Wow! I can't believe this is the final episode, but I think we're ending on a good note. Thanks to all the amazing reviewers whose encouragement kept this story going way longer than I expected it to (I was originally planning on 10 chapters) and who have inspired me to think seriously about sequels. As always, location and most characters belong to Tamora Pierce.
Synopsis of previous episode: Neal learned about Penelope's upcoming wedding and Kel's pregnancy.
Dalton emerged pale and trembling from the chamber the next morning. He flew straight at Penelope, who sprinted up to greet him, and they kissed passionately enough to make Wyldon cough uncomfortably and George whistle loudly. Alanna scowled at both men—who bumped shoulders in their hurry to step out of her way and then jumped away from each other as though scorched—and tapped Dalton gently on the shoulder.
He disentangled himself and allowed her to check him for injuries. Aside from a burn mark across his left fingers—the twin to Penelope's, Alanna realized when she examined it—he appeared unharmed. She decided that the Chamber was growing perverse and meddlesome in its old age, but didn't mention it aloud. Neal would either worry or tell her she was the pot calling the kettle black and she didn't relish either possibility.
She sighed and beckoned Neal to help Penelope drag Dalton back to his room.
"No need for you to ask what I saw," Dalton muttered, pressing his palm to Penelope's as soon as Neal stepped out to find food.
"No," she agreed quietly, as they interlaced their fingers so that a single mark appeared across the back of their hands. "Do you think it was showing us the future?"
Dalton shook his head. " I hope not. I think it might have been more metaphorical."
"Even if it is our destiny, well, then, forewarned is forearmed." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "And obviously the Chamber wants us to win."
"So good to know we have a bloodthirsty room behind us," Dalton said.
They instinctively pulled their hands apart when Neal returned a short while later. And then they were too happy and too busy eating to talk of anything at all. Dalton very nearly fell asleep in his empty bowl and Neal chased Penelope out with the promise that he would see them both at the chapel in a few hours.
Penelope was making an impatient, but rather aimless, circuit of the practice courts when Alanna cornered her with a suspiciously soft and lumpy parcel.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to wear a dress, lady knight." The Lionness's expression as she deposited the bundle in Penelope's arms and began dragging her back to her room was almost gleeful and Penelope immediately opened her mouth to protest. "I had to wear one at mine," Alanna continued, "and, more importantly, the queen is going to demand a detailed account of the ceremony—attire included—and I'll have an easier time giving it if I don't have to explain that you were wearing old practice clothes."
Penelope blinked and glanced down, realizing she hadn't changed since her brief morning exercise before Dalton's ordeal. "You're sacrificing me at the altar of convenient gossip?"
"More or less," Alanna agreed. "But I'm not abandoning you completely. I have a very practical and trustworthy dressmaker—she understands needs like breathing and eating and walking—and I demanded a very simple gown—for ease of description and mobility."
Penelope rolled her eyes skeptically as Alanna shoved her into her room.
"Just trust me."
Penelope began unwrapping the dress and sighed with relief when she found that it was a soft blue color and completely devoid of lace and ruffles. Something heavy fell from the package and landed with a soft thump on her bed.
"Oh, it's beautiful." Penelope lifted the dagger that had rolled out of the dress and examined it with a reverent expression. It was sharp and slim and stamped with the mark of Raven Armory.
Alanna chuckled softly.
"The dress and slippers are lovely too," Penelope assured her. Though when she tried the dress on she decided that "lovely" didn't really do it justice. It fit perfectly, draping gracefully in all the right places. When she spun around and glanced in the looking glass she found that she appeared feminine and elegant, but her everyday practical and athletic self was still quite recognizable.
"Yes," Alanna muttered. "You are beautiful. Try not to let it go to your head."
Penelope smiled and pulled on the slippers. They also fit perfectly, but they seemed comfortable and sturdy enough to run miles in.
"Who appointed you my fairy godsmother?" she asked.
"Well, I didn't think Neal was particularly well qualified," Alanna explained. "And I have years of experience fair godsmothering—I rather enjoy it to tell you the truth. Just don't ask to see my wings."
"I had no idea she could scrub up so well," Neal muttered to Dalton as they waited for Alanna and Penelope to finish consulting with on of the priestesses of the Goddess. He'd seen Penelope in a dress only a handful of times and she'd always been pretty—she had an attractive liveliness about her even when she was in sweaty practice clothes—but he'd never seen her quite so breathtaking.
"I didn't either," Dalton whispered back. "I think the Lioness had something to do with it."
"A word of advice—"
Dalton rolled his eyes. "I know better than to tell her that."
Neal rolled his eyes back. " I was going to suggest that you not thank Lady Alanna, Excess gratitude makes her nervous."
Then, as though they knew they were being discussed, Alanna and Penelope both turned their heads and raised their eyebrows before strolling slowly back so that the priest could begin the ceremony.
The ceremony itself was quite brief and rather quiet, though Penelope remembered very few details after it was over. Neal also thought it passed in a bit of a blur, but he later decided it had been one of the most intimate and the happiest weddings he had ever attended. It was not the strangest—that honor went to Daine and Numair—however, it was rather atypical.
No rings were exchanged, because both bride and groom objected to anything that interfered with their ability to grip sword hilts. And the Mithran priest—a plump and practical old man—took one look at the four of them and wisely adjusted the speech so as to emphasize duty and fidelity, rather than purity, nobility, and fertility.
At first, Neal suspected this amendment had something to do with the knife hilt whose outline appeared beneath Alanna's skirt every time she took a particularly large step, but once the priest ended by muttering " I fancy you two have heard enough drivel about chivalry in the past two days to be getting on with." Then he turned to Penelope and added, "now hurry up and kiss him properly—none of this check pecking nonsense—the poor novices haven't had anything to gossip about in weeks—this has been lovely but I have quite a bit to do this afternoon—busy time of year, you know."
Alanna bit her lip as she knocked sharply on Wyldon's door. His fingers tightened on the doorknob when he recognized her and he cleared his throat with a faint growl.
"Did you get my note?" she asked.
He nodded silently.
He sighed. "Selena is looking forward to going."
"You know that's not what I meant," Alanna snapped.
"Indeed, pray tell me, what did you mean? You're being remarkable reticent for a woman famed for her bluntness."
"Will you be there?" she muttered.
"Undoubtedly not." He spoke each syllable as though it were a jab in the side.
Alanna fixed her eyes on her shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Whatever for? You certainly don't want me there."
Alanna nodded. "I don't. But I know that Penelope appreciates your—admittedly rather belated—fairness and Dalton respects you. I think they would want you there. And I believe it would do Mindelan good to see you supporting her former charges. This is the first lot she's seen all the way from page to knight, you know." She pulled her chin up and glared at him. "So, come," she snarled, before turning to leave.
"I don't take orders from you, lady knight."
Alanna glanced back at him "That was an invitation. Don't make me issue an order."
Fortunately, Selena appeared beside Wyldon at that moment and mouthed "he'll be there" as she ushered her knightmaster back inside.
"They what?" Dom sputtered.
"You heard me, skinflint," Neal said, offering his empty palm. "They married. I'm happy to fetch the priest—or the bride—if you don't trust my word as witness."
Dom scowled and deposited a coin in Neal's hand. "It's not the money. It's the principle of loosing to my half-mad cousin." He shook his head. "Remind me not to bet against the young lovers next time—unless they're star-crossed, in which case all bets are off."
Neal nodded. "I'll be happy to. After all, I'm still planning to cash in on Tobe and whats-her-name."
"Tessa," Dom muttered.
"See. He's told you her name. That means something."
"Actually, I learned it when she beat me at target practice. Don't ever challenge her at archery, by the way; she will win. I think she might be better than Daine."
"I'll take that under advisement," Neal said. "You and Kel will come to our little gathering tonight?"
Dom nodded. "We'll be there early. I suspect it's going to be a historic occasion."
A few hours later, Kel's family had the unique experience of following Lord Wyldon—who walked stiffly with Selina on his arm, as though her were escorting her to a ball—into the Lioness's family's quarters. Inside, she was unsurprised to find Neal's family and Penelope had already gathered, but she was rather surprised find Penelope wearing a dress.
"Congratulations," Kel told Dalton. "You're looking well. Did you have a restful afternoon?"
"Not exactly," Dalton muttered, as though he found the question strange.
"You didn't tell her!" Neal scolded Dom, just as George said, "I heard it was a quiet ceremony, but since they eloped, I wouldn't know."
It took Kel a moment to process both of these statements. Then she turned an astonished gaze towards her former students, resolving to have a few words with Dom regarding, "full disclosure".
"You what? That's wonderful." Then another thought crossed her mind and she narrowed her eyes at Penelope. "You aren't pregnant are you?"
Dalton shot Penelope an extremely panicked glance and seemed to forget how to breathe. Wyldon—who had taken a fortifying goblet of wine immediately upon entering—swallowed the wrong way and gave a tremendous hacking cough. Alanna pounded both of them on the back as Penelope raised her eyebrows and gently shook her head—at which point Dalton remembered about inhaling and exhaling, though Wyldon continued to sputter weakly.
"I wonder why such an idea should occur to you, lady knight," Penelope murmured innocently as she easily ducked the hand Neal tried to plaster over her mouth.
Kel blushed slightly, but was saved by Lady Alanna telling Neal—or perhaps Penelope—"it's a pity it takes so long to train them properly."
It was not until much later—after their meal, after Kefira had disappeared with Sarra and Nessa for a wild game of tag, and after Dom, Neal, George, Dalton, Yuki, Raoul, Buri, and Alanna had settled into an even wilder game of cards—that Kel sought out Wyldon and found him deep in conversation with the Wildmage.
"What are they talking about?" she wondered aloud.
"Horses," Numair informed her.
"Or dogs," Selena, who was waiting beside Numair, added.
"Probably both," Numair muttered. "They talk about archery every once in a while—"
"but never for more than two minutes at a stretch." Selena finished. And then she and Numair returned to their own conversation about the possibility of using magic to create lightweight metal for armor and weapons.
Fortunately, Kitten gave an impatient whistle a few moments later and bid Wyldon farewell so that she could attend to the dragon. Kel swallowed and took a few steps toward Wyldon. She realized that Selena was at her elbow and paused.
"Do you need anything, lady knight?"
Kel hesitated and then nodded. "I want you to pour a stiff brandy—"
"I didn't know you dran—"
"and then watch Wyldon's face from a distance and bring it if—when he turns red—or if he seems likely to start shouting," Kel continued. "Can you manage that?'
Selena raised her eyebrows and nodded. "Luck be with you, lady knight. And don't make any inane weather comments—the damp has been bothering his arm lately."
Kel nodded and gave Selena a small salute before marching to the window where Wyldon stood.
"Might I have a word with you, sir?"
"You've just had several, Mindelan, and all you have done with them is warn me that you have more to say." The left corner of his mouth twitched upward—just barely—as he spoke.
"Sorry, sir," Kel muttered.
Lord Wyldon tilted his head slightly and—to Kel's great amazement—lifted a single eyebrow. "Indeed, Mindelan, that was a single, if inexplicable, word, though it came with a rather long, and also inexplicable, introduction."
"I'm pregnant," Kel murmured.
Wyldon's jaw stiffened momentarily and he blinked rapidly at her. But he continued breathing steadily and no implosion or explosion seemed imminent, so Kel decided it was safe to continue.
"Queenscove thinks I'm going to deliver about a month past midsummer. Dom and I thought we should inform you first because—"
Lord Wyldon lifted a hand to stop her. "Pardon the interruption Mindelan," he muttered. Then he shouted across the room, "Raoul, you owe me five nobles. And Selena, that brandy won't be necessary. A small glass of wine should suffice."
Kel found herself staring at her former training master. "You knew."
He shook his head. "Your timing was unexpected. I made a few hopeful guesses based upon your overpowering desire to nurture and your apparent predilection for undertaking thankless tasks. Admittedly, I rather admire said traits and therefore wish to offer you my congratulations." He smiled at her bewildered expression.
And then his face adopted a bewildered expression of its own as Kel pulled him into a sudden hug and buried her face against his chest. He stroked her hair tentatively and smiled nervously at Dom, Alanna, and the others—who had given up their card game to watch.
"Am I the only one who has no idea what's going on?" Dalton asked. Numair, and Kitten—presumably that was what the whistle meant—assured him that he was not just as George explained the matter.
"How did you know?" Alanna demanded.
"Well, you're knowing smile raised my suspicions and Penelope confirmed them. And then, of course, there is only one running bet between Wyldon and Raoul. Although Raoul, in fact, only owes Wyldon four nobles because Wyldon lost a previous bet concerning the recent marriage of a certain pair of knights."
"So good to have a thief keeping us all honest," Raoul muttered.
Kel shook her head and turned back to Wyldon, who was openly glaring at George. "So I was wondering," she continued, as though she hadn't been interrupted, "if you might let me borrow Selena a bit during the coming months—as an assistant."
"That," Wyldon told her with mock severity, "is entirely up to Selena. I, however, consider it highly advisable and also suggest that you make use of the newlyweds, since I understand that they'll be stuck here for the next few years. Goodness knows I would rather see them helping you then gadding about flaunting conventions."
Kel nodded thoughtfully and then looked back at Penelope and Dalton—who were sharing an armchair—and at Selena who was leaning one hip against the table and waiting with Wyldon's wine. Penelope and Dalton glanced at each other and then back at her; Selena blinked calmly. And Kel began thinking about what it would be like to have three competent assistants. Very relaxing, she decided, and quite justifiable given the small influx of pages—now that more girls were coming—and the fact that Wyldon had often hired Shang warriors to assist with training. Penelope and Dalton would be coming and going from the palace, but if things stayed peaceful they'd be home more often than not and Kel could…
"You don't have to ask, lady knight," Selena told her.
"We'll do almost anything for room and board," Penelope said.
"with the noted exception of retrieving lost pages from trees," Dalton added hastily.
Wyldon blinked mildly. "I was given to understand that Peter's parents decided the rigors of palace training were unsuitable for their beloved child."
"Indeed," Kel muttered, grinning gratefully.
Later still—when the girls had gathered in a sleepy heap on top of Silverspot and the card game had wound down into quiet conversation as the adults gazed at the fire—George decided it was time to voice the question that must surely be on everyone's mind.
"So lady knight Keladry, boy or girl?"
Kel blinked. "I haven't thought…"
"Yes, of course you haven't." George rubbed his palms together. "But it's of great financial import to the rest of us." He straightened himself in his chair and glanced around. "So let's hear your guesses then and"—he paused and stared pointedly at Neal and Alanna—"no cheating with healing gift or taking advantage of privileged status as a favorite of the Goddess."
"Fine." Alanna glanced once at Kel and then at Kefira. "Fine. Girl."
"That's just what she wants," Neal muttered. "Boy," he pronounced.
"Boy," Dom agreed. "But that's probably wishful thinking."
"Girl," Yuki said, raising her eyebrows wickedly at Neal.
Beside her Daine said, "I think I might have to go with boy since they have a girl already."
"Ah, but statistically speaking, Magelet," Numair murmured, "the gender of the first child has no influence on the gender of the second, therefore, they are just as likely to have a girl."
"Was that your bet?" George demanded.
Numair glanced from Daine's scowl to George's eager eyes and shook his head. "I think I'll refrain from making one."
Wyldon gave a long sigh and looked from Kel to Kefira to Dom. "Girl," he said confidently. " Does Keladry have an opinion?"
Kel shook her head with a bemused snort.
"Of course she has one," Buri grumbled. "She's just too polite to tell half of us we're wrong." She tossed a date into the air, caught it, and studied it for a moment before pronouncing, "boy."
Raoul shrugged. "Girl."
And then Kefira surprised them all by piping up, " I would prefer a boy, Mama. I think a little brother would be easier to manage."
"I shall take that under consideration," Kel said gently, and then she glanced curiously at Penelope and Dalton.
"Well," said Dalton, "I'm well aware that older sisters are not to be tangled with. Boy."
Penelope rolled her neck and waited for them all to turn impatiently towards her before declaring crisply, "girl." She smiled and settled her head back on Dalton's shoulder. "It's quite simple really. Someone relatively wise"—she glanced pointedly at Neal—"once told me that Lord Wyldon and Lady Alanna are both always right, even when one of them is wrong. So, it must be virtually impossible for both of them to be wrong at the same time, particularly when they're both sitting on the same couch." Indeed, Wyldon and Alanna were at opposite ends of the same couch, though Yuki and Neal were sitting between them.
Wyldon and Alanna glanced once at each other and then growled simultaneously, "Queenscove!"
Neal scrambled off the couch as they both reached for him. "Traitor!" he hissed at Penelope. He glared at Kel. "I told you this was a bad idea. You see what happens when I take squires. They make themselves so indispensable that I grow attached. They get into so many scrapes that my hair is in danger of turning grey. And then they run off and get knighted and marry and leave me to the mercy of the two most dangerous knights in Tortall."
"On the contrary, I think it was an excellent idea," Kel said. "Everyone's gotten exactly what he or she deserves."
"Indeed," Wyldon murmured, watching as Neal attempted to use Selena as a shield. "Indeed we have."
So, yes it's the end of an era. I want to thank two "sources". First, the BBC(?) show To Serve Them All of My Days, which is about a boarding school in post WWI England and gave me the idea that a teacher could be such a central character. Second, Jane Espenson's blog, which is geared towards screenwriters, but gives great advice on crafting plot and dialogue and which I recommend for all aspiring writers and food critics. It's at thanks again to all the wonderful reviewers who kept me going. Writing this has been tremendously entertaining and it gave me the confidence I needed to finish writing my first original fantast novel. I plan to devote the summer to revising it, but I can't leave Kel and Penelope behind entirely so I hope to post some one-shot sequels soon.
Best wishes to everyone for a terrific summer of reading and writing!