The city of Vinay del Zexay had turned its face towards winter cheerfully. The harvest was in and the autumn sea-storms were sure to abate soon, opening the winter shipping routes. This in turn brought the first stirrings of the social season, carriages rattling gaily throughout the city as the wealthiest merchants and the nobles paid formal social calls, and unmarried young women and men of these endowed families practiced fancy manners at morning teas and afternoon musicales, preparing for the parties and balls at midwinter. Their counterparts in the lower classes still had work during the days, but in the later hours, they could be found in the market streets along the docks, strolling in pairs or laughing in small groups, buying trinkets and roasted chestnuts, and generally filling the last hours of daylight with happy bustle and cheer. Trade-caravan leaders and soldiers alike returned to their families, the former as overland travel became difficult, the latter because the lasting peace had granted them the traditional winter's leave for the first time in years.
Chris Lightfellow was one of those returning soldiers. She had only been in the city for a week, but despite the pile of calling cards arriving on a daily basis, she hadn't made any visits of her own besides two. The first had been an incredibly awkward tea with her friend Borus Redrum and his matchmaking grandmother. The second was a dinner party that ended with her storming out in a temper when a merchant bachelor, offended when she rebuffed his romantic advances, suggested both that she preferred women and was sleeping with every man in her high command.
The calling cards had rather dropped off after that, but she couldn't really bring herself to care. She wasn't the chief commander of Zexen's army for the celebrity of it, and the social obligations that came with the post were (she thought) a worse burden than the paperwork.
Come to think of it, the paperwork hadn't seemed so much of a chore lately…
"You'll be staying for dinner, then, Milady?" The question from her lady's maid, a dimpled woman in her late forties, brought Chris back to the present.
"Hmm? Oh, sorry, Molly. Yes, the invitation was through dinner." Chris buttoned up her wool coat. "I may be quite late. You needn't wait up for me. Just have Cook leave the tea things out in case I want them when I return."
Molly curtsied. "As milady will have it. Although they may ask you to spend the night," her tone moved from polite to slightly stern, "It has been quite some time since you last visited the Keefersons."
"It's long overdue," Chris agreed. It had been nearly a year since she'd visited the family that had fostered her after her mother died. "Don't think I've forgotten what I owe them. Although I hope I'd have taken Louis as my squire regardless." She paused as she belted on her sword. "Would you like me to give your regards to Lady Keeferson?"
The older woman, who normally embraced the unspoken rules about the separate spheres of nobles and servants far more than her mistress did, brightened. They were both fond of Lady Keeferson, who'd taken both the orphaned girl and the suddenly-mistressless-maid under her wing, when Chris was nine years old. "Please do."
Chris left her home whistling cheerfully. It would be good to have a proper talk with Lady Keeferson. Oh, she'd written letters, but the correspondence, stretched out by distance and time, felt formal and distant. Chris missed the reassuring warmth of the late-night conversations of her adolescence, the few times she'd been able to visit despite her training. And she'd had thoughts, lately, that she had a hard time putting to word, let alone to paper.
The streets were dotted with passerby as Chris walked from her house, at least at first. But she saw no one after turning off the main roads, into the alleys and side-streets of the residential district. It was strange to be reminded that Vinay del Zexay could even be quieter than Brass Castle - of course, with the steady traffic of merchants and travelers crossing the long canyon that separated Zexen proper from the Grasslands, the fortress had been bustling lately.
Not that Brass Castle didn't have its own quiet places, and Chris found her thoughts once again returning to the evenings spent in the salon with the other Mighty Knights - the high command of Zexen's military. It had been particularly quiet her last evening there. Roland and Percival were months gone, the elf to travel, the man to his hometown of Iksay. Leo and his new wife had withdrawn to their country estate the week prior, and Borus (despite his obvious desire to escort Lady Chris back to the capital) had been dragooned into an earlier departure by order of his terrifying grandmother. So it had just been herself, Louis, and Salome arrayed quietly across the two sofas near the fire.
She'd shared one sofa with a pile of papers, final reports to read and sign off on before she took her winter's leave. She was somewhat cross about it - she'd hoped to be able to relax that night, perhaps read a book like Louis was doing, but too many officers in her command had left their own paperwork until the last minute. As her vice-captain, Salome had his own work to do, although he'd been forced to stack his papers on the floor: Louis took up the second place on his sofa. Some combination of the fire, fatigue, and the dryness of the tome he was supposed to be studying had made the lad's eyes droop and then close entirely, and the crackle of the fire and scratch of pen on paper were joined by the occasional faint whistle of breath.
At some point she looked up to ask Salome a question and saw the man's eyes were already on her, his expression contemplative. She nodded at the slumbering Louis, drawing a smile from her strategist, and then returned to her work with a suddenly lighter heart and a smile curving up the corners of her own lips.
The lightness had felt new and familiar at the same time, and as she readied for bed she followed the thread of memory to the glimpse of an evening from her childhood, seated between her parents as her mother sewed and her father read. But whether it - and the comfortable feeling - were her own or something from the Rune, she could not decide.
This was not the first time she had confusion over memories. She'd considered telling her closest friends among the knights, but decided against it. She was their captain as well as their friend, and "sometimes I can't tell whether a memory is my own or my father's" was not something that would exactly maintain their confidence in her, even if they all knew the Rune held the remnants of her father's spirit. Salome she might have told anyway, had the matter not touched on him.
But she thought she might tell Lady Keeferson. The woman who'd held her when she cried for her dead mother, who'd coaxed her out of her sorrow into laughter, who'd answered her questions when her monthly bleeding had begun. Lady Keeferson had seven sons and no daughters, and Chris had no mother.
A freezing gust from the harbor buffeted her back, drawing Chris out of contemplation, and she paused to button her wool coat more securely. The fastest route to the Keeferson home followed the roads nearest the bay, and the alleys seemed to work as tunnels for the sea winds rather than shelters. She walked quickly from habit, and felt her spirits lift at the familiar loom of the brownstone manor. There had been a time when she was younger that the Keeferson house was home. She still remembered stepping through the door the first time, pale and itchy in black mourning, and being immediately overwhelmed by the sudden increase of volume and energy. Lord and Lady Keeferson had seven sons, and they'd all rushed to the door to greet the nine-year-old girl coming to live with them with awkward bows, small gifts of whittled wood or ribbon, and in Oskar's case, a live frog.
The butler was the same (if much grayer around the temples) when she entered, as was the lively atmosphere, although there was no welcoming committee this time. The house was still a raucous bedlam, chatter and laughter echoing from the back stairs to the front hall. Chris stepped forward to let the door close behind her and was nearly bowled over by two waist-high blurs chasing a dog.
"Sorry, Lady!" A brown-haired girl of about eight called as she dashed after the others. "I need to catch my brothers before they-" She was out of sight before Chris heard the rest.
Chris exchanged looks with the butler, and shrugged helplessly. "I'm sure I was just as bad. Were those Andre's or Piers's children?" They were the eldest of the seven Keeferson sons. Her squire Louis was the youngest.
"Lucen's, actually, milady," he told her as he took her coat and sword-belt. "Although he and his lady are out today on business."
"...that girl was Sophia?" The last time she'd seen her, the girl had been an only child and barely more than a toddler. She shook her head in amazement. "Time flies."
The butler bowed. "Milady has been gone for a long time."
"So I have," she agreed. It had been what, six years since she'd been knighted and moved back to her own family home? And then there had been the wars, and her promotion to Captain General, all of which had kept her in Brass Castle rather than the city for most of the year…reasons or excuses, she wondered, then dismissed the disquieting thought. "Where can I find Lady Keeferson?"
Four of of Louis's five oldest brothers were married, so when Chris joined Lady Keeferson to help with hanging garlands, the older woman was already gaily chatting with her daughters-in-law as they studded oranges with cloves and sewed strings of cranberries to evergreen boughs. Chris felt suddenly shy, faced by the laughing group of women. Shaking off the unfamiliar sensation, she joined them.
Lady Keeferson greeted her with a cry and an embrace. "Oh, Chris, just look at you." And so of course the other three women did, openly curious about this newcomer. Then one by one they seemed to realize that the silver-haired woman in trousers was in fact the Lady Captain Chris Lightfellow, commander of Zexen's military, and their faces took on the familiar pink, nervous look of citizens faced with the famous hero.
Chris felt sorry that they hadn't been warned of her coming, but her sympathy didn't have time to last. Soon it was her turn to be overwhelmed as the introductions were handed round, Lady Keeferson rattling off the three women's names and titles and husbands and birthdays and children so quickly that ten minutes later Chris was shamed to realize she remembered only one name (Annika, who wore the red dress) and the husband of another (the oldest woman was the wife of Piers, Louis's eldest brother but one). The third was apparently two years younger than herself, but Chris had missed her name entirely, and only could remember that the woman had one child already and was pretty obviously expecting another one.
That early, uncharacteristic bout of shyness proved a harbinger for the rest of the afternoon, and Chris found herself progressively more ill-at-ease as time wore on. Her fingers were made clumsy with the needle by the gloves she dared not remove, not with the dark brand of the True Water Rune across her right hand, and it seemed her tongue followed suit. She took more than her share of turns up the ladders to hang the wreaths and garlands, escaping the need to be an active participant in the conversation.
It wasn't that the others were unfriendly. The women were quite welcoming, once Lady Keeferson's free manner with Chris and her own willingness to lend a hand removed the stars from their eyes. They spoke easily about their own lives - mainly, their households and children.
Therein lay the problem. Chris could participate in conversation on the first topic marginally, as the master of her own home - although she was there so rarely that the day-to-day decisions were all handled by her steward, and of course that was the focus of the women. Lady Keeferson tried to include Chris in the conversations about children, addressing remarks to her prefaced with "when you have children of your own," but as far as Chris was concerned that only served to highlight the divide between herself and the other women.
"I'd need a husband first," she said dryly, to cover her awkwardness when Annika started following Lady Keeferson's lead. "Which may be some time coming."
"But don't you have a sweetheart?" the youngest wanted to know. "They say all the men are in love with you! You have your choice of all of those handsome knights."
"It's not quite like that," Chris said, wishing her pale skin didn't show embarrassment so easily. "It's mostly just joking."
"Only mostly? So there is someone courting you. I hope he brings you nice gifts." The woman put up her hands and smiled disarmingly. "I tease, I tease."
Chris opened her mouth to repeat one of Percival's favorite jokes, that her strategist courted her with gifts of paperwork, but the humor dimmed almost as soon as she'd thought of it. It was one thing to make such jokes amongst the other knights, another with strangers who might take it seriously. One of them might think to mention it to someone else, and gossip spread like grassfire in dry weather. Salome would not thank her for thoughtlessly causing such a rumor - not when they'd worked so hard to avoid exactly that sort of gossip when he'd supported her as Captain after Galahad's death. And he'd never seemed to find Percival's joke very funny to begin with.
So she put a smile on her face and shook her head. "The other knights are all my friends, not sweethearts."
The other women, Lady Keeferson included, looked a little disappointed. Hoping for gossip, then? she wondered, glad she'd withheld her remark.
The youngest woman sighed. "It must be so lonely that way, without any chance for domestic happiness. I can't imagine life without Oskar."
Chris blinked. Domestic happiness? "Hardly lonely. The salon - that's where we in the Six all meet - can get quite lively in the evening. Mostly we talk, although sometimes we play cards." It was a bit of an exaggeration, but she didn't think "working our way through paperwork in friendly company" would sound all that attractive to the other women.
"That's not quite the same-" the other woman began, at the same time as the Lady Keeferson said, looking a little sad, "I think there's rather more-"
Each waited for the other, politely, and Annika broke in. "I suppose it must be hard, as the only woman."
"Oh, I'm not the only one, or even the first." This was a familiar concern, one Chris could address easily. "There are some other women, although many began as enlistees years ago." That was an oversimplification, but now was not a good time to get into the less-than-shining history of women and commoners in the knighthood. "One of our best training masters is one of them. Lady Aurella Dancon? You may have heard of her - she and Leo Gallen married last month."
They had indeed. News of one of the Six Mighty Knights marrying - at his home estate no less, rather than with great fanfare and fete in the capital - had been quite the talk of the town, and Annika and Oskar's wife peppered her with questions on everything from who was there and what kind of gown the bride had worn, to why Leo Gallen had married an older woman. Chris obliged as best she could (although she couldn't give them the detail they wanted about the gown), and tried to turn aside speculation that Leo's bride had unsavory motives.
"I wasn't there for the stag night, although Louis was, so you might ask him," she said in reply to a question about Mighty Knight traditions of hazing grooms-to-be. "Which reminds me, how is Louis getting along with his nieces and nephews? I haven't seen him yet since coming here."
"Oh, they badger him all the time, asking for stories of the Mighty Knights. I don't think he's had a moment to himself since he's come home," Lady Keeferson replied.
And so the conversation turned back to the other women's children, and no one suggested to Chris again that she would someday have her own.
After dinner, Chris joined the men for talk of politics over their after-dinner brandy, although she asked for a cup of hot tea rather than adding spirits on top of the wine from the meal. It had been a while since she'd seen them all, but the eldest two, Andre and Piers, didn't look that much different, having already been grown when she'd met them. They both looked strongly of their square-jawed, light-eyed father, although Piers had his mother's lighter, brown hair. With Lucen absent (she did not miss the sour-faced man, who as a boy had sulked for weeks when Andre gave the interloping girl his old belt knife), the next oldest was Oskar.
She'd been the closest to him, being the same age, despite the incident with the frog; he'd taught her to use the knife Andre had given her to carve bits of driftwood, although she'd never matched his proficiency. She was tickled to see he'd grown a mustache, and told him so.
He rubbed it. "Marian likes it," he said, a bit shyly.
"Marian has you by the b-" Piers glanced at Chris, and hastily amended, " wrapped around her little finger."
"I'll have you know that I started growing this six months ago." Oskar folded his arms and raised an eyebrow at his brother.
"And that's relevant how?"
Oskar grinned smugly. "Have you seen Marian lately?"
Chris rolled her eyes and the fifth and sixth sons - Neal and Philippe - broke into snickers. "He's got you there, Piers," Philippe said, clapping his older brother on the back.
Lord Keeferson entered the room then, followed by Louis, and the conversation broke off in deference to the family patriarch. Chris had always found him rather imposing, and it was always a bit of a surprise to remember the man was scarcely taller than her and decidedly shorter than half of his sons. She was immensely conscious of what she owed the man, although Louis's presence made her a bit easier on that count. That Lord Keeferson felt the seventeen-year-old counted as an adult enough to join the men was a reflection not just on Louis, but herself as his knight-master.
"So what do you think of this new group, the Free Merchants?" Lord Keeferson asked the room at large. "The ones agitating for free trade."
"Oh, them?" Andre made a disdainful sound. "All puff and gas. They talk a lot about how the Council's tariffs are unfair, an affront to the dignity of man and spirit of Zexen, etcetera etcetera, which might win them some support from the working classes in town, but they don't have any solid proposals for alternative revenues."
Neal shook his head. "The Heinze family supports them. Or at least Lord Heinze; I've heard him pointing to Budehuc as an example. And he's right, they're doing quite well with free trade."
Chris frowned. "Budehuc doesn't tax its trade, true, but they get income by leasing land and buildings to the merchants and others. That wouldn't work here." Most of the property in Vinay del Zexay was privately owned, not held by the Federation.
"So like I said, no solid proposals," Andre said. "In a year's time no one will remember them at all."
"I'm sure the farmers don't like them either," Piers observed. "Without the tariff on Dunan wheat to keep prices high..."
The talk drifted to agriculture, which was apparently a major source of interest for half of them. Chris volunteered the news she'd gleaned from Percival's letters - Iksay's harvest had been a good one for corn and tomatoes, less so for root vegetables, and the discussion continued comfortably from there.
Dusk was coming earlier as the year waned, and it was full dark when Chris stood in the entryway once again, this time buttoning her coat.
"Are you sure you'll be safe?" Lady Keeferson had elected to see her off, although Chris had already made her goodbyes to the rest of the household. "It's so late. You're more than welcome to stay the night."
Chris shook her head, amused, as she buckled on her sword. "I'm armed. And I stick to the main roads when I can. It's not as if I were going down to the docks."
"Oh, I know, it's just my prerogative to worry, that's all." Lady Keeferson shook her head and smiled. "I know you want to go home."
"Home, eh," Chris said pensively. She was suddenly struck by the thought of Brass Castle's echoing hallways, of evenings passed in the fire-warmed salon. Strange - and a little sad - that she should think of that when it was her house in town that she was returning to, and its empty rooms.
Something of her melancholy must have shown on her face, because suddenly the older woman embraced her. "You know that you're always welcome here."
"I know. Thank you." Chris returned the embrace, smiling the woman's familiar, homey smell. But when she opened her eyes, the proximity showed her streaks of grey in the older woman's neatly-knotted hair. Another reminder of how long it had been since the woman had taught her to make the garlands of evergreen and cranberry. Chris had been a child then; she was a woman grown now, and Lady Keeferson had other women to claim as daughters, through proper ties of family.
Chris drew back. "I really ought to be going. Good night, Lady Keeferson."
True to her word, she stuck to the most populous streets that she could on her way back, and she even saw a few fellow travellers despite the late hour. Warm lights shone from the houses she passed, dappling the paving stones. The wind that tugged at her coat sent fallen leaves skidding along the street like ripples in a stream.
More people appeared as the streets broadened nearer the center of the city, where a row of taverns drew a slightly higher class of clientele than the ones near the docks. Chris smiled at the familiar bustle of the crowd, which reminded her of the mess hall and training yards at Brass Castle - male voices raised in talk, argument, laughter. She drifted closer as she walked past, watching the smiling or sullen faces, the straight or staggered steps.. and then stopped, unsettled, as she realized why it reminded her so much of the fortress.
Have I really become so unaccustomed to other women? She quickened her step, away from the taverns and streets full of men, back into the quiet streets lined by nobles' residences. The light in her house was on, at least; her butler Andrew knew she had never cared to return to a dark home. Bad enough it was such an empty one…
She was two paces from the front door when it was flung open, the light inside framing a black shadow in the doorway, who pointed a finger and shouted. "Chris Lightfellow! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Chris stopped dead. "Lilly? What are you doing here?"
"I ought to ask the same of you! What kind of welcome is this?" the silhouette of Lilly Pendragon planted its hands on its hips and stamped its foot. It was a mannerism familiar to anyone who knew the only daughter of Tinto's President, Gustav Pendragon. "I travel all this way to visit my very best friend on this side of the continent, and what sort of greeting do I receive?An empty house, a dusty room, and cold dinner!"
"I'd have made sure to have a room and dinner ready if I'd known to expect you," Chris said, shaking her head and pushing her way past the bristling woman. "You could've at least sent a letter."
Lilly let her through, and closed the door, which she leaned against, arms folded. "I did. I told you that I'd be coming for the Federation Day Ball. Honestly! How you can lead an army if you can't remember such a simple thing?"
"You said that two years ago. During the war." Chris waved off her butler - the poor man had enough to deal with Lilly's invasion of the house - and hung up her coat herself. She bent to unlace her boots. "I assumed you meant last year's ball."
Lilly's illogical and indignant response lasted long enough for Chris to remove both of her boots and unbelt her sword.
"So what are your plans while you are here?" Chris asked her friend when the other woman paused for breath. "The ball isn't for another month."
Lilly picked a stray auburn hair from her shoulder. "Shopping, obviously - the fashions have all changed since last time and I can't go to the Federation Day Ball looking like a country bumpkin! And then of course I need to keep my dear friend from spending the winter holed up in her house and turning into a bookworm as fusty and dry as whats-his-face - that bowl-haired strategist you employ."
"Salome isn't fusty," Chris objected. "And his hair isn't that bad."
Lilly just looked at her, her expression disbelieving.
Chris sighed and smiled. "All right, I grant you the hair." She shook her head. "So you're here to shop, attend the ball, and bully me into socializing, is that right?"
"Oh, well," Lilly looked down and began fidgeting with her gloves. "There's some trade negotiations Father wants me to do for him. Nothing big, really, but I will need to nip down to visit a few merchants downtown some afternoon."
"Congratulations," Chris said, genuinely. Tinto was a mining country, and trade negotiations a serious responsibility.
"Oh, tosh, it's nothing. Just a little errand. Something to occupy me while you're at the dressmakers. Because you," Lilly levelled a gloved finger at Chris, who stepped back involuntarily, "are coming to the ball with me, and you are going to be wearing a gown."
"Me? In a gown?" Chris was torn between amusement and dismay. "No, thank you. I'd look silly."
"You'd look stunning and you know it," Lilly returned fiercely. "Sword and Shield, Chris, you need to stop with the false modesty, it's bad manners and makes you look like you're fishing for compliments. Besides, if you go in uniform, all of the other young women are going to giggle and whisper whenever you walk by. And I know you hate that." She grinned as she caught Chris's involuntary cringe. "And then Borus and Percival will die of heartbreak because they can't dance with you."
"How is it that you can remember their names but not Salome's?" Chris asked shaking her head. "Never mind, I don't think I want to hear the answer." She sighed; her mind's eye showed her a crowd of women chatting comfortably in a circle, while she remained on the periphery. "All right, all right, I'll go."
Lilly clapped her hands together. "And wear a gown?"
"And wear a gown," Chris replied, trying to sound casual and shrugging. "Why not."
Lilly's crow of triumph was decidedly unladylike.