When they finally leave the party, the voices and music a muffled afterthought, the air is cold and crisp on their faces in the hall.
“It isn’t that difficult to grasp,” Princess Shinkokami – Shinko, he has to call her Shinko now – says, her voice lilting with that trace of an accent. “We learn it all as children, as a part of basic household defense. It’s a very basic skill, and learning it makes it easy for women to defend themselves.”
“I suppose,” Roald replies, carefully shortening his stride a touch so that they can walk together at the same pace. Shinko glances at him, a tiny twist to her mouth that means she’s probably caught him at it, but she doesn’t say anything, just keeps in stride. “However, I’m not sure how all the ladies of the court would respond to such a suggestion. Plenty seem content with what they learn growing up in the convent, at least from what I’ve seen.”
“Well, perhaps you should consider that young noble ladies won’t often tell princes their true thoughts on the ladylike arts,” Shinko responds quickly, almost even sharply, and then she stops, blinking. When Roald halts, turning to look back, she’s popped out her fan, holding it in front of her face.
“I’m sorry,” she says after a few moments, voice slightly muffled. “I didn’t mean to be so rude.”
Roald blinks at her before finally coming to himself. “You weren’t! I mean,” he fumbles, “it’s fine, you can – you can say what you like to me, you know. You’re allowed to be short with me, or angry – I wouldn’t expect differently.” When Shinko continues to look away, fan over her mouth, he reaches out to hold onto her elbow before he can stop himself.
That gets Shinko to look at him, eyes flicking down towards the hand Roald still has on her elbow. When he notices, he flinches, pulling it away quickly and trying to ignore the feeling of silk against his palm. “I mean it, though,” he says quietly. “You have no obligation to be anyone but yourself with me.”
For a long moment, they stand there in silence, looking at each other. Slowly, Shinko lowers her fan, letting it fall closed, though her grip around the base remains white-knuckled.
“Let’s sit down,” Roald offers, pointing at one of the stone benches that litter the halls of the palace, slightly enclosed and next to a window overlooking a courtyard.
After a few seconds, Shinko sits, carefully sweeping the stone and arranging the fabric of her kimono. Once she’s settled, Roald sits next to her, putting his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his folded hands. Out of the corner of his eyes, he can see Shinko letting go of her fan, flexing her fingers slightly before placing them in her lap.
“You have the Gift, don’t you?” Shinko’s voice is very quiet, but it still startles him, making him jump before he looks at her.
“I – yes,” he says, stumbling as he seizes on the conversational opening, and then, “here.”
He holds out a palm carefully, feeling Shinko pressing up against his side to get a closer look. After a few moments of thinking, he lights up his hand, blue and ghostly and bright.
“I’m not as good a mage as I am a knight,” Roald says, clenching and unclenching his fingers. It makes the light waver, casting shadows on the wall, and he concentrates enough to cause pieces of light to separate and hover above them. “I don’t get to do very much of either, though.”
Shinko hums, a small thoughtful sound, and Roald would like to hear it again, perhaps. “It’s for your protection, is it not? Keeping you back.”
“Is it like that in the Islands?” Roald asks, watching the motes of light spin and swoop and dive. “Not letting you do anything, even if you could help? Even if you want to?”
There’s a pause as Shinko thinks, and Roald watches the light move, occasionally sneaking glances at Shinko’s face. Finally she replies, “Yes – there are so many assassination attempts and disasters that all imperial children of a certain rank must stay around the palaces. Our safety is more important than our freedom.” She pauses, and then says, more quietly, “Mostly I wished to ride around, to see things. It’s hard to know your people from inside a palace.”
Roald turns to look at her fully. The lights of his Gift dance enough to cross her face, making it strange and blue and beautiful all at once. “We could go, if you wanted,” he replies. “I could take you.”
For a moment, Shinko just stares at him – and then she smiles, and it’s more beautiful still. “Yes,” she says, her voice warm and surprised, “I would like that.”
“Then we will,” Roald says, and when Shinko’s smile grows wider, he finds himself smiling back.
When Roald and Shinko leave the party, Neal can’t help waving them off with a sigh of contentment. “They grow up so quickly,” he drawls, looking down at Yukimi, who frowns back up at him before tapping him on the arm with her fan, hard.
“Don’t be awful,” she tells him shortly. “I’m glad that they’ve worked out their shyness.”
“Excuse me!” Neal protests, putting a hand over his heart. “I am not awful, merely stating the obvious facts.”
“Terrible,” Yukimi replies, but when Neal glares at her, outraged, he sees her smiling, eyes glinting with laughter.
“She’s right, you know,” Neal hears on his other side, and he turns to find his knight-mistress looking up at him. When he gapes at her, Alanna just laughs, nudging him with a pointy elbow. “There’s no need to tease the poor lad and lass. Royal custom is quite a thing to grow up with.”
“It’s not as if it was in their hearing,” Neal grumbles, but he does make a point to stop, if only because Alanna’s elbows are rather sharp and he’d like to remain relatively unbruised for the holidays.
“Still, squire, expectation is a heavy burden. You of all people should know,” Alanna chides him, before giving Yukimi a tiny bow. “Now, I’m off to the mages party. You two ought to join – Nealan, I expect you to talk to at least three of the palace healers, and if you could avoid insulting anyone to their faces, I’m sure your father would appreciate it.”
“Says the woman who upbraided Lionel of Bairth’s Range last week,” Neal snipes back, earning himself a smack to the shoulder from Alanna and a giggle from Yukimi.
“We’ll be along in a short while, Sir Alanna,” Yukimi offers, and Alanna smiles at her before walking off.
“So,” Yukimi says, grabbing Neal’s elbow and steering him towards one of the doors, “what was that about?”
“What was what about?” Neal asks, rubbing at his shoulder and snagging a pastry from a tray offered by a bored Merric.
“Sir Alanna said something about expectation,” Yukimi continues, pulling him along. She’s awfully bossy, and Neal feels as if he should try to save face, but then decides that it would be easier just to go along with her. “What did she mean?”
Neal takes a bite of meat pastry and chews, contemplating just how he wants to answer that question, and then swallows before replying. “I wasn’t going to be a knight, you know.”
“No?” Yukimi asks, as they finally exit the party and enter one of the many Palace corridors. “I thought that was what young men of the nobility did.”
“Well, I didn’t want to for a long time. I went to university for five years before I started my page training,” Neal responds, shivering a little at the chill of leaving the warmth of the room. “I intended to be a healer.”
“But now you’re a squire,” Yukimi says, humming a little as she walks next to him. “What made you change your mind?”
Neal pauses, trying to think of the best way to word his response. It isn’t as if he hasn’t been asked the question before – there were his friends in university, his father, Sir Wyldon, Kel – but he’s never quite sure how to answer it. Every time he’s tried, his answers have felt insufficient, unsatisfactory.
“There’ve been knights in my family for generations. Queenscove men are supposed to serve the crown, and for most, that’s been by the sword,” he starts, hands sketching in the air. “That’s part of it.”
“And the other part?” Yukimi asks, cocking her head. She’s short enough that she has to tilt back a little to look into Neal’s face, but the way she holds herself gets into Neal’s space, taking up room in a way few other ladies of Neal’s acquaintance tend to do.
“It’s – it’s about doing things, I suppose. Don’t mistake me,” he says quickly, looking at her, “I love learning, just for the sake of it, but – even when the classes were on healing, what I was there for, it still felt academic. Like we weren’t there for practical purposes. I suppose I didn’t want that.”
Yukimi looks at him carefully, considering. “You suppose?”
Neal sighs, knowing he sounds dramatic and not caring in the least. “I – it’s difficult to be sure, how much of it was me and how much was expectations of me.”
Yukimi hums, and then taps him with her fan. Somehow, though, it’s gentler than before. “Well, I am glad you chose knighthood. I feel were you an academic you would be twice as insufferable.”
“Was there a compliment in there?” Neal asks, but Yukimi just laughs at him, starting to bustle along the hall.
“Come along, we’re supposed to go to that mage’s party,” Yukimi calls, and Neal can’t help laughing before hurrying to catch up.
It’s far past the midnight bell when Merric is finally released from his duties serving, He can’t help the surge of relief at being able to finally give up his serving platters and walk away, back towards his rooms.
The air is cold and chilling, biting at the skin on his face, but it’s refreshing after the stifling heat of the party. At every window light from the moon cuts across the walls, casting lacy shadows and making everything feel quiet and still. As he walks, he whistles, a simple tune about Midwinter cold.
At the turn to the squires’ hall, he sees a figure down the way, framed in the light from another corridor. As he draws closer, he can see Kel, standing still with a hand at her mouth.
Merric’s heart kicks a little faster, but he ignores it.
“Kel!” he calls, walking closer. At the sound, she turns, looking at him with a startled expression.
“Merric?” she asks, face smoothing out. “I was just seeing off Cleon. You’ve finished with the party then?”
“Yes,” he replies as he draws even with her, tugging a little on his tunic. “I just escaped. How was the rest of your night? I noticed you started something with Roald and Raoul and such.”
“Oh, right,” Kel says, “we were just trying to make Roald and Shinko more comfortable with each other, but I feel like it worked to entertain everyone else, too.”
“Well,” Merric replies, feeling awkward and out of sorts. His heart keeps beating quickly and he’s sure his face is a little bit red, and he shuffles, hoping Kel won’t notice.
“Good night, Merric,” Kel says easily.
“Right,” Merric replies, “good night,” and then, after screwing up his courage, busses her on the cheek.
Kel stares at him, eyes wide, and Merric barely blurts out, “Midwinter luck,” before brushing past her to go to his rooms.
When he makes it there, he leans up against his door, palms against the wood. Out of the window he can see a soft layer of snow falling, the cold of the room without a fire making the flush in his face die down. After a second he rubs his face with his palms, staring blankly out the window as his heart settles down.
He hears the bell chime of early morning, the first of a new year, full of possibility. He tips his face up towards the ceiling and thinks of the feeling of Kel's cheek under his lips, and he can't help smiling.