After two more days of helping Isadora in the healing wing of the fief, I found myself extremely bored and in need of company. It wasn't my usual self to be lonely, but after spending every day with the little pages back in Corus it made me long for more than just the companionship of my books.
"Squire," the Lioness barked when she saw me sauntering towards her on the practice field set up for the trainees. "How are you with the bow?"
"I'm a fair shot," I answered. If the target wasn't moving and just happened to be ten feet away from me.
"Good. Go around and correct the trainees on their posture. I need to go speak with Thayet for a moment." She actually gave me an encouraging smile as she turned away, leaving me with ten teenage trainees.
"You're Nealan of Queenscove, aren't you?" A pretty girl nearby lowered her bow and studied me. She smiled when I nodded suspiciously. I didn't know where the conversation would go from there. "Squire Keladry of Mindelan's friend?"
"You are?" A girl with two thick plaits of brown hair also abandoned her bow to talk to me. "She's one of the main reasons I'm here! I think she's fantastic! Imagine, being the only girl among all those boys!"
"She's done all right," I answered, feeling more comfortable that the conversation had shifted to Kel so quickly. I had no problem talking about the accomplishments of my dearest friend. "She's Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak's squire now, and she's riding with the King's Own."
"Wow," the pretty girl said. She walked towards me, her eyes shining for some reason or another. I gulped.
"Umm, shouldn't we be practicing your –"
"Were you her main lover or did all the squires and pages just pass her around?"
I felt my hackles rise at that. "Excuse me?"
A tall boy standing next to the girl in plaits laughed at my tone. It wasn't a nice laugh. "Oh, c'mon," he said. "We all know that she's a whore. I bet she's been passed around the King's Own by now."
I strode forward, red heat filling my face as I tried to hold back my anger. I wanted nothing more than to throttle him and punch his face in until he resembled a rotten tomato. As if he didn't already resemble something rotten. "Don't say that, Aurant!" the pretty girl cried out. She tried to hold back my arm as if trying to stop me from fighting him.
"Well, this is interesting, Aurant. You're a sexist pig who thinks women who become warriors are whores. And yet, here you are, trying out for the Queen's Riders which is headed by several very strong women." I sighed and shook my head. "Does being dominated by women excite you that much?"
Aurant turned a reddish purple while the other trainees laughed. I knew I had gone too far this time, especially when I suddenly found myself on the wet soggy grass with Aurant on top of me, trying to beat my head in with his bow. The other trainees swarmed around, the two girls who had talked to me were screaming for Aurant to stop, and one of the boys ran off to get help. But luckily for me, I had more experience with wrestling and fighting than dear Aurant. Within seconds I twisted his bow out of his hands, whipped it around and pulled it tight against his throat, effectively cutting off his air. Aurant started to gasp for air, and soon several girls were screaming for me to let him go. I kicked him off of me and jumped to my feet, setting my feet in a fighter's stance, waiting for Aurant to attack again.
But Aurant was still on the ground, gasping for air. I relaxed and touched my head tenderly where it now bled. I sighed. I really should have known to be prepared for that attack. Now I had a second head injury within a week. The Lioness was not going to be happy. Well, that and I provoked one of her trainees and almost strangled him with his own bow. That would probably not make her happy either.
"What in the Goddess' name is going on here?" Ah. My gentle and sweet knightmistress was back. I turned and was met with the ferocious violet glare of Alanna, along with the shocked, confused and angry looks of half of the trainers, including the queen and Sarge.
"We had a misunderstanding," I said with my best innocent look. "He attacked me, I defended myself… but it's all a thing of the past really. Look, we're already friends again." I pointed to Aurant who was still hunched over, holding his neck and trying to breathe. "Aww," I said and pressed my hand to my heart as if I was touched. "Isn't that sweet? He's all choked up about acquiring a new friend."
Several of the trainees laughed, but the trainers did not quite appreciate my humor.
"Theo, while you take Aurant to the healer's tent for me, please?" the queen ordered before turning her lovely eyes to me. "Squire Nealan—"
"Let me speak to my squire alone for a moment," Alanna said quietly. "He's my responsibility, I will make sure he is properly punished for this."
The queen inclined her head to Alanna. "As for the rest of you, I want you to get back into a straight line, and Sarge will oversee how your shooting has improved." The trainees moved quickly, afraid to appear like they were disobeying their queen.
I met Alanna's eyes and looked down quickly. There were so many emotions in that gaze, and most of them embarrassed and shamed me greatly. Would I never learn how to control my tongue?
"Come on, Squire," she said quietly. "There's no need to make more of a scene then you already have."
We marched silently back to the entrance of the fief. I poured some of my Gift into my wound to staunch the blood that was dripping down my face. It wasn't a bad wound, but it was a pretty deep cut and a little bruised.
Once we arrived at the healer's chamber and Isadora proved to be elsewhere, Alanna whirled around and pushed me forcefully into a chair. "Tell me what happened."
"Well, that boy Aurant insulted Kel, so I insulted him, and then he attacked me." I watched as she went to find some sterile bandages and pure alcohol for my head.
Alanna appeared not to belief that simplified version. "Uh huh. And what did he say, and what did you say?"
"Well, he called Kel a whore and asked how many times I'd slept with her, and if all of the pages and squires used her." I could still feel my anger making my heart pound. "I then asked if he joined the Queen's Riders, which is mostly headed by women, because being dominated by women excited him." Alanna had been walking towards me at the time, and she froze when I finished speaking.
"You said that?" she gasped. "Neal, honestly, you've got to keep control over your tongue! You can't just go around insulting people right and left! This isn't the first time you've insulted people's sexuality and sexual preferences before."
"What? How did you know that?"
She rolled her eyes. "Stefan from the stables, of course. He's a friend of George's."
"Oh." I tried to think back and remember if I ever said anything else important while I was in the stables. The idea that the Lioness and her husband had been spying on us worried me a little bit. I was going to start becoming paranoid.
Spying. I blinked. It was if all the pieces suddenly fit together in that one moment. Or maybe I was crazy; after all, Aurant did try to smash my head in with a large wooden bow. But no, wait. Important work for the queen and king. Wittar did say something about King Maggur's forces when I put the listening spell on him. And we desperately needed word about what was going on in Scanra. Not to mention, the Baron was an ex-thief, so he would have lots of unconventional ways of getting information that normal nobles would surely not have. But wait, the Lioness' father Myles of Olau, he was the current spymaster. But that didn't mean they didn't work together and it certainly didn't mean that the Baron could be someone who worked undercover for—
"Are you listening to me, Neal?" the Lioness snapped, and quite annoyingly snapped me out of my thoughts.
"Erm, yes?" I flinched when she rubbed my head roughly in her anger.
"You embarrassed and humiliated me in front of my collegues! How am I to gain the respect from the other trainees if they don't even see my one true responsibility speak to me with respect! You've gone too far this time, Neal."
I looked down, ashamed of myself. Perhaps I had gone too far.
"I am not joking with you now, I'll have you know. This is the complete and final straw. If you don't manage to control that tongue, at least around me, I swear I'll send you back to Lord Wyldon and have him pick a suitable knightmaster for you."
I chocked on my own spit. "What? Have the Stump pick me a knightmaster?" The Stump would pick the worst possible person for me. Or worse, decide to be honorable or some horrible notion and become my own knightmaster. He would be twenty times worse than the Lioness could ever be.
"Don't call him that," she ordered, but I could see she found my nickname for him humorous by the way her eyes crinkled around the edges. She didn't like him that much either.
"And I can't believe you're lecturing me on my tongue. The last I heard, your sharp tongue was three times as well known and feared as my own."
Of course that made her angry. I think I was too perceptive for her to be ever truly comfortable with me. "That is completely different! I am an adult and –"
"I'm nineteen." I raised my eyebrows at her. Who was she trying to fool here?
"Yes," she countered. 'But the last time I checked, I was the knightmistress and you were the squire. You are to be obedient to me. And I want you to be obedient by holding your tongue and being well mannered. Understand?"
She had me there and she knew it. I let my body fall into a sulk as I glared at her. "Yes, Knightmistress." Despite my attitude, I meant my words. She grinned, victorious, and sealed off the wound with her magic. She leaned my head back, admiring her work.
"Neal," she said, my head still in her grasp. "I want you to go upstairs and get your sword and then go to the practice courts. I'm going to teach you a lesson." Marvelous, more humiliation, but probably less than I deserved. She let me go and almost skipped to the doorway. "And Neal," she said, grinning a wolfish grin that worried me. "You might want to change clothes. We're going to have an audience, and you should look your best."
Mithros. I stared at her horrified. "Do I have to?" I slipped out.
She grinned at me. "Yes, yes you do. I'll see you in fifteen minutes. Don't be late."
I sat there for a moment longer, then sighed and stood up. This was not going to be a fun day.
My mind turned to my previous thoughts I had about the Baron. He was the second spymaster of Tortall. Changing my mind at the last moment, I headed towards the Baron's office instead. I knocked twice, and waited impatiently for him to answer.
"How may I help you, Neal?" the Baron asked, amused.
"Oh, I can see you're busy. Well, I guess I'll have to come back another time, and you can tell me all about being the second spymaster of Tortall." His eyes widened for a second and then he began to grin at me. I grinned back. I was right.
"And you owe me, what? Ten gold nobles and an invitation? Pay up, Baron."
"Just step into my office and we'll go over th' details," he said, swinging the door wider.
I hesitated. As interested as I was, I knew that things had to go in a certain order. "Actually, I'm meeting my knightmistress for some fencing lessons. Another time, Baron." And I turned on my heel and walked away, mentally preparing myself for battle with the Lioness.