Fianola frowned a little. The uniform was too big, but everyone had that problem. It was heavy too, and she was already sweating in it. Did it really get that cold here?
They'd already had their interview with Padraig haMinch. He'd looked the two of them over coolly, and she'd bit her lip. She'd heard the stories; how they'd tried to drive the last girl page out, how one of Joren of Stone Mountain had tried to have her kidnapped. Whispers asked if she'd been raped. Or worse, gone to it willingly, one girl in a dormitory of boys and then lied about it. Lady Kel had said it was hard work, that some people would choose to believe the worst about her no matter what she did. Well, Fianola could deal with hard work. And for the rest...
Mama had agreed already, but Papa had tried to talk her out of it --
"Yes, pigeon?" Papa smiled down at her. "Did you have a good day?"
"Tell Papa where we went, Fianola," Kirah said, bouncing excitedly. Without pausing for Fianola to speak she went straight on, "We saw her, Squire Keladry." They hadn't meant to slip away from their harried tutor and creep into her tent, but watching the tournament had been so much fun, and then she'd come out, and they'd jousted and Lord Wyldon shook her hand --
"Oh, Papa, it was so amazing!" Fianola said in a rush. It wasn't quite what she'd meant to say but it was true.
Papa was still smiling but it was a funny sort of smile that looked almost sad.
"You saw young Mindelan then?" he asked, and tugged her in close, a quick squeeze and then held her a little away from him and looked at her seriously. She shifted from foot to foot, wondering what he was thinking. He smelled of fire and horses and incense; which probably meant he'd been with the wizards or the priests. Fianola wondered why, and then squashed the thought.
"She was sleeping, Papa!" Kirah said, and Fianola glared at her. "She's got a tent all to herself; it was really nice but her armor smells. We didn't bother her, I promise. I don't think we bothered her, anyway. Well, not much. We were really quiet, and we got her water and food and stuff, and when she woke up we helped her, really we did, Fianola and Yvenne and me, and she talked to us!"
"No, Fian, let your sister speak."
Fianola bit her lip. Oops. She slid a look at her sister but said nothing.
Kirah stopped, second thoughts visibly crossing her face. Fianola tried to be patient, she really did, but sometimes her little sister acted like she was five, not ten and nearly old enough to go to court. "Um. We didn't wake her up or anything."
Fianola stared at the floor. She'd known it would be hard. She'd heard the stories, but she hadn't really thought about what it would be like to be that girl. The Girl. The one people whispered about.
To be the girl who rode against the greatest tourney knights in the realm and held her seat before she was even knighted.
To be the girl who could sit up, visibly pained, and tell them not about the glory and the joy of battle, but how hard it was, how hard it would be, how difficult, how miserable. To tell them what they needed to hear instead of what would make them follow her.
Papa tilted her face up and shook his head gently. "What are we going to do with you, hmm?"
Fianola looked at him wordlessly, hoping that he'd have the right answer. He sighed and hugged her, then tugged on one of Kirah's braids. "I suppose it's my own fault."
"What, Papa?" Kirah asked. Fianola's eyes went wide and hopeful.
"Bringing in the girl from the Riders to teach the pair of you." He sounded cross, but he didn't look cross. "Mindelan had a hard fight today."
"But he didn't unseat her! You said he unseats everybody," Kirah said indignantly. "If she can do it, we can." She folded her arms and held her chin high and then, all awestruck little girl, "Papa, she has a griffin!"
"So I'd heard." He squeezed his arm around her and Fianola wriggled a little. "Little pigeon, you could be terribly hurt. There are accidents every year; some never make it through training; some fail the Ordeal--"
"I'm going to be thirteen next year, Papa." She managed not to say please, but that was what she meant.
"Your Grandmamma would like you to go to the Temple of the Goddess."
Fianola pulled a face. "Sewing."
Kirah pulled a worse one, "Books."
"There's a little more to it than books and sewing," he chided them. "And even if you go to serve in Corus, I know that there will be four years of book learning as well as the weapons training you're so mad about. It isn't all swinging a sword and putting arrows into straw targets, Kirry, Fian." He looked from one to the other. "And you may find that a page has to know how to sew too. There are worse things that you could be doing."
"Mucking out. But, Papa, I've been helping. Lady Kel said I should practice running up hills and stairs, and archery and --"
Papa raised a hand for quiet. "How long were you talking to her?"
"Only a little while!" she said hastily.
"She wasn't very well," Kirah agreed. "She moved real slow, like Grandmamma does sometimes."
He looked into Fianola's eyes and she looked steadily back. "My little pigeons." He didn't say anything more, and Fianola stood up straighter.
"I'm nearly as big as the Lady Alanna was when she started, and she isn't much taller than grandmamma even now!" Kirah said into the quiet. She never did know when to keep quiet.
He smiled. "True. No man would say the Lioness was too short to fight. Well, not more than once," he added, with a little smile that suggested he knew more than he was saying.
"Papa?" Kirah asked quickly.
"No, pigeons, not today." He got to his feet and looked down at them. "Well." She met his gaze steadily. "You know this isn't something you can put aside when you become tired of it."
"I won't, Papa. I don't."
He nodded, and ruffled Kirah's hair. "Unlike you, Mistress Frivolity."
"That's not fair, Papa," Kirah said softly, and their father looked at her then nodded, his face serious.
"I'm sorry, Kirry. I know how much you want this." He drew a deep breath.
Fianola and Kirah unconsciously moved to stand shoulder to shoulder in front of him. Fianola as tall as she could make herself, Kirah wobbling slightly, her heels lifted from the floor in an effort to look bigger. Please. Oh, please. "I'll speak to your mother. And we will write to their Majesties and the training master. And on Kirah's eleventh birthday we will go to Corus, and if Padraig haMinch will take you on, you will both join the first year pages."
They launched themselves at him and hugged him. He chuckled, the sound shaking his chest under their faces. "My dear little pigeons," he said softly, and hugged them tight.
Fianola couldn't see her parents through the gate. She supposed they were probably around somewhere but they'd kissed her and Kirah goodbye and walked away. They were still in Corus. She could still change her mind. Maybe knowing they were in the same city would help with the hollow feeling in the pit of her belly.
She couldn't see Kirah anywhere, but considering the morass of eleven year olds running around collecting new clothes and equipment, it wasn't exactly surprising. Kirry was around somewhere, busy and excited and full of joy that she'd got what she'd most wanted.
Fianola felt kind of lonely and conspicuous. She didn't feel excited. She felt sick. She was going to learn how to protect others; how to fight; how to survive against Immortals, and evil, and everything that the world could throw at her, and she'd be the one between the village and the storm.
She drew herself up. This was what she'd wanted. This was her choice. She'd live with it.
Standing up straight she found she was a full head taller than most of the first years. She saw Kirry -- she was already part of a little cluster of children -- pages -- and looking at their pushing and shoving felt old and worldly wise. At thirteen, she was too old to run around madly like Kirah was. There was a small scuffle and she was about to go to Kirah's rescue when a clarion voice cut through the noise. "Page!"
Everyone turned, the noise and ruckus dying instantly. Lady Keladry was there, in a sweaty grey tunic and battered looking breeches, a towel slung around her neck, and a long sword hanging from a worn leather belt. Looking right at her with an approving smile.
"Lady Kel-Keladry, I--"
"Kel will do." She smiled. "I was wondering if you would come. Of course, I knew it was the first years' first day by the noise..." She looked around the room, eyebrows raised, and feet shuffled uncomfortably. This was the lady knight who'd killed the Scanrans' monster maker. They'd heard the stories in whispers in the dark; in stories they were forbidden to tell each other and of course did, each telling more terrifying than the last. How the Scanran mage murdered children and fed their souls to metal things that had none of their own. How Keladry of Mindelan had fought the monsters, killed the mage, and brought the children back, all on her own against a thousand monsters in the dark and cold.
"Glad to see you, Fianola. Page Fianola." She spotted Kirah, and smiled a little wider. "And your sister."
"Kirah, Lady Kel."
"Page Kirah." Lady Kel nodded, digging her thumbs in under her belt and swept a swift look around the room. "Good luck, Fianola." She paused just a fraction of a second, and smoothly added, a little louder, "Good luck to all of you." She patted Fianola on the shoulder, and walked briskly through, perhaps coincidentally past Kirah, where she paused for a moment. Kirah's smile lit the room.
"You know Lady Knight Keladry?" Fianola blinked at a fair haired boy standing by her, brown eyes wide with awe.
"Not really. We talked when the Grand Progress came to Blue Harbor; she--"
"She jousted against Lord Wyldon of Cavall when she was seventeen and didn't fall! Did you see it? I didn't get to go in the Progress, Papa said I was too little, and then Mama said she might think about it, and then the window in the nursery got broken completely by accident and I was stuck home in Wellam, but I heard, and Papa says--"
Fianola looked at him bemusedly, and then around the room full of, of her fellow pages, in red and gold and a thousand different expressions, afraid and excited and bored and curious, all of which she knew -- all of whom she would come to know -- and smiled slowly as he kept talking.
"I'm Fianola of Blue Harbor; I'm a first year page with my sister Kirah," she said, chin up, and the boy grinned at her.
"I'm Solon of Wellam." He stuck out a hand and promptly dropped half his things on the floor. "Pleased to meet you," he said, instead of picking them up.
"Me too," she grinned back, and gripped his hand firmly. Me too.
He scuffed his bundle together and clutched it to him, and turned to her. "So did you--"
"I was there -- me and my sister, we saw her joust against Lord Wyldon. The Grand Progress had gotten to Blue Harbor, and we got to go to see the tournament just that one day. And then--"