you will be the best knight Tortall has ever produced, or we need to scrap our training program," he says, arid as the Southern Desert, and grins. He taps the cover sharply. "We'll start on Emry of Haryse when you finish this."

Kel clutches the book to her chest like a lifeline, bows, and retreats to her room.

***

The year after Owen becomes a squire, Kel's last friends among the pages - Iden and Warric from before, Jasson from after - also become squires. The Grand Progress may be slowly turning back towards Corus, but there is mobilization toward the north; the Scanrans are coming, and they all know it.

The only good thing about that year is that Kel's nephew begins page training. Kel is happy enough with that; at least she will never be entirely alone among the pages, even if Lachren thinks it's a little weird to hang out with his aunt. Yuki, Shinko, and Lady Haname are a great help, with the loneliness, but they are not pages, not knights, and Kel cannot spend as much time with them as they all wish.

Lachren has Anders' solidness, and his grandmother's forthrightness. Kel thinks he will do quite well.

***

Kel is thrilled when the Grand Progress finally ends, and Shinko, Yuki, and Haname settle back in at the palace for good. Yuki, in particular, makes sure to seek Kel out at every opportunity; Sir Padraig finally, with his trademark unfortunate smile on his face, orders Kel to formally resume her glaive training. He also persuades Yuki to help give lessons to the other pages, where the delicate slip of a woman soundly trounces all comers.

She and the Wildcat hit it off like there's no tomorrow, and Kel is both amused and somewhat alarmed.

It is Haname, though, who takes Kel aside often for tea, and who sits with her in silence, and who speaks, eventually, about bitter duties and the importance of bearing them. Their situations are not the same: Kel is only having to repeat four years of training, while Haname has left behind her people, her family, and her great love to serve her princess, but there are enough similarities that the advice is still helpful.

Of all Kel's friends, new and old, Haname is the only one who really understands.

***

Confirmation of the existence of strange metal killing machines finally reaches Corus. War is not yet officially declared, but that's just a matter of paperwork.

The number of incoming pages is smaller, that fall. Ordinarily, a war would see a boom of dutiful parents sending dutiful children off to defend the realm, but few parents want their sons facing those strange metal insects. It is not an honorable death.

There are only two new pages. Alan of Pirate's Swoop, nearly as old as Neal had been and almost exactly as old as Kel was the second time around, is one of them.

Kel's former yearmates are rushed through their squiredoms and take their Ordeals a whole year early. They all, to Kel's considerable relief, pass.

It is also a relief to have someone around who is closer to Kel's age. Kel is seventeen; Alan is three years younger, and while technically there are pages around who are older - barely - Alan has started late, and that is almost as good as starting again.

He's an utter disaster with any weapon, but that doesn't stop him from trying. Kel, still helping her fellow pages on the practice courts, makes sure to pound a few more lessons into his skull.

***

Kel's benefactor hasn't forgotten her. Kel is weirdly relieved by this. She had thought that whoever it was might have decided that she wasn't worth the time, not after having to repeat it all.

Over time, Kel acquires a tilting saddle, a set of lovely maps of Tortall, a comprehensive little fire kit that Kel almost can't bring herself to use during winter training camp, and other little odds and ends that help fill out her kit.

The same Midwinter that Neal, Merric, Seaver, Esmond, and the rest become knights, Alan kicks open Kel's door and unceremoniously hands her a plain, unmarked package.

"That's from Ma," Alan says. He promptly turns bright red. "I wasn't supposed to say that."

Kel opens the package. Inside is a small purse that contains what appear to be stored spells. She gawks at her younger friend.

Alan, still blushing, looks over her arm curiously. "Oh. That looks like one of Thom's little kits," he says.

Kel makes an interrogative noise.

"Thom's started putting together little pouches of useful spells for non-mages," Alan explains. He chuckles. "He's making a killing on profit, lemme tell you. He's the sole supplier to the Crown at the moment, and he's been pretty scary about keeping his spells proprietary."

Kel still isn't over the fact that the Lioness is the one who's been giving her all the gifts.

Alan just pats her arm. "You didn't think she'd really be able to resist helping, did you?"

***

In April, the same month that war is officially declared, Kel passes the big page examinations. Nobody tries to interfere, this time.

All of her friends are in the audience. So is Lord Wyldon, with Owen in tow. Lady Alanna, her husband, Alan, and a gawky older boy who can only be Alan's brother are also in the audience; the Lioness and Lord Wyldon sit only two rows apart from each other, but manage to actually ignore each other.

Shinko, Haname, and Yuki are sitting with Kel's parents, and all three watch Kel solemnly the whole time. Kel finds their quiet certainty more soothing than all the bright grins of her Tortallan friends.

***

Shinko pulls Kel aside after the exams, after Kel has made the rounds and been hugged by absolutely everyone (save for Lord Wyldon, who - thankfully - only shakes her hand). The princess, a fold of Kel's sleeve pinched delicately between two fingers, leads Kel off to a little meeting room that has the perfect austerity of one that goes unused.

Prince Roald and Princess Lianne are there, blue and brown eyes fixed on the door. So too is Thom, for reasons Kel can't begin to imagine. The mage is poking at some random objects on the table, however, and doesn't so much as twitch when Kel and Shinko walk in.

Shinko's eyes twitch to Thom, then back to her fiance. Roald rolls his eyes, and Lianne grins.

Kel may have spent her formative years among the Yamani, but she is still better at handling speech than interpreting the silent conversation flying around the room. "Your highnesses?" she prompts.

This time, Lianne rolls her eyes. "I know Jasson told you to drop the formality, Squire Keladry, so drop it."

Roald meets Kel's eyes and smiles. "Allow me to introduce you to my sister Lianne," he says dryly.

Lianne gives a very proper curtsey, then smacks her brother. "Ask her already, you dolt," she says.

"Ask me what?"

"He wants to take you on as his squire," Thom says absently from the far side of the room. A spark of purple fizzles and snaps, and Roald, without even looking, twitches a sheen of blue over the wooden table before it actually ignites.

Kel thinks that spoiling surprises must be endemic to the whole Pirate's Swoop family. She hopes by Mithros that neither of the sons take over for their father later; Tortall's enemies would know all their secrets inside a week.

"Your squire?" Kel says, turning her attention back to the important thing.

Roald nods.

"There are all sorts of reasons why you shouldn't," Lianne says, voice calm and dark eyes sharp. "Because Roald is your friend, because Father and Mother want you to succeed, because Roald has the Gift and people will say he magicked you."

"'S all stupid, anyway," Thom mutters to the melty glass he's pushing around in a chipped saucer. "No spells can magic someone like that."

"They'd still say it, Thom," Lianne says. "And it doesn't matter if it's true; it matters whether or not people believe it."

"You've had it hard enough already, Kel," Roald says finally. "You're too good at this to have to sit around unused here in Corus."

Kel balks at the pity. "I don't want it easy, your highness, with all due respect. I want to work."

Roald's eyes gleam. "You will," he promises gravely. "And my name is Roald."

Kel looks around. Shinko, Lianne, and Roald are all looking at her, gravely, and they are all in accord. Kel sighs. "I accept, your highness."

"Roald," he stresses.

"Roald."

"Good. Can we go eat, now?" Thom asks his tattered notebook plaintively.

Roald grins.

This is going to be interesting, Kel thinks as she trots after her new knight-master and his family.

***

The king tries to argue Roald out of it. So does the queen, though her eyes, at least, are sad when she looks at Kel.

Roald is having none of it, and just lets his mother's cajoling and his father's orders roll off him. "I can't just take it back," he points out.

"Yes you can," King Jonathan forces out between clenched teeth. "By the gods, Roald, this is going to cause more problems than it solves!"

Shinko, Thom, Haname, and Uline of Hannalof, who is today in attendance on the queen, wait with Kel by the not-all-that-soundproof door to the king's study.

"It will be fine," Shinko reassures Kel. Kel's not so sure she believes her.

"Trust us," Thom adds, fiddling with, for reasons only he can fathom, a wilting radish.

The radish explodes.

The door to the study swings open abruptly, and the king sticks his head out. Kel thinks that if he ever turns that glare on her, she'll be heading for the hills at the next opportunity.

"Thom…"

Thom is entirely unfazed. "It would have worked, if it were dimmer."

The king rolls his eyes and makes to shut the door, but Roald slips out before he can. Jonathan opens his mouth.

"You've been enough of a hypocrite already," Roald murmurs, voice hitting a dark register Kel had no idea he could hit.

That hits home.

***

They go north to the border as soon as the roads clear.

Roald, unfortunately, gets parked at Fort Steadfast, where General Vanget has his command. Kel, unfortunately, goes with him. She knows, of course, that the Crown Prince can't go gallivanting around the border, but she hoped for work.

So did Roald.

He's not about to let her sit around just because he has to, though, and so Kel finds herself assigned, at various times, to work with Rider groups or squads of the Own or Vanget's command staff, or even just the men who do the work around the fort. Vanget finally caves enough to assign Roald to a shift on the watch, and Roald swings Kel a shift of her own.

The war is slow, and it is bloody, but it is not dangerous, not really, not at Steadfast. Kel chafes along with her knight-master.

Neal, of all people, has a command, Kel thinks to herself. He's in charge of the refugee camp.

She'd take even that, just to have something to do.

***

Distant disasters happen, none closer to the fort than a few raids handled easily by Vanget's many soldiers.

Killing machines are spotted up and down the border. Mages are dispatched to major cities to repel them, and to the most major forts, but they ravage the unprotected countryside and the small towns.

Giantkiller falls. If not for the fact that Duke Baird is visiting Wyldon at Mastiff, the realm would be absent its chief healer.

The worst disaster happens when Kel is at Mastiff, sent along with Roald, who is driving Vanget batty. Neal is there, strangely solemn, and they see each other briefly before he rides back to Mudpit.

He is back the next morning, pale-faced and stiff, rattle-eyed in a way Kel recognizes (from Neal as a page, from Roald's vituperative visits to Vanget's hospitals, from Roald's idiot friend) as Gift exhaustion, and he strides into Wyldon's office without a word.

Merric, badly injured, and a few other soldiers straggle into Mastiff with him.

"What happened?" Kel asks one of the convict soldiers.

"Three killing machines and a war party destroyed Mudpit," the man replies, grim-faced. "Nothing's left but the stockade, really, and the cows." He laughs bitterly.

There were nearly six hundred refugees at Mudpit. "What about the people?" Kel asks.

The man laughs again. "Gone. Taken," he amends.

Kel makes the Sign against Evil on her chest.

***

Neal, aided and abetted by Owen, his convicts, and his cousin, goes haring off after his people. Kel never thought Neal capable of inspiring that kind of loyalty.

Well, she thinks, at least the Own had actual orders.

Kel tries to squash her bitterness.

Roald finds her on the wall. "You let them go," he says, voice pitched so it won't carry in the cool night air.

"I did," Kel replies.

Roald is quiet. "I thought you'd go with them," he says, and his eyes are full of the same thwarted instinct that fills hers.

"I wanted to," Kel says after a moment.

Her knight-master turns to face her. "Then I order you to go, Squire Keladry."

She's gone as soon as she can saddle Peachblossom.

***

Neal tries to make Kel go back.

Kel reminds him that she's the one under orders.

***

They whittle down the Scanrans, slowly. They pick up some allies - Maggur really ought to have treated his people better - and they get in the castle.

Kel, the only one who actually prefers a polearm, handles the man with the axe. Neal slips past her, murder in his eyes, and handles the mage.

He grabs her arm as they go to leave. "Tell them you killed him," he says harshly.

Kel doesn't ask why. She saw what was left of the Gallan.

***

When they return across the Vassa, Lord Wyldon is there, along with Lord Raoul, Duke Baird, and Roald. Baird takes charge of the children, Raoul takes charge of his men, and Wyldon surveys them all crossly.

"I don't know what to say to you," he says at last.

"I ordered them to go," Roald says coolly.

***

In the end, that's all it takes. The Crown can't exactly execute people for operating on the orders of its prince.

When Kel and Roald go back to Corus later, the king once more has some stern words for his son.

"He never gets over the hypocrisy thing," Thom says idly, playing with a glass of water. "At least Roald places his country over personal matters."

The water turns purple, then melts through the bottom of the glass and half the tile.

"You wouldn't exist if the king hadn't prioritized personal matters," Kel points out. She shifts her boot out of the path of the purple water.

Thom shrugs. "True. Still not the best way to run a kingdom, though."

Kel privately agrees, but still says, "It doesn't bother you? That Roald would put the kingdom over your life?"

Thom actually looks at her. "It doesn't bother you, either," he says.

***

At the palace, now, Roald still sends Kel out with any Rider groups or squads of the Own that are nearby, but they're still mostly up at the border.

So instead he sticks her with paperwork.

Well, that's not precisely true, Kel thinks. He's assigned her to help Sir Gareth and also, of all people, the lord magistrate.

Kel grumbles about it all to Yuki one day. "The devil of it is, I have no idea why," Kel complains.

Yuki just stares. "You don't know?" she says, sounding as shocked as a Yamani ever sounds.

Kel glares crossly at her friend.

"He's grooming you to be prime minister," Yuki says softly.

It is Kel's turn to stare.

***

Roald and Shinko finally marry, and it is a blissful affair. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and a very cross redheaded mage keeps igniting the roses.

Roald finally sighs, right in the middle of the vows, turns around, and stares Thom down. The king and queen both look bemused, but Roald's siblings are all snickering and Shinko has hidden her face with her fan. It vibrates with her amusement.

The priest, a bit deaf, keeps right on with the ceremony.

Kel sits with Thom, later. "You knew they were getting married," she points out.

"Doesn't mean I have to like it," he replies.

***

It's after the royal wedding that Kel hears the first comment.

She supposes they've been made before - she's long since resigned herself to the fact that a large portion of the court is convinced she's a whore - but she's never heard one, not since she's been a squire.

She just ignores it, but Roald stops dead. So does Shinko. So does Thom.

The three of them turn on the man - some relative of Vinson's, if Kel recalls correctly - with the most disbelieving looks on their faces, and off in the crowd, Vania starts chuckling.

If they'd reacted in anger, Kel thinks later, the salacious rumors would have just spread, the gossips convinced that their anger was proof. But sheer blank incredulity stops it all dead.

***

Life at court falls into a rhythm. Kel does whatever work Roald foists on her, joins Shinko and Yuki and Haname for glaive practices, tries to force some skill into Alan (not that it takes any better this time than it did the first time), and generally just putters around the palace.

She feels a bit foolish, a bit useless, but she finds work, and does her duty. That's all this has ever been about. Kel gets to be there when Owen and Liam become knights, at least.

***

A year after Roald and Shinko's wedding, Kel is unceremoniously awoken by the crash of her door opening.

Thom is standing in her doorway, dead white, the air tinged purple around him, whole body vibrating with some terrible emotion.

Kel can think of only one thing that would get that kind of reaction from the younger man. "Is Roald alright? Is Shinko?" she asks urgently, rolling to her feet.

She is about to pop open the connecting door when Thom says, sharp and tense, "They were fine when I left them."

Kel is already pulling on her boots. "What's wrong?" she asks, tucking her nightshirt into her breeches.

"My twit of a sister got herself kidnapped by slavers," Thom spits, and Kel thinks that she has never heard a more vitriolic tone from anyone.

Kel races out the door toward the page wing, Thom right beside her.

***

Kel has met Alianne only once; the girl avoids her like the plague. They meet, the one time they do, in Corus, when the girl is visiting her grandparents.

Kel had been dropping off papers for Sir Myles. Aly had been there, eyes sharp and mouth sullen, and Kel had simply handed Myles the papers, waited for his brief reply, and left.

That was just before Aly disappeared.

***

Alan is sitting on his bed, blank-eyed, methodically shredding his small portrait of Aly when Kel and Thom reach his room. Thom immediately sits down and pulls his little brother into his arms, rocking him silently.

Alan's eyes never waver from their consideration of the far wall. His hands never stop picking at the canvas.

The rest of the room is untouched, precise and clean as Alan's room always is. It is almost more disturbing than the portrait-shredding. At least mess would be healthy, Kel thinks.

Vania bangs open Alan's door a minute later, Sir Myles right behind her.

The old knight drops down next to Alan. "I've got all my agents in the Isles looking for her," he says. "Your Da's dropped everything to find her."

There is no response.

Myles glances at Thom, who is glaring angrily down at the top of Alan's head. Vania shoots a worried look around the room, then tucks herself up against Kel's side, and shivers.

Kel knows just how the youngest princess feels.

***

It is a long summer. Sir Myles takes Alan, who refuses to speak, to his townhouse, and makes his excuses to Sir Padraig.

Thom practically moves into the royal apartments. Rumors start up again - for once not involving Kel - but Roald and Shinko plainly don't care.

King Jonathan does, but Roald simply pins his father with a dark, dark stare and breathes, "Hypocrisy," in a mocking lilt.

The king never mentions the rumors again.

At the very end of summer, something breaks.

Kel wakes one morning and wanders into Roald and Shinko's sitting room, only to find Baron George of Pirate's Swoop standing toe-to-toe with his eldest son.

Both men are furious. Kel slowly backs away.

"I thought you'd be relieved!" George snaps.

"Oh, I'm glad she's alive, believe me," Thom says, bitter cold, "but only because I don't know what her death would do to Alan."

George crosses his arms. "So, just like that, you've written off your sister, then, have you?" His Lower City accent is becoming more and more pronounced. Kel hastily reenters her room.

"Why not? She's written us off, hasn't she?" Kel hears Thom reply, just before she closes her door.

***

Alan just refuses to speak about Aly, but at least, Kel thinks, the news has snapped him back to reality.

The day after learning his sister is alive and fomenting rebellion in the Copper Isles, Alan, lips compressed in a tight little line, trots back up to the palace and rejoins the pages.

Kel doesn't bother trying to force him to talk. Anything is better than the emptiness of the summer.

She settles for trying, for one last year, to pound some competency into his skull.

Something in his hazel eyes is profoundly grateful.

***

The next year is a slow one.

The Scanran War ends, and the rest of Kel's friends come back to Corus.

Alan actually passes the page examinations and goes off to be Lord Raoul's squire. His twin's rebellion is a success. Neither he nor Thom ever mention the news. When a Tortallan delegation goes over to observe Dovasary Balitang's coronation, they both contrive to stay home.

In better news, Shinko announces her pregnancy. Kel hopes, fervently, that the child doesn't turn out to be redheaded, but Shinko assures her with a wicked little grin that that is not a problem.

Kel resolves not to ask.

Kel still feels stifled in Corus, but as Haname reminds her gently over their weekly tea, sometimes boredom is the price of duty.

***

For once, Kel thinks, the king isn't butting heads with his eldest son. Instead, they're standing by Roald's desk, heads together, and Kel is ever-so-slightly disconcerted by the sight.

"He won't agree to it," Roald murmurs.

"I'll issue a royal order if I have to," his father replies.

Kel clears her throat. The men turn to face her, and Roald beckons her over.

"Ah, Keladry," King Jonathan says, smiling at her. Kel is fairly sure she sees Roald roll his eyes, but when she glances at him, his face is almost Yamani-straight. "I just received a rather pointed message from Alanna," the king continues. "Apparently, events are contriving to delay the return of our delegation."

This time, Kel is positive Roald rolls his eyes. "Aly's trying to get married, Alanna, George, Daine, and Numair refuse to leave until she does, and Aly keeps pushing back the wedding date in the vain hope her siblings actually bother to arrive." He pauses. "There's also a bit of a time crunch, so we're trying to figure out a way to get Alan and Thom over there." Roald's tone is ever-so-slightly snide. Jonathan looks sharply at his son.

"Um, your Majesty, are you sure that's wise?" Kel asks.

Jonathan looks at her. "What do you mean, squire?"

"Alan is…" Kel trails off.

The king's eyes go grim. "I know," he says. "But I also need that delegation back, preferably sometime soon."

The King's Champion, the king's spymaster, the strongest mage in Tortall, and the Wildmage have all been in the Copper Isles for months, now. Kel's not surprised the king wants them all home.

"Sir, you could always order the delegation home," Kel says.

"If it were any other delegation, that might actually work," he replies.

Kel almost feels sorry for him.

***

The second embassy to the Copper Isles, one with the sole mission of recalling the first, goes just as badly as Kel and Roald predict.

***

Thom, when he returns, is boiling over with his typical Aly-provoked fury. He quickly subsides, though, when he is back on home soil.

Alan comes back brittle and bright, and cracked right through the heart. Lord Raoul, face dark with understanding, finally has to dismiss him. He never gets his knighthood.

Lady Alanna is clearly confused, and angry with it. Her husband is grimmer, and after a few weeks, Kel sees it finally click for the spymaster, that his daughter is a traitor to the realm he serves, that this is not a fun little game.

Aly's honorary aunt and uncle also do not understand. Alan remains glassy-bright around them, too, and Thom never speaks to either of them again.

Kel's friends, all in Corus, close ranks. They all - knights and no-longer-squires, royals, ladies (including their newest member, Margarry now of Jesslaw), former maidservant and tetchy mage - get on scarily well, Kel thinks. Scarily well.

They are all in the chapel when Kel enters the Chamber. There is no room for anyone else.

Lalasa and her fiance (neither of whom are actually interested in each other, which is why they're engaged) are the ones who catch Kel when she staggers out.

"I knew you would do it, Lady Kel," Lalasa whispers in her ear.