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Neal loves Kel like a sister, like the other half of himself. They’ve stood together against everything from bullies to spidrens to eldritch mage-created abominations to Lord Wyldon's sense of humour, and he just – well, he doesn’t know where he'd be without her. Or what he'd be: Numair would probably have turned him into something peculiar by now. When you grow up in the palace, you spend more time with your fellow pages than you do with your own blood family, and that's how it is with them and how, as far as Neal is concerned, it always will be. It was Kel who forced him to eat his vegetables and learn to hold his tongue before Lord Wyldon (well, some of the time), and it was Neal who taught Kel how to joke and tease (not to mention, he’s sure, every last Gods-blessed dirty song she knows). It is Kel who gives the speech on Neal and Yuki’s wedding day, blushing and stumbling over heartfelt words and several cups of wine, and it’s Neal who rides for three days and three nights across Tortall just to grab her up into his arms in the winter that Lady Ilane succumbs to the White Fever, to tell her that she'll always have a family no matter what.

When they’re old and grey and frighteningly responsible (well, when Kel is frighteningly responsible, anyway), they’ll look at one another across King Roald’s table and still see nothing but a smart-mouthed teenager and a solemn-eyed ten-year-old girl.  

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

* * *

Raoul loves Kel like the daughter he’ll never have. He remembers being surprised, in her early days as a squire, by just how little she reminds him of Alan-er-Alanna. Where his childhood friend was all fire and fine bones and fierceness, this girl is stone and water, big square shoulders and steady smile. Nobody would accuse the second Lady Knight in living memory of charming her path with magic – in heart and mind and spirit, this girl is as plain as the dirt that the King’s Own wash out of their blankets and tents at the end of every mission. But there is to be no washing out Keladry: tenacious as mud, she sticks through the tricks that the men of the Own try to play on her, every insult grinding her determination deeper into the bone. As the years go by he watches as she stands stubborn in the face of centaurs, endless tilting lessons, malicious court gossip and the most complicated supply calculations he can throw at her – not to mention that horrible griffin, which quite frankly would have had Alanna squealing to the Goddess in ten seconds flat.  When he overhears her on the Grand Progress, delivering his own lecture on putting away sweaty riding gear word-for-word to an embarrassed-looking young Queenscove, Raoul laughs his way back across the camp and then sits awake half the night in wonderment.

The last tilting match in which he ever competes is the one in which Commander Keladry sends him flying from his saddle for the first and final time. As he lies on the cool black earth counting the stars that whistle by, he thinks that it’s probably the proudest moment of his life.

 And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

* * *

Tobe loves the Lady like the mother he never knew. She rescued him from Alvik, taught him his letters and what’s more valuable to his mind, saw to it that he got fighting lessons and three squares a day. He’s wanted nothing more than to stand by her through everything, and so far he’s done his gods-damndest to do just that – even when she really hasn’t wanted him to. Now, though, it looks as though it’s inescapable. But that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it.

He crawls further into the straw, pulling his sense of resentment in after him. It’s not fair! He doesn’t want to go to Corus and study with this stupid Stefan; doesn’t want to be a horse mage if it means having to leave New Hope and the Lady. ‘But Tobe, you could learn to train your magic, you might learn to heal horses properly, or – or do anything if you put your mind to it’ – phooey! Why can’t Sir Nealan teach him any magic that he might need to know?

A wicked smile spreads across Tobe’s face. He’ll show her! He’ll run off and hide in the woods until the passes have frozen, and then they’ll have to let him back in and they won’t be able to send him to Corus until the spring... 

‘Aargh!’

Tobe's pouting is suddenly interrupted by searing pain in the crescent shape of a horse bite on his left shoulder. Twisting around with an angry yell, he finds himself looking into the mild black eyes of the last creature he’d ever have expected.

‘Get off me, Hoshi!’

Not until you stop acting like a silly foal afraid of leaving his dam for the first time replies the mare. From over the stall partition, Peachblossom chimes in: Are you so stupid that you haven’t learned by now that she would never send you to any place where you wouldn’t be taken care of? Hoshi snorts, Little two-legger, do you think it’s easy for her? Do you think she wants to send her colt away?, then flicks her ears warningly at Peachblossom, who looks as though he’s thinking about leaning down for a bite of his own.

It’s a sadder and sorrier fourteen-year-old who trudges up the path to the New Hope Commander’s quarters from the stables later that afternoon, and two weeks later Tobe is on his way to Corus. When he disappears around the very last mountain bend he looks back to see the Lady waving, her face set in a steady refusal to cry until he’s all the way around the corner out of sight.

 And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

* * *

The pages love their Training Mistress... when they’re not busy hating her. Some of the older squires have told them that things were even worse when Lord Padraig was in charge, but that’s obviously so much dragon-hockey – nobody could possibly push them harder than Lady Keladry does. All the second-year pages have been forcibly hauled through the mathematics work that they weren’t supposed to cover until fourth year, and the Gifted ones keep falling asleep in the middle of the extra healing practices. Even the littlest first-years can jump a cudgel swing two feet in the air by the time the last leaf is off the trees, and they all know how to leap from the hayloft and fall flat on their faces like so many grubby tunic-clad acrobats.

And the punishments! Kehira of Queenscove is still copying lines for the incident with the fireworks last Midwinter, and the Anak’s Eyrie brothers are on three hours’ armour polishing every afternoon. Tommen of Jesslaw hasn’t been allowed access to any kind of reflective surface since the incident with the treasure map, Diana of Nond is going to run away to join the Players if she has to muck out one more stable, and everyone is completely sick of those endless runs around the top of the palace wall. They can’t wait, they tell one another, to get home to mothers and fathers and warm beds and servants, to get away from this demented madwoman who appears to pile on more work whenever they least expect it...

But then they catch a nod and a tired smile in the mess hall at the end of a long, exhausting day, or feel a pair of steady hands on their shoulders, strengthening a quarter-staff grip.  The older ones note the absence of any kind of bullying or meanness in the page’s quarters: the younger ones don’t even realise what they’re missing. Life in the palace is hard and tiring and involves far more horse manure than anyone really enjoys, but by all the gods it’s fair, and dimly they know it’s all to prepare them for what’s ahead.  

And not a boy or girl among them would have it any other way.

* * *

And Dom? Well, Dom just loves Kel like Kel.

Grubby, griffin-bitten squire with shadows under her eyes, magnificent warrior-maiden thundering into the tilt or blank-eyed ghost with Blayce the Gallan’s death written on her face, it makes no difference to him. He loves her in Lalasa’s finest brocade dresses, and in blue and silver battle armour, and in the dirtiest, smelliest, holey-est practice breeches. He loves her on the evening when she comes to him, pale and stricken, to pass on the healer's news that she cannot bear him children: loves her when he reminds her that she already has one fine son and that he'd be proud to call Tobe his own too. He loves her on their wedding day with pale grey silk over her chain mail, and he loves her with a sword bright and bloody in her hand, and he loves her in harvest season with half a Mindelan field's worth of barley-straw fallen down her shirt. Loves her with an armful of Lord Wyldon’s puppies, a gaggle of refugee children sitting at her feet, or up to her waist in clamouring, chattering pages (although he is thinking about asking Neal for a set of spelled earplugs for Midwinter...) He’ll follow her anywhere and watch her back as she does everything, and know always and forever that she’s watching his in return.

And neither of them would have it any other way.