Keladry of Mindelan was seeing a ghost. That was the only possible explanation for the figure that had just walked into the mess hall.
She elbowed Nealan of Queenscove, who was seated beside her currently engaged in a long-winded explanation of some philosophical principle. His frown was more mock indignation than anything with any real heat, and he raised one brow into his usual sardonic expression.
“Yes, my lady knight?”
Normally Kel might have told her best friend exactly what he could do with his tone, but at that moment she couldn’t think much beyond marking the path of the tall, blonde man who was currently walking through the hall. She would recognize the sharply beautiful features anywhere—and last time she had seen them had been when Joren of Stonemountain’s body was removed from the Chamber of the Ordeal. The bully who had tormented her throughout her early days as a page, and gone so far as to hire thugs to kidnap her maid, had proved too rigid and brittle for the ordeal and had not survived.
“Neal, what am I seeing? Please tell me I’m not having a hallucination.” It was only years of experience that kept her tone light and her face impassive. After the year they’d had, and the dark magic they’d seen, Kel half expected to find that someone had summoned Joren’s spirit just so that he could continue his torment of her; there were certainly enough people in Corus alone that would pay good money if they thought that was a possibility.
“Oh,” Neal said as he found the focus of Kel’s attention, “Nikiforov’s back.”
“Stonemountain now,” Owen quickly corrected him around a mouthful of food.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Kel admonished him automatically. Some habits were hard to break after her years spent corralling her friends during their time as pages, and then at Fort Haven. “And what do you mean? Who is that?”
Owen gave her a look of surprise, quickly turning into one of excitement.
“Didn’t you see him on the progress? He competed in the sword competitions—“
“There were sword fighting competitions?” Kel asked, trying to think back to when the court had been traveling around the country to show the prince’s Yamani bride, and her retinue, the country that would become her own. She couldn’t recall anything of competitions other than the jousts, of course that may have been because she was almost constantly being challenged to enter the lists.
Kel couldn’t help but feel that she had somehow disappointed Owen. Even having just completed his vigil and ordeal, finally a full knight, nothing had been quite able to repress Owen’s love of ‘jolly fights’. Neal just rolled his eyes at the younger man, slinging one arm about his shoulder.
“Remember, our dear lady knight was in service to the great shirker—the Lord Commander did everything he could to avoid the pomp of progress. And when she was there, she was far too busy making grown men fly off their horses to make note of any other competitions.”
Kel allowed a small smile to steal across her face, though as she caught a glimpse of the man again it turned icy.
“So, you called him Stonemountain? What was he to Joren?” she asked.
As she looked on, she was able to start noticing differences between the man and the memory. For one, while they had the same beauty, the same icy colouring, the man’s hair was more silver than the almost white blonde she remembered of Joren. And while his expression looked guarded, from the smiles he exchanged with the other knights in the room, Kel saw a genuine friendliness. He also appeared to be ten years older than Joren would have been when he died. There was also the matter of the large dog that was bouncing along behind him. While many of the nobility favoured hounds, beasts of equally noble lineage, this particular dog seemed to be a cloud of brown fluff, tongue lolling out, tail wagging wildly.
“I don’t know how I still forget that you don’t know all of the—“ Neal started before Kel cut him off with a raised hand.
“Don’t start with that talk of court. Just tell me.”
“Your Yamani training is cracking, Kel. I feel as though you practically yelled at me, in public,” Neal said in mock shock.
Behind him, Owen was struggling to contain his laughter.
She glared at the two.
“And here I thought it was good that both of us could leave New Hope at the same time. Little did I know it was the trickster’s doing.”
Neal had the audacity to wink at her.
“Nikiforov—Viktor—was a cousin to Joren. He would have started as a page a year or two before I started my courses at the university.”
So not a ghost, Kel thought, but a relative. In light of her past interactions with those of Stonemountain, she wasn’t sure if she’d prefer the ghost.
Kel waited patiently for Neal to continue; if there was one thing that could be counted on, it was Neal’s love of talking.
“I think his mother was sister to Joren’s father. There used to be talk, back when Nikiforov was first sent down to the palace.”
Neal shrugged, “I was too young to be paying much attention, and you remember what that lot was like. They were all about the family name—I think they went to great lengths to keep the stories down.”
“And yet,” Owen chipped in, “he’s managed to make a name for himself. How didn’t you know about him, Kel? I think he’s probably better than you with a sword.”
Slowly Kel took a sip of her juice, as she tried to sort through what she had heard.
“After Joren died, he was made the heir to Stonemountain. I suspect that the family wasn’t happy about it, but I think it was just him and Joren for the next generation,” Neal continued.
Nikiforov glanced up, his blue eyes locking onto the table where the three sat as if he knew that they were talking about him. He said something—a quick word of goodbye it appeared—and gave a half wave, resuming his progress through the room and crossing over to Kel’s table.
“Queenscove,” said a voice that was more accented than Kel expected. It had the low roughness that she would have expected to hear from the common folk up in the Northern Mountains, or along the Scanra border, rather than in the palace.
Neal nodded to the man, and his smile was almost pleasant though Kel could feel how tense her friend was. Kel just braced herself for what might come next.
“Nikiforov—well, I understand it’s Stonemountain now.”
Neal was met with a quick grimace.
“I suppose, though it’s only if I must. And I’m not sure that my uncle won’t find some way to…” Nikiforov seemed to cut himself off, as if he realized he was saying too much, and gave them a smile. He turned towards Kel with a smile that could charm a statue. “Is this the illustrious lady knight I’ve been hearing about? I saw some of your jousts on the progress.”
The jousts, Kel thought a little bitterly, that had been a result of Nikiforov’s cousin’s machinations. It was largely Joren’s friends, intent on proving she was unworthy of earning her shield who had challenged her anytime she and her knight-master had been with the progress.
“Lady Keladry of Mindelan, Sir Viktor of Stonemountain,” Neal said by way of introduction.
Kel wasn’t sure, but she thought that again she saw that faint grimace at the use of his name.
“What can we do for you, Sir Viktor?” Kel asked her tone mild, and her eyes watchful.
“I actually came in search of you my lady.”
He made a gesture towards the empty seat opposite her, with an inquiring raise of one silvery eyebrow. Before even waiting for a response he sat, the movement managing to be oddly graceful. As soon as he was seated, the dog bounded forward paws rising up to his lap and warm brown eyes begging for something from the table.
“Makkachin!” he scolded, before giving the three a sheepish look. Kel didn’t miss the way his hand dropped to the dog’s head to give it a quick pat.
Owen seemed a little starstruck by the silver-haired knight. If Kel wasn’t still waiting for an insult to be hurled at her, or some challenge offered, she might have been amused.
“What is it you need from Kel?” Neal asked, his gaze narrowed.
Nikiforov smiled easily.
“Yakov—my cherished former knight master—has offered me up for the envoy headed to the Yamani Islands for the progress there, and I was hoping to gain some information prior to departure. I understand, my lady, that having lived there as a child you are something of an expert.”
If it wasn’t that it was yet another reminder of his place at court, Viktor would have laughed at the lady knight’s perplexed expression. The young woman had remarkable control over her emotions, but as someone who had been guarding every reaction, and learning the signs of which way his world was going to slide, he considered himself something of an expert.
Once he had been able to flee Stonemountain for Corus to begin his training towards knighthood, it was no longer a method of survival, but it had allowed him to carve out a place for himself despite the stories and rumours that had followed him south. He had become a player, taking on whatever role would allow him to succeed; to be liked.
And still, he somehow seemed to run afoul. Mindelan might have had a remarkable reserve, but Queenscove was as easy to read as ever, and right now, he looked suspicious. It was just another reminder that no matter how hard Viktor tried, his family would always would always be a barrier.
“You’re going with the envoy?” Mindelan repeated.
“And you would like my help?”
From her tone, Viktor wondered if he had been ill advised in seeking her out. When he had seen the woman in the mess hall, it had seemed like a good opportunity to get a little knowledge of what he might expect on his travels. And if he was honest, it was also a good chance for him to rile his uncle. Word was certain to circle back to his family that he had been talking—pleasantly even—with the ‘Mindelan bitch’.
Maybe it was the prospect of the trip, knowing he would be absent from Tortall for some time, but the fear, the sensation of walking on eggshells, that had followed Viktor around most of his life when it came to his family had vanished.
But, like a lot of his plans, Viktor had been a little over eager. If only everything could go as smoothly as when he had a sword in his hand.
“I understand my lady, if you are busy,” he said hurriedly. “Some other time perhaps?”
Viktor’s head jerked in response to the bellow, as much as to the nickname. Most people in the room glanced over at the tall, heavy-set man who was bearing down on the table.
Smiling apologetically at the others, Viktor turned towards the man.
As ever the older man was straight into a lecture.
“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour, Vitya! A HALF HOUR! And what excuses do you have for me this time?”
Viktor didn’t even bother to address the man who had been his former knight-master during his days as a squire. Instead he turned towards the three who were staring at the looming figure with slightly stunned expressions.
“Don’t mind him,” Viktor said, “he’s always like this.”
Despite the lightness of his tone, he did rise up from his seat.
“If you would be so kind, my lady. I, understand that you are not going to be here long—if you could even suggest a book I might refer to, I would be much obliged.”
The young woman nodded, and Viktor smiled, before turning his attention to Yakov. The older man rolled his eyes and gestured with a wave of his arm for Viktor to lead the way.
As they walked between the rows of tables, Yakov leaned close.
“What were you doing, Vitya? You must know how your family will react when they learn that you were talking to that woman,” Yakov hissed.
Normally that reminder would have been enough for the flutters of dread, or the age old need to plaster on a brighter smile, to be even better, to rise up. But Viktor was pleasantly surprised to feel nothing.
“Let them find out. I’ll be gone soon.”
“And when you come back? You can’t run off forever.”
Viktor wasn’t so sure Yakov was right.