Unwilling

Title: Unwilling (For Malorie's Peak Prompt # 110, Ties that Bind, on Fief Goldenlake)

Rating: PG-13

Summary: This is a story about Nealan of Queenscove: third son, mage, healer, University scholar, friend, lover, Knight of the Realm of Tortall, heir to the Duchy of Queenscove. This is a story about love, about grief; about finding yourself in something you never wanted.

xxx

People are complicated, and Nealan of Queenscove is no exception. This story begins in the past; the past where Neal is the third son, the one who is loved, but not, he thinks, strictly necessary.

First sons, like Graeme, ensure the continuation of the noble house; second sons, like William, are duty-bound to assist the eldest. He studies the history books, and this is practical; it is not uncommon for a second son to inherit, for one reason or another. Third sons are really extras, because what are the chances that neither the first nor the second can inherit the title? Neal studies the history books, and barring murder, a third son has never inherited naturally. Neal doesn't plan on murdering his brothers (they're different, yes, but he loves them anyway), so he knows he's not really in line for the title. He likes it that way.

There are benefits. The name of House Queenscove does not rest on his shoulders, and the world is open for him to be what he wants to be – not a knight, certainly, not a lord. He can wait for true love, instead of marrying for the good of Queenscove; at court, he can say what he likes, because his words don't reflect so much on his family, because he doesn't really matter. He has to make his own way in the world, but for all of their differences, he knows his brothers love him and would never let him starve.

It helps, too, that of the three of them, Neal has the strongest Gift – a healing Gift, like their father's, one that he has experimented with and used and enjoyed from the longest time he can remember. As a child, things are simple.

"I'm going to be a great knight," Graeme says confidently, home from page training for the summer. They are lying in the apple orchard, he and Graeme and William, hiding from the heat of the midday sun. Graeme is tall, powerfully built, almost a decade Neal's senior, and Neal thinks then that Graeme is a giant. "Lord Wyldon says I'm one of the most promising pages. Maybe one day I will even lead my own command, like Lord Raoul."

"I want to be a knight too," says William, stockier, staring dreamily into the mask of leaves above. Graeme is all confidence, all drive – William is ideals, big dreams and excitement. "I get to go to page training this autumn. I'm going to be like the Lioness, going on quests for treasures; a great knight, like our ancestors on the Great Roll of Knights in the Hall of Crowns."

Graeme laughs, a deeper laugh than he or William are used to – his voice has changed, this past year. He punches William gently on shoulder. "If both you and I make the Great Roll, we'll have more than the Naxens."

William grins, his smile full of hopes, dreams, wishes. "Wouldn't that be something?" he says. He rolls over onto his stomach and turns to look at Neal. "And what about you? Are you going to be a knight too?"

"I don't think so," Neal replies, conjuring up emerald green lights for the sole purpose of watching them play with the rays of sunshine poking through the leaves above. "You and Graeme can be our knights. I think I'll want to go to the University and be a mage. Like Father, or like Master Harailt."

"Mm," William nods judiciously, satisfied. "It would be good to have a mage in Queenscove too."

xxx

When Neal turns ten, he does not follow his brothers into knight-training. Instead, he sinks himself into studies at the Royal University. The University is a beautiful place, one where there is no line between the nobility and the common folk – a place where people are united by their love of learning, by their magic. It doesn't matter to anyone that Neal is really only a third son; it doesn't matter what house he is from, what he should be doing with himself. The only thing that matters is the magic, the art, the learning; the only things that matter are things intrinsically him, intrinsically Neal.

At the University, Neal rubs shoulders with the world, with commoners and merchants and nobility, with Tortallans and Carthakis and Tyrans, and he doesn't bother distinguishing between them. The University is dynamic, experimental, exciting – there's always someone to debate, to sound ideas with, always someone willing to push the limits of his or her magic forward, further, faster. Neal is on his way to being a powerful healer mage, with a secondary concentration in illusions, and he loves every moment of it.

But then the Immortals War hits, and Neal is summoned to the front lines. He is younger now than his father was during the Tusaine War, but goes proudly with no regrets; he is there as a healer, not a killer, and he means to save as many lives as he can. Even if he can't heal battle wounds or conduct surgery yet, he is more than capable of handling minor wounds and infections and knows that his work frees some of the strain from the more skilled healers. The war is hard, sickening, and he throws up once, twice, thrice from the wounds he sees, but he pushes on because he knows he is making a difference. He sees the men brought back from the brink of death and he feels, in those moments, that he is fortunate – so fortunate, to be the one to bring people back from the dead and not one the one to cause it.

It is only luck that he is not working when Graeme is brought to the healers' tents.

He hears about it almost immediately, rushes to see him but Father meets him at the entrance, and Neal knows from the haggard look on his father's face that it's too late. He, fourteen and tall for his age, wraps his arms around his father, who weeps openly on his shoulder. Over his father's head, Neal catches sight of William, a squire, seated next to his brother's body – William wears a face of grief and shock and determination, and Neal knows then as only a younger son could that things are different. William is the heir now, and the Neal can see the shadow of Graeme's responsibilities settling onto his shoulders – in that instant, William's face becomes harder, and Neal sees the hopes, wishes, dreams die in his brother's eyes. In that moment, Neal knows, too, that he is now the second son, and while he is still free he is less so and he feels William's responsibilities weigh him down.

William never survives to meet his Ordeal, falling in battle a mere month later – long before Neal and his father have finished mourning for Graeme, long before Neal becomes comfortable with the idea that it will be William, not Graeme, that inherits the title, and certainly long before Neal understands that he is second in line for the title. It is only luck, he thinks, that puts him on shift instead of his father when William's body is brought in.

William is so young, too young to be dead, and Neal attends to him because it is far too late for the work of a healer to be helpful. He barely notices Sir Sacherell of Wellam, William's knight-master, looking at him with sorrow and grief from across William's body, doesn't hear the soft apologies, the explanation coming from his lips – for how can there be an explanation, any explanation, to justify the death of a squire while under the protection of his knight-master? Neal does the only thing he can do, and closes William's emerald green eyes, so like his own, and sends for his father.

Third sons are never supposed to inherit, not naturally, but Neal finds himself in that very improbable situation that night. The burden of the House of Queenscove settles that night onto his thin shoulders, a weight so heavy he doesn't know how Graeme or William ever held it. That night, the life that he had planned is over, and he lives now for the three of them, for Graeme and for William, and least of all for himself.

He does not cry.

xxx

Neal, alone, goes to meet Lord Wyldon of Cavall, Training Master. It is just after the War; to him, the Immortals War will always be known simply as "the War," for he can't imagine a War that is worse.

"I would like to enter page training," he says bluntly, staring directly into the Lord Wyldon's deep brown eyes. Lord Wyldon's face is blank, expressionless, and Neal is grateful for the lack of reaction. Being a knight is not his dream, was never his dream, but Queenscove needs a knight, and without Graeme and William to shoulder its burden, it falls on him.

"You are a little old to begin page training," Lord Wyldon replies dryly, but he doesn't refuse. Instead, he rubs at his scars on his arm absently – they are pink, new, and Neal can tell from the way the he rubs them that they still cause pain. His fingers itch to apply healing magic. "Almost fifteen, are you not?"

"I am," Neal admits without shame. "But I can name three knights who were older when they started. I assure you that I am capable; I have studied swordplay privately for the past six years, and at times have trained with my brothers. And, having spent the past four years at the University, I expect I will be able meet your academic expectations."

Lord Wyldon nods slowly, thinking. "Your brothers have recently passed," he says, and it is not a question. "You are now the heir to the duchy of Queenscove."

For the first time during their meeting, Neal looks away. There is a pause.

"You may join the pages tomorrow," he hears. Lord Wyldon's voice contains no trace of pity and, surprised, Neal looks up, and he knows looking into the Training Master's eyes that, of all things, Lord Wyldon understands. "I will evaluate your progress and see where you stand compared to the rest of the pages. If your physical abilities are satisfactory, I may allow you into squire training earlier than the customary four years. However, if not, then you will start in September as a first-year page. You are dismissed."

xxx

Neal is not Graeme, and he is not William. His swordplay is, admittedly, excellent – certainly up to par with the fourth year pages. He is able to manage a horse, but he is not able to wield his sword from his horse. His staff work, axe work and hand to hand combat skills are weak; his jousting is abysmal. It comes as no surprise when Lord Wyldon calmly informs him that, based on his skills, he is exempt from the examinations this year and will be joining the other first-year pages in the autumn.

Page-training is, quite simply, one of the most awful things he has ever put himself through. He wonders if it was worse than the War, as awful as that sounds, and he decides that in many ways it is – he is not in page-training by choice, is not here because he, for himself, wants to be a knight. He is here because it should have been Graeme, and it should have been William, and he is here because he is the heir to Queenscove.

Queenscove, he thinks, should have a knight. And if it can't be Graeme, and it can't be William, then it has to be him.

In his new environment, Neal is miserable. This was never his dream, and even if Graeme and William and Queenscove keep him here, he fights to remember himself. He was never quite so silly, so sarcastic before page training, and even if he had liked debating, he had never been quite so sharp or mocking either. Silliness, dramatics, arguments against the authority of the Training Master are his only shields in a world spun from his control.

If Lord Wyldon is surprised by the change in Neal's attitude, he does not show it.

xxx

That first summer is awful. Not as awful as the War itself, not as awful as page-training, though, and Neal wonders if the rest of his life will be measured in quantities of awful.

The deaths of Graeme and William, less than six months ago, put Queenscove deep in mourning. Mother barely leaves her bed each day, and her duties are taken on, more and more, by his younger sister. Jessamine, too, has changed – she is normally heard thundering around the estate with great glee, but with her brothers' deaths, she takes solace in silence. Neal knows well that she, too, is suffering – Graeme, in particular, loved spoiling her. For his part, Neal helps her with the accounts and escapes to the apple orchards and lies there for hours, hiding, remembering days spent there with his brothers.

Father is home, too, for once, and keeps trying to catch him to "discuss" his decision to withdraw from the University and enter knight-training. Neal has not bothered to keep his father apprised of the change; he wouldn't understand. Father is not a knight, and Father would try to talk him out of it, and Neal doesn't want to be talked out of knighthood. He doesn't want knighthood for himself, after all – he wants it for his brothers, for Queenscove, and this makes it all much worse than if he actually wanted it for himself.

A very small part of him wonders if he is simply being silly, dramatic, with his insistence on pursuing his brothers' dreams, wonders if Queenscove really needs a knight at all, but Neal calls this temptation and refuses to answer. Queenscove needs a knight, and if it can't be Graeme and it can't be William, it must be him.

Days pass, weeks, the month; Jessamine chooses to stay home from the convent that year, and Neal returns to the Palace, again a first-year page.

xxx

He hears the talk, of course, when he returns. A girl page is starting this year, a Keladry of Mindelan. The rumours about a girl that none of them knows are already flying, fast and furious; even if some remain silent on the matter, they are vastly outnumbered. None of them actually know anything about this Keladry, and rumours of Mindelan are mixed. They are new nobility, not even in the Book of Copper; simply ennobled merchants who purchased a title, and certainly not a house with whom proper noble families should associate. The Baron Piers and his lady wife are ambassadors, and they are responsible for bringing about the Yamani alliance that broke the blockade at Legann, and therefore the Mindelan house is to be honoured and celebrated. But then again, they have lived among savages for more than half a decade, and who can know what habits they have brought home with them? They have even permitted their oldest daughter, Patricine, to marry into a Yamani samurai family rather than a Tortallan noble one; what did that say about good judgement?

And then, of course, what could one say about Keladry? She is young, of the proper age to be a page, but that means she has spent her life among Yamani savages. Would she even speak Tortallan? What about Tortallan culture? And most of all: how long would she last? Certainly no Yamani form of training could be equal to Tortallan knight-training?

It makes Neal sick, the theories and rumours about a girl none of them have met.

xxx

When they finally do meet her, Keladry is underwhelming. She is taller than expected, true, but wears a knee-length dress in a fawn brown that complements her chestnut brown hair, cropped short, and her dreamy hazel eyes. She is no Alanna in miniature, which many expected; neither is she as loud or brash. She simply stands there, waiting, her hands linked calmly behind her back. Her face betrays none of her emotions, though Neal knows that she hears the whispers, which none of the pages have bothered to keep quiet.

Lord Wyldon makes no comment on her dress, and simply asks for mentors. None of them raise their hands for a long moment, and Neal, too, does not because it is not proper for one first-year page to sponsor another. But it is ironic, is it not, that this girl wants so badly what Neal does not, not really, but may not be given the chance to get it?

Neal has tasted freedom, and even if the Graeme and William's chains have wrapped themselves around him and locked him to this path, he remembers freedom.

"I suppose I am being rash and peculiar, again," he drawls, finding it high time to intercede when, of all people, that utter bigot Joren of Stone Mountain is the only one to volunteer. This girl, Keladry, deserves a chance at her dreams, and if he is the only one to give it, then so be it.

It's the sort of thing William would have done.

xxx

Much to his surprise, he actually likes this girl, Keladry. She has a seriousness he enjoys, reminding him of Graeme; an idealism, too, that reminds him of William. She wants to be a knight, and as one who wholeheartedly does not, even he is sometimes infected by her determination. With Kel, even if being a knight is duty, it is duty shouldered willingly, duty taken with less misery and rarely, duty even made fun. She doesn't pry too much into his affairs, letting him be as silly as he wishes with her – she just accepts the silliness and dramatics, and he feels safe with her and doesn't try to change her perceptions.

He tells her he is happier as a page, that he doesn't regret giving up his studies, and even if he's lying she just accepts it, makes him believe it, if only a little. She only comes close to the truth on this twice, and never pushes hard enough for the walls to break.

The first time, she introduces the topic when he heals her aching foot. It's their first year, and Neal still keenly feels his loss. "I can't believe you gave up learning to be a healer," she says lightly. "I can't believe you're happier as a page. An old page, at that!"

She has that characteristic Yamani poker-face on and Neal knows that even if her tone says otherwise, she's asking about something far deeper, something he doesn't especially want to share. It's too soon, and he likes pretending that becoming a knight was his idea, his goal, his dream, and this is not a conversation he wants.

He makes a face, instead. His face is good; he might not have her Yamani poker-face, but he's been at court his whole life and, like his brothers before him, can hide his feelings behind other, more studied faces. "I can name three who were older when they started."

"Please don't," she replies hurriedly, stalling his attempt to derail the conversation. She's not a fool, Kel. "And don't tell me you did all this to be one of the oldest first year pages in the realm."

Neal sighs, and studies his long-fingered hands. He's not ready to talk about it, but he finds himself speaking anyway. "On the Great Roll of Knights in the Hall of Crowns, twelve Queenscove knights are listed – only the Naxens have more. In The Scroll of Salute, King Jonathan the First wrote that four houses were the shield of Tortall: Legann, Naxen, ha Minch and Queenscove. My brothers thought that knighthood was the greatest service they could give."

It is the closest he has ever come to the truth with her, and Kel shoots without hesitation. "But it isn't the only service you can give. You've got brains. You've got the magical Gift. Why are you bashing about here?"

It is the closest he has ever come to the truth with her, and Kel doesn't understand. And how could she? Her family is still intact; Kel is the fifth daughter and ninth child of a minor barony. She was never in line for the title, and no weight of responsibility yet lies on her shoulders. Kel is free, free to pursue her dreams and he is not, and rather than try to explain to her, he smiles and lets silliness take over substance.

"Keeping you out of trouble," he replies cheerfully. "Try resting your weight on that."

He ignores the fact that Kel's reaction actually makes good sense.

xxx

The second time, they are hiding in the cave from the bandits, and it's been just over two years since his brothers have passed. The hurt is not quite so raw anymore, and Neal's settled into being a page – making friends with Kel has helped that more than anything else, and now he almost believes, some of the time, that he actually wants to be a knight.

Almost, but not quite, and on this day in particular, he's feeling the loss of his future. He hates killing, hates turning his bow on actual other people – the spidrens of last year were one thing, but actual people are something entirely different. All he wants to do is go heal things, but he lacks the training to even do that, today.

Merric has been shot with an arrow. The wound looks worse than it is, lodged deep into Merric's shoulder, but Neal has seen worse in the Immortals War. As long as he doesn't pull the arrow out, Merric should be fine. He staunches the flow of blood, stabilizes the arrowhead so it doesn't penetrate further, and reduces the pain so Merric obeys his orders not to touch it. But he doesn't have the training, and he can't heal it, and that, more than the bandits, more than the uncertainty of survival, that upsets him.

Kel is injured too, and her injury is one that he can heal, and he is more than a little hurt that she refuses it. Instead, when Kel finally enters their sorry excuse for a cave, she takes stock of the situation. She's calm. Disciplined. Sharp. It reminds him of Graeme – Graeme, too, was a leader.

"Can't you do more than stop the ouch?" Kel whispers to him finally, when she has finished giving her orders.

"I don't have the training," he replies, regretfully, shamefully.

"But you can heal," she says, but he looks down, away, interrupts.

"Within limits," he explains. "I was to start learning about arrow, sword and knife wounds this year, if I'd stayed."

Kel shakes her head. "You should get proper training!" she says indignantly, too loud, and Neal makes a face to cover his hurt. If only she knew how much he wishes he had stayed at the University,

"When?" he asks, disturbed that so much of his hurt is coming through in his voice. He takes a quiet breath, a short moment, clears his mind of his dark thoughts and when he speaks again, he's satisfied that his voice is once again the normal, dry, acerbic tone he normally uses. "Most people either go for knight or healer, not both."

He sees Kel open her mouth to argue, but she rethinks it and apologizes instead. Kel is perceptive, and even if he's never said anything about why he entered knight-training, not really, he knows that she has her guesses. And that's what he likes about her, isn't it? She doesn't push him on it, doesn't ask, and because she, the impromptu leader of their little group, doesn't ask, no one else does either.

"It's all right," he says, accepting her apology, giving her a crooked grin that shows more of himself than he's used to showing. "Gods know I keep thinking I was crack-brained to leave the University."

xxx

It is to his surprise as much as anyone else's when he is selected by none other than Alanna the Lioness as squire. It is four years now, four years since Graeme and William have passed, but Neal doesn't forget. This doesn't make any sense, doesn't make sense in any way. Neal doesn't even want to be a knight, not really, and how can he squire for a knight more prominent than either of his brothers had?

He refuses, of course – and there is Kel, too, to think of. His brothers are one thing, they are long gone, but how can he accept this honour when this is exactly what Kel has dreamed of since she was a child? He never even wanted to be a knight; being a page, then a squire, was certainly not in his plans. This was wrong, all wrong, and the honour of serving under the King's Champion should go to someone who actually wants to be a knight.

"I'm afraid I have to decline," he says firmly, interrupting the King's Champion before she's even through her invitation. He's had other offers, and even if none of them are particularly appealing, no offer is particularly appealing. "It's not supposed to be me – it was never supposed to be me. You should be asking Kel."

The red-headed woman sighs, looks him over from top to bottom, a flicker of pity flashing in her famous violet eyes. Even if Neal has phrased his words to mean you should ask Kel because you're a lady knight and this is Kel's dream,he has a sinking feeling that she understands his true meaning of I shouldn't be in this position because it should have been my brothers.

"Neal, if I may speak frankly?" she says, taking a seat on his narrow bed. "I understand that you've trained at the University, so I'll try to approach this as logically as I can. There are a few reasons why I am a more appropriate knight-master for you than I would be for Keladry of Mindelan; first, your strengths and mine are much better aligned."

Neal cocks one eyebrow at her – of all the reasons, he doesn't expect this to be the first one. "I don't understand," he replies bluntly. "Kel is the best of the pages in our year."

"I'm starting from the weakest point," she explains patiently. "And Keladry is an excellent squire, I'm not arguing, but I can't develop her skills the way that they should be developed. I am first and foremost a swordswoman – I prefer the sword in the way that I can tell you prefer the sword. Keladry doesn't – I think her best weapon is the lance, if anything. Telling you as your future knight-mistress, you had better not hope to challenge her in a few years with the lance because I am abysmal with the lance."

"Kel is best with the glaive," Neal corrects, though he sees her first point. He just doesn't like it.

"A weapon, then, that I can't even use," Alanna says without blinking. "My second point – Kel is already getting a very good offer, one that is much better suited for her, one which will develop her skills according to her strengths. In her position, she'll be able to hone her skills with the lance, sword, axe – anything that she can think of, she'll be able to train with someone who specialises in it." Neal quirks an eyebrow at her, questioning, but Alanna shakes her head. "That's for Kel to tell you. And in any case, I can't be Kel's knight-mistress even if I wanted it and even if it were appropriate – people would question her ability." She wiggles her fingers, and Neal can see the flash of her red-violet Gift between her fingers.

"Which brings me to my last point; I am, like you, a healer." She pauses then to let this sink in, and Neal knows at that moment that his father has said something to Alanna about this. Neal has never spoken to his father about his sudden decision to enter page-training, but he suspects rather strongly that his father knows quite a lot more about what's going through his head than Neal would like. "I might not have trained through the University, as healers are nowadays, but both as a knight and a healer, I will have more experience with the kind of wounds you're likely to see in the future. Duke Baird said you have some experience with this in the Immortals War, but count on it – you'll see more of it as a knight. As a squire, if you're unlucky."

Neal can tell from the grim cast to her mouth with those last few words that she knows something – something that wasn't sure, yet, but something serious. Which is all the more reason for Kel to be with her, under her protection.

"I really appreciate the offer," he begins, standing, "but I don't think, in good conscience, that I should …"

Alanna is up before he can finish and pats him affectionately on his cheek. "Think on it some more before you decide," she says, heading for his door. "And talk to your father about it."

When he interrupts his father in the midst of a meeting with King Jonathan, it's no surprise that Duke Baird wholeheartedly endorses the idea that Neal should squire for the realm's famed Lady Knight. Much to his surprise, King Jonathan agrees, and his mildly worded opinion, I think it would be a good idea; I'll go tell Alanna you've accepted becomes law. Neal leaves in disgust, feeling even less in control of his life than he did an hour ago, and wonders how he'll break the news to Kel.

Telling Kel turns out to be easier than expected. She's upset, but lets it go faster than Neal would have thought, and she has gotten a very good offer, and so Neal, well and truly trapped, becomes squire to the Lioness.

xxx

It's not the way he would have chosen to do it – certainly not the way Graeme and William did it, and Neal can't shake the feeling that he's a disappointment to them. To begin, Alanna's stripped virtually everything out of his education other than healing and swordplay – she keeps in a bit of knifework and hand-to-hand combat, "in case you're in a pinch", but he doesn't touch the lance, axe or any pole arms again. He keeps hunting with a bow, but his knight-mistress doesn't seem too fussed about more precise archery. It's not the training Graeme or William had, and Neal wonders if it's just him, if it's just that he's so totally incompetent with the rest Alanna doesn't bother.

Even with the sword, Neal's never able to disarm or even pose a threat to his terrifying knight-mistress. It's a bit absurd, he knows, to compare himself to the best swordswoman in their time, but he doesn't even seem to be improving. And on top of it all, she drags him to every village and hamlet with any sickness to train him as a healer and his first batch of bruise balm is such a failure that Alanna calls it "an insult to healers everywhere" and destroys it.

All in all, it's a relief when they return to the Palace for Midwinter and Neal is left under the care of Lord Wyldon while Lady Alanna returns to Pirate's Swoop for the holidays.

xxx

When he first meets Yukimi no Daoimoru, he doesn't think too much of her. She's beautiful, yes, clad that day in a cream-coloured kimono patterned with orange and yellow maple leaves, secured with a bronze obi. But she's not the kind of woman he's normally attracted to, not stunning like Daine or Uline of Hannalof, not the kind of attraction William or Graeme would have understood. She's wearing far too much makeup (William, in particular, used to hold forth on natural beauty), and her connections in Tortall are new, non-existent, not necessarily a good match for Queenscove (which is what Graeme would have said). Still… the respectful, formalistic way she speaks to Lord Wyldon, the amusement she displays, if only for a second, when she turns to bow to the room, is compelling.

They are formally introduced in Midwinter. He is having a conversation with Cleon, when Kel interrupts and pulls them along with her to meet Yukimi. Yukimi is wearing a sky-blue kimono for the party, patterned in gold phoenixes, but she has left her face bare except for the tiniest hints of makeup. She looks better without it. Her skin is pale, unblemished, her features delicate. Her long black hair has tied back with a sky-blue ribbon, but two locks of hair, cut short, frame her face exactly.

"Yuki, have you met my friends? This is Nealan of Queenscove, and Cleon of Kennan," Kel says brusquely, and Neal bows correctly in the Yamani fashion. "And of course, Yukimi noh Daiomoru."

"It is a pleasure," Yukimi says, returning the bow formally. The depth to which she bows shows that she's aware she is speaking to the heirs of two fiefs. Characteristically, Kel either doesn't notice or doesn't comment. "Please, call me Yuki."

"In that case, it must be Neal," he replies, and Kel launches into her plan for getting the Princess Shinkokami and Roald to talk. Kel's plan is brilliant in its simplicity: both of them were interested in Kel's summer bandit hunt. She would introduce them to Sir Raoul, who would tell them about it. Neal listens avidly, but there's a part of him that keeps watching the small Yamani woman. Her face is a moving mosaic of expression, flittering from first interest, to amusement, to anger, to decision. It is unlike anything Neal has ever seen in a Yamani woman, or even Kel – although the changes are slight, they are there; present, obvious.

"This plan is good," she says, snapping her fan when they've agreed. She raps Neal smartly on the chest with her fan. "Signal me when you have Prince Roald's interest."

"Bossy little thing," Neal murmurs to no one in particular.

Although he and Cleon are immediately successful in convincing Roald to go to the discussion, it is some time before Neal finishes his squire serving duties and is able to join the discussion himself. By that point, the conversation has long passed the bandit hunt. The group remaining is small, allowing for more frank and open discussions – Neal finds it much like the University, and enjoys it in an almost wistful kind of way.

"I have been invited to the mages party," Yuki says eventually, her expression reluctant. "I believe it would be entirely churlish of me to refuse, though I much enjoy this conversation."

Neal raises an eyebrow – several mages have entered and left the book room, but it seems that the conversation never leaned towards magic in particular, and Kel had never mentioned it. "I ought to attend the mages party as well," he volunteers. His father is hosting the mages' event this year, meaning that although Neal would rather avoid the event altogether, he really had no choice in his attendance. As the heir to Queenscove and a mage, refusing to attend would speak to some division in House Queenscove, an impression that would be politically unwise to make. "I'll walk you there."

She nods to him graciously, taking his offered arm. He's being unusually forward for a squire, but it seems that Yuki and their companions have not noticed. He hasn't offered an arm to guide a lady since, it seems, his university years. "Thank you," she says, smiling softly at him, before turning back to the rest of the group. "And thank you all for the enlightening conversation."

"I didn't realize you were Gifted," Neal says, in the corridors. Yuki's strides are so small, especially in her kimono – he has to slow down to lead her, though he can tell she is gliding her feet along quickly. It is just that she has to take two steps to match each one of his.

Yuki makes a non-committal sort of sound. "It is not really a very useful Gift, though," she replies. "Yours?"

"Primarily healing," Neal offers. She's not like the other mages he's ever met. Only mages of a particular standing received invitations for the palace mage parties, so she must have a fairly strong Gift to have gotten an invitation. However, nearly all mages at that standing were disproportionately proud of it. You usually couldn't make one stop talking about magic. "I have some illusion magic as well, but mostly in the form of casting bright lights. My colour is emerald green. Yours?"

"Pink," she replies, looking up at him again with slight smile. "The colour of cherry blossoms. I suppose you could say my magic relates to illusion as well, then, but I am told I will likely be asked for a demonstration tonight in any case. I believe the Princess has already made the acquaintance of your Wildmage, and no doubt she has told her to request a demonstration."

Neal raises one winged eyebrow at that. Demonstrations at mages parties are not uncommon, but for the Princess to suggest requesting one, however lightly, is intriguing. He smiles down at her in turn. "Now that you've said that, my lady, I will be certain to request a demonstration myself. My father is hosting, so I am sure he'll be amenable."

The Yamani girl puts on a look of horror, but Neal can see the hint of mischievousness in her eyes. "Surely not," she says, then her expression breaks and she laughs. "No, I do not mind. But you will see, it is not an especially useful Gift."

"With the Princess' recommendation, I simply don't see how that can be true," Neal says, opening the door to his father's chambers.

The mages party is not a large one, but Neal doesn't recognize more than a few faces. His father is there, of course, and Master Numair and Daine, and he recognizes a few of his father's healers. Daine sees the two of them enter and politely excuses herself from her conversation with Numair and Harailt of Aili, the head of the Royal University. She's resplendent in a gown of stormy blue-gray, matching the colour of her eyes. Unlike the fashion of the court, she's left her unruly curls down, but they are pulled away from her face with a matching ribbon.

"Hello Yuki, Neal," she says, not bothering to curtsey. Neal smiles inwardly – Daine had never been good with noble etiquette, and being as powerful as she is, it's not something that anyone has ever asked her to learn or improve on. Neal has always liked that about her – her total disregard for rules of noble etiquette was symbolic of the University. "I mean, if I can call you that? Princess Shinkokami says that is what you usually go by, and asked me to take you around to meet people. Unless, of course, you'd rather I didn't?" Neal sees her eyeing Yuki's hand, still trapped in his elbow.

"Yuki is fine," Yuki replies curiously, taken aback, and Neal recalls suddenly that Yuki hasn't been introduced to Daine herself. "And you are …?"

"This is Veralidaine Sarrasri, the Wildmage," he says. He pauses for a breath, before adding, "We were at the University together before the Immortals War."

"Just call me Daine, though," Daine says, smiling openly. Yuki starts to bow, but Daine shakes her head, waving it off. "No, no – I'm not a noble, please don't worry about the formalities. Why don't we take you around to meet people? You, too, Neal – I think you probably don't recognize most of the mages anymore, what with your knight-training."

Neal nods in relief. He's avoided the mage gatherings for the past few years, page-training and then being a squire being an excellent excuse, but it's … difficult being around University mages. It reminds him too much of what he's lost, though today's gathering is not as difficult as it normally is. He wonders about that, as Daine guides them over first to Master Numair and Harailt.

"Numair, Harailt," she says, and Neal represses a smile. By all rules of propriety, Daine really should have taken them first to greet their host, but his father is easygoing enough that it won't matter. He glances down at Yuki, whose inscrutable expression tells him that she's aware of the etiquette. He leans down to whisper in her ear.

"Don't worry – my father's not strict, he won't be offended that we've said hello to others first."

As much as Yuki tries to wave off attention to her Gift through her introductions, it only leads to more curiosity. Daine openly encourages it, bringing up the fact that Princess Shinkokami had highly recommended a demonstration at every opportunity. Duke Baird is only too happy to comply, waving her to the centre of the room and pulling other mages out of the way. Yuki sighs, but evidently she can see the writing on the wall, and something about the way she reacts tells him that this is something she's used to doing.

In the centre of the room, Yuki shuts her eyes, pulls out her fan (golden, today, matching her kimono), and takes a deep breath. When her eyes open, she snaps the fan open, and with a wave, pink phoenix appears and swirls around her figure, trailing petals he can only assume are cherry blossoms. It is a simple enough sort of light spell, done with a lot of theatre – the only unusual part of it, really, is her level of precision and control. Even in one colour, the phoenix and blossoms are incredibly detailed in shape. It's simple, but clever, and Neal's surprised that he's simply never thought of using light magic in such a way.

She catches sight of him, smiling, and sends a phoenix floating in his direction. Without thinking, he steps forward, conjuring up his own light in emerald green. It takes him only a few seconds to figure out how she's shaped her magic – it's the difference between making a light screen and a light ball, but another shape needs imagination, power, control. A minute later, he's given his ball of light some wings, a simple enough shape that he feels like he can hold onto for a while, and his tiny little winged ball trails after her elaborate phoenix in a complicated dance. He doesn't catch the look of fierce joy on his face while he focuses on making his winged ball dance in circles around her phoenix.

Yuki sends the phoenix to other mages, including Master Numair, who delicately refuses, but Harailt sends forth his own red star-shaped ball of light, and Duke Baird throws in two green leaves. Before long, Yuki's pink phoenix and storm of cherry blossoms are interspersed with shapes in several colours, swirling above their heads in a symphony of magic. Even if the spell itself is simple enough, Yuki has done something entirely new with it, something magnificent, and her shaped light is by far the most complex in the weave. It's exactly the kind of discovery, the kind of magic Neal misses from the University, and when it's over, the old pain hits him again, and all he can feel is loss.

He slips out of the room, thinking at first to head directly to his own rooms, but realizes quickly enough that he can't. He is the heir to Queenscove, after all, and with his father hosting, and it would be impolitic for him to leave without making a round through the other mages. He sighs, turns around, and puts himself in an alcove near the doors to the party. Just a few minutes, he promises himself, putting his heads in his hands. A few minutes to feel sorry for himself, and he'll go back in and be the person he should be.

"Tired?" A light, musical voice interrupts his sombre thoughts. "It does take a fair bit more energy to control shaped light than it does unshaped light."

Yuki sits down beside him in the alcove, her golden fan still out and on her lap. Close up, he can see that it, too, is decorated in faint, etched phoenixes. She doesn't look at him when she speaks, instead taking the time to trace the patterns on her fan with golden-brown fingers.

"Yes," he replies, happy to have been given the excuse. "More than I expected. You must have fairly large magic reserves to be able to create and hold a shape for that long."

"Liar." Surprised, Neal looks up. Yuki's lips have curved into a smirk. He likes that about her, actually – slight as her expressions are, she still shows emotion. "As tiring as the magic might have been, that is not why you are sitting out here right now."

He looks away, remains silent, and she seems content to let him sort out his reaction. "I'd rather not talk about it," he says finally, flatly. It doesn't even sound like him, not even a little bit – he hasn't been able to inject it with his usual wit, amusement, humour. The words just hang there, heavy and cold.

She doesn't reply, and when he looks over to her she's tapping her fan against her lips, her expression considering. She sighs, suddenly, tucks her fan away and her gaze falling to her lap,

"In Yaman," she says slowly, "We are taught that our emotions are weakness, that they are shameful, so we learn from when we are young to wear a mask. I have always struggled with that – I am not good at hiding what I feel, and I am happy to have come to a place where I no longer need to hide my feelings. You, too, wear a mask, but your mask is not one of blankness, but one of different emotions. I hope that one day you, too, will find freedom from that. Now, then," and her voice changes, brisk and businesslike, and a small smile lights her face. She nudges him gently with her shoulder. "Would you like to know what other things I can do with my Gift?"

Neal smiles back, a slight, genuine smile that isn't really what he feels but isn't wrong, either. "What?"

"Absolutely nothing. All I can do with my Gift is call light. It is really not especially helpful."

xxx

Dear Nealan,

I am writing to express my thanks for a lovely evening, and my most abject apologies for intruding into your affairs so rudely. I do not know why you go through so much effort to hide your emotions, but I ought not to have lectured you on this; you are not me, and you may have very good reasons for doing so. In explanation, I can only say that I found such deception to be detrimental to myself, and that I very much hope it will not be for you.

Your participation in my demonstration was very much appreciated – without your assistance, I think it would not have gone as smoothly.

Yours very truly,

Yukimi noh Daiomoru

xxx

Dear Yukimi,

Please, call me Neal, even in writing. My least favourite aunt calls me Nealan.

You are very welcome for a lovely evening, and please rest assured that I took no offense at your comments.

I very much enjoyed your demonstration, and I am certain others have as well. I have never seen such a use for light conjuration before, even during my studies at the Royal University; where did you learn it? Even if it is the only thing you can do with your Gift, I was very much impressed, particularly by your power and control.

Best regards,

Neal of Queenscove

xxx

Dear Neal,

Then it must be Yuki.

This may be forward of me, but if you ever wish to unburden yourself, I would be happy to listen.

As for my Gift, I learned it myself. As I said, my Gift is not especially useful in many things, and since I am only able to do one thing, I learned to do it very well. I have always been able to shape the light I call, and from there it is only a matter of imagination. The Princess finds my light-shows beautiful, and without her I suspect I would rarely use it.

Yours very truly,

Yuki

Neal stares at her response, thinking. Should he reply? He ignores her invitation to talk about that night, about his feelings, of course, but she has left something unsaid about her Gift, which is curious. Her demonstration is the talk of the mages throughout the Midwinter holiday, and he would be surprised if she were not invited to the Royal University. Simple as her magic might be, it was creative, and the kind of control demonstrated was unusual. Even healers, whose control was generally considered the strongest, were not able to call shaped light in such detail.

Her response is worded not to require a reply, but Neal never knew when to stop before and doesn't see why this should change.

Dear Yuki,

I profess a certain curiosity; certainly, your demonstration was a big discussion topic amongst the mages this Midwinter, and I would be shocked if you had not received an invitation to the Royal University by now. Have you truly had no training previously?

I will return your boldness with a forward comment of my own; you should be proud of your Gift! Even if you are only able to call light, you are very powerful and your control is impressive. In general, healing gifts promote the most control, but your control surpasses even that – please don't try to wave off your accomplishments.

Best regards,

Neal

xxx

It is many weeks before he receives a response, even accounting for his travels with Lady Alanna, and Neal wonders if he has perhaps been too forward with his comments. It is regretful, that, in part because Yuki is Kel's friend and he hopes that his comments are not so out of line that Yuki avoids him, especially when Kel is present.

Finally, stopping at the Palace in mid-April, he receives a letter rather larger than usual.

Dear Neal, he reads.

I apologize for the many weeks that have passed since your last letter. I was not sure how to respond to your boldness, and needed time to sort out my thoughts before writing again. In truth, what you are asking, though I am sure you did not know at the time, is an old source of difficulty for me.

I did receive a lecture request from the Royal University. Did you pull any strings there for me? I hope you did not, because you did not need to. I am well aware that my Gift is odd, and I have to admit I wonder if the reason I am being invited is to demonstrate my oddness before an audience. I have not yet responded, and am not sure whether I should.

As you returned my boldness with your own, I propose that we exchange one difficult truth for another. I can hardly ask you for honesty when I do not reciprocate that honesty, can I? Therefore, on the faith that you will return my own difficult honesty with your own, here are the reasons for my reluctance to embrace my Gift.

In Yaman, there are two kinds of Gifts that are appreciated – war Gifts and healing Gifts. Most Gifts, if truth be told, fall into these two categories because a Gift is simply that – the purposes to which a Gift can be used largely depends on training. My Gift falls in neither of those categories, despite much trying – I am simply a light-bringer. While I can blind people with my Gift, while I can hide things behind screens of light, I cannot hide things without making it obvious that something is hidden. This has always been a sore point with my family, which, much like your own, is a family of mages. In many ways, it would have been easier for me to be un-Gifted.

The Princess enjoys my light-shows, but this is the sum accomplishment of my magic – it is decorative, but serves no real purpose. I admit I am grateful the Princess enjoys my light-shows, for this is how we became friends, and I would not trade the Princess' friendship for anything, and at bare minimum my family appreciates the connection I have forged with the royal family. Otherwise, I must admit that my family would prefer I have a more practical Gift. I have all the strength of my family's magic, but with none of the practical usefulness.

Although reaction from the mages party suggests that such bias is not present at the Royal University, I am not interested in, once again, being treated as a decorative oddity. My Gift is what it is – powerful, controlled, and ultimately useless. I do not know what other demonstration they could be looking for, and so I am not sure how to respond.

You have attended the Royal University, you said, before entering into knight-training. Will you tell me more about it? Why did you leave?

Yours very truly,

Yuki

A truth for a truth, is it? Neal smiles wryly, rolling up the letter. He could, of course, refuse, but Yuki has revealed something that could not have been easy for her; he could hardly call himself a gentleman if he didn't return the favour. And in any case, he did want her to embrace her Gift, for all of its oddities, and if his knowledge of the Royal University would help her accept the invitation, he ought to try.

It takes him a month to formulate his reply.

Dear Yuki, he writes,

Thank you for your honesty. Given the difficulty of your admittance, I can hardly return the favour with dishonesty.

I did not pull any strings at the University for you; I hardly needed to. Your demonstration at Midwinter was very enlightening, and you did manage to solicit the participation of the Dean of the Royal University, Harailt of Aili. In my opinion, the University is merely interested in broadening the perspective and creativity of the illusion mages and light-bringers at the University. Although whether you accept the invitation is up to you, I can assure you that they will not consider your talent "ultimately useless."

I did study at the University for four years. I very much enjoyed my studies there, and I can promise you that no person's Gift was considered useless. All of our Gifts are different, and we studied the things that best suited our abilities. Personally, I was in the Healing stream, but I also took classes in illusion magic.

Moreover, the University is not only for mages. Many other disciplines have started there as well, including the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Languages. Many of my friends, when I attended, were not Gifted at all – unless, of course, you count unholy talents in mathematics. There is really nowhere like the Royal University, other than the University in Carthak. One does not need to be noble or Tortallan to attend, only gifted in some way – when I was there, I took classes with commoners, merchants, and nobles alike, and Tusaini, Tyrans, and Marenites as well.

I left the University just after the end of the Immortals War. The War hit my family very hard, and I unexpectedly became heir to the duchy. Knighthood runs strongly in my family, and my brothers thought that knighthood was the greatest service they could give. I entered knight-training immediately thereafter.

Best regards,

Neal

It is not detailed, but it would suffice.

xxx

They keep writing, a truth for a truth, but they don't talk about the letters when they meet. Neal is grateful for that fact; there is something different about the act of writing than speaking, something uninhibiting, that lets him put into words things he has not said to anyone before. It is, he thinks, the time and space granted in writing – he knows that when he writes a letter, whatever it contains, it will not be read for weeks. He will not have to be there, to watch her reactions, when she does read it. He will not have to tolerate whatever expression of confusion, of judgement, that could pass over her face. At worst, if he says too much… Yuki will just stop writing. And he can pretend that it never happened, that none of these admissions ever happened, which he can do because he knows just as much about her as she knows about him. There are no secrets between them, or perhaps they share too many secrets – the weight of their secrets keeps them together, ensures their respective secrets stay so.

A truth for a truth, she calls it. Yuki tells him about the Yamani Isles, about her family. She is the younger daughter of the Daiomoru family, a family of strong, Gifted mages who have always served the emperor. The men in her family tend towards being war mages – about half the women do as well. The other half tend towards healing. For some reason or another, Yuki's gift is strong, but not applicable to either – strong enough to require the expense of training, but not particularly applicable to either war or healing. Neal tells her, in turn, that her Gift is special in its unusualness – it is rare that a strong Gift is so limited, and Yuki's Gift could push the limits of their whole understanding of magic. She is not impressed, and in her return letter, tells him so.

In the Isles, Yuki says, she struggled socially before she met the Princess Shinkokami and Kel. She was the one that cried, the one who could hardly help but cry sometimes, the one that would not be stopped by shame from crying. She and Kel had bonded early because both of them cried when the other children taunted them. Unlike Kel, who had the excuse of being a foreigner, Yuki was twice-shamed because of it. Kel, in time, learned to hide her emotions perfectly; Yuki, not so much. Yuki, instead, had simply learned to reduce her expressions and use her fan more. In the Isles, she says, she wore face paint almost every day, if only because the weight of the face paint prevented her from showing her expressions so openly.

Neal, for his part, tells her about his brothers, about Graeme and William and lazy afternoons in the apple orchard, about stealing food from the Queenscove kitchens with William and about swordplay with Graeme. He tells her about how his brothers dreamed of making it onto the Great Roll of Knights in the Hall of Crowns, about Graeme's leadership and decisiveness, about William's idealism. He tells her about his own inchoate dreams, to be a healer and a mage, to join his father in their own particular service to the Crown. And he tells her about the War, about the dead men-at-arms and knights and squires, and about the nights that his brothers came into the healing tents and did not come out. Finally, he tells her about his own knight-training, about how he wanted to be there because of his brothers and Queenscove, but not for himself, and about his feelings that, no matter what he does or how he does, he will never match up to being either of them.

Yuki doesn't judge. She's not Kel, she doesn't point out the inconsistencies in his logic, for Neal is not an idiot and he knows, deep down somewhere, that Queenscove doesn't really need a knight. His father is not a knight, and even so, Queenscove remains one of the most powerful houses in Tortall. It doesn't change the fact that Neal wanted knighthood for his brothers, to fulfill their dreams, and for Queenscove. Yuki simply accepts his reasoning, accepts that he wants his knighthood for Queenscove even if Queenscove does not, strictly speaking, need a knight.

She does, however, tell him that she thinks what he's done is admirable, and that whatever his reasons were, she thinks he will make an excellent knight, and an excellent healer besides. She tells him that it doesn't matter that he isn't Graeme, and he isn't William. She tells him that he doesn't need to match up to his brothers, because he and his brothers are incomparable. They are different people, and people are all different, and people should never be compared. She tells him he should never think about it as if he needs to match up to anyone, and he should only think about doing well. He will, she tells him, be a different Duke of Queenscove than his brothers would have been, but that difference is not necessarily bad.

It makes him blush, the comments in some of her letters, but they are a much needed balm for his soul, and he hopes his own words do the same for her.

xxx

When they meet on progress, which they do often enough, they don't talk about the letters. They don't even mention the fact that the letters exist; instead, Neal pretends he has written to a different person, a different Yuki, and that the Yuki standing before him knows none of his secrets, and that he knows none of hers. It's a little disingenuous – she's the exact same in person as she is in writing, with the exact same wit, the exact same honesty, the exact same frankness that he's come to expect in writing, but he makes it work.

They never meet alone. Yuki mentions, in passing, that she accepted a once-yearly lecture request from the Royal University, but she's more preoccupied with her role among the Royal Ladies. They talk, debate, even argue around their friends, sometimes continuing their arguments the few times that Neal walks her to her own tent. But they never bring up the letters, the confidences, the secrets they share.

If Yuki questions the dichotomy, she never mentions it.

He catches Kel watching them sometimes, an odd, questioning look in her eyes, but he sends her a cheery smile and she just shakes her head. She doesn't ask, either.

xxx

He doesn't know when, exactly, the barriers start breaking down. It is sometime on the Progress, he knows that much; somewhere in one of their group meetings, he starts noticing her watching him, starts noticing the secret smile in her eyes when she looks at him. He, in turn, blushes ever so slightly when he catches her watching. They still talk, argue as well as they normally do, but when he walks her back to her tent, alone and yet not alone, they are silent. There's something there, unspoken and unwritten, that he doesn't have the courage to countenance yet. Things are breaking down, between Written Yuki and Real Yuki, and he's not entirely sure what he can do about it, or whether he wants to do anything about it.

All in all, he's almost relieved when Alanna receives the orders to leave the Progress and go north to defend the border. War is upon them, and whatever he has with Yuki will have to wait. Yuki, for her part, doesn't mention whatever they have when he stops by to tell her his orders.

They are in Mindelan, then, which is large enough that the Royal Ladies are given rooms to share. Yuki, he knows, usually shares with Haname noh Ajikuro. Haname, Yuki had once told him, was one of the best warriors at the Yamani court, a picture Neal could hardly imagine for the slight, slender Yamani woman. Her naginata was said to be the most elegant, her form the most precise, and she always found her openings.

He knocks cautiously. He wonders if she is home alone, but catches the thought and wonders why he cares. He isn't saying anything personal, anything private. He's simply letting Yuki know, as a friend and as their mutual friend to Kel (who seems to have left the keep), Roald and the others, that he has been summoned away and where they will be able to write to him. This is nothing that Haname can't hear, so why does he want to tell Yuki this privately?

To his relief, Yuki opens the door herself, but he spots Haname in the background. That's fine, he scolds his disappointed self. It's proper, and it's nothing she can't hear.

"Neal," Yuki says, smiling, and opens the door to invite him in. He shakes his head, waving the invitation off. "It is late to be calling on us."

"I'm sorry," Neal replies, bowing out of sheer uncertainty. He doesn't know exactly how to approach the topic, but figures that he might as well be blunt. "I only came to let you know that Lady Alanna and I have been ordered to the northern border and will be leaving at first light. We will be stationed in Frasrlund."

"I see," Yuki nods slowly, her smile disappearing. She takes a deep breath. "And you will be returning … when?"

He shrugs artfully, nonchalantly, carelessly, a shrug designed to wave away any and all concerns. "Hopefully by Midwinter, if the border settles. Often it does, in the winter – neither we nor the Scanrans are truly equipped to battle through the wintertime."

"I understand," she says quietly, seriously.

Neal clears his throat awkwardly. "I mean, if you could also tell Kel, and Roald, too. Kel doesn't seem to be in the castle, and I really ought to go to bed early …"

"Of course." Yuki studies him for a minute or so, her dark brown eyes thoughtful. "I will pass on your message to your friends."

"Thank you." He takes a deep breath. "I just came by to tell you so. I ought to go… early morning tomorrow." Without waiting for a response, he turns away and begins walking down the hallway, keeping his strides confident.

"Nealan," he hears from behind him, and he turns around. Yuki's face is expressionless, but her gaze is direct. "Please be careful."

xxx

The second time Neal goes to war, it is very different than the first time. The first time, he was excited, eager, honoured to be ordered to the front lines. He was just a healer then, and not even a trained healer – able only to help in minor ways, not step in on major surgeries or the miracles his father regularly performed. He was there to carry things, to bandage, to check on patients for infection – he was not there to fight people. This time, things are different.

This time, Neal will be expected to kill.

The fact he could be killed is, perhaps disconcertingly, not particularly worrisome. It is not that he believes he is immortal, immune from death, because William was younger and he is almost at Graeme's age before his death. He is perfectly aware that he could be killed in the war. If he is, then it would just be proof, wouldn't it, that Neal wasn't adequate for this task? Neal was never meant to take Graeme's place, to take William's place, and going to war at about the same age as his brothers did feels like a sign. If Neal is killed during the war, it would be fate, and there would be nothing he could do to stop it, so he didn't worry about that.

Rather, he worries more about killing others. He has killed spidrens and other immortals, and intellectually he doesn't think killing people would be any different. Immortals and humans are the same in every way that matter for killing; they are conscious, feeling beings that have love, relationships, other beings that care about them. Emotionally, however, he still worries about killing people, actual human people. Maybe it is that he can heal people but not immortals, maybe it is that he himself is a human, but killing another human is … different. Taboo.

Neal is fundamentally a healer, not a killer, and Lady Alanna's example notwithstanding, he isn't sure he can be both.

xxx

Frasrlund is a big city, situated on southern bank of the Vassa where it empties into the Emerald Ocean. It is large enough to have its own defences, including a substantial curtain wall defending the core of the town from attackers. It is the most powerful city in the North, second only to the City of the Gods – the linchpin of trade along the Vassa and through the Emerald Ocean, it is said that whoever controls Frasrlund controls northern trade itself.

The city has already sustained several attacks from the northern bank, though when the troops arrive, the Scanrans on the northern bank flee. They soon return, however, and the attacks are regular. Frasrlund is strategically important, and the Scanrans know it. By the time Midwinter comes, he knows their orders will not include returning to Corus.

Yuki does not stop writing, though the letters become fewer and farther between, and stop throughout the winter. Only now, there are no secrets shared, no truth for a truth; Yuki writes instead of the happenings in Corus, passes him news of Kel, of Roald, of Shinko – she writes him now about light things, frivolous things. The only exception is how she ends each of her letters.

Please be careful.

When he writes to her, that Midwinter, he apologizes for breaking his word. He will not be home this Midwinter, he writes, because their orders are to spend the winter shoring up Frasrlund's defences. The war, although nothing in comparison to the War, promises to worsen come spring, and Frasrlund will remain a key target. All time must be taken to strengthen the city before that time.

He does not receive her reply until the spring, though it is clearly penned much earlier.

Dear Neal, she writes, I understand your duties keep you in Frasrlund this Midwinter; you do not need to make any justifications to me. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I can only say: please, please be careful. Please come home when you are able. A truth for a truth: I worry for you.

He wonders how to answer: should laugh it off? Should he pen something cheerful in response? Should he mock being offended? He sighs, staring at the parchment, rubs his face. No, that would be insulting.

Dear Yuki, he writes instead, please don't worry on my account. I swear I will do my utmost to return to Corus. A truth for truth: I am scared, but not of the war. I am afraid of killing, and of losing myself.

Her response, three weeks later, is even shorter.

Who are you that you are afraid of losing?

xxx

The first time Neal kills someone, an actual human bearing down on him with a battle axe, he is too busy trying to stay alive to notice. He dodges the downward cut and takes advantage of the opening to thrust his sword into the Scanran footman's open side. The man gasps, once, and goes down, and Neal knows by the placement of his blade that he won't be getting up, but another Scanran is on him a breath later and he doesn't have time to process. He is defending Frasrlund's northern gates, which were broken open by battering ram earlier that week, and there are enough Scanrans in this charge to cause serious damage inside the city.

They kill enough that the Scanrans retreat, and Neal throws up. He is not embarrassed by throwing up – it's happened before, and the other Frasrlund defenders pat him on the back and tell him it's normal. Lady Alanna offers him a cup of water to rinse after he's done heaving, and simply tells him that they are needed in the healer's tents.

Neal doesn't tell anyone that he cries that night, reliving flashes from the battle where he sees the man's face, feels the soft whisper of his sword into the man's side, hears the man's gasp as he goes down. He cries that night, silently, because a life lost is a life lost, and that man probably didn't have any more choice to fight than Neal did. Neal cries that night, too, because he's gone against one of the most fundamental principles of healing, which is not killing, and he doesn't know what to make of that.

It is not the only time he kills. The raids are heavier this year, at least once a week and sometimes more. Neal goes from the battlefield to the healing tents, leaning plenty about both killing and healing all at once. Lady Alanna takes it all in stride; when he dares to ask her about it, about mixing killing and healing, she merely shrugs.

"I wanted to be a knight," she says wryly. "I was a knight before I was a healer, and I heal to make up for the lives I take as a knight. When we kill, we do so in the line of duty – given a choice, I would not kill any of the people I have in this war. However, we are at war, and it is our duty to the Crown to protect Tortall. After a battle, all I want to do is heal something."

Neal doesn't quite know how to respond to that, and her face softens. "I wasn't a University-trained healer. I never had to adopt any sort of code of practice, and I learned what I did and worked out how I deal with it by simply doing it. You'll have to do the same, and your answer could be different from mine. So back to the healing – see this arrow wound?"

That last year of squiredom, Neal learns as much about healing as he does about killing, and thinks too much about both with no conclusions.

xxx

He writes back to Yuki, some months after her letter. It takes him more than three tries to get something down on paper – he tries first just laughing it off, considers just writing his name on a sheet of parchment and sending it, but she deserves better. Instead, he writes down his thoughts, about Neal the healer turning into Neal the killer, about who he was supposed to be and who he has become instead, about Graeme and William and himself and things that were supposed to be. He sandwiches the whole mess between superficial news from the North and a brief message about Kel's encounter with the King's Own.

The only good thing about Frasrlund is that they don't get any killing machines.

xxx

When Yuki replies, two months later, it is almost as much of a mess as his own letter was to her. She starts by writing about Yaman, about necessity. In Yaman, she says, there is no divide between healers and samurai – samurai with the healing gift are simply that, samurai with the healing gift. She finds no contradiction between being a healer and being a knight – both are fundamentally about helping people, isn't that right?

In Yaman, she writes, they are raided regularly on two sides – if it isn't Scanra on the east, it is Jindazhen in the West or, not as often, the Copper Isles in the south. There are also regular pirate raids, from pirates belonging to no particular country and who have no particular affiliation. In Yaman, every sword and healing gift is needed. If both come in one person, then it is all the better. Samurai with healing gifts are adaptable, twice useful and twice-valued, able to move from battlefield to infirmary with all speed and save lives.

She writes also about luxury. It's luxurious that Tortallan healers can swear an oath not to harm people, and it's a sign of the overall peace of the country. She thinks it's sweet, and more than a little impractical. She signs off on it simply, apologetically:

I worry that I will have offended you with my words, and of course you do not need to write back to me – ultimately, I can only hope that you find your own answer within yourself, and that you find peace being both a future knight and a healer. But for all those people on the battlefield who would have died in the trip to the infirmary, I can only say that I doubt they will think you have betrayed any oaths.

Again, and as always, please be careful.

xxx

Neal thinks about responding, wavers about a month, before sending the shortest reply he has ever sent her.

Please be assured that I am not offended. I will take your words to heart, and I promise I will be careful.

The letters begin again, regularly, after that – but they are as they were, light and frivolous, full of silliness. They make him smile, a troubled smile, because whatever is roiling between them is still there, still there in the silliness. The barrier between them, foggy and disintegrating over the last year, is gone; but he can't afford to think about it, so he pushes it out of his mind and focuses on the only thing that matters: being careful.

He doesn't write back.

xxx

Two years in the North, and Midwinter is on him almost before he realizes. He hasn't spent his years in the north dreading it, whatever Kel might think; he has spent it brooding, thinking. Healing, killing.

Being in the war, this time, he is closer to his brothers than he's ever been. Eight years since their deaths, and isn't it odd that he feels like he understands them better now than he did when they were alive?

Eight years on, Neal is a trip through the Chamber away from knighthood - the knighthood he never wanted, the knighthood he has spent so long fighting against, fighting through, fighting for. He is glad that when his name is drawn first, though he catches the look of concern in Kel's eyes, because whatever the end result, at least it will be over.

Eight years on, Neal is ready for this happy little adventure to be over, as much as it can ever be over.

xxx

The day of his Ordeal, Kel and Yuki pull him out of bed early, and for once he doesn't care. It's not as though he wasn't awake anyway, staring at the ceiling and brooding. Being with Kel, with Yuki, with their other friends makes him forget those thoughts, if only because he needs to act, he needs to smile and be witty, sarcastic, be himself, be his most flippant and silliest self.

He's so himself, in fact, that he forgets about whatever it is that exists between him and Yuki. Intellectually, of course, he knows. He knows that the Yamani girl laughing at him, throwing snow in his face, knows his innermost secrets; he knows about the nameless thing between them. But, that day, that moment, he doesn't have the energy to think about it, so he doesn't.

They take him outside, but keep away from the practice courts. They have a snowball fight, and, soaked through to the skin with sweat and meltwater, they take him to town for a warm drink (or two, or three). It's distracting, and being himself becomes a bigger and bigger task, overwhelming in its complexity. Towards the end, Neal stops trying, stops being witty and sarcastic and flippant and silly, and stops being himself.

Kel and Yuki and his friends pretend they don't notice, for which he is grateful. By the time they drop him off for the ritual cleansing with Lady Alanna, he's silent again, brooding, drowning in the memories of his brothers.

xxx

He wonders if the ritual was the same for Graeme, what Graeme was thinking, feeling. William never made it to his Ordeal, but he wonders what it would have been like for William – who would have instructed him, how he (always the most naïve, idealistic, delicate of the three of them) would have felt, what he would have thought on the verge of entering the Chamber. There are some things that are different; Graeme, being squire to the conservative Alaric of Nond, had been instructed by Stigand of Fenrigh, that old stick that Alanna couldn't stand. William, being squire to Sacherell of Wellam, probably would have been instructed by Douglass of Veldine or Geoffrey of Meron. Their knightmasters, unlike his, would not have had harried, rushed arguments about whether he, like Kel and Alanna, would be instructed after he had dressed.

"Don't be ridiculous, Raoul, I've seen you all naked before," he hears his knight-mistress say, before she walks into the frigid ritual room.

The instruction itself is brief, simple – Neal answers woodenly, mechanically, hearing her words without hearing them. It's not that he doesn't understand what she's saying; it's that he has spent eight years, eight long years thinking about these duties, these responsibilities that shouldn't have been his and yet, by the misfortunes of war, are.

They leave him in the chapel, Alanna showing what is likely the most affection she has ever shown him in four years of squiredom and leaving him a light kiss on the crown of his head. "You'll be fine," she whispers to him. "I'll see you in the morning."

xxx

It's cold in the chapel, and he has a long night before him. Meditation is something he knows well, having been a core part of his magical training at the University, but he doesn't let himself fall into emptiness the way he normally would. He's here now, and instead he broods about how he got there, how Graeme and William got here, about what that means and about whether he is still Neal or some conglomerate of Neal plus Graeme plus William.

He wonders if it was the same for Graeme, wonders what Graeme thought about when he sat here, wonders if he thought the same things, but he thinks not. Graeme was born to it, born to knighthood and to the title. Graeme was like Merric, like Esmond, like Seaver – a knight because he was first-born, because it was expected and proper. He wanted to be a knight, of course, but he never truly had any other options. He would have heard the instructions with satisfaction, with expectation. He would have spent the night, Neal thinks, thinking about Queenscove, thinking about his future, which would have been, in his mind, forever tied to future of the duchy. Graeme would have seen knighthood as the logical, next step in his life, planned out since he was a child.

William would have been different. He would have been eager, excited. The ritual instruction was so grand, so idealistic, he wouldn't have been able to do anything except burst with pride. Neal could imagine him now, quivering with anticipation at the fulfillment of all his dreams. William did not have to be a knight, as a second son – he, like Dom, could have chosen other paths, including the King's Own. William chose a knight's life because he was William, because he, like Kel, really and truly believed in the ideals of chivalry. William was a bit of a romantic fool that way.

And what about himself? How does Neal feel at the end of this road unwillingly taken?

Acceptance. He still doesn't care for being a knight, doesn't care for a knight's life. The Code of Chivalry could be lived and exhibited in other ways, his father being a prime example. Being a knight, for him, is his gift to his brothers. It's the fulfillment of their dreams, not his own, but at the end of these eight years he can't say that he would have chosen differently. It wasn't what he would have chosen, if his brothers were still alive – but it was still his choice. He doesn't feel the satisfaction Graeme would have felt, nor the pride that William would have felt – but at the end of it all, he just feels a simple, reluctant, acceptance.

And when the door to the Chamber opens, at the first rays of dawn, Neal gets up and walks in.

xxx

It's dark in the Chamber, but not pitch-dark. It is the dark of late twilight, or early dawn – the dark of caves where there is the hope of light, but not much more. He sees the stone floors, at least, but he can't be sure there are walls.

There's a breeze, and now that he realizes there's a breeze, it becomes a gale. It should be colder, but it isn't; Neal glances down, notices that his thin robe has been changed to a padded tunic, with a shirt, breeches and boots to match. Disconcertingly, he sees that these are his clothes – his clothes that he wore in Frasrlund, his clothes he wore usually in case of sudden raids. He has a sword, which he draws cautiously to examine. It's a decent, serviceable weapon – and it is his sword, given to him by Lady Alanna, with her required three inches of perfectly polished blade at near the hilt, good for scrying and for speaking spells to other mages.

The light changes, and he blinks, looks up, and finds himself on a battlefield. One of his own battlefields – it looks too much like the country near Frasrlund to be anything but. It was a dawn ambush, he remembers. He was with the patrol that day, away from Alanna, because she said it would be a good idea for him to learn to work with other knights and men at arms. They were attacked, but it had not been a serious ambush, not really – more a distraction than a serious effort on the Scanrans' part.

That's about where the similarities end though, because whatever this is, it is not only a distraction. Neal leans down, over the bodies of the dead, Tortallans first, but finds no one left alive for him to help.

"Killer," he hears a whisper from the ground, and looks down to see a Scanran's bloody, single eye staring at him. "Murderer."

Neal freezes, staring back at this Scanran, and feels suddenly the blood soaking on his padded jerkin. His sword, clean only a second ago, drips dark red with blood. Did I do all this? He wonders abstractly at the Chamber. Is that what this is supposed to be?

There is no answer.

The Scanran is bleeding out, bleeding out from his eye socket and from what Neal can see is a deep wound in his upper thigh crossing an artery. He is alive, if barely, and Neal could heal him, but he can't, because that would be aiding the enemy and there is a word for people who aid the enemy, and that word is traitor.

There's also a word for healers who refuse to heal people, and Neal can't even think about that word.

No one would know if Neal just patched this man up, right now, and sent him on his way. No one would know, other than Neal himself, of course, and he stares at the man, whose breathing is becoming deeper, more laboured, and Neal can't do it. He can't do either of it.

So he turns around, sends a sleep spell careening after him, and walks away.

He walks on through fog, through the cold, and finds himself this time in Queenscove. It's not Queenscove as he remembers it, not the dreamy meadows and fields and clean outer walls of his childhood. It is instead a Queenscove touched by war – the walls are grimy, as they would be if boiling pitch or excrement had been thrown out the arrow loops. The pennants look shoddy, almost – torn and sooty and dirty, as his mother would never let them be normally. The gates are open, so Neal cautiously walks through, and they creak shut behind him.

They are there, waiting for him.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Graeme says. He's older here, older than he ever was in life, and Neal can't respond to that, can't say No, it wasn't, because this is the Ordeal of Knighthood, and Neal isn't supposed to talk. Graeme's voice is quiet, contemplative; whatever he says, it's not just a remark. "You've really mucked it all up, haven't you? I know you were never supposed to inherit, but really – you could have done better. Anyone could have done better."

"Come now, Graeme," a new voice says. It's William, this time, again older, and his face colder than it ever was in life. "You can't seriously suggest that Neal inherited naturally, can you? He would be the first third son to inherit naturally in, what, four hundred years? Five? Probability is, he killed us."

That's ridiculous, Neal thinks, frowning. You both died in the War, and I wasn't even on the battlefield….

Whatever he is thinking, it doesn't make a difference, because the shades of Graeme and William are exchanging dark glances. Graeme is first to pull his sword.

"A test, then," he says, and charges.

Neal catches the blade almost too late – Graeme is bigger, stronger than Neal remembered. Was he ever so large and heavy? Or was that the Chamber, puffing up his big brother into something he wasn't? Either way, it hardly matters at this point – Neal is doing all he can defensively, not daring to venture an attack.

"A shame," he hears from the side, hears the whisper of a second sword sliding out of its sheath. Neal launches himself to the side just in time, missing being skewered on the point of William's sword by a hand. He turns, forcing Graeme to turn with him and putting Graeme between him and William.

"You aren't going to get very far if you just block," Graeme says, cold and contemplative. "Is this how Queenscove came to the state it's in?"

Neal grits his teeth, sets his weight behind his sword. This isn't real, he reminds himself, because the smell of smoke, the harsh sting in his hands from his blocks, is enough to make him forget. But Graeme is right, in a way, he realizes as he ducks under a blow from William. He isn't going to be able to hold out very long if he just defends, if he doesn't attack, if he doesn't move on.

They're dead, he reminds himself. They're dead, and these are just images, just shades in a Chamber.

The real Graeme, the real William are long dead, and even if Neal won't ever forget them, it's time to put their shadows to bed. Years of thoughts, of brooding finally click in his head, and Neal realizes, too, that he wants knighthood for himself. Eight years on, and Neal wants this knighthood, not just for them and not just for Queenscove, but he wanted it because of eight years of awful and eight years of friendship and eight years of disaster and fun and hard work. And hell if two shades wearing his brother's faces were going to stop him from getting it.

Neal ducks under another wayward blow and turns his body again, forcing William, this time, between himself and Graeme. He keeps turning, keeps his eyes on both of his brothers, uses his feet to keep himself from having to fight more than one at a time. It buys him time, though not much – William is fast, as fast as Graeme is strong, and Neal almost misses blocks three times, four.

They're dead, he reminds himself again, steeling himself.It's hard to fight against something wearing your brother's face, but Neal forces himself, sweating, to see the opening and to take it, and before Neal can think too much about it he's stepping over William's body and engaging Graeme again.

Graeme is stronger, but slower, and his technique is heavy, inelegant. Neal traps his broadsword under his blade and takes the split-second opportunity to lunge, to slide his sword into the shadow's beating heart. He hears the choked gasp, lets go of his sword, lets it fall with his brother's body to the ground.

There's "knowing your brothers are dead", and then there's "killing something with your brother's face". These two things make sense, consistent, in his head, but they don't quite make sense in his belly, and Neal staggers over to the curtain wall, thankfully close by, and heaves. He hasn't eaten much, yesterday, and what little he did eat mercifully stays down, leaving only a sharp, acid tang in his mouth. His eyes are watering, too, and it takes him a moment to realize that those are tears.

He sniffles wetly, runs his fingers through his hair. No one said anything about crying, so he lets himself cry. It feels like hours before anything changes, before the walls of Queenscove melt away.

This time, he sees Yuki. She's standing on a beach, far enough away that somehow Neal knows he can't go to her, but close enough that her image is clear, impossibly clear. It is Yuki as he's rarely seen her – Yuki in the elegant keikogi and hakama that the Yamanis trained in, but without the light armour that he had seen on Progress. She is carrying a glaive, and when he looks over his shoulder, he sees a multi-tiered fortress, triangular rooves layered like cake, a castle in the Yamani style. Her home, he realizes; Daiomaru.

Yuki stands alone on the beach, and to his horror he sees the shadows of ships fast approaching on the horizon. It takes only seconds for him, trained primarily in Frasrlund, to recognize the characteristic shape of the Scanran wolfship. Three ships, and he stands, frozen, while Yuki readies herself for defence.

To her credit, she engages the men on the first wolfship before the other two have a chance to land. She's fast, faster than Kel – her glaive flashes, singing musical notes, as clean as her magic, and blood soaks into the sand beneath her feet, splashes onto her snow-white keikogi. She's almost a match for them – she would be a match for them, he thinks, if the grounds were in her favour. But a beach, the beach is too open, and even as he hurries towards her he knows he will be too late, she will be flanked, and she will go down.

Sure enough, Yuki is heavily sieged by the time the third wolfship lands, and as many as she kills, the Scanrans keep coming. Without the advantage of walls or terrain, she can't defend her back and the sheer number of opponents is overwhelming. She goes down with an ugly cry, and suddenly the ground starts moving impossibly fast under Neal's feet.

He gets to Yuki too late, far too late; the Scanrans are long gone, and all that's left is her cooling body, her eyes wide with surprise at thrust that felled her. It's just the Ordeal, he reminds himself, but, illogically, nothing can stop him from trying. He turns her over, reaches for his at his Gift, and pulls at it, drawing long, powerful strands of healing magic and healing all of her physical hurts, but for all of his efforts, he still cannot restore the breath that should be there.

Just the Ordeal, he reminds himself again, wiping away sweat from his forehead (or are those tears, more tears?). He is struck by how utterly, totally nonsensical he is behaving. Just the Ordeal. Yuki's out there, she's fine. Unless she's not. Because how can he know how long he has been in here? It feels like hours – hours for certain.

"Not hours," he hears a gravelly, deep voice. Neal wipes his eyes one last time, looks around for the source, but there is none – there is only the beach, the Yamani fortress, the sand. The Chamber, he thinks; there's something about that voice that sounds the slightest bit amused at it all. "It's been barely a quarter-hour. But you pass, so …"

Everything disappears again, and Neal squints in the darkness. It is the same twilight-dark as when he first entered, he thinks, but this time he can make out the stone floor, walls and the ceiling. The door to the chapel is open, a bright, welcoming light that he stumbles gratefully towards.

Lady Alanna is there to catch him when he staggers out, wrapping a cloak around him and gently leading him out of the chapel. He spots Kel, Merric, Seaver in the crowd, and he tries to send a reassuring smile towards them. Yuki's face, on the other hand, shines out at him; lightly lined with worry and with tiredness, she nonetheless looks relieved. Delighted, even.

Radiant.

He's too tired now to fight against the crushing something that was between them, and at that moment, at that second, he doesn't care. And so he stops, reaches out towards her with both hands, and when her eyes meet his, dark brown and sweet, no words are necessary.

She reaches down, unloops her fan from her obi, and slides it into his hands.

xxx

When Nealan of Queenscove is knighted that evening, he finally feels like himself.

xxx

ED: Thanks for reading, everyone! This piece came out because there's always been something that struck me as vaguely off about how Neal is often portrayed (in both canon and in fandom). His backstory doesn't really make sense given his character. We know that he had 2 brothers who died in the Immortals War; we know he was a third son; we know he becomes heir to Queenscove; and we know that he started training really late. These are things that would strongly affect anyone, but somehow we don't actually see that reflected so much in his character. This was my effort to make sense of Neal as a character with that particular backstory, and to make something make sense about Neal that never made sense before.

There's still something that reads vaguely off for me about this piece, so feel free to give me constructive criticism. Things I really tried to emphasize here are the distinct-ness of Neal and Yuki's written voices, and about how Neal acts not to his friends and yearmates, but to strangers. So with Neal's conversations with Yuki, I tried to make him more formal – a cross between the silliness of Neal in canon and the formality Neal would need to embody as the heir to the duchy of Queenscove with a stranger.