Dancing Days (in Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town)
If I die at 23
would you bury me
in the sunshine?
Please let me know
that you're still mine.
though I'm gone,
my love for you
is, oh, so strong.
And when the grass grows over me,
let me know
you still love me.
Never put nobody else
Then I'll know
my love for you
will always grow.
- Ab's song, Iron and Wine
You sit in a glass cage at the top of a hill. There are four walls, a roof and a floor; they keep you dry, but you can't tell them apart. Sometimes you name them: east, west, north, south, up, down. When your eyes open - you were too tired, you had to close them for just a second - you can't remember which was which.
Each wall shows the downward slope of a green, green floor. That's strange, you think. It shouldn't be like this. The world continues to defy you with its every turn.
"Mindelan's been more than satisfactory in the past – assign her to Caynn as soon as she finishes up at the border."
" 'More than satisfactory'? Jon, she's saved your ass more times than I can count."
Silence: he's unpleased. "Then it seems that we've all over-estimated your intelligence."
"I thought you were above petty insults, what with being the king and all."
"You bring out the worst in me."
An awkward pause.
"Did you just roll your eyes?"
"I did no such thing."
"I forgot: you're too old, too royal for that."
"Mithros Goldenlake, what do you want me to say? You did a credible job with the girl."
"Your Majesty is too kind."
"Stop grinning like an idiot."
"But I thought that's what I am now – an idiot."
"I think you mistook that for something other than an order, Commander."
An attempt at composure "Yes," fails. "Majesty."
The sky is your battlefield, it stretches beyond the limits of reason. The stars are too many, each waiting for their turn, and they blink at you accusingly. You've carved out their compatriots' hearts with your pocketknife, turned away as their fathers begged mercy from your men. You close your eyes but they're there, waiting; unarmed and lined up for your convenience.
You are, as always, efficient.
Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan is a legend. But that's not Kel – Kel's just a girl with more than her share of moral indignation and broken dreams.
Her values are somewhat more ambiguous than they were when she was ten, but she'll still fight to the death for any cause worth fighting at all. The working class of Tortall trusts her to win their battles with integrity and at this point, Kel's her country's champion in everything but name: that's still Lady Alanna.
Like the Lioness before her and Duke Gareth before even that, Kel takes herself too seriously. This is why she needs other people.
She needs people like Neal and Lord Raoul, who have both gone and gotten themselves married; new distances that Kel can't bridge. She doesn't blame them - it would be no more fair to blame them then to blame Yuki or Buri – but she does resent them for moving ahead, leaving her behind.
They leave her with Lord Wyldon, the very man that redefined the concept of taking one's self too seriously. Still, Kel needs Lord Wyldon (ironically enough) to remind her that she is very lucky when so many are not. Kel fights to keep her training master alive and in control; he doesn't know that she does.
And most of all, Kel needs Owen.
In the years since Scanra, Kel has come to appreciate Owen as a friend and equal. He isn't Kel's best friend – that will always be Neal - but nevertheless, Owen is an unwavering ally.
On days when she wants to stamp her foot, scream at Tobe, or sulk over her Lord's latest orders, Owen listens patiently, selflessly as she describes – in agonizing detail – the events of her day. And to her everlasting disbelief, Owen laughs at her misfortunes.
Kel stares at him, indignant. And then she's laughing too because it is funny.
"Only you Kel," Owen says with a certain amount of glee, and the world can't be so horrible: not with someone so good as Owen to save Kel from herself.
Short conversations or long letters keep Kel's faith alive – short glimpses of a warmth that doesn't belong in what she believes to be her life.
And then she distances herself, it's just too cruel to put that kind of pressure on someone else.
You have your breaking point.
The sun looks so warm on the other side of the glass, and you want to feel it on your skin. You want to break the rules.
When you reach out the image twists, distorts, spirals in stained colours.
"We're not sure."
"You pushed her too far, didn't you? I warned you – she's only one person, Jon."
"Don't you dare blame me."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have - "
Silence. A rare vulnerability. "I loved her so much."
"I know – we all did."
Lady Alanna is gone.
Everyone thought that she was immortal but now she's gone, taken down without glamour, and one day there's another person your hill.
Another person on the hill? That's never happened before.
"May I come in?" asks King Jonathan.
Keladry considers. "I don't think so."
Lady Alanna is gone.
"I don't owe you anything," says Kel.
"No," agrees the King. "You don't."
"What do you want?" Asks Kel, finally.
Jonathan tilts his head consideringly, "I'm not sure. What makes you think that I want something from you?"
"You wouldn't be here if you didn't," answers Kel. "That's not who you are."
"Who am I?"
He's seriously crazy, thinks Kel. "You're King Jonathan."
King Jonathan nods, looking old and tired. "I guess I am. Who are you?"
"Keladry of Mindelan."
Jonathan nods again, "I remember you."
Kel shrugs, wondering if there's a point to this enlightening conversation.
"You remind me of someone," says Jonathan. After a decade of staring beyond Kel, she finally comes into focus.
She looks at the King, curious.
A thoughtful pause and Jonathan wets his lips. "Have you heard of Delia of Eldorne?"
She give him a sharp look and asks "Lerant's Aunt?"
"Aunt? No – Delia…" Jonathan seems taken aback by her response.
"… slept with half the court and tried to kill the other half?" finishes Kel.
There's a flash of dark anger that reminds Kel how powerful Jonathan the person is, even without the crown.
When he speaks, his voice is perfectly even. "She was a very strong young woman, much like yourself."
Kel laughs, it's harsh. "I'd heard that your majesty was a charmer but if that's your way of flattering the ladies, I think you need to rethink your game plan. Sir."
Jonathan shakes his head impatiently. "It wasn't a compliment."
Kel stares at him for a moment, her eyes wide, before returning her gaze to the horizon – past the castle grounds, past the Corus market where people scury around, the size of ants.
Jonathan seats himself beside Kel, uninvited. His legs, like Kel's, dangle dangerously over the edge of the stairs.
"I loved her you know. Delia, I mean." Jonathan's voice is careful. "I was young and foolish, but she was better than me and I admired that."
Kel looks sideways at the King and resists the urge to snort: there is no Jonathan without the crown.
"I don't love you," she says instead.
"No," replies Jonathan. "Neither did she."
"I'm not planning on commiting treason anytime soon, either," protests Kel.
"You could push me," suggests Jonathan. "No one would know."
Kel looks at Jonathan full on and laughs in disbelief. "You're crazy."
"And I have things to do."
"Good," her King smiles back.
Slowly, with Jonathan watching, Kel begins the long descent from Balor's Needle.