Kel stripped off tunic and breeches and donned the new clothes. Something had changed her retiring Lalasa into this brisk young female. Kel suspected that Lalasa’s getting her shop and dress orders from Queen Thayet may have caused it. They had both changed since their long, frightening walk down the side of Balor’s Needle six weeks ago. Kel thought that Businesswoman Lalasa was a treat; she still wasn’t sure about Squire Keladry.
Lalasa gave the clothes a twitch and nodded. ‘Now these.’ Kel tried on two more sets of Goldenlake breeches and tunics while her maid pinned and straightened. Kel’s shirts, at least, would be the same white ones she’d worn as a page; it was one less piece of clothing to try on.
‘You’re not to take things to those sack stitchers at the palace tailors’,’ maid informed mistress. ‘They come straight to me, and not a penny will I take for the work.’ Her brown eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh, my lady,’ she said, her voice wobbling. ‘Out with all those men, and just a dog and some little birds and that dreadful horse to look after you.’
Kel had to chuckle. ‘The animals look after me just fine,’ she said, offering the older girl her handkerchief. ‘And surely you’ll be too busy to work on my clothes.’
‘Never,’ Lalasa said firmly, and blew her nose. ‘Never, ever.’
Kel looked at the sparrows perched on her bed. ‘I need to talk to you, all who can come,’ she said. ‘Crown? Freckle? Will you get the others?’
The chief female and male of the flock that used to nest outside Kel’s window in the pages’ wing sped outside. The sparrows already in the room found perches. The rest of the flock soon arrived.
Kel shook her head. Even after four years she felt odd talking to them as she would to humans, but they understood far more than normal birds. Ever since Daine, known as the Wildmage, had come to the palace, her magical influence had changed every animal resident. Kel’s dog Jump had refused to live with Daine, and deliberately worked his way into Lord Wyldon’s good graces so the training master would let him roam with the pages. Peachblossom had negotiated his no-spur agreement with Kel through Daine. The sparrows had moved in with Kel, who’d been feeding them, with the first winter snows. In less than a year they were defending her and acting as scouts for a spidren-hunting party. They had even found Lalasa on Balor’s Needle and fetched Kel to help.
‘I mentioned this, remember,’ Kel told the flock. ‘I have to go with my knight-master. It’ll be hard to keep up. I don’t know how often we’ll be here. Do you want to leave your nesting grounds? Salma told me she’ll go on feeding you, so you won’t go hungry. You don’t have to stay with me. It’s not that I don’t love you all,’ she assured the fifty-odd birds. ‘But this isn’t practical.’ She stopped, seeing all those black button eyes fixed on her. They were dressed as soberly as merchants in brown and tan, the males black-capped and black-collared, but Kel knew they were far from sober. She had seen them in battle, their tiny claws and beaks red with the blood of her enemies, or riding gleefully on Jump’s back. Most had come to the flock as newborns, raised in the courtyard and introduced to Kel by their elders.
At last Kel sighed. ‘I can’t think of anything else. Either you understand me or you don’t.’
Crown, named for the pale spot on her head and her imperious ways, hopped to Kel’s shoulder. She chattered at the flock, looking from face to face as a human might. At last she uttered a series of trills. Most of the flock took to the air. They circled Kel like a feathered cyclone, then sped out the window. When Kel walked over to see where they had gone, they were settled in their home courtyard one storey below.
Kel turned to see five sparrows – three females, two males – land on Lalasa’s chair and sewing. The one-footed female named Peg settled on Lalasa’s shoulder with a peep. Lalasa smiled as she stroked Peg’s chest.
‘Who needs to talk?’ she asked, her voice wobbling. ‘I know what you mean. You are all welcome at my home.’
‘Peg fetched me the night Vinson grabbed you,’ Kel said. ‘I suppose she feels you belong to her now.’ She took Lalasa’s hand. ‘You are still part of Mindelan, too. If you need a voice at court, or help, or just a friend, I hope you will come to me.’
Lalasa wiped her eyes on her sleeve. ‘I am still your maid, so it only makes sense that you bring me your clothes. I can never repay you for all you have done. I don’t even want to.’ She stood. ‘If you’ll excuse me, my lady, I need more green thread. You will sleep here tonight?’ Kel nodded. ‘Good. I should have the rest of these done by bedtime.’ She left before Kel could say anything.
‘These aren’t goodbyes,’ Kel told herself. ‘Just the next chapter in our lives.’ She looked at her bed to see who had stayed with her and Jump. Crown, the white-spotted male named Freckle, and ten other sparrows perched there.
‘You’ll come with me?’ she enquired.
‘Thank you,’ Kel told them. ‘I hope you like our new quarters. Do you want to see them?’
CHAPTER 2 (#ulink_7bf24498-472f-5f0e-89a9-b74d69e97b3b)
THE KING’S OWN (#ulink_7bf24498-472f-5f0e-89a9-b74d69e97b3b)
Kel needed only a key to enter her quarters, no magic password. It seemed unlikely that anyone would maul her things and paint on her walls, as they had her first year, when the connecting door now led to Lord Raoul’s suite. Once inside, she looked around. This room, bigger than her squire’s and page’s quarters combined, boasted a desk, a bookcase, armour and weapons racks, and a map of Tortall over the desk. A dressing room with its attached privy was opposite the door that led to Lord Raoul’s rooms.
Her belongings were here. Lalasa had set Kel’s collection of Yamani waving cat figures on the mantel. Kel’s old books were beside those already in the case. Her clothespress, weapons, and all the things she exercised with were neatly arranged; her silk painting of two Yamanis duelling with glaives was hung. The bed had fresh sheets and pillows: Kel or Lalasa would bring her nightclothes and blankets in the morning. Even the birds’ and Jump’s dishes were there, filled and ready. The twelve sparrows flew to them instantly.
Looking around, Kel suddenly realized the connecting door was ajar. From inside Lord Raoul’s rooms she heard voices.
‘… isn’t decent. You know court gossips, Raoul. They’ll have you in bed with her before today is done!’
‘Now I’m confused, Flyn.’ That was Lord Raoul’s voice, slow and good-humoured. ‘I thought they’ve had me in bed with other men for years, since I’m not married.’
‘Not around me or the lads, they haven’t,’ was the growled reply. ‘We’ve explained it’s nobody’s business.’
‘Then explain the same thing about Kel and me, Flyn,’ Raoul said. ‘That’s easy enough.’
Flyn – she knew the name. Of course: Flyndan Whiteford, nominally in command of Third Company in the King’s Own, in reality second in command to Lord Raoul, who personally led it whenever possible. Kel had met Flyn three summers ago, during the spidren hunt at the end of her first year as a page.
‘Stop joking, Raoul,’ Flyndan replied. ‘I’ve served with you for fifteen years. I’ve a right to be heard.’
Raoul sighed. ‘You know I listen to you.’
‘Then be serious. The girl will have no reputation, and neither will you. The conservatives will be furious you picked her.’
‘So?’ Raoul asked. ‘They dislike me anyway, just for the changes I’ve made in the Own. How much more can they hate me because Kel’s my squire? And she’s had four years to think about her reputation.’
‘She’s fourteen – she can’t understand all the consequences,’ Flyndan grumbled. ‘As a noble she wouldn’t be thinking about marriage and babies for another couple of years.’
Raoul continued, still patient. ‘But as a commoner she might be married – and producing babies – right now. Stop fussing. She’s intelligent, and she’s steady. Some people always believe the worst.’
‘You only did it because Lady Alanna asked you to,’ snapped Flyndan.
Kel swallowed a gasp. Now she was really glad they didn’t know she was listening. She shouldn’t be. It wasn’t right. Educational, but not right.
There was a sigh in the next room. ‘Alanna mentioned it, but I’ve had Kel in mind since the spidren hunt. Everything I’ve heard just confirms that she’ll do well, given a chance. That’s what I’d like you to do, Flyn – give her a chance.’
Kel knew she had to leave or say she was there. Cat-quiet, she went to her door, then yanked it loudly shut. She walked into the centre of the room, saying, ‘Your food and water dishes are here—’
A man poked his head through the connecting door. He was in his early forties, blunt nosed, with the dark skin, hair, and eyes of a Bazhir. He wore a white cotton shirt and loose dark green breeches, casual dress. ‘Good afternoon, Squire Keladry. Do you remember me?’
Kel smiled at the Bazhir. ‘It’s Qasim, isn’t it? You fed my birds on the spidren hunt.’ He’d been paired with her that day and had treated her just as he had the male pages. That, and the fact that he liked her sparrows, made him a friend in Kel’s eyes.
‘Have you still the little ones?’ he asked.
‘Some. The flock got too big for me to keep them all.’ Kel’s new flock left their dishes and flew to Qasim, fluttering around him. ‘They remember you,’ she said.
He reached into a pocket and withdrew a handful of dried cherries. ‘I hoped they would,’ he admitted with a smile. The birds grabbed the treats. ‘Come.’ He led Kel into Raoul’s quarters.
The Knight Commander occupied a suite of rooms. The one connected to Kel’s was a study, complete with a desk, a number of chairs, and full bookcases. Maps of Tortall and its neighbours were mounted on three walls. Beyond the study was a dining room of sorts, though the table was covered with armour and weapons. From her tour that morning Kel knew Raoul’s bedroom was on the other side, with its dressing room and privy.
Raoul sat at his desk, stacks of paper and books spread around him. He grinned at Kel. ‘I see you remember Qasim ibn Zirhud. He’s a corporal now, in Volorin’s squad. I don’t think you were properly introduced to Flyn, though – Captain Flyndan Whiteford.’
The man who sat in a chair opposite Raoul nodded curtly. He was stocky and fair skinned, his red-brown hair cropped short on the sides and left tightly curled on top. His brown eyes were set under thin brows, over a small nose and small lips. His voice, a light baritone, carried a hint of a northern burr, all but erased by years with the King’s Own.
‘This isn’t a menagerie,’ Flyndan objected as Jump and the birds explored the study.
‘The sparrows carry their own weight, Flyn,’ said Raoul. ‘Or did you forget, they led us to the spidren nest?’ He reached down to pet Jump. ‘Her gelding’s a piece of work, too.’ To Kel he said, ‘I’m glad you stopped by. I forgot to see to your kit. Do you have an hour? I know you’ll want to sup with your friends, but we should handle some things while we can.’