A/N: This is a fic I wrote while taking a break from my other one, The Daughter Comes Forth. Please Read and Review, and all Constructive Criticism is appreciated. Thank you!
When conducted properly, a lighting spell can be used as a flare. Depending on the strength of the magic, the flare can be seen from –
A bump against my bed interrupted my reading, and the next moment a dog was lying next to me on the bed, trying his best to get me to surrender my book. I held it out of reach of the beast who was as beautiful as my Lord Wyldon, our beloved Stump of a training master, was flexible. I was safe to bet that the dog got uglier every time I saw it, which was often.
The intrusion of the dog, however, hinted that my best friend would not be far behind. At the very sight of her my chest and mind filled with warmth and protective love. There were few people I loved unconditionally in this world, and Keladry of Mindelan was one of them. She was a big fourteen year girl with light brown hair cropped at her ear, hazel eyes with long lashes, and a stubborn chin. Her expression was blank and lacked personality like a piece of parchment, and I knew her well enough to know she was hiding an emotion from me.
"I'm off to the practice courts. You want to come?" Kel offered.
I was almost surprised she asked. She knew how little I enjoyed training. "I am about to commence four years obeying the call of a bruiser on a horse. I refuse to put down what might be the last book I see for months."
"I thought you wanted to be a squire," Kel pointed out in her practical way.
I could not stop the sigh that escaped my lips. "I want to fulfill Queenscove's duty to the Crown." I felt like I had explained this to her a million times before. "A knight from our house –"
"Has served the Crown for ages, is a pillar of his kingdom, I know, I know," she interrupted me before I could completely get started. Grinning on the inside because she was listening when I explained before, I placed a long suffering façade on my features and continued.
"Well, that's about being a knight. Squire is an intermediate step. It's a pain in the rump, but it's a passing pain. I don't have to like it. I'd as soon read." I gestured to my book that the dog was now gnawing on the edges. I yanked it out of his mouth. "Besides," I continued as I wiped the spit from the pages, "Father said to wait. Another knight's supposed to show up today. I hate it when Father gets mysterious."
And of course my father could not come out and tell me who the knight was. No, he had to set up an appointment with the knight. I imagined my father did not tell me who it was because he wanted me to show up. It was not difficult to realize that it had to be some country bumpkin knight who wanted to rise up in the world by being a knight master to a ducal house squire, and my father had not wanted to offend the knight. Father was overly kind, and it resulted with two many years of showing sympathy to patients who came to him for cures.
"Well, I'm going to go hit something," Kel said. "I can't sit around."
This admission caused me to sit up and pay attention. I found myself to be very selfish, worrying about country bumpkin knights when Kel had received no offers at all. Kel was bound to be upset by this lack of interest for her. I could feel painful pressure building around my heart and sympathy replacing my own conceited knight master worries.
I asked as gently as I could, "No one still?"
"I thought if I survived the big examinations, I'd be fine. I thought somebody would take me, even if I am The Girl." A slight expression crossed her face, and I knew she was bitterly disappointed. I wished I could do more, but at the moment I was limited to only give her hope.
"There are still knights in the field," I said. "You may be picked later this summer, or even this fall."
"I know," she said with a forced smile. "And until then I mean to practice. Last chance to collect bruises from me."
It was not an appetizing offer, and I shuddered when I remembered previous injuries courtesy of Kel. "Thanks. I've gotten all the bruises off you this year that I want."
"Coward," she called me and called Jump the dog off my bed. I grinned at her, but she missed it and turned away, already lost in her thoughts. I shrugged away my reply of "I try my best," I had for her accusation, and instead hungrily returned to my book.
A while later, though I couldn't be certain because I was so engrossed in my book, my father tapped lightly on the door frame to my room.
"Are you ready to go?" my father, Duke Baird of Queenscove, asked quietly after I got out of bed and stood before him.
"No, I just like to stand here and measure the differences in our heights," I said sarcastically. Of course I was ready, unless Father expected me to primp and change shoes.
"None of that tongue whilst you meet with this knight, do you understand me?" Father ordered sternly.
I felt my body ease into a familiar skulk. I could tell Father was worried about his meeting, and from his tone it was obvious this was very important. "Yes, Sir."
He eyed me for a moment, as if trying to decide if I was being serious. He nodded slowly and led me down the corridors of the palace.
"Where are we going?" Suspicion crept up my spine as we walked toward the Royal Wing of the palace. This wasn't the normal place to meet prospective knight masters. "The only reason we'd be going this way is if King Jonathan wanted me as his squire. King Jonathan didn't even want his own son, I can't imagine he'd want dear old me. On the other hand, I am an extraordinary specimen."
Father shook his head at me. "No, King Jonathan does not want you."
Ouch. I placed a hand on my heart. "Oh, please, do not soften your words for my sake! Then who, pray tell, desires my squiring abilities? Let's see, Queen Thayet, the King's Champion, Sir Gareth…" I trailed off slowly. Ice replaced the suspicion and I felt frozen with shock when my Father saw my expression and sped up. I opened my mouth but he cut me off abruptly.
"We're here." We were standing before the door of the king's office door. He knocked on the door and turned to me. "Behave," he ordered as the door opened. I couldn't believe he would order such a thing when I felt unable to utter a sentence that resembled anything contrary.
Seating casually behind the desk was King Jonathan IV of Conté, the co-ruler of the kingdom of Tortall. He flashed a kind smile at me, whom was feeling the blood drain from my face. There were three chairs placed in front of the desk and one was already occupied by a short and stocky red haired woman. She stood when we came in, and she gave a short bow to my father.
"Duke Baird," she said pleasantly.
"Sir Alanna," he greeted her and reached across them to shake hands.
"He doesn't look very surprised," Alanna observed. "You didn't tell him, did you?"
"No, no, Neal is a sharp lad; he figured it out by himself."
"I see," she said and turned her famed purple eyes back to the king. "Shall we get started?"
"Yes, please, sit," the king ordered.
I felt as if I entered some surreal nightmare. The lady knight was smiling at me and the king was dressed in comfortable clothes, and my father was looking pleased that I hadn't said anything yet and ruined whatever plans he had for me. I sat down with an ungraceful bump and noticed that I didn't feel anything. My whole body had become numb.
"As I am sure you've figured out," Alanna said, "I am interested in becoming your knight mistress." Slight uneasiness radiated from her. She had never had a squire before, and by her phrasing, she had never asked before either.
Knowing it was rude, but not caring, I stared at her like she took leave of her senses. This was all wrong. She wanted me, a late starting nineteen-year-old squire, who had a bad attitude and an acid tongue? "Neal, Nealan of Queenscove," I said. Maybe she got me confused with someone else.
"Yes, that is your name," her eyebrows came together in confusion.
"Nealan," Father murmured in warning when I continued to stare at her.
"Father, are you listening to her? She wants me – me – to be her squire!"
"We all realize who I'm asking, squire," Sir Alanna said dryly.
"Then you've gone mad. Have you not realized that Keladry of Mindelan is also a squire this year? Remember her? The Girl Page?" I shook my head to clear it. Kel should have been the one at this meeting, not me.
"Yes, I remember her," Alanna snapped. She glared in the king's direction. I could tell she was trying her best to control her temper. "But this meeting isn't about her, it's about you."
"Is it?" I wasn't so sure. The lady knight was certain to know about our friendship. "Am I just the vessel so you can get closer to her?"
My father placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "Neal, please do not be rude. I know Kel is your best friend, but this is the best arrangement."
"How? How could this possibly be the best arrangement? Don't you understand? It has been Kel's dream to be her squire!" I jerked my thumb at the red-headed knight.
"Squire Keladry cannot be Alanna's squire. The people will believe that Alanna has helped Keladry win her shield by putting a spell on her or helping her in other unfair ways." King Jonathan explained calmly. I had temporarily forgotten he was in the room.
"Neal, listen to me," Sir Alanna said. "Your father has told me that you wished you had received more training as a healer. I can teach you everything you'll ever want to know about healing. This is why your father says it will be a good arrangement."
"Sir Alanna is one of the best," Father added. "You would get as a good a healer education from her as you would have received from the university."
"I still can't accept," I said, but my resolve was slightly weakening.
"And why ever not?" the lady knight said curtly. Her patience was wearing thin. Oh yes, this was a match made by the gods, I thought.
"You may be able to lie to your friends, but I can't," I told the Lioness. I hoped she understood the underlying insult about her lying about being male for eight years. By the color of her face, it was plain that she had. "It goes against my conscience that I get her role model as a knight mistress when she hasn't had any offers at all."
"Keladry is going to get a good offer soon," King Jonathan put in before the Lioness lost her temper. "Don't be concerned, she is well looked after."
I could not help but feel suspicion. This was the king that put Kel on probation in the first place.
"Trust us, squire," she ordered. "I personally have seen to it that she is not abandoned."
I paused to absorb this. "And you'll teach me healing?" I asked again, and then cursed myself for breaking.
Alanna actually grinned at me. "Everything you'll ever want to know and more."
"I think you should take Alanna's offer, Neal," Father voiced again. The king nodded his regal head in agreement.
I ran my hand through my hair. Kel was going to be crushed when she found out, which is why it was important that she hear it from me as soon as possible. I shook my head. I couldn't believe I was considering this. Alanna had a bad reputation for her temper, and I had a bad reputation for pushing tempers to their brink. And yet, no other knight with a considerable amount of healing skill had approached me. I closed my eyes at the thought of Kel's face when she heard the news… completely blank but with pain and turmoil just beneath the surface.
"Yes, I'll accept," I announced finally. I could feel my eyes blaze from the thought of trying to explain this to my best friend. She was so sweet sometimes and full of grand and noble ideals that I often bit back caustic remarks when she was around. I didn't want to break her heart.
"Good," Alanna answered and stood up. She tried to hold back a smile as she watched her new squire. "We will make arrangements for our departure later. In the meantime, Jonathan and I have a few things to discuss. If you will excuse us?"
"Of course," Father stood at once and shook hands with Alanna. "It has been a pleasure seeing you again. I suspect we will meet again soon. Come along, Nealan."
I snapped out of my revere at the sound of my full and hated name. "Do you take joy in calling me by that name, or do you honestly like it?" I complained as we exited the office.
"Naturally I take joy in torturing my son," he answered. "Now I must leave you and return to my patients." He patted me on the shoulder and turned down the left corridor to the healer's wing, leaving me to face Kel alone.