This was too close to feeling sorry for herself, a useless activity. ‘Come on,’ Kel told Jump. ‘Enough brooding. Let’s get some exercise.’
Jump pranced as Kel left the chapel. She was never sure if he understood her exactly – it grew harder each year to tell how much any palace animal did or did not know – but he could tell they were on their way outside.
Kel stopped at her quarters to leave a note for her maid, Lalasa: ‘Should a knight come to ask me to be his squire, I’m down at the practice courts.’ Gloom overtook her again. As the first known female page in over a century, she had struggled through four years to prove herself as good as any boy. If the last six weeks were any indication, she could have spared herself the trouble. It seemed no knight cared to take The Girl as his squire. Even her friend Neal, five years older than their other year-mates, known for his sharp tongue and poor attitude, had talked with three potential masters.
Kel and Jump left her room to stop by Neal’s. Her lanky friend lay on his bed, reading. Jump bounced up beside him.
‘I’m off to the practice courts,’ she said. ‘You want to come?’
Neal lowered his book, raising arched brows over green eyes. ‘I’m about to commence four years obeying the call of a bruiser on a horse,’ he pointed out in his dry voice. A friend had commented once that Neal had a gift for making someone want to punch him just for saying hello. ‘I refuse to put down what might be the last book I see for months.’
Kel eyed her friend. His long brown hair, swept back from a widow’s peak, stood at angles, combed that way by restless fingers. Her fingers itched to settle it. ‘I thought you wanted to be a squire,’ she said, locking her hands behind her back. Neal didn’t know she had a crush on him. She meant to keep it that way.
Neal sighed. ‘I want to fulfil Queenscove’s duty to the Crown,’ he reminded her. ‘A knight from our house—’
‘Has served the Crown for ages, is a pillar of the kingdom, I know, I know,’ Kel finished before he could start.
‘Well, that’s about being a knight. Squire is an intermediate step. It’s a pain in the rump, but it’s a passing pain. I don’t have to like it,’ Neal said. ‘I’d as soon read. Besides, Father said to wait. Another knight’s supposed to show up today. I hate it when Father gets mysterious.’
‘Well, I’m going to go and hit something,’ Kel said. ‘I can’t sit around.’
Neal sat up. ‘No one still?’ he asked, kindness in his voice and eyes. For all he was five years older, he was her best friend, and a good one.
Kel shook her head. ‘I thought if I survived the big examinations, I’d be fine. I thought somebody would take me, even if I am The Girl.’ She didn’t mention her bitterest disappointment. For years she had dreamed that Alanna the Lioness, the realm’s sole lady knight, would take her as squire. Kel knew it was unlikely. No one would believe she had earned her rank fairly if the controversial King’s Champion, who was also a mage, took Kel under her wing. In her heart, though, Kel had hoped. Now the congress that had brought so many other knights to the palace was ending, with no sign of Lady Alanna.
‘There are still knights in the field,’ Neal said gently. ‘You may be picked later this summer, or even this autumn.’
For a moment she almost told him about her vision in the chapel. Instead she made herself smile. Complaining to Neal wouldn’t help. ‘I know,’ she replied, ‘and until then, I mean to practise. Last chance to collect bruises from me.’
Neal shuddered. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ve got all the bruises off you this year that I want.’
‘Coward.’ She whistled for Jump, who leaped off the bed to follow her.
The practice courts were deserted. Lord Wyldon, the training master, had taken the pages to their summer camp earlier that week, ahead of the traffic that would clog the roads as the congress broke up. The combat teachers had gone with him; Kel saw only servants near the fenced yards where pages and squires practised. She’d thought that older squires might come out to keep their skills sharp, but none were visible.
She saddled her big gelding, Peachblossom, murmuring to him as she worked. He was a strawberry roan, his cinnamon coat flecked with bits of white, his face, stockings, mane, and tail all solid red-brown. Except for the palace horse-mages, he would tolerate only Kel. Abused when he was younger, Peachblossom was no man’s friend, but he suited Kel nicely.
Practice lance in hand, she guided Peachblossom to the tilting yard. There she studied the targets: the standard quintain dummy with its wooden shield, and a second dummy with a tiny black spot painted at the shield’s centre. They were too solid to fit her mood. Though it was a windy June day, she set up the ring target, a circle of willow twigs hung from a cord attached to a long arm of wood. It was always the hardest to hit due to its lightness. Today it whipped on its cord like a circular kite.
Kel rode Peachblossom to the starting point and composed herself. It was no good riding at the ring target with an unsettled heart. Six years of life in the Yamani Islands had taught her to manage her emotions. She breathed slowly and evenly, emptying her mind. Her green-hazel eyes took on their normal, dreamy cast. Her shoulders settled; her tight muscles loosened.
Kel gathered her reins and resettled her lance. Part of the bargain she and her horse had made to work together was that Peachblossom would answer to verbal commands and Kel would never use the spur. ‘Trot,’ she told him now.
The big horse made for the target at an easy pace. The ring flirted in the air. Kel lowered her fourteen-foot lance until it crossed a few inches above her gelding’s shoulders. The lead-weighted wood lay steady in her grip. Her eyes tracked the ring as she rose in the stirrups. On trotted Peachblossom, hooves smacking hard-packed dirt. Kel adjusted her lance point and jammed it straight through the ring. The cord that held it to the wooden arm snapped. Peachblossom slowed and turned.
With a hard flick – the movement took strength, and she had practised until she’d got it perfect – Kel sent the ring flying off her lance. Jump watched it, his powerful legs tense. He sprang, catching the ring in his jaws.
A big man who leaned on the fence applauded. The sun was in Kel’s eyes: she shaded them to see who it was, and smiled. Her audience was Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, knight and Knight Commander of the King’s Own guard. She liked him: for one thing, he treated her just as he did boy pages. It was nice that he’d witnessed one of her successes. The first time she’d seen him, she had been about to fall off a rearing Peachblossom. That her mount was out of control was bad; to have it witnessed by a hero like Lord Raoul, and ten more of the King’s Own, was far worse.
‘I’d heard how well you two work together,’ Lord Raoul said as Kel and Peachblossom approached. He was a head taller than Kel, with curly black hair cropped short, black eyes, and a broad, ruddy face. ‘I’m not sure I could have nailed that target.’ Jump trotted over to offer the ring to the big knight. Raoul took it, tested its weight, and whistled. ‘Willow? I don’t think I could nail it – the ring I use is oak.’
Kel ducked her head. ‘We practise a great deal, that’s all, my lord. Jump wants you to throw it for him.’
With a flick of the wrist the knight tossed the ring, letting it sail down the road. Jump raced under it until he could leap and catch the prize. Holding his tail and single ear proudly erect, he ran back to Raoul and Kel.
‘Practice is the difference between winning and being worm food,’ Raoul told Kel. ‘Do you have a moment? I need to discuss something with you.’
‘I’m at my lord’s service.’ Kel stood at ease, Peachblossom’s reins in her hand.
‘I owe you an apology,’ the knight confessed. ‘I’d meant to see you right after the big exams, but we were called east – ogres sneaked over the border from Tusaine. We just got back. If you haven’t accepted an offer from some other knight, would you like to be my squire?’
Kel blinked at him, unable to believe her ears. Over the last four years, when she hadn’t dreamed of serving Lady Alanna, she had slipped in a daydream or two of being Lord Raoul’s squire. It wasn’t that far-fetched – the man had shown he had a kindness for her in the past – but when he didn’t visit after the big examinations, her daydreams had turned to dust. It had never occurred to her that he might have been called away. Palace gossip, usually accurate about who was in residence and who was not, had crumpled under the flood of guests for the congress.
Finally she blurted out, ‘But you never take a squire!’
Jump barked: Lord Raoul still held the willow ring. He flipped it into the air, straight up. Jump gave him a look, as if to say, Very funny, and waited until the ring was six feet from the ground before he leaped to catch it.
‘Oh, all right.’ Raoul sent the circle skimming across the training yard. Jump raced after it gleefully. To Kel Raoul said, ‘I had a squire once, about twenty years ago. Why don’t we sit’ – he pointed to a nearby bench – ‘and I’ll explain.’
Kel followed him over and sat when he did. He took the ring from a victorious Jump and sent it flying again.
‘See, I haven’t needed a squire since I joined the King’s Own.’ The big man leaned back, stretching brawny legs out in front of him. He was dressed not in a courtier’s shirt, tunic, hose, and soft leather shoes, but in a country noble’s brown jerkin and breeches, a crimson shirt, and calf-high riding boots. He shifted so he could watch Kel’s face as they talked. ‘We have servants with the Own, and a standard-bearer, so my having a squire wasn’t an issue. But you know the Yamani princess and her ladies arrive next year.’
Kel nodded. She felt very odd, as if she occupied another girl’s body. Was he asking her out of pity? That would be almost as bad as service to a desk knight – though she’d still take the offer.
‘Once they get here, Chaos will swallow us,’ the man went on. ‘Their majesties plan to take the court on a Grand Progress – do you know what that is?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Kel replied. ‘Master Oakbridge, our etiquette teacher, talked about it all last year. It’s to show Princess Shinkokami to the realm, so people can see the heir’s future wife.’
Raoul nodded. ‘Which means a grand parade throughout the realm. Two mortal years of balls, tournaments, banquets, and other nonsense. Oh, some useful things will get done – they mean to survey the roads and hold a census, paper-shuffling, mostly. I have no problem with that, since I don’t have to do it. But fuss and feathers make my blood run cold.’
Kel’s lips quivered in the tiniest of smiles. The Knight Commander was infamous for dodging as many ceremonies as he could.
‘Servants and our standard-bearer won’t be enough when I have to deal with every jumped-up, self-important toady in the country.’ He thumped his knee with a fist the size of a small ham. ‘And I know nothing about the Yamanis. You lived six years at their court and speak the language.’
Enlightenment struck Kel like fireworks. He wasn’t taking her as a favour, or because he liked her, though that was nice. She would be useful to him, as no one else could!
‘I liked how you handled yourself when we hunted those spidrens, four years ago,’ Lord Raoul explained. ‘You knew when to speak up and when to be quiet. Wyldon and Myles of Olau say you don’t lose your temper. After your fight with bandits three years ago, I know you can keep your head in a fix. You’ll see plenty of combat with us. I’ll warn you, it’s more work than most squires get. Plenty of knights come here for the winter months, but the King’s Own goes where it’s needed, whatever the season. And we’ll be in the thick of all the progress antics. If you want out – if someone else you’d prefer has asked …’
Kel smiled at him. ‘I’m not afraid of work, my lord,’ she replied. ‘I would be honoured to be your squire.’
‘Good!’ he said, grabbing her hand and giving it two firm shakes, beaming at her. ‘Come down to our stables. You can bring the charmer.’ He nodded at Peachblossom. ‘He’s going to move there anyway, and I’d like you to have a look at a mare I think would suit you.’
As Kel scrambled to her feet, Raoul slung an arm around her shoulders and led her out of the yard. Kel made sure to hold out the hand that held Peachblossom’s rein, keeping the gelding on her far side, well out of reach of her new knight-master.
‘See, with the Own, everyone has at least one spare horse,’ Raoul said. They walked down one of the roads that crisscrossed the acres behind the palace. They were in an area of stables: those for couriers, heralds, and officers in the army, those for visitors, and those that served the King’s Own. ‘We live in the saddle. One horse isn’t up to all that. Your Peachblossom is heavy – you’ll need a horse with good wind and endurance to ride. You can keep Peachblossom for combat.’ He looked across Kel at the big gelding. ‘I asked Onua – horsemistress to the Queen’s Riders – to help me find a mount who could get on with your charming horsie.’
The ‘charming horsie’ snorted, as if he understood. Kel gave his reins a tug, a silent order to behave.