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call me a fool

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She knows the moment that she sees her father waiting in her dormitory. His face is grey in pallor, his eyes red-rimmed, and he has deep shadows under his eyes and lines that weren’t there the last time she saw him. His tunic and loose breeches are black velvet.

The books tumble out of her arms, crashing into a loose jumble the floor—Healing texts, mostly, but a few histories, and just one or two romances.

“No,” she whispers, her face crumpling. “Is it Graeme? Or is it Cathal?”

The Immortals War feels farther away than it is. Nealann of Queenscove, the eldest daughter of Duke Baird of Queenscove, is a student at the Royal University in Corus. The immortals—or most of them—rarely come into the city, and for her the war is a matter of listening for the alarms and taking cover when needed. She knows that it is only illusion, and she knows that her brothers are on the front lines of the war, but she never really thought—she never really considered—

“Who is it?” she demands, her voice picking up shrilly, not bothering to lean down to pick up her books. Her books can wait. She has to know.

Her father only shakes his head and it’s there. It’s all there, written in his face and silence.

“No,” she gasps, feeling her world tilting around her. It can’t be both. She could barely stomach the loss of one of them, of either Graeme or Cathal, but both? “No, no, no!

Her father crosses the space between them in a few long steps, catching her as her knees tremble and give out on her, tucking her head under his chin as she sobs into the black velvet of his tunic.

She, Graeme, and Cathal had been the closest of her siblings. Jessa had come so much later, almost six years later, that Nealann has always chased after her big brothers. There was Graeme, staid and steady who always managed to charm extra dessert from the cooks for his sister, and there was Cathal, who teased her mercilessly but always found a way for them to sneak out of lessons. They were a unit, the three of them. Even when they went to Corus, and her brothers were busy with knight-training while she studied Healing at the University, they had made efforts to see each other. She had visited the Palace at least once every few weeks to see them or her father, and they had taken every free afternoon they could get to slip into the City to see her.

It hadn’t been that long ago that they were in her favourite eating-house together. She had told them about the new boy that she was seeing, Anton of Tierney, who was handsome and witty and all the things that she liked, and they had exchanged a look. It was one of those older-brotherly looks that Nealann still had no trouble deciphering, one that said that they would be looking into this, and Nealann had pretended to miss it because they did it with everyone she dated. And, inevitably, Anton of Tierney would go the way of Yvon d’Artois, and Kassam Moumir, and Elliott of Pawn’s Lake, and Nealann would pretend to be mad at her brothers but she wouldn’t be, not really. Successfully dating Nealann of Queenscove means being able to stand up to Graeme and Cathal of Queenscove, and Nealann wouldn’t have it any other way.

It had only been six weeks ago. Only six weeks ago, and her brothers had been alive, happy, and smiling with her.

“Annie,” her father murmurs into her hair. “I’m sorry, Annie. By the time I got to them—there was nothing I could do. I’m so sorry.”

She doesn’t answer. There are too many tears for answers.

The summer is awful. Worse than awful; Graeme and Cathal are buried on Queenscove grounds, under a tree that Nealann helped to choose, but the reminders of them are everywhere. She turns a corner in the garden, and she faces the bushes that she and Cathal once lay under, hiding from their tutor who was insistent that they learn their letters and numbers. She walks into the courtyard, and she sees the open field where Graeme taught her the hand-to-hand defences that he learned at page-training—just in case she ever needed it, he said then. She is walking up the back steps into the keep, when she remembers that Cathal had once fallen down these stairs and broken his arm, and that the first time she had healed anyone it was her brother.

The indoors are even worse. They keep Graeme’s and Cathal’s rooms as they are, and her mother walks into them every other day, weeping while she runs her hands over their things. Her father shuts himself in silence and work: taking care of the household accounts, meeting with the townspeople, carrying out the duties of the Duke of Queenscove. Even Jessa, who is too young to have known Graeme or Cathal the way that the rest of the family knew them, seems to have caught the grim mood of the manor, and she secludes herself in her rooms with books for days on end. Graeme and Cathal are everywhere, from the pieces of themselves they have left behind, to the imprints they have left on everyone in the keep.

Nealann has bigger problems. Without Graeme and without Cathal, the duchy of Queenscove will now fall to her. She is the heiress of Queenscove, a weight that is so heavy that she has no idea how Graeme ever shouldered it.

She isn’t Graeme. She isn’t Cathal. She isn’t even a boy.

But, she thinks, she can still be a knight.

Wyldon of Cavall’s study is as stern as her brothers have always told her. His desk is deep brown, heavily polished and far neater than any desk has a right to be. Nealann’s own desk, both at home and in her old dorms, is stacked high with books, class notes, letters, quills, and ink in a dozen different shades; the Lord Cavall’s has only a blotter, two quills, a well of black ink, and a stack of paper so neat that Nealann thinks they must have been measured by a sliderule. To one side of the room, a matching sideboard holds a carefully arranged array of glasses and a pitcher of ice water.

The man sitting at the desk across from her is as stern and formal as his study would suggest. His tunic fits him exactly, in black; Nealann can’t help but wonder who he has lost in the war. His hair, once a light brown, is streaked with grey, and his mouth is perpetually turned downwards, tight in sorrow. Without knowing it, his hand reaches to rub his arm, where the rumours have said that he was raked by a hurrok in the War. Nealann could probably help with that, if she were of a mind to help, but she isn’t.

Instead, when she studies him, she can only think: he really is the Stump. Cathal’s name rings true, not that Nealann ever thought that it wouldn’t. Among Cathal’s many gifts had come a certain sly sort of disobedience that she had found entertaining and Graeme, exasperating.

“Lady Queenscove,” the Training Master says, inclining his head slightly, and she can’t help but be impressed at his lack of reaction to her manner of dress. She had cut her hair only that morning, two feet of chestnut waves falling to ground, and she is wearing Cathal’s old training clothes because he is closer to her shape than Graeme. Her resemblance to her brothers is plain, but she isn’t them. She has Cathal’s pointed nose, and Graeme’s winged eyebrows, but her full lips frozen in grief are entirely her own.

The Training Master doesn’t comment. “My most sincere condolences for your losses. The realm mourns your brothers with you; two finer knights would be difficult to find. How many I assist you?”

Cathal hadn’t even been a knight, not yet. Only seventeen, he was still a squire. But Nealann only nods, dismissive.

“I thank you for your words,” she says, and her voice is creakier than she remembers. There is no lightness to it, none of the playfulness that she had once used to tease her brothers. “My lord Cavall, I am here to submit my candidature for page training.”

Awkward silence stretches out between them. The Training Master leans back, studying her, and Nealann stiffens her back. His gaze is not unkind, but he doesn’t seem to know what to make of her. That’s fine; these days, she barely knows what to make of herself.

“I understand that you were very close to your brothers,” he says finally, and if there is a hint of kindness in the man, Nealann thinks she found it. Cathal would have laughed until he cried. “Take my advice, Lady Queenscove. Go home and grieve, and my best wishes go with you.”

“No,” she says, her mouth twisting stubbornly. It has always been like this—once Nealann decides on a course, it is the one that she will take, by the Goddess. “Queenscove needs a knight, and if it cannot be Graeme or Cathal, then it must be me. King Jonathan’s decree of ten years ago stated clearly that girls could submit their candidature and train to become knights. That is what I am doing.”

“And I am making allowances for your grief.” Lord Wyldon glares at her, and his voice is stone cold and stiff. “Even aside from your sex, you are fifteen years old, Lady Queenscove. Becoming a knight was not in your plans.”

“Circumstances change,” Nealann snaps, her brows creasing. “When my brothers—my brothers—"

Wyldon continues as if she had not interrupted. “Knight training is not something that one does on a whim. It is long hours, hard work—easily as difficult as your university studies. Go home, Lady Queenscove. I understand your worries for your House, but if Queenscove needs a knight, that knight need not be you. There are many good knights, I am sure, who would both suit you well and who would make an excellent future Duke of Queenscove.”

Nealann’s lips move into a scowl. No one could ever replace Graeme. Even Cathal would have struggled to fill his shoes, let alone Nealann, but a nameless, faceless knight? Especially one that wins the duchy simply because he has the good fortune to marry her?

The thought is unbearable.

“Do I need to involve my godmother and the King?” she says eventually, her voice dripping with ice. “The law is clear. Girls may train as knights, and that is what I intend to do.”

“I welcome it,” Lord Wyldon replies with a slow nod and rub at his arm. “And I pray Mithros will show you wisdom in your grief. Have a very good day, Lady Queenscove.”

It is easier to say that she will involve her godmother and the King than it is to actually do so. Involving them necessarily involves her father, and Baird of Queenscove is, while never a conservative, distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of Nealann training to become a knight. Even Sir Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, sitting across the table beside her father, is looking uncertain. The King on her father’s other side is frowning in thought, and there is clearly more on his mind than the others.

“Annie,” her father tries, his voice pleading. “Give it a year, at least. I know you were close to your brothers, but they would have wanted you to live the life that you always wanted to live. Return to the university, or you can take some time off to grieve. Your brothers’ deaths don’t mean you have to change everything.”

“It’s Neal now,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Not Annie. Neal.”

“Neal, then.” Her father sighs, running one hand through his hair. “Think this through. Queenscove can do without a knight. I’m not a knight. Your brothers might have thought knighthood the greatest service they could give the Crown, but you aren’t them. You don’t need to be them.”

“I have thought this through,” Nealann replies stiffly. This isn’t really about Queenscove—she might say it is, and on some level maybe it is about Queenscove, but it’s more about her brothers. And it’s less that she needs to be more like them than it is that she wants to be like them, and it’s less about her duty to her House than it is about her personal, her private duty to her brothers.

Her brothers had loved and protected her throughout her entire life. She doesn’t know how to live without them—she doesn’t know how to live with the weight of the future of Queenscove on her thin shoulders. It was always supposed to be Graeme, with Cathal at his side and Nealann the family mage and Healer flitting in and out on her own whims. It was never supposed to be her. It was always supposed to be them.

She owes it to her brothers to try this, she thinks—she owes it to them to try living in their shoes. She owes it to them to try to be everything. For Queenscove, but most of all for them. For all three of them.

“I have thought this through,” she reiterates again, glaring at the three adults sitting across the table from her. “Graeme taught me the hand-to-hand combat the pages get, and Cathal always made me sign up for the self-defence classes at the university. Alanna taught me the basics of swordplay, and I practiced with Graeme and Cathal, too. I can ride and shoot. Why not me?”

“Because—” her father stops, not seeming to know how to react to her flawless logic, and turns to her godmother. “Alanna, talk some sense into her, please.”

Her godmother studies Nealann for a minute. Alanna is wearing practice clothes today, and it is clear she has just come from the practice courts. Her hair is pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and stray red curls float in wisps around her face. Her violet eyes are serious but considering.

“Neal, knight-training is a serious endeavour,” she says slowly. “It’s not something to throw yourself in without careful thought. I wanted to be a knight for years before I went into training. Your brothers did too, but it isn’t what you wanted. I know because I hoped once that you would—”

“Circumstances change,” Nealann spits out, interrupting. She has said this before, and she knows she will probably be repeating this for years to come. “I want to follow in your footsteps now, Alanna—why are you holding it against me that I’m late about it?”

“I’m not,” Alanna replies, with a small shake of her head. “Of course, Neal, if it’s what you want to do now, I’ll support you, but I don’t want you trying this and quitting after a month, do you understand? If you do this, I want you to be all in on it, just as you were at the University—not quitting when it doesn’t go your way, because it won’t always go your way. All in, just as your brothers were.”

“I will be,” Nealann promises easily, and she knows her promise is true. She can’t quit—once committed, what would she say to the shades of her brothers if she quit? It would be more shameful and embarrassing than if she never tried. “I swear it. By the Goddess, Alanna.”

“Alanna!” Her father snaps, betrayed. “Jonathan, surely—"

It is a great honour that the Queenscoves have the ear of the king, to the point of referring to him by name. It’s an honour that Nealann intends to ensure that her House maintains for generations to come. The House of Queenscove will stand beside the Conté kings, in service from the knightly ranks through the mage ranks, even if Nealann has to be everything.

King Jonathan IV of Tortall holds up a hand, hushing her father. “There are other considerations,” he says, pulling a sheet of parchment from his breast pocket. “I received this letter from Mindelan today. The Baron Piers has written and advised that his daughter Keladry of Mindelan also wishes to train for knighthood.”

Alanna leans forward, her violet eyes widening. “Mindelan? The ambassador to the Yamani Islands?”

“Yes.” Jonathan nods, a small, thoughtful movement, sliding the parchment across the table towards Alanna, who grabs it and skims it for herself. “You all know that Cavall is a conservative. He will not be inclined to uphold the decree of ten years ago. I can push him to an extent, but he is a valued voice at Court for conservative nobles. We cannot remove him, not without risking conservative support on our other projects. But if Nealann wishes to train for knighthood, then the picture becomes quite different.”

“Mindelan is only a barony,” Alanna says, the light of understanding in her violet eyes. “A Book of Copper family, at that. Queenscove is a duchy, of the Book of Gold, one of the four houses on the shield of Tortall, and Nealann is the heiress. Cavall can say no to Mindelan, but he can’t say no to Queenscove. Especially not when Queenscove lost two in the War.”

“I’ll do it,” Nealann says instantly. She would have done it for herself anyway, getting her way with sheer stubbornness, but another girl who needs her to throw the weight of her name behind something that they both want? It makes it easier for her too, and one more girl in a mess of boys will be welcome.

“Jonathan, you cannot seriously be asking me—” Her father threw his hands up, his jaw working. “I do not want my daughter training for knighthood!”

The king looks at her father, blue eyes intense. “But your daughter wishes knighthood for herself, does she not? Whatever her reasons, she intends on carrying through, and someone must carve the path of knighthood for women. If we want our tradition of Lady Knights to return, we cannot only have one. We must have many. Queenscove has always given to the Crown, Baird, and this is a time of peace. Won’t you consider it?”

Nealann sees her father’s jaw work, and she knows without saying that if the Contés require it, Queenscove will give. It is what her father has always done, it is what she knows Graeme would have done, and it is what she will do one day. The Queenscoves are loyal to a fault, and the Queenscoves serve.

“Very well, Your Majesty,” her father says eventually, and Nealann knows the use of the title is a pointed dagger. It is a sign that the Crown has asked for too much this time, and while her father might agree, he is doing so under duress. “If that is all, I have patients I must see to. Excuse me.”

He doesn’t wait for a response but, in the greatest show of anger that Nealann has ever seen her notoriously even-keeled father show, he stands up and walks out with barely a bow. The door slams shut after him, and the pause in the room afterwards is thick and tangible.

“Well,” Jonathan says with a sigh, turning to Nealann. “I might have made a powerful enemy, but there it is. Make the chance worth it, Nealann of Queenscove.”

The dismissal is plain, and Nealann rises from her chair. “I will. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Don’t worry about your father. I’ll sort it out, and we’ll talk later. He’s just worried about you. If this is what you want to do, then I’ll back you, Neal. Whatever your reasons.” Alanna nods with a small, sad smile and turns to talk to the King, while Nealann makes her escape.

The first time Nealann meets Keladry of Mindelan, they are both called to the Training Master’s study. The arrangements have already been made, or so Alanna tells her, but the expression on Lord Wyldon’s face says that whatever those arrangements have been, he is not happy with them. His lips are white, tight in anger, and he stands, his hands clasped behind him, as he glares down at them.

“You understand, both of you, that you are here on sufferance,” he growls, looking between Nealann and the other girl. Keladry of Mindelan is taller than Nealann had expected, only about a hand shorter than Nealann herself, and she wears an expression of blank poise on her face. “You will be given the same training as the other pages and squires, and you will be held to the same expectations. The only allowances made for your sex will be the location of your chambers—you will share a hallway on the other side of the training courts, no closer and no farther away than any of the other pages. You will be held to the same standards, and nothing less.”

“I didn’t ask for anything less,” Nealann replies, the barest hint of anger rising to the surface of her sorrow. Nealann used to be cheeky, playful and fun-loving, but the death of her brothers has added a harsher edge to her usual character. Nealann is not Nealann without Graeme and Cathal, and she doesn’t know what is left of her without them. “I never asked for anything less.”

Lord Wyldon turns to her, his glare frosty. “For your cheek, Queenscove, you would have earned yourself a bell of work in the armoury, as you well should have known. This time, and this time only, I will instead assign you to acting as a sponsor to Mindelan. Your brothers would, I assume, have taught you the duty.”

The mention of her brothers is meant as a jab, she thinks, but she doesn’t blink. She lives with the ghosts of her brothers every minute of every day, and the reminder doesn’t come as a surprise. “I would be pleased to show Keladry around the Palace,” she says instead, with a mocking bow and a light, flippant smile.

“Good,” Lord Wyldon says, though his tone says it’s anything but. The air in the room is weaponised, palpable anger and sorrow and nervousness, and Nealann can’t help but wonder what Keladry of Mindelan thinks of it all. One look at the girl shows that her expression hasn’t changed in the slightest, though her hazel eyes are thoughtful and considering. “I will expect both of you at dinner, and at the training courts the first thing tomorrow. Mindelan, follow Queenscove. While she is only, like you, a first-year page, she has grown up at court and should know—the protocols. You are dismissed.”

That Nealann should know better goes unsaid, but Nealann hears it anyway. “My lord,” she murmurs, bowing exactly in the way that she’s seen her brothers do so many times to hide her grimace. From the corner of her eye she can see Keladry of Mindelan doing the same, only without the grimace.

When she stalks out of the room, she only checks briefly to make sure that the other girl is following her. Mindelan keeps up, her energy making up for Nealann’s long stride, and while her face stays in the same, stiff expression of poise, Nealann can read the curiosity in her hazel eyes.

The girl doesn’t ask. She doesn’t say anything at all, but Nealann can feel her hazel eyes burning a hole in the back of her tunic.

“You can ask, you know,” she says, when they’re halfway across the Palace. They are almost at the long, empty corridor with the rooms where they will be living for the next four years: the traditional dorms of lady pages and squires for centuries. Barring any more girls entering page training, they should even have it to themselves.

The girl tilts her head slightly to one side. “I won’t,” she says, her expression unchanging. It’s eerie, the way that Mindelan holds her expression so stiff and still. “Unless you want to talk about it?”

Nealann isn’t sure that she wants to talk about it, but they are going to be living together for the next four years. Maybe it’s easier to just get it out of the way; Mindelan will no doubt hear it from someone else later anyway. She stops, turning to face the other girl.

“Nealann of Queenscove,” she says bluntly. “And yes, the rumours about me are true.”

“I haven’t heard any rumours,” the girl replies. Her voice is soft, a hint of sympathy creeping in. “I only got here a day ago.”

Nealann can’t handle sympathy. People have been sympathetic for months, but all the sympathy in the world doesn’t fill the gap left by her brothers. Only movement fills that gap.

“I’ve gone mad with grief,” she says instead, blunt and without any mercy whatsoever. “That’s what the rumours say. That my brothers’ deaths have made me mentally unstable. Just so you know.”

“I see,” Keladry of Mindelan says, and then she nods, just once. “I would say that I am sorry for your loss, but somehow I think you’ve heard enough of that. My name is Kel, and I’m pleased to meet you. Mentally unstable or not.”

Wyldon of Cavall is true to his word. Nealann and Kel are given the exact same training as the other pages and squires, and they are held to the exact same expectations. They wake at the same hour, they attend the same lessons both in the training courts and in the classrooms, and they receive the same punishments for any infractions. Perfect equality, with nothing more and nothing less.

Everything is the same. Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that no one talks to them. Even their training masters, with few exceptions, barely talk to them. They are always put to working together, and the message to the other pages is clear: the girls don’t exist. No one talks to them, and no one works with them. They are not there.

For herself, Nealann wonders if there might not be more to it. She is the Heiress Queenscove, after all. Her father, who can never stay truly angry with anyone, least of all his daughter, has written to her about marriage offers from Disart, Nicoline, Anak’s Eyrie, and a dozen other noble houses. Half of them, or their younger siblings, are in her training cohort with her.

She writes back declining all of them. No one can ever fill the shoes of Graeme or Cathal, but least of all any of her page-mates or their siblings. Not if the siblings are anything like her page-mates.

Instead, she and Kel grow close—closer than friends, almost closer than siblings. Kel is her best friend, pulling Nealann along behind her when her determination flags, and Nealann always finds something dry, witty and likely to land her in punishment work for the next week to say when Kel is angry or annoyed or otherwise upset. And Kel is often angry, annoyed, or upset, though she rarely shows it. In time, Nealann has learned to read her other body language, from the stiffness of her shoulders to the positioning of her hands. It’s rude to openly show emotion in the Yamani Islands, Kel says, and in many ways Kel is culturally more Yamani than she is Tortallan. She doesn’t complain. She never complains.

Until she does.

“They’re not training us, Neal,” she says, frustrated, halfway through their first year. Nealann is checking Kel’s homework—one advantage of the training masters subjecting her to the exact same work as the other pages is that Nealann is so far ahead in her academic studies that she doubts she will see anything new until she is a squire. Whatever else might be said, Nealann has four years at the Royal University under her belt.

“What do you mean?” Nealann asks, rephrasing something in red ink on the essay. Kel writes Tortallan the way she speaks it, which would be fine if written Tortallan was quite the same as spoken Tortallan, but it isn’t. There are two verb tenses used in writing only, and Nealann is used to correcting it for her. “We receive the same training as the rest.”

“But we don’t.” Kel flops over on Nealann’s bed. “We only train with each other. Some of the training masters, like Eda Bell, work with us too but we never work with anyone else. We’re learning how to fight each other, but no one else. It’s poor training, Neal.”

“Half of them wouldn’t fight me anyway.” Nealann waves a quill. “I turned down the Yancen of Irenroha last week.”

“Yancen?” Kel raises an eyebrow, propping herself up on her elbows. “He isn’t bad.”

“Yancen is two years younger than me and has the brains of a ferret,” Nealann snaps with a wrinkle of her nose, crossing out one of Kel’s verbs and replacing it with the proper conjugation. “Anyway, I couldn’t. Conditions: withdraw from knight-training, we make allowances for your daughter’s grief, et cetera. You really have to learn the past subjunctive, Kel.”

Kel sighs, falling backwards again. “We aren’t learning enough. We need more, but I can hardly complain. They treat us equally—exactly equally, without any thought to our skills or talents. I can thrash you with the staff, and you can thrash me with the sword, and it’s not useful to either you or me for us to keep training with each other like this. We need to train with other people too.”

Neal looks up, resting the end of her quill on her lower lip. Kel is right that they can’t complain—it is hard enough for the Training Master to even allow them into his sacred boys-only training space, and it would be even worse if either of them dared to complain about their eminently, perfectly equal treatment. “Then I guess we train ourselves. Let me speak to my godmother—she can at least teach us the sword. She’s tutored me for years.”

Kel’s eyes grow huge, and Nealann smiles. It’s not exactly a secret that Kel hero-worships Nealann’s godmother, but this is something else. This is private sword lessons with one of the greatest knights of their generation, and Nealann only needs that expression on Kel’s face to know that she’s made the right suggestion.

It’s almost the end of the year before anyone else dares speak to them. Somehow, Nealann isn’t surprised to look up from her bout with one of Alanna’s long-time friends, Sir Sacherell of Wellam, to see Roald of Conté watching them with Seaver of Tasride beside him. Kel is training directly with the Lioness, working on the timing of her balestra.

The momentary inattention is all Wellam needs to glissade the length of Nealann’s blade, putting them body-to-body. Nealann struggles to disengage, trying an esquive right, but Wellam follows on his advantage, and she can’t pull far enough away to perform a proper parry and riposte. A few seconds of frantic footwork later, she tries a pass backwards, but there’s no luck—Wellam twists his blade and her sword goes flying. Nealann mutters a small curse under her breath as she goes to fetch it from across the room.

“When did you lose control of the match?” Wellam asks patiently, when Nealann returns to thank him for the bout. “Tell me.”

“When I got distracted,” Nealann says with a rueful sigh. She knows the answer to this, just as she knows that she should never have allowed anything to interfere in her bout.

“You can never lose focus,” Wellam replies with a stern nod. “You need to be able to block out everything that’s happening around you when you’re fighting, otherwise you won’t survive. And you should work on your pass backwards or try different tricks if you’re body-to-body. You might not be as small as Alanna, but there is a good chance that any men you will come against will be physically stronger than you—do not get into a pushing match, understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Nealann sighs again, and thanks him before walking towards the prince and his shadow. “Your Highness.”

“I’m having trouble recovering from parries in septime,” Roald says softly, with a look around the practice court. They are in one of the open courts, ready for use by any knight and off the beaten path of the pages and squires, so Nealann knows that the prince has gone out of his way to come. “And Seaver needs help with his esquive. Do you mind if we join you?”

Nealann pauses, glancing at Kel patiently practicing her balestra in the back, then she turns to Roald. “Not at all,” she says, with a small smile. “Please, join us.”

It isn’t just the prince and Seaver. Two weeks later, there’s Merric of Hollyrose with his sponsor, Faleron of King’s Reach, who for some reason stares at the floor when he speaks to Nealann. A week after that, Cleon of Kennan shows up out of curiosity, and stays for the lesson on the proper uses of a dagger given by Baron George of Pirate’s Swoop. Finally, Esmond of Nicoline and Prosper of Tameran show up in a panic the week before the first set of page examinations, and Kel and Nealann find themselves with something like friends.

Four years pass fast.

They learn the sword from Alanna and a rotating group of her own friends from her page days: Wellam, Douglass of Veldine, even the Gareth the Younger of Naxen steps out to the practice court with them. The Lord Knight Commander Raoul of Goldenlake pops by to show them tricks with the axe, while an array of George’s friends come by to teach them the dagger. Properly encouraged, Kel begins giving lessons in the naginata, though she swears up and down that she isn’t even anywhere near as good as any of the Yamani noblewomen, let alone a Yamani armsmistress. Nealann begs her father for one of the beautiful, deadly weapons for Midwinter, and Kel spends long hours with her in their private dorms teaching her kata.

The extra training group is an open secret. Nealann has no idea whether their training masters are aware of it; in the formal lessons, it’s the same as ever. Kel and Nealann are not to be spoken to, and the pages continue to take the lead of their training masters and draw no attention to the girls in their midst. But outside of their formal classes, a steady group of pages go to their extra training sessions, starting with the first group led by Roald, and adding in Owen, Warric, and Iden as the years pass by.

In their third year, Kel causes a splash by saving a group of pages from a bandit camp. It’s a complete mistake that she and Nealann are even there—they were sent to mapping a different area, but somehow their paths cross with Faleron’s group, and they stumble onto the bandit camp together. It is fortunate that they are there, because it’s Kel that keeps her head and takes command, and it’s Nealann’s Healing magic that stabilizes Merric while they wait for help. Lord Wyldon makes no comment on it, though Nealann can feel the Training Master’s eyes on them a little more often afterwards.

Before they know it, they’re at the fourth-year examinations. No one has ever failed these exams—only Edmund of Rosemark has ever been late enough to have to repeat his page years. But Nealann and Kel will be the first girls going through these exams, and somehow Nealann can’t help but fear the worst.

Over four years, Wyldon of Cavall has never softened towards them. Perhaps a little towards Kel but not towards Nealann. Nealann is too old—old enough to be married with children—and she isn’t cut from the same cloth as Kel. Nealann will be a knight because her brothers were knights, because it’s the only tribute that she knows how to make to them. Nealann isn’t Kel, who wants a knighthood for herself.

If they were alive, she often thinks, she would be finished her studies at the University. She might have opted for a few years of additional training and research, or she might have been working alongside her father. She would have been flirting with a dozen different men—not married, because she had never pictured herself doing the proper noblewoman thing and marrying at sixteen or seventeen. Her father would have never required her to, and her brothers would have found a reason to dismiss every possible suitor. Graeme would have been tearing his hair out at her antics, while Cathal would have laughed and gotten her out of any scrapes that she couldn’t have handled herself.

But her brothers aren’t there.

She rarely talks about it, and Kel never asks. The rumours say now that Nealann is simply mad, rather than mad with grief, and the only notice Kel has ever made of them is to tell her that she is mad, just not in the way that everyone thinks. Kel doesn’t question why Nealann wants to be a knight. It’s enough for her that Nealann does want to be a knight, and that she works for it as hard as Kel does.

There are topics that Nealann doesn’t want to talk about, and her brothers are chief among them. The few times that she mentions them, Kel always falls silent, listening, but Nealann rarely wants to talk about them. Her memories of her brothers are still raw, something held tightly to her chest, far away from the easy, sometimes sly smiles that she is prone to giving. Similarly, there are things that Nealann doesn’t ask Kel about: she doesn’t ask about Kel’s suspicious fear of heights, or about the culture shock of returning to Tortall, or about Kel’s feelings about how they’re treated by the Training Master.

She fixes her best tunic on her shoulders. The only good thing, Nealann thinks, about having started page training as late as she did is that she had already had her woman’s body before she started. As awful as the last four years have been, at least she hasn’t had to adjust for a changing body through training as Kel has had to do. Her hair, which she has long since allowed to grow out again, she twists into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, binding the knot tightly and covering it with a spare handkerchief to prevent anyone from pulling at it. She looks her best, not that she thinks it will matter.

She stops at Kel’s door, knocking briskly. “Kel, we need to go. We’re due in the practice courts in half an hour.”

“Go on without me,” she hears Kel call through the door, and Nealann frowns. Kel’s emotions have always been read better in her voice than in her face, and Nealann can hear panic underlying the control. That’s unusual—if anything, she thinks that if either of them are going to fail the examinations, it will be Nealann herself. Kel is naturally gifted in the martial arts in a way that Nealann isn’t, and while Nealann might be very good with a sword and magic, she’s average in every other way.

“Kel, what is it?” Nealann asks, rapping again. “I’m not going on without you—what’s wrong?”

“I just—I have to fix something,” Kel replies, and that stutter tells Nealann that whatever it is, it’s very bad. Nealann hesitates, but there have never been locks on the doors between them, so she barges in.

Kel is sitting on her narrow bed, still wearing the plain tunic that she had worn at practice. That’s wrong; Kel’s maid, Lalasa, has been working all week on a special tunic for Kel to wear for the fourth-year examinations. There’s no Jump either, nor Kel’s two cats, nor any of the sparrows, none of the menagerie of animals that Kel has collected over past four years. Away from the prying eyes of the other pages and with Nealann’s silence, Kel seems to bring home a new pet every few months.

Nealann frowns, peeking into Kel’s dressing room. The tunic is still on a workroom table, pins stuck throughout. Her maid’s bed is neatly made, but it doesn’t look slept in. That’s unlike Lalasa—if anything, Lalasa is unusually devoted to her mistress.

“All right, what is it?” Nealann demands, and Kel hands her a sheet of parchment.

Bold, spiky handwriting marks the paper. She is in the Palace. You can find her if you look. Tell anyone and we will hurt her.

Nealann presses her lips together tightly, folding the note with quick, small movements.

Why kidnap a maid?

To hurt her mistress.

Why target Kel?

Because Kel isn’t Nealann. Because, to choose between two different girl pages, Kel is the easier target. Kel is from Mindelan, a new barony, and Kel is the seventh child; Nealann is the heiress to the powerful duchy of Queenscove. Many circles still treat Kel more harshly than Nealann, who is supposed to have gone mad with grief for her brothers, while Kel has no excuse for her unnatural desires to become a knight.

They’re cowards, the lot of them, and Nealann won’t stand for it.

“Tell the Palace Guard,” she says, setting the paper down on Kel’s nightstand. “They’ll find her.”

“Did you read the whole thing?” Kel stands up, walking to her window, which overlooks a small courtyard. “They’ll hurt her!”

“They wouldn’t dare,” Nealann replies, crossing her arms over her chest. “If they torture her on top of kidnapping, in the Palace to boot, they’ll get no mercy from the royal courts, and they know it. They just want you to be late.”

Kel shakes her head, her lip trembling.

“No.” Nealann takes a step forward, turning Kel to face her. “Kel, no. You’re not going to—Kel, that’s what they want. You’ll repeat a year, two—maybe all four! You can’t, not after all we’ve been through!”

Kel reaches up and wipes her eyes, and Nealann is shocked to see the emotion swimming in her friend’s eyes. “Neal, I can’t. She trusts me. She’s my responsibility. She’ll be so frightened—I have to find her.”

Nealann bites her lip.

They can do this to Kel because it’s Kel. Kel won’t kick up a fuss, Kel never complains about anything, and Kel is only the seventh child of a new barony. If Wyldon of Cavall demands that Kel redo all four years, no one will say otherwise. But if Nealann of Queenscove, heiress to the duchy of Queenscove, is dragged in as well, then the circumstances change. Nealann has clout, and if they don’t want a fifteen-year-old girl page, they certainly won’t want a nineteen-year-old girl page who is the future Duchess of Queenscove. They can’t make them repeat the four years if Nealann is involved.

“We’ll look for her together,” Nealann says, her lips twisting into the stubborn moue that got her into page training at all. “This isn’t just an attack on us, not just you. We do it together, the way we do everything together.”

They don’t make them repeat all four years. Nealann knows that they won’t the minute she makes the decision, and she is surprised to find that Wyldon of Cavall doesn’t oppose the new tests set for the girls. The word from Alanna is that the man is infuriated by anyone interfering with his training process, and he is more upset about someone kidnapping a maid to prevent one of his two girl pages from continuing than he is about being forced to accept them into training at all.

Nealann is even more surprised when, to ensure that no one can question their competence, the Lord Cavall throws some of the squires at them in open bouts in their fourth-year page examinations. There have never been open bouts at the fourth-year page examinations.

But Nealann enjoys grinding Joren of Stone Mountain into the dust with her sword, and she enjoys watching Kel do the same to Vinson of Genlith even more.

When they’re squires, some things change, and others don’t.

Some people will never be convinced that women can be pages, squires, and knights. It doesn’t help that Alanna is Nealann’s knight-mistress, even if Alanna is so prominent that Nealann feels like she is on parade all the time. Kel doesn’t have it much better—she’s squiring for Alanna’s long-time friend, Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, and with the King’s Own, she is in the public eye even more than Nealann herself.

It doesn’t matter that there are good reasons why they have been chosen. Nealann, like Alanna, is a Healer and needs to finish her Healing studies; Kel’s experience in the Yamani Isles makes her a valuable asset to the King’s Own, who must plan the Grand Progress of the royal family through the country. All that many see is that the fact that a certain liberal branch of nobles have begun pushing forward women to become knights, providing extra supports and opportunities that aren’t easily accessible by others.

Not everyone can learn swordplay from the Lioness, after all.

Alanna and Raoul hope that sheer public prominence of both Nealann and Kel through the Grand Progress will go a long way to convincing the public of the feasibility of lady knights. Nealann is all too happy to help with this endeavour—especially because, as a squire, she can duel people.

“Again, Neal?” Kel bursts into her tent, her eyebrows pressed together in an expression of mixed annoyance, exasperation, and worry. “Really?”

“Like you can talk,” Nealann mutters, polishing her blade to be mirror-bright. “I saw your name on the jousting sheets. I can afford to pay the fine if I lose, it’s just money.”

Kel has that expression on her face that says that she wants to roll her eyes but is too polite to do so. “And what did Tybalt of Halleburn do?”

“Propose marriage.” Nealann shrugs. “With the usual qualifiers.”

“This is becoming a farce.” Kel brings one hand to her forehead in exasperation. “You’re going to have the same reputation for hotheadedness as Alanna, you know.”

“It goes well with the madness, doesn’t it?”

Kel shakes her head, sitting down on Nealann’s narrow cot. “You are…” she says, drawing the words out, and then she hesitates.

“Are what?”

Kel sighs again, rephrasing whatever it was she was going to say. “Aren’t you going to have to marry one day? You’re the heir to Queenscove, Neal, and even if you’re a hothead and completely mad, you care a lot about the duchy. It’s your duty.”

“One day,” Nealann replies, holding her blade up to the light. Her lips are pressed tightly together, the way they are whenever she thinks about her future. She will marry one day, and she’ll have little ones, but for now, she can’t stomach the thought. Anyone who marries her becomes the Duke of Queenscove on her father’s passing, a title that should been her brother’s, and no one she has ever met has matched up to Graeme of Queenscove. She’ll have to settle one day, but that day is not today.

And that settling will never be for Tybalt of Halleburn. His bladework is shoddy, and his sixte is weak. Nealann is going to have his blade out of the way and her sword at his throat in ten minutes or less.

“What about Rich Caffery, for you?” she says, changing the topic. “What happened?”

“He asked for a joust.” Kel shakes her head again. “And you know when I say no to these, they’ll just find me when I’m with you or one of our other friends to slap me with a glove. I might as well just get it out of the way in the friendly matches. One day, you’re going to challenge someone that you can’t handle, Neal.”

Nealann smirks, very slightly, looking over at her friend. “I hope so, Kel. I really do.”

Kel doesn’t win all her jousts. She wins about two thirds of them, while Nealann wins all of her challenges. Nealann only issues challenges; she doesn’t receive them. For conservatives, it seems that Kel is fair game, but not the tragic, likely-mad, hot-headed heiress to Queenscove.

Her win rate is too high, and she knows it. Sometimes, she can tell that it’s a legitimate win—others, she can tell that her opponents have taken it easy on her. It’s absolutely infuriating, because while she likes winning, she likes winning more when she knows it’s a true win and not a sham.

Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that two tournaments down the road, she is sitting with Kel in the mess tent when they are interrupted by one of the Yamani delegation. By now, Nealann has met the princess and greeted her formally in her own language and manner, but she has had very little to do with the rest of Yamani nobles.

The man is tall for one of the Yamanis—an inch or two taller than Nealann, which many of their men are not. His clothes are simple, a dark blue, padded keikogi and a grey hakama, and he wears two swords at his waist, the long tachi and the short kodachi. Unlike most of the other Yamani men, he has opted against a topknot, and his hair is cut neatly in a Tortallan style. One hand rests on the sheath of his tachi.

“Yuki onii-chan,” Kel says, quickly wiping her mouth and rising from her seat to give the man a bow in the proper Yamani style, with her hands clasped before her. She says something else in Yamani, but the man only shakes his head.

“Please sit down, Keladry-chan,” he says, in clear but accented Tortallan. “May I join you?”

“Yes, of course,” Kel replies with a flustered sort of move, as if she were about to kneel and clear space off a much lower-lying table, then realizing that the table was not what she had expected. She cleared her throat. “Neal, this is Yuki noh Daiomoru, from the Yamani delegation. He is one of Prince Eitaro’s guardsmen. Onii-chan, this is Nealann of Queenscove, the other lady squire.”

Nealann glances between the two of them. Kel is still looking a bit puzzled, as if two cultural traditions are colliding in her head, but Yuki takes no notice. Instead, he is studying Nealann with dark, curious eyes.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Nealann of Queenscove,” he says, with an awkward sort of seated bow. “Keladry wrote much of you.”

“You are close, then?” Nealann asks, trying to return the bow with nothing like the grace that the man had showed. “You know each other well?”

“Keladry resided with my family for some time when she first arrived in the Yamani Isles,” Yuki replies easily with the hint of a smile and a small pat on Kel’s shoulder. “She was much smaller, then.”

“I was four, onii-chan,” Kel retorts with a shake of her head. “You weren’t much bigger.”

“I was nine at the time,” Yuki says, lowering his voice slightly as if letting Nealann into a secret. “Keladry was very cute, especially when I upset her.”

Nealann laughs, while Kel punches Yuki on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, he’s just like this,” Kel says, but there’s no hint of apology in her voice. “I’m surprised that Prince allows you in his delegation at all, your etiquette being what it is.”

“I am noh Daiomoru,” the man says with a slight, casual shrug. “And I know the lines. The Prince is not his father, and he likes me well enough to tolerate a low level of disrespect.”

“Neal does something similar.” Kel snorts. “The two of you will be the death of me.”

“I hope not,” Yuki replies, before turning back to Nealann. “I did have the pleasure of seeing you in the tournaments. I wanted to congratulate you on your win today—some of your opponents do not try their best against you, but he did.”

Jason of Theaham hadn’t been a bad sort—he just hadn’t been good enough. In another world, one where her brothers were still alive and with her, Nealann might even have considered his suit. She shrugs. “It was a trick—I primed him to expect something wily with the speed and tempo patinandos over fifteen minutes, and then it was just a basic prise de fer that did him in.”

“I wanted to ask if you would be inclined to a match with me.” Yuki smiles, reaching for Kel’s tankard of ale. “See how your Tortallan swordsmanship matches with Yamani kenjutsu.”

“I…” Nealann blinks, and then she smiles back. “I’d be delighted. Ten silver crowns on the line?”

The next day, in the tournament courts, Yuki’s en garde is like nothing that Nealann has seen before, where he keeps his tachi high as a threat and his kodachi low. It almost looks like he is open in the front, but when Nealann tries a flèche inwards to skewer him, she finds that his above-guard is too much of a threat. She dodges Yuki’s downwards strike with a fast esquive left and draws back to prepare herself for another attack.

He follows—and when he does, it’s aggressive, and Nealann has no idea how to respond. Another esquive to the left, and the momentum of Yuki’s charge takes him past Nealann entirely. Spotting her opportunity, she lunges forward, but he turns quickly and knocks her blade away with a brutal clatter. The smaller kodachi is then at her throat, and they freeze in tableau for a moment before Nealann steps away, lowering her weapon.

“I yield,” she says, holding her hands up gracefully and ignoring the storm of gasps that seem to have grasped the stands. “Ten silver crowns to you.”

“Keep the money,” Yuki replies, sheathing his own weapons. “I want to see more tricks, next time.”

“Next time?” Nealann asks, but Yuki only gives her a smile before leaving the court.

She stews over the match for days, studying where she went wrong. Charging in was obviously a bad idea, but there was something about that passé and his quick turn that bothered her. It had been a genuine attack, but he had been prepared for the pass and turn. That turn was not something that anyone in Tortall would have been able to execute. It was something that Yuki had trained, something that he had expected to be a possible, if not a probable result.

It takes her two days and a secret mission to watch the Yamani guardsmen training before she realizes the difference. Tortallan swordsmanship emphasizes balance and recovery backwards, with a thorough grounding on passes backwards, recovery from lunges, and esquives, while Yamani swordsmanship emphasizes commitment. Yamani swordsmen commit to an attack with their whole bodies, using the force of their momentum to their advantage, and thus they learn to pass and recover. There has to be a way she can use that.

In their second match, two weeks later at another tournament, Nealann tries something new. She draws Yuki into a forward attack, but instead of an esquive, she blocks his kodachi and steps into his strike, within the reach of his arms. They’re corps-à-corps, and Yuki’s arm is too long for him to be able to use his tachi at all. Nealann shoves him, hard—but even if they’re close in height, he is more solidly built, and his returning shove has her on the ground with his tachi at her nose.

“It was worth a try,” she mutters from the ground. “I yield, I yield.”

Yuki doesn’t take her money this time either. Instead, he smirks very slightly and asks for a third match.

It’s reaction time, and timing, and prediction. So much of Nealann’s skill with the sword comes from sheer practice, from watching how swords are handled and learning to read what comes faster than her opponent. Their third match, and their fourth, end in the same way—in their fifth, Nealann has figured out how to withstand one of Yuki’s attacks, using a duck and turn that has no name to improve her reaction time, when her Gift gets away from her in a blinding flash.

It’s a single lightning bolt of bright, emerald green, and she can hear the referees calling a foul, but Yuki barely smiles before red fire comes out to flick her light away. Yuki is a mage, and Nealann is so annoyed that she lunges right into the circle of his blades with her Gift and they engage in their first sword exchange that looks anything like what Nealann is used to. Prise de fer to knock the kodachi out of the way, then tierce for the tachi. Her Gift blazes forward, and Yuki’s answers in bright, hot flames that drive her back.

“Halt!” Nealann hears the referees yelling, then a loud whistle. “Halt, halt, halt! Queenscove, you know the rules—the use of magic is a forfeit!”

“But is it a forfeit if he responds with magic?” She can’t help asking, but the referee only scowls at her.

“If you’d like to fight a mage battle, you may put yourself on the list to duel tomorrow in the mage battles,” the referee replies coldly, then he holds up a black flag to signify her forfeit. “Or you and Sir Yuki may go and take whatever this is elsewhere, because it certainly isn’t the intention of the tournament organizers to accommodate your flirting!”

Nealann blinks once, twice, then she turns to glare at Yuki, whose face is frozen in Yamani stiffness even as his eyes dance.

“You didn’t say that you were a mage,” she says, looking at him when they’re halfway back to her tent. She’s been sneaking glances at him for the past twenty minutes since they were kicked out of the tournament, but his expression hasn’t changed, and his hand still rests on the sheath of his blade.

“You did not ask,” he replies calmly, examining the tents around them. Yuki is always with the Progress, attached to the Yamani delegation, while Nealann comes in and out as often as Alanna is needed. Kel is around even less—the King’s Own is still being called to handle emergencies throughout the realm, so Kel is with them less than Nealann would like. Nealann is alone, or as alone as any lady squire can be when surrounded by hundreds of others.

Yuki has always been around, and easy enough for Nealann to find if she wants company. And maybe he tends to silence more than not, but he still makes for good company.

“I’m mostly a Healer,” she offers, watching his face. There’s a tiny twitch of his lips when he looks back at her.

“Maybe it is better that we do not enter the mage battles then,” Yuki muses, “for I am primarily a war-mage. But I’d be happy to have another match with you, including magic, at a time of your convenience.”

Nealann scowls, looking away. “That would unfairly advantage you, though. Just like the two swords.”

“If you’d like a match with only one, you had only to ask.” Yuki looks over at her, smiling. “But on the field, I do normally practice nito-ryu, so I think that would unfairly advantage you.”

Nealann’s scowl deepens. “No,” she mutters, contrary, before she gets to the crux of the matter. “You weren’t flirting with me, were you?”

Yuki’s shoulders ripple in a small shrug. “I’m afraid I am not familiar with that term.”

“I’m not in the dating game,” Nealann says, watching his eyes closely. His eyes will show more than his face, and she is sure that he is lying through his teeth. “I’m training to be a knight. And I’m a noblewoman. Noblewomen don’t date. You’d have to speak to my father.”

And her brothers, her mind unconsciously adds, before she remembers and shakes the thought away. Nealann has never seriously considered being with anyone that her brothers had not met and given the stamp of approval. Six years onwards, that is still an idea that she has never reconsidered. She had never needed to reconsider it. She didn’t date anymore.

But her brothers are dead. They’ll never be able to meet anyone that Nealann wants to date ever again.

Compared to the Yamanis, she is an open book. Her emotions are writ large on her face, and she can only imagine what it looks like now. Not devastated, because it has been six years; not merely sad, either, because her brothers’ deaths are still something that she carries with her with every step in the training courts, in every minute on the tournament field. Desolate, maybe.

Yuki’s eyes crinkle slightly in concern, and he picks his words with care. “Can we not simply be friends, Nealann?”

Nealann hesitates, longer than she should. Friends aren’t a problem—she has many friends, Kel chief among them, and she is on good terms with most of her page cohort as well. Friends are not a terrifying concept.

She can be friends with Yuki. She thinks.

“Friends, then,” she mutters, as they reach her tent. “So, friend, do you want to come in for a game of chess? We’ll leave the tent flap open for propriety’s sake. Because we’re friends. Just friends.”

Yuki makes for a good friend, Nealann thinks, many months later. He is always with the Progress, and while he is more reserved than even Kel, he makes for an engaging conversational partner when Nealann scratches beneath the surface.  They have long, thoughtful conversations about history, about Tortallan and Yamani culture, about magic; Nealann teaches him how to play chess, while Yuki shows her a Yamani strategy game called Go. In silence, when they ride together on Progress as they do on occasion, he makes for a comforting bulwark at her side.

In time, she talks a little more about her brothers—about Graeme and his steadiness, and Cathal and his sly playfulness. She talks about the tremendous weight of duty, about living life for all three of them, and Yuki listens. Yuki doesn’t tell her that none of what she says makes any sense, or that she is mad. He only listens, and he nods at the appropriate places, and just once he says that he thinks he would have liked Graeme and Cathal very much if he had been able to meet them.

She cries at that quiet comment. For the first time in many years, she cries for her brothers, and Yuki pretends not to see.  

It is all too good to last. The war with Scanra comes calling, and they all know what will happen long before it does happen. Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami will take the Progress south, out of harm’s way, while as much of the army as possible ships north.

They are at Mindelan when the orders come. Nealann is given a night’s warning, and Alanna’s pointed look is all Nealann needs to know that the chances of her seeing Yuki again before the delegation leaves for the Yamani Isles are slim to none.

Kel is nowhere to be found, but Mindelan is surprisingly easy to navigate. The Yamani delegation is housed alongside the royals, in the best rooms the barony has to offer, and Nealann finds Yuki in the large room shared with five other guardsmen.

One look at her face has him excusing himself, and Nealann silently leads him to a shadowy alcove in the hallway.

“When?” he asks, before Nealann can ask, and his voice is sharper than she has heard from him before. “Where?”

“Tomorrow at dawn, Frasrlund,” Nealann replies with a small shake of her head. “It’s a port city on the Vassa River, to the north. The Vassa is the border between Tortall and Scanra.”

There is a long, heavy pause. “And you will be returning...”

Nealann shakes her head again, more vigorously. “Not—not before the delegation returns to the Yamani Isles.”

“I see.” Yuki looks away, his face expressionless, and it’s too dark in the alcove for Nealann to make out much expression in his eyes.

Nealann doesn’t know what else to say. They’re just friends, and it’s not her place to say anything else. What else would she say, anyway? That she doesn’t want to go? Worse, that she doesn’t want him to go?

The Yamanis take their honour and duty seriously. Yuki is sworn to serve the Yamani Empire, the way that Nealann will one day be sworn to serve the Tortallan Crown. Those are not oaths that Yuki made lightly, and he would never turn his back on them. She knows, too, that Yuki comes from a very old, very important family in the Isles, and he can hardly turn his back on his family duties either.

In a world where Graeme and Cathal were still alive, Nealann thinks she might have considered going after him. As the third child and as a daughter, she would have had the freedom to do so; but as the heiress of Queenscove, she doesn’t. Nealann must stay in Tortall, just as Yuki must go home to the Isles.

And they’re just friends. Just friends, and nothing more. One didn’t ask the impossible of friends.

“Nealann…” Yuki sighs, turning back to her. “I wish that we had more time.”

“Me too,” Nealann replies quickly, but Yuki takes one of her hands in his and she falls silent. She’s never noticed how much smaller her hands are compared to his—her fingers are longer, more delicate, but his palm against hers is broad and warm.

“I wanted to give you more time,” he continues quietly, “because I know that you are not ready to hear my question, let alone provide me with an answer. But if I am—if I were to remain in Tortall, if I were to seek a release from my oaths, would there be a chance for me?”

Her breath stops, and she swallows. Her heart is pounding, her face becoming hot, and she looks away. But she doesn’t let go of his hand. “I—” she stammers, “It’s not appropriate for me, as a squire or as a noblewoman—you’d need to approach my father, and I couldn’t—not until I was a knight.”

“But what then?” Yuki presses, his voice still gentle even if Nealann thinks she can hear a note of anxiety. “What about after your knighthood? Is there a chance for me then, Nealann?”

“Then—” Nealann sucks in a breath. Her head is spinning, more than it ever did when she was with Anton of Tierney, or Yvon d’Artois, or Kassam Moumir, or Elliott of Pawn’s Lake. And they’re only holding hands. “Yes. There would be a chance. If I were free to choose.”

Yuki nods, and his grip on her hand tightens. They stay like that for many long minutes, and neither of them need to say anything.

Nealann spends the rest of her squire years in Frasrlund. Kel is with the Own in a makeshift camp, and the rest of their squire friends are spread out across the border in the north. She sees action, more of it than most—Frasrlund is the jewel on the coast, and a critical target for both the Scanrans and the Tortallans. She sees three of the massive, metal monsters that Scanra is throwing at them, and even helps with the mages who hold the devices long enough for someone to climb up their sides and release the spirit contained within.

She learns more Healing and war than she ever thought possible. Every day, she is up at dawn for training, and then they either spend the rest of the day in a Healing tent or in a war council or in a skirmish. By dinner every night, she is drooping, and she is fast asleep when her head hits the pillow.

Yuki remains in Tortall, released from oaths to the Yamani Empire for good service. Nealann has no idea how he managed it, but she suspects, from a letter from Kel, that the Princess might have been involved. She doesn’t care—he is in Tortall now, and that means…

Well, she isn’t entirely sure what it means, but it means something. She writes to her father about him, though she doesn’t quite know what to say. The letter she posts is a mess, a mix of news from Alanna and Frasrlund, something about all the Healing she is learning alongside the swordplay and other skills, and finally a mention at the end that she has made a very good friend in Yuki noh Daiomoru and that she would very much like to bring him to dinner at Queenscove. Somehow, she thinks that her father will understand.

Yuki has followed Prince Roald north, possibly on a special request by the Princess Shinkokami, and is posted to Northwatch. His instructions, apparently, are chiefly to ensure that if Roald rampages off on his own, that he doesn’t go alone. Nealann writes him regularly as well, though his replies tend to be short. They are mostly assurances that Northwatch is very secure and that Prince Roald has not yet made an attempt to charge at the enemy, with his wishes for her good health included at the end.

Months pass, one after another in a brutal cascade. It is spring, and then it is summer, and then autumn. They winter in Corus, called home for only a month, before another season at war—and then, another summer and autumn later, it is time for the Ordeal.

Nealann sits, breathing deeply before the Chamber of the Ordeal. This isn’t where she had ever intended on being. This isn’t even where she wanted to be, not until her brothers died. She wonders, briefly, what they would be thinking of her now?

Graeme would probably have sighed, shaken his head, and told her that she was a fool. He would have said that going through knight-training was completely unnecessary, and that whatever had happened, no one had expected Nealann to try to fill their shoes. But underneath it all, she thinks that he would have been proud. He had always supported her for whatever she wanted to do, as long as it wasn’t completely off the wall.

Admittedly, trying for knight-training might have counted as being completely off the wall, but then she had had Cathal for that. Cathal had loved crazy ideas—the crazier, the better. The number of pies that she and Cathal had managed to steal from the kitchens spoke for themselves, or at least for the stains on their clothes. No matter what, she thinks Cathal would have supported her quest for knighthood. It might have been foolish, it might have been ridiculous, but it was also her and Cathal had never really managed to say no to her. As an added bonus, becoming a knight was poking the Stump, and there was nothing that Cathal had loved more than poking the Stump.

Her quest for knighthood had never been about necessity. They had been about her own, personal desire to live up to her brothers, to be enough for all of them. She was the one that was left, the only one who could live life for all three of them, and that was what she had tried to do. Her brothers lived on in her, and all she could do was try to live up to it—to live up to the promise of their childhoods, and to live a life that they would all have been satisfied with. A life with her magic, Cathal’s swordplay, and Graeme’s duties.

She dozes off, and Alanna gently shakes her awake at dawn. By the knowing glance that Alanna shoots her, she has the strong impression that she is not the only squire to fall asleep in a sitting position for part of the nightly vigil, but it isn’t something that anyone speaks about. Her dreams were only of the past, anyway—dreams of her, and Graeme, and Cathal, all together and happy. But now there is only her, and she doesn’t hesitate to walk into the Chamber of the Ordeal.

Graeme had survived this, and she has no doubt that Cathal would have, too. As she will too, because she carries her brothers with her wherever she goes, and they are with her now.

Is that so, Nealann of Queenscove? A spectral voice says, and she looks around. There’s nothing for a moment, only a grey stone box, and then she is on the walls of Queenscove Castle.

Arrows are flying, and Nealann only needs one look over the walls to see that they are sieged. Thousands of men are arrayed outside her walls, and she counts five ballista loading liquid fire. One look around shows that her walls won’t stand, not for long—she counts maybe forty defenders on the walls, and none of them are looking well.

They can’t stand. She walks to the other side of the parapet, looking down into the courtyard, hoping for more troops, but there are none. Worst yet, looking at Queenscove Castle, she can see the blue and gold pennant flying high to show that they currently have one of the Contés in residence. The King, maybe, or the Queen, or one of the princes or princesses.

Queenscove always stands at the shoulder of the Conté kings.

“Your Grace!” A man cries, and Nealann recognizes him as Ralston, her father’s long-time man-at-arms, though he now wears the bars of a captain. “We cannot hold. You know that we cannot hold. We must surrender.”

In life or in the Chamber, there is only one answer for a Queenscove who has Conté royalty in residence. She takes one more look at the pennants, then she turns back to Ralston and her men. Her men, because she is the Duchess of Queenscove, and no one else.

She can't talk, but emerald fire sparks at her fingertips. They'll hold, that means, and she silently stalks down the walls, looking for their own supplies of blazebalm, pitch, anything that they can set on fire and throw at the enemy. There are two barrels of pitch a hundred feet down the walls--not ideal, but they'll do. She pushes them towards the walls, her Gift helping her set them into the right position.

“Your Grace!” Another man cries, his eyes wide with fear. “We cannot—your brother would never have—”

She silences him with a glare, lights the pitch on fire, and sends it soaring over the walls.

The walls fade under her, and she falls.

The fall is long, in pitch darkness, and Nealann wants to vomit. It’s too long, too far, and if this were anything except magic, she is sure that she would die. No; the Chamber had killed before. The Chamber had killed Joren of Stone Mountain, before it had cursed Vinson of Genlith to feel the pain that he had dealt to women in the Lower Alleys. That is an unsettling thought, and not one that Nealann needs at that precise moment. She shuts her eyes, rolling into a crash-fall position, even if she is sure that it won’t be enough. Not unless the Chamber wants it so.

She lands on a soft, carpeted floor, and she pulls herself upright. Looking down, she can see that she’s in the red and gold tunic of the Palace pages. She is back in time, and she hears the whispers so much louder than she ever heard them before.

“Mad, Queenscove,” someone says, and the voice is tinged with a horror and pity. It sets Nealann on edge, and she looks around for whoever it is, but the hallways around her are empty. “Poor thing. The death of her brothers really set her off.”

“Tragic,” another voice says, a reply to the first voice. “But don’t you think her family is being too lenient by letting her train to be a knight? She’ll never be one—she isn’t her brothers.”

“She belongs in an asylum,” a third voice agrees, and her voice is worried. “I don’t want her to be a knight. She’s too unstable. What if she has a breakdown? What if she turns her blade on us? The other girl, well, she was raised among barbarians and can’t help her unnatural urges, but Queenscove should know better.”

Nealann freezes, shaking. She has heard all these things before, if not so clearly. She wants to fight them. She wants to find them, and fight them, but she doesn’t want to play into their assumptions. But looking around, she can see that she is alone. She can hear the voices, but she cannot see them.

And this is the Chamber of the Ordeal. She is not permitted to speak, so she cannot argue with these voices in her head.

“She should be married and bearing children for her family,” a man snaps, no sympathy in his voice. “She is the heiress to Queenscove—the succession remains insecure as long as she goes gallivanting around for a knighthood she doesn’t deserve when she should be at home. It’s a dereliction of duty!”

“Who will want her when she’s done anyway?” a ghost-whisper adds. “She’ll be twenty-three, an old maid. There’s Queenscove, of course, but what man will take a twenty-three-year-old who can beat him with a blade?”

Yuki will, she mentally growls at the Chamber. He stayed in Tortall for me. He went out of his way to be released from his oaths to stay for me. He will, and I don’t need to listen to these voices, and I don’t need to respond to them.

The hallways of the Palace disappear, melting away to a plain, grassy field. Ahead of her, she can see the figures of two men, and she swallows.

She would know those shapes anywhere. There’s Graeme, stockier than either her or Cathal, now even an inch or two shorter than her; he had towered over her once. His hair is the exact same shade as hers, and his green eyes and winged eyebrows could have come off her face. The line of his jaw is square, rather than pointed, but it’s Graeme. He smiles at her, holding his arms out, and she can’t help but stumble forwards into them.

He’s warm. He’s warm, and he’s breathing, and she can feel the steady beat of his heart against her own chest. Behind her, she can feel Cathal reaching for her. Cathal, who takes more after their mother, whose hair is dark as walnut, whose eyes are hazel rather than pure green, Cathal who is tall and slender and always smiling. It’s the three of them together again, and she breathes in the warm scents that she has always associated with her brothers.

Warm grass and sun, the oil that they used to polish their boots, the hot and musky odor of their sweat after they had come from the training courts. In the past, she would have shoved them off of her and told them both to go bathe, but now—

Not now. Not when it’s been so long, and they’re here. They’re here, and they’re all together, and Nealann is crying because she is with her brothers. They’re making soft soothing noises the way that they did when she was a child, and Cathal is calling her a crybaby, the way he always did when she cried.

She could just stay here. She could just stay here, with her brothers, and the thought is so strong, so seductive, that she almost forgets where she is.

She is in the Chamber of the Order, and they aren’t real. Her brothers here, holding her, aren’t real.

It takes her many long minutes before she can pull herself away. She can tell herself a thousand times that her brothers are dead, but making herself pull away from their warm embrace takes more strength than she knew she ever had. She just wants more time. Five more minutes, then ten, but that is a game that she knows she can’t win. She will always want more time.

She counts to ten, and then she extricates herself from them and takes two steps back to look at them together. One last look, because she’ll never see them in person again. Not until she is in the realms of the dead.

You’re dead, she thinks to them, because she still can’t speak. You’re dead, and I miss you. I miss you both so, so much. But I have to move on. I love you. I love you. I love you.

They disappear, and the door to the Chamber creaks open.

Nealann of Queenscove is knighted at sundown. By the luck of the draw only, she is the second lady knight in Tortall in centuries, and the first whose sex is publicly known throughout both her page and her squire years.

For her knighting, she wears her brothers’ old insignias, as well as her own. They are with her always, but Nealann of Queenscove is not her brothers. Her mother and father are watching, along with Kel, Alanna, and every one of the pages and squires that she has come to know over the past eight years. Yuki noh Daiomoru stands with them, and she wears his delicate, worked gold and emerald ring on her finger.

Nealann of Queenscove is her past, but she looks forward to her future.


Balestra: (fencing) a footwork preparation consisting of a small jump forwards, usually used to vary a fencer’s tempo and to prepare for a lunge.

Body-to-body: (fencing) an action that puts two fencers in contact with any part of themselves other than their blades. Also called a corps-à-corps, this is illegal in most modern fencing.

En garde: (fencing) The default guard position.

Esquive: (fencing) An evasive move to dodge or sidestep the attacker’s attack. Not used in modern fencing.

Flèche: (fencing) A move in which the rear leg is brought in front of the front leg and the fencer sprints past their opponent. Used in modern foil and epee but not sabre.

Glissade: (fencing) An attack or feint that slides along the opponent's blade. Also called a coulé, graze, or glisé. Not used in modern fencing.

Kata: (budo) A set of moves practiced in sequence; a pattern dance. 

Keikogi: (budo) The top half of a uniform for most Japanese martial arts. It is often made of a thick, quilted cotton and typically comes in white or dark blue.

Kodachi: (Nito-ryu kendo) The short sword. I used the koryo (traditional) term that is used in Niten Ichi-ryu, but modern kendo refers to this as the shoto.

Hakama: (budo) The bottom half of the uniform for many Japanese martial arts, including kendo, naginata, and iaido. Although it looks like a skirt, it is in reality a very wide-legged pair of pants. There are seven folds at the front.

Parry: (fencing) A simple defensive action designed to deflect an attack. There are eight standard parries, which carry the supremely uninspired names of prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septime, and octavo, which denote how the blade is held and in which direction. Modern fencing sometimes uses a variance of these traditional terms, calling them “parry 1”, “parry 2”, etc. The most common parries used in modern fencing are parries 4 and 6.

Pass Forwards / Backwards: (fencing) Forwards and backwards foot actions, which involve crossing the feet to move forwards and backwards and remaining en garde.

Passé: (fencing) An attack that passes the target without hitting.

Patinando: (fencing) Advance lunges, of two types. A speed patinando is a fast step and a lunge, while a tempo patinando is a slow step followed by a fast lunge. The tempo patinando tricks the defender to think the attacker is attacking slower than they are.

Prise de fer: (fencing) an engagement of the blades that attempts to control the opponent's weapon. Different kinds of prise de fer include beating the blade, a press, expulsion, bind, croisé, envelopment, opposition and transfer.

Riposte: (fencing) An attack made immediately after a parry of the opponent's attack.

Tachi: (Nito-ryu kendo) The long sword. I used the koryo (traditional) term that is used in Niten Ichi-ryu, but modern kendo refers to this as the daichi.