The Scanran War ended two years after Kel killed Blayce, when King Maggur's hold on the Scanran nobles finally collapsed and he was beheaded in the capital city. A treaty followed shortly after the revolt that pleased nobody but did at least stop the fighting. Six months later, Kel formally handed New Hope over to the newly created Lord of Fief New Hope and started the long journey back to Corus. This time it was just her and Tobe on the road. It was good to travel as fast as they wanted, but Kel missed the army mess when they were forced to camp out. Most of the troops had already been sent to other parts of the country, apart from the companies permanently stationed on the Scanran border. They set out in the middle May, with days that were starting to warm up but not yet too hot to travel and when rain fell it usually had the good manners to wait until they had found an inn for the night.
Kel had to remind herself constantly that there was no need to rush. She kept having the urge to nudge Hoshi into a trot. Tobe scowled at her each time she thought about pushing the horses too hard and talked loudly to Peachblossom about their love-fooled mistress. That made Kel blush and fight to recall the calm lake that restored her outward Yamani calm.
The problem was that missing Dom only seemed to become noticeable when she knew that she would see him soon. Working kept her mind off him and she had trained herself to keep her feelings tucked away in a tiny, rarely visited corner of her mind most of the time. It was easier that way because when she did miss him, it was almost painful.
It was a little ironic. All those passionate embraces with Cleon had resulted in a romance that flickered out long before they parted. Her romance, if it could be called that, with Dom had so far only resulted in one awkward kiss at Midwinter and she had dreamed of that kiss ever since. They had exchanged a couple of hastily written letters in the months since, but she had heard nothing from him since the Own were recalled to Corus and the letters she had received never mentioned that kiss.
When she thought of him, she mostly just missed him. Mostly. There was a tiny part of her, though, that worried. What if the kiss had been a mistake? What if he did not realise what the kiss had meant to her?
What if she felt nothing when she saw him?
Kel and Tobe took their time and arrived in Corus in late June. It was a bright day and Tobe finally stopped glaring at her when she nudged Hoshi into a faster walk, encouraging Peachblossom into a trot that turned into a canter half a mile from the walls. The weight of traffic forced them to slow to a walk inside the city. It felt crowded, noisy and smelly after so long on the border and Tobe looked quite overwhelmed, sidling Peachblossom closer until his knee nudged hers. They made their way to the palace and, as they rode through the gates, Kel realised that the odd feeling inside was a sense of homecoming. She had thought that New Hope would be the only place that she would feel that way about.
It took a while to get the horses settled and Kel was oddly unsurprised to find that rooms had already been assigned for them both not far from the King's Own's section of the palace. She led the way and showed Tobe to the connecting room that would be his, leaving him to exclaim over the indoor privy and comfortable bed. There was a pile of clothes on her bed, Lalasa's work, and Kel allowed herself a small smile at the thoughtfulness. Most of her clothes were looking rather ragged now.
A hot bath felt wonderful, clean fresh clothes felt even better and Kel was almost able to ignore the flicker of nervousness at the pit of her stomach as she collected Tobe and guided him down to the King's Own's mess hall.
The disappointment she felt when she realised that Dom was not there at least confirmed that her feelings had not changed. It was poor consolation, but Raoul was beckoning her over to his table and Buri was grinning widely at her, so Kel pushed it all aside and joined them. Many of her friends from the Own were there and they quickly plied her with food as she raised an eyebrow.
"The King asks you to join the court tomorrow night, but he thought a quieter first night might be to your taste," Raoul said mock gravely. "We're obliging him."
Buri snickered. "It was Thayet that persuaded him. The King has been trying to tie my lord to a feast table for the last two months."
Kel grinned, remembering all the reasons that Raoul had found to absenting himself from the Great Progress a few years ago. She rather suspected that he and his wife continued to find every excuse they could to miss formal occasions.
There was enough chatter and gossip around the table to keep Kel occupied without needing to contribute anything, which was a relief. The news that Neal's first son had been born in April prompted cheering and Kel failed to imagine Shinkokami as heavily pregnant as everyone assured her that the princess was.
Raoul caught her as the party broke up, saying with a sly grin, "Sergeant Domitan should just be finishing his watch. You might look for him in the library."
Kel looked at him sharply, but Raoul was already by Buri's side with an innocent expression. In the confusion of clearing plates and arguing over whose quarters to drink in, Kel slipped away.
The library was dimly lit, only the fire roaring in the hearth providing any real illumination. Warm weather never seemed to penetrate the thick, cold stone in this part of the palace. Kel peered in, trying to see Dom before he saw her, and glimpsed a shadowed figure rising from one of the chairs. The fire was at his back but his silhouette was familiar. She took a few steps forward and then stopped, uncertainly.
He seemed as nervous as she was, hesitating for a long time before cursing quietly and striding forward to envelop her in a strong hug. Kel returned it tentatively at first and then with more confidence, still unsure whether this was a friendly embrace or something more but content to accept whatever it might be.
Dom released her and stepped back, searching her face.
"I'm not sure how we do this," he confessed. "I've never wanted to kiss a friend before."
Kel sighed her relief. "Nor me."
Dom's face was dark in the shadows from the fire, but Kel thought that he smiled. "We could just sit and talk for a while. That might be a good place to start."
They pushed two tall wing-backed chairs together near the fire and sat, fingers just touching on the arms of their chairs.
"How are the roads?" Dom asked.
"Good," Kel replied. "The city?"
"Quiet," Dom said.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a while and then Kel asked about Neal's son. Dom grinned and began describing all the amazing things that his new baby cousin had done and from there they chattered about mutual friends and the King's new road-building program and a dozen other things. Somehow a flask of wine was opened and passed back and forth between them as the fire burned lower.
Kel did not know when they went from awkward to familiar, but there was always that spark of awareness that Dom was not like her other friends mixed with the comfort.
And then, somehow, there was a moment when the conversation paused and she looked at him and realised that she wanted to kiss him. He seemed to think the same because his lips met hers and this time there was no embarrassment. It was wonderful and warm, his breath was on her cheek, and Kel wished the world could just stop here for a while.
When Dom pulled back, he looked thoughtful. Kel's heart seemed to thump in her chest.
"If I asked you to marry me next year," Dom said slowly, "would you say yes?"
Kel thought for a long moment.
"Probably," she said.
"Good," Dom said. "I didn't want you to think that this wasn't serious."
"I knew," Kel said and she kissed him again.