‘Here we are,’ Raoul said, taking his arm from Kel’s shoulders. The insignia over the door on this stable was familiar: a silver blade and crown on a blue field, the emblem of the King’s Own. Kel, Peachblossom, and Jump followed Raoul inside. The stable was big. There were three hundred men in the King’s Own: younger sons of nobles, wealthy merchants’ sons, and Bazhir from the Southern Desert. Each was required to supply two horses when he joined, though the company replaced those killed on duty. Kel eyed the ones in the stalls as she walked past. These were some of the kingdom’s finest mounts.
Once the Own had been a cozy assignment for wealthy young men who liked to look good and meet ladies with dowries. Under Lord Raoul it became the Crown’s weapon, enforcing the law and helping local nobles deal with problems too large to handle alone. Since the arrival of the strange creatures called immortals seven years before, enforcing the law and handling problems required every warrior the Throne could supply. Not all giants, ogres, centaurs, winged horses, and unicorns were peaceful; other, stranger creatures saw humans only as meals. Even those who did coexist with humans had to find homes, make treaties, and swear to obey the realm’s laws.
‘Here we go,’ Raoul said, halting. The glossy brown mare in front of them was a solid animal, smaller than Peachblossom. She had broad shoulders and deep hind quarters, feathery white socks, and a white star on her forehead. Kel hitched Peachblossom out of harm’s way, then approached the mare and offered a hand. The mare lowered her nose and blew softly on Kel’s palm.
‘Take a look at her,’ Raoul said. ‘Tell me what you think.’
Kel stepped into the stall to inspect the mare thoroughly, feeling as if this were a test, at least of her knowledge of horses. That made sense, if she was to spend time with some of the realm’s finest horsemen.
The mare’s eyes were clear, her teeth sound. She seemed affectionate, butting Kel in fun. Someone had groomed her; there were no burs or tangles in her black mane and tail, and her white socks were clean.
‘She’s beautiful,’ Kel said finally. ‘Looks like she’ll go forever. Not up to your weight, my lord.’ She smiled at the six-foot-four-inch Knight Commander, who grinned. ‘But she and I should do well.’ Jump crawled under the gate. He sniffed the mare’s hooves, as if conducting his own inspection. The horse turned her head, keeping the dog under observation, but she seemed to have no objection.
‘Very good,’ Raoul said. ‘As your knight-master, I give her to you, as is my obligation. What will you name her?’
Kel smiled at the mare, who lipped her new rider’s arm. ‘I’d like to call her Hoshi,’ she replied. ‘It’s Yamani for “star”.’ She touched the white star between the mare’s eyes.
‘Hoshi it is. Now, why don’t you settle Peachblossom there,’ Raoul nodded to the empty stall beside Hoshi’s, ‘while we discuss other details?’
Kel led Peachblossom into his new stall and unsaddled him. More than anything she wanted to run back to the iron door of the Chamber of the Ordeal and snap her fingers at it. You see, she wanted to tell it, not a desk knight after all!
Neal was out when Kel returned. She stood before his closed door, disappointed. None of her other friends among the first-year squires – Seaver, Esmond, and Merric – were in their rooms either. Her news must wait: she had to pack. Unlike her friends, she would not be returning to the squires’ wing most winters. She was to live in rooms adjoining the Knight Commander’s, in a palace wing closest to the barracks that housed the King’s Own.
She was explaining things to the sparrows who had adopted her when Jump and the birds raced for the open door. Neal walked in. He was dead white; his green eyes blazed.
‘Neal, what’s wrong?’ Kel asked.
He actually wrung his hands. ‘Sit down,’ he told Kel. ‘Please.’
He paced for a moment. Jump looked at him and snorted; the sparrows found positions on Kel and the furniture to watch. Crown, the female who led the flock, lit on Neal’s shoulder. She rode there for a moment, then peeped loudly, as if telling him to speak.
Neal faced Kel. ‘This wasn’t my idea,’ he said. ‘Remember that knight I was to see today?’ Kel nodded. ‘Well, the knight wants to take me,’ Neal continued, ‘and Father and the king say I should do it. They said that you are getting a very good offer, too. I want you to know I argued. I said it should be you. They say that’s a bad idea. That people might question if you were really good.’
Kel stared at her friend. What was wrong with him?
Neal took a deep breath. ‘Lady Alanna has asked me to be her squire. She’s a healer, Kel. That’s why Father wants me with her. Maybe that’s even why the king stuck in his oar. You know I wish I’d had more training. Lady Alanna says she’ll teach me. But I swear by Mithros I had no idea she was going to ask.’
Kel nodded dumbly. After all her hopes Lady Alanna had taken a squire, though she had done without for her entire career. The problem was, that squire was not Kel. It was Kel’s best friend.
‘Kel, please …’ Neal began. Then he looked around. ‘You’re packing. You’re – why are you packing? You’re not leaving?’ The worry in his face made her heart ache. Yes, he had the place she wanted, beside the realm’s most legendary knight, but this was Neal. They had fought bullies, monstrous spidrens, and hill bandits. They had studied together and joked on their gloomiest days. He’d shown her the palace ropes; she knew about his unrequited passions for unattainable ladies. The only secret between them was Kel’s crush on him.
I can’t turn on him, she thought. I can’t not be his friend, even if I can’t be his love. ‘Lord Raoul asked me to be his squire.’
Neal collapsed into a chair. ‘Raoul? I’ll be switched,’ he said, awed. ‘Lady Alanna told me you were looked after, but this? Gods all bless. Goldenlake the Giant Killer.’ He whistled. ‘This is very good. I love it. Not even the conservatives will question your right to a shield if he’s your master. He may be a progressive, but he’s still the most respected knight in Tortall. Even the ones who claim you’re magicked to succeed will have to shut up.’
‘What do you mean?’ Kel demanded. Sometimes Neal took forever to get to the point; sometimes, even when he got to it, the thing didn’t feel like a point at all. This was starting to feel like one of those times.
‘You’ll be in public view most of the time,’ Neal explained. ‘Not everyone you meet will be your friend, so they won’t lie for you, and some will have enough Gift of their own to tell if magic’s being worked on you. No one will be able to claim you did anything but what was under everybody’s nose after four years in the King’s Own.’
‘If I cared for their opinion, I’d be relieved,’ Kel informed her friend. ‘So you think this is good.’
He nodded vigorously. ‘I’m envious,’ he admitted. ‘Lord Raoul’s got to be the most easygoing man alive. My new knight-mistress is famed for wielding sharp edges – sword, knife, and tongue.’
Kel scratched her ear. She hadn’t considered the Lioness’s temper, though the realm’s sole female knight was infamous for it. ‘You’ll just have to get on with her,’ she said. She knew her words were silly as they left her mouth. Neal couldn’t just get on with anyone. He could no more resist poking at other people’s conceits or ideas than he could resist breathing.
‘I’ll manage,’ Neal said. ‘She and Father are friends, so she probably won’t kill me. Now,’ he went on, changing the subject, ‘why are you packing, if you have such a wonderful knight-master?’
‘I have to be ready to go with him at any time,’ she explained, sitting on her bed. ‘My room’s next to his. I don’t even know how often I’ll be in the palace – he’s on the road all year.’
‘We’ll see each other during the Grand Progress,’ Neal pointed out. ‘Unless – maybe you won’t … I know you wanted Lady Alanna.’
Kel had to make this better. ‘Not see you, when you won’t eat vegetables if I don’t nag you?’ she demanded. ‘I’ll bet Lady Alanna—’ Her throat tightened. Dreams died so hard, and this one she had kept for most of her life. ‘I’ll bet she doesn’t care what she eats, let alone what her squire does. I should send Crown along to peck you as a reminder.’
Neal’s answering grin was shaky, but it grew stronger. ‘As if these feather dusters would be separated from you,’ he retorted.
‘I hope they can,’ Kel told him. ‘I doubt even Lord Raoul will welcome fifty-odd sparrows.’
Neal slung his legs over the arm of the chair. ‘I bet he and Lady Alanna planned this. They’re friends, and she did say you were looked after. And she has to know what people would say if she took you.’
‘That maybe I was right to look up to her all these years? That if anyone can teach me how to be a lady knight, it’s her?’ Kel asked bitterly. She wished she hadn’t spoken when she saw the hurt in his face. Most times I can keep silent, she thought, folding a tunic with hands that shook. But the one time I say the first thing in my mind, it’s to Neal. I should have said that to anyone but him.
His eyes were shadowed. ‘You are angry.’
Kel sighed and straightened to work a cramp from her back. ‘Not with you.’ Never with you, she thought, wishing yet again that he liked her as a girl as well as a friend. ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I feel. First I was just about as low as I could be – Neal, I had a vision.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘My dear Kel, I’d say Jump, your sparrows, even Peachblossom are likelier to have visions than you. I have never known anyone who had both feet nailed to the ground.’
She had to smile. He was right. ‘It didn’t come from me,’ she informed him. ‘I was in the Chapel of the Ordeal—’
‘Finally!’ he interrupted. ‘You took your own sweet time in going—’
It was Kel’s turn to interrupt. ‘Do you want to hear about my vision or not?’ She described what had happened when she touched the Chamber’s iron door. ‘And then I went to the tilting yard and Lord Raoul found me,’ she finished. ‘But Neal, it felt just as real as anything.’
He smiled crookedly. ‘Then here’s a word of advice – don’t touch the door again. That Chamber is a law to itself. No one knows how it works. It’s killed squires, Kel. Killed them, driven them mad—’
‘And left plenty to become knights,’ Kel pointed out before his imagination galloped away with him. ‘Like it will us.’ She refused to admit he’d raised goose bumps on her skin. I climbed down from Balor’s Needle, she thought, reminding herself of the day she’d finally lost her terror of heights. I can handle the Chamber of the Ordeal.
Remembering the realness of her vision, Kel shivered. She checked her hands to make sure there were no ink blotches on them, then picked up a shirt.
When Kel’s maid, Lalasa, returned from signing a lease for her dressmaker’s shop, she found Kel and Neal trying to fit Kel’s weapons-cleaning kit into a trunk that was nearly full. After shedding tears over the news – Lalasa was sentimental – she banished them, saying the palace staff would see to everything. There was nothing to do but go to lunch and share their tidings with their friends. They talked there until the second bell of the afternoon about where they all would go.
When Kel returned to her room, only her night-things remained. Everything else had gone to her new quarters, though she wasn’t to report for duty until noon the next day. ‘I like to sleep late when I can,’ Raoul had explained. ‘It’s not something I get to do often. Neither will you, so take my advice, and sleep in.’
Lalasa sat by the window, sewing basket open beside her, a wad of green cloth in her lap. A stack of neatly folded green clothes lay on a stool beside her.
‘I took the liberty of getting your new things from the quartermasters for the King’s Own, my lady,’ she said as Kel closed the door. ‘These are some of Lord Raoul’s spares – he gave word to use them – but grain sacks have a better fit.’ She clipped a thread and shook out the garment, a tunic in Goldenlake green bordered in yellow. Though Kel would ride with the Own, she served Raoul the knight, not the Knight Commander. ‘Try these, and the breeches,’ Lalasa ordered. She held out both. ‘I measured them against your clothes, but I want to double-check.’