It was a bewildered Nealan of Queenscove who found himself returning a lady's favor

It was a bewildered Nealan of Queenscove who found himself returning a lady's favor. In Tortall, such things simply were not done. Once a woman gave you a favor, it was yours. She could tell you she no longer felt the same way, but a small gift like a handkerchief or a fan was just silly to get petty over.

Still, Yukimi was definitely a lady who deserved his respect, and perhaps things were different in the Yamani Isles. He bowed slightly and handed it back to her without ceremony. She took it with both hands and two stone-hard eyes. Though he knew extreme shows of emotion were frowned upon in the Islands, those dark eyes were also glittering slightly, as though Yuki was tearing up.

Confused – if she didn't want to take it back, why was she? – and unsettled, Neal went to the only expert on Yamani customs he could trust not to spread it around: his best friend, Kel.

"'Lo Neal," she greeted with a tiny smile. He grinned back. She looked at him shrewdly. "What's wrong?" she asked, seeing right through it.

Neal sighed. She always was good at reading him. "You remember that fan Yuki gave me?" he asked.

She nodded, expressionless.

"She asked for it back. Is there some custom in the Islands I should know about?"

Kel bit her lip, returning to scrubbing her armor. "In Yaman, a fan is a sign of affection, like it is in Tortall. But…to give that affection frivolously, it's seen…well, it's viewed as a kind of promiscuity. Yuki has always said she wouldn't marry, because the rights a man has over his wife in Yaman are too many for someone as strong-willed as she is."

She sighed. "Essentially, had you flashed it around like a trophy, like knights do with Tortallan ladies' favors, she would be labeled a whore, and might not have been able to return to Yaman for fear of being stoned to death."

Neal gaped. "But – that's barbaric."

Hazel eyes flashed up to glare at him. "There is a reason for it, however archaic. Yaman has no prostitutes. They are the worst carriers of lovemaking diseases, and Yaman also has almost none of those. In Tortall and other kingdoms where prostitution is legal or tacitly permitted, those diseases are rampant. When a Yamani woman commits to someone, she commits forever. The same with the men. In ancient days, Yamani widows were encouraged to throw themselves on the pyre of their men; now some do it voluntarily, unable to live without the one they love, unable to contemplate soiling that memory with another mate. Some men commit seppuku, throwing themselves on their swords, if their wife dies after their children are grown." She shook her head.

"Suicide is seen differently in Yaman. Many things are, some you know already – emotion, death, love, and honor especially. Don't judge Yuki. She didn't want to get hurt. If you make vows of love, or propose, she will likely give you back her fan. But I don't think she's ready for that…and I doubt you're ready for it, either."

"P-propose?" Neal stammered, alarmed.

Kel smirked. "Having second thoughts about your crush now?"

He blushed. "I don't want her to get hurt, either. Physically or emotionally. But…I'm only a new knight. I haven't exactly made my fortune, and I'm a younger son, even if I'm a younger son of a duke. I…you're right, as usual, Kel. I'm not ready for it."

"Then she did the right thing."