Summer of 457 H.E.

The Progress soon moved on to Eldorne and Sinthya. Each fief held banquets and tournaments for the traveling band of nobles and servants. To Kel it seemed like a waste of time when the King could easily have one large festival in Corus to introduce Princess Shinkokami to Tortall. She had mentioned it to Joren but he had explained that the Progress was a way to show lords and fiefs that King Jonathan was still in charge. The stops of the Progress also acted as a tax to notorious fiefs such as Eldorne and Sinthya or to reward fiefs alike Mindelan.

The days on Progress were spent training and attending to social priorities. Her knightmaster, Joren, pushed her to join in a competition but she always denied his request. She still hadn't been able to find the usefulness of the Progress and its tournaments. She was happy to simply watch Lord Raoul make men fly or Joren compete against an opponent at swords. The days were filled with learning and spending time with her friends that were also stuck on Progress (Cleon, Owen, and Roald). But time had changed her two older friends. They now had responsibilities that she couldn't even fathom of having. Both were engaged. Both were nervous and stressed.

They would sometimes confide in her but she knew little of what to say. Cleon seemed to feel that something was missing, like he should have been able to choose who he wanted to marry. His fiancée was wealthy, petit, and blonde. From all appearances she appeared to be the picture perfect fit for any man but Cleon seemed unsatisfied. But he never seemed to be able to fathom why he was unsatisfied. For he had never truly fallen hard for a girl so by all consequence he should not be thirsting for something he had never had. Whenever Cleon spoke of his impending fate Kel had to wonder how the flowery worded flirt had never found someone right for him.

Whereas Roald had long ago accepted that he couldn't have frivolous relationships. He had been raised for a negotiation like this. He was the epitome of poise and kindness but he too was nervous for his imminent destiny. He thought Princess Shinkokami to be beautiful but dull. Kel was shocked when he admitted this to her. It seems that the two never spoke of the things that she knew they had a common interest in. Princess Shinkokami never spoke of her love for rough trail hiking or the adventures she had experienced growing up. She spoke of little but the cherry blossoms or silk that were a part of the Yamani Islands' heritage.

Both men were nervous and Kel didn't know what to do for her friends. Her two older friends were as unsatisfied with their foggy future as Owen who had still not been able to get a knightmaster. Kel truly hoped that he got one soon because the melancholy squire was someone that she didn't recognize.

Kel had continually woken up early to practice her voulge and the ladies from the Yamani Islands had continued to join her in practicing pattern dances. She enjoyed being around her gender for those brief moments but always had to keep herself in check around two of her old childhood friends.

After she finished with her voulge she would eat breakfast before checking in with Joren to see what they would be doing that day. They practiced a variety of things from hand to hand, swords, staffs, tilting, archery, daggers, and even with the butterfly swords she had been given long ago by her knightmaster. After a late morning and early afternoon of practice the tournaments would be well on their way and Joren would take her to observe the jousting, archery, fencing, and long weapon competitions. By watching other people Kel was able to absorb a few new maneuvers that she had not been taught at the palace. The late afternoon was usually her time to spend with her friends or to train more.

On one day she had been sitting beside her knightmaster watching a jousting match when suddenly she heard an oh-so familiar drawl, "Oh look at the little boys holding their sticks. They seem quite happy to hold onto something so large." Kel couldn't keep the large smile that swept across her face. She turned in her seat to find the startling green eyes that she knew she'd find. The eyes soon widened in astonishment, "Well look what Stone Mountain dragged all the way to the Progress."

She turned to look at her knightmaster but he seemed to have wisely chosen not to turn around and endure Neal's scathing tongue, "How long have you been in Sinthya?"

"We got in last night but my lady didn't want to go to the feast so I was forced to be locked in my room where I couldn't find any pretty women."

"Kile if you're not going to watch then you two should leave." Kel had the decency to turn pink and glare at Neal when she saw his mouth open to utter a smart retort. The three watched the jousters in silence, 'Lady Alanna must be doing wonders with him. That mouth of his would have been talking so fast that his tongue would be tied in a knot by now.' The match ended with a draw as the two riders' lances broke from their impact on two runs, "I'll see you at the feast Kile." Joren waved and then sauntered off; as he was nearing the end of the seats he shook the hand of a man that Kel knew to be a steadfast conservative. Beside the conservative were a pretty auburn haired lady and a man with long icy blond hair.

The man was Lord Burchard of Stone Mountain. She remembered his cold indifference to her when she had served him that Midwinter ago and winced when she saw Joren wave her over, "Be careful, I hear he bites." Kel muttered a rude sentiment to her friend before leaving him to meet Joren's father.

She met up with her knightmaster, "This is Kile of Trebond, my squire."

"We never discussed you getting a squire." Joren's pale skin flushed a bit under his father's contempt.

"I wrote to tell you, but I didn't know you would be with the Progress. The letter must be at home." Kel shifted her weight to her other foot uncomfortably.

Lord Burchard continued to talk to his son as if there were not three other people surrounding them, listening to their conversation, "At least his fief is of the book of gold, but you know what they say about his parentage."

"Father you know those are just rumors."

"There still is no proof that he isn't a commoner." The unnamed conservative nodded his head in agreement and the auburn lady's lips pursed in response. Kel bit the inside of her cheek.

"I wanted a squire and he was the best. I figured I deserved the best in spite of his heritage."

At this Lord Burchard's lips thinned and he tightly said, "We have private matters to discuss, be gone squire." Kel bowed slowly to the group and walked away as fast as she could without seeming unnerved. She found Neal around the corner of a check-in tent.

"So how is Father Stone Mountain?"

"Oh just wonderful," she rolled her eyes before continuing to walk. They chattered as they walked through the fief of Sinthya and caught up on all the things they had missed. It seemed that Neal had had a busy year of going from one village to the next learning about healing. He spoke of a spidren hunt where he had been hit by the sticky webbing of a spidren. Once he had been released from the webbing by Lady Alanna she left some conveniently placed webbing around his mouth. The two friends laughed when she heard that her letter had caused Neal to fall out of his chair in shock.

The duo wandered throughout the fief until they walked through the alcove that Kel had practiced in that morning. They came across three figures standing in a triangle. They appeared to be tossing a fan up in the air and Kel instantly recognized the Yamani game of fan toss. A small smile touched her lips as she remembered playing the game with Cricket and Yuki back at the Islands. She had once been as graceful at fan toss as the three who were enraptured in the game and didn't realize the small audience that had gathered. Behind Neal and Kel were others but Kel didn't want to look away from the elegant display of grace. The Yamani ladies were as graceful as dancers: Shinkokami in a pink kimono for the afternoon, Lady Haname in cream with bamboo printed in green, and Yuki in pale blue. The whirling crimson silk soon began to reach higher heights and it was merely a scarlet blur.

The pace soon began to lessen and before Kel could stop him Neal had stepped forward, "This is the prettiest thing I've ever seen. May I play?" He stepped forward to join them and Kel rushed to his side as he was about to try and catch the shukusen. She slapped his hand away and caught the fan base down before tossing it back in the air with her rusty skills, "You really are a fun sucker Kile."

"I just saved your fingers you nitwit!" Neal gazed at her curiously and realized that the ladies had stopped playing their game.

Yuki walked over to them with her face a slightly pink color but with a face controlled of emotion, "There is a saying in the Islands, beware the women of the warrior class, for all they touch is both decorative and deadly. She pushed the scarlet shukusen into his hand before walking away. Shinkokami and Haname bowed to the Tortallans before following their distressed friend.

Kel gingerly took the fan from Neal hand and unfurled the fan with a snap. She revealed the razor sharp blade that could easily cut through human flesh, "Didn't your mother ever to teach you not to grab things? You could have easily lost a finger, and I don't think your father would even be able to reattach your fingers."

"I always was a hands-on learner. Mother would tell me not to touch something hot and I never listened until I got burnt by it."

Kel rolled her eyes, "Your poor mother must be grey haired due to your antics."

"Nonsense, she dyes it." Kel scoffed at her friend's absurdity, "What was that?"

"A shukusen—a lady fan. If a lady thinks she's in danger, but doesn't want to openly carry a weapon she will carry a shukusen.

"I want one." Kel turned around to see the other people she had sensed behind her when she had been watching the game of fan toss. The lady that had just spoken was recognizable at first glance. Many bards had been singing about her beauty since she had arrived in Tortall and they continued to worship her splendor. Queen Thayet the Peerless of Tortall. Kel blushed at having had a silly banter in front of the ruling lady of Tortall. Beside her majesty was a short woman that was at least five inches shorter than Kel with golden brown skin and straight black hair. She had a short nose, firm mouth, and level black eyes. She was stocky and muscular. Kel blinked in surprise, it was the Commander of the Queen's Riders, Buriram Tourakom.

There were also some local ladies who look appalled or fascinated at the display they had just witnessed. The other woman that stood beside the queen was the ever familiar face with shocking red hair and purple eyes. She took a deep breath at the high ranking women that stood in front of her, "I'm sure the princess would have one commissioned for you, your majesty."

"I'm going to ask right now."

Before she had walked too far Kel realized she had the shukusen still, "Your majesty!" She trotted over to her, "Could you return this to Princess Shinkokami."

"It would be my pleasure—" The drawn out sentence made Kel realize that the queen was asking for her name.

"Squire Kile of Trebond."

The queen nodded, "You are friends with my son Roald. It was nice to finally meet you Squire Kile." Kel bowed appropriately in response and Queen Thayet continued on her way.

((()))((()))((()))

The banquet that night was very extravagant. Sinthya had been "invited" to host the monarchs to an expensive feast and who would dare refuse the king. The splendid foods were on beautiful displays and Kel had to walk extra gracefully that night in fear of tripping and ruining the chefs' creations. That night she was serving her knightmaster, his father, the auburn haired woman, and the conservative Joren had been talking to earlier. Every time Kel neared their table she heard small snippets of negotiations being done by the two older men. Joren seemed to be busy talking to the lady. Kel soon finished serving the desserts and picked up her tray to serve drinks as the guests moved to the ballroom.

She nearly stumbled as she saw the lady she had escorted to her room. The lady seemed to ignore her as she grabbed a glass of mulled wine from her tray, 'Well that's a relief…' The kiss in itself had shocked Kel. She had probably stood outside the lady's door for quite some time trying to decipher what had happened. The drunken kiss had woken up a part of Kel that she had been pushing from her mind ever since she had restarted her journey to be a knight.

She had been made fun of back at the palace by her friends when she didn't sigh over the ladies of the palace. She of course being a girl had not been interested in the ladies as her friends had been. They soon deemed her as too shy to talk about girls and left her alone.

She had once harbored feelings for Neal but they had faded over time and she soon found that she didn't get a warm feeling around any of the boys at the palace. It proved to be a good thing over time, because who needs to be hormonal when you're disguised as a boy. The day after she had been kissed was her sixteenth birthday and it had struck her that if she had taken the path of a lady then she could have very well been married off by then. Girls her age were already settled down with a husband when she herself had only just gotten her first kiss, by a girl no less! When she watched the women glide around in their ball gowns she missed the feeling of being a girl. That first year she had worn dresses to remind the boys that she was in fact a girl.

She had never been ashamed of being a girl and enjoyed wearing dresses. Now she didn't have the option. She would have liked to have someone like her. She would have liked for someone to say she was pretty, but this was not an option. She had in a way begun to lose touch with her girl side. She had slept in her Kel form back at the palace but as a squire she had been required to sleep in her image of Kile in case Joren came in. At times she no longer felt like Kel. The true illusion was taking over. It troubled her that when she looked at herself as Kel she felt like she was looking at a stranger.

She saw that her tray was empty and went back to the kitchen to restock. Joren had yet to call her over and she feared this would be a long night, "See anything you like out there?" Kel turned her head to see Neal also heading back to the crowds of people.

Kel scowled at his insinuation, "I'd really like to hit you with this tray. Does that count?"

"Tut tut. It's always violence with you."

"Whenever I'm around you I feel violent, it can't be helped." The two quieted as they went through the crowds with their trays in hand. She was met with the almond shaped eyes of her friend Yuki, "Squire Kile." She nodded her head in Kel's direction.

"How are you this evening Lady Yukimi?"

"I am well. My lady is another matter."

"What's wrong with Princess Shinkokami?"

"She's struggling to find something new to talk about with Prince Roald. She can only talk of stitching and the weather for so long."

"Why would Roald want to hear about those things anyways?"

"Prince Eitaro told Shinko that a man with an unconventional mother wants a conventional wife."

"His own mother hunts bandits! Surely she can't believe that!" She saw Neal giving her the eye and Kel rolled her own eyes.

"Lady Yukimi this is my friend Squire Nealan of Queenscove. You met him earlier." Kel added dryly. Neal bowed to her in true Yamani style as they had been taught in etiquette.

"It is my great honor to meet you Lady Yukimi." His emerald eyes rose to meet her own. Kel watched the two interact and looked around the room to find familiar faces and suddenly a plot was placed in her mind.

"I have an idea to get those two talking to each other." Yuki and Neal broke their gaze from each other to look at her questioningly, "We're going to need reinforcement though. Neal get Cleon and Owen. Lady Yukimi, can you get Lady Haname?" The two nodded in confusion and went to retrieve the people she had asked for. When all had arrived Kel began to talk, "I think we all agree that Roald and Princess Shinkokami need to start talking to each other. Princess Shinkokami doesn't know that Roald would accept someone who knows "unconventional" things so if we can get them to engage in conversation that they would both like I'm sure they will find they have something in common.

"Oh Kile you are such a devious matchmaker." Cleon grinned.

"Cleon I need you to get Sir Inness and anyone else who can be pulled away from the festivities. I'm sure you could pull Sir Raoul and Commander Buriram away from his hiding place as well. We will meet in the book room that is just outside of the door to the right. Cleon mock saluted before heading off. I need you lads—"

"I'll have you know I am a man." Neal puffed out his chest and Kel poked his stomach in response.

"Right, well I need you men to go get Roald interested while Lady Haname and Lady Yukimi do the same with Princess Shinkokami."

"This is a good plan." She then turned to Neal with her fan out and poked him in the chest, "You signal me when you have Roald's interest." The two ladies went to get their princess.

Neal rubbed his chest, "Bossy little thing." The two boys then went to do their perspective task. She walked to the book room quickly to find it vacant. She nodded happily and went to get refreshments for the small gathering. She brought back an assortment of wine, ale, juice, and water. She entered the room to find the prince and princess were caught up asking sharp questions to Raoul and Buri. Kel noted the look of wonder that Roald had on his face as Shinkokami revealed a thorough grasp of strategy, supply problems, and tracking. She was pressed by Buri and Raoul to reveal her background in Yamani battles and tactics.

Kel suddenly felt a presence behind her and turned to meet the icy blue eyes and structured cheekbones of her knightmaster, "Is this an exclusive party?"

"No milord, we were trying to get Roald and Shinkokami to talk to one another."

"And my squire left me by myself?" Kel gapped and floundered for an answer. Seeing her distress he smirked, "Don't worry I was merely wondering where you were going. Plus, I wanted to get away from my father. You can be released from your duties and stay here. I think I may stay as well and hide."

Kel smiled and sat down in one of the plush chairs to join in the conversation. Joren sat in a chair beside his old knightmaster and she watched him join in the conversation of the war with Scanran. Inness spoke of the problems on the border while Joren, Buri, and Raoul spoke of the outbreaks of problems inside of the realm. Others came and left: Lady Haname, Sir Gareth and Lady Cythera, the queen, Lord Imrah. Everyone groaned when Lord Imrah's tale of the siege of Legann during the Immortal War was interrupted by his lady dragging him away. Slowly the group shrank to its original members with the addition of Joren. Neal and Yuki left for a small mage gathering together while the prince and princess left while debating the advantage and disadvantages of the longbow and crossbow. Raoul, Buri, Cleon, Joren, and Kel were the last one left. Joren stood to leave and Kel followed dutifully behind, "Who would have thought… She looks like she'd break if you touched her too hard."

"If you woke up early enough you would see the Yamani ladies are not as fragile as they look, milord."

"Yes, she reminds me of someone I once knew. She was at the palace before you came." Kel tried to hide the momentary shock that spread across her face. His voice had almost seemed—dare she say—reminiscent.

"Who milord?"

"Oh you wouldn't have known her; no matter, she's gone now." They got to their doors and went their separate ways. Kel pet Jump as his tail thumped happily against the floor where he was laying down. The birds had long gone to sleep so she closed her window. Kel looked around the room and to the adjoined door that connected her room to her knightmaster's before continuing to get ready for bed.

((()))((()))((()))

I do realize there isn't much Kel/Joren interaction in this chapter but I've been trying to get some of the issues that come up with Kel no longer being herself. So Neal has met Yuki and Roald and Shinko are talking. Kel has finally met the queen and Buri.

Thank you for everyone that reviewed! It really is appreciated :] MidnightsRose, personlikething, Rauntail, Alenor, Kailun, Mystic Moon Empress, jayley, and Tishica

Oh and an interesting tidbit but if you type in Stone Mountain into Wikipedia, it is an actual place that has the largest extended granite in the world. But the most interesting part is that it has roots in the Ku Klux Klan. It makes me wonder if Tamora Pierce knew that and it was the reason for Joren of Stone Mountain's prejudice.

But anyways hope you liked it, let me know and review :]