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to heed the voice of honor

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Kel sat and thought about it all through the long summer-- thought about joining the Riders when she turned sixteen, or going back to the Yamani Isles with her parents, or running away to become an unlawful bandit hunter. She drank tea with her mother and accepted her quiet sympathy. She wondered what was going to happen to Peachblossom. She did her morning glaive practice dances in the heady air of the tiny courtyard garden of her parents' townhouse, where the cook grew herbs and spices in big overflowing boxes.

Summer rolled on. She sat, and she thought, and she did not tell her thoughts to anyone. On the first day of what would have been her second year of page training, she woke before the sun and had a quiet breakfast with her father, and then she jogged up the big dusty hill to the palace grounds.

When the pages trailed out of the building to the practice yards with dubious enthusiasm, she was waiting just outside their ground. Her chin was high, her shoulders loose while her hands gripped her weighted staff.

"Probationer," Wyldon barked out to her, when one of the boys went to fetch him. "Was I unclear in the spring?"

Kel stared him down, fingers white on her staff, and said, "I'm not a probationer anymore."

"She's a private citizen, just enjoying the fresh air," Neal called from the other side of the practice yard fence. He got armor cleaning punishment for a week for his cheek.

Kel lifted and lowered and struck with her staff to the call of the masters. Her staff hit thin air. The clack of the pages' staves colliding hit her ears.

"That's palace property," Wyldon said ten minutes in, and plucked the staff out of her grip, so Kel followed the lesson with empty hands and brought her mother's spare walking stick the next day.

They started calling her trespasser, after that, and Kel stood calm on the public grounds just on the other side of the practice yard fence, practicing her high blocks.

While the pages had riding practice, she sat in the dirt outside the riding yard and did the homework Neal smuggled out for her. He handed the finished assignments in for her, too, even though only Myles and the one Mithran priest who had never learned anyone's names graded them. She took notes on what riding exercises the masters were assigning the pages and watched Neal where he sat on Peachblossom's back like a sack of mulish peanuts.

"When I heard you weren't t' be coming back," Stefan the hostler told her. "I wasn't sure what would happen to the old lad."

"Me, either," said Kel, looking down at her math and trying to keep her face smooth and still.

When the pages went in for their seated classes, Stefan let her take out Peachblossom to try to exercises herself. Days the gelding was too tired, he found other mounts for her and Kel learned all their names-- gentle Aubrey and fastidious Starfall and distractible, clever Redding and poor anxious Terence, who almost threw her more than once. "He comes by the fidgets honest," Stefan told her and Kel brought extra apples for Terence when she could.

She still took on Lalasa when Gower found her feeding the sparrows in the courtyard beside her old rooms and asked her. Her parents' townhouse had the funds to hire another maid, though Kel didn't need or want a personal servant.

Lalasa pinched Kel's torn clothes from her room all the same and returned them better hemmed and beautifully mended. Kel barely saw her, though she tried to leave a coin from her allowance on the piles of clothes she thought the young woman was most likely to steal away next.

She didn't ask for the help and she told herself she didn't want it, but she jogged up the big dusty hill to the palace grounds every day with her weighted harness weighing on her shoulders.

She stood just outside the low fence of the practice yards and ignored Joren's comments and Zahir's sneers and the rebukes of the swordfighting teachers-- distraction, they said. Lump, waste, failure.

The sun beat down on her aching shoulders and she thought I could stand here forever, thought you are just noise and wind, I am a mountain. I will be here long after you cease howling.

Neal landed blows on Joren's fingers, apologizing blandly to the masters for his clumsinesses, because Kel had ordered him to get in no fights for her honor. The sun beat down on the careful stitches of Kel's cotton shirt, which fit as perfectly as Lalasa could manage from a shy distance.

She told herself she didn't want the help, didn't need it. Her harness weighed down her shoulders, her makeshift staff weighed down her arms, but the cotton laid light and kind on her back.

 -

She climbed up to the palace each day for training, but the city was where she lived. She met a battleworn mutt stealing sausages and brought him home to her parents' townhouse. Jump befriended the kitchen rat-catchers and napped out with them on the cobblestones in front of the house, the cats purring with their bellies bared for the sun.

The palace carpenters wouldn't make Kel practice swords and staves weighted with lead pellets, no matter the coins she offered or the errands she ran. She found a carpenter down by the Goddess's temple in town, instead, who had shoulders even Kel envied.

The carpenter set her to whittling buttons while she crafted her a sword to employ on the dusty air just outside the practice yards. Kel paid in carefully counted coins and tipped in chores and favors, and slowly she collected what she needed-- a practice sword, a staff, a lance.

She helped the cook carry vegetables and cages of chickens home from market, helped the delivery men lug massive bags of flour from the backs of their carts, and called it strength training. Her shoulders grew broad, twelve and straining at the seams.

When she found Lalasa cornered behind the kitchens by a handsy grocer's lad, she still chased him off and bullied Lalasa into learning some self defense, if she wouldn't let Kel report him. But they held their lessons in the little kitchen garden and the kitchen help and the maids drifted out to watch from among the rosemary. They called out encouragement among the mint under the apple tree. The youngest stepped out to join them, and then the oldest, and soon Kel was pacing between them all, correcting their stances and the twists of their wrists in the herb-heavy air.

 -

Kel planned to spend the week the pages were away in the field catching up on her studying, taking tea with her mother, and hauling stones to pave the front walk of the townhouse, but Eda Bell had other ideas.

Most of the fighting masters ignored the bulky twelve year old standing just outside the training yard, but both Shangs liked to linger by the fence and drawl loudly, "The foot extension on that high kick is just tough, isn't it, Eda?"

"Oh, yes, one of the commonest mistakes, but to correct for it--"

Eda caught her on her way down the hill, one evening. Kel was tacky with dried sweat and itchy with horsehair, but she turned and waited for Eda to speak. "You should pack," Eda said. "I told Wyldon I needed an aide for the trip, to fetch and carry for my poor old bones."

"But, ma'am--"

"Don't call me ma'am, child, honestly. He said that's what pages are for, but I told him that of course it'd be improper to have a lad attend me." She smiled, crinkling up her wrinkles.

"He doesn't know you're bringing me," Kel said.

"If you're not part of this program anymore, then he doesn't get any say in what you do or where you go."

"I think he thinks he might," Kel said, but she packed a small bag and they rode at the back of the pages' party, into the hills. Wyldon spotted her early on and Eda Bell smiled.

Last summer, Kel had climbed trees until she vomited behind bushes. She had fought spidrens standing shoulder to shoulder with her friends. This summer, when the boys set out to map and explore, she squared her growing shoulders and went after them. Merric cast a wary glance over his shoulder at her while Faleron nervously ignored the crunch of her feet in dry grass behind them. "The royal forest isn't your private property, or Lord Wyldon's," Kel said levelly, into their silence.

"Yeah, and you're not who he'll give punishment duty to," Merric snapped.

"I'd take it gladly," Kel said and Merric shook his head. Owen stared back over his shoulder, wide-eyed, the same way he'd been staring over the practice yard fence all year. He almost tripped over a tree root with all his eager questions piled under his tongue.

They climbed down into the narrow valley, the cliffs curving around them, and they found the bandits there. Faleron froze-- Merric scrabbled for a knife-- and Kel stepped forward with orders in her throat.

She'd been calling out drills in the kitchen garden all year, trying to imagine she was Hakuin or Eda. She'd been watching each of her women for the way they stood, or struck, or twisted away from a hold, the places they flinched. She had been watching the pages from over the low practice yard fence, every hit, every blow, while she struck empty air-- her feet stirring the same dust as theirs, her stance light on that same ground, except for the fence between them.

"Faleron, the horn," she snapped out, snatching a spear from Owen's hands. "Owen, they've taught you how to make mage light, yeah? Get in the back, blind them all you can. Merric, with me--"

They fought their way out and up the high narrow path to the clifftop cave. Kel borrowed his bow while Owen tried to remember his basic healing lessons from magic class. She didn't look down, just shoved her shakes to the back of her head and got to work.

"We would have died without you there," said Faleron, in that quiet way of his, when it was over and Wyldon and the local bandit hunters were riding into the canyon below. "I don't know if Wyldon will believe it, or admit he does, or if even the other boys will have the guts to say it, but that's what I'm going to tell him, Kel."

"Of course we will," said Owen hotly.

Merric glared over his shoulder. "Don't talk about my guts, Faleron."

Kel sent them all on ahead of her-- the injured first, and then the whole. Owen was ashy, shaky, and grinning. She went last, her legs jelly below her as they hadn't been for the whole fight, her hands pressed tight into stone. At the base of the cliff, she threw up beside the body of a man one of them had killed and Wyldon said something smug and dismissive she didn't even bother hearing.

"No, sir," said Faleron. "It's just the heights."

Kel wiped her mouth with the back of her hand while Faleron described the fight with Owen's "jolly" interjections. Wyldon shook his head and she watched her feet, already looking forward to riding home at the back of the train with Eda. Her stomach curdled and curled in her belly-- she could stand the blood, the calluses and the shouts, but the heights, even just the heights-- she was still the only one of them who'd puked at the end of it all. She was still the only one among them who would go back to her parents' townhouse, not the pages' dormitories. She was still not strong enough.

She put a hand to Faleron's elbow, in a quelling thanks, and then headed back to camp in silence.

In this world, Wyldon was not ordering her up trees or dropping punishments on her head that forced her up stable loft ladders or the palace walls. She had very little interest in forcing those same trials on herself, but as Kel rode home from the forest, she wondered-- was that why he had told her not to come back?

She knew it wasn't fair. She knew he had asked things from her he hadn't of the boys, and she knew she deserved to be on that practice court. But she wondered-- if she had been better, had been braver, would he have let her stay?

While the pages left their last class of that next day, their yawns and chatter rising in the air, Kel climbed slowly up to the lowest palace wall and stood there at the edge of it, sweat-soaked and shaking lightly.

She sat up there and did her homework. She was as many feet as possible from the edge, but the wind picked at her papers. Some of these papers would be handed back with Miles or the math professor's corrections, but she knew many would end up in trash bins or tossed into hearthfires. She wrote two pages on the tactics of the Immortals war in a careful even script, trying to ignore the wind and to will her hand not to shake.

She still went up to the palace daily in the summer, to use their archery ranges, feed her sparrows, and ride Peachblossom, but she spent as much time as she could in the kitchen garden. The maids stopped by on their off hours and dropped off friends on theirs-- local seamstresses who bent close to admire Lalasa's beautiful stitchwork, candlemakers and trainee priestesses of the Black God and flower sellers.

Early in the morning, when the cooks were setting the day's dough to rise and the maids were just lighting the fires, Kel would do her glaive dances under the pale sky and they would pause in the doorways to watch.

 -

When Kel came down to the practice yard the second week of what would have been her third year of page training, there was a woman waiting for her. She was short and dark, with wide strong shoulders. Kel gripped her weighted sword, stepping into the same place she stood every day.

"Sorry," the woman said and Kel, finally, placed her-- Commander Buri, of the Queen's Riders. "I've been out in the field with barely enough time to rinse the mud from my teeth. You know about mud in your teeth?" She smiled and she must have had time to rinse them after all, because her grin was sharp and gleaming. "You will."

"Commander?" said Kel.

The swordsmaster was glancing balefully in Buri's direction. "I'm palace-bound for a spell," she said. "I could use a little practice to keep these old joints oiled properly, and I was told there's a kid who comes down here every day to fight empty air."

There was a wooden practice sword hanging easy in Buri's grasp. Kel took a long slow breath and thought about still mountain lakes and the tall old stones that towered above them, unbending, unbowed.

"Unless the fighting with empty air thing is on purpose," Buri said, and it was kind, smiling and kind. Neal was watching them over the low fence and the swordsmaster was watching them over the low fence and the weight of Kel's practice sword was pressing into her calluses.

"No, ma'am-- sir, um... ma'am?"

"Buri," said Buri, and lifted her weapon as the swordsmaster called first defense.

 -

Buri came most days when she was stationed in the palace, but Kel fought air as often as she didn't. The Riders got sent out to the north to help with raiders, and Kel thought about hauling in a standing cloakrack or something, just so she'd have something to hit.

But the week after Buri left she came down to find a mountain of a man slouching against the low fence and joking with the swordsmaster.

"Keladry," said Raoul of Goldenlake and Kel managed, "Sir."

"A little birdie-- a little Buri? She is little, isn't she-- told me if a fellow wants to get bruised in the early morning this here is the place to be."

Sometimes it was Raoul, sometimes it was other Riders-- she learned their names: Evin, who plucked coins from behind her ears, and Miri, who talked of the sea. A Bazhir man in Own's livery came with his pockets full of birdseed and dried berries for the sparrows who lined up on the fence to watch her-- Qasim, who had listened to her on the spidren hunt, back when she had been a real page and not a stubborn trespasser.

Kel wondered, every time she stepped out to see a figure standing there, if she would be short and broad and red-haired and purple-eyed-- but the Lioness stayed a legend, and a ghost. Kel wondered if she had disappointed her. If it had been the Lioness in her stead, surely she would have been good enough Wyldon would have been forced to let her stay.

 -

After the pages' seated classes and Kel's own riding practice, she'd come down to the pages' wing to feed the sparrows and do her mathematics homework with Neal, who craned over her shoulder to see how she did them.

"Here I thought abandoning my noble academic pursuits would save me from this sort of headache," he said, squinting at her even script. Crown was preening herself on his shoulder and for all his scowling and whining Neal was almost frozen, trying not to jostle the sparrow. "I thought-- bruises, blisters, yes, but only to save me from mathematics."

"I believe bravery's a rather important skill in a knight," Kel said. "Be strong, buttercup."

Neal snorted. "Hardly. Look at the Stump."

"Lord Wyldon's a fine knight," Kel said softly.

"He's a coward and a--"

Kel's face didn't move much, but Neal had been watching her for years now, and so he stopped. Crown hopped down his arm and took off for the tree in a flutter of speckled brown. "Kel," he said, after her quill had paused over the page for long quiet moments. "You belong here, and he's a fool and a coward for fighting that-- for not fighting for it."

"He's the training master," Kel said. "It's his call. I don't want to talk about it, Neal. I just want to learn."

He sighed. "Alright, well, learn by teaching, will you, young one? Explain number five to me before I set it on fire and go back to university."

 -

Other pages found them, sometimes, where they had clambered into the courtyard, or tucked away in Neal's rooms (with the door still open), or in a corner of the library. Even if she spent her mornings fighting air most of the time, or doing drills with conscientious adults, she went to sleep with bruises. If they didn't come to her and yank her papers from her grasp, then she went out looking for them. She wondered if the younger boys would have taken her defense better or worse from the Girl than they did from the trespasser. Neal went with her, groaning and griping, and took punishment duty that Kel tried not to envy.

So when she heard footsteps nearing their library table, she did not assume they came in peace. She put down her quill because she was tired of having to cut new ones and she pushed back her chair so that they couldn't trap her in her seat.

"Um," said Owen, peering over his books the same way he peered over the yard fence at her.

"Jesslaw," said Neal with a cheery boom and Owen took that for invitation.

"Um," said Owen. "So, you're, um, good at fighting, Kel. Ma'am."

Kel watched him from over her open book.

Owen stammered, "I'm-- not? You're there, in the mornings, and you were there, with the bandits, so you might know that. But, um, do you think you could teach me?"

"I'm not even a page," she said.

"But you're the best," he said, in a rush of speech that was closer to his normal cadence. "You're the best that won't-- laugh at me." He messed with his papers and looked at her eagerly. He reminded her of her nieces and nephews, whose puppy-dog-eyes she was well practiced at defying. But she could see the wanting in his little, stubborn frame-- the way he wanted something he couldn't have, the way he wanted to learn something they wouldn't teach him.

"The first bell before dawn," she said. "Mindelan house, in town, I teach fighting in the kitchen courtyard if you can get there. You don't mind learning among girls, do you?"

"No, sir!"

She warned Lalasa that evening and Lalasa warned the others, because somehow she had ended up in charge of organizing this all. When Owen showed up shivering in the morning cold, the more social of the women pushed him to the front with the beginners and patted his cheeks. "I've been a page for almost two years now!" he protested. "I'm not a kid."

"Then what do you need us for, little soldier?" one of the maids asked and faded back to practice holds and escapes with Lalasa.

That night, Kel went to sleep to the smell of rosemary through her open window, and woke to grey skies and familiar birdsong. For a long uncertain moment she thought she was back into the page dormitories, her narrow bed and her uniform folded up on the spare chair, the sparrows' courtyard full of chirping life just outside her window.

But then she pushed herself up to sitting. Her flock of sparrows flitted through the trees and flower beds of the parents' kitchen garden. Crown set down, lightly, on the bedspread.

"You found me," she said, and the sparrow gave a sober little peep and hopped up onto her knee.

The year rolled on, through summer and to what would have been Kel's fourth year of page training. She should have been fretting about the final exams, except she was just sitting with Neal and studying with him for a test they wouldn't even let her fail.

She should have been worrying about four years of squireship, and who would choose her-- if anyone would take that step and choose the Girl-- but instead she just tried to decide if she was going back to the page grounds that next autumn. Would she just keep pummeling empty air on the other side of a fence from children? Would she grow old there, too stubborn to give up on a dead dream?

She didn't talk about it, and Neal didn't ask, just came by for cook's pastries and bullied her into letting him heal up her bruises. ("I have my bruise balm," she said.

"Yes, your mysterious benefactor, praise be. Why do you only accept help if you can't see the whites of their eyes?")

"But what if no one chooses me?" Neal moaned over teacakes in her mother's parlor. Gladys, who had thrown Kel halfway across the garden that morning, hid a giggle as she bustled by the maudlin scene.

"Someone will choose you," Kel said. "And regret it the moment you open your mouth, but all the same."

 -

In a different life, Cleon would have kissed her at Midwinter-- but Cleon had never been brave, at least not for the sake of Kel's dreamer's eyes, and anyway Kel spent Midwinters with Lalasa and the other girls.

While her parents dined high and fine up at the palace, Kel walked the streets with a pack of giggling young women, toasting mulled cider in their best shoes, the city so lit by torches it almost seemed like day. Lalasa held Tian's hand in the cold, and if Kel checked every alley they passed by for trouble, she noticed that Gladys and Portia and Hanna did, too. It was almost like patrolling with Neal-- and Owen, too, these days-- listening for bullies in the corridors and corners of the palace.

They stayed out until late those nights, until the sun rose up against the hills and they toasted and cheered to greet its arrival. The whole lower city slept late the day after, but Kel dragged her bones out of bed and up to the pages' practice yard.

After years, Kel knew Buri's tricks and tells, her belly-deep laugh. She knew now that when Raoul really struck the impact would shake straight through her weapon and rattle every bone in her body. He liked to ask about her classes, her family, her sparrows and Jump, so she shouldn't have been surprised when he asked her one cold morning what she was thinking of doing next. "Given a little fieldwork," he said, wiping his sweaty face on his sleeve after drills. "You'd make an exemplary bandit hunter."

"She already is one," Owen called from where he'd been panting and eavesdropping, and she glared at him until he waved and hurried off to riding class.

"He's not wrong," Raoul said, smiling at her. "And there's not much more for you to learn here." He waved a hand at the dusty yard around them.

Kel wet her lips. "I was thinking-- the Riders," she said. "I'll be sixteen in a few years, and if I stay here and keep in practice." Slowly growing older than the boys on the other side of the fence-- too tall, too stocky, but somehow still too female, still not enough. 

Raoul nodded, slow. "You'd do well in the Riders," he said.

She nodded mutely, watching her toes and trying to remember her peace.

"You'd do well there," he said, and it was hesitant in a way she'd never heard before, so she looked up. "But the Own could use you. I could use someone like you. If you're interested?"

She lifted her face and saw him standing there, anxious, like he was afraid she might say no. "It'd have to be-- as a standard bearer, or an aide, or something, but you'd see action as much as any of the men. And then if, after two years, you want to join the Riders--"

"I have to-- I have to think," she said, and turned and left him standing there beside the low practice yard fence.

She went out to the stables. She'd known what she wanted since she was seven, kneeling behind her mother amid burning paper and laminated wood. "It's not about the shield," she told herself, and it was as true as she could make it be. "It's not fair but I knew that," she whispered into Peachblossom's side and he blew at her shortly. "What happens to you, if I go, old man?" Her hair was sticking up in sweaty clumps and she pushed it off her forehead. "The Own," she said. "They go out there. It's real. They fight for people, and isn't that the point?" She had almost turned away from this all, once, before any of it had started-- chewing through the word probation on a rivershore until a she had a run in with a spidren and a half-drowned bag of kittens and her mind had made itself up for her.

"Miss Keladry?" said a voice and Kel turned to see Stefan. "So you're leavin' us?"

She blinked at him slowly, trying to let her mind catch up to the question. "I hadn't decided yet," she said. "Lord Raoul..."

"It's just-- the bill of sale," he said. "Peachblossom? He was bought, this morning, in your name-- four years of stabling and feed. He's yours." Kel was standing very still, not moving, so Stefan added, "There's a note-- here."

She unfolded it in her hands. Stefan fed Peachblossom an apple while Kel unfolded it and steadied her breathing. Gods all bless, Lady Kel.

When she stumbled out of the stable, she went to find Neal. She would talk over tea with her mother and father, later, cradling warmth in her palms and trying to lay out all her choices. But she wanted to see Neal now, and listen to his sensible sarcasm, hear him laugh when she took things too seriously.

He opened his door and the flutter in her chest went still for a moment. "What happened?" she said.

"A knight-- a knight came by," he said. She pushed into his room when he didn't usher her in and he turned and followed her inside like a puppet.

"I told you one would."

"She," he said, and Kel's head snapped up.

"The Lioness," she said.

"What other female knight is there?" Neal asked, breathless still, and Kel turned to fiddle with the little waving cat on his desk, her face shuttering closed.

"None," she said.

"Kel," he said.

"You going to take her up on it?"

"Kel, it should have been you," said Neal. "She's-- she's never taken a squire before. If she-- if it was anyone, it should have been you."

"I'm not a squire," she said. "I'm not going to be a squire."

He shook his head, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry, that's all. None of this is fair, and this, I just feel like I'm stealing something from you."

"You're not," she said.

"Someone is," he said.

"But it's not you, so, please, just, don't," she said. She sat on the edge of his rumpled bed. "Lord Raoul asked me to join up with the King's Own, as an aide."

Neal sagged back against his desk and whistled. "Lord Raoul," he said. "An aide, in the Own." He laughed, color flooding back into his cheeks. "Kel, he's basically making you a squire in all but name--"

"All but name," she said.

"Gods, the ruckus this will stir up. The conservatives, Wyldon-- MIthros, even the king."

She shrugged.

"You going to take it?"

She looked at the cat waving from his desk, right beside his hip. "Yes," she said. "I think so."

He was smiling in a long slow slide, like he couldn't help it. "Kel, this is wonderful."

"And what about you?"

"You really don't mind?" he said. "The Lioness..."

"I mind," she said. "But I don't mind you."

"She said she'd teach me healing," Neal said. "More than just the basic stuff the pages get, you know."

His voice was soft and Kel swallowed down a million old jokes about going back to university. Instead she pushed off the bed, grabbed one of his hands in hers, and said, "Neal, that's wonderful."

 -

That summer, she did not walk down the long corridor to the Chamber to try her mettle against it. Not every squire did-- Neal thought it was a silly custom-- but she wasn't a squire.

Kel rode out with the Own not in Silverlake livery but in royal colors like the other men. Laurent hissed and spat about charity cases-- it took one to know one. When they came back to the capital after months of mud in their teeth, the Own went to their barracks, Raoul to his rooms, and Kel to her parents' townhouse.

They had tracked and captured the Haresfield bandits, Kel on the main field, attached to one of Third Company's squadrons as amateur field medic and messenger. Flyn had called it non-combat and snubbed her at firesides, but Kel had cleaned her sword and dagger of other men's blood, after.

Buri had greeted her in the command tent with that same big sharp smile and a warm clasped hand, when Kel came in with messages and missives. Qasim had teased her and passed her boiled eggs or jerky if she got excited and forgot to eat in mornings. He and Dom had teamed up to teach her all of the Own's handsigns, and Dom tried to get her to laugh on their long dusty rides-- but when they reached the capital again Kel left them at the stables, after she'd brushed and fed Hoshi and Peachblossom, and headed down to the city.

Her blisters had gotten blisters, those long months, but they'd all healed over and gone hard and tough in her sturdy shoes. She felt sturdy, with her saddlebags thrown over one shoulder, walking down this same old path from the palace grounds back to her parents' home. The sparrows napped on her shoulders and the perches of her bags, except for the few who had chosen to stay with Hoshi and Peachblossom in the stables and pester Qasim for treats. She had walked this way every day for four years, away from a page training where she had never been welcome.

She wondered what card games Third Company would play tonight, what jokes and stories. She wouldn't miss Wolset's snoring or Lerant's unhappy glare or the constant need to prove herself in the eyes of Flynn and everyone else. Even Raoul-- he was the one who had taken her on and so to him more than most she felt the need to prove her worth.

But they'd wash the road's grime from their faces and feet, flick water and tease the ones who slipped off to meet their sweethearts. They'd drag each other out, cleaned and coiffed. There'd been talk about swimming in the river, on the hottest days of the marches, and Kel wondered if they'd go through with it. Qasim had a favorite pub, with a shy chef who would sneak out to ask him for stories about all the places he had seen that she had only ever heard of. Kel had fought and slept beside them for months, but they'd turned left going out of the stables and she'd turned right. Her feet thudded against the familiar path and she watched pebbles run down the slope before her.

When she got close enough to the townhouse, the sparrows lit off of her in a flurry of beating brown wings. They swooped over the eaves to kitchen garden to rejoin with the larger flock, but Kel took the front door instead and found herself with an armful of teary Lalasa.

"Mistress Kel! Bethy said you'd arrived up at the palace, and oh, look at you, bursting out of every seam like I knew you would." Behind Lalasa, Tian was smiling, and together they both pulled her out into the kitchen garden to look her over in the light. Maids peeked out see her, and the fishmonger's daughter on a delivery, and the local seamstresses who were all trying to steal Lalasa away to their shops-- they poked at her and remarked at her biceps and her new scars, called her pretty and teased her for not writing home more.

"Kel!" Owen came in with a shout from where he'd been working on his etiquette paper in the scullery.

"Don't you have a whole palace to study in?"

He stuck his little blunt nose up in the air. "A growing boy's gotta have wide horizons."

"A growing boy's got to have Cook's teacakes," Lalasa whispered to her. 

"You're all still holding the lessons in the morning?" Kel said, and Lalasa blushed prettily.

"Oh yes," said Gladys. "Lalasa runs them. You should hear her drill sergeant's voice, shakes the rafters."

"Oh, shush, shoo, all of you, Lady Kel needs to clean up and to rest," Lalasa said, flapping her hands at the gathered crowd-- and they went. Lalasa blushed a bit more and then shoved Kel through the halls towards a hot bath and a fresh set of clothes. "They won't fit right," she said mournfully, but Kel turned and took her hands warmly in hers. Steam rose from the tub and she could smell lemon and lavender.

"It's perfect," she said. "Thank you."

She asked Lord Raoul why, once-- why he had taken her on. Why he had shown up to dawn practice for years, on the other side of that low fence, and tried to make her laugh. She flicked the beads of the abacus, juggling budgets and supplies in her head while she waited for his answer.

"There's more than one kind of warrior," said Raoul finally. Sixty pallets of dried venison, Kel thought, while Raoul talked about soldiers, knights, and Alanna the Lioness. Twenty five cases of clean bandages, she thought, and Raoul said, "Commanders, good ones, they're as rare as heroes. Commanders have an eye not just for what they do, but for what those around them do."

Raoul picked up a quill and toyed with it. Sewing kits, emergency water rations, twenty-five sacks of flour. "You've shown flashes of being a commander. I've seen it. My job is to see if you will do more than flash, with the right training. The realm needs commanders. Tortall is big. We have too many still-untamed pockets, too cursed many hideyholes for rogues, and plenty of hungry enemies to nibble at our borders and our seafaring trade. If you have what it takes, the Crown should use you. We're too desperate for good commanders to let one slip away, even a female one. Now, finish that"-- he pointed to the slate-- "and you can stop for tonight."

"Yes, sir," she said.

"I don't know if we deserve you, Kel," he said, as she packed up to leave. "Tortall hasn't done right by you, over and over, but we need you." She stood in the door of the tent, gripping her papers and not speaking. "As long as you are willing to fight for us, as long as I can, I will give you a place to stand and do so."

"Thank you, sir."

"No, thank you, Kel. Sleep well."

She didn't, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

 -

On the progress, Raoul knocked conservatives out of their saddles when they challenged him, but it was Lerant who helped him into his armor. Kel helped Flyn argue logistics and housing with the progress quartermasters, standing shoulder to stubborn shoulder. She didn't ever learn to joust, which seemed a rather silly pastime to her, but in her third year with the Own, Raoul taught her how to do that speedy, efficient stitch of his, and Qasim taught her how to walk quieter over leaves and broken ground, and she taught all Third Company a few moves with the glaive.

She raced Hoshi against speedy Bazhir horses while Peachblossom nibbled dry delicacies of desert grass. She buried Crown and Freckle in Persepolis. Yuki watched Neal across rooms, and Neal watched Yuki, and neither of them were driven to poetry.

Third Company built the yet-unnamed Fort Giantkiller up in the frigid north. The raiders were getting bolder, and more unified. Kel got kicked off construction duty early on, so Flyn snapped her up for logistics and scouting details.

Earthquakes, fires, bandits, pirates, hard winters-- Kel's shoulders were filling out further, her equipment getting caked with dust and mud from every corner of Tortall.

The leaves turned color again and Kel buried herself in an audit of all of Third Company's gear. Raoul settled down beside her with a sigh and she kept the count of arrows going in the back of her head. "Four years," he said. "If you were a squire, I'd be sorry to see you go now."

Lalasa had gotten her hands on Kel's King's Own livery, stitched them up to fit her perfectly. She stood under their weight now, willing her hands not to curl into fists. "Sorry, sir," she said. "That's kind, and all, but I think I'd rather have my shield."

"I didn't mean--"

"That's alright. Excuse me, sir."

They headed back to Corus the next week. Raoul had reports to deliver in person, and Kel wanted to see Neal step out of that Chamber as a living knight. Her first stop when she got home was her parents' house: for tea in the drawing room, and cookies and storytelling in the kitchen garden. Her second was Neal's rooms, just off Lady Alanna's. She and Yuki plied him with games and favorite foods, and tried to distract their friend and his tendency to overthink.

The morning of Neal's Ordeal, Kel arrived at the Chamber's waiting room before the sun rose. She had never been there before, never pressed her hands up against the cold stone door and asked for nightmares. She sat in the back, with Owen, but at the front of the room a stout red-haired woman waited, silent. Kel watched the back of Alanna the Lioness's head and tried not to wonder, tried not to want the things she had already failed to earn. The stone bench was cold under her thighs.

"Neal will be fine," Owen whispered to her. "Right? I mean."

"Holding his tongue for a whole night?" Kel whispered back, squeezing the young squire's hand as comfortingly as she could. "It's gonna be tough, but I think he can do it."

When Neal stumbled out of the Chamber-- pale, shaken, but alive-- alive-- Alanna was the first up, with a blanket and some low comment that made Neal snicker. She squeezed his hand on top of the wool.

"Sir Meathead," said Dom, grinning from the second row. Things were curling and curdling in Kel's gut-- pride, relief, and a festering of exhausted, bitter jealousy.

"You next," she told Owen, trying badly to hold a smile, but everyone else was smiling too hard to notice where she failed.

 -

In Neal's first year as a knight and Kel's fifth year with the Own, the war began in earnest. Stormwings circled the long ranks of men and supply wagons as they rumbled north, and Kel met a stableboy named Tobeis Boon. She'd never have a dowry, but she had years of wages and she bought Tobe's freedom while Neal healed him up and Peachblossom stood guard. 

"Taking in strays?" Raoul asked, raising a careful eyebrow with it.

"I learned from the best, sir," she said. "You going to help me talk Flyn down about the lad, or not?"

"I suppose Third Company could always use another standard bearer," Raoul said.

She grinned. "Lerant can take him on as a trainee."

She didn't have Haven holding her back from chasing down Blayce the Nothing Man-- but she had never met the Chamber and it had never told her the Nothing Man was her job. She was one more soldier marching between the supply wagons, leaving long even tracks through the sludge and muck. Whenever Raoul could manage it, he'd lead the Own off to scout afield from the trudging ranks.

Kel was assigned to Dom and Wolset's squad-- an "aide" officially still, she couldn't be promoted to anything, but in a fight Wolset and the others looked to her for direction. They fought a couple skirmishes from Giantkiller (the sight of Raoul's face upon hearing the fort's official name was something Kel would cherish forever), but then they were assigned on to help found an unnamed refugee camp a half day's ride away. Tobe went where Kel went, and Raoul sent Lerant along with them "to continue standard bearer training," which mostly meant learning his letters and eating full meals. When Tobe had nightmares he found Kel, and when he had questions he tended to find Lerant.

Wyldon had made Neal commander of the camp, to the confusion of everyone but Kel. "It's because you're kind," she said.

"What," said Neal. "I'm not kind. What is this slander? And this is the Stump-- he's not going to care if I'm kind. He's going to care if I'm-- obedient. And dead on the inside. That's why he's doing this-- he's trying to kill me, have you seen this paperwork?"

Kel, who was already halfway through Neal's stacks of paperwork-- putting them into piles of "trash," "not time sensitive," and "regarding something that is literally on fire, right now"--said, "He wants someone here who cares about the people. Who isn't going to call them 'commoners' and just dally and dream about the glory of the war front. You'll do the work, and he respects you for that."

"You live in a weird fantasy world," Neal told her.

Dom got her banned from any construction work, so she signed herself (and Neal, too) up for extra latrine duty. She took sentry watches, joined the patrols, and got assigned crossbow and combat training duties. Neal worked at setting up both the camp and its infirmary, dogging the steps of the head healer until the woman kicked him back to his study. "You need aides," Kel told him, and then found out that what she was actually looking for was something miraculous and extraordinary called clerks.

She met Fanche in the dusty lane outside one of the barracks, where the woman managed to have a yelling match with Neal in which neither of them raised their voices above short, cutting snipes. Kel stood on the sidelines with a fellow who introduced himself as Saefas and who confided, "I'm going to marry that woman."

"Oh, good," said Kel. "One of these days I'm likely to strangle him."

Kel went walking in the evenings, just like she had through the libraries and hidey-holes of the palace at home. When she found raised voices, she listened and stepped in where she could. When she found raised fists, she stopped them using her drill sergeant voice if she could and her hands if she couldn't. "You need a council for each of the housing blocks," she told Neal. "Elected judges, something like that. They've got grievances and you can't answer them all, no matter how many clerks we find you."

"And you can't answer them all, no matter how many strolls you go on, whistling," he said. "Go find some Scanrans to kill, Kel, I've got this."

There were children here the way there weren't in Giantkiller. Tobe looked so much like a very small old man sometimes that when she first saw him racing through the main square with Loesia and Gydo Kel barely recognized him. He would still barely let her out of his sight for more than a few hours, and he'd gotten no better at asking for things he needed, but he cornered her at one breakfast to explain that Loesia and Gydo wanted to learn how to fight.

Kel thought about her latrine duty and Neal's meetings with his new clerks and her nightly walks, listening for trouble, and how little time she had to sleep. She thought about being twelve, on the wrong side of the practice yard fence. "The first hour before dawn," she told him.

Whenever Third Company had made its berth in Corus, Kel would get up in the early mornings and make her way out to the kitchen courtyard. She always meant to lurk in the back and stretch out her limbs, but Lalasa would drag her to the front, smiling, and introduce her to every new young woman. Kel tried and failed to learn all their names and livelihoods, but Lalasa knew every one. Owen, who remained an unattached squire at the palace until the war started in earnest and he became an unattached squire at Giantkiller, had been Lalasa's demo partner for years.

Loesia and Gydo were smaller than anyone Kel had ever taught. As she moved between them in chill morning air, adjusting stances and giving advice, she tried to decide if it made her miss Lalasa less or more.

When her squad was called back to Giantkiller, Kel thought about leaving Tobe with Neal, but the kid refused. "It's safer here," she told him. "And you'll get to stay with your friends."

"It's safer with you," he said and Kel sighed and told him to pack his things. She didn't want him trying to trek on foot from Haven to Giantkiller in the dark of night if she left him behind.

She found him housing with the stable boys at Giantkiller and left Peachblossom and Hoshi to his care. Dom told her over a shared sentry watch that Tobe had taken it upon himself to look after the rest of the squad's horses, too. "If they were cats, they'd purr when he stepped into the stable, but instead they just get snot on our shirts."

She had missed the rest of Third Company, who welcomed them back with equal parts insults and warmly squeezed shoulders. Wolset dug up some rye from some friend of a friend, and she and Lerant ended up giggling into each other's shoulders while Dom tried to hold a tune.

 -

Neal was at Giantkiller, delivering reports, when the news came-- Haven had been overrun. Passersby had seen the smoke rising and sent word on to the fort. Neal packed his bags with hands that shook, and Raoul sent Dom's squad with him to assess the damage. Kel and Tobe fought with hissed whispers in the stables until she got him to stay in Giantkiller with Lerant. "I don't want you seeing this, okay? You don't need this, kiddo. Please, for me, stay here."

"C'mon, Boon," said Lerant. "I've got a hundred gauntlets to clean and mend, come help me out."

Kel couldn't imagine, as they rode down that long empty path and listened ahead for ambushes, what use they would be when they got there. "We can bury them," Dom said when she brought it up at the fire that night. "Bear witness."

"We should have been there," she whispered. "Dom, the children-- I taught them how to fight and then I went back to my big sturdy walls and trained patrols and war mages who can do more than light a candle--"

"Kel."

"They deserved better," said Neal, who Kel hadn't realized was close enough to hear them.

"Not from you, Meathead," said Dom. "They deserved better from the commanders and the Crown and all the rest, but not from you, okay? You did everything you could."

"Not enough." 

"Get some sleep, both of you," Dom said. "I'm both of your elder here, alright?" Kel shrugged and went off to lay out her bedroll in the dark.

They came upon Haven early the next morning and Kel could hardly say its name; it felt like a jinx on her tongue or some sort of cruel joke she'd unwittingly delivering the punchline for. Like Dom said, they buried bodies. They bore witness to the burned-out, mute stories of dozens of deaths-- the unmarked Scanran bodies that lay around the body of a healing mage who had always fought with Neal over treatments; songbirds curled up in the eyesockets of dead killing devices; a corporal Kel had hated curled over a young brewer's apprentice she'd taught to hold to a bow; craftsmen who had built Haven's walls and cooks that had filled its bellies and stubborn hotheads who had given Neal so many headaches.

They dug through wreckage, dug deep trenches, and Kel kept count in the back of her head. "Neal," she said, when her numbers kept coming up wrong, because Neal wasn't keeping count of anything. "Neal, they're not all here. Neal, the civilians-- the children-- we aren't finding the bodies."

"Do you think they got away?" said Neal, but Kel was already shaking her head.

Their orders were clear-- clean up, bury the dead, report back to Giantkiller. There was a war on, and any Haven captives would be far into Scanran territory by now. This was a tragedy, but there was a war on and they were meant to be knights, not nursemaids, not shepherds or heroes.

They cleaned up. They buried their dead. They rode back towards Giantkiller and found twists of red yarn along the way, plucked from Meech's balding doll.

"Neal," Kel said, when she dismounted to pick up the first red breadcrumb. "You go on ahead with the soldiers. We've got some Own business, don't we, boys?"

Wolset had dismounted, too. "Yes, sir, Lady Kel."

Dom looked around at his squad. "Volunteer mission only." Every man nodded and made no step to move on.

"I'm coming, too," said Neal.

"You've got to report back to Wyldon," said Kel. "Get the injured home. And it's treason if you go, but Lord Raoul will back us up. If nothing else, we can't let the Scanrans get materiel for a hundred new killing devices. He'll understand."

"Well, Wyldon will have to, too," Neal snapped, and it was a sign of his shellshock that together Kel and Dom managed to bully him into riding on. They made it all the way to the river border with Scanra before Neal caught up-- with Owen, Lerant, and Tobe in tow.

"You try talking them into staying home," he told Kel when she nearly glared a hole through him.

"I won't go back," Tobe said when she turned to him. The Own were trying to hide their snickers around her. "And I can help with the horses."

Neal and his Whisper Man connections got them over the river, and the motley crew of Own soldiers, knight, squire, aide, and standard bearers crept through the empty countryside. It was land like this, ravaged and abandoned, that Neal's refugees had come from-- the same land, just on the other side of the river.

Every step of the way, they found signs of the refugees fighting back. When they found the adults, they got weapons into their hands and headed on to find their children. A peculiar seer child, the last child left in all of Blayce's home domain, said something about a prophecy, but Kel had never heard the Chamber hand her this mission. Fanche spat and sharpened her weapons. Dom napped in every spare moment, and Tobe whispered to the horses while Lerant shivered and complained of the cold.

Kel caught Lerant's arm, before they went up to the keep, and said, "Keep an eye on him in there."

Lerant scowled at her and it was so familiar an expression she almost smiled. "The kid's not just yours, anymore."

"I know," she said. "Thank you."

They snuck up to the keep through dark paths and illusory stone. When they found Haven's children they barely recognized them, clean and coiffed, but they got them shoes, and weapons, and fought their way out. When it was all over-- Blayce dead, and Stenmun, too-- they left the enemy dead for the Stormwings. Neal healed wounds and counted heads, but Kel led them home.

 -

Three months later, after Neal's pardon and the convicts' too, the king called Kel for an audience and she went. Tobe refused to let her go anywhere without him, so she dragged him south with her and left him to be fed, prodded, and mended in the hands of Lalasa and her parents.

She wasn't sure what Jon wanted-- if she was getting a condemnation or a commendation-- but it turned out to be a medal and an invitation to face the Ordeal.

"How gracious of your majesty," said Kel, which was something like a yes.

"I don't think anyone could argue with that decision, after your service in the north."

"Oh," said Kel. "I'm sure they still will, your majesty."

On her way out of the room, Wyldon caught her elbow and she let him. He had been hovering the back of the chamber, listening with his face full of something she didn't bother identifying.

"I was stubborn, Mindelan," said Wyldon, and she could tell it was like pulling teeth. "I should have listened to the voice of honor."

He had more to say, curdling in his gut, she could tell, but she shrugged and moved past him. "My life should never have depended on the quality of your honor, sir," she said and went on through the gates and out to the city.

 -

They had her re-take the page end-of-year examinations for all the ones she missed. "Missed," she said, as she repeated the news back at Giantkiller with a quite shake. Neal threw an arm around her shoulders.

"Ha, but you're still barely older than I was when I took them," he said. "Standing among all those children, reciting conjugations over the tops of their heads-- are your sympathies for me soaring?"

"No," she said, but she squeezed his hand.

She passed with flying colors, of course, returned for a few weeks from the ongoing war. Most of Third Company stayed in the north, but conflict was sparser with the loss of the killing devices, so Raoul came to Corus, too, with Dom, Neal, and Lerant in tow. Owen had seized Neal very seriously before they rode out and told him, "You cheer so loud for her, when she gets that shield."

Like in other lifetimes, Raoul was one of her knight mentors for the vigil before the Ordeal. Wyldon came to her to offer to be the other, but she turned him down, and the king, too. She asked Neal, instead, and he had the audacity to be surprised by it.

"If you survive the Ordeal of Knighthood, you will be a Knight of the Realm. You will be sworn to protect those weaker than you, to obey your king, to live in a way that honors your kingdom and your gods. To wear the shield of a knight is an important thing. You may not ignore a cry for help. It means that rich and poor, young and old, male and female may look to you for rescue, and you cannot deny them..."

Kel sat through that long, cold vigil thinking of the realm-- that dusty word that sounded in people's mouths. She had ridden its hills and valleys with the Own, from mountain to shining sea. She had filled the larders of tiny villages with venison, leaned into Peachblossom's shoulder as they shifted ruined timbers after fires and earthquakes, seen men bleed out on dry soil.

She knew the mountains, and she knew the scared, fierce refugees she had led back across its border. She knew the dusty streets of the Tortallan capital, and she knew the seamstresses and carpenters and fishmongers and blacksmiths' apprentices who walked them. She had known for a long time who and what she was fighting for. When she stepped into the Chamber, darkness fell around her and she tried to hold on to that.

It was still a nightmare machine, and she still spat that name in its face, scared-certain she would not leave it alive and bitterly angry about it. She had had so many more nightmares, now, this protector of the small. She would not be going off to war with the paint still wet on her shield, and she recognized all the fears the Chamber was laying at her feet.

It took her to the top of the tree outside Fort Giantkiller, and it brought the wind while she clung white-knuckled to the branches. It dropped her in the canyon, twelve again but this time tongue-tied, trembling, to watch Faleron get an arrow to his right eye-- Merric fall with an axe in his spine-- Owen bleed out in the dirt--

She was walking Haven's streets again, but this time they were her people-- not just living in walls she had defended and abandoned, not just faces whose names were on the tip of her tongue-- she felt like she carried all their stories and their squabbles, like she'd stood on a box in the eating hall and given them a speech about how she would keep them safe. They were her children and her clerks and her convicts, her burden and her ball-and-chain-- except where were the children, where--

In the halls of Blayce's hold, she saw Neal hit ground, silent and slack-faced in death. She plucked the bodies of sparrows from the blinded eyes of killing devices. Fanche took five arrows in the stomach before she went down to her knees, then her hands, then her side, curses bubbling red from her lips. Jump lunged for a killing device and Kel was too small-- her hands fragile on weighted weapons-- her reach all wrong--

She was standing on the wrong side of the low practice yard fence, her grip white-knuckled on her mother's borrowed walking stick. "Was I not clear, probationer?" Wyldon demanded. Answers swarmed over her tongue. Her fingers ached.

She was clinging white-knuckled to a tree, too high above a wide featureless plain to be able to survive the fall. She was no good at letting go of things, but it didn't matter-- everyone got tired, even Keladry of Mindelan. Anyone's hands could weaken. Anyone could be ripped from their high perch and die frightened, dashed down onto hard dirt and cold stone. What would it look like, when they pulled open the doors of the Chamber?

The wind screamed in her ears, and she closed her eyes. She did not scream back.

Are you trying to make me afraid? she thought. I am afraid, I have always been afraid--

The streets of Haven, silent; the whispering of bullies in the library; her feet pressed together in Wyldon's office, that last day of that first year; Dom going down in the forest with an arrow to the shoulder, the first killing device stalking out of the shadows--

I am afraid because they matter, and I am small. There are so many ways I could be stronger, but I'm not. There are so many ways I could be braver, but I'm not. I will fear and I will regret, but I owe none of that to you.

She was no good at letting go of things, and she had sunk her fingers into this life, dug in her heels, roped herself to the mast of the ship and refused to plug her ears with wax. The wind screamed in her ears, the tree whipping back and forth. The ground was so far below. She remembered her brother holding her over the balcony, on a sunny childhood afternoon he didn't even remember now. She remembered. She had been afraid for so long.

I did everything I could, she thought. I fought with everything I had, and it was enough, gods damn it. I was good enough. I was better than enough.

You can kill me here, you ugly bit of stone, and they will think it means that girls aren't meant to be knights. But I know, and you know, and gods I hope the girls in the city know-- that we belong here.

She had killed the Nothing Man. She had not given up on the Haven people-- she had gone after them, over rivers and through stone, and she had brought them home safe. She had sweated four years on the same beaten-down dirt as the pages, performed every drill, parry, and strike. She had saved a bag of kittens from a spidren. She had had her mornings in the kitchen garden, in the pale light, and those would go on and on without her.

You can kill me, she thought. But nothing I did will die. It was enough. It was everything I had, and it was always enough. Loesia whipping a spear in front of her, like a glaive, like she'd spent dozens of pre-dawn hours practicing that smooth downward stroke. Lalasa in her shop, pins in her mouth and her hands busy. Tobe tucked up at a desk with Lerant, both of them leaning over his slow careful letters. Her mother's low voice and her father's steady hands and Raoul a lump in the curtains at formal events-- Buri standing outside the pages' practice yard, back when Kel still had to look up to meet her eyes. Meech chasing after Gydo's ankles and Fanche with her hands on her hips; Dom cooking bacon over the fire and Jump waiting at his feet. She had fought for these things. She had gotten to see them, to live in their warmth.

I am afraid, she thought. She let go.

The tree vanished, and the wide plain, and the wind. Kel was in a still, dark room made of big stones. The grimacing face carved into the back of the door said You did well and she spat at its feet. Its laughter still ringing soundlessly in her skull, the door swung open and she stepped out into the light.

She stepped out and the realm was waiting in the antechamber-- Raoul dabbing his eyes, Neal and Dom with Jump at their feet. Fanche was scratching Jump's ears and Saefas was smiling beside Kel's beaming mother and father.

When she got back to Fort Giantkiller and the new refugee camp they were building down the river, there would be cheering in the streets-- ex-convicts and refugees, King's Own and soldiers, nobles and knights-- but for now there was Gladys and Tian, leaping to their feet. There were Corus fishmongers' daughters and seamstresses and priestesses of the Black God who had been apprentices when she first met them in herb-heavy morning light. Here was everything she had spat in the Chamber's face, everything she had prayed for in that long cold vigil, everything she had stood for in that practice yard dirt, ready to fight forever for something they told her she could not ever earn.

Lalasa sat at the very front, her fingers pressed up over her teary smile. Kel was smiling back, shivering, when Tobe hit her sternum with a thud. "I knew you'd make it," he muttered, squeezing her tight, so she wrapped her arms around his still growing frame and lied, "Me, too."

There was a soft touch at her elbow, so she lifted her head from where she was pressing her face into Tobe's soft hair.

A short, red-headed woman was standing in front of her, so proud her grin nearly split her face. Kel stared down at her, one arm still around Tobe, part of her heart still twelve beside the practice yard fence and sure the Lioness would have done better.

Alanna squeezed Kel's elbow gently and said, "Gods all bless, Lady Knight."