"The Protector of the Small, refusing to joust? Mithros, the world must be ending."
Keladry shot her former knight-master a reproachful look as she took a seat on his left. "I hardly refused," she said, pretending he did not call her by her unofficial and quite awful title. "But it gets very tiring, being the one that gets trampled on all the time."
"In your defense, my dear," Raoul said kindly, "you usually do the trampling."
"Besides," Merric added, sliding in beside her, "Faleron's jousting. That's enough reason to watch."
Kel sighed. "He is rather terrible, isn't he?"
They were all early in order to get the best seats on the front row, but Raoul and Alanna still had had a difficult time saving enough space for all of them. They were pressed on all sides by eager, well-dressed men who loudly placed their bets, and especially by excitable ladies in colorful gowns with hopes that a jousting knight would pause and beg a favor to wear. The crowd was a steady dull roar in their ears. Cleon and Seaver managed to claim places next to Merric, but Nealan was not so lucky. With such little room, he was forced to squeeze in next to Alanna, who met his suspicious glance with her trademark wicked grin.
"You planned for this, didn't you?" he accused.
She tweaked his nose and said, "Now, laddy-me-buck, do I really have that kind of power?"
"No, but I don't presume to know what kind of evil is in your mind."
"I thought Roald was joining us," Seaver said, glancing around. "He hasn't attended the last four tournaments."
"Oh, he's sitting with His Majestic Donkey over there," Alanna said irritably, jerking her thumb over her right shoulder.
"I have ears, you know," a man said loudly from somewhere behind them.
"Was that the king?" Cleon asked quizzically.
"Don't get involved," Raoul muttered under his breath. To Alanna, he said, "Fire-Top, please, continue your argument later. You know Jon gets grumpy when he loses one in public."
"Oh, fine," she said. "Look, it's starting anyway."
Immediately, they turned their attention to the jousting field. One knight was already in place, relaxing on his destrier while he scrutinized the lance given to him. He wore the colors of Cavall.
"The Stump?" Neal sputtered. "Faleron doesn't have a chance."
"Did he ever really?" Merric said.
"I've never seen him joust," Alanna said. "Is he actually as bad as you say?"
"He's a worse jouster than you are," Raoul told her. "But he doesn't have an unusually short stature as an excuse."
She grunted rudely and faced the field again. "Is that him?"
If Kel hadn't already known, the squealing ladies all around them would have given him away. It didn't matter to them that Faleron had never once won a joust, only that he was dark and handsome. He looked resplendent in his armor and the colors of King's Reach, swaying rhythmically in the saddle as his handsome black destrier picked its way toward his end of the field.
"He's going to pass right by here," Cleon said. "Do you think he wants something?"
The ladies began to quietly gabble amongst themselves, grabbing each other in their excitement. Kel knew, without even turning around, that Alanna was rolling her eyes. She wished she could do the same, but her Yamani training held true. She would not give away her feelings so easily.
"Here he is!" a lady hissed, patting her pinned-back hair nervously.
Faleron reined in his horse in front of them, his helmed head looking up at their faces. Some knights disregarded the customary jousting armor—a close-visored helm and full body armor—but he preferred it. He said it made him look more dashing, and so it did.
He lifted up his visor and said gravely, "It's customary for a jouster to wear a favor from his lady to prove his love."
A couple ladies readied themselves, hopefully clutching at embroidered linens to bestow upon him. Neal was leaning so far forward his face was right beside Kel's; no doubt he was seeking tips to use on Yuki. Her other year-mates and Cleon looked both envious and curious. Faleron had never been one to openly display affection, and this was a serious declaration. What lady had captured his attention?
Kel expected it the moment he had drawn up in front of her, but it was still a heady mixture of embarrassment and fierce pride when Faleron bowed in the saddle and said charmingly, "My lady Keladry, I would be honored to wear your colors on the field."
Even louder than the cries of dismay from those heartbroken ladies was the disbelieving, simultaneous "What?" from her companions. Kel blushed hotly as she fumbled in her sleeve for a linen and tugged it out. Lalasa made it for her some time ago, cream trimmed in blue, with her coat of arms stitched neatly in a corner. Thank the Goddess I thought to have it cleaned this morning, she thought, relieved. What if I had to give him a dirty rag?
She leaned down, shyly offering it to him. Solemn, he took it from her and carefully tucked it into his belt. To anyone else, he was the portrait of a somber knight, but she had seen his face. His eyes were dancing and he seemed to be trying very hard not to laugh.
"I shall wear your colors proudly, my lady," he said bravely.
Finally, her Yamani Mask failed her; she couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. She said fondly, "Just don't hurt yourself too badly."
His answering smile was rueful. "Even your good luck won't help me," he said. "And if it does, you'll have every jouster begging to wear your favors, and we can't have that."
"I suppose not," Kel said, amused. She kissed the tip of his nose and slammed the visor down with her fingertip. "Good luck, love."
Faleron saluted her, then trotted off to his starting position.
In spite of the fact that the rest of the stands continued to shout and scream encouragements, the immediate vicinity was dead silent. Kel primly smoothed down her breeches and shifted into a more comfortable position. Her neck prickled from the disgruntled scowls of the nearby women. They were prettier, sweeter, perhaps richer, but they didn't chop down bandits as mere children or ride into the same war.
"Faleron?" Neal blurted out. "Really?"
Kel winced and gently pushed his face away from her ear. "Yes," she said, blushing again, "really."
"Now I have to give him my talk," Raoul grumbled.
"What talk?" she asked.
"Oh, gods," Cleon said glumly, "that was a mean talk."
"What talk?" she demanded again.
"I think it's great," Seaver said. "I always thought you should have gotten together as pages."
"Well, thanks a lot," Cleon said, offended.
"Cousin," Merric cried gleefully, throwing an arm around her shoulders, "welcome to the family!"
"I'm not your cousin yet," Kel told him, pulling away from him. She cringed when she realized her mistake.
"Yet?" Neal said, elated. He called over his shoulder, "Do you hear that, Your Highness, our Kel's getting married!"
"I am not," she said in horror.
"Shut up, all of you," Alanna scolded. "The tournament is about to begin. Keladry, I think it's lovely. He's a fine young man. And," she added with a wink, "dashingly handsome."
Kel smiled gratefully, and turned back to watch Faleron.
On the first bout, his lance splintered. When he received his next lance, he looked it over carefully; she had warned him not to trust a lance that shattered on the first strike. He seemed satisfied, and the jousting continued. The last two times, he was unceremoniously dumped from his saddle, and Wyldon of Cavall claimed the victory as his.
The crowd muttered in equal parts approval and displeasure, depending on whom they placed their bets, and Kel sighed. She had not had much hope, but it was still a disappointment. She watched Wyldon help Faleron up and nod to her linen stuffed in his belt. Faleron touched it gently and looked in her direction. Whatever he said back made Wyldon smile and clap his shoulder.
"The Stump gave his blessing," Neal whispered, awed. "You are getting married."
"We are not."
"Well, whatever happens, I wish luck to both of you," Cleon said, and smiled sweetly at her.
Touched, she patted his hand and quietly said, "Thank you."
Faleron was leading his destrier off the field, and the next jousters were warming up. Kel stood and said to Raoul, "Do you want to come with me? I'm collecting my winnings."
"You bet against Fal?" Merric said, startled.
She snorted. "You've seen him joust. Why would I bet for him?"